Friday, June 24, 2016

Trump's attack on the "Mexican" judge has a basis in a liberal worldview

Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was born in Indiana to parents of Mexican origin and belongs to an association of lawyers of Mexican origin, is sitting on a case in the Southern District of California that charges fraud against Trump University. Donald Trump in recent days has attracted much attention by suggesting that Judge Curiel should be disqualified for bias because the judge’s rulings are adverse to Mr. Trump and because, in campaigning for the presidency, the candidate has criticized Mexicans and proposed building a wall on the southwest U.S. border.

Mr. Trump’s claim against Judge Curiel is both baseless and squalid, but some in the chorus of critics are not themselves entirely without fault. ...

After all, suggesting that a judge would allow his ethnic ancestry to govern his rulings is simply unacceptable in America.

Or is it?

Following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. When some on the left questioned the nomination of a man in his 60s who is of the Jewish faith, the president conceded that Judge Garland is indeed “a white guy, but he’s a really outstanding jurist.” Note the “but,” which may well have been inserted for the benefit of the questioner, and perhaps in a mild jest, but it is nonetheless there, whether meant to represent the president’s values or those of his interlocutor.

Before her 2009 elevation to the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor once gave a speech saying that she hoped “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” The president who appointed her said he was seeking judges who have “empathy” with those who appear before them.

Such pronouncements reflect how identity politics have become, increasingly and inappropriately, a part of the conversation surrounding courts and judges.

Whether they know it or not, judges demonstrate symbolically every time they mount the bench that personal considerations have no place in deciding cases. Their black robes are supposed to suggest that judges are all the same ... Donald Trump’s claims may be the dirty underside of what we get when we abandon that aspiration, but they are by no means the whole of it.

Perhaps the Chinese don't take such a long view of history

The impact of the French Revolution? “Too early to say.”

Thus did Zhou Enlai – in responding to questions in the early 1970s about the popular revolt in France almost two centuries earlier – buttress China’s reputation as a far-thinking, patient civilisation.

The former premier’s answer has become a frequently deployed cliché, used as evidence of the sage Chinese ability to think long-term – in contrast to impatient westerners.

The trouble is that Zhou was not referring to the 1789 storming of the Bastille in a discussion with Richard Nixon during the late US president’s pioneering China visit. Zhou’s answer related to events only three years earlier – the 1968 students’ riots in Paris, according to Nixon’s interpreter at the time.

At a seminar in Washington to mark the publication of Henry Kissinger’s book, On China, Chas Freeman, a retired foreign service officer, sought to correct the long-standing error.

“I distinctly remember the exchange. There was a mis­understanding that was too delicious to invite correction,” said Mr Freeman.

He said Zhou had been confused when asked about the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. “But these were exactly the kinds of terms used by the students to describe what they were up to in 1968 and that is how Zhou understood them.” ...

Dr Barme added that Chinese researchers with access to the foreign ministry archives in Beijing said that the records made clear that Zhou was referring to the 1968 riots in Paris. ...

The oft-quoted Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, does not exist in China itself, scholars say.
--Richard McGregor, Financial Times, on a gaffe spun wise

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Standing desks won't help you lose weight

So for the new experiment, which was published this month in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, researchers affiliated with the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh rounded up 74 healthy volunteers. Most were in their mid-20s, of normal weight, and with some acquaintance with office life. ...

Throughout, the volunteers wore masks that precisely measured their energy expenditure, which means how many calories they were using.

Unsurprisingly, sitting was not very taxing. The volunteers generally burned about 20 calories during their 15 minutes of sitting, whether they were typing or staring at a television screen.

More unexpected, standing up was barely more demanding. While standing for 15 minutes, the volunteers burned about 2 additional calories compared to when they sat down. ...

Over all, in fact, the researchers concluded, someone who stood up while working instead of sitting would burn about 8 or 9 extra calories per hour. (Just for comparison, a single cup of coffee with cream and sugar contains around 50 calories.)

But walking was a different matter. When the volunteers walked for 15 minutes, even at a fairly easy pace, they burned about three times as many calories as when they sat or stood.
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on why I have a treadmill desk

Friday, June 17, 2016

How bad is London's weather?

