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Democracy: Let’s Not Take It for Granted

By Shlomo Maital   

statesman.com

  My wife and I just returned from voting, in Israel’s 5th national election since April 9, 2019. 

     Many Israelis complain.  True, when the electorate is split 60 right/60 left, the resulting deadlock makes democracy look kind of bad.  Chances are, we may have to return to the ballot box again soon.

   But – I found the experience uplifting.  Lines of people waiting to vote, many with small children, to show them in person how democracy works.

    Yes, Israel is a flawed democracy **. (see below).  But, who isn’t?  Only one nation in 16, according to The Economist, is a full democracy  *.  And only four in 10 are ‘flawed’.  Hence, more than five nations in 10 are not democratic at all. And by population, perhaps over two-thirds of the world. (See: “Democracy Index”, The Economist Intelligence Unit).

     So if you live in a democracy, and vote freely — count your blessings.   And guard it with all your might.  Because there are many, especially those who see their (white?) majority shrinking, who would retain power by preventing those who oppose them from voting.  As we speak, Brazilian truckers are blocking roads because their candidate lost.

       On Nov. 8, there will be those in the US exercising their “First amendment rights” (‘free’ speech) who will threaten opponents outside polling booths, in the Southern US.  The US is today solidly in the ‘flawed’ category.  I know whom to blame.

      Everywhere, democracy is threatened.  Losers hate it.  Winners degrade it to maintain their control.  Only if people of good will strongly fight for the simple right to vote freely, will democracy survive.    

   *   Full democracies are nations where civil liberties and fundam\\ental political freedoms are not only respected but also reinforced by a political culture conducive to the thriving of democratic principles. These nations have a valid system of governmental checks and balances, an independent judiciary whose decisions are enforced, governments that function adequately, and diverse and independent media. These nations have only limited problems in democratic functioning. (6.4% of nations)

   **  Flawed democracies are nations where elections are fair and free and basic civil liberties are honored but may have issues (e.g. media freedom infringement and minor suppression of political opposition and critics). These nations have significant faults in other democratic aspects, including underdeveloped political culture, low levels of participation in politics, and issues in the functioning of governance. (39.3% of nations)

Math: Singapore vs US

By Shlomo Maital

    “Across the U.S., the average math score for fourth-graders fell 5 points since 2019, while the score for eighth-graders dropped 8 points. In reading, average scores for both grades fell 3 points. In addition, the shares of students below the “basic” level – the lowest level of academic achievement – grew”. 

    Perhaps there is more to worry about in the US than just the fractured democracy.  Math is crucial.  Here is why.

    Just after Singapore gained independence, in 1965, founding President Lee Kwan Yew spoke to Singapore’s mothers. “Tell your kids to study math”, he counseled.  Why?  If kids took math, they could study engineering in college. If they studied engineering, Singapore would have a cadre of talented engineers. If it did, it could invite Intel and other hi-tech companies to build factories. If they did – Singapore would become wealthy.

    And it happened – just like that. The mothers came through. Singapore’s GDP per capita is $73,000 today.  Believe it or not – a little higher than that of the US!

    Why did US math scores plummet?  The blame is not solely with the COVID lockdown and ZOOM instruction. Math scores were falling even before 2020.  The US (and my country, Israel) have a basic problem in how math is taught. 

    The US is heading into a dark confrontation with Russia and China.  The real battlefield will not be defense budgets alone, but technology.  And the US, like Singapore, needs high school grads who know math well enough to study engineering.  Lots of them. 

   JFK’s decision to put a man on the moon inspired millions of young Americans to study math, in preparation for careers in science. 

    Today, as America chooses to return to the moon,  will there be sufficient talent to make it happen?

Why US Democracy is Broken to Pieces

By Shlomo Maital

(Christian science monitor)

    Fareed Zakharia, CNN, has stated clearly why US democracy is utterly broken, fractured, smashed to pieces, in his GPS program.

    Fact:   171 out of 291 Republicans up for election in the Nov. 8 mid-term support Trump’s false allegation that the 2020 election was fraudulent, ‘stolen’. (According to a careful Washington Post survey). A majority are election deniers, conspiracy theorist supporters.

     Why? 

