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Let’s All Be ‘ambuya utano’ (community grandmothers)!

By Shlomo Maital  

   Can we all be ‘ambuya utano’ (community grandmothers)?

   Here is the story – told by Dixon Chibanda to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, normally a place where billionaire tycoons romp. 

    Wouldn’t it be great, if each of us could act like a Zimbabwe community grandmother, for our friends and neighbors – to lend a friendly ear.  It would do wonders for us all, listener and speaker alike.   Mental health problems are sweeping across the globe, not just corona.  ‘Community grandmothers’ could help a lot. 

    “This is a story of hope. The steady worsening of mental health across the world – and the personal, economic and social damage this is causing – can seem like a problem too big to solve. But it is not, and this is the year when together we must start to turn the tide, starting at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.    In 2006 I was struggling, along with 11 other psychiatrists, to provide mental health support to a population of 14 million people in Zimbabwe. By way of comparison, the Netherlands has 17 million people and 4,000 psychiatrists.    At least one in four of my fellow countrymen has a diagnosable mental health condition, Zimbabwe is struggling with debt and more than 70% of people live below the poverty line. A traditional well-resourced and staffed mental health support service was not going to be achievable in the short term. To give the immediate help we were duty-bound to provide, we needed to try something different. Sometimes, when you have no choice but to search with your eyes and ears open, you find what you are looking for right in front of you.

        “Ambuya utano, or community grandmothers, were already trusted and respected figures in the community, with many providing home-based care and health education. Our simple idea was to train these grandmothers to develop their existing skills so that they could give problem-solving talking therapy to people with anxiety, depression and other mental-health problems. The neutral and welcoming space we created for this therapy, rooted in a practical cognitive behavioural approach, was the Friendship Bench.

    “Sitting together on a Friendship Bench in a quiet corner of the grounds of a health centre, our community grandmothers listen and spend time working through problems that could be causing or worsening a person’s mental health, coming up with possible solutions and agreeing on a plan of action

     “There are three elements to the first discussion: opening the mind (kuvhura pfungwa), uplifting (kusimudzira), and strengthening (kusimbisa). Each 30-45 minute session, over four to six weeks, builds on the previous, exploring barriers and agreeing a way forward, without ever focusing on a medical diagnosis or treatments that would be unaffordable to most.

    “And it works. Children went back in school. Mothers and fathers found work. An independent clinical review has found that the Friendship Bench was proving a more effective treatment for depression and anxiety than conventional medical treatments or clinical therapies.”

Gene Sequencing: How It Works

By Shlomo Maital  

  Gene sequencing has proved a powerful tool in understanding the coronavirus’s mutations.

   Ever wonder how it is done?  How scientists can precisely identify the genetic structure of, say, a virus? 

    The Economist weekly has a fine section, “Simply Science”.  In general, the reporting in The Economist, both political and economic, is way above the level in any other publication, in my opinion.  While pro-free market, it is generally unbiased and reliable. 

     Here is how they sequence genes:  (in 300 words): 

(First, crucial information:      DNA is made up of four building blocks called nucleotides: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C). The nucleotides attach to each other (A with T, and G with C) to form chemical bonds called base pairs, which connect the two DNA strands.)

      “Reading a genome requires some chemistry. * You start by extracting it from the cell and then heating it up in a test tube to break the DNA chain into pieces. Other molecules, known as primers, then bind with these pieces of DNA and begin to produce copies. These copies, like the DNA itself, are built sequentially, one nucleotide at a time. This is all done in the presence of four special molecules, each of which will bind to only one of the four nucleotides in the sequence. When they do, they stop the primer from working, and the sequence of nucleotides is frozen.   *  With the right balance of primers and molecules that cut off the reaction, you end up with a test tube filled with countless strands of DNA that have been cut off at every conceivable point along the length of the genome. The trick is that each of the cut-off molecules is also fluorescent, emitting its own unique wavelength of light.      *    By shining light onto these new strands of DNA and recording how they fluoresce as a result, you can figure out which strand endings correspond to which nucleotide, and begin to fit the sequence of nucleotides together.   This tells you which nucleotides are in the genome, but not the order in which they appear.*  To obtain that information you need to flush your many strands of DNA through a gel, under an electric field. This spreads them out in order of mass—the smallest strands are pulled further through the gel by the electric field than the larger strands. The order in which the four different colours of light appear through the gel tells you the order of nucleotides in your sample, and thus an organism’s genome sequence.

