Foundations with an End Date May Honor the Donor’s Intent

(p. C6) This year, the William E. Simon Foundation is closing its doors, or “sunsetting,” in the parlance of modern philanthropy. Since it was founded in 1967 by former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon and his wife Carol, the foundation has given away almost $300 million to the causes that mattered to them—faith, family and education.

. . .

Traditionally, sunsetting a foundation has appealed to more conservative donors. Bill Simon, Jr., who manages the Simon Foundation along with his six siblings, says that his late father set a closing date because he had seen “foundations that seemed to veer off of their donor’s intent.” Simon recalls: “Dad trusted his own seven children to know where he would have put his money…But as much as he loved his grandchildren, he did not know them.”

Indeed, Henry Ford II resigned from the Ford Foundation’s board in 1977, writing that its hostility to capitalism had thrown it off course: “Perhaps it is time for the trustees and staff to examine the question of our obligations to our economic system and to consider how the foundation, as one of the system’s most prominent offspring, might act most wisely to strengthen and improve its progenitor.”

For the full commentary, see:

Naomi Schaefer Riley. “Philanthropists Discover the Value of ‘Sunsetting’.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023): C6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date August 3, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

Improved AI Models Do Worse at Identifying Prime Numbers

(p. A2) . . . new research released this week reveals a fundamental challenge of developing artificial intelligence: ChatGPT has become worse at performing certain basic math operations.

The researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley said the deterioration is an example of a phenomenon known to AI developers as drift, where attempts to improve one part of the enormously complex AI models make other parts of the models perform worse.

“Changing it in one direction can worsen it in other directions,” said James Zou, a Stanford professor who is affiliated with the school’s AI lab and is one of the authors of the new research. “It makes it very challenging to consistently improve.”

. . .

The goal of the team of researchers, consisting of Lingjiao Chen, a computer-science Ph.D. student at Stanford, along with Zou and Berkeley’s Matei Zaharia, is to systematically and repeatedly see how the models perform over time at a range of tasks.

Thus far, they have tested two versions of ChatGPT: version 3.5, available free online to anyone, and version 4.0, available via a premium subscription.

The results aren’t entirely promising. They gave the chatbot a basic task: identify whether a particular number is a prime number. This is the sort of math problem that is complicated for people but simple for computers.

Is 17,077 prime? Is 17,947 prime? Unless you are a savant you can’t work this out in your head, but it is easy for computers to evaluate. A computer can just brute force the problem—try dividing by two, three, five, etc., and see if anything works.

To track performance, the researchers fed ChatGPT 1,000 different numbers. In March, the premium GPT-4, correctly identified whether 84% of the numbers were prime or not. (Pretty mediocre performance for a computer, frankly.) By June its success rate had dropped to 51%.

. . .

The phenomenon of unpredictable drift is known to researchers who study machine learning and AI, Zou said. “We had the suspicion it could happen here, but we were very surprised at how fast the drift is happening.”

For the full commentary, see:

Josh Zumbrun. “THE NUMBERS; AI Surprise: It’s Unlearning Basic Math.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date August 4, 2023, and has the title “THE NUMBERS; Why ChatGPT Is Getting Dumber at Basic Math.”)

The Elite Are Politically Progressive as a Way to Reduce Their Guilt for Rejecting the Uneducated

David Brooks, the author of The New York Times column quoted below, views himself as an anti-Trump member of America’s elite educated class.

(p. A18) Donald Trump seems to get indicted on a weekly basis. Yet he is utterly dominating his Republican rivals in the polls, and he is tied with Joe Biden in the general election surveys. Trump’s poll numbers are stronger against Biden now than at any time in 2020.

What’s going on here? Why is this guy still politically viable, after all he’s done?

. . .

This story begins in the 1960s, when high school grads had to go off to fight in Vietnam but the children of the educated class got college deferments. It continues in the 1970s, when the authorities imposed busing on working-class areas in Boston but not on the upscale communities like Wellesley where they themselves lived.

The ideal that we’re all in this together was replaced with the reality that the educated class lives in a world up here and everybody else is forced into a world down there. Members of our class are always publicly speaking out for the marginalized, but somehow we always end up building systems that serve ourselves.

The most important of those systems is the modern meritocracy. We built an entire social order that sorts and excludes people on the basis of the quality that we possess most: academic achievement. Highly educated parents go to elite schools, marry each other, work at high-paying professional jobs and pour enormous resources into our children, who get into the same elite schools, marry each other and pass their exclusive class privileges down from generation to generation.

