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Why Rip van Winkle and the Climate Crisis  Are Closely Connected?!

By   Shlomo Maital      

   I recently spoke at a climate crisis conference. In my remarks, I asked, when did we have the earliest data about greenhouse gases and global warming?

   A lot lot earlier than you might think. Indeed – in author Washington Irving’s famous story, “Rip Van Winkle”, the protagonist, a Dutch-American villager in colonial America, falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains and wakes up 20 years later.

     Well, we the people are Rip Van Winkle. Except — we overslept a whole lot longer.


                                     Eunice Newton Foote

An American woman scientist named Eunice Newton Foote (highly unusual for her time) published a paper in The American Journal of Science & Arts, in 1856: 163 years ago.   (Van Winkle would have been awake for 143 years already). She filled glass jars with a) water vapor, b) carbon dioxide and c) air, and compared how much they heated up in the sun.

     She concluded: “The highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found to be in carbonic acid gas [CO2]” 

     In August 1908 Henry Ford produced the first of his 15 million Model T Ford cars. The age of vehicle emissions began…and we knew from Eunice Foote what the ultimate result would be. We knew that burning fossil fuels would spew CO2 into the air.

       In 1899, almost a century before the December 1997 Kyoto Protocol was signed (in which nations promised to limit emissions), Thomas Chamberlin published a book stating that “changes in climate could result from changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”    Footnote: The Kyoto Protocol was largely ignored.

     So, when did global warming actually begin? It started more or less when that Model T Ford rolled off the line – in 1905. (See graph). That is, 114 years ago. Almost 6 times longer than Rip Van Winkle slept.  

     We as a society are asleep. We failed to see the nose in front of our face.  And to see the results, and the reason we now use the phrase “climate crisis”, look closely at Australia, once a serene paradise, now a place in which a fifth of its forests have burned, a billion mammals died, and now disastrous floods occur (because the dry hard-packed ground cannot absorb the rain).

And Rip?  Well, at least he woke up.  We,  society, are still largely asleep.

Donald Trump – Meet Nicola Machiavelli

 By Shlomo Maital

   In 1513 an Italian politician and scholar named Nicola Machiavelli, living in exile on his farm, wrote a slim book, “Of Principalities”, which became known as The Prince. The book summed up Machiavelli’s 14 years of experience in the fraught political wars of Italian city-states and Medici rulers. In it, Machiavelli writes,

  • “it is much safer to be feared than loved”,
  • “people should either be caressed or crushed”, and
  • “the new ruler must determine all the injuries that he will need to inflict” and
  • “must inflict them once and for all.”


       Wow. I read this in a New York Times book review by Jennifer Szalai, reviewing Patrick Boucheron’s new book Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear, written originally in French.

       Now, US President Donald J. Trump is not an avid reader. I truly doubt he has read The Prince. But he doesn’t need to. Trump has applied every single political maxim in this amazing book, written 500 years ago.   The same issue of the New York Times that carried this book review, also reported how Trump is purging his inner circle, and crushing his foes, ensuring far far fewer people listen in on his phone call conversations with world leaders. Trump lovingly caresses his supporters, like criminally-convicted Roger Stone, and viciously attacks and purges his opponents, like Lt. Col. Vindman. His Attorney General is his waterboy.

     National Football League teams each have a playbook. President Trump has one, too, unwritten, and it is amazingly similar to that of Machiavelli. It has two plays only. Crush foes. Caress friends. Trump’s world is binary.

     As Boucheron concludes: “If we’re reading [Machiavelli] today, it means we should be worried.”

     I am. Because we are not just reading Machiavelli. We are living him. And maybe, as his Republican cult-followers chanted in the House of Representatives, during his State of the Union speech: for four more years???


p.s. this is blog # 1,600. Thanks for reading them.

Iowa Democrat Primaries: Analysis

 By Shlomo Maital

    Living in Israel, I rightly question whether the Iowa Democrat caucus for Presidential candidates, the first of its kind in this election year,  is truly relevant for my country and the rest of the world outside the US.

   It is! Here is why.

   First the results. (71% of ballot counted).

candidate votes % of total But – other
Buttigieg 418.722 0.268099
Sanders 393.521 0.251963 25.201
Warren 286.882 0.183684 131.84
Biden 241.314 0.154508 177.408
Klobuchar 196.696 0.12594 222.026


   Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttegieg, who just turned 38 on Jan. 19, and who served in the US Navy for 8 years, has won, with 71% of the ballots counted.

     (Why 71%? Because Democrat caucus officials embraced a smartphone application that was totally flawed and untested – several dress rehearsals would have revealed the flaws, and the backup, phone-in, with 1,700 primary sites calling in at once, crashed the phone system, expectedly. Republicans may rightly ask, if the Democrats can’t run a small primary election in Iowa, how can we expect them to run the country?)

