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August 31, 2015

Marie Curie Opposed Patents Because Women Could Not Own Property in France

(p. C6) Ms. Wirtén, a professor at Linköping University in Sweden, pays special attention to the decision not to patent and how it was treated in the founding texts of the Curie legend: Curie's 1923 biography of her husband, "Pierre Curie," and their daughter Eve's 1937 biography of her mother, "Madame Curie." The books each recount a conversation in which husband and wife agree that patenting their radium method would be contrary to the spirit of science.

It is not quite that simple. As Ms. Wirtén points out, the Curies derived a significant portion of their income from Pierre's patents on instruments. Various factors besides beneficence could have affected their decision not to extend this approach to their radium process. Intriguingly, the author suggests that the ineligibility of women to own property under French law might have shaped Curie's perspective. "Because the law excluded her from the status of person upon which these intellectual property rights depend," Ms. Wirtén writes, "the 'property' road was closed to Marie Curie. The persona road was not."

For the full review, see:

EVAN HEPLER-SMITH. "Scientific Saint; After scandals in France, Curie was embraced by American women as an intellectual icon." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 21, 2015): C6.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 20, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Wirtén, Eva Hemmungs. Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

August 30, 2015

In Health Care We Need More than Incremental Steps; We Need Cures

(p. 8A) In 1998, I went to the doctor so fatigued I was unable to get out of bed. He sent me home diagnosed with multiple sclerosis but without so much as a treatment plan, a prescription or what I needed most: hope. Come back when it gets worse, he said, the medical equivalent of a pat on the head.

. . .

We need advocates unwilling to tolerate the old silos who insist on pushing neurologic science into a new era of breakthroughs. We need private funders with the vision to place big bets, often on long odds, with bigger payouts, perhaps a vaccine for MS or Alzheimer's, on the other side.

At a time when the horizons of science have never spread wider, researchers and their supporters must rethink both the goals and the model of scientific research. It is a time for bold ambitions, not incremental steps.

Millions have experienced moments like the one I did in 1998. We owe these patients more than incremental progress. Ultimately, we owe them cures.

For the full commentary, see:

Ann Romney. "Bold Innovators Needed to Boost Health Research." USA Today (Mon., October 16, 2014): 4A.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date October 16, 2014, and the title "Ann Romney: Health Research Needs Boost from Bold Innovators.")

August 29, 2015

From Self-Funding, and Sony, Khanna Builds PlayStation Supercomputer to Advance Science

KhannaGauravPlaystationSupercomputer2015-07-05.jpg"Gaurav Khanna with a supercomputer he built at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth physics department using 200 Playstation 3 consoles that are housed in a refrigerated shipping container." Source of caption: print version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) This spring, Gaurav Khanna noticed that the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth physics department was more crowded than usual. Why, he wondered, were so many students suddenly so interested in science?"

It wasn't a thirst for knowledge, it turns out. News of Dr. Khanna's success in building a supercomputer using only PlayStation 3 video game consoles had spread quickly; the students, a lot of them gamers, just wanted to gape at the sight of nearly 200 consoles stacked on one another.

. . .

Making a supercomputer requires a large number of processors -- standard desktops, laptops or the like -- and a way to network them. Dr. Khanna picked the PlayStation 3 for its viability and cost, currently, $250 to $300 in stores. Unlike other game consoles, the PlayStation 3 allows users to install a preferred operating system, making it attractive to programmers and developers. (The latest model, the PlayStation 4, does not have this feature.)

"Gaming had grown into a huge market," Dr. Khanna said. "There's a huge push for performance, meaning you can buy low-cost, high-performance hardware very easily. I could go out and buy 100 PlayStation 3 consoles at my neighborhood Best Buy, if I wanted."

That is just what Dr. Khanna did, though on a smaller scale. Because the National Science Foundation, which funds much of Dr. Khanna's research, might not have viewed the bulk buying of video game consoles as a responsible use of grant money, he reached out to Sony Computer Entertainment America, the company behind the PlayStation 3. Sony donated four consoles to the experiment; Dr. Khanna's university paid for eight more, and Dr. Khanna bought another four. He then installed the Linux operating system on all 16 consoles, plugged them into the Internet and booted up the supercomputer.

Lior Burko, an associate professor of physics at Georgia Gwinnett College and a past collaborator with Dr. Khanna, praised the idea as an "ingenious" way to get the function of a supercomputer without the prohibitive expense.

"Dr. Khanna was able to combine his two fields of expertise, namely general relativity and computer science, to invent something new that allowed for not just a neat new machine, but also scientific progress that otherwise might have taken many more years to achieve," Dr. Burko said.

. . .

His team linked the consoles, housing them in a refrigerated shipping container designed to carry milk. The resulting supercomputer, Dr. Khanna said, had the computational power of nearly 3,000 laptop or desktop processors, and cost only $75,000 to make -- about a tenth the cost of a comparable supercomputer made using traditional parts.

For the full story, see:

LAURA PARKER "An Economical Way to Save Progress." The New York Times (Tues., DEC. 23, 2014): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 22, 2014, and has the title "That Old PlayStation Can Aid Science.")

August 28, 2015

No Increase in Public's Concern with Income Inequality Since 1978

(p. 4A) DENVER (AP) -- Income inequality is all the rage in public debate nowadays. Political figures from Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the left to Republican presidential prospect Jeb Bush on the right are denouncing the widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else.

But ordinary Americans don't seem as fascinated by the issue as their would-be leaders. The public's expressed interest in income inequality has remained stagnant over the past 36 years, according to the General Social Survey, which measures trends in public opinion.

In 2014 polling, Republicans' support for the government doing something to narrow the rich-poor gap reached an all-time low. Even Democrats were slightly less interested in government action on the issue than they were two years ago.

The survey is conducted by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago. Because of its long-running and comprehensive questions, it is a highly regarded source on social trends.

In the latest survey, made public last week, less than half of Americans -- 46 percent -- said the government ought to reduce income differences between the rich and the poor. That level has held fairly steady since 1978. Thirty-seven percent said the government shouldn't concern itself with income differences, and the rest didn't feel strongly either way.

For the full story, see:

AP. "Income Inequality? Pols Want to Talk about It; Public Yawns." Omaha World-Herald (Monday, March 23, 2015): 4A.

For more details on the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) General Social Survey (GSS) results through 2014, see:

Inequality: Trends in Americans' Attitudes URL: http://www.apnorc.org/projects/Pages/HTML%20Reports/inequality-trends-in-americans-attitudes0317-6562.aspx#study

August 27, 2015

Homo Sapiens Made Eye Contact with Dogs to Dominate Neanderthals

(p. C6) In the space of just a few thousand years, as we spread through the region, we killed off the apex predators: first the Neanderthals and then, over time, cave bears, cave hyenas, lesser scimitar cats, dholes, mammoths and woolly rhinos, among other animals. How did we manage this? According to Ms. Shipman, we enlisted the help of dogs.

. . .

