Scientific Insight Requires Hard Work More than Easy Epiphany

(p. A21) The myth of the finches obscures the qualities that were really responsible for Darwin’s success: the grit to formulate his theory and gather evidence for it; the creativity to seek signs of evolution in existing animals, rather than, as others did, in the fossil record; and the open-mindedness to drop his belief in creationism when the evidence against it piled up.
The mythical stories we tell about our heroes are always more romantic and often more palatable than the truth. But in science, at least, they are destructive, in that they promote false conceptions of the evolution of scientific thought.
Of the tale of Newton and the apple, the historian Richard S. Westfall wrote, “The story vulgarizes universal gravitation by treating it as a bright idea … A bright idea cannot shape a scientific tradition.” Science is just not that simple and it is not that easy.
. . .
Even if we are not scientists, every day we are challenged to make judgments and decisions about technical matters like vaccinations, financial investments, diet supplements and, of course, global warming. If our discourse on such topics is to be intelligent and productive, we need to dip below the surface and grapple with the complex underlying issues. The myths can seduce one into believing there is an easier path, one that doesn’t require such hard work.
But even beyond issues of science, there is a broader lesson to learn, . . . . We all run into difficult problems in life, and we will be happier and more successful if we appreciate that the answers often aren’t quick, or easy.

For the full commentary, see:
LEONARD MLODINOW. “It Is, in Fact, Rocket Science.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., MAY 16, 2015): A21.
(Note: ellipsis internal to third quoted paragraph, in original; other ellipses, added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated on MAY 15, 2015.)

Mlodinow’s book, related to the commentary quoted above, is:
Mlodinow, Leonard. The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos. New York: Pantheon Books, 2015.

Challenging Videogame Improves Attention and Memory in Seniors

(p. R1) Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and his colleagues at the University of California in San Francisco have found that playing a challenging videogame upgrades our ability to pay attention.
As reported in the journal Nature in 2013, the Gazzaley lab trained 60- to 85-year-old subjects on a game called NeuroRacer. The multitask version involves simulated driving along a winding road while quickly pressing keys or a game controller to respond to a green sign when it appears on the roadside. As a control, some subjects played a single-task version of the game that omits the winding road and involves only noticing and responding to the green sign. To ensure that subjects were genuinely challenged but not discouraged, the level of game difficulty was individualized.
After 12 hours of training spread evenly over a month, multitasking subjects were about twice as efficient at shifting attention as when they started, a huge improvement by any standard. Remarkably, their new scores were comparable to those of 20-year-olds not trained on NeuroRacer. The subjects still tested positive six months later.
The multitaskers also got an unexpected brain bonus. Their sustained concentration and working memory (briefly holding information such as a phone number) improved as well. The training had targeted neither of these functions, but the general benefits emerged nonetheless.

For the full commentary, see:
PATRICIA CHURCHLAND. “MIND AND MATTER; A Senior Moment for Videogames as Brain-Boosters.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Oct. 3, 2015): C2.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 30, 2015, and the title “MIND AND MATTER: Videogames for Seniors Boost Brainpower.”)

The Gazzaley article mentioned above, is:
Anguera, J. A., J. Boccanfuso, J. L. Rintoul, O. Al-Hashimi, F. Faraji, J. Janowich, E. Kong, Y. Larraburo, C. Rolle, E. Johnston, and Adam Gazzaley. “Video Game Training Enhances Cognitive Control in Older Adults.” Nature 501, no. 7465 (Sept. 5, 2013): 97-101.

Inflation of the Co-Authorship Bubble

CoauthorInflationGraph2015-10-30.jpg Source of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) . . . , there has been a notable spike since 2009 in the number of technical reports whose author (p. A10) counts exceeded 1,000 people, according to the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, which analyzed citation data. In the ever-expanding universe of credit where credit is apparently due, the practice has become so widespread that some scientists now joke that they measure their collaborators in bulk–by the “kilo-author.”

