Janet Eckelman: Fishnet Fantasy

By Shlomo Maital

  Janet Echelman is a well-known American sculptor and artist, born in 1966. Her sculptures are made of fiber and are huge – they float in the wind and change with the light, metamorphosing constantly.   They are filmy and delicate,  yet — in Denver, one of her works survived a massive storm that toppled lamp posts.

     She recounts that she applied to seven art schools – and was rejected by all. So she began painting – and won a Fulbright scholarship to India. On arrival she found that all her paints had been lost. What to do?

     She went to the port, and saw fisherman unloading their nets and folding and draping them. She thought about it – and envisioned sculpting with a fishnet like material, strong but light, that wafted in the wind.   What is interesting about her story is that it tells of adversity and failure turned into massive success.   Many of us has seen fishnet. But how many have really seen them, in a manner that envisions a massive and transformative sculpture?

       If you wish, listen to her fascinating TED talk.

 

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The Root of Cruelty & Violence: Low Empathy

By Shlomo Maital

   At times, it just does not pay to watch the news or read the newspaper. The boundaries of human violence and cruelty to fellow humans keep getting pushed to more and more outrageous levels.  

     But why?   What is the root of this cruelty and violence?   Our Bible (Old Testament) says explicitly, “I [God] dwell within each of you”.   How can we harm other human beings in any way, when God himself resides in every human being?

       I found an answer in the January 2018 issue of National Geographic.[1] There is a part of our brain that is active when we empathize with others. Empathy means “I feel precisely as you feel”, as opposed to sympathy, which means “I am sorry you are feeling badly”.   If you have empathy for others, you cannot harm them, because when you do, you physically harm yourself and feel pain.

       Why have the empathy centers of our brains become clogged and decayed? I don’t know. It is deeply painful, for instance, when my own country Israel, which I love deeply, forcibly expels African migrants, when the Jewish people have suffered so much from such expulsions and worse. The empathy centers of Israeli political leaders have atrophied.

     What is the solution?   Let each of us look inward, deeply, and examine our own empathy centers. Here below is a short version of an EQ (empathy quotient) test. [2]  EQ I think is far more important for humanity than IQ. Indeed, some people with astronomical IQ have below-zero EQ. Alas. How do you score on EQ? Has our IQ gotten out of synch with our EQ?

       Perhaps the endlessly repeated terrifying images of violence have dulled our EQ and made it atrophy. Let each of us rebuild our empathy.   In our own lives, and in our own small ways, let us regain empathy toward others. At least, it’s a start.

  1. I can easily tell if someone else wants to enter a conversation.
  2. I really enjoy caring for other people.
  3. In a conversation, I tend to focus on my own thoughts rather than on what my listener might be thinking.
  4. I find it easy to put myself in somebody else’s shoes.
  5. I am good at predicting how someone will feel.
  6. I am quick to spot when someone in a group is feeling awkward or uncomfortable.
  7. Other people tell me I am good at understanding how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
  8. When I talk to people, I tend to talk about their experiences rather than my own.
  9. I get upset if I see people suffering on news programs.
  10. Friends usually talk to me about their problems as they say that I am very understanding.

[1] National Geographic. “Anatomy of Empathy”. Jan. 2018, pp. 128-131.

[2] S Baron-Cohen, S Wheelwright. The Empathy Quotient: An Investigation Of Adults With Asperger Syndrome Or High Functioning Autism, And Normal Sex Differences. 34(2): J Autism Dev Disord 163-75. 2004.

Ballooning Debt & Deficits: How the Republicans are Making America “Great (in Debt)” Again

By Shlomo Maital

You, dear reader, are as tired of reading about the Republicans’ iniquities as I am of writing about them. Hopefully – this is the last blog on the subject for a very long time.

   The Trump Administration has made hypocrisy an essential element of everything they do, with unqualified support of Republicans, both in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

     The latest 2-year budget?   It calls for massive spending increases in defense and non-defense items, without showing how to pay for them. Add this to the unfunded tax cut.  The result?

* The ratio of debt to GDP will rise to 109% by 2027, and

*   the spending bill will add $1.2 trillion to the deficit by 2019.

   Under Obama, the Republicans rioted over Obama’s free-spending budgets. But it is a fact – deficits have risen far more under Republican presidents (remember Reagan’s tax cuts, unfunded?) than under Clinton and Obama. Clinton in fact balanced the budget!   Obama ran a small deficit.

     Make America great again?   Here is how Trump is doing that.

     Here is the list of countries with triple digit (over 100%) debt to GDP ratios:   Portugal, Italy, Eritrea, Belgium, Mozambique, Japan.

       You’ve done it Trump! You have managed in just one year to help America gain entry, very soon, to this unique club of great nations, with GRRRREAT debt to GDP ratios. America will soon drown in debt, on the Republicans’ watch.   Does this bring new meaning to the word “political hypocrisy”?  

     I predict this Trump Tweet:   GREAT world-leading debt ratio.  Historical. Fabulous.  Debt is great. I know — I did borrow and then bankrupt. Watch me bankrupt America too…piece of cake.  Make America broke.

How to Implement Change (David Brooks)

By Shlomo Maital

   Increasingly, when I teach entrepreneurship, I find my students are eager to learn about “social entrepreneurship” – using creativity and startups to achieve social goals, rather than capitalist for-profit goals.

