Archive for the ‘other’ Category

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism

August 29, 2012 1 comment

We Have Sinned:  Sin and Confession in Judaism by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD

Just in time for the High-Holidays, a book about sin and confession in Judaism: We Have Sinned.

The third entry in the “Prayers of Awe” series, and the 15th volume my father and I have worked on together, the book offers in-depth essays on the themes of sin, penitence, confession, and the High-Holiday prayers that deal with them; my translations of those prayers, along with detailed notes; and over two dozen shorter essays expanding on the themes of the prayers.

I had a great time preparing my contributions to this volume. I hope you enjoy it, too.

(The book is available in print as well as the major e-formats: Kindle [], Nook [B&N], and iBooks [Apple].)

Categories: other

A Tale of Customer Service and Customer Disservice

July 20, 2012 1 comment

Help/Blame GraphicA curious thing happened to me on the way home from a conference in Detroit: Delta Airlines gave me a hotel voucher for the Westin in the airport, and the Westin refused to honor it.

What’s really interesting is the difference between the follow-up response from Delta and from Westin and its parent company, Starwood Hotels. Delta tried to help and Starwood tried to cast blame.

The background is this: Weather was creating havoc across the eastern seaboard with practically no flights landing anywhere from Washington to New York, so my 5:30pm flight from Detroit to LaGuardia was delayed. By 6:30pm, the 3:30 to New York hadn’t left yet, the 5:30 (my flight) was tentatively scheduled for 7:45, and the 8:15 flight had an estimated departure time of 10:30. It was a mess.

I explained to Delta that I had been at a five-day conference and I was exhausted. If I landed in New York at 9:30, I thought I’d still be able to drive home safely. But if I landed at, say, 11:00, or (as was predicted for the 8:15-revised-to-10:30 flight) around midnight, I’d be too tired to drive. Could they help?

It was a gray area. On the one hand, the delays were weather related, and the airlines don’t usually take any responsibility for anything that might even rhyme with weather. On the other hand, I expressed my concern that Delta couldn’t give me solid information, and I had to make a decision. A supervisor agreed to put me up in a hotel, and then a desk agent started phoning around to find out where there was space. Fifteen minutes later, she told me that the Westin, actually in the airport, had a room for me. (Delta also gave me a $6 voucher for dinner, which is fine if all you want is a chocolate-chip cookie and a bottle of water to wash it down — but that’s for another day.)

Ten minutes later I handed the hotel voucher to an immaculately-dressed and hyper-polite desk agent at the Westin. After scrutinizing the document, he seemed concerned, though he didn’t tell me why. “Let me make a phone call,” he said and disappeared into the office behind the check-in desk. I thought he was new and didn’t know what a voucher was, or perhaps didn’t know how to process it. I was sure that some better-trained employee would set him straight.

But when he came back he told me simply, “I won’t accept this.”

“May I please speak to a manager?” I asked.

“I am the manager.”


It took a few minutes for me to learn that he didn’t have any rooms for voucher customers. That didn’t seem fair, and I told him so.

The manager agreed to make a few more phone calls. Some twenty minutes later I learned that, in fact, he didn’t have any rooms at all. His phone calls had been to try and find out who had made the mistake.

“I don’t care who’s at fault,” I told him — though my suspicion was and still is that the Westin gave my room to a VIP Westin customer even though they’d already promised it to Delta. “All I need is a hotel room, here or somewhere else. Can you help me? Do you have provisions for this sort of thing?”

He wouldn’t help me.

At this point I was balancing a few competing factors: I needed a hotel room. I also had to pick up my checked bag from baggage claim, and I was worried that if I waited too long they’d put it somewhere where it could be retrieved only after a lengthy wait in line. My cell phone didn’t have reception in the Westin lobby, so I couldn’t make any arrangements for myself from there. But the manager had left a voice message (or so he said) at Delta and they were on their way to help.

I decided to leave my carry-on at the Westin, run to baggage claim, get my bag, and run back as fast as possible, hoping not to miss Delta.

As it happened, I wasn’t late to baggage claim but early, a fact I learned when I didn’t see my bag and had to wait in (a mercifully short) line after all. There a Delta agent helped me track down my bag. I mentioned something like “at least one thing is going right,” and when she asked what I meant, I told her about the hotel. “Well let’s find you another hotel,” she said. And she did.

I went back to the Westin, got my carry-on, and took a shuttle to the Best Western, where a room key was waiting for me. Having just joined Twitter a little while ago, I tweeted a question to @DeltaAssist, copying @StarwoodBuzz and @Delta.

And this is where things really get interesting. Apparently from my tweet it wasn’t clear that I had found a replacement hotel.

Delta replied immediately offering to help.

