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Seek Creativity? Talk to Yourself!

By Shlomo Maital

  My wife Sharona is a school psychologist, and for many years has spoken to me about the work of a pioneer Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, who studied children and gave the world breakthrough insights. in the 1920s.  One of those insights: “when children learn to talk to others, they also learn how to talk to themselves, first out loud, and then in their heads”. And that “inner speech”, it turns out, is crucial.  

     In the latest Scientific American, psychologist Charles Fernyhough discusses his new book The Voice Within – about our inner speech.

     It is a worn cliché that people who talk to themselves out loud are kind of nutty. But of course, we all talk to ourselves silently, in our heads. I talk to myself for motivation, when I am working out or tackling something rather hard or running up a hill and tiring. Fernyhough notes that inner speech has a role in emotional expression (I sometimes say hard things to those around me, but – only in my head, I have learned not to say them out loud), and at times, I talk to myself to try to understand myself. What do I really think about that?

     Fernyhough notes that inner speech has a role in imagination, in creating alternate realities. I think this is very important.   Part of creativity (creating things that are both novel and useful) is to understand what is truly useful. To do that, you need to have empathy – that is, you need to understand not just how you yourself feel but how others feel.   Inner speech can help. Your inner speech expresses what other people might think and feel about your creative idea. If your inner speech is truly honest, and not just empty self-motivation, it can be helpful in validating your ideas.  

     Let’s say I have an idea for a new-fangled potato peeler, with a squishy handle. I make a prototype. I hold it in my hand. And my inner speech says how another person would feel in holding and using the device.

   I think there is another use for inner speech. Suppose you have to make a tough decision – whether to quit your job and accept a risky position with a startup.   Engage yourself in debate. Take both sides.   Argue with yourself. Verbalize all sides, all aspects. Then, stop. Do something else. Go for a walk or a run.   Your subconscious brain will grab that inner speech, and process it, thoroughly, and send you (very quietly) an answer — so you’d better be listening. When you hear that answer, verbalized, and motivated, you can probably rest assured that this is what you should do.

       So – try doing more inner speech. Talk to yourself. Get better at it. Sometimes, it might help to say the words out loud. Sometimes, you just have to think them.   Putting thoughts into words is an important way creative people have in taking the initial steps to implementing their ideas.

 

Fighting Cancer: Open Source Drug Discovery

By Shlomo Maital

   

 Here is how drug discovery works. Big Pharma companies invest big bucks, fail with many promising drugs, find one that works – and then charge fortunes for it to recoup their original investment.  This model, quintessential capitalism, is not working too well, because many illnesses are under-researched, when the nascent business model does not indicate big profits. Alzheimer’s is an example. (Biogen’s stock, however, shot up when it announced a promising Alzheimer’s Drug… an exception to the rule).

     Along comes young Jay Bradner, with a new idea, described in his TED talk and in the TED Radio hour on WBUR.

       “In 2010, Bradner secured his reputation as an innovator when, rather than guarding his discovery of a breakthrough small molecule, he began sharing the compound with other scientists in the field. The molecule, JQ1, inhibited a family of proteins known as bromodomians, and showed promise for blocking the growth of certain cancer cells. Since 2010, the Bradner lab has shared 15 different compounds with more than 450 laboratories worldwide.   This month, Bradner unveiled his latest breakthrough: a new chemical technology platform to destroy proteins in cancer cells. The finding, published online in Science Express, could pave the way for new inhibitors for previously “undruggable” targets.”

    Let’s get this straight. Bradner makes a discovery that could make him and his lab (Dana Farber) wealthy. Instead of patenting the molecule – he publishes his results and offers samples of it to anyone who asks!  

     Could this disrupt the Big Pharma Big Greed industry as a whole? And wait – didn’t his employer the wonderful Dana Farber Cancer Research institute in Boston, hassle Dr. Bradner?

     To Dana-Farber’s credit, there was little resistance. The profound burden of cancer and the complexity of cancer genetics both call not only for new therapeutic technologies but also new strategies for therapeutic discovery.