Though Britain suffered through the Blitz, it didn’t experience the devastation that befell Germany and France. [Robert] Tombs [author of The English and Their History] cites a Gallup poll from 1941 that says Londoners were more depressed by the weather than the bombing.
--Kabir Chibber, Quartz, on what's worse than Nazi bombs

Monday, June 13, 2016

Organic food isn't better for the environment

Organic farming is sold as good for the environment. This is correct for a single farm field: organic farming uses less energy, emits less greenhouse gasses, nitrous oxide and ammonia and causes less nitrogen leeching than a conventional field. But each organic field yields much, much less. So, to grow the same amount of wheat, spinach or strawberries, you need much more land. That means that average organic produce results in the emission of about as many greenhouse gasses as conventional produce; and about 10 per cent more nitrous oxide, ammonia and acidification. Worse, to produce equivalent quantities, organic farms need to occupy 84 per cent more land – land which can’t be used for forests and genuine nature reserves. For example, to produce the amount of food America does today, but organically, would require increasing its farmland by the size of almost two United Kingdoms. That is the equivalent of eradicating all parklands and wild lands in the lower 48 states.

But surely organics avoid pesticides? No. Organic farming can use any pesticide that is “natural”. This includes copper sulphate, which has resulted in liver disease in vineyard sprayers in France. Pyrethrin is another organic pesticide; one study shows a 3.7-fold increase in leukaemia among farmers who handled pyrethrins compared to those who had not.

Conventional food, it’s true, has higher pesticide contamination. Although it is still very low, this is a definite benefit of organics. However, using a rough upper estimate by the head of the US Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Toxicology, all conventional pesticide residues may cause an extra 20 cancer deaths per year in America.

This pales in comparison to the impact of organics. If all of the United States were to go organic, the cost would likely be around $200 billion annually from lower productivity. This is money we can’t spend on hospitals, pensioner care, schools, or infrastructure.

Such economic impacts also have life and death consequences. Research shows that when a nation becomes $15 million poorer, it costs one “statistical” life, because people are able to spend less on health care and good food. This means that going organic in the US will kill more than 13,000 people each year. Scaling these findings to the UK would indicate that while extra pesticides in conventional cause perhaps four deaths each year, the UK going completely organic would cost £22 billion per year, resulting in more than 2,000 extra deaths each year.
--Bjørn Lomborg, The Telegraph, on the hidden costs of organic food. HT: MM

Friday, June 10, 2016

Artificial meteor showers might become the new fireworks

When the 2020 Summer Olympics begin in Tokyo, attendees might find themselves looking up into the night sky to see an unprecedented public spectacle. If an event production firm called ALE Co. has its way, an artificial meteor shower will begin, a spray of tiny manufactured objects falling from space and igniting in the Earth’s atmosphere upon reentry.

These artificial meteors will be dropped by satellite.

Mixed in amongst the television signals and invisible communications relays bouncing down from space will be minuscule particles, only a few millimeters in size, made from elements such as lithium, calcium, strontium, rubidium, and copper, each of which releases a different hue when burned. ...

Like planet-spanning showerheads of light, such shows could augment a presidential inauguration, a state funeral, an international holiday, or even be enlisted for narrative purposes. Ten years from now, a Christmas celebration could involve a historical reenactment of the Star of Bethlehem, using a combination of Iridium flares and artificial shooting stars; famous meteors from myth and history could be recreated at appropriate times of year.
--Geoff Manaugh, The Atlantic, on upping the ante on spectacle

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Neuroscience techniques can't even help us understand Donkey Kong

...the MOS 6502 microchip contains 3510 transistors, runs Space Invaders, and wouldn’t even be the most complex object in my pocket. We know very little about how the brain works, but we understand the chip completely.

So, Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording wondered, what would happen if they studied the chip in the style of neuroscientists? How would the approaches that are being used to study the complex squishy brain fare when used on a far simpler artificial processor? ...

Even though the duo knew everything about the chip—the state of each transistor and the voltage along every wire—their inferences were trivial at best and seriously misleading at worst. ...

Last week, the duo uploaded their paper, titled “Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor?” after a classic from 2002. It reads like both a playful thought experiment (albeit one backed up with data) and a serious shot across the bow. And although it has yet to undergo formal peer review, other neuroscientists have already called it a “landmark paper”, a “watershed moment”, and “the paper we all had in our minds but didn't dare to write”. ...

