Sleep Deficits: Avoid Them!

By Shlomo Maital

 

The December issue of the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer magazine has an article on “the hidden costs of sleep deficits”, written by the staff.   Apparently, nearly 30% of adult Americans sleep 6 or fewer hours a night – an hour at least short of the amount recommended. Just an hour? And what about children? School-age children should sleep 10 hours a night, but there are crack-of-dawn school starts (once common in Israel, now eliminated), homework and video games….

   According to research, what does sleep deficit do to us? * heightened conflict with family, friends and colleagues… * economic costs: workplace productivity declines, and mortality increases… and costly mistakes.. * emotions: sleep-deprived people have more difficulty controlling their emotions.

     One study showed that bosses who are sleep deprived are more abusive, leading to bad outcomes for everyone.

     So – get that extra hour of sleep. Check it out and see if it helps. Chances are, it will.  

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Reviving Nikola Tesla

By Shlomo Maital

Nikola Tesla

Thanks to Elon Musk and his Tesla electric cars, the genius inventor Nikola Tesla and his achievements have been revived.

           Tesla was born and raised in what is now Serbia, in the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was trained as an engineer. After migrating to the US, he worked for a time with Thomas Edison. However, they had an argument. Tesla believes that the future of electricity lay in alternating current. Edison was committed to direct current.

             Tesla left Edison’s shop and went to work for George Westinghouse. There, with Westinghouse, Tesla built an alternating-current electric motor, whose design we employ to this day. It was vastly better than direct-current motors. It did not need powerful permanent magnets.   The AC motor formed the basis of the Second Industrial Revolution.

             Tesla invented many other things. He invented the “logic gate” which became the foundation for semiconductors. He built a robotic drone (“teleautomaton”, he called it). He tried to find how to transmit electricity wirelessly – we’re still trying to do that.

               But Tesla died poor, in New York City, in 1943.   He was never able to truly partner with industrial giants who had the money to finance his inventions. Edison, in contrast, was a genius at doing that, and got J.P. Morgan, the banker, to fund his initial electricity company. (Edison was smart enough to ‘electrify’ Wall St first, and J.P. Morgan’s home).  

               Today we follow Tesla, not Edison. We use AC current, not DC.  

                 There is a lesson here.   In order for creative ideas to be actuated, you need resources. That means, you have to communicate your idea to those who can best help implement it, and then work with them, with empathy. Tesla failed at this. But his ideas did change the world. And so are Munk’s Tesla cars. Thanks, Elon, for helping us remember this genius inventor.

Brain Soup

By Shlomo Maital

Suzana Herculano-Houzel

How do you count the number of neurons (brain cells) in a brain (whether human or animal)?   Dr. Suzana Herculano-Houzel, Vanderbilt University, has found a creative way.

   Previously, the method was to take samples of brain tissue, freeze it, put it under a microscope and count neurons. But this was inaccurate, because neuron density in brains varies widely, depending on the place within the brain.   Using this method we thought the brain had 100 billion neurons. That’s not a lot – elephants have three times more!

   Herculano-Houzel read an old 1970’s study, suggesting, why not measure the amount of DNA in a brain, then divide by the amount of DNA per neuron?   Hmmm… problem is, DNA per neuron varies widely.

   So she developed a new, creative method.   Take a brain.   Puree it using a blender. (Honest!).   Brain soup, she calls it.   Mark the neurons with a chemical dye, then mark again with a red dye to mark the nucleus of the neurons. Neurons have only one nucleus, like all cells. So if you count the neuron nucleuses, you can compute how many neurons there are in the brain.

   Answer?   86 billion.   Or, 14% fewer than we thought (100 b.).

   So why are humans so smart? The key part of the brain, that makes us smart, is the cerebral cortex, that wrinkled outer part of the brain. Because it is wrinkled, it has a lot of surface area, enabling more neurons to pack it.   Turns out we have 16 b. neurons in the cerebral cortex, while orangutans and gorillas have 9 billion, and chimps have 6 billion. (Those are respectable numbers – those primates are clever!).

     And those 16 b. neurons in the cerebral cortex are waht makes us smart, and it is probably where Dr. Suzana got the idea…   Hey, why did no-one else think of it before?

Reflections on Death

By Shlomo Maital

   This blog is about a subject most of us prefer to avoid. How does one react to the passing of a loved one? During the past year, our family lost at least one close friend, close enough to be family.   How does one react to such loss, and also, to one’s own eventual passing?

     Here is what I think.   Our own lives are gifts.   All too little, do we say thanks for the gift of life.   This is why I love Mercedes Sosa’s wonderful song Gracias a la Vida (thank you for life).

