Will your next Best Friend be a BOT?

With 5G phones on the horizon, state-of-the-art voice technology is being positioned to become the next wave of AI-driven devices that will significantly change every aspect of our personal and professional lives. These disruptive devices will provide us on-demand, relevant suggestions and viable step-by-step pathways to solving complex problems. In fact the changes in store both technologically and behaviorally at home and the workplace will be so extreme that the laptop or mobile phone you are using to read this article are destined to become another glorified door stopper. Here’s what you can expect.

Googling as we know it today will change from a one line entry to an instantaneous voice exchange between you and a Bot. Rather than delivering a list of links, the output your Bot fires back will be specific to your questions. Downloading Apps on to your smartphone will no longer be necessary because your Bots AI will scour every major App available and connect you with the one that will best meet your needs. Not only will your Bot deliver optimal answers but also ask you insightful questions for you to consider. Username and Password requirements will no longer be necessary. Instead, the voice print you use to speak into a device will vet you seamlessly. HTML-driven web page searching will soon appear primitive and inefficient. Even the ‘water cooler’ chat among peers for pollenating ideas will become a distant memory.

Due to the FOMO effect, (Fear of Missing Out) I decided to attend the Conversational Interaction Conference in San Jose, California this year. The two-day, annual event held in early February provided me with valuable industry insights, updates on working applications, future blue prints, new industry buzz words, plus a list of key hurdles confronting voice technology developers today. Below is a brief synopsis of what I saw and heard at the conference. I have included links and capitalized key industry buzz words for easy identification. After reading this article and accessing the links provided, you should have gained sufficient intel/understanding to ask better questions on the current state and future of voice technology.

Voice Controlled Devices

Let us start with some familiar Voice Controlled Devices that are already in the marketplace such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana or Google’s Home. These ubiquitous smart devices have allowed us to seamlessly use our natural voice to make on-demand requests, such as to play a song, the news, the weather, or a lot more. For the most part these devices do a decent job of what is referred to in the industry as “Command and Control” applications. On the backend a user’s command such as “Alexa! What is the weather?” is converted from speech to text using Speech Recognition (SR) then passed on to a Natural Language Processor or (NLP), which invokes Deep Learning (DL) and Neural Network (NN) algorithms to analyze and prioritize keywords. Backed by powerful cloud-based computing power, multiple algorithms use these keyword inputs to generate a text response. This text is then converted to speech using Text-To-Speech (TTS) and delivered back to the device. This entire process takes less than half of a second, which is within the tolerance levels of a normal, two-way conversation between two humans.

Every time an individual wakes up a Voice Assistant Smart Device with their voice (i.e. Alexa! or Siri!), the commands uttered after are stored and scored. These unsuspecting devices automatically deliver your data to a Cloud-based, voice service platform, which appends your data to a Machine Learning training data set used to increase the algorithm’s overall accuracy. Ultimately these devices will mimic human-to-human conversational interactions similar to that of two friends chatting casually in the same room. A good visual of this concept is depicted in a movie trailer for 2001: A Space Odyssey where a talking Voice Assistant called HAL 9000 converses seamlessly with the protagonist.

To get a glimpse of how close we have come to HAL 9000, Aigo, a California-based startup, produced a video comparing its breakthrough technology with that of Alexa’s. (Be sure to view the entire video.) It reveals what one can expect from these devices, going forward. Also on a similar game-changing trajectory is BMW‘s Intelligent Personal Assistant, an advanced voice activated driving experience technology. With this voice package, BMW aims to eliminate dashboard touch-screens, …the outcome of which could inspire radically different auto interior designs, in particular, for autonomous vehicles.

These Voice Assistant Smart devices are part of a larger category called Voice User Interface or VUI’s. VUI’s include any smart device or app that relies on a user’s voice for input commands. These VUI’s could be life-size human-like Robots, Chatbots, Holographs, and more. Let’s take a closer look at who is doing what in this space with the following VUI’s.

Robots, Chatbots, Holographs

SoftBank Robotics created a friendly-looking robot called ‘Pepper’ that companies such as HSBC and Carrefour use to greet their customers. Like a dispatcher, “Pepper’ directs customers to the appropriate employee or department using the language of choice. In the event of a communication error, ‘Pepper’ has an integrated, iPad-size screen for optional click inputs. ‘Pepper’s’ disarming, child-like interactions dazzle audiences, especially when it successfully greets a customer by name. Similar to its Brethren, ‘Pepper’ becomes smarter by matching images of its visitors with their corresponding Contextual Utterances. ‘Pepper’ has also shown promise with young medical patients who tend to feel more comfortable chatting about their symptoms with a robot than with an adult.

What ‘Pepper’ does offline, Avatars do online and more. Avatars interact with individuals from a web page or App using voice, text, or both. Just as ringtones gave mobile phones their customized personality, Avatars can help set the tone for interactions by mimicking a celebrity’s voice/image or simply project a voice with an engaging accent. Sapientx, a San Francisco-based firm specializes in creative Avatar designs. Their creations help humanize the Chatbot experience blending both entertainment with genuine, positive interactions. They can also inject a visual/voice branding experience that consumers can identify with personally. The firm’s white paper expands upon how their interactive branding power can transcend generations in many positive ways.

