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August 31, 2008

Kodak Ignored Digital to Its Peril



SassonStevenKodakInventor.jpg "Steven J. Sasson, an electrical engineer, created the first digital camera." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

Kodak's problems in detailed in the article below, fit very well Christensen's account about how difficult it is for incumbent firms to embrace major disruptive technologies.

(p. C1) ROCHESTER -- Steven J. Sasson, an electrical engineer who invented the first digital camera at Eastman Kodak in the 1970s, remembers well management's dismay at his feat.

"My prototype was big as a toaster, but the technical people loved it," Mr. Sasson said. "But it was filmless photography, so management's reaction was, 'that's cute -- but don't tell anyone about it.' "

. . .

(p. C2) The company now has digital techniques that can remove scratches and otherwise enhance old movies. It has found more efficient ways to make O.L.E.D.'s -- organic light-emitting diodes -- for displays in cameras, cellphones and televisions.

This month, Kodak will introduce Stream, a continuous inkjet printer that can churn out customized items like bill inserts at extremely high speeds. It is working on ways to capture and project three-dimensional movies.

. . .

Paradoxically, many of the new products are based on work Kodak began, but abandoned, years ago. The precursor technology to Stream, for example, pushed ink through a single nozzle. Stream has thousands of holes and uses a method called air deflection to separate drops of ink and control the speed and order in which they are deposited on a page.

"I remember wandering through the labs in 2003, and seeing the theoretical model that could become Stream," said Philip J. Faraci, Kodak's president. "The technology was half-baked, but it was a real breakthrough."

Other digital technologies languished as well, said Bill Lloyd, the chief technology officer. "I've been here five years, and I'm still learning about all the things they already have," he said. "It seems Kodak had developed antibodies against anything that might compete with film."

It took what many analysts say was a near-death experience to change that. Kodak, a film titan in the 20th century, entered the next one in danger of being mowed down by the digital juggernaut. Electronics companies like Sony were siphoning away the photography market, while giants like Hewlett-Packard and Xerox had a lock on printers.

"This was a supertanker that came close to capsizing," said Timothy M. Ghriskey, chief investment officer at Solaris Asset Management, which long ago sold its Kodak shares.



For the full story, see:

CLAUDIA H. DEUTSCH. "At Kodak, Some Old Things Are New Again." The New York Times (Fri., May 2, 2008): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipses added.)


CampAllenTechnicianKodak.jpg "Allan Camp, a technician at Kodak's inkjet development center in Rochester, works on the development of print heads for printers." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.




August 30, 2008

European Bureaucrat Forces Businesses to Make "a Smart Business Decision"




If open standards are always "a smart business decision" why do business managers need government bureaucrats to force that decision on them (through fining firms, like Microsoft, that sometimes favor proprietary standards)?

In fact, there are circumstances in which open standards are better for customers, and there are also circumstances in which proprietary standards are better.

To better understand these issues consult Shapiro and Varian's Information Rules and Christensen and Raynor's The Innovator's Solution.

(p. C8) BRUSSELS -- The European Union's competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, delivered an unusually blunt rebuke to Microsoft on Tuesday by recommending that businesses and governments use software based on open standards.

Ms. Kroes has fought bitterly with Microsoft over the last four years, accusing the company of defying her orders and fining it nearly 1.7 billion euros, or $2.7 billion, on the grounds of violating European competition rules. But her comments were the strongest recommendation yet by Ms. Kroes to jettison Microsoft products, which are based on proprietary standards, and to use rival operating systems to run computers.

"I know a smart business decision when I see one -- choosing open standards is a very smart business decision indeed," Ms. Kroes told a conference in Brussels. "No citizen or company should be forced or encouraged to choose a closed technology over an open one."



For the full story, see:

JAMES KANTER. "Harsh Words for Microsoft Technology." The New York Times (Weds., June 11, 2008): C8.


References mentioned:

Christensen, Clayton M., and Michael E. Raynor. The Innovator's Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.

Shapiro, Carl, and Hal R. Varian. Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999.





August 29, 2008

NASA Suffers From "Utterly Dysfunctional Funding and Management System"



UniverseInAMirrorBK.gif











Source of book image: http://press.princeton.edu/images/k8618.gif

(p. A13) The space shuttle Discovery arrived safely home over the weekend, and I suppose we are all rather relieved - that is, those of us who were aware that the shuttle had blasted off a couple of weeks ago on yet another mission. Space exploration is attracting a lot of excitement these days, but the excitement seems to have less to do with the shuttle and more to do with private space ventures, like Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic or Robert Bigelow's plans for space hotels or Space Adventures Ltd., whose latest customer for a private space trip is Google co-founder Sergey Brin. He bought a ticket only last week.

Robert Zimmerman's "The Universe in the Mirror" serves to remind us that NASA, too, can do exciting things in space. Yet the career of the Hubble Space Telescope has been both triumphant and troubled, bringing into focus the strengths and the weaknesses of doing things the NASA way.

. . .

In addition to telling a thrilling tale, Mr. Zimmerman provides a number of lessons. One, he says, is the importance of having human beings in space: Had Hubble not been designed for servicing by astronauts, it would have been an epic failure and a disaster for a generation of astronomers and astrophysicists. Though robots have their uses, he notes, "humans can fix things, something no unmanned probe can do." . . .

But the biggest lesson of "The Universe in a Mirror" comes from the utterly dysfunctional funding and management system that Mr. Zimmerman portrays. Hubble was a triumph, but a system that requires people to sacrifice careers and personal lives, and to engage in "courageous and illegal" acts, in order to see it succeed is a system that is badly in need of repair. Alas, fixing Hubble turned out to be easier than fixing the system that lay behind its problems.



For the full review, see:

GLENN HARLAN REYNOLDS. "Bookshelf; We Can See Clearly Now." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., June 16, 2008): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)




August 28, 2008

Schumpeter on Civil Servants Drifting into "Bureau-Sadism"



(p. 435) . . . , the British civil service, which Schumpeter had admired ever since his youth in Vienna, had become enamored of their new role in economic planning, encouraged by the Labour government. Civil servants had drifted into "downright bureau-sadism" in their attitude toward business.


Source:

McCraw, Thomas K. Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipsis added.)




August 27, 2008

A.D.A. Tries to Stop Dental Therapists from Competing with Dentists



JohnsonAuroraDentalTherapist.jpg "Aurora Johnson, left, a dental therapist, filled cavities for Paul Towarak, 10, in the village of Unalakleet, Alaska. For more involved procedures, Ms. Johnson refers patients to a dentist." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

Clayton Christensen (and co-authors) have suggested that disruptive technologies could reduce the cost and improve the quality of health care. One pathway for this to occur is new technologies that permit effective treatment to be carried out by para-professionals with less education than MD's.

