Archive for the 'How Things Begin' Category

“Why Fuss About Paleo Life?”

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

dearime asks:

Why do people fuss so much about paleo life? The population has grown so much since that it’s easy to believe that we’ve evolved a long way from then.

Jared Diamond wrote a paper about rapid evolution on an isolated island. When modern (factory) food was introduced to the island (in the 1940s?), there was a very high rate of diabetes, presumably due to the new food. Since then, the rate of diabetes on the island has gone way down, although they still eat modern food. Diamond took this to be due to evolution (people with diabetes-resistant genes had more offspring), supporting dearime’s point of view.

After the first Ancestral Health Symposium, Melissa McEwen commented how unhealthy many of the top people looked. On the other hand, Tucker Max commented how healthy the attendees looked in general. I agree with both observations. A paradox.

When I was an assistant professor, and wanted to sleep better, I believed wondering about paleo life was unhelpful because (a) we knew so little about it and (b) it must have differed in thousands of ways from modern life. Should I spend an hour trying to find out about paleo life and/or what paleo gurus recommend for bad sleep? Or should I spend an hour trying to find out how ordinary people have improved their sleep? My answer was the latter. I ignored paleo life.

Looking into how ordinary people improved their sleep did help. I eventually reached a non-trivial conclusion: Eating breakfast made my sleep worse. No paleo guru had said that — I had been right to ignore them. Yet it made evolutionary sense. Cavemen did not eat breakfast, I was pretty sure. (No refrigerators.) After that I paid more attention to what evolutionary thinking would suggest. This led to several discoveries: the effect of faces in the morning on mood, the effect of standing on sleep, and the Shangri-La Diet. It is incredibly hard to discover big new experimental effects (such as the effect of morning faces), especially in fields you know little about (my specialty in psychology was animal learning, not mood, sleep or weight control). I was impressed.

The effect of bedtime honey (more generally sweets in the evening) on sleep emphasizes the paradox or puzzle or whatever you call it. I found out about the honey effect by paying attention to what works. No paleo involved. Stuart King told me it improved his sleep. Here are three reasons to look at ordinary experience and avoid paleo theorists: 1. It turned out to help. 2. It’s a huge effect and very easy. 3. Paleo theorists have said the opposite: avoid carbs, avoid sugar. If you followed their advice, you would do the opposite of what helped Stuart and me. On the other hand, I increased my belief in the effect because it made evolutionary sense: 1. It makes sense of why we like sweets. 2. It makes sense of why our liking for sweets goes down when we are hungry (surely due to an evolved mechanism). 3. It makes sense of why we eat sweets more in the evening (presumably due to an evolved mechanism that makes sweets taste better in the evening).

The short answer to dearime’s question is that, in my experience, it is incredibly hard to learn anything about health. There are so many possibilities and evolutionary thinking helps choose among them — decide which to take the trouble to test.

How Things Begin: Duke Check

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Ed Rickards, a retired lawyer and journalist, writes Duke Check, a blog about Duke University, which I enjoy reading even though I have no connection with Duke. It emphasizes scandals and bad governance but also praises. He started it in 2009. There have been plenty of scandals since then, including the Anil Potti cancer research fraud.

I recently asked him a few questions. (more…)

Myopia Increases Innovation

Monday, June 17th, 2013

Big public works projects inevitably cost far more than the original budget. I heard a talk about this a few years ago. The speaker gave many examples, including Boston’s Big Dig. His explanation was that these projects would not be approved if voters were told the truth. The German newspaper magazine Der Spiegel has just published an interview with several architects responsible for recent German projects with especially large discrepancies between what people were told at the beginning and the unfolding reality — Berlin’s new airport, for example. The article’s headline calls them “debacles”. One architect gives the same explanation as the speaker I heard: “The pure truth doesn’t get you far in this business. The opera house in Sydney would never have been approved if they had known how much it would cost from the start.”

I disagree. I see the same massive underestimation of time and effort in projects that I do and that my colleagues and friends do, projects we do for ourselves that require no one’s approval. I think something will take an hour. It takes five hours. Plainly the world is more complicated than our mental model of it, sure, but there is more to it than that. Someone did a survey of people in Maryland who had been in a car accident so bad they had had to go to the hospital. Within only a year, a large fraction of them (half?) had forgotten about it. When asked if within the last year they had had an accident so bad they were hospitalized, they said no. Apparently we forget difficulties, even extreme ones, really fast. If you forget difficulties, you will underestimate them.

