Don’t Diet, Just Eat Smaller Portions

By Shlomo  Maital

    Yesterday, I listened to the BBC World Service program The Food Chain.  It brought some very useful pragmatic advice:

   “Serving sizes have increased dramatically in recent decades. It’s happened so subtly that many of us simply don’t realize, but it’s having a serious impact on our health and our planet. So, how can we reverse it?”

     Fast food portions a la Big Mac, and enormous restaurant portions, have grown enormously, almost without our noticing it.  BBC journalist Emily Thomas reports on “how food manufacturers and clever marketers have nudged us into buying ever larger portions, leveraging ultracheap ingredients and our own psychology.” 

      And worse —  it has crept into our homes “…where many of us have lost any concept of what an appropriate portion is.”

       Later in the broadcast, an INSEAD marketing expert offered some cool simple advice.  He is Pierre Chandon, professor of marketing and director of the INSEAD Sorbonne University Behavioural Lab, Paris.   It is this:

       As economists explain, there is a law of diminishing marginal utility.  That first spoon of ice cream?  Wow.  The next.  Less wow.  The last, especially if the dish is enormous …well, ugh…I’m stuffed.  So in truth we really do not get much extra pleasure from the last bites of huge portions.

      So at home, make smaller portions.  A single scoop of ice cream, not two.  Notice how much less food you waste (studies show a third to a half of food consumed at home is just thrown away – perfectly edible stuff!  A Haifa U. researcher scrounged through garbage cans to prove it!). 

      And at restaurants?  Ask for half portions.  Order kids’ size.  And if this is impossible – do not shrink from leaving half the food on your plate. 

       Personally, I HATE hate hate to waste food.  But there may be no choice.  If it harms your health, and if it is not pleasurable …why succumb to the wiles and profit greed of businesses?   Why not fight back? 

        Dieting is tough and often doesn’t work.  So why do it?  Why not just consume less, without in any way impinging on our enjoyment of the meal, and maybe, increasing it.

          Thanks BBC.   Now – regulators,  are you listening?  Do you know how much those huge fast food portions and enormous drink sizes are costing society, in terms of healthcare costs?

Another Global Meltdown Close Call – While We Slept

By Shlomo Maital     

   In 2008 global capital markets were in meltdown, driven by Casino-like gambler behavior by principal actors, hidden behind a screen of subterfuge, misleading labels (credit default swaps, which weren’t swaps at all), bad regulation and greed.  

    Some said – it can happen again, And it will.

    And, while we slept, while we were preoccupied by the pandemic, it nearly did.  In fact, three times.  The fourth time may be the real thing.  Fasten your seat belts.

     Here is a timeline account of what happened. I will skip a lot of the technical stuff.  Warning:  This is long, about 800 words.

     Background:  Bill Hwang is a New York hedge fund manager, who ran Tiger Asia; he set up his own hedge fund and called it Archegos (which means “one who leads the way” in Greek – as you will see, highly ironic). 

      Wednesday March 24:   the media company ViacomCBS begins selling shares to raise money.  ViacomCBS employs some 22,000 people, has $25 b. in revenues, with about $2 b. in profits.  The day before, Viacom shares fell 9%, and was down 30% from its high on Monday, on Wednesday.  Why?  The capital markets expected Archegos to buy tons of Viacom shares; but Archegos did not.  (We will see why not, later).  That turned out to be Bill Hwang’s downfall. 

     Hwang had bought huge chunks of Viacom shares, but used a derivative (an asset derived from shares, not actually a share itelf) to hide what he bought, known as TRS total return swap.  His purchases were based on debt – “leveraged”.  Some 85% of the price he paid was borrowed from banks.  This made him wealthy, with assets of $20 b. at one point. But it was his downfall.  Because – the collateral (backing) for his loans was the shares he bought. But when the value of the collateral falls, as Viacom shares did, the banks call you and say, hey!  I need money, your collateral is too small.   And Hwang was strapped, because some of his other investments (in Asia) were doing poorly.   

     So the banks had to sell some of Hwang’s Viacom shares, at low low prices, to pay up these so-called ‘margin calls’.  This caused Viacom stock to drop even further. A doom loop.  Not unfamiliar, in financial meltdowns and bubble bursts.  The banks knew this was ‘doom’ – but it was a race to see who could pull out their money before bankruptcy.  The most alacritous banks succeeded; the slow banks lost heavily.

     Thursday March 25    Hwang tries to get the banks to hold off on their margin calls, and arranges a conference call with his creditors.  But Goldman Sachs refuses and sells off Viacom shares.  Credit Suisse, in contrast, favors holding off.