     Suppose the Louvre Museum were to call me up one day and say, hey, Shlomo, we’re lending you the Mona Lisa, on long term lease. Hang it in your living room. Enjoy. One day, we’ll ask for it back.   Would I be incredibly grateful? And would I complain when they asked for it back one day?

     No.     And that is how I think we should relate to our own lives and those of loves ones. They are given to us not for good, but on long (and at times, painfully short) leases. They are to be returned.  They are all Mona Lisa’s on loan.

     And when they are returned   —   We should say, thank you, just as you would say on receiving any sort of gift, even one involving a loan.  

     My mother Sally passed away in 2012.   At her funeral, we had family members and friends come up and tell “Sally” stories, many of them humorous. She was larger than life, a woman with a huge heart and sometimes a sharp tongue. There was considerable laughter at the funeral. Afterward, some people expressed deep horror at the levity.   But, I explained, Mother lived to 105! And most of those years, she was in good health, and for all of it, in sharp mind.   What a gift! How can we show ingratitude by complaining! Of course, we miss her a lot. But so would we miss the Mona Lisa when asked to return it.  

         Let us all remind ourselves to say, gracias a la vida. For ourselves, and for loved ones.   Thank you for the wonderful lives we are given. We celebrate them, in life and also in death.   And in doing so, we show respect for life and true understanding and appreciation of life as an incredibly precious gift.

     One of my friends, a career officer, spent years, informing loved ones that a son, husband, grandson, nephew, had alas died during army service. She recounts that it helped people greatly when they could see finality in the death, and recognize the loved ones were gone. Some could not, and daily worked to keep memories alive, perhaps out of guilt.   The strategy of closure was far healthier and better than the strategy of non-closure, she recounts.  Fond memories always remain. You don’t need to work to retain them. They are there. When you say ‘thank you’, I am returning the gift that I received, there is some solace.  

     Many will disagree with this view. For me personally, when my time is up, I hope those I leave behind will celebrate my life, tell stories about it, and express gratitude to the Creator of all life.  

How to Change Your World With Ideas
By Shlomo Maital

Kavala Greece
During the week of May 13-20,  2018,   I will offer a course on “How to Change Your World With Ideas”,  at a lovely spot,  Kavala Greece.   I would be happy if you would join me there.   Check it out at this URL:   unboundprometheus.com
Here is a short description of my proposed course:  How to Change Your World With Ideas
Consider this.  Some 98% of five-year-old children score “genius level” on a standard creativity test.   At age 10, only 32% reach ‘genius’.  At age 15: 10%.  At age 30:  2%.     Creativity-driven Apple has created more wealth (over $1 trillion) in 40 years than oil-based Exxon Mobil has in 90 years.   Why then is  society destroying what may be its main resource – ideas?
I believe most adults perceive that their creative juices have diminished since childhood.  But few of us know why, or how to remedy this.  There is an internal paradox in creativity.  Generating ideas demands that we smash all constraints and employ soaring head-in-the-clouds imagination. Yet unless we have an orderly feet-on-the-ground process for doing so,  we forego the second half of the definition of creativity:  “novel” and “useful”.   Creativity requires ideation, validation,  and actuation.  Each of these three steps employs a different mindset.
This course begins with the proposition that “everyone can” – everyone can generate an endless stream of creative ideas.  The brain is a kind of muscle – it gets stronger with exercise.   In this 5-day course, I will offer participants a variety of components, that together can be assembled into a ‘personal creativity machine’ (PCM) – a highly individualized process that produces a stream of highly creative ideas,  ones that  change your own world and possibly change the whole world.  Like fingerprints, no two PCM’s are identical.
Our 12 hours together will end with each participant constructing his or her PCM – and turning it on, with no ‘off’ button.

Why Johnny Can’t Read
By Shlomo Maital

    

   In 1955, 62 years ago, Rudolph Flesh published his most famous book, Why Johnny Can’t Read.  For those of us who write books,  this is depressing.  Because despite wide readership of his book, wide discussion, debate, and wrangling —  Johnny (in America, especially) STILL can’t read.   Makes me wonder whether writing books, which is what I do these days, is worthwhile.  If Johnny can’t read, who then will read the books that we write?
    Flesch’s point was, we should use phonics (sound it out!) rather than sight reading to enable students to sound-out unfamiliar words.  Turns out – that was not the right direction.
   Today’s New York Times has a good analysis by Daniel Willinghamnov, on “how to get your mind to read”.  His main point:  Reading is an activity, to which the reader brings prior knowledge and in which the writer ASSUMES such prior knowledge.  If kids don’t know anything, they can read the words but they will not understand them.  It’s that simple.  What’s the point of ‘sounding it out’ if you don’t understand what the sounds mean???
     Massachusetts is the top state out of 50 in reading skills. Why?  Because Massachusetts has grade-level ‘content standards’ specifying what kids need to know in each grade.  Some states are following suit.  
      Willinghamnov makes 3 suggestions. 1. Spend less time for kids on literacy (reading) and more time on science and social studies.  (More than half kids’ time in school in third grade is spent on reading).  2.  Fashion standardized reading tests differently,  make them specific to what kids know and learn. 3.  Design knowledge into the curriculum, so that kids will be familiar with the content that they read.
       Reading is about comprehension, not just the words.  If you have a child, help your school focus on the stuff kids read about, not just the technical ability to read the words. 
        Why Johnny Can’t Read?  Because he doesn’t understand what lies behind the words he is reading.  Did it take us 62 years to figure that out?

