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March 31, 2008

Creative Destruction in the Film Industry



(p. B1) While film still is central in big Hollywood features, it's unclear how long it will be before even the biggest feature movies go all- digital. The buzz in technical movie-making circles these days involves the two-month-old, ultra-high-resolution digital Red camera. Boosters say it looks nearly as good as 35mm film -- and costs around $30,000, or about the same as renting a 35mm camera for 10 days.

Thanks to cheap computers, a similar sort of creative destruction is happening everywhere in the industry. Color adjustment used to require expensive oscilloscope-like monitors. It first moved to specialized -- and expensive -- software, but lately it's done with relatively low- cost (say, $200) "plug-ins" by companies like Red Giant Software.


For the full story, see:

Lee Gomes. "Editing on Big Films Is Now Being Done On Small Computers." Wall Street Journal (Weds., Oct. 24, 2007): B1.




March 30, 2008

"The Quiet Emergence of Pro-Nuke Greens"



PowerToSaveTheWorldBK.jpg








Source of book image: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41hyNtYMzmL._SS500_.jpg


(p. D8) Start with a novelist and former New Yorker magazine fiction editor living on the East End of Long Island, a sometime antinuclear activist (remember Shoreham?) and a determined organic vegetable gardener who spent her childhood in 1950s New Mexico having atom-bomb nightmares. Team her with another lifelong greenie, a man with a doctorate in organic chemistry who grew up on an Idaho ranch without electricity and whose day job, over the course of a long career, has included pioneering something called probabilistic risk assessment (the underpinnings of climate-change analysis, but that's another story). Send the pair off on a grand tour of the nuclear-power world, from dust-blown uranium mines to the depths of a pilot facility for Uncle Sam's waste deposit at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. And then wait for them to come back with the predictable diatribe against nuclear power.

Happily, you'll wait in vain. "Power to Save the World" is a picaresque, flat-out love song to the bad boy of the great American energy debate -- as good a book as we're likely to get on a subject mired in political incorrectness, general unfathomability and essentially limitless gut fears. It's also the latest plot point for one of the few unassailably positive byproducts of global-warming mania: the quiet emergence of pro-nuke greens, led by such impeccable apostates as Whole Earth founder Stewart Brand and James Lovelock, the British chemist best known for his Earth-is-a-living-organism "Gaia ypothesis."


For the full review, see:

Reiss, Spencer. "BOOKSHELF; Green With (Nuclear) Energy." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., November 20, 2007): D8.





March 29, 2008

"I Intend to Be Visible, But Only in Ways I Wish to Be Seen"



The passages below are from a WSJ summary of an October 12, 2007 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

(p. A7) After feeling increasingly alienated by college celebrations of black heritage, English Prof. Jerald Walker opted to redefine his role on campus.

. . .

Prof. Walker decided he had had enough during a commencement ceremony for black students. He had misgivings over the concept itself: "After so recently celebrating our country's staunchest promoter of integration, I was being asked to celebrate segregation."

Afterward, he made the decision that he would no longer participate in events simply because of the color of his skin. "I intend to be visible," he says, "but only in ways I wish to be seen."


For the full summary, see:

"The Informed Reader; Universities; Black Professor Rebels Against Expected Campus Role." Wall Street Journal (Oct. 13, 2007): A7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)




March 28, 2008

For First Time, Planet Earth is More Urban than Rural



PushpakExpress.jpg "Sarla Deepak Ire sells guavas on the Pushpak Express, from Lucknow to Mumbai, earning less than $3 a day." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 3) ABOARD THE PUSHPAK EXPRESS, India -- The man with neatly parted hair stood in the doorway of the hurtling train. And then, at the perfect moment, he jumped.

This was not about suicide, however. It was about tea.

Having popped out of the door, he clung to the knobs and rods of the train's exterior with one hand. His other hand gripped a vat of scalding tea tied to his belt.

He glided like a rock climber across the train's epidermis, from one foothold to the next. He reached the steel beam that connected the cars and walked it like a tightrope. Then, arriving at the next car, he hopped onto more footholds and, at last, ducked inside to utter his sales pitch: "Tea! Tea! Get your hot tea!"

Such acrobatics are not required on most of the world's trains, nor in this train's first- and second-class cars, which are connected with inside passageways. But this was third class on the Pushpak Express, a $6, 24-hour ride ferrying migrants from India's bleak heartland to the thriving coastal megalopolis of Mumbai, formerly Bombay. And in an echo of the ancient caste system, these passengers are physically sealed off from the compartments of the luckier born.

These passengers are also part of a great migration that is changing the world. Goldman Sachs, which has published projections about the Indian economy, predicts that 31 villagers will continue to show up in an Indian city every minute over the next 43 years -- 700 million people in all. This exodus, with a similar one in China, helped push the world over a historic threshold this year: the planet, for the first time, is more urban than rural.

. . .

Sonu Gupta, 15, was one of what the veterans call "new men." With his wiry frame, he looked more like 10. He was traveling with a friend from his village. If he can find work in Mumbai, Mr. Gupta will become his family's breadwinner. "I'm happy," he said, "and I'm scared."


For the full story, see:

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS. "Rumbling Across India Toward a New Life in the City." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., November 25, 2007): 3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


PushpakExpressIndiaMap.jpg







Source of map: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.




March 27, 2008

Science Would Advance Faster if Results of Failed Experiments Were Easier to Find



The passages below are from a WSJ summary of an October 2007 article in Wired:

(p. B7) Scientists shouldn't be so quick to squelch the results of failed experiments, Wired Deputy Editor Thomas Goetz says.

Even if data don't deliver hoped-for results, they still have uses. This is especially the case today, when some compelling discoveries have come from meta-studies, in which statisticians sift the data of several papers to reach conclusions. "Your dead end may be another scientist's missing link, the elusive chunk of data they needed," Mr. Goetz says. Making such data available might one day fuel advances in genetics, neuroscience and biotechnology, he contends.