     Friday March 26.  Goldman Sachs sells $3 b. to $4 b. worth of Viacom stock held by Archegos, with Archegos’ agreement.  During the day Goldman sells of more than $10.5 b. worth of Viacom shares. Morgan Stanley unloads $8 b. worth.  Deutsche Bank follows suit.   Credit Suisse and Nomura, who lent scads of money to Hwang, are left holding the ball.

     Monday March 29.  Nomura reports a possible $2 b. loss.  Credit Suisse ‘flags’ a possible $1 b. to $4 b. loss. 

     Tuesday March 20.  Mitubishi UFJ Financial Group reports $300 m. in possible losses.  JP Morgan, unscathed, says Wall St. losses could total $10 b.   US regulators and UK regulators say they are “discussing the meltdown”.  (Wow – quick work, guys.  Forget to set your alarm clocks?)

     Wed. March 31:    Credit Suisse losses could total $5 b.  A senior credit manager loses her job.    US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says she will revive a regulatory working group (disbanded under Trump) to examine the risk hedge funds pose to the financial system.

     Thursday April 1.   NOT April Fools.  The losses spread – Japanese firms report losses too.

    And today, as I write this:  Tuesday April 6.   It’s business as usual.  The S&P and Dow-Jones Industrial Indices are both at record highs. 

     Meltdown?  What meltdown? 

     The bottom line:  Hwang used a ‘leverage’ (debt) strategy, buying stocks on borrowed money, hidden, (because he bought on his own account, for a ‘family’ hedge fund, and did not technically have voting rights, requiring open reporting).  He ran up Viacom stocks, at one point was worth $20 b.  in just one year – and now, has probably lost all of it. 

     Does this sound similar to Sneaky Sam, Gamblin’ Man, who rolls the dice in Las Vegas, makes millions, and then on one roll of the dice – loses every penny,  and borrows $5 to hop a cab to his hotel room. 

     Except —  global capital markets are not supposed to be casinos.

     One day, maybe, we will find a way to turn global casinos into what they are meant to be:   Channelling money from those who have it to those who need it, in a transparent, open, orderly and bubble-free manner.

p.s. Mohammed El-Erian, formerly CEO of the huge bond trading fund PIMCO says we have had fully three near-meltdowns in recent weeks, and sums up, “this was an accident waiting to happen, and it happened.”[The previous two near-meltdowns were linked to the GameStop shares and Robinhood].

How to Grow Old – Wisdom from Bertrand Russell

By Shlomo Maital   

Bertrand Russell

    Bertrand Russell (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) was a British polymath, philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate (for literature).  He was a pacifist, and went to jail for his beliefs.  He lived a long and productive life, to the age of 97.

     By chance, I stumbled on his essay, “How to Grow Old”,  in an anthology, on the bookshelves of our son-in-law.  His advice is very wise.  And it contains a lovely metaphor – treat your life as a river, let it gradually widen from narrow banks into a great broad Mississippi, with broad interests and the goal of remaining relevant, and helping others. 

     Here are his words —  232 of them. 

  “Some old people are troubled by the fear of death.  In the young there is a justification for this feeling.  Young men who have reason to fear that they will be killed in battle may justifiably feel bitter in the thought that they have been cheated of the best things that life has to offer.  But in an old man who has known human joys and sorrows, and has done whatever work it was in him to do, the fear of death is somewhat ignoble. The best way to overcome it – so at least it seems to me – is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly part of the universal life.  An individual human existence should be like a river, small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls.  Gradually the river grows wider, th banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become part of the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.  The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of eath, since the things he cares for will continue.  And if, with the loss of vitality, weariness increases the thoughts of rest will not be unwelcome.”

In Praise of Chlorophyll

By Shlomo Maital   

    Among the many things we take for granted on our beautiful abused planet is …. Chlorophyll.  I became aware of chlorophyll because of COVID-19. As our synagogue practices cautious social distancing, some of us sit outside, in the corridor.  I get to sit next to leafy plants and a lovely geranium.  And that’s when I reflected on chlorophyll (as the Muppet’s and Kermit’s song goes, it’s not easy being green — ). *

    You and I are here on this planet because of chlorophyll.  ONLY because of it.  Why? Because chlorophyll is vital in photosynthesis. And photosynthesis creates oxygen.  And oxygen is what we breathe, and why living animals are alive.   We’ve known about chlorophyll since 1817 —  for 200 years!

    Here is a short primer. 