         The advantage of Bradner’s approach? Many many more researchers will work on these molecules, test them, and perhaps modify and improve them. As a result, drugs that work on a variety of forms of cancer may reach ill people much sooner. Lives will be saved.

There are two key points here.

       One is – Innovation is not just about WHAT you discover, it is about how you go about making breakthrough discoveries. Discover, test and patent?   How about, discover, and give it away to all who ask!   I sometimes teach my students that they should put their ‘baby’ (their wonderful idea) up for adoption and give it away.   Give it to someone who has the means and ability to implement it, and even make them believe it was their idea. If you really want to change the world, sometimes, that is the only way.

   Needless to say — I have a very hard time selling this idea.   Investors want ‘intellectual property’ – even though the knowledge and skills that give birth to them often come from universities funded by public money. And some universities want to patent anything that breathes, if it breathes on their physical grounds.

   How well has this open-source model worked? (Note: For some types of software, it has worked exceedingly well. Ever heard of Linux?):

    Second: Open Source speeds research and gets faster results.  Here is what Bradner reports:    “It’s funny – there is no obligation for recipient laboratories to report research findings, but almost everyone does. Labs may reach out to request more material, perhaps for in vivo studies, but most write or call just to share their incredible findings. We’ve also experienced how powerful chemical probes are in target validation. In response to a questionnaire we sent laboratories that received JQ1, 50% of investigators responded that their work with the compound led to a disease-specific clinical opportunity.   Finally, we learned that compounds are powerful vehicles of experimental reproducibility, a major issue in science today. In two research areas, two or more groups have simultaneously published mutually supportive stories on BET bromodomain biology using JQ1.   Beyond these lessons, the open-source strategy has been a wonderful introduction to research fields that I might not have otherwise had an opportunity to access. We have fantastic collaborators in cardiovascular disease, tissue remodeling and fibrosis, and reproductive biology. Though my group focuses on chromatin and chemical biology largely in the area of cancer, these collaborations have broadened our research horizons significantly.”

    And just to show that ‘open source’ is truly a part of Bradner’s DNA, the name of the key molecule JQ1 comes from the researcher in his lab who first discovered it, a scientist named Jun Qi.   Not JB1.  JQ1.  Well done, Dr. Bradner.

     If only more labs, and more inventors, could learn the key principle, that creativity is like love – the more of it you give (away), the more of it you (and society) get back.

How to Live to 114

By Shlomo Maital

Yisrael Kristal

   The world’s oldest man, Yisrael Kristal, passed away quietly in Haifa on Friday August 12 and was buried the same day.   He was officially recognized by the Guiness Book of Records.   It is said that only the righteous die on the eve of the Sabbath.

   Just think of what this man lived through. He was born in Zarnow, Poland, on Sept. 15, 1903, to a religious family, 3 months before the Wright Brothers made the first manned flight. When he was 10 his father fought in World War I and was taken prisoner. His father died in 1919.     Kristal learned how to make candy and opened a factory in Lodz. He married his wife Feige, and at the onset of WWII they had two sons, aged 8 and 10.   Both sons died in the starvation conditions prevailing in the Lodz Jewish ghetto.  

   During the initial years of Nazi occupation, Yisrael survived because of his candy-making skills. The Nazis had him make confections for their parties. But in May 1944 he and his wife Feige were sent to Auswicz. When the camp was evacuated, they did the Death March. Kristal survived, in the end weighing only 37 kgs. (80 pounds). Feige perished.   At the end of the war, Kristal returned to Lodz and re-opened his candy factory.   There, he married Bat Sheva, who also had lost all her family to the Nazis. In 1950 they emigrated to Israel, and had children.  

       At the age of 113, Yisrael had his bar mitzvah – delayed by 100 years owing to the Holocaust. His great-grandchildren, grandchildren and children celebrated with him.

