Some Tech Startups, and Big Tech Firms, Want Workers Back in Office

(p. A1) For a tech guy, Mike de Vere, chief executive of fintech software startup Zest AI, has a contrarian return-to-work plan for his 100 employees: he wants them in the office full time.

Mr. de Vere said having employees together in the Burbank, Calif., headquarters improves communication, builds trust and allows for them to absorb knowledge from more experienced colleagues.

“We believe that we will be our best selves the more that we are together,” he said.

As more tech companies leverage the promise of flexible work arrangements as a competitive advantage, some are going the opposite route, betting that a strong office culture is what will help them recruit and retain the best talent.

Proponents of fully in-office work cite a range of benefits, from the collaboration that can result from happenstance interactions to easier communication. Plus, they add, plenty of people enjoy working in offices, especially after months spent, for some, in makeshift arrangements. Given the tech industry’s status as a bellwether for workplace trends, professionals in many industries are watching to see where it lands.

. . .

(p. A4) Dan Kaplan, a partner with organizational consulting firm KornFerry International, said the pandemic has permanently changed the equation for employees. The days of being in the office just to show your face are over: “People aren’t willing to do it anymore,” he said.

Though people early in their careers crave mentorship and the ability to build their social circles on the job, Mr. Kaplan said he’s started seeing flexibility as a point of negotiation between job seekers and employers. Candidates are trying to broker fewer days a week in the office and CEOs prefer more time in person, he said.

“There is going to be tension in the system,” he said. What tech companies do will have impacts across industries, he added.

. . .

An Amazon spokesman said the company plans to gradually return to an office-centric workweek because it “enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively.”

For the full story, see:

Katherine Bindley. “Tech Startups Eye a World, Post-Covid, Back in the Office.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 26, 2021): A1 & A4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 25, 2021, and has the title “Five Days in the Office? For These Startups, the Future of Work Is Old School.” The online edition says that the title of the print edition was: “Tech Startups Eye a World, Post-Virus, Back in the Office Some Tech Firms View Office As Place to Lure, Hold Talent.” My copy of the print edition had the title in the citation above.)

As “Neotenous Apes,” Humans Retain Their “Wandering, Exploratory Inner Child”

(p. C4) Cephalopods are having a moment. An octopus stars in a documentary nominated for an Academy Award (“My Octopus Teacher”). Octos, as scuba-diving philosopher Peter Godfrey Smith calls them, also play a leading role in his marvelous new book “Metazoa,” alongside a supporting cast of corals, sponges, sharks and crabs.

. . .

Smart birds and mammals also keep their neurons in one place—their brains. But octos split them up. They have over 500 million neurons altogether, about as many as dogs. But there are as many neurons altogether in their eight arms as in their heads. The arms seem able to act as independent agents, waving and wandering, exploring and sensing the world around them—even reaching out to the occasional diving philosopher or filmmaker. Mr. Godfrey-Smith’s book has a fascinating discussion of how it must feel to have this sort of split consciousness, nine selves all inhabiting the same body.

I think there might be a link between these two strange facts of octopus life. I’ve previously argued that childhood and intelligence are correlated because of what computer scientists call the “explore-exploit” trade-off: It’s very difficult to design a single system that’s curious and imaginative—that is, good at exploring—and at the same time, efficient and effective—or good at exploiting. Childhood gives animals a chance to explore and learn first; then when they grow up, they can exploit what they’ve learned to get things done.

. . .

Human adults are “neotenous apes,” which means we retain more childhood characteristics than our primate relatives do. We keep our brains in our heads, but neuroscience and everyday experience suggest that we too have divided selves. My grown-up, efficient prefrontal cortex keeps my wandering, exploratory inner child in line. Or tries to, anyway.

For the full commentary, see:

Alison Gopnik. “MIND AND MATTER; The Many Minds of the Octopus.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 17, 2021): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 15, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

The book discussed in Gopnik’s commentary is:

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

British Entrepreneur Shattered French Wine Pretension

(p. A23) The world was paying little attention on May 24, 1976, when a small wine tasting was held in Paris at the Intercontinental Hotel. But the echoes of that tasting, later called the Judgment of Paris, have resounded for decades.

The instigator, Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who owned a wine shop and wine school in Paris, had set up a blind tasting of 20 wines — 10 white and 10 red — for nine French judges, including some of the top names in the French wine and food establishment.

. . .