A typical Chatbot experience requires either a click or utterance from the user. Depending upon the App, a Chatbot will reply via voice or text. Users communicate directly with the activated device (via voice or text) and receive near instantaneous responses, …just as though they were interacting directly with a department head.

Bank of America’s Chatbot or Virtual Financial Assistant is called Erica. With Erica, users can learn about their personal spending habits, receive suggestions on driving financial improvements, and learn about ancillary services available at the bank. This solution is ideal for up-selling and cross-selling sales campaigns that can leverage a client’s changing needs.

Workday.com, a cloud-based business service entity offers a Chatbot to help their employees stay connected. Their Chatbot improves efficiency, knowledge sharing, and collaboration. By integrating this platform in the workplace, Workday.com employees are regularly reminded of their fundamental core values, which in turn helps promote management’s engaging culture internally.

Another interesting example came from Murphy Oil, an oil and gas company located in Arkansas. Management hired Alan AI, Inc, a Texas-based enterprise mobile development firm, to design a conversational voice Chatbot for their field engineers to deploy while checking and maintaining the company’s equipment. This ‘supercharged’ Voice Assistant gives their engineers the ability to trigger required workflows and monitor equipment progress in real-time. Other Chatbot enterprise developers at the conference included Rulai and Grid Dynamics, which is pending an IPO.

So far the industries leveraging Chatbots include Entertainment, Healthcare, Financial Services, Cable/Telecommunications and Utilities. The bulk of applications, however, are for specific internal use such as HR, expense reports, employee directory assistance, etc. Essentially they address all the little nagging items employees endure on a day-to-day basis, (i.e. recording travel receipts). Internal applications enjoy greater success because they can leverage a company’s industry jargon and finite database to achieve higher levels of speech recognition accuracy.

If you are looking for some winner applications for internal use, consider reaching out to Oracle’s Conversational Design Team. They are the group behind Oracle’s Virtual Assistant. What caught my attention at the event was that Oracle’s deliberately focuses its resources to develop internal applications that deliver 95% or higher levels of voice response accuracy. This ‘high bar’ approach has given their team the bandwidth to address more challenging issues such as multiple requests in the same ‘Utterance’, …also referred to in the industry as ‘Intent Handling’.

Finally, Microsoft delivered an impressive keynote, which included a speech to text demo from the very same PowerPoint used to deliver the presentation. As the keynote speaker, Xuedong Huang, Technical Fellow and Chief Speech Scientist for Microsoft addressed the audience in his Scottish accent English, a Spanish text version of his words appeared in real-time below his slides. Being fluent in Spanish, I could personally verify that the sub-title translation was impressively authentic. This near-flawless, application could be easily paired up with any two languages from a list of 50 available; hence, a French spoken presentation could display Chinese sub titles or vice versa. This service is currently imbedded in Office 365 and costs about $1 per hour of speech.

As though this feat was yesterday’s achievement, Mr. Huang felt obligated to awe the audience with yet another example of achieving ‘Human Parity’. This time he used his own voice print and intonations to display an image of himself conversing natively in Japanese. According to a Japanese-speaking member in the audience, the Japanese delivery also sounded authentic.

In a successful attempt to leave a lasting impression with the audience, Mr. Huang played a video of Julie White, an actress and global motivational speaker. She used a life-size hologram of herself to deliver a speech in native Japanese to a Japanese audience in Japan, …all the while she remained at her home in San Diego, California. The implications from the potential uses of this breakthrough technology both good and devious were equally startling and open for ongoing debate.

Creating Your Own Chatbot? – Key Design Issues to Consider

Before you decide on launching your own Chatbot, it would be wise to align your lofty expectations with a dosage of reality. Voice technology is much harder than it may appear. It is its own worse enemy because incremental successes tend to propagate the need for more backend technology, which in turn unleashes more complexity, often at a geometric progression. Fortunately and as testimony to the recent Conversational Interactions Conference, the industry has met and exceeded many impressive breakthroughs. However, the battle to achieve ‘human parity’ across all platforms and applications on a sustainable basis continues. Here is what keeps developers up at night.

Hardware issues… Noisy Environments can pose serious issues for Ambient Voice Exchanges. Amazon’s Echo units currently include 5 unidirectional mics that can pick up surrounding voice commands from multiple angles. More may be needed… For Chatbot apps, however, the key issue is just the opposite. Back ground noises, such as traffic or machinery need to be eliminated. UmeVoice, Inc, a headset manufacturer, offers military grade, noise cancelation headsets and ear buds that help drown out surrounding noises, allowing users to provide voice inputs in practically any situation with excellent clarity including audible whispers.

Software challenges… The backend engines that seamlessly support Voice Controlled Devices from the Cloud depend upon the ongoing advancements in Natural Language Processing (NLP), Deep Learning (DL), Neural Learning (NL), Speech Recognition (SR), Text To Speech (TTS), and a slew more acronyms yet to be named, …plus all of their respective ancillary development tools! The process is never ending…

UI/UX Design protocols… Humanizing Bots requires a deep understanding of acceptable human behavior. UI/UX (User Interface / Use eXperience) designers deliberately include facial expressions to invite positive emotions from the user, especially in the event a voice exchange fails to meet expectations. In the industry this soft yet crucial issue is known as ‘Failing Gracefully’. To appreciate the importance of “Failing Gracefully”, imagine the mounting frustrations that one would experience if the other person not only delayed their response but also repeated the same question multiple times. Natural voice exchange tolerance hinges on less than half of a second per response. Any longer and a simple dialogue between two individuals risks appearing like two separate conversations, …the likes of which would harbor irreparable frustration, distrust, and confusion.

