Deadly Dominoes: Who Falls Next?

By Shlomo   Maital 

dominoes  

   According to Reuters News Agency, “a prominent opponent has warned Vladimir Putin his days in power are numbered, as Russia awaits the president’s response to the dramatic decline of the rouble. Putin has been silent as the currency collapsed against the dollar.”

   It’s that old déjà vu all over again. Remember August 1998? Russia defaulted on its foreign debt, after the price of oil collapsed. Oil prices, in turn, fell, because of Thailand’s crisis in July 1997 (which saw the baht devalued from 25 per dollar to over 50), leading to the so-called “Asian Contagion”, in which other Asian currencies fell and Asia went into recession. As Asian demand for oil fell, so did the price – toppling the Russian domino. Russian, in turn, would go on to topple Brazil, Argentina…and so on….

   And it is more or less recurring. The cause of Russia’s crisis, this time, is not Asia, but rather Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin, whose adventure in Crimea and Ukraine has proved costly. The Russian people appear to believe that it is all a Western conspiracy to wound Russia.   But in fact, it is in part a Saudian Arabian move, done not infrequently by that country, in order to bash oil prices down and hurt the Return on Investment for alternative energy forms that compete with its oil.    By keeping oil prices unstable and variable, Saudi Arabia can mess up the boom in fracking, wind, solar and other energy forms.   And at the same time, no one in Saudi weeps if Iran’s economy is badly hurt, along with that of Russia – and America’s enemies in general are also damaged. This episode has happened before – a sharp fall in the price of oil helped disassemble the USSR in 1989-91.

   Meanwhile, the dominos continue to fall. Israel’s agricultural exports are badly hurt by the falling ruble. Turkey’s currency hits a record low against the dollar. Bonds of oil companies Petrobras, Pemex and Gazprom plummet and yields soar. Investors bail out of emerging markets, even those that are solid.   This is a problem – emerging market companies sold $1.7 trillion in bonds since 2009. Petrobras’ debt is especially high.

     Bottom line: No reason to rejoice over Russia’s woes, even if you dislike Putin. In the end it is always the people who suffer. Once again, we learn that adventurous leaders can ruin countries, even large nuclear ones. And it is the citizens who pay the price. Once again, we learn that we live in a global village, where dominos fall continuously and sometimes in ways we cannot predict or even imagine.

Targeted Drug Delivery: Promising New Assault on Cancer

By Shlomo   Maital   

Schroeder

According to today’s Haaretz newspaper,  one of my Technion colleagues,  Dr. Avi Schroeder (see photo),  of the Chemical Engineering faculty,  has developed a promising new innovation for curing cancer.  He heads the Laboratory for Targeted Drug Delivery and Personalized Medicine Technology. 

  “Being an engineer, I thought of an engineering approach to prescreen drugs on a personal basis BEFORE we begin a treatment cycle,” he explains.

   The idea is simple.  It is like testing for an allergy, by scratching the skin and applying a tiny amount of the allergenic material.   In Schroeder’s approach, the cancer patient is given a battery of drugs, in miniscule doses – and then tested to see which if any actually reach the tumor, penetrate the cancer cells (which have clever defences) and kill them.  There are over 200 different anti-cancer drugs.   Each individual may react differently to them, depending on their genetic makeup and the type of cancer they have, and even depending on their gender.  (Thanks to studies done at Univ. of California, Irvine, we now know that women react completely differently to drugs than men – and America’s FDA now requires drug testing to include gender in the clinical trials, both for mice and for humans, to see if there are indeed differential gender effects). 

     In his method, Schroeder creates nanoparticles containing drugs “barcoded” with DNA.  The process of attaching DNA to each molecule of the drug is not expensive any more, because DNA has become quite cheap.  These nanoparticles are injected into the patient’s blood stream.  They travel around the body and when they identify a tumor, the particles penetrate its cells through micro-fissures that cancer cells typically have.  The drugs are then released into the cells.  Some of the drugs will work and kill the tumor; some won’t.  To find out, the tumor is then biopsied, and cells are examined individually.  The dead cells are separated from the living ones to see “which drug barcode is the most associated with killing cancer cells, and which are not.” 

