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Greta Thunberg – Tells It Like It Is
By   Shlomo Maital

   Three years ago, Greta Thunberg, a Swedish schoolgirl, skipped school on Friday and with a home-made sign, demonstrated outside the Swedish Parliament. Her request: Get Sweden back on track with the Paris Agreement to mitigate greenhouse gases and halt climate change.

   One young schoolgirl – what could she possibly do?   Every Friday, she showed up again at the Swedish Parliament.

   Now, three years later, her single act has snowballed into a massive strike-from-school movement among school children all over the world, on March 15.

     Greta spoke to a climate change conference in Poland last year. She really stuck it to the old guys there. She got a tiny smattering of applause, showing their disapproval. She was far more warmly received when she spoke to the European Parliament later.

       Take a moment and read what she said in Poland. Believe me – it’s a wow!

     “My name is Greta Thunberg. I am 15 years old. I am from Sweden. I speak on behalf of Climate Justice Now. Many people say that Sweden is just a small country and it doesn’t matter what we do. But I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference. And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.

   “But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.

   “The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.

   “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself. We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people. Thank you”.

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Geopolitical Danger: The New Cold War

By   Shlomo Maital

   Remember the good old Cold War? The nuclear standoff between the US and Soviet Union?   In the 1950’s American schoolchildren did regular drills for the possibility of nuclear war. It was not fun. Then in 1989-91 the USSR collapsed, and the US dominated for two decades.

   Well, the Cold War is back. And the new version is a whole lot worse than the old one. Don’t believe me – believe Thomas Friedman, veteran New York Times columnist, citing a new book by Michael Mandelbaum. *

     Here are three key geopolitical trends Friedman describes. Together they are scary.

     First, in this new Cold War, three powers have been in resurgence: Russia, Iran, and China. China claims the Western Pacific and spreads its reach throughout the world, with its Belt and Road project. Iran spreads its tentacles through the Mideast, in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Russia engages in mischief throughout the world, including within the US, supporting bloody dictators like Maduro and Assad. Meanwhile the US retreats, spending more and more on defense while doing less and less to keep world peace.

     Second, more and more weak states are failing. Countries are collapsing, owing to corrupt dictators – Libya, Guatemala, Venezuela, El Savador, and elsewhere. This creates a flood of migrants which has destabilized European union and threatens the US.   Reassembing those weak states is almost impossible – their dictators bribe the military and keep control against popular uprisings.

     Third, there are super-empowered small groups. These are hidden secret groups that make huge mischief, hacking elections, stealing, destabilizing, some government-sponsored, using cell phones and simple cyber tools.   “Some guy in Moldova with a cell phone and some cyber tools can shut off power in Montana”, Friedman explains. This threat has been vastly underestimated by the US and Europe. Even without mischief, social media have destabilized politics, blurring the line between truth and lies and giving everybody the power to say whatever they wish and be believed.

     For some 30 years, after 1989, there was more or less a new world order, in which the US kept things under control, with some huge mistakes (Iraq, Afghanistan). This is now ending. It is not clear what kind of new world order will emerge from this mess, nor the price we will pay in the process and how long it will take.

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* Michael Mandelbaum.   The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth. Feb. 2019.

Why Do We Sleep?

By   Shlomo Maital

   Why do people sleep? For evolutionary biologists, it’s a bit of a mystery. Sleep makes us vulnerable to predators. How come people and animals did not evolve without the need for sleep?

     A new research study, just published in Nature Communications, reveals an answer. The study is by Bar Ilan University doctoral student David Zada, along with professorial co-authors.

     Until now, we did know that lack of sleep affects brain functioning. Could sleep be a biochemical process essential for life?

     The answer is yes.   Zada studied zebrafish. When they are young, they are transparent – even their skulls.   Zada could look directly into their brains.

       Here is what he found. Every human cell (except for one exception – red blood cells) has DNA. DNA gets damaged over time and needs repair within the cell. There are enzymes that do this.

         Zada found that when zebrafish sleep, their neural cells no longer need energy for waking purposes, and this frees energy for their cells to repair their damaged DNA. He used time lapse photography to show this. When fish are awake, their chromosomes have far fewer resources to engage in repairs.

         Apparently we sleep in order to engage in crucial maintenance for our neurons – nerve cells – in particular, just as my Toyota needs regular maintenance from time to time in the garage.

         So – let’s get some sleep and let our amazing bodies fix their neural cells. It is well known that teenagers in particular do not sleep enough. Maybe we can learn from the zebrafish?  

 

 

What Unites People? The Real Moderate Agenda

By   Shlomo Maital

   It has been a long while since I wrote a blog about New York Times columnist David Brooks. Today’s NYT (Feb. 27) has a wonderful column, worth summarizing. The subject: What glues people together? And, based on this – what would a ‘moderate’ political agenda look like, neither extreme right nor extreme left?   In these days of vitriolic polarized toxic politics — moderate agendas seem either bland or non-existent.

