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  • Michael Krakovskiy 2:27 am on December 8, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Burn, cab driver, Cart, century state law, Dan Rossi, Department of Parks, Department of Sanitation, , , , , , food cart licesnses, food cart vendors, , food vending wood, food vendors, Georgia, Heros II, Israel, Kentucky, Metropolitain Museum, Metropolitain Museum of Art, Museum If, , , , , , , real estate market, , SECAM, , , Tamir Sapir, , , , , , Videocassette recorder, volt round plug devices   

    Entrepreneurship Heros II: Night at the Museum 

    If the Seal of New York City were designed today, it would not have a sailor and a Native American on it. It would have a cab driver and a food cart vendor.

    Cab driving and food vending wood seem like the two of the most democratic enterpreneurial options, the foundation of which is the public streets New York City: you just wheel out your vehicle and try to make some commerce happen. The only thing that you need is a license. The one for cab driving is called a “medallion”, costs $766K, and as an investment vehicle outperformed just about any commodity and stock index. The food cart licesnses are also very expensive. Plus you are hounded by NYPD, Department of Sanitation, and who knows what else. Cab drivers and food cart vendors are some of the hardest working and most prosecuted businesmen in the city, but sometimes they have their own victories, big and small.

    You don’t need to go any further than the Metropolitain Museum of Art to see two interesting examples. Right in front of the museum there’s a collection of food carts. They all are very typical carts, none of them are of the fancy variety. There are two types represented – the basic “dirty water hot dog” cars and “street meat” carts. But there’s one important difference – they all have stickers that say “Disabled Veteran”, and there’s usually an actual veteran somewhere nearby.

    In the past years the space in front of the museum was either empty or occupied by one or two carts licensed by the Department of Parks. Then one day Dan Rossi, a disabled veteran, discovered a 19th century state law that allows disabled veterans to sell food in areas that are off-limits to others. The location in front of the museum is particularly lucrative because there are no affordable restaurants as far as an overweight tourist can walk. This hack is a small, but significant victory for food vendors. They are still ticketed mercelesly by NYPD, have to work crazy hours, and deal with the need to urinate in some kind of a miraculous way. At least they got an article in the New York Times written about them.

    Across the road from the veteran’s carts is a mansion that belongs to billionaire Tamir Sapir, a former cab driver.

    Mr. Sapir’s legend starts in Georgia, USSR. He found an interesting niche business: filling out complicated emigration forms for the Soviet Jews. At some point he was persuaded by his mother to give up his excellent life (it was a very lucrative business, from what I understand) and emigrate to Israel himself. He found himself in the middle of the Yom Kippur War, and quickly emigrated to the United States. He worked hard to earn enough money to leave rural Kentucky for New York, and then even harder to buy a cab medallion (which was a lot more affordable in those days). Then he risked everything again by putting up that medallion as collateral for a loan that he needed to open up an electronics store with a partner.

    In the 80s there was a bit of a thaw in Sovet-American relations – Perestroyka and whatnot. There was a significant amount of people visiting the US – diplomats, scientists, sailors, and those invited by relatives. These people were allowed to exchange a small sum of rubles into dollars at the official rate – if I remember correctly, 60-something kopeks to a dollar.

    What these lucky tourists wanted the most was electronics. In particular – vcrs, doule deck cassette players, and Walkmen. They had the money to buy these things, but here’s a problem: they needed 220 volt round plug devices, and more than that, VCRs needed to support the SECAM standard. You could not just walk into any store and find these: American market was all 110V and NTSC.

    Every child in Odessa back then knew all of this, as well as that if you found yourself in New York City with some money, all you needed to do was trudge over to Timur’s (this was before he changed his name) store in Manhattan and find 220V SECAM VCRs.

    Mr. Sapir was making a mint, but more importantly he was making connections with the Soviet ministers, diplomats, and future oligarchs. A little later he was invited back to the USSR, and made more connections there. These connections allowed him to play on the Soviet deregulation arbitrage market.

    You see, when the Soviet Union was transitioning to the market economy all prices were regulated except those for commidities like metals, oil, and fertilizer. Those with connections could buy these commodities for already devalued rubles and sell them abroad for hard currency, making millions of dollars. All you needed was connections, which Mr. Sapir had.

    He made millions, but the game became very dangerous as people tougher than NYC cabbies entered it. Mr. Sapir did not continue his career as a commodity exporter. Instead he invested his millions into New York City skyscrapers. The real estate market bottomed out, and you could buy a whole skyscraper for 10 million dollars or so. He bought a whole bunch of them. The price of Manhattan real estate exploded, and he became a billionare.