Earlier this year, a paper on rare particle decay published in Nature listed so many co-authors–about 2,700–that the journal announced it wouldn’t have room for them all in its print editions. And it isn’t just physics. In 2003, it took 272 scientists to write up the findings of the first complete human genome–a milestone in biology–but this past June, it took 1,014 co-authors to document a minor gene sequence called the Muller F element in the fruit fly.
. . .
More than vanity is at stake. Credit on a peer-reviewed research article weighs heavily in hiring, promotion and tenure decisions. “Authorship has become such a big issue because evaluations are performed based on the number of papers people have authored,” said Dr. Larivière.
. . .
Michigan State University mathematician Jack Hetherington published a paper in 1975 on low temperature physics in Physical Review Letters with F.D.C. Willard. His colleagues only discovered that his co-author was a siamese cat several years later when Dr. Hetherington started handing out copies of the paper signed with a paw print.
In the same spirit, Shalosh B. Ekhad at Rutgers University so far has published 32 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals with his co-author Doron Zeilberger. It turns out that Shalosh B. Ekhad is Hebrew for the model number of a personal computer used by Dr. Zeilberger. “The computer helps so much and so often,” Dr. Zeilberger said.
Not everyone takes such pranks lightly.
Immunologist Polly Matzinger at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases named her dog, Galadriel Mirkwood, as a co-author on a paper she submitted to the Journal of Experimental Medicine. “What amazed me was that the paper went through the entire editorial process and nobody noticed,” Dr. Matzinger said. When the journal editor realized he had published work crediting an Afghan hound, he was furious, she recalled.
Physicists may be more open-minded. Sir Andre Geim, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, credited H.A.M.S. ter Tisha as his co-author of a 2001 paper published in the journal Physica B. Those journal editors didn’t bat an eye when his co-author was unmasked as a pet hamster. “Not a harmful joke,” said Physica editor Reyer Jochemsen at the Leiden University in the Netherlands.
“Physicists apparently, even journal editors, have a better sense of humor than the life sciences,” said Dr. Geim at the U.K.’s University of Manchester.

For the full story, see:
ROBERT LEE HOTZ. “Scientists Observe Odd Phenomenon of Multiplying Co-Authors.”The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Aug. 10, 2015): A1 & A10.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the title “How Many Scientists Does It Take to Write a Paper? Apparently, Thousands.”)

Audits Worth Less When the Audited Directly Pay for Them

(p. B1) Environmental regulators in Gujarat, one of India’s fastest-growing industrial states, found themselves in an implausible situation a few years ago: Every single city breached national air quality standards. And yet environmental audits kept finding that factories met pollution limits.
So the Gujaratis hired some researchers from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to carry out an experiment, changing the way the audits were made. Instead of hiring their own auditors, companies had auditors assigned to them randomly. Instead of being paid by the companies they audited, auditors drew a fixed fee from a pool that all companies paid into.
Measured compliance rates abruptly plummeted. But once the new system was in place, the real emissions from polluting factories finally started to decline. The Gujaratis kept the new approach.
“When fact-checking is not done in an independent way, there is a long history of things turning out the way the entity being fact checked wants them to turn out,” said Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago, a former chief economist for President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers who was one of the researchers involved in the study. “Until you change the incentives, this will not change.”
The problem may seem remote, but it turns out that the same incentives apply in the United States, even in programs that, at first glance, appear to provide an unmitigated benefit.
Last month, the Energy Department released an extensive report assessing the impact of the federal weatherization program, which was begun in 1976 to shield the homes of low-income Americans from the elements, save them money on heating bills and improve energy efficiency.
It concluded that weatheriza-(p. B10)tion — insulating homes, changing boilers, plugging leaky windows and the like — was a stellar investment. Not only were the energy savings substantially larger than the cost of weatherizing homes, the report found, but the gains soared even more once the broader impacts on health were taken into account.
“The results demonstrate that weatherization provides cost-effective energy savings and health and safety benefits to American families,” the Energy Department announced.
But do they? When Professor Greenstone and two other independent economists looked under the hood — not a trivial challenge, given the report’s 4,500 pages — they found a collection of idiosyncratic choices and unorthodox assumptions that severely undermined the credibility of the enterprise.
In the end, they concluded, the government research effort, which was led by the Energy Department’s own Oak Ridge National Laboratory, cannot tell us whether weatherization is a fabulous program or a waste of taxpayer dollars.

For the full commentary, see:
Eduardo Porter. “ECONOMIC SCENE; For Government That Works, Call In the Auditors.” The New York Times (Weds., OCT. 7, 2015): B1 & B10.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date OCT. 6, 2015, and the title “ECONOMIC SCENE; For Government That Works, Call In the Auditors.”)

