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Effective Altruism: If Only We ALL Practiced It

By Shlomo Maital

   Altruism is defined as a philosophy of doing good for others. It is an admirable change-the-world framework for living. But is it enough?   Philosopher Peter Singer (in a superb TED talk – you can look it up) proposes effective altruism – which applies evidence, logic and reason to find the most effective and efficient ways to help others.   Yes, do good – and do it in the most powerful impactful way, by carefully planning what and how you do.

     Singer’s example: a seeing eye dog costs $40,000 to train, and to teach the blind person how to make best use of it. Highly worthy. But millions in poor countries are blind, due to trachoma and cataracts – both of which are curable and fixable. You could bring sight to perhaps 200 blind people with the resources used to train one guide dog. Altruism is providing seeing eye dogs. Effective altruism is weighing the best use of those resources.

       Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have given billions to medical charities. Gates’ Foundation has saved an estimated 5 million lives – and enriched the lives of millions more – by rigidly applying effective altruism to their resources and projects, focusing on illnesses that are widespread, afflict the poor, and that can be cured or mitigated. Like malaria.

       What if millions of people worldwide would embrace altruism? And then, what if we could supply a very simple straightforward set of guidelines, about how to be efficient in our altruistic behavior? Our time, resources and energy are limited. How can we do the most good with them?   And even before asking those questions – how can the notion of ‘effective altruism’ be ‘sold’ to the masses?

         Today everything is becoming ‘evidence-based’. Perhaps doing good for others, too, should be more evidence-based.   When we combine the powerful emotion of giving, and the impactful logic of rational decision-making, the result can be immensely beneficial to humanity.

 

Homo Prospectus: What Makes Us Human

By Shlomo Maital

   Martin Seligman is one of America’s leading psychologists, and inventor of the ‘learned helplessness’ theory, which explains why we sink into despair and apathy.   That theory, it turns out, is more than a little negative.   So Seligman took the opposite tack, and helped invent positive psychology, which is about how to be efficacious optimistic and happy.

     Seligman and a journalist, John Tierney, wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times magazine, excerpted in the global New York Times. In it they make an interesting point. Homo sapiens (wise human) is a misnomer, they say. Because – well, we humans are not that wise… Just look around the world at what we do to each other.  

     Instead, call us homo prospectus (future looking human). Because we, unlike animals, are able to imagine distant futures and things that do not yet exist.   This makes us creative.   When we make decisions, we weigh consequences, and in fractions of a second, envision future consequences of our decision and then choose or decide.   Seligman and Tierney say that “the main purpose of emotions is to guide future behavior and moral judgment.” Why?   You judge how you and others feel, when you ponder a behavior, and decide on that basis.

     Moreover, they cite brain imaging research, showing that when we recall a past event, we combine 3 pieces of information from 3 different parts of the brain:   what happened, when it happened and where it happened. Apparently, we use the same circuitry when we imagine a future event. Our hippocampus (a part of the brain) assembles these three pieces of prospective guessing, to create something new.   And even when we are relaxing, our brain constantly works “to recombine information and imagine the future”.

     My ‘take’ on this?   We have become a myopic society, focused on present gratification and present consumption, and far less on saving and delay of gratification. Are we degrading “homo prospectus”?   Are we degrading what truly makes us human, and in doing so, damaging our future and that of our children?  

 

More on China’s New Silk Road

By Shlomo Maital

My friend Einar Tangen is an American citizen who has been living and working in China for many years, and is a commentator for Chinese English-language TV.   Here is his ‘take’ on the BRI Belt Road Initiative:

   By putting $124 billion on the table, towards his ambitious $5 trillion 60 country grand plan, Chinese President Xi Jinping made it to the front page of world news, politics and economics.   At the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF), Xi made it clear that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is at the center of a new Chinese soft power and trade approach, not just regionally, but globally. In all, over 100 nations sent representatives, of which over 60 have, or are in the process of signing up to the BRI. Some have nicknamed it “WTO 2.0.”

