“Humanity Comes First”

By Shlomo Maital      

President-elect Biden and FDR   

    The last time the US economy was in deep trouble was in the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  As President-elect Biden becomes just President, on Jan. 20, and plans to launch a flurry of executive orders to repair some of Trump’s wreckage,  he proposes a near-$2 trillion rescue package.  This will sharply boost America’s deficit – not that this bothered Trumpian Republicans, when they slashed taxes for the very rich and ensured America entered the pandemic with an already-unnecessarily huge deficit of $1 trillion, up by two-thirds from the deficit in 2016.   In 2020 the deficit was 15% of GDP, or $3 trillion.

    Perhaps we can learn about emergency deficit spending from US President Franklin D.  Roosevelt.  In his campaign speech in Pittsburgh, in 1936, prior to the presidential election in November,  FDR had to explain his large budget deficits:

    “To balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935 would have been a crime against the American people. To do so we should either have had to make a capital levy that would have been confiscatory, or we should have had to set our face against human suffering with callous indifference. When Americans suffered, we refused to pass by on the other side. Humanity came first.”  Roosevelt won re-election in a landslide that year, with 61% of the popular vote and nearly all the electoral college ballots – over 500 electoral votes, out of 538!   Very few people even remember whom his opponent was (Alf Landon of Kansas —  Senate Majority Leader (for now) Mitch McConnell’s home state). 

        Humanity comes first, in times of great suffering.  It is incumbent on world political leaders to embrace that mantra, and direct emergency assistance directly to those who need it most and ensure that it is sufficient to mitigate their suffering.  When good times return, the fiscal cleanup can begin in earnest.   And yes, there will be a leaky bucket – when you have to pump purchasing power into the system very quickly, sometimes, you send checks to those who do not really need them.  So why not add an appeal, for those who do get government aid and don’t need it,  to find someone who does need it and share at least part of it?

Origins of the Word “Vaccine”

By Shlomo Maital   

     When Google counts “most searched words” for 2020 —  vaccine will be way up there in the list.  

      Ever wonder where the word vaccine came from?   Here’s the story, by Johanna Meyer, contributor to the Science Friday podcast of Ira Flatow.

       It began with Dr. Edward Jenner, who most people know discovered that cowpox could vaccinate against smallpox – and saved many lives.   Johanna Meyer continues:

  So here’s where we get the word vaccine. Edward wrote up his findings in a report called an Inquiry Into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae. In Latin, Variolae means pustules, and Vaccinae means, essentially, something that comes from a cow. So Variolae Vaccinae basically means cow pustules, or cowpox.   And for a long time, the word vaccine was used specifically to talk about using cowpox to prevent smallpox. It wasn’t until almost 100 years later that it came to mean more. And it was thanks to Louis Pasteur. He was a really big fan of Edwards, and he wanted to kind of honor him. So when Pasteur created the rabies vaccine, he suggested that we start using the word vaccination to mean any time we inoculate against any infection, just like we use the word today.

   Those who speak French know that cow is ‘vache” in French – and French, a Latin language, has Latin roots.  Vache = vaccine.  Voila. 

     So next week, when I get the second Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination shot against COVID-19, I will think of Edward Jenner and his daring experiment.  By the way – today it would not be possible. Jenner first injected the eight-year-old son of his gardener with the cowpox virus —   with his dad’s permission, but highly unethical today as a human experiment. 

    p.s. the illustration above is “la vache qui rit”,  the laughing cow, a French brand of cheese… 

The Recovery Will Surprise!  Count on It!

By Shlomo Maital      

     The New Year 2021 is here.  At last.  What will it bring?

      Economists have an awful track record in their predictions.  So take mine with a grain of salt… But nonetheless…

      The economic recovery will begin with widespread vaccination, and a chance in mood and mindset.  Later this year, people will return to their old spending habits, with a vengeance.  Why has the stock market hit record heights, despite the pandemic?  Because people have been saving and the money has been invested, with few good choices except the stock market and equities.  It’s basic supply and demand.  With interest rates low, borrowing costs are low, and bond opportunities are poor.  Why not go for equities?

        After World War II, economists predicted depression.  It was logical.  With some 8 million Americna soldiers demobilized, and with huge dollops of defense spending about to disappear, it looked like there would be massively deficient demand. Economists predicted the depression might return.

