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July 31, 2012

Richard Posner Seeks to Limit and Reform the Patent System




PosnerRichard2012-07-20.jpg













"Judge Richard Posner." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.





I am deeply conflicted about patents. On the one hand, property rights are important, both ethically and in terms of economic incentives. On the other hand, patents seem to restrict innovation.

The views of Posner are worth serious consideration. My own current view is that the patent rules need to be reformed and their implementation made more efficient. But I do not think the patent system should be abolished.


(p. B1) While technology companies continue to fight over smartphone patents, one judge has fought his way into the ring.

He is 73-year-old Richard Posner, among the most potent forces on the federal bench and an outspoken critic of the patent system.

Presiding over a lawsuit between Apple Inc. . . . and Google Inc.'s . . . Motorola Mobility in June, he dropped a bombshell, scrapping the entire case and preventing the companies from refiling their claims. The ruling startled the litigants in the case and fueled a national discussion about whether the patent system (p. B5) is broken.


. . .


In the June ruling, explaining why he wouldn't ban Motorola products from the shelves, Judge Posner said: "An injunction that imposes greater costs on the defendant than it confers benefits on the plaintiff reduces net social welfare."

Judge Posner, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has continued to press the issue.

This month, he wrote an essay in the Atlantic headlined, "Why There Are Too Many Patents In America." He said "most industries could get along fine without patent protection" and that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has done a woeful job, calling it "understaffed," and "many patent examinations...perfunctory."

He saved ammunition for juries and fellow jurists. "Judges have difficulty understanding modern technology and jurors have even greater difficulty," he wrote. He suggested several reforms to the patent system, including shortening the patent term for inventors in some industries and expanding the authority of the Patent and Trademark Office to try patents cases.


. . .


Judge Posner's intellectual curiosity is well-known and "people assume he has no political ax to grind because he's not trying to advance the fortunes of any particular segment of the economy," said Arthur D. Hellman, a law professor at University of Pittsburgh who studies the judiciary.

Yet his ruling poses a difficult question for the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, the specialized one that handles intellectual property cases, about whether infringement matters without damages.

Peter Menell, a law professor at UC Berkeley, likened it to the old thought experiment that begins "If a tree falls in the woods." He said: "If there are no damages, do you need to have a trial?"

Juge Posner also rejected Google's bid to block the sale of iPhones that allegedly infringed a so-called "standards-essential patent" owned by Google. Standards-essential patents protect innovations used in technologies that industries collectively agree to use, like Wi-Fi or 3G. A company that holds one of these patents stands to profit enormously, because its competitors have to pay it for licenses to use the technology.

But Judge Posner ruled that holders of such patents aren't entitled to injunctions. Michael Carrier, a law professor at Rutgers University, Camden, said the opinion on standards-essential patents came amid a groundswell of opposition to injunctions for such patents and could put an end to the practice among U.S. federal judges.



For the full story, see:

JOE PALAZZOLO and ASHBY JONES. "Also on Trial: A Judge's Worldview." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., July 24, 2012): B1 & B5.

(Note: all ellipses were added except for the one internal to the quote from Judge Posner's Atlantic blog posting.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date July 23, 2012 and has the title "Apple and Samsung Patent Suit Puts Judge Posner's Worldview on Trial." The print version of the title could be interpreted as a sub-title of the main title to the accompanying adjacent article. The title of the main article was "Apple v. Samsung; In Silicon Valley, Patents Go on Trial." The last two paragraphs above appear only in the online, but not in the print, version of the article.)


The Atlantic blog posting by Posner can be found at:

Posner, Richard A. "Why There Are Too Many Patents in America." In The Atlantic blog, posted on July 12, 2012 at: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/07/why-there-are-too-many-patents-in-america/259725/.

(Note: the WSJ article above implies that the Posner essay was published in the print version of The Atlantic, but I can only find it in Posner's blog on The Atlantic web site.)






July 30, 2012

Simple Algorithms Predict Better than Trained Experts




(p. 222) I never met Meehl, but he was one of my heroes from the time I read his Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence.

In the slim volume that he later called "my disturbing little book," Meehl reviewed the results of 20 studies that had analyzed whether clinical predictions based on the subjective impressions of trained professionals were more accurate than statistical predictions made by combining a few scores or ratings according to a rule. In a typical study, trained counselors predicted the grades of freshmen at the end of the school year. The counselors interviewed each student for forty-five minutes. They also had access to high school grades, several aptitude tests, and a four-page personal statement. The statistical algorithm used only a fraction of this information: high school grades and one aptitude test. Nevertheless, the formula was more accurate than 11 of the 14 counselors. Meehl reported generally sim-(p. 223)ilar results across a variety of other forecast outcomes, including violations of parole, success in pilot training, and criminal recidivism.

Not surprisingly, Meehl's book provoked shock and disbelief among clinical psychologists, and the controversy it started has engendered a stream of research that is still flowing today, more than fifty years after its publication. The number of studies reporting comparisons of clinical and statistical predictions has increased to roughly two hundred, but the score in the contest between algorithms and humans has not changed. About 60% of the studies have shown significantly better accuracy for the algorithms. The other comparisons scored a draw in accuracy, but a tie is tantamount to a win for the statistical rules, which are normally much less expensive to use than expert judgment. No exception has been convincingly documented.



Source:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

(Note: italics in original.)





July 29, 2012

Neural Implants "Restored Their Human Functionality"




KurzweilRay2012-07-28.jpg




Ray Kurzweil. Source of photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.






(p. C12) Inventor and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil is a pioneer in artificial intelligence--the principal developer of the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, and the first text-to-speech synthesizer, among other breakthroughs. He is also a writer who explores the future of information technology and how it is changing our world.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Kurzweil and The Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray discussed advances in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and what it means to be human. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:


. . .


MR. MURRAY: What about life expectancy? Is there a limit?

MR. KURZWEIL: No. We're constantly pushing back life expectancy. Now it's going to go into high gear because of the inherent exponential progression of information technology. According to my models, within 15 years we'll be adding more than a year to your remaining life expectancy each year.

MR. MURRAY: So if you play the odds right, you never hit the endpoint.

MR. KURZWEIL: Right. If you can hang in there for another 15 years, we could get to that point.


What Is Human?

MR. MURRAY: What does it mean to be human in a post-2029 world?

