“Nothing Will Ever Be Attempted if All Possible Objections Must Be First Overcome”

(p. 23) Mr. J. R. Simplot had entered the food processing business, without any clear notion of how to produce dried onion powder or flakes. Once again he followed his lifelong precept of entrepreneurship: “When the time is right, you got to do it.” His rationale is written more elegantly in metal on a small plaque that has stood on Simplot’s desk–and has greeted him each time he pulls up his chair–for some twenty-five years: Nothing will ever (p. 24) be attempted if all possible objections must be first overcome. The objections to signing a contract for delivery of 500,000 pounds of dried, powdered, or flaked onions–without drier, pulverizer, or flaker, or any clue of how to build them–seemed altogether prohibitive. But J. R. Simplot struck when the time was right.

Gilder, George. Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise: Updated for the 1990s. updated ed. New York: ICS Press, 1992.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Increase in Prizes to Advance Innovation

SciencePrizes2009-06-20.jpgSource of graphic on past prizes: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A9) Are we impatient with NASA? Google offers $30 million in prizes for a better lunar lander. Do we like solving practical puzzles? InnoCentive Inc. has posted hundreds of lucrative research contests, offering cash prizes up to $1 million for problems in industrial chemistry, remote sensing, plant genetics and dozens of other technical disciplines. Perhaps we crave guilt-free fried chicken. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offers a $1 million prize for the first to create test-tube poultry tissue that can be safely served for dinner.

Call it crowd-sourcing; call it open innovation; call it behavioral economics and applied psychology; it’s a prescription for progress that is transforming philanthropy. In fields from manned spaceflight to the genetics of aging, prizes may soon rival traditional research grants as a spur to innovation. “We see a renaissance in the use of prizes to solve problems,” says Tony Goland, a partner at McKinsey & Co. which recently analyzed trends in prize philanthropy.
. . .
Since 2000, private foundations and corporations have launched more than 60 major prizes, totaling $250 million in new award money, most of it focused on science, medicine, environment and technology, the McKinsey study found.
. . .
In growing numbers, corporate sponsors are embracing the prize challenge as a safe, inexpensive way to farm out product research, at a time when tight credit and business cutbacks have slowed innovation. Venture-capital investments have dropped by almost half since last year, reaching the lowest level since 1997, the National Venture Capital Association recently reported. “Here is a mechanism for off-balance-sheet risk-taking,” says Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation. “A corporation can put up a prize that is bold and audacious with very little downside. You only pay the winner. It is a fixed-price innovation.”

For the full article, see:
ROBERT LEE HOTZ. “SCIENCE JOURNAL; The Science Prize: Innovation or Stealth Advertising? Rewards for Advancing Knowledge Have Blossomed Recently, but Some Say They Don’t Help Solve Big Problems.” Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 8, 2009): A9.
(Note: ellipses added.)

The McKinsey study mentioned in the quotes above, was funded by the Templeton Foundation, and can be downloaded from:

McKinsey&Company. “”And the Winner Is …” Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prizes.” McKinsey & Company, 2009.

(Note: ellipsis in study title is in the original.)

The Conflict Between Science and Faith

Professor Krauss is a physicist at Arizona State University.

(p. A15) My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

— J.B.S. Haldane

J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, understood that science is by necessity an atheistic discipline. As Haldane so aptly described it, one cannot proceed with the process of scientific discovery if one assumes a “god, angel, or devil” will interfere with one’s experiments. God is, of necessity, irrelevant in science.
Faced with the remarkable success of science to explain the workings of the physical world, many, indeed probably most, scientists understandably react as Haldane did. Namely, they extrapolate the atheism of science to a more general atheism.
While such a leap may not be unimpeachable it is certainly rational, as Mr. McGinn pointed out at the World Science Festival. Though the scientific process may be compatible with the vague idea of some relaxed deity who merely established the universe and let it proceed from there, it is in fact rationally incompatible with the detailed tenets of most of the world’s organized religions. As Sam Harris recently wrote in a letter responding to the Nature editorial that called him an “atheist absolutist,” a “reconciliation between science and Christianity would mean squaring physics, chemistry, biology, and a basic understanding of probabilistic reasoning with a raft of patently ridiculous, Iron Age convictions.”

For the full commentary, see:

LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS. “OPINION: God and Science Don’t Mix; A scientist can be a believer. But professionally, at least, he can’t act like one.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., JUNE 26, 2009): A15.

(Note: italics in original.)

Foreign Aid to Africa “Underwrites Brutal and Corrupt Regimes”


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) It is one of the great conundrums of the modern age: More than 300 million people living across the continent of Africa are still mired in poverty after decades of effort — by the World Bank, foreign governments and charitable organizations — to lift them out if it. While a few African countries have achieved notable rates of economic growth in recent years, per-capita income in Africa as a whole has inched up only slightly since 1960. In that year, the region’s gross domestic product was about equal to that of East Asia. By 2005, East Asia’s GDP was five times higher. The total aid package to Africa, over the past 50 years, exceeds $1 trillion. There is far too little to show for it.

