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.

CAR T Therapy Is a Durable “Cure” for Some Leukemia Cancers

(p. A17) Doug Olson was feeling kind of tired in 1996. When a doctor examined him she frowned. “I don’t like the feel of those lymph nodes,” she said, poking his neck. She ordered a biopsy. The result was terrifying. He had chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a blood cancer that mostly strikes older people and accounts for about a quarter of new cases of leukemia.

“Oh Lordy,” Mr. Olson said. “I thought I was done for.” He was only 49 and, he said, had always been healthy.

Six years went by without the cancer progressing. Then it started to grow. He had four rounds of chemotherapy but the cancer kept coming back. He had reached pretty much the end of the line when his oncologist, Dr. David Porter at the University of Pennsylvania, offered him a chance to be among the very first patients to try something unprecedented, known as CAR T cell therapy.

In 2010, he became the second of three patients to get the new treatment.

At the time, the idea for this sort of therapy “was way out there,” said Dr. Carl June, the principal investigator for the trial at Penn, and he had tempered his own expectations that the cells he was providing to Mr. Olson as therapy would survive.

“We thought they would be gone in a month or two,” Dr. June said.

Now, a decade later, he reports that his expectations were completely confounded. In a paper published Wednesday in Nature, Dr. June and his colleagues, Dr. J. Joseph Melenhorst and Dr. Porter, report that the CAR T treatment made the cancer vanish in two out of the three patients in that early trial. All had chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The big surprise, though, was that even though the cancer seemed to be long gone, the CAR T cells remained in the patients’ bloodstreams, circulating as sentinels.

“Now we can finally say the word ‘cure’ with CAR T cells,” Dr. June said.

Although most patients will not do as well, the results hold out hope that, for some, their cancer will be vanquished.

For the full story, see:

Gina Kolata. “Potential Leukemia Cure Leads to New Mysteries.” The New York Times (Thursday, February 3, 2022): A17.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 2, 2022, and has the title “A Cancer Treatment Makes Leukemia Vanish, but Creates More Mysteries.”)

Most Journalists No Longer Aspire to Objectivity

(p. B1) In 1979, two journalists got into an argument. More than four decades later, they haven’t settled it.

The subject of their disagreement was journalistic “objectivity,” a notion that goes back at least to the 1920s, when some of the more high-minded newspapers and magazines were trying to distinguish themselves from the scandal sheets and publications led by partisan and sometimes warmongering publishers.

In one corner, Alan Berger. In 1979, he was a 41-year-old media columnist for the Real Paper, an alternative weekly that had emerged from a rift at its predecessor, Boston Phoenix. Before he started watch-dogging the press, Mr. Berger had grown up in the Bronx, attended Harvard University and taught a class at M.I.T., in French, on the poet Charles Baudelaire.

His target in the debate over objectivity — which has come roaring back to life in the political storminess of recent years — was Tom Palmer. Back then, Mr. Palmer was a 31-year-old assistant national editor of The Boston Globe, meaning he belonged to the establishment and was thus a ripe target for the Real Paper.

. . .

(p. B4) His former protégé, the national correspondent Wesley Lowery, argued in a widely circulated New York Times opinion essay that objectivity mirrored the worldview of white reporters and editors, whose “selective truths have been calibrated to avoid offending the sensibilities of white readers.” Mr. Lowery, who ended up leaving The Post for CBS News, suggested that news organizations “abandon the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard, and for reporters instead to focus on being fair and telling the truth, as best as one can, based on the given context and available facts.”

That same argument has found an embrace at some of America’s leading journalism schools, as well.

“We focus on fairness and fact-checking and accuracy, and we don’t try to suggest to our students that opinions they have should be hidden,” said Sarah Bartlett, the dean of the City University of New York Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. “We embrace transparency.”

. . .

Mr. Palmer also never quite let the argument go. He appointed himself a kind of genial in-house watchdog at The Globe, eventually known for his persistent emails to reporters and editors he thought had allowed their liberal views to infiltrate their copy.  . . .

Needless to say, he remains unpersuaded by the arguments against his cherished ideal. They “were dead wrong back then,” he emailed me, “and I believe are dead wrong even more so today.”

“Journalists are simply not smart enough and educated enough to change the world,” he continued. “They should damn well just inform the public to the best of their abilities and let the public decide.”

He also said, ruefully, that he believed his side was losing. The notion of objectivity “was declining before Trump, and that era removed it from the table completely,” he wrote. “I have doubts it will ever come back.”

For the full commentary, see:

Ben Smith. “A 1979 Fight Over Ideals Is Still Going.” The New York Times (Monday, October 11, 2021): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated October 11, 2021, and has the title “Two Journalists Started an Argument in Boston in 1979. It’s Not Over Yet.”)