The scam

by Brian on April 14, 2019

in In the News,Technology

It started with a simple Facebook message. “Hello, Brian, you don’t know me, but are you in Las Vegas right now on a book tour? If not, I think someone is impersonating you!” 

That was odd. I did do a publicity tour in the U.S. when my book, TOTALED, was published in 2017, but that didn’t include Las Vegas and I certainly wasn’t there now. Why would someone want to pretend they were me? 

I probably should have ignored the message but my curiosity was piqued. “What is this regarding?” I wrote back. 

“Can you talk with me briefly this morning?” “Alan” responded, perhaps too quickly. “I am available mostly today! Thanks!!! Facebook phone works well…the icon of the phone above in messenger is all that is needed simply click on it…”

I’m smart enough to know never to click on a link sent in a suspicious message, especially one riddled with questionable formatting and too many exclamation marks. But I wasn’t done probing. What was so important that I should call him?

According to Alan, there was someone out there in the dark reaches of the Internet claiming to be the author of TOTALED, currently on a book tour and selling tickets on Craigslist to some tennis tournament in Palm Springs that I’d never heard of before. 

“Of course I feel stupid but sent the money,” Alan admitted. “But I believe I found this low life on FB and I will get him.”

Before I could ask how exactly Alan was going to “get him,” an email popped up from a Samuel Joseph Friedman. 

“Sam” was also claiming that an Internet impersonator with my name was trying to sell tickets on Craigslist, but instead of a tennis tournament in Palm Springs, it was an art exhibition in New York.

Sam explained that when he asked my nominal doppelganger for verification that he really had the tickets he was offering, Sam received a testy response featuring a shocking lack of punctuation that would put Faulkner to shame.

“If you don’t trust don’t buy I’m an [sic] Wealthy author who’s on tour currently doing meet and greets that’s the only reason I’m selling these tickets I can show you my bank account with my name and you can google my net worth I have no problem with that it’s $100 I’m not trying to scam you no offense. Here’s my website check me out brianblum.com.”

The link to my website was real, but me, a wealthy author? I wondered whether I ought to be flattered someone thought so highly of my work.

At the same time as I was being bombarded by Alan and Sam, my wife, Jody, forwarded me a Facebook message she had received from “Amanda.” 

“Dear Judy” – misspelling Jody’s name is always a red flag – “I apologize in advance for imposing. A Brian Blum claiming to be an author is selling an item on Craigslist. Wanted to see if it was a legit transaction. Found your contact on Facebook. Sorry for being nosey, but my intuition errs on the side of caution.”

At least she knew where to put her periods and commas. 

Three messages from three different people, all within an hour of each other, each claiming they were being scammed by someone with my name? This couldn’t possibly be a coincidence.

I decided to play along a bit longer. 

“I can’t find anything about a Brian Blum on a book tour in Las Vegas,” I wrote to Alan. “Can you send me a link to the post?” 

“Where are you currently? Without being specific,” he responded. “BTW, your work sounds fascinating!”

Flattery’s not going to work this time, Alan. 

“Perhaps we should hire an investigator. At least I’m considering it!” Alan exclaimed, again encouraging me to call him. Was this the scam – gain my confidence until I wire him money for a private detective?

Meanwhile, Sam was writing me back. He sent a screen shot from his mobile, but there was something off. The text for his email app’s “to” and “from” was in Portuguese. 

“Are you from Portugal or Brazil?” I asked, trying to be crafty. 

“I live in New York and learned Portuguese whilst at NYU.”

“Whilst?” That’s definitely not the way a real New Yorker would talk. And switching the operating system for his phone to Portuguese to better learn the language, while doable, hardly seemed likely.  

I returned to Alan and reviewed his Facebook profile. It said he was a regional sales manager at a medical technology company. He had more than 2,000 friends and hundreds of posts going back years. 

Creating such an elaborate fake profile would have taken an awful lot of work. Was someone impersonating Alan, too? Or had he been tricked into unwittingly participating in the ruse? 

