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How Life Began on Earth

By Shlomo Maital


Miller and Urey                         …. And their famous experiment


   Stephen Hawking’s brilliant PBS series Genius has a segment on how life began and evolved. In it the amazing 1952 chemistry experiment of Stanley Miller and Harold Urey (U. of Chicago) was described. The experiment shed light on how life began on earth.

     The experiment was beautifully simple. We know now that life is mainly made of proteins, and proteins are made up of amino acids.   But how did amino acids form? And what do amino acids do for us?

  • In the brain, glutamate is the main neurotransmitter (sending signals from one neuron to another, known as thinking) as neurotransmitters;   hydroxyproline is an important component of our connective tissue; glycine is crucial for red blood cells (that carry oxygen to all parts of the body); and another amino acid carries fat cells (lipids).

       Miller and Urey took methane gas, ammonia, and hydrogen gas, the gases prevalent in the earth’s atmosphere billions of years ago; they boiled water to create ‘clouds’ in the atmosphere; and added sparks, representing the lightning then occurring. Basically a very simple simulation of the gases in the earth’s atmosphere as it was when early life first formed, with some electrical energy from lightning.

       They ran the experiment for a week, then opened the flask and checked to see what happened.

         They found that three amino acids were formed. Amino acids are made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. The experiment showed how amino acids could have formed in the earth’s atmosphere…and, presumably, life began later, as the amino acids combined and became complex.

           For those who love the Bible, does this demean our faith? Not in the least. I asked a very religious relative about this, and his response was that evolution, and the Urey experiment, confirm the Biblical creation account, rather than deny it.   The beauty and complexity of all the forms of life that evolved from a handful of amino acids are surely inspiringly divine in their nature.

     As a postscript:     After Miller’s death in 2007, scientists examining sealed vials preserved from the original experiments were able to show that there were actually well over 20 different amino acids produced in Miller’s original experiments.  

Our Amazing Brains: It’s All About Connections

By Shlomo Maital


Synapses: human brain


       Some truly amazing facts emerged from a Horizon documentary featuring British anatomist Professor Alice Roberts.

  • We humans share 99% of our genes with chimpanzees. In fact, we are more closely related to chimpanzees, genetically, than chimpanzees are related to, say, gorillas.
  •    Our brains are very large, relatively. The brain weighs about 3 pounds (1.4 kilo), and has a volume of about 1,200 cm3. But it is not just the size that matters. What makes us smarter than chimps is the connections! A human brain has 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells. These neurons are connected by synapses. There are at least 100 trillion synapses, and maybe as many as 1,000 trillion. That means each neuron is connected to at least 1,000 other neurons, and maybe 10,000.
  • It is these connections that are crucial. The internal network of the brain is what makes us creative, able to think and reason, to link ideas together, and to imagine things that do not yet exist.
  • According to Prof. Walker, geneticists have discovered a key gene, that differentiates between our brains and that of the chimpanzees. This gene controls the size and number of the synapses, or network connections. Chimps have one such gene. Humans have four of them.   When the researchers genetically inserted the gene into mice, the synapses of the mice became thicker and more numerous. So —   humans have evolved to be smarter than chimps, because we have these four powerful genes that build our brainy networks.
  • Brains are ‘neuroplastic’. If part of the brain is damaged, by stroke for instance, other parts can compensate.   To some extent, the brain can reinvent itself, to do tasks normally assigned to brain parts that have been damaged.
  • Walker, an anatomist, dispels the “obstetric paradox” — women’s pelvis must be wide enough to permit birth, but not so wide as to hinder mobility, walking and running. Researchers have shown that in fact, the female pelvis, though angled wider than that of the male, is highly efficient in walking and running.   So why then are babies born at 9 months?  There is another reason.
  • Babies consume large amounts of energy.   Mothers’ ability to supply that energy continually grows, to meet the embryo’s needs – but the rate of growth slows. At 9 months, the ability of the mother to supply energy to the fetus exactly equals the needs of the fetus for energy. If birth were delayed, the fetus would be starved. So nature conspires to initiate birth, right when the supply and demand of fetal energy match.

     Humans have one more advantage over chimps, according to the Horizon documentary. Humans cooperate altruistically. Chimps cooperate too, but only to get an individual reward. Human children, even very young ones, cooperate, and then share rewards, if the rewards are given unequally (more to one child than to another).  