Even with the best hardware available, voice applications can fail due to poor conversational interaction protocols. For example, the gender voice or accent used to interact with a user may come across unappealing or unfriendly. In the case of Chatbots, replies may be too long, not relevant, potentially insulting, or even ‘creepy’, especially if the Bot were to divulge into any personal details unintentionally. Even a user can fill the feedback loop with poor data by inadvertently gaming the system, either by speaking unnaturally slow or using specific terms out of context.

Conversational interactions should be fun, entertaining, terse, non-invasive, and to the point. Bots should engage with users to learn more about them without appearing overburdening. Each exchange should build upon the previous one to help profile the user. The more the Bot knows about the user, the more likely its suggestions will resonate and the all encompassing trust factor increases. In short the key challenge with designing an application is to find the balance where the Bot can gracefully and gradually extract more intel from a user, while simultaneously integrating the aggregate data to help it provide the user with more relevant and timely suggestions. This fine line of being helpful while remaining invisible and accurate is an ongoing industry challenge, …and even more so, when a growing list of backend technology issues are considered simultaneously. It is at this very tenuous and yet exciting juncture where the industry stands today.

Some of the Industry’s Greatest Challenges

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Bots is the handling of instructions that change midstream. This event occurs when a user who asks for one thing suddenly changes his or her mind in the same utterance for something else. On the receiving end, the undoing of one for command for another can cause processing algorithms to breakdown. A reset routine to handle the new request is a possible work around, however the additional processing time could create an extended delay that would exceed the half of a second conversational interaction requirement.

…and if all of these challenges were not enough, developers rightfully complain about the need to code and maintain the same voice applications for each platform, IOS, Android, Siri, etc. Often than not, these platforms will modify their API’s (Application Programming Interface) without warnings, sending developers into a mad rush to fix each application!


Tom Kadala is a technology innovator and freelance writer on topics related to artificial intelligence and machine learning. He is also the founder of RagingFX.com, a first-of-its-kind Autonomous Company.

© 2020 Tom Kadala


An FX Parity Play post Brexit

Could Brexit push EURUSD, GBPUSD, and EURGBP to Parity in 2020 …or sooner?

The tea leaves in the UK are wilting fast as the Brexit deadline is fast approaching. While goblins and ghosts will be meandering the streets in the US on Halloween night (October 31), the UK will be bracing for the scare of the century, namely, a possible departure from the EU. Leading the charge are two factors: Boris Johnson’s ego and the fear of Labor Leader Jeremy Corbyn becoming the next PM. Both outcomes are down right scary!

Mired within the cross hairs of British politics lies the uncertain future of Sterling and the Euro. Both currencies stand to lose value against the USD and other safe haven currencies, i.e. CHF and JPY). At the very least traders can expect lows to be tested once again. Here’s why…

Since Trump took office, investors have been living a new economic normal that has yet to be fully reflected in global currency values. As a result, central bank reactions have varied widely.

As of late… Mario Draghi has renewed QE efforts creating more ‘easy money’. Jerome Powell is patching up a US short term liquidity issue with a QE-like repeat performance. GDP numbers are dropping due to unresolved US-China talks on trade tariffs. Major European banks and pension funds are choking up against EU’s negative interest rates. Worse of all, global monetary policy tools that central banks once relied on to maintain economic stability are no longer effective. These and other factors are pushing economic leaders to compete on the basis of their devalued currency rather than optimal resource allocations and coordinated globalization.

This relentless ‘race-to-the-bottom’ syndrome among central bankers has investors worried and will very likely be the root cause for a potential parity FX play against the USD in the months ahead.


© 2019 Tom Kadala

How to FX Brexit…

From the RagingFX Trading Desk…

The jury is finally out. Parliament has for the second time voted down Theresa May’s tentative Brexit agreement. Despite recently acquired legal assurances from Brussels of a limited back stop with Ireland, a major sticking point, the British Parliament would have nothing more to do with May’s two years of haggling with EU negotiators. What lies ahead is most certainly the growing uncertainty of the British economy.

Just as most FX traders have been baffled by the recent strength in the dollar, they have also shaken their heads in disbelief at Sterling’s rise. On the dollar, some argue that the dovish outlook from Powell and the disappointing 20,000 NFP numbers from last Friday hide the fact that the USD is fairing out better than its peers, …hence the show of strength is really ‘relative’ strength from an overall decline.