MR. KURZWEIL: It's a slippery slope. But we've already gone down that slope. I've talked to people who have neural implants in their brain, for Parkinson's, and I've asked them, "Are you still human? Are you less human?"

Generally speaking, they say, "It's part of me." And they're very proud of it, because it restored their human functionality.



For the full interview, see:

Alan Murray, interviewer. "Man or Machine? Ray Kurzweil on how long it will be before computers can do everything the brain can do." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., June 29, 2012): C12.

(Note: ellipsis added; bold in original.)






July 28, 2012

Possible Lessons from Steve Jobs' Entrepreneurial Journey




(p. 4) GOOD IDEAS TAKE TIME After he was ousted from Apple, Mr. Jobs founded NeXT in 1985. It produced a powerful desktop computer, a stylish black cube, and its initial market was going to be in education. The idea was that the machine would be more than hardware and software; it would also offer content, "a universe of wisdom," recalls Michael Hawley, a computer scientist who worked closely with Mr. Jobs at NeXT and lived part time in Mr. Jobs's house, as Mr. Hawley shuttled between California and his post at the M.I.T. Media Lab.

NeXT computers, in Mr. Jobs's vision, would marry technology and the liberal arts by including digital books, music and art. Mr. Jobs began pursuing the rights to works that could be converted to digital form. He persuaded a few publishers that because they would save the expense of paper, printing and distribution, NeXT should pay a royalty that was a fraction of the cost of a printed book. Mr. Jobs, Mr. Hawley recalled, struck a deal with the Oxford University Press for the complete works of Shakespeare for a royalty of $1 a digital copy.

NeXT's foray into education fizzled; its machines were too expensive for that market. But Mr. Jobs's concept and business model for digital media were "the instinct that was translated to Apple with the iTunes store, 99-cents-a-song pricing and all the media offerings that have followed," Mr. Hawley says.

"When Steve believed in an idea, he was both passionate and patient, scratching away over the years until he got it right," says Mr. Hawley, a scientist, concert pianist and host of the EG Conference, an annual gathering for technologists, educators and people in media and entertainment.

DON'T DWELL ON MISTAKES Steve Capps, a computer scientist, describes creating the Macintosh, which shipped in 1984, as a constant process of making decisions -- part experiment and part product development, with steps ahead mixed with many setbacks. "Steve kind of knew what he wanted, but he didn't precisely," says Mr. Capps, who designed software for Macintosh.

Mr. Jobs, Mr. Capps remembers, was the arbiter on countless hardware, software and design choices. "His combination of incisiveness and decisiveness, I think, really explained his success," Mr. Capps says.

Mr. Jobs was also decisive in recognizing mistakes, even when they were his own. For example, he favored one model of a disk drive -- for reading computer programs stored on small, removable so-called floppy disks -- while other members of the team championed another design. They kept their disk project going surreptitiously. When they showed him the result, he embraced it. "He turned on a dime," Mr. Capps says. "Don't dwell on your mistakes. It's a great lesson."

PASSION COUNTS FOR A LOT The relentless intensity and total commitment that Mr. Jobs brought to his work, former colleagues and friends agree, had a simple explanation: he genuinely enjoyed what he did and found it worthwhile.

Andy Hertzfeld, a member of original Macintosh team who is now an engineer at Google, says: "The most important thing that I learned from Steve is to always follow your heart. He believed that the only way to do truly great work is to adore what you are doing."

Mr. Jobs made a lot of money over the years, for himself and for Apple shareholders. But money never seemed to be his principal motivation. One day in the late 1990s, Mr. Jobs and I were walking near his home in Palo Alto. Internet stocks were getting bubbly at the time, and Mr. Jobs spoke of the proliferation of start-ups, with so many young entrepreneurs focused on an "exit strategy," selling their companies for a quick and hefty profit.

"It's such a small ambition and sad really," Mr. Jobs said. "They should want to build something, something that lasts."



For the full commentary, see:

STEVE LOHR. "The Power of Taking the Big Chance." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., October 9, 2011): 4.

(Note: bold in original.)

(Note: online version of the commentary is dated October 8, 2011.)

(Note: the same title, on the same page, was used as heading for two different articles on Steve Jobs--Lohr's on the left side, and Stross' on the right side.)






July 27, 2012

Edison Was Great Inventor; "Jobs Was the Far Shrewder Businessman"




EdisonThomasAlva2012-06-22.jpg "Thomas Alva Edison." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



I have not read Stross' books on Jobs and Edison. According to some of the Amazon reviews of the Jobs book, back in 1993 Stross was much more critical of Jobs than he is in the piece below:



(p. 4) I wrote a book about Mr. Jobs in 1993.


. . .


Years later, I wrote a biography of Edison, a person whom Mr. Jobs admired. When you compare the two personalities and their careers, a few similarities emerge immediately. Both had less formal schooling than most of their respective peers. Both possessed the ability to visualize projects on a grand scale. Both followed an inner voice when making decisions. And both had terrific tempers that could make their employees quake.


. . .


Mr. Jobs was the far shrewder businessman, even if he never talked about wealth as a matter of personal interest. When Edison died, he left behind an estate valued at about $12 million, or about $180 million in today's dollars. His friend Henry Ford had once joked that Edison was "the world's greatest inventor and the world's worst businessman." Mr. Jobs was worth a commanding $6.5 billion.

Mr. Jobs was perhaps the most beloved billionaire the world has ever known. Richard Branson's tribute captures the way people felt they could identify with Mr. Jobs's life narrative: "So many people drew courage from Steve and related to his life story: adoptees, college dropouts, struggling entrepreneurs, ousted business leaders figuring out how to make a difference in the world, and people fighting debilitating illness. We have all been there in some way and can see a bit of ourselves in his personal and professional successes and struggles."



For the full commentary, see:

RANDALL STROSS. "The Power of Taking the Big Chance." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., October 9, 2011): 4.

(Note: online version of the commentary is dated October 8, 2011, and has the title "The Wizard and the Mortal: Two Sides of Genius.")

(Note: in the print version, the same title, on the same page, was used as heading for two different articles on Steve Jobs--Lohr's on the left side, and Stross' on the right side.)


Stross' books on Jobs and Edison are:

Stross, Randall E. Steve Jobs & the Next Big Thing. New York: Scribner Publishers, 1993.

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.






