Sugarman Spent $500,000 in a Losing Fight Against a $100,000 FTC Fine

(p. A12) Though many of his wackier ideas bombed, Mr. Sugarman came up with a big winner now and then, including pocket calculators in the early 1970s and his BluBlocker sunglasses, designed to filter out ultraviolet and blue light waves, starting in the 1980s.

. . .

Trouble came in 1979 when the Federal Trade Commission accused him of violating a rule requiring firms to send out mail-order items promptly or notify customers of delays. Mr. Sugarman said the delays were caused by blizzards and a computer breakdown. The FTC proposed a $100,000 fine.

Mr. Sugarman counterattacked with a pamphlet, “The Monster That Eats Business,” an indictment of the FTC illustrated with cartoons in the style of Mad magazine. He accused FTC officials of hounding him over trivial lapses. After six years of fighting, he agreed to a settlement requiring him to pay a fine of $115,000 over four years. Mr. Sugarman said he had spent $500,000 on legal fees and added that “we are completely innocent of the charges.”

The success of BluBlocker sunglasses dug him out of that hole. Mr. Sugarman had a home on Maui, where he published a weekly newspaper. He flew small airplanes. He drove a Ferrari Testarossa. He looked dapper in his BluBlockers.

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Marketing Guru Survived His Flops and Found Hits.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 2, 2022): A12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 29, 2022, and has the title “Marketing Maverick Survived Flops, Found Hits.”)

Imposing Permanent Daylight Savings Time Is Like Imposing Permanent Jet Lag

(p. A19) . . . when the U.S. Senate recently passed a bill to make daylight-saving time permanent, sleep experts became more alarmed.

Legislators picked the wrong time, they say.

Our internal clocks are connected to the sun, which aligns more closely with permanent standard time, says Muhammad Adeel Rishi, a pulmonologist and sleep physician at Indiana University. When the clocks spring forward, our internal clocks don’t change but are forced to follow society’s clock rather than the sun. DST is like permanent social jet lag.

Dr. Rishi is one of the authors of a 2020 position statement from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a professional society, supporting making standard time—not daylight-saving time—permanent.

. . .

One of the big problems with permanent DST, objectors note, is that in the winter the sun will rise later and many schoolchildren will be walking to school in the dark.

On the western edge of the eastern time zone in Indiana, for instance, the sun won’t rise in the winter until about 9 a.m., notes Dr. Rishi. “You’re basically putting these kids two hours off from their circadian biology,” he says.

For the full commentary, see:

Sumathi Reddy. “YOUR HEALTH; Body Clock Needs Sun In Morning.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, March 24, 2022): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 23, 2022, and has the title “YOUR HEALTH; Why Permanent Daylight-Saving Time Is Seen as Bad for Your Health.”)

Stewart Brand Read Rand and Koestler, and Inspired Steve Jobs

At the end of Steve Jobs’s famous commencement address at Stanford, he quoted Stewart Brand’s famous advice at the end of his Last Whole Earth Catalog: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

(p. A15) When I first met Stewart Brand at an upscale ideas festival, I expected to engage with an aging beatnik or hippie, the tree-hugging, whale-saving environmentalist I associated with the “Whole Earth Catalog”—that ’60s-era collectanea of books, resources, tools, technologies and assorted products that became the bible of a techno-utopia DIY movement focused on self-sufficiency, education and ecology. But I found Mr. Brand more like Elon Musk than Timothy Leary, and was astonished to witness him make the best argument I’d ever heard for including nuclear power in plans to replace fossil fuels.

. . .

Although many contemporaries dropped acid for the pure experience, Mr. Brand said he took LSD (and other psychedelics) because he hoped they would accentuate his appreciation of beauty, especially that found in the photographic skills he was developing. For him psychedelics were a tool of creativity: “When you design a tool,” he wrote in 1971, “the best you can do is fashion a prototype and hand it over to the local evolutionary system: ‘Here, try this.’ ”

His model was Arthur Koestler’s “bisociation,” the blending of unrelated concepts into something new. Mr. Brand’s ability to discern unlikely complements, along with the organizational skills he’d honed in the military, helped bring numerous projects to fruition: His imagination had him bounce from one to the next; his pragmatic propensities put them into effect. Decades after the “Whole Earth Catalog” project, for example, Mr. Brand published “Whole Earth Discipline,” which proposed integrating nuclear power, geoengineering, genetic engineering, wildlife restoration, species protection and other environmental technologies aimed at creating a sustainable future for life on Earth. He’s a solutions guy, not a New Age guru—his ability to convene like-minded innovators has resulted in the WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link), the Global Business Network for futurists and business leaders, the Long Now Foundation, and Revive & Restore, a project to bring back extinct species like passenger pigeons and woolly mammoths.