To some degree, could the same be said about Sterling’s recent strength? The UK economy is firing on all pistons fueled by historically low unemployment numbers and an increase in tax revenues from earlier this year. But, here is where the difference lies. Sterling’s ‘relative strength’ comes from an artificial demand founded upon frenzy, stockpiling efforts from both consumers and government buyers living in fear of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

After March 29 when Article 50 is to be invoked, the British economy will return to a lower equilibrium point. The irony is that it no longer matters if Brexit is approved or not; nor if there’s a ‘no deal’ Brexit, a second referendum, or new elections. The damage to the UK economy has already been done, because it will take months to work through the artificially bloated inventory of goods, especially among soon-to-be tight fisted consumers living in fear of losing their jobs to a forthcoming recession. Add unprecedented political uncertainty of the likes not seen for decades and Sterling strength will undoubtedly be short lived.

On the near term, we expect Cable to trade with high levels of volatility within a 1.30 to 1.35 range to start. Over the mid term… look for eventual spikes to give way to a predominant downtrend where it will potentially test a 1.14 low.


© 2019 Tom Kadala

Hanging in the Balance for FX Traders… Brexit, Trump’s Tariff Threats, and the EU’s unprecedented Plea

From the RagingFX Trading Desk…

Dominating headlines for this week include Brexit, China, and Germany. Here’s is our take for the weeks ahead…

On the Brexit front we anticipate an extension to the March 29, 2019 hard deadline for at least another year. The EU will be holding their elections in May, which will hamper a second referendum attempt. Keeping the status quo, at this juncture, we believe is what is best for both sides, which will most likely secure Theresa May’s role as PM for the near future.

This past weekend Germany caved after witnessing Theresa May’s historic Parliamentary loss of support for the current Brexit proposal. Merkel’s supposed successor, Karrenbauer, issued an unprecedented, emotional plea from the CDU asking the UK to reconsider reentry. The $120b investments and more than twice that in trade exchange value between both countries are weighing heavily on the minds of German leaders.

If you agree that Germany holds the purse strings for the EU, this gesture has significant ramifications politically. If cooler heads prevail, both sides will seek remedies behind closed doors that should buy more time for negotiations.

What does all this mean for FX traders?

Going forward, we see a global recession triggered by the tariff war between the US and China. This morning the latest IMF global predictions concur. China’s debt levels will continue to rise as the government continues to release more funds into the economy. The resulting inflation will depreciate the Renminbi against the US Dollar. In addition, the slowing Chinese economy will dampen commodity demand, which in turn, will hurt emerging markets, all of which will eventually lead to urgent bail outs of their respective dollar denominated liabilities. Those governments saddled with Chinese loans may have little recourse, since the IMF will not recognize Beijing’s competing alternative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In this economically declining scenario, the USD will remain strong at least for a few more quarters due to the current economic momentum. On the mid to long term, we would not be surprised to see the Euro reach parity with the USD as the EU seeks to rebalance its tariff-stricken industries.

© 2018 Tom Kadala

A FOREX Perspective on the US-China Tariff War

When the White House launched its first round of global tariffs to protect the steel and aluminum industries, they realized quickly that they had missed their intended target, China. After issuing a list of exemptions, they unleashed a second round of tariffs for $50b, this time aiming straight at China’s economy. The response from China came as expected in the form of a tit for tat. Trump then doubled down with a $100b tariff threat at China, where a similar response is expected soon.

What is happening behind the scenes?

Let’s start with a closer look at the import and export numbers between both countries. In 2017 China imported $130b of American goods, while the US imported over $506b in Chinese goods. The trade deficit of $376b no doubt can be viewed as a cause for concern. However, more revealing is the $130b figure because it represents the maximum the Chinese can retaliate against US imposed tariffs. Already with $150b on the line, the Chinese will have a net of $20b more in US tariffs to match. In essence the tariff war chess game between the US and China has reached a maximum ante even before negotiations have begun.

Two questions remain… What else can the Chinese do to match the US tariff burden? …and how exposed is the US economy if the Chinese tariffs are imposed?

Some have suggested that China could stop buying US debt. Such a move is unlikely because the dollar is expected to strengthen for two key reasons. First, US interest rates are on the rise in response to historically low US unemployments levels and, more so, from a broadened US economic recovery. Secondly, and perhaps least talked about is the repatriation of corporate funds overseas. Portions of a 3.5 trillion dollar corporate earnings kitty are being readied to return to US shores beginning in Q2, As this unprecedented flow of funds are transferred into US bank vaults, the impact from the increased demand for USD currency will be felt globally.

For now, China has no reason to sell its dollar denominated investments. The potential combination between increasing interest rates and currency appreciation is a formidable investment with low risk. As for US companies that will be impacted by Chinese tariffs, the net effect from having to pay a higher price for Chinese goods will be partially offset by their stronger USD earnings.

In light of this scenario, we expect the next wave of Chinese tariff retaliations may come in the form of a weakening of the Renminbi, hence, reviving the appeal for Chinese exports, while also maintaining the status quo with weakened non-USD currencies. A stronger US dollar against a weaker Renminbi could potentially be devastating for net exporting countries such as Germany. We expect the economic set backs could temporarily drive the euro below parity with the USD, while their economies adjust accordingly.

With the US corporate tax at a very competitive 21% rate, one could expect net exporters such as Germany to migrate their manufacturing bases and corresponding supply chains to the US. This trend has already begun and is expected to accelerate, especially if the US-Chinese tariff war continues unchecked.