July 26, 2012

Experts "Produce Poorer Predictions than Dart-Throwing Monkeys"




(p. 219) Tetlock interviewed 284 people who made their living "commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends." He asked them to assess the probabilities that certain events would occur in the not too distant future, both in areas of the world in which they specialized and in regions about which they had less knowledge. Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf? Which country would become the next big emerging market? In all, Tetlock gathered more than 80,000 predictions. He also asked the experts how they reached their conclusions, how they reacted when proved wrong, and how they evaluated evidence that did not support their positions. Respondents were asked to rate the probabilities of three alternative outcomes in every case: the persistence of the status quo, more of something such as political freedom or economic growth, or less of that thing.

The results were devastating. The experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes. In other words, people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.



Source:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.


Tetlock's book is:

Tetlock, Philip E. Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.





July 25, 2012

Joe Biden's Dad Told Him to "Get Up" in Face of Job Loss








Innovative entrepreneurs, through the process of creative destruction, provide us with wonderful new products and services. But sometimes the process also results in job loss. One response to the job loss is to shut down innovation. Another is to preach resilience. Joe Biden's Dad said "get up." (The clip is from a talk that Joe Biden gave to the National Press Club on August 1, 2007. The full talk is posted to the C-SPAN web site.)


A mainly similar presentation of the "get up" message is on p. xxii of Biden's autobiography:

Biden, Joe. Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics. New York: Random House, 2007.






July 24, 2012

People "Enmeshed in Modern Commerce" Are More Generous




(p. C4) A few years ago, Joe Henrich of the University of British Columbia and his colleagues did a series of experiments in small-scale societies in the Amazon, New Guinea and Africa. They asked people to play the "ultimatum game," in which a player must decide how much of a windfall he needs to share with another player to prevent the other player from exercising his right to veto the whole deal. The more the small-scale society is enmeshed in modern commerce, the more generous the offers people make. This may shock those who believe in Rousseau's idea of the "noble savage," but not those who believe in the virtues of what Montesquieu called "sweet commerce."


. . .


. . . , though human beings do kind things unrewarded for their neighbors, for reward they also do kind things for strangers: They hand more cash to merchants than they do to beggars.



For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "MIND & MATTER; Which Makes Us Nicer, Team Spirit or Trade?" The Wall Street Journal (Sat., August 27, 2011): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)


Page 76 of the Henrich et al article has the key result that Ridley summarizes:

Henrich, Joseph, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin F. Camerer, Ernst Fehr, Herbert Gintis, and Richard McElreath. "In Search of Homo Economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies." American Economic Review 91, no. 2 (May 2001): 73-78.






July 23, 2012

Alexander Field Claims 1930s Were "Technologically Progressive"




GreatLeapForwardBK2012-06-22.jpg
















Source of book image: http://yalepress.yale.edu/images/full13/9780300151091.jpg



(p. 1) UNDERNEATH the misery of the Great Depression, the United States economy was quietly making enormous strides during the 1930s. Television and nylon stockings were invented. Refrigerators and washing machines turned into mass-market products. Railroads became faster and roads smoother and wider. As the economic historian Alexander J. Field has said, the 1930s constituted "the most technologically progressive decade of the century."


. . .


(p. 6) The closest thing to a unified explanation for these problems is a mirror image of what made the 1930s so important. Then, the United States was vastly increasing its productive capacity, as Mr. Field argued in his recent book, "A Great Leap Forward." Partly because the Depression was eliminating inefficiencies but mostly because of the emergence of new technologies, the economy was adding muscle and shedding fat. Those changes, combined with the vast industrialization for World War II, made possible the postwar boom.

In recent years, on the other hand, the economy has not done an especially good job of building its productive capacity. Yes, innovations like the iPad and Twitter have altered daily life. And, yes, companies have figured out how to produce just as many goods and services with fewer workers. But the country has not developed any major new industries that employ large and growing numbers of workers.



For the full commentary, see:

DAVID LEONHARDT. "The Depression: If Only Things Were That Good." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., October 9, 2011): 1 & 6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: online version of the commentary is dated October 8, 2011.)


Book discussed:

Field, Alexander J. A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth, Yale Series in Economic and Financial History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.






July 22, 2012

The Illusion that Investment Advisers Have Skill




(p. 215) Some years ago I had an unusual opportunity to examine the illusion of financial skill up close. I had been invited to speak to a group of investment advisers in a firm that provided financial advice and other services to very wealthy clients. I asked for some data to prepare my presentation and was granted a small treasure: a spreadsheet summarizing the investment outcomes of some twenty-five anonymous wealth advisers, for each of eight consecutive years. Each adviser's score for each year was his (most of them were men) main determinant of his year-end bonus. It was a simple matter to rank the advisers by their performance in each year and to determine whether there were persistent differences in skill among them and whether the same advisers consistently achieved better returns for their clients year after year.

To answer the question, I computed correlation coefficients between the rankings in each pair of years: year 1 with year 2, year 1 with year 3, and so on up through year 7 with year 8. That yielded 28 correlation coefficients, one for each pair of years. I knew the theory and was prepared to find weak evidence of persistence of skill. Still, I was surprised to find that the average of the 28 correlations was .01. In other words, zero. The consistent correlations that would indicate differences in skill were not to be found. The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.



Source:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.





July 21, 2012

Technology Allows Start-Ups to Launch with Fewer Employees




HarelAndShilonOfBiteHunter2012-06-22.jpg "Start-up BiteHunter launched with three employees. Above, co-founders Gil Harel, left, and Ido Shilon." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



Lower costs to entry means more start-ups and that means more innovation, ceteris paribus. All good. For the labor market, there will be fewer initial jobs per start-up. But there will be more start-ups, and more opportunity for erstwhile laborers to themselves become entrepreneurs. So maybe still all good.



(p. B5) New businesses are getting off the ground with nearly half as many workers as they did a decade ago, as the spread of online tools and other resources enables start-ups to do more with less.

The change, which began before the recession, may be permanent, according to some analysts.


. . .


Rather than purchasing the tools and manpower needed to run their companies, more small firms are renting, sharing or outsourcing resources, typically through online services, according to Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research, a research and consulting firm for small businesses.


. . .


Last year, Gil Harel launched BiteHunter, a search engine for restaurant discounts, with just three employees. Based in New York, the site used shared screens and other communications tools to work with developers in Russia, Uruguay and Israel.