The article below illustrates Christensen's idea, and also highlights the main obstacle to its implementation: professional organizations asking the government to regulate and restrict competition from the lower-cost para-professionals.

(p. A1) UNALAKLEET, Alaska -- The dental clinic in this village on the edge of the Bering Sea looks like any other, with four chairs, a well-scrubbed floor and a waiting area filled with magazines.

But to the Alaska Dental Society and the American Dental Association, the clinic is a place where the rules of dentistry are flouted daily. The dental groups object not because of any evidence that the clinic provides substandard care, but because it is run by Aurora Johnson, who is not a dentist. After two years of training in a program unique to Alaska, Ms. Johnson performs basic dental work like drilling and filling cavities.

Some dentists who specialize in public health, noting that 100 million Americans cannot afford adequate dental care, say such training programs should be offered nationwide. But professional dental groups disagree, saying that only dentists, with four years of postcollegiate education, should do work like Ms. John-(p. A15)son's. And while such arrangements are common outside the United States, only one American dental school, in Anchorage, offers such a program.

. . .

(p. A15) In Alaska, the A.D.A. and the state's dental society had filed a lawsuit to block the program that trained people like Ms. Johnson, who are called dental therapists. The groups dropped the suit last summer after a state court judge issued a ruling critical of the dentists. But the A.D.A. continues to oppose allowing therapists to operate anywhere in the lower 49 states. Currently, therapists are allowed to practice only in Alaska, and only on Alaska Natives.

. . .

Therapists are a low-cost way to provide care to people who might not otherwise have access to it, according to Dr. Ron Nagel, a dentist and consultant for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a nonprofit group financed mostly by federal money that provides medical and dental care to tribal communities. "There's a huge need for these basic services," Dr. Nagel said.

. . .

Since 1990, the number of private dentists has remained roughly flat, at 150,000, even as the United States population has increased 22 percent. As a result, dentists can easily fill their appointment books without seeing people who cannot meet their fees, and patients who have decayed teeth are suffering needlessly, said Tammy Guido, 50, who is one of seven students now training in Anchorage to become a therapist.

"We're meeting a need that is not being met," Ms. Guido said.

Alaskan tribal organizations sponsor Ms. Guido and the other students in Anchorage for the program. To be accepted, students must have a high school diploma or equivalency degree; for the newest class, 7 of 18 candidates were accepted.

In interviews, the students in this year's class all said they were enthusiastic about the chance to serve communities that have little access to care. All seven had quit full-time jobs and must now get by on a $750 monthly stipend during the two years of training.

"Anybody who's ever had a toothache can tell you it hurts," said Ben Steward, 24, the only man in this year's class. "But talk to someone who's had a toothache for a year."



For the full story, see:

ALEX BERENSON. "Dental Clinics, Meeting a Need With No Dentist." The New York Times (Mon., April 28, 2008): A1 & A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

One source of Christensen's views on health care can be found in a chapter in:

Christensen, Clayton M., Scott D. Anthony, and Erik A. Roth. Seeing What's Next: Using Theories of Innovation to Predict Industry Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2004.




August 26, 2008

Google Considers Creative Entrepreneur's Trial Balloon



KnoblachJerryEntrepreneur.gif






Source of image: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


Apparently the WSJ's new owner, Rupert Murdoch, has not yet succeeded in killing the wonderful, quirky, inimitable front page, center column, articles that are part of what makes the WSJ great:

(p. A1) CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Jerry Knoblach wants to bring wireless service to millions of rural Americans. His plan: Beam it down from balloons hovering at the edge of space.

This isn't just hot air. His company, Space Data Corp., already launches 10 balloons a day across the Southern U.S., providing specialized telecom services to truckers and oil companies. His balloons soar 20 miles into the stratosphere, each carrying a shoebox-size payload of electronics that acts like a mini cellphone "tower" covering thousands of square miles below.

His idea has caught the eye of Google Inc., according to people familiar with the matter. The Internet giant -- which is now pushing into wireless services -- has considered contracting with Space Data or even buying the firm, according to one person.

. . .

Maintaining a telecom system based on gas-filled bladders floating in the sky requires some creativity. The inexpensive bal-(p. A9)loons are good for only 24 hours or so before ultimately bursting in the thin air of the upper atmosphere. The electronic gear they carry, encased in a small Styrofoam box, then drifts gently back to earth on tiny parachutes.

This means Space Data must constantly send up new balloons. To do that, it hires mechanics employed at small airports across the South. It also hires farmers -- particularly, dairy farmers.

They're "very reliable people," says Mr. Knoblach. They have to "milk the cows 24-7, 365 days a year, so they're great people to use as a launch crew." Space Data pays them $50 per launch.



For the full story, see:

AMOL SHARMA "Floating a New Idea For Going Wireless, Parachute Included; Balloon Launch Gets Google's Attention; Dairy Farmers Can Help." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., February 20, 2008): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


BalloonSpaceData.jpg



"A balloon being launched in Piedmont, Oklahoma." Source of image: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.





August 25, 2008

Castro's Legacy Is Fear



CastroPhotosOnWall.jpg "A NATION'S PHOTO ALBUM. The prospect of life without Fidel Castro is unsettling to many Cubans, who are wary of drastic change." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) We arrived not at the fine new airport in Havana I've used many times as a correspondent, but at a smaller, more crowded one that Cuba uses for these family visits, as if to rebuke exiles for having left.

Our reunion was delayed, however, by the surprise announcement last Tuesday that Fidel Castro -- whose revolution had torn the family apart -- was too ill to return to power. Suddenly, I was at work.

. . .

Still, what most surprised us was how little Cubans clamored for drastic change. Dictator or hero, Mr. Castro's grip on power was ending, and no one seemed to care. Miriam was disappointed that the streets of Matanzas, Havana, San Agustín and Guanabacoa, the working class city across Havana Bay where she grew up, were tranquil, as if nothing at all had happened.

Of course we understood that things are not always as they seem, and that became clear when the maid in our 133-year-old hotel came to mop up the mess caused by a leaking pipe. Hearing the lilt of Miriam's Spanish put her at ease. After chatting for a few minutes, she poked her head into the hallway to check for supervisors and shut the door. Only then did she speak from the heart.