     This innate sense of fairness exists in children – but, in modern capitalism, seems to disappear. The very wealthy seem to believe they somehow deserve vast wealth. How then do we restore the innate sense of fairness that exists among young children?

BBC: Origins of US (Horizon).

Restart for Globalization? What Went Wrong? What Might Go Right?

By Shlomo Maital


   What went wrong with globalization? Where did we screw it up? My friend Clyde Prestowitz, President Ronald Reagan’s trade negotiator, has summed it up very well in his article in The Atlantic.  

     Put very simply:     America ran up huge trade deficits, $800 b., that lasted for 25 years, borrowing heavily from Asia, mainly. This is known as “living beyond your means”. Why? Americans enjoyed living beyond their means, and Asian countries got a growth engine, from American spending financed by Asian loans.  This is globalization gone awry. Why? Because it cannot be sustained. Eventually trade must be balanced. The system failed, because it did not include ‘balancing mechanisms’ that J. M. Keynes envisioned.

     Here is what Prestowitz envisions for the near term, after the Trump administration begins to change U.S. trade policies:

“The results of the election seem to indicate that-the views of economists and foreign-policy experts notwithstanding-America is about to change course on trade policy. That doesn’t necessarily mean a return to pre-World War II protectionism. It could instead simply mean a revival of the spirit that inspired the foundations of the postwar economic order. That spirit, articulated by the economist John Maynard Keynes, focused on assuring balanced trade-the avoidance of chronic surpluses on the part of some trading partners and chronic deficits on the part of others.”

   So, what will this New Order look like, might look like, in the Age of Trump? Here is Prestowitz’s take:

   “Thus a new order might operate to prevent the misalignment of currency valuations, to abolish or offset the impact of tax subsidies, and to mitigate the implicit subsidization of state-owned enterprises. It has been largely forgotten that one of the key objectives of postwar free-trade policy was to maintain a roughly balanced trade account-a goal that the country is likely about to pursue anew and that will likely affect its policies touching on not just trade, but investments, currency, technology, and labor as well.”  

     Could this story of the ‘restart of globalization’ have a happy end, not just for America but for the world?   An end, without a major crisis?


Pontypool: We Forgot Them & We Will Pay a Heavy Price

By Shlomo Maital


   Journalist Aditya Chakrabortty has been covering the “post industrial” depressed areas of Britain for The Guardian. These are the people who once had good jobs in factories and mines, who have been forgotten and neglected by governments in Britain, the rest of Europe and the U.S.   They became invisible.

       Now, after Trump and Brexit, perhaps we are waking up. Perhaps we are beginning to see them.   Here are parts of Chakrabortty’s vivid description of a once-wealthy Wales town.   If Brexit and Trump act to truncate globalization, it will be because we forgot those who lost because of it, and celebrated only those who gained. Post industrial? “Post” implies something came after ‘industrial’. But what? Poverty? Hardship?

     “The story of Pontypool is a story of riches squandered, of dynamism blocked, of an entire community slung on the slagheap. Sat atop vast deposits of iron ore and coal, it was probably the first industrial town in Wales. For a time, under Victoria, it was richer than Cardiff. Even now, to look along its skyline is to see traces of wealth: the park with its Italian gardens and bandstand; the covered market with its olde price list for snipes or a brace of pheasants; the 25 listed buildings that make this one of the most sumptuous small town centres in Britain.

       “Then look down. On a typical weekday, the indoor market is a desert. Those bits of the high street that aren’t to let are betting parlours, vaping dens and charity shops: the standard parade for hollowed-out towns across Britain. The reason isn’t hard to fathom: the mines shut down decades back; the factories have pretty much disappeared. Those big employers still left aren’t big employers any more. One of the staff at BAE tells me that when he joined in 1982, it had 2,500 workers on its shopfloor; now, he reckons, it has 120.

       “Swaths of Pontypool and the surrounding region of Torfaen now rank among the poorest in all Britain. On part of one of its housing estates in Trevethin, 75% of all children under four are raised in poverty. Over half – 53% – of all households who live on that stretch are below the poverty line. With that come all the usual problems: families that can’t pay the rent, that are more likely to fall prey to a whole range of sicknesses, from mental health to cancer. Those people can expect to die 20 years before their near-neighbours in some of the better-off areas in Pontypool. First the economy died out, now its people are too.

