You are currently browsing the monthly archive for August 2019.


Disruption – It’s Personal!

 By Shlomo Maital


   In the musical Hair, there is a song, The Age of Aquarius.   Today, we might sing, The Age of Disruption. Technology is disrupting virtually everything – and everyone needs to be keenly aware of how to live under continual disruption.

     A short and very partial list: Amazon disrupted bookstores, then all retail stores; Tesla’s electric vehicles disrupts GM, Ford and big dinosaur car firms; Blockbuster disrupted movies by renting DVD’s, then Netflix disrupted (bankrupted) Blockbuster by mailing DVD’s, then disrupted cable and networks with streamed creative content; Uber disrupts taxis, Coursera, EdX etc. disrupt traditional colleges, Sprite and Verizon disrupted copper phone lines, Skype disrupted phone companies, Facebook and Google disrupted advertising, especially print and TV, Internet disrupts everything, especially print magazines and newspapers.. and AI disrupts all routine tasks (e.g. airport check in, without seeing a human being before security).

Notice — virtually always, it’s small upstarts that disrupt the big giants — dinosaurs too slow and too dumb to innovate.  Often though they use their size and muscle to catch up.  Microsoft seems to have caught up to Amazon in Cloud services, despite being way way behind at first.

     It’s a good news/bad news joke. The good news is, all this disruption does create value for people, otherwise it would not be disruptive. The bad news is, disruption ruins big dinosaur companies who are also big employers. So far, however, these massive shifts (e.g. from assembly lines manned by human hands to ones without any at all) seem to create lots of jobs while destroying many – but that’s little comfort if your own personal skill suddenly becomes valueless.

     Disruption is highly personal. Be prepared to be disrupted. It will happen to everyone. Think about how, why and when. Think about what to do to prepare. Think about your personal skills and passions that fulfill two conditions: You love doing them, and are good at it; and they create value for many people, in ways that machines and algorithms cannot.

     As an educator, I feel disrupted because young people today can learn things on their own that I used to teach them. Solution: Embrace the disruption and try hard to partner with it, so that a human element is needed and creates value.

     How are you being disrupted? And how are you adapting?

Why the World Economy is Slowing – And What You Should Do

 By Shlomo Maital  

             graph: Federal Reserve, Wells Fargo, Washington Post

What in the world is going on? It’s time to try to make some sense of it.

The Dow-Jones stock index takes its biggest plunge of the year. Bond markets are jumpy. And everyone talks about the inverted yield curve.   What is going on?

Let’s try to understand all this.

    The ‘yield curve’ is simply a chart or table, showing the rate of interest you make on your investment, and the length of time you invest the money. In normal times, the longer the time you commit your money, the higher the return or yield. It’s just natural. A longer time period means more risk.

    But once in a while, the normal order of things gets turned upside down. And that is what is happening now. Why?

     When investors are afraid that a recession – an economic slowdown — is brewing, they anticipate that Central Banks will have to lower interest rates in response. So they buy longer-term bonds to ‘lock in’ current higher rates, in the knowledge that soon those rates will come down.

   That rise in demand for, say, 10-year bonds, raises the price of the bonds, by the law of supply and demand, and when the price of a bond goes up, then its rate of interest goes down. Why? If the bond coupon is $3 for a $100 bond, and if you pay $110 for the bond, your return is 3/110 or only 2.7%. Higher bond price, lower yield.

   That is what is happening now. The last global recession was in 2008, after the financial crash and panic of 2007/8. The current global expansion has lasted 10 years. It’s one of the longest such expansions. It is long in the tooth. It is the nature of business that after booms, come busts, big or small. And it seems time for a bust.

   As the graph above shows, since 1980 every single time the long-term yield or interest rate falls below the short-term rate, there has been a recession, within a few months.

   Other signs confirm this. China’s economy is slowing, growing slower than it has for decades. Europe is slowing – Germany is in recession already, Britain will be in recession after a crash-out Brexit, Italy is again in deep hot water. The US economy is also slowing, buoyed only by consumer spending. Business investment is low, because of uncertainty over the trade war, and the belief China will hope for a Trump defeat in 2020 and is simply waiting it out. So when Europe, China AND the US economies slow – there are no locomotives to pull the global economy out of the mud.