"Nobody says it, but everybody knows that someone new could be worse than what we have now," she whispered. It was the kind of dec-(p. 8)laration I've learned to trust because it stems from neither fear nor a desire to curry favor.

Despite having plenty of motivation to demand change -- the frequent shortages, the decrepit housing, the cruelty of having one currency for tourists and another with far less buying power for Cubans -- she said she feared change more than she feared the status quo. Then she checked the hallway again.

. . .

Truth is, things have changed since my first trip to Cuba in 1978. The heavy presence of the Soviet Union then is a faint shadow now, reflected in blue-eyed Cubans named Yuri. There seem to be more new cars on the roads, more fast food on the street, and more buildings undergoing repair. There even seem to be more buses and fewer people waiting for them since Fidel's younger brother and temporary replacement, Raúl, publicly demanded that something be done about the pitiful mass transit system when I was here just a year ago.

But much has not changed, or has gotten worse. More families live two or three generations in the same cramped apartments. Detention, interrogation and other troubles still descend on people who dissent in ways as small as wearing a plastic wrist band embossed with the word "cambio," which means change. The press is still controlled, and disloyalty to the Communist Party still raises the suspicion of neighbors that can lead to the loss of a job or a house. Dissidents remain enemies of the state.

. . .

The revolution itself has left many Cubans, including our relatives here, fed up with promises of change. They long ago tired of sacrificing for an ideal tomorrow; when we finally got together, three days after Fidel's announcement, Miriam's stepbrothers and sisters told me their main concerns are getting enough to eat, getting shoes for their children and getting to work on time each day.



For the full commentary, see:

ANTHONY DePALMA. "Future to Wince At." The New York Times, Week in Review Section (Sun., February 24, 2008): 1 & 8.

(Note: ellipses added.)




August 24, 2008

Schumpeter on How Amphibial State Capitalism Lacks "Motive Power"



From McCraw's summary of a brief Schumpeter essay published in 1943 in Seymour Harris' Postwar Economic Problems:

(p. 424) Schumpeter went on to argue that both in the United States and in capitalist countries abroad, a high rate of public spending during the postwar period would likely evolve into total government control of investment.   . . .    Some industries might be nationalized, and if the government "should try to run the nationalized industries according to the principles of business rationality, Guided Capitalism would shade off into State Capitalism, . . . "

. . .

The overall result would likely be "an amphibial state for the calculable future." The amphibial state might well generate frictions among business, labor, and government and would not benefit from the "motive power" of either capitalism or socialism.



Source:

McCraw, Thomas K. Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipses added.)




August 23, 2008

Health Care Spending Takes a Large and Growing Share of Income



HealthCareShareGraph.jpg







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


The most interesting part of the article quoted below, was the above graph, that dramatically shows health care's large and growing share of disposable personal income.

(p. 28) Among employers, the hardest pressed may be small businesses. Their insurance premiums tend to be proportionately higher than ones paid by large employers, because small companies have little bargaining clout with insurers.

Health costs are "burying small business," said Mike Roach, who owns a small clothing store in Portland, Ore. He recently testified on health coverage at a Senate hearing led by Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon.

Last year, Mr. Roach paid about $27,000 in health premiums for his eight employees. "It's a huge chunk of change," he said, noting that he was forced to raise his employees' yearly deductible by 50 percent, to $750.



For the full story, see:

REED ABELSON and MILT FREUDENHEIM. "Even the Insured Feel Strain of Health Costs." The New York Times, Section 1 (Sun., May 4, 2008): 1 & 28.





August 22, 2008

Brain-Controlled Prosthetics Within Reach



MonkeyArtificialArm.jpg "A grid in the monkey's brain carried signals from 100 neurons for the mechanical arm to grab and carry snacks to the mouth." Source of caption and photos: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) Two monkeys with tiny sensors in their brains have learned to control a mechanical arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach for and grab food and even to adjust for the size and stickiness of morsels when necessary, scientists reported on Wednesday.

The report, released online by the journal Nature, is the most striking demonstration to date of brain-machine interface technology. Scientists expect that technology will eventually allow people with spinal cord injuries and other paralyzing conditions to gain more control over their lives.

The findings suggest that brain-controlled prosthetics, while not practical, are at least technically within reach.

In previous studies, researchers showed that humans who had been paralyzed for years could learn to control a cursor on a computer screen with their brain waves and that nonhuman primates could use their thoughts to move a mechanical arm, a robotic hand or a robot on a treadmill.

The new experiment goes a step further. In it, the monkeys' brains seem to have adopted the mechanical appendage as their own, refining its movement as it interacted with real objects in real time. The monkeys had their own arms gently restrained while they learned to use the added one.



For the full story, see:

BENEDICT CAREY. "Monkeys Think, Moving Artificial Arm as Own." The New York Times (Thurs., May 29, 2008): A1 & A18.




August 21, 2008

Atlas Statue "Reveals the Powerful Paradox of Strength and Despondency"



AtlasStatue.jpg "The Atlas at Rockefeller Center has years' worth of lacquer and wax, in addition to the weight of the heavens, to bear. The four-story-high statue will undergo a six-week cleaning." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 31) Of course, he's angry. Of course, he's disheartened. The weight of all the heavens has been on his shoulders for 71 years and, according to the mythological timetable, he has exactly forever to go.

But only a close-up view of Atlas, at the base of the International Building in Rockefeller Center, reveals the powerful paradox of strength and despondency created by Lee Lawrie and Rene Chambellan, the artists behind the four-story-high, seven-ton bronze.

. . .

"Everyone reads the substance of things through the surface," said Jeffrey Greene, president of EverGreene Painting Studios, which is about to begin a six-week cleaning of Atlas, down to the original patina.

. . .

A snapshot staple of any visitor's souvenir New York album shows Atlas and the 21-foot-diameter armillary sphere on his shoulders (representing the heavens with which he was burdened by Zeus as a member of the losing Titan team), silhouetted in front of the twin spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral across Fifth Avenue.

. . .

On Monday, Mr. Greene said, a translucent scrim will be wrapped around the scaffolding. After that, the statue will get a low-pressure steam bath. Any residue will be cleaned with a gel solvent. A clear acrylic protective coating will be applied and the statue will be hand-waxed to a sheen that is more polished at sculptural highlights and flatter in the interstices.

One block south, Atlas's popular brother, Prometheus (by Paul Manship), was restored nine years ago.



For the full story, see:

DAVID W. DUNLAP. "Bringing a Smile (Well, a Shine) to a Burdened Statue of Atlas." The New York Times, Section 1 (Sun., May 4, 2008): 31.