      This, broadly, is the sequencing technique discovered by Fred Sanger, a British scientist, in 1977.

Post Pandemic Resilience: The View from McKinsey

By Shlomo Maital

        The global pandemic has left side-effects – not just individual ones, loss of taste and smell,  but those related to our businesses – massive global uncertainty and geopolitical risk.

    The bad guys – autocrats – are taking advantage of the preoccupation of the good guys – Western democracies – to sow trouble and oppress their people.   The pandemic has created supply chain problems, ‘the great resignation’, and waves of virus, that have us all on a giant roller coaster – like Kingda Ka at Six Flags, NJ, allegedly the world’s scariest roller coaster.

     What to do?  How can we strengthen our organizational resilience?  Here is the view from McKinsey, which actually has a ‘resilience’ practice in its consulting business.*    The world has become much much riskier (see graphic).  How do we deal with it?

1.  Embrace build back better.  That is – set a goal, to emerge stronger, wiser, healthier, from the pandemic, by building on the lessons the sneaky virus taught us.

2.  Do not let Short Run crowd out Long Run.  Short run has meant just surviving, for many organizations.  The long run has been shelved, for many. Bring it back.  When the pandemic subsides, we will still have the long run climate crisis with us.  Make sure you keep your eye on the long run ball.

3. Do not become overly conservative.  When risk rises, there is a natural tendency to hunker down.  Maybe not the best plan.  Take calculated risks, as General Patton said.  When others are hunkering down, the pot at the end of the rainbow goes to the bold who seek it.

4.  Build in robustness.  Elon Musk (Tesla) was mocked for keeping in-house software production, rather than out-sourcing it.  When chips became scarce, Tesla was able to rewrite software to adapt to the chips that WERE available.  Other car companies were not. 

5.  Invest in infrastructure.  Broadband, hardware, software —  in risky times, you need it.  True for families as well.  By luck we upgraded our home WiFi.  We really needed it during the pandemic.

6. Cultivate your team’s resilience, and practice it.  A key element of individual resilience – the ability to bounce back from adversity – is self-efficacy – the knowledge that we are highly capable to achieving what we set out to do.  You can build this into your team’s culture and mindset.  Yes, we can.  But make sure they are not just words… like those of a famous US President, who in many ways…couldn’t.

7.  Anticipate. Practice scenario planning. What if?   What if a new variant emerges?  Russia invades Ukraine?   Thinking about possible crises in advance can help overcome them. 

8.  Try to gauge and measure your resilience at present.  Do you have ‘bounce back’ mojo?   Do you have bounce-back stories that become part of your culture?

     There is a paradox of pessimism – young people, who have bright futures ahead of them, have become more pessimistic, even before the pandemic,  while we seniors, who are closer to the end of our lives, tend to be optimistic. One reason:  We’ve been through hard times before, and come through them, and believe we can and will do it again.  That’s why we need to help our kids experience frustration, and even failure, so they can learn, as a skill, to overcome them when encountered in future.

*  “The resilience  imperative: Succeeding in uncertain times”Strengthening institutional resilience has never been more important. by Fritz Nauck, Luca Pancaldi, Thomas Poppensieker, and Olivia White. McKinsey  Risk and Resilience Practice…

By Shlomo Maital  

      The graphic is that of Scrat, the fictional saber-toothed squirrel from the Ice Age animated films, who somehow never manages to catch that elusive nut.  How much we are like him.  The nut is material happiness…and we never seem to have enough.  Scrat is hilarious – but, frankly, so are we.

       And there is another way we resemble Scrat and squirrels.  We perpetuate obscene wealth inequality, from generation to generation, by enabling billionaires to bequeath their wealth largely untaxed.  (Republicans managed to obliterate inheritance taxes by simply labelling them Death Tax —  who wants to pay a tax on death anyway?).  (See my previous blog, about Michael McCain).

      Apparently, so do squirrels. They pass on their wealth to a privileged kid. Really!