Dogged Dreamers Developed Deadly Dirigibles

(p. C7) “Dirigibility” means the ability to navigate through the air by engine power, unlike balloon flight, which is captive to the wind. Beginning and ending with the Hindenburg vignette, C. Michael Hiam gives in “Dirigible Dreams” a concise but comprehensive history of the airship and its evolution. With style and some flair, Mr. Hiam introduces a cast of dogged visionaries, starting with Albert Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian whose exploits from 1901 onward usually culminated in our hero dangling from a tree or a high building, shredded gas bags draped around him like a shroud. For all of these pioneers, problems queued up from the outset: Insurance companies, for example, refused to quote a rate for aerial liability. (Try asking your broker today.) And to inflate the craft the engineers were stuck with hydrogen, since non-flammable helium was too scarce and hot air has insufficient lifting force.
. . .
In 1929, British engineers pioneered a giant dirigible–at 133 feet in diameter, Mr. Hiam notes, it was “the largest object ever flown”–powered by six Rolls-Royce Condor engines. But too many died as the still-flimsy crafts plunged to the ground in flames. His Majesty’s secretary of state for air perished in a luxurious airship cabin on the way to visit the king’s subjects in India. One by one, nations gave up their dirigible dreams, especially after 35 souls burned to death on the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, N.J., one of the first transport disasters recorded on film. After that tragedy, commercial passengers never flew in an airship again, and by the start of World War II just two years later “the airship had become entirely extinct.”

For the full review, see:
SARA WHEELER. “Inflated Hopes; Early airship experimenters found that insurance companies refused to quote rates for aerial liability.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Oct. 18, 2014): C7.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review was updated on Oct. 23, 2014.)

The book under review, is:
Hiam, C. Michael. Dirigible Dreams: The Age of the Airship. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge, 2014.

Good Deflation in Switzerland

(p. A2) It’s as close to an economic consensus as you can get: Deflation is bad for an economy, and central bankers should avoid it at all costs.
Then there’s Switzerland, whose steady growth and rock-bottom unemployment is chipping away at that wisdom.
At a time of lively global debate about low inflation and its ill effects, tiny Switzerland–with an economy 4% the size of the U.S.–offers a fascinating counterpoint, with some even pointing to what they call “good deflation.”
Consumer prices in Switzerland have fallen on an annual basis for most of the past four years. They hit a milestone last month with an annual price drop of 1.4%, the biggest in more than five decades. Even after food and energy prices are stripped out, core prices fell 0.7%.
“It’s hard not to call that deflation,” said Jennifer McKeown of Capital Economics, referring to the technical term for a sustained slump in consumer prices.
And yet evidence of deflation’s pernicious side effects–recession, weak employment, rising debt burdens–is pretty much nonexistent in Switzerland. Its economy is expected to expand this year and next, albeit slowly, in the 1% to 1.5% range. Unemployment was just 3.4% in September. Government debt is low.
“Usually people associate deflation with depression,” said Charles Wyplosz, a professor at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. “In the Swiss case, the economy is doing OK.”

For the full commentary, see:
BRIAN BLACKSTONE. “THE OUTLOOK; Switzerland Offers Counterpoint on Deflation’s Ills.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Oct. 19, 2015): A2.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Oct. 18, 2015, and the title “THE OUTLOOK; Switzerland Offers Counterpoint on Deflation’s Ills.”)

Madly-Recycling Germans Pay to Burn British Trash

(p. A1) MAGDEBURG, Germany–Each day, trucks roll into this city filled with the latest hot import from the streets of Manchester, England: garbage.
The destination is a power plant that makes a business of turning trash into electricity, or as it touts in a brochure, “spinning straw into gold.” The straw in this case is large, pillowy blobs of rubbish, neatly wrapped in plastic.
. . .
A waste not, want not attitude mixed with a national zeal for recycling has led to an awkward problem for Germany: It isn’t producing enough of its own trash.
Over the past decade, heaps of garbage-burning power plants and composting facilities were built throughout Germany as the country shut off all its landfills to new household trash. But instead of growing, as many thought it would, household-waste production flattened, in part because sparing Germans edged their already-high recycling rate even higher.

For the full story, see:
ELIOT BROWN. “Germans Have a Burning Need for More Garbage; Lack of garbage forces power plants to import waste; ‘straw into gold’.”The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Oct. 20, 2015): A1 & A10.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 19, 2015.)

The Cure for Technology Problems Is Better Technology

(p. D2) The real lesson in VW’s scandal — in which the automaker installed “defeat devices” that showed the cars emitting lower emissions in lab tests than they actually did — is not that our cars are stuffed with too much technology. Instead, the lesson is that there isn’t enough tech in vehicles.
In fact, the faster we upgrade our roads and autos with better capabilities to detect and analyze what’s going on in the transportation system, the better we’ll be able to find hackers, cheaters and others looking to create havoc on (p. B11) the highways.