     “Pontypool is like the rest of south Wales, like many other parts of Britain I have reported from. It’s what politicians and economists call “post-industrial”. That term, though, implies something coming after; here, hardly anything has come after. A few years ago Pontypool town centre was declared on the verge of death by a local councillor, who bore a coffin lid in a mock funeral procession.”

World Economy: Loop the Loop!

By Shlomo Maital


     From time to time, I answer a questionnaire distributed by a German research institute, called Ifo World Economic Survey. Based on that survey, Ifo publishes a “business cycle clock” for the global economy. The latest one is shown above.

     To explain: the X axis is the current situation: good or bad; the Y axis is the change, improving or deteriorating.   The ‘clock’ starts in 2007, just before the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis that began in the US and spread around the world.

     What we see is this: First, a huge ‘loop the loop’ cycle, stretching from 2007/8 to 2011, with a very deep recession. Then, two smaller loops, 2012-13 and 2014-15 cycling around ‘no change’ and ‘average situation’. The cause?   Weak Chinese growth, and very weak EU growth.

       Once the global economy had a powerful locomotive tugging it upward. First, the locomotive was the US economy, whose appetite for goods created enormous demand and pulled the Asian economies into high growth. Then, the locomotive was China’s economy, whose rapid growth spread to surrounding countries, as China imported components.

       Today? The global freight train has no locomotive. Not the US, not EU, not China. Until a locomotive emerges, and one may not, the world economy will continue to do these small ‘loop the loops’, like a stunt plane, around the average.

       Have you strategized this rather gloomy forecast?

Quantum Computer: Breakthrough?

By Shlomo Maital


       After my blog declaring the repeal of Moore’s Law, and as semiconductor technology ‘hits the wall’, here comes a breakthrough, “the next big thing”. It’s very esoteric based on quantum physics. Here is the very well-written report by Ido Efrati from the Israeli daily Haaretz:

   Four experts at the Technion devise a step toward production of a quantum computer, in research recently published in the prestigious journal, Science. Their recent article, entitled, “Deterministic Generation of a Cluster State of Entangled Photons,” already praised by fellow physicists, represents a scientific breakthrough in quantum theory. The innovation was developed in the laboratory of Prof. David Gershoni of the Technion’s Faculty of Physics, in cooperation with doctoral students Ido Schwartz and Dan Cogan, and Prof. Nathaniel Lindner   and has the potential to influence the future of communications, encryption and computerization.

   Gershoni and his colleagues have tackled a major problem in attempts to develop quantum computers, coming closer to resolving the issue of how to create qubit units in an initiated and controlled manner to enable construction of such a computer.

Physicists and technology firms have pursued the idea of producing a quantum computer for about three decades, in hopes of transporting the world of information and computers to entirely different worlds. The idea goes back to physicist Richard Feynman who proposed the idea of quantum computerization in the 1980s. In effect such a machine would process data but in contrast to a classical computer, it would utilize the characteristics of quantum mechanics.    

   The difference is that whereas in the classical computer the basic unit of information is a bit,  (zero or one);  a quantum computer uses a quantum bit known as a “qubit.” The difference between the two units is enormous. (See Diagram above).

A quantum computer can more quickly calculate what could take the fastest conventional computers millions of years, if not more, to resolve. It can potentially contribute greatly to the fields of medical research, advanced artificial intelligence, securing information and developing codes, “and in effect any field where calculating power is of significance,” Gershoni said.

When to Trust Your Gut

By Shlomo Maital


Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002, for his pioneering contribution to how people make decisions under uncertainty.

In 2009 Kahneman debated Gary Klein, a senior scientist at MacroCognition,  about a crucial question: When should people trust their intuition, and when should they suspect it? The debate was published in the American Psychologist. Here is a brief summary, thanks to McKinsey Quarterly and their interview of the two following the original article:

   McKinsey Quarterly:  In your recent American Psychology article, you asked a question that should be interesting to just about all executives: “Under what conditions are the intuitions of professionals worthy of trust?” What’s your answer? When can executives trust their guts?”

         Gary Klein: It depends on what you mean by “trust.” If you mean, “My gut feeling is telling me this; therefore I can act on it and I don’t have to worry,” we say you should never trust your gut. You need to take your gut feeling as an important data point, but then you have to consciously and deliberately evaluate it, to see if it makes sense in this context. You need strategies that help rule things out. That’s the opposite of saying, “This is what my gut is telling me; let me gather information to confirm it.”