It was hardly thought to be a fair fight. As has been recounted countless times, the judges were thoroughly convinced that California wines were inferior.

“Ah, back to France,” one judge sighed after tasting a Napa Valley chardonnay. Another, sniffing a Bâtard-Montrachet, declared: “This is definitely California. It has no nose.”

When all was done, a shocking consensus revealed the favorite wines to be a 1973 chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and a 1973 cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Cellars, both in Napa Valley.

The Americans celebrated, the French shrank in consternation, and everlasting fame awaited Mr. Spurrier, who went on to a long career as a wine entrepreneur.

. . .

The Paris tasting might have swiftly been forgotten had not a single reporter, George M. Taber of Time magazine, been on hand to witness the events. His article, “Judgment of Paris,” gave the California wine industry a much-needed boost, lending its vintners international credibility at a time when they were searching for critical approval and public acceptance.

. . .

Mr. Taber, the reporter, in 2005 published a book, “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.” A 2008 film, “Bottle Shock,” with Alan Rickman playing Mr. Spurrier, depicted the tasting as the climax of a triumph-of-the-underdog story.

. . .

As for Mr. Spurrier, he leveraged the tasting into different careers in wine, with both triumphs and failures.

. . .

In 1987, the Spurriers bought a farm in Dorset near the south coast of England, and he decided that the chalk soil, similar to what can be found in Champagne and Chablis, was a perfect place for vines.

They did not start planting until 2009, by which time a burgeoning sparkling wine industry had taken root in southern England. Their sparkling wine, Bride Valley, had its first release in 2014.

For the full obituary, see:

Eric Asimov. “Steven Spurrier, 79, a Merchant Who Upended the Wine World With a Taste Test.” The New York Times (Thursday, March 18, 2021): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated March 18, 2021, and has the title “Steven Spurrier, Who Upended Wine World With a Tasting, Dies at 79.”)

The Tabar book mentioned above is:

Taber, George M. Judgment of Paris: California Vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine. New York: Scribner, 2005.

Journals Publish Positive Results So Scientists “File-Drawer” Negative Results

(p. A15) In “The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills,” Jesse Singal, a contributing writer at New York magazine, chronicles several dubious enthusiasms that permeate our culture. Along the way, he tries to show why they are so widespread. His focus is on “the allure of fad psychology,” as he puts it, and on the ways in which “both individuals and institutions can do a better job of resisting it.”

. . .

Academic journals, too, are keen to publish supposedly newsworthy findings. Under such conditions, it’s easy to see why a psychologist would be reluctant to re-examine her too-good-to-be-true results when doubts—her own and those of colleagues—begin to nag.

Each chapter of “The Quick Fix” presents accessible explanations of the research that was eventually shown to be “half-baked,” as Mr. Singal puts it. The problems, he shows, often derive from dodgy statistical analysis or faulty experimental design. Researchers, for instance, might use various statistical tests until one shows a sought-for result, or they might submit only positive results to a journal for publication, holding the negative ones back, a practice known as “file-drawering.” Mr. Singal also traces the social and political currents that helped propel certain trends.

Mr. Singal’s analysis is thus a quick fix for readers who want to be more enlightened and thoughtful consumers of psychological science.

For the full review, see:

Sally Satel. “BOOKSHELF; A Bias Toward Easy Answers.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 12, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 11, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Quick Fix’ Review: A Bias Toward Easy Answers.”)

The book under review is:

Singal, Jesse. The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

Always-Curious Microbiologist Found Useful Robust New Bacterium in Yellowstone Hot Spring

An enzyme in the bacterium that Brock discovered was used by Kary Mullis to create the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that is part of Covid-19 tests.

(p. B11) Thomas Brock, a microbiologist, was driving west to a laboratory in Washington State in 1964 when he stopped off at Yellowstone National Park.

. . .

What fascinated him, on what would be the first of many trips to Yellowstone, were the blue-green algae living in a hot spring — proof that some life could tolerate temperatures above the boiling point of water.

It was the beginning of research that led to a revolutionary find in 1966: a species of bacteria that he called Thermus aquaticus, which thrived at 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit) or more.

. . .

The yellow bacteria — discovered by Dr. Brock and Hudson Freeze, his undergraduate assistant at Indiana University — survive because all their enzymes are stable at very high temperatures, including one, Taq polymerase, that replicates its own DNA. It proved essential to the invention of the process behind the gold standard in coronavirus testing.