Daniel Markovits summarized years of research in his book “The Meritocracy Trap”: “Today, middle-class children lose out to the rich children at school, and middle-class adults lose out to elite graduates at work. Meritocracy blocks the middle class from opportunity. Then it blames those who lose a competition for income and status that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.”

. . .

Members of our class also segregate ourselves into a few booming metro areas: San Francisco, D.C., Austin and so on. In 2020, Biden won only 500 or so counties, but together they are responsible for 71 percent of the American economy. Trump won over 2,500 counties, responsible for only 29 percent. Once we find our cliques, we don’t get out much. In the book “Social Class in the 21st Century,” the sociologist Mike Savage and his co-researchers found that the members of the highly educated class tend to be the most insular, measured by how often we have contact with those who have jobs unlike our own.

. . .

Elite institutions have become so politically progressive in part because the people in them want to feel good about themselves as they take part in systems that exclude and reject.

For the full commentary, see:

David Brooks. “What if We’re the Bad Guys Here?” The New York Times (Friday, August 4, 2023): A18.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Aug. 2, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

The books cited by Brooks in the passages quoted above are:

Markovits, Daniel. The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite. New York: Penguin Press, 2019.

Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Pelican Books, 2015.

“An Inalienable Right to Sit In AC”

(p. C4) “Let’s sit in AC.” An American friend of mine, recently living in Mumbai, was wildly amused to hear this said in that steamy megalopolis, as if retreating to the tantalizing cool of an air-conditioned room were an activity in itself.

It took me a moment to see what he found so funny. I had grown up with the deprivations of socialist India in the 1980s. I was hardwired to fetishize air-conditioning. It was not an adjunct to life, sewn seamlessly into our daily routines, as it is in the U.S., where 82.7 million homes have central AC. It was, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant would say, the “thing-in-itself,” and to sit “in” AC was something of a national pastime.

. . .

Our first AC was an unbranded gimcrack contraption, jerry-built by a local electrician, but—my god!—how we loved it.

. . .

India loves to assert the demands of belonging through pacts of mutual suffering, and to be in AC was almost to be a little less Indian, as if you had decamped for the West. Even now that the country is the world’s fastest growing market for air-conditioners—projected by the International Energy Agency to be the biggest by 2050—the first line of attack from your average troll is: “What do you know of the realities of India, sitting in AC?”

. . .

. . . this summer, as newspapers report the hottest temperatures ever recorded on Earth and Amazon blasts me with discounts on their best-selling ACs, I cannot help feeling that our turn has come at a bad time. If nothing is done to make air-conditioning more energy-efficient, India alone is projected to use 30 times more electricity in 2030 than it did in 2010. Globally, air conditioning is projected to account for 40% of the growth in energy consumption in buildings by 2050—the equivalent of all the electricity used today in the U.S. and Germany combined. It’s enough to send a chill down the spine of the most ardent of AC evangelists.

The irony of a world made hotter by our need to be cool strikes some as proof of our rapacity. To me, having grown up in the place where so much of the new demand is coming from, I see it as part of a necessary realignment. As the global south gets richer, it will act as a frontier and laboratory. My hope is that it will achieve a miraculous breakthrough in energy efficiency, even as it asserts an inalienable right to sit in AC.

For the full commentary, see:

Aatish Taseer. “My Love Affair With Air- Conditioning.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 15, 2023): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 14, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

Chinese Communists Suppress “A Touching Portrait of Love and Resiliency”

(p. C6) According to reliable news reports, the Chinese government never confirmed having banned Li Ruijun’s quietly heartbreaking feature “Return to Dust,” a touching portrait of love and resiliency in a collapsing rural community of Gansu Province.

Still, the film was pulled last fall from all Chinese movie theaters and streaming services two weeks after a successful domestic debut. It isn’t hard to see why. China’s leadership has a history of suppressing art that spotlights the failings of its ruling class and ideology, which is exactly what Li’s film does, . . .

For the full movie review, see:

Austin Considine. “Return to Dust.” The New York Times (Friday, July 21, 2023): C6.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 20, 2023, and has the title “‘Return to Dust’ Review: Grit Against All Odds.”)

Blue Cross of California Seeks to End Drug Rebates and Hidden Fees

(p. A3) A major health insurer says it will jettison the complicated system that Americans use to pay for drugs, and create something that aims to be better, with partners including and the entrepreneur Mark Cuban.

Blue Shield of California said it is dropping CVS Health’s Caremark, the pharmacy-benefit manager it currently uses, which negotiates drug prices and wraps in other services such as a mail-order pharmacy.

. . .