    What IS chlorophyll?  It’s simply green pigment.  Why green?  Because Chlorophyll absorbs light in the blue portion of the light spectrum as well as the red portion. But it is a poor absorber of green portions of the spectrum. Hence chlorophyll-containing tissues appear green because green light is less absorbed by plants and is reflected to our eyes. The plant uses the red and blue light. 

    What does chlorophyll do?  Chlorophyll is simply green pigment found in the bacteria and  and in algae and plants] Its name is derived from the Greek — (“pale green”) and   (“leaf”).   Chlorophyll is essential in photosynthesis, allowing plants to absorb energy from light and use it to create food.   

    But what IS photosynthesis?  Photosynthesis is the process by which plants and some microorganisms make substances like carbohydrates.    It takes in heat in a chemical process that uses sunlight to turn carbon dioxide into sugars. The sugars are used by the cell as energy, and to build other kinds of molecules. The formula is simple:  6 molecules of water, and 6 molecules of carbon dioxide, combine together, catalyzed by chlorophyll, and using sunlight as energy, plus chlorophyll as a catalyst, you get six molecules of C6H12O6 (sugar) and six molecules of oxygen!

      Why does Kermit think it’s not that easy being green? (see below).

     Well, Kermit the Frog IS green, but not because he does photosynthesis, it’s because he’s a frog, and frogs are green because evolution made them that way as camouflage.  But in a world where people cut down trees and destroy frogs’ habitats, NO, it Is NOT easy to be green.  You’re right, Kermit.

     But maybe if we understood green better,  understood chlorophyll and the miracle that it creates, we would be bigger fans of Green.  Maybe we would vote for Green Parties?

= = = = =

  •   As a public service, here are the lyrics:

         It’s not that easy being green;

Having to spend each day the color of the leaves.

       When I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow or gold-

      or something much more colorful like that.   It’s not easy being green.

      It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.

     And people tend to pass you over ’cause you’re not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water-

     or stars in the sky.  But green’s the color of Spring.

     And green can be cool and friendly-like.

Israeli Study: Pregnant Women SHOULD be Vacciated!

By Shlomo Maital   

  Should pregnant women be vaccinated with the COVID-19 vaccine?

  A small-scale study done in Israel suggests the answer is unequivocal:  Yes!  The immunity gained by the mother creates antibodies that also protect the fetus, and newborn through breast milk, the study shows.

  Here are the results, just out, according to the Times of Israel website:

    “10 lactating women had antibodies in milk after 1st dose, with level rising a week after 2nd; scientists call for inoculation of breastfeeding women to protect their babies.  A small-scale study conducted in Israel has found coronavirus antibodies in the breastmilk of mothers vaccinated against COVID-19.    Ten lactating mothers who were members of the medical staff at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital and were vaccinated agreed to give samples of their breastmilk.  All of the samples were found to have coronavirus antibodies after one vaccine dose, with the levels increasing a week after the second dose.  The researchers found that the formation of antibodies in milk and blood is synchronized and that the antibodies that develop in breastmilk have the ability to neutralize and block the connection between the virus and the receptor on the cell, which is key to the vaccine’s ability to prevent disease.  Prof. Ariel Many, one of the leaders of the study, which was held jointly with Tel Aviv University, told the Kan public broadcaster that the results were significant enough to confirm the importance of vaccinating breastfeeding women in the hope that it might also help protect their children.

     “The meaning [of the study] is not entirely clear but it is clear that the immune response is good enough for antibodies to be transferred to the breastmilk and we know from other vaccines that there is an increase in antibodies in breastmilk,” Many said. “The antibodies were most likely absorbed in the digestive tract and this may lead to some protection for infants.”

   Understandably, pregnant women are very cautious about vaccination and medication in general.  This is wise.  But in the complex risk-benefit tradeoff, it seems clear that it is advisable for expectant women to be vaccinated.  

100 Million Doses Can’t Be Wrong: The Vaccine is Safe!

By Shlomo Maital    

    For all those who refuse to be vaccinated:  The evidence is in.  After 100 million doses of several types of COVID-19 vaccine, administered in the US, Israel and elsewhere,  there is strong evidence that the side-effects, predicted initially to be minimal, are even less than predicted.  The vaccine is effective!  The vaccine is safe.  And no, there are no hidden secret side-effects (I know intelligent people who claim that a microchip is being injected with the vaccine!  Can you believe it?????)

