Are You Listening?  Really?

By Shlomo Maital    

  Are you listening?  To the person with whom you are speaking?


  Media all over the world have reported on massive demonstrations in Israel, protesting anti-democratic legislation by a far-right coalition government driven by vengeance.

     Watching TV news for the past three months has been torture.  Panels of experts scream at each other —  for balance, of course left and right are present – and do their best to shout over the words of their counterparts, lest the TV audience hear what they have to say.  Even in good times, we Israelis rarely let our counterparts finish a sentence before busting in.

   But lately?  Mutual deafness. 

    I found an old (2004) TED talk by the Czech psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi.  He is the author of the pathbreaking book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which brings the words of 100 creative people who describe the experience of full immersion in writing music, words, or painting. “The ego falls away, time flies…your whole being is involved and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”  He dubbed this “flow”.

   According to Csikszentmihályi’s 2004 TED talk, one’s mind can “attend to 110 bits of information per second!”.   Per second!  That means – if we are listening, really listening, we can absorb a huge amount of information.

   But here’s the catch.  “Decoding speech takes about 40-60 bits of information per second.”  That is, simply translating the words we hear to a form the brain can comprehend. 

    That means, only about half of our ability to comprehend what we are hearing, say 50 bits per second, remains for processing what we hear – comprehending, analyzing, thinking, feeling.

     Provided we are really listening.

      But are we?

      We Israelis seem to invest processing ability in two things.  First, yelling and screaming over the words of our counterpart.  Second, thinking about our own responses to the silly nonsense our counterpart is saying – which we barely bother to try to comprehend. 

      No processing ability is left to listen, comprehend, ponder, process, and absorb. 

       There is no dialog.  There is only debate.  Only one side in our brains – our own. 

        I have had foreign visitors who have asked me, during their stay in Israel:  Do you Israelis really dislike one another? 

         I have to explain, embarrassedly, no, we actually do like one another, but our culture does not include listening to one another. 

          Maybe we Israelis are not alone.   Do Republicans and Democrats really listen to one another in the US? 

           I can’t do much to change Israel’s culture of mutual deafness.  But as an individual, I can personally try harder to listen to the person with whom I am speaking, let them finish their thoughts and sentences, think about what they are saying, listen carefully to it,  and do my best to engage in a productive dialogue, which is characterized by mutual respect and consideration.  

         Not only is this morally right. It is in our self-interest.  Because if you do not, cannot, listen to others, you are losing the chance to learn great things every single hour of the day.

         When we truly open our ears, only then do we really open our minds.  And there is nothing desirable or useful about a closed mind.

Kids Look Beyond the Obvious

By Shlomo Maital

    My wife and I have raised four kids.  Anyone who has children knows how amazingly creative those little minds are.  And research proves it.  Five-year-olds break the Torrance Creativity Scale.  Why?  Because we haven’t yet taught them what is impossible, unfeasible, impractical.  Anything goes for kids.  Then we send them to school.  And there, they are taught the rules, the constraints, what is rather than what could be.  The Torrance Scale plummets.   

    Amazingly, some kids survive school with their creativity intact.  We see this in some of our grandchildren. 

    U. of Michigan psychologist Susan A. Gelman has done pioneering research on this.  In her recent American Psychologist article, *   she observes that “children often extend beyond the tangible ‘here and now’ to think about hidden, intangible, abstract or nonpresent entities.”   In concrete terms:  For kids, a cardboard box can be a truck, a house, or …anything. 

     Here is a dilemma which I think is largely unsolved.  We have to teach kids physics, chemistry, math —  in other words, how the real world works. 

     How do we do this, while at the very same time,  cultivating their wild imagination and wild ideas, that go beyond conventional reality? 

     How do we train teachers to impart this skill and square the circle:  Discovery vs. Discipline?  Imagination vs. reality? 

      I think we first need to train the teachers.  But in college, I doubt this issue is addressed.   So parents can do a lot.  Just encourage wild ideas.  Go for toys that foster imagination – simple wooden blocks, rather than reality-based toy figures.  With my grandchildren, instead of reading story books,  we write our own, drawing the pictures on a sheet of paper.  We “hand off” – I start, with a lonely giraffe, or a hungry crocodile – and hand off to my grandchild.   