Blue Shield said that, working with its partners, it aims to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical makers in a way that is different from the typical approach—with a simple net price structure that is supposed to eliminate rebates and hidden fees.

Blue Shield executives said that with one company handling many aspects of how drugs are procured through the system, it is often hard to track the flow of payments accurately.

“The current pharmacy supply chain is a forest of opacity and profit,” said Paul Markovich, Blue Shield’s chief executive officer, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “It is overwhelmingly complex, it is designed to maximize the earnings of the participants.” His company’s new setup, he said, will be “flipping that on its head.”

For the full story, see:

Anna Wilde Mathews. “Health Insurer Revamps Drug Pricing Model.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Aug. 18, 2023): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 17, 2023, and has the title “A Big Health Insurer Is Ripping Up the Playbook on Drug Pricing.”)

Milton Friedman’s “Unflinching Defense” of Libertarianism

(p. A3) . . . [Milton] Friedman was highly influential. In academia, he did pioneering work on consumer behavior, monetary history and the unstable relation between inflation and unemployment. Outside the ivory tower, he is remembered for his unflinching defense of classical liberalism—a position that today is often called libertarianism. “Capitalism and Freedom” is the best entry into Friedman’s lucid mind. You will enjoy reading it even if you disagree with most of his judgments. A socialist student at Harvard once told me it was one of his favorite books. “Why?” I asked. “Because it clearly explains the point of view I have to argue against.”

For the full review, see:

N. Gregory Mankiw. “Five Best: Economics Primers.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Aug. 18, 2023): A3.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed name, added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 2, 2023, and has the title “Five Best: Economics Primers.”)

Friedman’s best popular book, developed from lectures first presented at Wabash College that were co-organized by my mentor Ben Rogge, is:

Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Nimbly Use What Is Available Now Rather Than Wait for Adoption of Perfect Global Standards

(p. A9) For more than five decades, Don Bateman led teams of engineers at what is now Honeywell International in creating and enhancing technology that warns pilots of impending disasters.

The result is an array of software and equipment, much of it mandatory, that squawks warnings and flashes digital admonitions if a plane is heading into a mountain, a ridge, a radio tower or some other obstacle.

. . .

Rather than waiting years for global industry standards to be adopted, he always wanted to use whatever technology was available immediately. Ratan Khatwa, a former Honeywell colleague of Bateman, recalled his advice: “You’ve got to work like farmers,” using whatever is available now rather than waiting for perfection.

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Safety Engineer Helped Pilots Avoid Crashes.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 3, 2023): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date May 30, 2023, and has the title “Don Bateman, Champion of Airline Safety, Dies at 91.”)

Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) Buys Foreign Sunscreens Not Approved by U.S. Government F.D.A.

(p. 2) After months of prompting, I have finally managed to help my husband form a daily sunscreen habit. Whenever I see traces of paper white cream in his dark beard, I think, We’re halfway there.

Hoping to avoid the white cast, heaviness and greasiness common in many sunscreen products available in U.S. drugstores, some Americans, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have taken matters into their own hands, opting for sunscreens manufactured abroad. In a recent interview, the congresswoman said she toggled between Bioré in the summer and Beauty of Joseon in the winter — two Asian brands that employ active ingredients not approved for use in the United States.

“The technology is very sophisticated,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said. “You don’t feel like you have a layer of sunscreen on, and it kind of just feels like you’re putting on a moisturizer in that sense, which makes it easier to use.”

While sunscreen is regulated as a cosmetic in major skin-care hubs like South Korea, Japan and the European Union, in the United States, it falls under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration. Any drug product marketed to American consumers must be approved by the F.D.A., and because sunscreen “makes a drug claim” — namely, that it can prevent sunburn, decrease the risk of skin cancer and mitigate early skin aging — the agency regulates it as an over-the-counter drug.

The last time the Food and Drug Administration approved new active ingredients for use in sunscreens was more than two decades ago, and at times it can feel as if the rest of the world has surpassed the United States in the development of new sunscreen formulations and protocols. Skin-care influencers on TikTok and Instagram are in a near-constant state of frenzy over exciting new products and innovations that are nowhere to be found on American shelves. Currently there are 14 sunscreen filters approved for use by the F.D.A. The European Union employs more than 30.

Frustrated by what seems to be a wealth of more exciting options for sun protection overseas, skin-care-conscious Americans have been quick to point the finger at the F.D.A. for the delay in approving new active ingredients.

For the full story, see:

Sandra E. Garcia. “U.S. Sunscreen Is Stuck in the ’90s.” The New York Times, SundayStyles Section (Sunday, August 13, 2023): 2.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 12, 2023, and has the title “U.S. Sunscreen Is Stuck in the ’90s. Is This a Job for Congress?”)

