Outsiders Persevere to Pursue Breakthroughs

(p. 315) Despite all the examples given, mainstream medical research stubbornly continues to assume that new drugs and other advances will follow exclusively from a predetermined research path. Many, in fact, will. Others, if history is any indication, will not. They will come not from a committee or a research team but from an individual, a maverick who views a problem with fresh eyes. Serendipity will strike and be seized upon by a well-trained scientist or clinician who also dares to rely upon intuition, imagination, and creativity. Unbound by traditional theory, willing to suspend the usual set of beliefs, unconstrained by the requirement to obtain approval or funding for his or her pursuits, this outsider will persevere and lead the way to a dazzling breakthrough. Eventually, once the breakthrough becomes part of accepted medical wisdom, the insiders will pretend that the outsider was one of them all along.

Source:
Meyers, Morton A. Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007.

Leading Computability Expert Says Humans Can Do What Computers Cannot

(p. B4) What does Turing’s research tell us?
“There is some scientific basis for the view that humans are doing something that a machine isn’t doing–and that we don’t even want our machine to do,” says S. Barry Cooper, a mathematician at Leeds and the foremost scholar of Turing’s work.
The math behind this is deep, but here’s the short version: Humans seem to be able to decide the validity of statements that should stump us, were we strictly computers as Turing described them. And since all modern computers are of the sort Turing described, well, it seems that we’ve won the race against the machines before it’s even begun.
. . .
The future of technology isn’t about replacing humans with machines, says Prof. Cooper–it’s about figuring out the most productive way for the two to collaborate. In a real and inescapable way, our machines need us just as much as we need them.

For the full commentary, see:
Mims, Christopher. “KEYWORDS; Why Humans Needn’t Fear the Machines All Around Us; Turing’s Heirs Realize a Basic Truth: The Machines We Create Are Not, Indeed Cannot Be, Replacements for Humans.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., DEC. 1, 2014): B4.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 30, 2014, and has the title “KEYWORDS; Why We Needn’t Fear the Machines; A Basic Truth: Computers Can’t Be Replacements for Humans.”)

One of the major books by the Turing and computability expert quoted in the passages above, is:
Cooper, S. Barry. Computability Theory, Chapman Hall/CRC Mathematics Series. Boca Raton, Florida: Chapman and Hall/CRC Mathematics, 2003.

Oldest Outlines of Human Hands Found in Indonesia

(p. A17) A team of researchers reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday [October 8, 2014] that paintings of hands and animals in seven limestone caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi may be as old as the earliest European cave art.
. . .
The researchers said the earliest images, with a minimum age of 39,900 years, are the oldest known stenciled outlines of human hands in the world. Blowing or spraying pigment around a hand pressed against rock surfaces would become a common practice among cave artists down through the ages — . . .

For the full story, see:
JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. “Paintings in Indonesia May Predate Oldest Known Cave Art.” The New York Times (Thurs., OCT. 9, 2014): A17.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date OCT. 8, 2014, and has the title “Cave Paintings in Indonesia May Be Among the Oldest Known.”)

Greenpeace Desecrates Fragile, Ancient Hummingbird Etching in Peru

(p. A7) CARACAS, Venezuela — An expression of concern by the environmental group Greenpeace about the carbon footprint was marred this week by real footprints — in a fragile, and restricted, landscape near the Nazca lines, ancient man-made designs etched in the Peruvian desert.
The Peruvian authorities said activists from the group damaged a patch of desert when they placed a large sign that promoted renewable energy near a set of lines that form the shape of a giant hummingbird.
. . .
. . . the Peruvian authorities were seething over the episode, which they said had scarred one of the country’s most treasured national symbols.
. . .
“The hummingbird was in a pristine area, untouched,” Mr. Castillo said. “Perhaps it was the best figure.”
Mr. Castillo said that the culture ministry had sent out a team with drone aircraft equipped with cameras so that they could evaluate the damage without entering the delicate area.
He said that the harm was both physical and symbolic.
“This stupidity has co-opted part of the identity of our heritage that will now be forever associated with the scandal of Greenpeace,” he said.

For the full story, see:
WILLIAM NEUMAN. “Peru Is Indignant After Greenpeace Makes Its Mark on Ancient Site.” The New York Times (Sat., DEC. 13, 2014): A7.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 12, 2014.)

