Thursday, November 29, 2012

BioBash Austin Winter 2012

Dr. Matt Winkler
Dr. Paul Lammers
The Austin Chamber’s BioAustin Winter BioBash was held on November 28 at the Driskill Hotel.  About 150 of us celebrated the history of life sciences here in Central Texas with a keynote address from Dr. Matt Winkler, the chairman and CEO of Asuragen.  He was followed by Dr. Paul Lammers chairman and CEO at Mirna Therapeutics.  Mirna (from “micro RNA”), founded by Winkler, is a third-generation daughter of Ambion which Winkler created in 1989 while at the University of Texas and sold in 2005 to the Applied Biosystems Group of Applera and is now a Life Technologies label.

I first met Kyle Schulz of the Round Rock Chamber. He was there on behalf of Austin Community College, seeking to place their biotechnology students in internships with companies.  He found Maggie Bishop for me.  Maggie is with the Austin Chamber and is active on the Austin Biotech group on LinkedIn. She was the emcee for the event. (She is also on the committee to coordinate the creation of the new medical center here.)

UT researcher Scott Rynbrandt with Dr. Simona Perra.
Perra's expertise is the legal regulation of medical devices.
Standing together at a table, were Gail Darling of Gail Darling Staffing who brought her experience in federal contracting, and Nancy Goedeke whose MedMarComm provides marketing and communication services, Jason Choyce of DPR Construction, which specializes in complex projects for advanced technologies, and Kevin Fincher, a tax partner with Padgett Strateman.

Later, Gail introduced me to Stephen Frayser, the new executive director of Texas State University’s STAR Park. The 38-acre Science Technology and Advanced Research Park opened officially on November 9 to provide secure wet labs, clean rooms, and office space.

Not everyone we met had business cards.  (I ran out quickly.  After the Technical Writer cards, I was down to the Criminologist introductions.  I even gave out my Capital City Coin Club Vice President cards.)  And we met a lot of graduate and post graduate students working in university and private labs. 

Our last contacts were a trio from the Austin Technology Incubutor: Mike A. Sandoval of the IC2 Institute, Dr. Lydia V. McClure, an Accenture Venture Partner with Texas Venture Labs at the McCombs School of Business, and Michael R. Pierce also an Accenture Venture Partner.  Earlier this year, the ATI announced the launch of two companies, Savara Pharmaceuticals, and Terapio, which markets the RPLI76 protein as a countermeasure to radiation exposure and chemical threats.  About 30 companies are now in the incubator, including Alafair Bioscience, Integrated Medical Systems, Inc., Admittance Technologies, and Xeris which makes ultra-low volume biopharmaceuticals in auto-injection pens.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Where All the Children are Above Average: Advocating for the Gifted

If the Flynn Effect is valid, then public education as we have known it must change – and probably changed already. Identifying the problem (if it exists) and then marketing solutions requires the selfsame creative thinking for which the gifted have been identified.  The first challenge is that the definition of “gifted” is highly nuanced and might be intractable.  Creating a collective concept for a wide assortment of very many unusual individual cases might be counterproductive.  Two recent books demonstrate that experts who study gifted children find the results they seek. In other words, when it comes to social prejudices, scientific research is just confirmation bias supporting the attribution fallacy.

Book cover shows child looking at butterfly on tree limb with flowers
Growing Up Gifted (Seventh Edition) by Barbara Clark (Pearson 2008) is basically a textbook for teachers.  It also can serve parents, and perhaps gifteds, as an educated, intelligent mainstream guide.  The book opens with a section of five chapters on understanding gifted education and talent development.  The last two sections present existing educational processes in school and suggest models for creating and maintaining school programs.  Prof. Clark is widely recognized as an advocate for gifted education.  However, she also accepts the basic premises of public education.  Prof. Clark never questions the pseudo-science of Asperger’s Syndrome. Also, if a gifted child is an “underachiever” then the solution is to find ways to motivate them to do more and better of what others have decided is best. 

