“Pancho” Speaks – Without Speaking

By Shlomo Maital     

New York Times

   From The New York Times, July 14:  by Pam Belluck:   

   “He has not been able to speak since 2003, when he was paralyzed at age 20 by a severe stroke after a terrible car crash.  Now, in a scientific milestone, researchers have tapped into the speech areas of his brain — allowing him to produce comprehensible words and sentences simply by trying to say them. When the man, known by his nickname, Pancho, tries to speak, electrodes implanted in his brain transmit signals to a computer that displays his intended words on the screen.    His first recognizable sentence, researchers said, was, “My family is outside.”

   “The achievement, published on Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, could eventually help many patients with conditions that steal their ability to talk.  “This is farther than we’ve ever imagined we could go,” said Melanie Fried-Oken, a professor of neurology and pediatrics at Oregon Health & Science University, who was not involved in the project.

    “Three years ago, when Pancho, now 38, agreed to work with neuroscience researchers, they were unsure if his brain had even retained the mechanisms for speech.   “That part of his brain might have been dormant, and we just didn’t know if it would ever really wake up in order for him to speak again,” said Dr. Edward Chang, chairman of neurological surgery at University of California, San Francisco, who led the research.

      “The team implanted a rectangular sheet of 128 electrodes, designed to detect signals from speech-related sensory and motor processes linked to the mouth, lips, jaw, tongue and larynx. In 50 sessions over 81 weeks, they connected the implant to a computer by a cable attached to a port in Pancho’s head, and asked him to try to say words from a list of 50 common ones he helped suggest, including “hungry,” “music” and “computer.”    As he did, electrodes transmitted signals through a form of artificial intelligence that tried to recognize the intended words.”

. . . . . .

   There are perhaps 100,000 people in the US alone who suffer long-term disability related to traumatic brain injury, including inability to speak.  Perhaps one day, this amazing breakthrough will restore their ability to communicate. 

   Special congratulations to the creativity and audacity of Dr. Edward Chang, who led the research. 

The Little Engine that Could!

By Shlomo Maital    

   Remember the wonderful children’s book, by Watty Piper, about the little engine that could – I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…I KNEW I could!  (In pulling a heavy load up a steep hill)?

    The real-life version just happened.

     According to Matt Phillips, writing in the New York Times:  “Exxon’s Board Defeat Signals the Rise of Social-Good Activists.   The energy giant’s stunning loss was the work of a tiny hedge fund that believes investing for social good is also good for the bottom line.   An activist investor got three directors elected to the company’s 12-member board.   Wall Street has seen its share of strange bedfellows, but a recent alliance of investors that took on Exxon Mobil was unprecedented.  Last week [mid-June], an activist investor successfully waged a battle to install three directors on the board of Exxon with the goal of pushing the energy giant to reduce its carbon footprint. The investor, a hedge fund called Engine No. 1, was virtually unknown before the fight.   The tiny firm wouldn’t have had a chance were it not for an unusual twist: the support of some of Exxon’s biggest institutional investors. BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street voted against Exxon’s leadership and gave Engine No. 1 powerful support. These huge investment companies rarely side with activists on such issues.  The stunning result turned the sleepy world of boardroom elections into front-page news as climate activists declared a major triumph, and a blindsided Exxon was left to ponder its defeat.”

    Exxon-Mobil has been doing everything possible to maintain the hegemony of Big Oil and fossil fuels, while the world sizzles and parts of the Western US burn. And its Board of Directors has been culpable.   Now, three of the 12 board members will be present to put up a fight.   All, thanks to the quixotic efforts of the little Engine No. 1 that thought it could – and it did!   

     Others will follow.  This is the path to real climate crisis policy change.  Get people on the Board of Directors, and even as minorities, let them put up a real fight against corporate stonewalling. 

      Say, are there any other little Engines out there, who want to take on Shell?  Chevron?   BP?    

What Is Driving the Inflation?

By Shlomo Maital   


  Just hours ago, the US Labor Department released June inflation figures.  Consumer prices rose by 5.4% in June (annual, over June 2020), the biggest monthly rise in prices since August 2008.   Used car and truck prices comprised about one-third of the total Consumer Price Index rise.  In other words, without the ‘used car’ effect, the CPI would have risen by 3.6%.   Without food and energy (core inflation),  the CPI would have risen by 4.5% (highest since Sept. 1991).  