     Daniel Kahneman: There are some conditions where you have to trust your intuition. When you are under time pressure for a decision, you need to follow intuition. My general view, though, would be that you should not take your intuitions at face value. Overconfidence is a powerful source of illusions, primarily determined by the quality and coherence of the story that you can construct, not by its validity. If people can construct a simple and coherent story, they will feel confident regardless of how well grounded it is in reality.

McKinsey Quarterly: Is intuition more reliable under certain conditions?

   Gary Klein: We identified two.  First, there needs to be a certain structure to a situation, a certain predictability that allows you to have a basis for the intuition. If a situation is very, very turbulent, we say it has low validity, and there’s no basis for intuition. For example, you shouldn’t trust the judgments of stock brokers picking indivi dual stocks. The second factor is whether decision makers have a chance to get feedback on their judgments, so that they can strengthen them and gain expertise. If those criteria aren’t met, then intuitions aren’t going to be trustworthy.

   Daniel Kahneman: This is an area of difference between Gary and me. I would be wary of experts’ intuition, except when they deal with something that they have dealt with a lot in the past. Surgeons, for example, do many operations of a given kind, and they learn what problems they’re going to encounter. But when problems are unique, or fairly unique, then I would be less trusting of intuition than Gary is. One of the problems with expertise is that people have it in some domains and not in others. So experts don’t know exactly where the boundaries of their expertise are.

   McKinsey Quarterly: Yet senior executives want to make good decisions. Do you have any final words of wisdom for them in that quest?

     Daniel Kahneman: My single piece of advice would be to improve the quality of meetings—that seems pretty strategic to improving the quality of decision making. People spend a lot of time in meetings. You want meetings to be short. People should have a lot of information, and you want to decorrelate errors.

   Gary Klein: What concerns me is the tendency to marginalize people who disagree with you at meetings. There’s too much intolerance for challenge. As a leader, you can say the right things—for instance, everybody should share their opinions. But people are too smart to do that, because it’s risky. So when people raise an idea that doesn’t make sense to you as a leader, rather than ask what’s wrong with them, you should be curious about why they’re taking the position. Curiosity is a counterforce for contempt when people are making unpopular statements.    

“Drowning in Debt”

By Shlomo Maital

debt drown

   A new report from McKinsey Global Research, “Global Debt: Challenges and Opportunities”, sounds the alarm, from a rather unlikely source – a consulting company that makes its living on optimism and activism.

   Here is what McKinsey says, worth heeding!

   ”The world is deep in a flood tide of debt. Do we care and what do we do about it?

….More than 8 years since the 2008 global financial crisis started the world seems to be drowning in debt. Global economic growth remains anemic..some economists attribute it to the high level of debt (govt., businesses, households have been devoting significant resources to debt servicing instead of productive activities).   …Global debt has been growing faster than the economy… as of mid 2015 it stood at 294 % of global gross domestic product, up 25 percee end of 2007 and 48 percentage points since the end of 2000. In many countries debt has increased to levels not normally seen during peacetime in advanced economies.”

     The world has painted itself into a corner.   Advanced economies desperately need major investments in infrastructure and human capital. Instead they are either a) slashing public spending, to try to control the high level of debt, or b) recycling huge debts, borrowing new money just to pay off old money, because slow growth has put the brakes on tax revenues and increased deficits.

       I see little sign of creative thinking to solve the problem.   Central Bankers recently meet at Jackson’s Hole, Wyoming, took off their ties and formal dress…. And heard Janet Yellen, head of the US Fed, speak about how she plans, maybe, perhaps, to raise interest rates a bit this year. In Europe the central bank continues to push negative interest rates, after everyone knows for sure that you cannot get out of the painted corner solely by adding to the already huge mountain of money.

     Does anyone have a creative idea? Our central bankers are completely out to lunch… literally.

Pittsburgh: Rises from the Ashes

By Shlomo Maital  


In today’s International New York Times (July 3), David Brooks makes an important observation. The political battleground in the U.S. and other countries has until now been: big government? Or small? Too much government? Or too little? This is changing, in the wake of Trump and right-wing nationalist parties in Europe.

   The core issue, he says, in the coming decade, will be: open or closed? Open society, to trade, ideas, immigrants, information? Or closed society, with a big wall, protectionism, tariffs, and ‘immigrants not welcome’ signs?  

