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Finding Five-Sigma Talent November 26, 2008

Posted by federalist in Human Markets.

The Normal distribution has proven to be a very good model for the distribution of virtually every human characteristic and ability across populations.  Most people cluster into a small range of values around the average, but there are a few outliers with exceptional abilities and disabilities.  You can’t always predict where those extremes will appear.  But if a characteristic is in fact normally distributed then you can predict, for example, that if 70% (one standard deviation, or “sigma”) of adult men are within 3″ of the average height of 5’9″, then 1 man in a billion will grow to a height of 7 feet.

Suppose you want to find the five-sigma human specimens for some physical or mental feat.  With a global population exceeding six billion we’re essentially talking about finding the single most talented adult in the world.  A sports management company made an interesting play for this, running a contest in India (population: 1.1BB+) to find a major-league caliber baseball pitcher.  The structure of the contest may not have been ideal, but the $1MM prize and publicity were plausible incentives.  (In the end, two contestants signed contracts with a professional baseball team in the U.S.)

Searching for five-sigma talent soon leads us back to the nature vs. nurture debate: How important are innate abilities?  Is it easier to build a five-sigma athlete or scholar if you start with a person who was born with five-sigma physical or mental traits?  Perhaps transformational traits like “trainability” and “perseverance” are separate faculties that have to be included in the equation with raw talents.  Or perhaps innate ability can never contribute more than a certain fraction of a learned skill, which could mean that trained two-sigma performers are practically as good as trained five-sigma specimens.

These are not purely academic questions: Anyone who funds or profits from performers should want to know the answers.

Fusion Energy Update: Small cells instead of large reactors? November 3, 2008

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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The tokamak approach to fusion energy generation, which is being pursued by the massive ITER project, isn’t the only candidate in the works.  Sandia is operating an amazing “Z-pinch” machine, which generates massive pulses of energy that could be focused on small fuel capsules to produce fusion.  Pyroelectric fusion is also a relatively new idea still being investigated.

I reviewed alternatives after reading about the extraordinary energy levels produced by peeling tape (triboluminescence) in a vacuum.  Practical fusion energy might, in the end, come from processes that work on a small scale — which don’t require sustained fusion reactions or the enormous machines necessary to ignite, fuel, control, and harvest energy from them.  Imagine two adhesive rollers turning against each other, emitting high energy photons that focus on a separate deuterium impregnated medium.  You can modulate the fusion power by peeling the adhesive faster or slower, and limit the power by limiting the density of the fusion medium in front of the adhesive ray.

As with sonoluminescent “bubble fusion,” triboluminescent fusion would not be cold fusion but rather conventional (hot) fusion run at a microscopic scale where tiny bursts of energy can be created and released in a controlled fashion without a huge net input or output of energy.  Sort of like a fuel cell compared to a combustion turbine.

QOTD: Most Presidents Ignore the Constitution November 1, 2008

Posted by federalist in Federalism.

From Judge Andrew Napolitano’s essay this week:

The truth is that the Constitution grants Congress 17 specific (or “delegated”) powers. And it commands in the Ninth and 10th Amendments that the powers not articulated and thus not delegated by the Constitution to Congress be reserved to the states and the people.

What’s more, Congress can only use its delegated powers to legislate for the general welfare, meaning it cannot spend tax dollars on individuals or selected entities, but only for all of us. That is, it must spend in such a manner — a post office, a military installation, a courthouse, for example — that directly enhances everyone’s welfare within the 17 delegated areas of congressional authority.

And Congress cannot deny the equal protection of the laws. Thus, it must treat similarly situated persons or entities in a similar manner. It cannot write laws that favor its political friends and burden its political enemies.

There is no power in the Constitution for the federal government to enter the marketplace since, when it does, it will favor itself over its competition. The Contracts Clause (the states cannot interfere with private contracts, like mortgages), the Takings Clause (no government can take away property, like real estate or shares of stock, without paying a fair market value for it and putting it to a public use), and the Due Process Clause (no government can take away a right or obligation, like collecting or paying a debt, or enforcing a contract, without a fair trial) together mandate a free market, regulated only to keep it fair and competitive.

It is clear that the Framers wrote a Constitution as a result of which contracts would be enforced, risk would be real, choices would be free and have consequences, and private property would be sacrosanct.

Everyone in government takes an oath to uphold the Constitution. But few do so. Do the people we send to the federal government recognize any limits today on Congress’s power to legislate? The answer is: Yes, their own perception of whatever they can get away with.