Monday, February 26, 2007

Chalmers Johnson interview

Chalmers Johnson interviewed on Radio Open Source, with interesting counter commentary by Thomas Barnett. See here for his views on US-China-Japan relations.
Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis is the third volume in an “inadvertent trilogy” — a sort of retirement gig, part of The American Empire Project, from an eminent UC Berkeley and UC San Diego scholar in Asian (especially Japanese) affairs.

The first volume, Blowback (2000), written just before 9.11, was an account of why something like the World Trade Center attack was bound to happen… an alternative answer to President Bush’s question, “Why do they hate us?” The term “blowback,” as he explained, is a CIA coinage that “does not mean revenge but rather retaliation for covert, illegal violence that our government has carried out abroad that it kept totally secret from the American public (even though such acts are seldom secret among the people on the receiving end).”

His second volume, The Sorrows of Empire, surveyed the vast US military establishment largely hidden from budgetary review or popular conversation: 700-plus US bases in roughly 130 countries abroad, “over two hundred military golf courses around the world, some seventy-one Learjets and other luxury aircraft to fly admirals and generals to such watering holes…” In sum, as he wrote, “As militarism, the arrogance of power, and the euphemisms required to justify imperialism inevitably conflict with America’s democratic structure of government and distort its culture and basic values, I fear that we will lose our country.”

And now, Nemesis announces that we are approaching a destination.

Chalmers Johnson and his book will be mis-classified by some as leftist, even anti-American. To my eyes and ears his Jeremiad has a classic, old-fashioned and middle-American accent. The “empire is the issue” crowd in fact spans right and left — from the late Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal through Norman Mailer to Senator Robert Byrd and Pat Buchanan. I observe that it’s only the mushy middle of the public conversation and the mainstream media that avoid the evidences of empire and the common-sense misgivings about a foreign policy of force and domination, and open contempt for “the opinions of mankind.”

The dire prophecy that Chalmers Johnson is forcing us to confront late in Bush II and the Iraq debacle comes, in fact, from a consensus of the Founding Fathers and from James Madison in particular, quoted by Johnson at some length.

In preparation for a verdict in the Libby perjury trial, let me again display one of my favorite cartoons.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The French word for entrepreneur

The Times reports that it's hard out there for an entrepreneur, especially so in France :-)

A related point worth emphasizing is that while the US NIH budget has doubled recently, support of physical science research has been flat to decreasing in real dollars. Yet, basic advances in physical science still underly many of the advances in biology and medicine. The product under development in the article is for cancer detection, but the inventor is a physicist.

NYTimes: AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — Jacques Souquet had gone through several start-ups in Seattle, but he still was not entirely prepared for beginning a high-tech company in his native France.

Failure is still a no-no here, creating a challenge for any start-up. Not to mention the idea that difficulty here seems a contradiction in terms for, after all, the word “entrepreneur” is French.

And Mr. Souquet, 58, a compact man with a gentle manner, has a lot of rules to learn. When he once had to meet a deadline, he asked his colleagues to come in on a Sunday, which they did; but Mr. Souquet got a scolding from his lawyer, who lectured about the legal limits on the French workweek.

Now, Mr. Souquet’s company is up and running smoothly, and that is a testimony to recent changes in France and greater Europe: start-ups are no longer rare. Moreover, Europe’s new entrepreneurs are turning West to learn the start-up culture bred in Silicon Valley before coming back here to apply their learning.

After the Internet bust, the number of European start-ups in the computer and telecommunications sectors began growing again in 2003, according to the Center for European Economic Research, in Mannheim, Germany. And venture capital is pouring into start-ups, which last year attracted about $970 million, the highest level in a decade since the Internet boom ended in 2000.

...Mr. Souquet’s experience illustrates how far the Continent has to go if it hopes to match the United States. He was able to lure eight of his 27 employees back from the United States. And after two years, he is preparing to offer his product in 2008, a device that measures the elasticity of living tissue, to assist doctors in diagnosing and treating cancer.

Still, Aix is not Seattle. French attitudes are a bit rigid, compared with the American approach of if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed. And French law, which mandates a 35-hour week, still crimps entrepreneurial flair.

“In a start-up environment, you cannot work a 35-hour week,” Mr. Souquet said, referring to the time he asked his colleagues to work on a Sunday. “My lawyer was furious,” he said, fearing the company could be penalized.

Mr. Souquet also recounted that at Stanford University, where he got his Ph.D. in applied physics, one of his teachers, William Shockley, a pioneer in transistors who shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics, taught by discussing failed experiments.

“Then he would turn to another page, showing why the experiment failed,” Mr. Souquet said, recalling images of his professor’s Bell Labs notebooks. “He called them constructive failures.”

Mr. Souquet’s company began with a colleague’s fear that France was failing to retain its scientists. Georges Charpak, the winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in physics, came to him.