    So far, testing is in the preclinical stage.  Schroeder is looking for financing to bring the idea to market.   The beauty is,  it is based on drugs that already exist.

Paul Krugman: How Economists Got It VERY Wrong

By Shlomo Maital

economist

Paul Samuelson was arguably the great economist of the 20th C., and certainly one of the greatest of all time. He was a professor at MIT, where I taught for 20 summers, and invariably could be found on weekends working away in his office, even after officially retiring. His book Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947)   (his Ph.D. thesis) reconstructed economic theory, using clever mathematics. But Samuelson was not deceived by his keen mathematical skill. “Elegance is for tailors”, he once said, in describing elegant, but empty, economic theories.

Alas the Economics profession did not heed him. UK Economist Geoffrey Hodgson reminds us of Paul Krugman’s 2009 New York Times article, analysing where economists went wrong in missing the 2007-8 financial collapse, and in some ways actually causing it with their gung-ho free market enthusiasm.

At that time, Krugman (a Nobel Prize winner, it should be recalled) wrote:

“As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth. Until the Great Depression, most economists clung to a vision of capitalism as a perfect or nearly perfect system. That vision wasn’t sustainable in the face of mass unemployment, but as memories of the Depression faded, economists fell back in love with the old, idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets, this time gussied up with fancy equations.” …..the central cause of the profession’s failure was the desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.

I feel a personal sense of loss and defeat as I read those words. I chose by mistake to study economics. I never did have the mathematical ability to excel in research. But I did have an insight, that behaviour was more important than math, in understanding how people choose and decide. But that idea was like aging wine, ‘before its time’. Behavioral economics has now replaced math as mainstream, helped by the tailwind of economics’ massive failure in 2007/8.

Will this help economists avoid culpability in the next financial crisis?

WIX: Playfulness & Innovation
By Shlomo Maital
WIX dalpak
WIX: Reception Desk
I have the privilege of visiting startups and writing about them. Yesterday I visited WIX, an Israeli company which, with over 60 million users, leads the world in services for building beautiful websites. It is the first such company that has done an IPO (on NASDAQ). It is based on North Tel Aviv.
The first thing I notice at such startups is the physical ambience. WIX chose to locate not in Tel Aviv’s high-tech area, in North Tel Aviv, but near Tel Aviv Port, which is a playground for thirty-somethings. The reception desk is the first thing you notice (see photo). It conveys playfulness. This is crucial. WIX is not a startup but is in the scale-up stage. It has strong revenues and a gross profit margin of over 80 per cent. But it retains its atmosphere of creativity and playfulness. You encounter this from the outset, when you check in at the reception desk.
In its crowded bulding on Namal St., it has a rooftop area with a stunning view of the Mediterranean, where events are held. Like Google’s Mountainview campus, food is readily available, and coffee. WIX employs 800 people, 600 of whom are based in Israel; but despite its size, it tries to retain the feeling of being small, lively and playful.
Recently at a seminar at Tel Aviv University, participants told me about the difference between “play”, “playing”, and “playfulness”. The latter is a kind of mindset that nearly always disappears in large organizations, when manuals, handbooks, protocols and procedures are set up. WIX has so far retained it. I hope it will continue to do so.

2014’s Great Innovations: TIME’s Genius Awards

By Shlomo   Maital   

  genius

   Each year, at the end of the year, TIME has an issue devoted to the year’s greatest innovations. Here are some of the top 25 innovations chosen by TIME for 2014, from its Dec. 1-8 “genius” issue.