Dambisa Moyo, a native of Zambia and a former World Bank consultant, believes that it is time to end the charade — to stop proceeding as if foreign aid does the good that it is supposed to do. The problem, she says in “Dead Aid,” is not that foreign money is poorly spent (though much of it is) or that development programs are badly managed (though many of them are). No, the problem is more fundamental: Aid, she writes, is “no longer part of the potential solution, it’s part of the problem — in fact, aid is the problem.”
In a tightly argued brief, Ms. Moyo spells out how attempts to help Africa actually hurt it. The aid money pouring into Africa, she says, underwrites brutal and corrupt regimes; it stifles investment; and it leads to higher rates of poverty — all of which, in turn, creates a demand for yet more aid. Africa, Ms. Moyo notes, seems hopelessly trapped in this spiral, and she wants to see it break free. Over the past 30 years, she says, the most aid-dependent countries in Africa have experienced economic contraction averaging 0.2% a year.

For the full review, see:

MATTHEW REES. “Bookshelf; When Help Does Harm.” Wall Street Journal (Tues., Mach 17, 2009): A13.

The reference to the book under review, is:
Moyo, Dambisa. Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Durant and Studebaker Made Transition from Carriage to Car

Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation predicts that incumbents will seldom survive a major disruption. So it is interesting that Durant and Studebaker, appear to have been exceptions, since they made the transition from producing carriages to producing cars. (Willie Durant founded General Motors in 1908.)

(p. 189) In 1900, fifty-seven surviving American automobile firms, out of hundreds of contenders, produced some 4,000 cars, three-quarters of which ran on steam or electricity. Companies famous for other products were entering the fray. Among them were the makers of the Pope bicycle, the Pierce birdcage, the Peerless wringer, the Buick bathtub, the White sewing machine, and the Briscoe garbage can. All vied for the market with stationary-engine makers, machine-tool manufacturers, and spinoffs of leading carriage firms, Durant and Studebaker. Among the less promising entrants seemed a lanky young engineer from Edison Illuminating Company named Henry Ford, whose Detroit Automobile Company produced twenty-five cars and failed in 1900.

. . .
(p. 191) Willie Durant, who knew all about production and selling from his carriage business, decided it was time to move into cars after several months of driving a prototype containing David Buick’s valve-in-head engine–the most powerful in the world for its size–through rural Michigan in 1904. Within four years, Durant was to parlay his sturdy Buick vehicle into domination of the automobile industry, with a 25 percent share of the market in 1908, the year he founded General Motors.

Gilder, George. Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise: Updated for the 1990s. updated ed. New York: ICS Press, 1992.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Christensen’s theory is most fully expressed in:
Christensen, Clayton M., and Michael E. Raynor. The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.

Individual Independent “Biohackers” Hope to Advance Science


“Katherine’s Aull’s closet laboratory in her apartment.” Source of photo and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

The individual independent scientist used to play an important role in the advance of science, but over time mainly disappeared as the academic scientist, supported by large institutions, became dominant. The dominance of funding from incumbent institutions may constrain major innovations, and so I have speculated that it might be beneficial to find ways for it again to be possible for independent individual scholars to play important roles in science.
Astronomy is one area in which this still happens. The article quoted below points to another domain in which individual scholars might be able to make contributions.

(p. A1) In Massachusetts, a young woman makes genetically modified E. coli in a closet she converted into a home lab. A part-time DJ in Berkeley, Calif., works in his attic to cultivate viruses extracted from sewage. In Seattle, a grad-school dropout wants to breed algae in a personal biology lab.

These hobbyists represent a growing strain of geekdom known as biohacking, in which do-it-yourselfers tinker with the building blocks of life in the comfort of their own homes. Some of them buy DNA online, then fiddle with it in hopes of curing diseases or finding new biofuels.
. . .
Ms. Aull, 23 years old, is designing a customized E. coli in the closet of her Cambridge, Mass., apartment, hoping to help with cancer research.
She’s got a DNA “thermocycler” bought on eBay for $59, and an incubator made by combining a styrofoam box with a heating device meant for an iguana cage. A few months ago, she talked about her hobby on DIY Bio, a Web site frequented by biohackers, and her work was noted in New Scientist magazine.
. . .
(p. A14) Phil Holtzman, a college student and part-time DJ at dance parties in Berkeley, Calif., is growing viruses in his attic that he thinks could be useful in medicine someday. Using pipettes and other equipment borrowed from his community college, he extracts viruses called bacteriophage from sewage and grows them in petri dishes. Mr. Holtzman’s goal: Breed them to survive the high temperatures of the human body, where he thinks they might be useful in killing bad bacteria.
He collects partly treated sewage water from a network of underground tunnels in the Berkeley area, jumping a chain-link fence to get to the source. But Mr. Holtzman says his roommates are “really uncomfortable” with him working with sewage water, so he’s trying to find another source of bacteriophage.

For the full story, see:
JEANNE WHALEN. “In Attics and Closets, ‘Biohackers’ Discover Their Inner Frankenstein; Using Mail-Order DNA and Iguana Heaters, Hobbyists Brew New Life Forms; Is It Risky?” Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 12, 2009): A1 & A14.
(Note: ellipses added.)

“Build a Wall Around the Welfare State”

For a long time, I’ve been meaning to post a pithy comment on immigration policy from the Cato Institutes’s Bill Niskanen.
The comment was related to the proposal to erect a wall between the United States and Mexico, in order to reduce illegal immigration. Some libertarians favor open immigration. Others believe that so long as we have a large welfare state, open immigration would impose high costs on the taxpayer, and thereby reduce economic growth. (I believe that I read Milton Friedman supporting this latter position, in the year or two before he died in 2006.)
In this context, Niskanen’s pithy comment has appeal:

“Build a wall around the welfare state, not around the country.”

William A. Niskanen on 11/19/07 at the meetings of the Southern Economic Association in New Orleans.