    Only the US has a ‘primary’ system (actually, Israel also has a version of it), in which parties choose which of their candidates will appear on the ballot.  It is done, when a sliver of the total electorate – the party faithful —  vote for the candidate they favor.  This system has led Republicans to choose candidates with utterly extreme positions, vying for one another to see who can be more extreme, more “Trump” – like Marjorie Taylor Greene,   representative for Georgia’s 14th congressional district since 2021. Greene promotes far-right, white supremacist, antisemitic conspiracy theories, including QAnon. 

    Gerrymandering means that most of the far-right Republican candidates win election. So the real election occurs in the primaries, where a tiny handful of Republican voters make the choice.  And to win primaries, it appears, candidates like Greene take ridiculous positions that party radicals love.  It is undemocratic, because a fair majority does not really get to make the choice.  A mere handful of the crazies vote in the primaries.

     Result:  Though most elected Republicans in Congress in the past did not support the ‘stolen election’ fraud,  this may change on November 8. We may see state Republican officials refuse to authorize presidential election results in 2024, and in other ways work to disenfranchise legitimate Democratic (i.e. persons of color) voters. It is already happening in Arizona.

   You thought Trump’s massive damage to US democracy ended when he left office?  Think again. It brought the Jan. 6 insurrection.  It continues.  And it will not end well.

Let’s Each Fight Negativism

By Shlomo Maital   

     David Brooks, New York Times columnist, has drawn our attention to “a rising tide of global sadness.”  And I think we can each do something about it.

     Take Taylor Swift, songwriter and singer whose hand is on the pulse of her millions of followers.  Her newest album Midnight, Brooks notes, is not about love, but about “anxiety, restlessness, exhaustion and anger.”   A group of researchers analyzed 150,000 pog songs between 1965 and 2015, and found that the number of times the word ‘hate’ appears, lately, has risen sharply.

    And a study, Brooks says,  of 23 million headlines between 2000 and 2019 by 47 different US news outlets found they have grown significantly more negative, featuring anger, fear, disgust, sadness. 

    And between 1990 and 2019, the share of Americans who put themselves in the lowest happiness category rose by more than 50% — before COVID.

    Brooks notes this is true not only of the US, but globally.  We are seeing much unhappiness, and attendant mental illness, worldwide, especially among young people. 

     Now, it is true, the world does seem a total mess.  But let’s keep it in proportion.  Despite everything, we are better off than 50 or 100 years ago.

     What should each of us do?   Perhaps – fight back.  In our own lives, we can emphasize the positive.  Before we rise in the morning, thank the Creator for returning our soul and recount our many blessings.  Resist the global trend to see only the negative, and try to stress the positive.

     Voltaire, in Candide, mocked such optimism, satirizing it in Dr. Pangloss.  No, all is not for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.  But, a slight modification, we can try to see the very best, in this, an amazing world full of beauty, goodness and kindness.  And maybe, if enough of us try this, we can turn around those bleak stats.

Are You a “Mosquito Magnet”?

By Shlomo Maital  

  Are you a mosquito magnet?  Mosquitos are particularly attracted to you – while ignoring those around you?

  Some very close to me are such magnets.  And I,  I am not. 

  At long last, scholars have discovered why!  Mosquito magnet people have more carboxylic acids in their body odor and hence are more attractive to mosquitoes.  According to The Scientist, and reported on NPR’s Weekend Edition by Scott Simon:

    “The question of why some people are more attractive to mosquitoes than others—that’s the question that everybody asks you,” Leslie Vosshall, a study coauthor and neurobiologist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Rockefeller University, tells Scientific American. “My mother, my sister, people in the street, my colleagues—everybody wants to know.”

    So Vosshall and her colleagues gathered 64 volunteers and asked each of them to wear nylon stockings around their arms for six hours to collect their unique skin odor. They then used these smell samples in a mosquito-attraction tournament: Placing two stockings into a separate traps side by side, they unleashed a swarm of female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes (the species that carries diseases such as dengue, yellow fever, and Zika) to see which stocking they gravitated toward. After pitting the different stockings against each other, the team came out with a winner that was about 100 times more attractive than the last place sample, The Guardian reports. The scientists repeated these experiments over three years with the same subjects, finding that the subject’s attractiveness rating remained stable over time despite fluctuations in diet or skin product usage.

  Solutions?  Hmmm.  Skin crème, disguising your carboxylic acid?  Mosquitos are pretty smart. They have millions of years of evolution under their belts.  Just wear long sleeves.