       Don’t underestimate Mayor Pete. Here is why. In 2008, of eight major Democratic presidential candidates, then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois received the most votes and was ultimately declared the winner. Aged 47, he was the first African American to win the caucus. Obama went on to become President.

     Buttegieg is a mainstream centrist candidate. The second-place candidate, 78-year-old Bernie Sanders, Vermont Senator, was only 25,000 votes behind Mayor Pete. Sanders is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, (declared Independent) on the left of the party. He ignites the energy and support of young people, amazingly. He will be a powerful force in the Democrat Convention in Milwaukee, representing the party’s left wing.

     Senator Elizabeth Warren was 131,840 votes behind Mayor Pete, a major defeat, despite her campaign funds and strong on-the-ground operation in Iowa. The third-place finish bodes ill for her campaign.   She lacks the fiery youth of Mayor Pete, and the youthful support of Bernie.

       Senator Amy Klobuchar got fewer than half the votes of Mayor Pete. She is a strong centrist candidate, with proven legislative abilities, but her poor showing in Iowa makes her a dark horse. It’s too bad.

       Republicans gloat at the chaos in the Democrat primaries, and the upcoming debate will again feature a stage full of candidates, attacking one another rather than President Trump. Meanwhile, I’ve just listened to Trump’s State of the Union speech, carefully orchestrated for a huge TV audience of some 50 million. He will be a formidable candidate in November, because his focus is solely on being re-elected, and his frequent election rallies of his supporters are, I believe, unprecedented for a busy sitting President.

       Joe Biden finished fourth. His showing was very weak. He may do poorly in New Hampshire as well, the next primary. So far he has not shown any ability to ignite excitement among the field of candidates. His main claim, that only he can defeat Trump, seems increasingly doubtful.

       Buttegieg is gay, and his partner was onstage with him when he declared victory. Democratic Iowa voters showed intelligence, in voting for whom they saw as the best candidate, regardless of his orientation, and even though Iowa is in general a state of deeply religious people.  Buttegieg will become a force in national politics, no matter what happens in the Democratic Convention in Milwaukee, and has a big future in national politics.

         Another four years of a Trump Presidency will mean almost irreversible damage to the global economy, to civil society in the US, and, in my neck of the woods, to Mideast peace efforts. The so-called Deal of the Century for the Mideast has already ignited protests and conflicts, lighting a match to what is already a tinderbox.

   Buttegieg’s win signals that voters seek new youth and energy. The Democrats may provide it yet, as they did in 2008 with Obama. A whole lot depends on it, not just for America but for the world.

Six Facts About the Wuhan Coronavirus

 By Shlomo Maital


Wuhan coronavirus

   Here are six things you should know about the Wuhan coronavirus, now sowing panic worldwide. (Based in part on Dr. Dan Werb’s New York Times article.) [1]

  1. China is an integral part of the global economy, and its factories supply parts for other countries’ supply chain ecosystems. China’s economy itself is 20% of the world economy – so any negative impact on China’s economy impacts the world directly, at once, and indirectly, over time. I know Israeli hi-tech firms whose products are made in China that have already been hard hit.   The Wuhan virus is teaching the world that ‘globalization’ is a fact and that when the virus bell tolls, it tolls for everyone everywhere.
  2. A key data point is so-called R0 – how many additional people are infected, on average, when one person falls ill with the coronavirus? The answer is, apparently, 1.4 to 2.5.   Is this good or bad? Both. It is higher than SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), whose R0 is only 0.5. It is far lower than measles or polio. And it is just a bit higher than seasonal flu. But the point is, it does spread easily and rapidly.  
  3. Another key data point: How deadly is it? Not very.   About 2% of those who fall ill die from it, mainly from pneumonia and after-effects. Those who die are mostly those whose immune system and general health are poor. And in any event, a lot more people die of seasonal flu than from coronavirus. But don’t forget, that 2% does not really matter. If you can die from it, then the coronavirus sows panic —   we humans are poor at perceiving accurately probabilities, and if something bad CAN happen, then we (rightly) worry that it WILL.
  4. Why did it start in China? Ducks and pigs. Chinese farms raise both. Ducks eat parasites in rice paddies, so they do good. But their “unique biology” makes them repositories for “a vast number of viruses”, while with pigs, various strains of viruses mix together and evolve and mutate into new strains able to infect humans (e.g. swine flu).   Having said that, it appears that the Wuhan coronavirus may have come from bats or other animals, sold in a Wuhan market.
  5. What is coronavirus? Why is it called that? According to Dr. Werb, “The family of coronaviruses (so-called because they resemble glowing crowns) that includes the new Wuhan strain are exceptionally challenging to control. It gets its name from the shape of the virus, like a kind of crown, (corona is ‘crown’ in Latin) or like the circular corona of the sun. Coronaviruses are responsible for the common cold, pneumonia and bronchitis, but the coronavirus family is sprawling and includes deadlier outliers like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which have fatality rates of up to 15 percent and 35 percent, respectively.”  
  6. Why can’t we just take a pill or a vaccine shot and solve the problem? Why doesn’t the body’s own system of antibodies defeat them?   Viruses in general, and coronaviruses in particular, are really ‘smart’. Here is what I learned about how they foil the immune system.

