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December 31, 2008

European Commission Now Lets Consumers Buy Ugly Vegetables

(p. A6) BRUSSELS -- Misshapen fruit and vegetables won a reprieve on Wednesday from the European Union as it scrapped rules banning overly curved, extra knobbly or oddly shaped produce from supermarket shelves.

Ending regulations on the size and shape of 26 types of fruit and vegetables, the European authorities killed off restrictions that had become synonymous with bureaucratic meddling.

The rising cost of commodities also persuaded the European Commission that there was no point in throwing away food just because it looked strange.

As of July, when the changes go into force, these standards for the 26 products, as varied as peas and plums, will disappear. European shoppers will then be able to choose their produce whatever its appearance.

For the full story, see:

STEPHEN CASTLE. "Europe Relaxes Rules on Sale of Ugly Fruits and Vegetables." The New York Times (Thurs., November 13, 2008): A6.

December 30, 2008

Supporters of Whaling Industry Objected to Light from Gas

In the process of creative destruction, the industry that is being destroyed often seeks to protect itself from the new innovation:

(p. 45) In England, objectors to gaslight argued that it undercut the whaling industry.


Burke, James. The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible - and Other Journeys. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997.

December 29, 2008

Taleb Practices What He Preaches, and Does Well


Taleb on left; Spitznagel on right. Source of images: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. C1) For most of October, it seemed nearly everything that could go wrong with the markets did. But the rout turned into a jackpot for author and investor Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Mr. Taleb last year published "The Black Swan," a best-selling book about the impact of extreme events on the world and the financial markets. He also helped start a hedge fund, Universa Investments L.P., which bases many of its strategies on themes in the book, including how to reap big rewards in a sharp market downturn. Like October's.

Separate funds in Universa's so-called Black Swan Protection Protocol were up by a range of 65% to 115% in October, according to a person close to the fund. "We're discovering the fragility of the financial system," said Mr. Taleb, who says he expects market volatility to continue as more hedge funds run into trouble.

A professor of mathematical finance at New York University, Mr. Taleb believes investors often ignore the risk of extreme moves in the market, especially when times are good and volatility is low, as it was for several years leading up to the current turmoil. "Black swan" alludes to the belief, once widespread, that all swans are white -- a notion that was proven false when European explorers discovered black swans in Australia. A black-swan event is something that is highly unexpected.

Assets under management at Universa have neared $2 billion since the fund launched early last year with $300 million under management. While Mr. Taleb frequently consults with Universa's traders, the Santa Monica, Calif., fund is owned and managed by Mark Spitznagel, who worked for several years in the 1990s as a pit trader on the Chicago Board of Trade.

For the full story, see:

SCOTT PATTERSON. "October Pain Was 'Black Swan' Gain." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 3, 2008): C1 & C3.

For my enthusiastic review of the Taleb book, see:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "Review of the Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable." Journal of Scientific Exploration 22, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 419-22.

December 28, 2008

"Four G's Needed for Success: Geduld, Geschick, Glück, Geld"

One of Domagk's predecessors, in goal and method, was Paul Ehrlich, who was a leader in the search for the Zuberkugeln (magic bullet) against disease causing organisms. He systematized the trial and error method, and pursued dyes as promising chemicals that might be modified to attach themselves to the intruders. But he never quite found a magic bullet:

(p. 82) Ehrlich announced to the world that he had found a cure for sleeping sickness. But he spoke too soon. Number 418, also, proved too toxic for general use. He and his chemists resumed the search.

Ehrlich said his method consisted basically of "examining and sweating"---and his coworkers joked that Ehrlich examined while they sweated. There was another motto attributed to Ehrlich's lab, the list of "Four Gs" needed for success: Geduld, Geschick, Glück, Geld---patience, skill, luck, and money.


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

(Note: do not confuse the "Paul Ehrlich" discussed above, with the modern environmentalist "Paul Ehrlich" who is best known for losing his bet with Julian Simon.)

December 27, 2008

How to Run a Business in Nebraska


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

(p. A15) How exactly did Jack get to be so wild? It appears -- and even the redoubtable Mr. Rottenberg acknowledges that the documentation is often sparse -- that Jack got into the freight-hauling business and one thing led to another, including stage coaching, supervising the mails and helping to run the Pony Express. In his heyday, Slade was the boss of the Express's fabled Sweetwater division, said to be the most dangerous stretch of the overland route, from Nebraska to Salt Lake City, 500 hard miles of hard country, hard men, hard weather and unfriendly Indians. One chronicler noted about Slade that "from Fort Kearney, west, he was feared a great deal more than the Almighty."

Freight hauling was not the space program. A man could get into this line of work easily if he had the physical stamina and the nerve. But it was dangerous work. A man might run into some rough customers. Perhaps the most celebrated of these, in Slade's case, was an ornery French-Canadian named Jules Beni, with whom he had a long-standing feud. Jules eventually shot Slade, in 1860, riddling him with bullets and leaving him for dead. But Slade was made of tougher stuff and would settle the score. A year later he killed Beni and carried the dead man's ears around as a souvenir, pulling them out for display from time to time to the alarm of fellow saloon patrons. A previous account of Slade's life was in fact titled "An Ear in His Pocket." Now that's a bad man!

For the full review, see:

CHRISTOPHER CORBETT. "BOOKShelf; A Desperado Rides Again." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., NOVEMBER 11, 2008): A15.

Reference to the book being reviewed:

Rottenberg, Dan. Death of a Gunfighter. Westholme Publishing, 2008.

December 26, 2008

Eastman Was a Self-Financed Entrepreneur

Mark Casson has argued that the more original the entrepreneur's innovation, the more likely he will need to finance all, or a large part, of it himself. To the extent that this is true, it represents an important argument for allowing the accumulation of wealth (and thereby an argument against substantial personal income, and inheritance, taxes.)

Here is an example, consistent with Casson's argument, of a self-financed entrepreneur:

(p. 36) The idea of loading film into a camera, snapping the picture and then sending the film to a store to be processed was the brainchild of an American from Rochester, New York, called George Eastman. One day in 1879, at the bank where he had worked since leaving school at the age of fourteen, he didn't get the promotion he was expecting. So he left and used his savings to set himself up as a "Maker and Dealer in Photographic Supplies." At this time, picture taking was a messy, cumbersome and expensive business, involving glass-late negatives, buckets of chemicals an monster wooden cameras. When Eastman had finished his experiments with the process, his slogan promised, "You press the button. We do the rest."