   I worry a lot about the vast quantities of creativity that we erase in our schools.  I worry about my former MBA students,  senior R&D engineers, who job description involves creative thinking but who tell me they long ago lost it. 

    In an age when Chatbots and AI can process day-to-day information, the obvious,  new value will attach to creative thinking, looking beyond the obvious.  Robots will do the humdrum.  Humans will have the ideas – if only they could.
Gelman SA. Looking beyond the obvious. Am Psychol. 2023 Mar 9. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 36892919

Awe – An Emotion That Heals

By Shlomo Maital  

     Some emotions bring problems – anger, envy, spite.  And some emotions solve problems —  love, empathy, compassion.

      What about ….awe?

      Awe? What in the world is that?

      Psychologist Dacher Keltner, U. California Berkeley, is the author of a new book  (Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. Penguin 2023)  that explains how and why.  Interviewed on Shankar Vedante’s Hidden Brain podcast, Keltner defines awe as “the emotion that we experience when we encounter something amazing, huge, beyond ourselves, stirring, something we do not fully understand or grasp and that fills us with wonder”. 

     Awe is therapeutic.  In two lovely social psychology experiments, subjects were shown an awesome nature view overlooking Yosemite’s El Capitan – and asked to draw themselves.  The size of the image was much smaller than the images drawn by a control group.  Why?   When experiencing awe, we step outside of our own selves, our own egos, to see beauty and wonder – and that is healing.  A similar experiment did the same by showing people the Tyrannosaurus Rex model, life size, at Berkeley’s Paleontology Museum.  That too created awe – and a similar downsizing of ego.  Military veterans suffering from PTSD have been greatly helped by experiencing awe.

     In an age when increasing numbers of people look inward, focus on themselves, their own needs and problems,  the emotion of awe places each of us in the perspective of a wide world of humanity – full of beauty and wonder.  It is not only El Capitan or the sunrise that inspire awe.  So does ‘moral beauty’,  says Keltner.  Seeing someone do an act of kindness and compassion can also be awesome. 

    I experienced this yesterday, while watching TV news (nearly always, horrendously awful).  A segment showed loving parents caring for a little girl suffering from RETT syndrome, a truly awful genetic disease. *  The little girl smiles as her parents exercise her in a therapeutic pool they had built specially for her.

     When you see that – how can you possibly drown in your own trivial issues?

     Three cheers for awe.  Let’s go out and find more of it.

* Rett syndrome is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by typical early growth and development followed by a slowing of development, loss of functional use of the hands, distinctive hand movements, slowed brain and head growth, problems with walking, seizures, and intellectual disability

Will Russia Attack Moldova?

By Shlomo Maital  

    For me, Moldova is personal.  My mother and father were both born in Bessarabia (today, Moldova), in the early 1900’s, and emigrated to Canada.

    Moldova is Europe’s poorest country; its 2.6 million people live in an area of about 35,000 sq.  km. and have nominal GDP per capita of only $5,500.  It hopes that by joining the EU, it will be eligible for massive EU subsidies, like those Poland received. Moldova is a democracy and has a single Parliament. Its official language is Romanian. 

    Ironically, my father and mother, from Dombrovan, a small all-Jewish village not far from Kishinev, were ethnic Russian, and inherently disliked the nearby Romanians.  It would make a lot of sense for little Moldova to become part of Romania, already an EU member.   Especially now.   

    Russia and Putin have consistently telegraphed their murderous plans in advance (at least, on the ground, while denying everything).  Now, they fabricate a claim that Ukraine plans to attack Moldova, a pretext for them to possibly invade by themselves.   

       According to CNN’s Rob Picheta, “Moldova’s President, Maia Sandu, has accused Russia of using “saboteurs” disguised as civilians to stoke unrest amid a period of political instability, echoing similar warnings from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.  … Putin has meanwhile baselessly accused Kyiv of planning its own assault on a pro-Russian territory in Moldova where Moscow has a military foothold, heightening fears that he is creating a pretext for a Crimea-style annexation.”

      Putin recently revoked a 2012 foreign policy decree that in part recognized Moldova’s independence, according to Reuters.