     In general, vaccines are perhaps the greatest public health innovation in history.  It is estimated that 2-3 million children’s lives are saved yearly by vaccinating them.   In a table published in today’s Hebrew daily Haaretz, the track record of vaccines is shown, over time:

                                     20th C. Vaccines and their Effectiveness

Small pox        100%  (eradication)

Diphtheria       above 99%

Mumps         above 99%

Whooping Cough  92%

Polio                  100%

Measles           Above 99%

Tetanus         97%

Hemophylic Influenza  99%

     The main COVID-19 vaccines are based on novel  messenger RNA technology. A small amount of RNA is injected into the muscle of the arm, and the body responds by generating antibodies.  One reason the vaccine is safe, and this technology is safe, is that the RNA vaccine material resides in the body only for a very short time – a few hours, just long enough for the body’s immune response to react. 

      In the past,  conventional vaccines have largely been based on weakened versions of the offending virus itself.  This technology, while highly effective, is more prone to side-effects. 

     And no, it is proven that the vaccine does not do harm to fetuses;  in contrast pregnant women who are not vaccinated run a risk, and here have been tragic cases of this here in Israel.

      About half of Israel’s population has already had at least one jab.  With hypervigilance for reactions, and long-term side-effects, there have been virtually none. 

       I believe this key fact is sinking in worldwide, including some anti-vaxers.  The proof is in the pudding – and the pudding is looking better daily.  So let’s get on with it and get this virus out of our lives, as we did with smallpox and polio and lots of other illnesses….

How Oxygen Shaped Life on Planet Earth

By Shlomo Maital    

Earth – 4 billion years ago — not the “blue marble” yet!

    To shape life on Earth, as we know it today, a great many imporbable things had to happen, and coincide. One of them was – the creation of oxygen.  How did that happen?  A new article in Nature Ecology and Evolution, by Weizmann Intitute Professor Dan Tawfik and student Jagoda Yablonski, suggests how this happened.  The article is summarized by the excellent Haaretz science writer Asaf Ronal:

  In the first half of her life so far, our bluish planet looked completely different. The sky and sea were filled with ammonia and iron sulfur compounds, and painted in a murky heat (and the smell was accordingly). 2.4 billion years ago, the Earth underwent a geochemical image revolution: the atmosphere filled with oxygen, the reddish-brown compounds oxidized and sank to the bottom and the sky and oceans became clearer and got the blue color we know.

    This event is called the “Great Oxidation.” The radical change in the Earth’s environment is considered one of the key events in the evolution of life on the planet because without oxygen-filled air, the complex animals that rely on breathing air for energy production could not have evolved. The explanation for the sharp rise in oxygen concentration lies in the development of the ability of organisms to do oxidative photosynthesis – to produce energy from sunlight in a process that produces oxygen.

But how did this happens?

     However, the question of when this ability for oxidative photosynthesis appeared in Earth’s history, and the exact process that led to the environmental upheaval, has remained scientifically controversial. Now, a new study uses the tools of evolutionary and genetic research to date the emergence of oxidative photosynthesis to a period of about 3.1 billion years ago. The study was published yesterday (Thursday) in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, and points to the possibility that those organisms with the new capacity created and expanded pockets of oxygen-rich environment 700 million years later, until the amount of oxygen reached the critical mass required to fundamentally change the chemical environment of the entire planet’s surface.

    Recently, NASA landed the Perseverence explorer on Mars.  One goal is to search for life there.  But some scientists think there may be life elsewhere in the cosmos – on Titan, the moon of Saturn.  It is the only moon known to have a dense atmosphere…and deep lakes.  But the lakes are not water – they are liquid methane and ethane, and Titan is incredibly cold, so the ice that does exist is frozen solid.

   If life on Earth evolved on the basis of oxygen – could there be life on Titan, on the basis of methane?  Why not?   Why could not cells adapt to using methane, rather than oxygen?

    One day, we will know.

Do Vaccinated People Spread COVID-19? Answers from Israel  (No!)

By Shlomo Maital   

  Fully half of Israel’s population have been given at least one jb, and 35% of the population  have received the second dose of already.   Most have received the jab through their HMO – there are four large ones, with the largest one being Clalit.

   The widespread vaccination numbers plus the HMO’s advanced IT system enables empirical studies of the vaccine – not just its effectiveness but whether those vaccinated can spread the illness

    Here are the results:

   “After nearly two months, Israeli data is beginning to confirm what Pfizer already knew: their coronavirus vaccine stops symptomatic and severe COVID-19. So, why are Israelis still wearing masks for anything but Purim? Health experts are still unsure whether the vaccines prevent asymptomatic cases – contracting the virus but having no symptoms. If those people who get vaccinated can still contract coronavirus and transmit it to others, then it will be difficult to stop the spread of COVID-19.