    He bought a mansion across from the Metropolitain Museum to house his collection of carved ivory (for some reason this was a very popular area of collecting in the Soviet Union), has a yacht that used to be stuffed with a collection of exotic animal taxidermy that could rival Mr. Burn’s wardrobe or Amy’s car from Futurama.

    Well, the two lessons here are: 1) you have to take risks and 2) you have to find a niche. The rest is luck.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 7:52 am on April 15, 2006 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Art Deco building, , , Darren Aronofskiy, Dead Sea, Dead Sea Scrolls, Hebrew language, Hides, Israel, , Judaism, mathematician, Maximilian Cohen, , Mezuzah, , , , orange paint, , Scott Adams, Scroll, Sefer Torah, Sofer, , ,   

    The Torah Code 

    There’s a sequence in Darren Aronofskiy’s “Pi” when the protagonist, mathematician Maximilian Cohen is induced by a Hasidic Jew to on something called Tefillin. Here’s a frame from the movie:

    For an ancient Jewish religious artifact, the two black leather boxes and straps used in prayer, are very strange looking and science-fictiony. I decided to do a bit of research on them, and came upon a lot of very interesting stuff. I’ve made a lot of notes, but for years I did not have the time to sit down and actually write this post.

    Tefillin is a very curious Jewish religious artifact, similar to a few others, such as Sefer Torah and Mezuzah. What they have in common is the exactitude in which they reproduce holy texts in hand-written form.

    Scott Adams nicely summarized the problem of propagating holy writing in his recent post:

    I never knew that there are about a zillion different versions of the Bible because (and I am summarizing Ehrman’s entire book here) it was copied and recopied by hand, by semi-literate, opinionated morons for hundreds of years. Sometimes the copiers left stuff out, sometimes they added their own explanations where things didn’t seem to make sense, and other times they simply made errors.

    This, of course, brings to mind the old joke about a novice monk who asks his superior about the possibility of mistakes in the holy books that the monks in his monastery have been copying by hand for centuries. The head monk goes to check the originals hidden away in a vault. Having not heard from him for days, the novice monk goes to check on the old monk and finds him hunched over the old books crying and saying the same phrase over and over. “The word is ‘celebrate‘ !”

    The Hasidic Jew from “Pi” was a Torah numerologist. See, the Torah is considered to be the literal word of God as given to Moses, exact to a letter. Hebrew letters have numerical values, so Torah can be treated as a string of numbers that might contain hidden patterns, encoded messages, maybe even computer code. Exactitude is very important here – a single letter might change everything, like in a computer program or a cyphered message. Or like removing the letter “r” from the word “celebrate”.

    The practice of using Tefillin comes from a literal understanding of a passage in the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:8.

    “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:

    And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.”

    What seems to be a poetic metaphor about the importance of the holy writing, is taken literally here, prompting the creation of an artifact consisting of two black leather boxes containing scrolls with passages from the Torah to be worn bound to a hand and forehead with leather straps.

    If you’ll go shopping for a set of Tefillin, you might be surprised at how much they cost. The cheapest set from a reputable place will set you back at least several hundred dollars, with better made ones costing in the thousands of dollars. Why? Because of the excruciatingly exact way they are supposed to be made.

    The leather cases and straps need to be made from Kosher parchment and to pretty exact specifications. The cheaper ones are made from glued pieces of leather, the more expensive ones are made out of single pieces of leather, either folded using what one website calls “Jewish origami” or pressure-molded by special presses. The latter are considered more kosher.

    But the cases are a small part of the value of the Tefillin. The handwritten scrolls are what’s expensive. Scribes (Sofer) who are qualified to make kosher Tefillin are few and far between, and not only because they are supposed to a God-fearing, religious Jews of high moral fibre. The letters on the scrolls are small, but have to be perfectly formed in a rather complicated font, of which there are several varieties. There can’t be a single mistake, not even in a part of a letter.

    There are certain prayers that have to be said. Letters have to be written in a precise order. They can’t touch each other, holes or edges of the parchment. Parts of the letters can’t be erased and they have to be perfectly formed. The parchment has to be properly prepared, a proper quill pen and specially formulated ink has to be used.

