The Palo Alto System

Courtesy of the Review – subscribe and invest in media, whatever it is you read. The NYRB works for me – a review/discussion of two new books about the history of Silicon Valley. You’ll never guess the rationale behind the creation of Stanford the University. Wait – yes, sure you will:

Stanford wanted to breed stronger horses, faster. There was a clear business rationale: at the time, horses were essential for transportation, agriculture, and war. He proposed transforming horse production in the same way that the production of so many other commodities was being transformed during the second industrial revolution: with modern techniques and technologies. This modernizing mentality, as Harris demonstrates, was visible everywhere in California, which has been “a high-technology zone from the beginning of Anglo colonization.” Because there were never enough wage workers, the state relied particularly heavily on “labor-saving machinery” in agriculture, which by the 1860s had overtaken mining as its main economic driver.

The Palo Alto Stock Farm turned out to be a big success. The principal innovation was the Palo Alto System, which involved teaching horses to trot when they were young. That way, Stanford and his operatives could identify the promising ones early, train them intensively, and then use them as studs to produce more promising colts, thereby transmitting talent via superior genes. “Instead of optimizing for adult speed, they optimized for visible potential,” Harris writes.

The Palo Alto System didn’t stop with horses. It became the guiding philosophy of the university that Stanford carved out of his estate in 1885. Harris focuses in particular on David Starr Jordan, the university’s first president, whom Harris credits with bringing the Palo Alto System “out of the barn and into the classroom.” Like many self-styled modernizers of the period, Jordan loved eugenics. Under his direction, Harris argues, “the small, young university became a national center for controlled evolution.” Young white people with potential would be identified and intensively trained, in the hope of staving off racial decay.

One of the features of the Palo Alto System as it applied to horses was an obsession with quantification. As the system migrated to humans, this quantifying impulse turned toward intelligence testing. Lewis Terman, a psychologist who joined Stanford University in 1910, helped popularize the notion that intelligence could be expressed in a single number, such as an IQ score. He was especially interested in high-IQ children. “Budding geniuses needed to be identified and elevated,” Harris writes, “while young degenerates needed to be corralled where they couldn’t dilute the national race or turn their underachievement into social problems.”

And… once again, here we are. Racism continues to be our fundamental foundation, regardless of region. There is no realm in which the wealthy can’t channel their profits into their hatred. Great job, everybody.

Image: Palo Alto Stock Farm (Photos: Stanford Archives)

Super trees, smh

Not to pick on MIT Tech Review – though kicking Silicon Valley is another story and actually fine – but this story reads quite a bit like VCs trying to re-invent the bus:

At Living Carbon, Mellor is trying to design trees that grow faster and grab more carbon than their natural peers, as well as trees that resist rot, keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere. In February, less than four years after he co-founded it, the company made headlines by planting its first “photosynthesis-enhanced” poplar trees in a strip of bottomland forests in Georgia.

This is a breakthrough, clearly: it’s the first forest in the United States that contains genetically engineered trees. But there’s still much we don’t know. How will these trees affect the rest of the forest? How far will their genes spread? And how good are they, really, at pulling more carbon from the atmosphere?

Living Carbon has already sold carbon credits for its new forest to individual consumers interested in paying to offset some of their own greenhouse gas emissions. They’re working with larger companies, to which they plan to deliver credits in the coming years. But academics who study forest health and tree photosynthesis question whether the trees will be able to absorb as much carbon as advertised.

Even Steve Strauss, a prominent tree geneticist at Oregon State University who briefly served on Living Carbon’s scientific advisory board and is conducting field trials for the company, told me in the days before the first planting that the trees might not grow as well as natural poplars. “I’m kind of a little conflicted,” he said, “that they’re going ahead with this—all the public relations and the financing—on something that we don’t know if it works.”

Re-engineering trees, okay. Super-charged trees. His misgivings are right there, as are the preconditions of going ahead with this:  ‘headlines’, ‘public relations and financing.’ Like they just came out of nowhere.

I, too, want super trees to be a thing. But c’mon. Strauss is actually quoted in the article saying, “There could be a negative. We don’t know”

The point is that Climate Solutions Hype (patent pending) continues to outstrip existing effective solutions that we just don’t like, are bored with or wish were sexier and have become one more dynamic with which the Earth must contend. Along with irony.

Image: Regular Lombardy Poplar tree (also quite super).

Elevation of Silicon Valley

The lowest point in San Jose is 13 feet below sea level and though it has its high points, I agree that the tech boom is probably done. The way in which profits are squeezed from marginal web apps has gone the way of wide brim ties for the moment, and though Musk remains a hero at the major news outlets there seems to be only shadow chasing for the big start-up fashion show funding carnival that was all the rage until the lights came on. And despite the hype, even autonomous vehicles appear to be circling back to their original question: how?

BUT… the economy is… booming? Okay, the business news will all turn negative as we reach full employment and wages go up because anything that is good for workers must be bad. The captains of cronyism continue their long-term project of undermining capitalism from within. Now they’ll have pay higher wages or else. I kid. Will the know-nothings in power begin to learn to love the tariffs as they slingshot back at US? How many socialists will take the oath of office after November? Can capitalism be crippled without putting representative democracy in traction, too? This is to say nothing of the boiling racism at the heart of every policy question from immigration to the environment to voting rights.

Okay, enough vacation. Everybody back to work.

Image: Author photo from a somewhat great height.

Learning from the Greeks

5760This is what compassion for refugees looks like:

Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Daniel Etter, whose images from Kos touched the hearts of millions last year, returned to Greece this September to photograph the islanders who feature in the new documentary short Ode to Lesvos, created by Johnnie Walker® to shine a light on the inspirational acts of compassion shown in response to the refugee crisis.

Everyone who cringes from fear and/or accuses refugees should be embarrassed by the empathy and compassion of the people of Lesvos. But only for a moment. Then you should do the same.

Young Places

Looking for something else by G.B. Shaw, I came across this essay, Treatise on Parents and Children. This is from a mid to early section, What We Do Not Teach and Why.

To my mind, a glance at the subjects now taught in schools ought to
convince any reasonable person that the object of the lessons is to
keep children out of mischief, and not to qualify them for their part
in life as responsible citizens of a free State. It is not possible
to maintain freedom in any State, no matter how perfect its original
constitution, unless its publicly active citizens know a good deal of
constitutional history, law, and political science, with its basis of
economics. If as much pains had been taken a century ago to make us
all understand Ricardo’s law of rent as to learn our catechisms, the
face of the world would have been changed for the better. But for
that very reason the greatest care is taken to keep such beneficially
subversive knowledge from us, with the result that in public life we
are either place-hunters, anarchists, or sheep shepherded by wolves.

But it will be observed that these are highly controversial subjects.
Now no controversial subject can be taught dogmatically. He who knows
only the official side of a controversy knows less than nothing of its
nature. The abler a schoolmaster is, the more dangerous he is to his
pupils unless they have the fullest opportunity of hearing another
equally able person do his utmost to shake his authority and convict
him of error.

At present such teaching is very unpopular. It does not exist in
schools; but every adult who derives his knowledge of public affairs
from the newspapers can take in, at the cost of an extra halfpenny,
two papers of opposite politics. Yet the ordinary man so dislikes
having his mind unsettled, as he calls it, that he angrily refuses to
allow a paper which dissents from his views to be brought into his
house. Even at his club he resents seeing it, and excludes it if it
happens to run counter to the opinions of all the members. The result
is that his opinions are not worth considering. A churchman who never
reads The Freethinker very soon has no more real religion than the
atheist who never reads The Church Times. The attitude is the same in
both cases: they want to hear nothing good of their enemies;
consequently they remain enemies and suffer from bad blood all their
lives; whereas men who know their opponents and understand their case,
quite commonly respect and like them, and always learn something from

Here, again, as at so many points, we come up against the abuse of
schools to keep people in ignorance and error, so that they may be
incapable of successful revolt against their industrial slavery. The
most important simple fundamental economic truth to impress on a child
in complicated civilizations like ours is the truth that whoever
consumes goods or services without producing by personal effort the
equivalent of what he or she consumes, inflicts on the community
precisely the same injury that a thief produces, and would, in any
honest State, be treated as a thief, however full his or her pockets
might be of money made by other people. The nation that first teaches
its children that truth, instead of flogging them if they discover it
for themselves, may have to fight all the slaves of all the other
nations to begin with; but it will beat them as easily as an
unburdened man with his hands free and with all his energies in full
play can beat an invalid who has to carry another invalid on his back.

This, however, is not an evil produced by the denial of children’s
rights, nor is it inherent in the nature of schools. I mention it
only because it would be folly to call for a reform of our schools
without taking account of the corrupt resistance which awaits the

A word must also be said about the opposition to reform of the vested
interest of the classical and coercive schoolmaster. He, poor wretch,
has no other means of livelihood; and reform would leave him as a
workman is now left when he is superseded by a machine. He had
therefore better do what he can to get the workman compensated, so as
to make the public familiar with the idea of compensation before his
own turn comes.