     Notable was Xi’s “rising tide” exposition of inclusive predictability, contrasted sharply with Trump’s “America First” situational impulsiveness. But, as China moves into the Trump vacuum – while money talks, it also divides – so as countries are looking at the opportunities, China will need to continue shouldering the challenges and possibilities. 

     BRI is aimed at physically, economically and socially linking both countries and their citizens. For example: Farmers in remote parts of Thailand, Kazakhstan or Sri Lanka, might have heard of WTO, but without physical access to roads, rail or ports, it meant nothing. Under BRI, for those nations that participate, farmers will get the physical access and internet tools they need, to reach markets around the world.

   But, while China is leading this bold new effort, it cannot do it alone and will need partners. Dealing with such partners will require an understanding of their political, economic, linguistic, social and cultural realities. This will require a learning curve, part of which Beijing is attempting to solve with person to person cultural and educational exchanges and scholarships.

  China’s BRI is a new kind of trade initiative, one that dispenses with the post WWII ideological trade doctrines championed by the World Bank, IMF, ADB, large corporate interest and many developed nations, in favor of a non-interventionist inclusive pragmatism focused on sustainable trade and market development. The idea seems to be to figure out ways to stabilize the world by creating moderate prosperity regionally and now globally.

   BRI’s ability to gather under one roof Iran and Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Israel, rivalling only the UN in this area, is a testament to the possibilities of this approach. But, the world does not change in a day, and the certitude of American exceptionalists and those who champion an inflexible version of Liberal, Democratic Capitalism, remain unconvinced.

   For the developing and emerging nations it is a vital lifeline to the infrastructure they need to develop their economies and stabilize their countries. Concerns about basic human rights are essential, but there has been little progress trying to solve them using the barrel of a gun. 

   My own conclusion: Yesterday Donald Trump spoke in Saudi Arabia, basking in the glow of many many billions of dollars of arms sales, as the Saudis use their petrodollars to buy American support against their fanatical foes Iran. As Trump tries to organize a Sunni coalition against ISIS, and fanatical Islamic terrorism,     China works to reinvent global trade.  

      Which do you think will benefit humanity more? Which leader has the most powerful vision?

 

 


 

 

Regional to global, “WTO 2.0”

 

The WTO ushered in a tide of prosperity that linked nations, but not always people; BRI takes the WTO idea one level deeper, but without the ideological baggage.

 

 

As Xi’s frequent references to the time and distance made clear, this is not a short term political feel good project to appease a restive electorate, but a carefully staged multi-level far reaching initiative. So, what was initially a response to the U.S. maritime encirclement effort, has become the focal point of China’s efforts to: change global governance and finance models away from ideological absolutes towards pragmatic consensus; modernize its economy; create new sustainable markets; and escape a looming middle income trap.

 

Trade and soft power

 

 

Under the BRI, if a country does not like the actions of another country, it can simply not trade with them, or put the matter before the UN, but no mandate of righteous will exist to force a solution by arms.

 

As such, China’s BRI is not only a trade vehicle, but a soft power initiative, one that will emphasize consensus over corporate models of interaction between countries.

 

100, 54 and 29

 

Over 100 hundred nations and international organizations attended the BRF, of which 54 have signed on in some capacity. 29 country heads attended, but, the BRI has a way to go, as not all countries, identified in the BRI, sent heads of states or senior representatives.

 

At the next forum, scheduled for 2019, given the amount of attention and, dependent on China’s progress, it is probable that the number will go up dramatically. For example: the presence of the ABC’s, Argentina, Brazil and Chile, all represented by their presidents, except for Brazil, makes it clear that the allure of Xi’s grand plan is now global.

 

In Chile’s case they cemented an agreement to join the AIIB, which now has 77 members and will be at 85 by year end. The membership of Chile, Bolivia and Brazil and possibly Argentina, in the future, is an important milestone which shows both the global attraction of Xi’s plan and the drift away from Trump’s notions.

