Harvard President James Conant Helped Develop Mustard Gas in WWI

(p. C7) With America’s entry into World War I, Conant took a commission in the Chemical Warfare Service. His task was to develop poison gases—first mustard gas, then an even nastier brew called lewisite. Conant had Quaker branches on his family tree, but he had no qualms: What, he asked, was the moral difference between killing soldiers with explosives and killing them with gas?

. . .

The subtitle of Conant’s autobiography was “Memoirs of a Social Inventor.” He had invented poison gas; he had managed the invention of the Bomb; he had helped invent the modern Harvard; and he aimed to reinvent American education as a whole. But his greatest invention was himself: a new type of social being on the American scene—the scientist-administrator-social engineer. His granddaughter’s biography is an outstanding portrait of a technocrat, at work and at home.

For the full review, see:

Steven Shapin. “Citizen Conant.” The New York Times (Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017): C7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Oct. 27, 2017, and has the title “Review: Citizen Conant.”)

The book under review is:

Conant, Jennet. Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Johns Hopkins Fires Professor for Defending Research Computer from Occupying Student Protesters

(p. A10) Shortly after midnight on May 8, [2019] a man slipped into an administration building at Johns Hopkins University with a pair of bolt cutters. In a dark stairwell, he got to work, sweating through his shirt as he struggled to cut through the metal chains attached to a first-floor door.

The man was a professor at the university, and he was trying to wrest the building from student protesters who had occupied it for more than a month. Before long, the students ejected the professor, Daniel Povey, 43, from the building.

This week, Johns Hopkins kicked him off the faculty, too.

. . .

Mr. Povey wrote on his website that the students had scratched him as they took him out of the building. He also wrote that he faced more serious consequences than the students — who he noted had also entered the building without permission — because Johns Hopkins feared being accused of racism. He said he had tried to take the building back from the students in part because a computer server that hosted his research was inside and malfunctioning.

For the full story, see:

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs. “Professor Tried To Forcibly End Student Sit-In. Now He’s Gone.” The New York Times (Monday, August 12, 2019): A10.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 11, 2019, and has the title “A Professor Tried to End a Sit-In With Bolt Cutters. Now He’s Been Fired.”)

With Work Ethic, but Not Much Education, “You Can Come Out Here and Still Make Six Figures”

(p. B1) When Mike Wilkinson moved to Midland, Tex., in 2017, he hoped the world’s largest oil field would change his life. His marriage was in tatters. He owed tens of thousands in credit card debt. His morale was broken.

He soon began working as a “hot shot” truck driver, carrying loads for drillers who need pipes or drums in a hurry. The United States is the world’s largest producer of oil, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia, and demand for “hot shots” has soared.

The epicenter of the oil boom is the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, a massive layer cake of shale that’s cracked open with a blasting technique known as fracking. The country’s growing energy dominance has created tens of thousands of jobs in this part of the Southwest in recent years, many for people like Wilkinson looking for fresh starts.

. . .

(p. B4) There are now 55,000 people now work in the Permian. Mr. Wilkinson says he’s found a certain camaraderie with other transplants: “They are either escaping debt or family issues or poverty.

. . .

“I have to make money, and this is the best way I can make money,” he said. “If you’re not educated and have a good work ethic, you can come out here and still make six figures.”

For the full story, see:

Clifford Krauss. “Boom Times and Fresh Starts.” The New York Times (Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 10, 2019, and has the title “‘This Is the Most Lonesome Job’: Ride With a ‘Hot Shot’ Trucker in Oil-Rich Texas.” The online version highlights photographs by Tamir Kalifa. The online and print versions have significant differences in wording and ordering. Where there are differences, the passages quoted above, follow the print version.)

45 Is Average Age of Gazelle Founders

(p. B7) It took an entrepreneur to reimagine the mundane home thermostat as an object of beauty — and then to make a fortune based on that vision.

The entrepreneur was Tony Fadell, who had that thermostat epiphany after decades in the tech industry, including at companies like Apple. Mr. Fadell embodied his idea in a new company, Nest, which he started with the help of a colleague from Apple in 2010, at age 41.

The Nest thermostat had a sleek and intuitive design, smartphone connectivity and the ability to learn its owner’s temperature-setting habits. The product was a big hit, and within a few years Google acquired Nest for $3.2 billion.

Mr. Fadell’s deep experience and relatively mature age when he started Nest are typical of superstar entrepreneurs, who are rarely fresh out of college — or freshly dropped out of college. That’s what a team of economists discovered when they analyzed high-growth companies in the United States. Their study is being published in the journal American Economic Review: Insights.

The researchers looked at start-ups established between 2007 and 2014 and analyzed the top 0.1 percent — defined as those with the fastest growth in employment and sales. The average age of those companies’ founders was 45.

For the full commentary, see:

Seema Jayachandran. “ECONOMIC VIEW; High-Flying Tech Has a Touch of Gray.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, September 1, 2019): B7.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Aug. 29, 2019, and has the title “ECONOMIC VIEW; Founders of Successful Tech Companies Are Mostly Middle-Aged.”)

The forthcoming article mentioned above, is:

Azoulay, Pierre, Benjamin Jones, J. Daniel Kim, and Javier Miranda. “Age and High-Growth Entrepreneurship.” American Economic Review: Insights (forthcoming).

UNO MBA Blog Highlights Diamond’s Openness to Creative Destruction

The blog for the MBA program at UNO’s College of Business ran a nice entry on my Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism book.

As of 10/11/19, the URL for the entry was: https://www.unomaha.edu/college-of-business-administration/mba/about-us/mba-blog.php

(My seminars on “Economics of Entrepreneurship” and “Economics of Technology” are electives in the MBA program, the economics masters program, and the undergraduate economics program.)

Broad Knowledge “Prepares Us for the Wickedly Unanticipated”

(p. A13) In his latest book, “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” Mr. Epstein makes a well-supported and smoothly written case on behalf of breadth and late starts.

. . .

The book blends anecdotal stories with summaries of academic studies. Many of these studies upend standard-issue advice about finding one’s way in life. We are introduced to the “Dark Horse Project,” based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which has collected the oral histories of highly accomplished individuals who took circuitous paths to achievement. The researchers were surprised by how many such individuals, in disparate fields, they were able to find. “What was even more incredible,” said one principal member of the project, “is that they all thought they were the anomaly.”

. . .

Not all of the chapters speak directly to range. In “Learning to Drop Your Familiar Tools,” we learn that many cardiologists are unwilling to forsake their use of stents, despite clear evidence that stents are not only ineffective in preventing cardiac events but also introduce fresh risks of complications. It’s sobering to learn that a 2015 study showed that patients suffering cardiac arrest were less likely to die if they were admitted to a hospital when such cardiologists were unavailable to install the devices.

. . .

The chapter titled “Deliberate Amateurs” is a delight, permitting us to spend time with some exemplars in science and medicine who have stepped outside of their cozy professional nests. One such exemplar is Arturo Casadevall, the chair of the molecular microbiology and immunology program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. A much-cited scientist, Dr. Casadevall has led an overhaul of the curriculum at his school to help broaden the education of specialists. Philosophy, history, logic and ethics are incorporated into interdisciplinary classes. “How Do We Know What Is True?” is one of the course offerings. On the wall in Dr. Casadevall’s office, along with the certificate commemorating his election to the National Academy of Medicine, hangs a community-college degree in pest control, the “practical” expertise his father pressed Dr. Casadevall to acquire.

The advice that Dr. Casadevall dispenses to junior colleagues is “read outside your field, everyday something.” If the world were a kinder learning environment, this would not be needed. But as David Epstein shows us, cultivating range prepares us for the wickedly unanticipated.

For the full review, see:

Randall Stross. “BOOKSHELF; Late Bloomers Bloom Best.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, May 29, 2019): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 28, 2019, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Range’ Review: Late Bloomers Bloom Best; Late specialization demonstrably helped Roger Federer, Vincent van Gogh and Charles Darwin. It can serve the rest of us well, too.”)

The book under review is:

Epstein, David. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019.

“Bureaucratic Madness Is Choking Growth”

(p. A21) Jean Tirole, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2014, says that the study of economics is “simultaneously demanding and accessible.”

. . .

“Economics for the Common Good” offers an ambitious yet accessible summary of his ideas on the proper role of economists and the value of their ideas in informing government, business and social life.

. . .

One of the best chapters in the book deals with the issue of employment law in France. Successive governments have tried to micromanage the agreements between companies and employees to ensure fair treatment and low unemployment. But France’s unemployment rate has remained high, entrepreneurship has been stifled, and companies have become loath to hire people because of the prohibitive costs of firing them. Even if an employee proves useless, it’s nearly impossible to sack him.

On the employee’s side, even if you want to resign, it is more lucrative to wait to be fired, since you get both severance pay and unemployment insurance. To resolve the stand-off between workers who want to quit and companies that want to cut staff, employers and employees now collude through a legal formula called “termination by mutual consent.” The employee resigns and receives unemployment benefits as if he has been dismissed, and the company is spared the legal ramifications and costs of dismissal. In Mr. Tirole’s view, such bureaucratic madness is choking growth.

. . .

Mr. Tirole has a patient, explanatory style. But when riled, he lashes out. The French education system, he writes, purports to be non-selective but favors the affluent and well-educated. It “is a vast insider-trading crime.”

For the full review, see:

Philip Delves Broughton. “BOOKSHELF; What Good Is An Economist?” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, December 19, 2017): A21.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 18, 2017, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Review: What Good Is an Economist?; A French Nobel laureate and public intellectual discusses the proper role of the dismal science in government, business and the life of the mind.”)

The book under review is:

Epstein, David. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019.