     Globalization began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nov. 9 1989. The unification of the two Germanys accelerated the European Single Market and boosted global trade. But the benefits of free open trade, which have been enormous for Asia, accrued mainly to the wealthy and better off, who make money from money. Blue collar workers in the West lost their jobs, as manufacturing migrated. This silent majority is no longer silent. And their pain has become a central issue in politics, in the post-Trump era.

       Brooks, like all good columnists, leaves his office and goes out into the field, to see first-hand. He visited Pittsburgh. My sister lives in Pittsburgh, and I’ve been visiting her regularly since her marriage to Chuck, my late brother-in-law, a Pittsburgh optometrist, in 1952. I saw first-hand the smoky steel mills along the Monongahela River and saw the terrible pollution that coated Pittsburgh with a layer of dust. I saw them disappear, as Pittsburgh reinvented itself to become today’s modern high-tech city, financial center, healthcare center and home to a great university, Carnegie-Mellon. As Brooks observes, Pittsburgh today is amazing, with sparkling clean air, great restaurants, cultural events, an old train station rezoned into restaurants and shops…   a stark contrast to many other rust-belt cities, like Cleveland, OH and Gary, IN, which have not done the same.

     But nonetheless, Pittsburgh too has its community of losers, those who lost high-paying steel jobs in the heyday of U.S. Steel.   Globalization may have produced net gains for Asia, and even for the U.S., but those gains were very very unevenly distributed, and the winners did not in the least compensate the losers.   After a long delay, the losers are now generating a political reaction and near-counter-revolution.

     It would be a shame if the benefits of globalization were reversed, simply because our political system was too lazy, stupid and short-sighted to realize that somehow, we have to find a way to help those who lose from it.   Maybe a good place to start is Pittsburgh, as Brooks notes, which lost thousands of steel jobs and eventually created thousands more of service jobs.

     I think we should recall China and its amazing Great Wall, stretching for some 13,000 miles (21,000 kilometers),  completed around 1400-1600.   The Great Wall kept out the Manchus and kept China whole and safe, at least in part. But it also kept out the world and led to 500 years of stagnation in China’s economy.   Modern China has been a huge winner from globalization, because it has been smart enough to know how to reap the benefits.   We should challenge other countries, especially the U.S. and Europe, to state: What is your strategy for evening the playing field, NOT globally but WITHIN your own country, to help those who have lost well-paying jobs to free global trade?   Because if you don’t shape such a strategy quickly, you may find that politically globalization is no longer viable and is replaced by protectionism and modern Great Walls.   Trump’s “build a wall and make them pay for it” will replicate itself elsewhere, if we do not act soon and wisely.

What If Technology Does Destroy Jobs?

By Shlomo Maital


Larry Summers

   Larry Summers was Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton, President of Harvard, and is one of the world’s top macroeconomists. In a recent New York Times article on how technology is disrupting the world, the author recalls how Summers spoke in November at a conference, about his undergraduate days at MIT in the 1970s. Nobel Laureate Robert Solow made the case then that new technology boosts productivity and overall creates jobs, employment and wealth. Sociologists at the time responded that new technology often destroys jobs and wealth.

   “It sort of occurred to me,” Summers recalled, “suppose the ‘stupid’ people (sociologists) were right, and the ‘smart’ people (economists) were wrong. What would it look like?   Well – pretty much how the world looks today.

     Uber is eliminating taxi-driver jobs. Internet news is destroying print journalism jobs. Digital education will soon eliminate my job (as professor).   Long ago, software made the entire mid-level managers’ jobs (focused on processing and interpreting data) redundant. Add to that globalization and world trade, which led America to outsource its manufacturing to Asia.  

       What if technology really does eliminate jobs? What if, like Finland and Switzerland, we will need to consider providing a basic minimum living wage for everyone, when unemployment becomes widespread? (The referendum in Switzerland on this idea was soundly defeated…but nonetheless, the mere fact it happened is important).   What if in future, work itself will be a huge privilege and a luxury, granted only to a very few highly skilled, highly productive people who somehow are not made redundant by very smart machines?  

       The late MIT Dean and Professor Lester Thurow, who passed away recently, liked to say that sociology trumps economics. If sociology is about how people live and work together, and economics is about how money and capital procreate and proliferate,   then surely he was right. Perhaps it is time that economic policy should be shaped by the sociologists.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
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