Starwood also replied, publicly blaming Delta: “This seems to be an error on Delta’s end.”

My point here is not who made the initial mistake. I really don’t care. I have the manager’s name from the Westin, for example, but I’m not publishing it.

Rather, I think this is an example of two kinds of cultures: helping and blaming.

I’ve written before about the value of customer service (“For $12.17 you can have the best school in the country“), in the context of TD Bank helping me with a mistake that was my own fault.

It seems to me that helping a person no matter who is at fault, and whether or not the person is a current customer, is both kind and good business sense. Yet remarkably few businesses will spend money/time/energy/resources to help a person when they don’t think there’s any immediate financial gain in doing so.

I spend most of my professional life with faith-based not-for-profits, and, perhaps surprisingly, it’s been my experience that they tend not to do any better. They’ll often help a person only when it’s specifically part of their mission — because the person is a member, say, or a grant recipient.

What are the policies and culture where you work? Do you help or do you blame?

Categories: other

How Maximizing Profits is Making Life Worse for Everyone

April 9, 2012 2 comments

“we end up with schools that don’t work, planes that only young children fit comfortably in, hotels that are too dark to see if your clothes match, phone menus from hell, long lines to buy food, burdensome workweeks, and so forth”

It is well known that people are generally sensitive only to big relative changes, and tend not to care about, or even notice, small ones. This is why three shots of vodka is much more than one, but if you add two shots of milk to a gallon of milk, you still have about a gallon. They’re both a 3-ounce addition, but the vodka increased 200%, the milk only about 2.5%, and we notice the percentage, not the absolute amount. Similarly, a fifteen minute car ride feels longer than a five minute one, but seven hours and 15 minutes on a flight doesn’t seem different than only seven hours and five minutes. A child who grows from four feet to five has shot up, while a mountain in the Rockies that goes from 8,200 feet to 8,300 looks the same.

“maximizing profits is a bad idea in the long run”

This can be a problem when small changes yield big profits. If, for example, you could earn a million dollars by making your house only 5% darker, you’d do it. You wouldn’t even notice the 5% reduction in light. But here’s the rub. If you’d do it once, you’d do it again and again. Pretty soon you’ll end up rich but living in the dark.

Worse, you won’t even know what went wrong. You’ll try in vain to isolate which 5% decrease did you in, and you’ll conclude that every step of the way seemed like a good one. Each time you got a lot of money for a difference you couldn’t even notice.

This dilemma is especially pronounced when big organizations get involved. Most of us can’t earn a million dollars by making changes to the lighting, but hotel chains can, and they do, which is why hotel rooms are so dark. Of course, it’s not just lighting. That same chain makes the soap bars just a little smaller, and gathers up the tiny profit from each bar of soap for a huge increase in the bottom line. Airlines put the seats in their planes just a little closer together to augment revenue. Oil companies raise the price of fuel by just a cent or two every so often. Call-center managers reduce staff just a tad. Supermarkets provide slightly fewer cashiers. Managers demand just five more minutes out of each employee’s workweek.

And it’s not just the corporate world. Municipalities suffer the same kind of fate when they cut the number of police just a bit. So do school districts that reduce each teacher’s training only a little. And at the federal level, a decision is made from time to time to spend just 1% less on some important program.

What we end up with, though, is schools that don’t work, planes that only young children fit comfortably in, hotels that are too dark to see if your clothes match, phone menus from hell, long lines to buy food, burdensome workweeks, and so forth.

The problem comes from the seemingly desirable goal of maximizing profits combined with the human tendency not to notice small changes.

The only solution I can think of is to agree that maximizing profits is a bad idea in the long run.

To look at another example, imagine a swimming pool. With so much water, it’s hard to imagine that giving away a single cup could make any difference. Yet a pool can be emptied one cup at a time. If you think you can sell one cup and not impact the pool, you’ll end up with lots of money and nowhere to swim.

At first glance, it might seem as though the same mechanism that prevents us from noticing slightly darker rooms also means that a huge hotel chain won’t care about slightly higher earnings. For example, Marriott International had gross revenue of over 12 billion dollars in 2011. That’s over 12,000 million dollars. Does it really matter if it’s 12,321 million or 12,322? Sometimes, maybe not, though other things being equal any CEO or board member will opt for more money instead of less, no matter how small the difference. But other times, even a tiny amount can make a huge difference: if saving just a thousand dollars means not going over budget, even a huge hotel chain might need that $1,000. Or if a bonus for some employee is tied to meeting a certain goal, that $1,000 might be the final step toward getting the bonus.