© 2018 Tom Kadala

Powell’s Debut Rattles FOREX Currency Markets

Powell’s first news conference was definitely a switch from the scripted presentations given by his predecessor, Janet Yellen. Despite the difference in style, the message was clear: interest rates are on the rise, unemployment is at historic lows, and what remains to be seen are wage increases followed by an increase in productivity, otherwise, we can expect another recessionary pull back.

What does that mean for Forex traders?

Today we saw the dollar weaken against most currencies. At first it may seem counterintuitive for a currency with a rate increase to fall favor with traders, however, this anomaly is actually a repeat performance from previous USD rate rises. There are numerous academic arguments to support the pull back, however, our favorite is what we have heard from top traders at Goldman Sachs, “it’s just what happens.”.

From a more academic perspective, the 10-year T-Bills at 2.9% are teetering upon a psychological level of 3% where traders and investors believe the US stock markets may stall the longest bull market on record or even reverse it. Their argument is largely supported by the increasing default exposure from emerging countries such as Turkey, which have funded their long term projects with US Dollar denominated short term debt. As rates increase, their dollar denominated interest payments increase accordingly and become harder to pay back. The same is true with US credit card holders. In addition, as US consumer debt levels continue to surge, default levels may reach new levels at home, which could potentially stall the consumer retail engine that represents 70% of the US GDP.

With this unsettling USD backdrop, the GBP (British Sterling) is gaining unexpected strength against both the Euro and the USD. Recent developments between the two Brexit negotiators, Davis and Barnier, arrived yesterday with the usual British pomp and circumstance but in reality only delivered an extension of one year to the status quo. Some progress may have been made on some fronts, but the number of unresolved issues hasn’t changed significantly. Only the final Brexit date was moved to 2020. All of these shenanigans may be negotiating tactics of sorts, but at the end of the day, the feeling one can get from the very strained discussions between Westminster and Brussels is that eventually a referendum will be reintroduced in favor of the ‘Remains’.

Brussels’ negotiating tactics involve a high level of tolerance with little meaningful progress. They are letting this inevitable scenario play itself out. Unfortunately for Britain, when their leaders finally do choose to rejoin the EU (in whatever capacity), they will have gained less for their economy than what they had in place prior to triggering Brexit.

© 2018 Tom Kadala

Have Trump Tariff Threats become a Bargaining Chip for Unilateral Trade Agreements?

Market reactions to Gary Cohn’s resignation as the White House chief economic advisor were swift and uncanny. One can only guess that every Goldman Sachs trader, Cohn’s former firm, were tipped off well in advance of his final decision to resign. The warning probably gave the firm’s traders enough time to prepare a severe sell off once the markets closed. Border line to insider trading, such a move might trigger an SEC investigation, but it’s unlikely. Like the NRA, Goldman Sachs ‘walks on many swamps’ in Washington, …and has for decades.

It’s not the first time that Goldman Sachs comes to Washington for a brief stay and leaves significantly wealthier. Henry Paulson was a classic example of a ‘wolf-in-sheep’s clothing’ during the financial crisis of 2009. One thing for sure, like the well trained traders that they are, Goldman Sachs alum know when to leave Washington just as they know when to exit a trade. Hence, Cohn’s resignation was just another timely departure. In December he achieved a key objective. namely, passing the Tax Reform bill. …and now that all that is done, it was time for him to leave.

Post Cohn, what next?

Intended or not, Cohn’s departure may be part of a much larger Trump/Navarro scheme.

Consider this possibility… What if the steel and aluminum tariff threats were actually a foil to coerce affected nations, which there are many, to request/beg for a unilateral trade agreement with the US? A prime example of this relatively ruthless negotiating strategy is the upcoming NAFTA renewal agreement involving both Mexico and Canada.

Surely politicians are expected to respond with counter protectionist measures and tough talk, but at the end of the day, the underlying message that will continue to resonate the most will be the implementation of a solution that will remove the tariffs completely, such as one that is conveniently wrapped into a unilateral trade agreement.

In essence, Trump/Navarro created the threat that would drive the outcomes they sought.

You may recall that early on during his first year in office, Trump bowed out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement due to its multilateral structure. He accused it of being opaque and prone to unfair practices. Now with the stroke of one threat, he may very well have achieved his goal of undoing multilateral agreements altogether and replacing them with more transparent and comprehensive deals.

© 2018 Tom Kadala

Did Beau Biden’s Battle with Brain Cancer Change the Course of History?  

What would the world be like today, if Beau Biden had become a cancer survivor?

His father, Joe Biden, would have run for President of the United States and very likely won the national elections in 2016. The barrage of executive orders, the divisive hatred among so many Americans, and the degradation of the highest office in the world may never have come to be.

The Biden’s never revealed the type of brain cancer that inflicted their son. By its complexity the disease might have been glioblastoma, an aggressive cancer that spreads throughout the brain with finger-like tentacles or the more common type called gliomas. Either way, every brain cancer patient is different and developing a tailored treatment for each individual continues to be the industry’s greatest challenge.