      The opposite happened. The economy took off (see graph).  Why?  Soldiers who came home played catch-up —  there was a baby boom, housing boom, everything boom…demand soared.

        This will likely occur, on  a somewhat reduced scale, later this year.  People will emerge, and catch up on their spending.  The economy will boom.  The businesses that shutdown will re-emerge.  A lot of things will change – but the good old personal consumption will again buoy the recovery. 

          I feel pretty confident about this.   But – we shall see. 

Primroses & Vaccines: Viva Italia!

By Shlomo Maital    

Primrose Vaccination Center

   A Japanese saying goes:  Spend one yen for bread, one yen for flowers.  The Italians, who have suffered enormously during the pandemic, have embraced the idea.  Ever a country that embraces beauty in design, Italy is employing its design creativity to vaccinate its population.

     According to Jason Horowitz, writing in the New York Times * ,  Italy has employed designer Stefano Boeri to design its new vaccination centers. There will be 1,500 of them, throughout Italy, and they will look as shown above.  The them of Boeri is the primrose.  Why?  “It is the first flower after winter,”  Boeri says,  drawing an analogy with the long dark winter of the pandemic,  “and it is a strong message hat everyone can understand.”  The spring after the dark winter.

    Boeri is famous for his vertical Milan skyscraper gardens,  also employed in Singapore. 

   My wife and I were vaccinated on Dec. 20, in a drive-in center, based in a football stadium parking lot – ten drive-in stands, run with exceptional efficiency, no queues, no waiting.  Pinnacle of efficiency.  I’m sure the Italian vaccination centers may be a lot less efficient – but far more beautiful.   One euro for bread, one for flowers.  Viva Italia!

Nature vs. Humans:  2-0

By Shlomo Maital

 The photo above shows a tiny seedling growing in a small crack in the pavement, between the street asphalt and the curbstone.  Somehow, our old tree,  over 40 years old, has found a way to procreate, as a tiny seed found its way to some earth, and managed to gather sun and rain, implement photosynthesis, and using chlorophyll as a catalyst, it has sprouted. 

    Nature finds a way.  Evolution and the desperate drive to procreate that exists in all Nature. 

     Every ounce of human creativity has been mobilized, to create a vaccine that defeats COVID-19.  Meanwhile, the SARS-COV-2 virus has apparently found a way to mutate, enabling it to be 56% more contagious.  This was inevitable …   faster spreading virus genes will crowd out slower-spreading ones.   It does seem that the vaccines will still be effective, though.

     The little seedling growing impossibly in a crack in the pavement sends me a message.  Want to take on Nature in the ring?  Friday night smackdown?  WWE main event?  You humans will lose every time.  Best to join forces – form a tag team with Nature.  Collaborate with Nature, don’t try to defeat it.

      The little seedling shown above?  It is no more.  It died, when the street sweeper came along and swept it away.  But the mother tree did not mourn.  She knew that so many of her seedlings will perish.  But a few will survive.  And she will live on, in their progeny. 

Minimizing Pain, Maximizing Joy:

 Learning from 2,000-year-old Philosophy

By Shlomo Maital

   Two unrelated events in my life have come together, in an unexpected way.

   My wife and I are taking a Zoom class, on Sunday nights led by our Rabbi Elisha, on the Stoic philosopher Philo the Greek, who lived in Alexandria 2,000 years ago, and who used Stoic philosophy to help interpret the Bible, in a creative and highly insightful manner.

   And, from time to time, I listen to the wonderful NPR podcast Hidden Brain,  featuring Harvard University psychologist Shankar Vedante.  The podcast features psychological insights into behavior, with information that we can use daily.  The episode I am listening to now is “Minimizing Pain, Maximizing Joy”,  an interview with philosopher William Irvine, about how we can manage extreme anger reactions, when we ‘lose it’.  Irvine’s book

     In these pandemic days, I am sure there have been an unusually large number of these anger-arousing incidents, when fierce anger arises and we ‘lose it’ or come close.  It is sad, because in my country, and I believe in other countries, there has been an alarming rise in domestic violence, especially against women. 

     In his book, William Irvine proposes how we can use a two-millenium-old philosophy, Stoicism, to better deal with the problem,  to “minimize pain, maximize joy” – the title of Hidden Brain podcast, available at th NPR website. 