The overhead cost of making any change might also seem important. Even if smaller bars of soap are cheaper, for example, the one or two cents saved on each bar is offset by the costs of putting someone in charge, of changing the specs, etc. But even though this may mitigate the tendency for our lives to get worse, it doesn’t eliminate it. Furthermore, as companies grow larger, the overhead costs become less significant compared to the potential savings.

Similarly, eventually the soap will be so small, the lighting so dark, the teachers so poorly trained, that a 5% reduction doesn’t net much profit. For example, if a bar of soap weighs 3.5 ounces, cutting 5% means not having to pay for 1/6 of an ounce of soap. Multiplied by over half a million Marriott rooms and 365 days/year (potentially over 180 million guests, but probably closer to 100 million), that’s up to almost 1,000 tons of soap each year saved by that 5% cut. But once the bar is whittled down to only 1 ounce, the same 5% cut saves less than 200 tons. It might not be worth it. Unfortunately, this pattern just means that there might be a lower limit to how bad things can get. Even more unfortunately, as companies grow larger, this limit goes down.

So, again, the only solution I can think of is to agree that maximizing profits is a bad idea in the long run.

Categories: other

Bible Translation, the Ten Commandments, and the Next Generation

September 27, 2011 1 comment

I’m pleased to announce that my TEDx presentation on Bible translation, the Ten Commandments, and the next generation is on-line on and YouTube, as well as on my Exploring the Bible Videos site. Enjoy!

Categories: Bible, Judaism, other

A Spate of Shortsightedness

July 11, 2011 3 comments

I’m concerned by what I see as a spate of shortsightedness in this country.

Here are two examples.

Toner Cartridges

Last October, apparently, a terrorist group experimented with shipping explosives in toner-cartridge packages as a way of bringing down cargo aircraft. In response, the US government, through the TSA, “restricted the transport of printer and toner cartridges.”

To me, this kind of response is like seeing someone drive up to a government building with explosives in his Chevy and reacting by making it illegal to approach government buildings in a Chevy. It misses the broader point.

Even though the toner cartridges offered certain benefits, they were not central to the malicious plan. Yet four months of government work produced an inane, short-sighted response that focused on printer and toner cartridges, rather than on the real issues.

Nuclear Power Plants

What is it about our political and social systems that, apparently, makes it so difficult to react rationally?In March, an earthquake-induced tsunami damaged the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan along with many of the auxiliary systems that were supposed to mitigate the impact from any potential damage. The result was partial reactor meltdowns, thousands of square miles of contaminated land, billions of dollars in damage, and as-yet unknown health consequences.

In response, officials here in the US looked at the degree to which nuclear reactors can withstand earthquakes and tsunamis, variously noting that those two events are unlikely in the areas where certain reactors are built, and that other reactors can withstand any likely earthquake.

But, again, the problem isn’t earthquakes or tsunamis per se. The problem is unexpected conditions. And it only took until last month for new unexpected conditions to surface. A fire broke out in Arizona that threatened the nuclear facility in Los Alimos. And floods forced the shutdown of two other nuclear power plants across the nation. Just last week, reports were published about jellyfish blocking the intake valves of cooling systems at some nuclear power plants.


It seems to me that what these decisions — and many more like them — have in common is shortsightedness. They are instances of reacting to a specific example of a broader problem by focusing on the example instead of the problem.

By and large, high-ranking policy advisers and nuclear engineers are not stupid. Surely they can see the folly of these decisions.

So I’m left wondering. What is it about our political and social systems that, apparently, makes it so difficult to react rationally?

Categories: other

Teaching in London and Amsterdam

June 21, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve just returned from a wonderful trip to London and Amsterdam, where I taught in a variety in venues, including lecturing about And God Said, taking part in Limmud NL, and teaching children.

I posted fairly frequent updates on the official And God Said blog, and I won’t repost them all here.

Some of my favorite posts include:

  • The Eurostar Biathlon, about how I just barely managed not to miss my train;
  • Reflections on London;
  • London, which includes photos of Hampton Court Palace and more; and
  • Coming Home to JFK, which isn’t really a favorite, but I hope maybe someone will take notice and start to fix the airport, which — at the risk of offending the Third World — I call “an island of the Third World right here in the middle of the First.”


Categories: other

Exploring the Bible Videos

April 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m thrilled to announce the beta version of my latest project: Exploring the Bible videos. The site is a growing collection of short text-based videos about the Bible, frequently focusing on translation issues.


The first three videos (also available on YouTube) are:

Longer than a soundbite and (much) shorter than a lecture, each video presents a single idea in two or three minutes

These first three videos mirror blog posts I’ve written on God Didn’t Say That (here, here, and here).

My hope is that these videos will be an effective way of discussing the text of the Bible, because the medium of video makes it possible to display the text as I talk about it.

Please let me know what you think.


Categories: Bible, other