Burke, James. The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible - and Other Journeys. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997.

December 25, 2008

A True Christmas Story of Hope and Justice


Gerhard Domagk. Source of photo: http://www.nndb.com/people/744/000128360/

Gerhard Domagk spent most of his adult life in a focused, tireless effort to find the first cure for a bacterial infection. Finally, his laboratory discovered a sulfa drug they called "Prontosil," that seemed effective against strep and some other infections. Domagk published his first preliminary results on the drug in February 1935 (see Hager, p. 164). An increasing number of doctors began testing the drug on their desperate patients.

Life is not always unfair:

(p. 181) In early December 1935, just after the French published the discovery that pure sulfa was the active ingredient in Prontosil, Domagk's six-year-old daughter, Hildegarde, suffered a bad accident. She was making a Christmas decoration in their house when she decided that she needed help threading a needle. She was on her way downstairs to find her mother, carrying the needle and thread, when she fell. The needle was driven into her hand blunt end first, breaking off against a carpal bone. She was taken to the local clinic and the needle was surgically removed, but a few days later, her hand started swelling. After the stitches were removed, her temperature rose and kept rising. An abscess formed at the surgical site. She had a wound infection. The staff at the clinic tried opening and draining the abscess. When it became reinfected, they opened it again. Then again. The infection started moving up her arm. "Her general state and the abscess worsened to such a point that we became seriously concerned," Domagk wrote later. "More surgery was impossible." She was falling in and out of consciousness. The surgeons were talking about amputating her arm. Once the blood tests showed that the invading germ was strep, Domagk went to his laboratory and pocketed a supply of Prontosil tablets, returned to her hospital room, put the red tablets in her mouth himself, and made certain that she swallowed. Then he waited. A day later her temperature continued to rise. He gave her more tablets. No improvement. On day (p. 182) three he gave her more, a large dose, but there was still no improvement. Her situation was growing desperate, so he pulled out all the stops, on day four giving her more Prontosil tablets, then two large injections of Prontosil soluble. Finally her temperature started to drop. He gave her more tablets. After a week of treatment, her temperature finally returned to normal. The infection had been stopped. By Christmas she was able to celebrate the holidays with her family.


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

December 24, 2008

Most Scientists' Lives Are "Like Those of Anxious Middle Managers"

(p. 64) The truth is that scientists come in all types, just like everyone else. They are people, not pop paradigms. They worry about how they are going to pay their bills, and they get envious of the researchers who got the credit they should have gotten. They compete for grants and complain when those grants are awarded to someone else. They focus on prestige and work for advancement and usually do what their bosses (or, less directly, granting agencies) say. Most scientists, as the great British molecular biologist J. D. Bernal noted back in the 1930s, live lives more like those of anxious middle managers than great visionaries.


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

December 23, 2008

Governments Still Give Sugar's Fanjuls a Sweet Deal

FanjulSugarOperations.jpg "As Florida buys U.S. Sugar, company land could go on the block. The Fanjul family, with sugar operations like this one in Palm Beach County, is waiting." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

Many years ago, CBS's "Sixty Minutes" program ran a wonderful Steve Kroft piece (called, I think, "A Sweet Deal") exposing how protectionist federal government sugar import quotas, benefit the extraordinarily wealthy and powerful Fanjul family, at the expense of ordinary consumers.

Nothing has changed:

(p. 1) IN June, Gov. Charlie Crist announced that Florida would buy one of the state's two big sugar enterprises, the United States Sugar Corporation. He billed the purchase as a "jump-start" in the environmental restoration of the Everglades, which cane growers are accused of polluting with fertilizer runoff.

But in the end, the $1.7 billion buyout, scheduled to be completed in early 2009, may also prove to be a financial boon to the state's remaining sugar superpower, Florida Crystals.

One of the country's wealthiest families, the Fanjuls of Palm Beach, controls Florida Crystals and today touches virtually every aspect of the sugar trade in the United States.

. . .

"This is going to be a really good deal for the Fanjuls," says Dexter Lehtinen, a former federal prosecutor whose 1988 lawsuit against the state led to a settlement instituting tough clean water standards. "The state embarked on a nonachievable goal, and now in desperation to wrap up some package, they're going to have to give access to Florida Crystals on favorable terms."

Others, like makers of candy and cereal, say the (p. 9) Fanjuls already control too much of the sugar trade. They want to buy sugar cheap and say the Fanjuls have long charmed Congress into legislating price supports that keep it expensive.

Free-trade advocates also complain, saying that a private business has used the shelter of the federal sugar program, created in the Depression to nurture struggling farmers, to increase its corporate hammerlock.

"These people have been absolutely extorting consumers for decades, and the only reason they're existing in the first place is, they were able to get sweet deals from governments that were propping them up," says Sallie James, a trade policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, referring to Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar.

For the full story, see:

MARY WILLIAMS WALSH. "Florida Deal for Everglades May Help Big Sugar." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., September 14, 2008): 1 & 9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

FanjulsPepeJrPepeAndAlfonsoJr.jpg "Three leaders of the Fanjul family: Pepe Jr., left; J. Pepe, center; and Alfonso Jr., called Alfy. After Fidel Castro chased the family from Cuba, it rebuilt its sugar empire in the United States." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

FanjulWaterSugarGraphic.jpg Source of graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

December 22, 2008

Resilience is Key to Surviving Disasters (and to Successful Entrepreneurship)

I believe that resilience is a key characteristic of successful entrepreneurs. Amanda Ripley has some plausible and useful comments on resilience in the passages quoted below.

(p. 91) Resilience is a precious skill. People who have it tend to also have three underlying advantages: a belief that they can influence life events; a tendency to find meaningful purpose in life's turmoil; and a conviction that they can learn from both positive and negative experiences. These beliefs act as a sort of buffer, cushioning the blow of any given disaster. Dangers seem more manageable to these people, and they perform better as a result.    . . .

. . .    A healthy, proactive worldview should logically lead to resilience. But it's the kind of unsatisfying answer that begs another question. If this worldview leads to resilience, well what leads to the worldview?