And that might be true in many cases.  But those are cases, not populations. 

The basic flaw in her thinking is confusing a taxonomy with a remedy.  Ultimately, she has many good ideas to explain her topic, for instance these presented to the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented.  But who will implement them? Even this association is for the gifted not of the gifted.  I believe that gifted and talented teachers are best able to provide for the exceptional or advanced learner. 

Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them by David Anderegg (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin 2007) slays an array of little dragons that plague nerds.  Dr. Anderegg obviously is an advocate. At the same time, though, he also seeks to deconstruct the concept of “nerd.”  Make no mistake: it is a schoolyard insult.  Whether it (and “geek”, etc.) can subsume other meanings is not clear.  So, the book is ambivalent, at once saluting nerds yet also denying that they exist.  Anderegg covers a lot of ground.  The book reads like transcribed lecture notes.  Unlike Clark, he does not buy into the theory of “Asperger’s Syndrome”. 
Book cover shows boy child of about five or sx wearing classes

Citing Richard Hofstadter, Anderegg ties the prejudice against nerds to the broad anti-intellectual streak in American culture perhaps born (if not conceived) in the Jackson-Adams presidential campaign of 1824, Emerson's "American Scholar" address and Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  Coming into the present, the boy mechanic who works on cars is not a nerd; the one who builds computers is.  The American male is man of action, not a man of thought. 
Picture shows adult man about 35 to 45 years of age wearing glasses
David Andergg, Ph.D
That reveals the autobiographical theme of this book, if the congruence between the cover and the picture of the author do not suggest this.  Anderegg’s work is about boys.  The Boy Scouts have four citations in the Index; the Cubs Scouts even get one. The Girls Scouts are mentioned once in passing (along with Boy Scouts); the Brownies do not appear. 

Anderegg does offer hope for change in the broader culture.  He cites the television shows NUMB3RS and The Beauty and the Geek. (Launched in 2007, The Big Bang Theory could not appear here.)  He also holds Harry Potter up as a paradigm.  Potter looks the part, of course; but Potter is an athlete.  His prowess at Quidditch is commanding.  (Anderegg ignores Potter’s contests against Voldemort and the forces of darkness.)

On CNN’s “Schools of Thought” blogs for November 14, 2012, Carolyn Coli presented “Ten Myths About Gifted Students and Programs for the Gifted.”  Her Myth #9: It never hurts gifted students to teach others what they already know. She pointed out correctly: “Most gifted students do not know how to tutor others. They often are frustrated that struggling students don’t understand what they perceive as easy.”  Among the replies was this two days later from Andrea Saylor:
“They wanted to test my daughter for "gifted" and I opted out. I didn't want her to be "different" from the other students. She was shy by nature. She tutored otther students and went on to be valedictorian of her graduating class. She went on to get her Masters in Psychology. She now tests students for "gifted" "special needs" "autism" etc. Funny how things turn out.”
That exchange is an example of the complexity of the issue.  Both writers were correct.  The overarching explanation is that we are all individuals and generalizations about us necessarily fail at some level.  With children who are especially talented, this is starkly apparent.  “One size fits all” is not the problem: one size may not even fit two.

As Carolyn Coli pointed out, contrary to myth not all children are gifted.  However, children do learn; and many will rise to an intellectual challenge.

What happens if you give a thousand Motorola Zoom tablet PCs to Ethiopian kids who have never even seen a printed word? Within five months, they'll start teaching themselves English while circumventing the security on your OS to customize settings and activate disabled hardware. Whoa. "Ethiopian kids hack OLPCs in 5 months with zero instruction" on Dv!ce here. 

 That story raises basic questions about the nature of public schooling in America, for gifteds or normals alike. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Shifting the Paradigm of Private Security

 Private security is fundamentally a business service. If the sign says “No Smoking” I do not care what you are smoking, just, please take it over there. This is different from public policing. Still, the intersecting set of guardian duties continues to drag into private security a large army of “cop wannabes” – those who never could be police officers because they cannot make the metrics; and those who having been police officers do not want to retire from work. Both groups are problematic. The permanent solution is to build a rational model based on empirical evidence that brings private security completely into the markets of business services and out of the public arena.
 Jane Jacobs delineated two modes of human action in Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (Random House, 1992). The commercial mode of the merchant and trader shares some intentions of the political mode of the guardian and warrior. Honesty and honor are easy analogues, as are the sanctity of contract and the duty of loyalty. Other standards are diametrically opposed. Merchants are open to strangers; guardians are closed. Traders seek voluntary agreements; warriors use force.

According to Jacobs, the political mode is common to the police and army, to charities, as well as to the Mafia, and socialist political systems. Alternately, scientists and farmers share the moral code of the merchant. When the modes cross or mix, then corruption results, as when police officers accept bribes or when businesses get laws passed for themselves.

In her book, Jacobs developed the two lists from their inherent hierarchies. To the trader collaboration with strangers is most important. For the guardian, loyalty is the primary virtue. The list can be re-arranged by similes and opposites. Some have no direct corollaries.

Consider the array of comparative virtues:

From Systems of Survival: by Jane Jacobs.

What could be changed in private security to make it more entrepreneurial and less political without risking the fundamental responsibility for the safety and security of our clients and their property? 

As businesses whose profits come from the difference between the cost of production and the market price of our services, the commercial virtues of thrift, efficiency, and productive investment speak against the rich use of leisure, distribution of largess, and ostentatious displays.

Vengeance is not appropriate to private guard companies. Although warriors and guardians engage in it, the ultimate value is putative, at best. Vengeance is not justice; it is not even retribution. It certainly has no place in the business world where competitors become partners.

Jacobs stressed the innovative and inventive nature of enterprise. The guardian virtues of obedience, hierarchy, and tradition are less salient in business. A certain level of expected obedience defines some of the relationship between the CEO and the Board, as between the line worker and the manager. But those are defined by contract. In warrior groups, any implied “contract” is secondary to the need for obedience. Military units are sacrificed and cowardice is punished. Troops are expected to fight without pay and even without food.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Formulas for Success

I spoke German to more people
this week than I did the week
that I was in Basel.
Formula 1 racing has a ten-year contract with the City of Austin.  Circuit of the Americas (COTA) received promises of $250 million ($25 million a year) from a State of Texas large event fund. This is supposed to be a reciprocal agreement based on the sales tax revenues.  Texas has no income tax, which is one reason for our continued economic survival.  Everything is funded from sales tax. (The City of Austin adds 1% for the CapMetro buses and trains.)  Apparently, Formula 1 brought 250,000 people to town for the week, about 120,000 visitors and the same number of workers to make the show happen. Congress Avenue and the side streets were blocked off from 5th to 2nd. Other large events (South by Southwest and Austin City Limits) are traditional.  A few years back, I published an article about the Great Fairs of medieval Champagne. This is like that, with one event growing into a seasonal calendar. 

From Dusk til Dawn
At the "Innotech" conference held on November 8 the 8:00 AM kickoff began with General Motors executive director for enterprise solutions Timothy Cox who outlined the new initiatives bringing this giant phoenix to Austin. Coming out of bankruptcy, GM's new IPO was the largest in Wall Street history. Insourcing and on-shoring are the parameters that define a new information infrastructure that includes supercomputers and virtual desktops for real time statistical process control.  GM is bringing 1000 new jobs to Austin. 

Automobiles are 19th century technology, but what is music? At SWSX computerist Stephen Wolfram received a "Best of Show" Award for his presentation.  Both SWSX and ACL Live have film festivals as complements.

 11:00 PM on Sunday 
as the cars were loaded on vans.
Dressed for Encounters

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Big Whimper of Modern Philosophy

The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Aristotle, Locke by Dean A. Kowalski, editor (John Wiley & Sons, 2012). 

The book is not a total loss: some interesting points, tidbits of knowledge, and some amusement are to be found.  If you love the show, you can probably stand most of this book. Overall, this was a big whimper.

These seventeen essays come mostly from professors of philosophy.  It is part of a “pop culture and philosophy” series that includes South Park and Philosophy, and The Big Lebowsky and Philosophy, among 28 titles, with more announced, including The Simpsons and Philosophy.  The non-judgmental range of titles is internally consistent with the post-modernist presentations in this book.  

The book starts out well with “Aristotle on Sheldon Cooper: Ancient Greek Meets Modern Geek” by Greg Littman (professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville).  “Should you live like Sheldon Cooper? Think hard because you don’t have the luxury of not making a choice.  Fourteen billion years after the Big Bang, evolution has finally produced a type of animal, human beings, that must choose how it will live.”  From there, entropy takes over and the observations, opinions, and “thoughts” have less potential.

Chapter 2 by editor Dean A. Kowalski does draw on The Nicomachean Ethics to analyze whether and to what extent Sheldon Cooper and the others are, indeed, friends.  In discussing science – as important to this show as alcohol was to Cheers – Jonathan Lawhead (doctoral candidate at Berkeley) taught me something I that I did not know: the word “science” was coined by William Whewell in 1834 for the activities previously called “natural philosophy.”  In point of fact (though Lawhead himself fails to note this) capitalism made science possible.  That explains the largely anti-science, anti-scientist slant of these essays.  The anti-capitalist assumptions center on the character of Stuart the comic book store owner, whom Adolphus Mackonis assumes is necessarily beneath the physicists in his grasp of truth (Chapter 12: "I am Afraid You Couldn’t be More Wrong"). 

None of the authors seems to appreciate why the show is so successful.  As philosophers (a few social scientists), they generally sneer at knowledge and those who pursue it.

Grad student W. Scott Clifton attempts to explain why it is permissible to laugh at Sheldon.  Clifton misses the laughter directed at (and with) all of the characters.  Clifton accepts the pseudo-science which places “Asperger’s Syndrome” on a continuum leading to “autism.”  (Dr. Hans Asperger was an Austrian nazi whose work was approved by the US military occupation of Germany because the Army intelligence interrogators thought that it was perfectly all right to socialize “little professors” by marching them through the woods singing songs just like the Boy Scouts they all were.)

To W. Scott Clifton, the question must be whether it is moral to laugh at Sheldon (Leonard, Raj, and the others), because he cannot see us laughing with them.  This ignorance is also reflected in Janelle Pötzsch’s essay on Wittgenstein.  Sheldon is supposedly an object of our derisive humor when he insists on literal meanings of common phrases.  “How have you been,” Penny asks.  Sheldon replies: “Well, my existence is a continuum, so I’ve been what I am at each point in the implied time period.”  For Pötzsch the obvious humor is that Sheldon Cooper misunderstands the common phrases of social engagement.  In point of fact, the humor here is that “normal” people (personified by Penny) do not understand the ambiguities they parrot when they echo what they hear without analyzing the content.  “The four corners of the Earth… sunrise, sunset …to catch a cold…to fall in love…”  (War on terror… war on drugs… homeland security… Patriot Act… public education… majority rule… guaranteed health care… family values… common sense... the five senses...)

In Chapter 9 CUNY philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci says that the humor comes from the fact that the boys attempt to apply the methods of science to all of life and life’s problems.  But that is not the case.  The humor comes from their means of application, as when the Three Stooges labor as plumbers or build a (functioning) airplane.  The task is valid – science works – but it is only that the boys are self-limited -- as are we all – or it would not be funny.  Humor is only another path to catharsis.  For catharsis to happen, you must be able to see yourself in the place of the hero. 

Obviously (and tragically) these philosophers do not see themselves as people of the mind, gaining, extending, and applying knowledge.  Rather, they are hooligans of the ivy tower, bullies who pick on nerds, only instead of hanging out in alleys and locker rooms, they occupy university classrooms. 

That those rooms are lighted, heated (or cooled), furnished and finished must seem to be some sort of metaphysical given to the writers of this anthology.  That without Sheldon, Leonard,  Amy, and the others--even Penny who brings them the food they do not prepare--they would be worse off than savages seems never to dawn upon them. 

This ignorance is not happenstance.  As Ayn Rand cogently pointed out time and again, philosophy has consequences.   Doctoral candidate in political philosophy Ruth E. Lowe displayed typical ignorance in Chapter 13 (on tolerance and toleration) when she says that “scientists told us the Earth was flat.”  They did not.  Moreover, numismatic evidence shows that ancient people knew that the Earth is a sphere. Likewise, Mackonis seems to think that if a statement is 80% likely to be true, then this somehow creates multivalued logic with an included middle, blanking out on the meaning of the claim that something is 80% likely means the claim is exactly that, and not .8 x .8 x .8 x… ad infinitum. The metaphysical altertive must be  A or non-A, even if A is a statement of probability with level of confidence and a margin of error.  

Previously on Necessary Facts:

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Metaphysics and Politics

"The gray cotton, which was neither quite fog nor clouds, hung in sloppy wads between sky and mountains, making the sky look like an old mattress spilling its stuffings down the sides of the peaks.  A crusted snow covered the ground, belonging neither to winter nor to spring. An icy moisture hung in the air, and she felt an icy pinprick once in a while, which was neither raindrop nor snowflake. The weather seemed unwilling to take a stand and hung noncommittably to some sort of road's middle; Board of Directors weather, she thought." -- Atlas Shrugged, page 486.

“All thinking is a process of identification and integration. Man perceives a blob of color; by integrating the evidence of his sight and his touch, he learns to identify it as a solid object; he learns to identify the object as a table; he learns that the table is made of wood; he learns that the wood consists of cells, that the cells consist of molecules, that the molecules consist of atoms. All through this process, the work of his mind consists of answers to a single question: What is it? His means to establish the truth of his answers is logic, and logic rests on the axiom that existence exists. Logic is the art of non-contradictory identification. ...  Truth is the recognition of reality; reason, man’s only means of knowledge, is his only standard of truth."  -- John Galt's Speech.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Patterns in Pi

Five "heads" in a row! The next toss is likely a "tails." The gambler's fallacy rests on the erroneous assmption that small subsets will correlate highly with the universal set. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (reviewed  on Necessary Facts here) demolishes this confusion of "intuitive" for "calculative" reasoning.

The following appear in pi to 100,000 places, (here). These numerical facts are highly suggestive -- and totally irrelevant.
The following runs appear:
55555 (twice)
99999 (three)
(But 44444, 77777, and 88888 do not appear at all.   President Obama insists that this is unjust and Gov. Romney insists that these are the ones that create jobs.)

The following single digits appear. (Should the government pass laws to equalize these  disparities?)

0 125 of 10004
1 167 0f 10143
2 131 of 9908
3 81 of 10028
4 92 of 9970
5 29 of 10028
6 138 of 10030
7 133 of 10028
8 25 of 9978
9 94 of 9910

The following strings appear:
02468 (four times)
13579 (twice)
34567 - 3 times
56789 - 2 times
43210 - once and none others like 98765

31415 - pi itself
31416 - pi rounded
271828 - e the base of natural logarithms

000001 once but none of the others from 000002, …,  000009)

1776 - 15 times
1492 - 5 times

2997 (the speed of light in a vacuum in meters per second) 9 times
29978 (once)
66260 - Planck's constant (662608) once
66261 - Planck's constant once

17321 - the square root of 3, once
24495 - the square root of  6 once
26458 - the square root of  7 once
33166 - the square root of  11 (twice) (but none of the others below 10)
20500 (The White House ZIP code, once.)

Does order exist, or do we project order? Or is the truth stated entirely differently from either of those?

Engines of Creation
The Genius of Design
Teaching Ethics to Engineering Students
Where all the Children are Above Average