     He was lucid to the end. He remained in his own home almost to the end – his son, a doctor, cared for him, and had him moved to a hospital on Wednesday Aug. 10; he died peacefully two days later.

       The secret of his longevity?   Optimism. He loved his country, and was a perpetual optimist. I think he found immense satisfaction in building a new family, with many great-grandchildren, in a new country, and outliving his persecutors.  

       Optimism and hope for the future are wonder drugs. We should use them more widely, even if we are not 114 years old.

Fixing Bad Genes: A First!

By Shlomo Maital

Shoukhrat Mitalipov  

   Virtually at the same time — President Trump proposes legislation to limit immigration to the U.S. and an immigrant from Kazakhstan named Shoukhrat Mitalipov manages, for the first time, to ‘edit’ mutated genes in embryos and ‘cure’ genetic disease, enabling the babies to be born healthy.

     This is hugely significant. Parents who undergo genetic testing, and who test their unborn babies, are at times tragically told: Your unborn infant carries a ‘bad’ gene that will make him sick or even die.

       The parents ask: What can we do?

       The tragic answer, until now — Nothing. Abort or —     accept its fate.

         There have been 3 previous published instances of gene editing, all in China.   According to MIT Technology Review:   “Now Mitalipov is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases. Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans.”

   How did he do it?

   Mitalipov and his team used CRISPR Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. CRISPR is now the dominant technology for gene editing. Try as I might, I do not know enough biology to explain how it works. The initial work was done in Japan, at Osaka University.

     CRISPR often makes mistakes – disastrous if you are trying to heal a bad gene. Mitalipov figured out how to avoid those mistakes.

   Who is he?

   “Born in Kazakhstan when it was part of the former Soviet Union, Mitalipov has for years pushed scientific boundaries. In 2007, he unveiled the world’s first cloned monkeys. Then, in 2013, he created human embryos through cloning, as a way of creating patient-specific stem cells.”

       Is it coincidence that Mitalipov is an immigrant? I don’t think so. By definition an outsider,   such ‘outsiders’ try daring things that those comfortably within the establishment might not.

     Is there any reason to worry?

   Yes.  We can genetically modify embryos. We can do this to cure gene defects – or to modify embryos to make taller kids (NBA), smarter kids (Einsteins), or handsomer kids, or blonde kids… etc.

       “Some critics say germline experiments could open the floodgates to a brave new world of “designer babies” engineered with genetic enhancements—a prospect bitterly opposed by a range of religious organizations, civil society groups, and biotech companies.  The U.S. intelligence community last year called CRISPR a potential “weapon of mass destruction.”

 

 

The Death of Imagination

By Shlomo Maital

   Tuesday’s New York Times has an article, “How to make a movie out of anything”, by Alex French. In it he describes how Hollywood producers are desperately searching for IP, slang for intellectual property, as the basis for movie scripts. Translation: Find something people recognize easily, and build a plot around it.

   Examples: the Lego movie; the recent Emoji movie; the Angry Birds movie; and soon, yes, the Fruit Ninja movie.

     So what’s wrong with that?

     I grew up in the 40s and 50s, in the era of radio. I listened to Boston Blackie and the Cisco Kid. I heard horses hooves, a pistol firing…and I had to imagine the horse, the revolver… everything.

       Today? In the era of TV, MTV and virtual reality and smartphones – all the images are there, given to us…no need to imagine. A Lego movie? Lego is building blocks. How can you make a blockbuster Lego movie? Turns out that you can – if you start with something people are familiar with, they do not need to use their imaginations.   But if you start with a conventional movie plot, a story, however strong, people need to imagine – and it looks like our young people no longer can. We need to have the images stored in our brains already, because…we’ve lost the ability to create them ourselves.  

   This sounds like a cranky old curmudgeon yearning for the good old days. Perhaps.   But if this new Hollywood trend portends the death of imagination – then we’re in real trouble. Worse yet, nobody seems to care much.