      Writing in Behavioral Ecology, 2021,  Smith, Natterson-Horowitz and Alfaro recount:  “North American red squirrels transfer stores of acorns to one individual, but not to others, imposing differential fitness outcomes on young squirrels that perpetuate across future generations.”[1]  

    The authors show how this behavior is duplicated across a wide range of birds, insects, mammals and fish.   Hyenas inherit social rank from their moms.  Clownfish bequeath high-quality anemones to a chosen few.  Some privileged wasps inherit nests, while others less privileged do not.

     Jacob Bronowski’s wonderful BBC series “The Ascent of Man” showed how humans have evolved beyond mammals.  But have we?  Is it morally just and socially efficacious, to bestow enormous privilege, solely because of your parent?  Is oligarchy truly the society we want and need?  Do we really want to sustain privileged classes?  The British tried it —  and look where it led them. 

    And are we really smarter than Scrat?  I kind of doubt it.


[1] Special thanks to science writer Elizabeth Preston, for drawing my attention to it.

Rethinking Capitalism: The View from Canada

By Shlomo Maital  

Michael McCain

   American Billionaires sit on enormous mountains of money and assets, and their wealth doubles every decade or so, without any effort, because they earn rates of return ordinary people can only dream of. 

     Only a tiny portion of their wealth goes toward federal incomes taxes — they’ve paid an average income tax rate of 8.2% over roughly the last decade.  Progressive Democrats want to impose a wealth tax, but have been stymied.

     Capitalism needs radical reform.  But how?  Here is an interesting proposal from a Canadian, Michael McCain, who runs Maple Leaf Foods.  McCain is the son of Wallace McClain.  Wallace was booted out of the eponymous family business and bought Maple Leaf, building and growing it.  Michael is his son.  He is regarded as a highly creative effective and outspoken manager.

    Michael McClain, writing in Canada’s National Post:  (617 words)

     “Capitalism is in peril and requires revolutionary thinking but change begins with a new vision for the future.

     “Capitalism as we know it, requires a revolution in our thinking. A recent survey of 34,000 people from 28 major countries found that 56 per cent of respondents believe capitalism does more harm than good. I believe the capitalism we have been born into, which reaches back to well before the industrial revolution, has delivered extraordinary outcomes for humanity. Yet, we now know this has come with terrible, inexcusable consequences directly connected to the foundation of our way of life. The trade-offs are too great.

    “Our home, planet Earth, is on fire and the strength of our environment is deteriorating. Globalization has delivered overall prosperity, but largely in the context of a race to the bottom. There has been an intolerable rise in gross inequality and social injustice. We have experienced endless human conflict. And there has been a rapid decline of trust in all our institutions.

    “My generation has failed the “future test” because of our short-term interests. This will not solve itself. The enormity of the challenges we face requires a rethink: A revolution of thinking to create a new “Charter for Capitalism”.

     “Drawing on the insights and learnings from failure, I offer six themes to consider.

     “A new Charter for Capitalism should:  Recognize multi-stakeholders equally, rejecting the primacy of shareholders, by including the environment, natural life and society as equally critical stakeholders. It should disadvantage short-termism, one of the curses of modern capital market function, creating specific financial and motivational tools to accomplish this. It should welcome government regulation to create level competitive playing fields, not opportunity; rejecting the race to the bottom. Of course, all regulation must be efficient and effective, delivered by more cost-sensitive governments to avoid waste. It should redefine human rights to include a comprehensive, secure social safety net. Inequality is social impairment, and these human rights should include the right to a secure home, the right to a secure basic income, the right to secure food, the right to secure health care, the right to secure education, the right to equality of opportunity and the right to live in a healthy planet.   It should embrace contributing a bigger share of the cost of these social human rights by privileged people who have the means, rejecting the notion it as a mere transfer of wealth.   And finally, it should ensure all commercial relationships are premised on this new Charter, including assurance of jurisdictional breadth and consistency, locally, regionally and globally, and institutionally supported in places such as a revitalized World Trade Organization, to roadblock opportunism.