Rather than working with an actual chip, Jonas and Kording used a simulation, albeit one accurate enough to run classic games like Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, and Pitfall. That gave them experimental omniscience and omnipotence—they knew everything and could tweak anything. For example, they could disable each of the chip’s transistors one at a time. And by doing so, they found several that were essential for booting up all three games, and others that were essential for just one.

Brain scientists have doing something similar for centuries, either by studying people with localized brain damage or by temporarily shutting down specific brain regions. Through such studies, they’ve labelled different areas as memory centers or language centers or emotional centers. But Jonas and Kording’s work shows why such inferences can be deceptive. They didn’t find “Donkey Kong transistors” or “Space Invaders transistors”; instead, they found components that carry out basic processes that just so happen to be important for those particular games.

They also tried out five other common approaches—the equivalents of analyzing individual neurons, or averaging activity in a small region as in fMRI brain-scanning, or taking a god-like view and look for patterns across the entire brain. None of these told the team anything useful about how the chip works. ...

To move forward, Jonas says that neuroscientists need to put more effort into testing their theories about the brain. “There are a lot of theories about how different parts of the brain might function, but they don’t make falsifiable predictions. They have so many different knobs you can turn that they can be arbitrarily extended to fit arbitrary bits of data. It’s very hard to kick any of these ideas to the curb.”
--Ed Yong, The Atlantic, on the blind men and the elephant

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The movie to broadcast after a nuclear strike the passing motorist, there is nothing about Wood Norton Hall to identify it as the site of the BBC's secret nuclear bunker. ...

While the Cabinet would be secreted away in another bunker in Corsham, Wiltshire, pre-recorded tapes kept at Wood Norton would be broadcast across the nation in the minutes before any bomb was dropped. ...

Thankfully, the bunker was never needed, although secret documents have revealed that 100 days of broadcasting was lined up and ready to play in the event of a nuclear attack. A mix of comedy, drama and religious programmes, as well as Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, was kept at the ready until 1993.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Why America is bad at building new infrastructure

Sometimes small stories capture large truths. So it is with the fiasco that is the repair of the Anderson Memorial Bridge, connecting Boston and Harvard Square. Rehabilitation of the 232-foot bridge began in 2012, at an estimated cost of about $20 million; four years later, there is no end date in sight and the cost of the project is mushrooming, to $26.5 million at last count.

This glacial pace of implementation does not reflect the intrinsic technical difficulty of the task. For comparison, the Anderson Bridge itself was originally completed in just 11 months in 1912. General George Patton constructed nearly 40 times as much bridging in six months as American soldiers crossed the Rhine to win World War II. And even modern-day examples abound; for instance, in 2011, 14 bridges in Medford were fixed in just 10 weekends. ...

In order to adhere to strict historical requirements overseen by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation had to order special bricks, cast by a company in Maine, to meet special size and appearance specifications from the bridge’s inception in 1912.

...once construction had already started on the bridge, the contractor, Barletta Heavy Division, discovered that an existing water main would need to be relocated. With the subsequent change order and additional Massachusetts Water Resources Authority permitting processes, an additional 357 days were tacked on to the original contract completion date.

To cap it off, after resisting for years the inclusion of pedestrian underpasses in bridge rehabilitation, MassDOT changed course in 2014 and agreed to revise the design so as not to preclude the construction of an underpass in the future. The contractor then had to move a major utility pipe so that an underpass could fit underneath; meanwhile, another 256 days of delay were added to the project. The entire project is now 22 months behind schedule.

Delay, then, is at one level the result of bureaucratic ineptitude and the promiscuous distribution of the power to hold things up. At another level, it is the failure of leadership to insist on reasonable accountability to meet reasonable deadlines. Perhaps, at a deeper level, it is the failure of citizenry to hold government accountable for reasonable performance — a failure that may in part reflect a lowering of expectations as trust in government declines. ...

The Anderson Bridge is approximately one-sixth the length of the bridge Julius Caesar’s men built across the Rhine in 10 days in 55 BC. Caesar’s feat is admired not just for its technical mastery but also for its boldness. An allied tribe had offered boats to carry Caesar’s troops across the river, to avoid the difficult task of bridge-building. Yet Caesar rejected this offer, on the grounds that it would not be “fitting for the prestige of Rome.”
--Lawrence Summers and Rachel Lipson, Boston Globe, on American sclerosis

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Analytics: Short words are better in Scrabble

Nigeria is beating the West at its own word game, using a strategy that sounds like Scrabble sacrilege.

By relentlessly studying short words, this country of 500 languages has risen to dominate English’s top lexical contest. ...

Once, almost all of Scrabble’s champions hailed from North America or Europe. Most stuck to a similar “long word” strategy—mastering thousands of seven- and eight-letter plays like QUIXOTRY, a 365-point-move in American Michael Cresta’s record-breaking 830 point win in 2006. ...

Global competition and computer analytics have brought that sacred Scrabble shibboleth into question, exposing the hidden risks of big words.

Risk one: Every extra letter on the board is another opening for an opponent to land their own seven-letter blockbuster.

Risk two: Every letter played gets replaced by a random tile from the bag. A bad draw can—and often does—leave players stuck for several turns without vowels or decent letter combinations. After millions of computer-simulated games, Scrabble strategists have concluded that bad draws happen more frequently than previously assumed.

So while Scrabblers still fancy bingos, they increasingly hold off on other high-scoring moves, such as six-letter words, or seven-letter terms that only use six tiles from the rack. Instead, by spelling four- or five-letter words, a player can keep their most useful tiles—like E-D or I-N-G—for the next round, a strategy called rack management. ...

Also, thanks to a design quirk, the board is oddly generous to short words. Most of the bonus squares are just four or five letters apart. ...

Nigeria’s Scrabble ambitions date to the 1990s, when several local fans convinced the dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha to make the game an official sport, a designation that brings funding. Nigeria was ostracized from the world then. Scrabble offered one area where the country could redeem its image abroad.

Nowadays, the country of 187 million stages daylong tournaments in stadiums on an almost weekly basis, often with small prizes on the line. Dozens of Scrabble clubs scout high schools for talent, sometimes poaching players. Several of Nigeria’s 36 states have a Scrabble coach on the payrolls.

Of them, Prince Anthony Ikolo was the first to glimpse the potential of the shorter-word strategy. In the late 2000s, the university mathematician had two apps—Quackle and Maven—that let him simulate tens of thousands of possible game scenarios that would result from a given move. The data showed how often a long word would leave the player vulnerable to a counterstrike or a series of bad draws.
--Drew Hinshaw and Joe Parkinson, WSJ, on less being more. HT: Jeff Mosenkis. I also noticed for the first time that the WSJ has fully succumbed to the singular "their."

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Why Koreans don't have smelly armpits

With the weather getting warmer, one of the most common complaints heard from expats is that quality deodorant is near impossible to find in Korea. ... What’s with the lack of quality deodorant in Korea?

Basically, most Koreans don’t actually need deodorant.

Several years ago, scientists discovered a gene that was dubbed “ABCC11”. The team who discovered the gene found that it was a key determinant in whether a person will produce dry or wet earwax. Since then, it has also been discovered that people who produce “wet” ear wax also produce chemicals in their armpits that cause underarm odor when metabolized by bacteria. Those who produce dry ear wax lack these chemicals.

“This key gene is basically the single determinant of whether you do produce underarm odor or not,” Ian Day, a genetic epidemiologist at the University of Bristol, told ...

More than 97% of people who are of European or African descent have the version of the gene that causes smelly underarm sweat, while most East Asians and, according to the study, almost all Koreans do not. 30-50% of People from areas such as Southern Asia, the Pacific Islands, Central Asia, Asia Minor and indigenous Americans exhibit the mutation in their ABCC11 gene that saves them from stinky armpits as well.
--Jane Mahoney, 10 Magazine, on the genetic roots of B.O. HT: JC

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

You actually like the sound of your own voice

So you hate the sound of your own voice. This complaint has become something of a cliché...

...when you hear yourself talk, the sound also comes from an extra speaker of sorts: the bones of your skull. This is known as bone conduction, meaning that when your vocal cords vibrate to produce speech, that movement also causes the bones of the skull to vibrate, and this, too, is registered in the cochlea. Bone conduction transmits lower frequencies as compared to air conduction, so this is one reason why your voice sounds so unfamiliar when it’s played back to you. When you hear the sound through your own head, your brain perceives it as being lower-pitched than it really is, because the transmission via the skull made it sound that way. ...

In a fascinating study from 2013, researchers at Albright College and Penn State Harrisburg played their study participants a variety of different voices and asked them to rate how attractive they thought the unseen speaker would likely be. The twist, however, was that the experimenters did not tell the volunteers that they would also be rating recordings of their own voices. Their results showed that people tended to unknowingly prefer their own recorded voices; they rated their own voices as being more attractive as compared to the other voices they heard, and their ratings for the attractiveness of their own voices were on average higher than the ratings that other people gave them. The researchers note, by the way, that the volunteers were informed afterward that one of the voices they heard was their own, and that they were surprised at the knowledge.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Seasonal Affective Disorder may not exist

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression... The disorder, which like an early snow often first lands in late autumn and can hang around all winter, affects an estimated 10 million Americans...

Combating SAD can lead to any number of treatments, including light therapy, vitamin D supplementation, counseling or even antidepressants.

A recent study in Clinical Psychological Science asks a question that might perplex those who feel their own psychological climate changing with the seasons: Does SAD really exist?

According to analysis of a CDC survey of 34,294 U.S. adults ranging in age from 18 to 99, no evidence exists to show that a change in depressive symptoms along with seasonal patterns. Using a combination of self-reported answers to questions screening for depression, geographic location information and seasonal weather data, the researchers did not find any evidence for SAD either in the general sample or a subset of participants who scored within the range for clinical depression. ...

The latest research echoes past studies that considered SAD with some skepticism. A 2013 published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that people often overestimate the impact of wintry skies clouding their mood. The study doesn’t refute the existence of SAD, merely that the condition is overdiagnosed.
--Talal Al-Khatib, Discovery News, on evidence of absence

Microaggressions in South Korea

I know that when people look at me when I walk down the street that they think I’m American, they think that I eat hamburgers or pizza for dinner every night and I like to go out and get drunk most nights. Korean men, like the man earlier, think that I’m probably easy and promiscuous.

On more than one occasion I’ve tried to order food in a Korean restaurant and been told by the waiter that I can’t have it because it’s too spicy for me- how do they know what my spice limit is?

I’m complimented daily on my chopstick skills.

Everyone I meet asks me if I can eat kimchi and is shocked when I say yes.

My co-workers are always shocked when I tell them that pizza isn’t actually my favourite food and that I don’t like to eat fried chicken.

9 times out of the 10 times that someone approaches me in the street, they will choose to ask me if I’m American, rather than just asking where I’m from.
--Scottish immigrant to Korea Nicole Louise on the Korean analogue of “Your English is so good!”

Friday, April 22, 2016

Yale undergrads have 2.5 hours for 2 hour final exams

Dear Instructors in Yale College:

With the end of the term upon us, we write with reminders from the Faculty Handbook and the Yale College Programs of Study. ...

Students have 30 minutes of extra time for all final examinations. The Yale College Programs of Study explains that "final examinations normally last either two or three hours but, in either case, students are permitted to take an additional half hour before being required to turn in their answers. This additional time is given for improving what has already been written, rather than for breaking new ground." Please avoid confusion by announcing this policy and writing it on the exam, with language such as: “This is a two-hour exam for which you have two and a half hours.”
--Email to Yale faculty from the deans of the Graduate School, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Yale College, on Yale undergrad privilege

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Skydiving is no longer an extreme sport

These days, jumping out of an airplane with a parachute strapped to your back is hardly the death-defying feat it once was. ...

While people do get injured skydiving, the jump is generally less fraught than the drive to the airport. All skydivers now carry reserve chutes in case something goes amiss with the first one (it rarely does). Even if you find yourself paralyzed with fear in midair, you’re likely not going to plunge to your death. A small gizmo called an automatic activation device, or AAD, will blast the canopy open for you when you reach a predetermined altitude. ...

In 2014, the last year for which complete records are available, 24 people died skydiving and 729 were injured in a total of about 3.2 million jumps. The number of annual fatalities has generally hovered in the low 20s for years, according to the USPA.
--Jonathan Welsh, WSJ, on the taming of the freefall

Monday, April 18, 2016

Moral relativism is no longer a thing

Moral relativism has been a conservative boogeyman since at least the Cold War. ... But the prevailing thought of the second decade of the 21st century is not like the mid-to late-20th century. Law, virtue, and a shame culture have risen to prominence in recent years, signaling that moral relativism may be going the way of the buggy whip. ...

Thoughtful conservatives who are less concerned with waging culture wars have begun to admit that such a shift is occurring. In The New York Times last week, David Brooks argued that while American college campuses were “awash in moral relativism” as late as the 1980s, a “shame culture” has now taken its place. The subjective morality of yesterday has been replaced by an ethical code that, if violated, results in unmerciful moral crusades on social media.

A culture of shame cannot be a culture of total relativism. One must have some moral criteria for which to decide if someone is worth shaming. ...

Although this new code is moral, it is not always designated as such. As Brooks (echoing Andy Crouch of Christianity Today) said, “Talk of good and bad has to defer to talk about respect and recognition.” No wonder many God-and-family conservatives dislike this new moral code as much as the relativism it replaced.
--Jonathan Merritt, The Atlantic, on a philosophical foundation of the new shaming culture

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lack of deadlines is deadly for researchers

In recent years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, has struggled with the logistics of evaluating a rising number of grant proposals that has propelled funding rates to historic lows. Annual or semiannual grant deadlines lead to enormous spikes in submissions, which in turn cause headaches for the program managers who have to organize merit review panels. Now, one piece of the agency has found a potentially powerful new tool to flatten the spikes and cut the number of proposals: It can simply eliminate deadlines.

This week, at an NSF geosciences advisory committee meeting, Assistant Director for Geosciences Roger Wakimoto revealed the preliminary results from a pilot program that got rid of grant proposal deadlines in favor of an anytime submission. The numbers were staggering. Across four grant programs, proposals dropped by 59% after deadlines were eliminated. ...

The no deadline idea began several years ago with a small grant program for instruments and facilities within the earth sciences division of the geosciences directorate. After making the switch in 2011, the program saw a more than 50% drop in proposals—and that number has stayed down ever since.

But many people doubted that NSF would see the same effect if officials dropped deadlines for one [of] its regular science grant programs, says Alex Isern, the head of the surface Earth processes section. So she decided to test it out. She eliminated the twice-a-year deadlines for four of her grant programs, in geobiology and low-temperature geochemistry, geomorphology and land-use dynamics, hydrological sciences, and sedimentary geology and paleobiology. NSF sent out a notice about the change at the beginning of 2015, and after a 3-month proposal hiatus, the no-deadline approach began in April 2015. The number of proposals plummeted, from 804 in 2014 to just 327 in the 11 months from April 2015 to March. ...

Feedback from scientists has been good so far, Isern adds. In a field where many scientists do field work, having no deadline makes it easier for collaborators to schedule time when they can work on a proposal. “I think they like the flexibility,” she says. “They’re able to be more thoughtful about it.” However, one scientist told Isern that he was very busy and couldn’t function without a deadline. Her response? “I’ve actually given you 365 deadlines.”

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Peter Thiel: Startups shouldn't be looking to disrupt

Silicon Valley has become obsessed with "disruption." ...

However, disruption has recently transmogrified into a self-congratulatory buzzword for anything posing as trendy and new. This seemingly trivial fad matters because it distorts an entrepreneur's self-understanding in an inherently competitive way. The concept was coined to describe threats to incumbent companies, so startups' obsession with disruption means they see themselves through older firms' eyes. If you think of yourself as an insurgent battling dark forces, it's easy to become unduly fixated on the obstacles in your path. But if you truly want to make something new, the act of creation is far more important than the old industries that might not like what you create. Indeed, if your company can be summed up by its opposition to already existing firms, it can't be completely new and it's probably not going to become a monopoly.

Disruption also attracts attention; disruptors are people who look for trouble and find it. ... Think of Napster... Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, Napster's then-teenage founders, credibly threatened to disrupt the powerful music recording industry in 1999. The next year, they made the cover of Time magazine. A year and a half after that, they ended up in bankruptcy court.

PayPal could be seen as disruptive, but we didn't try to directly challenge any large competitor. It's true that we took some business away from Visa when we popularized internet payments... But since we expanded the market for payments overall, we gave Visa far more business than we took.
--Peter Thiel, Zero to One, on the real downside of a trendy buzzword

The hottest Ph.D. market in the world

Fei-Fei Li, a Stanford University professor who is an expert in computer vision, said one of her Ph.D. candidates had an offer for a job paying more than $1 million a year, and that was only one of four from big and small companies.
--John Markoff and Steve Lohr, NYT, on the brains arms race in artificial intelligence