As “Alan,” “Sam” and “Amanda” realized they were not going to make any headway with me, I was promptly ghosted, as they moved on, I assume, to their next victim. 

A few days later, I checked Alan’s Facebook profile again. There was a picture of him at the tennis tournament. The caption: “TICKETS OBTAINED” in all caps. 

I may never know who the real scammer was or what he or she was after. I was careful and didn’t click on any phishing links. 

Still, if you get a message purportedly from me, selling anything other than my book, or claiming that I’m currently on a book tour doing “meet and greets,” steer clear. 

I first covered this scam (if that’s what it is) at The Jerusalem Post.

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When I first arrived here in 1984, I wanted Israel to be more like America. It was a common aspiration among immigrants: Israel of the mid-1980s was a much rougher place than it is today, with infrastructure resembling that of a developing nation (remember six-month waits for a home phone line?) more than the world-class Startup Nation it has become.

Not that I didn’t respect what Israel had to offer – I chose to move here, after all. But I hoped that, with time, and maybe with the influence of a few more Anglos, Israel would catch up to American standards of personal service, competitive prices, polite public discourse and environmental awareness. 

Now, the opposite seems to be the case. I’m worried that Israel is becoming too much like America.

While it’s true that service has improved and many (though certainly not all) prices have come down, the kind of thinly veiled racism and divisive hate-filled speech that have become endemic in American politics are now the major talking points of the current Israeli election. The same kind of polarization and finger-pointing rife between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. is being played out between Right and Left in Israel. The epithet “fake news” has migrated across the Atlantic far too smoothly. 

Moreover, the leaders of both countries are under investigation while politicians and operators here and there have already been charged, convicted, served time or are on their way to prison. Israel has not even been able to escape the scourge of phone hacking and rumors of compromising videos, both of which are now part of our political discourse, as well.

Anglo-Israelis used to blame Israel’s shaky coalition system for our electoral woes. Wouldn’t it be better, we mused, if we had a more stable, two-party system with an independently elected president? 

Now, the American system hardly seems like one to emulate. 

Israel’s diverse population doesn’t clump into relatively (and I use that term cautiously) homogenous geographies like those that elect the U.S. House of Representatives. The binary structure of Republicans vs. Democrats also ensures that if you support the losing candidate, your vote essentially goes to waste. That’s mitigated somewhat when you have a multitude of smaller parties, as in Israel.

Smaller parties also work to check the ascent of populists, says Harvard University political scientist Yascha Mounk, author of “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.” While coalition building does tend to give outsized power to the fringes, it can positively serve to prevent a single powerful leader from turning into an outright authoritarian. 

How so? Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would have had an easier time passing the so-called “French Law,” which grants immunity from prosecution to a sitting prime minister, if his Likud party held an unchallenged majority in the Knesset. But his coalition partners have (thus far) blocked such legislation.

It’s not just politics: There are other areas where my one-time dream of “becoming more like America” would disadvantage Israel.

Healthcare. A friend was suffering from chest pains while on a recent trip to New York. His doctor wanted to check him into the hospital. My friend agreed – but first he flew home to Israel. “No way would I ever want to get caught in the American medical system,” he explained. “The hidden bills could kill me.” 

Israel’s universal healthcare system may be underfunded and its hospitals overcrowded, but not once have I been turned down for an expensive cancer treatment as have some of the people in the U.S. that I’ve become friends with through various cancer groups on Facebook. To be sure, there can be long waits for specialists, and many Israeli physicians are unnecessarily curt, but socialized medicine works.

Public transportation. Earlier this month, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira published a damning report on Israel’s failure to implement an effective system of buses, trains and light rail, especially compared with OECD countries. I, on the other hand, think Israel’s public transportation is actually pretty terrific.

But my frame of reference is not Europe but the U.S. where, apart from the biggest cities, much of the country is not accessible by decent public transit…if at all. When I was growing up, the closest bus to my suburban California home was a 45-minute walk. Egged may serve some far-flung communities only once a day, but there’s nary a place in this country which is not reachable without a car.