   This is bad news for President Trump. His overall approval rating is way below 50%. But his approval rating on the US economy alone is well above 50%. An economic slump could cost him re-election.  And he knows it.

     Trump has been fiercely critical of Jay Powell, Chair of the US Federal Reserve (central bank). For once, maybe only once, he is kind of right. Last September, the Fed raised interest rates slightly, by 25 basis points (0.25%) to current levels, the highest since April 2008. Whooops… not wise, when a slowdown is imminent, and when the Fed may hence have to do a sharp U-turn that lowers its credibility.

       For us working people, what does all this mean? Cut back on your spending somewhat. Set aside some money. The recession may be short, it may be long, or it may not happen. But chances are it will. Good to have a cushion on hand, if it comes. You never know.


How to Be a Good Person In Two Difficult Stages

  By Shlomo Maital

Amos Oz

    American writer and humorist James Thurber once observed, in a serious moment: It’s more important to know some of the questions than to know all the answers.

    And years later, Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman observed, “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

   So, here is a question that is hard to answer – maybe even, one that can’t be answered.

   How can I be a good person? A better person?

     One of my big disappointments (of many) with business schools, is that they teach people how to be good managers, bottom-line driven, and not how to be good persons too.   The results are often disastrous (take, for instance, Oxycontin and Purdue Pharma).

   So, from the vantage point of my grey hair and over seven decades on this earth, here is my ‘take’ on the title question. And my answer, for certain, can and must be severely questioned.

     Becoming a good, and better, person, is a two-stage process.

   Stage One, or Grade One. Follow what the late author Amos Oz once said:   ‘We can fold all the moral imperatives, the Ten Commandments, and the human virtues, into a single commandment: Thou shalt not inflict pain. That is all. Do not hurt.’

   Cause no pain. This is the Ten Commandments folded into one. Oz died last December. He wrote many wonderful books and should have won a Nobel Prize. In her eulogy his daughter Fania Oz-Sulzberger quoted his ‘cause no pain’ words.  

   It’s hard to complete Grade One successfully. It’s complicated. What if, sometimes, you need to cause pain, to prevent more pain later? As doctors and surgeons may do?

   So, let’s say you pass Grade One. What is Grade Two?

   It is the core principle of startup entrepreneurship.

   Make meaning. How? Create value. Make people happy. Or more broadly:   Make people happier, smarter, healthier, wiser, more secure….

   Make people happy. Don’t just cause no pain. Cause happiness. Actively.

   And that idea too is complex. Make people happy – how? In any way? Do I lie to them, when truth would cause pain?

   Being a good person is really hard.   But I’ve found, probably way too late in life, that if you avoid hurting people and actively find small ways daily to make people happy – you yourself find a great deal of happiness and meaning in life.

     Now, why didn’t I figure that out sooner?


How a 16-year-old Helps to Cure Cancer –

Why and How High Schools Must Change, and Fast!

By   Shlomo Maital

            Bhavya Mohan (center)

    I am at York University, Toronto, Canada. As a part-time journalist (Jerusalem Report), I’ve interviewed many creative people whose ideas changed the world. But last evening was unique and unforgettable. Because I spoke with Bhavya Mohan, an incredible 16-year-old from Ottawa, Canada, going into Grade 11, who made a breakthrough discovery for treatment of cancer. It won him first prize in Canada’s high school science project competition. He will head to Bulgaria in the Fall to represent Canada at a European science fair contest.

     Bhavya’s project was called “Taking ABiTE out of Cancer: A Novel Aptamer based BiTE for Cancer Immunotherapy”. I’ll try my best to explain it in a moment.

     Bhavya was part of a group of 19 exceptional high school students from across Canada, participating in York University Professor Andrew Maxwell’s “entrepreneurship boot camp”, which leads these young people, in teams, through the startup process, at the Lassonde School of Engineering.

    Today these amazing young people make their final ‘pitches’.  