(Note: ellipses added.)




August 20, 2008

FDR Turned Schumpeter into a Fan of Ludwig von Mises



From McCraw writing about Schumpeter:

(pp. 318-319) The New Deal struck him as still another prelude to authoritarianism. He became convinced that Roosevelt's program represented a step toward either fascism or socialism, and in either case potential dictatorship. He wrote a friend that Roosevelt was like a child mindlessly breaking a machine because he didn't understand its design. The president "is going to turn me into a fan of [Ludwig von] Mises," his classmate at the University of Vienna who had become a free-market fundamentalist and an opponent of almost all government intervention.


Source:

McCraw, Thomas K. Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2007.




August 19, 2008

"The Low Prices Today Seem Almost Ridiculous"



BrooksBrothersSuit.JPG






In 2008 dollars, a basic Brooks Brothers suit cost $788 in 1998 and costs $598 in 2008. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. E1) As luxury fashion has become more expensive, mainstream apparel has become markedly less so. Today, shoppers pay the same price for a basic Brooks Brothers men's suit, $598, as they did in 1998. The suggested retail price of a pair of Levi's 501 jeans, $46, is about $4 less than it was a decade ago. A three-pack of Calvin Klein men's briefs costs $21.50, only $3.50 more than in 1998. Which is the better buy?

Factoring for inflation, each of these examples is actually less expensive today. In current dollars, the 1998 suit would cost $788, the jeans would be $66 and the underwear would be nearly $24.

. . .

(p. E9) Anyone who has spent time walking along 34th Street in Manhattan recently, from Kmart to Macy's to Forever 21 and H&M, would think that the economic outlook is rosy. Shoppers there are still laden with bags from Payless and Victoria's Secret, and several said they perceived fashion to be a better buy, with more variety and style at lower prices, than a decade ago.

"You can buy a lot more with your money today than before," said Joanna Eliza, a recent graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology, shopping on 34th Street on Tuesday. "Stores like H&M and Forever 21 make it more affordable for people who want to be fashionable, and that makes me feel really good."

Over all, apparel prices have gone down primarily because of two factors: the overwhelming movement of manufacturing to countries with cheaper labor, where the clothes are made, and increased competition between traditional retailers and discounters, where the clothes are sold.

In some cases, the low prices today seem almost ridiculous. Steve & Barry's sells celebrity-branded shoes and dresses for $8.98 or less. Target offers a silk faille ball gown from Isaac Mizrahi on sale for $129.99. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, promotes an Op T-shirt for 97 cents.



For the full story, see:

ERIC WILSON. "Dress for Less and Less." The New York Times (Thurs., May 29, 2008): E1 & E9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)




August 18, 2008

Bad Guys Might Think Twice, If More Good Guys Had Guns



JohnsonKarenArizonaState.jpg








"State Senator Karen S. Johnson of Arizona is the sponsor of a bill permitting firearms on campuses." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A10) PHOENIX -- Horrified by recent campus shootings, a state lawmaker here has come up with a proposal in keeping with the Taurus .22-caliber pistol tucked in her purse: Get more guns on campus.

The lawmaker, State Senator Karen S. Johnson, has sponsored a bill, which the Senate Judiciary Committee approved last week, that would allow people with a concealed weapons permit -- limited to those 21 and older here -- to carry their firearms at public colleges and universities. Concealed weapons are generally not permitted at most public establishments, including colleges.

Ms. Johnson, a Republican from Mesa, said she believed that the recent carnage at Northern Illinois University could have been prevented or limited if an armed student or professor had intercepted the gunman. The police, she said, respond too slowly to such incidents and, besides, who better than the people staring down the barrel to take action?



For the full story, see:


RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD. "Arizona Weighs Bill to Allow Guns on Campuses." The New York Times (Weds., March 5, 2008): A10.





August 17, 2008

Post Office Wastes Money on 30,000 Ethanol Capable Vehicles



PostalMinivanCustomizedEthanol.jpg "A General Motors Corp. Chevrolet Uplander flexible fuel vehicle customized for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is shown in this handout photo taken on April 22, 2008. The USPS bought more than 30,000 ethanol-capable trucks and minivans from 1999 to 2005, making it the biggest American buyer of alternative-fuel vehicles." Source of caption and photo: Bloomberg.com article quoted and cited below.

I saw a great CNN video clip on 8/11/08 showing some of the specially designed Post Office vehicles that were expensive, but that were mainly running on regular gasoline because it was too difficult to fill them with the high-ethanol blend that they were converted to use.

Before I finally found the clip on CNNMoney.com, by searching for it using the TRUVEO video search engine, I discovered that a version of the story had run back in May on Bloomberg.com. I quote from the story below.

May 21 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Postal Service purchased more than 30,000 ethanol-capable trucks and minivans from 1999 to 2005, making it the biggest American buyer of alternative-fuel vehicles. Gasoline consumption jumped by more than 1.5 million gallons as a result.

The trucks, derived from Ford Motor Co.'s Explorer sport- utility vehicle, had bigger engines than Jeeps from the former Chrysler Corp. they replaced. A Postal Service study found the new vehicles got as much as 29 percent fewer miles to the gallon. Mail carriers used the corn-based fuel in just 1,000 of them because there weren't enough places to buy it.



For the full story, see:

Peter Robison, Alan Ohnsman and Alan Bjerga. "Ethanol Vehicles for Post Office Burn More Gas, Get Fewer Miles." Last Updated: May 21, 2008 00:01 EDT Downloaded on August 8, 2008 from:
http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601072&refer=energy&sid=aj.h0coJSkpw


On the CNN Money video clip:

Jason Carroll was the reporter on the CNN Money clip that was added to CNNMoney.com on August 12, 2008, under the title "Snail Mail by Ethanol," and is viewable at http://money.cnn.com/video/#/video/news/2008/08/12/news.usps.081108.cnnmoney


SnailMailEthanol.jpg Reporter Jason Carroll talks with mail carrier Richard Malik, who says he has never used ethanol in his expensive mail truck that had been specially designed to use ethanol. Source of photo: screen capture from the CNN Money video clip discussed above.




August 16, 2008

Schumpeter on the Government Execution of an Entrepreneur



(p. 257) Entrenched interests fought tenaciously against mechanization and the factory system. Unlike the Prussian inventor of a ribbon-weaving loom, who was put to death in 1579 by order of the Danzig Municipal authority, "Entrepreneurs were not necessarily strangled," but "they were not infrequently in danger of their lives."


Source:

McCraw, Thomas K. Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2007.