As for Mr. Brand’s politics, he’s off the spectrum, mostly identifying as a small-l libertarian (he read Ayn Rand at Stanford), committed to bottom-up democracy, with an aversion to orthodoxy of any sort, which means he must adapt when the marginal becomes the mainstream, as in his shift from environmentalism to conservationism, from organic foods to GMOs, and from anti- to pro-nuclear power.

For the full review, see:

Michael Shermer’. “BOOKSHELF; A Man In Whole.” The Wall Street Journal Tuesday, March 29, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 28, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Whole Earth’ Review: A Man in Whole.”)

The book under review is:

Markoff, John. Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand. New York: Penguin Press, 2022.

Pre-Covid Federal Pandemic Plans Did Not Include Lockdowns

(p. A19) California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the first statewide U.S. stay-at-home order on March 19, 2020. All U.S. states and most other countries have long since abandoned lockdowns as oppressive, ineffective and exorbitantly expensive. But why did free countries adopt such a strategy to begin with?

. . .

Stay-at-home orders weren’t part of the script in pre-Covid federal pandemic plans. The idea of “flattening the curve” through what are known as “layered non-pharmaceutical interventions” can be traced to an influential 2007 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance paper, updated in 2017. Contemplating a severe pandemic with a 2% case fatality rate, the CDC recommended now-familiar strategies, such as masking, surface disinfection and temporary school closings.

Yet aside from suggesting limits on mass gatherings, the CDC paper makes no mention of closing workplaces. Instead, it concludes that such a severe pandemic could warrant recommending that employers “offer telecommuting and replace in-person meetings in the workplace with video or telephone conferences.” The closest it comes to lockdowns is recommending “voluntary home quarantine” for people with an infected family member.

. . .

When Western nations were confronted with Covid-19, they seemed to believe the Communist Party’s unproven claims about the efficacy of lockdowns. In the end, every other country got some variant of the virus and some variant of China’s official response. The world has learned to live with the former, as politically accountable leaders found they couldn’t maintain draconian restrictions forever. The people of China will be forced to endure the latter indefinitely.

For the full commentary, see:

Eugene Kontorovich and Anastasia Lin. “Covid Lockdowns Were a Chinese Import.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, March 24, 2022): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 23, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

“Seems Ethernet Does Not Work in Theory, Only in Practice”

(p. A21) David Boggs, an electrical engineer and computer scientist who helped create Ethernet, the computer networking technology that connects PCs to printers, other devices and the internet in offices and homes, died on Feb. 19 [2022] in Palo Alto, Calif.

. . .

In the spring of 1973, just after enrolling as a graduate student at Stanford University, Mr. Boggs began an internship at Xerox PARC, a Silicon Valley research lab that was developing a new kind of personal computer. One afternoon, in the basement of the lab, he noticed another researcher tinkering with a long strand of cable.

The researcher, another new hire named Bob Metcalfe, was exploring ways of sending information to and from the lab’s new computer, the Alto. Mr. Metcalfe was trying to send electrical pulses down the cable, and he was struggling to make it work. So Mr. Boggs offered to help.

Over the next two years, they designed the first version of Ethernet.

“He was the perfect partner for me,” Mr. Metcalfe said in an interview. “I was more of a concept artist, and he was a build-the-hardware-in-the-back-room engineer.”

. . .

Before becoming the dominant networking protocol, Ethernet was challenged by several other technologies. In the early 1980s, Mr. Metcalfe said, when Mr. Boggs took the stage at a California computing conference, at the San Jose Convention Center, to discuss the future of networking, a rival technologist questioned the mathematical theory behind Ethernet, telling Mr. Boggs that it would never work with large numbers of machines.

His response was unequivocal. “Seems Ethernet does not work in theory,” he said, “only in practice.”

For the full obituary, see:

Cade Metz. “David Boggs, Co-Inventor of Ethernet, Dies at 71.” The New York Times (Tuesday, March 1, 2022): A21.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Feb. 28, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

Nuclear War Is a Greater Threat to Humanity Than Is Climate Change

(p. A19) Weeks before thermobaric rockets rained down on Ukraine, the chattering classes at the World Economic Forum declared “climate action failure” the biggest global risk for the coming decade. On the eve of war, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry fretted about the “massive emissions consequences” of Russian invasion and worried that the world might forget about the risks of climate change if fighting broke out. Amid the conflict and the many other challenges facing the globe right now, like inflation and food price hikes, the global elite has an unhealthy obsession with climate change.

This fixation has had three important consequences. First, it has distracted the Western world from real geopolitical threats. Russia’s invasion should be a wake-up call that war is still a serious danger that requires democratic nations’ attention. But a month into the war in Ukraine, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres—whose organization’s main purpose is ensuring world peace—was focused instead on “climate catastrophe,” warning that fossil-fuel addiction will bring “mutually assured destruction.” His comments come at a time when nuclear weapons are posing the biggest risk of literal mutually assured destruction in half a century.

Second, the narrow focus on immediate climate objectives undermines future prosperity.

. . .

Third, in the world’s poorest countries, the international community’s focus on putting up solar panels coexists with a woeful underinvestment in solutions to massive existing problems.

For the full commentary, see:

Bjorn Lomborg. “Be Afraid of Nuclear War, Not Climate Change.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, March 30, 2022): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 29, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

John List Shows Limitations of Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs)

(p. A15) John List’s “The Voltage Effect” is marketed as a generic business title on how and whether to scale up an idea or product. Mr. List, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, explores why some ideas attain “voltage” and catch fire while others die out. This angle suggests that it will be another book about how to turn that great invention in your garage into the next Hewlett-Packard. But Mr. List is far too thoughtful to write something gimmicky or simple.

. . .

“The Voltage Effect” is a fine business book, though in many ways it works better as a meditation on the shortcomings of our increasingly data-driven world. The business community and academia have been taken over by data science. Mr. List seemingly argues that good and helpful data analysis may not scale well. It takes tremendous skill and talent to distinguish a scalable idea from one that is doomed to flop when you are working with a limited set of data and have an incentive to overhype your results. Data is the new currency; companies are presumed to have an unfair advantage if they have access to more of it. What gets less attention is the shortage of people who know how to make sense of statistical experiments and generalize them to a larger population.

The fields of business, policy and economics have all become enthralled with Randomized Control Trials. These are statistical experiments in which researchers take two populations: a “treatment” group that may be given cash or some other incentive and a “control” group that is not given anything. Researchers then observe any difference in outcomes from the experiment to make policy recommendations. RCTs can be a useful tool. But taking Mr. List’s lessons to heart, you see how limited they are.

Even the best-designed experiment may not give you insights that scale. For example, studies have found that it is more effective to give people cash in Kenya than to distribute aid through arcane development programs. The mantra in the development community has become “just give people money.” But just because cash is better than aid in Kenya, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a Universal Basic Income will work well in California.

For the full review, see:

Allison Schrager. “BOOKSHELF; Do We Have a Winner?” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, March 28, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 27, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Voltage Effect’ Review: Do We Have a Winner?”)

The book under review is:

List, John A. The Voltage Effect: How to Make Good Ideas Great and Great Ideas Scale. New York: Currency, 2022.

Executive Chose “Exciting” Entrepreneurship, and Failed

We read the stories of those who choose entrepreneurship and succeed. The stories of those who choose entrepreneurship and fail, are less often told. Those who fail do not always regret their choice, nor should they.

(p. A21) Alex Mandl was a leading contender for the chief executive job at AT&T Corp. in 1996 when he defected to head a wireless-telecommunications startup that became Teligent Inc.

. . .

Heading a startup, he said, was “the most exciting thing to do.”

Teligent had ambitious plans to undercut prices of traditional phone companies by setting up a microwave network that would beam voice and data to business users via rooftop antennas. But Teligent had technical problems, losses piled up and investors fled. Mr. Mandl resigned as chief executive in April 2001, shortly before the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Executive Risked Career on a Startup.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 2, 2022): A21.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date April 1, 2022, and has the title “Alex Mandl, Who Gave Up a Top AT&T Job to Lead a Startup, Has Died at Age 78.”)

Discoverer of Catalyst Role of mRNA Had Trouble “Getting His Work Published”

(p. B12) Sidney Altman, a molecular biologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for sharing in the discovery that ribonucleic acid, or RNA, was not just a carrier of genetic information but could also be a catalyst for chemical reactions in cells — a breakthrough that paved the way for new gene therapies and treatments for viral infections — died on April 5 [2022] in Rockleigh, N.J.

. . .

HAs seems to happen so often in science, Dr. Altman stumbled upon his discovery. “I wasn’t looking for what I found,” he said in a 2010 interview with Harry Kreisler at the Institute for International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

He had studied how a small RNA molecule, called transfer RNA, carries genetic code to make new proteins. Some of the code is not necessary, so an enzyme cuts it out before it is used.

Then, in 1978, Dr. Altman began studying an RNA-cutting enzyme from E. coli bacteria that was composed of an RNA molecule and a protein. He managed to separate the two pieces and test them to see how they reacted in the enzyme process. Much to his surprise, he discovered that the protein did not perform as an enzyme without the RNA molecule. He later discovered that the RNA molecule could be the catalyst, even without the protein.

The finding ran completely contrary to what at the time was established theory, which held that it was the proteins that were the catalysts in enzymes.

The discovery of what are now known as ribozymes was so radical that Dr. Altman had trouble getting it accepted.

Joel Rosenbaum, a professor of cell biology at Yale and a colleague of Dr. Altman’s, told Chemistry World magazine that when Dr. Altman first tried to get other scientists to accept his research, “the community of molecular biologists, including several at Yale working on RNA, did not want to believe the work.”

“He had a hard time obtaining invitations to speak at scientific meetings and, indeed, getting his work published,” Dr. Rosenbaum said.

For the full obituary, see:

Dylan Loeb McClain. “Sidney Altman, Who Stumbled on a Breakthrough in Genetics, Dies at 82.” The New York Times (Saturday, April 16, 2022): B12.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated April 18, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

Buffalo Stadium Subsidy Is Corporate and Union Welfare Pork

(p. A11) It’s bad enough that the budget agreement announced Thursday night by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul will shower more than $1 billion of the public’s money on a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, a billionaire-owned football franchise that competes in the world’s most profitable sports league. But Ms. Hochul has attached conditions to the deal that will drive up the construction cost by roughly 20% and assure that a big chunk of the subsidy will be wasted. That contradicts her claim that she sought to negotiate the “best deal for taxpayers.”

Ms. Hochul is the first New York governor to hail from Buffalo since Grover Cleveland. Her husband is general counsel of Delaware North, the chief concessionaire at Highmark Stadium, the Bills’ current home in suburban Orchard Park. The new 60,000-seat facility is to be erected nearby, on the site of an existing stadium parking lot. Ms. Hochul says it’s a good deal for residents, who are rightly suspicious. So too are economists, whose strong consensus is that taxpayers almost always come out losers in publicly funded stadium projects, which chiefly enrich owners.

In this case, the corporate welfare pork is greased with a costly handout to unionized labor. That’s because of the state’s so-called prevailing-wage law, which effectively mandates that contractors on public construction projects such as schools, roads, bridges and subways pay union-level wages and benefits. Last year, a “source familiar with the negotiations” told the Buffalo News that the project’s $1.4 billion price tag was driven in part by “prevailing wage and union workforce requirements, among other rules.” Exactly how much the prevailing-wage law adds to the stadium deal is hard to know, but it’s likely in the hundreds of millions.

For the full commentary, see:

Peter Warren. “CROSS COUNTRY; The Buffalo Bills’ Stadium Subsidy Is a Hand-Off to Unions.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 9, 2022): A11.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 8, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

Gary Becker Foresaw a Cure for Obesity that Daniel Kahneman Wrote Was “Implausible”

I have found much of value in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. But the following passage is not included in what I value.

A famous example of the Chicago approach is titled A Theory of Rational Addiction; it explains how a rational agent with a strong preference for intense and immediate gratification may make the rational decision to accept future addiction as a consequence. I once heard Gary Becker, one of the authors of that article, who is also a Nobel laureate of the Chicago school, argue in a lighter vein, but not entirely as a joke, that we should consider the possibility of explaining the so-called obesity epidemic by people’s belief that a cure for diabetes will soon become available. He was making a valuable point: when we observe people acting in ways that seem odd, we should first examine the possibility that they have a good reason to do what they do. Psychological interpretations should only be invoked when the reasons become implausible—which Becker’s explanation of obesity probably is.

Source: Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, p. 412.

Gary Becker is vindicated again:

(p. A16) An experimental drug has enabled people with obesity or who are overweight to lose about 22.5 percent of their body weight, about 52 pounds on average, in a large trial, the drug’s maker announced on Thursday.

The company, Eli Lilly, has not yet submitted the data for publication in a peer-reviewed medical journal or presented them in a public setting. But the claims nonetheless amazed medical experts.

“Wow (and a double Wow!)” Dr. Sekar Kathiresan, chief executive of Verve Therapeutics, a company focusing on heart disease drugs, wrote in a tweet. Drugs like Eli Lilly’s, he added, are “truly going to revolutionize the treatment of obesity!!!”

Dr. Kathiresan has no ties to Eli Lilly or to the drug.

. . .

The Eli Lilly study lasted 72 weeks and involved 2,539 participants. Many qualified as obese, while others were overweight but also had such risk factors as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, cardiovascular disease or obstructive sleep apnea.

They were divided into four groups. All received diet counseling to reduce their calorie intake by about 500 a day.

One group was randomly assigned to take a placebo, while the other three received doses of tirzepatide ranging from 5 milligrams to 15 milligrams. Patients injected themselves with the drug once a week.

. . .

The medications are among a new class of drugs called incretins, which are naturally occurring hormones that slow stomach emptying, regulate insulin and decrease appetite. The side effects include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. But most patients tolerate or are not bothered by these effects.

For the full story, see:

Gina Kolata. “Experimental Obesity Drug Produces 20% Weight Loss.” The New York Times (Friday, April 29, 2022): A16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 1, 2022, and has the title “Patients Taking Experimental Obesity Drug Lost More Than 50 Pounds, Maker Claims.” Where there is a slight difference in wording between the online and the print versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Kahneman’s book is:

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