Rate of Inflation Is Still a “Mystery” to Economists

(p. A2) CLEVELAND–Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen on Tuesday [Sept. 26, 2017] defended the central bank’s projection for a gradual path of rate increases over the next few years despite the past few months of unexpectedly low inflation.
. . .
Inflation, under the Fed’s preferred measure, has undershot the central bank’s 2% target for much of the past five years. Although Ms. Yellen said she expects inflation to gradually move up to the target, she acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding that prediction.
. . .
“How should policy be formulated in the face of such significant uncertainties? In my view, it strengthens the case for a gradual pace of adjustments,” Ms. Yellen told a National Association for Business Economics conference in Cleveland.
. . .
Still, the Fed’s understanding of inflation is “imperfect,” she said, calling the shortfall in inflation “a mystery.” “We recognize that something more persistent may be responsible for the current undershooting.”

For the full story, see:
David Harrison. “Yellen Firm on Rates; Inflation a ‘Mystery’.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., Sept. 27, 2017): A2.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 26, 2017, and has the title “Yellen Defends Fed Rate-Rise Plan Despite ‘Mystery’ of Low Inflation.”)

More Cures If Local Physicians Can Conduct Clinical Trials

(p. A17) The good news is that technology innovations are moving us toward modern clinical trial designs. Electronic health records, now common in U.S. medical practices, allow physicians to collect timely and detailed data that could be used for exploring ways of bringing clinical research directly to patients. Those records are becoming the technological building blocks of a new research model based on real-world evidence, which aims to provide insights regarding the usage and potential benefits or risks of a drug by analyzing patient data collected as part of routine delivery of care.
Real-world evidence captures the experience of real-world patients, who are generally more diverse than the selective cohorts enrolled in clinical trials. Additionally, real-world data from electronic health records may be used after a drug’s approval to answer important questions about its use. Researchers can, for example, search through anonymized data from patients taking a specific cancer drug to see whether those with a certain tumor mutation respond better or worse than other patients. Such information could help doctors personalize therapies based on the patient’s genomic makeup.
Moving clinical research to a doctor’s office, the point of routine care, may also address the difficulties patients and doctors face with off-label drugs. If local physicians can participate in conducting real-world randomized clinical trials in their own practices, new uses of approved drugs could be carefully studied, potentially generating evidence supporting approval of a new use. Real-world clinical trials could also limit disruptions to patients’ lives by reducing the need for long-distance travel.

For the full commentary, see:
Amy Abernethy and Sean Khozin. “Clinical Drug Trials May Be Coming to Your Doctor’s Office; Electronic medical records make possible a new research model based on real-world evidence.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., Sept. 13, 2017): A17.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 12, 2017.)

Amateur Archaeologists Uncover Most Important Roman Site in Half Century

(p. A6) BOXFORD, England — Their ages range from 9 to about 80. They include a butcher and a builder. Some devoted vacation days to laboring on their hands and knees in an open field.
The group of amateur archaeologists — 55 in all, though only two dozen toiled on a typical day — were part of an excavation project near the village of Boxford, in southern England. They had to contend not just with days of backbreaking work, but also with a daunting, two-week deadline to complete the challenging dig.
Their commitment was handsomely repaid, though, in a few magical moments one Saturday last month. As a layer of soil was carefully scooped away, small, muddy pieces of red-colored tiling glinted in the sunlight, probably for the first time in more than one and a half millenniums.
The mosaic that slowly emerged from the earth is part of a Roman villa, thought to date from 380 A.D., toward the end of the period of Roman domination of England. The find is being described as the most important of its type in Britain in more than half a century, and in this picturesque, riverside village of thatched cottages, the scale of the discovery is still sinking in.
. . .
“It was down to the volunteers, it really was. I get quite emotional about it; it was something to see their drive,” added Mr. Nichol, project officer for Cotswold Archaeology, a company whose normal work includes helping real estate developers preserve archaeological finds.
. . .
So for the organizers, it was a relief, rather than a disappointment, when the earth was pushed back to conceal their discovery.
The night before that was done, Mr. Nichol decided to keep watch over the site from his S.U.V. with a supply of food, a sleeping bag and a bottle of red wine, all donated by volunteers.
The Roman owner of the villa would have invited guests to eat and drink on this spot, using the mosaic as a talking point, so a mildly bacchanalian vigil did not seem out of place.
“I was on my own in the field; it was incredible,” Mr. Nichol said. He described how, in the solitude, he felt drawn back across the centuries to experience a unique connection to the more-than-1,600-year-old archaeological site, and to the mythological images of its extraordinary, colorful mosaic.
“The wine did help,” he added.

