Modelers Can Often Obtain the Desired Result

(p. A13) After earning a master’s degree in environmental engineering in 1982, I spent most of the next 10 years building large-scale environmental computer models. My first job was as a consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency. I was hired to build a model to assess the impact of its Construction Grants Program, a nationwide effort in the 1970s and 1980s to upgrade sewer-treatment plants.
The computer model was huge–it analyzed every river, sewer treatment plant and drinking-water intake (the places in rivers where municipalities draw their water) in the country. I’ll spare you the details, but the model showed huge gains from the program as water quality improved dramatically. By the late 1980s, however, any gains from upgrading sewer treatments would be offset by the additional pollution load coming from people who moved from on-site septic tanks to public sewers, which dump the waste into rivers. Basically the model said we had hit the point of diminishing returns.
When I presented the results to the EPA official in charge, he said that I should go back and “sharpen my pencil.” I did. I reviewed assumptions, tweaked coefficients and recalibrated data. But when I reran everything the numbers didn’t change much. At our next meeting he told me to run the numbers again.
After three iterations I finally blurted out, “What number are you looking for?” He didn’t miss a beat: He told me that he needed to show $2 billion of benefits to get the program renewed. I finally turned enough knobs to get the answer he wanted, and everyone was happy.
. . .
There are no exact values for the coefficients in models such as these. There are only ranges of potential values. By moving a bunch of these parameters to one side or the other you can usually get very different results, often (surprise) in line with your initial beliefs.

For the full commentary, see:
ROBERT J. CAPRARA. “OPINION; Confessions of a Computer Modeler; Any model, including those predicting climate doom, can be tweaked to yield a desired result. I should know.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., July 9, 2014): A13.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 8, 2014.)

Curing Cancer Requires Enabling Serendipity, Not a Centrally Planned War

Happy Accidents is a wonderful book on serendipitous discovery that I ran across serendipitously. I had never heard of the author, but was interested in serendipity, so I started to collect books that Amazon says have something to do with serendipity. I let Happy Accidents sit on my shelf for about four years before starting to read.
The author is a retired, distinguished physician. The book is mainly a compendium of cases where major medical advances resulted from chance discoveries. Of course, the discoveries usually required more than just good luck. They usually required that someone was alert to the unexpected, and was willing to work in order to turn the unexpected into a cure. Their efforts are often made all the harder because of resistance from powerful incumbent “experts” and institutions. Often the discoveries go against the current theory, and are discovered by underfunded marginal outsiders.
Meyers points out that the centrally planned War on Cancer has cost the taxpayer a lot of money, and has largely failed to achieve its intended and predicted results. The reason is that you cannot centrally plan serendipity.
During the next several weeks, I will be quoting some of Meyers’ more revealing examples or thought-provoking comments.

Book discussed:
Meyers, Morton A. Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007.

Feds Threaten 14,000 Dead Men with Prison, if They Fail to Register for Draft

(p. A3) . . . the Selective Service System mistakenly sent notices to more than 14,000 Pennsylvania men born between 1893 and 1897, ordering them to register for the nation’s military draft and warning that failure to do so is “punishable by a fine and imprisonment.”
. . .
Chuck Huey, 73, of Kingston, said he got a notice addressed to his late grandfather Bert Huey, a World War I veteran who was born in 1894 and died in 1995 at age 100.
. . .
Huey said he tried calling the Selective Service but couldn’t get a live person on the line.
. . .
“You just never know. You don’t want to mess around with the federal government,” he said.

For the full story, see:
The Associated Press. “14,000 men sent draft reminders 100 years too late.” Omaha World-Herald (Fri., July 11, 2014): 3A.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Bill Gates on Xerox’s Inventions and Mistakes