   Consumers think inflation will continue to be around 5% for the coming year.  Economists mainly disagree.  And they are wrong.

    How should we react to this?

    The main driving force of rising prices is suppy-side.  Chip shortages and the pandemic cut vehicle production.  So people buy used cars.  That’s supply-side.   Reluctance to rejoin the labor force causes wages to rise – that is supply-side.  Nearly all the proximate causes of the inflation are on the cost and supply side (Supply curves are cost curves, economists explain).

    We had supply-side inflation in 1973/4  and in 1979/80.  It was driven by higher oil prices.  It led to ‘stagflation’ – higher prices, and stagnating economies.  Inflation plus recession.  It will not have this impact this time.  Because —  demand is also recovering and in some cases, booming, as people play ‘catch up’ with their consumption.  So contracting supply curves and expanding demand curves both generate higher prices. 

      There is a real danger in all of this.  We know how to manipulate demand – taxes, interest rates, govt. spending.  We do NOT know the first thing about how to influence suppy curves, which in the end are driven by productivity.   If you try to treat supply-side inflation with demand-curve tools, you get recession or slower growth.    

       There is growing pressure on central banks to tighten their interest rate policy, to battle inflation.  This will choke demand and slow the recovery.  Big mistake. 

        Let’s learn from history.  In the US,  the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis was very slow, because the Obama Administration buckled under Republican pressure and shut down expansionary spending far too soon.  Biden, as Vice-President at the time, was part of this policy.  He studies history.  He knows that was a mistake.  And I believe, he will not repeat it.  The Biden Administration has administered massive, but responsible, stimulus to the US economy and it is working.  He needs to continue this policy, and not be deterred by the inflation hawks.

     There is another risk.  Inflation psychosis.  As people see prices rising, they rush to buy stuff, and this adds fuel to the fire.  I don’t think this is likely.  Over the coming year, supply chains will be re-established, ports and shipping will become much smoother, the Trump-era tariffs will start to come down (they already have), and gradually, the supply-side inflation will abate, while the demand-side expansion will continue apace, as it should. 

     In 1981, under President Reagan,  a massive tax cut (two of them, actually) was motivated on supply-side grounds – pamper the rich, they will invest the money they get to keep, supply curves will expand.  It didn’t happen.  They spent the tax cut. And that fueled a demand-side Keynesian expansion that lasted for a decade and got Reagan re-elected in 1984 in a landslide. 

      Let’s face it.  Demand curves are docile, subject to policy.  Supply curves?  They are like wild mustangs.   Keep demand growing, let the global economy boom (as it is),  let China pull Asia with its 8.4% GDP growth, and let the IMF be right with its global GDP growth forecast of 6%.    

Estelle Mavis Morgan 1930-2019

By Shlomo Maital  

   My sister Estelle passed away quietly in Pittsburgh on June 19.  She was 91.   

    Estelle was born on May 7, 1930, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.  She studied piano at the Regina Conservatory and   She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, with a B.A. in psychology, and worked for renowned Pittsburgh neurosurgeon Dr. Koskoff, specializing in EEG technology.  She married the late Dr. H.C. (Chuck) Morgan, noted Pittsburgh optometrist in 1952.   She is survived by grandchildren Adam and Daphne, great-grandchild Dominic, daughters Lisa and Kim, and brother Shlomo.  In her later years, she resided at Riverview, on Garetta St., Pittsburgh.

      Estelle Morgan was a Pittsburgh-based, abstract painter working mainly in large-scale watercolor. Having come to the United States from western Canada, her work was inspired by the light and minimal forms of her native environment.

    Morgan’s work has been exhibited at museums such as the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Butler Institute of American Art, and the National Museum for Women in Washington, D.C., as well as solo and group shows in Scotland, Nairobi, Toronto, Hawaii, New York and Pittsburgh.  Her work is included in private, public and corporate collections in the U.S., Canada and Israel.   

     Estelle loved beauty, and in her paintings, created it.  I think beauty kept her alive.  She was beautiful herself, to the end, and always, dressed beautifully and was perfectly coifed.  She battled Parkinson’s for many years but fought it with courage and determination.  She somehow found a way to continue to paint, despite her shaking hand. 