(p. 92) The answer is not what we might expect. Resilient people aren't necessarily yoga-practicing Buddhists. One thing that they have in abundance is confidence. As we saw in the chapter on fear, confidence---that comes from realistic rehearsal or even laughter---soothes the more disruptive effects of extreme fear. A few recent studies have found that people who are unrealistically confident tend to fare spectacularly well in disasters. Psychologists call these people "self-enhancers," but you and I would probably call them arrogant. These are people who think more highly of themselves than other people think of them. They tend to come off as annoying and self-absorbed. In a way, they might be better adapted to crises than they are to real life.


Ripley, Amanda. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.

(Note: ellipses added.)

December 21, 2008

James Burke (and Art Diamond) on the Importance of Serendipity


Source of book image: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/_images/ISBNCovers/Covers_Enlarged/9780316116107_388X586.jpg

Like other James Burke books, The Pinball Effect is a good source of interesting and thought-provoking stories and examples, usually related to science and technology. One of his themes in the book is the importance of serendipity in making unanticipated connections.

My (and not Burkes') musings on serendipity:

Serendipity might be an example of Hayek's local knowledge, that the free market encourages the entrepreneur to take advantage of. Serendipity is an occurrence of one person in a particular time and place, with a mind prepared to be alert for it. As such it could not be planned by a central authority, and would usually be vetoed by a committee decision process. To maximally benefit from serendipity, we need a system that allows the motivated individual to pursue their discoveries.

Burke's musings on serendipity:

(p. 3) In every case, the journeys presented here follow unexpected paths, because that's how life happens. We strike out on a course only to find it altered by the action of another person, somewhere else in time and space. As a result, the world in which we live today is the end-product of millions of these kinds of serendipitous interactions, happening over thousands of years.


Burke, James. The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible - and Other Journeys. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997.

December 20, 2008

Why You Want Your Surgeon to Be a Disciple of Lister

The sources of new ideas are diverse. Sometimes, as below, even a newspaper article can provide inspiration.

The passage below also provides another example of the project oriented entrepreneur, who is motivated by a mission to get the job done.

(p. 60) In Lister's early years, the mid-1800s, half of all amputation patients died from hospital fever; in some hospitals the rate was as high as 80 percent. Lister, like all surgeons, had little idea of how to improve the situation. Then he chanced on a newspaper article that caught his interest. It described how the residents of a local town, tired of the smell of their sewage, had begun treating it by pouring into their system something called German Creosote, a by-product of coal tar. Something in the creosote stopped the smell. Lister had heard about the work of Pasteur, and he made the same mental connection the French chemist had: The stink of sewage came from putrefaction, rotting organic matter; the stink of infected wounds also came from putrefaction; whatever stopped the putrefaction of sewage might also stop the putrefaction of infected wounds. So Lister decided to try coal-tar chemicals on his patients. And he found one that worked exceptionally well: carbolic acid, a solution of what today is called phenol.   . . .

. . .

(p. 61) Lister's insistence on stopping the transfer of bacteria in the operating room became absolute. Once when a visiting knighted physician from King's College idly poked a forefinger into a patient's incision during one of Lister's operations, Lister flung him bodily from the room.


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipses added.)

December 19, 2008

Rosenberg Spying Shows "United States Had (and Has) Real Enemies"


"DOOMED. In 1952, sympathizers gathered near the prison where the convicted spies awaited execution." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 6) You could choose to ignore, or somehow explain away, the Hitler-Stalin pact, or be wedded to the original Port Huron Statement instead of the "compromised second draft," but if you seriously considered yourself fiercely loyal to the far left, you believed that the Rosenbergs were not guilty of espionage. At least you said you did.

For more than 50 years, defending Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was an article of faith for most committed American leftists. That the couple was framed -- by officials intent on stoking anti-Soviet fervor and embarrassed by counterespionage lapses that allowed Russian moles to infiltrate the government -- was at the core of a worldview of Communism, the Korean War and the ensuing cold war, and an enduring cultural divide stoked by McCarthyism.

Now, that unshakeable faith has been rattled seismically. Not for the first time, of course; in the 1990s, secret Soviet cables released by Washington affirmed the spy ring's existence. But this time, the bedrock under that worldview seemed to transmogrify into clay.

The rattler was Morton Sobell, 91, the case's only living defendant. He admitted in an interview that he and Julius Rosenberg had indeed spied for the Soviet Union. His admission prompted the Rosenbergs' sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol -- self-described magnets for global anguish over their parents' execution in 1953 -- to publicly accept, for the first time, that their father committed espionage. Ronald Radosh, co-author of "The Rosenberg File," a comprehensive account of the trial, declared that "a pillar of the left-wing culture of grievance has been finally shattered."

"The Rosenbergs were Soviet spies," he said in an op-ed article in The Los Angeles Times, and "it is time the ranks of the left acknowledge that the United States had (and has) real enemies and that finding and prosecuting them is not evidence of repression."

For the full commentary, see:

SAM ROBERTS. "Ideas & Trends; A Spy Confesses, and Still Some Weep for the Rosenbergs." The New York Times, Week in Review Section (Sun., September 21, 2008): 6.

December 18, 2008

Deaths in 'Natural' Disasters Caused by Absence of Economic Growth

We are often made to feel guilty for the suffering of other countries in "natural" disasters. But the deaths are more due to the lack of infrastructure, sound buildings and the like, which in turn are due to the countries' lack of economic growth, which in turn is due to their rejection of the process of capitalist creative destruction.

(p. 90) The simple truth is that money matters more than anything else in most disasters. Which is another way of saying that where and how we live matters more than Mother Nature. Developed nations experience just as many natural disasters as undeveloped nations. The difference is in the death toll. Of all the people who dies from natural disasters on the planet from 1985 to 1999, 65 percent came from nations with incomes below $760 per capita, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The 1994 Northridge earthquake in California, for example, was similar in magnitude and depth to the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. But the Northridge earthquake killed only sixty-three people. The Pakistan earthquake killed about a hundred thousand.