The IDF. I happily missed the draft lottery in the U.S. – it was abolished when I was a teenager – but that doesn’t mean military service is an a prioribad thing. In addition to defending a country in a dangerous neighborhood, Israel’s mandatory army gives soldiers unparalleled responsibility at a young age, spurs social cohesion and pushes off the age at which students enter university. Israeli students come charged up for college with maturity and extra determination.

There is one area where I would like to see Israel take a page from the American playbook: legalization of cannabis. Yes, we have it for medical use, but it’s still too hard to get a license. The recent decriminalization of recreational pot is a good start. But with the surprising rise of Moshe Feiglin and his Zehut party’s pro-cannabis platform, even if Zehut doesn’t clear the threshold, it’s got the other candidates talking. 

Easier access to cannabis might just help mitigate some of the more hateful aspects that now dominate our political discourse.

I first compared the U.S. and Israeli systems at The Jerusalem Post.

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Jews on a cruise

by Brian on March 18, 2019

in Just For Fun,Reviews

When Chetan met Tania, it was not exactly love at first sight. More like love at first rub. 

The Regent Seven Seas Voyager cruise ship

Chetan (from Mumbai) and Tania (from Bangkok) were both working as massage therapists on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager cruise ship. They quickly fell for each other and will be getting married in July.

It’s exactly the sort of romantic story you’d expect if you watched enough episodes of The Love Boat as a kid. My wife, Jody, and I met the happy couple while experiencing the cruising lifestyle firsthand when my father-in-law took his adult children, his sister and their spouses on a seven-day cruise to celebrate his 80thbirthday.

Regent Seven Seas is owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines, established in 1966 by the late Israeli-American tycoon Ted Arison. Regent’s cruises are small by comparison – our ship had only 700 passengers compared with the 5,000 on Norwegian’s gigantic “Escape” ship.

Jody and I had never been on a cruise before. For years we’d seen the advertisements in The Jerusalem Post for similar sea-bound vacations and had been curious. But cruising wasn’t our thing, we told ourselves. We like to explore a place in depth rather than jump from port to port with just a few hours in each location

To our surprise, our first cruise turned out to be delightful – albeit with a few trade-offs.

On the one hand, everything is taken care of for you on board: you don’t have to pack and repack as you change destinations, porters carry your bags (no tipping allowed), the service is stellar and the food and drink abundant. Our cabin was larger than any hotel room we’ve ever stayed in, complete with a walk-in closet and a continually restocked, no-charge minibar.

The biggest downside: you never really get to know the destinations you visit. Our cruise started in Miami before stopping in Havana, Cuba; Roatan, Honduras; and the towns of Costa Maya and Cozumel in Mexico. For all but Cuba (where we had a whole day in town), we were whisked from the docking terminal directly to whatever activity we had chosen for that morning. 

In Roatan, for example, Jody and I opted to go zip-lining over the rain forest. It was exhilarating…but that’s all we know about Roatan. What kind of people live there? What’s the political environment? Do business and industry thrive? Is there decent public transportation? 

Zip-lining in Honduras

We saw one other part of Roatan: the shopping mall at the port which sold tchotchkies at inflated prices. 

That was true for all of the ports. In Cozumel, we found a store hawking the softest sheets I’ve ever felt, made entirely out of bamboo. I asked the store clerk if they were from a local endeavor. No, he replied. The corporate headquarters were in Salt Lake City. I checked the Internet: the same sheets were available on Amazon.com for $100 less.

Back on the ship, food was an ever-present actor during our seven days at sea. The best way to describe it is “gluttonous.” You want three entrees with dinner and four desserts? Go for it. There were no bills, no limits. During the cruise, I developed a penchant for pina coladas – delicious but not exactly calorie-free.

Near the end of our trip, I attended a lesson at the fitness center on “hacking your metabolism.” I was all fired up to tackle portion control on my last day on board, but then along came the 4 pm teatime special – 15 different kinds of gourmet cupcakes. 