The Future Is Definitely Not What It Used to Be:

How Distraction Becomes Destruction

By Shlomo Maital

 

Productivity Growth in the US has Been Abysmal Since 2008

   “Americans aren’t saving money the way they used to. U.S. households scaled back their pace of savings to the lowest level in nine years at the end of 2016. At the same time, wage growth slowed, according to updated government figures. The personal savings rate was 3.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2016, the lowest reading since a 2.8 percent rate in the final three months of 2007, just as the U.S. was entering a recession.”

             – Bloomberg Business Week

       What a week. TrumpCare goes down to defeat. Trump’s new communications director nicknamed “Mooch” spews profanity. The White House Chief of Staff is fired.   LGBT’s are banned from the US armed forces.

         These are all distractions. None have any real relation to core issues troubling America’s society and economy.   When distractions take center stage, distraction becomes destruction.   Replace just two letters in ‘distraction’, and you get destruction!

         So what ARE the core issues?   Americans’ consumer confidence is at a 16-year high! So Americans are spending and borrowing. Saving has fallen. That leaves fewer resources for capital formation. But America needs more saving, not more spending and more personal debt.

       According to Neil Irwin, writing in the New York Times, productivity growth has fallen from a long-term average of 3% to less than 1%. (see graph). That is because wages haven’t risen, so it no longer pays to invest in labor-saving technology, which raises productivity.

       America’s infrastructure is crumbling, it has been for years, but there is no money to pay for rebuilding it. Trump’s plan is to have the private sector rebuild it. How likely is that?    

         No Administration has been this dystopic, dysfunctional, perhaps in history. And it’s a doom loop. The more dysfunctional it is, the less good capable people are willing to join it. Who wants to board a sinking ship?

         Suppose America was a company whose shares were listed on the stock exchange. Would you sell them short?   Many people would.   The major worry is not the economy. It is this — in the coming year, it is highly likely that there will be a major, unanticipated Black Swan crisis. Could be North Korea, Iran….Mideast… who knows?  

     What are the chances that the Trump Administration will handle it coolly, professionally, with good judgment and wisdom, in a way that benefits not only America but the whole world?

       Read Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly (1985). Here is the definition of folly: “Government decisions that are against its own interests”.   Can you see folly in the distractions of the Trump administration?   Can you see destruction?   And can we interpret the boom in consumer spending as a no-confidence vote in the future?

Flight Times Cut in Half? It’s No Dream!

By Shlomo Maital

 Today’s Bloomberg Business Week reports that after 50 years, five decades, in which commercial aircraft observed a rigid speed limit of 660 miles per hour – an incredibly long time for a key technology to undergo zero change! — help is on the way. In August NASA – National Aeronautical and Space Agency – will take bids on a fast quiet supersonic jetliner prototype (see photo):

NASA says it will begin taking bids for construction of a demo model of a plane able to reduce the sonic boom to something like the hum you’d hear inside a Mercedes-Benz on the interstate. The agency’s researchers say their design, a smaller-scale model of which was successfully tested in a wind tunnel at the end of June, should cut the six-hour flight time from New York to Los Angeles in half. NASA proposes spending $390 million over five years to build the demo plane and test it over populated areas. The first year of funding is included in President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal.

   The Concord, that beautiful supersonic jetliner built by France and England, now junked after a tragic accident, actually damaged the cause of supersonic flight.   Supersonic planes generate shock waves that are noisy, irritating and can cause major damage on the ground. So the US banned supersonic commercial flight over land, allowing Concord to land only at east coast airports, flying supersonic only over the ocean.   That ban made the Concord a technological triumph and an economic disaster, bringing big losses for British Air and Air France. Now, that may change.