People need roofs, roads, and health care before quibbles like personality and risk perception count for much. And the effect is geometric. If a large nation raises its GNP from $2,000 to $14,000 per person, it can expect to save 530 lives a a year in natural disasters, according to a study by Matthew Kahn at Tufts University. And for those who survive, money is a form of liquid resilience: it can bring treatment, stability, and recovery.


Ripley, Amanda. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.

December 17, 2008

"The Truth is More Important Than Our Political Position"

RosenbergSons1953.jpg "Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's sons, Robert, 6, left, and Michael, 10, looking at a 1953 newspaper. They still believe their parents did not deserve to die." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A22) They were the most famous orphans of the cold war, only 6 and 10 years old in 1953 when their parents were executed at Sing Sing for delivering atomic-bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. Then they were whisked from an unwanted limelight to urban anonymity and eventually to suburban obscurity.

Adopting their foster parents' surname, they staked their own claim to radical campus politics in the 1960s. Then in 1973, they emerged to reclaim their identities as the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, determined to vindicate their parents.

Now, confronted with the surprising confession last week of Morton Sobell, Julius Rosenberg's City College classmate and co-defendant, the brothers have admitted to a painful conclusion: that their father was a spy.

"I don't have any reason to doubt Morty," Michael Meeropol said after several conversations with Mr. Sobell over the weekend.

Their conclusions, in separate interviews, amount to a milestone in America's culture wars and the culmination of the brothers' own emotional and intellectual odyssey.

It began in July 1950, when F.B.I. agents arrested Julius Rosenberg in the family's Lower East Side apartment, thrusting the boys onto a global stage as bit players in their parents' appeals, in the government's efforts to extract their parents' cooperation, and in Soviet propaganda campaigns to cast the Rosenbergs as martyrs.

Their journey became public again nearly a generation later when the brothers proclaimed that their parents were framed to feed cold war hysteria and compensate for America's counterespionage lapses. Amid the Watergate-era revelations of criminal conspiracies and cover-ups, they began a legal battle to release all the government records in the case.

While they were vested in a single outcome, they insisted all along that they would follow the facts, wherever they led.

"We believed they were innocent and we tried to prove them innocent," Michael Meeropol said on Sunday. "But I remember saying to myself in late 1975, maybe a little later, that whatever happens, it doesn't change me. We really meant it, that the truth is more important than our political position."

For the full story, see:

SAM ROBERTS. "Rosenbergs' Sons Sadly Accept That Father Was a Spy." The New York Times (Weds., September 17, 2008): A22.

(Note: the online title is the slightly different "Rosenbergs' Sons Accept Conclusion That Father Was a Spy.")

RosenbergSons2003.jpg "Michael, left, and Robert Meeropol rehearsing in 2003 for a commemoration of the execution in 1953 of their parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

December 16, 2008

Doctors Rejected Pasteur's Work

Whether in science, or in entrepreneurship, at the initial stages of an important new idea, the majority of experts will reject the idea. So a key for the advance of science, or for innovation in the economy, is to allow scientists and entrepreneurs to accumulate sufficient resources so that they can make informed bets based on their conjectures, and on their tacit knowledge.

A few entries ago, Hager recounted how Leeuwenhoek faced initial skepticism from the experts. In the passage below, Hager recounts how Pasteur also faced initial skepticism from the experts:

(p. 44) If bacteria could rot meat, Pasteur reasoned, they could cause diseases, and he spent years proving the point. Two major problems hindered the acceptance of his work within the medical community: First, Pasteur, regardless of his ingenuity, was a brewing chemist, not a physician, so what could he possibly know about disease? And second, his work was both incomplete and imprecise. He had inferred that bacteria caused disease, but it was impossible for him to definitively prove the point. In order to prove that a type of bacterium could cause a specific disease, precisely and to the satisfaction of the scientific world, it would be necessary to isolate that one type of bacterium for study, to create a pure culture, and then test the disease-causing abilities of this pure culture.


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

December 15, 2008

Sobell Admits He and Julius Rosenberg Really Were Spies for the Soviets

SobellMortonAtAge91.jpg "Morton Sobell, 91, at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx." Source for caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

The left has long chastised the right, for having wrongly persecuted the Rosenbergs. Score one for the right:

(p. A1) In 1951, Morton Sobell was tried and convicted with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges. He served more than 18 years in Alcatraz and other federal prisons, traveled to Cuba and Vietnam after his release in 1969 and became an advocate for progressive causes.

Through it all, he maintained his innocence.

But on Thursday, Mr. Sobell, 91, dramatically reversed himself, shedding new light on a case that still fans smoldering political passions. In an interview, he admitted for the first time that he had been a Soviet spy.

And he implicated his fellow defendant Julius Rosenberg, in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb.

In the interview with The New York Times, Mr. Sobell, who lives in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, was asked whether, as an electrical engineer, he turned over military secrets to the Soviets during World War II when they were considered allies of the United States and were bearing the brunt of Nazi brutality. Was he, in fact, a spy?

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that," he replied. "I never thought of it as that in those terms."

Mr. Sobell also concurred in what has become a consensus among historians: that Ethel Rosenberg, who was executed with her husband, was aware of Julius's espionage, but did not actively participate. "She knew what he was doing," he said, "but what was she guilty of? Of being Julius's wife."

For the full story, see:

SAM ROBERTS. "57 Years Later, Figure in Rosenberg Case Says He Spied for Soviets." The New York Times (Fri., September 12, 2008): A1 & A14.

(Note: all of the part quoted above, appeared on p. A1.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the slightly different title "For First Time, Figure in Rosenberg Case Admits Spying for Soviets.")

December 14, 2008

Government Regulation Kills the River City Star

We enjoyed several cruises on the River City Star over the past many years. Apparently no more.

It is silly to think that Homeland Security regulations can make us significantly safer when traveling on the River City Star.

I judge the risks as small, and the best way to prepare for whatever risks there are, would be to take the sorts of steps advocated by Amanda Ripley in her book The Unthinkable. One of the main lessons of her book is that it is not primarily government regulations and professionals that make us safer, but the alertness and preparation of regular people.

Maybe Homeland Security disagrees with my assessment of the risks. But who are they to tell me what risks I am not permitted to take? (That's what they are in effect doing when they increase the costs of sailing the River City Star to the point that it is turned into a non-sailing restaurant.)