     Estelle loved her hibiscus plant.  And it responded – it blossomed just before her last days.    Her hibiscus lives on, in her daughter Kim’s apartment…

      We were blessed to visit with her, in her apartment, on June 4, days before she fell ill.  Estelle left this world, as she lived in it, in style.  Her friend Jennifer, violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony, came with Rodrigo, a pianist, and played Bach’s 6th violin sonata and Meditations, by Jules Massenet.  The concert was in Estelle’s living room; we crowded in, with her best friends Ruthie and Charlotte, three amazing ladies, all 91, beautiful and wise, and though we did not know it, it was our farewell.  She fell ill shortly afterward and after a brief stay in hospital and in a hospice, passed away.

      We’ll miss her a lot…     

Why Did So Many Countries Utterly Fai?

By Shlomo Maital  

Source:  McKinsey Global

   McKinsey, global consulting company, provides a stsriking graph that summarizes global experience over the past five quarters, in combating COVID-19 and in resuscitating the economy. [1]

   In the graph above, the y-axis represents COVID deaths per million, reverse axis (large to small),  and the x-axis shows % change in GDP over five quarters.   The size of the circles represents the relative magnitude of the fiscal stimulus (deficit), as % of GDP.

   What does the graph say, anyway?

    I believe – this:    In July 1944, at Bretton Woods, the US Britain and other nations shaped a global economy that made many nations wealthy, including some previously-poor ones.  Goods, services, money, knowledge flowed freely across borders. 

    But —  policy wisdom?   How to deal with crises?

    Notice the enormous scatter.   And notice how very few countries succeeded with public health measures (low mortality) while sustaining the economy (4% growth). 

    How did those three countries (upper right) do it?  Were there special circumstances?  What can we learn from those in the upper right?

    And why did so many large countries (Brazil, India, South Africa, and yes, United States) utterly fail?

     I plan to write about this.  Meanwhile, I highly recommend reading McKinsey’s report. It is very optimistic.  McKinsey predicts a global economic boom, if we play our cards right, and urges nations to use the resulting “growth dividend” to deal with pressing healthcare and public health problems.

    I wish….   I wish countries would learn from one another – establish a G20 for national policy science, and do a thorough debrief on the pandemic, lessons learned, future policies, at the highest level.

      A few academic scholars will do this but none of the political leaders will listen. 

      Biden?  Worth a try?

[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/looking-beyond-the-pandemic-could-the-world-economy-gain-more-than-it-lost-to-covid-19

By Shlomo Maital

Political cartoon:  Chris Riddell, Twitter

     Why, in our democracies, do we consistently love, vote for and choose, incompetent inexperienced bumbling leaders?  And pay a heavy price?

     Consider British PM Boris Johnson.  His former chief advisor Dominic Cummings blames Johnson for bungling COVID-19, with 125,000 deaths.  Johnson was a journalist.  He now runs Britain, and is more popular than ever, with an 80-seat majority, despite his ineptitude.

     Consider Donald Trump.  The US now crosses the COVID-19 600,000-deaths mark.  His cabinet was inept – appointed solely for blind loyalty, not skill.  Education Minister – solely for big bucks donation. Secretary of State – he ran an oil company.  Attorney General:  lied and spied, against the law, instead of enforcing the law.  Ever see the “Trump won” signs his followers post, this very day, in baseball stadiums? 

     Consider Jair Bolsinaro.  488,000 COVID-19 deaths, in Brazil, as this ex-army officer spurns public health measures.   True, his popularity is waning.  But – what did it take?

     Consider Hungary’s Viktor Orban.  Last April:  “With this week’s passage of a law effectively removing any oversight and silencing any criticism of the Hungarian government, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán can now rule by decree for an indefinite period of time.”  He won office, democratically.  Now, he chooses to destroy Hungary’s democracy, within an EU that seems impotent to stop him.  In fact he can veto many key EU decisions, that demand unanimity.

       And there are a whole lot more examples.  Canada’s handsome inexperienced young PM Justin Trudeau.  Canada is still mired in COVID-19, largely closed, vaccination is badly lagging….but, he was re-elected not that long ago, pre-COVID. 