 

China and the U.S.

 

Ironically, given the history of why the BRI was created, the U.S. sent a delegation headed by a senior member of the Trump team, which acknowledged the importance of the BRI and then lobbied for American firms to be included in future projects. Interestingly, they were welcomed, just as was the DPRK, as Beijing went to great lengths to demonstrate, that politics was not part of the BRI.

 

But, to the majority of the world, the take-a-way will continue to be the contrast between Trump’s Me first vs. Xi’s rising tide; a contrast which is reshaping trade and soft power, as countries like Mexico, shift their wheat and corn imports from the U.S. to Argentina and Brazil.

 

Money talks, money divides

 

The numbers immediately drew the eyes of the world, the flip side was a spirited jockeying, by those attending, for inclusion as benefactors and participants. The question is; will countries see the value in Xi’s grand plan or just fight over who gets what.

 

Challenges, opportunities and solutions

 

Xi’s BRI has a long road ahead of it, and it seems China is willing to be patient.

 

The main challenges will be: understanding their partners, convincing a critical mass of them to see the value of the system, a sometimes hostile or indifferent international press and ideological, spheres of influence and territorial conflicts.

 

On the opportunities side, it could change global governance towards a more consensus rather than corporate driven model, help China through its middle income trap period, soak up excess industrial capacity, create new markets for goods and services and politically and economically stabilize countries, by offering better economic alternative and opportunities.

 

On the solutions side, for Xi’s part his willingness to step forward and attach resources to his grand plan indicates a willingness to take a leader’s role; his attention to political, economic, linguistic, social and cultural understanding is a measured path to avoiding misunderstandings.

 

But in the end it will be the smaller, but vital pieces of roads, rails, sea ports, airports, agreements, financing and the things which make them work; like the TIR Convention China joined last summer, which allows sealed containers to pass from source to destination, without the need to have inspections or pay tariffs along the way.

 

It is a grand plan and one which envisions a different future, the only question is will the world react positively or be content to struggle under the system we have now.

 

Einar Tangen is a political and economic affairs commentator, author and columnist

 

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

 

 

 

 

The World Economy: Upbeat

By Shlomo Maital

 “Ifo” is a German research institute that sends out regular questionnaires to experts, with two parts: the first, about global conditions, and the second, about local (country) conditions. I respond to the questionnaire regularly.

   Here is Ifo’s latest assessment:

       Munich, 11 May 2017 – The ifo World Economic Climate improved markedly in the second quarter, with the indicator rising from 2.6 points to 13.0 points. Experts’ assessments of the current economic situation were considerably more positive, making their sharpest increase since January 2013.

       Not only did the global economy improve, but so did expectations about the future:

   Economic expectations also improved. A further recovery was seen in the world economy in the second quarter. The ifo World Economic Climate improved in nearly all regions of the world. The main drivers remained the advanced economies, and especially the European Union. Both assessments of the current economic situation and expectations continued to follow an upwards trend in most countries.

   As usually happens, the upbeat outlook is not uniform. Latin America and Africa and the Mideast lag:

In Latin America assessments of the economic situation remained largely poor, but expectations brightened markedly. There was also a significant improvement in the developments and outlook for emerging and developing economies. Africa and the MiddleEast were the only regions in which the economic climate deteriorated. The outlook for Turkey also remained overcast.

     The common denominator? Politics. Politics in Turkey, the Mideast and Latin America are rather chaotic (checked out Venezuela lately?)   Politics in Europe seem more positive, with the voters rejecting the far right. In America, politics are chaotic but this is not new…

   So, despite Trump, and an anti-globalization anti-trade sentiment sweeping the world, the world economy seems resilient. A new China-US trade deal is in the offing.     One dark cloud on the horizon – Brexit. The EU seems in a vengeful mood, and some there want to teach Britain a lesson. This would be a huge mistake. Hopefully wiser heads will prevail.