       It’s hard to believe, but Bhavya’s breakthrough finding is real, and in his research, he really was the Principal Investigator.

       Press accounts stated: “Mohan’s project introduces a novel platform that will improve the human body’s ability to naturally detect and eliminate cancerous cells and be an affordable alternative to current immunotherapies.”

     If you wish, reader, you can skip the next 500 words, my feeble effort to understand Bhavya’s scientific breakthrough.  

       Background: A relatively new approach to treating cancer is based on helping the body’s immune system to kill cancer cells. Cancer cells are clever and are really good at defending against the body’s killer T-cells (that kill invaders).

     For example: “Bi-specific T-cell engagers (BiTEs) are a class of artificial bispecific monoclonal antibodies that are investigated for the use as anti-cancer drugs. They direct a host’s immune system, more specifically the T cells’ cytotoxic activity, against cancer cells.”   In other words, it’s a drug that helps bring the body’s T-cells into contact with cancer cells and kill them. Kind of like a 911 call directing police to a crime scene.

     It can be lifesaving, in treating, for instance, multiple myeloma.

       BiTE is a registered trademark of Micromet AG, a fully owned subsidiary of Amgen Inc., a leading US-based biotech company.

       BiTE treatments are, of course, super-expensive. Bhavya told me, a single dose can cost $4,000 – and you may need a lot of them. By 2030, Bhavya explained, this type of immunological treatment may create a $36 b. market.

       Side-effects: There are two problems with BiTE. One – its cost. Only for the rich. Second: its side effects. The BiTE treatment can lead to an auto-immune response, where the body’s immune system attacks the body itself, and patients die. Now, if you are dying of multiple myeloma, it’s worth the risk. But patients live in fear, while getting the treatment, that they will survive the cancer but die from the treatment. Quite terrifying.

       According to Canadian press accounts, Bhavya said:

“I’ve known quite a few cancer patients who’ve actually undergone many treatments. So I knew there was just a need for something to be done. So I wanted to go into that field,” said Mohan. “Whenever I see there’s an issue, whenever I see there’s a need for something, I always try to think of an innovative way by which I can solve those concerns.”   Inspired by meeting a cancer patient who was successfully treated for the disease but suffered dangerous side-effects, Ottawa high school student Bhavya Mohan came up with a new way to boost the body’s ability to detect and kill cancerous cells.   It could be an affordable alternative to current immunotherapies, according to organizers of the Canada-Wide Science Fair 2019 in Fredericton where Mohan won Thursday for the nation’s most “inspiring and ingenious” project.

       The Breakthrough: “Aptamers (from the Latin aptus – fit, and Greek meros – part) are oligonucleotide or peptide molecules that bind to a specific target molecule.”   Bhavya’s idea: We can use aptamers (DNA strands) to bind T-cells to the cancer cells. Because of their nature, these cells do not ever cause auto-immune fatal reactions. They’re DNA!   And AbiTE works just like regular BiTE molecules. And best of all, they’re cheap. One dose, Bhavya told me, costs $60, rather than $4,000!

         (I cautioned him – Amgen is not going to be real thrilled about this. You are disrupting their bottom line!).

         Many creative ideas involve connecting things others would not think of connecting. Bhavya connected BiTE immune therapy with aptimers, X + Y. This is a common sign of a creative mind – the ability to link seemingly-unconnected things.

     So —   How in the world does a 16-year-old attain such an amazing discovery?

       Bhavya Mohan’s parents were born in India. His father was born and raised in New Delhi, and his mother, in the state of Behar. They emigrated to the US, initially, then to Canada. They work for the government, in Ottawa.

          Many of the 19 high school students in Prof. Maxwell’s program had parents who came to Canada as immigrants. Last night, in conversation, I asked them about this. They explained simply that immigrant parents have high aspirations for their kids, and hope and dream their children will fulfill careers they themselves could not. This is simply rocket fuel. I know. My parents were immigrants.          