I tried valiantly to eat just one. But when Roshan, the head pastry chef, came out to schmooze, my eyes got too big. 

“You know, if one of those red velvet cupcakes just happened to make it to my room, I wouldn’t object,” I said to Roshan.

When we returned to our cabin, there were not one but two cupcakes elegantly arranged on a plate in our living area. 

Cupcakes at teatime

Cruises like those from Regent Seven Seas are all about customer service, made possible by a low passenger-to-staff ratio – our ship had 450 staff, all of whom were seemingly paid to be friendly. We couldn’t walk more than 10 feet before we heard “Hello sir,” “How are you today?” or the ubiquitous “Can I get you another drink?” It’s the opposite of Israel’s stereotypically surly service industry.

Moreover, the staff is trained to anticipate your needs. One day, we went on an excursion that included snorkeling. When we got back to our room, the laundry line above the bathtub had already been drawn so we could hang our wet bathing suits.

Our cruise probably had a good number of Jews, although we didn’t have any way of knowing. Other than the dozen or so people who came to the “self-led Shabbat evening service,” no one was sporting any identifiable religious attire. As for Israelis, we met one couple from Netanya (English-speakers originally from the U.K.) and a group of four Sabras … who had since immigrated to America.

We didn’t find new love like Chetan and Tania on our weeklong Love Boat (not that we were looking for it), but we were pampered and treated so well that I’m looking forward to our next cruise (even if that’s not until we’re 80 ourselves). 

Maybe we can board a little closer to home than Miami. The Regent Seven Seas Voyager regularly sets sail in our part of the world; it docks in Haifa in April.

I first reviewed the cruising life at The Jerusalem Post.

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A cure for cancer?

by Brian on March 10, 2019

in Cancer,In the News

Are Israeli scientists on the verge of developing a cure for cancer? That was the claim from an Israeli startup called Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies (AEBi), first reported in The Jerusalem Post a few weeks ago. 

The story went viral and the company’s researchers were interviewed by breathless media outlets from Fox to Forbes

The only problem: it wasn’t true. Or maybe it will be true, but isn’t yet.

Companies that dangle the potential of an imminent cancer cure provide an irresistible soundbite for evening news programs. They are of particular interest for people like me who have a chronic cancer and regularly scan the web for any hint of a future that won’t include chemo, radiation or other debilitating drugs.

The AEBi story was certainly tantalizing. “We believe we will offer in a year’s time a complete cure for cancer,” AEBi’s Dan Aridor told the Post. Even better, he said, “our cancer cure will be effective from day one, will last a duration of a few weeks and will have no or minimal side effects.”

But as reporters drilled down in subsequent articles, it became clear that the company had yet to conduct clinical trials on humans. The promising results were only from mice – although that couldn’t be verified either, as the company hasn’t published its research in any peer-reviewed medical journals yet (the norm for scientific research), claiming it couldn’t afford to do so. 

“If I have $100,000, what do I spend it on? Advancing the research,” AEBi’s CEO Ilan Morad responded when questioned by The Times of Israel, “or doing many experiments [just] to write an article?”

Morad then admitted that clinical trials might start only “in a year’s time or so” and only if the company could raise enough money. 

Dr. Ben Neel, director of the Perlmutter Cancer Center at New York University was livid, telling The New York Post that “this claim is yet another in a long line of spurious, irresponsible and ultimately cruel false promises for cancer patients.” Other experts and publications followed suit with their own outraged responses.

The ruckus prompted the NPR radio program On the Media to re-issue its “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook” for health reporting. Among the 11 points the program beseeched listeners to be wary of were expressions like “medical miracle,” “first of its kind treatment” and “game changer,” as well as Phase I trials that “make claims about benefits as if these things are already available at the corner drug store.”

I understand why the story was disseminated so widely. Many people desperately want a cure to be discovered, whether that’s patients with cancer, their loved ones and caregivers, or those worried they’ll be among the 50 percent (of men, for women it’s a one-in-three chance) who’ll contract some form of the disease in their lifetimes. 