   “I don’t believe this is a rejection of everything we know about a capitalist society and the progress it has delivered. I would never advocate turning our back on it. I believe a new charter should be a revolutionary new version, which would create the world our generation should have left the next but hasn’t … at least not yet. It is a view of value creation that we are pursuing at Maple Leaf Foods, one that sees great business opportunity by channeling our resources to tackle the monumental social and environmental issues of our time, including our climate crisis and food insecurity.

    “Leading this effort cannot be confined to government, NGOS or social activists. It can only succeed with the direct engagement of forward-thinking business leaders.

   “Yes, capitalism is in peril, and requires revolutionary thinking. Change begins with a new vision for the future. Some might face this prospect with denial, cynicism or fear. I think it offers hope for a sustainable and equitable path forward — and hope is always inspiring.”

Magawa, Hero Rat:  R.I.P.

By Shlomo Maital   

Magawa, the hero rat of Cambodia, retires after five years of detecting  landmines | Esquire Middle East

“Magawa” in action

 Consider these facts:  There are 110 million land mines in 78 countries, unexploded and dangerous. They kill or maim 15,000-20,000 people yearly.

   And it is very hard and expensive to find and clear them. 

   Cambodia suffers most.   “An estimated 5 million land mines were laid in Cambodia during a civil war in the Southeast Asian country from 1975 to 1998, mainly in the northern region along the Thai border — leaving agricultural land unsafe to farm and impacting communities and livelihoods. More than 386 square miles of land are still contaminated. Since 1979, more than 64,000 people have been injured or killed from mines and explosive war remnants.”    

    And more mines are laid daily.

  There are 164 states who ratified the 1997 treaty banning mines.    States not party to the Mine Ban Treaty include: China, Egypt, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and the United States.

    Shame on them.  Those rats! 

    Ooops.  Sorry, Magawa.  You rate much higher than those nations.  You were part of the solution.

     NBC reports that “‘Hero rat’ renowned for record-breaking Cambodia land mine detection has died.   Magawa’s legacy “will live on for decades to come in the lives he has helped to save,” said Rebecca Buckingham of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals.

    “He was dubbed a “hero rat” after he sniffed out more than 100 land mines and other explosives in Cambodia.  But after a short retirement, Magawa died Sunday, according to the Belgium-based charity APOPO, which trained him in Tanzania before assigning him to the Southeast Asian country in 2016.

    “The African giant pouched rat was physically strong, so every day he searched more land than other rats, and found more mines than others,” Michael Heiman, APOPO’s Cambodia program manager, told NBC News on a phone call Wednesday.

    “Because the handlers loved him so much, they utilized him more than others, which is also a factor in why he found so many items,” he added.

   “Announcing the rat’s retirement in June last year, APOPO said in a news release that Magawa had found 71 land mines and 38 unexploded ordnances, making him the “most successful” mine-clearing rat. Over his five-year career, he helped to clear more than 225,000 square feet of land, it added.”  

    “The rats are light enough not to set off the mines, they are taught to ignore scrap metal and only sniff out explosives.  They take around nine months to train.   Cambodia has among the highest number of amputees per capita, with more than 40,000 people having lost limbs to explosives.

– – – – –

   There is a theological argument focused on “why did God create mosquitos”?  Those pesky zmmmming insects that carry disease and bite.  I don’t know why. But maybe we now know why we have African giant pouched rats. 

     Rest in peace, Magawa.  If there is a rat heaven, hope you are munching lots of smelly cheese.  And, well done, creative Belgians!  

Pigs’ Hearts Save Human Lives

By Shlomo Maital

     About 3,500 people in the U.S. are waiting for a heart transplant, and many will wait more than six months. But some will die before a heart becomes available to them.  And some are so sick they will never qualify.

     Solution?  Porky Pig. 

     Background:  (from the Web):  “In 1997, Dhani Ram Baruah, a cardiac surgeon in Assam tried to transplant the heart and lungs of a pig into a patient. The patient died and Baruah was arrested for breaking the law governing human transplantation. Despite the fact that pigs provide pharmaceutical-grade heparin and heart valves for transplantations, whole organ transplantation between different animals usually fail due to genetic incompatibility. At that time, the genome of neither man nor pig was known.”