   David Brooks has written a fine column in the Global New York Times, Feb. 9, on how social entrepreneurship fosters change, and tells the story of Ashoka, the organization founded by Bill Drayton that fosters social entrepreneurs, thousands of them, world wide. He writes:

  “Bill Drayton invented the term “social entrepreneur” and founded Ashoka, the organization that supports 3,500 of them in 93 countries. He’s a legend in the nonprofit world, so I went to him this week to see if he could offer some clarity and hope in discouraging times. He did not disappoint.”

Here is how Brooks describes what he learned from Bill Drayton:

  “Drayton believes we’re in the middle of a necessary but painful historical transition. For millenniums most people’s lives had a certain pattern. You went to school to learn a trade or a skill — baking, farming or accounting. Then you could go into the work force and make a good living repeating the same skill over the course of your career.     But these days machines can do pretty much anything that’s repetitive. The new world requires a different sort of person. Drayton calls this new sort of person a changemaker.   Changemakers are people who can see the patterns around them, identify the problems in any situation, figure out ways to solve the problem, organize fluid teams, lead collective action and then continually adapt as situations change.

For example, Ashoka fellow Andrés Gallardo is a Mexican who lived in a high crime neighborhood. He created an app, called Haus, that allows people to network with their neighbors. The app has a panic button that alerts everybody in the neighborhood when a crime is happening. It allows neighbors to organize, chat, share crime statistics and work together.   Solving problems is a critical skill. It may be that the remaining jobs look for that skill set, but people are not comfortable with that…   To form and lead this community of communities, Gallardo had to possess what Drayton calls “cognitive empathy-based living for the good of all.” Cognitive empathy is the ability to perceive how people are feeling in evolving circumstances. “For the good of all” is the capacity to build teams.”

   Remember those two key phrases. “Cognitive empathy” – living for the good of all, not for the good of myself and my loved ones.   For the good of all – implement cognitive empathy’s insights to effect change by building powerful teams.

     That’s the formula.   Now, let’s all get to work on it!

Strategizing the Value Chain

By Shlomo Maital

   Amazon just announced it will create its own package delivery service, to compete with Fedex and UPS.  

   Amazon stock fell on the announcement – but this has happened before, each time Jeff Bezos has a new and costly idea, which usually prove correct.

    This strategic move suggests a key principle for startups: How to strategic the value chain.

     For on-line retailing, a significant chunk of the total profits in the whole ecosystem accrues to those who deliver the packages, not just those who make the products or sell them. Amazon is greedy for these profits, accruing to Fedex UPS and DHL and wants to swallow them.

       Every product or service is part of a complex value chain ecosystem. Each startup, pushing an innovation or creative idea, must ask:

         Where is my product or service aiming,   in the existing value chain?

The key is: Do NOT necessarily aim at where the money (big profit margins) are at the moment. Aim where they will be in 2-3 or 5 years.   And second: Maybe, just maybe, aim at an entry point that the other players do NOT find that attractive (e.g. Teva Pharmaceuticals long ago aimed at generic drugs, when Big Pharma was scorning this industry).   Use this to get your foot into the door. Once you are there, have cash flow, revenue, profit – and name recognition —   consider migrating, to another spot in the value chain, as Amazon is doing and has done constantly —   books to other products to all products, to cloud to original TV content….

     So to sum up: Startup entrepreneurs – analyze CAREFULLY the existing value chain. Draw it, picture it, analyze it.   Where are you aiming at with your product? Is this an ideal entry point?   Why? Where will you migrate AFTER you make a successful entry?  

          This is a bit like an uninvited guest knocking on the door and sticking their foot into the door to prevent it from being closed. Once you get in – look around, carefully, and figure out which room you will visit next.

             This value chain analysis is crucial and is based on a long-range plan and vision.   Many startups don’t bother, or are not even aware they have to do this right from the start.  

      IBM thought the true value in computers was in hardware.  Microsoft’s WINDOWS saw the value was in software and operating systems.  The rest is history. 

World Economy: Best in Years

By Shlomo Maital

The recent one-day dramatic drop in the US stock markets, about 6%, has brought panic to investors – especially to every-day ones who manage their 401K accounts. It embarrassed President Trump, who speaks daily of the booming stock market and the “$8 trillion in new wealth” that it has created.   He has ignored the drop, and his spokespersons revert to speaking about the strong economy.

   So here is the basic truth.   The global economy, for the first time in over a decade, since the onset of the global financial crisis of 2007-8,   is expanding everywhere – United States,   Europe, Asia.   This synchronous expansion is of course amplifying economic growth and employment and job creation in each of the three key regions.

   The graph above, from Ifo Munich, shows “actual” on the x-axis and “expectations” on the y-axis, for the EU region, which is about the same size as the US economy.   It indicates that the EU economy is squarely in the upswing upper right quadrant, after a very long time being remote from it.   The economy is growing, and people expect it to continue.

     I hope small investors do not panic and bail out of their stocks, giving unwarranted profits to the sharks, and that they take into account this global synchronous acceleration, which I think will continue for a while. I hope also nobody will attribute this to what politicians, including Trump, are doing or have done.   This is simply a cyclical pattern, as people and businesses expand their spending after years of belt tightening.   It will end some day — but hopefully not too soon.      

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.  

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.  

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
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