     Then Russia’s Ministry of Defense accused Ukraine of “preparing an armed provocation” against Moldova’s pro-Russian separatist region of Transnistria “in the near future,” state-media TASS reported.

     Will Putin attack Moldova?

     Russia already has a foothold there, in Transnistria, a tiny 1,300 sq. m. breakaway territory that slithers along the eastern flank of the country along the Dniester River and has housed Russian troops for decades.  Those troops are ethnic Russian Transnistrians.  Transnistria declared itself a Soviet republic in 1990, opposing any attempt by Moldova to become an independent state or to merge with Romania after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.  Moldova has applied for EU membership. 

      Russia has no border with Moldova.  To invade, it would need to advance from the south, from Odessa, still controlled by Ukraine.  Or by airborne troops.  

     The experts are all pooh-poohing Putin’s threats.  I suggest they be taken seriously.  An airborn Russian attack could quickly overwhelm Moldova and give Putin a PR victory, which he desperately needs.  And also distract from Russia’s abysmal military debacle in Ukraine. 

       Romania has 68,000 troops in its army and is a NATO member (since 2004).  The West should shift troops from Poland to Romania and prepare to defend Moldova.  Without a land supply route, Russia’s paratroopers could be quickly wiped out.  Especially if newly-equipped Ukraine forces attacked from the northeast, while NATO hit the Russians from the southwest.  

      Moldova’s newly chosen Prime Minister could tomorrow announce a merger between Moldova and Romania.  This could technically make Moldova also a NATO member and subject to NATO’s all-for-one-and-one-for-all rule, attack one, you attack all. 

      Escalation?  Anger the Russian bear?  Russian nukes?  It is long past time for such procrastination.  Putin is evil, scheming, but not insane and not stupid.  Best to forestall in advance his chess moves, put him in check before he does the same with his Queen (army).

Norman Mailer on Democracy

By Shlomo Maital

      “Nachem Malech Mailer (January 31, 1923 – November 10, 2007), known by his pen name Norman Kingsley Mailer, was an American novelist, journalist, playwright, filmmaker and actor. In a career spanning over six decades, Mailer had 11 best-selling books, at least one in each of the seven decades after World War II.”  (Wikipedia).

His first novel, the Naked and the Dead, a war novel, was published in 1948.

      Here is what he wrote about American democracy.  This passage combines words he wrote in 1963,  2000 and 2006. 

      It applies with great force to current attacks on democracy in the US,  in Hungary, in Poland, in Venezuela,  and now, in my country, Israel. 

    “We, so great a democracy, have demonstrated already that we have little comprehension of democracy itself.  We don’t seem to understand that it has to be built from the ground up, from the inner midnight will of the people who live in that country.

        “No external power can offer you democracy as a gift. If you are not willing to die for your own idea of democracy, then you are not going to have one.   But democracy however, is not an antibiotic, to be injected into a polluted foreign body.   It is not a magical serum.   Rather democracy is a grace.

        “In its ideal state it is noble. In practice, in countries that have lived through decades and centuries of revolutions, in order to safeguard traditions, democracy becomes a political condition which can often withstand the corruption and power seeking of enough humans, to remain viable as a good society. 

      “It is never routine. Never automatic.   Like each human being, democracy is always growing into more, or less.  Each generation must be alert to the dangers that threaten democracy, as each human who wishes to be good must learn how to survive in the labyrinths of envy, greed and the confusions of moral judgment. 

      “Democracy, by the nature of its moral assumptions, has to grow in moral depth, or commence to deteriorate.  So the constant danger that besets it, is the downward pull of fascism.  There is not only a love of freedom, but a wretchedness of spirit that can look for its opposite which identifies with the idea of order and control from above.” 

      America was born in 1776.  Some 84 years later, in 1860, a bloody civil war was fought, essentially about democracy (do African-Americans have democratic rights)? 

      In my country, Israel,  76 years after its birth,  we too are now fighting a fierce internal conflict over democracy.   Our newly elected government seeks to destroy it, as the Confederacy sought to preserve slavery.