In Israel, cancer kills more Jews than any other disease. Around the world, 18 million new cancer cases are diagnosed each year.

As a result, we cling to unsubstantiated claims like those from AEBi or to anecdotal evidence about wonder cures. My current dubious favorite: “Rick Simpson Oil,” a super-concentrated form of THC-rich cannabis that adherents claim can knock out cancer as it did for Canadian cannabis activist Simpson who boasted that, when he applied the eponymous oil to his own skin cancer, the spots healed in a matter of days. 

I agree with Karin Mayer Rubinstein, CEO of Israel Advanced Technology Industries, who warned that AEBi’s wild prognostications had “damaged the image of Israel’s life sciences industry.” Indeed, the attention attracted by the AEBI story does a disservice to the many companies and researchers working diligently – and according to scientific standards – on treating cancer.

I’ve reported on a number of such companies in Israel.

Tel Aviv-based Alpha-Tau, for example, says it has discovered a way to use alpha radiation to destroy tumors without harming the healthy tissue around them. In studies with squamous cell carcinoma, “we were able to eliminate more than 70 percent of the tumors entirely and to cause shrinkage of 100 percent of the tumors,” CEO Uzi Sofer told me.

Israeli scientist Rony Dahan is developing a technique that may boost the effectiveness of certain types of immunotherapy drugs by up to 30 times. 

Dr. Michael Har-Noy’s company Immunovative Therapies is working on a product that attacks specific tumors, then “teaches” the immune system to hunt down similar cancer cells elsewhere in the body on its own.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Prof. Varda Shoshan-Barmatz has developed a new molecule that her team says inhibits the production of a protein found in many tumors called VDAC1. It also “reprograms” tumor cells to return to their original non-cancerous state.

Then of course there’s Kite Pharma, the company founded by Israeli Arie Belldegrun, based on work done by Weizmann Institute of Science Prof. Zelig Eshhar that resulted in the development of a truly revolutionary lymphoma treatment called CAR-T. Gilead Sciences acquired Kite Pharma in 2017 for some $12 billion. 

Addressing the AEBi reporting, Dr. Mark Israel, national executive director of the Israel Cancer Research Fund, writes that “claims of a Holy Grail cruelly mislead cancer patients and undermine support for cancer research.” 

That said, he adds, “the future of cancer research has never looked more promising – particularly in Israel.”

Personally, I don’t care where a cure for cancer is developed. But I will be extra proud if the solution to my own diagnosis is discovered right here in our own backyard.

I first wrote about Israeli cancer research in The Jerusalem Post.

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The “benefits” of cancer in Israel

by Brian on February 18, 2019

in Cancer

While no one ever wants to get cancer, there are a few “benefits” to having the disease.

In Israel, they fall into several buckets: financial (discounts on taxes), bureaucratic (my HMO assigned me a medical representative to help expedite drug approvals and shepherd paperwork), pharmaceutical (it was easy-peasy to get a medical cannabis license), spiritual (our “healing holiday” at the Ritz Carlton through the Refanah organization) and physical.

The latter is perhaps best exemplified by the Yuri Shtern Holistic Care Center, which provides inexpensive touch and alternative therapies for both cancer patients and their caregivers.

Yuri Shtern was a member of Knesset who made aliyah in 1981 from Moscow. He initially joined Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliyah party and later moved to Yisrael Beitenu. Shtern was actively involved in bringing thousands of Refuseniks to the Jewish State and founded the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus in 2004.

Shtern died of cancer in 2007. During the last year of his life, Shtern’s wife Lena organized a variety of holistic treatments which she says significantly helped improve the quality of her husband’s life.

Lena Shtern

Lena wanted to bring the same benefits to others suffering from cancer. She established the center in her husband’s name later that year, first at Sha’arei Tzedek Medical Center and later adding a clinic in Jerusalem’s German Colony.

More than a decade later, the Yuri Shtern center now draws on the experience of 142 therapists, all of whom are volunteers (they give 3 hours a week of their time). That adds up to about 900 treatments a month – or nearly 11,000 treatments a year in total. 