         But make no mistake. As press accounts affirm (and I can, too): “In most ways, Bhavya Mohan is like any other 16-year-old high school kid.   He likes to spend time with friends. He plays guitar and basketball. Except when he isn’t doing those things, he’s winning science fairs and making breakthrough discoveries in cancer research.”

         How did it all start? Bhavya told me that in Grade 5, when he was only 11 (!), he reached out by email to biology professors. Most did not respond. [Would YOU respond to an 11 year old, who wanted to do research with you??]   One did — Professor William Willmore, at Ottawa’s Carleton University.   He gave Bhavya tough reading assignments – and Bhavya eventually won his spurs and became Principle Investigator in a very difficult research project.

         Kudos to Professor Willmore!

       What does the future hold? Bhavya wants to patent his findings. I urged him to read the best-selling book Patent It Yourself, so he can better guide the patent lawyers. I also recommended that he gain some financial backing, to apply for a series of patents, since single patents often can be circumvented – and Big Pharma would love nothing better, to protect their billion-dollar drugs.

           He also wants to start a drug discovery company. I cautioned him that he will need massive resources for FDA trials, and that in Pharma, big whales have been known to swallow little fish, just to keep their disruptive cheap drugs off the market.


       Last night, I asked these 19 students, how in the world did they survive high school – where teachers often feel threatened by bright students and their questions that the teachers cannot answer, or even understand, and simply shut them down?

       Some said their schools were supportive. Many simply said, they did their science projects on their own, without help or backing, often facing opposition. One brilliant young student told me her teachers insisted she should not study science, she wasn’t smart enough. That was a recurring theme. She had the resilience to defy them.   One student said he had to spend his own money to buy equipment.

       The historically-black US colleges used to have a mantra for fund-raising: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”. These 19 young people’s minds have developed amazingly. But what about all those minds that have not, because of teachers who are poorly trained, badly educated, fearful of bright kids, and are hence massively destructive of their  students’ motivation and creativity?  

         What is the one thing you would change, I asked the kids, if you could, at your school? There was a strong response.   Fewer tests (especially, brain-destroying multiple choice, beloved by lazy teachers), and far more projects.

         Project based learning. Scrap the tests. Get the kids to work in teams on challenging problems. Because that is what they will do, when they become adults. So why not get them started now?

         I have been an educator for 52 years. I gave a lot of exams. I hated them. I myself learned to excel at taking exams, so I could win scholarships. That nearly ruined my creativity – it taught me to revere old knowledge, rather than challenge it and come up with new ideas.

           President George W. Bush’s first action in January 2001, after his election, was to initiate the No Child Left Behind Act. It called for extensive measurement of school quality, through standard tests.  Schools got a ‘bottom line’, just like businesses. 

      Result: throughout the US, teachers taught kids how to take tests, rather than how to cure cancer. They had to. School budgets depended on it!  Teachers hated it. The kids, even more!  Nearly 20 years later, the destruction of young minds has been MASSIVE as a result. And Bush’s failed idea spread abroad, even to my country Israel. How sad.

           When will we wake up, look at these young minds, and try to educate them as they themselves choose?  

         Not everyone is Bhavya, I know. But there are a lot more Bhavya’s out there who simply fall by the wayside.

        And it’s a terrible shame. Unforgiveable.



Memo from Canada to US: Hey, Open Your Windows!

By   Shlomo Maital   

   I am currently at York University, Toronto, Canada, on a brief visit speaking for Technion Canada and assisting a colleague with an entrepreneurship program.

   I am deeply happy to be in the country of my birth, and not in the US. On entering Canada, at Pearson Airport, a huge sign reads: Canada Welcomes Everyone!   In contrast, US border officials recently hassled my wife, who is an American citizen (!), probably because we live in Israel.

   America has a friendly, liberal neighbor to the North. Canada has solved problems the US still struggles with. Yet – America’s windows to the north are dark and shuttered. Why?


     * Under Canada’s Live-In Caregiver Program, established in 1992, Philippine caregivers get six months of training in their home country, contract to care for Canadian elderly in their own homes, and in return, eventually get citizenship for themselves and their families. Our loved one had 17 years of loving expert care by Philippine caregivers 24/7, enabling her to live in dignity in her own home to the end.  In contrast, America’s eldercare system, or lack of one, is, according to MIT Professor Paul Osterman, “a train wreck”.