“Dis” It – Why Ideas Emerge from DISagreement

By Shlomo Maital

       

   Wharton School Professor Adam Grant writes often and well in the New York Times. In his Op-Ed piece on Nov. 9, “Kids, would you please start fighting?”, he makes an interesting point — Creativity often does not come from agreement. It often comes from disharmony, disagreement, dispute, argument and quarreling.

     Much of our lives is spent trying hard to maintain harmony, serenity, peace and calm. But Grant notes that “groupthink” is a major enemy of creativity, and groupthink emerges from forced consensus, when groups take the easiest direction, the lowest common denominator, to maintain harmony and agreement.

       “For our society to remain free and open, our kids need to learn the value of open disagreement,” he observes.

       Empirically Grant notes that “highly creative adults grow up in families full of tension…real disagreements.”   For instance, the Wright brothers, who flew the first airplane, came from such a family. Their father was a preacher who clashed with everybody, especially his boys’ school authorities. Orville and Wilbur Wright quarreled for weeks over the design of their propeller.

         I confess that a cardinal rule of team-based ideation is “withhold criticism”. Let ideas be born. And grow a bit. This is just temporary. At some stage, you do need to have a vigorous argument about which idea to adopt, or how to merge them. At this stage, disagreement is vital.

         Let’s be clear, there is a right and a wrong way to disagree. The wrong way to disagree is what is happening today in political debate, in the US, Israel and worldwide. This is a dialogue of the deaf. Conservatives watch Fox News. Liberals watch MSNBC. Nobody listens to anyone else, nobody tries to engage in constructive debate. Democrats and Republicans revile each other, and in general refrain from bipartisan constructive dialogue.

       The right way to disagree?   Start by listening.   Really listen to other views. Try hard to understand them. Before you frame your responses, listen to others. Stick to your guns and state your views with passion, but always, always question yourself as you question others. Critical thinking applies to your own thinking as well as to the views of others.

         Grant quotes research by a psychologist, Robert Albert, who finds that among children aged 5-7, creativity flourishes in families that are “tense but secure”. Kids whose parents argued constructively felt more emotionally safe, and showed greater empathy and concern for others. So, conclusion: “Instead of trying to prevent arguments, we should be modelling courteous conflict and teaching kids how to have healthy disagreements.”

   Grant’s four rules:

  • frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict;
  • argue as if you’re right, but listen as if you’re wrong;
  • make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective;
  • acknowledge where you agree with your critiics and what you’ve learned from them.

Lifelong Kindergarten: Reinventing How We Educate Our Kids

By Shlomo Maital

       

   When my wife and I were raising our four children, I recall bringing them to kindergarten some mornings. Secretly, and often, I wished I could stay there with them and play.   Can I join? Can I play too? With blocks, crayons, Lego? I even thought of trying to set up adult kindergartens, where grown-ups could become kids again and relearn how to play.  That happens again, when I pick up our grandchildren from pre-school.

   This is why I loved Mitchel Resnick’s new book, Lifelong Kindergarten; Cultivating Creativity Through Passion, Peers, Projects and Play (MIT Press, 2016).   Resnick, an MIT Media Lab professor, says correctly that “most schools in most countries place a higher priority on teaching students to follow instructions and rules, than on helping students develop their own ideas, goals and strategies.”  

   The reason?   Public education, one of the world’s greatest inventions, was designed to produce workers for the first industrial revolution – for factories. But we are now in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Robots and artificial intelligence will do the routine work. We need creative people. But we haven’t yet figured that out, and so our schools remain mired in the 19th C.

     The best kindergartens are places where children learn through playing together. The operative word is “learn”. There is enough structure to guide their learning. But not so much as to destroy their initiative and creativity.