    Here is the essence:

“Some people bounce back in response to setbacks; others break. We often think that these responses are hardwired, but fortunately this is not the case. Stoicism offers us an alternative approach. Plumbing the wisdom of one of the most popular and successful schools of thought from ancient Rome, philosopher William B. Irvine teaches us to turn any challenge on its head. The Stoic Challenge, then, is the ultimate guide to improving your quality of life through tactics developed by ancient Stoics, from Marcus Aurelius and Seneca to Epictetus.

   “This book uniquely combines ancient Stoic insights with techniques discovered by contemporary psychological research, such as anchoring and framing. The result is a surprisingly simple strategy for dealing with life’s unpleasant and unexpected challenges―from minor setbacks like being caught in a traffic jam or having a flight cancelled to major setbacks like those experienced by physicist Stephen Hawking, who slowly lost the ability to move, and writer Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered from locked-in syndrome.

    “The Stoics discovered that thinking of challenges as tests of character can dramatically alter our emotional response to them. Irvine’s updated “Stoic test strategy” teaches us how to transform life’s stumbling blocks into opportunities for becoming calmer, tougher, and more resilient. Not only can we overcome everyday obstacles―we can benefit from them, too.”

    What are the practical Stoic techniques:  *  Practice:  pull anger-arousing incidents out of your memory, and revise, re-edit them, as you revise (retroactively) your reaction.  * Someone says hurtful things to you:  Ignore, move on, disregard… and forget them.  If they’re trying to wound you, they will deeply regret failing.  * Visualize: imagine highly annoying situations, and practice sliding through them.  * Blessings: remind yourself more regularly of what is good in your life.  * Real-time realization:  In an anger-arousing situation, look more deeply into it, and find the parts that comprise blessings to you. 

   I know – much easier said than done.  But dealing with extreme annoyance is a life skill that is incredibly valuable.  One technique I use myself is the ‘echo chamber’.  When you feel you are about to say something hurtful, in white-hot anger,  say it first in your head, think it, unspoken.  Listen to it.  And then delay it, and ask, do I really want to say this?   

    In close to 100% of the time, I do not actually say those words. And boy – am I grateful I did not!

     Try it.    

 When Will They Ever Learn?

By Shlomo Maital  

  Bob Dylan’s song Blowin’ in the Wind, asks:  When will they ever learn?

   Well – when WILL they?  

    After the 2008 global financial collapse, the US and EU poured massive amounts of purchasing power into the system, to bail out failing and failed businesses and banks.  The US provided more, and more prolonged, stimulus than Europe, which quickly embraced ‘austerity’, panicking because of growing levels of public debt.  (The US was not blameless – when Treasury Secretary Paulson let Lehman Bros. go bankrupt, due to personal animosity from his Wall St. days, the fallout was disastrous). 

      A study of the aftermath of 2008 shows this: 

    The Institute of International Finance says austerity probably damages economies trying to recover from the great financial crisis.  Since 2008, GDP growth in the US has been 10% greater than in Europe, the IIF says. In terms of GDP growth per capita, the reduction was 5%. Fiscal tightening in Europe was the main difference. Trend growth in the US was double what it was in Europe following the financial crisis, the IIF says. Prior to 2008, they had been the same.

    So – have they learned?  EU has, perhaps.  Despite the roadblock of Hungary and Poland, threatening a veto to keep the EU from demanding the rule of law in those two ultra-right Presidents Urban and Duda,  the EU will soon inject a massive stimulus package into the 27 EU countries. 

    But the US?   Congress is still haggling over a $900 billion stimulus package, that is probably too little, too late.   Pennsylvania Senator Toomey is a one-man wrecking crew, insisting the legislation halt the Fed from its emergency loan programs.  Looks like a way around Toomey has been found.

     So in 2010-12,  the EU imposed austerity, wrongheadedly.  Now, in late 2020, the Republican-controlled Senate is limiting the Democrats’ ability to help deficit-ridden state budgets and to provide long-term unemployment benefits.  Is this a replay of Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s avowed goal to wreck America, so President Obama would not get a second term? (McConnell failed).

    The macroeconomics here are pretty clear.  The demand side of GDP has four players: people, government, businesses and foreign buyers.  People are spending a lot less,   businesses are not investing, and foreign buyers are not buying much.  That leaves government.  Only government can pour purchasing power into the system and provide CPR to the economy. 