“Best-Funded Startup” in History Seeks Longevity by Rejuvenating Cells

(p. B1) Arch is the largest institutional investor in Altos, which already has $3 billion of committed investments, likely making it the biotech indus-(p. B2)try’s best-funded startup on record.

Nelsen is characteristically unrestrained when discussing Altos’s prospects.

“Epigenetic reprogramming is the biggest thing in healthcare in 100 years. Or ever,” he says. “We will clearly live much healthier and longer lives if this works.”

. . .

A native of Walla Walla, Wa., Nelsen studied biology and economics at the University of Puget Sound before getting an M.B.A. at the University of Chicago.

. . .

His manic energy can lead to confrontations. Nelsen drives his GMC Yukon so aggressively that some friends avoid riding with him. He’s started fights with supermarket customers who resisted using plastic bags.

“I hate plastic bag bans, because the assumption that they are better for the environment than paper is flawed and I am grown up enough to not have government choose my bag for me,” Nelsen says.

. . .

Taking cells back to their youthful, healthier state long captured the imagination of scientists, but seemed unlikely. Then a breakthrough paper published in 2006 by Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka and a colleague showed mature skin cells of mice could be reprogrammed into primordial, immature stem cells—called induced pluripotent stem cells—in effect resetting their molecular clocks. Yamanaka, who later shared a Nobel Prize for work in this area, is an adviser to Altos. In 2016, Spanish biochemist Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, Altos’s founding scientist, showed how the age of cells could be reverted without changing their genome and identity. His work demonstrated the potential for toggling between the ‘old’ and ‘young’ states of cells—the basis for Altos’s effort to rejuvenate cells.

For the full story, see:

Gregory Zuckerman. “Fear of Death Drives A Venture Capitalist.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Aug. 21, 2023): B1-B2.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date August 20, 2023, and has the title “For This Venture Capitalist, Research on Aging Is Personal; ‘Bob Has a Big Fear of Death’.”)

Well-Intentioned Antislavery Colonists Accidentally Spread Yellow Fever Plague

(p. C9) Hardly anyone noticed the first to die in the sultry August of 1793—a few foreigners, a sailor, an oyster seller. Most Philadelphians brushed off the deaths as the result of air fouled by rotting coffee or fish near the docks. Then the healthy and affluent began to die: public officials, ministers. The plague that was sweeping the young nation’s temporary capital was yellow fever, a contagion little understood at the time. Writes Robert Watson in “America’s First Plague,” the outbreak was “one of the worst epidemics in American history.”

In the course of three horrendous months, between 6,000 and 9,500 people would die, constituting 15% to 20% of Philadelphia’s population.

. . .

The source of the plague is a story in its own right. It apparently derived from infected mosquitoes that had bred on a ship named the Hankey. Earlier in the year, the Hankey had transported an expedition of antislavery Londoners to an island off the coast of present-day Guinea-Bissau, where they hoped to found a model biracial colony. They were instead beset by hostile natives and rampant yellow fever, which the few desperate survivors carried with them across the Atlantic to ports in the Caribbean and eventually to Philadelphia. Mr. Watson, a professor of history at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., notes that “the ship inadvertently unleashed death at every port where it docked.” (A riveting account of this hapless colonial experiment may be found in Billy G. Smith’s “Ship of Death,” published in 2013.)

Fortunately for those who remained in the city, Philadelphia’s capable mayor, a businessman named Matthew Clarkson, aided by a beleaguered committee of brave volunteers, did his best to organize public-health measures and burials.

. . .

Among the doctors who struggled to cope with a disease they couldn’t cure, Mr. Watson rightly emphasizes the polymath Benjamin Rush. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush incarnated both the humanistic best and medical worst of the early republic. Although his treatments were widely accepted, they were disastrous. He believed dogmatically in violent purges, forced heat to blister the limbs and above all bloodletting. He bled his patients of as much as 10 ounces a day, probably killing more of them than he saved. When he himself fell ill, he subjected himself to the same brutal regimen but survived to persist in his malpractice.

For the full review see:

Fergus M. Bordewich. “When Yellow Jack Attacked.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 10, 2023): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 9, 2023, and has the title “‘America’s First Plague’ Review: Attack of the Yellow Jack.”)

The book under review is:

Watson, Robert P. America’s First Plague: The Deadly 1793 Epidemic That Crippled a Young Nation. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2023.

The “riveting” book mentioned above is:

Smith, Billy G. Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.