I have heard some amazing survival stories where friends and colleagues skirted death one more time after receiving a miraculous drug, cancer treatment, or inexplicable voodoo. But for all the great stories of cancer survivors, thousands upon thousands either live their remaining months at the painful mercy of chemotherapy or choose to meet their maker on their own terms. Morbid as it may sound, I had to ask myself, how come some cancer patients survive, while others do not? …and how can so many customized treatments fail, like that of Beau Biden, when others have managed to become cancer-free well beyond their predicted life expectancy?

A Google search on cancer survivors led me to a tumor-removing procedure and treatment whose statistics surprised me. The study appeared incomplete because, as stated in the footnotes, the cancer patients in this particular clinical study, never died. Ironically, the lack of life termination data left the study inconclusive. Patients who were expected to survive for less than a year were still very much alive, now 10 to 12 years later and enjoying 100% remission. The conclusions from the abstract read like the cure for a common cold and the treatment used, called brachytherapy, was easy-to-understand. Despite the astonishingly high survivability from this clinical study, however, what surprised me most was actually something else.

Brachytherapy is not new. It has been around since the early 19th century. When doctors remove cancerous tumors they carve them out in much the same way that a gardener would when removing a large weed. However, just as in the case of a gardener, its nearly impossible to pull every root out of a weed as it is to remove every last cancer cell associated with a specific tumor. The hidden remnant cells that are left behind become the primary cause for the resurgence of the disease in cancer stricken patients.

To remove these stray cancer cells before they can cause a recurrence, doctors will subscribe some form of radiation treatments, one of which is called brachytherapy. …and herein lies the difference among treatments that really work to cure a patient and those that simply prolong the agony associated with the disease.

Most hospitals will use external applications such as chemotherapy or laser beams to kill any remnant cancer cells after a tumor has been removed. Although effective, these externally-applied treatments also come with formidable side-effects such as loss of hair and extreme debilitation. In addition to these side-effects, the guarantee of a 100% cure has frequently remained elusive at best. Frankly, neither the doctor nor the patient can ever know for sure if every last traces of cancer cells have been completely annihilated.

An alternative approach to external radiation is brachytherapy. Immediately after a tumor has been surgically removed, doctors implant radioactive seeds right along the wall of the cavity. These technologically advanced seeds are custom prepped with dosages of Cesium 131, a radioactive isotope that similar to a biodegradable stitch, virtually disappears after 9 days of emitting more effective killing energy than chemo or beams can. To maximize their impact, these seeds are assembled in what is trademarked as a GammaTile®. …which is no more than a preassembled, mat-like structure that houses the required number of seeds, each spaced accordingly to emit a steady flow of localized radiation.

You might be wondering, as I did, “…why hasn’t anyone written about GammaTile® cancer-curing treatments, if indeed they are so effective?” The pure and unadulterated answer is the cost of the treatment. No, not because it is too expensive, but just the opposite. It is too affordable! A typical brachytherapy GammaTile® treatment runs about 75 to 90% less than chemotherapy treatments and other similar biological therapies.

Big pharma won’t support brachytherapy because they would sell fewer addictive and expensive drugs to insurance companies. Hospitals won’t support it because the number of visits is reduced significantly, and doctors avoid it because insurance companies won’t pay for it. The fact is that a viable cure for cancer using GammaTiles® and brachytherapy has failed to enter the mainstream of cancer treatments largely due to special interests, ironically, none of which seem to involve the better interests of the inflicted patient and their families.

Not all hope is lost. The Barrows Cancer Center expects to approve an official insurance code for Cesium 131 by July 2017, which would at the very least make it easier for doctors to get paid by insurance companies. …a bold step in the right direction!

…the steep price our society pays.
To appreciate the hidden burden our society bears to keep proven cures for  cancer out of the mainstream, one need only ponder the loss of Beau Biden. Just think, what might have happened had he survived his battle against brain cancer with a simple GammaTile® solution. His survival could very likely have changed the course of history.

The question remains, how many more Beau Bidens must we lose before the cure for most common cancers can be treated and supported as just another common ailment?

© 2017 Tom Kadala

Betting on the Brits – …my FOREX-related story

A couple of years ago I was asked to cover a trading desk at a prestigious firm in London. What transpired in the first week was quite humorous, since neither party really knew the other all that well.

During one of our daily banters at lunch break, I asked one of their top traders if it was possible for a random freelance writer, like me, to become an expert Forex trader like him and his colleagues, …in say, less than two years time? They chuckled, but soon the question turned into a friendly wager between us. They were willing to teach me the art of their trade, if I agreed to stay in London for a few months longer. Without any hesitation, I agreed. What I failed to tell them, however, (since they never asked) was that aside from freelance writing, I was also a seasoned programmer with over 25 years experience.

For the next three months, I watched two top traders work the Forex markets masterfully. In the evenings I diligently programed what I had learned into a versatile algorithm. To keep up with the trading lingo, I poured over technical trading manuals, took copious notes on their many trading styles and strategies, and carefully observed their trading behavior under many different circumstances. After a few days in the trading room, I quickly learned how these circumstances could vary widely.