    These are just some basic rules that I gleaned from various websites. Apparently they rules are so complicated that even experienced scribes are sometimes baffled at subtleties of writing these scrolls. When in the middle of a laborious process of writing a scroll, they sometimes come to consult a specialist called a posek rather then throwing away their work and starting anew. Even a specialist is sometimes not sure if a letter is correctly formed. What happens then is rather interesting:

    “Shailos tinok is a query presented to a child. Occasionally a posek will be in doubt how to render a decision, psak. […] He will suggest that a child […] who knows the letters of the Aleph – Bais but has not yet learned to read, be asked. Such a child sees nothing other than the form before him and can judge without any influences.”

    There are literally thousands of ways in which the tiniest imperfection can completely invalidate a Tefillin. And religious Jews take this commandment very seriously, so making of Tefillin is in no danger of being outsourced to China despite the high availability of good calligraphers there.

    There’s even a dispute as to in what order the scrolls need to be put into the cases. Most rabbis agree, but still, there are some who put two pair of Tefillin at once, made in two different ways. Kind of like Ned Flanders who “kept kosher just to be on the safe side”.

    On the cynical side, there’s a phenomenon referred to as “Tefillin date”. Some hypocritical Jews take their Tefillin with them when they go on a date, planning to spend the night, and while breaking the pretty clear “no sleeping around” rule, not breaking “pray with Tefillin in the morning” rule.

    Sefer Torah is a full length Torah (about 300,000 letters) written on a scroll in to specifications that are similar to the making of Tefillin. While writing Tefillin scrolls might take experienced scribe 2-3 days, Sefer Torah is often a lifetime project. Their cost ranges from tens of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars.

    This exacting standard of copying is what made the modern Torah scrolls match almost exactly the texts dating back to before 100 BC found in the Dead Sea scrolls.

    If you ever lived in New York City, you must have seen a mezuzah, the third and simplest of the Torah scroll artifacts. It comes from a literal understanding of Deuteronomy 6:9

    “And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.”

    Mezuzah takes a form of a decorated case containing a scroll nailed to a doorpost. On almost every floor of almost every apartment building in New York you’ll find at least one door with a mezuzah. In some, like in mine, almost every door has one. The variety of the decorative cases is astounding. There are big ones, small ones, ornate ones, simple ones. They are made of plastic, wood, metal. Most are left by tenants of long ago. Many are painted over. In many cases I see voids in paint where mezuzah used to be.

    The one left to me seems somewhat old, probably left by the original owners of the apartment. On the back it has the original orange paint which is not out of character for my Art Deco building. I bet it dates to the 50s or 60s (can’t be much older than that because it’s “Made in Israel”).

    What makes it absolutely invalid, of course, is the lack of the handwritten scroll inside. In fact, this is the case with most mezuzot you’ll find in New York. The case might be pretty, but the scroll inside takes at least a few hours of scribe’s work and costs from 30 to 100 dollars.

    Even though I am not an observant Jew, one of these days I’ll replace my mezuzah case with a titanium one and buy a real scroll. Also, I want to put on a Tefillin once. All I have to do is find the nearest mitzvah tank, but Hasidim make me feel uneasy.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 1:29 pm on January 28, 2006 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , David Bull, , embezzling accountant, energy drink, , , , , Greenpeace, , , Israel, , Japan Swimsuit Association, Japan's New Year's Day, Jeffery Rowland, , lance corporal, Livedoor, Livedoor President, maid, , Mainichi Shimbun, , natural gas, , news site, North Korea, Osaka, people, , , , , store chain, Takafumi Horie, , The Livedoor news, the US news, , , , , Vader, Yamato   

    “Dear Japanese Newspeople” 

    “No news is good news” – that’s what one of the old Usenet newsreaders used to say when there weren’t any new articles to read in your subscriptions. Is that a coincidence that CNN, one of the two evil companies that employs Lord Vader himself as its mouthpiece, is so obsessed with violent, fiery death? Cartoonist Jeffery Rowland even felt that he needed a special new word coined for this phenomenon.

    CNN.com is a news site that I frequently visit, mostly because the url is so much nicer than http://news.bbc.co.uk, which is superior in all regards to CNN. As far as news goes, I am mostly interested in what’s happening in five countries: the US, Russia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Israel and Japan. Why Turkmenistan? Because of the Great Serdar, of course. In any case, not many interesting things happen in Canada or the UK, and I could not care less for France, Germany and the rest of the Snootyland. Communist China and North Korea do not let out any interesting news and news from the entire African continent are usually too depressing.

    Japan, on the other hand, is very close to my heart. Recently I found an outstanding English language Japanese news source, MSN Mainichi Daily News. There’s even an RSS feed for it.

    What’s different in Japanese news? Well, first of all there’s a lot more sex-related news. American news are heavy on violence, but light on sex. MSN Mainichi Daily News are full of headlines very much in the spirit of one famous hacker’s “Dear Japanese People” posts.