(p. 1B) The River City Star will make its final voyage Thursday to a new home in Plattsmouth, where it will become a floating restaurant. Two new riverboats will replace it along Omaha's riverfront.

The Star, previously called the Belle of Brownville, operated as an excursion boat for cruises for more than 40 years.

Larry Richling, the boat's most recent owner, said he decided to sell the boat because federal regulations for boats capable of carrying more than 300 passengers became too costly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The smaller boats, each with a capacity of 149 passengers, fall in a different category with fewer regulations, he said, and will be cheaper to operate.

. . .

(p. 2B) "There's nothing wrong with the boat. The boat is in fantastic condition," Richling said.

Richling said he would have had to invest at least $500,000 in the River City Star to meet Homeland Security Department requirements, but those requirements won't apply if it is permanently docked.

For the full story, see:

CHRISTINE LAUE. "River City Star Going South; Boat Will Become a Plattsmouth Restaurant." Omaha World-Herald (Thursday, December 4, 2008): 1B-2B.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the title was: "River City Star Making Final Voyage.")

December 13, 2008

Regular Citizens Perform Vast Majority of Disaster Rescues


Source of book image: http://www.cleveland.com/arts/index.ssf/2008/06/the_book_the_unthinkable_expla.html

The most important message of this book is a very important message indeed. That message is that overwhelmingly, disaster survival and rescue depends on the actions of regular people, not the actions of professional lifesavers. (Very often, the professionals cannot get there quickly enough, or in sufficient numbers, to get the job done.)

This message, is itself worth the price of the book---if it were sufficiently understood, it would have enormous implications for individual preparedness, and government policy. (Think about the implications, for instance, for whether individual regular people should be allowed to carry guns.)

(p. xiii) These days, we tend to think of disasters as acts of God and government. Regular people only feature into the equation as victims, which is a shame. Because regular people are the most important people at a disaster scene, every time.

In 1992, a series of sewer explosions caused by a gas leak ripped through Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city. The violence came from below, rupturing neighborhoods block by block. Starting at 10:30 A.M., at least nine separate explosions ripped open a jagged trench more than a mile long. About three hundred people died. Some five thousand houses were razed. The Mexican Army was called in. Rescuers from California raced to help. Search-and-rescue dogs were ordered up.

But first, before anyone else, regular people were on the scene saving one another. They did incredible things, these regular people. They lifted rubble off survivors with car jacks. They used garden hoses to force air into voids where people were trapped. In fact, as in most disasters, the vast majority of rescues were done by ordinary folks. After the first two hours, very few people came out of the debris alive. The search and rescue dogs did not arrive until twenty-six hours after the explosion.


Ripley, Amanda. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.

December 12, 2008

Fred Thompson Satirizes Current Economic Bailout Policies

ThompsonFredOnTheEconomyDec2008.jpg Source of image: screen capture from the Fred Thompson video commentary described, and linked-to, below.

My brother Eric alerted me to a wise and witty video commentary by former Senator Fred Thompson satirizing current government bailout policies. The video has been posted to multiple locations. Here is the link to the posting on YouTube:


December 11, 2008

"The Authorities Were Shocked" at Private Airport Success

DomodedovoAirportMoscow.jpg "Investors renovated a terminal at Domodedovo and oversaw construction of a train line to Moscow." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B9) MOSCOW -- A heated battle for passengers between the Russian capital's main airports offers an unlikely model of competition for the aviation industry.

In most cities, airports are monopolies. Even in cities that have more than one, including New York, Paris and Tokyo, airports are usually owned by the same operator. That means airlines can rarely make the kind of choices passengers take for granted, such as choosing an airport for its efficiency, shopping or lounges.

Not so in Moscow, where two international airports, Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo, owned by rival organizations, battle for business. The result is lower fees, better service and fast-improving facilities all around.

Domodedovo Airport, for example, recently convinced several top airlines to make it their Russian base, thanks to a major modernization that added more than 20 new restaurants, jewelry boutiques and a shop where passengers can rent DVDs to watch in booths.

Sheremetyevo Airport responded by building a fast rail link to Moscow, complete with a Starbucks at the airport station.

Moscow's airport rivalry highlights a paradox of the global aviation industry: Airlines compete fiercely with each other for customers, but they face many monopolist suppliers, such as air-traffic control systems, fuel distributors and airports. Resulting costs and poor services get passed on to travelers.

. . .

During Russia's privatization drive of the 1990s, local investors bought Domodedovo, which was previously Moscow's airport serving Soviet Central Asia. The investors, grouped into an upstart charter-airline operator, East Line Group, renovated a terminal at Domodedovo and oversaw construction of a train line to Moscow.

East Line charged airlines landing and operating fees that undercut Sheremetyevo by around 30%. For passengers, Domodedovo's rail link guaranteed a 40-minute trip to downtown Moscow. Private Russian carriers, largely frozen out of Aeroflot's base at Sheremetyevo, expanded quickly at the spacious Domodedovo.

East Line's big break came in 2003, when British Airways announced it would switch from Sheremetyevo to Domodedovo.

"The authorities were shocked that a major airline would leave the government airport," recalls Daniel Burkard, BA's former country manager for Russia.

For the full story, see:

DANIEL MICHAELS. "Moscow Points the Way With Airport Competition; While Most Nations Sport Monopolies, Rivalry Between Two Russian Gateways Ushers in Improvements for Carriers, Travelers." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., DECEMBER 1, 2008): B9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

December 10, 2008

"Inebriated with the Exuberance of His Own Verbosity"

Elegant verbal wit is highly entertaining, so long as one is not being skewered by it. I lack the erudition to either affirm or refute the accuracy of Benjamin Disreali's wonderful description of rival William Gladstone:

A sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign an opponent and to glorify himself.

Source: I first heard part of this description quoted by Patrick Allitt in a lecture on Gladstone and Disreali. I found the quotation, as well as the attribution below, online at:

Attribution: Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), British statesman, author. Speech, July 27, 1878, Knightsbridge, London. Quoted in Times (London, July 29, 1878). Referring to Prime Minister Gladstone. On another occasion, Disraeli said of Gladstone, "He has not a single redeeming defect."