There’s also a 40-hour training program so the therapists can understand the unique needs of cancer patients

Treatment at Sha’arei Tzedek is free. At the clinic, there’s a nominal fee of NIS 65 per treatment. At 40 minutes each, sessions are relatively short, but that’s still a fraction of the going price in Israel for such therapy of NIS 250 and up.

Those suffering from cancer get up to two treatments a week for five years. Lena Shtern understood that caregivers need care too; they can receive two treatments a month. 

I started going to the German Colony clinic about two weeks after my chemotherapy started and took a smorgasbord approach to what’s on tap, trying out a different therapist each time. I’ve done all manner of massage (shiatsu, Swedish and Thai), reflexology (a focused foot massage with medical intent), and a kind of energy healing called craniosacral therapy. 

Also available: yoga, Chi Gong, focusing, Breema, Reiki, Feldenkrais, acupuncture and traditional talk therapy.

While I’m not a professional massage connoisseur, I have had body work all over the world. On a trip to Bali a few years ago, my wife Jody and I had a massage a day – at $7 for an hour treatment, how could we not? We even had a full day at a spa for under $50 – including lunch. 

In Bangkok, we sought out the famous massage school on the grounds of the Wat Po temple. My masseur was excellent but a bit too chatty. I think he was trying to improve his English. 

In Nepal, after hiking 11 days in the Himalayas, we treated ourselves to a massage in Kathmandu. The idea was sound but the masseuse went to town on my back and I left there achier than when I arrived. 

A massage at a 5-star hotel in India found me completely naked on a hard wooden table. No soft mattress, no pillow for my head, no towel (and no relief from pain when he dug into my shoulders). 

So how do the treatments at Yuri Shtern compare? It of course depends on the therapist, but I’ve been very pleased. When you’re feeling as rotten as I sometimes did after chemo, any touch is welcome. 

As has been getting to know the therapists. 

Some are professionals who work in the field when they’re not volunteering. Others are on second careers. For example, Ruth was a speech therapist who now does medical and Thai massage.

“No one ever said to me, ‘Wow that was amazing, I loved it’ after a speech therapy session,” Ruth told me. But that’s exactly how I reacted after her massage.

For the past few months, I’ve been returning to my favorite masseuse who specializes in deep tissue massage. One day, the appointment after me canceled at the last minute and I was offered a double session. It was hands down the best massage I’ve ever received.

The Yuri Shtern clinic is the only one of its kind in Israel. There are other organizations offering medical massage, but not with volunteers and not at such discounted prices. 

There’s certainly the need. According to the Israel Cancer Association, there are 250,000 cancer patients in the country with more than 30,000 new cases of cancer being diagnosed every year.

Sha’arei Tzedek oncologist Dr. Nathan Cherny summed up the benefit Lena Shtern has brought to the cancer world in Israel. In a video made when the clinic was getting started, he pointed out that, “Quite often patients tell us ‘we thought we were coming to the oncology department but we feel as if we came to a spa.’”

While the price to gain access to this wonderful world is steeper than anyone ought to pay, it’s been a relief to know that a break from my day-to-day cancer experience is just down the street.

I first wrote about the Yuri Shtern clinic at The Jerusalem Post.

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Transforming rage into creativity

February 18, 2019

The SUV was right on my tail, flashing his lights and frantically marking his territory like a mean dog without a muzzle. Classic road rage.

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Husband: self-regulate!

January 21, 2019

My long-suffering wife has earned that sobriquet. I kvetch. But now she’s read me the riot act: “Husband, you’ve got to self-regulate!”

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Judaism’s honesty problem

January 6, 2019

Does Judaism actually encourage dishonesty? Two stories from Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz during a talk at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

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Defining Courage

December 24, 2018

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one.” How do you define courage?

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My problem with Maoz Tzur

December 9, 2018

Do those who live their lives according to a strict reading of the biblical narrative have a greater propensity to seek revenge?

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