If I had realized how difficult everything would be, I couldn’t have done any of it is one explanation, which I’ve heard attributed to Gregory Bateson. From Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent review in this week’s New Yorker of a biography of Albert Hirschman, the economist, I learned that Hirschman — had he realized that this was human nature — would have had a different evolutionary explanation: We underestimate difficulties because this way of thinking increases innovation. Debacle . . . or opportunity? Difficulty is the mother of invention. 

 

 

 

The Lessons of Tisano Tea

Sunday, May 12th, 2013

I was curious how Tisano Tea began (yesterday’s post) because it was an unusual product (chocolate tea). There wasn’t any point I was trying to make. At a party last night, however, I found myself talking to the daughter of a diplomat (Tisano Tea was started by the son of a diplomat). I told her the story of Tisano Tea. And I couldn’t help pointing out two generalizations it supports:

1. I’ve blogged many times about the value of insider/outsiders — people who have the knowledge of insiders but the freedom of outsiders. Patrick Pineda, the founder of Tisano Tea, was not an insider/outsider but he connected two worlds — the United States and Venezuela (in particular poor Venezuelan farmers) — that are rarely connected.

2. When people from rich countries try to help people in poor countries, the usual approach is to bring something from the rich country to the poor country. Nutritional knowledge, medicine, dams, and so on. One Laptop Per Child is an extreme example. Microcredit is a deceptively attractive example. In recent years, the flaws in this approach have become more apparent and there has been a shift toward local solutions to problems (e.g., the best ideas to help Uganda will come from Ugandans and those who have lived there a long time). Tisano Tea illustrates something that people in rich countries have had an even harder time imagining: people in a poor country (Venezuela) knew something that improved life in a rich country (the United States) — namely, that you can make tea from cacao husks. A small thing, but not trivial (maybe chocolate tea supplies important nutrients). An American desire for Venezuelan cacao husks improves life in Venezuela. Ethnic food trucks are a more subtle example.  When immigrants from poor countries manage to make a living in a rich country — using knowledge of their own cuisine is a good way to do this — they often send money home. As far as I know, this possibility has been ignored in development studies.

My research, which shows how a non-expert can do research that teaches something to experts, is related to the second generalization. For example, my research on faces and mood has something to teach experts on depression and bipolar disorder. Although the term “home remedy” is standard, and lots of non-experts have improved their health in ways not approved by doctors, I have never heard a health expert show a realization that this could happen.

How Things Begin: Tisano Tea

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

Tisano Tea, based in San Francisco, sells chocolate tea. It was started in 2010 by Patrick Pineda, Leonardo Zambrano, and Lucas Azpurua. I was curious about the company because I like two chocolate tea blends very much: Red Cloud Cacao (a black tea/chocolate tea blend from Peet’s, no longer available but they will bring it back) and CocoMate (from American Tea Room). (more…)

How Things Begin: LightSail Energy

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

LightSail Energy is a Berkeley company that makes compressed-air energy storage devices. It was started in 2008 by Danielle Fong and Steve Crane. A year later, they got significant funding. When I think of energy storage, I think of batteries or flywheels or pumping water uphill. Use of a quite different technology intrigued me. Compressed-air energy storage is sometimes disparaged (“a lousy way of storing energy“). (more…)

The Future of Email: What I Want

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

In this essay, which I learned about from Alex Tabarrok, Paul Graham complains about email. Too easy for someone to send him email. Also slow. He thinks of email as a todo list. Here’s what he wants:

More restrictions on what someone can put on my todo list. And when someone can put something on my todo list, I want them to tell me more about what they want from me. Do they want me to do something beyond just reading some text? How important is it? (There obviously has to be some mechanism to prevent people from saying everything is important.) When does it have to be done?

Here’s what I want: A price per email. A service that charges people for each email they send me (e.g., $1/email). I get most of the price, the company providing the service gets a small percentage (1%?). With two additional features: 1. The initial charge is just for me to look at it. Then, after I read the email, there is a mechanism that allows me to easily charge more to do what they ask, such as give them Shangri-La Diet advice. 2. I can easily put people on a list that allows them to send me email for free.

Since Google already has Google Checkout, it might be relatively easy for them to add this to gmail.

How Things Begin (honey wine vinegar)

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

At the recent Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, the most impressive product I encountered was a honey wine vinegar made by Slide Ridge Honey, a small family business in northern Utah. I interviewed the developer, Martin James, about how the business and product began.