North Korea: The Real Story

By Shlomo Maital

   The photo is NOT Kim Jong Un, North Korean leader, but a look-alike. But it conveys what the world perceives – a crackpot leader giving the world the finger.  

   But New York Times journalist Choe Sang Hun, based in Seoul South Korea, brings us a different perspective. Kim’s father Kimg Jong Il, son of Kim Il Sung, was decidedly anti free-market and worked hard to suppress any free-market activity in North Korea.

     His son, in contrast, Kim Jong Un, has taken another tack. Since 2010 the number of government-approved markets has doubled, to 440; the NYT reports that “satellite images show them growing in size in mot cities.   “In a country of 25 million, about 1.1 million people are now employed as retailers or managers in these markets, according to the Korea Institute for National Unification.”  

     “At least 40 % of the population in North Korea is now engaged in some form of private enterprise, a level comparable to that of Hungary and Poland shortly after the fall of the Soviet bloc, the director of South Korea’s intelligence service, Lee Byung-ho, told lawmakers in a closed-door briefing in February”.

       “This market activity is driven in part by frustration with the state’s inefficient and rigid planned economy”.   The result is an economy that is not doing so badly, despite strong world sanctions.

       So there is an alternate scenario to the one now causing the world to lose sleep – one in which North Korea assaults its neighbors and even the US with fearsome weapons. That scenario has North Korea shedding communism, like a snake sheds its skin, and joining the global economy and marketplace.

       The reporting on North Korea, overall, shows, I believe that the problem with modern journalism is not fake news, but bad news – bad shallow reporting that fails to convey what is really going on. There are a few exceptions, including the newspaper, NYT, Trump despises. With all the noise and clutter in the Internet, it is not easy to find insightful reporting. But it is still possible, with effort.

Key Disruptive Global Trends: The View from McKinsey

By Shlomo Maital

     “The trend is your friend.” Thus begins a terse McKinsey Quarterly (April) article on disruptive global trends.   The trend is your friend – provided you spot it accurately. It is your enemy if you miss or misread it. Here is McKinsey’s take on the nine key disruptive global trends.

   The first three: “ ● The globalization of digital products and services is surging, but traditional trade and financial flows have stalled, moving us beyond globalization. ● We’re also seeing new growth dynamics, with the mental model of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) countries giving way to a regional emphasis on ICASA (India, China, Africa, and Southeast Asia). ● Finally, the world’s natural-resource equation is changing as technology boosts resource productivity, new bottlenecks emerge, and fresh questions arise about “resources (un)limited?”

   What do these trends mean to you, to your job or business or startup? Can you find opportunity in them?

   The next three tensions highlight accelerating industry disruption.    “● Digitization,            ● machine learning, and ● the life sciences are advancing and combining with one another to redefine what companies do and where industry boundaries lie. In the words of Alibaba’s Jack Ma, B2C is becoming “C2B,” as customers enjoy “free” goods and services, personalization, and variety. And the terms of competition are changing: as interconnected networks of partners, platforms, customers, and suppliers become more important, we are experiencing a business ecosystem revolution.”

   The final three forces: “● underscore the need for cooperation to strike a new societal deal in many countries. We must cooperate to safeguard ourselves against ● a “dark side” of malevolent actors, including cybercriminals and terrorists. ● Collaboration between business and government also will be critical to spur middle-class progress and to undertake the economic experiments needed to accelerate growth. This is not just a developed-market issue; many countries must strive for a “next deal” to sustain progress.

   Scary? Risky?   McKinsey strikes an optimistic note: “These tensions seem acute today because of fast-moving political events and social unease. But earlier times of transition provide encouraging precedents: the Industrial Revolution gave rise to social-insurance programs in Western Europe and the Progressive movement in the United States, for example.”   In other words, times of change and disruption always bring opportunities, for those who see clearly and act decisively.

     Are YOU among them?

 

New Thinking on Alzheimer’s: Time for a Paradigm Shift?