Each morning we met briefly to review global events and discuss trading opportunities. Every meeting derived a different outcome. For example, one morning interest rates moved up in Australia causing investors to dump Euros and buy Australian dollars. The ripple effect triggered a similar outflow in Emerging Markets whose respective currencies sometimes reacted with greater amplitude. Within seconds, my two mentors were skillfully working the South African Rand and the Turkish Lira using Gold as a potential hedge. The Euros that were sold earlier in the day were bought back, all at a precisely calculated, risk managed profit. Later that week, changing oil prices, commodity prices, invasions, trade disputes, earnings, GDP, non-farm payrolls, hedge funding currencies, political elections, and so many other factors including the prospects for a Grexit and Brexit, weighed in. In an unpredictable manner, each event contributed to an uncanny sense of ‘controlled mayhem’ in the trading room.

Despite the daily ensued chaos from the markets, these two cool cats maneuvered skillfully through the maze pinpointing with incredible accuracy, areas with high-probability arbitrages. Like the rails on a train track, their unflinching trading discipline was solid and consistent, day in and day out. They reminded me of two sturdy pillars standing firm against a fierce tornado. It was truly amazing to watch and absorb, not just for what it did for their trading results, but more for the many ways it could be applied to daily life decisions.

Perhaps, my greatest takeaway from the entire experience could be summed up as follows:

“Add clear thinking, risk management, and a disciplined approach to any
problem and the odds for a successful outcome can be greatly improved.”

Simple? Yes, but very difficult to achieve on a sustainable basis, at least for humans, but not so for a pair of fast computers and a cleverly written algorithm. What happened next surprised us both. See for yourself at http://www.ragingfx.com.

So, you might ask, who won the wager?

As it turned out, we both did. …because we had unwittingly hedged our respective bets! They taught me everything they knew, while in two years time, I created an amazing algo that digitized everything they had taught me!

© 2016 Tom Kadala

Should the Obama Administration take Mexico for Granted?

Why is the US Congress always occupied with east-west issues such as with Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Ukraine, while practically ignoring its neighbors south of its borders (i.e. Mexico)? To place it into perspective, consider the number of times Secretary of State, John Kerry or even President Barack Obama have met with Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto. …maybe once or twice per year which barely compares to the hundreds of stops made in the Middle East alone.

The term ‘shuttling between capitals’ to negotiate trade deals and peace treaties with the US seems never to apply to Mexico or Central/South America, and yet Mexico is the US’s second largest trading partner moving over USD$500 billion in goods and services across its borders. With so much hanging on the balance, especially with immigration reform and border security between both countries, is it prudent for the US to take its neighbors south of the border for granted? …and what can Mexico say differently to place its agenda on a priority list for high level officials in Washington?  

Foreign Affairs Forum
At a recent forum at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City called, Mexico as a Global Player sponsored by the Foreign Affairs publication as part of a series on Mexico titled, Mexico’s Muscle, Revealing the Strength, the Minister of Economic Growth for the State of Mexico, Adrian Fuentes Villalobos, along with a cadre of supporting experts from both countries, sat on various panels where they proposed the idea of a NAFTA Version 2.0 (North American Free Trade Agreement). This enhanced version of the 1994 NAFTA agreement would seamlessly combine Canada, US, and Mexico into a North American partnership, one based on shared job creation and prosperity building.

Over the past twenty years, NAFTA used up most of its political capital in Washington and depending upon who you ask has rendered mixed results. The Huffington Post, for example, underscores the net loss of 1 million American jobs plus a net US trade deficit of USD$181bn, while Mexican-sponsored research groups show a contrasting view that highlights the creation of 6 million jobs between both countries along with a 500% increase in trade capacity. Despite their differences of opinion, one indisputable benefit was the development of a manufacturing hub for heavy industry located in the center of Mexico.

What was once a sparsely populated territory has now been transformed into a series of industrial parks that when viewed from 30,000 feet high appear organized like the floor of a modern plant. Top multinationals such as GM, Chrysler, GE, BMW, Boeing, Nescafe, DuPont, and Embraer, to name a few, have established a presence in the region with their key suppliers located nearby. As testimony to their commitment and confidence in its future prospects, many companies are continuing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to accommodate their imminent rapid growth. Foreign investors including global banks have had a key role in boosting Mexico’s FDI (Foreign Direct Investment), which has doubled to USD$35.2bn in 2013 when compared to the year before.

For a country that has carefully mapped this massive expansion and has been responsive to the strategic needs of global manufacturers, one would expect that by all reasonable standards, Mexico’s achievements thus far would have earned it international recognition, and yet, when it comes to members of the US Congress, nothing could be further from the truth. For a slew of political reasons, elected US officials have conveniently stuck to two key issues when discussing US-Mexican relations, immigration reform and border security. With good reason, members of the panel spoke of their efforts to change the dialogue with the US but have done so with little success. The US Ambassador from Mexico to the US, Eduardo Medina Mora, described his personal hidden frustrations as he described his daily reminders to members of Congress on the many potential benefits Mexico can offer to the US. Clearly, the two pending bills have greatly polarized US-Mexican relations, which has resulted in a decoupling between Washington politics and the multinationals operating in Mexico.