      “When a virus enters the body, a race begins between responding immune cells and the infecting pathogen. The pathogen replicates and finds a target cell or organ that will allow it to thrive.   So, the effectiveness of a response depends on the immune system winning the race to clear the pathogen before it causes irreversible damage to the body.   Immune cells called “B cells” make antibodies. A pathogen such as a virus is a large molecule with different components, called antigens. When a B cell recognizes an antigen, it is activated and interacts with other immune cells to receive directions. When an “invader” cell attacks, the body’s immune system checks its ‘memory’ to see if it has seen it before. Because memory cells have already undergone quality improvement, they can respond quickly after reinfection to produce a large number of plasma cells secreting high-quality antibody.   Therefore, memory cells can clear the infection much more rapidly than the initial infection. This means the pathogen doesn’t have time to damage the body. However viruses change, mutate and evolve. Flu is highly variable and changes each season, or evolves in ducks and pigs; variations are why we require yearly vaccinations. And with Wuhan coronavirus, which ‘surprised’ the world, no vaccine exists yet, nor will we have one for many months.”         


   So, what is my prediction? Will coronavirus become a global pandemic, like the 1918-19 infuenza epidemic that killed between 20 million and 40 million people, more than in World War I (including my grandfather Israel)? Or will we manage to control it?

   No, it will not become a pandemic. It will slash a few points of global growth. We should learn the main lesson that Wuhan coronavirus comes to teach us. We have created a superb global ecosystem, where nations become wealthy by doing what they do best and selling the result to others, buying from others what THEY do best. This creates an enormous interdependent ecosystem, with major advantages but one big disadvantage – any bad virus that starts in one place spreads rapidly all over, because of millions who travel regularly. Shutting down travel, and trade, is devastating, but at times necessary. And there will be lots of those viruses, because they are very clever, they change, mutate and adapt, and continually surprise us, making off-the-shelf solutions irrelevant and fooling our immune systems regularly.

   We will need a new, efficient, clever and rapid global cooperative mechanism to deal with this new threat. But the current political poison against global cooperation may make this really difficult to attain.  

[1] Dr. Dan Werb, New York Times, Jan. 30/2020, To Understand the Wuhan Coronavirus, Look to the Epidemic Triangle.

The Miracle of a Butterfly’s Wings

 By Shlomo Maital  

  Butterflies in general are small miracles; evolution has created them, most lovely of creatures, from ugly caterpillars.

     But on Ira Flatow’s wonderful Science Friday podcast, latest edition, we learned about the butterfly’s miraculous wings, based on new research.

     The color? It’s not from pigment. It is created by tiny “nanoscales”, tiny structures, that reflect light of various wave lengths. Some of these nanoscales reflected near-infrared light, to keep the delicate butterfly’s wings cool – built-in air conditioning. Some of the nanoscales create the amazing coloring of the butterfly’s wings.  (Turns out, blue eyes in humans also get their color from nanostructure, not from pigment!)

     Other structures in the wing generate pheromones, for males, which attract females.   But most amazing is the tiny ‘heart’ – beating small heart cells in the wings, that pump blood and keep the wing alive and healthy, in addition to a regular heart in the thorax (body) of the butterly.

     One of Nature’s most amazing migrations is that of the Monarch butterfly. According to Wikipedia: “The eastern North American monarch population is notable for its annual southward late-summer/autumn migration from the northern and central United States and southern Canada to Florida and Mexico. During the fall migration, monarchs cover thousands of miles, with a corresponding multi-generational return north.

     Thousands of miles?   Those delicate feather-light butterflies? How in the world? Apparently, the butterflies use southward air currents to help them. Monarchs need milkweed – their caterpillars eat only milkweed and Monarchs lay eggs only on milkweed as a result. Milkweed in Mexico is disappearing, threatening these amazing creatures.

     The underlying miracle of the butterfly wing is evolution. Classical evolution has long ago halted in humans, because we now know fortunately how to keep alive the weak, the ill, the disabled…. But we humans can still use this incredible model for human progress.

     Like the evolution of butterfly wings: Try things. Most will fail. Don’t worry about it. A few will succeed. When they do – go with it! And be patient. It took millions of years for butterfly wings to evolve as they are. We humans don’t have hillions of years. But we do need some patience, to try things, to fail, fail, fail…and ultimately succeed,   without giving up at the second or third failure.


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
February 2020