. . .

When he arrived at Yellowstone, he did not have grandiose ambitions.

“I was just looking for a nice, simple ecosystem where I could study microbial ecology,” he said in an interview for the website of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he was a professor of natural sciences in the department of bacteriology from 1971 to 1990. “At higher temperatures, you don’t have the complications of having animals that eat all the microbes.”

Stephen Zinder worked with Dr. Brock as a student from 1974 to 1977, a period that included Dr. Brock’s last summer of work at Yellowstone and his research into the ecology of Wisconsin’s lakes, including Lake Mendota in Madison.

“He had an encyclopedic knowledge of microbiology and science in general,” said Dr. Zinder, now a professor of microbiology at Cornell University. “He was always learning and picking up new things.” He added, “I think his real ability was to see things simply and to figure out simple techniques to find out what the organisms were doing in their environment.”

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Sandomir. “Thomas Brock, 94, Scientist Who Shared a Nobel Prize’.” The New York Times (Saturday, May 1, 2021): B11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated April 26, 2020, and has the title “Thomas Brock, Whose Discovery Paved the Way for PCR Tests, Dies at 94.”)

How Chuck Yeager Acquired the ‘Right Stuff’: “I Worked My Tail Off”

(p. A1) Chuck Yeager, the most famous test pilot of his generation, who was the first to break the sound barrier and, thanks to Tom Wolfe, came to personify the death-defying aviator who possessed the elusive yet unmistakable “right stuff,” died on Monday [December 7, 2020] in Los Angeles.

. . .

His signal achievement came on Oct. 14, 1947, when he climbed out of a B-29 bomber as it ascended over the Mojave Desert in California and entered the cockpit of an orange, bullet-shaped, rocket-powered experimental plane attached to the bomb bay.

An Air Force captain at the time, he zoomed off in the plane, a (p. A23) Bell Aircraft X-1, at an altitude of 23,000 feet, and when he reached about 43,000 feet above the desert, history’s first sonic boom reverberated across the floor of the dry lake beds. He had reached a speed of 700 miles an hour, breaking the sound barrier and dispelling the long-held fear that any plane flying at or beyond the speed of sound would be torn apart by shock waves.

. . .

Mr. Wolfe wrote about a nonchalance affected by pilots in the face of an emergency in a voice “specifically Appalachian in origin,” one that was first heard in military circles but ultimately emanated from the cockpits of commercial airliners.

“It was,” Mr. Wolfe said, “the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

In his memoir, General Yeager said he was annoyed when people asked him if he had the right stuff, since he felt it implied a talent he was born with.

“All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way,” he wrote. “If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.”

. . .

At a time when the administration of President John F. Kennedy was encouraging diversity in the Air Force, a former test pilot, Edward Dwight Jr., became the only African-American astronaut candidate at the school. But he was never selected for the astronaut corps, retired from the Air Force in 1966 and became a sculptor, specializing in bronze representations of heroic figures in Black history.

In July 2019, Mr. Dwight told the New York Times that General Yeager had never given him a fair chance. “Every week, right on the dot,” Mr. Dwight said, “he’d call me into his office and say, ‘Are you ready to quit? This is too much for you, and you’re going to kill yourself, boy.’ Calling me a boy, and I’m an officer in the Air Force.”

Responding to those remarks, General Yeager said that he had never told anybody that he would get Mr. Dwight out of the program, that he had not held weekly meetings with him, and that he had never called him “boy.”

But he did question Mr. Dwight’s ability. “Isn’t it great that Ed Dwight found his true calling and became an accomplished sculptor?” he wrote in an email.

. . .

In his memoir, General Yeager wrote that through all his years as a pilot, he had made sure to “learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment.”

It may not have accorded with his image, but, as he told it: “I was always afraid of dying. Always.”

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Goldstein. “Fighter Ace and Test Pilot Embodied ‘the Right Stuff’.” The New York Times (Wednesday, December 9, 2020): A1 & A23.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated December 9, 2020, and has the title “Chuck Yeager, Test Pilot Who Broke the Sound Barrier, Is Dead at 97.” The paragraphs quoted above about Edward Dwight appear in the print, but not in the online, version of the obituary.)

Tom Wolfe portrayed Yeager as the exemplar of the “right stuff” in:

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 1979.

Yeager’s memoir is:

Yeager, Chuck, and Leo Janos. Yeager: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1985.

Are We Right to Experiment on Animals to Save Humans?

I believe that higher animals feel emotions and maybe even have souls, so we should try to treat them humanely. I am deeply conflicted on how far animal experiments are justified in the pursuit of curing human diseases. Whenever possible, animal experiments should have the potential to benefit the animals in the experiments, as well as the human experimenters.

(p. A15) The “title characters” of Brandy Schillace’s admirable biography “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul” were one and the same person: Robert J. White, a distinguished neurosurgeon, an accomplished neuroscientist and a man dedicated to searching for the means to transplant souls by transplanting the human brain. If this makes White sound macabre, Ms. Schillace’s account of his life, work and temperament is anything but. She deftly persuades the reader to take White seriously (he wasn’t even eccentric) and to ponder profound medical-scientific-philosophical issues. Best of all, the book is fascinating.

. . .

White felt it was his religious and medical duty to devise techniques for rescuing healthy brains from otherwise diseased and dying bodies. His solution was to transplant heads (containing their brains) onto cadavers that were brain dead but otherwise physiologically viable.

Before he could attempt such surgery on people, White experimented, mostly on monkeys, dozens of times, to ascertain and refine the necessary procedures. In March 1970 he succeeded in transplanting a monkey’s head onto another monkey’s body.

. . .

During the era in which White conducted his experiments, politicians, doctors, journalists and celebrities were becoming deeply and increasingly dismayed by scientific experiments on animals. White ran afoul of the animal-rights advocacy organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and was threatened by animal-rights extremists (he remained imperturbable). White prided himself on scrupulously avoiding harm to his animal subjects. But he didn’t believe that animals had souls: For him, Ms. Schillace writes, “the human was more than animal, and equating the two was not only wrong, it was dangerous.” One of White’s rejoinders to those who would halt animal experimentation was, to paraphrase: If you were a surgeon, how would you like to tell parents that their young child is going to die because the operation that might save him or her was impossible to perform, mainly because the necessary animal-dissection research that would have permitted it was forbidden by law or the medical canon of ethics? His foes never had a good answer.

For the full review, see:

Howard Schneider. “A Heart in the Right Place.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, February 22, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 21, 2021, and has the title “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher’ Review: A Heart in the Right Place.”)

The book under review is:

Schillace, Brandy. Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

Cafe Hayek Quotes from Openness Book on Happiness

Posted by Arthur Diamond on Friday, April 2, 2021

Don Boudreaux quotes from my Openness to Creative Destruction book on Cafe Hayek, the blog he runs with Russ Roberts.

My book is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Humans Excel at Finding and Using Patterns

(p. 9) At the end of the 20th century, scholars of human evolution proposed a thrilling idea: Humans were special and distinct from all other animals because of a sudden transformational change that occurred around 35,000 years ago. For millions of years our ancestors had trudged through existence with the same simple tool kit, yet in that special moment, there was a flowering of symbolism, of art, of complicated tool use. This was when the modern human mind was born. You could see its traces in the archaeological record.

. . .

In “The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention,” Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist and the director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, contributes a new version of this cognitive revolution. Baron-Cohen argues that humans split off from all other animals to become the “scientific and technological masters of our planet” because we evolved a unique piece of mental equipment that he calls the Systemizing Mechanism. It came into being between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago, and it led to the invention of pretty much everything, bows and arrows, pottery, agriculture, science, skateboards and so on.

. . .

Here’s how the mechanism works: Humans alone observe the world and ask questions that demand why, how and what. They answer their questions by looking for if-and-then patterns, such as, if I boil an egg for eight minutes, then the yolk will be hard, and if I boil an egg for four minutes, then the yolk will be soft. They use those patterns to build theories, which they then repeatedly test, looking always for systems to further employ and exploit.

Grand theories aside, Baron-Cohen is at his most striking when he writes about people with autism, like Jonah, who was slow to talk but who taught himself to read. When Jonah eventually learned to speak, he used language less as a tool for communication than as a system for categorizing the world around him. As a young child, he was endlessly fascinated by how things worked, and he spent hours experimenting, like flipping a light switch on and off to test and retest its effect. At school he showed great brilliance in his observations about the natural world, he was a “born pattern seeker,” but at the same time he was taunted by other children for being so different. In group reading time, which he hated, he would shut his eyes and put his fingers in his ears. Jonah’s weekend hobby as a young man was helping fishermen locate shoals by being able to read the signs from surface waves. Yet despite his incredible talents, Jonah was lonely and frustrated because he couldn’t find a job that would allow him to live an independent life. Baron-Cohen argues with feeling and conviction that society must do a better job of making room for people like Jonah, and that it will benefit enormously when it does.

For the full review, see:

Christine Kenneally. “Systematizers.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, December 20, 2020): 9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Dec. 9, 2020, and has the title “Does Autism Hold the Key to What Makes Humans Special?.”)

The book under review is:

Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Freireich on Chemo-Cocktail Cure for Childhood Leukemia: “I Thought About It and I Knew It Would Work”

(p. A20) Dr. Emil Freireich, a renowned cancer doctor and relentless researcher who helped devise treatments for childhood leukemia that transformed the lives of patients thought to have little hope of survival, died on Feb. 1 [2021] at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he had worked since 1965.

. . .

When Dr. Freireich (pronounced FRY-rike) started work at the N.C.I., in Bethesda, Md., in 1955, acute childhood leukemia was considered a death sentence. Entering the ward where the children were being treated, he recalled their hemorrhaging because their blood had virtually no platelets, the disc-shaped cells that clot blood.

. . .

Dr. Freireich, a hematologist and oncologist, tested his hypothesis that the lack of platelets was causing the hemorrhaging by mixing some of his own blood with some of the children’s.

“Would it behave normally?” he said in interview for an N.C.I. oral history project in 1997. “Sure enough, it did.”

Further testing, done to persuade his skeptics at the cancer institute, proved him right.

. . .

. . . Dr. Freireich’s most important and most enduring achievement was in using a combination of drugs to send leukemia into remission. He explored options in chemotherapy with several N.C.I. colleagues, including Dr. Emil Frei III, who was known as Tom.

They made an aggressive assault on childhood leukemia by devising a cocktail of four drugs that would be administered simultaneously — a technique similar to the three-drug regimen used to treat tuberculosis — so that each one would attack a different aspect of the physiology of the cancer cells.

“It was crazy,” Dr. Freireich told Mr. Gladwell. “But smart and correct. I thought about it and I knew it would work. It was like the platelets. It had to work!”

But not without peril and concern. Some of the children nearly died from the drugs. Critics called Dr. Freireich inhumane for experimenting with his young patients.

“Instead, 90 percent went into remission immediately,” he told USA Today in 2015. “It was magical.” But temporary. One round of the cocktail was not enough to eliminate all the cancer, so Dr. Freireich and his team treated them with the drugs monthly for more than a year.

. . .

Dr. Freireich compared his early fight to cure childhood leukemia to being in a battle in which he and the N.C.I. team had an alliance that was “forged under fire.”

To cure cancer, he added: “Motivate people and give them the opportunity. People are innately motivated. Nobody likes to be lazy and do nothing. Everybody wants to be significant.”

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Sandomir. “Emil Freireich, 93, Pioneering Researcher and Cancer Doctor, Is Dead.” The New York Times (Saturday, February 13, 2021): A20.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Feb. 8, 2021, and has the title “Emil Freireich, Groundbreaking Cancer Researcher, Dies at 93.”)

Malcolm Gladwell devoted a chapter to Freireich in Gladwell’s book:

Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

Quiet, Modest Steinsberger Said Scientists Should “Be Interested in Learning About Nature,” Not in Seeking Prizes

(p. B12) Jack Steinberger, who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics for expanding understanding of the ghostly neutrino, a staggeringly ubiquitous subatomic particle, died on Saturday [Dec. 12, 2020] at his home in Geneva.

. . .

In 1988, The Economist said Dr. Steinberger “enjoys a reputation as one of the finest experimental physicists in the world.” The magazine continued, “In a field full of flamboyance and a fair bit of arrogance, he is a quiet, modest man; something of a physicist’s physicist.”

As if to prove the point, Dr. Steinberger told a meeting of Nobel laureates in 2008 that scientists should “be interested in learning about nature,” not prizes.

“The pretension that some of us are better than others,” he said, “I don’t think is a very good thing.”

For the full obituary, see:

Douglas Martin. “Jack Steinberger, Physicist Awarded a Joint Nobel Prize, Is Dead at 99.” The New York Times (Thursday, December 17, 2020): B12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Jan. 20, 2021, and has the title “Jack Steinberger, Nobel Winner in Physics, Dies at 99.”)