September 22, 2014

Funding Policies Constrain or Enable Serendipitous Discoveries

(p. xiv) Casting a critical eye on the way in which our society spends its research dollars, Happy Accidents offers new benchmarks for deciding how to spend future research funds. We as a society need to take steps to foster the kind of creative, curiosity-driven research that will certainly result in more lifesaving medical breakthroughs. Fostering an openness to serendipity has the potential to accelerate medical discovery as never before.


Meyers, Morton A. Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007.

(Note: italics in original.)

September 21, 2014

"A Small Masterpiece of Animal Literature"

(p. A13) In the annals of publishing, there may be a precedent or two for a venerable military historian setting aside his generals and artillery to evoke the love affair that consumed him as a younger man, but it's probably safe to say that in none of these memoirs is the object of adoration feathered, 10 inches tall and given to maniacally attacking the historian's shoelaces. Such is the case with Martin Windrow's "The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar." If the above description makes the book sound funny, touching and divertingly novel, so it is. But there's more to it than that. In relaxed yet lapidary prose, Mr. Windrow--best known for "The Last Valley," his 2004 account of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu--has produced an homage to both a creature and its species that is almost Leonardo-like in its precision and spirit of curiosity. The result is nothing less than a small masterpiece of animal literature.

. . .

Mumble became his mate-equivalent, and he hers. With the restraint typical of an educated Englishman of his generation, he does not dilate on what she meant to him, but we feel it the more keenly for his reticence.

A paradoxical pitfall of animal literature is that it achieves its effects too easily: Consider how quick we are to laugh when a writer so much as mentions a monkey. The good stuff, however, stands out for its refusal to push buttons or indulge in glib anthropomorphism. In this perfect book, Mr. Windrow may compare Mumble to a samurai and think of her as hurling at pigeons the owlish equivalent of a certain Anglo-Saxon expletive, but he never loses sight of what she is: Strix aluco, a beautiful alien.

For the full review, see:

BEN DOWNING. "BOOKSHELF; Full Feather Jacket; A military historian and an owl make a home together in a London high-rise. Visitors are issued vintage helmets for protection." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., July 2, 2014): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 1, 2014, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar' by Martin Windrow; A military historian and an owl make a home together in a London high-rise. Visitors are issued vintage helmets for protection.")

The book being reviewed is:

Windrow, Martin. The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

September 20, 2014

Modelers Can Often Obtain the Desired Result

(p. A13) After earning a master's degree in environmental engineering in 1982, I spent most of the next 10 years building large-scale environmental computer models. My first job was as a consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency. I was hired to build a model to assess the impact of its Construction Grants Program, a nationwide effort in the 1970s and 1980s to upgrade sewer-treatment plants.

The computer model was huge--it analyzed every river, sewer treatment plant and drinking-water intake (the places in rivers where municipalities draw their water) in the country. I'll spare you the details, but the model showed huge gains from the program as water quality improved dramatically. By the late 1980s, however, any gains from upgrading sewer treatments would be offset by the additional pollution load coming from people who moved from on-site septic tanks to public sewers, which dump the waste into rivers. Basically the model said we had hit the point of diminishing returns.

When I presented the results to the EPA official in charge, he said that I should go back and "sharpen my pencil." I did. I reviewed assumptions, tweaked coefficients and recalibrated data. But when I reran everything the numbers didn't change much. At our next meeting he told me to run the numbers again.

After three iterations I finally blurted out, "What number are you looking for?" He didn't miss a beat: He told me that he needed to show $2 billion of benefits to get the program renewed. I finally turned enough knobs to get the answer he wanted, and everyone was happy.

. . .

There are no exact values for the coefficients in models such as these. There are only ranges of potential values. By moving a bunch of these parameters to one side or the other you can usually get very different results, often (surprise) in line with your initial beliefs.

For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT J. CAPRARA. "OPINION; Confessions of a Computer Modeler; Any model, including those predicting climate doom, can be tweaked to yield a desired result. I should know." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., July 9, 2014): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 8, 2014.)

September 19, 2014

Curing Cancer Requires Enabling Serendipity, Not a Centrally Planned War

Happy Accidents is a wonderful book on serendipitous discovery that I ran across serendipitously. I had never heard of the author, but was interested in serendipity, so I started to collect books that Amazon says have something to do with serendipity. I let Happy Accidents sit on my shelf for about four years before starting to read.

The author is a retired, distinguished physician. The book is mainly a compendium of cases where major medical advances resulted from chance discoveries. Of course, the discoveries usually required more than just good luck. They usually required that someone was alert to the unexpected, and was willing to work in order to turn the unexpected into a cure. Their efforts are often made all the harder because of resistance from powerful incumbent "experts" and institutions. Often the discoveries go against the current theory, and are discovered by underfunded marginal outsiders.

