Emerson’s Buoyancy and Resilience in Adversity

(p. C5) Life compelled Emerson to become something of an expert on resilience. As a young man he lost the love of his life, his wife Ellen, to tuberculosis when she was just 19. His oldest son, Waldo—a joyful child who seemed to concentrate in himself what was most uninhibitedly life-loving in his father—died of scarlet fever when he was 5 years old.

. . .

In the essay “Power,” Emerson writes that we carefully watch children to see if they possess “the recuperative force.” Those who instinctively retire to their rooms in sorrow when they’re slighted, miss the prize or lose the game will be at a serious disadvantage in adult life. “But,” Emerson continues, “if they have the buoyancy and resistance that preoccupies them with new interest in the new moment,—the wounds cicatrize, and the fiber is the tougher for the hurt.”

When Waldo died, Emerson needed that kind of buoyancy and resistance to overcome the greatest sadness of his life.

. . .

Emerson’s resilience was shaped by his conviction that we are mortal and there is no other life than this. Nothing can redeem the time when you did not plunge forward and do what you had to do. The moral quality Emerson commends above all others isn’t love, faith or patriotism but a commitment to work. “But do your work and I shall know you,” he writes in “Self-Reliance.”

Emerson’s commitment to rapid recovery from loss isn’t gentle or humanitarian. But it is classically American in its insistence on affirming the future over the past. For all our faults, Americans are still people who look ahead, scope the territory, move forward. When we fail at something, we give it one more go and maybe get it half right.

For the full essay, see:

Mark Edmundson. “What Emerson Can Teach Us About Resilience.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., June 19, 2021): C5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date June 18, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

Emerson’s most famous essay, “Self-Reliance,” can be found in:

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Self-Reliance and Other Essays. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.

“Old Pittsburgh Industrial Fortune” Sustained “Anti-Materialist Conceit of Auroville”

(p. C7) Utopias are not, by definition, found on this side of paradise. Yet that truth hasn’t stopped visionaries and seekers—not to mention knaves and fools—from trying to build communities on lofty principles and quixotic aspirations. One such wonderland is Auroville, a commune in India’s Tamil south whose heady origins can be traced to the incense-and-raga days of the 1960s. Akash Kapur’s “Better to Have Gone” is a haunting and elegant account of this attempt at utopia and of his family’s deep connections to it.

. . .

Mr. Kapur and his wife, Auralice—a name given to her by the Mother, who asserted the right to name all children born to her flock—both grew up in Auroville. Auralice was born in 1972, Mr. Kapur two years later. Auralice’s mother, Diane Maes, was a woman from rural Flanders who’d arrived at Auroville as an 18-year-old. Headstrong and flirtatious, she soon separated from the biological father of her daughter and took up with another Auroville man named John Walker, in many ways the book’s most compelling (and infuriating) character.

. . .

Unlike the bucolic Maes, Walker was born into privilege, his father the heir to an old Pittsburgh industrial fortune.

. . .

It’s easy to be irritated, even incensed at times, by Walker’s blithe aura of entitlement. The hardship of the early days at Auroville—when there was no running water or electricity—is mitigated in Walker’s case by his renting an air-conditioned room at a comfortable hotel in nearby Pondicherry. Whenever funds ran low, he wrote to his father for more.

Much of this money helped sustain the anti-materialist conceit of Auroville. The community depended on the bounty of rich residents like Walker, who placed their trust funds at the disposal of the Mother. Walker’s money paid for the drilling of wells, the building of roads and houses, the salaries of laborers, even Auroville’s bakery. He did not, of course, begrudge this parasitic relationship with utopia. Why would he? All he had to do was holler for dad.

For the full review, see:

Tunku Varadarajan. “Dawn of a New Humanity.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 24, 2021): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 23, 2021, and has the title “‘Better to Have Gone’ Review: Dawn of a New Humanity.”)

The book under review is:

Kapur, Akash. Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville. New York: Scribner, 2021.

Men Are More Likely to Risk Their Lives for Others

(p. A15) “T” does what all superb popular science must do: It entertains as it educates.

. . .

Ultimately, “T” is a vigorous defense of the scientific method itself. Ms. Hooven summarizes: “Multiple independent sources of evidence can combine to strongly support a hypothesis, whether it’s about the cause of a rattle in your car, why your soufflé has collapsed, or why someone blocked you on Twitter. It’s just like that in science.”

. . .