       Worldwide, kindergartens are becoming more like schools. Small children are getting homework and work sheets. The opposite should happen. Schools should become more like kindergartens. Resnick proposes four P’s – passion, play, peers and projects.   Ignite kids’ passion. Let them learn through discovery, by working on projects together. This, of course, is how they will work as adults. And while the learning is serious, let it seem like play.

       As a retired but still active professor at an engineering school, Technion, I feel we are centuries behind in understanding how to reinvent education. Somehow, our students survive the rigid structured program and retain at least some of their creativity. Many launch startups.

     But – how much “creativity capital” (the present value of ideas lost because our backward educational system, focused on rules and solving canned problems, extinguishes creative ideas) is destroyed – and ignored, because it is largely hidden and unmeasured?

     Can we as parents and grandparents do anything? Here is one small step. When you buy toys for children – ask not (Resnick says) what the toy can do for the child. Ask, what can the child do with the toy?   Buy toys that stimulate creativity by letting the child decide what to make, what to invent, what to dream.   Understand that there is a reason why kids take a toy out of the box – and then play imagination games with the box.  

Why Do We Disagree?

And How Can we Reglue Society? (Part Two)

By Shlomo Maital

   It is all too easy to attribute the “visceral divisiveness” that now afflicts American society – whites against blacks, Republicans against Dems, blue collar vs. white collar, educated vs. uneducated, immigrants vs. locals — to a nasty tweeting President. But that is too facile.   Trump has used an underlying trend to get elected, but he didn’t create it.

   The trend? David Brooks (NYT, International edition, Nov. 1, op-ed) puts his finger on it, as he often does.

     He quotes a political scientist, Alex Theodoridis: “Partisanship for many Americans today takes the form of a visceral, even subconscious attachment to a party group. Our party becomes a part of our self-concept in deep and meaningful ways.”

     When politics is used as a cure for spiritual and social loneliness, it’s harder to win people over with policy or philosophical arguments. I.e., dialogue becomes impossible. We become deaf.

       Long ago, Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, described America’s social and spiritual loneliness, through the metaphor of bowling – Americans used to bowl together, now, they no longer do. (See the diagram above). Nor do they do many other social activities. And the ‘social media’ of the smartphone are really not social at all, because there is no real human contact involved.

       The fix?   Deeper communal bonds have to be repaired.  If we have strong social bonds, our political bonds need not be visceral, but even peripheral, as they used to be.

     But how?   I have absolutely no idea. I do know that personally, my wife and I have moved to a new city, and joined a new synagogue community, and take enormous pleasure and comfort in it. I truly wish this could be a result for everyone. The community we joined has a wide spectrum of political beliefs. What joins us are many other things,   prayer, study, social events, etc.  This does not cure the political divisiveness, which in Israel is if anything more fierce and visceral than in the US.  

Why do we disagree? And how can we reglue society? 

By Shlomo Maital

     It does seem as if the world is falling apart.   Whole nations are coming part (Spain, perhaps Italy, Iraq, Syria). Within nations, divisive bitter arguments pit one family member against another.  

   But why? Why now?

   I think moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt (U. of Virginia) has a persuasive answer. *

     He was recently interviewed on US Public Radio (WBUR). He explained that he believes there are five core values, or moral principles, that are strongly believed in, in society. They are: Harm/care (avoid harming others, care when they hurt or suffer, be empathic); Fairness/reciprocity (be fair, give as you receive); In-group loyalty (be loyal and true to your specific ethnic/social group); authority/respect (honor and respect whoever is in charge); purity/sanctity (follow religious practice, hold certain things sacred).

     Politically: Those who are very liberal give very high importance to “care” and to “fair”.   (See graph above).   Those who are very conservative attach high importance to loyalty, authority and sanctity.

     What seems to be happening in the US is that the middle is emptying. The middle class is declining, as people sink in their income, or, in a few cases, grow wealthy. The middle in politics is also emptying. And underneath all this, the ‘middle’ in moral values is also emptying.

     Either we are liberal, and hold above all else the crucial importance of empathy and fairness (equal opportunity, equal wealth holding). Or we hold above all else the vital importance of loyalty, respect, sanctity.  

     If you wonder why very conservative Trump supporters continue to support him strongly despite his statements, falsehoods and incompetence, this graph explains it. Loyalty!  

       Are there inherent tradeoffs or conflicts among these key values? Or can we, by listening and explaining, integrate all these values into a coherent single whole, one that we can all live by,   liberal, moderate and conservative?  

       Barack Obama recently said, that if you get elected by dividing people, you won’t be able to govern them. That is true. America is essentially ungovernable, post-Trump.

     Can we find someone who gets elected by uniting people, around those five core values woven together?    

* Jonathan Haidt. “The new synthesis in moral psychology”. Science, May 18 2007, pp. 998-1000.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
January 2018
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