How did your business begin? (more…)

The Legacy of Steve Jobs

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Sue Halpern has written the first interesting assessment of Steve Jobs I’ve seen, in the form of a book review of Isaacson’s biography. It happens to be very negative. She says little about his now-well-known bad treatment of coworkers, friends and family (“a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator”) and focusses on the effects of Apple Computer, which are obviously much greater.

She makes one very bad point. He should not call himself an artist, she argues:

There is no doubt that the products Steve Jobs brilliantly conceived of and oversaw at Apple were elegant and beautiful, but they were, in the end, products. Artists, typically, aim to put something of enduring beauty into the world; consumer electronics companies aim to sell a lot of gadgets, manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s.

“In the end, products”? “Gadgets”? Are books gadgets? I cannot imagine a future without books. Nor one without cellphones and laptops. If they are lovely and work well, so much the better for all of us.  Moreover, cellphones and laptops, much more than other necessities (food, clothes, housing, transportation, medicine) help us express ourselves — our hidden inner selves — in so many ways. (Like art and books, but better.) Mark Fraunfelder made a similar point (obliquely).

“Products” and “gadgets” is Halpern’s conventional anti-consumerism. She goes on to make two equally conventional but much better points:

According to a study reported by Bloomberg News last January, Apple ranked at the very bottom of twenty-nine global tech firms “in terms of responsiveness and transparency to health and environmental concerns in China.” Yet walking into the Foxconn factory, where people routinely work six days a week, from early in the morning till late at night standing in enforced silence, Steve Jobs might have entered his biggest reality distortion field of all. “You go into this place and it’s a factory but, my gosh, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools,” he said after being queried by reporters about working conditions there shortly after a spate of suicides. “For a factory, it’s pretty nice.”

Apple had (and has) the power to improve working conditions at Foxconn. I completely agree: this was (and is) an enormous missed opportunity, for which Steve Jobs is completely responsible. No doubt he said that Apple products empower individuals (and they do) — well, how about empowering Foxconn workers?

Halpern’s final point is about recycling:

Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.

Yeah. Apple could (and can) lead the world in making their products easy to recycle. They haven’t. Entirely Steve Jobs’ fault. As Halpern says, this really matters.

Steve Jobs spent his working life (a) exploiting the commercial potential of new products (home computer, etc.) in large part by (b) caring obsessively, much more than others in his rarefied position, such as Bill Gates, about how they made him feel. Apple made products that Steve Jobs enjoyed. Fine. The problem is what Steve Jobs enjoyed. My take on him is a lot can be explained by (a) he cared little what others thought of him and (b) he lived in a tiny, uncomplicated intellectual world — as illustrated by his remarks about Foxconn and his Stanford graduation speech. Nabokov might say he had the emotional development of a child and the curiosity of an adult.

He left behind a company that reflects the shallowness of what he cared about. Those who take over Apple Computer are likely to be less shallow than he was — most people are. I predict the company will begin to care more about working conditions, ease of recycling, and other things beyond immediate user experience.

Evidence-Based Medicine Versus Innovation

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

In this interview, a doctor who does research on biofilms named Randall Wolcott makes the same point I made about Testing Treatments — that evidence-based medicine, as now practiced, suppresses innovation:

I take it you [meaning the interviewer] are familiar with evidence-based medicine? It’s the increasingly accepted approach for making clinical decisions about how to treat a patient. Basically, doctors are trained to make a decision based on the most current evidence derived from research. But what such thinking boils down to [in practice -- theory is different] is that I am supposed to do the same thing that has always been done – to treat my patient in the conventional manner – just because it’s become the most popular approach. However, when it comes to chronic wound biofilms, we are in the midst of a crisis – what has been done and is accepted as the standard treatment doesn’t work and doesn’t meet the needs of the patient.

Thus, evidence-based medicine totally regulates against innovation. Essentially doctors suffer if they step away from mainstream thinking. Sure, there are charlatans out there who are trying to sell us treatments that don’t work, but there are many good therapies that are not used because they are unconventional. It is only by considering new treatment options that we can progress.

Right on. He goes on to say that he is unwilling to do a double-blind clinical trial in which some patients do not receive his new therapy because “we know we’ve got the methods to save most of their limbs” from amputation.

Almost all scientific and intellectual history (and much serious journalism) is about how things begin. How ideas began and spread, how inventions are invented. If you write about Steve Jobs, for example, that’s your real subject. How things fail to begin — how good ideas are killed off — is at least as important, but much harder to write about. This is why Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation is such an important book. It says nothing about the killing-off processes, but at least it describes the stagnation they have caused. Stagnation should scare us. As Jane Jacobs often said, if it lasts long enough, it causes collapse.

Thanks to Heidi.

Testing Treatments: The Authors Respond

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

In a previous post I criticized the book Testing Treatments. Two of the authors, Paul Glasziou and Iain Chalmers, have responded. I have replied to their response. They did not respond to the main point of my post, which is that the preferences and values of their book — called evidence-based medicine — hinder innovation.

Sure, care about evidence. Of course. But don’t be an evidence snob.

Testing Treatments: Nine Questions For the Authors

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

From this comment (thanks, Elizabeth Molin) I learned of a British book called Testing Treatments (pdf), whose second edition has just come out. Its goal is to make readers more sophisticated consumers of medical research. To help them distinguish “good” science from “bad” science. Ben Goldacre, the Bad Science columnist, fulsomely praises it (“I genuinely, truly, cannot recommend this awesome book highly enough for its clarity, depth, and humanity”). He wrote a foreword. The main text is by Imogen Evans (medical journalist), Hazel Thornton (writer),  Iain Chalmers (medical researcher), and Paul Glaziou (medical researcher, editor of Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine).

To me, as I’ve said, medical research is almost entirely bad. Almost all medical researchers accept two remarkable rules: (a) first, let them get sick and (b) no cheap remedies. These rules severely limit what is studied. In terms of useful progress, the price of these limits has been enormous: near total enfeeblement. For many years the Nobel Prize in Medicine has documented the continuing failure of medical researchers all over the world to make significant progress on all major health problems, including depression, heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and so on. It is consistent with their level of understanding that some people associated with medicine would write a book about how to do something (good science) the whole field manifestly can’t do. Testing Treatments isn’t just a fat person writing a book about how to lose weight, it’s the author failing to notice he’s fat. (more…)

Brain Surprise! Why Did I Do So Well?

Monday, October 31st, 2011

For the last four years or so I have daily measured how well my brain is working by means of balance measurements and mental tests. For three years  I have used a test of simple arithmetic (e.g, 7 * 8, 2 + 5). I try to answer as fast as possible. I take faster answers to indicate a better-functioning brain.

Yesterday my score was much better than usual. This shows what happened.

My usual average is about 550 msec or more; my score yesterday was 525 msec. An unexplained improvement of 25 msec.

What caused the improvement? I came up with a list of ways that yesterday was much different than usual, that is, was an outlier in other ways. These are possible causes. From more to less plausible:

1. I had 33 g extra flaxseed last night. (By mistake. I’m not sure about this.)

2. The test came at the perfect time after I had my afternoon yogurt with 33 g flaxseed. When I took flaxseed oil (now I eat ground flaxseed), it was clear that there was a short-term improvement for a few hours.

3. Many afternoons I eat 33 g ground flaxseed with yogurt. Yesterday I ground the afternoon flaxseed an unusually long time, making made the omega-3 more digestible.

4. I did kettlebells swings and a kettlebell walk about 2 hours before the test. These exercises are not new but usually I do them on different days. Yesterday was the first time I’ve done them on the same day. I’m sure ordinary walking improves performance for perhaps 30 minutes after I stop walking.

5. I had duck and miso soup a half-hour before the test. Almost never eat this.

6. I had a fermented egg (“thousand-year-old egg”) at noon. I rarely eat them.

7. I had peanuts with my yogurt and ground flaxseed. Peanuts alone seem to have no effect. Perhaps something in the peanuts improves digestion of the omega-3 in the flaxseed.

8. I started watching faces at 7 am that morning instead of 6:30 am or earlier.

Here are eight ideas to test. Perhaps one or two will turn out to be important. Perhaps none will.

After I made this list, I read student papers. The assignment was to comment on a research article. One of the articles was about the effect of holding a warm versus cold coffee cup. Holding a warm coffee cup makes you act “warmer,” said the article. Commenting on this, a student said she thought it was ridiculous until she remembered going to the barber. She sees the person who washes her hair (in warm water) as friendly, the barber as cold. Maybe this is due to the warm water used to wash her hair, she noted. This made me realize another unusual feature of yesterday: I had washed my hair in warm water longer than usual. I think I did it at least 30 minutes before the arithmetic test but I’m not sure. In any case, here is another idea to test. I found earlier that cold showers slowed down my arithmetic speed.

This illustrates a big advantage of personal science (science done for personal gain) over professional science (science done because it’s your job): The random variation in my life may suggest plausible new ideas. As far as I can tell, professional scientists have learned almost nothing about practical ways to make your brain work better. You can find many lists of “brain food” on the internet. Inevitably the evidence is weak. I’d be surprised if any of them helped more than a tiny amount (in my test, a few msec). The real brain foods, in my experience, are butter and omega-3. Perhaps my tests will merely confirm the value of omega-3 (Explanations 1-3). But perhaps not (Explanations 4-8 and head heating).

Jane Jacobs and Amazon.com

Friday, October 14th, 2011

How did air-breathing evolve? In The Nature of Economies (p. 87), Jane Jacobs uses it to illustrate the developmental pattern she calls “bifurcation” (air-breathing isn’t a refinement of water-breathing). She speculates on how it started:

Lungfish had both gills and a primitive lung, suggesting that their habitat was swampland. The earliest to take to dry land may have inhabited swamps subject to severe droughts or perhaps they were escaping fearsomely-jawed predators who couldn’t follow them to dry land.

According to Steve Yegge’s already-famous “psst, Googlers” memo, something much like this was why Amazon started selling web computing services, which wasn’t a refinement of their earlier business (selling books, toys, etc.):

Amazon was a product company too, so it took an out-of-band force to make Bezos understand the need for a platform. That force was their evaporating margins; he was cornered and had to think of a way out. But all he had was a bunch of engineers and all these computers… if only they could be monetized somehow… you can see how he arrived at AWS [Amazon Web Services], in hindsight.

People say necessity is the mother of invention. That isn’t even close to true. Trial and error is the mother of true, profound invention. The Bezos story, and Jacobs’s generalization of it, suggest what is actually true: necessity is the mother of development. Necessity pushes people to use, and thereby develop, inventions they had ignored.

Chapter 1 of The Nature of Economies.

More News about Liberation Therapy

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

An Italian surgeon, Paolo Zamboni, claimed that he found low blood flow from the brain in 100% of patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). He began by studying his wife.

A new study supports the connection:

The Canadian researchers analyzed eight studies from Italy, Germany, Jordan and the U.S. that involved 664 MS patients in total. The studies looked at how frequently CCSVI [chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency] was found in people with MS compared to healthy people or those with other neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

One of the studies — Zamboni’s — found CCSVI in 100 per cent of people with MS, and zero per cent of people without the disease. Other studies found the vein abnormalities in people who didn’t have MS.

Overall, when the results were combined, people with MS were 13.5 times more likely to have CCSVI. Even when the study by Zamboni — which generated the excitement about CCSVI — was removed, the syndrome was 3.7 times more common in people with MS.

Thanks to Anne Weiss.

Google Yes, Wikipedia Yes, Aaron Swartz No?

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

We praise Google and Wikipedia for making knowledge more available — consider them two of the best innovations of the last 50 years — but after Aaron Swartz, a friend of mine, apparently tried to do the same thing he was charged with wire and computer fraud and faces up to 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine.

The prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, made an interesting statement:

Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.

In my experience, tautological statements such as “stealing is stealing” or “correlation is not causation” do not bode well for that side of the argument. As Thorstein Veblen might say, the reason for the tautology was the need for it.

Ortiz’s statement shows that she, like the rest of us, thinks that what matters is amount of harm. Harm is hard to find here. The only clear harm is that MIT access to JSTOR was shut down for a few days. This is so minor that JSTOR’s statement about the case (which includes “it was the government’s decision whether to prosecute, not JSTOR’s. . . . We [have] no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter”) doesn’t mention it. I don’t think many people will agree that this amount of harm justifies the charges that Ortiz has brought.

Sign a petition supporting Aaron.

The Second Immune System: A New Way of Treating Cancer

Monday, June 13th, 2011

This is a great documentary about a new cancer treatment invented by a Texas doctor named Stanislaw Burzynski. You can watch it for free until June 20 (and perhaps later, since an earlier deadline was extended).

How Things Begin (Time Out)

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Time Out magazine was started in 1968 in London by Tony Elliot, who was 22 at the time. The original title was Where It’s At. There were all sorts of new cultural stuff, such as a concert by the Who, that the mainstream media didn’t notice. The fringe-y alternative media weren’t interested in the attention to detail required to put out a list of events. That was the gap Time Out filled. Elliot borrowed a small amount of money (70 pounds) to start it. He and his co-workers worked without pay for the first three or four months. It was hard to get distribution, so they went around to parks passing it out. At a Beijing talk, Elliot said he didn’t remember the first paid advertiser (maybe a music store) but he did remember when he got an unsolicited advertising order from the prestigious London Film Museum. They understand what we’re trying to do, he thought.

I asked what some of his biggest mistakes had been. Both involved not saying no when he should have said no.

Assorted Links

Friday, June 4th, 2010

Thanks to Dave Lull.

How Things Begin: The Fleming Fund

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

Better to light a candle than curse the darkness, the saying goes. What if there are no candles?

Ken Rousseau, a software manager in Silicon Valley, went to Caltech in the late 70s. He didn’t have a good time. He was a physics major He took a required course on electricity and magnetism where the average score on the final was 15 out of 100. As he took it, he thought, I guess I can’t be a physics major. He got a 16 — a solid B. That a professor would design such a demoralizing test revealed, he believed, that the professor didn’t care about students. At Tech, lack of caring for students was shown in big things and small. Every building on campus was air-conditioned except the student houses, and Pasadena gets really hot in the summer. The graduation rate around that time — the fraction of entering students who graduate in four years — was 59%. At MIT it was 80 or 90%. When a student drops out of Tech, it’s a lost opportunity on both sides, Rousseau felt. It was/is very difficult to get into Tech. To send 41% of admitted students away struck him as a terrible thing.

He did graduate. For many years, when Tech would ask him for money, he would say no, sometimes with a letter about why. But he kept in touch with other students who had lived in the same undergraduate house (Fleming House), one of the seven student houses. Every year, a bunch of them would have a weekend-long beach party. At one of them the idea arose: Let’s start a Fleming Fund. To help the students buy beer, that sort of thing. Tech is a tough place, let’s help them get through it.

In the 1990s, Rousseau got a letter from the president of Caltech that made him angry. Tech was #4 in the U.S. News rankings, it said, mainly because of the low fraction of alumni giving. Let’s make Tech #1 by giving more, wrote the president. Rousseau responded with a five-page letter that made one simple point: Alumni giving is so low because the people in charge cared so little about students. Their lack of concern is being reciprocated.

By 2003 or 2004 Rousseau had enough money that he got a personal visit from the development office. His visitor knew his wife’s name, the approximate ages of his children, and the high points of his professional career. Rousseau told him of his residual bitterness. “You’ve obviously benefited a lot from your Tech experience,” said the development officer. “Why have you only given $163 over the years?” He had it wrong, Rousseau said. He had given $1. His wife, who had also gone to Tech, had given $162.

He told the development officer he was interested in helping Tech students — particularly Fleming House residents. In essence, he wanted to bring the Fleming Fund into existence. Around this time, Frank Bernstein, another Caltech alum who was working as a patent attorney in Silicon Valley, was also solicited. “Frank, I’m looking for a really significant donation,” said the same development officer who had approached Rousseau. Bernstein, who’d also lived in Fleming, told Rousseau about the conversation and they again resurrected the idea of the Fleming Fund.

The development officer came back to them with ideas. Maybe you could fund a lecturer, he suggested. Or graduate student salaries. Helping undergraduates was clearly a new and difficult concept for the development office. They were looking for contributions that, in their words, “directly benefited the Institute.” Bernstein pointed out to them that this was a narrow and self-defeating view. They want alumni to contribute. They want to get them in the habit of contributing. A Fleming Fund will help with that.

Because Rousseau’s daughter, a high school student, was considering going to Tech, Rousseau visited the campus in 2006. He met with Tom Mannion, the administrator for student affairs, and came to believe that the administration cared more about students than they had in the past. A new incoming president, Jean-Lou Chameau, appeared to genuinely care about undergrads. (Later events have validated that view. Chameau has made a point of discussing student life in his public discussions and has started to push administration officials to discuss what they’re doing with regards to student life.) After that, Rousseau and Bernstein met with the development officer who had solicited them and started working on the details. The Institute set a minimum of $100,000. Once the fund reached this level, income from the fund would be given to the students to spend.

In 2008 the details were hammered out. There would be two sort of restrictions: 1. Obvious limits on what the money could be spent on (no bail, no illegal drugs, etc.). 2. An oversight committee of three people, including the past president of Fleming House. The oversight committee only gets involved when the amount of money is more than the house’s usual budget. The income, at least at first, would be about $10,000 year for a house of about 120 students.

In May 2009, the fund was announced during a Fleming House reunion dinner at Tom Mannion’s house. Many undergrads came up to Rousseau and told him it was a “really cool idea.” They were touched that someone out there cared about them. The Institute is thinking of repeating it with the other student houses.