      They will fail.  But the conflict will be long and protracted, though not bloody.  In the end, Israel’s democracy will come out the other side of a long dark tunnel, strengthened by a new Constitution – rules of the game by which all must abide.

      In May 1948, when the State of Israel was declared, the intention was to have the first Knesset enact a Constitution. But war broke out and all attention was devoted to survival.  Several attempts were made to draft an agreed-upon Constitution, one of them led by Likud MK Mickey Eitan.  But they all failed. 

Out of the current chaos, I believe a new effort will be made to draft a Constitution, based on Israel’s Declaration of Independence (megillat ha-atzmaut).   This will happen, only after the current internal crisis reaches massive proportions, and the Prime Minister who created it has left the scene for good.    

When Queen Elizabeth Parachuted from a Helicopter

By Shlomo Maital    

   In 2012, at the opening of the London Olympics,   an estimated 900 million people came to witness Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II apparently parachuting from a helicopter with James Bond.

     Frank Cottrell-Boyce  wrote the scene for the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games. On the BBC’s The Real Story podcast, he explains how it came about.

     He and a team brainstormed ideas.  They wrote them on slips of paper and hung them on a clothesline.  One idea that didn’t make the clothesline was jokingly to have the Queen parachute out of a helicopter, with “James Bond” and a British flag, and have it all shown on a huge screen in the Olympic Stadium.  That brought laughter…. But later, a member of the team suggested, hey, why not?  Laughter is a sure sign an idea has promise.

       * Rule 1 for creativity:  Cultivate wild ideas!

        Cottrell-Boyce broached the idea to the Queen’s aide.  The response was enthusiastic.  The Queen loved the idea, to the surprise of all.  A film crew filmed the Queen herself preparing for the ‘jump’, with her Corgis.  The Queen herself reviewed in detail the plans, and noted that “the plan to fly a helicopter under Tower Bridge had the wrong kind of helicopter”!  She was right.

         A stunt man, Mark Sutton, dressed as James Bond and Gary Connery doubled as the Queen; together they did the jump.  The Queen herself,  who had no spoken parts in the script, asked for “a line”.  She got it.  “Good evening, Mister Bond.” This line was another idea of hers.  

       The stunt men jumped from the helicopter, landed near the Stadium – all of this shown on the big screen —  and then the Queen herself, the real Queen, made her entry into the stadium, to wild applause.  She herself was somewhat taken aback, surprised, by the standing ovation. 

        I recall when on Feb. 6, 1952,  King George VI died suddenly, and his daughter, Elizabeth, only 25, became Queen.  Canada, a dominion, mourned and wished the young Queen well.   She served her country for longer than any other Queen and fulfilled her pledge, made as a young girl, to serve above all. 

        Is the monarchy an anachronism?  Not in an age when we have leaders like Trump, Orban, Bolsinaro,  Maduro, Putin and Netanyahu.  Queen Elizabeth lived to serve her country, not to serve herself. 

     It is fun to remember that picture of the “Queen” jumping out of a helicopter, to make people everywhere happy.   They don’t make queens like that any more…..

Hitler Revealed Himself in 1925 But Nobody Listened

By Shlomo Maital    

  I am reading a book of historical front-pages of the Palestine Post (later, the Jerusalem Post). 

January 31, 1933.  The headline reads: 

   Herr Hitler New German Chancellor.

    According to Wikipedia:  1933 was a pivotal year for Hitler and the Nazi Party. Traditionally, the leader of the party who held the most seats in the Reichstag was appointed Chancellor. However, President Paul von Hindenburg was hesitant to appoint Hitler as chancellor. Following several backroom negotiations – which included industrialists, Hindenburg’s son, the former chancellor Franz von Papen, and Hitler – Hindenburg acquiesced and on 30 January 1933, he formally appointed Adolf Hitler as Germany’s new chancellor.   Hitler was crystal clear about his intentions.  He published Mein Kampf in 1925 (volume 1) and 1926 (volume 2)

     The same issue of Palestine Post reports, on its front page:  Jews Barred from Medical Schools [in Germany].  The infamous Nurenberg Laws were promulgated in 1935.

   Hitler attacked Poland in September 1939.  Only then did the world respond, because it had to. 

    Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.  He got away with it.  He invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, a year ago.   He told the world what he intended to do in 2014.  But nothing was done. 

    Same pattern.  It takes years for the West to awaken from its deep sleep.

    Western democracies seem to ignore distant threats, until those threats begin to land on their doorsteps.  It takes a long time.  And even now, many wonder if the US (some of the far-right Republicans), and some Europeans (despotic Hungary) will continue to provide key material and financial support for Ukraine.

   Bill Browder, once the largest investor in Russia and one who knows Putin well, urges the West to appropriate around $300 billion in Russian gold and forex reserves, frozen across the globe so far, with $100 billion in the United States alone, and use it to rebuild Ukraine.  That sum won’t even come close to the damage Putin has wreaked.

   The cost of stopping Hitler multiplied exponentially when it was delayed for years.  The same is true of stopping Putin’s Russia. 

    As the folk song goes:  When will they (we) ever learn?

What Politicians Can Learn from Game Theory

By Shlomo Maital

     Game theory is a mathematical discipline pioneered by economist Oskar Morgenstern and mathematician John von Neumann, in their book Theory of Games & Economic Behavior (1944).   I was a student of Morgenstern at Princeton University, in 1965. 

     Life itself is a kind of game.  We compete in life.  And we also cooperate.  Those two elements feature strongly in games. 

     The game known as “prisoner’s dilemma” captures the cooperate/compete dilemma well.   It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher in 1950   at RAND.  Mathematician Albert W. Tucker later formalized the game by structuring the rewards in terms of prison sentences and named it “prisoner’s dilemma”. [1] In this game, ‘rational’ behavior is to screw the other guy. It leads to lose-lose.

     Political scientist Robert Axelrod organized ‘tournaments’ in which various algorithms played Prisoner’s Dilemma against one another repeatedly.  The question was:  Which algorithm did best in the long run, in terms of escaping the lose-lose trap?

       Axelrod found that algorithms that followed three principles did best. 1. Be nice.  Open by being cooperative.  2. Be forgiving.  If the other player screws you,  and then repents,  do not hold a grudge.  Do not pursue grievance.  3. Be clear.  Make your intentions clear.  Show you favor cooperate.

      Be nice. Be forgiving. Be clear. 

      Today, in Israel and in the US,  politicians seem to be playing prisoner’s dilemma.  Screw the other party – and everybody loses, especially we the people. 

       There is a way out.  Axelrod.  Be nice. Be clear.   Be forgiving.   The opposite of what politicians now pursue in both countries:  Be nasty.  Be vengeful. And never show your cards. (Republicans in the US want less government spending, but will not say which part of the budget they want to cut).

     Once it was different.  A new book by Brookings Institution reveals how the Bush Administration debrief the incoming Obama Administration in 2009, providing a smooth effective transition in power.  Be nice, be forgiving, be clear.  Contrast that with the vengeful Trump non-transition, including a violent insurrection, in 2021. 

     Take your pick, politicians.  2009?  Or Jan. 6, 2021? 

      And voters?  Take your pick.  Those who espouse 2009?  Or those who fueled Jan. 6, 2021? 

[1] Two prisoners commit a crime and are arrested and interrogated. If each chooses not to ‘squeal’ on the other, it is win-win.  But if one squeals and the other stays silent, the ‘squealer’ cuts a deal and wins.  The dominant behavior is to “squeal” – avoid being screwed, and screw the other guy.  But if both squeal, it is lose-lose.   

 Grievance Politics

By Shlomo Maital  

    How can one understand politics, in which elected representatives seem to engage in behavior that is ruinous, destructive and against the interests of those who voted for them? 

     Example?  A handful of crackpot Republican congresspersons block the US Treasury’s ability to borrow money (raise the debt ceiling), threatening the unthinkable: US default on its bonds, disaster not only to the US.

     Example?  Netanyahu and henchmen race to destroy Israeli democracy, bringing immediate and huge damage to a stellar economy driven by hi-tech.


      Grievance politics.  Don’t get mad, get even. 

       Netanyahu is being prosecuted for corruption.  He has a grievance with the justice system.  Conclusion?  Wreck it. 