. . . she’s emphatic that high T levels do not lead inexorably to rape and murder; mountains of data disprove this fallacy. She also gives testosterone its due: Men are far more likely “to put their lives on the line for others, and are massively overrepresented in the most dangerous occupations.” She lauds the men who protected her while she conducted fieldwork in the jungles; heroism, for her, thrives at the molecular level.

For the full review, see:

Hamilton Cain. “The Hormone of the Hour.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, July 13, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 12, 2021, and has the title “‘T’ Review: Hormone of the Hour.”)

The book under review is:

Hooven, Carole. T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone That Dominates and Divides Us. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2021.

Dreams May Be a Byproduct of Brain Repair, Without Deep Meaning

(p. 20) Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a psychiatrist and pioneering sleep researcher who disputed Freud’s view that dreams held hidden psychological meaning, died on July 7 [2021] at his home in East Burke, Vt.

. . .

“He showed that sleep isn’t a nothing state,” Ralph Lydic, who conducted research with Dr. Hobson in the 1980s and is a professor of neuroscience at the University of Tennessee, said in a phone interview.

“He demonstrated that the brain is as active during R.E.M. sleep as it is during wakefulness,” he added, referring to sleep characterized by rapid eye movement. “We know as much about sleep as we do in part because of him.”

One of his most influential contributions to dream research came in 1977, when Dr. Hobson and a colleague, Robert McCarley, produced a cellular and mathematical model that they believed showed how dreams occur. Dreams, they said, are not mysterious codes sent by the subconscious but rather the brain’s attempt to attribute meaning to random firings of neurons in the brain.

This view, that dreams are the byproduct of chemical reactions, was a departure from psychological orthodoxy and heresy to Freudians, and it remains in dispute.

But to Dr. Hobson, the content of dreams was not as important as the electrical activity of the brain during the dream state.

. . .

“I’m skeptical about any absolute set of rules, scientific rules, moral rules, behavioral rules,” he said in a 2011 interview with The Boston Globe.

For the full obituary, see:

Katharine Q. Seelye. “J. Allan Hobson, 88, Who Took Sleep Seriously, Dies.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, August 1, 2021): 20.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date July 28, 2021, and has the title “Dr. J. Allan Hobson, Who Studied the Dreaming Brain, Dies at 88.”)

AI Algorithms Use Massive Data to Do “Narrow Tasks”

(p. B2) A funny thing happens among engineers and researchers who build artificial intelligence once they attain a deep level of expertise in their field. Some of them—especially those who understand what actual, biological intelligences are capable of—conclude that there’s nothing “intelligent” about AI at all.

. . .

. . . the muddle that the term AI creates fuels a tech-industry drive to claim that every system involving the least bit of machine learning qualifies as AI, and is therefore potentially revolutionary. Calling these piles of complicated math with narrow and limited utility “intelligent” also contributes to wild claims that our “AI” will soon reach human-level intelligence. These claims can spur big rounds of investment and mislead the public and policy makers who must decide how to prepare national economies for new innovations.

. . .

The tendency for CEOs and researchers alike to say that their system “understands” a given input—whether it’s gigabytes of text, images or audio—or that it can “think” about those inputs, or that it has any intention at all, are examples of what Drew McDermott, a computer scientist at Yale, once called “wishful mnemonics.” That he coined this phrase in 1976 makes it no less applicable to the present day.

“I think AI is somewhat of a misnomer,” says Daron Acemoglu, an economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose research on AI’s economic impacts requires a precise definition of the term. What we now call AI doesn’t fulfill the early dreams of the field’s founders—either to create a system that can reason as a person does, or to create tools that can augment our abilities. “Instead, it uses massive amounts of data to turn very, very narrow tasks into prediction problems,” he says.

When AI researchers say that their algorithms are good at “narrow” tasks, what they mean is that, with enough data, it’s possible to “train” their algorithms to, say, identify a cat. But unlike a human toddler, these algorithms tend not to be very adaptable. For example, if they haven’t seen cats in unusual circumstances—say, swimming—they might not be able to identify them in that context. And training an algorithm to identify cats generally doesn’t also increase its ability to identify any other kind of animal or object. Identifying dogs means more or less starting from scratch.

For the full commentary, see:

Christopher Mims. “AI’s Big Chill.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 31, 2021): B2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 30, 2021, and has the title “Artificial Intelligence’s Big Chill.” When you click on the title in the search list internal to the WSJ, you get a different title on the page of the article itself: “Why Artificial Intelligence Isn’t Intelligent.”)

Scientist Phillippy Co-Led DNA Completion Because Gaps “Were Just Really Bugging Me”

People with different ways of thinking are better at doing different kinds of work. For instance those who are obsessive/compulsive or have some types of Asperger’s, may be better at careful detailed work that requires perfectionism. (I do not know anything about Phillippy beyond the article quoted below, so I am in no way suggesting that he is an examplar of either of these ways of thinking.)

(p. A10) Two decades after the draft sequence of the human genome was unveiled to great fanfare, a team of 99 scientists has finally deciphered the entire thing. They have filled in vast gaps and corrected a long list of errors in previous versions, giving us a new view of our DNA.

. . .

In 2019, two scientists — Adam Phillippy, a computational biologist at the National Human Genome Research Institute, and Karen Miga, a geneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz — founded the Telomere-to-Telomere Consortium to complete the genome.

Dr. Phillippy admitted that part of his motivation for such an audacious project was that the missing gaps annoyed him. “They were just really bugging me,” he said. “You take a beautiful landscape puzzle, pull out a hundred pieces, and look at it — that’s very bothersome to a perfectionist.”

Dr. Phillippy and Dr. Miga put out a call for scientists to join them to finish the puzzle. They ended up with 99 scientists working directly on sequencing the human genome, and dozens more pitching in to make sense of the data. The researchers worked remotely through the pandemic, coordinating their efforts over Slack, a messaging app.

. . .

Dr. Altemose plans on using the complete genome to explore a particularly mysterious region in each chromosome known as the centromere. Instead of storing genes, centromeres anchor proteins that move chromosomes around a cell as it divides. The centromere region contains thousands of repeated segments of DNA.

In their first look, Dr. Altemose and his colleagues were struck by how different centromere regions can be from one person to another. That observation suggests that centromeres have been evolving rapidly, as mutations insert new pieces of repeating DNA into the regions or cut other pieces out.

While some of this repeating DNA may play a role in pulling chromosomes apart, the researchers have also found new segments — some of them millions of bases long — that don’t appear to be involved. “We don’t know what they’re doing,” Dr. Altemose said.

But now that the empty zones of the genome are filled in, Dr. Altemose and his colleagues can study them up close. “I’m really excited moving forward to see all the things we can discover,” he said.

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer. “Scientists Have Finally Filled in All the Gaps in the Human Genome.” The New York Times (Saturday, July 24, 2021): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated July 26, 2021, and has the title “Scientists Finish the Human Genome at Last.”)

Entrepreneurs Hold “Business Showers” for Their Startups

(p. B1) Sid Singh, 36, was joking recently with a friend that everyone he knew seemed to be having their third baby while he was bringing something entirely different into the world. He had just quit his consulting job to build a financial coaching company. It dawned on him that he could have a baby shower for his new endeavor.

. . .

Across the United States, especially in New York City, entrepreneurs are appropriating the baby shower, an event previously reserved for expectant parents, usually mothers. The idea is that if building a business is just as compre-(p. B5)hensive (and expensive!) as having a baby, why not build in the same kind of communal support?

. . .

“I remember when I first started telling people I was pregnant, I had never been congratulated like this for anything in my life,” she said. “I know people were coming from a place of love and excitement, but for me, launching the business was that for me.”

. . .

Mr. Singh received some confused responses. “Some people thought I was hosting a baby shower for someone,” he said. “Others thought I was having a baby with someone.”

He laughed it off, but he did explain to his friends why he was doing this. “People need to understand I am basically committing my entire life to this,” he said. “I am taking the biggest risk I can.”

For the full story, see:

Alyson Krueger. “Congratulations! It’s a Start-Up.” The New York Times (Saturday, July 24, 2021): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 19, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

Founding Entrepreneurs Have Similar Brain Patterns for Their Children and Their Startups

(p. R6) A study published in the Journal of Business Venturing in March 2019 looked at the brain patterns of 21 entrepreneurs and 21 parents who weren’t entrepreneurs. The goal was to investigate why and how company founders bond with their ventures.

The result: When entrepreneurs think about their businesses, their brain patterns are very similar to the brain patterns of parents thinking about their children. Those findings shed light on why entrepreneurs run companies the way they do—and how they ought to.

. . .

In the experiment, researchers used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging to see which parts of the participants’ brains were activated by a series of pictures. Entrepreneurs were shown photos of their business—such as the logo and product or service—as well as of other companies. The parents saw images of their own children, and other people’s.

The results were very similar for both test groups. When looking at the images of their own businesses or children, they experienced significantly more activity in the caudate nuclei, regions of the brain associated with parenting, as well as pleasant sensations and rewards, according to Tom Lahti, an associate professor at the Hanken School of Economics, in Helsinki, who co-wrote the study.

Meanwhile, when the test subjects viewed the images of the other companies or children, parts of the brain associated with negative emotional experiences, the bilateral insula, were much more active.

. . .

. . ., the emotional ties help explain why so many entrepreneurs are prepared to delay monetary gratification and stick with a venture in hopes of long-term success, Dr. Lahti says. That’s akin to parents making years of sacrifices on behalf of their children.

. . .

“The lead entrepreneur needs to share the responsibilities and ownership with the co-founders,” Dr. Lahti says, adding, “In some entrepreneurial teams, the lead entrepreneur may perceive [himself or herself as] owning the venture, while the other members of the entrepreneurial team do not. This could ultimately be a recipe for disaster, because the other members may not persist in the face of difficulty and setback.”

For the full story, see:

Cheryl Winokur Munk. “My Company, My Child.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, June 3, 2021): R6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 2, 2021, and has the title “Why Many Entrepreneurs Treat Their Businesses Like Their Children.”)

The research discussed above was published in:

Lahti, Tom, Marja-Liisa Halko, Necmi Karagozoglu, and Joakim Wincent. “Why and How Do Founding Entrepreneurs Bond with Their Ventures? Neural Correlates of Entrepreneurial and Parental Bonding.” Journal of Business Venturing 34, no. 2 (March 2019): 368-88.

Serendipitous Water Cooler Collaboration “Is More Fairy Tale Than Reality”

(p. B1) When Yahoo banned working from home in 2013, the reason was one often cited in corporate America: Being in the office is essential for spontaneous collaboration and innovation.

. . .

Yet people who study the issue say there is no evidence that working in person is essential for creativity and collaboration. It may even hurt innovation, they say, because the demand for doing office work at a prescribed time and place is a big reason the American workplace has been inhospitable for many people.

“That’s led to a lot of the outcomes we see in the modern office environment — long hours, burnout, the lack of representation — because that office culture is set up for the advantage of the few, not the many,” said Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow, the real estate market-(p. B7)place.

“The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias,” he said. “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”

“All of this suggests to me that the idea of random serendipity being productive is more fairy tale than reality,” he said.

. . .

“There’s credibility behind the argument that if you put people in spaces where they are likely to collide with one another, they are likely to have a conversation,” said Ethan S. Bernstein, who teaches at Harvard Business School and studies the topic. “But is that conversation likely to be helpful for innovation, creativity, useful at all for what an organization hopes people would talk about? There, there is almost no data whatsoever.”

“All of this suggests to me that the idea of random serendipity being productive is more fairy tale than reality,” he said.

. . .

. . . Professor Bernstein found that contemporary open offices led to 70 percent fewer face-to-face interactions. People didn’t find it helpful to have so many spontaneous conversations, so they wore headphones and avoided one another.

. . .

. . . some creative professionals, like architects and designers, have been surprised at how effective remote work has been during the pandemic, while scientists and academic researchers have long worked on projects with colleagues in other places.

Requiring people to be in the office can drive out innovation, some researchers and executives said, because for many people, in-person office jobs were never a great fit. They include many women, racial minorities and people with caregiving responsibilities or disabilities. Also, people who are shy; who need to live far from the office; who are productive at odd hours; or who were excluded from golf games or happy hours.

For the full commentary, see:

Claire Cain Miller. “THE UPSHOT;Returning to the Office? The Myth of Serendipity.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, July 2, 2021): B1 & B7.

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated July 1, 2021, and has the title “THE UPSHOT; Do Chance Meetings at the Office Boost Innovation? There’s No Evidence of It.”)

The Bernstein research mentioned above is:

Bernstein, Ethan, and Ben Waber. “The Truth About Open Offices.” Harvard Business Review 97, no. 6 (Nov./Dec. 2019): 82-91.

Government Cover Ups

(p. 230) It’s hard enough to find out about the things the universe prefers to keep hidden without our government, which somebody you know must have voted for, covering up what has already been found. Sometimes, of course, it hides things to save its own neck and sometimes seemingly just for the hell of it.

Norman Maclean’s musings, quoted above, are from his wonderful prize-winning account of the Mann Gulch fire in which Wag Dodge spontaneously invented a way to save his life from the wall of fire speeding toward him:

Maclean, Norman. Young Men and Fire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017 [first edition 1992].