  1. The Hoverboard: skateboard that truly hovers. It has very short battery life, but like in the movie Back to the Future, it does hover.  
  2. The smart home: it knows when you’re there, when you’re away, when you’re hot, when you’re cold, what you need…
  3. fusion reactor: Lockheed claims it can now build an energy producing reactor based on fusion of hydrogen atoms, as in the hydrogen bomb.
  4. wireless electricity: delivery electricity through induction, without wires.
  5. 3D printing: it’s come of age, you can make anything. And at home.
  6. Coolest cooler: Neat cooler for picnics.
  7. Microsoft Tablet Surface Pro 3:   believe it or not, a cool product from MS, a great tablet.
  8. Lumo lift: a chip that ensures we maintain good posture.
  9. BMW I3: a great innovative car
  10. Glow ring: a ring that glows when we have an email or call on our phones.
  11. Smart pillbox: Pillbox that reminds us when and what to takes

15 Super banana: Lots of Vitamin A in them, keeps us healthy

  1. Super Wheel: a 3rd rear wheel on a bike, with a small motor…
  2. A filter that cleans viruses out of our system
  3. sign language translator: so we can talk with those who sign
  4. Play USMO: device (app) that gives kids ways to play actively

21   Bluetooth basketball:   tracks its speed, trajectory, so we can improve those 3-pointers

  1. eatable wrappers:   you eat the chocolate, then..you eat the wrapper. Cool?

23   Women action figures: why just SuperMAN???

25   Monopole: the selfie pole, now ubiquitous worldwide. Why didn’t we think of it sooner?

   Notice the huge variety of innovations, the wide range of topics – the message is, innovate everywhere, innovate simple things (phones, bikers, balls), keep it simple, create real value.  

   Thanks, geniuses. Actually, you’re just ordinary people, motivated to work hard to create value and change the world.   Wish we all did that.

Teach Preschoolers to Write:  The Evidence

By Shlomo  Maital

preschool

    “Preschoolers should be encouraged to write at a young age — even before they make their first step into a classroom.”  This is the finding of a new study, published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, by Tel Aviv Univ. Professor Dorit Aram and her colleagues.  According to a Tel Aviv U. Press Release:

       “Parents in the U.S. are obsessed with teaching their kids the ABCs,” said Prof. Aram. “Probably because English is an ‘opaque’ language. Words do not sound the way they are spelled, unlike ‘transparent’ Spanish or Italian. Parents are using letters as their main resource of teaching early literacy, but what they should be doing is ‘scaffolding’ their children’s writing, helping their children relate sounds to letters on the page even though the letters are not transparent.”

      According to the Press Release,    Prof. Aram spent the last 15 years studying adult support of young children’s writing.  A major component of this support is a method,  in which a caregiver (i.e. parent)  is actively involved in helping a child break down a word into segments to connect sounds to corresponding letters. For example, parents using a high level will assist their children by asking them to “sound out” a word as they put it to paper. This contradicts the traditional model of telling children precisely which letters to print on a page, spelling it out for them as they go.

“Early writing is an important but understudied skill set,” said Prof. Aram. “Adults tend to view writing as associated with school, as ‘torture.’ My experience in the field indicates that it’s quite the opposite — children are very interested in written language. Writing, unlike reading, is a real activity. Children watch their parents writing and typing, and they want to imitate them. It is my goal to assist adults in helping their children enter the world of writing by showing them all the lovely things they can communicate through writing, whether it’s ‘mommy, I love you’ or even just ‘I want chocolate.'”

 In the study, 135 preschool children (72 girls and 63 boys) and their parents (primarily mothers) in an ethnically-diverse, middle-income US community were observed writing a semi-structured invitation for a birthday party. The researchers analyzed the degree of parental support and assessed the children’s phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, word decoding, vocabulary, and fine motor skills. Overall   support was most positively linked to children’s decoding and fine motor skills.

    Prof. Aram and her counterparts found that “scaffolding,” or parental support, was most useful in developing early literacy skills. “The thing is to encourage children to write, but to remember that in writing, there is a right and a wrong,” said Prof. Aram. “We have found that scaffolding is a particularly beneficial activity, because the parent guides the child. And, if that parent guides the child and also demands precision in a sensitive and thoughtful way — i.e. ‘what did you mean to write here? Let me help you’ — this definitely develops the child’s literary skill set.