"Just to build the infrastructure to get a business off the ground used to take a lot of money and people. But things that you couldn't do in the past, you can now do on your own," Mr. Harel says.



For the full story, see:

ANGUS LOTEN. "With New Technology, Start-Ups Go Lean; Web-Based Services Mean Fewer Workers Needed." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., September 15, 2011): B5.

(Note: ellipses added.)






July 20, 2012

Innovation Depends Less on R&D Spending and More on "Talent, Process, Execution and Strategy"




(p. B1) In the world of R&D spending, more doesn't necessarily mean better. And R&D may not describe all the innovation that matters.

"I think the numbers are pretty useless," says Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT's Sloan School who has studied the subject. "What matters more is the kind of innovator you are. If it were really true that the people who spent the most on R&D were the most successful, we wouldn't be subsidizing General Motors ."

"There's no statistically significant relationship between how much a company spends on R&D and how they perform over time," adds Barry Jaruzelski of Booz & Co. "There's a set of people who just consistently seem to skin the cat better."


. . .


(p. B2) Booz & Co. in 2007 listed the biggest global corporate spenders of R&D. The top 10 were Toyota, Pfizer, Ford, Johnson & Johnson, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, Microsoft, GlaxoSmithKline, Siemens and IBM.

Then it drew up a second list, a group of companies it called "high-leverage innovators" that returned the best financial performance for every dollar spent on R&D. Booz screened for companies that, over the five previous years, outperformed industry peers across seven measures--including profit, sales growth, and shareholder return--while also spending less on R&D as a percentage of sales than the median in their industries.

No company from the first list made the second list. (Winners included Adidas, Apple, Exxon, Google, Kobe Steel, Samsung and Tenneco.)

That disconnect essentially hasn't changed, says Mr. Jaruzelski. Winning at innovation "is all about talent, process, execution and strategy," he says. "That's given the U.S. a pretty strong advantage over time."

"Technology," he adds, "is not equal to innovation."



For the full commentary, see:

JOHN BUSSEY. "THE BUSINESS; Myths of the Big R&D Budget." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., June 15, 2012): B1-B2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






July 19, 2012

Larry Page on Tesla, Commerce, and Changing the World








Funding is a key constraint for the innovative project entrepreneur. By "project entrepreneur" I mean the innovator who views money as a means to achieving the project, and not as an end in itself. In this brief clip from Page's 2007 AAAS talk, he discusses how as a 12 year-old reading Tesla's autobiography he almost cried at how Tesla's failure to commercialize his ideas limited his ability to change the world.


The Tesla autobiography is:

Tesla, Nikola. My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla. SoHo Books, 2012.






July 18, 2012

Neglecting Valid Stereotypes Has Costs




(p. 169) The social norm against stereotyping, including the opposition to profiling, has been highly beneficial in creating a more civilized and more equal society. It is useful to remember, however, that neglecting valid stereotypes inevitably results in suboptimal judgments. Resistance to stereotyping is a laudable moral position, but the simplistic idea that the resistance is costless is wrong. The costs are worth paying to achieve a better society, but denying that the costs exist, while satisfying to the soul and politically correct, is not scientifically defensible.


Source:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.





July 17, 2012

Web Expedites Labor Market for Small Projects




LangerAndBurksChore2012-06-22.jpg "Liz Langer helped John Burks retrieve his keys." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) A new crop of websites and smartphone applications are allowing people to farm out chores to a growing army of temporary personal assistants. These micro-employees are taking the division of labor to once-unthinkable extremes.


. . .


(p. A14) Some investors see dollar signs. Zaarly Inc., an online marketplace for micro-labor and goods based in San Francisco, recently raised $14.1 million from Google Inc. GOOG -2.18% investor and venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Actor Ashton Kutcher and clothing designer Marc Ecko have also put in money. In October, Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Meg Whitman joined the company's board.

After launching six months ago, Zaarly is processing more than 1,000 transactions a week for jobs that cost around $50 a pop. Chief Executive and cofounder Bo Fishback, 33, says about half the requests involve tangible goods, and the rest involve some sort of service. One of his favorites: a person who hired someone to buy a Michael Jackson-themed dog costume for a puppy.

Sometimes the situation can be dire. John Burks, a 30-year-old actor who also runs an arts organization in Chicago, accidentally dropped his keys in a sewer during a rainstorm over the summer. To replace all the keys--including ones to his home, office and Mercedes--could cost well over $100.

After Googling "lost keys down sewer" to see what tactics others had used, Mr. Burks thought he could recover his keys with a fishing rod and a magnet, but had neither. His girlfriend at the time knew someone who worked at Zaarly, so he posted the job on its site. Liz Langer, a 27-year-old neuroscience graduate student and top Zaarly "fulfiller," spotted the job and within an hour arrived with the needed tools. Fifteen minutes later, they fished the keys out of the sewer. (Price: $80.)

"It's like stranger than fiction," Mr. Burks says. "I thought there was a very small chance that anything like that can happen."



For the full story, see:

EMILY GLAZER. "Serfing the Web: Sites Let People Farm Out Their Chores; Workers Choose Jobs, Negotiate Wages; Mr. Kutcher, Anonymously, Asks for Coffee." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., November 28, 2011): A1 & A14.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






July 16, 2012

"Why Would I Ever Need 10 Floppy Disks?"




Steven Johnson's early The Ghost Map is a wondrous story of a courageous medical entrepreneur who fairly single-handedly changes accepted wisdom on a hugely important issue (what causes disease). Steven Johnson's recent Where Ideas Come From provides a mechanical account that attributes new ideas to the inevitable exploration of "the adjacent possible," leaving little room for the great innovative entrepreneur.

It takes guts to contradict one's most recent book, and to contradict it so eloquently. So please join me in welcoming back the Steven Johnson of The Ghost Map:



(p. C3) In the fall of 1986, during the first week of my freshman year of college, my cousin took me to the university computer store to help me buy my first Macintosh. The Mac platform was two years old at that point, and Apple had just released a new machine called the Mac Plus that featured a then-staggering 1 megabyte of RAM. (In today's mileage, that would be just enough memory to store the first few verses of a Katy Perry song.) But the Mac did not yet offer a hard drive, and so my more tech-savvy cousin told me to buy a 10-pack of floppy disks as well.

I looked at him with astonishment. I was an art kid, not a techie. I needed a computer to write plays and short stories and term papers. The computer was just a tool, nothing more. "Why would I ever need 10 floppy disks?" I asked. "I just need one disk for my Microsoft Word files." My cousin smiled, knowing full well where I was headed. "Just buy the disks. Trust me."

He was right, of course, and to this day whenever I call him up to tell him about my latest computer purchase, with its terabytes of storage and gigabytes of memory, he laughs and says, "Just one disk. That's all I need."


. . .


The genius of famous innovators and CEOs is often exaggerated: Most fortunes are built on good fortune as much as sheer brilliance, and invention is a collaborative art. But there is no contesting the fact of Steve Jobs's genius--just a debate about its defining qualities.

I worry that we miss something in hailing him as either a master salesman or a master designer, though he is clearly both. His real gift, from an early age, has been the ability to see that these two worlds could, and should, productively collide. It isn't just that he made computers cool or put them in pretty boxes. It's that he put those computers in new conceptual boxes. A machine originally designed for processing equations and building bombs turned out to have a wonderful hidden potential: for song, laughter, poetry, community, family.


. . .


When I heard the news that he was stepping down from Apple, the image that flashed in my head was of a kid in a computer store trying to save a few bucks by skimping on floppy disks. I suspect my own story is not so unusual. There is, on the one hand, the simple, factual accounting of it: Steve Jobs persuaded me to buy a lot more than 10 disks over the years. But the other hand is so much more interesting: all the wonderful, unexpected things that he got me to put on those disks.



For the full commentary, see:

STEVEN JOHNSON. "THE GENIUS OF JOBS; Marrying Tech and Art; Steven Johnson on the magic of his first Mac--and how it changed his life." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., August 27, 2011): C3.

(Note: ellipses added.)






July 15, 2012

Hitchens Adds to the Case Against Woodrow Wilson




ToEndAllWarsBK2012-06-22.jpg

















Source of book image:
http://media.oregonlive.com/books_impact/photo/9635633-large.jpg



Reading the review quoted below, reminded me of how much I will miss Christopher Hitchens.


(p. 12) If General Pershing's fresh and plucky troops had not reached the scene in the closing stages of the bloodbath, universal exhaustion would almost certainly have compelled an earlier armistice, on less savage terms. Without President Wilson's intervention, the incensed and traumatized French would never have been able to impose terms of humiliation on Germany; the very terms that Hitler was to reverse, by such relentless means, a matter of two decades later. In this light, the great American socialist Eugene V. Debs, who publicly opposed the war and was kept in prison by a vindictive Wilson until long after its ending, looks like a prescient hero. Indeed, so do many of the antiwar militants to whose often-buried record Hochschild has done honor. (Unsentimental to the last, though, he shows that many of them went on to lose or waste their lives on Bolshevism, the other great mutant system to emerge from the abattoir.) This is a book to make one feel deeply and painfully, and also to think hard.


For the full review, see:

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS. "Mortal Debate." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 15, 2011): 1 & 12.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 13, 2011, and has the title "The Pacifists and the Trenches.")


The book under review is:

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., 2011.






July 14, 2012

Some Irrationality Occurs Because Not Much Is at Stake, and Rationality Takes Time and Effort




(p. 164) The laziness of System 2 is part of the story. If their next vacation had depended on it, and if they had been given indefinite time and told to follow logic and not to answer until they were sure of their answer, I believe that most of our subjects would have avoided the conjunction fallacy. However, their vacation did not depend on a correct answer; they spent very little time on it, and were content to answer as if they had only been "asked for their opinion." The laziness of System 2 is an important fact of life, and the observation that representativeness can block the application of an obvious logical rule is also of some interest.


Source:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.





July 13, 2012

Riots, Arson and Looting Returned in Spite of "State Largesse Lavished on Tottenham"




TottenhamRiotFire2012-06-22.jpg "As unrest flared in the U.K. on Aug. 7, fire raged through a building in Tottenham, north London--an area also the scene of riots 26 years ago." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A8) LONDON--After furious race riots broke out in London's Tottenham area 26 years ago, government and local authorities poured millions of pounds into the district and especially Broadwater Farm estate, a notorious housing project that was the epicenter of the 1985 unrest.

Yet last week, Tottenham returned to an unwelcome spotlight as the point of ignition for riots here--and this time the unrest spread far beyond the neighborhood, to other parts of London and distant cities like Birmingham and Manchester.

What started as a peaceful protest over the killing of a local man by police was quickly seized on as an excuse for looting, arson and other unruly behavior by roaming packs of people that gripped the country for days. The result as of Sunday night: 1,401 arrests nationwide and a debate over who is to blame and how to prevent it happening again.

Tottenham's repeat appearance in the rioting shows the sometimes limited effectiveness of urban-regeneration programs that fail to tackle the deep-seated problems of poor communities. The state largesse lavished on Tottenham has resulted in better facilities and nicer surroundings, yet the area is still blighted by high unemployment, a thriving gang culture and social breakdown, according to official data.



For the full story, see:

GUY CHAZAN And ALISTAIR MACDONALD. "State Aid Failed to Stem U.K. Unrest; Tottenham, Site of Past Violence, Saw Renewed Clashes Despite Government Efforts to Boost the Area." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., August 15, 2011): A8.





July 12, 2012

A Firm's Social Responsibility Is to Make a Profit




(p. B1) Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate economist, blasted the very idea of corporate social responsibility four decades ago, calling it a "fundamentally subversive doctrine." Speaking for many capitalists then and now, he said, "there is one and only one social responsibility of business--to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game."

Companies shouldn't spend profits on unrelated job creation or social causes, he said. That money should go to shareholders--the owners of the companies. Pronouncements about corporate social responsibility, he added, are the indulgence of "pontificating executives" who are "incredibly shortsighted and muddleheaded in matters that are outside their businesses." And that indulgence can lead to inefficient markets.


. . .


(p. B2) "Jobs are an input, not an output; they're a cost of doing business, not a goal of doing business," says William Frezza, a Boston-based venture capitalist and fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

"From the perspective of defending capitalism, if you accept the premise of your opponent that business has to give back to society, you've already lost," he says. "To put sack cloth and ashes on--you've delegitimized capitalism, which is the goal of the protesters. Businesses give back to society every day by pleasing their customers and employing their employees. There's nothing business owes other than selling the best product at the best price."



For the full commentary, see:

JOHN BUSSEY. "THE BUSINESS; Are Companies Responsible for Creating Jobs?." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., October 28, 2011): B1-B2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






July 11, 2012

Muckraking Friend of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson Was "Intrigued by Mussolini" and "Captivated by Lenin"




IHaveSeenTheFutureBK2012-06-22.jpg











Source of book image: http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/OB-NV754_bkrvst_DV_20110510153656.jpg






(p. 29) As one of the original "muckrakers," Steffens wrote newspaper and magazine exposés that gave journalism a new purpose, . . .


. . .


He learned to write and to invest, and within nine years was the managing editor of McClure's, one of the most popular and prestigious magazines in the country.

He was, as usual, in the right place at the right time. Volatile Sam McClure was transforming his namesake publication into a journal that would rip the veil from American life, forcing readers to confront the corruption that had seeped into every seam of their democracy. The January 1903 issue alone featured an installment of Ida Tarbell's groundbreaking history of the Standard Oil Company; . . .


. . .


He managed to remain friends with Roosevelt and then Woodrow Wilson . . .


. . .


Intrigued by Mussolini, Steffens was captivated by Lenin, whom he interviewed briefly during the revolution. He became one of the first of that sad little band of Western intellectuals who fell head over heels for the Soviet Union. Unlike most of them, he did not deny the stories of atrocities leaking out of the workers' paradise. Even more chilling, he simply believed them necessary to bring about the great changes to come. He never wavered from his infamous first impression of the U.S.S.R., "I have seen the future, and it works." Instead, living comfortably on money he made from the stock market, he insisted that "nothing must jar our perfect loyalty to the party and its leaders," and that "the notion of liberty . . . is false, a hangover from our Western tyranny."



For the full review, see:

KEVIN BAKER. "Lincoln Steffens: Muckraker's Progress." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 15, 2011): 29.

(Note: ellipses added except for the one inside the last quoted paragraph.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 13, 2011.)


The book under review is:

Hartshorn, Peter. I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2011.






July 10, 2012

Love Canal as a "Pseudo-Event" Caused by an "Availability Cascade"




(p. 142) An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by "availability entrepreneurs," individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile: anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a "heinous cover-up." The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone's mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could he applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.

Kuran and Sunstein focused on two examples that are still controversial: the Love Canal affair and the so-called Alar scare. In Love Canal, buried toxic waste was exposed during a rainy season in 1979, causing contamination of the water well beyond standard limits, as well as a foul smell. The residents of the community were angry and frightened, and one of them, (p. 143) Lois Gibbs, was particularly active in an attempt to sustain interest in the problem. The availability cascade unfolded according to the standard script. At its peak there were daily stories about Love Canal, scientists attempting to claim that the dangers were overstated were ignored or shouted down, ABC News aired a program titled The Killing Ground, and empty baby-size coffins were paraded in front of the legislature. A large number of residents were relocated at government expense, and the control of toxic waste became the major environmental issue of the 1980s. The legislation that mandated the cleanup of toxic sites, called CERCLA, established a Superfund and is considered a significant achievement of environmental legislation. It was also expensive, and some have claimed that the same amount of money could have saved many more lives if it had been directed to other priorities. Opinions about what actually happened at Love Canal are still sharply divided, and claims of actual damage to health appear not to have been substantiated. Kuran and Sunstein wrote up the Love Canal story almost as a pseudo-event, while on the other side of the debate, environmentalists still speak of the "Love Canal disaster."



Source:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

(Note: italics in original.)





July 9, 2012

Bicyclists Create Negative Externalities for Pedestrians




BicyclistsSanFrancisco2012-06-22.jpg "Bicyclists weave through pedestrians and motor traffic on Friday in San Francisco, where a fatal bike-pedestrian collision has sparked debate." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A3) SAN FRANCISCO--City prosecutors said they would file felony vehicular-manslaughter charges against a bicyclist who allegedly hit and killed a pedestrian, in a case that has become a flash point for debate over bicyclists' rights in the city.

The manslaughter charges--unusually stiff for a bicycle accident--stem from a March 29 incident, when 36-year-old bicyclist Chris Bucchere allegedly ran a red traffic light and plowed into 71-year-old Sutchi Hui in a crosswalk. Mr. Hui died April 2 of injuries related to the collision.


. . .


The bicycle backlash has come to a head after a series of pedestrian deaths in the San Francisco Bay area. A 67-year-old woman died last August after a bicyclist allegedly hit her in a crosswalk after running a red light; the cyclist was convicted of a misdemeanor. Earlier this month, a cyclist allegedly struck and killed a 92-year-old woman in the suburb of El Cerrito while crossing a street; that case is under investigation.



For the full story, see:

JIM CARLTON. "U.S. NEWS; Reckless Riders Spur Backlash; Fatal Collision in San Francisco Leads to Manslaughter Charges Against Cyclist." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., June 16, 2012): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






July 8, 2012

Dyslexics Better at Processing Some Visual Data




(p. 5) Gadi Geiger and Jerome Lettvin, cognitive scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used a mechanical shutter, called a tachistoscope, to briefly flash a row of letters extending from the center of a subject's field of vision out to its perimeter. Typical readers identified the letters in the middle of the row with greater accuracy. Those with dyslexia triumphed, however, when asked to identify letters located in the row's outer reaches.


. . .


Dr. Catya von Károlyi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, found that people with dyslexia identified simplified Escher-like pictures as impossible or possible in an average of 2.26 seconds; typical viewers tend to take a third longer. "The compelling implication of this finding," wrote Dr. Von Károlyi and her co-authors in the journal Brain and Language, "is that dyslexia should not be characterized only by deficit, but also by talent."


. . .


Five years ago, the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity was founded to investigate and illuminate the strengths of those with dyslexia, while the seven-year-old Laboratory for Visual Learning, located within the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is exploring the advantages conferred by dyslexia in visually intensive branches of science. The director of the laboratory, the astrophysicist Matthew Schneps, notes that scientists in his line of work must make sense of enormous quantities of visual data and accurately detect patterns that signal the presence of entities like black holes.

A pair of experiments conducted by Mr. Schneps and his colleagues, published in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society in 2011, suggests that dyslexia may enhance the ability to carry out such tasks. In the first study, Mr. Schneps reported that when shown radio signatures -- graphs of radio-wave emissions from outer space -- astrophysicists with dyslexia at times outperformed their nondyslexic colleagues in identifying the distinctive characteristics of black holes.

In the second study, Mr. Schneps deliberately blurred a set of photographs, reducing high-frequency detail in a manner that made them resemble astronomical images. He then presented these pictures to groups of dyslexic and nondyslexic undergraduates. The students with dyslexia were able to learn and make use of the information in the images, while the typical readers failed to catch on.


. . .


Mr. Schneps's study is not the only one of its kind. In 2006, James Howard Jr., a professor of psychology at the Catholic University of America, described in the journal Neuropsychologia an experiment in which participants were asked to pick out the letter T from a sea of L's floating on a computer screen. Those with dyslexia learned to identify the letter more quickly.

Whatever special abilities dyslexia may bestow, difficulty with reading still imposes a handicap.



For the full commentary, see:

ANNIE MURPHY PAUL. "The Upside of Dyslexia." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., February 5, 2012): 5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: online version of the commentary is dated February 4, 2012.)





July 7, 2012

"At Least Here I Am in Control of My Destiny"




MesgaranAliSandwichShopTehran2012-06-12.jpg "Ali Mesgaran and a friend at the sandwich shop he opened this year in Tehran. He said his shop was one place where he controlled his destiny." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A4) TEHRAN -- About two months ago, when many Iranian families were stocking up on rice and meat to prepare for seemingly inevitable military conflict with the West over Iran's nuclear program, Ali Mesgaran, 35, decided to open a sandwich shop.

Iran's national currency, the rial, had just lost nearly half of its value amid new international sanctions, and banks and exchange offices were spilling over with orders for gold and foreign currency from people hoping to protect family savings from soaring inflation.

"There are always problems in this country," Mr. Mesgaran said, explaining why he decided to open his shop, Piyaz Jafari, named after a traditional Iranian sandwich spread of onions and herbs. "We felt that if we ever wanted to be successful, we just had to ignore those."


. . .


The widespread sense of hopelessness is reinforced by memories of the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, Mr. Ahmadinejad's predecessor, who was in power from 1997 to 2005. During his two terms, he tried to promote personal freedom, to encourage better relations with the West and to relax suffocating dress codes, drawing anger from conservatives but attracting millions of votes from youths and women.


. . .


(p. A12) On a recent day at Mr. Mesgaran's sandwich shop, the talk was not about politics, but about the odd torrential rains that in recent weeks had flooded even parts of the city's subway system. "This is my world," he said, gesturing at his shop and his customers. "At least here I am in control of my destiny. That is a good feeling."



For the full story, see:

THOMAS ERDBRINK. "TEHRAN JOURNAL; Pinched Aspirations of Iran's Young Multitudes." The New York Times (Tues., May 8, 2012): A4 & A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 7, 2012.)






July 6, 2012

Experience Can Provide Sound Intuitive Knowledge




(p. 11) . . . , the accurate intuitions of experts are better explained by the effects of prolonged practice than by heuristics. We can now draw a richer and more balanced picture, in which skill and heuristics are alternative sources of intuitive judgments and choices.

The psychologist Gary Klein tells the story of a team of firefighters that entered a house in which the kitchen was on fire. Soon after they started hosing down the kitchen, the commander heard himself shout, "Let's get out of here!" without realizing why. The floor collapsed almost immediately after the firefighters escaped. Only after the fact did the commander realize that the fire had been unusually quiet and that his ears had been unusually hot. Together these impressions prompted what he called a "sixth sense of danger." He had no idea what was wrong, but he knew something was wrong. It turned out that the heart of the fire had not been in the kitchen but in the basement beneath where the men had stood.

We have all heard such stories of expert intuition: the chess master who walks past a street game and announces "White mates in three" without stopping, or the physician who makes a complex diagnosis after a single glance at a patient. Expert intuition strikes us as magical, but it is not. Indeed, each of us performs feats of intuitive expertise many times each day. Most of us are pitch-perfect in detecting anger in the first word of a telephone call, recognize as we enter a room that we were the subject of the conversation, and quickly react to subtle signs that the driver of the car in the next lane is dangerous. Our everyday intuitive abilities are no less marvelous than the striking insights of an experienced firefighter or physician--only more common.

The psychology of accurate intuition involves no magic. Perhaps the best short statement of it is by the great Herbert Simon, who studied chess masters and showed that after thousands of hours of practice they come to see the pieces on the board differently from the rest of us. You can feel Simon's impatience with the mythologizing of expert intuition when he writes: "The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition."



Source:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





July 5, 2012

Steve Jobs Showed that Art and Commerce Could Be "Happy Bedfellows"




OldmanGary2012-06-22.jpg














Gary Oldman. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.







(p. 2) Gary Oldman is an English actor . . . widely known for his roles as Sirius Black in the "Harry Potter" film series and Jim Gordon in the Batman movies.


. . .


READING Right now I'm reading the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. I love when people have a singleness of purpose and don't get dissuaded. I can connect with that. I can recognize it. I think a lot of artists have that. Art and commerce are not particularly happy bedfellows, but he was the exception.

I read quite a lot of biographies. I like nonfiction. The other book I'm carrying around with me at the moment is "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West" by Rebecca Solnit. It deals with the 19th century and the arrival of speed with the coming of the industrial age. We were very much governed by nature before; we were at the mercy of our own speed and horses and the like. It's interesting to think of living at that pace.



For the full interview, see:

KATE MURPHY. "DOWNLOAD; Gary Oldman." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., February 5, 2012): 2.

(Note: ellipses added; bold in original.)

(Note: online version of the interview is dated February 4, 2012.)






July 4, 2012

93% of Donated Eyeglasses Are Not Usable




(p. D6) Giving used eyeglasses to poor countries may please the donors, but it is not worth the high delivery costs, a new study has concluded, and a $10 donation would do more good.

The study, led by Australian scientists and published in March in Optometry and Vision Science, found that only 7 percent of a test sample of 275 donated spectacles were usable. That raised the delivery cost to over $20 per usable pair. A simple eye exam and a set of ready-made glasses from China can be provided for just $10, the authors said.



For the full story, see:

DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. "GLOBAL UPDATE; Donations for Eyeglasses in Poor Nations Are Better Than Recycling Used Pairs." The New York Times (Tues., April 24, 2012): D6.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 23, 2012.)