December 9, 2008

I Was Wrong: Apparently the U.S. Auto Industry Does Have a Prayer

PrayingAutoIndustryMiracle.jpg"PRAYING FOR A MIRACLE.   S.U.V.'s sat on the altar of Greater Grace Temple, a Pentecostal church in Detroit, as congregants prayed to save the auto industry." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

The process of creative destruction, requires that failed businesses be allowed to fail, so that the resources (labor and capital) devoted to the failed businesses, can be devoted to more productive uses.

The Danny DeVito character in "Other People's Money" makes this point in a speech near the end, in which he says that the Gregory Peck character has just delivered a "prayer for the dead" in calling for continued support for a dead business that is technologically obsolete.

On a more personal level, we have always bought cars from Honda and Toyota, because we sincerely believe that they build better cars than Detroit does. By what right does the government force taxpayers to prop up companies whose products have been rejected in the marketplace?

When the economic and moral arguments for bailout fail, all that is left for a failed industry is prayer (and politics)---one more reason to believe that the opportunity cost of prayer, is high.

(p. A19) DETROIT -- The Sunday service at Greater Grace Temple began with the Clark Sisters song "I'm Looking for a Miracle" and included a reading of this verse from the Book of Romans: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us."

Pentecostal Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, who shared the sanctuary's wide altar with three gleaming sport utility vehicles, closed his sermon by leading the choir and congregants in a boisterous rendition of the gospel singer Myrna Summers's "We're Gonna Make It" as hundreds of worshipers who work in the automotive industry -- union assemblers, executives, car salesmen -- gathered six deep around the altar to have their foreheads anointed with consecrated oil.

While Congress debated aid to the foundering Detroit automakers Sunday, many here whose future hinges on the decision turned to prayer.

Outside the Corpus Christi Catholic Church, a sign beckoned passers-by inside to hear about "God's bailout plan."

For the full story, see:

NICK BUNKLEY. "Detroit Churches Pray for 'God's Bailout'." The New York Times (Mon., December 8, 2008): A19.

(Note: The photo of the top appeared on p. A1 of the print edition of the December 8, 2008 NYT; also, the online version of the article has a date of Dec. 7 instead of the Dec. 8 date of the print version.)

PrayingAutoIndustryMiracle2.jpg"Worshipers at Greater Grace Temple, a Pentecostal church in Detroit, prayed on Sunday for an automobile industry miracle." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

December 8, 2008

Amateur Leeuwenhoek Made Huge Contribution to Science

(p. 40) Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was a scientific superstar. The greats of Europe traveled from afar to see him and witness his wonders. It was (p. 41) not just the leading minds of the era---Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz, and Christopher Wren---but also royalty, the prince of Liechtenstein and Queen Mary, wife of William III of Orange. Peter the great of Russia took van Leeuwenhoek for an afternoon sail on his yacht. Emperor Charles of Spain planned to visit as well but was prevented by a strong eastern storm.

It was nothing that the Dutch businessman had ever expected. He came from an unknown family, had scant education, earned no university degrees, never traveled far from Delft, and knew no language other than Dutch. At age twelve he had been apprenticed to a linen draper, learned the trade, then started his own business as a fabric merchant when he came of age, making ends meet by taking on additional work as a surveyor, wine assayer, and minor city official. He picked up a skill at lens grinding along the way, a sort of hobby he used to make magnifying glasses so he could better see the quality of fabrics he bought and sold. At some point he got hold of a copy of Micrographia, a curious and very popular book by the British scientist Robert Hooke. Filled with illustrations, Micrographia showed what Hooke had sen through a novel instrument made of two properly ground and arranged lenses, called a "microscope."  . . .   Micrographia was an international bestseller in its day. Samuel Pepys stayed up until 2:00 A.M. one night poring over it, then told his friends it was "the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life."

Van Leeuwenhoek, too was fascinated. He tried making his own microscopes and, as it turned out, had talent as a lens grinder. His lens were better than anyone's in Delft; better than any Hooke had access to; better, it seemed, than any in the world.  . . .  

(p. 42) Then, in the summer of 1675, he looked deep within a drop of water from a barrel outside and became the first human to see an entirely new world. In that drop he could make out a living menagerie of heretofore invisible animals darting, squirming, and spinning.


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The example above is consistent with Baumol's hypotheses about formal education mattering less, in the initial stages of great discoveries. (And maybe even being a hindrance).


Baumol, William J. "Education for Innovation: Entrepreneurial Breakthroughs Versus Corporate Incremental Improvements." In Innovation Policy and the Economy, edited by Adam B. Jaffe, Josh Lerner and Scott Stern, 33-56. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005.

The example is also consistent with Terence Kealey's claim that important science can often arise as a side-effect of the pursuit of business activity.


Kealey, Terence. The Economic Laws of Scientific Research. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

December 7, 2008

In Amsterdam: Expecting the Spanish Inquisition


A cartoon of the cartoonist who calls himself Gregorius Nekschot. Source of the photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. W1) Amsterdam

On a sunny May morning, six plainclothes police officers, two uniformed policemen and a trio of functionaries from the state prosecutor's office closed in on a small apartment in Amsterdam. Their quarry: a skinny Dutch cartoonist with a rude sense of humor. Informed that he was suspected of sketching offensive drawings of Muslims and other minorities, the Dutchman surrendered without a struggle.

"I never expected the Spanish Inquisition," recalls the cartoonist, who goes by the nom de plume Gregorius Nekschot, quoting the British comedy team Monty Python. A fan of ribald gags, he's a caustic foe of religion, particularly Islam. The Quran, crucifixion, sexual organs and goats are among his favorite motifs.

Mr. Nekschot, whose cartoons had appeared mainly on his own Web site, spent the night in a jail cell. Police grabbed his computer, a hard drive and sketch pads. He's been summoned for further questioning later this month by prosecutors. He hasn't been charged with a crime, but the prosecutor's office says he's been under investigation for three years on suspicion that he violated a Dutch law that forbids discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation.

The cartoon affair has come as a shock to a country that sees itself as a bastion of tolerance, a tradition forged by grim memories of bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The Netherlands sheltered Jews and other refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, and Calvinists fleeing persecution in France. Its thinkers helped nurture the 18th-century Enlightenment. Prostitutes, marijuana and pornography have been legal for decades.