Meyers points out that the centrally planned War on Cancer has cost the taxpayer a lot of money, and has largely failed to achieve its intended and predicted results. The reason is that you cannot centrally plan serendipity.

During the next several weeks, I will be quoting some of Meyers' more revealing examples or thought-provoking comments.

Book discussed:

Meyers, Morton A. Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007.

September 18, 2014

Feds Threaten 14,000 Dead Men with Prison, if They Fail to Register for Draft

(p. A3) . . . the Selective Service System mistakenly sent notices to more than 14,000 Pennsylvania men born between 1893 and 1897, ordering them to register for the nation's military draft and warning that failure to do so is "punishable by a fine and imprisonment."

. . .

Chuck Huey, 73, of Kingston, said he got a notice addressed to his late grandfather Bert Huey, a World War I veteran who was born in 1894 and died in 1995 at age 100.

. . .

Huey said he tried calling the Selective Service but couldn't get a live person on the line.

. . .

"You just never know. You don't want to mess around with the federal government," he said.

For the full story, see:

The Associated Press. "14,000 men sent draft reminders 100 years too late." Omaha World-Herald (Fri., July 11, 2014): 3A.

(Note: ellipses added.)

September 17, 2014

Bill Gates on Xerox's Inventions and Mistakes

(p. C3) Not long after I first met Warren Buffett back in 1991, I asked him to recommend his favorite book about business. He didn't miss a beat: "It's 'Business Adventures,' by John Brooks, " he said. "I'll send you my copy." I was intrigued: I had never heard of "Business Adventures" or John Brooks.

Today, more than two decades after Warren lent it to me--and more than four decades after it was first published--"Business Adventures" remains the best business book I've ever read. John Brooks is still my favorite business writer. (And Warren, if you're reading this, I still have your copy.)

. . .

One of Brooks's most instructive stories is "Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox." (The headline alone belongs in the Journalism Hall of Fame.) The example of Xerox is one that everyone in the tech industry should study. Starting in the early '70s, Xerox funded a huge amount of R&D that wasn't directly related to copiers, including research that led to Ethernet networks and the first graphical user interface (the look you know today as Windows or OS X).

But because Xerox executives didn't think these ideas fit their core business, they chose not to turn them into marketable products. Others stepped in and went to market with products based on the research that Xerox had done. Both Apple and Microsoft, for example, drew on Xerox's work on graphical user interfaces.

I know I'm not alone in seeing this decision as a mistake on Xerox's part. I was certainly determined to avoid it at Microsoft. I pushed hard to make sure that we kept thinking big about the opportunities created by our research in areas like computer vision and speech recognition. Many other journalists have written about Xerox, but Brooks's article tells an important part of the company's early story. He shows how it was built on original, outside-the-box thinking, which makes it all the more surprising that as Xerox matured, it would miss out on unconventional ideas developed by its own researchers. (To download a free e-book of "Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox," go to

For the full review, see:

BILL GATES. "My Favorite Business Book." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 12, 2014): C3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the last quoted sentence is in the location, and has the wording, of the printer version, not the online version.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 11, 2014, and has the title "Bill Gates's Favorite Business Book.")

The book being reviewed is:

Brooks, John. Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street. pb ed. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, Inc., 2014.

September 16, 2014

Structural Reforms Needed to Increase Innovation

(p. A13) . . . , a lack of "demand" is no longer the problem.

. . .

Where, instead, are the problems? John Taylor, Stanford's Nick Bloom and Chicago Booth's Steve Davis see the uncertainty induced by seat-of-the-pants policy at fault. Who wants to hire, lend or invest when the next stroke of the presidential pen or Justice Department witch hunt can undo all the hard work? Ed Prescott emphasizes large distorting taxes and intrusive regulations. The University of Chicago's Casey Mulligan deconstructs the unintended disincentives of social programs. And so forth. These problems did not cause the recession. But they are worse now, and they can impede recovery and retard growth.

These views are a lot less sexy than a unicausal "demand," fixable by simple, magic-bullet policies. They require us to do the hard work of fixing the things we all agree need fixing: our tax code, our cronyist regulatory state, our welter of anticompetitive and anti-innovative protections, education, immigration, social program disincentives, and so on. They require "structural reform," not "stimulus," in policy lingo.

For the commentary, see:

JOHN H. COCHRANE. "OPINION; The Failure of Macroeconomics; When models don't yield the spending policies they want, some Keynesians abandon models--but not the spending." The Wall Street Journal (Thur., July 3, 2014): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 2, 2014.)

September 15, 2014

Drugs May Rebuild Muscle in Frail Elderly

(p. B1) In 1997, scientist Se-Jin Lee genetically engineered "Mighty Mice" with twice as much muscle as regular rodents. Now, pharmaceutical companies are using his discovery to make drugs that could help elderly patients walk again and rebuild muscle in a range of diseases.

