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.

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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.

Who Best Predicts the Future?   Historians – Here’s Proof

By Shlomo Maital

Which discipline best equips people for predicting the future?

Economics? That’s a joke. Sociology? Psychology?

History! Precisely those who study, record and analyze our past history, are, I think, best equipped to predict our near-term future. And here is proof.

   Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a primary speechwriter and adviser to the Democratic presidential nominee both times, Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns. Schlesinger served as special assistant and “court historian” to President Kennedy from 1961 to 1963. He was a Harvard history professor and wrote many wonderful books, following in the footsteps of his father, Arthur Schlesinger Sr., a decorated historian. He died in Feb. 2007, at 89.  

   In 1992 he published a short little book, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. In it Schlesinger said this:

   “Instead of a transforming nation with an identity all its own, America increasingly sees itself in this new light as preservative of diverse alien identities. Instead of a nation composed of individuals making their own unhampered choices, America increasingly sees itself as composed of groups more or less ineradicable in their ethnic characteristics.

     Will the center hold? Or will the melting pot give way to the Tower of Babel? …the historical idea of a unifying American identity is now in peril in many arenas…”

The US Presidential election of Nov. 2016 provided the answer. It’s Tower of Babel, or as Senator Corker from Tennessee described it, the White House is a “day care center”.

   We are in the era of identity politics. My identity is determined not by the nation in which I live and sometimes serve, but by the specific ethnic, racial, social, economic, educational, and religious group to which I belong. The “we” of “me” has become very very narrow.   This is true not only in the US but all over the world – former Yugoslavia, Kurdistan, Catalonia….  

   With identity politics, nations split apart.  When the supreme value becomes the celebration of diversity, rather than the cohesive force of national pride and identity, nations fall apart. Electing a leader who leverages this split, like Trump, for political gain is inevitable. And it’s happening all over the world.

   Schlesinger called it. The unifying American identity is gone. He saw this coming  25 years ago, in 1992. But nobody listened.

“The genius of America,” Schlesinger concluded, “lies in its capacity to forge a single nation from peoples of remarkably diverse racial, religious and ethnic origins.”

That genius seems to be gone, mortally wounded by a learning-disabled attention-deficit President who is unable to read a half-page briefing document. The glue that once bonded a redneck gun-toting blue collar worker from Chattanooga to a Harvard-educated Wall St. bond dealer with a summer cottage in the Hamptons is gone.

Only when that glue disappeared do we realize how vital it was to America and to the world.

 

Does Science Intelligence Make People More Reasonable?

By Shlomo Maital

 The latest Scientific American (October 2017) has a short piece and accompanying diagram, reporting research on the key question:

Do people who have higher ‘science intelligence’ (i.e. knowledge and education in the realm of science) understand better the risks inherent in:   Global warming (climate change); private gun possession (the more guns, the more violent gun deaths), and fracking (causes environmental harm)?   

   The answer?   It depends. It depends on the political views of the ‘science-educated person’.   If you are liberal democrat, then – the answer is yes, science education makes you far more sensitive to the inherent risks, except for guns, where the perceived risk is seen as high regardless of science or no science.

   But if you are a conservative Republican? The more science you know, the less concerned you are about the risks.   Your political views color, in fact dominate,  your scientific awareness.

   I think this finding explains a great deal.   Research on guns will not help bring gun legislation. Research on global warming (or even, wildfires and hurricans) will not bring restrictions on emissions. Research on the risks of fracking will not bring any slowdown in fracking.   And the enormous fracture in dysfunctional American politics between Dems and Republications will not be repaired by evidence, facts and research.

      Why? Because, “I have a Ph.D. in geophysics, and by the way, don’t confuse me with      facts, my mind is made up.”

Economics Nobel to Thaler:

Fairness, Rationality, Self-Control

By Shlomo Maital

   Univ. of Chicago Professor Richard Thaler has won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Economics. Thaler is a behavioral economist, and has according to the Nobel committee “incorporated psychologically realistic assumptions into analyses of economic decision-making. He has shown how the following three traits affect individual decision-making, as well as market outcomes:

   Limited rationality: Thaler developed the theory of mental accounting, explaining how people simplify financial decision-making by creating separate accounts in their minds, focusing on the narrow impact of each individual decision rather than its overall effect. He also showed how aversion to losses can explain why people value the same item more highly when they own it than when they don’t, a phenomenon called the endowment effect. Thaler was one of the founders of the field of behavioural finance, which studies how cognitive limitations influence financial markets.

   Social preferences: Thaler’s theoretical and experimental research on fairness has been influential. He showed how consumers’ fairness concerns may stop firms from raising prices in periods of high demand, but not in times of rising costs. Thaler and his colleagues devised the dictator game, an experimental tool that has been used in numerous studies to measure attitudes to fairness in different groups of people around the world.

   Lack of self-control: Thaler has also shed new light on the old observation that New Year’s resolutions can be hard to keep. He showed how to analyse self-control problems using a planner-doer model, which is similar to the frameworks psychologists and neuroscientists now use to describe the internal tension between long-term planning and short-term doing. Succumbing to shortterm temptation is an important reason why our plans to save for old age, or make healthier lifestyle choices, often fail. In his applied work, Thaler demonstrated how nudging – a term he coined – may help people exercise better self-control when saving for a pension, as well in other contexts.”

Thaler’s book on Nudge (designing behavioral ways to nudge behavior and decisions in a desired direction) has been put into practice, especially in Britain, where a unique Nudge team was assembled to advise the British treasury.

 

 

Peering into Life Itself: 2017 Chemistry Nobel  

By Shlomo Maital

   Some Nobel prizes are awarded to those whose research helps others do research. This year’s Chemistry Nobel (according to the Nobel Committee) is awarded to Richard Henderson, Joachim Frank and Jacques Dubochet:

“…biochemical maps have long been filled with blank spaces because the available technology has had difficulty generating images of much of life’s molecular machinery. Cryo-electron microscopy changes all of this. Researchers can now freeze biomolecules mid-movement and visualise processes they have never previously seen, which is decisive for both the basic understanding of life’s chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals.”

   Each of the three Nobel winners contributed:

  • In 1990, Richard Henderson succeeded in using an electron microscope to generate a three-dimensional image of a protein at atomic resolution. (Until then it was thought that living tissue could not be analyzed with an electron microscope). This breakthrough proved the technology’s potential. Joachim Frank made the technology generally applicable. Between 1975 and 1986 he developed an image processing method in which the electron microscope’s fuzzy twodimensional images are analysed and merged to reveal a sharp three-dimensional structure. Jacques Dubochet added water to electron microscopy. Liquid water evaporates in the electron microscope’s vacuum, which makes the biomolecules collapse. In the early 1980s, Dubochet succeeded in vitrifying water – he cooled water so rapidly that it solidified in its liquid form around a biological sample, allowing the biomolecules to retain their natural shape even in a vacuum.

The ability to clearly see the structure of molecules and photograph it has immense value.

       ….researchers can now routinely produce three-dimensional structures of biomolecules. In the past few years, scientific literature has been filled with images of everything from proteins that cause antibiotic resistance, to the surface of the Zika virus. Biochemistry is now facing an explosive development and is all set for an exciting future.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
December 2017
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