    Later, “a team looked at genes and protein domains that pigs and humans share.  ….. The researchers found the physiology of the two is 84 per cent similar at the genetic level.” 

    84% Not quite enough for ‘interchangeable’ pig and human parts.

     But – what if we could genetically engineer pigs, to make them far more similar to humans genetically?  Is this ethical?  Possible?

      Fast forward:  to a New York Times story, Jan. 10, by Roni Caryn Rubin:   

    “A 57-year-old man with life-threatening heart disease has received a heart from a genetically modified pig, a groundbreaking procedure that offers hope to hundreds of thousands of patients with failing organs.   It is the first successful transplant of a pig’s heart into a human being. The eight-hour operation took place in Baltimore on Friday, and the patient, David Bennett Sr. of Maryland, was doing well on Monday, according to surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center.“It creates the pulse, it creates the pressure, it is his heart,” said Dr. Bartley Griffith, the director of the cardiac transplant program at the medical center, who performed the operation.

    “It’s working and it looks normal. We are thrilled, but we don’t know what tomorrow will bring us. This has never been done before.”

         “Last year, some 41,354 Americans received a transplanted organ, more than half of them receiving kidneys, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit that coordinates the nation’s organ procurement efforts.    But there is an acute shortage of organs, and about a dozen people on the lists die each day. Some 3,817 Americans received human donor hearts last year as replacements, more than ever before, but the potential demand is still higher.”

      “Scientists have worked feverishly to develop pigs whose organs would not be rejected by the human body, research accelerated in the past decade by new gene editing and cloning technologies. The heart transplant comes just months after surgeons in New York successfully attached the kidney of a genetically engineered pig to a brain-dead person.”

     “Researchers hope procedures like this will usher in a new era in medicine in the future when replacement organs are no longer in short supply for the more than half a million Americans who are waiting for kidneys and other organs.”

“This is a watershed event,” said Dr. David Klassen, the chief medical officer of the United Network for Organ Sharing and a transplant physician. “Doors are starting to open that will lead, I believe, to major changes in how we treat organ failure.”

      “Mr. Bennett decided to gamble on the experimental treatment because he would have died without a new heart, had exhausted other treatments and was too sick to qualify for a human donor heart, family members and doctors said.

    “His prognosis is uncertain. Mr. Bennett is still connected to a heart-lung bypass machine, which was keeping him alive before the operation, but that is not unusual for a new heart transplant recipient, experts said.

     “The new heart is functioning and already doing most of the work, and his doctors said he could be taken off the machine on Tuesday. Mr. Bennett is being closely monitored for signs that his body is rejecting the new organ, but the first 48 hours, which are critical, passed without incident.

       “He is also being monitored for infections, including porcine retrovirus, a pig virus that may be transmitted to humans, although the risk is considered low.

       It is richly ironic that two major world religions, Judaism and Islam, define the pig as ‘unclean’ and forbidden to eat.  Both religions value the sanctity of life.  Will their religious leaders approve transplant of pigs’ organs to save lives?   I’d love to sit in on that debate.   

“SCREAM Politics” – The More Outrageous, the Better!

By Shlomo Maital  

   Once upon a time, politicians used to choose their words with some caution – because in general, their words were recorded and could (and often were) used against them.

   Today?   We are in the era of SCREAM Politics.  Caps.  Politicians purposely say outrageous, often stupid, things,  just to get attention.  And often, it works for them. 

    Why?

    With social media, there is an incredibly huge amount of noise thrown at us daily.  So naturally we filter it out.  It has become increasingly hard for politicians to get our attention. And without our attention, well, they simply do not exist. 

     Hence, the politics of SCREAM.  Speak in bold face capital letters.  Otherwise, your voice will not be heard. 

     In Israel, a leading Likud politician David Amsalem suggests putting political opponents into concentration camps.  A storm of protest occurs.  He sticks to his guns.  And inwardly smiles.  Well done.  I made it into the news.  My supporters love me.

     Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R. Georgia)  has her Twitter account suspended, for  saying that there are “extremely high amounts of Covid vaccine deaths.”   She never apologizes or retracts.   Will she be re-elected in 2022?  You bet.

     Note: Georgia trails the US average in percentage of the population who are vaccinated.  Over 30,000 Georgians have died from COVID-19. 