Ms. Shipman devotes the final third of her book to exploring a fascinating range of evidence--genetic, archaeological, anthropological--that provides substantial support for this theory. She never proposes that the alliance of humans and dogs alone led to the extinction of the Neanderthals. In all likelihood, she writes, the mere presence of humans, a competitive new predator in the Eurasian ecosystem, was an important stressor, as were climate change and perhaps even infectious diseases brought by humans from Africa. But the domestication of dogs, she suggests, significantly tipped the balance: "The unprecedented alliance of humans with another top predator (wolf-dogs or a kind of wolf) may have been the final stress that pushed Neanderthals and many other species down the slippery slope toward extinction."

So how did humans manage to domesticate wolves while their Neanderthal cousins, so similar in so many ways, did not? Here Ms. Shipman gets imaginative. Modern humans, she writes, have recently been shown to be the only extant primates whose irises are surrounded by white scleras--the whites of our eyes. We're also the only primate to have eyelids that expose much of our scleras. What evolutionary advantage could this have possibly given us? "The white scleras and open eyelids," she proposes, "make the direction of a person's gaze highly visible from a distance." Having white scleras allowed us to communicate subtly at a distance among ourselves and with our new best friend, dogs, a biological advantage that may have made all the difference as we competed for prey with Neanderthals--who, if they were like every other primate we know of today, had dark scleras.

Most animals, including apes and wolves, don't make eye contact with humans; nor do they gaze at faces for long. Dogs, on the contrary, are excellent gaze-followers, a trait that scientists believe we selectively bred into them during their domestication. Once we had teamed up with dogs, we were unstoppable.

For the full review, see:

TOBY LESTER. "The Slippery Slope to Extinction." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 21, 2015): C5-C6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 20, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Shipman, Pat. The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2015.

August 26, 2015

Pentagon Seeks Innovation from Private Start-Ups Since "They've Realized that the Old Model Wasn't Working Anymore"

(p. A3) SAN FRANCISCO -- A small group of high-ranking Pentagon officials made a quiet visit to Silicon Valley in December to solicit national security ideas from start-up firms with little or no history of working with the military.

The visit was made as part of an effort to find new ways to maintain a military advantage in an increasingly uncertain world.

In announcing its Defense Innovation Initiative in a speech in California in November, Chuck Hagel, then the defense secretary, mentioned examples of technologies like robotics, unmanned systems, miniaturization and 3-D printing as places to look for "game changing" technologies that would maintain military superiority.

"They've realized that the old model wasn't working anymore," said James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They're really worried about America's capacity to innovate."

There is a precedent for the initiative. Startled by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, at the Pentagon to ensure that the United States would not be blindsided by technological advances.

Now, the Pentagon has decided that the nation needs more than ARPA, renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, if it is to find new technologies to maintain American military superiority.

. . .

The Pentagon focused on smaller companies during its December visit; it did not, for example, visit Google. Mr. Welby acknowledged that Silicon Valley start-ups were not likely to be focused on the Pentagon as a customer. The military has captive suppliers and a long and complex sales cycle, and it is perceived as being a small market compared with the hundreds of millions of customers for consumer electronics products.

Mr. Welby has worked for three different Darpa directors, but he said that Pentagon officials now believed they had to look beyond their own advanced technology offices.

"The Darpa culture is about trying to understand high-risk technology," he said. "It's about big leaps." Today, however, the Pentagon needs to break out of what can be seen as a "not invented here" culture, he said.

"We're thinking about what the world is going to look like in 2030 and what tools the department will need in 20 or 30 years," he added.

For the full story, see:

JOHN MARKOFF. "Pentagon Shops in Silicon Valley for Game Changers." The New York Times (Fri., FEB. 27, 2015): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date FEB. 26, 2015.)

August 25, 2015

Without Clear Regulatory Pathway, Investors Will Avoid the New, Small, Safe, Modular Nuclear Reactors

(p. D1) To its advocates, nuclear power is a potent force for fighting climate change, combining the near-zero emissions of wind and solar energy with the reliability of coal and gas. And nuclear power, which provides about 19 percent of all electricity in the United States and 11 percent worldwide, could be a greater source.

. . .

In a report she prepared in 2009, Ms. Squassoni wrote that in light of steep construction costs, only a handful of new reactors would come on line by 2015, even in the best of circumstances.

"If you really wanted to reduce carbon emissions through nuclear, it was going to be incredibly expensive," she said. "You'd have to build an incredible number of power plants."

Now plants are even more expensive, in part because of new safety requirements in the wake of Fukushima. So-called small modular reactors have been proposed as a lower-cost alternative. There are many different designs -- at least one is meant to run on waste fuel -- but the federal Department of Energy has provided significant development money only for two designs that are smaller variations of the most common kind of reactor.

Ashley Finan, an analyst with the Clean Air Task Force, which focuses on technologies to fight climate change, said that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had not made it easy for alternative designs to win backing from private investors.

"There's a lack of a clear and predictable regulatory pathway," Dr. Finan said. "You're really not able to attract funding without a clear regulatory process."

As a result, small modular reactors are many years from reality in the United States. Overseas, there are only a few isolated small-reactor projects underway, including one under construction in China.

Most modular designs have features that are intended to make them safer than existing reactors. Safety, as always, looms large in the debate about nuclear power. Although some watchdog groups point to incidents like leaks of radioactive water from some plants, the industry in the United States promotes its safety record, noting that events like unplanned reactor shutdowns are at historical lows. And the American industry's one major accident, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, pales in comparison with Fukushima or the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union.

For the full story, see:

HENRY FOUNTAIN "THE BIG FIX; Nuclear: Carbon Free, but Not Free of Unease." The New York Times (Tues., DEC. 23, 2014): D1-D2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 22, 2014.)

August 24, 2015

Pope Rejects Market Mechanisms Because Pope Rejects Market's Respect for Consumer Choice

(p. A19) The pope is not hostile to market mechanisms because he is a raving socialist, as some have suggested. Instead, his stance is a natural consequence of his theology.

To understand the pope's position, remember that, even though he is adopting a progressive stance on the environment, he is not a liberal. Indeed, he rejects one of the central tenets of liberalism, which is a willingness to acknowledge genuine disagreement about the good.

The fundamental problem with markets, in Pope Francis' view, is that they cater to people's desires, whatever those desires happen to be. What makes the market a liberal institution is that it does not judge the relative merits of these desires. The customer is always right.

Pope Francis rejects this, describing it as part of a "culture of relativism." The customer, in his view, is often wrong. He wants an economic system that satisfies not whatever desires people happen to have but the desires that they should have -- a system that promotes the common good, according to the church's specification of what that good is.

For the full commentary, see:

JOSEPH HEATH. "Pope Francis' Climate Error." The New York Times (Sat., JUNE 20, 2015): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date JUNE 19, 2015.)

August 23, 2015

Starting in Late Middle Ages the State Tried "to Control, Delineate, and Restrict Human Thought and Action"

(p. C6) . . . transregional organizations like Viking armies or the Hanseatic League mattered more than kings and courts. It was a world, as Mr. Pye says, in which "you went where you were known, where you could do the things you wanted to do, and where someone would protect you from being jailed, hanged, or broken on the wheel for doing them."

. . .

This is a world in which money rules, but money is increasingly an abstraction, based on insider information, on speculation (the Bourse or stock market itself is a regional invention) and on the ability to apply mathematics: What was bought or sold was increasingly the relationships between prices in different locations rather than the goods themselves.

What happened to bring this powerful, creative pattern to a close? The author credits first the reaction to the Black Death of the mid-14th century, when fear of contamination (perhaps similar to our modern fear of terrorism) justified laws that limited travel and kept people in their place. Religious and sectarian strife further limited the free flow of ideas and people, forcing people to choose one identity to the exclusion of others or else to attempt to disappear into the underground of clandestine and subversive activities. And behind both of these was the rise of the state, a modern invention that attempted to control, delineate, and restrict human thought and action.

For the full review, see:

PATRICK J. GEARY. "Lighting Up the Dark Ages." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 30, 2015): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 29, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Pye, Michael. The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe. New York: Pegasus Books LLC, 2014.

August 22, 2015

Rather than Debate Global Warming Skeptics, Some Label them "Denialists" to "Link Them to Holocaust Denial"

(p. D2) The contrarian scientists like to present these upbeat scenarios as the only plausible outcomes from runaway emissions growth. Mainstream scientists see them as being the low end of a range of possible outcomes that includes an alarming high end, and they say the only way to reduce the risks is to reduce emissions.

The dissenting scientists have been called "lukewarmers" by some, for their view that Earth will warm only a little. That is a term Dr. Michaels embraces. "I think it's wonderful!" he said. He is working on a book, "The Lukewarmers' Manifesto."

When they publish in scientific journals, presenting data and arguments to support their views, these contrarians are practicing science, and perhaps the "skeptic" label is applicable. But not all of them are eager to embrace it.

"As far as I can tell, skepticism involves doubts about a plausible proposition," another of these scientists, Richard S. Lindzen, told an audience a few years ago. "I think current global warming alarm does not represent a plausible proposition."

. . .

It is perhaps no surprise that many environmentalists have started to call them deniers.

The scientific dissenters object to that word, claiming it is a deliberate attempt to link them to Holocaust denial. Some academics sharply dispute having any such intention, but others have started using the slightly softer word "denialist" to make the same point without stirring complaints about evoking the Holocaust.

For the full commentary, see:

Justin Gillis. "BY DEGREES; Verbal Warming: Labels in the Climate Debate." The New York Times (Tues., FEB. 17, 2015): D1-D2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date FEB. 12 (sic), 2015.)

August 21, 2015

More Tech Stars Skip College, at Least for a While

(p. B1) The college dropout-turned-entrepreneur is a staple of Silicon Valley mythology. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg all left college.

In their day, those founders were very unusual. But a lot has changed since 2005, when Mr. Zuckerberg left Harvard. The new crop of dropouts has grown up with the Internet and smartphones. The tools to create new technology are more accessible. The cost to start a company has plunged, while the options for raising money have multiplied.

Moreover, the path isn't as lonely.

. . .

Not long ago, dropping out of school to start a company was considered risky. For this generation, it is a badge of honor, evidence of ambition and focus. Very few dropouts become tycoons, but "failure" today often means going back to school or taking a six-figure job at a big tech company.

. . .

(p. B5) There are no hard numbers on the dropout trend, but applicants for the Thiel Fellowship tripled in the most recent year; the fellowship won't disclose numbers.

. . .

It has tapped 82 fellows in the past five years.

"I don't think college is always bad, but our society seems to think college is always good, for everyone, at any cost--and that is what we have to question," says Mr. Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook.

Of the 43 fellows in the initial classes of 2011 and 2012, 26 didn't return to school and continued to work on startups or independent projects. Five went to work for large tech firms, including a few through acquisitions. The remaining 12 went back to school.

Mr. Thiel says companies started by the fellows have raised $73 million, a record that he says has attracted additional applicants. He says fellows "learned far more than they would have in college."

For the full story, see:

DAISUKE WAKABAYASHI. "College Dropouts Thrive in Tech." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., June 4, 2015): B1 & B10.

(Note: ellipses added. The phrase "the fellowship won't disclose numbers" was in the online, but not the print, version of the article.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date June 3, 2015, and has the title "College Dropouts Thrive in Tech.")

August 20, 2015

The Complementarity of Humans and Robots in Education

(p. 6) Computers and robots are already replacing many workers. What can young people learn now that won't be superseded within their lifetimes by these devices and that will secure them good jobs and solid income over the next 20, 30 or 50 years? In the universities, we are struggling to answer that question.

. . .

Some scholars are trying to discern what kinds of learning have survived technological replacement better than others. Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy in their book "The New Division of Labor" (Princeton, 2004) studied occupations that expanded during the information revolution of the recent past. They included jobs like service manager at an auto dealership, as opposed to jobs that have declined, like telephone operator.

The successful occupations, by this measure, shared certain characteristics: People who practiced them needed complex communication skills and expert knowledge. Such skills included an ability to convey "not just information but a particular interpretation of information." They said that expert knowledge was broad, deep and practical, allowing the solution of "uncharted problems."

. . .

When I arrived at Yale in 1982, there were no undergraduate courses in finance. I started one in the fall of 1985, and it continues today. Increasingly, I've tried to connect mathematical theory to actual applications in finance.

Since its beginnings, the course has gradually become more robotic: It resembles a real, dynamic, teaching experience, but in execution, much of it is prerecorded, and exercises and examinations are computerized. Students can take it without need of my physical presence. Yale made my course available to the broader public on free online sites: AllLearn in 2002, Open Yale in 2008 and 2011, and now on Coursera.

The process of tweaking and improving the course to fit better in a digital framework has given me time to reflect about what I am doing for my students. I could just retire now and let them watch my lectures and use the rest of the digitized material. But I find myself thinking that I should be doing something more for them.

So I continue to update the course, thinking about how I can integrate its lessons into an "art of living in the world." I have tried to enhance my students' sense that finance should be the art of financing important human activities, of getting people (and robots someday) working together to accomplish things that we really want done.

For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT J. SHILLER. "Economic View; What to Learn in College to Stay One Step Ahead of Computers." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., MAY 24, 2015): 6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date MAY 22, 2015, and has the title "Economic View; What to Learn in College to Stay One Step Ahead of Computers.")

The Levy and Murnane book mentioned above, is:

Levy, Frank, and Richard J. Murnane. The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Some of the core of the Levy and Murnane book can be found in:

Levy, Frank, and Richard Murnane. "Book Excerpt: The New Division of Labor." Milken Institute Review 6, no. 4 (Dec. 2004): 61-82.