Kissinger: Age 99 & a New Book

By Shlomo Maital

The Young Kissinger

    Kudos to Henry Kissinger.  Next May 23 he will be 100 years old.  And his mind is still active and bright, and he is still writing books. His latest is:

    Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy. 

Kissinger analyzes six world leaders, whom he has known personally:

Conrad Adenauer, who brought Germany back into the community of nations by what Kissinger calls “the strategy of humility” (admit transgressions, work to try to make amends);  Charles de Gaulle (“the strategy of will”), Richard Nixon (“the strategy of equilibrium”),  Egypt’s Anwar Sadat (“strategy of transcendence”),  Singapore’s founding President Lee Kwan Yew  (“strategy of excellence”); and Margaret Thatcher (“strategy of conviction”).

      That’s it.  humility, will, equilibrium, transcendence, excellence, conviction.  I think those are the parameters against which we can judge modern leaders.  HEWECT. 

     Thinking about today’s leaders:  Do any have even one or two of those quality strategies?   Kissinger does not say so. But it emerges clearly from his book.

    Well done, Henry.  And – your next book?

 Dangers of One-Person Rule

By Shlomo Maital

    There is a problem, when a single leader makes decisions alone, without balancing opposition views.  Inevitably, there is disaster.

     Mark Zuckerberg has driven Facebook toward the metaverse, even embracing the Meta name… and I believe it will fail.  There is no real value created for its users.  And despite evidence it is failing, he is plunging billions into the effort.  Where is his Board?   A CNBC report states: “Meta documents show main metaverse is losing users and falling short of goals.”

     Putin?  Did he listen to his military advisors prior to his disastrous and malicious invasion of Ukraine?  Did they have the guts even to speak?

     Bolsinaro?  Did he listen to anyone when pooh-poohing COVID, delaying purchase of vaccine, etc.?

      As uncertainty mounts in the world, people seem to seek strong leaders – even those who trample democracy.  View China, Hungary, Trump, Bolsinaro, Putin, and a long list of others.  But sooner or later, autocrats who listen to no-one make big mistakes, drinking their own Kool-Aid, believing in their own false narratives of intelligence.  (Trump labelled himself ‘very smart, a very stable genius’.  Really?).  And on the other side, democracies make huge mistakes (see below) – but eventually fix them, though it takes too long. (Putin invaded Crimea in 2014, it took far too long for democracies to grasp the danger he posed; even Merkel, with East German roots, erred).

    Take Great Britain.  One per cent of the electorate (Conservative party members) choose an incompetent Prime Minister, with crackpot libertarian views. She implements them.  The pound sterling collapses.  Her mini-budget is retracted, humiliatingly.  Truss will eventually resign; she has lost all credibility.   She made a mistake.  But it will be corrected fairly quickly, by British democracy.

    But take another example.  Brexit.  The British people narrowly voted for leaving the EU (Brexit), without truly understanding the implications.  It was a disastrous mistake by David Cameron, who felt sure the referendum would fail. But he paid for it. 

  Today?   “As of July 2022, 52 percent of people in Great Britain thought that it was wrong to leave the European Union, compared with 36 percent who thought it was the right decision.”   People know they made a mistake.  I believe, at some point, a visionary leader will bring Britain back into the EU.  If the EU will take them.  But the damage is huge.  The point is:  It is recognized that Britain made a mistake.

      Ever seen an autocrat who admits to mistakes?    According to one estimate, only 14% of UN members are fully democratic.  Will they win out over autocrats?  My bet is, yes! 

A Brain Prosthesis That Improves Memory

By Shlomo Maital

     As a senior – very senior – citizen, I follow closely the science of memory. On Ira Flatow’s Science Friday podcast, Dr. Robert Hampson, neuroscientist at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina,  recounted his team’s amazing research on ways to help the brain remember stuff.

     “When people hear the word “prosthetic,” they’ll probably think of an arm or a leg. But what about a prosthetic for the brain? A team of neuroscientists is designing a device that could “zap” the brain into remembering information better, and it’s targeted for people with memory loss. They’re doing so by studying the electrical patterns involved in memory, then mimicking them with electrodes implanted in the brain.”

     Hampson studied epileptics who had implants in their brains’ hippocampus, to control seizures.  [The hippocampus is part of the limbic system, and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory, and in spatial memory that enables navigation.]  He and his team helped the hippocampus remember pictures, by providing it with ‘codes’ that it had created when storing the initial memory.  By jogging the brain’s memory,  Hampson and team improved memory by 35%.   That is a big deal, right?