Successful Discoverers “Follow the Evidence Wherever It Leads”

(p. 314) Why are particular people able to seize on such opportunities and say, “I’ve stumbled upon a solution. What’s the problem?” Typically, such people are not constrained by an overly focused or dogmatic mindset. In contrast, those with a firmly held set of preconceptions are less likely to be distracted by an unexpected or contradictory observation, and yet it is exactly such things that lead to the blessing of serendipitous discovery.
Serendipitous discoverers have certain traits in common. They have a passionate intensity. They insist on trying to see beyond their own and others’ expectations and resist any pressure that would close off investigation. Successful medical discoverers let nothing stand in their way. They break through, sidestep, or ignore any obstacle or objection to their chosen course, which is simply to follow the evidence wherever it leads. They have no patience with dogma of any kind.
The only things successful discoverers do not dismiss out of hand are contradictory–and perhaps serendipitously valuable–facts. They painstakingly examine every aspect of uncomfortable facts until they understand how they fit with other facts. Far from being cavalier about method, serendipitous discoverers subject their evidence and suppositions to the most rigorous methods they can find. They do not run from uncertainty, but see it as the raw material from which new scientific and medical certainties can be wrought.

Source:
Meyers, Morton A. Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007.

Resilience of Ordinary People Matters Most in Early Stages of Crisis

(p. A11) Throughout “The Resilience Dividend,” Ms. Rodin pays particular attention to the influence that ordinary people can have in a crisis, especially in the early stages, when it may not be clear what has happened and the professionals haven’t had time to put a plan into place. In the minutes after Boston Marathon bombing last year, citizens rushed forward to help the injured. In New York City on 9/11, hundreds of privately owned boats carried thousands of stranded commuters off the island of Manhattan and across the Hudson River to New Jersey.

For the full review, see:
MELANIE KIRKPATRICK. “BOOKSHELF; Never Waste a Crisis; How was the city of MedellĂ­n transformed from the murder capital of South America into a thriving urban center? Escalators.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Nov. 21, 2014): A11.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Nov. 20, 2014.)

The book being reviewed is:
Rodin, Judith. The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong. New York: PublicAffairs, 2014.

Bezos Devices Aim to Create a Virtuous Cycle ‘Flywheel’

(p. B1) Amazon now makes four different kinds of devices. There are dedicated e-readers, multipurpose tablets and, starting this year, a TV streaming device and a smartphone, the Fire Phone. Just this week, Amazon introduced another streaming machine, the Fire TV Stick, a $39 gadget that is the size of a USB stick and promises to turn your television into an Amazon-powered video service.
. . .
(p. B9) What is Amazon’s endgame with all these devices? Mr. Bezos has always said that his mission, with hardware, is to delight users with devices that are priced fairly. The devices also contribute to Mr. Bezos’s famous “flywheel,” the virtuous cycle by which greater customer satisfaction leads to more sellers in his store, which leads to more products, greater efficiencies, lower prices and, in turn, more customers.
“Everything is about getting that flywheel spinning, and it isn’t necessarily about building a big and successful tablet business of their own,” said Benedict Evans, an analyst who works at the investment firm Andreessen Horowitz and has studied Amazon closely. “Whether they actually drive meaningful commerce isn’t entirely clear, but Amazon is rigorously focused on data, so if they’re doing it, you can trust that there must be data that justifies it.”
And if this year’s devices don’t take off, you can bet that Mr. Bezos will try a slightly different tack next year.

For the full commentary, see:
Farhad Manjoo. “STATE OF THE ART; Amazon’s Grand Design for Devices.” The New York Times (Thurs., OCT. 30, 2014): B1 & B9.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date OCT. 29, 2014, and has the title “STATE OF THE ART; Amazon’s Grand Design in Devices.”)

Bezos’s enthusiasm for Jim Collins’s “flywheel” idea is discussed in:
Stone, Brad. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

While Looking for Spotted Fever, He Found the Cause of Lyme Disease

(p. A25) Willy Burgdorfer, a medical entomologist who in 1982 identified the cause of what had been a mysterious affliction, Lyme disease, died on Monday [November 17, 2014] at a hospital in Hamilton, Mont. He was 89.
. . .
In the early 1980s, Dr. Burgdorfer was analyzing deer ticks from Long Island that were suspected to have caused spotted fever when he stumbled on something unexpected under his microscope: spirochetes, disease-causing bacteria shaped like corkscrews. They were located in only one section of the ticks, the so-called midguts. He had studied spirochetes in graduate school.
“Once my eyes focused on these long, snakelike organisms, I recognized what I had seen a million times before: spirochetes,” he said in a 2001 oral history for the National Institutes of Health, which include the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
He had not been working on Lyme disease, but he had spoken with the doctor who helped discover it, Dr. Allen Steere of Yale. After he saw the spirochetes in the Long Island ticks, he quickly realized that the bacteria might also be in the deer ticks believed to be playing a role in Lyme disease in Connecticut and elsewhere, including Long Island.