(Note: the phrases in quotation marks are quotations from Schumpeter's Business Cycles book.)




August 15, 2008

How to Save a Species by Eating It



RenewingAmericasFoodTraditionsBK.jpg








Source of book image:
http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/61cDbDl665L._SS500_.jpg

(p. D1) SOME people would just as soon ignore the culinary potential of the Carolina flying squirrel or the Waldoboro green neck rutabaga. To them, the creamy Hutterite soup bean is too obscure and the Tennessee fainting goat, which keels over when startled, sounds more like a sideshow act than the centerpiece of a barbecue.

But not Gary Paul Nabhan. He has spent most of the past four years compiling a list of endangered plants and animals that were once fairly commonplace in American kitchens but are now threatened, endangered or essentially extinct in the marketplace. He has set out to save them, which often involves urging people to eat them.

Mr. Nabhan's list, 1,080 items and growing, forms the basis of his new book, an engaging journey through the nooks and crannies of American culinary history titled "Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods" (Chelsea Green Publishing, $35).

. . .

(p. C5) Some of the items on the list, like Ojai pixie tangerines and Sonoma County Gravenstein apples, were well on their way back before Mr. Nabhan came along. But other foods are enjoying a renaissance largely as a result of the coalition's work.

The Makah ozette potato, a nutty fingerling with such a rich, creamy texture that it needs only a whisper of oil, is one of the success stories. It is named after the Makah Indians, who live at the northwest tip of Washington state and have been growing the potatoes for more than 200 years.

The Seattle chapters of Slow Food and the Chefs Collaborative adopted the rare potato. In 2006, Slow Food passed out seed potatoes to a handful of local farmers and gardeners, and chefs like Seth Caswell at the Stumbling Goat Bistro in Seattle began putting them on the menu.

Mr. Caswell says they are delicious roasted with a little hazelnut oil for salads or cut into wedges to go with burgers made with wagyu beef and Washington State black truffle oil.

There have been other revivals, the moon and stars watermelon and the tepary bean among them. The effort to reintroduce heritage turkeys to the American table was a precursor to the work of Mr. Nabhan and his collaborators.

The meaty Buckeye chicken, with its long legs suitable for ranging around, is considered one of five most endangered chicken breeds. Last year over 1,000 chicks were hatched and delivered to breeders, Mr. Nabhan said.

Justin Pitts, whose family has raised Pineywoods cattle in southern Mississippi for generations, credits the coalition with saving those animals. The small, lean cattle that provide milk, meat and labor spent centuries adapting to the pine barrens of the deep south, raised by families who can trace their herds back as far as anyone can remember. There are less than a dozen of those families left, and at one point the number of pure Pineywoods breeding animals fell to under 200. In the past few years, it has grown to nearly 1,000.

Mr. Pitts, who has "90 head if I can find them all," sells New York strips and other cuts at the New Orleans farmers' market and to chefs.

"I can't raise cattle fast as they eat them," he said.

He supports the notion that you've got to eat something to save it.

"If you're keeping them for a museum piece," he said, "you've just signed their death warrant."



For the full story, see:

KIM SEVERSON. "An Unlikely Way to Save a Species: Serve It for Dinner." The New York Times (Weds., April 30, 2008): D1 & D5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

Reference to book:

Nabhan, Gary Paul. Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2008.

WatermelonMoonAndStar.jpg







Moon and stars watermelon. Source of image: http://bp0.blogger.com/_Tyq14YRMHCI/SBlWLE9tynI/AAAAAAAAAD8/gphhc3wgK-4/s1600/purplewatermelon266.jpg




August 14, 2008

Obama Beholden to Ethanol Special Interest Groups



ObamaIowaCorn.jpg "Senator Barack Obama last July in Adel, Iowa. His strong support of ethanol helped propel him to his first caucus victory there." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) When VeraSun Energy inaugurated a new ethanol processing plant last summer in Charles City, Iowa, some of that industry's most prominent boosters showed up. Leaders of the National Corn Growers Association and the Renewable Fuels Association, for instance, came to help cut the ribbon -- and so did Senator Barack Obama.

Then running far behind Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in name recognition and in the polls, Mr. Obama was in the midst of a campaign swing through the state where he would eventually register his first caucus victory. And as befits a senator from Illinois, the country's second largest corn-producing state, he delivered a ringing endorsement of ethanol as an alternative fuel.

Mr. Obama is running as a reformer who is seeking to reduce the influence of special interests. But like any other politician, he has powerful constituencies that help shape his views. And when it comes to domestic ethanol, almost all of which is made from corn, he also has advisers and prominent supporters with close ties to the industry at a time when energy policy is a point of sharp contrast between the parties and their presidential candidates.

. . .

(p. A19) Many economists, consumer advocates, environmental experts and tax groups have been critical of corn ethanol programs as a boondoggle that benefits agribusiness conglomerates more than small farmers. Those complaints have intensified recently as corn prices have risen sharply in tandem with oil prices and corn normally used for food stock has been diverted to ethanol production.



For the full story, see:

LARRY ROHTER. "Obama Camp Closely Linked With Ethanol." The New York Times (Mon., June 23, 2008): A1 & A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)




August 13, 2008

High Prices Provide Incentive to Innovate



MonsantoCornResearcher.jpg





"A Monsanto researcher, Mohammadreza Ghaffarzadeh, monitored drought-resistant corn technology in Davis, Calif." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 4) CORN prices are at record high levels. Costs for other agricultural essentials, from wheat to coffee to rice, have surged, too. And many people are stunned, even frightened, by all the increases.

But some entrepreneurs and analysts -- recognizing that relative price increases in specific goods always encourage innovators to find ways around the problem -- say they see an opportunity for creative solutions.

"When something becomes dear, you invent around it as much as you can," says David Warsh, editor of Economicprincipals.com, a newsletter on trends in economic thinking.

Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University, adds, "All of a sudden, some things that didn't look profitable now do."

. . .

A study in the 1950s by the economist Zvi Griliches of American farmers' adoption of more productive varieties of corn showed how higher prices reduced the cost of adopting new technologies.

. . .

Ultimately, higher food prices give innovators room to cover the cost of protecting human health. But prices are a democratic signal: when all innovators see them, their ability to sneak up on an opportunity, while others nap, vanishes.

"The bigger the prize people are chasing, the more people go after it," says Paul Romer, a theorist on sources of economic growth. "As people pile into an area, the expected return to any one innovator goes down."

Yet, fortunately, the return to society goes up.