    Right now, the headlines are full of stories about a 57 year old fortune teller living with a “harem” of “about 10 women.” An older popular news story featured an embezzling accountant who spent stolen money on 17 mistresses.

    Swimwear photo specials are frequent and highly detailed. Booth bunnies also get photo coverage. Sadly, Japan Swimsuit Association does not have its own website.

    There’s some coverage about “maid cafes” for “otaku” in Akihabara (you can see Kitya’s post for photos.

    Unhealthy Japanese obsession with schoolgirls is clearly present in the news: not a day goes by when there isn’t a schoolgirl sex-related article on Mainichi. Here’s a typical one:

    “A man who licked the tongues of more than 30 young girls after making them open their mouths, telling them he was checking for tooth decay, has been arrested, police said”.

    It gets more complicated than that:

    “The two 18-year-old, third-year high school girls, whose names are being withheld under the Juvenile Law, threatened on Dec. 29 to reveal that the 19-year-old private 1st class had sex with one of them unless he handed over 2 million yen, local police said.

    They forced a 21-year-old lance corporal who was accompanying the private to withdraw 400,000 yen from an automatic teller machine at a convenience store in Sasebo and received the money from him.

    The girls subsequently demanded 1.6 million yen from the GSDF soldiers. However, the soldiers consulted police, who arrested the two girls.

    A fisherman and two other men were earlier arrested for giving the girls advice on how to extort money from the victim.”

    US military men are frequently in the news for murder, rape, tresspassing, and robbery. This is not good, and mostly unreported here, in the US.

    Japanese news agencies are no stranger to violence. A particularly unsettling trend that I noticed is an abundance of stories about family violence in Japan: “Man stabbed parents because they wouldn’t drink his miso soup“, “Man arrested for leaving bed-ridden, elderly mother to die“, “Woman nabbed for fatally kicking boyfriend“. It gets weirder, too: “Jobless man sets fire to futon in house after mom refuses to buy him dolls.” Overall, all these stories feature jobless people.

    Violent (“Homeless man stabs abusive youth in stomach“) and non-violent homeless people (“Homeless man can officially register a public park where he lives as his residence, a court has said“) are often in the news.

    We all think about how safe life in Japan is, but according to the news that I see, if the jobless, the homeless and the US servicemen won’t get you, train crashes, heavy snow, natural gas or sticky rice cakes will: “4 die after train blown off tracks in Yamagata“, “Elderly woman trapped in heavy snow freezes to death“, “Natural gas kills mother and children at hot spring“, “4 Kanto residents choke to death on sticky rice cakes“.

    All those people got killed in heavy snow, yet mount Fuji was missing it’s snow cap last year. Strange.

    The conflict of Japanese whalers and Greenpeace activists gets a lot of coverage: for some reason I’ve never seen this picture of a Greenpeace dude nearly harpooned to death anywhere else.

    Two Japan-specific stories that don’t get much play in the US news is the Livedoor scandal and the badly constructed “twin” condo buildings. The Livedoor news get funny sometimes: “Convenience store chain am/pm Japan has decided to pull an energy drink developed by former Livedoor President Takafumi Horie off its shelves because it doesn’t want to sell items associated with scandal-tainted people, it has been learned“.

    New Year’s cards (“nengajo“) are apparently a very serious business in Japan. From what I understand, they are supposed to be delivered exactly on January 1st. There was a flurry of news items like “Feces in 2 mailboxes stain 140 New Year cards“, “Post office to redeliver New Year’s postcards that arrived too early“, “Post office in Osaka to deliver 35 New Year’s cards a year late“. Big whoop. By the way, while we are on the subject, check out Japanese New Year’s prints by master woodblock printmaker David Bull.

    There’s a section called “WaiWai“(with its own RSS feed). I am not sure what it means, as Wikipedia tells me that “Wai Wai” is a noodle snack.

    The headline writers for Mainichi are prone to using puns and old-fashioned American slang, although not always very smoothly: they really overuse the words “nab”, “pinch”, “clink” (prison). Sometimes it feels like you are reading an old detective story.

    This quote also is kind of unsettling:

    Foreign sex workers get dirty digging for Japanese roots: “Gentlemen may well prefer blondes, but Japan’s not-so-gentle men seem to, as well, sparking a rapid increase in the number of South American sex workers with more yam than Yamato running through their veins to claim Japanese heritage, according to Spa!”

    “More yam than Yamato”? What the hell?

     
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