Tinkering with Science


From The Wall Street Journal, Matt Ridley, The Myth of Basic Science

Innovation is a mysteriously difficult thing to dictate. Technology seems to change by a sort of inexorable, evolutionary progress, which we probably cannot stop—or speed up much either. And it’s not much the product of science. Most technological breakthroughs come from technologists tinkering, not from researchers chasing hypotheses. Heretical as it may sound, “basic science” isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think.

Politicians believe that innovation can be turned on and off like a tap: You start with pure scientific insights, which then get translated into applied science, which in turn become useful technology. So what you must do, as a patriotic legislator, is to ensure that there is a ready supply of money to scientists on the top floor of their ivory towers, and lo and behold, technology will come clanking out of the pipe at the bottom of the tower.

When you examine the history of innovation, you find, again and again, that scientific breakthroughs are the effect, not the cause, of technological change. It is no accident that astronomy blossomed in the wake of the age of exploration. The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine. The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles.

Technological advances are driven by practical men who tinkered until they had better machines; abstract scientific rumination is the last thing they do. As Adam Smith, looking around the factories of 18th-century Scotland, reported in “The Wealth of Nations”: “A great part of the machines made use in manufactures…were originally the inventions of common workmen,” and many improvements had been made “by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines.”

After all, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. and Britain made huge contributions to science with negligible public funding, while Germany and France, with hefty public funding, achieved no greater results either in science or in economics. After World War II, the U.S. and Britain began to fund science heavily from the public purse. With the success of war science and of Soviet state funding that led to Sputnik, it seemed obvious that state funding must make a difference.

In 2003, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published a paperon the “sources of economic growth in OECD countries” between 1971 and 1998 and found, to its surprise, that whereas privately funded research and development stimulated economic growth, publicly funded research had no economic impact whatsoever. None. This earthshaking result has never been challenged or debunked. It is so inconvenient to the argument that science needs public funding that it is ignored.

Innovation vs Regulation


from Sultan Knish, The Technophobic Democrats


Democrats like technology the way that they like science in general, as an inspiring progressive idea, not as the messy uncertain reality that it really is. But applying their logic of “settled science”, in which a thing is assumed to work because their ideology says it should, to technology leads to disaster. Technology is a real life test of ideas. Its science is only settled when it can be objectively said to work. Healthcare.gov was an example of the GIGO principle that governs information technology and life.

That’s why Democrats hate technology. Real science doesn’t give you the results you want. It doesn’t care about your consensus or how you massaged the numbers. It gives you the results you deserve.

The new lefty Luddite loves gadgets; he just hates the limitations that make them work. He wants results without effort or error. He wants energy without pollution, consensus without experiment and products without industry. The same narcissism that causes him to reject the fact that he has to give something to get something in human affairs leads him to also reject the same principle in technology.

He wants everything his way. He thinks that makes him an innovator, when it actually makes him a regulator. Innovators understand that every effort comes with risk. Regulators seek to eliminate risk by killing innovation. The progressive Luddite believes that he can have innovation without risk. But that’s just the classic progressive fallacy of confusing regulation with innovation and control with results.

App Crazy

I feel like a dinosaur whenever I use my simple LG flip phone.  I am surrounded by iPhones and Blackberries and the growing inability of anyone to have an eye to eye conversation for thirty seconds without checking their hi-tech appendage.

I do respect the technology, but I find the constant interruption and stream distracting and inefficient.  It breaks focus.

Still the change it is bringing is significant. In the August 22 edition of New Scientist  they note that users downloaded over 1.5 BILLION apps on the iPhone alone in the first year of the iPhone App Store.  Over 64,500 NEW apps were added in the first year and 169 non-gaming apps are loaded every DAY. 1/3 of the users say that “apps have changed my life”, and app users spend 22% less time at a computer.

Like so much new technology we wonder how we ever lived without it.  We no longer find a need and fill it; we discover what we can do and then do it.

It is a poor picture of progress to do more efficiently that which does not need to be done at all. But I cannot deny the seduction.

The Twitter World

I have been blogging for two years and well over a thousand entries. I started Twittering as a means of expanding the number of readers and as an accessory to the blog. I use Twitter to share articles and sources with other readers and gain access to material others send. It has become and extension of my blog.

It seemed initially that you would follow someone who seemed to have an interest that would mesh with your estimated reader profile and then hope that they would reciprocate and then follow you. Then if you actually posted something worthwhile they would forward it around and then you would pick up even more followers.

Twitter is one of those things that if you try to figure it out beforehand you will never do it.

I loaded up a few quotes I collect on a Twitter timing device called Tweetlater. One of the quotes struck a small nerve and was retweeted by several readers (they copied my tweet and sent it the people on their list. The quote was from Edward Murrow, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”)

A mother of soldiers in Israel liked the tweet especially in light of the recent Yom Hashoah holocaust memorial. I sent her a copy of one of my original blogs “The Three Most Important Points to Understand about the Holocaust”. It was also an article published in the local newspaper a few years ago.

She complimented the article forwarded it and another Jewish Blogger/ Twitterer in Jerusalem who forwarded it to a Jewish guy in Anchorage, Alaska who also forwarded it with his praises.
The point of this story is trying to understand how these new social networks changes things. The right wingers post their right wing stuff, and the left wing posts their left wing stuff, and somewhere in there are people who just think for themselves and share interesting perspectives and common interests.

But in the course of a few hours I was able to share a perspective with fellow yids and non yids from Anchorage to Jerusalem.

I am not sure what the total significance of this is but I realize it is amazing. The entire internet universe is a virtual magazine with thousands of people with similar interests editing and sending articles and blogs to people with similar interests. The consumers produce and forward content.

The walls between producers and consumers of content are gone.

A different post on the Zayela episode in Honduras is picked up by Twitterers there and pictures and opinions are relayed back as I now quickly connect with eye witnesses and opinion first hand. I now have Facebook postings from new ‘friends’ in Honduras as a result, though I now need to brush up on my spanish.

Drive by Facebook

I have to confess that I am impressed by this Facebook phenomenon. It has opened up a whole new aspect of networking. I can keep up with so many interesting people I have met so easily.

Like any technology it has to be consciously managed. I have certain rules. While I observe exchanges between my daughter and her social networks I avoid participating in it, out of fear of intruding into her circle of friends.

I avoid exchanges that require work like “25 things about you.” One of my wife’s friends refers to being a “drive by Facebook” participant. Facebook is a great way to keep up with a lot of people QUICKLY.

Lastly, while avoiding overtly political and religious proselytizing, I will share articles that I think offer some depth into a subject, though others may simply disagree. On Facebook it is easy to move on and not bogged down in different opinions.

Friends can disagree and still be friends.