By Shlomo Maital

Scientific breakthroughs come from iconoclastic researchers who are not afraid to smash consensus paradigms. Take, for instance, Prof. Michal Schwarz, of Israel’s Weizmann Institute. Here is what she told this week’s Haaretz (Hebrew) reporter:

           The puzzle I pieced together is correct, and now I see the whole picture – how my research approach,  for years against the consensus, has become one of the central focal points for research on all degenerative (neural) diseases.

     The paradigm shift Schwarz has helped bring about is simple.   Many researchers follow the “I dropped a coin” model – they look for it under the corner streetlight, instead of in dark corners, where it fell, because…. “that’s where the light is”.   Alzheimer’s? Gooey proteins gumming up the brain and causing death?   Look for cures that eliminate or prevent the protein directly, in the brain.  Under the light.

       But Schwarz?     Let’s help the body’s own anti-immune system, outside the brain, fight those plaque accumulations that damage the brain. Last year the Daily Telegraph quoted Dr. Doug Brown, a leading Alzheimer’s researcher: “Repurposing drugs that already work for other conditions could provide us with a shortcut to new dementia treatments, and is a key aspect of our Drug Discovery programme.”  

         Here ‘s how the Daily Telegraph described Schwarz’s paradigm shift, in 2016:   “The drugs, known as PD-1 blockers, effectively prevent the immune system from switching off, allowing a continuous cascade of soldier cells to fight disease and clear out damage in the body. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease sticky amyloid plaques build up which stop brain cells communicating with each other. But when mice, engineered to have Alzheimer’s symptoms, were given injections of the drug the amount of amyloid in their brains halved, and the animals were able to complete a maze task in the same time as control mice.  Last year the first PD-1 blocker drug Keytruda was approved for use on the NHS by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence so it is already known to be a safe treatment.

        “Lead author Prof Michal Schwartz of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel, said that in Alzheimer’s a weakened immune system could be preventing the body from repairing itself.    “We are extremely excited about our new study, we believe it is a game changer both conceptually and therapeutically,” she said.

      Her research was published in the leading journal Nature Medicine.

       Prof. Schwarz added: (in Hebrew):   “In contrast to veteran old-time researchers, students have no history of believing dogma (existing paradigms)…they are fresh ears and eyes, without preconceptions. They were especially excited, with me, at our results, and joined my research and contributed to moving it forward, and some of them are continuing in my wake.”

         As a (very) senior citizen, I have deep interest in breakthrough research on Alzheimer’s – half of those over 85 have it, at least early versions.   Congratulations to Prof. Schwarz for becoming a woman scientist and for leading a paradigm shift that may help millions – including those in countries that despise Israel.

 

The Age of Wonkery

By Shlomo Maital

   In his New York Times Op-Ed piece, April 11, David Brooks supplies a crucial insight.

     Once the thinkers of the world were intellectual foxes. In Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor, they had many many ideas and challenged all of them.

     Today? We have wonks.   They are hedgehogs. They have one BIG idea. And they sell it ferociously, regardless of the facts.  In truth — they have given up thinking. 

     As Goethe observed, thinking is better than knowing (i.e. foxes are better than hedgehogs),   but …looking is best of all. And wonks do not look (at the facts).   Nor think about their Pablum ideologies.

       So – we are doomed to live in the Age of Wonkery. Not too good for humanity.

       Here is how Brooks frames it:

“People today seem less likely to give themselves intellectual labels or join self-conscious philosophical movements. Young people today seem more likely to have their worldviews shaped by trips they have taken, or causes they have been involved in, or the racial or ethnic or gender identity group they identify with. That’s changed the nature of the American intellectual scene, the way people approach the world and the lives they live.   In his book, “The Ideas Industry,” Daniel W. Drezner says we’ve shifted from a landscape dominated by public intellectuals to a world dominated by thought leaders. A public intellectual is someone like Isaiah Berlin, who is trained to comment on a wide array of public concerns from a specific moral stance. A thought leader champions one big idea to improve the world — think Al Gore’s work on global warming.”