For the full summary, see:

"The Informed Reader; Science; Researchers' 'Dark Data' Should Be Brought to Light." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., Oct. 4, 2007): B7.




March 26, 2008

Mooning the Future



CommodoreBK.jpg









Source of book image:
http://a1055.g.akamai.net/f/1055/1401/5h/images.barnesandnoble.com/images/24530000/24539427.jpg


In an ideal world, a famous railroad mogul like Cornelius Vanderbilt, would be a consistent defender of technological progress. But moguls can differ in their motives and are not always consistent. Consider the following from a new biography of Vanderbilt:


(p. D9) The arrival a few years earlier of the first steamships, clanking loudly and belching flames and smoke, provoked scorn from sailors, who waved their hats in condescension and "sometimes also turned their backs, bent down, and revealed their bare ends to the dignified ladies and gentleman who had paid lofty prices to flirt with the future. Cornelius sometimes made such a salute."

For the full review, see:

JULIA FLYNN SILER. "The Tides of Fortune." The Wall Street Journal
(Weds., December 19, 2007): D9.





March 25, 2008

Government Post-Doc Funding Creates "Glut" of Scientists



The quotes below from a WSJ summary of a Nov. 16, 2007 The Chronicle of Higher Education article, suggests that we do not need to worry about the sometimes-alleged "shortage" of scientists and engineers:


(p. B14) The federal dollars pumped into university science departments has created more scientists and engineers than the market wants, said Michael S. Teitelbaum, vice president of Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which sponsors research, at a hearing in Congress last week. Mr. Teitelbaum said the federal government should find a way to adjust how it funds university research so that university departments don't end up using the extra money to add graduate students and postdoctoral fellows

For the full summary, see:

"The Informed Reader; Science; U.S. Faces a Glut (Really) of Scientists, Engineers." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., November 13, 2007): B14.




March 24, 2008

Why We Need Some Savvy Entrepreneur to Start a Garage-Rating Business



SchneiderHenry.jpg




"Henry Schneider found few competent, honest mechanics." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT commentary quoted and cited below.


(p. C1) . . . , Mr. Schneider drove home to Connecticut and undertook a devilish little test.

Over the next few months, he took the Subaru to 40 garages, loosening the battery cable and draining some coolant before each visit. He even wrote himself a script and memorized it, to make sure he was telling every garage the same thing. "We bought the car recently, and we should have had it looked at before we bought it, but we didn't," he would say. "It hasn't started a few times. Can you check that out?" He also asked for a thorough inspection.

Mr. Schneider was trying to answer a question that has occurred to pretty much all drivers who have ever been given the unsettling news that a car needs more repairs than they had expected: Does it really? Or is the garage just looking to make some extra money off me?

. . .

At only 27 of the 40 garages did mechanics tell Mr. Schneider that he had a disconnected battery cable, the very problem to which he had pointed them by saying his car didn't always start. Only 11 mentioned the low coolant, a problem that can ruin a car's engine. Ten of the garages, meanwhile, recommended costly repairs that were plainly unnecessary, like replacing the starter motor or the battery. (Tellingly, his results were in line with what the Automobile Protection Association found when it performed its experiments in Canada.)

In all, only about 20 percent of the garages deserved a passing grade. "And that's with a pretty low bar," Mr. Schneider told me. "I'm even allowing them to have missed a blown taillight that should have been caught."

. . .

. . . , Mr. Schneider didn't set out to study cars. His original goal was to examine the health care system. But he couldn't very well give himself a heart murmur and then visit 40 cardiologists.

"It turns out it's hard to get objective measures of people's bodies," as Thomas Hubbard, a Northwestern University professor who has also studied the economics of reputation, put it. "It's a lot easier to get objective measures of people's cars."

. . .

Until some savvy entrepreneur starts a garage-rating business, the best solution may be the oldest one: asking for a recommendation from someone who is knowledgeable enough to distinguish between good service and bad. Just remember that a lot of people don't know quite as much about cars -- or their mechanic -- as they think they do.


For the full commentary, see:

DAVID LEONHARDT. "ECONOMIC SCENE; When Trust In an Expert Is Unwise." The New York Times (Weds., November 7, 2007): C1 & C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)


SchneiderDadSubaru.jpg
"Schneider sabotaged his dad's old station wagon to test the honesty of mechanics." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT commentary quoted and cited above.





March 23, 2008

A Little Optimism Goes a Long Way



(p. B1) Far from deforming our view of the future, this penchant for life's silver lining shapes our decisions about family, health, work and finances in surprisingly prudent ways, concluded economists at Duke University in a new study published in the Journal of Financial Economics. "Economists have focused on optimism as a miscalibration, as a distorted view of the future," said Duke finance scholar David T. Robinson. "A little bit of optimism is associated with a lot of positive economic choices."

. . .

Optimists, the Duke finance scholars discovered, worked longer hours every week, expected to retire later in life, were less likely to smoke and, when they divorced, were more likely to remarry. They also saved more, had more of their wealth in liquid assets, invested more in individual stocks and paid credit-card bills more promptly.

Yet those who saw the future too brightly -- people who in the survey overestimated their own likely lifespan by 20 years or more -- behaved in just the opposite way, the researchers discovered.

Rather than save, they squandered. They postponed bill-paying. Instead of taking the long view, they barely looked past tomorrow. Statistically, they were more likely to be day traders. "Optimism is a little like red wine," said Duke finance professor and study co-author Manju Puri. "In moderation, it is good for you; but no one would suggest you drink two bottles a day."


For the full story, see:

Robert Lee Hotz. "Science Journal; Except in One Career, Our Brains Seem Built for Optimism." Wall Street Journal (Fri., Nov. 9, 2007): B1.

(Note: ellipsis added.)




March 22, 2008

Former New Orleanians Do Not Miss the Crime and Chaos



ReeseCarlaWithDaughterAndDog.jpg "Carla Reese, left, with her daughter Renee Roussell, who said that "there is nothing to go back to" in New Orleans." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) LAKE CHARLES, La. -- With resignation, anger or stoicism, thousands of former New Orleanians forced out by Hurricane Katrina are settling in across the Gulf Coast, breaking their ties with the damaged city for which they still yearn.