      Rising debt levels?  Sure —  but if the economy continues to stall and decline, the CURRENT debt will be burdensome, while if the economy grows,   rising tax revenues will help pay even higher levels of principal and interest.  Remember, tax revenues rise much faster than the overall economy. 

      Keynes wrote this in 1936 —  but nobody really listened (even the New Deal was a drop in the bucket) and only WWII ended the decade-long Depression. 

     When will they ever learn? 

      The answer, indeed, is blowin’ in the wind.   

Don’t Disparage Desperation: It May Save Us

By Shlomo Maital   

   These are desperate times.  Many people have lost their jobs and are realizing they will not get them back.  Weekly job creation numbers in the US consistently fall well below predictions.  And long-term unemployment threatens to become permanent, for many.

    But – don’t disparage desperation.  It can bear fruit.  Some 4 million new US businesses have been launched in 2020 alone – close to a record pace.  Many who have lost employment and have little hope of finding jobs in the future, are starting their own businesses.  And the money to finance them has not declined – venture capital continues strong.  With market interest rates low, pension funds and others seek ways to boost their return and high-tech is one of them.

    Before the pandemic, I was fortunate to host many visitos from abroad, who came to Israel to learn why Israelis are creative and launch scads of startups.  They want the ‘secret sauce’ recipe – the answer to Israel’s creativity.  I always admit that I really don’t know, even after living in this country for 53 years and observing its entrepreneurs closely.

    However – here is a hypothesis.  It’s about culture. Israel has a culture of improvisation.  It was born in 1948, when Israel’s then-Prime Minister declared independence and the tiny poor country with only some 600,000 people was attacked by its neighbors.  Survival odds were very low.  Weapons were hard to find.  So Israelis took water pipes and fashioned crude mortars out of them.  Desperation.

     When biomedical experts saw the pandemic spread, in its early days, they understood what it meant – better than the politicians.  They became desperate – and the result is an unprecedented number of effective vaccines, that before the end of year will begin to vaccinate people in Britain and perhaps in the US.  No vaccine has ever been developed and tested in less than a year.  Desperation.

      Desperation can lead to panic. It can lead to depression and deep anxiety.  But for some, it can lead to wild ideas that change the world.  So – what is the difference between “destructive desperation” and “creative desperation” – or, as Schumpeter alled it, creative destruction?

     I think it is one key principle.  Assumptions.  If you assume that even in the most desperate situations, there IS a solution, there IS an answer, I just have to find it…   then you will eventually find an answer.  IF you assume that no, it is hopeless, the odds are too great, I’m doomed, it’s a lost cause – then your brain never will come up with anything useful.

      Even in desperate situations, there is hope.  There is hope, if you believe there is – and seek ideas to escape.   And you know, even if you fail, the very act of taking action, of doing something, will save you from apathy and depression.  And perhaps that in itself is a partial solution? 

The Duchess and the Pope:

 Let’s Listen Carefully to Their Messages:  Are You OK?

By Shlomo Maital  

Meghan                   &                  Pope Francis

  On two consecutive days, Nov. 25 and 26, the New York Times ran Op-Ed essays by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Pope Francis.  By coincidence only, these two powerful messages coincide and complement each other.  Here is a short summary, in case you missed them.  Just for background:  Meghan, married to Prince Harry, younger son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, was hounded out of Britain by racist tabloids (she is mixed race).

    Meghan recounts how, touring in South Africa with Harry, a journalist asked her a very unusual question:   Are you OK?  She was tired, hassled, not OK – but journalists pursuing racy stories were rarely interested in her wellbeing, as a person.  The question touched her.  Here is what she writes:

     “So this Thanksgiving, as we plan for a holiday unlike any before — many of us separated from our loved ones, alone, sick, scared, divided and perhaps struggling to find something, anything, to be grateful for — let us commit to asking others, “Are you OK?” As much as we may disagree, as physically distanced as we may be, the truth is that we are more connected than ever because of all we have individually and collectively endured this year.  We are adjusting to a new normal where faces are concealed by masks, but it’s forcing us to look into one another’s eyes — sometimes filled with warmth, other times with tears. For the first time, in a long time, as human beings, we are really seeing one another.

    Are we OK?  We will be.”

     Yes – we are OK, many of us.   Many are not – but they will be, if we ask them how they are, and do small and big things to make them OK. 