(Note: a more extended analysis of this example appears in an online article by Virginia Postrel. I am grateful for Dale Eesley for sending me a link to Postrel's article.)






July 3, 2012

Our Cups Will Runneth Over If We Choose Entrepreneurship, Imagination, Will and Optimism




AbundanceBK2012-06-11.jpg



















Source of book image: http://www.abundancethebook.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/cover-NYTimes-3d-500.jpg?139d23


(p. 18) in Silicon Valley, where the locals tend to be too busy starting companies to wallow in gloom, Peter Diamandis has stood out as one of the more striking optimists. Several years ago, Diamandis founded the X Prize Foundation, which rewards entrepreneurs with cash for achieving difficult goals, like putting a reusable spaceship into flight on a limited budget. More recently he helped start Singularity University, an academic program that convenes several weeks a year in the Valley and educates business leaders about the "disruptive" -- i.e., phenomenally innovative -- technological changes Diamandis is anticipating. To be sure, Diamandis is both very bright (he studied molecular biology and aerospace engineering at M.I.T. before getting an M.D. at Harvard) and well informed. Moreover, he's not the kind of optimist who will merely see the glass as half full. He'll give you dozens of reasons, some highly technical, why it's half full. Then he'll explain that your cognitive biases are tricking you into seeing the glass of water in a negative light, and cart out the research of acclaimed psychologists like Daniel Kahne­man to prove his point. Finally he may suggest you stop fretting: new technologies will soon fill the glass up anyway. Indeed, they are likely to overfill it.


. . .


(p. 19) Throughout the book Diamandis . . . offers small groups of driven entrepreneurs as a kind of Leatherman solution to the world's problems. It's true that plenty of insurgents are doing impressive things out there -- Elon Musk's Tesla Motors, which helped jump-start the world's electric car industry, is a good example.


. . .


. . . , there's a significant idea embedded within "Abundance": We should remain aware, as writers like Jared Diamond have likewise told us, that societies can choose their own future, and thus their own fate. In that spirit Diamandis and Kotler put forth a range of possible goals we may achieve if we have the imagination and the will. A little optimism wouldn't hurt, either.



For the full review, see:

JON GERTNER. "Plenty to Go Around." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., April 1, 2012): 18 & 19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 30, 2012.)


The book under review is:

Diamandis, Peter H., and Steven Kotler. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. New York: Free Press, 2012.






July 2, 2012

Even with Subsidies and High Gas Prices, Electric Cars Cost More




(p. 12) The Ford Focus Electric has a base price of $39,995 -- minus a $7,500 federal tax credit and a $2,500 rebate in California. That puts its tab at $30,000, some $7,000 above the upscale Focus Titanium. I can hear the electric naysayers exclaiming "Aha! You won't make back the savings at the pumps." That's despite $4 gasoline, and the Focus Electric's 110 m.p.g. equivalent rating.

But when buying any new car, especially an innovative model of any kind, emotions, aesthetics and externalities eclipse economics.



For the full story, see:

BRADLEY BERMAN. "BEHIND THE WHEEL; 2012 FORD FOCUS ELECTRIC; The Battery-Driven Car Just Got a Lot More Normal." The New York Times, SportsSunday (Sun., May 6, 2012): 12.

(Note: online version of the story is dated May 4, 2012.)






July 1, 2012

Behavioral Economics Does Not Undermine Capitalism




thinkingfastandslowBK2012-06-21.jpg












Source of book image: http://www.brainpickings.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/thinkingfastandslow.jpg





Daniel Kahneman first gained fame in economics through research with Tversky in which they showed that some of economists' assumptions about human rationality do not always hold true.

Kahneman, whose discipline is psychology, went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics, sharing the prize with Vernon Smith. (Since the Prize is not normally awarded posthumously, Tversky was not a candidate.)

I have always thought that ultimately there should be only one unified science of human behavior---not claims that are "true" in economics and other claims that are "true" in psychology. (I even thought of minoring in psychology in college, before I realized that the price of minoring included taking time-intensive lab courses where you watched rats run through mazes.)

But I don't think the implications of current work in behavioral economics are as clear as has often been asserted.

Some important results in economics do not depend on strong claims of rationality. For instance, the most important "law" in economics is the law of demand, and that law is due to human constraints more than to human rationality. Gary Becker, early in his career, wrote an interesting paper in which he showed that the law of demand could also be derived from habitual and random behavior. (I remember in conversation, George Stigler saying that he did not like this paper by Becker, because it did not hone closely to the rationality assumption that Stigler and Becker defended in their "De Gustibus" article.)

The latest book by Kahneman is rich and stimulating. It mainly consists of cataloging the names of, and evidence for, a host of biases and errors that humans make in thinking. But that does not mean we cannot choose to be more rational when it matters. Kahneman believes that there is a conscious System 2 that can over-ride the unconscious System 1. In fact, part of his motive for cataloging bias and irrationality is precisely so that we can be aware, and over-ride when it matters.

Sometimes it is claimed, as for instance in a Nova episode on PBS, that bias and irrationality were the main reasons for the financial crisis of 2008. I believe the more important causes were policy mistakes, like Clinton and Congress pressuring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make home loans to those who did not have the resources to repay them; and past government bailouts encouraging finance firms to take greater risks. And the length and depth of the crisis were increased by government stimulus and bailout programs. If instead, long-term cuts had been made in taxes, entrepreneurs would have had more of the resources they need to create start-ups that would have stimulated growth and reduced unemployment.

More broadly, aspects of behavioral economics mentioned, but not emphasized, by Kahneman, can actually strengthen the underpinnings for the case in favor of entrepreneurial capitalism. Entrepreneurs may be more successful when they are allowed to make use of informal knowledge that would not be classified as "rational" in the usual sense. (I discuss this some in my forthcoming paper, "The Epistemology of Entrepreneurship.")

Still, there are some useful and important examples and discussions in Kahneman's book. In the next several weeks, I will be quoting some of these.


Book discussed:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.


The Becker article mentioned above is:

Becker, Gary S. "Irrational Behavior and Economic Theory." Journal of Political Economy 70, no. 1 (Feb. 1962): 1-13.


The Stigler-Becker article mentioned above is:

Stigler, George J., and Gary S. Becker. "De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum." American Economic Review 67, no. 2 (March 1977): 76-90.





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