The newly elected President Enrique Peña Nieto recognized his country’s political shortcomings early on after being sworn into office and in a series of extraordinarily bold moves pushed through four noteworthy bills to help bring his country closer to a US framework. These include:

  1. An energy reform bill that for the first time allows foreign direct investments to improve the country’s energy portfolio and infrastructure.
  2. A telecommunications bill that has broken a long-held monopoly among cell phone and television operators.
  3. An education reform bill that among other challenges will reward teachers on the basis of merit.
  4. A labor bill that makes it easier for companies to hire and fire employees.

In each case, President Enrique Peña Nieto had to take on powerful labor unions and business tycoons to successfully dismantle their influential centers. His efforts won him praise both domestically and internationally. His ingenuity and leadership earned him the respect from his country peers at the G-20 economic meetings. However, despite President Peña Nieto’s notable achievements, Mexico still has never been recognized as a priority by either the Obama Administration or members of the US Congress. Not all was lost. In response to Mexico’s relentless requests to gain access to high level officials in Washington, the White House finally acquiesced in May of 2013 to form the HLED platform, which stands for, you guessed it, High Level Economic Dialogue. Truly an unimaginative acronym and more than likely a US stalling tactic, the HLED limits Mexico to one annual meeting with cabinet-level officials in Washington.

According to one of the panelists, what Mexico needs is a revised narrative, one that addresses key mutual benefits that elected US officials can pitch to garner the support of their constituents. Just asking the US to change their dialogue away from immigration reform and border security, may not be enough. I believe something more is needed and have taken the liberty to lay out a few suggestions below (see appendix) that could help a Mexican delegation send the same intended message to the Obama Administration but, hopefully, in a more compelling manner.

I would be remiss not to mention the current threat from drug cartels in Mexico and the illegal immigration of Central and South Americans that travel through Mexico to reach the US border. No doubt it is one of the key concerns that weigh on elected officials’ minds and the American people. However, as history has shown us repeatedly, a strong economy is a far greater deterrent than an over-extended border protection scheme. By boosting medical tourism along the US-Mexican border, expanding the State of Mexico’s manufacturing hub, and educating both US and Mexican youth to meet increasing STEM job demand, drug cartels will be forced to circulate elsewhere.  As for non-Mexican immigrants, they should find employment in their own respective countries caused by a spillover effect triggered by NAFTA Version 2.0.

Hopefully the acronym HLED will some day soon be changed to read The North American Partnership or TNAP – (NAFTA Ver. 2.0). There members would agree to meet at least monthly with US cabinet officials. Maybe then, Mexico will know it is no longer being taken for granted.



A Revised Narrative for the Mexican Delegation

In an effort to change the narrative presented at the event, I have listed three key strategic points that on their own merits should help gain the attention of US political leaders.

I. Establish tiered industrial zones within Mexico’s manufacturing hubs that focus on a balanced trade-off between a range of country content ratios of finished products (i.e. US versus Mexican content) and corresponding tax policies.
Currently, the Mexican delegation claims that the US content for products manufactured in the State of Mexico is 40%. If the State of Mexico developed trade-friendly policies that applied favorable tax rates based upon US content, then further  tiered them for companies with lower US content, US leaders would view the gesture favorably and be forced to respond accordingly. For this scheme to work, however, Mexico should maintain a bi-lateral, transparent, third-party auditing process to ensure the policy is attracting the right kind of companies. At the end of the day, the same US companies who enjoy the maximum benefits will become the Mexican delegation’s greatest advocates in Washington. They will do a more effective job selling Mexico’s North American partnership to members of Congress and the American public than anyone else.

II. Open dialogue to develop trade policy between medical tourism in Mexico for US baby boomers in exchange for STEM education assistance for Mexican youth.
Just south of California, Tijuana has become the capital of the world for medical tourism with over 1 million annual visitors who generate over USD$1bn in economic benefits to the area. With the predicted shortage of doctors in the US, the retiring of 77 million baby boomers, and the introduction of Obama Care, the US may no longer have the manpower to take care of its aging population’s medical needs. Rather than leaving this situation to chance, US leaders would do well to help develop affordable pathways for the most common procedures by leveraging the abundance of Mexican doctors. Another potential idea would be to use approved Mexican medical procedural rates as a basis for insurance policy reimbursements, hence giving policyholders real options rather than just high deductibles.

In exchange for Mexico’s cooperation, the US can agree to help develop stronger STEM education curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) for its young adults who comprise over half of the Mexican population. Clearly Mexico’s immediate needs lie in educating their youth to fill a growing demand for engineers, whose efforts in turn will also help fuel the US economy, especially if the US content of manufactured products remains around 40% as stated earlier in point number one.

III. Highlight the expected reduction in border crossings over the next 5 years  based on a trending reduction in fertility rates in Mexico and improvements in  job prospects for Mexican youth.
Data shared at the event claimed that by 2020, Mexico’s fertility rates will decline from 2.67 children per child-bearing mother today to 2.2, which is comparable to the US current rate of 2.06 and the ‘replacement level’ of 2.1. The Mexican delegation should circulate these findings along with studies highlighting the reduced need to protect the US border from future Mexican immigrants because there will be fewer interested candidates. The billions saved trying to protect 51 guard posts along the longest border in the world (2,000 miles) could be allocated elsewhere including for launching Mexico’s vision for NAFTA Version 2.0.

© 2014 Tom Kadala