   Here are Brooks’ four key elements of a moderate agenda – policies that bring us together.   The four super-glue elements that bind us together are: our children, our work, our communities, and our shared humanity.

  • Our children:   “Make sure children are educated by webs of warm relationships”
  • Our work: “Help people find vocations in which they can serve their communities”.
  • Our communities: “devolve power out of Washington (or your country’s capital city) to the local level”. All politics is local, it is said. But it is not. We can make it so.
  • Our shared humanity:   Let’s care about the elderly, the disabled, migrants, the ill, minorities…. People are basically good. Reject those who think and act otherwise. Reject politicians who seek power by appealing to base motives. Look for those who espouse good.

 

Can ‘left’ and ‘right’ unite under these ideas? Can this ‘center’ bring us together?

   It’s worth a try.

 

Why Rising Stock Market Is Bad News     
      By   Shlomo Maital

   The New York Times reports: “The US stock market is off to its best start (of the year) since 1987”. Good news? And then the bad news….”investors are expected to dump hundreds of billions of dollars of shares this year.” Bad news.

     So what in the world is going on? The article, by Matt Phillips ,has an uncharacteristically clear, simple explanation.

     Remember that Trump tax cut? The one that put billions of dollars into the pockets of the wealthy and the corporations? Well it made the corporaitons cash flush.

     What did they do with the cash?

     Invest it, in infrastructure, R&D, innovation?

     Not exactly.

     They mostly used it to buy back their own shares, massively.

     Why? Simply – to funnel that big tax cut directly into the pockets of shareholders, at low (capital gains) tax rates.

       Share buy back by corporations drove the market up.   Even at a time when armchair investors, funds, etc…. were selling.    Investors aren’t dumb. They will take their profits, before the market crumbles when the buy backs of corporations stop.

       I avoid the stock market. But for those who want to listen, I counsel, don’t hold shares of businesses that buy back their own shares. Why? If the best investment businesses can make, is buying back their own shares, rather than developing new and better products, well —   dump them. Share buy backs are abysmal.  They are caused by CEO’s seeking to look good, in the short years they hold the position, under pressure of myopic shareholders and Boards.

         Share buy backs have now cemented corporations as the leading source of demand for shares – their own. This is a fundamental change in the way the stock market works. It is a change for the worse. When companies STOP buying back their own shares, they will pull the rug out from under the market.

     This will happen, perhaps, when the US enters recession – something most economists expect to happen by 2021.

      

 

World Economy: Heading South West (That’s Not Good)

By   Shlomo Maital    

I know I am repeating myself.  I wrote about this just recently.  But, the latest Ifo (Munich think tank) survey reveals this:        

  “In the first quarter of 2019, the economic climate indicator for the advanced economies has tumbled to its lowest value since the fourth quarter of 2012” 

                                  
  The graph above shows on the x axis, “assessment of the current economic situation”  and on the y axis,  “economic expectations” (how you think the economy will trend in the coming 6 months). 
    The worst outcome is:  the ‘dot’ moves south west (i.e. the economy is declining, and it will continue to decline in the near future).
     Ifo Munich gathers data on the world economy, by region, by a survey of experts. 
     Look closely at the graph –the “world economy” moves strongly south west.  So do the Euro area and advanced economies.  Same for Mideast and North Africa.  Nowhere does any economy move other than west (down). 
      Why?   How about – US -China trade war, global uncertainty, Brexit,  EU disunity, and….   The list is long. 
       We can blame part of this on Trump.   He has thrown a monkey wrench into the world trading system, introduced massive uncertainty….and the world economy has cooled.    When the two largest economies in the world, US and China,  AND Europe, all cool at once….   We are in trouble.
       Fasten your seat belts.  It will get worse before it gets better. 

We Humans Took Nature 2.1 Billion Years to Create
By   Shlomo Maital


  
  2.1-Billion-Year-Old Fossil:  Evidence of Earliest Moving Life-Form

  A New York Times report, summarizing a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes a 2.1 billion year old fossil, that could be evidence of the earliest living thing that actually moved.   According to this account:
   About 2.1 billion years ago, a blob-like creature inched along on an early Earth. As the organism moved, it carved out tunnels, which may be the earliest evidence of a moving critter on the planet.    Until this discovery, the earliest evidence of motility — that is, an organism’s ability to move independently using its own metabolic energy — dated to about 570 million years ago, according to fossils from different locations. That’s a good 1.5 billion years younger than the new finding.
    Here is why I find this so amazing.  We humans have been on this earth, more or less as we are now, for only about 50,000 years.  But that blink of an eye was preceded by 2.1 billion years of evolution, starting with ‘blob like creatures inching along” and evolving, through natural selection, patiently, inexorably, into what we are today.   From one cell, to multi-cell, to fish, to mammals, to us…. With infinite step by step patience.
Many religious people take issue with this view of Creation.  I find that it strengthens belief  in a Divine Creator, rather than weakens it.  What an incredibly brilliant, patient, focused system,  evolution, able to generate divinely-inspired human beings and patiently take its time doing so, for 2 billion years.   
 I wonder whether this system of evolution, constantly improving species and races, has come to an end for humans.  Are we improving, evolutionarily, or are we degrading?   