For the full commentary, see:

G. PASCAL ZACHARY. "Ping; A Brighter Side of High Prices." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., May 18, 2008): 4.

(Note: ellipses added.)


For more on Zvi Griliches's contributions to the economics of innovation, see:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "Zvi Griliches's Contributions to the Economics of Technology and Growth." Economics of Innovation and New Technology 13, no. 4 (June 2004): 365-397.




August 12, 2008

Schumpeter on Fools, Asses, and Academic Committees



(p. 225) The longer Schumpeter taught at Harvard, the more he came to resent the bureaucratic routines of academic life that impinged on his research and writing. He especially disliked departmental meetings, and after several years he began to refer to his colleagues as the "fools" (full professors, a play on the German pronunciation of "full") and "asses" (associate and assistant professors). "These committees!" he wrote a friend, "This mentality, that believes that the core of the world is that one committee dines and makes a report for another committee, which in turn dines."


Source:

McCraw, Thomas K. Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2007.




August 11, 2008

Soros Warns Against Too Much Creative Destruction



SorosCryingWolf.jpg





Investor George Soros as the boy who cried "wolf" one time too often. Source of Soros caricature: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

I have mixed feelings about George Soros. He likes Karl Popper, and I like Karl Popper. He donated a bunch of money to help worthy scholars in Eastern Europe, and financed a conference in Romania on private philanthropy, at which I gave a presentation.

On the other hand, he has also given a bunch of money to politicians who oppose economic freedom. And I think the high level of government regulation he favors would greatly reduce innovation.

(p. B2) WSJ: Are you getting recognition from heavyweights in academia or policy making?

Mr. Soros: It has certainly not penetrated academia, and not policy makers either. There was an article in The Wall Street Journal about people doing research on bubbles at Princeton, so I'm going to meet with one of them. I wish I could engage in a discussion with [the Federal Reserve]. I'm waiting for a phone call. I'm [meeting with] Alan Greenspan.

WSJ: But you are quite critical of Greenspan.

Mr. Soros: Greenspan is one of the great manipulators of financial markets. I mean it in a good way. He managed [in 2001] to forestall a more serious recession. He kept interest rates [low] too long. And he did not heed the warnings that lending standards were being lowered, that deceptive practices were being used. He was too much of a market fundamentalist. He believed that if you leave it to markets, everything will be all right. That's initially self-reinforcing, but eventually self-defeating.

WSJ: Greenspan argues that the benefits of innovation are worth the occasional bubble.

Mr. Soros: This is, of course, [Joseph] Schumpeter's creative destruction idea. However ... going overboard in generating change is not necessarily a good thing. Financial innovation may not be an unmixed blessing because it really prevents proper regulation.

If you look at the 19th century, you had creative destruction going on, one financial crisis after another. But each time you had a crisis, you had an examination of what went wrong, and you put in some instrument or some institution to prevent it from happening.

I'm not advocating ... central planning because that's worse than markets. But the regulators need to learn from the mistakes that they have made. I think it's pretty clear that you've got to accept responsibility for moderating asset bubbles. ... That involves regulating credit as well as [interest rates].



For the full story, see:

GREG IP. "Soros, the Man Who Cries Wolf, Now Is Warning of a 'Superbubble'." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., June 21, 2008): B1-B2.

(Note: brackets and ellipses in original.)

(Note: I am grateful to Jamie McDonald for calling this article to my attention.)




August 10, 2008

"We Educate Them and Then Tell them to Go Home"



(p. C3) The United States may be synonymous with the high-tech revolution, but it is in danger of losing its high-tech edge, according to Cybercities 2008, a report released Tuesday by AeA, a technology industry trade association.

Because the federal government does not issue a sufficient number of green cards or work visas to talented foreign students studying here, there are a "tremendous number of unfilled jobs," said Christopher Hansen, AeA's chief executive.

"We educate them and then tell them to go home. This is absurd," said Mr. Hansen, whose group has lobbied to increase the number of visas for foreign technology industry workers.



For the full story, see:

ERIC A. TAUB. "U.S. High Tech Said to Slip." The New York Times (Weds., June 25, 2008): C3.




August 9, 2008

Blacklisting of Voight Urged in Display of Liberal Hollywood McCarthyism



VoightBlackListedByLiberals.jpg
VoightBlacklistedByLiberals2.jpg
















Source of the images: screen captures from the CNN report cited below.

With self-righteous indignation, the left often accuses the right of "McCarthyism."

But many on the left are happy to limit free speech when what is spoken is not to their liking.

Jon Voight's column in the Washington Times has ignited a firestorm, and caused at least one Hollywood insider to openly advocate blacklisting Voight from the movie business. The CNN story cited and linked below, gives some of the details.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated example.

On our campuses, free speech is often violated if the speaker speaks what is not politically correct. For many examples, see some of the cases discussed on the web site of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Another example is from my own personal experience as a young scholar many decades ago. I had applied to three or four top PhD programs in philosophy and was initially rejected from every one of them, even though I had a nearly perfect GPA, and very high test scores.

I was especially surprised by the rejection from Chicago, because an Associate Dean had visited the Wabash campus the year before and talked with me about applying to Chicago. He had looked at my record and said, 'with your record, if you score X, or above on the GREs, it is almost certain that you will be accepted.' (I don't remember the exact number he said.) Well I scored above X, but was rejected. So I wrote to the Associate Dean, saying I was disappointed and asking if he had any insight about the rejection. He told me that he was dumbfounded and that he would look into it.

Awhile later, I received a letter reversing the decision of the University of Chicago Department of Philosophy. I never learned all the details, but apparently the Dean of Humanities had over-ruled the Department of Philosophy. (This is fairly unusual in academics, and though I do not remember her name, I salute that Dean for taking a stand.)

Years later, the episode came up in a conversation with a member of the philosophy faculty. He said that he had been on the admissions committee the year that I had applied, and that I had been rejected because I had mentioned Ayn Rand in my essay about how I had become interested in philosophy.

For some of the details of the Voight story, see:

Wynter, Kareen. "Bloggers Fire Back at Voight." CNN Feature, broadcast on CNN, and posted on CNN.com on 8/8/08. Downloaded on 8/8/08 from: http://www.cnn.com/video/?iref=videoglobal

(Note: the clip runs 2 minutes and 27 seconds.)

Voight's op-ed piece ran in the Washington Times on July 28, 2008 under the title "My Concerns for America" and can be viewed at: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/jul/28/voight/





August 8, 2008

McCain "Shows a Lack of Understanding of the Insights of Joseph Schumpeter"



I agree with the Karl Rove's analysis below, that John McCain does not exhibit much understanding of Schumpeter's process of creative destruction. On the other hand, I have seen no evidence that Barack Obama has any such understanding either. (Nor have I seen any evidence that Rove's former boss, George W. Bush, has any such understanding, for that matter.)

And, in general, I am still of the belief that, overall, between the two of them, McCain will put fewer obstacles in the path of innovation than will Obama.

(p. A13) This past Thursday, Mr. McCain came close to advocating a form of industrial policy, saying, "I'm very angry, frankly, at the oil companies not only because of the obscene profits they've made, but their failure to invest in alternate energy."

But oil and gas companies report that they have invested heavily in alternative energy. Out of the $46 billion spent researching alternative energy in North America from 2000 to 2005, $12 billion came from oil and gas companies, making the industry one of the nation's largest backers of wind and solar power, biofuels, lithium-ion batteries and fuel-cell technology.

Such investments, however, are not as important as money spent on technologies that help find and extract more oil. Because oil companies invested in innovation and technology, they are now tapping reserves that were formerly thought to be unrecoverable. Maybe we are all better off when oil companies invest in what they know, not what they don't.

And do we really want the government deciding how profits should be invested? If so, should Microsoft be forced to invest in Linux-based software or McDonald's in weight-loss research?

Mr. McCain's angry statement shows a lack of understanding of the insights of Joseph Schumpeter, the 20th century economist who explained that capitalism is inherently unstable because a "perennial gale of creative destruction" is brought on by entrepreneurs who create new goods, markets and processes. The entrepreneur is "the pivot on which everything turns," Schumpeter argued, and "proceeds by competitively destroying old businesses."

Most dramatic change comes from new businesses, not old ones. Buggy whip makers did not create the auto industry. Railroads didn't create the airplane. Even when established industries help create new ones, old-line firms are often not as nimble as new ones. IBM helped give rise to personal computers, but didn't see the importance of software and ceded that part of the business to young upstarts who founded Microsoft.

So why should Mr. McCain expect oil and gas companies to lead the way in developing alternative energy? As with past technological change, new enterprises will likely be the drivers of alternative energy innovation.



For the full story, see:

KARL ROVE. "Obama and McCain Spout Economic Nonsense." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., June 19, 2008): A13.

(Note: I thank John Pagin and Dagny Diamond for alerting me to Rove's discussion of Schumpeter.)




August 7, 2008

Ordinary People Have Prospered in Recent Decades



CareyDrewLivingLarge.jpg




Source of image: http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2008/02/blog-post_2174.html



Stephen Moore is right when he calls Drew Carey's "Living Large" video "wonderful."

It would be even more wonderful, if it gave a bit more emphasis, a la Schumpeter, to the positive effects of new products, in addition to its emphasis on declining prices of already existing products.

(p. W11) A few weeks ago I gave a talk on the state of the economy to a group of college students -- almost all Barack Obama enthusiasts -- who were griping about how downright awful things are in America today. As they sipped their Starbucks lattes and adjusted their designer sunglasses, they recited their grievances: The country is awash in debt "that we will have to pay off"; the middle class in shrinking; the polar ice caps are melting; and college is too expensive.

I've been speaking to groups like this one for more than 20 years, but I have never confronted such universal pessimism from a young audience. Its members acted as if the hardships of modern life are making it nearly impossible for them to get out of bed in the morning. So I conducted a survey of these grim youngsters. How many of you, I asked, own a laptop? A cellphone? An iPod, a DVD player, a flat-screen digital TV? To every question somewhere between two-thirds and all of the hands in the room rose. But they didn't even get my point. "Well, duh," one of them scoffed, "who doesn't have an iPod these days?" I was way too embarrassed to tell them that I, for one, don't. They thought that living without these products would be like going back to prehistoric times.

They seemed clueless that as recently as the early 1980s only the richest people in the world had cellphones and the quality of these products left much to be desired. Watch a movie from 20 years ago and you will laugh out loud seeing big clunky black machines that weighed as much as a brick, gave crackly service and cost $4,200. Now cellphones are practically free -- even disposable. And the cost of making calls has dropped dramatically too.

. . .

There's a wonderful new video on Reason.tv called "Living Large." In it, comedian Drew Carey goes to a lake in California where people are relaxing on $80,000 27-foot boats and goofing around on $25,000 jet skis that they have hitched to their $40,000 SUVs. Mr. Carey asks these boat owners what they do for a living. As it turns out, they aren't hedge-fund managers. One is a gardener, another a truck driver, another an auto mechanic and another a cop.

. . .

After my lecture, one young woman walked up to me on her way out and huffed: "What I favor is a radical redistribution of wealth in America." I tried to tell her that America's greatness is a result of our focus on creating wealth, not redistributing it. But it was too late -- she was already tuning in to her iPod.



For the full commentary, see:

STEPHEN MOORE. "DE GUSTIBUS; The Bare Necessities: A Generation Tries to Imagine Life Without iPods." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., March 14, 2008): W11.

(Note: ellipses added.)


The video is:

Carey, Drew. "Living Large: The Middle Class." reason.tv Posted February 8, 2008.




August 6, 2008

Obama Top Economist Likes Wal-Mart and Sees Improved Worker Living Standards



(p. C1) Acting quickly after securing his party's presidential nomination, Barack Obama picked a well-known representative of Bill Clinton's economic policies as his economic policy director and signaled this week that the major players from the Clinton economics team were now in his camp -- starting with Robert E. Rubin.

Senator Obama, Democrat of Illinois, hired Jason Furman, a Harvard-trained economist closely associated with Mr. Rubin, a Wall Street insider who served as President Clinton's Treasury secretary. Labor union leaders criticized the move, and said that ''Rubinomics'' focused too much on corporate America and not enough on workers.

. . .

(p. C4) Mr. Furman, who served for a while as a special economic adviser in the Clinton administration, has taken some controversial positions. He argued in 2005, for example, that Wal-Mart, despite its conflicts with organized labor over pay and health insurance, was a good business model.

More recently, he argued that while the typical worker suffers from inadequate income, that worker's living standards, broadly measured, are higher today than those of their counterparts 30 years ago -- an argument in dispute among economists.

. . .

Until now, Austan Goolsbee, an economist at the University of Chicago, had been Mr. Obama's chief economic adviser. He remains an unpaid adviser. He said he was not a candidate for Mr. Furman's full-time job because of his university duties.



For the full story, see:

LOUIS UCHITELLE. "Union Critical of Obama's Top Economics Aide." The New York Times (Thurs., June 12, 2008): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)




August 5, 2008

Investment in General Purpose Technologies is Partly a "Leap-of-Faith"



BrittGlennTimeWarnerCable.jpg





Caricature of Glenn Britt. Source of caricature: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B2) WSJ: You invested $550 million in Clearwire Corp., which is building a wireless broadband network. Why?

Mr. Britt: We saw that as a defensive move. The business today is largely about making voice telephone calls, text messaging, and some data.

This venture is about very fast broadband delivery, but the technologies and the products are as yet not fully defined. It's a bit of a start-up, leap-of-faith kind of thing.

WSJ: What uses could this wireless network be put to?

Mr. Britt: An obvious one is using your laptop in a portable way just as you might today with WiFi hot spots. Another is going to be the PDA, the smallest device you can use to access the Internet. If you have an iPhone you can start seeing what that might look like with a more robust network.

Out in the future, people are talking about machine-to-machine communication, the idea of heart monitors talking to hospitals, your camera automatically uploading photos to Shutterfly or whatever printing service you might use.

WSJ: What about the idea of mobile video delivered to portable devices?

Mr. Britt: I know people talk a lot about mobile video, and I certainly think there is some application for it. But I quite honestly haven't seen it as a big deal. People do want to get video wherever they are. We already have a robust over-the-air television system which, as it goes digital, will be able to have a mobile component to it. But I don't know how big the ultimate market is in this country. I'm skeptical.



For the full story, see:

VISHESH KUMAR. "BOSS TALK; Cable Boss Airs Growth Plans; Time Warner Cable CEO Sees New Freedoms, Threats After Its Spinoff." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., June 2, 2008): B1-B2.

(Note: the title of the online version of the article is "BOSS TALK; Grappling With Cable's Future; Time Warner's Glenn Britt Sees Freedoms, Threats As Unit Readies for Spinoff.")




August 4, 2008

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Hero of Freedom, RIP



I heard last night that Aleksander Solzhenitsyn had died late that on that day, August 3, 2008.

Like all of us, he had his flaws. But he had strong moral courage in standing up against the enslavement of the masses by the communist tyranny of the USSR. For that he paid a huge price, partly in the form of the years of forced labor in the prison camps that he carefully documented in his massive The Gulag Archipelago. (I must admit that I never read The Gulag, although I believe my father, to his credit, read every page.)

I remember my mentor Ben Rogge reading The First Circle and highly recommending it to us. The book's title is based on Dante's Inferno which describes the nine circles of hell, where each successive circle assigns increasingly horrendous eternal punishments, for those guilty of increasingly terrible sins. In the first circle, good people born before Jesus, are allowed to pursue their interests much as they had on earth. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, for instance, engage in eternal dialogue.

In Solzhenitsyn's version, Stalin allows a group of scientists to have better living conditions, and somewhat more freedom than ordinary Soviet citizens, so long as the scientists make progress on projects that enable Stalin to extend his power.

One of the revelations in the book is that those who imposed the tyranny, had motives that were not always evil. One bureaucratic candidate for villainy, for instance, did bad things, in order to protect his family. At the top there is Stalin, but he is portrayed as insane.

The point is one that Rogge often made---people are pretty much the same everywhere. What mainly explains the differences in different societies are different institutions that provide differing incentives and constraints.

It is a fitting tribute to Solzhenitsyn that the first unabridged English translation of The First Circle will soon be published.

I salute Solzhenitsyn for his insights, and even more, for his courage at standing up against an evil system.




August 3, 2008

Sprouted "Methuselah" Seed Is 2,000 Years Old



MethuselahDatePalmSeedsAndPlant.jpg


"One of a handful of 2,000-year-old seeds (top) from the fortress of Masada in present-day Israel grew into a date palm plant (bottom) called Methuselah in 2005." Source of caption and photos: online article quoted and cited below.

The oldest-sprouted seed in the world is a 2,000-year-old plant from Jerusalem, a new study confirms.

"Methuselah," a 4-foot-tall (1.2-meter-tall) ancestor of the modern date palm, is being grown at a protected laboratory in the Israeli capital.

In 2005 the young plant was coaxed out of a seed recovered in 1963 from Masada, a fortress in present-day Israel where Jewish zealots killed themselves to avoid capture by the Romans in A.D. 70.



For the full story, see:


Anne Minard. ""Methuselah" Tree Grew From 2,000-Year-Old Seed." National Geographic News online (June 12, 2008), downloaded on 6/19/08 from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/06/080612-oldest-tree.html





August 2, 2008

Paternalistic Doctors With Way Too Much Time on Their Hands



(p. C6) The American Medical Association is hulking mad at Marvel Studios.

Last week, the advocacy arm of the powerful physicians' group unleashed a tsk-tsk campaign against "The Incredible Hulk," a Marvel film that opened on Friday and is distributed by Universal Pictures. The complaint was of "gratuitous depictions of smoking."

In the movie, which drew a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, Gen. Thunderbolt Ross, a bad guy played by William Hurt, is rarely seen without a smoke-spewing cigar. (Presumably, the physicians' association worries that children who identify with the authoritarian general -- who wants to annihilate the Hulk, played by Edward Norton -- may be tempted to pick up the habit.)



For the full story, see:

BROOKS BARNES. "Physicians' Group Furious at Cigars in 'Hulk' Movie." The New York Times (Mon., June 16, 2008): C6.




August 1, 2008

William Manchester Shows the Darkness of the Dark Ages



WorldLitOnlyByFireBK.jpg









Source of book image: http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~aahobor/Lucy-Day/Images/Covers-50/A-World-Lit-Only-by-Fire.jpg

William Manchester was better known for other books, but I recommend A World Lit Only by Fire. It is not always pleasant reading, but it is often fascinating, and sometimes amusing or edifying. Unlike some historians, who are afraid to call the Dark Ages dark because they are afraid to make value judgments, Manchester details just how 'brutish, nasty and short' life was during the centuries from 400 AD to 1000 AD (and to a large extent even up to 1600).

He also exposes the failings of institutions and historical individuals who are now revered, including martial Popes who lived ostentatiously with funds extracted from starving peasants, and Protestant 'reformers' who burned books and murdered those they considered heretics.

Only a few hundred years separates us from the times that Manchester chronicles. It is useful to contemplate how far we have come, and how far we may fall, if we do not recognize and defend the values upon which civilization depends.

Reference:

Manchester, William. A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, Portrait of an Age. Back Bay Publishers, 1993.




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