They now cast their votes in small Louisiana towns and in big cities of neighboring states. They have found new jobs and bought new houses. They have forsaken their favorite foods and cherished pastors. But they do not for a moment miss the crime, the chaos and the bad memories they left behind in New Orleans.

This vast diaspora -- largely black, often poor, sometimes struggling -- stretches across the country but is concentrated in cities near the coast, like this one, or Atlanta or Baton Rouge or Houston, places where the newcomers are still reaching for accommodation.

The break came fairly recently. Sometime between the New Orleans mayor's race in spring 2006, when thousands of displaced citizens voted absentee or drove in to cast a ballot, and the city election this fall, when thousands did not -- resulting in a sharply diminished electorate and a white-majority City Council -- the decision was made: there was no going back. Life in New Orleans was over.



For the full story, see:

ADAM NOSSITER. "With Regrets, New Orleans Is Left Behind." The New York Times (Tues., December 18, 2007): A1 & A29.


JonesHurstWilliamsChurchWarehouse.jpg "Cynthia Jones, left, her sister, Pauline Hurst, and their mother, Evelyn Williams, at the church warehouse where they now work." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.




March 21, 2008

"The Chronically Apalled Must Not Have the Last Word"



(p. A20) Unfortunately, the deniers of differences between the sexes are on the march with powerful allies. In the fall of 2006, the National Academy of Sciences released a recklessly one-sided study, now widely referred to as authoritative, titled "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering." According to the report, differences in cognition between the sexes have no bearing on the dearth of women in academic math, physics and engineering. It is all due to bias. Case closed. The report calls on Congress to hold hearings on gender bias in the sciences and on federal agencies to "move immediately" (emphasis in original) to apply anti-discrimination laws such as Title IX to academic science (but not English) departments. "The time for action is now."

No it is not. Now is the time for scholars in our universities and in the National Academy of Sciences to defend and support principles of free and objective inquiry. The chronically appalled must not have the last word.


For the full commentary, see:

Christina Hoff Sommers. "Academic Inquisitors." Wall Street Journal (Tues., Oct. 16, 2007): A.20.




March 20, 2008

Mexico Supplies United States Aerospace Industry



MexicoAerospaceMap.gif Source of map: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A2) Mexico has felt the downside of globalization in recent years as cheaper Asian manufacturers of everything from electronics to auto parts have undercut the advantages provided by looser North American trade barriers.

Now, Mexican officials are turning to another sector they hope will put down deeper roots: The booming North American aerospace industry.

Mexico has moved to make it even easier for foreign companies to do business south of the border. Already, big names in aerospace such as Goodrich Corp. of the U.S. and Bombardier Inc. of Canada have set up facilities there.

The nation offers proximity and easy reach at a time when aerospace giants are under pressure to hit deadlines and deliver new aircraft to customers. Aerospace officials also say they are impressed by Mexico's deep talent pool. And if Mexico successfully bolsters its aerospace industry, it will demonstrate that skills burnished servicing the automotive sector can be transferred to higher-end industries.

. . .

Mexico's biggest advantage may be its location. For years, major aerospace manufacturers such as Boeing Co. have farmed out a growing share of their work to suppliers in Japan, China and elsewhere. But these arrangements can make it a challenge to get finished components back to the companies' main factories for final assembly. The choice often boils down to waiting weeks for delivery by ship or paying for costly space on a cargo jet.

With demand for new jetliners and other aircraft at record levels, however, companies are under greater pressure to cut shipping time and increase production. Many U.S. aerospace companies already have built up considerable capacity in Mexico to feed the industry's production hub in Southern California.


For the full commentary, see:

JOEL MILLMAN and J. LYNN LUNSFORD. "THE OUTLOOK; Mexico Seeks a Lasting Share Of Aerospace Boom." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., November 26, 2007): A2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)




March 19, 2008

Less Inflammation, Longer Life



The passage below is from a WSJ summary of an article that appeared in the December 2007 issue of Discover:

(p. B12) Scientists are increasingly hopeful that controlling inflammation will allow them to turn back the clock on aging, writes Kathleen McGowan in Discover magazine.

Inflammation is already a well-established predictor of many chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, atherosclerosis and Alzheimer's disease.  . . .

. . .

Many prominent gerontologists reason that if these chronic diseases are the product of an overactive immune system, then they can be countered with the right anti-inflammatory drug.    . . .

"The research is really to prevent the chronic debilitating diseases of aging," says Nir Barzilai, a molecular geneticist and director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "But if I develop a drug, it will have a side effect, which is that you will live longer."


For the full summary, see:

"The Informed Reader; Health; How Scientists Hope to Shrink Aging Effects." Wall Street Journal (Weds., Nov. 14, 2007): B12.

(Note: ellipses added.)




March 18, 2008

Southwest Airline Manages Risk Through Oil Price Hedges



SouthwestOilHedge.jpg Source of graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. C1) Southwest Airlines, in danger for much of this year of losing its quirky dominance in the domestic airline industry, could soon be standing, once again, head and shoulders above the competition.

Better service? Happier and more productive workers?

Not this time. The reason for Southwest's rapidly increasing advantage over other big airlines is much simpler: it loaded up years ago on hedges against higher fuel prices. And with oil trading above $90 a barrel, most of the rest of the airline industry is facing a huge run-up in costs, and Southwest is not.

Southwest owns long-term contracts to buy most of its fuel through 2009 for what it would cost if oil were $51 a barrel. The value of those hedges soared as oil raced above $90 a barrel, and they are now worth more than $2 billion. Those gains will mostly be realized over the next two years.

Other major airlines passed on buying all but the shortest-term insurance against high fuel prices, allowing Southwest executives a bit of schadenfreude.


For the full story, see:

JEFF BAILEY. "An Airline Shrugs at Oil Prices." The New York Times (Thurs., November 29, 2007): C1 & C10.