     * Under Canada’s nimble immigration system, 330,000 immigrants will be admitted in 2019! That would be equivalent to nearly 3 million immigrants, if the same proportion were admitted to the US. Disaster? Invasion? No. In Canada 60% of foreign nationals are ‘highly educated’, according to the OECD. Canada’s “Express Entry” system invites immigrants to become permanent residents weekly, as spots open up.

   Here at York U., I am privileged to observe a phenomenal program, led by my friend and colleague Prof. Andrew Maxwell, that leads 19 incredible Canadian teenagers through a startup boot-camp. Today and then again Friday, they will ‘pitch’ their startup ideas, tackling tough problems, in teams of 3 or 4.   Of the 19, I believe at least 14 are from immigrant backgrounds.  They won their place through a series of challenging competitions.

       It is no coincidence. Immigrants’ children are driven by high aspirations. I know. I am a child of immigrants, whose parents were welcomed by Canada and thus saved from a bitter end, later, in Europe.

      I wonder why America’s windows to the north are permanently shut.   In business, companies regularly do best-practice benchmarking, to find ways to do better. Why doesn’t the United States, led by a self-defined business tycoon, do the same? Forget the President — why don’t elected politicians open their windows and look North? They might learn a few things.  

       Canadians are regularly mocked in the US – our accents, our naivete…. Too bad, America. We have national health care, we look after our elderly, we have affordable college tuition, and we don’t have assault weapons in every closet.   Ever wonder why?    






How to Sell Ideas: Learning from Beer

 By   Shlomo Maital  

     Some of us, from time to time, get tired of wringing our hands at the awful things that happen in this world, and want to actually do something. (The poignant signs that greeted Trump in Dayton, “Do something!”, are sad, frustrating and damning).

   But how? How do you change minds that are increasingly frozen and locked?

   Let’s learn from Professor Shelle Santana, a Harvard Business School marketing expert, interviewed for the Working Knowledge online journal and podcast:

       “There are four elements to a great story.

  • You need to have a character.
  • You need to have a plot.
  • You’ve got to have some conflict or challenge that they overcome,
  • and you have to have a moral of the story, like what’s the message we’re trying to convey?


That’s actually surprisingly easy to do in 30 or 60 seconds. Some people, obviously, are better at it than others, but with those four pillars, you can absolutely tell a great story in a short amount of time.”

   And here is Santana’s strong example: a Budweiser beer Super Bowl ad, perhaps the greatest ever:

Santana: : Budweiser has advertised on, I believe, all Super Bowls. It’s 132 ads they’ve run, and to the tune of $440 million. And they’ve had some of the most iconic ads on the Super Bowl, as well.

Kenny: Your case cites one in particular… Which ad was that?

Santana: That was puppy love. Consumers really loved that ad, and it’s just a really sweet story. It’s very enduring about this puppy who is on a farm, and the puppy manages to dig under the fence every day and run over to the barn where the majestic Clydesdales are. He hangs out in the barn with the Clydesdales all day. He’s eventually adopted by someone, and as their car drives away the puppy is looking out the window at the Clydesdales in the field, and they notice… They block the road, and the next scene is the puppy running back with the Clydesdales. The brand logo isn’t even shown until the very last screen before the screen goes to black, and the hashtag is #BestBuds from Budweiser. So, yeah. A lot of people still say that’s the best ad ever.

   So – bottom line. If you want to persuade people, if you want to ‘sell’ ideas, if you want to stir people to act, you need to tell a strong story, with a strong character, a plot, a huge challenge, and a moral or conclusion. One ad about a little puppy can be more powerful than hundreds of billboards.  