. . .

"I am very optimistic about these new drugs," says Dr. Lee, a professor of molecular biology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who isn't involved in any of the drug trials. "The fact that they're so far along means to me they must have seen effects."

Myostatin is a naturally occurring protein that curbs muscle growth. The drugs act by blocking it, or blocking the sites where it is detected in the body, potentially rebuilding muscle.

For the full story, see:

HESTER PLUMRIDGE and MARTA FALCONI. "Drugs Aim to Treat Frailty in Aging." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., April 28, 2014): B1-B2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the second paragraph quoted above is divided into two mini-paragraphs in the online, but not in the print, version.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 27, 2014, and has the title "Drugs Aim to Help Elderly Rebuild Muscle.")

September 14, 2014

Similarities Between Lucretius and Galileo

Like Lucretius, Galileo defended the oneness of the celestial and terrestrial world: there was no essential difference, he claimed, between the nature of the sun and the planets and the nature of the earth and its inhabitants. Like Lucretius, he believed that everything in the universe could be understood through the same disciplined use of observation and reason. Like Lucretius, he insisted on the testimony of the senses, against, if necessary, the orthodox claims of authority. Like Lucretius, he sought to work through this testimony toward a rational comprehension of the hidden structures of all things. And like Lucretius, he was convinced that these structures were by nature constituted by what he called "minims" or minimal particles, that is, constituted by a limited repertory of atoms combined in innumerable ways.


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

(Note: this quote is from somewhere on pp. 253-255; at least some of it is on p. 254; I bought the Kindle version which does not give page numbers correctly and I can't recover pages on this one from Google books.)

September 13, 2014

Under Communism People Felt They Had No Control Over Their Lives

(p. C4) "When people have to talk about Communism," they tend to employ passive, impersonal constructions, as if they "had no influence on anything and were unwilling to take personal responsibility," he notes in one typically observant passage. "Thus, in a situation where someone ought to say: 'I was afraid to talk about it,' 'I hadn't the courage to ask about it,' or 'I had no idea about it,' they say: 'There was no talk about it.' 'Nothing was known about it.' 'That wasn't asked about.' "

For the full review, see:

LARRY ROHTER. "Understanding the Land Where 'Kafkaesque' Was Born." The New York Times (Mon., June 23, 2014): C4.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 22, 2014.)

The book being reviewed is:

Szczygiel, Mariusz. Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2014.

Eight Most Recent Comments:

Dave Megan said:

Merging of companies is always better when they have a better goal. It will give better service for the public.

Ed Rector said:

The 'quickened pace of production' of the early Reagan years was directly attributable to RR's massive deficit spending. The national debt almost tripled under the watch of St. Ronnie. BO will have to work overtime to even approach this record of accomplishment.

Aaron said:

The last two paragraphs comport perfectly with what Paul Tough describes in a book you posted on a few months ago, "How Children Succeed." Tough advocates that a stable, loving relationship between kids and their parents, especially in the first few years of life, produces self-assured and less anxious adults due to brain formation or chemical reactions that take place in a baby's brain (simplified summary). As always, appreciate the posts, especially the Paul Tough book.

Rev. Pfloyd said:

Hans' "The Best Stats You've Ever Seen" Ted Talk is my favorite Ted Talk ever, which is a pretty big statement when you share company with talks like Sir Ken Robinson's education talk and Steven Pinker's Human Nature and the Blank Slate" talk.

Rev. Pfloyd said:

Voting with your feet. And of course now people are fleeing France to move across the water to England for the same reason. It's truly a global world; soaking the rich really isn't an option anymore.

otacon said:

The media tends to be a willing participant in fanning the flames of racism. Check CNN or the Drudge Report. Every day there is at least one racially charged story. Every day. It has become a tool for news outlets to get clicks but ultimately is a disservice to pretty much everyone.

otacon said:

This is very dangerous and this doctor is acting completely irresponsibly. Are these students supposed to take Adderall for their entire lives or just until they pass American History class? Why not prescribe steroids for under performing children in sports?

Rev. Pfloyd said:

Mark Perry has addressed this before--we don't need more humanities students in the New Economy. In fact, we probably don't need college graduates as a whole (and those we do would benefit from STEM education):

"Part of the skilled-worker shortage is being driven by the ongoing push from parents, teachers and high school counselors for high school graduates to attend four-year colleges, even though many college students are graduating with $20,000 or more in student loan debt and are unable to find full-time employment. Call it the “obsession with college education” or the “overselling” of college education that has perhaps unfairly influenced an entire generation of young Americans."

I've often hypothesized about the idea of charging higher tuition rates for "luxury majors" (what I would consider to be majors of less practical use and more of an "intellectual exercise") and the possible effects on college major or college attendance on the whole.


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