“He told me, ‘It’s dramatic,’ ” Mr. Souquet said, describing how his French colleague begged him to help stanch a drain of French talent to the United States by promoting start-ups here. “He said his best laboratory talent was going to the United States, that he was about to lose 15 people who were being offered grants by U.C., San Diego.”

So two years ago, Mr. Souquet began gathering patents, including several from a Russian émigré, Armen Sarvazyan, whose own start-up, Artann Laboratories, in West Trenton, N.J., held key patents for working with shear waves crucial to Mr. Souquet’s device. A shear wave is so named because it moves through the body of an object, unlike a surface wave.

At his previous start-up, SonoSite, which is based in Seattle, Mr. Souquet helped develop hand-held ultrasound devices that were essentially conventional technology, drastically miniaturized.

Mr. Souquet’s latest device is “a new concept,” Mr. Sarvazyan said. “It opens an era, not only for elasticity, but for imitating the sense of touch, the feeling of a doctor,” which is now often crucial in diagnosing cancer.

Mr. Souquet had broad experience in ultrasound, having worked in the United States for Varian Semiconductor, before moving to ATL Ultrasound in Seattle. Together with a small group of ATL researchers, he founded SonoSite. When Mr. Charpak approached him, Mr. Souquet was the head of research in the medical division of Philips, the Dutch electrical giant.

Weary of the constant travel and the bureaucracy of a global giant like Philips, Mr. Souquet heeded Mr. Charpak’s cry for help. His idea, as outlined on the company’s Web site, is to develop a device that would use ultrasound to measure the elasticity of human tissue.

Since cancerous tissue loses much of its elasticity, such a device would be useful in helping diagnose and treat cancer in the breast, he said, but also the prostate gland, the thyroid and the liver.

SuperSonic Imagine, with headquarters in a glass-and-steel corporate park outside this southern French resort city, was floated with Mr. Souquet’s own savings, plus money from French government sources. Last March, a group of venture capital funds led by Crédit Agricole Private Equity pumped 10 million euros ($13 million), into the company.

Amounts of capital like this are still only a fraction of the money flowing into start-ups in the United States, but in Europe, their impact is widening. The European Private Equity and Venture Capital Association, set up in 2001, has seen its membership grow to almost 950 members. ...

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Brin and Page

An interesting profile of Google founder Sergey Brin, emphasizing his family background. Both Brin and co-founder Larry Page are from Jewish academic backgrounds -- Brin's father escaped anti-semitism in Russia and became an applied math professor at Maryland, while Page's father is a computer scientist at Michigan. Brin was rejected by MIT but luckily got into the graduate CS program at Stanford :-)

“Don’t Be Evil” always did sound a bit to me like tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

By the way, Google are obsessed with IQ as well -- for a long time they've used SAT scores, tough interviews and a university GPA-cutoff in hiring decisions.

Several years ago, Sergey and Larry visited a high school for gifted math students near Tel Aviv. When they came onto the stage of the darkened auditorium, the audience roared, as if they were rock stars. Every student there, many of them immigrants like Sergey from the former Soviet Union, knew of Google.

Larry took the podium first, urging the students to maintain a “healthy disregard for the impossible,” a favorite Google phrase. When it was Sergey’s turn to speak, he began, to the crowd’s delight, with a few words in Russian, which he still speaks at home with his parents.

“I have standard Russian-Jewish parents,” he then continued in English. “My dad is a math professor. They have a certain attitude about studies. And I think I can relate that here, because I was told that your school recently got seven out of the top 10 places in a math competition throughout all Israel.”

The students applauded their achievement and the recognition from Sergey, unaware that he was setting up a joke. “What I have to say,” he continued, “is in the words of my father: ‘What about the other three?’”

Monday, February 19, 2007

It's all about the brainpower

Bill Gates is IQ-obsessed. These days you can add Google and a host of hedge funds and startups to Goldman as the main competitors for Bill's coveted brainpower.

WSJ: (Rich Kaarlgard) Eleven years ago, while editing a tech magazine whose future would include boom and bye-bye, I caught a fantastically lucky break. I got to spend a week on the road with Bill Gates. ...

I'll never forget flying with him on the 11:30 p.m. shuttle from Logan to LaGuardia. Mr. Gates sat unrecognized, row 27, a lank-haired fellow in a rugby shirt and khakis. His eyes were glued to a book. His new friend Warren Buffett, you see, had lent him a copy of "The Intelligent Investor," Benjamin Graham's classic. Not only was pupil Gates reading it on a midnight flight, he was tapping notes into his laptop! F. Scott Fitzgerald was right. The rich are different.

Halfway through the flight, Mr. Gates closed the book, shut his computer off and we talked. Out of nowhere, he told me that he had recently figured out who his competition was. It was not Apple, Lotus or IBM. He waited a couple of beats. "It's Goldman Sachs."

"Is this a scoop? Is Microsoft getting into investment banking?"

"No," he said. "I mean the competition for talent. It's all about IQ. You win with IQ. Our only competition for IQ is the top investment banks." During that trip, I must have heard Mr. Gates mention "IQ" a hundred times.

The obsession with smarts is embedded deep in Mr. Gates's thinking and long ago was institutionalized at Microsoft. Apply for a job and you'll face an oral grilling that probes for IQ. It is oral and informal because of Griggs v. Duke Power, the 1971 Supreme Court ruling that banished written IQ tests and "tests of an abstract nature" from job applications. But Microsoft knows what it wants. It wants IQ. And Microsoft always has been savvy at getting what it wants.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The most underpaid man in America?

David Swenson, who has achieved average annual returns of 16.3 percent over the last 21 years for Yale's endowment, may be earning a full 100 times less (his compensation last year was $1.3 million) than he could running his own hedge fund. Interestingly, he's a former student of Jim Tobin and an admirer of Warren Buffet's investment philosophy.

Hmm... I do know some theorists or professors making $100k who might make $1M per year in the private sector (after some retooling), but $10M is a stretch. Swenson is definitely a special case.

NYTimes: NEWS of windfalls on Wall Street have become as common and unsurprising as rain: traders collect $50 million bonuses, top hedge fund managers haul in more than $100 million in a single year. In such gilded company, annual compensation of $1.3 million looks paltry. Yet that was how much David F. Swensen took home in 2005 for supervising Yale University’s endowment, now worth $20 billion.

Mr. Swensen, one of the most well-regarded investors in the country, never appears on lists of the most highly paid money managers. Nor has he made headlines by buying expensive homes in New York or Palm Beach or by frequenting cocktail and charity circuits. But in the competitive, performance-driven world of money managers, Mr. Swensen can boast of an extraordinary record.

During his 21 years as steward of the Yale endowment, Mr. Swensen has generated an annual compound growth rate of 16.3 percent, beating the performance of Harvard’s endowment and that of every other major school in the country over the same period, according to data compiled by Yale. Over the years, he has also routinely rebuffed lucrative offers to leave Yale and to cash in on his expertise in a much grander fashion.

“People think working for something other than the most money you could get is an odd concept, but it seems a perfectly natural concept to me,” says Mr. Swensen, a slender, soft-spoken man who looks and dresses like a high school teacher. “When I see colleagues of mine leave universities to do essentially the same thing they were doing but to get paid more, I am disappointed because there is a sense of mission,” in endowment work.

Amid outsize and often unimaginable paydays for financiers and corporate chieftains, Mr. Swensen’s philosophy may be more than simply anachronistic; in an era when many people commonly equate “successful” with the size of one’s salary, Mr. Swensen runs the risk of being dismissed as a dinosaur. Even so, he is an example of someone who has found a vibrant métier that seems to suit him perfectly, for which he is comfortably — even handsomely — paid, and from which he has absolutely no desire to leave.

“People like David who run endowments are already managing a business where their skills could be immediately transferred to the for-profit sphere at multiples of what they earn,” says Bruce Greenwald, a finance professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business.

Multiples, indeed. Mr. Swensen’s preference for his work at Yale means that he has given up at least tens of millions — if not hundreds of millions — of dollars in personal compensation over the last decade alone. But the 53-year-old economist, who has spent most of his adult career at Yale, said in an interview in the endowment’s nondescript campus office that he plans to stay at the university “as long as they are willing to have me.”

Yale has every reason to want him to stay. After joining the university’s investment office when he was just 31, Mr. Swensen moved Yale’s portfolio away from a strict menu of stocks and bonds, favoring instead more diverse instruments like hedge funds, commodities like oil and timber, and private company investments.

That strategy revolutionized endowment investing, and other schools have followed suit. Mr. Swensen’s track record and his growing cachet have helped Yale attract donors who believe that their gifts to the university will be well deployed. Although his two books, “Pioneering Portfolio Management” and the more recent “Unconventional Success,” have helped raise his profile as an investment guru, he remains ambivalent about promoting himself. He notes that there are thousands of university professors who have also forgone more lucrative careers to put their skills to work in the academic world.

Two years ago, Yale’s president, Richard C. Levin, brandished a chart at a party celebrating Mr. Swensen’s 20th anniversary at Yale; during those two decades, the university’s endowment had grown to $14 billion from $1.3 billion. The chart showed a list of those who had made the most significant financial contributions to Yale, and included names like Harkness, Beinecke and Mellon. The name at the top of the list, however, was Swensen, with a $7.8 billion contribution — Yale’s calculation of the amount by which Mr. Swensen had outperformed average university endowments during his tenure.

“Yale is the bellwether and the benchmark against which every endowment measures itself,” said J. Ezra Merkin, who runs the investment committees for Yeshiva University and the UJA-Federation of New York.

A number of high-profile endowment chiefs have recently bolted academia for the more lush pay packages offered by private funds in the for-profit sector. When Jack R. Meyer, who racked up stellar returns as the head of the Harvard endowment, gave up his post in 2005, for example, he and his team easily raised $6 billion for their new hedge fund. But Mr. Swensen says he has no desire to do something similar.

“I just had an e-mail from a friend who manages money for a wealthy family,” he said in an interview in the endowment’s plain campus office. “He was troubled by it: making wealthy people wealthier. I feel privileged to be in a place where the resources that we generate are applied to the world’s problems.”

He adds: “On one level you could always imagine some greater creature comfort or having more toys or more houses. That would be nice. But it certainly does not drive me.”

While Mr. Swensen has no say about how Yale spends the proceeds from its endowment, he is eager to note the beneficiaries. “One of the things that I care most deeply about is that notion that anyone who qualifies for admission can afford to go to Yale, and financial aid is a huge part of what the endowment does,” he says.

But some people think that he exaggerates the virtues of managing money for a nonprofit versus investing on behalf of private interests.

“If you are making money for the parents and in turn for their kids, why is that any less admirable than making it for Yale University?” asks Alan Reynolds, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research group. “For all you know the guy you are running money for is giving it all away. The presumption that it is all going into a lavish lifestyle is just a presumption.”

Mr. Swensen bristles at that observation. “I think it is extraordinarily different,” he says. “There is a clear link between the resources we generate here and doing research and providing financial assistance.

“Public service was something that always interested me when I was growing up,” he adds. “I thought that nothing would be better than to be a United States senator from Wisconsin. I could not imagine a higher calling.”

Mr. Swensen grew up in River Falls, Wis., where his father and grandfather were chemistry professors at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His mother, Grace, became a Lutheran minister after raising six children. His brother Stephen is a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, and one of his three sisters is also a minister.

His family’s pursuit of callings found its way into Mr. Swensen’s own thinking as well. “When I see colleagues of mine leave universities to do essentially the same thing they were doing but to get paid more, I am disappointed because there is a sense of mission,” he says.

That sense of mission has rubbed off on his apprentices at Yale, with the result that some major nonprofit organizations in the United States are now run by men and women who once worked for him: Seth Alexander at M.I.T., Andrew K. Golden at Princeton, D. Ellen Shuman at the Carnegie Corporation, Donna Dean at the Rockefeller Foundation and Paula Volent at Bowdoin College.

“He has this love of investments that is contagious,” says Ms. Volent, who spent four years at Yale’s investment office and now runs the investment committee at Bowdoin. “He taught us that we were in the business of making money for financial aid for students. If there was a dip in grants and you had a good endowment, you could continue on.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in economics at the River Falls campus, Mr. Swensen headed to Yale, where he received a doctorate in economics. His decision to head east surprised his family. To the Swensens, “it was as if there was something out there beyond Lake Wobegon, and David was conquering that frontier for us,” his brother Steven recalled.

At Yale, he also became close to James Tobin, a Nobel laureate in economics who believed that investment volatility was best reduced by diversifying across a far wider range of asset choices than only stocks and bonds.

Mr. Swensen then worked briefly on Wall Street, at Lehman Brothers and Salomon Brothers, an experience he describes as “intellectually fabulous but ultimately unsatisfying.”

“In the finance world it is very easy to measure winning and losing in dollars and cents,” he says. “That has always seemed to be an inadequate measure. The quality of life is a better way to measure winning and losing. Money is only one element of that.”

In 1985, Yale recruited Mr. Swensen to manage its endowment. “I took an 80 percent pay cut,” he recalls. “I was married, without kids. I was worried that I would miss the money, but then I didn’t. So I worried over nothing.”

Today, Mr. Swensen, now a divorced father of three, rides herd on about 100 money managers whom he entrusts with Yale’s money. Some of them say he is unyielding in seeking the best deals for Yale. One manager described him fondly as a real “stiff-backed Midwesterner.”

But within the clubby money management world, a Yale investment is akin to a seal of approval, and managers avidly court Mr. Swensen. They describe him as a thorough researcher who, with his team, scrutinizes his choices intensely before committing money.

One of his early investments was with Chieftain Capital Management, a firm run by Glenn Greenberg, a Yale graduate who met Mr. Swensen at a Yale fund-raiser.

“After he came to see us, he called up the chief executives at some of our largest holdings and asked them. ‘Who really knows your company well?’ ” Mr. Greenberg recalls of his first encounter with Mr. Swensen. “He wanted to know who did the best research. No other investors did research like that.”

When it comes to hedge funds, with their hefty fee structures, Mr. Swensen can be particularly tough. Tom Steyer, a Yale undergraduate, approached Mr. Swensen in 1987 to raise money for Farallon, his diversified hedge fund. “They turned us down flat,” Mr. Steyer recalled.

Like many hedge funds, Farallon charged a 1 percent management fee and took 20 percent of the profits. “David told us: ‘I don’t see why we would give you any money. You might shut down after a bad year,’ ” Mr. Steyer recalled.

It was only after Mr. Steyer swore that he wouldn’t shut down — and that he wouldn’t immediately charge Mr. Swensen 20 percent of his profits and other fees — that Mr. Swensen gave Mr. Steyer some of Yale’s money.

“If you make money personally by gathering a huge pile of assets, it is great for the management company because they make bigger fees,” Mr. Swensen says. “But if the fund goes from $2 billion or $3 billion to $20 billion, they are inevitably going to reduce their ability to generate investment returns. Size is the enemy of performance. What we need is people who define success by generating great investment returns, not by making as much money as they possibly can.”

Years ago, when Yale considered investing with ESL Partners, the hedge fund run by Edward S. Lampert, Mr. Swensen says Mr. Lampert refused to tell him what stocks ESL owned. An ESL spokesman declined to comment.

Ms. Swensen says: “If you are sitting in my position, how can you responsibly give money to a fund that won’t tell you what they are invested in? If I went to my investment committee and told them we are invested in this fund but we don’t know what the positions are, they should fire me.”

Yale did not even consider giving money to Steven Cohen, the money manager who takes 50 percent of his hedge fund’s profits. Mr. Cohen’s $12 billion fund has had a 43 percent average annualized return since 1992, but “the fees alone are enough to say I don’t want a meeting and there are enough people who put together fair deals,” Mr. Swensen says. A spokesman for Mr. Cohen declined to comment.

But once he likes an investor, Mr. Swensen tends to hang in, even in tough times. Yale weathered a 13 percent loss one year on funds invested with Water Street Capital, a hedge fund run by Gilchrist Berg. “I was a little bit shaky but David said to me, ‘We really value the relationship and we want to put more money with you,’ ” Mr. Berg recalls.

Other investors describe Mr. Swensen as an “extremely rational” contrarian. “He tries to think through what is the best opportunity,” Mr. Greenberg says. “He doesn’t care about being popular. And he is not afraid to go where other people don’t.”

Mr. Swensen considers trying to time the market a “fool’s errand.” Other managers say that his primary expertise involves spotting growth sectors in the economy and finding the best people to manage Yale’s investment in those sectors.

It is work that he loves. “You get to choose those investments that are the right fit,” he says. “I think Warren Buffett said it: It is like playing baseball when they don’t call the balls and strikes. You can wait and wait until it is a pitch you want to hit.”

Like Mr. Buffett, Mr. Swensen has developed a following. “In the endowment world, going to see David for advice is like going to the pope,” says a board member of an Ivy League university who insisted on anonymity because his board does not want him to comment on such matters publicly.

MR. SWENSEN clearly relishes how tenaciously some money managers court him. “We get lots and lots of unsolicited please and p-l-e-a-s,” he says, smiling. He also relishes the quality of people he has been able to recruit to work with him at the Yale endowment.

Mr. Swensen says he trolls for apprentices among Yale graduates because they care about the university’s mission, and he sometimes finds them in the economics course he teaches.

“I love the idea that undergraduates have this opportunity to study whatever they want,” he says. “Students will say to me, ‘What do I need to take to be attractive to an investment bank?’ I say: ‘Don’t do that. Take great classes that you like.’ “

Those who have worked with Mr. Swensen say he has successfully blended the notion of pursuing a calling with the raw mechanical discipline needed to be a winning steward of an endowment.

“I think that the success of many of the people who worked there related to this participating in seeing how good decisions were made and what constitutes good due diligence,” says Ms. Volent at Bowdoin.

In the end, Mr. Swensen says, successful investing — in fact, success in any profession — comes down to doing your job well and loving what you do.

What he demands of himself is exactly what he demands of the custodians of Yale’s capital: “People who define success by generating great returns, not by making as much money as they possibly can,” he says.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

National character?

Social scientist Geert Hofstede of the University of Maastricht has done cross cultural surveys concerning attitudes about egalitarianism, individualism, risk aversion, etc. The results are quite interesting and can be found here.

The characteristics are as follows:

Power Distance Index (PDI): the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. Higher means less egalitarian.

Individualism (IDV) (versus collectivism): Higher means more individualistic.

Masculinity (MAS): the distribution of roles between the genders. Higher means more chauvinistic.

Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI): tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. Higher score means more risk averse.

Long-Term Orientation (LTO) versus short-term orientation.

Here are two sample comparisons:

So, Americans are more egalitarian, more individualistic, more chauvinistic and less risk averse than their French cousins. They are also more egalitarian, more individualistic, similarly chauvinistic, more risk averse, and more short-term oriented than their Chinese counterparts. (Did I get all that right?)

It's just a small step to define a "metric on the space of national characters" :-)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Nobel data

Some interesting Nobel data found here. The author of the study is a professor of evolutionary psychology in the UK.

To improve the analysis I propose we remove the economics prize and replace it with the Fields Medal, and also normalize the number of winners to the size of the country/institution :-) It seems that US dominance is actually *increasing* (at least over 20 year timescales; perhaps we're past the peak by now). See related posts here.

Note that Stanford + Berkeley (the bay area, not even counting UCSF, which won 3) beats any other country over the last 20 years.

Why there should be more science Nobel Prizes – and why proportionate credit should be awarded to institutions

Charlton BG
Medical Hypotheses 2007; 68: 471-3 – doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2006.11.003


The four science Nobel prizes (physics, chemistry, medicine/ physiology and economics) have performed extremely well as a method of recognizing the highest level of achievement. The prizes exist primarily to honour individuals but also have a very important function in science generally. In particular, the institutions and nations which have educated, nurtured or supported many laureates can be identified as elite in world science. However, the limited range of subjects and a maximum of 12 laureates per year means that many major scientific achievements remain un-recognized; and relatively few universities can gather sufficient Nobel-credits to enable a precise estimate of their different level of quality. I advocate that the Nobel committee should expand the number of Nobel laureates and Prize categories as a service to world science. 1. There is a large surplus of very high quality prize candidates deserving of recognition. 2. There has been a vast expansion of research with a proliferation of major sub-disciplines in the existing categories. 3. Especially, the massive growth of the bio-medical sciences has created a shortage of Nobel recognition in this area. 4. Whole new fields of major science have emerged. I therefore suggest that the maximum of three laureates per year in the categories of physics, chemistry and economics should always be awarded, even when these prizes are for diverse and un-related achievements; that the number of laureates in the ‘biology’ category of physiology or medicine should be increased to six or preferably nine per year; and two new Prize categories should be introduced to recognize achievements in mathematics and computing science. Together, these measures would increase the science laureates from a maximum of 12 to a minimum of 24, and increase their coverage. The Nobel Prize committee should also officially allocate proportionate credit to institutions for each laureate - both in retrospect for past prizes, and in the future.

...Nobel laureates nations and research institutions were measured between 1947-2006 in 20 year segments. The minimum threshold for inclusion was 3 Nobel prizes. Credit was allocated to each laureate's institution and nation of residence at the time of award. Over 60 years, the USA has 19 institutions which won three-plus Nobel prizes in 20 years, the UK has 4, France has 2 and Sweden and USSR 1 each. Four US institutions won 3 or more prizes in all 20 year segments: Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and Caltech. The most successful institution in the past 20 years was MIT, with 11 prizes followed by Stanford (9), Columbia and Chicago (7).

Table 1 – Number of Nobel laureates by Nation – twenty year segments from 1947-2006. A minimum of three prizes in one time segment is required for inclusion.

Nation - 1947-66 - 1967-86 - 1987-2006

USA -50 - 88 - 126
UK - 20 - 25 - 9
Germany - 8 - 7 - 9
Switzerland - 3 - 7 - 7
Sweden - 3 - 7 - 1
Japan - 2 - 1 - 3
USSR/Russia - 7 - 2 - 2
France - 4 - 3 - 5

Table 2 - Number of United States Nobel laureates by Institution – twenty year segments from 1947-2006. A minimum of three prizes in one time segment is required for inclusion.

Institution - 1947-66 - 1967-86 - 1987-2006


Harvard - 9 - 13 - 5
Univ. California Berkeley - 7 - 3 - 4
Stanford - 4 - 5 - 9
Caltech - 4 - 4 - 5
Columbia - 4 - 1 - 7
Rockefeller Inst. & Univ. - 3 - 6 - 3
Chicago - 2 - 4 - 7
Princeton - 1 - 2 - 6
MIT - 1 - 5 - 11
Cornell - 1 - 4 - 2

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Murder, Mystery, M-theory?

Particle theorist Nick Evans has written a murder mystery novel set at a physics institute. The institute, modeled after Perimeter, seems to have been funded by a former physics student who becomes a tech multi-millionaire. Nick was a postdoc in our group when I was a professor at Yale. We wrote papers on topics ranging from quantum chromodynamics of dense matter to N=2 supersymmetry. He's now a professor at Southampton University in the UK. (I don't know if there's much M-theory in the novel, but it sounded better than "meson" or "mirror symmetry" :-)

I notice little diagrams of quarks, Higgs particles and neutrinos embedded in the page-turning prose. Hey, it's gotta be better than anything Dan Brown ever wrote. As Bill Cosby used to say on the Fat Albert cartoon show, "if you're not careful you may learn something!"

A younger researcher, Andreas Born, is found dead at the particle physics institute where he works. A policewoman is assigned the job of penetrating the intellectually charged atmosphere his colleagues work in. She is forced to unravel the mysterious world of subatomic particles to understand the dead man's motivations.

Meanwhile, Carl, one of Andreas' collaborators embarks on an exploration of Andreas' murky life outside physics including sex, drug dealing and bizarre alchemical experiments. Carl is followed by a mysterious stranger and must fight to preserve both his life and the relationship with his girlfriend.

Learn about the frontier of particle physics within a fast paced crime adventure.

Location, location, location

The Sunday Times on innovation and Silicon Valley. It's all true, although the author is a bit too sanguine for my taste -- he's ignoring Skype, Baidu, and a host of others. Nevertheless, if you're starting a tech company, consider moving it to the bay area. Otherwise, be prepared for the sickening feeling that you're running a race in the outside lane on a circular track.

NYTimes: In our celebrity-studded world, where we make a cult of genius and individual achievement, the mind rebels at the notion that geography trumps personality. Yet the inescapable lesson of the iPod, Google, eBay, Netflix and Silicon Valley in general is that where you live often trumps who you are.

Just ask Sim Wong Hoo. About seven years ago, I met Mr. Sim in Singapore, where he was born and was then living. He talked about the rising creativity of Singaporeans and with a flourish, as if to dramatically make his point, he pulled out a prototype of a hand-held music player that he insisted would replace Sony’s famous Walkman.

Mr. Sim’s device was breathtaking, possessing all the elements of what we now know as the MP3 player. Yet today, a Silicon Valley icon, Apple, dominates the market for MP3 players with the iPod. In recognition of its emergence as a music powerhouse, last month Apple dropped the word “computer” from its name.

Some months after my Singapore encounter, I visited the thriving code-writing communities in Tallinn, Estonia; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Helsinki, Finland, three Nordic cities that were being transformed by advances in cellphones, mobile computing and the Internet. Their tight-knit network of engineers seemed poised to create the tools required to make good on a much-hyped prediction: the death of distance. After all, if necessity is the mother of invention, no one had more need than the hardy Estonians, Icelanders and Finns, living on the frozen edge of Europe, when it came to killing distance as a barrier.

Yet these Nordic innovators were blindsided by two Silicon Valley engineers whose tools we experience whenever we “Google” the Web. Their company, Google Inc., posted a quarterly profit of $1 billion on Jan. 31.

Google’s astonishing rise and Apple’s reinvention are reminders that, when it comes to great ideas, location is crucial. “Face-to-face is still very important for exchange of ideas, and nowhere is this exchange more valuable than in Silicon Valley,” says Paul M. Romer, a professor in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford who is known for studying the economics of ideas.

In short, “geography matters,” Professor Romer said. Give birth to an information-technology idea in Silicon Valley and the chances of success seem vastly higher than when it is done in another ZIP code.

No wonder venture capitalists, who finance bright ideas, remain obsessed with finding the next big thing in the 50-mile corridor between San Jose and San Francisco. About one-quarter of all venture investment in the United States goes to Silicon Valley enterprises. And, according to a new report from Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a regional business group, the percentage has risen, to 27 percent in 2005 from 21 percent in 2000.

Many times in the past, pundits have declared an end to Silicon Valley’s hegemony, and even today there are prognosticators who see growing threats from innovation centers in India and China. Certainly, great technology ideas can come from anywhere, but they keep coming from Silicon Valley because of two related factors: increasing returns and first-mover advantage.

These twin principles, debated in head-scratching terms by professional economists, essentially explain why Intel maintains a lead in high-performance chips, why Apple sustains a large lead in music players and why Google’s search engine remains a crowd pleaser.

On a gut level, we all can understand how these two factors work. Who wouldn’t want to play for a perennial contender? For the same reason that Andy Pettitte signs with the Yankees, the best and the brightest technologists from around the world make their way to northern California.

“All that venture capital attracts a lot of ideas — and the people who are having those ideas,” said Stephen B. Adams, an assistant professor of management at the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University in Maryland who has studied the rise of Silicon Valley.

Newcomers plug into an existing network of seasoned pros that “isn’t matched anywhere else in the world,” says AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “Regional Advantage,” a book about the competitive edge held by tech centers like Silicon Valley and the Route 128 suburbs near Boston. “That allows people to recombine technical ideas much more quickly here than anywhere else,” Professor Saxenian added.

“In terms of creativity, the Valley remains as far ahead of the rest of the world as ever,” she said. “People in the Valley generate new ideas and test them much more quickly than anywhere else. They aren’t a super race; it’s their environment.”

Silicon Valley is not invincible. The logic of increasing returns and the first-mover advantage can be overdrawn. Other clusters in the United States and around the world will commercialize great ideas, and the Valley will endure down cycles again, as it has in the past. Remember how the Japanese conquered memory-chip manufacturing in the 1980s, until then a staple of the Valley’s business? And, of course, the dot-com bust of five years ago remains a painful reminder of how success breeds hubris and humiliating failure.

Americans naturally harbor many fears about losing their edge, especially with the nation mired in war, the dollar’s value sliding and the health care system strained. Rivals, notably in India and China, see Silicon Valley’s pre-eminent position as a prize that they will inevitably take. Yet they face an elusive foe. Every time Silicon Valley recovers from failure, it seems to grow more durable, almost in the same way a person becomes “immune” to a disease after a brush with it.

Fifty years ago, chips were the engine of Silicon Valley. In the late 1970s came the personal computer and data-storage drives, then software, and more recently the dynamic vortex of the Web, new media and online commerce. (EBay, Netflix and, of course, Google and Yahoo are among the names that come to mind.)

These serial renewals are a marvel.

SIR PETER HALL, the British scholar of urban clusters, asks in “Cities in Civilization,” his history of geography and business innovation: “What makes a particular city, at a particular time, suddenly become immensely creative, exceptionally innovative? Why should this spirit flower for a few years, generally a decade or two at most, and then disappear as suddenly as it came?”

Sir Peter’s words highlight an enduring human mystery. In the case of Silicon Valley, the world rightly waits for the flame of creativity to burn out. That’s fair enough. To each, a season (or maybe a few). Living long and large, Silicon Valley surely will wither like a dead flower someday. My advice, though, is: Don’t hold your breath.

G. Pascal Zachary teaches journalism at Stanford and writes about technology and economic development.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

See the future, build the future, be the future

I'm back from RSA, and boy am I tired. But, there's no better and faster way to keep tabs on what's happening in information security than to attend this zoo of a conference. I was pleased to see that SSL VPN (using secure sockets layer to build a browser-based virtual private network) is now a big mainstream market, with most security vendors, from Cisco to Juniper to Checkpoint, offering a product in that space. When we came up with the idea, everyone thought we were nuts!

After walking the expo (boy do my feet hurt), going booth to booth from the tiny startups to the huge public companies (VeriSign had their own espresso lounge), I'm increasingly confident that at Robot Genius we've also seen and built part of the future. Whether we'll BE part of the future depends on luck and business factors beyond my control.

There's no doubt in my mind that next-generation desktop security suites will incorporate new capabilities like those of our Spyberus client: they will have deep operating system behavioral monitoring, create process sandboxes, and store enough file-system and OS data to reverse infections and installations.

I am also sure that next-generation search will incorporate security-related data in their results and rankings. Our crawler farm has downloaded and tested all the Windows executables on the internet -- about a million unique applications (terabytes of data, all in storage now!) ranging from screensavers, to games, to complex applications -- and has determined which ones are dangerous malware or malware vectors. The only question is how this data will be used to protect individual users -- it can be used to improve/filter search results, in any firewall or gateway appliance, or even upstream at the network level. One major ISP we met with has already built the infrastructure to block user connects to dangerous urls.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Sorry for the lack of posts. I'm at RSA right now, the big annual information security conference. This year it's at Moscone center in SF, and it's a zoo.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Anatol Rapoport, 1911-2007

Economist's View notes the passing of Anatol Rapoport, a mathematician turned game theorist and political theorist. I first discovered Rapoport from his introduction to an edition of von Clausewitz's On War. I found the introduction far more lucid and useful than von Clauswitz's own presentation. You can often detect a first rate thinker from a relatively short piece of work, and this brief introduction piqued my interest in Rapoport many years ago. As noted here,

I read some of his 1984 book "Mathematical Methods in the Social and Behavioral Sciences" and it's a great book. There are not many people who have a strong and original mathematical mind and yet know how to apply it with wisdom, but Rapoport's reach and depth in the book is hugely impressive.

Rapoport was the author of Tit for Tat, the benevolent strategy for prisoner's dilemma that won the earliest tournaments conducted by Axelrod at Michigan.

Globe&Mail: That year also saw publication of political scientist Robert Axelrod's seminal book, The Evolution of Co-operation, which asked a simple, yet age-old, question: If living things evolve through competition, how can co-operation ever emerge? A computer tournament was organized to study the relationship of game theory to evolution -- a variation on the Prisoner's Dilemma. Entries came from the world's top theorists.

Dr. Rapoport entered a program he wrote called Tit-For-Tat, consisting of four lines of code. It was by far the simplest entry, and it won. Betraying the retributive implications of its name, the program opened by co-operating with its opponent. Thereafter, it played exactly as the other side had played in the preceding game. If the other side had defected, Tit-For-Tat also defected for that one game. If the other side had co-operated, it co-operated on the next round.

"In effect, Tit-For-Tat punished the other player for selfish behaviour and rewarded her for co-operative behaviour -- but the punishment lasted only as long as the selfish behaviour lasted," observed Metta Spencer, editor of Peace Magazine, on the occasion of Dr. Rapoport's 90th birthday. "This proved to be an exceptionally effective sanction, quickly showing the other side the advantages of co-operating. . . . It also set moral philosophers to proposing this as a workable principle to use in real life interactions."

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