     What about Alzheimer’s patients?  Hampson said his team will now begin working with them, to test his prosthesis and see if it helps.  For more than two decades, the search for drugs that counter the plaque (amyloid proteins) that clog the brain, in those who suffer from Alzheimer’s, has been fruitless. 

      Perhaps Hampson’s approach offers new hope.

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How Thinking Tires the Brain

By Shlomo Maital

    Ever feel tired, just from sitting around and thinking hard?  Now comes a scientific breakthrough, beautifully reported by The Economist (August 22).

     A team of scientists led by Antonius Wiehler of Pitié-Salpêtrière University Hospital, in Paris, hypothesize that cognitive fatigue results from an accumulation of a certain chemical in the region of the brain underpinning control. That substance, glutamate, is an excitatory neurotransmitter that abounds in the central nervous systems of mammals and plays a role in a multitude of activities, such as learning, memory and the sleep-wake cycle.

    In other words, cognitive work results in chemical changes in the brain, which present behaviorally as fatigue. This, therefore, is a signal to stop working in order to restore balance to the brain.

     But —  how did the researchers discover this?  They did a neat experiment:

     To induce cognitive fatigue, a group of participants were asked to perform just over six hours of various tasks that involve thinking. Half were assigned easy things to do and half hard ones. For example, in one task, letters were displayed on a computer screen every second or so. Those in the easy group had to remember whether the current letter matched the previous letter or, for the hard group, the one shown three letters earlier.

    What did they find?

   “During the experiment the scientists used a technique called magnetic-resonance spectroscopy to measure biochemical changes in the brain. In particular, they focused on the lateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with cognitive control. If their hypothesis was to hold, there would be a measurable chemical difference between the brains of hard- and easy-task participants. And indeed, that is what they found. Their analysis indicated higher concentrations of glutamate in the synapses of a hard-task participant’s lateral prefrontal cortex. Thus showing cognitive fatigue is associated with increased glutamate in the prefrontal cortex.”

 So, my friends.  If you have spent hours working on an idea, writing something, thinking hard, planning —  your brain tires.  Doesn’t help to push on.  Rest.  Your prefrontal cortex is where ideas are born.  Give it a break.  Give the brain time to get rid of all that glutamate.  It’s like lactic acid that accumulates in your muscles toward the end of a long run. 

Aging: A Differential Calculus Approach

By Shlomo Maital

     Warning:  This blog uses differential calculus (derivatives) to explain the aging process. 

     Let X be ‘perceived wellbeing’ at any given age.  Then:  dX/dt is the change in perceived wellbeing over time.

  1.  Youthful glee.   For the young,  dX/dt is positive, and d2X/dt2  is also positive.  Wellbeing is rising, at an increasingly more rapid rate. The world is your plum or your oyster
  2. Maturity.  dX/dt is still positive, but d2X/dt2   is negative,  Wellbeing is  rising, but at a slower and slower rate.  Burdens and responsibilities temper fun.   When d2X/dt2    switches from positive to negative, you are at an inflection point.  Wellbeing shifts from rising at a faster rate, to rising at a slower and slower rate… until….!
  3. Later maturity.   dX/dt becomes zero.  Wellbeing is thus at a maximum.  You’re reached your peak.  Perceived wellbeing is maxed out. 
  4. Early old age:     dX/dt is negative.  Wellbeing is declining. Health problems, money problems, and others.  At this point:  you enjoy what you have, and work so that the slippery slope doesn’t become TOO slippery.  Just – don’t let it get any worse, you hope.   But… it sort of does, though not too fast…  until
  5. Later old age.  Ah, well. d2X/dt2    is seriously negative.  That old slippery slope is really slippery.

  But remember:  it is ‘perceived wellbeing’.  You do have some control. Enjoy the little things.  Like a glass of great wine, or single malt. 

   And one final word.

     Since when do mathematicians know anything about growing old? It’s all just Greek to us.

    Infinitesimal calculus was developed in the late 17th century by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz independently of each other  Newton died at age 84, famous and well off, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.  Leibniz died at age 70 – but was one of the world’s most renowned thinkers, making seminal contributions to philosophy, theology, ethics, politics, law, history and philology. 

    I kind of doubt that d2X/dt2  became that negative for either.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital

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