      Making high-volume noise seems to get votes.  And not just among Republicans.  Some Dems do it too, maybe a bit less.  At least they do not support “Stop the Steal”.

      So today, in politics, in the US, Israel and other democracies, we have scream politics.  The result – what economists call ‘adverse selection’.   Crackpots like Amsalem and Marjorie Taylor Greene enter politics, scream loudly, get elected, scream even louder – and sensible normal people opt out of this stupid system,  especially young people.  And sane politicians end up imitating the crazies.  Scream politics becomes the norm.

     In the end we will end up with legislatures filled with idiots.  Maybe we already have.  And I just don’t see the solution…..

How to Win Friends & Influence People:

The Desmond Tutu Technique

By Shlomo Maital

     

  Archbishop Desmond Tutu

     Dale Carnegie made a stellar career based on his massive 1936 best-seller How to Win Friends and Influence People.    And truly his book has lots of good practical ideas for doing this.  His 6 ways to win friends: Become genuinely interested in other people. …Smile. …Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language. …Be a good listener. …Talk in terms of the other person’s interest. …Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.

       But the late Archbishop Demond Tutu,  who has just passed away, fondly known by people as “Arch”,  had a different method.   It was recounted by a close associate, former President of Ireland 1990-1997  Mary Robinson, in a BBC interview.

        DesmondTutu  had a permanent twinkle in his eye.  And he loved to make people laugh.  He once, recounted Robinson, confronted President Obama, an admirer, giving him a stern lecture on all Obama’s failings…..  then, seeing Obama’s crestfallen expression, burst into laughter, and explained it was just a joke. 

       The Tutu method is simple.  Enemies?  Foes?  Opposing forces?  First, make them laugh.  Any way you can.     You may not persuade them. But you certainly defuse the tension.  And you just may make a friend out of a former enemy.

        President Biden again spoke on the phone to Vladimir Putin, expert professional trouble-maker.  I doubt he used the Tutu method.  Probably there is no way Biden could make Putin even crack a smile.  But, what if Biden had opened by asking Biden if he had taken off his shirt for the cameras, when he last visited Siberia?   (Putin does this all the time, to project his macho image).  And, what if Biden had suggested that he, Biden, too was going to try it, to boost his abysmal approval ratings.  Would that get a smile?  Might not.  Might not prevent a disastrous invasion by Russia into Ukraine.  But —  it might have worked better than threatening “sanctions”.  I am smiling, just imagining Biden’s octogenarian physique. 

What Kant Can Teach Me…And You

By Shlomo Maital

Immanuel Kant 1724-1804

    My friend R. James Breiding’s excellent blog provides a timely reminder of my Philosophy 1 studies at Queen’s University, Canada, in 1960…many many years ago.   A dense philosophy tome from 1785 by Kant proves up-to-the-minute relevant.

       Our instructor at Queen’s,  A.R.C. Duncan, a clear-thinking prickly Scot, taught us logic, ethics and metaphysics, all of this in one demanding semester. Everything I learned in those few lectures, I remember and use.  Nothing is more practical than philosophy, despite what many believe.

       For instance, Kant.  How can we know what is right and what is wrong?  Kant told us.   His principle, the “categorical imperative”, is simple and highly relevant.  And it applies everywhere, to everyone, at all times. Here it is, from 1785, when Kant was a wise 61-year-old:

    “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

    In other words —  if I refuse to be vaccinated or wear  a mask,  would I be happy if everyone else did the same? 

    Am I happily going without a mask because I can do so since everyone else wears one? 

     Breiding notes that the US Supreme Court, in an earlier day when it was not yet polluted with five Trumpist hacks, invoked this principle: 

     “The U.S. Supreme Court may have decided similarly in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (197 U.S. 11; 1905) when it ruled “It is within the power of a State to enact a compulsory vaccination law . . . for the prevention of smallpox and the protection of the public health”. Similar reasoning underpins rules against drunk driving where one’s freedom can be devastating to another.”

  One’s freedom CAN be devastating to another.  So civil society limits that freedom.  Personal freedom is not unlimited.   It never was. 

   Why is this so hard for so many to understand?

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital

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