Sunday, May 29, 2011

Pretty Soon You're Talking Real Money, Part II

In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Richard Feynman was asked his opinion on whether another Michael Faraday could emerge in today's (some today twenty-odd years ago, that is) scientific milieu. Faraday was a rare and spectacular sort of genius, one of the fathers of electromagnetic theory. He never had formal training, reportedly found the mathematical basis of the early theorists incomprehensible, and yet he managed to piece together the basic relationship of electricity and magnetism, figured out some of the subtle business of electrical polarizaiton of materials, describing qualitatively (as I write in my occasional proposal) physics that it would take another sixty or seventy years to report the mathematics for. He did this on a combination of pure intuition, language, and a facility for cobbling together chewing gum and baling wire experiments. That he managed this before the invention of duct tape is no doubt equally remarkably to experimental physicists. As for me, my admiration for Faraday is only enhanced by the fact he looked like some plausible combination of a sideshow barker and garage-tinkering lunatic, but then nearly everyone in the early 19th century looked like that.

Anyway, Feynman replied that a late twentieth-century Faraday was unlikely. Physics had evolved, he thought, to the point where it was necessary to understand the current mathematics to really make a new innovation in the field. Naturally, he held out that it wasn't impossible, but he didn't currently see enough new area where even the basics needed to be worked out. He believed that the questions that were being asked in the 1980s were on the forward edge of theory, or outside of the easily measurable.

This morning on NPR, as part of a series this week that is evidently sponsored by the damn Chamber of Commerce, I learned that Peter Thiel, the co-founder (wait, which half did he found?) of PayPal is offering students $100,000 to drop a couple years of college and become entrepreneurs. Now, on one hand, I get it. With some colleges topping $50k per year these days, it's a hell of an investment, and if you're nineteen and can get into the grind without first sinking that cost, then you're ahead of the game. I'd tell you college is a pure scam if I didn't personally value it so much, and if my engineer's training (mostly trained judgment, but no doubt some people are born with that) wasn't so helpful. But if you're the kind of kid that can create high tech with twist ties and duct tape, then those two extra years of theory are probably not going to make the difference in your career. For the right kind of kid, thihs is a good deal: high-risk, sure, and it's not competitive remuneration with a full-time employment with benefits and existing capital equipment, but you 'll be ahead of your peers looking for that deal in two years when your venture fails. But is it a good way to be looking at engineering in society?

I mean, fucking PayPal, anyway. There was a short window where the acceptance of the internet, as a new medium, supported innovation that could get by on concepts (that is, without fucking doing or making anything), an arena freshly enough sodden where any goddamn thing had a chance of taking root. You idea men flourished precisely because you were in a unique moment when there were no established competitors, or because your particular branding took a little better than C2it or CertaPay or whatthefuckever unremembered version of failed to find utility, and if I remember 1999 at all, about 99.4% of those conceptual masterpieces still managed to blow other people's fortunes, thanks to about as much actual technical or business savvy as your typical 1830s peddlar of miracle tonic. But yeah Pete, your confirmation bias tells you you're a genius. Let's ask for your next business opinion.

As a professional bullshitter in the field of applied research, I have a good idea how far the lower five figures are going to get you. A hundred grand is exactly the business I'm in. To identify a problem, to propose a solution, and work it out is hard enough. Often you find it's for marginal improvement (or marginal loss) that requires a detailed cost analysis, and that's on the off-chance it works at all. There's a question of how far you can get in your garage, a question of far can you get without infrastructure. To do technical research you need to measure things. You need a laboratory, tools, at a minimum, materials to build things out of, and while there is room for innovation in the area, even the basic areas, it's not so virgin a field as it once was. As I started to write this up, CNN was broadcasting an excited news piece on the latest X Prize, which rewards complicated high-tech ventures after they demonstrate success. How much do you think you have to invest for a 10% chance to win a $1.4 million for a mechanical oil separator? We need 'em so badly (and we do), then why are we doing it on people's own thin dimes? Fucking cheapskates.

Now, we're not quite in the place with engineering as we are with fundamental physics: there's room for tinkerers, and the entrepreneurial model isn't completely broken. I don't intend to discourage the effort by any means, and I think that finding these people and supporting them is wise. But spotting a hundred grand to spark a high-risk research program is chump change, and doing it for the equivalent expected value is even worse. Baiting kids with dreams of Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Wozniak to fabricate shit in their dorm rooms and garages is probably not the best alternative to more comprehensive funding research the sciences, and it's not as if you can count on the paradigm shifting every generation, especially when you leave it to revolutionize itself, while fluffing the egos and fortunes of the people who recognize talent instead of apply it. Democraticization of innovation seems to correlate with the speed of its progress (rich patrons and then universities was better for progress than keeping it in the monastaries, letting women into the academy was a plus, that sort of thing), although it's hard to generalize across the slow sweep of history. Twenty Under Twenty and the X-Prizes are not bad ideas, and it's great to have something like that in the suite of science investment. But relying on them over straight-up funding seems like a giant step backward.

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