. . .
“What happened at Volkswagen had to do with embedded software that’s buried deep in the car, and only the supplier knows what’s in it — and it’s a black box for everybody else,” said Stefan Heck, the founder of Nauto, a new start-up that is introducing a windshield-mounted camera that monitors road conditions for commercial fleets and consumers. The camera uses artificial intelligence to track traffic conditions; over time, as more vehicles use it, it could provide users with traffic and safety information plus data about mileage and other automotive functions.
The end goal for intelligent-car systems, said Dr. Heck, is to create an on-road network with data that is constantly being analyzed to get a sharper picture of what’s happening on the road. Sure, companies might still be able to cheat. But with enough independent data sources coming from different places on the road, it would become much more difficult.
He said there really isn’t any going back — software in cars is responsible not just for driver comforts like in-dash navigation, but also for critical safety and performance systems, many of which improve the car’s environmental footprint.

For the full commentary, see:
Farhad Manjoo. “STATE OF THE ART; Our Cars Need More Technology.” The New York Times (Thurs., Oct. 1, 2015): B1 & B11.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date SEPT. 30, 2015, and the title “STATE OF THE ART; VW Scandal Shows a Need for More Tech, Not Less.” )

In 13th Century England, William Marshal Defended Property and Brokered Magna Carta

(p. C7) On Saturday, May 20, 1217, two armies gathered outside Lincoln, a walled cathedral town in the northeast Midlands of England. One was a party of barons loyal to the French prince Louis the Lion, who had come to batter down the walls of the town’s large stone castle. The second party was there to relieve the siege. It was led by an energetic 70-year-old: William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, the most famous knight of his time and one of the most storied men in Christendom. Marshal was the official guardian of the 9-year-old English king Henry III, whom Louis was aiming to replace. Lincoln was one of the most important strategic military bases in England, controlling the major roads between London, York and the southwest. The fate of a kingdom really did rest in William Marshal’s hands.
According to a 19,000-line verse biography, written in old French during the 1220s and commissioned by Marshal’s son, the aged hero prepared his men for a battle with a barnstorming speech. “Those men have seized and taken by force / our lands and our possessions,” he cried. “Shame upon the man who does not strive, this very day, to put up a challenge / . . . if we beat them, it is no lie to say / that we will have won eternal glory / . . . I can tell you that they will come to a sticky end / as they descend into Hell.” Then Marshal was astride his horse and at the front of the charge. He was so excited that he nearly rode off to fight without his helmet on.
. . .
Marshal was one of the few loyal men left at the end of John’s reign, and in June 1215 he helped broker Magna Carta, the document that (temporarily) mollified the king’s opponents by granting them a long list of legal rights and privileges. John died the next year, and the now-elderly Marshal was appointed as guardian to Henry III. He reissued Magna Carta as a political manifesto, rather than a peace treaty, which helped to begin the charter’s long and legendary afterlife. He won the battle of Lincoln, and then he died. His corpse was wrapped in silk that he had brought home from a journey to the Holy Land.

For the full review, see:
DAN JONES. “The Servant of Five Kings; One of the few men who remained loyal to King John, William Marshal helped broker Magna Carta.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Jan. 10, 2015): C7.
(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs added; ellipses internal to paragraph, in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 9, 2015.)

The book under review, is:
Asbridge, Thomas. The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones. New York: Ecco, 2014.

Steve Jobs as Demanding Consumer: Jerk or Benefactor?

(p. D2) Mr. Jobs said he wanted freshly squeezed orange juice.
After a few minutes, the waitress returned with a large glass of juice. Mr. Jobs took a tiny sip and told her tersely that the drink was not freshly squeezed. He sent the beverage back, demanding another.
A few minutes later, the waitress returned with another large glass of juice, this time freshly squeezed. When he took a sip he told her in an aggressive tone that the drink had pulp along the top. He sent that one back, too.
My friend said he looked at Mr. Jobs and asked, “Steve, why are you being such a jerk?”
Mr. Jobs replied that if the woman had chosen waitressing as her vocation, “then she should be the best.”