   Bloomberg: NASA is targeting a sound level of 60 to 65 A-weighted decibels (dBa), Coen says. That’s about as loud as that luxury car on the highway or the background conversation in a busy restaurant. Peter Iosifidis [head of design] says that Lockheed’s research shows the design can maintain that sound level at commercial size and his team’s planned demo will be 94 feet long, have room for one pilot, fly as high as 55,000 feet, and run on one of the twin General Electric Co. engines that power Boeing Co.’s F/A-18 fighter jet. “Now you’re getting down to that level where, as far as approval from the general public, it would probably be something that’s acceptable,” he says. By comparison, the Concorde, that bygone icon of the Champagne-sipping, caviar-scarfing supersonic jet set, had a perceived noise level several times louder, at 90 dBa. [Note: decibels are measurement units that are logarithmic; that’s why 90 is many times 65. Same goes for the Richter scale that measures earthquakes].

     Looks like we will live to see supersonic commercial flight return big time.   The business model will likely be ‘premium’ (as with Concord), for well-healed customers. But over time, the technology will as always get cheaper and trickle down to us ordinary folks.

       So – start calculating. That long 12-hour trip from TLV to JFK? One day it will be just six hours. Or JFK to Heathrow? 4 hours.   That means you could leave JFK at midnight, get to London at 9 a.m., put in a workday, and be home for dinner (you will arrive before you leave, i.e., leave at 7 pm UK time and arrive at 6 pm New York time) because at 1,400 mph,  the jetliner travels faster than the rotation of the earth).

  

  

Taking Risks? Or Seizing Opportunities?

By Shlomo Maital

   “Take calculated risks.” That was what General George Patton said – and then, raced across France with his armored division, after Normandy, often well ahead of his supply lines, and entered Germany with his Third Army at the close of WWII.

     That mad dash across France was heavily criticized by his commanding officers. But it destabilized enemy forces and ultimately proved itself.

     Today’s New York Times op-ed by Arthur C. Brooks, who heads the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, reinforces Patton’s advice.   He cites research by U. of Chicago economist Steven Levitt (author of Freakonomics). Levitt, whose research is brilliant and unconventional, found thousands of people about to make important decisions. They agreed to make the decision with a coin flip. Heads, yes, go ahead! tails, no, don’t risk it!.

   Levitt found that many more people were likely to “go ahead and do it, affirmatively” when left to chance, then if they decided on their own. And astonishingly, six months later, the average ‘heads’ person (yes, do it!) was happier than the average ‘tails’ person (play it safe).

   Brooks cites evidence that those under 30 are far less willing to relocate for job opportunities, or to start their own business, then the older generations. There is diminishing ‘frontier spirit’ and rising paranoia about taking big leaps. They are missing a great deal in life, as a result.

     So what does this mean for us decision-makers?   It’s a matter of semantics.   “Take risks”, even calculated ones, sounds…well, risky. But how about “seize opportunities!”  

       Life is always tossing opportunities before us. Seize them. If they work out, great. If they don’t, applaud yourself for being bold enough to give it a shot.   Pasteur said, chance favors the prepared mind. So – prepare your mind just to SEE opportunities – if you’re too cautious and prudent, you won’t even see them. And then, practice grabbing those opportunities.  

       And don’t be afraid if you feel you lack the skills and knowledge the opportunity requires. You’ll acquire them. That’s a side benefit of ‘seize opportunities’ – the more you do it, the better you get at it.

       I was once approached by someone who wanted to fund research on a key social problem. Everyone else had turned him down. And I wasn’t much interested. But – I decided to go for it. The result: A radical systemic plan that could bail Israel, and other countries, out of a much-ignored pension crisis. I gained new knowledge, and more important, new-found relevance.

       I know the old cliché about risks being opportunities. It is a cliché – but it’s also true. The next time opportunity knocks, answer the door. You never know what adventure might present itself. 

Dealing with Life’s Challenges

By Shlomo Maital

   Lately, in idle moments and hours [in this space, I always advise finding do-nothing idle time, when your thoughts float free], I’ve been thinking about how I cope with the multiple small and big problems that life always tosses at me.   Despite my having a truly blessed life, it still happens that fairly minor problems prove to be major irritations – and that irritation ruins my mood, and my ability to create.   Not good. Unacceptable.