If people silently become infected with coronavirus, they could pass it on, potentially sickening people who are not immune.

A model developed by the researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January showed that people with no symptoms transmit more than half of all cases of the novel coronavirus.

But there is growing evidence that people who get vaccinated do not spread the virus very much, if at all.

  Despite this, we are not yet out of the woods.  Caution is needed:

  “Everyone still needs to be cautious,” said Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. “Things are more complicated now because people think they are vaccinated and everything is good, so it’s harder to get them to keep on their masks. But it is necessary because we do know that some people will get infected and be asymptomatic. And those people may be able to spread the disease.

“The problem is that if not everyone is vaccinated or there are people who are immunosuppressed, even if they are vaccinated the vaccine is less effective, they may get the disease,” she continued

Vaccine Effectiveness:  1.2 Million People Can’t Be Wrong –

Evidence from Israel’s Largest HMO

By Shlomo Maital   

Prof. Ran Balicer, Clalit HMO

    The largest study to date of vaccine effectiveness, in the field, will be shortly published in the New England Journal of Medicine, based on data from Israel’s largest HMO, Clalit – 1.2 million people!  The lead author is Prof. Ran Balicer, who heads innovation at Clalit and is a highly creative doctor.

     Here are the main results,  reported by Times of Israel:   

    A massive study by Israel’s largest health provider indicates that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 94 percent effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19, and 92% effective in averting serious cases of the disease.    The survey by the Clalit Health Services HMO compared 600,000 fully vaccinated individuals — 170,000 over 60 and 430,000 between the ages of 16 and 59 — with 600,000 unprotected Israelis. Believed to represent the largest such study in the world to date, it found the vaccine to be highly protective from both symptomatic infections and serious symptoms, shoring up previous studies on the shots.   “The previous studies dealt with infections, but not with symptoms and therefore can’t be compared to Pfizer’s clinical research,” said Dr. Ran Balicer, an epidemiologist who directs health policy planning at Clalit, in an interview with Channel 12. “Now, for the first time, we are comparing the vaccinated group with a control group with similar characteristics to see if the vaccine works ‘by the book.’”   After accounting for factors such as age, “we can state clearly: The vaccine prevents serious illness also among those 70 and older, for whom there wasn’t enough data in Pfizer’s study,” said Balicer, who analyzed the data along with several Israeli researchers and a team from Harvard University.  

  The team, including Harvard University researchers, who did the research used sophisticated statistical techniques, including “twinning” —   matching people similar in age, gender and other characteristics,  one with the vaccine and one without.    

    Israel has four main large HMO’s.  Each has a sophisticated IT database.  This has made it possible to vaccinate very large numbers of Israelis, based on priorities, in an orderly manner and to track the results – and share them with Pfizer, which was a condition for Pfizer supplying large numbers of doses. 

     The existence of medical database records is a key advantage of a health system based on HMO’s and publicly provided healthcare.  Such databases exist in the US, but are fragmented and are zealously protected, ostensibly for ‘privacy’ but also in large part for commercial reasons (the data are highly valuable). 

Pandemic: Beginning of the End?

By Shlomo Maital    

Average New Cases Per Day, Global  (NYT Feb 25)

  Today’s New York Times (international edition) brings a hopeful graph.  Globally, new cases of COVID-19 are declining.

  It is as if the virus has run out of steam – gotten tired of causing death, sickness and mischief.  Not clear why the decline!   It’s not vaccination – the rates are not high enough to do this.  Many places, e.g. the European Union, are very slow to vaccinate.  And there are mutant variant – UK, South Africa, Brazil, and now Uganda —  that are more virulent.

     The global peak seems to have been on Jan 11.  And it seems to have been a peak that occurred pretty much at the same time everywhere  !   Why?  Does the virus have some sort of WiFi?  Very strange!

    But – we’ll take it.  This could be the beginning of the end of the pandemic – but far from the end.  We still do not know with great certainty, whether those who have been vaccinated can still spread the virus (they may be immune, the virus can’t make them ill, but still have virus in their noses, and hence spreadable).  This is because the three-stage clinical trials of all the vaccines focused solely on whether the vaccine prevented people from getting ill – not from having the virus in their bodies.  (That would have taken far far longer, and time was of the essence). 

      So let’s keep masking (we’re getting used to it, right?   When you go out, you kind of grab that mask automatically).  Keep distancing.   And hope that crucial curve keeps going down.

      Thanks, New York Times.  Finally, some good news.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital