Author Archive: Virginia Postrel

SHARING ECONOMY, DNA-EDITION: Forget the presidential race, the biggest story right now is the rapid spread of gene-editing technology. Tech Review reports on the entrepreneurial nonprofit driving its rapid spread:

AddGene is a nonprofit that exists to help scientists share their DNA inventions. Think of it as an for biological parts. Anyone can submit one—or order someone else’s part for $65.

Easy access to gene-editing technology is what has allowed labs everywhere to get into the game. Last year, there were more than 1,300 scientific papers on CRISPR, and it’s been used to do everything from curing muscular dystrophy in mice to making super-muscled beagles.

Read the rest here. (It’s short.)

WHEN DID THE ACADEMY TIP? In my Bloomberg View column on Passing on the Right, I note that the authors’ data suggest that younger right-of-center professors feel much more pressure to hide their views before tenure than older scholars experienced in their day. In a recent conversation with Tyler Cowen, social psychologist Jon Haidt, who studies the “moral foundations” of political cultures, discusses the shift:

The sacred value of universities from sometime in the 19th century through maybe the 1980s was truth. Now it was not perfect, but we all talked that way. Look at the mottos of Harvard and Yale — VeritasLux et Veritas, it’s right there on the motto, veritas, truth.

We made a big show — it was largely true — of saying this is what we’re here for, we’re here to find truth. But in the 1970s and ’80s as we had a big influx of baby boomers who were involved in social protest, who were fighting for very good causes, civil rights, women’s rights — they flood into the academy in ’70s and ’80s, they get tenure in the ’80s and ’90s, but also in the 1990s, the Greatest Generation begins to retire. There were a lot of Republicans who became professors after World War II.

But the ’90s is the decade where everything flips. At the start of the 1990s, the overall left‑right ratio of the academy, taking all departments, was two to one, just twice as many people on the left as right. That’s fine, that’s not a problem. But by 2005, it had gone to five to one, five people on the left for every one on the right. Those people on the right are mostly engineering, nursing, things like that. If you look at the core — the humanities and the social sciences, other than economics, it’s closer to 10 to 1 or 20 to 1.

In other words, right‑wing, or libertarian, or social conservative voices have basically vanished between 1995 and 2005. This has made us unfunctional, but it’s in the social sciences and humanities where the sacred value has become social justice and the protection of victims. That’s the division. One university of the sciences still pursues truth, the other university in the social sciences and humanities pursues social justice.

In Passing on the Right, authors Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn make the point that even a small number of conservative professors in an otherwise liberal department—say, 5 percent, rather than zero—can make a big difference. The problem, in other words, isn’t that universities lean left. It’s that too many departments have no place at all for political diversity (or even political neutrality), or they define diversity as running from Bernie Sanders to Hugo Chavez.

YES, CONSERVATIVE PROFESSORS EXIST: But a lot of them stay in the closet. My latest Bloomberg View column looks at the important new book, Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, which documents what life is like for right-of-center scholars in the social sciences and humanities.

Only the economists interviewed routinely expressed the conviction that their political convictions were irrelevant to their professional advancement and to the standards of research quality. (The authors seem surprised that right-of-center economists spoke highly of Paul Krugman’s scholarship, if not his New York Times columns.) Economics is also the only field Shields and Dunn studied where professors’ partisan affiliation mirror the general public’s. Marxists are more common in the social sciences and humanities than conservatives.

The modern academy pays lip service to diversity. Yet as a “stigmatized minority,” the authors note, right-of-center professors feel pressure to hide their identities, in many cases consciously emulating gays in similarly hostile environments. “I am the equivalent of someone who was gay in Mississippi in 1950,” a prominent full professor told Shields and Dunn. He’s still hiding because he hopes for honors that depend on maintaining his colleagues’ good will. “If I came out, that would finish me,” he said.

More often, conservatives follow Rossman’s strategy, hiding their views until they’re safely tenured. “Nearly one-­third of professors in the six disciplines we investigated tended to conceal their politics prior to tenure,” write Shields and Dunn. The number rises to nearly half when you exclude economics.

Tenure is, as intended, a politically incorrect scholar’s best friend. Read the rest here.

“ANONYMOUS SOURCE” ISN’T SUPPOSED TO BE ANONYMOUS TO THE REPORTER:  Cosmo Wenman, who does real 3D scans of artworks, investigates how the NYT and others got fooled into reporting a hoax 3D scanning “art heist.”

The New York Times’ March 1, 2016 story “Swiping a Priceless Antiquity … With a Scanner and a 3-D Printer” by Charly Wilder tells how two German artists made a surreptitious, unauthorized 3D scan of the iconic bust of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin.

The artists, Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, make a case for repatriating artifacts to their native countries and use Nefertiti as their focal point. They also point out that the Neues Museum has made its own high-quality 3D scan of the bust, and that the museum should share that data with the public. As a protest, they released their own scan to the public, and the quality of their scan is extraordinary.

The story has received a great deal of attention and Al-badri and Nelles have earned much praise for their efforts to digitally repatriate important cultural artifacts. Unfortunately, there are serious problems with their story and The Times’ account.

The Times reports that artists Al-badri and Nelles used a modified Microsoft Kinect scanner hidden under clothing to gather the scan data of the bust. Following the Times story, there have been several independent and exhaustive descriptions of how their scan data simply cannot have been gathered in the way Al-badri and Nelles claim. For the specifics, I refer you to analysis by Paul Docherty and Fred Kahl. They correctly point out that the Kinect scanner has fundamentally low resolution and accuracy, and that even under ideal conditions, it simply cannot acquire data as detailed as what the artists have made available. The artists’ account simply cannot be true.


He figures out what probably happens and concludes:

All of this confusion stems from bad institutional practices regarding secrecy: The Neues Museum is hoarding 3D scans that by all rights it should share with the public, and The New York Times has allowed anonymous sources into the chain of custody of the facts of its story.

Read the whole thing here.

CAN WEARABLES GET BEYOND FITNESS BANDS? My latest Bloomberg View column looks at what’s hindering progress in wearable technology.

Technology watchers have been proclaiming wearables the next big thing since at least the 2013 debut of Google Glass. The rapid sales growth of fitness bands and smartwatches has intensified that conviction. But to fulfill its potential, wearable technology has to be good for more than tracking workouts or getting notifications on a wristwatch.

Defined loosely as tiny computers worn somewhere on the body, wearable tech still needs its graphical user interface, its browser, its broadband, its VisiCalc, its Google, its Amazon: the enabling technologies and unique benefits that make it essential and easy to use. Early adopters of Apple’s headline-grabbing smartwatch are, after all, using it mostly for telling time and getting notifications — not exactly world-changing applications.

“Where we are with wearables is about where we were with the Internet in 1993,” says Amanda Parkes, the chief of technology and research at Manufacture New York and a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab.

Read the whole thing here.

THOMAS SOWELL: Trump could spell “the point of no return.”

The “Super Tuesday” primaries may be a turning point for America — and quite possibly a turn for the worse. After seven long years of domestic disasters and increasing international dangers, the next President of the United States will need extraordinary wisdom, maturity, depth of knowledge and personal character to rescue America.

Instead, if the polls are an indication, what we may get is someone with the opposite of all these things, a glib egomaniac with a checkered record in business and no track record at all in government — Donald Trump.

If so, the downward trajectory of America over the past seven years may well continue on into the future, to the point of no return….

Trump’s acting like a bull in a china shop may appeal to some voters but, in the world as it is, he may well cost us our last chance to recover from the great dangers into which the Obama administration has gotten this nation.

We already have an ego-driven, know-it-all president who will not listen to military or intelligence agency experts. Do we need to tempt fate by having two in a row?

Obviously an establishment tool. Read the whole thing here.

CHRIS CHRISTIE’S WORDLESS SCREAM: Read this. You will laugh.

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MUCH BETTER THAN J.J. ABRAMS: CBS has signed the great Nicholas Meyer as a writer and producer on its new Star Trek series. I’ve been a fan since The Seven-Percent Solution.

I discuss the glamour of Star Trek in The Power of Glamour, as this review explains, but the reboot has betrayed that appeal. Meyer’s Star Trek should be much better.

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WHEN DONALD TRUMP GOT BEATEN BY “THE SIGN LADY”: Don’t mess with Tama Starr. Just don’t.

The sane Republicans need to enlist her brain power, or at least tell her story. Check out her non-Trump Reason contributions here.

YOU CAN ALWAYS USE ANOTHER BRILLIANT BLUE: Oregon State University researchers have discovered a new pigment. As is often the case, it happened by accident.


From the press release:

OSU chemist Mas Subramanian and his team were experimenting with new materials that could be used in electronics applications and they mixed manganese oxide – which is black in color – with other chemicals and heated them in a furnace to nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. One of their samples turned out to be a vivid blue. Oregon State graduate student Andrew Smith initially made these samples to study their electrical properties.

“It was serendipity, actually; a happy, accidental discovery,” Subramanian said.

The new pigment is formed by a unique crystal structure that allows the manganese ions to absorb red and green wavelengths of light, while only reflecting blue. The vibrant blue is so durable, and its compounds are so stable – even in oil and water – that the color does not fade.

“This new blue pigment is a sign that there are new pigments to be discovered in the inorganic pigments family,” said Geoffrey T. Peake, research and development manager for The Shepherd Color Company.

During the Renaissance, vivid blue ultramarine pigments, often used for painting the Virgin Mary’s cloak, were worth five times their weight in gold. In 1704, another accidental chemical discovery, of what became known as Prussian blue, made less expensive synthetic true blues available. For a video on how that changed painting, go here.

Progress in chemistry is seriously underreported, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going on all the time. (The OSU press release is from May, but if it’s new to you…)


ANTONIN SCALIA, CIVIL LIBERTARIAN: Defense attorney Harvey Silverglate, author of Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent (but better known to InstaPundit readers as the co-founder of FIRE), writes a tribute to Justice Scalia’s war on vague criminal statutes:

Justice Scalia, more than any other member of the high court during his 30-year tenure, waged war with the government’s attempt to attack the liberty of citizens and others by brandishing laws that nobody really could comprehend. He understood, as few judges do, the extent of the day-to-day tyranny inflicted by any legal system where the laws are not clear as to what conduct can land a citizen in prison. In the 2011 Supreme Court case Sykes v. United States, Justice Scalia articulated this very concern. The majority determined that a particular crime – felony vehicle flight – constituted a “violent felony” under federal law; in practice, this ruling meant that the individual at the heart of the case was subject to a 15-year mandatory minimum prison sentence.  Scalia dissented from the majority, arguing that the federal law in question was so vague in defining a “violent felony” that punishing Sykes under it was unconstitutional. He wrote, in part:

“We face a Congress that puts forth an ever-increasing volume of laws in general, and of criminal laws in particular. It should be no surprise that as the volume increases, so do the number of imprecise laws. And no surprise that our indulgence of imprecisions that violate the Constitution encourages imprecisions that violate the Constitution. Fuzzy, leave-the-details-to-be-sorted-out-by-the-courts legislation is attractive to the Congressman who wants credit for addressing a national problem but does not have the time (or perhaps the votes) to grapple with the nitty-gritty.”

Read the whole thing.

ARMY OF DAVIDS, EARTHQUAKE EDITION: Developed by UC-Berkeley scientists, the MyShake Android app uses crowdsourcing to detect earthquakes. From the LAT report:

The cellphone MyShake app would not replace the USGS’ early warning system, Allen said. Smartphones will never be as effective as hundreds of sophisticated earthquake sensor stations installed underground to detect the first subtle signs that an earthquake has begun.

Still, a successful smartphone app, woven into the USGS system, could make the overall warning network even faster in California, Oregon and Washington state, he said. And it would enable the technology to be used in other areas of the world with few or no earthquake sensors.

“Nepal has almost no seismic stations. But they have 6 million smartphones. There are 600,000 smartphones in Kathmandu alone,” Allen said. “So if we can get MyShake working, then we could potentially be providing early warning in Kathmandu.”

Related, ICYMI, my report on the use of smart phone apps and crowdsourcing to collect economic data, especially in less-developed countries.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: Sanders and Trump are selling magic.

Take Sanders’ New Hampshire victory speech. It promised the moon: college education, free; universal health care, free; world peace, also free because we won’t be “the policeman of the world” (mythical Sunni armies will presumably be doing that for us). Plus a guaranteed $15 minimum wage. All to be achieved by taxing the rich. Who can be against a “speculation” tax (whatever that means)?

So with Trump. Leave it to him. Jobs will flow back in a rush from China, from Japan, from Mexico, from everywhere. Universal health care, with Obamacare replaced by “something terrific.” Veterans finally taken care of. Drugs stopped cold at the border. Indeed, an end to drug addiction itself. Victory upon victory of every kind….

Sanders’ magic potion is socialism; Trump’s is Trump.

Someone should write a book about how that works.

THE NYT FILES A DUMB SUIT AGAINST A CRITIC: It’s the subject of my latest Bloomberg View column.

UPDATE from the comments: “A very important story being passed over by Instapundit readers. Image copyright trolling is the one remaining club against free speech.”

Also, for some tales from the crazy world of seeking photo reprint permissions, don’t miss the Pinterest board linked in the footnote.

POLITICO: HILLARY’S CAMPAIGN ON VERGE OF A SHAKEUP: It sounds like a disorganized mess. Write Glenn Thrush and Annie Karni, “Ultimately, the disorganization is the candidate’s own decision-making, which lurches from hands-off delegation in times of success to hands-around-the-throat micromanagement when things go south.” Also:

from the beginning, there have been deeper issues simmering within the cheerfully-decorated Brooklyn headquarters — and much of that had to do with a disconnect between the candidate and her campaign. Over the summer while her campaign was bogged down in the email controversy, Clinton was deeply frustrated with her own staff, and vice versa. The candidate blamed her team for not getting her out of the mess quickly, and her team blamed Clinton for being stubbornly unwilling to take the advice of campaign chairman John Podesta and others to apologize, turn over her server, and move on. The entire experience made her a deeply vulnerable frontrunner out of the gate, and underscored a lack of trust between Clinton and her operatives, many of whom were former Obama staffers that she didn’t consider part of her inner circle of trust.

Read the whole thing.


ARMY OF DAVIDS, STATISTICS DIVISION: My latest Bloomberg View column looks at a startup using more than 30,000 smart-phone-wielding contractors to collect economic data, “peering into hard-to-reach places, identifying emerging trends and providing a check on official numbers. Particularly useful in developing countries, this grassroots data collection may, like the phones themselves, allow formerly lagging countries to leapfrog 20th-century approaches and establish flexible, nuanced and decentralized ways of answering economic questions.” Read the whole thing here.

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HOW TO GET AN ENTREPRENEURIAL HERO TO THE BIG SCREEN: Make her a woman. My latest column for Bloomberg View looks at the new movie Joy.

In the movies, an entrepreneur is more likely to be a super-villain, or at the very least a mobster, than someone who builds a significant enterprise without getting anyone killed. Even the non-murderers are miserable jerks. Take Aaron Sorkin’s angry, status-obsessed Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” or his Steve Jobs in the abysmal recent movie by that name.

So it might be a surprise to discover a big-budget, award-friendly new film telling a tale of entrepreneurial ingenuity where the protagonist is heroic and the ending is happy. Except that in this case the entrepreneur is a woman. Her gender makes self-assertion, ambition, and even a touch of ruthlessness unconventional and therefore culturally acceptable….

But “Joy” is more than a wholesome paean to girl power. It’s a portrait of entrepreneurial gumption, with a protagonist whose journey is as relevant to men as to women. On her way to fame and fortune, Joy must reawaken the creative spark dampened by her dysfunctional family, solve practical business problems of financing and distribution, confront her self-doubts, find her persuasive sales voice and subdue adversaries who take advantage of her inexperience and trust. These aren’t uniquely female challenges.

With an appearance by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who gives the movie three hearts. Read the whole thing here.

FREE-RANGE KIDS, LOS ANGELES 1938: This video, made to support plans for sidewalks, shows kids from Samuel Gompers Junior High School—back then it was apparently uncontroversial to name a school for a labor leader—walking home or, in a few cases, riding doubled-up on bicycles.

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BEST TV OF 2015: Reason‘s Glenn Garvin ranks his favorite shows and explains why so few network programs got canceled.

IT’S BACK! After an Instalanche-induced stock-out, my book The Power of Glamour, is again available from Amazon. Thanks to everyone who bought it for Christmas—or just to read yourself—and to the kind commenters who urged others to read it too.

The Power of Glamour cover


Lest you share the common misconception that “glamour” is a synonym for fashion, here’s a column I wrote on the glamour that attracts recruits to Islamic State. Here’s a happier excerpt on the tech glamour of wirelessness. Here’s a Q&A I did on glamour for financial advisers (yes, you read that right), as well as interviewer Ken Silber’s review of the book. And here’s a review that describes how the book’s discussion of Star Trek‘s glamour gave the reviewer a better understanding of women’s relation to beauty-magazine imagery than the usual feminist “beauty myth” critique.

FREEDOM AND HYPOCRISY: A must-read post by Eugene Volokh.

TMI AND THE CRISIS OF LEGITIMACY: My latest Bloomberg View column looks at Martin Gurri’s book The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. Gurri argues, convincingly in my view, that ideologically diverse political movements that are usually treated as separate, or at the very least attributed to economic unrest, are actually manifestations of a crisis of legitimacy brought on when abundant information meets excessive expectations.

“Once the monopoly on information is lost, so too is our trust,” Gurri writes. Someone somewhere will expose every error, every falsehood, every biased assessment, every overstated certainty, every prejudice, every omission—and likely offer a contrary and equally refutable version of their own…

As information becomes abundant, he writes, “the regime accumulates pain points.” By this he means that problems like police brutality, economic mismanagement, foreign policy failures and botched responses to disasters “can no longer be concealed or explained away.” Instead, “they are seized on by the newly empowered public, and placed front and center in open discussions. In essence, government failure now sets the agenda.”

Yet the public’s expectations for government are at least as great as before. And those high expectations—not merely for justice or prosperity but for happiness and meaning—engender even greater anger.

“The public now takes it for granted that government could solve any problem, change any undesirable condition, if only it tried,” he writes. “The late modernist urge to intervene, with its aimless meandering, has been interpreted by the public as either tyranny or corruption — never, somehow, as the ineffectual pose of a kindly uncle.” In short, “The public has judged government on government’s own terms, but added bad intentions.” The result is a crisis of legitimacy.

Read the whole column here. I also recommend the book, which is complex and wide-ranging but fairly short and only $2.99 (ebook only).