. . .
. . . it wasn’t until my mother found out that she had terminal cancer in mid-March and was given a prognosis of only two weeks to live that I learned even if a job is just a job, you can still have a profound impact on someone else’s life. You just may not know it.
. . .
. . . one evening my mother became incredibly lucid and called for me. She was craving shrimp, she said. “I’m on it,” I told her as I ran down to the kitchen. “Shrimp coming right up!”
. . .
The restaurant was bustling. In the open kitchen in the back I could see a dozen men and women frantically slaving over the hot stoves and dishwashers, with busboys and waiters rushing in and out.
While I stood waiting for my mother’s shrimp, I watched all these people toiling away and I thought about what Mr. Jobs had said about the waitress from a few years earlier. Though his rudeness may have been uncalled-for, there was something to be said for the idea that we should do our best at whatever job we take on.
This should be the case, not because someone else expects it. Rather, as I want to teach my son, we should do it because our jobs, no matter how seemingly small, can have a profound effect on someone else’s life; we just don’t often get to see how we’re touching them.
Certainly, the men and women who worked at that little Thai restaurant in northern England didn’t know that when they went into work that evening, they would have the privilege of cooking someone’s last meal.
It was a meal that I would unwrap from the takeout packaging in my mother’s kitchen, carefully plucking four shrimp from the box and meticulously laying them out on one of her ornate china plates before taking it to her room. It was a meal that would end with my mother smiling for the last time before slipping away from consciousness and, in her posh British accent, saying, “Oh, that was just lovely.”

For the full commentary, see:
NICK BILTON. “Rites of Passage; Life Lessons from Steve Jobs.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Fri., AUG. 7, 2015): D2.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the title “Rites of Passage; What Steve Jobs Taught Me About Being a Son and a Father.”)

Marxist Wrecks Brazil Economy

(p. A6) “The Brazilian model celebrated just a few years ago is turning into a slow-motion train wreck,” said Mansueto Almeida, a prominent commentator on economic policy. “Our political leaders want to point fingers at China or some external villain, but they cannot escape the fact that this self-inflicted crisis was made in Brazil.”
Even with the country’s legacy of economic turmoil, some historians say that Ms. Rousseff’s track record on economic growth ranks among the worst of any Brazilian president’s over the last century.
. . .
Hoping to prevent Brazil from cooling too much after the sizzling boom of the previous decade, Ms. Rousseff, 67, a former Marxist guerrilla who was tortured during the military dictatorship in the 1970s and took office in 2011, doubled down on bets that she could stave off a severe slowdown by harnessing a web of government-controlled banks and energy companies.
Ms. Rousseff pressured the central bank to reduce interest rates, fueling a credit spree among overstretched consumers who are now struggling to repay loans. She cut taxes for certain domestic industries and imposed price controls on gasoline and electricity, creating huge losses at public energy companies.
Going further, she expanded the sway of Brazil’s colossal national development bank, whose lending portfolio already dwarfed that of the World Bank. Drawing funds from the national treasury, the bank, known as the B.N.D.E.S., increased taxpayer-subsidized loans to large corporations at rates that were often significantly lower than those individuals could obtain from their banks.
Ms. Rousseff’s critics argue that she also began using funds from giant government banks to cover budget shortfalls as she and her leftist Workers’ Party headed into elections.
“They deliberately destroyed the public finances to obtain re-election,” said Antônio Delfim Netto, 87, a former finance minister and one of Brazil’s most influential economists. Taking note of the government’s inability to rein in spending as a budget deficit expands, Mr. Delfim Netto and other economists are warning that officials may simply opt to print more money, stirring ghosts in an economy once ravaged by high inflation.
. . .
Unemployment is expected to climb even higher as the authorities ponder ways to cut a federal bureaucracy that grew almost 30 percent from 2003 to 2013, to 600,000 civil servants.
A pension crisis is also brewing, partly because of laws that allow many Brazilians to start receiving retirement benefits in their early 50s, even though life expectancy has increased and the fertility rate has fallen, limiting the number of young people to support the aging population.
“How can a person who is 52 years old be able to retire with a pension?” Luiz Fernando Figueiredo, a former central bank official, asked reporters. “These things have to be confronted. If not, the country will become another Greece.”
Parts of Brazil’s business establishment are in revolt, openly expressing disdain. Exame, a leading business magazine, devotes an entire section called “Only in Brazil” to documenting problems with the public bureaucracy.
These examples include a $120 million light-rail system in the city of Campinas that lies abandoned because of poor planning, and a measure requiring companies to obtain a special license before allowing employees to work on Sundays.

For the full story, see:
SIMON ROMERO. “As Boom Fades, Brazil Asks How Sizzle Turned to Fizzle.”The New York Times (Fri., SEPT. 11, 2015): A1 & A6.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word and date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date SEPT. 10, 2015, and has the title “As a Boom Fades, Brazilians Wonder How It All Went Wrong.”)