SouthwestRefueling.jpg
'A Southwest Airlines worker fueled a plane. Southwest's chief said the hedges against rising fuel costs "bought us time to retool our company."" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.




March 17, 2008

Bill Clinton's Role in "Fueling the Mother of All Housing Bubbles"



The author of the lines quoted below won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002.

(p. A20) The joint housing and mortgage-market crisis once again reminds us that all financial implosions stem from the same cause: borrowing short and lending long without enough equity to weather periodic storms in the gap between.

But this bubble was different. Besides being fueled by housing purchases and repackaged loans, each with inadequate equity -- doubling down with other people's money -- at the end of the capital-gains rainbow was the right to take up to $500,000 of profit, tax free.

Thank you President Bill Clinton for your 1997 action, applauded by the banks, the realtors and all citizens in search of half-millionaire status from an investment they could understand and self deceptively believe to be low risk; thank you for fueling the mother of all housing bubbles; thank you for enabling so many of us who bought second or third homes, and homes before construction began, which we then sold to someone else who dreamed of riches from owning homes long enough to sell to another fool.

Once again, try as we might and in spite of our political rhetoric, we have failed to help the poor in applauding government action intended to help ourselves.


For the full commentary, see:

VERNON L. SMITH. "The Clinton Housing Bubble." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., December 18, 2007): A20.




March 16, 2008

Huge Oil Field Discovered Offshore of Brazil



Petrobras54oilPlatform.jpg "The Petrobras 54 platform was in Niteroi, Brazil, last August, before its deployment." Source of the caption and the photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. C1) RIO DE JANEIRO -- While some of the world's largest oil producers, including Mexico and Iran, are struggling to remain exporters, Brazil is moving in the opposite direction. A huge underwater oil field discovered late last year has the potential to transform South America's largest country into a sizable exporter and win it a seat at the table of the world's oil cartel.

The new oil, along with refining projects under way by Petrobras, the national oil company, could eventually make Brazil a larger exporter of gasoline as well, adding to supplies in the United States and other countries where it is all but impossible to build new refineries.

The subsalt basin that contains Tupi, the new deepwater field estimated to hold the equivalent of five billion to eight billion barrels of light crude oil, is creating a buzz among the world's largest oil companies. They have struggled lately to find global-scale projects worth investing in, even with oil touching $100 a barrel. Tupi is the world's biggest oil find since a 12-billion-barrel field discovered in 2000 in Kazakhstan.


For the full story, see:

ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO. "Hot Prospect for Oil's Big League." The New York Times (Fri., January 11, 2008): C1 & C4.


TupiDeepwaterOilField.jpg






"The Tupi deepwater field." Source of the caption and the map: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





March 15, 2008

Motive Power Really Does Matter: More on Why Africa is Poor



TrainCongo.jpg "A crowded train traveling through Katanga Province. Goods and people are crammed in, and bathrooms are used for storage." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A4) In large swaths of Congo, a vast country the size of Western Europe, roads are impassable or nonexistent, large riverboats no longer ply the waterways and air travel is prohibitively expensive, leaving many people to rely on an increasingly dangerous railway system long past its prime.

Fresh from its first democratic elections in nearly 50 years and still struggling to emerge from civil war, Congo is trying to get its trains running again. But it has a long way to go.

. . .

The bathrooms in first class become filthy soon after a trip begins. In second and third class, the bathrooms are used for storage. In one car, five large bags of charcoal were stuffed into a bathroom, and people relieved themselves in buckets or out windows.

The railway employs over 13,000 people, but the last time paychecks were sent out was in May, and that was payment for the spring of 2005. So many employees do not go to work, and bribes are widespread.

"Sometimes it's difficult to resist temptations," said Agustín, the police chief at the Kamina station, who gave only his first name. "I do bad things."

"I haven't been paid in 29 months," he added. "How am I supposed to send my children to school?"

Léon, a conductor and machinist who gave only his first name, thinks the problem begins in Kinshasa, the capital. "This is a state-owned company," he said. "It's bankrupt because of the government. The way things are going, we won't last two years."


For the full story, see:

WILL CONNORS. "Congo by Rail: Filthy, Crowded and Dangerous." The New York Times (Tues., September 4, 2007): A4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


TrainControllerCongo.jpg "A train controller relays the position of a train to another station. Because pay is so infrequent, many employees do not go to work and bribes are widespread." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.




March 14, 2008

Co-Working in the Free Agent Nation



HillmanAlexWebEntrepreneur.jpg








"Web entrepreneur Alex Hillman got together with a group of work-at-home businesspeople to create a hip space to work in Philadelphia." Souce of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1D) "I always felt an obligation to the coffee shop. I was taking up precious space," Hillman said. "I was definitely drinking more coffee than I should have, so I wasn't sleeping."

 Even before he left his job, he had begun to learn about co-working, not to be confused with job-sharing, where two people take turns in the same stall in the cube farm.

Instead, think of co-working as an entrepreneurial version of parallel play, with owners of their own small businesses working side by side in a drop-in place that looks like a coffee cafe, minus the barista, with all the accoutrements of what's hip: high ceilings, beer fridge, pool table and Internet access.

Paying as little as $175 a month, they mostly work on their own. But they also trade ideas, help solve problems, and move in and out of loose collaborations.

Today's technology -- wireless access, cell phones, BlackBerries and laptops -- makes a mobile work force possible.

"I think when people work at home they have to come up with new ways to interact with people," said Daniel H. Pink, one of the first authors to write about independent contractors in his 2001 book "Free Agent Nation."


For the full story, see: 

THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER.  "Workplace; A step up from working in pj's."   Omaha World-Herald   (Monday, September 17, 2007):  1D & 2D.

 

The refererence to the Pink book is:

 Pink, Daniel H. Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live. New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.

 




March 13, 2008

Columbus Absolved of Bringing Lice-Borne Disease to Indians



MummyPeruLice.jpg




"Braided hair is intact on a Peruvian mummy like those used in a study. Scientists say lice in the Americas predated Columbus." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A10) When two pre-Columbian individuals died 1,000 years ago, arid conditions in the region of what is now Peru naturally mummified their bodies, as well as the lice in their long, braided hair.

That was all scientists needed, they reported Wednesday, to extract well-preserved louse DNA and establish that lice had accompanied their human hosts in the original peopling of the Americas, probably as early as 15,000 years ago. The DNA matched that of the most common type of louse known to exist worldwide now and also before Europeans colonized the New World.

The findings absolve Columbus of responsibility for at least one wrong unintentionally wrought on the people he found in the Americas and called Indians. The Europeans who followed Columbus to America may have introduced diseases, namely smallpox and measles, but not the most common of lice, as had been suspected.

For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "Scientists Say Mummies' Lice Show Pre-Columbian Origins." The New York Times (Thurs., February 7, 2008): A10.




March 12, 2008

Controversial Patent Reform



PatentBarGraphs.gif    
Source of graph:  online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A3) The sweeping patent initiative -- backed by a business coalition dominated by technology companies such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. -- would . . . shift the balance of power of the U.S. patent system. It would make it a bit harder for holders to protect patents.  Advocates of the legislation contend the current system encourages patent litigation and costly judgments against infringers -- and stifles innovation.  They say the proposals are designed to bring patent rules in line with the rapidly changing U.S. economy, where inventions often reflect hundreds of potentially patentable ideas.

Mark Chandler, Cisco's general counsel, dismissed concerns that non-U.S. companies might gain some advantage by the bill. He said the proposed changes would strengthen companies at "the heart of innovation in the American economy," better positioning them to compete at home and abroad.

Opponents of the legislation argue that it would make it easier for foreign competitors to legally copy patented methods and products.

For the full story, see:

GREG HITT.  "Patent System's Revamp Hits Wall; Globalization Fears Stall Momentum in Congress; AFL-CIO Sends a Letter."  The Wall Street Journal  (Mon., August 27, 2007):   A3.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)




March 11, 2008

Bolivia Sells More Brazil Nuts Than Brazil



(p. A4) Throughout the 20th century, most of the Brazil nuts consumed around the world came from the jungle surrounding this bustling river market town in the eastern Amazon. But the bitter joke here these days is that the only place you can still find a Brazil nut tree is on the municipal seal.

To the chagrin of Brazilians, exports of the nuts that bear their country's name have fallen precipitously to about 7,000 metric tons in 2003 from nearly 19,000 metric tons in 2000, allowing neighboring Bolivia to become the market leader. Groves of Brazil nut trees are disappearing all over the Brazilian Amazon, and the question of who bears responsibility for that sharp decline and resulting deforestation has become the subject of a heated and growing debate.

Economists, scientists and other scholars tend to point to a single family, based here, that has dominated the industry for three generations and controls hundreds of thousands of acres in this region at the junction of the Araguaia and Tocantins rivers. But members of the influential clan, called Mutran, say they are being unjustly attacked and complain of unfair competition and contraband.

. . .

''At their peak, the Mutrans had a monopoly on everything connected with the Brazil nut industry, from harvesting to transport to exports,'' said Marilia Emmi, a professor at the Nucleus for Amazon Research at the Federal University of Pará. ''Much of their own production occurred on public lands that belonged to the state but were initially leased to them for a pittance as the result of backroom political deals.''

. . .

''Because of their monopoly, the Mutrans paid a price so low that production dropped off the map,'' said Zico Bronzeado, a former Brazil nut harvester who now represents Acre in the lower house of Congress. The low prices drove growers to abandon the business, the critics say, selling their lands to loggers and cattle ranchers in a process that deforested vast stretches of the Amazon and further enriched the Brazilian elite.


For the full story, see:

LARRY ROHTER. "Marabá Journal; Brazil's Problem in a Nutshell: Bolivia Grows Nuts Best." The New York Times (Thurs., August 26, 2004): A4.

(Note: ellipses added.)




March 10, 2008

Kibbutzim Abandon Socialism


 

     "Once for communal use, the Kibbutz Yasur swimming pool is now run as a private business."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1)  KIBBUTZ YASUR, Israel -- For much of Israel's existence, the kibbutz embodied its highest ideals: collective labor, love of the land and a no-frills egalitarianism.

But starting in the 1980s, when socialism was on a global downward spiral and the country was mired in hyperinflation, Israel's 250 or so kibbutzim seemed doomed. Their debt mounted and their group dining halls grew empty as the young moved away.

Now, in a surprising third act, the kibbutzim are again thriving. Only in 2007 they are less about pure socialism than a kind of suburbanized version of it.

On most kibbutzim, food and laundry services are now privatized; on many, houses may be transferred to individual members, and newcomers can buy in. While the major assets of the kibbutzim are still collectively owned, the communities are now largely run by professional managers rather than by popular vote. And, most important, not everyone is paid the same.

. . .

(p. A4) The kibbutzim were once austere communes of pioneers who drained the swamps, shared clothes (and sometimes spouses) and lived according to the Marxist axiom, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

Today, most are undergoing a process of privatization, though kibbutz officials prefer a more euphemistic term: renewal.

. . .

Mr. Varol was born on a kibbutz in the far north, but he left at 18. He is at peace in his new home, but bitter about the past. "My parents worked all their lives, carrying at least 10 parasites on their backs," he said. "If they'd worked that hard in the city for as many years, I'd have had quite an inheritance coming to me by now."


For the full story, see:

ISABEL KERSHNER.  "The Kibbutz Sheds Socialism And Regains Lost Popularity."  The New York Times  (Mon., August 27, 2007):  A1 & A4. 


(Note:  the online version of the article had the title: "KIBBUTZ YASUR JOURNAL; The Kibbutz Sheds Socialism And Regains Lost Popularity.")

(Note:  ellipses added.)


     "The dining room in Kibbutz Nachshon charges members $4 per meal. While kibbutzim once paid all members equally and provided food, today many have adopted a system of varying wages and require payment for many services."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

 




March 9, 2008

Unintended Consequences of the Government's Pushing Ethanol



GrainPricesGraph.jpg Source of graphs: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. C1) Shopping at a Whole Foods Market in suburban Chicago, Meredith Estes said food prices have jumped so much she has resorted to coupons. Charles T. Rodgers Jr., an Arkansas cattle rancher, said normal feed rations so expensive and scarce he is scrambling for alternatives. In Oregon, Jack Joyce, the owner of Rogue Ales, said the cost of barley malt has soared 88 percent this year.

For years, cheap food and feed were taken for granted in the United States.

But now the price of some foods is rising sharply, and from the corridors of Washington to the aisles of neighborhood supermarkets, a blame alert is under way.

Among the favorite targets is ethanol, especially for food manufacturers and livestock farmers who seethe at government mandates for ethanol production. The ethanol boom, they contend, is raising corn prices, driving up the cost of producing dairy products and meat, and causing farmers to plant so much corn as to crowd out other crops.

The results are working their way through the marketplace, in this view, with overall consumer grocery costs up roughly 5 percent in a year and feed costs up more than 20 percent.

Now, with Congress poised to adopt a new mandate that would double the volume of ethanol made from corn, ethanol skeptics say a fateful moment has arrived, with the nation about to commit itself to decades of competition between food and fuel for the use (p. C4) of agricultural land.

(p. C4) "This is like a runaway freight train," said Scott Faber, a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, who complained that ethanol has the same "magical effect" on politicians as the tooth fairy and Santa Claus have on children. "It's great news for corn farmers, but terrible news for consumers."

. . .

The price increases for corn have had a broad impact, both because farmers are planting more corn and less of other crops and because livestock producers are scrambling for feed substitutes. For instance, soybeans acreage planted this year was about 16 percent less than in 2006.

Feed costs have increased 25 to 30 percent in the last year, according to David Fairfield, director of feed services at the National Grain and Feed Association. He attributed virtually all of the increase to the demands of the ethanol industry

One consequence of the higher feed costs is rising competition for malt barley between livestock farmers, who want it for feed, and brewers, who need it for beer. Mr. Joyce, the Rogue Ales owner in Newport, Ore., said he has been forced to raise prices to pay for the additional costs of ingredients.

Mr. Rodgers, the Rison, Ark., rancher, said he used to feed his cattle a mixture of corn gluten and soybean hulls. But he said he cannot get corn gluten anymore, and the cost of soybean hulls has risen to $150 a ton from about $105 a ton.


For the full story, see:

ANDREW MARTIN. "The Price of Growing Fuel." The New York Times (Tues., December 18, 2007): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


JoyceJackRogueAlesOwner.jpg "Jack Joyce, the owner of Rogue Ales in Newport, Ore., says the cost of barley has skyrocketed, forcing him to raise prices." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





March 8, 2008

Median Household Income Rose, and Poverty Rate Fell, in 2006


 

 Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

(p. A1)  . . .  slight improvements in household income and a drop in the poverty rate came during a period of job growth, particularly toward the end of 2006, and declining inflation as a result of falling oil prices.  .  . .

Some Republicans seized on the new data as evidence that Bush administration policies had been good for people's pocketbooks. In a statement, President Bush said the news was a sign that Congress should not raise taxes. The data, he said, confirmed "that more of our citizens are doing better in this economy, with continued rising incomes (p. A14) and more Americans pulling themselves out of poverty."

. . .

Over all, the nation's median household income rose to $48,201 in 2006, from $47,845 in 2005. It was the second consecutive year in which income rose slightly faster than inflation, after five years of decline.

Douglas J. Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group, said that while the year-to-year increase in household income was small, the broader picture over the last few decades was more promising and more important.

"Over all," Mr. Besharov said, "a lot of groups have done better over the last 40 years."

 

For the full story, see: 

ABBY GOODNOUGH.  "Census Presents Mixed View of the Economy."  The New York Times  (Weds., August 29, 2007):  A1 & A14.

(Note:  the online version of the article had the title:   "Census Shows a Modest Rise in U.S. Income.")

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 




March 7, 2008

Incentives Matter: Capital Punishment Deters Murders



CapitalPunishmentGraph.gif






Source of graph: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.


(p. A13) Recent high-profile events have reopened the debate about the value of capital punishment in a just society. This is an important discussion, because the taking of a human life is always a serious matter.

Most commentators who oppose capital punishment assert that an execution has no deterrent effect on future crimes. Recent evidence, however, suggests that the death penalty, when carried out, has an enormous deterrent effect on the number of murders. More precisely, our recent research shows that each execution carried out is correlated with about 74 fewer murders the following year.

For any society concerned about human life, that type of evidence is something that should be taken very seriously.

The study examined the relationship between the number of executions and the number of murders in the U.S. for the 26-year period from 1979 to 2004, using data from publicly available FBI sources. The chart nearby shows the number of executions and murders by year.


For the full commentary, see:

ROY D. ADLER and MICHAEL SUMMERS. "Capital Punishment Works." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., November 2, 2007): A13.





March 6, 2008

Chinese Wages and Productivity Rise



      "At the Dahon bicycle plant in Shenzhen, China, pay has risen 10 to 15 percent a year, but productivity gains have held down costs."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) SHENZHEN, China, Aug. 28 -- At the Dahon bicycle factory here, Zhang Jingming's fingers move quickly and methodically -- grabbing bicycle seats, wrapping them in cardboard and smoothly attaching them to frames.

Working a 45-hour week, Mr. Zhang makes the equivalent of $263 a month; as recently as February, he was making just $197. Some of his higher pay comes from working more efficiently. "When I first started, I wasn't this fast," he said.

But a good portion reflects a raise Mr. Zhang got: to 1.45 cents for each bicycle seat from 1.32 cents. It is a small difference that signifies major change.

Chinese wages are on the rise. No reliable figures for average wages exist; the government's economic data are notably unreliable. But factory owners and experts who monitor the nation's labor market say that businesses are having a hard time finding able-bodied workers and are having to pay the workers they can find more money.

And higher wages in China are likely to lead to higher prices in the United States -- at the mall, at the grocery, even at the gas pump.

Chinese companies are already passing along some of their higher costs to overseas customers. Prices for goods from China, after years of gradual decline, have risen 1.2 percent since February, according to the Labor Department. July's increase was the biggest yet: 0.4 percent compared with June. Chinese companies and contractors are also passing on the cost of the rising value of their currency, the yuan, up 8.8 percent against the dollar in the last two years.

For decades, many labor economists said that China's vast population would supply a nearly bottomless pool of workers. So many people would be seeking jobs at any given time, this rea-(p. A9)soning went, that wages in this country would be stuck just above subsistence levels. As recently as four years ago, some experts estimated that most of the perhaps 150 million underemployed workers in the countryside would be heading to cities.

Instead, sporadic labor shortages started to appear in 2003 at factories in the Pearl River delta of southeastern China. Now those shortages have spread to factories up and down the Chinese coast, specialists say.

. . .

(p. A9) The hardest variable to judge in China's changing labor market is the pace of productivity growth. Since there are few reliable statistics, the best way to assess productivity is to look at individual factories like the Dahon operation here, which produces bicycles that collapse for easy storage.

David T. Hon, chief executive of the privately held Dahon Group, said that while he had been raising wages 10 to 15 percent a year, the average labor cost for each bicycle had actually edged downward. This is possible, he said, because sales are growing 30 percent a year and increasingly large-scale production has brought savings. The cost of engineering a new bicycle design, or handling the accounting and other back-office operations, is spread over more and more bicycles as production rises.


For the full story, see: 

KEITH BRADSHER.  "Wages Are on the Rise in China As Young Workers Grow Scarce."  The New York Times   (Weds., August 29, 2007):  A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

PriceChineseImportsGraph.jpg     Source of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.




March 5, 2008

Britain's "Novel Immigration Problem": Too Few Polish Immigrants



PolishSausage.jpg "Polish women selling sausages at the Borough Market in London. The British have also grown to enjoy Polish food." Source of caption and photo: online version of the International Herald Tribune version of the article quoted and cited below.


(p. C1) LONDON, Oct. 18 -- When Piotr Farbiszewski landed here three years ago, he had enough money in his pocket to live for two weeks.

A successful technology consultant in Warsaw, he and his wife, Ela, a schoolteacher, had come to London to try it on for size; if they liked it, they would stay. To earn money, he worked as a builder while she flipped hamburgers.

They decided that they liked London, and within a year, Mr. Farbiszewski was a senior programmer at a software company. In March, the couple bought a small terraced house outside London, where they plan to raise a family.

"We're very happy here," Mr. Farbiszewski, 31, said. "The quality of life is better, the economy is stronger, there is less bureaucracy, it's a multicultural society and the lady in the supermarket will smile at me. People don't smile at each other in Poland."

The Farbiszewskis are small players in one of Europe's most successful immigration stories. Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004 and Britain, unlike France and most other members, welcomed Polish workers, an estimated 1.1 million Poles, mainly young, have come to Britain. Today, they are the third-largest group of immigrants in the country, behind (p. C5) Irish and Indians.

Britain has benefited. On Tuesday, the Home Office estimated that immigration added £6 billion ($12.3 billion) to the nation's economy last year. According to David Blanchflower of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, East European immigration has also reduced inflation pressure by increasing the supply of goods and services.

Indeed, Britain may soon face a novel immigration problem. As Poland's economy has improved this year, immigration has slowed, which economists say could cause labor shortages in British industries.


For the full story, see:

JULIA WERDIGIER. "As the Poles Get Richer, Fewer Seek British Jobs." The New York Times (Fri., October 19, 2007): C1 & C5.





March 4, 2008

Why Entrepreneurs Are Needed to Bring Important Innovations to Market


 

   Source of book image:  http://www.bigbadbookblog.com/wp-content/uploads/Blink.jpg

 

In my classes I sometimes comment on the failure of much marketing research, sometimes quoting the founder of Sony on using his own judgment on what is useful to customers.

There's some useful insight into this issue in Malcolm Gladwell's stimulating Blink book.  He argues, and presents examples, that marketing research can provide useful information when the product being evaluated is familiar to the customers being surveyed.  But when the product is new and unfamiliar, it may take awhile for the customer to figure out what they think of it.  There initial reaction will usually be negative, simply as a reaction to the unfamiliarity.  But with time, the product may grow on them as they figure out what "jobs" the product might be able to do for them in the full context of their lives.  (The "jobs" formulation is Christensen's, not Gladwell's.)

What is worse, it is precisely those innovations that are most innovative, and ultimately prove most useful, that are most unfamiliar, and hence are most likely to be panned by customers in initial evaluations. 

This has implications for why an entrepreneur-friendly economy is so important for innovations.  Incumbent firms are apt to rely on some formal (a.k.a. marketing research) methods to evaluate new innovations.  So if innovations are to be introduced, it is crucial that there be entrepreneurs with the courage, passion, knowledge, and financial means to pursue the innovation through the period of skepticism.

 

The reference for the Blink book, is: 

Gladwell, Malcolm.  Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking.  Back Bay Books, 2005.

 




March 3, 2008

The Government's War on Working Bodega Cats



CatHollyBrooklynDeli.jpg "Holly scares the rodents away at home, a deli in Williamsburg, Brooklyn." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A28) Across the city, delis and bodegas are a familiar and vital part of the streetscape, modest places where customers can pick up necessities, a container of milk, a can of soup, a loaf of bread.

Amid the goods found in the stores, there is one thing that many owners and employees say they cannot do without: their cats. And it goes beyond cuddly companionship. These cats are workers, tireless and enthusiastic hunters of unwanted vermin, and they typically do a far better job than exterminators and poisons.

When a bodega cat is on the prowl, workers say, rats and mice vanish.

. . .

To store owners, the services of cats are indispensable in a city where the rodent problem is serious enough to be documented in a still popular two-minute video clip on YouTube from late February (youtube.com/watch?v=su0U37w2tws) of rats running amok in a KFC/Taco Bell in Greenwich Village. Store-dwelling cats are so common that there is a Web site, workingclasscats.com, dedicated to telling their tales.

But as efficient as the cats may be, their presence in stores can lead to legal trouble. The city's health code and state law forbid animals in places where food or beverages are sold for human consumption. Fines range from $300 for a first offense to $2,000 or higher for subsequent offenses.

. . .

In October, a health inspector fined Mr. Martinez $300 and warned him that if Junior was still there by the time of the next inspection he would be fined $2,000.

"He wants me to get rid of the cat, but the rats will take over if I do," Mr. Martinez said. "I need the cat, and the cat needs a home."

Because stores do not get advance notification of an inspection, Mr. Martinez is trying to keep Junior in his office as much as possible. Many bodega owners reason that a cat is less of a health threat than an army of nibbling rats. "If cats live in homes and apartments where people have food, a cat shouldn't be a threat in a store if it's well maintained," Mr. Fernández said.


For the full story, see:

KATE HAMMER. "To Dismay Of Inspectors, Prowling Cats Keep Rodents On the Run At City Delis The New York Times (Fri., December 21, 2007): A28.

(Note: ellipses added.)


CatOreoBroolynDeli.jpg "Oreo roams at a deli in Greenpoint, Brooklyn." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.




March 2, 2008

Racetrack Memory May Become a General Purpose Technology


 

    Source of graph:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

The article quoted below suggests that an important new "disruptive" memory technology may be on the horizon.  It sounds as though it would be what economists call a "general purpose technology" that would be useful in generating a large number of innovative applications. 

(My guess is that in Christensen's terminology, this technology would be more sustaining, than disruptive, since the technology seems as though it would be of immediate interest to the mainstream market.)

 

(p. C1)  SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The ability to cram more data into less space on a memory chip or a hard drive has been the crucial force propelling consumer electronics companies to make ever smaller devices.

It shrank the mainframe computer to fit on the desktop, shrank it again to fit on our laps and again to fit into our shirt pockets.

. . .  

Mr. Parkin thinks he is poised to bring about another breakthrough that could increase the amount of data stored on a chip or a hard drive by a factor of a hundred. If he proves successful in his quest, he will create a "universal" computer memory, one that can potentially replace dynamic random access memory, or DRAM, and flash memory chips, and even make a "disk drive on a chip" possible.

. . .

(p. C8)  Mr. Parkin's new approach, referred to as "racetrack memory," could outpace both solid-state flash memory chips as well as computer hard disks, making it a technology that could transform not only the storage business but the entire computing industry.

"Finally, after all these years, we're reaching fundamental physics limits," he said. "Racetrack says we're going to break those scaling rules by going into the third dimension."

His idea is to stand billions of ultrafine wire loops around the edge of a silicon chip -- hence the name racetrack -- and use electric current to slide infinitesimally small magnets up and down along each of the wires to be read and written as digital ones and zeros.

. . .

Mr. Parkin said he had recently shifted his focus and now thought that his racetracks might be competitive with other storage technologies even if they were laid horizontally on a silicon chip.

I.B.M. executives are cautious about the timing of the commercial introduction of the technology. But ultimately, the technology may have even more dramatic implications than just smaller music players or wristwatch TVs, said Mark Dean, vice president for systems at I.B.M. Research.

"Something along these lines will be very disruptive," he said. "It will not only change the way we look at storage, but it could change the way we look at processing information. We're moving into a world that is more data-centric than computing-centric."

This is just a hint, but it suggests that I.B.M. may think that racetrack memory could blur the line between storage and computing, providing a key to a new way to search for data, as well as store and retrieve data.

And if it is, Mr. Parkin's experimental physics lab will have transformed the computing world yet again.

 

For the full story, see: 

JOHN MARKOFF.  "Redefining the Architecture of Memory."  The New York Times   (Tues., September 11, 2007):  C1 & C8.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

     Of the two photos at the bottom of the entry, the first is of Stuart S. P. Parkin's lab at I.B.M, and the second is of Parkin in the lab.  Source of photos:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

 




March 1, 2008

Study Finds Over a Third of Entrepreneurs Are Dyslexic




(p. C1) It has long been known that dyslexics are drawn to running their own businesses, where they can get around their weaknesses in reading and writing and play on their strengths. But a new study of entrepreneurs in the United States suggests that dyslexia is much more common among small-business owners than even the experts had thought.

The report, compiled by Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Cass Business School in London, found that more than a third of the entrepreneurs she had surveyed -- 35 percent -- identified themselves as dyslexic. The study also concluded that dyslexics were more likely than nondyslexics to delegate authority, to excel in oral communication and problem solving and were twice as likely to own two or more businesses.

"We found that dyslexics who succeed had overcome an awful lot in their lives by developing compensatory skills," Professor Logan said in an interview. "If you tell your friends and acquaintances that you plan to start a business, you'll hear over and over, 'It won't work. It can't be done.' But dyslexics are (p. C6) extraordinarily creative about maneuvering their way around problems."

. . .

(p. C6) Much has been written about the link between dyslexia and entrepreneurial success. Fortune Magazine, for example, ran a cover story five years ago about dyslexic business leaders, including Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways; Charles R. Schwab, founder of the discount brokerage firm that bears his name; John T. Chambers, chief executive of Cisco; and Paul Orfalea, founder of the Kinko's copy chain.

Similarly, Rosalie P. Fink, a professor at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., wrote a paper in 1998 on 60 highly accomplished people with dyslexia.

But Professor Logan said hers was the first study that she knew of that tried to measure the percentage of entrepreneurs who have dyslexia. Carl Schramm, president of the Kauffman Foundation, which financed the research, agreed. He said the findings were surprising but, he said, there was no previous baseline to measure it against.



For the full story, see:

BRENT BOWERS. "Tracing Business Acumen to Dyslexia." The New York Times (Thurs., December 6, 2007): C1 & C6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)




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