    His henchman MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Knesset Justice Committee, ruthlessly bulldozes the legislation through the Justice Committee, brooking no debate or opposition. Why?  Rothman burns with anger because in 2005 Prime Minister Sharon ordered the Jewish settlements in Gaza to be withdrawn and the courts supported him. 

      Grievances.  Let’s get even.

      The cost to my country Israel will be immense, and it has begun.  Here is New York Times columnist Tom Friedman (few know Israel better) and how he sees it:

    * What is at risk:  Friedman:  “The Economist ranked Israel as the fourth-best-performing economy in 2022 among O.E.C.D. countries. And in 2020, Israel ranked 19th among the economies in the world, making the top 20 for the first time in its history, based on G.D.P. per capita — ahead of Canada, New Zealand and Britain.   That’s right: Israel has been enjoying a quiet economic miracle in the past few decades, and no Israeli leader deserves more credit for that than Netanyahu.”

* Who is driving the destruction:  Friedman:  “Because in the absence of a credible answer, the only thing one can believe — the only thing foreign investors increasingly believe — is that the whole process is being driven by a small group of far-right authoritarian ideologues, an extremist right-wing think tank inspired by the Federalist Society in America and a prime minister who seems so desperate to escape from his trial on 2020 charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust that he is ready to change the rules of the entire Israeli Monopoly game to secure his own get-out-of-jail-free card.  Now, that is scary.”

    Netanyahu will get even.  Rothman will get even.

    But we, the people of Israel, will pay the price.

      Hi-tech drives Israel’s wealth and economic growth.  It is fueled mostly by foreign (US) venture capital.  Who would invest in a country where courts are impotent, and offer no redress if crooked politicians steal your money?

      Money has already fled Israel.  The shekel has lost value, falling from 3.08 per dollar to today’s 3.54. 

      All this, by a coalition government that won the Nov. 1 election by 30,000 votes, out of 4.7 million, implementing a policy 60% of Israelis oppose, and driving huge disaffection with the Knesset (8.5% of Israelis ‘trust’ political parties). 

        Does democracy end with an election?  In Israel, maybe it does.

      The US is similar.  Trump spits bile because he lost the 2020 election, and fuels the grievance of his supporters, spurring them to even attack the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.  All, driven by grievance.

       And Putin?  Grievance in spades.  The West ruined the USSR and its empire, he thinks.   Putin will get even, even if it destroys Ukraine and his own country Russia as well. 

       In the end, it will become clear to all, including the aggrieved, that getting even – pulling the Temple down around you and sowing destruction – is disastrous. 

      But good heavens, the cost in lives, suffering, deprivation will be enormous. 


The Cost of Hatred

By Shlomo Maital   

   Press reports:  “Over the last month [November/December], rapper Kanye West, now also known as Ye, has posted antisemitic tropes on his social media accounts, shared antisemitic conspiracy theories with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and later, on social media, threatened violence against Jews.

      “Since launching a presidential bid during the week of Thanksgiving, [Kanye West] has gone on a media tour, going after Jewish people on podcasts and traveling with an entourage of known antisemites. In his latest appearance on the InfoWars talk show hosted by provocateur Alex Jones, West, alongside white supremacist Nick Fuentes, said people should “stop dissing the Nazis” and exalted Adolf Hitler.”

     There is apparently a cost to racial and religious hatred.  West, who chooses to be known as ‘Ye’, holds copyrights to the Yeezy brand of shoes sold by Adidas.

    Yeezy products generated nearly $2 billion in sales last year for Adidas accounting for 8% of the company’s total sales, according to Morgan Stanley.

     No longer.  Adidas will sell the existing Yeezy shoes, some say at a 70% discount, and discontinue the line.  Ye’s copyright for Yeezy will become worthless.  The loss for him is immense. 

      Kanye West suffers from bipolar disease.  The American Jewish Committee asserts this cannot excuse religious hatred. 

      Kanye West is one of the world’s best-selling music artists, with over 160 million records sold, 22 Grammy Awards and 75 nominations, the joint tenth-most of all time, and the joint-most Grammy awards of any rapper along with Jay-Z. 

     What will he be remembered for?  His anti-semitism and hatred of Jews. 

          Hatred has a cost.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital