Automation Tools Assist, but Do Not Replace, Surgeons

(p. D4) Using many of the same technologies that underpin self-driving cars, autonomous drones and warehouse robots, researchers are working to automate surgical robots too. These methods are still a long way from everyday use, but progress is accelerating.

. . .

The aim is not to remove surgeons from the operating room but to ease their load and perhaps even raise success rates — where there is room for improvement — by automating particular phases of surgery.

Robots can already exceed human accuracy on some surgical tasks, like placing a pin into a bone (a particularly risky task during knee and hip replacements). The hope is that automated robots can bring greater accuracy to other tasks, like incisions or suturing, and reduce the risks that come with overworked surgeons.

During a recent phone call, Greg Hager, a computer scientist at Johns Hopkins, said that surgical automation would progress much like the Autopilot software that was guiding his Tesla down the New Jersey Turnpike as he spoke. The car was driving on its own, he said, but his wife still had her hands on the wheel, should anything go wrong. And she would take over when it was time to exit the highway.

“We can’t automate the whole process, at least not without human oversight,” he said. “But we can start to build automation tools that make the life of a surgeon a little bit easier.”

. . .

. . . the Berkeley researchers have been working to automate their robot, which is based on the da Vinci Surgical System, a two-armed machine that helps surgeons perform more than a million procedures a year. Dr. Fer and his colleagues collect images of the robot moving the plastic rings while under human control. Then their system learns from these images, pinpointing the best ways of grabbing the rings, passing them between claws and moving them to new pegs.

But this process came with its own asterisk. When the system told the robot where to move, the robot often missed the spot by millimeters. Over months and years of use, the many metal cables inside the robot’s twin arms have stretched and bent in small ways, so its movements were not as precise as they needed to be.

Human operators could compensate for this shift, unconsciously. But the automated system could not. This is often the problem with automated technology: It struggles to deal with change and uncertainty. Autonomous vehicles are still far from widespread use because they aren’t yet nimble enough to handle all the chaos of the everyday world.

. . .

Many obstacles lie ahead, scientists note. Moving plastic pegs is one thing; cutting, moving and suturing flesh is another. “What happens when the camera angle changes?” said Ann Majewicz Fey, an associate professor at the University of Texas, Austin. “What happens when smoke gets in the way?”

For the foreseeable future, automation will be something that works alongside surgeons rather than replaces them.

For the full story, see:

Cade Metz. “When the Robot Wields the Scalpel.” The New York Times (Tuesday, May 4, 2021): D4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 30, 2020, and has the title “The Robot Surgeon Will See You Now.”)

Bipartisan Central Planners Support $50 Billion Subsidy to Semiconductor Industry

“Industrial policy” is a misleadingly soothing phrase meaning “central planning.” Just because China is making the mistake of pursuing industrial policy, doesn’t imply that U.S. worries about China should lead us to make the same mistake. In fact, their following industrial policy should lead us to worry less.

(p. A4) Lurking just behind the domestic debate breaking out over President Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plans is a powerful foreign force: China.

. . .

. . . elements of the plan are clearly constructed with an eye toward better competing with China, and in ways generally supported in both parties:

—Providing $50 billion for semiconductor manufacturing and research. This proposal would put oomph and dollars behind a bipartisan initiative Congress pushed into a defense bill late last year, called the CHIPS Act, authorizing research and subsidies to increase domestic manufacturing of semiconductors and lessen dependence on China for the computer chips now essential to all manner of products.

The leaders of the congressional push to help the semiconductor industry include Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a conservative who agrees with the Biden administration on very little. The current shortage of chips plaguing the American auto industry underscores the arguments for this piece of the package. This is one of several areas where traditional conservative arguments against federal “industrial policy,” in which the government picks specific industries to boost with support from Washington, have fallen by the wayside in the face of Chinese advances.

For the full commentary, see:

Gerald F. Seib. “CAPITAL JOURNAL; China Looms Over Infrastructure Plan.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, April 6, 2021): A4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 5, 2021, and has the title “CAPITAL JOURNAL; China Looms Large in Biden Infrastructure Plan.”)

Journals Publish Positive Results So Scientists “File-Drawer” Negative Results

(p. A15) In “The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills,” Jesse Singal, a contributing writer at New York magazine, chronicles several dubious enthusiasms that permeate our culture. Along the way, he tries to show why they are so widespread. His focus is on “the allure of fad psychology,” as he puts it, and on the ways in which “both individuals and institutions can do a better job of resisting it.”

. . .

Academic journals, too, are keen to publish supposedly newsworthy findings. Under such conditions, it’s easy to see why a psychologist would be reluctant to re-examine her too-good-to-be-true results when doubts—her own and those of colleagues—begin to nag.

Each chapter of “The Quick Fix” presents accessible explanations of the research that was eventually shown to be “half-baked,” as Mr. Singal puts it. The problems, he shows, often derive from dodgy statistical analysis or faulty experimental design. Researchers, for instance, might use various statistical tests until one shows a sought-for result, or they might submit only positive results to a journal for publication, holding the negative ones back, a practice known as “file-drawering.” Mr. Singal also traces the social and political currents that helped propel certain trends.

Mr. Singal’s analysis is thus a quick fix for readers who want to be more enlightened and thoughtful consumers of psychological science.

For the full review, see:

Sally Satel. “BOOKSHELF; A Bias Toward Easy Answers.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 12, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 11, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Quick Fix’ Review: A Bias Toward Easy Answers.”)

The book under review is:

Singal, Jesse. The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

Cahokian Indians “Re-Engineered” Their Environment to Make It “More Stable”

(p. D3) A thousand years ago, a city rose on the banks of the Mississippi River, near what eventually became the city of St. Louis. Sprawling over miles of rich farms, public plazas and earthen mounds, the city — known today as Cahokia — was a thriving hub of immigrants, lavish feasting and religious ceremony. At its peak in the 1100s, Cahokia housed 20,000 people, greater than contemporaneous Paris.

By 1350, Cahokia had largely been abandoned, and why people left the city is one of the greatest mysteries of North American archaeology.

Now, some scientists are arguing that one popular explanation — Cahokia had committed ecocide by destroying its environment, and thus destroyed itself — can be rejected out of hand. Recent excavations at Cahokia led by Caitlin Rankin, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, show that there is no evidence at the site of human-caused erosion or flooding in the city.

Her team’s research, published in the May/June issue of Geoarchaeology suggests that stories of great civilizations seemingly laid low by ecological hubris may say more about our current anxieties and assumptions than the archaeological record.

. . .

“We do see some negative consequences of land clearance early on,” Dr. Rankin said, “but people deal with it somehow and keep investing their time and energy into the space.”

Rather than absolutely ruining the landscape, she added, Cahokians seem to have re-engineered it into something more stable.

That finding is in keeping with our knowledge of Cahokian agriculture, says Jane Mt. Pleasant, professor emeritus of agricultural science at Cornell University, who was not involved in the study. While Cahokians cleared some land in the uplands, Dr. Mt. Pleasant said, the amount of land used remained stable. While heavy plow techniques quickly exhausted soil and led to the clearing of forests for new farmland, hand tool-wielding Cahokians managed their rich landscape carefully.

Dr. Mt. Pleasant, who is of Tuscarora ancestry, said that for most academics, there is an assumption “that Indigenous peoples did everything wrong.” But she said, “There’s just no indication that Cahokian farmers caused any sort of environmental trauma.”

For the full story, see:

Asher Elbein. “Ruling Out Ecocide for a Thriving City’s Downfall.” The New York Times (Tuesday, May 4, 2021): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 3, 2020, and has the title “What Doomed a Sprawling City Near St. Louis 1,000 Years Ago?”)

Always-Curious Microbiologist Found Useful Robust New Bacterium in Yellowstone Hot Spring

An enzyme in the bacterium that Brock discovered was used by Kary Mullis to create the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that is part of Covid-19 tests.

(p. B11) Thomas Brock, a microbiologist, was driving west to a laboratory in Washington State in 1964 when he stopped off at Yellowstone National Park.

. . .

What fascinated him, on what would be the first of many trips to Yellowstone, were the blue-green algae living in a hot spring — proof that some life could tolerate temperatures above the boiling point of water.

It was the beginning of research that led to a revolutionary find in 1966: a species of bacteria that he called Thermus aquaticus, which thrived at 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit) or more.

. . .

The yellow bacteria — discovered by Dr. Brock and Hudson Freeze, his undergraduate assistant at Indiana University — survive because all their enzymes are stable at very high temperatures, including one, Taq polymerase, that replicates its own DNA. It proved essential to the invention of the process behind the gold standard in coronavirus testing.

. . .

When he arrived at Yellowstone, he did not have grandiose ambitions.

“I was just looking for a nice, simple ecosystem where I could study microbial ecology,” he said in an interview for the website of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he was a professor of natural sciences in the department of bacteriology from 1971 to 1990. “At higher temperatures, you don’t have the complications of having animals that eat all the microbes.”

Stephen Zinder worked with Dr. Brock as a student from 1974 to 1977, a period that included Dr. Brock’s last summer of work at Yellowstone and his research into the ecology of Wisconsin’s lakes, including Lake Mendota in Madison.

“He had an encyclopedic knowledge of microbiology and science in general,” said Dr. Zinder, now a professor of microbiology at Cornell University. “He was always learning and picking up new things.” He added, “I think his real ability was to see things simply and to figure out simple techniques to find out what the organisms were doing in their environment.”

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Sandomir. “Thomas Brock, 94, Scientist Who Shared a Nobel Prize’.” The New York Times (Saturday, May 1, 2021): B11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated April 26, 2020, and has the title “Thomas Brock, Whose Discovery Paved the Way for PCR Tests, Dies at 94.”)

SpaceX Is the Wikipedia of Space: Launch Quickly and Upgrade Quickly

SpaceX has a Wikipedia approach to space. Launch quickly; correct and upgrade quickly. This is similar to Google’s approach to hard drives: buy cheap, unreliable ones, have a lot of backups, and be ready to replace a lot of hard drives. Also the ethernet’s approach to packets: be ready to lose them and re-send. I argue these examples illustrate redundancy, and that we can and should have a robustly redundant labor market.

(p. B1) The Starlink project, owned by Mr. Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. or SpaceX, is authorized to send some 12,000 satellites into orbit to beam superfast internet to every corner of the Earth. It has sought permission for another 30,000.

Now, rival companies such as Viasat Inc., OneWeb Global Ltd., Hughes Network Systems and Boeing Co. are challenging Starlink’s space race in front of regulators in the U.S. and Europe. Some complain that Mr. Musk’s satellites are blocking their own devices’ signals and have physically endangered their fleets.

. . .

The critics’ main argument is that Mr. Musk’s launch-first, upgrade-later principle, which made his Tesla Inc. TSLA +1.27% electric car company a pioneer, gives priority to speed over quality, filling Earth’s already crowded orbit with satellites that may need fixing after they launch.

“SpaceX has a gung-ho approach to space,” said Chris McLaughlin, government affairs chief for rival OneWeb. “Every one of our satellites is like a Ford Focus—it does the same thing, it gets tested, it works—while Starlink satellites are like Teslas: They launch them and then they have to upgrade and fix them, or even replace them alto-(p. B2)gether,” Mr. McLaughlin said.

For the full story, see:

Bojan Pancevski. “Rivals of SpaceX’s Satellites Cite Risk.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, April 20, 2021): B1 & B2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 19, 2021, and has the title “Elon Musk’s Satellite Internet Project Is Too Risky, Rivals Say.”)

“As a Species, We’re Very Good At Adapting”

(p. A11) Barack Obama is one of many who have declared an “epistemological crisis,” in which our society is losing its handle on something called truth.

Thus an interesting experiment will be his and other Democrats’ response to a book by Steven Koonin, who was chief scientist of the Obama Energy Department. Mr. Koonin argues not against current climate science but that what the media and politicians and activists say about climate science has drifted so far out of touch with the actual science as to be absurdly, demonstrably false.

. . .

Mr. Koonin still has a lot of Brooklyn in him: a robust laugh, a gift for expression and for cutting to the heart of any matter. His thoughts seem to be governed by an all-embracing realism. Hence the book coming out next month, “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters.”

Any reader would benefit from its deft, lucid tour of climate science, the best I’ve seen. His rigorous parsing of the evidence will have you questioning the political class’s compulsion to manufacture certainty where certainty doesn’t exist. You will come to doubt the usefulness of centurylong forecasts claiming to know how 1% shifts in variables will affect a global climate that we don’t understand with anything resembling 1% precision.

. . .

Mr. Koonin is a practitioner and fan of computer modeling. “There are situations where models do a wonderful job. Nuclear weapons, when we model them because we don’t test them anymore. And when Boeing builds an airplane, they will model the heck out of it before they bend any metal.”

“But these are much more controlled, engineered situations,” he adds, “whereas the climate is a natural phenomenon. It’s going to do whatever it’s going to do. And it’s hard to observe. You need long, precise observations to understand its natural variability and how it responds to external influences.”

Yet these models supply most of our insight into how the weather might change when emissions raise the atmosphere’s CO2 component from 0.028% in preindustrial times to 0.056% later in this century. “I’ve been building models and watching others build models for 45 years,” he says. Climate models “are not to the standard you would trust your life to or even your trillions of dollars to.”

. . .

Let technology and markets work at their own pace. The climate might continue to change, at a pace that’s hard to perceive, but societies will adapt. “As a species, we’re very good at adapting.”

. . .

. . . , the mainstream climate community will try to ignore his book, even as his publicists work the TV bookers in hopes of making a splash. Then Mr. Koonin knows will come the avalanche of name-calling that befalls anybody trying to inject some practical nuance into political discussions of climate.

He adds with a laugh: “My married daughter is happy that she’s got a different last name.”

For the full interview, see:

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., interviewer. “How a Physicist Became a Climate Truth Teller.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 17, 2021): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date April 16, 2021, and has the title “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher’ Review: A Heart in the Right Place.”)

Koonin’s climate book, discussed in the interview quoted above, is:

Koonin, Steven E. Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2021.

SEC Vaguely Threatens SPAC Investment Innovation

Part of the appeal of SPACs in comparison to IPOs, is that SPACs are less regulated and can act more entrepreneurially. Those who invest in SPACs tend to be very wealthy. Shouldn’t they be allowed to use their own judgement about whether the benefits of SPACs are worth the costs?

Recall that the SEC also tried to slow down the initial development of venture capital by Georges Doriot.

(p. B1) WASHINGTON—A top securities regulator warned about the surge in fundraising by blank-check companies known as special-purpose acquisition companies.

Speaking at a legal conference Wednesday [April 7, 2021], Securities and Exchange Commission official John Coates said there are “some significant and yet undiscovered issues” with SPACs, which allow private companies to go public with a structure that offers outsize potential rewards to backers while bypassing some safeguards of a traditional initial public offering.

For the full story, see:

Dave Michaels. “SEC Warns On Spread of SPAC Financing.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, April 8, 2021): B1 & B11.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 7, 2021, and has the title “SEC Official Warns on Growth of Blank-Check Firms.”)

Salt Lake City’s ‘Robustly Redundant Labor Market’

(p. B1) As the pandemic raged through the U.S. in 2020, no metropolitan area in the country expanded the size of its labor force more on a percentage basis than Utah’s capital. It also had the lowest average unemployment rate and the highest share of people working or looking for jobs. These signs of strength helped it rank first among 53 large metro areas in an annual examination of U.S. labor markets conducted by The Wall Street Journal, after ranking No. 4 in 2019.

Other cities that emerged as beacons to job seekers and businesses during the pandemic were, like Salt Lake City, located far from the coasts. Hubs in the Southwest and Midwest such as Austin, Denver, Indianapolis and Kansas City minimized employment losses, kept unemployment relatively low and retained and attracted workers in a year when the U.S. lost more than 9 million jobs.

Some benefited from technology jobs that became even more critical during a time of isolation for many Americans, while others relied on older corners of the economy that were also in high demand. Workers gravitated to these places due to the job opportunities, lower costs and a quieter lifestyle that appealed to some migrants from bigger population centers who were now allowed to work remotely.

The losers were tourist hot spots such as Las Vegas or densely-populated cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago that lost workers as the coronavirus spread. Even once-hot tech hubs of San Francisco, Raleigh, N.C., and Boston suffered de-(p. B8)clines. Some of these laggards were more aggressive with their business lockdowns, allowing rival metros with fewer restrictions and lower costs to capitalize on the chaos.

. . .

Salt Lake City wasn’t immune from the spread of Covid-19, but it was able to avoid multiple shutdowns that crippled other cities. It did so partly because of a shared local effort to keep businesses open. The local chamber of commerce and state health department partnered on a campaign where participating local companies committed to having their employees maintain distance from others, wear masks and stay home when they are sick.

. . .

“It appears to be exceptionally friendly to business here,” Mr. Mulligan said. His company, Pubtelly LLC, sells software to sports bars and similar establishments to manage content playing on their TVs. The Salt Lake area has a healthy (p. B9) mix of growing startups and well-established companies, he said, plus a strong local university network that serves as a pipeline for younger talent.

If his current venture doesn’t pan out, Mr. Mulligan said he would be happy to stay in the Salt Lake area, either working for a local company or launching another business. “I don’t see a challenge with either going to work for someone else, or forming a company with others,” he said.

For the full story, see:

Danny Dougherty, Hannah Lang, and Kim Mackrael. “The New American Boomtowns.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 10, 2021): B1 & B8-B9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 9, 2021, and has the title “Where Can You Find a New Job? Try These U.S. Cities.”)

“My Fellow Liberals Have Largely Abandoned Free Speech”

(p. A15) ‘Professor, why are you so conservative about free speech?” Several students have asked me versions of this question recently, which speaks volumes about universities right now. I’m a liberal and a Democrat: I’m pro-choice, pro-ObamaCare and vehemently anti-Trump. But I’m also a strong supporter of free speech, which marks me as a right-winger on campus.

That’s because my fellow liberals have largely abandoned free speech to conservatives. Turn on Fox News, and you’ll see “cancel culture” decried in bright lights. But in the liberal press—and most of all in the liberal academy—free speech has become a rhetorical third rail. Sure, we’ll invoke it when Republican state lawmakers try to ban critical race theory. But in our own house, free speech is seen increasingly as a tool of repression rather than liberation.

. . .

I get it. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the free-speech winds are blowing these days. It’s prudent to keep your big mouth shut. But that’s anathema to a liberal university, which requires debating differences fully and openly.

. . .

When speech can be suppressed, the people with the least power are likely to lose the most. That’s why every great tribune of social justice in American history—including Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. —was also a zealous advocate for free speech. Without it, they couldn’t critique the indignities and oppression that they suffered.

For the full commentary, see:

Jonathan Zimmerman. “When Will Liberals Reclaim Free Speech?.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, April 8, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 7, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

Mundell Thought Low Taxes Nourish Entrepreneurs

(p. B11) Robert A. Mundell, a Nobel Prize-winning economist whose theorizing opened the door to understanding the workings of global finance and the modern-day international economy, while his more iconoclastic views on economic policy fostered the creation of the euro and the adoption of the tax-cutting approach known as supply-side economics, died on Sunday [April 4, 2021] at his home, a Renaissance-era palazzo that he and his wife restored, near Siena, Italy.

. . .

. . . he provided intellectual grounding for lowering the top tax rates on the rich, whose advocates rallied under the banner of supply-side economics and won over many right-leaning politicians and policymakers in the United States, Britain and elsewhere while drawing the scorn of more progressive economists, who disputed the notion that cutting taxes for the wealthy was the best way to spur economic growth.

“Supply-side economics made the argument that steeply progressive tax rates reduced the size of the pie to be distributed,” Professor Mundell said in a 2006 interview with the American Economic Association. “The poor might be better off with a smaller share of a larger pie than with a larger share of a small pie.”

To encourage a growing economy, he argued for keeping the maximum tax rate under 25 percent. “The stimulus and rewards of the entrepreneurial group must be fed and nourished,” he said in a 1986 interview.

His ideas were promoted with evangelical fervor in the 1970s particularly by Arthur Laffer, an economist who became known for the “Laffer curve,” postulating that lower tax rates would generate higher government revenues, and Jude Wanniski, an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal, whose opinion pages took up Professor Mundell’s cause after a series of lunches and dinners at a Lower Manhattan restaurant, Michaels 1, which were later described by Robert Bartley, The Journal’s opinion editor, in his book “The Seven Fat Years” (1992).

For the full obituary, see:

Tom Redburn. “Robert Mundell, a Father of the Euro and Reaganomics, Dies at 88.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 6, 2021): B11.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated April 6, 2021, and has the title “Robert A. Mundell, a Father of the Euro and Reaganomics, Dies at 88.”)

The book by Bartley mentioned above is:

Bartley, Robert L. The Seven Fat Years: And How to Do It Again. New York: Free Press, 1992.