For the full obituary, see:
WILLIAM YARDLEY. “Willy Burgdorfer, Who Found Bacteria That Cause Lyme Disease, Is Dead at 89.” The New York Times (Thurs., NOV. 20, 2014): A25.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date NOV. 19, 2014.)

“Peer Review Institutionalizes Dogmatism by Promoting Orthodoxy”

(p. 305) Peer review institutionalizes dogmatism by promoting orthodoxy. Reviewers prefer applications that mesh with their own perspective on how an issue should be conceptualized, and they favor individuals whom they know or whose reputations have already been established, making it harder for new people to break into the system.6 Indeed, the basic process of peer review demands conformity of thinking and disdains a maverick’s approach. “We can hardly expect a committee,” said the biologist and historian of science, Garrett Hardin, “to acquiesce in the dethronement of tradition. Only an individual can do that.”7 Young investigators get the message loud and clear: Do not challenge existing beliefs and practices.
So enmeshed in the conventional wisdoms of the day, so-called “peers” have again and again failed to appreciate major breakthroughs even when they were staring them in the face. This reality is evidenced by the fact that so many pioneering researchers were inappropriately scheduled to present their findings at undesirable times when few people were in the audience to hear about them.

Source:
Meyers, Morton A. Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007.

Solution to Problems of Retirement: Don’t Retire

(p. A13) Unsurprisingly, one response to the retirement challenge is: Don’t do it. Not, at least, until you really must. As Mr. Farrell argues (with plenty of supporting evidence), there is no magic element of personal doom attached to one’s 65th birthday or whatever age is believed to separate honest labor from a twilight of idleness. If you like what you do well enough, can perform your tasks competently and could use the income, why not keep working? The satisfactions of work are too often unrecognized in the popular imagination. Without it, a lot people wouldn’t know what to do.
And the longer you work, of course, the more money you will have when you eventually do retire, a strategy that works to the good of society too, since your paychecks will be contributing to FICA and will help keep the system running.

For the full review, see:
GEOFFREY NORMAN. “BOOKSHELF; Second Acts After 65; People who could be playing golf and doting on their grandchildren are starting businesses. One senior launched a coffee house in Detroit.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., Sept. 24, 2014): A13.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 23, 2014, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Book Review: ‘Unretirement’ by Chris Farrell; People who could be playing golf and doting on their grandchildren are starting businesses. One senior launched a coffee house in Detroit.”)

The book under review is:
Farrell, Chris. Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014.

Inequality Much Less If You Count Government Transfers as Part of Income

Despite the gratuitous jab contained in the “fanciful assumptions” phrase, what is notable about the passages quoted below is that Porter is mainly, though grudgingly, granting Burkhauser’s main point: including government transfers reduces allegedly high inequality.

(p. B1) Washington already redistributes income from the rich to the poor. Richard Burkhauser and Philip Armour from Cornell and Jeff Larrimore from the Joint Committee on Taxation have become heroes to the right by trying to establish that government redistribution has, in fact, erased the trend of increasing inequality.

While these claims rest on fanciful assumptions about what counts as income, their analysis of taxes and government programs does support the argument that the government does more than it has in a long time to protect lower-income Americans from the blows of the market economy.
. . .
(p. B5) “Substantial changes in tax and transfer policies during the Bush and Obama administrations have increased dramatically the resources available at the middle of the distribution and at the bottom more so,” Professor Burkhauser told me.
. . .
Research by Leslie McCall of Northwestern University finds that . . . American voters remain lukewarm about government interventions to reduce income inequality, . . .

For the full commentary, see:
Eduardo Porter. “Seeking New Tools to Address a Wage Gap.” The New York Times (Weds., NOV. 5, 2014): B1 & B5.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date NOV. 4, 2014.)

The Burkhauser co-authored paper summarized above, is:
Armour, Philip, Richard V. Burkhauser, and Jeff Larrimore. “Levels and Trends in U.S. Income and Its Distribution: A Crosswalk from Market Income Towards a Comprehensive Haig-Simons Income Approach.” Southern Economic Journal 81, no. 2 (Oct. 2014): 271-93.

I believe that the research being to referred to by McCall is in her book:
McCall, Leslie. The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs About Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.