(p. C3) Not long after I first met Warren Buffett back in 1991, I asked him to recommend his favorite book about business. He didn’t miss a beat: “It’s ‘Business Adventures,’ by John Brooks, ” he said. “I’ll send you my copy.” I was intrigued: I had never heard of “Business Adventures” or John Brooks.
Today, more than two decades after Warren lent it to me–and more than four decades after it was first published–“Business Adventures” remains the best business book I’ve ever read. John Brooks is still my favorite business writer. (And Warren, if you’re reading this, I still have your copy.)
. . .
One of Brooks’s most instructive stories is “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox.” (The headline alone belongs in the Journalism Hall of Fame.) The example of Xerox is one that everyone in the tech industry should study. Starting in the early ’70s, Xerox funded a huge amount of R&D that wasn’t directly related to copiers, including research that led to Ethernet networks and the first graphical user interface (the look you know today as Windows or OS X).
But because Xerox executives didn’t think these ideas fit their core business, they chose not to turn them into marketable products. Others stepped in and went to market with products based on the research that Xerox had done. Both Apple and Microsoft, for example, drew on Xerox’s work on graphical user interfaces.
I know I’m not alone in seeing this decision as a mistake on Xerox’s part. I was certainly determined to avoid it at Microsoft. I pushed hard to make sure that we kept thinking big about the opportunities created by our research in areas like computer vision and speech recognition. Many other journalists have written about Xerox, but Brooks’s article tells an important part of the company’s early story. He shows how it was built on original, outside-the-box thinking, which makes it all the more surprising that as Xerox matured, it would miss out on unconventional ideas developed by its own researchers. (To download a free e-book of “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” go to GatesNotes.com.)

For the full review, see:
BILL GATES. “My Favorite Business Book.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 12, 2014): C3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the last quoted sentence is in the location, and has the wording, of the printer version, not the online version.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 11, 2014, and has the title “Bill Gates’s Favorite Business Book.”)

The book being reviewed is:
Brooks, John. Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street. pb ed. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, Inc., 2014.

Structural Reforms Needed to Increase Innovation

(p. A13) . . . , a lack of “demand” is no longer the problem.
. . .
Where, instead, are the problems? John Taylor, Stanford’s Nick Bloom and Chicago Booth’s Steve Davis see the uncertainty induced by seat-of-the-pants policy at fault. Who wants to hire, lend or invest when the next stroke of the presidential pen or Justice Department witch hunt can undo all the hard work? Ed Prescott emphasizes large distorting taxes and intrusive regulations. The University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan deconstructs the unintended disincentives of social programs. And so forth. These problems did not cause the recession. But they are worse now, and they can impede recovery and retard growth.
These views are a lot less sexy than a unicausal “demand,” fixable by simple, magic-bullet policies. They require us to do the hard work of fixing the things we all agree need fixing: our tax code, our cronyist regulatory state, our welter of anticompetitive and anti-innovative protections, education, immigration, social program disincentives, and so on. They require “structural reform,” not “stimulus,” in policy lingo.

For the commentary, see:
JOHN H. COCHRANE. “OPINION; The Failure of Macroeconomics; When models don’t yield the spending policies they want, some Keynesians abandon models–but not the spending.” The Wall Street Journal (Thur., July 3, 2014): A13.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 2, 2014.)

Drugs May Rebuild Muscle in Frail Elderly

(p. B1) In 1997, scientist Se-Jin Lee genetically engineered “Mighty Mice” with twice as much muscle as regular rodents. Now, pharmaceutical companies are using his discovery to make drugs that could help elderly patients walk again and rebuild muscle in a range of diseases.
. . .
“I am very optimistic about these new drugs,” says Dr. Lee, a professor of molecular biology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who isn’t involved in any of the drug trials. “The fact that they’re so far along means to me they must have seen effects.”
Myostatin is a naturally occurring protein that curbs muscle growth. The drugs act by blocking it, or blocking the sites where it is detected in the body, potentially rebuilding muscle.

For the full story, see:
HESTER PLUMRIDGE and MARTA FALCONI. “Drugs Aim to Treat Frailty in Aging.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., April 28, 2014): B1-B2.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the second paragraph quoted above is divided into two mini-paragraphs in the online, but not in the print, version.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 27, 2014, and has the title “Drugs Aim to Help Elderly Rebuild Muscle.”)

Similarities Between Lucretius and Galileo

(p. 254) Like Lucretius, Galileo defended the oneness of the celestial and terrestrial world: there was no essential difference, he claimed, between the nature of the sun and the planets and the nature of the earth and its inhabitants. Like Lucretius, he believed that everything in the universe could be understood through the same disciplined use of observation and reason. Like Lucretius, he insisted on the testimony of the senses, against, if necessary, the orthodox claims of authority. Like Lucretius, he sought to work through this testimony toward a rational comprehension of the hidden structures of all things. And like Lucretius, he was convinced that these structures were by nature constituted by what he called “minims” or minimal particles, that is, constituted by a limited repertory of atoms combined in innumerable ways.

Source:
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

Under Communism People Felt They Had No Control Over Their Lives

(p. C4) “When people have to talk about Communism,” they tend to employ passive, impersonal constructions, as if they “had no influence on anything and were unwilling to take personal responsibility,” he notes in one typically observant passage. “Thus, in a situation where someone ought to say: ‘I was afraid to talk about it,’ ‘I hadn’t the courage to ask about it,’ or ‘I had no idea about it,’ they say: ‘There was no talk about it.’ ‘Nothing was known about it.’ ‘That wasn’t asked about.’ “

For the full review, see:
LARRY ROHTER. “Understanding the Land Where ‘Kafkaesque’ Was Born.” The New York Times (Mon., June 23, 2014): C4.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 22, 2014.)

The book being reviewed is:
Szczygiel, Mariusz. Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2014.

3.2 Million Waiting for Care Under England’s Single-Payer Socialized Medicine

(p. A13) . . . even as the single-payer system remains the ideal for many on the left, it’s worth examining how Britain’s NHS, established in 1948, is faring. The answer: badly. NHS England–a government body that receives about ¬£100 billion a year from the Department of Health to run England’s health-care system–reported this month that its hospital waiting lists soared to their highest point since 2006, with 3.2 million patients waiting for treatment after diagnosis. NHS England figures for July 2013 show that 508,555 people in London alone were waiting for operations or other treatments–the highest total for at least five years.
Even cancer patients have to wait: According to a June report by NHS England, more than 15% of patients referred by their general practitioner for “urgent” treatment after being diagnosed with suspected cancer waited more than 62 days–two full months–to begin their first definitive treatment.
. . .
The socialized-medicine model is struggling elsewhere in Europe as well. Even in Sweden, often heralded as the paradigm of a successful welfare state, months-long wait times for treatment routinely available in the U.S. have been widely documented.
To fix the problem, the Swedish government has aggressively introduced private-market forces into health care to improve access, quality and choices. Municipal governments have increased spending on private-care contracts by 50% in the past decade, according to N√§ringslivets Ekonomifakta, part of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, a Swedish employers’ association.

For the commentary, see:
SCOTT W. ATLAS. “OPINION; Where ObamaCare Is Going; The government single-payer model that liberals aspire to for the U.S. is increasingly in trouble around the world.” The Wall Street Journal (Thur., Aug. 14, 2014): A13.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Aug. 13, 2014.)

The Health Hazards of Government Guidelines on Salt

SaltIntakeGuidelinesGraphic2014-08-17.jpgSource of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) A long-running debate over the merits of eating less salt escalated Wednesday when one of the most comprehensive studies yet suggested cutting back on sodium too much actually poses health hazards.

Current guidelines from U.S. government agencies, the World Health Organization, the American Heart Association and other groups set daily dietary sodium targets between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams or lower, well below the average U.S. daily consumption of about 3,400 milligrams.
The new study, which tracked more than 100,000 people from 17 countries over an average of more than three years, found that those who consumed fewer than 3,000 milligrams of sodium a day had a 27% higher risk of death or a serious event such as a heart attack or stroke in that period than those whose intake was estimated at 3,000 to 6,000 milligrams. Risk of death or other major events increased with intake above 6,000 milligrams.
The findings, published in the (p. A2) New England Journal of Medicine, are the latest to challenge the benefit of aggressively low sodium targets–especially for generally healthy people. Last year, a report from the Institute of Medicine, which advises Congress on health issues, didn’t find evidence that cutting sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

For the story, see:
RON WINSLOW. “Low-Salt Diets May Pose Health Risks, Study Finds.” The Wall Street Journal (Thur., Aug. 14, 2014): A1-A2.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 13, 2014, an has the title “Low-Salt Diets May Pose Health Risks, Study Finds.”)