For the full story, see:
STEPHEN CASTLE. “BOXFORD JOURNAL; A Link to Roman Era Is Unearthed in the English Countryside.” The New York Times (Tues., SEPT. 19, 2017): A6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date SEPT. 18, 2017, and has the title “BOXFORD JOURNAL; Amateur U.K. Archaeologists Stumble on a Roman Masterpiece.”)

Amateur Inventors Are Crowdsourced to Solve Scientific Problems

(p. A3) At his laboratory console, Rhiju Das is making a game of a pressing public-health problem. He is recruiting thousands of videogamers to develop a better test for tuberculosis, which infects about one-third of the world’s population.
All they have to do is design a single molecule that can diagnose the disease in a patient’s bloodstream quickly, easily and cheaply–a task that so far has eluded public-health experts. To muster a crowd of amateurs to attempt it, Dr. Das, a biochemist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and his colleagues this week launched the OpenTB challenge on a Web-based videogame called Eterna.
“The players themselves are going to be the inventors,” said Dr. Das. “Any molecule that a top player can make in the game, we will test it in the laboratory.”
. . .
In a game called Phylo, developed at McGill University, 300,000 players have been cross-indexing disease-related DNA sequences from dozens of species. And in Quantum Moves, conceived at Aarhus University in Denmark, 10,000 players are applying the bizarre laws of quantum mechanics to improve computer design.
“The number of projects has exploded,” said McGill computer scientist Jerome Waldispuhl, who co-founded the Phylo project.
Despite initial misgivings about the accuracy of crowdsourced research, players have produced reliable results and a dozen or so peer-reviewed research papers.
Typically, the players drawn to the science games have no special scientific expertise. They usually are intrigued by the chance to make a useful contribution to research in their spare time.
. . .
By harnessing human intuition and visual perception, these crowdsourcing games highlight differences between human and machine intelligence, several game designers said. “All of these citizen-science projects are like a snapshot of what is uniquely human at the moment,” said physicist Jacob Sherson at Aarhus University who helped to design Quantum Moves.

For the full story, see:
Robert Lee Hotz. “Videogamers Wanted: to Fight TB.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., May 4, 2016): A3.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 3, 2016, and has the title “Videogamers Are Recruited to Fight Tuberculosis and Other Ills.” The sentence quoting Jerome Waldispuhl, appeared in the online, but not the print, version of the article.)

“Unfettered Science, If We Have the Courage to Let It Unfold”

(p. 26) “How to Tame a Fox” sets out to answer a simple-seeming question: What makes a dog a dog? Put another way, how did an animal that started out as a bloodthirsty predator become one that now wants nothing more than a nice belly rub and the chance to gaze adoringly at a member of another species? In the late 1950s, a Russian scientist named Dmitri Belyaev decided to address this puzzle by taking the unheard-of tack of replicating the domestication process in real time. He and his colleagues took silver foxes, widely bred in vast Siberian farms for their luxurious pelts, and made them into friendly house pets. It was a deceptively simple process: Take the puppies from only the friendliest foxes, breed them and repeat. Lyudmila Trut, the current lead researcher of the silver fox experiment, who began work as Belyaev’s intern, along with Lee Alan Dugatkin, an American scientist and writer at the University of Louisville, documents their monumental effort in this sparkling new book.
Belyaev died in 1985, but the experiment is still ongoing, with 56 generations of foxes bred to date — a far cry from the snarling creatures that used to snap at the hands of their caretakers when the research began. The new foxes run toward people, jump on the bed and nuzzle one another as well as their human caretakers. Such a behavioral transformation was to some degree expected, since they were bred from the tamest members of their groups. Perhaps more intriguing, they also look more doglike, with floppy ears, wagging tails and piebald fur.
. . .
The book, . . . , is not only about dogs, or foxes, or even science under siege from political interests. . . . It may serve — particularly now — as a parable of the lessons that can emerge from unfettered science, if we have the courage to let it unfold.

For the full review, see:
MARLENE ZUK. “Fox and Friends.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., MAY 7, 2017): 26.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 5, 2017, and has the title “How Do You Make a Fox Your Friend? Fast-Forward Evolution.”)

The book under review, is:
Dugatkin, Lee Alan, and Lyudmila Trut. How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

“The Data Run Counter to Your Anecdotes”

(p. A13) “Shattered,” by campaign reporters Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, narrates the petty bickering, foolish reasoning and sheer arrogance of a campaign that was never the sure thing that its leader and top staffers assumed. The authors, in a mostly successful attempt to get their sources to talk candidly, promised them that they wouldn’t be identified.
. . .
The juicy quotes would mean more if they were on the record, but mostly it works: You can’t pinpoint the identity of any one “top aide” or “close Hillary ally,” but the authors’ language leads you to believe they include the most senior Clinton advisers–Mr. Podesta, longtime Clinton confidante Huma Abedin, campaign manager Robby Mook, speechwriter Dan Schwerin, policy adviser Jake Sullivan –and probably the candidate herself.
. . .
Successful politicians must have a tacit sense of what voters want to hear and how they might be persuaded. Mrs. Clinton–in stark contrast to her husband–was never interested in that component of campaigning. You got the feeling she didn’t like people all that much.
Mr. Mook’s scientific “model” of how the campaign should run emphasized demographics, constituents’ voting histories, regional electoral patterns, and so on. When staffers objected to his directives, the authors record, the response was always the same: “The data,” as Mr. Mook at one point put it to former President Bill Clinton, “run counter to your anecdotes.”

For the full review, see:
Barton Swaim. “BOOKSHELF; Hillary the Unready.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., April 18, 2017): A13.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 17, 2017, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; How Hillary Lost the White House.”)

The book under review, is:
Allen, Jonathan, and Amie Parnes. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. New York: Crown, 2017.

94-Year-Old Applies for Patent on Slow-Hunch Solid State Battery

(p. 7) In 1946, a 23-year-old Army veteran named John Goodenough headed to the University of Chicago with a dream of studying physics. When he arrived, a professor warned him that he was already too old to succeed in the field.
Recently, Dr. Goodenough recounted that story for me and then laughed uproariously. He ignored the professor’s advice and today, at 94, has just set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity. He and his team at the University of Texas at Austin filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles. His announcement has caused a stir, in part, because Dr. Goodenough has done it before. In 1980, at age 57, he coinvented the lithium-ion battery that shrank power into a tiny package.
We tend to assume that creativity wanes with age. But Dr. Goodenough’s story suggests that some people actually become more creative as they grow older. Unfortunately, those late-blooming geniuses have to contend with powerful biases against them.
. . .
Years ago, he decided to create a solid battery that would be safer. Of course, in a perfect world, the “solid-state” battery would also be low-cost and lightweight. Then, two years ago, he discovered the work of Maria Helena Braga, a Portuguese physicist who, with the help of a colleague, had created a kind of glass that can replace liquid electrolytes inside batteries.
Dr. Goodenough persuaded Dr. Braga to move to Austin and join his lab. “We did some experiments to make sure the glass was dry. Then we were off to the races,” he said.
Some of his colleagues were dubious that he could pull it off. But Dr. Goodenough was not dissuaded. “I’m old enough to know you can’t close your mind to new ideas. You have to test out every possibility if you want something new.”
When I asked him about his late-life success, he said: “Some of us are turtles; we crawl and struggle along, and we haven’t maybe figured it out by the time we’re 30. But the turtles have to keep on walking.” This crawl through life can be advantageous, he pointed out, particularly if you meander around through different fields, picking up clues as you go along. Dr. Goodenough started in physics and hopped sideways into chemistry and materials science, while also keeping his eye on the social and political trends that could drive a green economy. “You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to be able to put ideas together,” he said.

For the full commentary, see:
Kennedy, Pagan. “To Be a Genius, Think Like a 94-Year-Old.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., APRIL 9, 2017): 7.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date APRIL 7, 2017.)

Since 1880 North America Is Warmer by One and a Half Degrees Fahrenheit

(p. A23) Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly.

For the full commentary, see:
Stephens, Bret. “Climate of Complete Certainty.” The New York Times (Sat., APRIL 29, 2017): A23.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date APRIL 28, 2017.)

Kenneth Arrow Had Broad Knowledge Beyond Economics

(p. A21) Professor Arrow was widely hailed as a polymath, possessing prodigious knowledge of subjects far removed from economics. Eric Maskin, a Harvard economist and fellow Nobel winner, told of a good-natured conspiracy waged by junior faculty to get the better of Professor Arrow, even if artificially. They all agreed to study the breeding habits of gray whales — a suitably abstruse topic — and gathered at an appointed date at a place where Professor Arrow would be sure to visit.
When, as expected, he showed up, they were talking out loud about the theory by a marine biologist — last name, Turner — which purported to explain how gray whales found the same breeding spot year after year. As Professor Maskin recounted the story, “Ken was silent,” and his junior colleagues amused themselves that they had for once bested their formidable professor.
Well, not so fast.
Before leaving, Professor Arrow muttered, “But I thought that Turner’s theory was entirely discredited by Spencer, who showed that the hypothesized homing mechanism couldn’t possibly work.”

For the full obituary, see:
MICHAEL M. WEINSTEIN. “Kenneth Arrow, Influential Economist and Nobel Laureate, Is Dead at 95.” The New York Times (Weds., FEB. 22, 2017): A21.
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date FEB. 21, 2017, and has the title “Kenneth Arrow, Nobel-Winning Economist Whose Influence Spanned Decades, Dies at 95.”)

Trump Victory Undercut Faith in Big Data

(p. B1) It was a rough night for number crunchers. And for the faith that people in every field — business, politics, sports and academia — have increasingly placed in the power of data.
Donald J. Trump’s victory ran counter to almost every major forecast — undercutting the belief that analyzing reams of data can accurately predict events. Voters demonstrated how much predictive analytics, and election forecasting in particular, remains a young science: . . .
. . .
(p. B5) This week’s failed election predictions suggest that the rush to exploit data may have outstripped the ability to recognize its limits.
. . .
Beyond election night, there are broader lessons that raise questions about the rush to embrace data-driven decision-making across the economy and society.
The enthusiasm for big data has been fueled by the success stories of Silicon Valley giants born on the internet, like Google, Amazon and Facebook. The digital powerhouses harvest vast amounts of user data using clever software for search, social networks and online commerce. Data is the fuel, and algorithms borrowed from the tool kit of artificial intelligence, notably machine learning, are the engine.
. . .
The danger, data experts say, lies in trusting the data analysis too much without grasping its limitations and the potentially flawed assumptions of the people who build predictive models.

For the full story, see:
STEVE LOHR and NATASHA SINGER. “How Data Failed Us in Calling an Election.” The New York Times (Sat., NOV. 10, 2016): B1 & B5.
(Note: ellipses added.)