   But did it sell beer? Here is Santana’s ‘take’:

“I think there’s stronger evidence of when brands don’t invest in advertising and messaging and storytelling on a consistent basis, you see almost an immediate decline in sales. When they do invest, it tends to either remain stable or go up, but it may not do that in the immediate short-term, right? It’s a patient long-term play, unless, in that ad, there’s a very specific call to action like if you call within the next 30 minutes, then you’ll get X, right? That doesn’t typically tend to happen on Super Bowl.    … when brands don’t invest in advertising and messaging and storytelling on a consistent basis, you see almost an immediate decline in sales.”

   Conclusion: If you want to persuade and sell ideas, tell stories about real people, N=1. Plot, conflict, challenge, moral. Just like Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), only much much briefer. And – the second part, crucial – you have to keep doing it!  

Trump does it in his political rallies. He brings people with stories up onstage with him and tells their story. N=1 is for professors not a proof – but it is strongly persuasive for the public.




Words Matter: How Little Women Saved Shemyla

 By   Shlomo Maital   

     Ira Glass is the founder of This American Life, a podcast about great stories. If you visit the podcast website, you can find all 700 episodes, each of them comprising a fascinating story.

   This is about Shemyla, recounted in a recent episode titled “The Weight of Words”. Shemyla’s life was saved, literally, by a book written by Louisa May Alcott and published 150 years ago, in 1869.

    As recounted by Robin Bates, in his blog *:

 “As is apparently sometimes the custom in Pakistan, Shemyla was given by a younger sister to her elder when the latter, living in America, appeared incapable of having children. When the adoptive parents went on to have two sons, however, Shemyla’s birth parents kidnapped her on a 1989 trip to Pakistan when she was 11. As the original arrangement had never been formalized, the adoptive parents could do nothing.

     “Imagine an early adolescent raised in suburban Maryland suddenly finding herself in an ultra-traditional Pakistani family, with all the expectations about a woman’s subordinate status and a woman’s reputation.  Shemyla’s books and cassettes were confiscated, she was kept under virtual house arrest, and she was regularly lectured on what her wifely duties would entail, including her sexual duties. Her hair had to be covered, she couldn’t make eye contact with others, she was not allowed to speak English or Urdu, she had to eat after her brothers (one of whom sexually abused her), she was kept on small portions (so that she would stay slim), and she was occasionally beaten.

“At one point, her father determined that women shouldn’t write and burned her stories in front of her. Books that she smuggled into the house were invariably confiscated.

   “Through a friend, however, she obtained a copy of Little Women, which she remembered reading while still in America. To hide it, she broke it into eight sections so that it wouldn’t show under the mattress. Whenever the family left the house, she would grab whichever section of the book came to hand and read it. “It was the book of my life, the only book I had to escape,” she says. She had parts of it memorized.

   “She had multiple responses to Alcott’s novel. Sometimes she saw things that she fantasized about, such as Meg and Jo’s relationship (she didn’t have someone comparable to confide in). At other times, she saw scenes she could relate to. As her own parents would dress her up and show her off to other families in the hope that she would be able to marry up, she identified with the “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair” chapter.

   “As the interviewer notes, Little Women functioned as both a “how-to” book and a survival guide. Not surprisingly, Shemyla identified with the ambitious, rule-breaking Jo, which helped her hold on to the identity her family was trying to squash.

   “Shemyla even had her own version of Jo writing stories in the attic, although her situation was more severe. When she was forbidden to write, she would go into the bathroom and write secretly before carefully washing the ink off the paper.

   “Figuring that the only way she could escape her life was to get married, she began a correspondence with a friend’s brother, whom her friend said would treat her well. This only served to panic her parents, who would have been horrified by the relationship between Jo and Laurie. Instead, they settled on a 30-year-old man. Then, to make sure she acquired certain skills that would increase her bride price (like being able to swim and to drive), they sent her back to America to live with her adoptive parents. Shamyla had succeeded so well in convincing them she had turned that they were willing to take the chance.

   “As she flew away, however, Shemyla knew she would never return. Although she suffered severe culture shock and required much therapy, 30 years later she is now a therapist who specializes in trauma cases. Every year on her birthday, she reads the corresponding chapter number (corresponding to her age) of Little Women to see if has any predictive value.”

     Shamyla hopes to find love – and to marry, like Little Women.


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
August 2019