     And the Pope?  Here is his message, taken from a forthcoming book: 

       “The coronavirus crisis may seem special because it affects most of humankind. But it is special only in how visible it is. There are a thousand other crises that are just as dire, but are just far enough from some of us that we can act as if they don’t exist. Think, for example, of the wars scattered across different parts of the world; of the production and trade in weapons; of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing poverty, hunger and lack of opportunity; of climate change. These tragedies may seem distant from us, as part of the daily news that, sadly, fails to move us to change our agendas and priorities. But like the Covid-19 crisis, they affect the whole of humanity.  Look at us now: We put on face masks to protect ourselves and others from a virus we can’t see. But what about all those other unseen viruses we need to protect ourselves from? How will we deal with the hidden pandemics of this world, the pandemics of hunger and violence and climate change?    If we are to come out of this crisis less selfish than when we went in, we have to let ourselves be touched by others’ pain.     This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities — what we value, what we want, what we seek — and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.”

   We have to let ourselves be touched by others’ pain.  And act, however we can, to diminish it. 

    The Pope and the Duchess.  Words to live by.

Toward a Cure for Cancer & Alzheimer’s?

 It’s About How Cells (Fail to) Take Out the Trash

By Shlomo Maital

Prof. Ido Amit

   Prof. Ido Amit is a scientist at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, and heads an immunology lab there.  On his website, he writes:  “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by trying and falling over.”  

     In this weekend’s Haaretz magazine, science writer Asaf Ronel has a lovely cover article (in Hebrew) about a possible breakthrough by Amit, in treating cancer and even Alzheimer’s.

     I will try to explain it.

     In order for cancer cells to spread through our bodies, they have to evade and defeat our immune system – specifically, immune cells that attack and kill these foreign invaders.  But how exactly do cancer cells defeat our immune system?

       Amit’s lab has perhaps discovered how.  Cancer cells, it is claimed,  latch on to specific cells in the body, whose purpose it is to ‘take out the trash’ made by the body’s cells, as they consume energy and do their jobs.  Cancer cells transform those kidnapped ‘garbage truck’ cells and  turn them into cells that that deprive the body’s cells of energy ..basically, making the ‘garbage trucks’ collect energy from the body’s immune-response cells and not just the trash. 

       Immunotherapy helps the body’s immune-response cells to identify and destroy cancer cells. But cancer cells can neutralize those immune-response cells by using the ‘garbage truck’ cells to deprive them of much-needed energy. Without energy, the immune cells can’t do their job.

       Amit’s lab believes it has a way to neutralize the kidnapped ‘garbage truck’ cells and disable them, so that the body’s tissues get the needed energy – in particular, the immune-response cells.   Once the immune-response cells get the needed energy, they are able to successfully attack and destroy the cancer cells.

        Several Pharma companies are at work on finding drugs that implement Amit’s approach.    There is hope that as a result,  many of the 10 million persons who die worldwide annually of cancer may be saved.  

         But wait.  There is more.

         We know that Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia afflict 50 million people worldwide.  Alzheimer’s is linked to plaque that forms in the brain and ‘gums up the brain cells’, like putting sugar into someone’s gas tank (don’t try this at home) that gums up the carburetor or fuel injection. 

          Amit believes the cause may be the same ‘garbage truck’ cells in the brain, that somehow become unable to ‘take out the trash’ and get rid of the plaque and waste generated by brain cells (which generally work very hard every minute of the day).  As that trash accumulates in the brain, the brain ceases to function properly – more or less, like the streets of, say, Tel Aviv, when the garbage collectors go on strike and the trash accumulates in piles on streets and sidewalks..

       Amit says if we catch early-stage dementia, and repair the ‘garbage truck’ cells, maybe we can delay or prevent the disease’s onset and keep the brain cells trash-free..

        How soon will there be drugs that implement his finding?  Amit believes – two to four years

         Hang on there, Snoopy.  Help may be on the way. 

         To discover this, Amit had to invent new technologies that enable the study of individual cells.  He was told by experts that what he was attempting was impossible.  As with many breakthroughs,  he persisted. 

         I myself have survived prostate cancer, a close call,  and the only thing I really fear in this world is having my brain gummed up with plaque.  So I will follow Amit’s progress very closely.  A lot is at stake.    

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital