Category: History

Peter Thiel on the funding of science

At a keynote address at the Precision Medicine World Conference, Thiel argued for enabling riskier research grant-making via institutions such as the NIH, as well as abandoning the scientific staple of the double-blind trial and encouraging the U.S. FDA to further accelerate its regulatory evaluations. He said that these deficiencies are inhibiting the ability of scientists to make major advances, despite the current environment that is flooded with capital and research talent.

Make science great again?

“There’s a story we can tell about what happened historically in how processes became bureaucratized. Early science funding was very informal – DARPA’s a little bit different – but in the 1950s and 1960s, it was very generative,” said Thiel. “You just had one person [who] knew the 20 top scientists and gave them grants – there was no up-front application process. Then gradually, as things scaled, they became formalized.

“One question is always how things scale,” he continued. “There are certain types of businesses where they work better and better at bigger and bigger scales,” he said, pointing to big tech.. “And, if big tech is an ambiguous term, I wonder whether big science is simply an oxymoron.”

He then cited the success of major scientific programs – such as the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project, the Apollo space program and Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA – that hinged on having “preexisting, idiosyncratic, quirky, decentralized scientific culture[s]” and were accelerated rapidly by a major infusion of cash.

And:

When I invest in biotech, I have a sort of a model for the type of person I’m looking to invest in,” said Thiel. “There’s sort of a bimodal distribution of scientists. You basically have people who are extremely conventional and will do experiments that will succeed but will not mean anything. These will not actually translate into anything significant, and you can tell that it is just a very incremental experiment. Then you have your various people who are crazy and want to do things that are [going to] make a very big difference. They’re, generally speaking, too crazy for anything to ever work.”

“You want to … find the people who are roughly halfway in between. There are fewer of those people because of … these institutional structures and whatnot, but I don’t think they’re nonexistent,” he continued. “My challenge to biotech venture capitalists is to find some of those people who are crazy enough to try something bold, but not so crazy that it’s going to be this mutation where they do 100 things differently.”

Here is the full story, via Bonnie Kavoussi.

Marginal Revolution University video for Anna Schwartz

It is excellent, one of my favorite MRU videos to date:

Here is some text from the release email:

The second episode of Women In Economics is out today! Join Harvard’s Claudia Goldin, UC Berkeley’s Christina Romer, and more on an insightful, engaging look at Anna Jacobson Schwartz’s life and achievements.

Did you know that Anna graduated from high school at 15?

Or that her dissertation couldn’t be published because of paper rationing during World War II? Yet despite this setback, she went on to coauthor one of the most important books about monetary policy and the Great Depression. Because of her work, she was hailed as one of the leading monetary economists of the 20th century by the end of her career!

We’re so excited to share Schwartz’s incredible story—click here to watch the video!

We’re also excited to announce our next video in our Women in Econ series, about Janet Yellen, will be released on March 8th. It will feature Yellen in her own words, along with Ben Bernanke and Christina Romer. Stay tuned!

Recommended.

Tomb Economics

The Mughals of Northern India are famous for their tombs, Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, Jahangir’s Tomb in Lahore and, of course, the Taj Mahal. Why so many tombs? Culture surely has something to do with it, although conservative Muslims tend to frown on tombs and ancestor worship as interference with the communication between man and God. Incentives are another reason.

Under the Mansabdari system which governed the nobility, the Mughal Emperor didn’t give perpetual grants of land. On death, all land that had been granted to the noble reverted back to the Emperor, effectively a 100% estate tax. In other words, land titling for the Mughal nobility was not hereditary. Since land could not be handed down to the next generation, there was very little incentive for the Mughal nobility to build palaces or the kind of ancestral homes that are common in Europe. The one exception to the rule, however, was for tombs. Tombs would not revert back to the Emperor. Hence the many Mughal tombs

Here is some lovely jali (stone lattice) work in Barber’s tomb in the Humayan tomb complex.

The Aga Khan Development Network has done some great restoration work on Isa Khan’s tomb, again in the Humayun’s tomb complex. Here’s  the ceiling and another piece of jali work.

The culture that is Brazil? (and Nazi Germany)

A video in which Brazil’s culture minister uses parts of a speech by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s propaganda boss, has sparked outrage.

In the clip posted on the ministry’s Twitter page, Roberto Alvim details an award for “heroic” and “national” art.

Lohengrin by Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer, plays in the background.

Reacting to the controversy, Mr Alvim said the speech was a “rhetorical coincidence”. Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been urged to fire him.

Mr Bolsonaro, a former army captain with a conservative social agenda, has frequently accused Brazil’s artists and cultural productions including schoolbooks and movies of “left-wing bias”. He has not commented.

In the six-minute video detailing the National Arts Awards, Mr Alvim says: “The Brazilian art of the next decade will be heroic and will be national, will be endowed with great capacity for emotional involvement… deeply linked to the urgent aspirations of our people, or else it will be nothing.”

Parts of it are identical to a speech quoted in the book Joseph Goebbels: A Biography, by German historian Peter Longerich, who has written several works on the Holocaust.

Here is the full story.

What should I ask John McWhorter?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, with an associated public event.  Here is part of his Wikipedia profile:

John Hamilton McWhorter V…is an American academic and linguist who is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations, and his writing has appeared in many prominent magazines. His research specializes on how creole languages form, and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.

So what should I ask him?

And if you wish to register for February 17, here is the link.

Damir Marusic and Aaron Sibarium interview me for *The American Interest*

It was far-ranging, here is the opening bit:

Damir Marusic for TAI: Tyler, thanks so much for joining us today. One of the themes we’re trying to grapple with here at the magazine is the perception that liberal democratic capitalism is in some kind of crisis. Is there a crisis?

TC: Crisis, what does that word mean? There’s been a crisis my whole lifetime.

And:

TC: I think addiction is an underrated issue. It’s stressed in Homer’s Odyssey and in Plato, it’s one of the classic problems of public order—yet we’ve been treating it like some little tiny annoyance, when in fact it’s a central problem for the liberal order.

And:

AS: What about co-determination?

TC: There are too many people with the right to say no in America as it is. We need to get things done speedier, with fewer obstacles that create veto points. So no, I don’t favor that.

And:

AS: John Maynard Keynes.

TC: I suppose underrated. He was a polymath. Polymaths tend to be underrated, and Keynes was a phenomenal writer. I’m not a Keynesian on macroeconomics, but when you read him, it’s so fresh and startling and just fantastic. So I’d say underrated.

And:

AS: Slavoj Zizek, the quirky communist philosopher you debated recently.

TC: Way underrated. I had breakfast with Zizek before my dialogue with him, and he’s one of the 10 people I’ve met who knows the most and can command it. Now that said, he speaks in code and he’s kind of “crazy,” and his style irritates many people because he never answers any question directly. You get his Hegelian whatever. He has his partisans who are awful, but ordinary intellectuals don’t notice him and he’s pretty phenomenal actually. So I’d say very underrated.

Here is the full interview, a podcast version is coming too.

My Conversation with the excellent Reid Hoffman

This one is better than the other available conversations with Reid, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWTeam summary:

Reid joined Tyler to talk about all these leverage points and more, including the Silicon Valley cultural meme he most disagrees with, how Wittgenstein influenced the design of LinkedIn, mystical atheism, what it was like being on Firing Line, why he’s never said anything outrageous, how he and Peter Thiel interpret The Tempest differently, the most misunderstood thing about friendship, how to improve talent certification, what’s needed from science fiction, and his three new ideas for board games.

Excerpt:

COWEN: If we think of Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, they could arguably, by the standards of many people, be called weird. I’ve reviewed all the books you’ve written and a lot of your public talks. I can’t recall you saying a single thing that’s outrageous in any way whatsoever. Why aren’t you weirder?

HOFFMAN: [laughs] Maybe I mask it better. That’s my Straussian element, that I hide my weirdness. I would say that a little bit of it comes down to a theory about what is the right way of evolving discourse.

I think I probably do have a variety of views that people would think is weird. I, for example, think of myself as a mystical atheist, which is neither the full atheist category nor any religious category, but some blend in the middle. Or the fact that I actually think that the notion of capitalism is one of the world’s leading interesting technologies, but it’s not a particularly good philosophy, and you’d think that’s odd for an entrepreneur or an investor, and so forth.

So I have areas where I would say groups of people would think I’m weird. I may not highlight it because I tend to always speak in a way to, how do I think I help us make the most progress? And I would only say the weird things if I thought that was the thing that would result from that.

COWEN: So there are weird things that are in your mind?

HOFFMAN: Yes, yeah.

And:

COWEN: How did your interest in the late Wittgenstein influence the construction and design of LinkedIn? I’m sure they ask you this all the time in interviews.

HOFFMAN: [laughs] All the time. The question I’ve always been expecting. I would say that the notion of thinking about — a central part of later Wittgenstein is to think that we play language games, that the way that we form identity and community, both of ourselves and as individuals, is the way that we discourse and the way that we see each other and the way that we elaborate language.

That pattern of which ways we communicate with each other, what’s the channel we do, and what’s the environment that we’re in comes from insights from — including later Wittgenstein, who I think was one of the best modern philosophers in thinking about how language is core to the people that we are and that we become.

COWEN: What else from philosophy influenced the construction and design of LinkedIn?

Recommended.  For help in arranging this Conversation I am very much indebted to Ben Casnocha.

Facts about deaths of Roman emperors

Of the 69 rulers of the unified Roman Empire, from Augustus (d. 14 CE) to Theodosius (d. 395 CE), 62% suffered violent death. This has been known for a while, if not quantitatively at least qualitatively. What is not known, however, and has never been examined is the time-to-violent-death of Roman emperors…

Nonparametric and parametric results show that: (i) emperors faced a significantly high risk of violent death in the first year of their rule, which is reminiscent of infant mortality in reliability engineering; (ii) their risk of violent death further increased after 12 years, which is reminiscent of wear-out period in reliability engineering; (iii) their failure rate displayed a bathtub-like curve, similar to that of a host of mechanical engineering items and electronic components. Results also showed that the stochastic process underlying the violent deaths of emperors is remarkably well captured by a (mixture) Weibull distribution.

That is from a new paper by Joseph Homer Saleh, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

China’s Great Transformation

Here is a new paper from Christopher Balding, and it seems to be connected to a larger book project:

How will China transform its economy from middle income to high income country in the coming decades? While economists spend large amounts of time studying debt and demographic challenges, I will take a wider approach to the structural challenges facing China needing to remake society from a middle income to income country.

I consider Chris to be one of the least-heralded very influential people.  Perhaps more than anyone else, he has brought many American elites around to a more hawkish view of China.

Is U.S. average body temperature decreasing?

In the US, the normal, oral temperature of adults is, on average, lower than the canonical 37°C established in the 19th century. We postulated that body temperature has decreased over time. Using measurements from three cohorts–the Union Army Veterans of the Civil War (N = 23,710; measurement years 1860–1940), the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey I (N = 15,301; 1971–1975), and the Stanford Translational Research Integrated Database Environment (N = 150,280; 2007–2017)–we determined that mean body temperature in men and women, after adjusting for age, height, weight and, in some models date and time of day, has decreased monotonically by 0.03°C per birth decade. A similar decline within the Union Army cohort as between cohorts, makes measurement error an unlikely explanation. This substantive and continuing shift in body temperature—a marker for metabolic rate—provides a framework for understanding changes in human health and longevity over 157 years.

That is from a new paper by Protsiv, Ley, Lankester, Hastie, and Parsonnet.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Slavoj Žižek on His Stubborn Attachment to Communism

There is now transcript and audio from the Holberg debate in Bergen, Norway, courtesy of the CWTeam, here is their summary of the event:

This bonus episode features audio from the Holberg Debate in Bergen, Norway between Tyler and Slavoj Žižek held on December 7, 2019. They discuss the reasons Slavoj (still) considers himself a Communist, why he considers The Handmaid’s Tale “nostalgia for the present,” what he likes about Greta Thunberg, what Marx got right about the commodification of beliefs, his concerns about ecology and surveillance in communist states like China today, the reasons academia should maintain its ‘useless character,’ his beginnings as a Heideggerian, why he is distrustful of liberal optimism, the “Fukuyama dilemma” we face, the importance of “empty manners,” and more.

Excerpt:

COWEN: You know the old joke, what’s the difference between a Communist and a Nazi? Tenure.

[laughter]

ŽIŽEK: You mean university tenure?

COWEN: Yes. It’s a joke, but the point is you don’t need Communism. You are much smarter than Communism.

I would describe the proceedings as “rollicking,” including the segment about “smoking the prick.”

Nepalese Seke clustering fact of the day

Many rare languages are at risk of disappearing, and Seke, which is spoken in just five villages in Nepal has only approximately 700 speakers left in the world, according to a recent study by the Endangered Language Alliance. The organization estimates there are roughly 100 Seke-speakers living in New York, and 50 of them live in one building in Flatbush, Brooklyn. One of the youngest residents there, Rasmina Gurung, has several relatives in the building, and is helping the Endangered Language Alliance compile a Seke-English dictionary. “I feel so much pressure,” she told the New York Times. “I need to get as much knowledge as possible. And fast.”

Here is the full story (NYT), via John Chamberlain.

40-year-old tractors are now a hot commodity

Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it’s not because they’re antiques.

Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software.

“There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Peterson said. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.”

BigIron Auctions, a Nebraska-based dealer that auctioned 3,300 pieces of farm equipment online in two days last month, sold 27 John Deere 4440 tractors through 2019.

The model, which Deere built between 1977 and 1982 at a factory in Waterloo, Iowa, was the most popular of the company’s “Iron Horse” series of tractors, which used stronger and heavier internal components to support engines with greater horsepower. The tractors featured big, safe cabins, advancing a design first seen in the 1960s that is now standard.

A sale of one of those tractors in good condition with low hours of use — the tractors typically last for 12,000 to 15,000 hours — will start a bidding war today. A 1980 John Deere 4440 with 2,147 hours on it sold for $43,500 at a farm estate auction in Lake City in April. A 1979 John Deere 4640 with only 826 hours on it sold for $61,000 at an auction in Bingham Lake in August.

Maybe there is a great tractor stagnation or in some cases even retrogression?  Here is more from Adam Belz, via Naju Mancheril.

Prediction difficulty seems to be rising

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

My main prediction for 2020, if it can be called a prediction, is trend exhaustion: For the first time in a long while, several important trends have come to an end.

What do I mean by that? Trends ebb and flow, of course, but at any given moment many of them embody one of two distinct states: momentum, or reversion to the mean. The first is a continuation of past progress, either upward or downward. The second is a movement back toward “normal,” however that may be defined.

The relevant list of exhausted trends includes the U.S. labor market, Chinese economic growth, the growth of populist parties, and numerous others.  And:

One implication is that the coming year may hold an especially large number of surprises. Alternatively, rational people (and readers of Philip Tetlock, who has studied the difficulty of forecasting the future) might discard their hubris and not be very surprised at all.

Recommended.

The Dan Wang year-end letter

Always recommended.

This year I want to discuss mostly science and technology. First, some thoughts on China’s technology efforts. Then I’ll present a few reflections on science fiction, with a focus on Philip K. Dick and Liu Cixin. Next I’ll discuss books I read on American industrial history. I save personal reflections for the end.

Dan now lives in Beijing.  He left out music, however…