     So, here is what I came up with, a way to solve the problem of how to solve problems.

     It’s about mindset.   Define your challenges differently.  

     NOT this: a challenge, or problem, is something that makes me unhappy, that I struggle to solve, that makes me irritable and snappy, and more or less spoils my day, as I wonder, why is this happening to me? Damn…

     BUT this:   A challenge or problem is something that I face with restrained joy – because it is one more opportunity for me to show that I am capable, efficacious, competent, and able to solve problems with creativity and persistence. And when I succeed, I feel even more capable. And when I fail?   I applaud myself for making a great effort – and look forward to the next opportunity.

       The definition of creativity that I use, in this space, is:   “widening the range of choices”.   Facing a tough problem?   Widen your range of choices.   There are a great many ways of dealing with really tough dilemmas. Including, just doing nothing, and living with it.   Become a startup entrepreneur each time you face a really tough problem.   Tackle the problem with gusto. And then congratulate yourself – and you will soon be on a roll, becoming a first-rate gold-star Olympic champion efficacious empowered personal problem solver.  

       Example: last September a taxi banged into the side of my car and did some serious damage. My insurance paid for the repair, but the taxi driver (with the help of his insurance company, which was also mine!) sued me in small claims court, claiming I was to blame. And the insurance company ‘kindly’ added me as a defendant!   Big-time annoyance and time-waster.   I decided to treat this as a challenge. Let’s see if I can help justice win one, for once. And learn what it’s like to go to court.

   With the help of a lawyer friend, I crafted a very careful written defense. I came to court and prepared diligently for it. The judge was very thorough and the ‘trial’ took most of the morning. My insurance company sent a representative, who brought photographs … of the wrong vehicle! That almost killed my case at the outset. But in the end the judge ruled in my favor. The taxi driver lost the morning’s fares.

       The ruling included the taxi driver paying me a small sum of ‘expenses’ for the court appearance. I chose to forego it;   this is not about money but about justice.

       So what was a huge annoyance, turned into a challenge to help the justice system, while maintaining my own humanity.  In a way, I shaped a kind of narrative – a way that I tell myself the story about this episode. And instead of it being painful, irritating, and annoying, it became a narrative in which …I did the right thing.   Fight for justice. Retain your compassion.  

       Worth a try?  

Learning from Federer: Just Go For It

By Shlomo Maital

At the ripe old age of 36, Roger Federer has again won Wimbledon. Not only that – he won it without losing a single set — a feat last done decades ago by Bjorn Borg.  

   What’s his secret?   He’s happy to reveal it.   From his teens, he says he was careful to take care of his body. Fitness, eating right….   Pro tennis puts enormous strain on the body, and it has to be given tender loving care except when you’re on the court, when the start-stop violence rips ligaments, tendons, muscles and everything else.  

   This year, Federer was careful to ration the events in which he competed, pacing himself and his body.  He may well regain his #1 position this year.

   But Chris Clarey, who covers tennis for the New York Times, reveals another Federer secret.   Federer plays it safe when it is wise to do so, regarding fitness, scheduling, and lifestyle. But on court? He’s a risk-taker.

     “I wish we’d see more players and coaches taking chances at net [i.e., rushing to the net, and volleying], because good things happen at net, but you have to spend time up there to feel confident up there,” Federer said. At Wimbledon, Federer did ‘serve and volley’ (serve and then rush to the net) 16% of his service points – in other words one serve in six – and that doesn’t seem like much, but in fact it is more than double the 7% tournament average (i.e. servers rush the net one time out of every 14 serves].

     A key point here is: You have to serve and volley a lot, to get good at it. And you might lose points initially as a result. But – take risks, stick to it – and you will win.

     Now, I admit – Federer has totally out-of-this-world eye-hand coordination. And this is vital at the net.   But his wisdom applies to us in life.     Practice taking calculated risks, as General George S. Patton once said, especially when everyone else is playing it safe.  Over time, you get better at it.   Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
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