Brooks does not say this but —   not only is President Trump a super-wonk but – he has peppered his so-called administration with similar super-wonks, who are not troubled by facts.   And in upcoming elections in France, Germany and elsewhere, we see rising political parties featuring wonkery at its extreme (e.g. get rid of foreigners, anyone not like us, that will solve our problems).

     What does this mean for thinking people? Continue to fight. Challenge unsupported ideas. Build on facts. Dig up the facts. Think through issues. And above all embrace complexity.   Wonks simplify…violating Einstein’s rule, simplify as much as possible – but not more so.   Life is complex. Truth is complex. It cannot be reduced to a single variable, a single formula.    

   Wonks succeed because people are confused by complexity and want simple formulae.   Don’t give in.   Embrace complexity as a way of embracing truth – and fight back.

Creative Genius at 94: Here’s How!

By Shlomo Maital

John Goodenough and his team at University of Texas (Austin) “have just set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity”, writes Pagan Kennedy, in the New York Times.   “He and his team filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works, as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles.”

   This is not Goodenough’s first invention. At age 57 he co-invented the lithium-ion battery that shrank power into a tiny package; such batteries now exist in nearly all devices at home and at work.

     OK – another genius. Nice. But what is unusual about Goodenough???

     His age.

       He is 94 years old.

       I often speak to groups of senior citizens, and tell them to restart their creative brains… reject the idea that you have no ideas under gray hair. It’s false!!   I know a Technion colleague who invented an amazing cure for cancer after age 70.  

       Here is what Goodenough says:   He started in physics, meandered through different fields, picking up clues as he went along. He hopped sideways into chemistry and materials science, keeping his eyes on social nad political trends. “You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to be able to put ideas together”, he notes.

     PUT IDEAS TOGETHER!   That is creativity. And who can do it better than 94 year olds, who have seen and learned so much about life?

       Thanks John! I’m 74. So maybe in two decades I will still have ideas….that create value.

       Remember the name: Goodenough. What is,   was not good enough for Goodenough. Even at 94.

 

Thinking in the Bubble:   How to Detect Land Mines

By Shlomo Maital

Writing in the Hebrew daily Haaretz, today, Ruth Schuster reports on a clever creative invention by Hebrew University scientists.

   The problem: undetected land mines.

   “Land mines are the scourge of the survivor. They lurk in the soil for years and even generations after the fighting ends. Up to 20,000 people a year are wounded or killed after stumbling on hidden mines, and there has been no safe way for man or beast to detect them. According to Hebrew University, more than 100 million land mines remain buried around the world. Metal detectors do fine with traditional mines, but plastic ones elude them.”

A huge number of ideas to detect and clear mines have been tried. Here are a few:

Mine detection techniques have remained as pedestrian as they were in World War II: soldiers with sticks and serendipity; dogs, who do get killed; and pigs (a talent discovered by a kibbutznik in Israel). The most noteworthy advance in decades had been recognizing the mine-sniffing talents of the African pouched rat.

Now come Hebrew University of Jerusalem scientists, with a truly creative idea, thinking out of the box, or in the bubble or beads:   Bubbles with bacteria that glow blue when they detect vapors emitted by land mines.. even tiny amounts of the gas, and all mines emit such vapors.

       “Inspired by an idea that was first conceptualized in 1999, the scientists engineered   bacteria that fluoresce when they come into contact with these vapors. The human mine detectors don’t have to keep the bacteria on a leash: they can monitor and react remotely. Nor are the bacteria free-range: they are encapsulated in beads that are scattered across the suspect land. The scientists tested the system with a laser-based scanning system, and the mines were found.”

     Prof. Shimshon Belkin was responsible for genetically engineering the bacterial sensors.   The research was published recently in the leading journal Nature.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
May 2017
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