       Samuel Earle, writing in the New York Times (Sunday June 12-13 2021), notes that “despite all the havoc the Conservatives have caused [in Britain], the party is in a stronger position forever.”  

        Why?    Why do we continue to love bumbling, incompetent, inexperienced, lying, corrupt leaders?  Why did Israel’s Netanyahu rule for the past four years, indicted for corruption, appointing incompetent ministers so they could not threaten him, dividing the country, and again and again, driving the nation to needless elections, rather than step aside gracefully?  And in polls, he still leads as the top choice for Prime Minister, though by a small margin.  And the party he leads still got 2 million votes in the last election.

       This has to stop.   We have to judge leaders based on competence.  We have to throw out leaders who prove incompetent.  A country is a business. It needs competent honest clean effective management.  It is morally wrong to love bunglers and to elect and re-elect them.  If we continue to do this, we will deeply wound democracy – perhaps fatally.

Netanyahu’s Crime: Not Knowing When to Exit

By Shlomo Maital

  In the theater, scripts of plays always contain directions, such as “exit stage right”.  And the actors faithfully follow those.

   In politics,  the script in Israel has read “Netanyahu – enough, exit stage right – fast!”,  for years and years.  But Netanyahu refused.  Why?  Remaining in the Prime Minister’s residence could, he felt, keep him out of jail, with an impending conviction for corruption in the cards.  The result mired Israel in four needless exhausting elections.  And he sat glued to his chair for 12 years, and for 15 years in total as PM.  (The newly formed govt. plans to pass a term-limit law!)

    I’ve been reluctant to write about Netanyahu.  But our Rabbi,  Elisha, has saved the day and in a preface to his weekly shabbat sermon, captured my thoughts perfectly. So I can quote him, instead of spouting off myself:

    “Israel is one complicated country!… Regardless of what you think of Netanyahu, if he were to step down and allow another Likud leader to take his place, there would be a Likud led government tomorrow, backed up by a huge right-wing coalition, with at least 70% of the Knesset members in it. That is a huge coalition. But no… instead of a strong stable government (at this point it matters less if it is right wing, center of left, let’s just have a government!) we are heading into a 5th election in two and a half years. Even if Lapid and Bennet succeed, it will be the most fragile governments in Israeli history.”

Footlose Jobs: Restarting Employment

By Shlomo Maital

    A long time ago, I recall studying economic geography and learning about the geographical location of industries.   Steel plants, for instance, should be near river transportation – for transporting coal and coke barges.  (e.g. Pittsburgh, on three rivers).  Stockyards for cattle should be at rail junctions (Chicago, e.g.).   Some industries need to be near consumers, e.g. bakeries.   Some industries need fine weather, e.g. aviation – California. 

      But some industries are footloose.  They can be anywhere. 

      So – what happens when nearly everything and everyone are …footloose.  Work from home.  And in another sense – what happens when you give nearly everyone a whole year to contemplate their jobs, meaning of life, goals….and for many, do a restart. 

       Major changes are afoot.  Real estate prices will change.  Cities will change. Transportation will change.  Employment conditions and social contracts will change.  Exactly how?  And how much?  It is not at all clear.  What is clear, is that many people are simply not eager to return to their old jobs, as they re-open.   We may see a boom in small startups. 

         It could be that through inertia, we’ll go back to the same old ‘normal’.  Or, each of us can take this opportunity to do a real reboot, a ‘build back better’, not a political slogan, but a personal mandate for our own lives. 

          A lot of people are doing it.  Why not join them?

 Hardware is Back! Get On the Train!

By Shlomo Maital  

  In the film The Graduate,  McGuire takes  young Ben aside at the party and says he has one word of advice for him, just one word—and the word is “plastics” – meaning   a cheap, sterile  way of life, boring  and environmentally disastrous,  everything the values of the older generation represent.

   Today, McGuire might say, “software!”.  At my university, Technion, and elsewhere in the world, young people flock to computer science and software, dreaming of artificial intelligence and machine learning startups, and a fast unicorn exit.  The number of students enrolling in electrical engineering, to design VLSI — very large scale integraed circuits (hardware, e.g. microprocessors) — has not kept pace.

     Result:  As the world faces a shortage of chips, owing to pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions, underlying it all is a shortage of hardware engineers to design new and better ones.   So, McGuire – change your tune.  “Hardware!”   That’s what we need.

      We have been taught many bitter lessons by the pandemic.  One of them is the fragility of our global ecosystem.  It does not take much to badly disrupt it.  Take, for instance, the chip shortage that has has forced some car manufacturers to design chips and software out of their product – eliminating, e.g. dashboard screens.  This of course is no solution – to retrograde five years in design rather than progress.

     I think I would recommend that young people consider hardware as a future, rather than software.  The chip shortage will not go away tomorrow.  The six biggest Israeli tech companies each seek to hire hundreds of hardware engineers —   and the number of graduates is far far too small to meet the demand. 

     There is, however, some hope.  Writing in the New York Times, tech report Don Clark notes: 

“Even as a chip shortage is causing trouble for all sorts of industries, the semiconductor field is entering a surprising new era of creativity, from industry giants to innovative start-ups seeing a spike in funding from venture capitalists that traditionally avoided chip makers. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company and Samsung Electronics, for example, have managed the increasingly difficult feat of packing more transistors on each slice of silicon. IBM on Thursday announced another leap in miniaturization, a sign of continued U.S. prowess in the technology race.”

       Ineredibly, chip designers are now packing more and more transistors onto tiny pieces of silicon —  working down at the level of 7 nanometers,  down to 5 nanometers, and soon, 3 nanometers!  (An atom is a tenth of a nanometer – so chip designers are now using technology at the atomic level!).    Of course, they are reaching the limit of this technology – and the next big leap will be quantum computers – which also requires huge innovation in hardware, as well as software.

    Eventually the chip shortage will be resolved.  But have we learned?  Have we learned that one ship blocking the Suez Canal can disrupt global supply chains and wreak havoc worldwide?  Have we learned what John Donne wanred, in 1623:  ask not for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for every one of us!    Do we really think we are scot free from virus, when it rages in Brazil and India and Nepal and elsewhere?  

     The free market will signal that hardware engineers are in short supply, as their wages go way up.  But this is rather slow – it takes years to create a truly experienced productive VLSI engineer.  Surely we need some strategic direction and incentives – the global ecosystem is incredibly delicate and fragile, and needs daily tender loving care.

     Hardware!  Not plastics.  Think about it. 

 Eat Dessert First – Lewandowski does!

By Shlomo Maital  

Robert Lewandowski

      Last year, when we hosted a gaggle of grandchildren for our own summer camp, I announced a new political party, just for fun. (We had 39 !!! in our last election). In Israel, each political party has one to three Hebrew letters on its ballot.  Mine was the letters ק ק   kuf kuf – in Hebrew, standing for “dessert first”.  Eat dessert first.  What’s the point of making delicious pies, ice cream, cake… if you’re too stuffed to eat it?  So – start with dessert.  That our  vision statement.

      My granddaughter, who turned 8, grabbed the idea and ran with it.   She rounded up the other kids and took off with the idea. She set up a headquarters upstairs, and cranked out membership cards and posters.  And now, from time to time, we really do practice ‘kuf kuf’  (kinuach kodem, in Hebrew),  dessert first.

      So imagine my delight, to read New York Times soccer journalist Rory Smith’s great piece about Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, a Polish late-bloomer who is now 32 and is a fearsome goal machine, about to beat Gerd Muller’s record for career goals. 

      Lewandowski has become an honorary member of ‘eat dessert first’.   Here is how Smith describes it:

Now — thanks in part to the expertise of his wife, Anna, a nutritionist — Lewandowski, semifamously, eats his meals in what is generally accepted to be the wrong order. “If I have time to have dessert, I prefer to eat it an hour or so before lunch,” he said. “I don’t always eat it, but if I do, I try to have a distance between carbohydrates and protein.”

Look —  distance, shmistance (between carbs and proteins) —  I’ll take it anyway. If it helps Lewandowski become a fearsome goal machine for his team, even at age 32,  and if eating dessert first makes everybody really happy —   hey, vote for it!  

    My claim is this:  If it makes you happy,  then (in moderation) it helps keep you healthy.   Because stress and worry are really bad for your health, more so than a few carbs or spoons of ice cream. 

     Some day, drop in and try my homemade vanilla ice cream.  Before dinner. 


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital