Lessons from 2017

Lesson #1 – the madness of crowds

The multiplying frenzy surrounding bitcoin is being fed by little more than price momentum. There has been no commensurate (or even perceptible) change in the fundamental prospects of the crypto-currency this year. We continue to argue that unless bitcoin finds itself a role in the global economy, its intrinsic value is essentially zero. We still see this role as elusive, and see the arguments behind the idea of a future ‘bitcoin standard’, as economically illiterate. However, fear of missing out can be a powerful force in investments when market values move as fast and as far as bitcoin’s has in the last several years. Bitcoin does not yet fulfil any of the criteria that we would look for in an investible asset and we would continue to advise extreme caution. Most boxes on the bubble checklist are already ticked, now all we await is a catalyst to spur the rout. This melee also serves to provide contrast to the other areas of the world’s capital markets that are apparently in bubble territory. Bonds are expensive, but we still expect most to be paid back at par. Meanwhile equity market valuations are also above long term averages, but with perhaps greater justification than is generally realised. Neither asset classes fit the description nor feel of a bubble.

Lesson #2 – Politics (still) doesn’t always matter

This was another year in which political bark and bite didn’t match up. The themes that dominated many outlook documents at the start of the year were protectionism, populism and the end of globalisation. French elections were seen as just another staging post in the inexorable return of nativist politics. Europe and emerging markets were generally seen as no-go zones by many investors as a result. In the event, European and Asian emerging market equities have been two of the stellar performers of the year so far. A sharp cyclical pick-up in global trade has been an important input into that story. Ironically, this pick-up is in large part down to the strength of US consumption, where trends in global trade tend to be forged. None of this is to argue that politics can’t be influential. However, we need to be wary of the priority many seem to routinely give to political events with regard to investment returns. We are not political strategists and cannot pretend to be able to be able to scent the changes in socio-political direction quicker or better than anyone else. The work that we have done over the last few years has instead focused on the constitutional restraints – what and how much could a particular protagonist, or group of protagonists, actually do within the confines of the various constitutions if they did make it into office? For the most part, our (admittedly guarded) faith in these restraints, alongside a degree of economic self-interest, continues to be rewarded.

Lesson #3 – The difficulties of forecasting inflation

We’ve long argued that the relationship between growth and inflation is a loose one, an idea that this year has served to reinforce. Growth has accelerated, unemployment in the developed world is close to three-decade lows, and yet still wages remain muted and the wider forces of inflation in abeyance. For our part, we do continue to see those forces slowly gathering in coming years, amidst that diminishing economic headroom. However, it remains very difficult to pin down precisely how much slack remains; from poor and incomplete labour market data to the difficulties inherent in measuring productivity in the modern, services dominated, world, it is easy to understand why an accurate estimation of output gaps eludes even the planet’s greatest minds. What we can say is that there is probably less slack than there was a year ago, and if the world economy continues on its current trajectory, the same will be true of next year. All this is important, as the main risk to our still benign outlook for markets is a sharper than currently forecast inflation pickup. We do not want central bankers hurried as they try to delicately untangle themselves from the extreme, and successful, monetary experiments of the post-crisis period.

Investment Conclusion

These are obviously not the only lessons to be learnt this year; markets are always teaching us humility for one thing. However, these three are likely to be helpful for us all to remember as we go into another year with a crowded political calendar and a few more grey hairs.

Japan — Q4 Update

Top performer

As 2017 draws to a close, most risk assets have outperformed year-to-date amidst the best global economic backdrop we’ve seen in years. The Japanese stock market stands out as one of the star outperformers, having returned 22% year-to-date against the MSCI World’s return of 19%. In this week’s In Focus, we explain in detail some of the tailwinds for Japanese outperformance, and how Japan fits into our current regional equity allocation.

Economic momentum

With 60% of revenues derived domestically, one major tailwind for Japanese stocks has been the health of the domestic economy. Japan is currently enjoying its second longest period of expansion in post-war history, with Q3 GDP growth printing at 1.7% y/y, above what most experts deem to be trend growth. Initially, the upturn was driven by broad-based export demand from key trading partners like China and the US. However, there is now growing evidence that domestic demand is also finally gaining traction. Domestic business confidence has risen to its highest level since 1991, mirrored by measures of consumer confidence. The latter speaks to improving income and employment conditions with the unemployment rate falling to a 23-year low of 2.8% and the jobs-to-applicants ratio nearing all time highs. This, in turn, is helping to drive consumer spending.

Meanwhile, both fiscal and monetary policies have been, and are expected to remain, supportive of growth. The ruling coalition’s solid victory in the October parliamentary elections has given Prime Minister Abe the go-ahead to proceed with a new ¥2 trillion supplementary budget. While the last supplementary budget centred on infrastructure investments and disaster relief, the next is likely to be focused more on populist measures such as educational support for lower income households and increased healthcare spending on Japan’s rapidly ageing populace. Moreover, the Abe administration is mulling corporate tax incentives in order to encourage firms to boost wages and productivity-enhancing capex. These fiscal plans are expansionary in nature, and should, at the margin, provide an additional boost to growth on implementation.

On the monetary side, while Japan has managed to pull itself out of sustained deflation, core inflation remains well below the Bank of Japan’s 2% target. Therefore, we see no change to the Bank of Japan’s accommodative stance as we move into 2018.

The outlook for Japanese growth remains positive looking into 2018. To us, the Japanese economy is likely to continue to benefit from robust domestic demand, expansionary fiscal and monetary policies, as well as further external demand from major trading partners.

Rising profitability

The positive economic backdrop – both domestically and externally – has coincided with improving corporate profitability for Japanese companies. Corporate profits have rebounded strongly from the 2016 downturn, and are at post-Crisis highs. As expected, the pro-cyclical sectors like technology and industrials have led the earnings charge, while the low yield environment has ensured that the financial sector has lagged. Dividend payout ratios have also risen substantially – a nascent sign that government reforms to alter corporate behaviour and improve shareholder returns may be starting to bear fruit.

Structurally, the Japanese equity market is highly pro-cyclical, with consumer discretionary, industrials and technology stocks making up more than half the market capitalisation. The corollary is that earnings leverage to improving economic conditions is strong, compared with other markets. Our outlook for continued domestic economic expansion and a supportive external backdrop heralds further upside for aggregate profitability over the medium term.

Investment conclusion

Japan’s outperformance this year hinged on some of the common macro themes we’ve witnessed in global equity markets this year – a robust domestic backdrop, strong external demand, and rebounding corporate profitability. Based on our preferred lead indicators, we think that global growth and trade momentum should be sustained as we move into 2018 – a net positive for the more cyclically-levered Japanese equity market. All of this argues for investors to have some, primarily hedged, exposure to Japanese equities. However, for the moment, we retain larger relative positions in Continental European and US equities, where we still have higher conviction in the path of corporate profitability.

Opportunity in India?

“India may be a land of over 100 problems, but it is also a place for a billion solutions” – Kailesh Satyarthi

Changes are afoot in India, changes that will likely raise the sustainable growth rate for the Indian economy. This week, we examine some of the likely effects of these changes and how they might eventually interact with the country’s equity markets.

The black economy…

For some time, the sheer scale of India’s ‘unofficial economy’ has been seen as a key impediment to India’s long-term growth prospects. Estimated by some to represent close to two-thirds of the total economy, the so-called ‘black economy’ generates more income by a distance than agriculture and industry together. Various efforts have been made down the years to bring these dark, untaxable, transactions into the economic light. From Aadhaar (a unique 12-digit number that creates a digital identity for more than 1 billion people, enabling individuals to be rapidly identified using biometric data) to the introduction this year of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) (replacing the patchwork of indirect taxes and duties), these efforts seem to be starting to bear fruit.

By some estimates, this current administration’s recent efforts alone have already increased the number of taxpayers by 20-25% and are thus expected to significantly increase future tax revenues. In a country where the growth prospects have long been blighted by the government’s inability to fund much needed infrastructure, this prospective revenue boost should prove very helpful.

In addition, the rationalisation of the tax regime should lead to improved productivity and lower compliance costs, as interstate supply chains will basically be treated the same as intrastate production. The government’s recent Economic Survey estimated that Indian interstate trade accounted for 54% of GDP, well below that of the US or China, though higher than Canada or Indonesia, which have more challenging geographical barriers to trade. Assuming a convergence with levels of internal trade in the US or China, the GST could provide a further boost to output growth.

Bank bailout

Another long-standing impediment to growth has been the parlous state of the state-owned banks’ balance sheets. Bad debt ratios doubled over the last year as the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) concluded an asset quality review that forced some accounting realism onto the banks. However, recognising these losses left banks unprofitable, undercapitalised and unable to lend to the real economy. On 24 October, India’s government bowed to the inevitable and announced that it would inject 2.1 trillion rupees into its state-owned banks.

This bank bailout was cleverly structured to take advantage of the demonetisation experiment, which left the banking system flush with excess liquidity as ‘mattress cash’ was converted into deposits. In the scheme, the RBI will drain excess liquidity from the system, and the government will inject 1.35 trillion rupees into the banks as equity capital. All of this should help to unclog the credit channel, and unleash some of the pent-up investment forces.

As a result of these wide-ranging efforts to restructure and streamline the economy, India has leapt up some 30 places to 100 in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report for 2018. Of the 10 areas covered by the report, India made it easier to conduct business in eight of them, with the biggest improvements being seen in the areas of resolving insolvency, getting credit and paying taxes.

Investment conclusion

So, the growth outlook is improving, but what does that mean for investors? The link between the growth of a country’s output and the corporate profits quoted on its domestic indices can be muddy as we’ve explored before. Sector composition, government interference and the influence of overseas profits are among the potentially relevant factors. However, in spite of all this, there has been a statistically substantial relationship between the economic performance of India relative to the wider emerging Asia block and relative equity market performance. With India’s long attractive growth prospects now on a more solid footing, we see Indian stocks as a good addition to our emerging markets triumvirate of China, Korea and Taiwan

A practical guide to burial and cremation

Thinking about your own funeral can be difficult, but there are some practical arrangements you should consider.


Burial vs cremation

Firstly, would you prefer burial, or cremation? Burial is the traditional option for many people. However, there are a number of disadvantages to burial:

  • burial plots can be more expensive over the long term, than memorials which hold ashes
  • burials generally need to be done more quickly than cremations
  • cemetery restrictions may limit personalisation options for graveside adornments, like monuments or flowers, and
  • laws and logistics make it difficult to move a body after it has been buried.

Cremation offers some advantages:

  • returning remains home, for families who live in different countries, is more straightforward with cremations
  • families who want to move overseas can take the ashes of their loved one with them, and
  • cremation allows more time for family members to travel.

It’s possible to have a permanent memorial set up in a cemetery for both burial and cremation. Creating a dedicated place for future generations to pay their respects and reflect on their heritage is a way to keep family legacies alive.

Religious exceptions

With the exception of Buddhism and Hinduism, most religions prefer burial over cremation. There are exceptions, but this should be discussed with your family or religious leader.

Religions that support burial

Judaism, Islam and Eastern Orthodox (including Greek Ortrhodox and Russian Orthodox) faiths will only accept burial, not cremation.

Religions that support cremation

Buddhism and Hinduism both have strong associations with cremation. Followers believe that cremation is required so that the soul can be released from the cycle of reincarnation.

Religions that are open to both burial and cremation

Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and Baptist faiths now accept cremation, although burial has always been the preferred option. Burial and cremation are both accepted in Aboriginal spirituality practices and by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Cost per state

There are no rules around the cost for funerals, regardless of whether they’re cremations or burials. Like a wedding, more elaborate events will cost more. Adding more expensive coffins, floral arrangements and other features in the service can increase the cost up to more than $15,000.

The average cost for a burial in any Australian State or Territory is just over $7,000 and just under $7,000 for a cremation.

 

City Average burial cost Average cremation cost
Sydney $8,225 $7,607
Perth $8,082 $7,402
Melbourne $7,961 $7,324
Brisbane $7,611 $7,086
Adelaide $6,992 $6,492
Hobart $6,752 $6,389
Canberra $6,399 $6,000
Total average cost $7,432 $6,900

 

Source: finder.com.au. The Cost of a Funeral in Australia

The costs vary greatly between burial and cremation when it comes to the interment, the term for placing a body in the ground or ashes into a memorial. For example, a traditional allotment burial allotment for 99 years at Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery costs around $61,000, while a plaque in the wall of the memorial garden for the same duration will cost around $10,000. Interment is a lot more affordable in country areas, but may not be as easy for family members to visit.

Talk to your family

It’s important to talk to your family about your wishes, and plan ahead, so they know what you want and are set up to be able to provide it. Funeral insurance is a way to make the process easier for your family at an unsettling time so they can confidently celebrate the life you shared together.

Could your savings cover the cost of all the added expenses that come with a funeral? Visit Insuranceline to find out how Funeral Insurance could help alleviate the cost to your family in case something happened to you.

Mapping brain lesions for clues to criminal behavior

Harvard researchers worked with colleagues to map brain lesions in 17 patients who exhibited criminal behavior after — but not before — the lesions appeared.
 Researchers who studied brain lesions in individuals exhibiting criminal behavior found that the injuries fell within a particular brain network involved in moral decision-making.

The findings follow past studies showing that the brains of some criminals exhibit abnormalities, but in most cases without determining a clear association between the injury and the behavior. The new study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our lab has developed a new technique for understanding neuropsychiatric symptoms based on focal brain lesions and a wiring diagram of the human brain,” said senior author Michael Fox, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and the associate director of the Deep Brain Stimulation Program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “We’ve successfully applied this technique to hallucinations, delusions, involuntary movements, and coma — and in perhaps its most interesting application to date, we applied it to criminality.”

Perhaps the most famous case in decades of interest on possible links between brain injury and criminal behavior is that of Charles Whitman, who was found to have a brain tumor after killing 14 people in the Texas Tower massacre of 1966.

First author Richard Darby, formerly of BIDMC and now an assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University, noted that he personally became interested in how neurological diseases might cause criminal behavior after caring for patients with frontotemporal dementia, who often commit nonviolent crimes as a result of the condition.

To investigate the issue, Fox, Darby, and their colleagues systematically mapped brain lesions in 17 patients who exhibited criminal behavior after — but not before — the lesions appeared. Analyses revealed that the lesions were located in diverse brain regions, but all mapped to a common network.

“We found that this network was involved in moral decision-making in normal people, perhaps giving a reason for why brain lesions in these locations would make patients more likely to behave criminally,” said Darby. The network is not involved with cognition control or empathy.

The findings were supported in tests of a separate group of 23 cases in which the timing between brain lesions and criminal behavior was implied but not definitive.

Researchers were quick to note that not all individuals with brain lesions in the network identified in the study will commit crimes. Genetic, environmental, and social factors are also likely to be important.

“We don’t yet know the predictive value of this approach,” said Fox. “For example, if a brain lesion falls outside our network, does that mean it has nothing to do with criminal behavior? Similarly, we don’t know the percentage of patients with lesions within our network who will commit crimes.”

Darby added that it is important to consider how the study’s findings should not be used.

“Our results can help to understand how brain dysfunction can contribute to criminal behavior, which may serve as an important step toward prevention or even treatment,” he said. “However, the presence of a brain lesion cannot tell us whether or not we should hold someone legally responsible for their behavior. This is ultimately a question society must answer.”

Indeed, doctors, neuroscientists, lawyers, and judges all struggle with criminal behavior when a brain lesion is present. Is the patient responsible? Should he or she be punished in the same way as people without a lesion? Is criminal behavior different than other symptoms suffered by patients after a brain lesion, such as paralysis or speech trouble?

“The results don’t answer these questions, but rather highlight their importance,” said Fox.

This work was supported by funding from the Sidney R. Baer Jr. Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Dystonia Foundation, the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the BrightFocus Foundation.

Driven by ego? This book’s for you

Q&A

Mark Epstein

GAZETTE: The subtitle of your new book seems to suggest the impossible. Can you talk about it, and your thoughts on the challenge of making peace with ego?

EPSTEIN: I wanted to write from a place of being a mature therapist. A lot of my earlier books were written from the perspective of having just discovered Buddhism. This is 40 years later and I thought it was worth writing from the place I am at, having had a psychiatry practice for 35 years. I’ve always been very cautious in laying mindfulness on my patients, who might not be so interested. I’ve tried to work in my therapy practice in a traditional manner to let a patient’s concern take the lead, but the Buddhist influence on me, which really came first, does influence the way I think and it must influence the way I work. I was letting it happen on its own accord rather than striking a Buddhist posture. What I realized is that the ego is the common ground between Western psychotherapy and Buddhist psychology. Both recognize that an overreliance on the ego is a cause for suffering.

All too often we think we are the ego and that identification constrains us, limits us, and makes us less than we could be. The ego is all about maintaining control. It comes from a place of fear and separation. It emerges in childhood when we are just beginning to figure out who we are. We need the ego, but if we give it full reign we actually become more insecure. We think of it as giving us high self-esteem, but the ego can be [just] as attached to self-judgment and self-loathing. It’s always trying to think its way out of whatever predicament it finds itself in, and it doesn’t make room for the more mysterious qualities that also constitute us. The point is not to get rid of the ego. It’s to change our relationship to it — it not being our master and we its slave.

GAZETTE: Patients come to you with their own experiences and struggles. How do you determine how to use Buddhism in therapy, and vice versa?

EPSTEIN: The goals of both Buddhism and Western psychotherapy are interlocking. I see them as threefold. Firstly, we all need a sufficient amount of self-esteem. We have to feel good enough about ourselves to function sufficiently in the world. Buddhism recognizes this in the concept of the “precious human birth,” and Western therapy is very concerned with healing the psyche’s childhood scars. Some amount of ego or self is very important. But we also need the ability to observe our own mind, thoughts, and feelings. This is the second important thing. That’s something that both meditation and psychotherapy encourage, in different ways. Therapy is built on a therapeutic split in the ego that promotes a kind of watchfulness of our inner lives. Meditation does that by training the mind to observe itself. Finally, both therapy and meditation can help us get past the ego’s need to control everything. There’s so much in life we can’t control. In my work as a therapist, influenced so much by Buddhism, I think I’m working on all three levels depending on what people need.

GAZETTE: How did Buddhism play a role in your time at Harvard?

EPSTEIN: I was fortunate to actually discover Buddhism in a world religion class my freshman year. It was a class I took by chance because I met someone taking it and she seemed interesting so I followed her. I had no real interest in world religion, but the whole first half of the semester was Eastern religion and I was really excited about what I learned.

We read a collection of Buddhist verse called the Dhammapada, which is written for laypeople. I loved it. It really spoke to me. There is a chapter called “Mind” that I identified with. It described an anxious mind as a fish flapping on dry ground. That opened up the Buddhist world for me. There were a lot of later courses that touched on Buddhism peripherally and I found them all, and created a few for myself in independent study.

«All too often we think we are the ego and that identification constrains us, limits us, and makes us less than we could be.»

— Mark Epstein

© Larry Bercow NYC

 

GAZETTE: You worked as an apprentice for the Dalai Lama’s physician during your time at HMS. How did that experience shape your medical journey?

EPSTEIN: During my fourth year, I, along with a Herbert Benson [a cardiologist and a pioneer in mind-body medicine], got a grant from the National Science Foundation to travel to India to do physiological measurements on the Tibetan monks who were practicing a kind of heat yoga where they could raise their temperatures at will. As part of that, I spent a lot of time with the Dalai Lama’s physician every morning. One of the things I discovered working with the Tibetan Buddhist tradition was that they have an understanding of a meditation-induced anxiety disorder. It’s possible to strive with too much effort, even in meditation, which makes people more stressed. The Buddhists were very familiar with this. As a young psychiatrist in training, I had some indication this might be true, but I was very interested to find that this was a well-documented phenomenon among the Tibetans.

GAZETTE: “Advice Not Given” is filled with personal stories — yours and your patients’. Is there one that stands out?

EPSTEIN: One that comes to mind is of a teacher of Buddhism who discovered he had colon cancer after completing a three-year retreat. One of his students cared for him, and recounted his final words: “No, no, no. Help, help.” She was disturbed because he was so experienced as a meditator: Why would he still have fear at death? But I was comforted by that because it made me feel that any pretense I might have about how it would be for me, I could drop. If there’s one thing we don’t know, it’s how we will be at death. Maybe he was just being honest.

I have some faith as a therapist that if I can encourage my patients to be with their fears in as open and vulnerable a way as this man was, that they will find a way through. It’s the pushing away because we think we’ll be overwhelmed by some sadness or anxiety or shame that keeps us locked up. If we can experience them fully, without aversion, that’s where the sense of freedom comes from.

It’s Okay to not be Okay

We all struggle with moments and experiences that challenge us. That make us scared. Times when we feel frozen, stuck, and hopeless. We feel lost and confused.

Think about a time when you felt this way. What was going on in your head? What emotions were you feeling?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt this way before. A few days ago, I was feeling sick of everything. There was too much to do. I felt like I was running from one thing to the next — and not just physically, but mentally as well. I felt angry at the circumstances I was in, and I desperately wanted it all to just STOP. I needed quiet, peace, and comfort. But in the hustle and bustle of life, I found none.

I felt anxious. Tired. Scared. Angry. Confused. At one point, I even felt that there was simply no point of doing anything at all. Sleep? No. Eat? No. Play? No. Work? No. On the outside, I am sure I looked okay. I can hold things together quite well in times of stress, you see. And so can many of us. We have trained ourselves to appear well and ‘put together’ in these moments because we know that despite feeling frustrated and tired, life still moves on. And so, we ‘suck it up’ and try to carry on.

But inside, I felt awful. I wanted to scream. To tell someone that I was TIRED. I was SAD. I felt so confused at the way I was feeling — I did not want to study or go to work, and yet, I loved these things dearly. I did not want to play or talk to my loved ones or friends, although I knew that these people cared for me. I did not want to sleep, because doing so made me feel like I was running away from my challenges. So, what could I do?

Image result for allow yourself to feel your emotions it is okay to bareAt that moment, I burst. I cried and cried and cried. And you know what? I felt better afterwards. I realized that for so long, I had been holding this pain and stress inside. I was trying so much to show that I was strong, to not let anyone feel my pain. I did not want to hurt my loved ones around me and make them feel sad or worried about me. But crying was immensely therapeutic. Idiscovered that though I am strong, I am also capable of feeling emotions. I am allowed to release my anger, sadness, and frustrations by crying — and that doesn’t make me weak or vulnerable. I am entitled to tell myself when things are tough now, I can still feel worried and scared — and that is normal.

I am learning to let myself feel emotions and express them. This is a big change for me. For so long, I have huddled these feelings inside of me, worried that I will make my family and friends sad. I told myself that I could not cry or be sad because that meant I was weak. But I am learning that all emotions are healthy, as long as I express them in positive and meaningful ways. 

And so after I cried, I felt relieved. Did my problems magically disappear? No. But I felt honest with myself. I realized that I am a strong individual who is not afraid to express sadness, frustration, and fatigue. I am human and I am capable of feeling a range of emotions. That is what makes me in touch with my brain, body, and soul. It is not shameful to cry, just like it is appropriate to laugh. There is a season for all emotions, and expressed appropriately, this can be therapeutic and healthy. And although crying may seem like a ‘depressing’ activity, it is actually very therapeutic to let yourself feel these emotions and take the time to acknowledge that things are tough right now. One day they will get better — and inside, you know that this is true. Your prior experiences have shown you that you are able to defeat these tribulations, and that you are strong enough to pass through your obstacles. 

Image result for this will passYou are okay, just the way you are. Positive emotions, and difficult emotions. Moments of sadness and frustration, and moments of happiness and laughter. You are human — and you are allowed to feel this way. It is okay to not be okay.

But just remember, after you are not ‘okay’, think about what makes you OKAY. Think about how strong, beautiful, capable, and amazing you are. Think about the things that make you proud of yourself. Think about the blessings you have, and the talents you own. Think about the beauties you have experienced, the treasures that make you smile, and the warmth that fills your heart.

Things will be okay. You will be okay. Keep fighting, dear warrior. Because the battle may be tough, but you are tougher.

Setting Intentions

If you have been following this blog over the years, you will know that I am not big on ‘resolutions’ for the New Year. Not because I do not think setting goals is important, or because I think we should not strive to do better in the new year. However, my issue with resolutions is that society makes it seem that we need to set one huge big fancy thing that we will work on for the year. And often, these resolutions become redundant — such as weight loss, exercise, healthy eating, etc. And while these are important, I do not think making a resolution is important. It is the ACTION PLAN that is.

This is why I like intentions. I feel that they are more goal-directed and achievable. Allow me to explain. A resolution could be ‘this year, I resolve to eat more vegetables and exercise more’. If you try that for a week or two, you may not be able to sustain it.

Meanwhile, an intention could be ‘this year, I intend on becoming physically and mentally stronger. To do this, I will eat foods that nourish my body and I will move my body in ways that makes me feel good. I can do this by having an apple each morning with breakfast, and I will take a walk every Sunday evening’.

Image result for setting smart goals

See the difference? Intentions allow us to not only think about WHAT we want to do, but HOW we are going to them. When setting intentions, it is helpful to think about whether or not they are doable. For example, we have all heard that goals should be ‘SMART — specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-oriented’. But I will be the first to admit that I don’t always use this when making my goals. This year, however, I know that if I do not make my intentions SMART, I will not be able to sustain them long-term. I need to challenge myself by making intentions, but if they are not sustainable or something hat I can reasonably do, I will give up after one or two weeks.

And finally, resolutions tend to make us feel hopeless when we are not successful at first. ‘Oh no. I did not read my daily meditation for two days, like my resolution was. This sucks. I cannot achieve this resolution. Oh, well. There is always next year. Or maybe I should change my resolution….?’

This sets us up for failure — and makes us feel that we cannot achieve anything. Instead of thinking like this, look at why your goal did not work out. Was it too big of a jump at once? Did you forget to think about how you would actually achieve the goal given your resources and demands? Do you need to look back on your intention and understand WHY it is important to you — and whether or not you REALLY want this? This is the beauty of intentions — it gets us to reflect on our goals, the actions we will take to achieve them, and how we are going to get there. Intentions helps us be present in the moment, and focus on what we CAN do, rather than what we CANNOT do.
Image result for new year resolutions quotes
This year, if you are setting a goal or intention, be patient with yourself. Make an action plan, and try your best. And if it does not work out, find out why. Remind yourself of why this intention is important to you. And try your best. It is never ever ever too late to start again, to try something new, and to set another intention.

The Molecular Structure of Biopolymers: Developing Nanopores as Probes

A hallmark of modern science has been the continual development of experimental strategies to observe individual atomic scale ‘events’. These strategies ultimately rely on significantly amplifying the consequences of a selective microscopic interaction, for example the chemical development of a silver halide grain in a photographic emulsion, or the charge amplification in electron multiplier devices. Research performed by members of the nanopore research group at Harvard has shown that individual polymers associated with replication and regulation of life, DNA and RNA, can be registered and characterized singly with a new kind of detector, a nanopore.

A nanopore can be a protein channel in a lipid bilayer or an extremely small isolated ‘hole’ in a thin, solid-state membrane. For a nanopore to be useful as a single molecule detector, its diameter must not be much larger than the size of the molecule to be detected — just a few tens of Angstroms across. When a single molecule enters a nanopore in an insulating membrane, it causes changes in the nanopore’s electrical properties that are readily detected with modern electronic devices and circuits. The mission of the Nanopore Group at Harvard is to study the science of single molecules in nanopores. Our aim is to use this knowledge to develop an ultra high-speed method for sequencing DNA, but we are also developing a number of other important, but less demanding, applications that utilize the extraordinary sensitivity and speed of nanopore probing. On the path to achieving sequencing, we are modeling the physics of DNA polymer movement through the confined space of a nanopore, coordinating the application of material science tools to fabricate solid-state nanopores, and developing the associated biochemistry, molecular biology, electronics, and signal processing to effect molecular recognition.

Sculpting optical microstructures with slight changes in chemistry

In 2013, materials scientists at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering grew a garden of self-assembled crystal microstructures. Now, applied mathematicians at the SEAS and Wyss have developed a framework to better understand and control the fabrication of these microstructures.

Together, the researchers used that framework to grow sophisticated optical microcomponents.

The research is published in Science.

An experimental realization of the base shapes for Bragg resonators

Researchers used a new framework to grow sophisticated optical microcomponents, including experimental realizations of the base shapes for Bragg resonators (Credit Wim L. Noorduin/ Harvard University)

When it comes to the fabrication of multifunctional materials, nature has humans beat by miles. Marine mollusks can embed photonic structures into their curved shells without compromising shell strength; deep sea sponges evolved fiber optic cables to direct light to symbiotically living organisms; and brittlestars cover their skeletons with lenses to focus light into the body to “see” at night. During growth, these sophisticated optical structures tune tiny, well-defined curves and hollow shapes to better guide and trap light.

Manufacturing complex bio-inspired shapes in the lab is often time consuming and costly. The breakthrough in 2013 was led by materials scientists Joanna Aizenberg, the Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Materials Science and Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute and former postdoctoral fellow Wim L. Noorduin. The research allowed researchers to fabricate delicate, flower-like structures on a substrate by simply manipulating chemical gradients in a beaker of fluid. These structures, composed of carbonate and glass, form a bouquet of thin walls.

What that research lacked then was a quantitative understanding of the mechanisms involved that would enable even more precise control over these structures.

Enter the theorists.

Inspired by the theory to explain solidification and crystallization patterns, L. Mahadevan, the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics, Physics, and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and postdoctoral fellow C. Nadir Kaplan, developed a new geometrical framework to explain how previous precipitation patterns grew and even predicted new structures.

Mahadevan is also core member of the Wyss Institute.

In experiments, the shape of the structures can be controlled by changing the pH of the solution in which the shapes are fabricated.

“At high pH, these structures grow in a flat manner and you get flat shapes, like side of a vase,” said Kaplan, co-first author of the paper. “At low pH, the structure starts to curve and you get helical structures.”

A helical microstructure made from carbonate-silica coprecipitation patterns

A mathematical model (left) uses a geometrical framework to explain how previous patterns grew and predict new carbonate-silica structures (right, imaged by scanning electron microscopy). (Credit Wim L. Noorduin/ C. Nadir Kaplan/ Harvard University)

When Kaplan solved the resulting equations as a function of pH, with a mathematical parameter standing in for the chemical change, he found that he could recreate all the shapes developed by Noorduin and Aizenberg — and come up with new ones.

“Once we understood the growth and form of these structures and we could quantify them; our goal was to use the theory to come up with a strategy to build optical structures from the bottom up,” said Kaplan.

Kaplan and Noorduin worked together to grow resonators, waveguides and beam splitters.

“When we had the theoretical framework, we were able to show the same process experimentally,” said Noorduin, co-first author. “Not only were we able to grow these microstructures, but we could also demonstrate their ability to conduct light.

Noorduin is now a group lead at the Dutch materials research organization AMOLF.

“The approach may provide a scalable, inexpensive and accurate strategy to fabricate complex three-dimensional microstructures, which cannot be made by top-down manufacturing and tailor them for magnetic, electronic, or optical applications,” said Joanna Aizenberg, co-author of the paper.

“Our theory reveals that, in addition to growth, carbonate-silica structures can also undergo bending along the edge of their thin walls,” said Mahadevan, the senior author of the paper. “This additional degree of freedom is typically lacking in conventional crystals, such as a growing snowflake. This points to a new kind of growth mechanism in mineralization, and because the theory is independent of absolute scale, it may be adapted to other geometrically constrained growth phenomena in physical and biological systems.”

Our theory reveals that, in addition to growth, carbonate-silica structures can also undergo bending along the edge of their thin walls.

Next, the researchers hope to model how groups of these structures compete against each other for chemicals, like trees in a forest competing for sunlight.

The research was coauthored by Ling Li, Roel Sadza and Laura Folkertsma. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Kavli Institute for Bionano Science and Technology at Harvard University and Harvard MRSEC.