    So, bottom line:   Sit down with your very young pre-schoolers as parents or grandparents.  Work with them on writing.  “Sound it out” is the message…not  “Here is how you spell a word precisely”.  It makes sense to me. 

    

Larry Page: As Innovator Role Model

By Shlomo   Maital    

Larry Page

Fortune magazine has chosen Larry Page (Dec. 1 issue) as Business Person of the Year. The feature article begins with a revealing joke, told often around Google. At Google’s “moon shot” Google X center, where self-driven cars, high-altitude wind turbines, and stratospheric balloons for Internet access are developed, a ‘brainiac’ creates a time machine. As the scientist reaches for the power cord to start a demo for Larry Page, Page says: “Hey! Why do you need to plug it in!?”

   For a decade Page was one member of a triangle – Sergei Brin, Eric Schmidt, and Page – that led Google. In 2011 Page took over as CEO.   Turns out he is a good manager. In the past three years, Google has grown 20% annually, and has quarterly revenue of $16 b. It has $62 billion in cash. Page invests heavily both in Google’s core business (he says he argued with Steve Jobs, who said, ‘you guys are doing too much’) and in far-flung new projects.   According to Fortune, in the past year, Google has invested in artificial intelligence, robotics and delivery drones. It has expanded its venture unit, which invests in startups and is a kind of scouting team. It bought Nest, a smart-home startup. It invested in Calico, a biotech firm.  

   Originally Google set out to “organize the world’s information and make it universally useful and accessible”. Today that vision is too narrow. Page says he wants Google to change the world in ways most of us cannot imagine.

   Some say Google is too narrowly focused on advertising revenue. But YouTube now brings in $6 billion in annual revenues. Page continues to invest in bold ventures, to ensure the company’s future. He is making ‘credible bets’ on the home, the car, and wearable devices.

   Most amazingly, Google has a secret facility where a team of scientists are working on a project that will chemically ‘paint’ tiny nanoparticles, with a protein, so they bind to things like cancer cells.   And then concentrate them through magnetized wearable devices, so they can be ‘queried’. This would enable constant monitoring and detection of a whole host of devices.   Outside Google’s core competence?   Not at all.

   Page regards some of his bold bets as a portfolio bucket. Some will pay off. Many won’t. He doesn’t think the risk is high. By the time you want to put large sums of money into something, you pretty much know whether it will be profitable, he says. For him, not taking risks is the biggest risk of all.

IT Burnout: The Problem, The Solution

By Shlomo  Maital

  IT Burnout

    In New Zealand, my wife and I went into a knitting shop to buy wool, so that Sharona can knit a shawl.   The owner was a woman from San Francisco, an IT expert who studied at Stanford and held very good IT jobs.  But she chose to open a wool shop.  Why?

   She explained the reason.  IT experts fix problems with computers.  That means they are daily dealing with unhappy people, who are grumpy and bitter about a computer crash, and tend to ‘blame the victim’ – i.e. blame the IT person, who after all is responsible for anything that goes wrong with software and computers in the organization.  She simply got tired of dealing with complaining angry people.    Those who buy wool are far happier and more appreciative. 

  I’ve encountered this phenomenon of IT burnout all over the world.  And it is ironic.  Because IT experts are the one group within an organization who truly understand the entire organization and its ecosystem.  But rarely if ever is this knowledge fully utilized by senior management.  IT experts are simply regarded as technicians.   But they are not – they are systems experts who do understand how the organization works, how the flow of information works, and how people interact.  And of course, they are sitting on massive amounts of value intra-organizational data. 

   If you are in IT, and are experiencing some of the burnout phenomenon described above,  think about building some alternatives.   Either – seek positions within your organization outside the IT realm (you’ll need to do some homework before you do),  or,  find something about which you are passionate outside your organization, and it can be an “adjacent possibility”  (something close to IT),  or a distant endeavour about which you are truly passionate. 

  But – don’t continue to suffer.  Life is short.    

    Why Tea-Party Individualism Has a Basic Flaw

By Shlomo  Maital

 evolution

The extreme right-wing of the Republican Party, known as the Tea Party, demands maximum  individual libertarian freedoms, lower taxes, less government, less or no social welfare.   It is named after the Boston Tea Party, which initiated the American Revolution when Bostoners refused to pay taxes levied by the British on imported tea, and dumped tea overboard.  But Tea Party is no party.  It has disrupted American politics, divided the Republican Party and elected substantial numbers of House members and Senators.   

    The best refutation I’ve found of the Tea Party ideology comes not from an economist or political scientist, but from an anthropologist named John Terrell, the Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History and professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois in Chicago.   His basic argument, presented in an Op-Ed in the New York Times: 

    “The basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish and self-serving individual.    Philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have emphasized that human beings are essentially social creatures, that the idea of an isolated individual is a misleading abstraction. So it is not just ironic but instructive that modern evolutionary research, anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have come down on the side of the philosophers who have argued that the basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish, self-serving individual. Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others.”

Human beings have evolved for over 50,000 years.  We survive by joining with other people, to support them and receive their support. This happens within the key family unit,  within neighborhoods, cities, places of work, organizations, schools and  indeed   in  our social networks.   We thrive when we love others and receive their love.  We thrive when society works smoothly to provide mutual support, emotional physical and financial. 

     The Tea Party arose from the ashes of Ron Paul’s  failed Presidential Campaign in 2008, so it is only 6 years old.   It was strengthened by the disastrous financial collapse of 2008, which the Tea Party blamed on government rather than on greedy individualism rampant on Wall St.   There is a social evolution of ideas, not just people and societies. The failed, failing and refuted ideas of the Tea Party groups will be dumped on the trash heap, by the evolutionary process of ideas.     

Why Capitalism is (Not) Committing Suicide

By Shlomo  Maital

Brooks

    David Brooks has another superb column in the weekend new York Times.  Titled:  The Ambition Explosion, he quotes work by sociologist Daniel Bell, who wrote in 1976 that “capitalism undermines itself because it nurtures a population of ever more self-gratifying consumers. These people may start out as industrious, but they soon get addicted to affluence, spending, credit and pleasure and stop being the sort of hard workers capitalism requires.”

    Add to that capitalism’s tendency to concentrate wealth, corrupting democracy with it, and you have two huge reasons for its demise.  Right?

    Perhaps not.   My wife and I are returning home today from a long trip, which included mainland China.  There, I found highly ambitious young people, full of aspiration and amibition,  some working as waiters while studying, and one,  who started a vending machine business while working one of seven jobs and studying for his B.A.   “For instance” is not a proof, as the Yiddish saying goes, but it sure convinced us.

    Brooks cites what he thinks is the real Achilles Heel of capitalism – not the lack of ambition, or even wealth concentration, but the lack of real meaning!  

        “The real contradiction of capitalism is that it arouses enormous ambition, but it doesn’t help you define where you should focus it. It doesn’t define an end to which you should devote your life. It nurtures the illusion that career and economic success can lead to fulfillment, which is the central illusion of our time.”

      In the end, the ‘toys’ you buy with great wealth – like Lamborghini’s, we saw a dealership for them in Hong Kong and it was active and profitable —  do not in themselves provide meaning or satisfaction or fulfilment.  So what does?  Some try philanthropy.  Others, social entrepreneurship. 

      Make meaning, not money, counsels Guy Kawasaki, serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist and Macintosh guru.  For young people  —    at the start of your career, define your legacy and your life goals, goals that will at the latter end of your life give you satisfaction and make your life meaningful.  THAT will make your boundless talent and ambition focused and directed toward a worthy goal.   It will also keep capitalism from committing suicide through sheer boredom.   Listen to what Brooks counsels: “Capitalist ambition is an energizing gale force. If there’s not an equally fervent counterculture to direct it, the wind uproots the tender foliage that makes life sweet.“ 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

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