"This is serious. It is about freedom of speech," says Mark Rutte, the leader of a center-right opposition party. Some of Mr. Nekschot's oeuvre is "really disgusting," he says, "but that is free speech."

. . .

Mr. Nekschot, who calls the investigation "surreal," says, "Not even Monty Python could have come up with this." (His pen name, Gregorius Nekschot, is a mocking tribute to Gregory IX, a 13th-century pope who set up a Vatican department to hunt down and execute heretics. Nekschot means "shot in the neck" in Dutch.) Some Muslim groups have voiced dismay at his arrest as well. The head of an organization of Moroccan preachers in Holland said authorities seemed "more afraid" of offending Islam than Muslims.

. . .

The cartoonist blames his woes on what he calls Holland's "political correctness industry," a network of often state-funded organizations set up to protect Muslims and other minority groups. One of these, an Internet monitoring group known as MDI, says it received dozens of complaints about the cartoonist's mockery of Islam and first reported him to the prosecutor's office in 2005.

"We're not sure what he does is illegal, but there is a possibility that it is not legal," says the group's head, Niels van Tamelen. Many of the complaints, he says, came from followers of a controversial Muslim convert called Abdul-Jabbar van de Ven.

Mr. Van de Ven caused an uproar after the 2004 murder of Mr. Van Gogh, when he seemed to welcome the killing on national TV. He said Mr. Wilders, the anti-immigrant legislator, also deserved to die, preferably from cancer. Mr. Nekschot, appalled by the outburst, caricatured the convert as a fatwa-spewing fanatic.

For the full story, see:

ANDREW HIGGINS. "Why Islam Is Unfunny for a Cartoonist; The arrest of a controversial Dutch cartoonist has set off a wave of protests. The case is raising questions for a changing Europe about free speech, religion and art." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., JULY 12, 2008): W1 & W6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

December 6, 2008

Reason for Success of U.S. Economy: "We Let People Fail"

McCain's chief economic adviser and entrepreneur-expert Hotz-Eakin offered some cogent comments on the trend toward more government bailouts at the taxpayers' expense:

(p. A6) Mr. Obama is by no means an activist in the Japanese mold, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economic adviser to John McCain's presidential campaign. But as a whole, policies crafted to address distinct problems in the auto, energy and banking sectors are merging into a broader policy that would pick some winners and losers, preserve entire industries and shape consumer choices.

"We're backing into industrial policy in an emergency to correct massive market failures," said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute who has worked with the president-elect's economic team.

. . .

"The reason the U.S. economy was so successful for so long was not because we did things so well. It was because we let people fail." Mr. Hotz-Eakin said. "This is dangerous at some very deep level."

For the full story, see:

JONATHAN WEISMAN. "Wider U.S. Interventions Would Yield Winners, Losers as Industries Realign." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., NOVEMBER 20, 2008): A6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the final paragraph was in the print edition, but was deleted from the online version.)

December 5, 2008

75th Anniversary of End of Prohibition

(p. W8) "Prohibition went into effect on January 16, 1920, and blew up at last on December 5, 1933 -- an elapsed time of twelve years, ten months and nineteen days," H.L. Mencken wrote shortly after ratification of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution eliminated the 18th Amendment. "It seemed almost a geologic epoch while it was going on, and the human suffering that it entailed must have been a fair match for that of the Black Death or the Thirty Years War."

The demise of Prohibition, 75 years ago . . . , is something of a cause for celebration, and it will be treated as such with Repeal Day parties in Washington, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, New York and elsewhere. . . .

. . .

Temperance advocates had argued Prohibition would usher in an era of sober moral rectitude. When it didn't quite work out that way, public opinion began to turn against the drys. They joined those who opposed Prohibition because it had handed new and oppressive powers to the federal government. Charles Lindbergh's father-in-law, Dwight Whitney Morrow, won a Senate seat from New Jersey in 1930 running as a Republican against Prohibition. He argued that it had caused Americans to "conceive of the Federal Government as an alien and even a hostile Power."

And yet, it was finance that finally did Prohibition in. As the nation sank into the Depression, tax revenues dwindled. The prospect of capturing all the liquor excise taxes that had for a decade been missing (and, in effect, had gone into the pockets of bootlegging mobs) was alluring to Democrats and Republicans alike. Pierre du Pont lobbied his fellow plutocrats to support repeal in the vain hope that liquor taxes would replace income taxes. But the New Dealers saw repeal as creating a vast pile of money with which to fund expansive new government programs. Not only did Prohibition and its enforcement increase the size and scope of the federal government, but so did Prohibition's repeal.

For the full story, see:

ERIC FELTEN. "HOW'S YOUR DRINK; Celebrating Cinco de Drinko." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., NOVEMBER 28, 2008): W8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

December 4, 2008

The Benefits from the Discovery of Sulfa, the First Antibiotic

I quoted a review of The Demon Under the Microscope in an entry from October 12, 2006. I finally managed to read the book, last month.

I don't always agree with Hager's interpretation of events, and his policy advice, but he writes well, and he has much to say of interest about how the first anti-bacterial antibiotic, sulfa, was developed.

In the coming weeks, I'll be highlighting a few key passages of special interest. In today's entry, below, Hager nicely summarizes the importance of the discovery of antibiotics for his (and my) baby boom generation.

(p. 3) I am part of that great demographic bulge, the World War II "Baby Boom" generation, which was the first in history to benefit from birth from the discovery of antibiotics. The impact of this discovery is difficult to overstate. If my parents came down with an ear infection as babies, they were treated with bed rest, painkillers, and sympathy. If I came down with an ear infection as a baby, I got antibiotics. If a cold turned into bronchitis, my parents got more bed rest and anxious vigilance; I got antibiotics. People in my parents' generation, as children, could and all too often did die from strep throats, infected cuts, scarlet fever, meningitis, pneumonia, or any number of infectious diseases. I and my classmates survived because of antibiotics. My parents as children, and their parents before them, lost friends and relatives, often at very early ages, to bacterial epidemics that swept through American cities every fall and winter, killing tens of thousands. The suddenness and inevitability of these epidemic deaths, facts of life before the 1930s, were for me historical curiosities, artifacts of another age. Antibiotics virtually eliminated them. In many cases, much-feared diseases of my grandparents' day---erysipelas, childbed fever, cellulitis---had become so rare they were nearly extinct. I never heard the names.