 

 

Global Slowdown – Beware!
By   Shlomo Maital

 
  
  I regularly participate in an economic survey run by a Munich-based research institute, that tracks how the world economy is doing.  The latest results are not good.
  The heat map shown above indicates whether economies are booming green or slowing yellow, orange, light red, dark red. 
    You can see at a glance looking at the ‘heat map’,  that the US, Europe and emerging and developing economies in Asia are all slowing.  Basically the whole world is slowing down, economically.
     Why?   The US is cooling, as businesses choose not to invest the tax windfall given by the Trump Administration but rather to buy back their shares.  China is cooling, owing to the trade war with the US.  Europe is cooling, owing to deep uncertainties about Britain, Italy, Hungary and other nations, and a growing spat between France and Italy.
    In short – look for a global slowdown, that feeds on itself —  US demand slows, hurts China, which hurts the Asian economic ecosystem..which in turns slows….
     A good time to set aside some savings, for rainy days ahead.

Our Two Brains – The REAL Deal!
By   Shlomo Maital  
 
   On the latest Hidden Brain podcast, by Shankar Vedanta, the guest is a psychiatrist and brain researcher, Iain McGilchrist.  He speaks about his new book The Master and his Emissary.  I plan to read it very soon.
     There is enormous misleading hype about the left and right brains.  Much of it is wrong.  McGilchrist’s book is the real deal, and helps us understand our world.  The title comes from out an old folk tale. A “master” sends out an emissary to the countryside to gather information. The emissary gathers vast information, and tries to become the master, based on the knowledge he collected.  But he cannot. He fails. Because he has only facts, details (left brain/logic), and lacks big picture capability (right brain/holistic thinking). 
     Evolution helped humans survive. To kill and eat prey, we need right-brain big-picture thinking (the forest, trees, rocks, weather, etc.) and crucially need small-picture detailed left brain thinking (the deer is 20 yards to the left of the oak tree and is limping).  Of course, most crucial of all is the connecting link between the right and left brain.  Weird things happen, McGilchrist explains, when surgery has to sever the nerve path connecting the two brain hemispheres. 
      There is a serious message in the book, way beyond the research findings.  McGilchrist argues that increasingly we live in a left-brain logic driven world, based on algorithms and small details.  And on short run optimization.  What’s best for now.    I believe our political system is mainly driven by left brain messages.  Note, especially, that the emotion ‘hatred’ and ‘anger’ are actually cross-brain, not solely right brain (where most emotions originate),  Many political messages are now focused on hatred,  left-brain hatred. 
     “Meaning comes out of having consistent pictures of the world,” McGilchrist told Vedanta, based on knowing our past, not just our own but that of the world,  the past of others.”  A more right-brain world will focus on the long run, on the big picture, and on our interaction with our planet and with Nature. 
     Now,  how in the world do we achieve that?   A start, at least, is being aware that there is a right/left brain problem in the world.

Generation Z – There Is Hope!
By   Shlomo Maital  
 
   Generation Y is the generation of those born between 1981 and 1995.  They are also known as Millenials. They have been slandered as selfish, egoistic, live-for-the-present, and worse.  Today they are between 23 and 37.
    Generation Z is the generation of those born 1996 and later.  A New York Times column by Dan Levin, “Even young Republicans are drifting left on social issues”,  Jan. 25/2019,  reports on a Pew Research Center survey of American  Gen Z, some 12,000 of them.  Here are the main findings:
• Only 30% approved of Trump’s performance.  This is well below the average (Trump is deeply underwater in his approval ratings).
• 70% said they wanted government to do more to solve the nation’s problems.  [Levin says, those attitudes mirror those of Gen Y, which may mean that these two younger generations can powerfully combine to change the current bleak reality in the US].
• There are more than 68 million Americans who belong to GenZ.  This is 22% of the American population.  So more than one American in every five is GenZ.  This makes this group politically decisive, in the long run.  
• 2/3 of GenZ believe blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the US.
• GenZ believe government should play a more active role.
 

    This is not good news for Republicans; GenZ is more progressive than older generations.  But it is good news for those who seek a less conservative America.

 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
March 2019
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