August 19, 2015

McCulloch Endorses Strunk and White's "Revise and Rewrite" and "Be Clear"

(p. 10) When you wrote your first book, on the Johnstown flood, did you have a model in mind, a kind of storytelling you admired?

Walter Lord's "A Night to Remember," about the sinking of the Titanic, was the best book about a disaster I had ever read. But in an odd way I think I was more influenced at the time by the novels of Conrad Richter, and particularly his Ohio trilogy, "The Trees," "The Fields" and "The Town," in the extremely skillful way he evoked a sense of place.

. . .

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

"The Elements of Style," by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. I read it first nearly 50 years ago and still turn to it as an ever reliable aid-to-navigation, and particularly White's last chapter, with its reminders to "Revise and Rewrite" and "Be Clear."

For the full interview, see:

"By the Book: David McCullough." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., MAY 31, 2015): 10.

(Note: ellipsis added, bold in original. The bold questions are from an anonymous New York Times interviewer.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date MAY 28, 2015, and has the title "David McCullough: By the Book.")

A wonderful book by McCullough, is:

McCullough, David. The Wright Brothers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

August 18, 2015

"Buy Local" Inefficiently Wastes Resources

(p. 8) Much is . . . made about the eco-friendliness of handmade.

"Buying handmade (especially really locally) can greatly reduce your carbon footprint on the world," reads a post on the popular website Handmadeology.

But few economists give much credence to the idea that buying local necessarily saves energy. Most believe that the economies of scale inherent in mass production outweigh the benefits of nearness. These same economies of scale most likely make a toothbrush factory less wasteful, in terms of materials, than 100 individual toothbrush makers each handcrafting 10 toothbrushes a day.

For the full commentary, see:

EMILY MATCHA. "OPINION; It's Chic. Not Morally Superior. That Handmade Scarf Won't Save the World." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., MAY 3, 2015): 8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the coomentary has the date MAY 2, 2015, and has the title "OPINION; Sorry, Etsy. That Handmade Scarf Won't Save the World.")

August 17, 2015

Average Length of 10-K Reports Rises to 41,911 Words

WordLength10KannualReportGraph2015-07-05.jpgSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) General Electric Co.'s chief financial officer was taken aback by the industrial conglomerate's 246-page annual report.

The 10-K and supporting documents his finance team and others at the company produced was meant to give investors a comprehensive picture of GE's businesses and financial performance over the previous 12 months. It did everything but.

Packed with text on the company's internal controls, auditor statements and regulator-mandated boilerplate on "inflation, recession and currency volatility," the 2013 annual report was 109,894 words long. "Not a retail investor on planet Earth could get through" it, let alone understand it, said GE finance chief Jeffrey Bornstein.

Companies are spending an increasing amount of time and energy beefing up their regulatory filings to meet disclosure requirements. The average 10K is getting longer--about 42,000 words in 2013, up from roughly 30,000 words in 2000. By comparison, the text of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 has 32,000 words.

For the full story, see:

VIPAL MONGA and EMILY CHASAN. "The 109,894-Word Annual Report." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., June 2, 2015): B1 & B10.

August 16, 2015

"Big Data" Does Not Tell Us What to Measure, and Ignores What Cannot Be Measured

(p. 6) BIG data will save the world. How often have we heard that over the past couple of years? We're pretty sure both of us have said something similar dozens of times in the past few months.

If you're trying to build a self-driving car or detect whether a picture has a cat in it, big data is amazing. But here's a secret: If you're trying to make important decisions about your health, wealth or happiness, big data is not enough.

The problem is this: The things we can measure are never exactly what we care about. Just trying to get a single, easy-to-measure number higher and higher (or lower and lower) doesn't actually help us make the right choice. For this reason, the key question isn't "What did I measure?" but "What did I miss?"

. . .

So what can big data do to help us make big decisions? One of us, Alex, is a data scientist at Facebook. The other, Seth, is a former data scientist at Google. There is a special sauce necessary to making big data work: surveys and the judgment of humans -- two seemingly old-fashioned approaches that we will call small data.

Facebook has tons of data on how people use its site. It's easy to see whether a particular news feed story was liked, clicked, commented on or shared. But not one of these is a perfect proxy for more important questions: What was the experience like? Did the story connect you with your friends? Did it inform you about the world? Did it make you laugh?

(p. 7) To get to these measures, Facebook has to take an old-fashioned approach: asking. Every day, hundreds of individuals load their news feed and answer questions about the stories they see there. Big data (likes, clicks, comments) is supplemented by small data ("Do you want to see this post in your News Feed?") and contextualized ("Why?").

Big data in the form of behaviors and small data in the form of surveys complement each other and produce insights rather than simple metrics.

. . .

Because of this need for small data, Facebook's data teams look different than you would guess. Facebook employs social psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists precisely to find what simple measures miss.

And it's not just Silicon Valley firms that employ the power of small data. Baseball is often used as the quintessential story of data geeks, crunching huge data sets, replacing fallible human experts, like scouts. This story was made famous in both the book and the movie "Moneyball."

But the true story is not that simple. For one thing, many teams ended up going overboard on data. It was easy to measure offense and pitching, so some organizations ended up underestimating the importance of defense, which is harder to measure. In fact, in his book "The Signal and the Noise," Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com estimates that the Oakland A's were giving up 8 to 10 wins per year in the mid-1990s because of their lousy defense.

. . .

Human experts can also help data analysts figure out what to look for. For decades, scouts have judged catchers based on their ability to frame pitches -- to make the pitch appear more like a strike to a watching umpire. Thanks to improved data on pitch location, analysts have recently checked this hypothesis and confirmed that catchers differ significantly in this skill.

For the full commentary, see:

ALEX PEYSAKHOVICH and SETH STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ. "How Not to Drown in Numbers." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., MAY 3, 2015): 6-7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date MAY 2, 2015.)

August 15, 2015

Spread of Robots Creates New and Better Human Jobs

(p. A11) The issues at the heart of "Learning by Doing" come into sharp relief when James Bessen visits a retail distribution center near Boston that was featured on "60 Minutes" two years ago. The TV segment, titled "Are Robots Hurting Job Growth?," combined gotcha reporting with vintage movie clips--scary-looking Hollywood robots--to tell a chilling tale of human displacement and runaway job loss.

Mr. Bessen isn't buying it. Although robots at the distribution center have eliminated some jobs, he says, they have created others--for production workers, technicians and managers. The problem at automated workplaces isn't the robots. It's the lack of qualified workers. New jobs "require specialized skills," Mr. Bessen writes, but workers with these skills "are in short supply."

It is a deeply contrarian view. The conventional wisdom about robots and other new workplace technology is that they do more harm than good, destroying jobs and hollowing out the middle class. MIT economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee made the case in their best-selling 2014 book, "The Second Machine Age." They describe a future in which software-driven machines will take over not just routine jobs--replacing clerks, cashiers and warehouse workers--but also tasks done by nurses, doctors, lawyers and stock traders. Mr. Bessen sets out to refute the arguments of such techno-pessimists, relying on economic analysis and on a fresh reading of history.

For the full review, see:

TAMAR JACOBY. "BOOKSHELF; Technology Isn't a Job Killer; Many predicted ATMs would eliminate bank tellers, but the number of tellers in the U.S. has risen since the machines were introduced." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., May 21, 2015): A11.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 20, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Bessen, James. Learning by Doing: The Real Connection between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

August 14, 2015

Computer Programs "Lack the Flexibility of Human Thinking"

(p. A11) . . . let's not panic. "Superintelligent" machines won't be arriving soon. Computers today are good at narrow tasks carefully engineered by programmers, like balancing checkbooks and landing airplanes, but after five decades of research, they are still weak at anything that looks remotely like genuine human intelligence.

. . .

Even the best computer programs out there lack the flexibility of human thinking. A teenager can pick up a new videogame in an hour; your average computer program still can only do just the single task for which it was designed. (Some new technologies do slightly better, but they still struggle with any task that requires long-term planning.)

For the full commentary, see:

GARY MARCUS. "Artificial Intelligence Isn't a Threat--Yet; Superintelligent machines are still a long way off, but we need to prepare for their future rise." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Dec. 13, 2014): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Dec. 11, 2014.)

August 13, 2015

Cultural and Institutional Differences Between Europe and U.S. Keep Europe from Having a Silicon Valley

(p. B7) "They all want a Silicon Valley," Jacob Kirkegaard, a Danish economist and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told me this week. "But none of them can match the scale and focus on the new and truly innovative technologies you have in the United States. Europe and the rest of the world are playing catch-up, to the great frustration of policy makers there."

Petra Moser, assistant professor of economics at Stanford and its Europe Center, who was born in Germany, agreed that "Europeans are worried."

"They're trying to recreate Silicon Valley in places like Munich, so far with little success," she said. "The institutional and cultural differences are still too great."

. . .

There is . . . little or no stigma in Silicon Valley to being fired; Steve Jobs himself was forced out of Apple. "American companies allow their employees to leave and try something else," Professor Moser said. "Then, if it works, great, the mother company acquires the start-up. If it doesn't, they hire them back. It's a great system. It allows people to experiment and try things. In Germany, you can't do that. People would hold it against you. They'd see it as disloyal. It's a very different ethic."

Europeans are also much less receptive to the kind of truly disruptive innovation represented by a Google or a Facebook, Mr. Kirkegaard said.

He cited the example of Uber, the ride-hailing service that despite its German-sounding name is a thoroughly American upstart. Uber has been greeted in Europe like the arrival of a virus, and its reception says a lot about the power of incumbent taxi operators.

"But it goes deeper than that," Mr. Kirkegaard said. "New Yorkers don't get all nostalgic about yellow cabs. In London, the black cab is seen as something that makes London what it is. People like it that way. Americans tend to act in a more rational and less emotional way about the goods and services they consume, because it's not tied up with their national and regional identities."

. . .

With its emphasis on early testing and sorting, the educational system in Europe tends to be very rigid. "If you don't do well at age 18, you're out," Professor Moser said. "That cuts out a lot of people who could do better but never get the chance. The person who does best at a test of rote memorization at age 17 may not be innovative at 23." She added that many of Europe's most enterprising students go to the United States to study and end up staying.

She is currently doing research into creativity. "The American education system is much more forgiving," Professor Moser said. "Students can catch up and go on to excel."

Even the vaunted European child-rearing, she believes, is too prescriptive. While she concedes there is as yet no hard scientific evidence to support her thesis, "European children may be better behaved, but American children may end up being more free to explore new things."

For the full story, see:

JAMES B. STEWART. "Common Sense; A Fearless Culture Fuels Tech." The New York Times (Fri., JUNE 19, 2015): B1 & B7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JUNE 18, 2015, and has the title "Common Sense; A Fearless Culture Fuels U.S. Tech Giants.")

August 12, 2015

Babies "Have a Positive Hunger for the Unexpected"

(p. C2) In an amazingly clever new paper in the journal Science, Aimee Stahl and Lisa Feigenson at Johns Hopkins University show systematically that 11-month-old babies, like scientists, pay special attention when their predictions are violated, learn especially well as a result, and even do experiments to figure out just what happened.

They took off from some classic research showing that babies will look at something longer when it is unexpected. The babies in the new study either saw impossible events, like the apparent passage of a ball through a solid brick wall, or straightforward events, like the same ball simply moving through an empty space.

. . .

The babies explored objects more when they behaved unexpectedly. They also explored them differently depending on just how they behaved unexpectedly. If the ball had vanished through the wall, the babies banged the ball against a surface; if it had hovered in thin air, they dropped it. It was as if they were testing to see if the ball really was solid, or really did defy gravity, much like Georgie testing the fake eggs in the Easter basket.

In fact, these experiments suggest that babies may be even better scientists than grown-ups often are. Adults suffer from "confirmation bias"--we pay attention to the events that fit what we already know and ignore things that might shake up our preconceptions. Charles Darwin famously kept a special list of all the facts that were at odds with his theory, because he knew he'd otherwise be tempted to ignore or forget them.

Babies, on the other hand, seem to have a positive hunger for the unexpected. Like the ideal scientists proposed by the philosopher of science Karl Popper, babies are always on the lookout for a fact that falsifies their theories.

For the full commentary, see:

ALISON GOPNIK. "MIND AND MATTER; How 1-Year-Olds Figure Out the World." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., April 15, 2015): C2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 15, 2015, and has the title "MIND AND MATTER; How 1-Year-Olds Figure Out the World.")

The scientific article mentioned in the passages quoted, is:

Stahl, Aimee E., and Lisa Feigenson. "Observing the Unexpected Enhances Infants' Learning and Exploration." Science 348, no. 6230 (April 3, 2015): 91-94.

August 11, 2015

"The Great Fact" of "the Ice-Hockey Stick"

(p. 2) Economic history has looked like an ice-hockey stick lying on the ground. It had a long, long horizontal handle at $3 a day extending through the two-hundred-thousand-year history of Homo sapiens to 1800, with little bumps upward on the handle in ancient Rome and the early medieval Arab world and high medieval Europe, with regressions to $3 afterward--then a wholly unexpected blade, leaping up in the last two out of the two thousand centuries, to $30 a day and in many places well beyond.

. . .

(p. 48) The heart of the matter is sixteen. Real income per head nowadays exceeds that around 1700 or 1800 in, say, Britain and in other countries that have experienced modern economic growth by such a large factor as sixteen, at least. You, oh average participant in the British economy, go through at least sixteen times more food and clothing and housing and education in a day than an ancestor of yours did two or three centuries ago. Not sixteen percent more, but sixteen multiplied by the old standard of living. You in the American or the South Korean economy, compared to the wretchedness of former Smiths in 1653 or Kims in 1953, have done even better. And if such novelties as jet travel and vitamin pills and instant messaging are accounted at their proper value, the factor of material improvement climbs even higher than sixteen--to eighteen, or thirty, or far beyond. No previous episode of enrichment for the average person approaches it, not the China of the Song Dynasty or the Egypt of the New Kingdom, not the glory of Greece or the grandeur of Rome.

No competent economist, regardless of her politics, denies the Great Fact.


McCloskey, Deirdre N. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

August 10, 2015

We Often "See" What We Expect to See

(p. 9) The Justice Department recently analyzed eight years of shootings by Philadelphia police officers. Its report contained two sobering statistics: Fifteen percent of those shot were unarmed; and in half of these cases, an officer reportedly misidentified a "nonthreatening object (e.g., a cellphone) or movement (e.g., tugging at the waistband)" as a weapon.

Many factors presumably contribute to such shootings, ranging from carelessness to unconscious bias to explicit racism, all of which have received considerable attention of late, and deservedly so.

But there is a lesser-known psychological phenomenon that might also explain some of these shootings. It's called "affective realism": the tendency of your feelings to influence what you see -- not what you think you see, but the actual content of your perceptual experience.

. . .

The brain is a predictive organ. A majority of your brain activity consists of predictions about the world -- thousands of them at a time -- based on your past experience. These predictions are not deliberate prognostications like "the Red Sox will win the World Series," but unconscious anticipations of every sight, sound and other sensation you might encounter in every instant. These neural "guesses" largely shape what you see, hear and otherwise perceive.

. . .

. . . , our lab at Northeastern University has conducted experiments to document affective realism. For example, in one study we showed an affectively neutral face to our test subjects, and using special equipment, we secretly accompanied it with a smiling or scowling face that the subjects could not consciously see. (The technique is called "continuous flash suppression.") We found that the unseen faces influenced the subjects' bodily activity (e.g., how fast their hearts beat) and their feelings. These in turn influenced their perceptions: In the presence of an unseen scowling face, our subjects felt unpleasant and perceived the neutral face as less likable, less trustworthy, less competent, less attractive and more likely to commit a crime than when we paired it with an unseen smiling face.

These weren't just impressions; they were actual visual changes. The test subjects saw the neutral faces as having a more furrowed brow, a more surly mouth and so on. (Some of these findings were published in Emotion in 2012.)

. . .

. . . the brain is wired for prediction, and you predict most of the sights, sounds and other sensations in your life. You are, in large measure, the architect of your own experience.

For the full commentary, see:

Feldman Barrett, Lisa, and Jolie Wormwood. "When a Gun Is Not a Gun." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., April 19, 2015): 9.

(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is APRIL 17, 2015.)

The academic article mentioned in the passage quoted above, is:

Anderson, Eric, Erika Siegel, Dominique White, and Lisa Feldman Barrett. "Out of Sight but Not out of Mind: Unseen Affective Faces Influence Evaluations and Social Impressions." Emotion 12, no. 6 (Dec. 2012): 1210-21.

August 9, 2015

NOAA New Estimates Show Increase Since 1880 of Only 1.65 Degrees Fahrenheit

(p. A10) Scientists have long labored to explain what appeared to be a slowdown in global warming that began at the start of this century as, at the same time, heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide were soaring. The slowdown, sometimes inaccurately described as a halt or hiatus, became a major talking point for people critical of climate science.

Now, new research suggests the whole thing may have been based on incorrect data.

When adjustments are made to compensate for recently discovered problems in the way global temperatures were measured, the slowdown largely disappears, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared in a scientific paper published Thursday. And when the particularly warm temperatures of 2013 and 2014 are averaged in, the slowdown goes away entirely, the agency said.

. . .

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington that is critical of climate science, issued a statement condemning the changes and questioning the agency's methodology.

"The main claim by the authors that they have uncovered a significant recent warming trend is dubious," said the statement, attributed to three contrarian climate scientists: Richard S. Lindzen, Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. Knappenberger.

However, Russell S. Vose, chief of the climate science division at NOAA's Asheville center, pointed out in an interview that while the corrections do eliminate the recent warming slowdown, the overall effect of the agency's adjustments has long been to raise the reported global temperatures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by a substantial margin. That makes the temperature increase of the past century appear less severe than it does in the raw data.

"If you just wanted to release to the American public our uncorrected data set, it would say that the world has warmed up about 2.071 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880," Dr. Vose said. "Our corrected data set says things have warmed up about 1.65 degrees Fahrenheit. Our corrections lower the rate of warming on a global scale."

For the full story, see:

JUSTIN GILLIS. "Global Warming 'Hiatus' Challenged by NOAA Research." The New York Times (Fri., JUNE 5, 2015): A10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JUNE 4, 2015.)

The scientific article mentioned in the passages quoted above, is:

Karl, Thomas R., Anthony Arguez, Boyin Huang, Jay H. Lawrimore, James R. McMahon, Matthew J. Menne, Thomas C. Peterson, Russell S. Vose, and Zhang Huai-Min. "Possible Artifacts of Data Biases in the Recent Global Surface Warming Hiatus." Science 348, no. 6242 (June 26, 2015): 1469-72.

August 8, 2015

Authentic Happiness Requires Engagement and Meaning

(p. 278) Recent research into what happiness is and what makes people happy sheds some contemporary light on the connection Aristotle claimed between wisdom and happiness. Students of the "science of happiness" try to measure happiness, identify its components, determine its causes, and specify its consequences. This work doesn't tell us what should make people happy. It aims to tell us what does make people happy.

Ed Diener is perhaps the world's leading researcher on happiness. His recent book, written in collaboration with his son, Robert Biswas-Diener, confirms some things we might expect. The major determinants (p. 279) of happiness (or "well-being," as it is sometimes called) include material wealth (though much less than most people think, especially when their standard of living is above subsistence), physical health, freedom, political democracy, and physical, material, and psychological security. None of these determinants of happiness seems to have much to do with practical wisdom. But two other factors, each of them extremely important, do. Well-being depends critically on being part of a network of close connections to others. And well-being is enhanced when we are engaged in our work and find meaning in it.

The work of Martin Seligman, a distinguished psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, points in the same direction. Seligman launched a whole new discipline-- dubbed "positive" psychology-- in the 1990s, when he was president of the American Psychological Association. We've talked to Seligman often about his work. He had long been concerned that psychologists focused too exclusively on curing the problems of their patients (he himself was an expert on depression) and spent too little time investigating those things that would positively promote their well-being. He kick-started positive psychology with his book Authentic Happiness.

The word authentic is there to distinguish what Seligman is talking about from what many of us sometimes casually take happiness to be-- feeling good. Feeling good-- experiencing positive emotion-- is certainly important. But just as important are engagement and meaning. Engagement is about throwing yourself into the activities of your life. And meaning is about connecting what you do to the lives of others-- knowing that what you do makes the lives of others better. Authentic happiness, says Seligman, is a combination of engagement, meaning, and positive emotion. Seligman collected a massive amount of data from research on people all over the world. He found that people who considered themselves happy had certain character strengths and virtues. He further found that in each individual, some of these strengths were more prominent than others. Seligman concluded that promoting a person's particular (p. 280) strengths-- he dubbed these a person's "signature strengths"-- promoted authentic happiness.

The twenty-four character strengths Seligman identified include things like curiosity, open-mindedness, perspective, kindness and generosity, loyalty, duty, fairness, leadership, self-control, caution, humility, bravery, perseverance, honesty, gratitude, optimism, and zest. He organized these strengths into six virtues: courage, humanity and love, justice, temperance, transcendence, and wisdom and knowledge. Aristotle would have recognized many of these strengths as the kind of "excellences" or virtues he considered necessary for eudaimonia, a flourishing or happy life.


Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)

August 7, 2015

Steven Johnson Is Advocate of Collaboration in Innovation

(p. A13) Theories of innovation and entrepreneurship have always yo-yoed between two basic ideas. First, that it's all about the single brilliant individual and his eureka moment that changes the world. Second, that it's about networks, collaboration and context. The truth, as in all such philosophical dogfights, is somewhere in between. But that does not stop the bickering. This controversy blew up in a political context during the 2012 presidential election, when President Obama used an ill-chosen set of words ("you didn't build that") to suggest that government and society had a role in creating the setting for entrepreneurs to flourish, and Republicans berated him for denigrating the rugged individualists of American enterprise.

Through a series of elegant books about the history of technological innovation, Steven Johnson has become one of the most persuasive advocates for the role of collaboration in innovation. His latest, "How We Got to Now," accompanies a PBS series on what he calls the "six innovations that made the modern world." The six are detailed in chapters titled "Glass," "Cold," "Sound," "Clean," "Time" and "Light." Mr. Johnson's method is to start with a single innovation and then hopscotch through history to illuminate its vast and often unintended consequences.

For the full review, see:

PHILIP DELVES BROUGHTON. "BOOKSHELF; Unintended Consequences; Gutenberg's printing press sparked a revolution in lens-making, which led to eyeglasses, microscopes and, yes, the selfie." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Sept. 30, 2014): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 29, 2014, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'How We Got to Now' by Steven Johnson; Gutenberg's printing press sparked a revolution in lens-making, which led to eyeglasses, microscopes and, yes, the selfie." )

The book under review, is:

Johnson, Steven. How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014.

August 6, 2015

Chimps Are Willing to Delay Gratification in Order to Receive Cooked Food

This is a big deal because cooking food allows us humans to spend a lot less energy digesting our food, which allows a lot more energy to be used by the brain. So one theory is that the cooking technology allowed humans to eventually develop cognitive abilities superior to other primates.

(p. A3) . . . scientists from Harvard and Yale found that chimps have the patience and foresight to resist eating raw food and to place it in a device meant to appear, at least to the chimps, to cook it.

. . .

But they found that chimps would give up a raw slice of sweet potato in the hand for the prospect of a cooked slice of sweet potato a bit later. That kind of foresight and self-control is something any cook who has eaten too much raw cookie dough can admire.

The research grew out of the idea that cooking itself may have driven changes in human evolution, a hypothesis put forth by Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist at Harvard and several colleagues about 15 years ago in an article in Current Anthropology, and more recently in his book, "Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human."

He argued that cooking may have begun something like two million years ago, even though hard evidence only dates back about one million years. For that to be true, some early ancestors, perhaps not much more advanced than chimps, had to grasp the whole concept of transforming the raw into the cooked.

Felix Warneken at Harvard and Alexandra G. Rosati, who is about to move from Yale to Harvard, both of whom study cognition, wanted to see if chimpanzees, which often serve as stand-ins for human ancestors, had the cognitive foundation that would prepare them to cook.

. . .

Dr. Rosati said the experiments showed not only that chimps had the patience for cooking, but that they had the "minimal causal understanding they would need" to make the leap to cooking.

For the full story, see:

JAMES GORMAN. "Chimpanzees Would Cook if Given Chance, Research Says." The New York Times (Weds., JUNE 3, 2015): A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the story is JUNE 2, 2015, and has the title "Chimpanzees Would Cook if Given the Chance, Research Says.")

The academic article discussed in the passages quoted above, is:

Warneken, Felix, and Alexandra G. Rosati. "Cognitive Capacities for Cooking in Chimpanzees." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 282, no. 1809 (June 22, 2015).

August 5, 2015

Plant Breeders Use Old Sloppy "Natural" Process to Avoid Regulatory Stasis

(p. A11) What's in a name?

A lot, if the name is genetically modified organism, or G.M.O., which many people are dead set against. But what if scientists used the precise techniques of today's molecular biology to give back to plants genes that had long ago been bred out of them? And what if that process were called "rewilding?"

That is the idea being floated by a group at the University of Copenhagen, which is proposing the name for the process that would result if scientists took a gene or two from an ancient plant variety and melded it with more modern species to promote greater resistant to drought, for example.

"I consider this something worth discussing," said Michael B. Palmgren, a plant biologist at the Danish university who headed a group, including scientists, ethicists and lawyers, that is funded by the university and the Danish National Research Foundation.

They pondered the problem of fragile plants in organic farming, came up with the rewilding idea, and published their proposal Thursday in the journal Trends in Plant Science.

. . .

The idea of restoring long-lost genes to plants is not new, said Julian I. Schroeder, a plant researcher at the University of California, Davis. But, wary of the taint of genetic engineering, scientists have used traditional breeding methods to cross modern plants with ancient ones until they have the gene they want in a crop plant that needs it. The tedious process inevitably drags other genes along with the one that is targeted. But the older process is "natural," Dr. Schroeder said.

. . .

Researchers have previously crossbred wheat plants with traits found in ancient varieties, noted Maarten Van Ginkel, who headed such a program in Mexico at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

"We selected for disease resistance, drought tolerance," he said. "This method works but it has drawbacks. You prefer to move only the genes you want."

When Dr. Van Ginkel crossbred for traits, he did not look for the specific genes conferring those traits. But with the flood-resistant rice plants, researchers knew exactly which gene they wanted. Nonetheless, they crossbred and did not use precision breeding to alter the plants.

Asked why not, Dr. Schroeder had a simple answer -- a complex maze of regulations governing genetically engineered crops. With crossbreeding, he said, "the first varieties hit the fields in a couple of years."

And if the researchers had used precision breeding to get the gene into the rice?

"They would still be stuck in the regulatory process," Dr. Schroeder said.

For the full story, see:

GINA KOLATA. "A Proposal to Modify Plants Gives G.M.O. Debate New Life." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., MAY 29, 2015): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MAY 28, 2015.)

August 4, 2015

A Critical Mass Need to Be Motivated by the Telos of a Practice

(p. 227) The fact that some people are led into a practice in pursuit of goals that are external to the practice-- money, fame, or what have you-- need pose no threat to the integrity of the practice itself. So long as those goals do not penetrate the practice at all levels, those in pursuit of external goals will eventually drop out or be left behind or change their goals or be discredited by those in pursuit of a practice's proper goals. However, if external goals do penetrate the practice at all levels, it becomes vulnerable to corruption. Practices are always developing and changing, and the direction that development takes will be determined by participants in the practice. Good practices encourage wise practitioners who in turn will care for the future of the practice.


Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

A somewhat similar point is made in:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "How Institutional Incentives and Constraints Affect the Progress of Science." Prometheus 26, no. 3 (Sept. 2008): 231-239.

August 3, 2015

Tesla Cars Are Built on Government Subsidies

(p. A13) Nowhere in Mr. Vance's book, . . . , does the figure $7,500 appear--the direct taxpayer rebate to each U.S. buyer of Mr. Musk's car. You wouldn't know that 10% of all Model S cars have been sold in Norway--though Tesla's own 10-K lists the possible loss of generous Norwegian tax benefits as a substantial risk to the company.

Barely developed in passing is that Tesla likely might not exist without a former State Department official whom Mr. Musk hired to explore "what types of tax credits and rebates Tesla might be able to drum up around its electric vehicles," which eventually would include a $465 million government-backed loan.

And how Tesla came by its ex-Toyota factory in California "for free," via a "string of fortunate turns" that allowed Tesla to float its IPO a few weeks later, is just a thing that happens in Mr. Vance's book, not the full-bore political intrigue it actually was.

The fact is, Mr. Musk has yet to show that Tesla's stock market value (currently $32 billion) is anything but a modest fraction of the discounted value of its expected future subsidies. In 2017, he plans to introduce his Model 3, a $35,000 car for the middle class. He expects to sell hundreds of thousands a year. Somehow we doubt he intends to make it easy for politicians to whip away the $7,500 tax credit just when somebody besides the rich can benefit from it--in which case the annual gift from taxpayers will quickly mount to several billion dollars each year.

Mother Jones, in a long piece about what Mr. Musk owes the taxpayer, suggested the wunderkind could be a "bit more grateful, a bit more humble." Unmentioned was the shaky underpinning of this largess. Even today's politicized climate modeling allows the possibility that climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide is far less than would justify incurring major expense to change the energy infrastructure of the world (and you certainly wouldn't begin with luxury cars). Were this understanding to become widespread, the subliminal hum of government favoritism could overnight become Tesla's biggest liability.

For the full commentary, see:

HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR. "BUSINESS WORLD; The Savior Elon Musk; Tesla's impresario is right about one thing: Humanity's preservation is a legitimate government interest." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 30, 2015): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 29, 2015.)

The book discussed in the commentary is:

Vance, Ashlee. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. New York: Ecco, 2015.

The Mother Jones article discussing government subsidies for Musk's Tesla, is:

Harkinson, Josh. "Free Ride." Mother Jones 38, no. 5 (Sept./Oct. 2013): 20-25.

August 2, 2015

A Swift Defense of Property Rights

(p. B1) When Taylor Swift speaks, even the most powerful company in the world listens.

Less than 24 hours after Ms. Swift complained publicly that Apple was not planning to pay royalties during a three-month trial period of its new streaming music service, the company changed course, and confirmed that it will pay its full royalty rates for music during the free trial.

"When I woke up this morning and read Taylor's note, it really solidified that we need to make a change," Eddy Cue, Apple's senior vice president of Internet software and services, said in an interview late Sunday.

. . .

Ms. Swift, who last year pulled her music from Spotify in another dispute over royalties, called Apple's policy "shocking, disappointing and completely unlike this historically progressive company."

"We don't ask you for free iPhones," she added. "Please don't ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation."

. . .

(p. B5) Ms. Swift has long been outspoken on economic issues for musicians. In a piece in The Wall Street Journal last year, she wrote: "Valuable things should be paid for. It's my opinion that music should not be free."

For the full story, see:

BEN SISARIO. "Taylor Swift Criticism Spurs Apple to Change Royalties Policy." The New York Times (Sat., JUNE 22, 2015): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the story is JUNE 21, 2015, and has the title "Taylor Swift Criticism Spurs Apple to Change Royalties Policy.")

August 1, 2015

Little Progress Toward Complex Autonomous Robots

(p. A8) [In June 2015] . . . , the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Pentagon research arm, . . . [held] the final competition in its Robotics Challenge in Pomona, Calif. With $2 million in prize money for the robot that performs best in a series of rescue-oriented tasks in under an hour, the event . . . offer[ed] what engineers refer to as the "ground truth" -- a reality check on the state of the art in the field of mobile robotics.

A preview of their work suggests that nobody needs to worry about a Terminator creating havoc anytime soon. Given a year and a half to improve their machines, the roboticists, who shared details about their work in interviews before the contest in June, appear to have made limited progress.

. . .

"The extraordinary thing that has happened in the last five years is that we have seemed to make extraordininary progress in machine perception," said Gill Pratt, the Darpa program manager in charge of the Robotics Challenge.

Pattern recognition hardware and software has made it possible for computers to make dramatic progress in computer vision and speech understanding. In contrast, Dr. Pratt said, little headway has been made in "cognition," the higher-level humanlike processes required for robot planning and true autonomy. As a result, both in the Darpa contest and in the field of robotics more broadly, there has been a re-emphasis on the idea of human-machine partnerships.

"It is extremely important to remember that the Darpa Robotics Challenge is about a team of humans and machines working together," he said. "Without the person, these machines could hardly do anything at all."

In fact, the steep challenge in making progress toward mobile robots that can mimic human capabilities is causing robotics researchers worldwide to rethink their goals. Now, instead of trying to build completely autonomous robots, many researchers have begun to think instead of creating ensembles of humans and robots, an approach they describe as co-robots or "cloud robotics."

Ken Goldberg, a University of California, Berkeley, roboticist, has called on the computing world to drop its obsession with singularity, the much-ballyhooed time when computers are predicted to surpass their human designers. Rather, he has proposed a concept he calls "multiplicity," with diverse groups of humans and machines solving problems through collaboration.

For decades, artificial-intelligence researchers have noted that the simplest tasks for humans, such as reaching into a pocket to retrieve a quarter, are the most challenging for machines.

"The intuitive idea is that the more money you spend on a robot, the more autonomy you will be able to design into it," said Rodney Brooks, an M.I.T. roboticist and co-founder two early companies, iRobot and Rethink Robotics. "The fact is actually the opposite is true: The cheaper the robot, the more autonomy it has."

For example, iRobot's Roomba robot is autonomous, but the vacuuming task it performs by wandering around rooms is extremely simple. By contrast, the company's Packbot is more expensive, designed for defusing bombs, and must be teleoperated or controlled wirelessly by people.

For the full story, see:

JOHN MARKOFF. "A Reality Check for A.I." The New York Times (Tues., MAY 26, 2015): D2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed expressions, added. I corrected a misspelling of "extraordinary.")

(Note: the date of the online version of the story is MAY 25, 2015, and has the title "Relax, the Terminator Is Far Away.")



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