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

December 3, 2008

Consumers Bear Costs of Global Warming Policies


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

(p. A10) Leaders of the Group of Eight major industrialized economies, meeting in Japan, issued their first long-term target for cutting global-warming emissions. But their pronouncement failed to address the two toughest questions: How will the world do it, and who will pay?

The answer to the money question is clear: Consumers will pay -- at the gasoline pump, at the car dealership and on the monthly electric bill. If the campaign against global warming gets serious, it will transform today's esoteric environmental threat into a fundamental pocketbook issue for people from Boston to Beijing.

For the full story, see:

JEFFREY BALL. "As Climate Issue Heats Up, Questions of Cost Loom." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., July 10, 2008): A10.

December 2, 2008

More Choice is a Robust Result of The Long Tail

I've discussed in a previous entry, why The Long Tail is a worthy read. The article quoted below, praises a Harvard Business Review article that disagrees. I haven't had a chance to read the HBR article yet.

Yet on a fundamental level, I am confident that The Long Tail is right. New technologies such as Amazon and YouTube, reduce the cost of content diversity. If the supply curve of diversity moves right, then (ceteris paribus) the quantity of diverse content will increase. Hence, we can robustly expect more diverse content.

And for us free market libertarians, more choice is good.

(p. B5) The Long Tail theory, as explained by its creator, Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson, holds that society is "increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of 'hits' (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail."

The reason involves the abundance of easy choice that the Web makes possible. A record store has room for only a set number of titles. ITunes, though, can link to all of the millions of songs that its servers can store. Thus, said Mr. Anderson, "narrowly-targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare." Managers were urged to adopt their business plans accordingly.

Since appearing two years ago, the book has been something of a sacred text in Silicon Valley. Business plans that foresaw only modest commercial prospects for their products cited the Long Tail to justify themselves, as it had apparently proved that the Web allows a market for items besides super-hits. If you demurred, you were met with a look of pity and contempt, as though you had just admitted to still using a Kaypro.

That might now start to change, thanks to the article (online at tinyurl.com/3rg5gp), by Anita Elberse, a marketing professor at Harvard's business school who takes the same statistically rigorous approach to entertainment and cultural industries that sabermetricians do to baseball.

Prof. Elberse looked at data for online video rentals and song purchases, and discovered that the patterns by which people shop online are essentially the same as the ones from offline. Not only do hits and blockbusters remain every bit as important online, but the evidence suggests that the Web is actually causing their role to grow, not shrink.

Mr. Anderson responded on his Long Tail blog, thelongtail.com, saying much of the difference between his analysis and hers involved how hits and non-hits, or "head" and "tail" in the book's lingo, are measured. Aside from that, he was generous in praising the article, and said he welcomed the sort of rigorous scrutiny the theory was getting.

For the full commentary, see:

LEE GOMES. "PORTALS; Study Refutes Niche Theory Spawned by Web." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., JULY 2, 2008): B5.

The full information on The Long Tail, is:

Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail. New York: Hyperion, 2006.

The HBR article that is critical of the long tail, is:

Elberse, Anita. "Should You Invest in the Long Tail?" Harvard Business Review 86, no. 7/8 (2008): 88-96.

December 1, 2008

Age and Inventiveness

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

(p. B5) A particularly stark view of age-related constraints on researchers' work comes from Benjamin Jones, an associate professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He examined biographical data over the past century for more than 700 Nobel laureates and renowned inventors.

His conclusion: "Innovators are productive over a narrowing span of their life cycle." In the early 20th century, he found, researchers at the times of their greatest contributions averaged slightly more than 36 years old. In recent decades, innovation before the age of 30 became increasing rare, with the peak age of contribution rising toward age 40. Meanwhile, the frequency of key contributions has consistently diminished by researchers in their early or mid-50s.

Occasionally, Mr. Jones says, booming new fields "permit easier access to the frontier, allowing people to make contributions at younger ages." That could account for the relative youth of Internet innovators, such as Netscape Communications Corp. founder Marc Andreessen and Messrs. Page and Brin. But "when the revolution is over," Mr. Jones finds, "ages rise."

Unwilling to see researchers at peak productivity for only a small part of their careers, tech companies are fighting back in a variety of ways. At microchip maker Texas Instruments Inc., in Dallas, executives are pairing up recent college graduates and other fresh research hires with experienced mentors, called "craftsmen," for intensive training and coaching.

This system means that new design engineers can become fully effective in three or four years, instead of five to seven, says Taylor Efland, chief technologist for TI's analog chip business. Analog chips are used in power management, data conversion and amplification.

At Sun Microsystems Inc., teams of younger and older researchers are common. That can help everyone's productivity, says Greg Papadopoulos, chief technology officer for the Santa Clara, Calif., computer maker. Younger team members provide energy and optimism; veterans provide a savvier sense of what problems to tackle.

For the full story, see:

GEORGE ANDERS. "THEORY & PRACTICE; Companies Try to Extend Researchers' Productivity; Teams of Various Ages, Newer Hires Combat Short Spans of Inventing." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., AUGUST 18, 2008): B5.

A large literature exists on the relationship between age and scientific productivity. I am particularly fond of the following examples:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "Age and the Acceptance of Cliometrics." The Journal of Economic History 40, no. 4 (December 1980): 838-841.

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "An Economic Model of the Life-Cycle Research Productivity of Scientists." Scientometrics 6, no. 3 (1984): 189-196.

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "The Life-Cycle Research Productivity of Mathematicians and Scientists." The Journal of Gerontology 41, no. 4 (July 1986): 520-525.

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "An Optimal Control Model of the Life-Cycle Research Productivity of Scientists." Scientometrics 11, nos. 3-4 (1987): 247-249.

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "The Polywater Episode and the Appraisal of Theories." In A. Donovan, L. Laudan and R. Laudan, eds., Scrutinizing Science: Empirical Studies of Scientific Change. Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988, 181-198.

Hull, David L., Peter D. Tessner and Arthur M. Diamond, Jr. "Planck's Principle: Do Younger Scientists Accept New Scientific Ideas with Greater Alacrity than Older Scientists?" Science 202 (November 17, 1978): 717-723.



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