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December 31, 2009

Global Warming Climatologist Leaves Post Due to His "Efforts to Keep the Work of Skeptical Scientists Out of Major Journals"




(p. A6) The head of the British research unit at the center of a controversy over the disclosure of thousands of e-mail messages among climate-change scientists has stepped down pending the outcome of an investigation.

Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England, said that he would leave his post while the university conducted a review of the release of the e-mail messages. The university has called the release and publication of the messages a "criminal breach" of the school's computer systems.

The e-mail exchanges among several prominent American and British climate-change scientists appear to reveal efforts to keep the work of skeptical scientists out of major journals and the possible hoarding and manipulation of data to overstate the case for human-caused climate change.

In a related announcement, Pennsylvania State University said it would review the work of a faculty member who is cited prominently in the e-mail messages, Michael Mann, to assure that it meets proper academic standards.



For the full story, see:

JOHN M. BRODER. "Climatologist Leaves Post in Inquiry Over Leaks." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., December 2, 2009): A6.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 1, 2009 and has the slightly different title "Climatologist Leaves Post in Inquiry Over E-Mail Leaks.")





December 30, 2009

"When the Sons of the Communists Themselves Wanted to Become Capitalists and Entrepreneurs"




JanicekJosefPlasticPeople2009-12-19.jpg"Josef Janicek, 61, was on the keyboard for a concert in Prague last week by the band Plastic People of the Universe." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. A10) PRAGUE -- It has been called the Velvet Revolution, a revolution so velvety that not a single bullet was fired.

But the largely peaceful overthrow of four decades of Communism in Czechoslovakia that kicked off on Nov. 17, 1989, can also be linked decades earlier to a Velvet Underground-inspired rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe. Band members donned satin togas, painted their faces with lurid colors and wrote wild, sometimes angry, incendiary songs.

It was their refusal to cut their long, dank hair; their willingness to brave prison cells rather than alter their darkly subversive lyrics ("peace, peace, peace, just like toilet paper!"); and their talent for tapping into a generation's collective despair that helped change the future direction of a nation.

"We were unwilling heroes who just wanted to play rock 'n' roll," said Josef Janicek, 61, the band's doughy-faced keyboard player, who bears a striking resemblance to John Lennon and still sports the grungy look that once helped get him arrested. "The Bolsheviks understood that culture and music has a strong influence on people, and our refusal to compromise drove them insane."


. . .


In 1970, the Communist government revoked the license for the Plastics to perform in public, forcing the band to go underground. In February 1976, the Plastic People organized a music festival in the small town of Bojanovice -- dubbed "Magor's Wedding" -- featuring 13 other bands. One month later, the police set out to silence the musical rebels, arresting dozens. Mr. Janicek was jailed for six months; Mr. Jirous and other band members got longer sentences.

Mr. Havel, already a leading dissident, was irate. The trial of the Plastic People that soon followed became a cause célèbre.

Looking back on the Velvet Revolution they helped inspire, however indirectly, Mr. Janicek recalled that on Nov. 17, 1989, the day of mass demonstrations, he was in a pub nursing a beer. He argued that the revolution had been an evolution, fomented by the loosening of Communism's grip under Mikhail Gorbachev and the overwhelming frustration of ordinary people with their grim, everyday lives. "The Bolsheviks knew the game was up," he said, "when the sons of the Communists themselves wanted to become capitalists and entrepreneurs."




For the full story, see:

DAN BILEFSKY. "Czechs' Velvet Revolution Paved by Plastic People." The New York Times (Mon., November 16, 2009): A10.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated November 15, 2009.)

(Note: ellipsis added.)





December 29, 2009

Intel's Computer-on-a-Chip "Was Achieved Largely by Immigrants from Hungary, Italy, Israel, and Japan"




(p. 111) By launching the computer-on-a-chip, Intel gave America an enduring advantage in this key product in information technology--an edge no less significant because it was achieved largely by immigrants from Hungary, Italy, Israel, and Japan. Intel's three innovations of 1971--plus the silicon gate process that made them the smallest, fastest, and best-selling devices in the industry--nearly twenty years later remain in newer versions the most powerful force in electronics.




Source:

Gilder, George. Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. Paperback ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990.





December 28, 2009

Doctorow's "Makers" Novel Paints Unrealistically Bleak View of Life with Creative Destruction




MakersBK.jpg















Source of book image: http://www.globalnerdy.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/makers.jpg



Awhile back I mentioned a science fiction book that made use of the process of creative destruction. Here's a discussion of another one---called Makers, it apparently adopts the unlikely premise that a world of creative destruction would have a 20% unemployment rate. (I say "unlikely" because the evidence is that in a world of creative destruction, as many new jobs are created as old ones are destroyed.)


(p. A19) Consider the world of "Makers," the latest by best-selling writer Cory Doctorow. This novel is set in a not-too distant future, when the creative destruction of technological change has created an economy so efficient, with profit margins so thin, that traditional companies can hardly stay in business.

The inventor-heroes of "Makers" take technology to its conclusion: They figure out a way to use three-dimensional printers to produce copies of machines and most anything else at close to no cost. This sparks "New Work," with geeky investment bankers scouring the country to fund promising artisans who use the technology to build things cheaply. The heroes also run a series of entertainment rides across the country in abandoned Wal-Marts, until Disney unleashes its lawyers on them.

Mr. Doctorow, a Canadian living in London, has a keen eye for the pressures on contemporary business. In the novel, an M.B.A. brought in to work with the inventors explains, "The system makes it hard to sell anything above the marginal cost of goods, unless you have a really innovative idea, which can't stay innovative for long, so you need continuous invention and reinvention, too."


. . .


In the world of "Makers," and perhaps in our own world, "we're approaching a kind of pure and perfect state now, with competition and invention getting easier and easier--it's producing a kind of superabundance."

Mr. Doctorow paints a bleak picture of the process of getting there, even if many of us take a more benign view of increasingly efficient capitalism. "Makers" features widespread unemployment, with 20% of workers relocating to look for jobs. Even with scientific advances--obesity is solved, for example--life is brutal. There are squatter neighborhoods alongside abandoned strip malls.




For the full story, see:

L. GORDON CROVITZ. "Technology Is Stranger Than Fiction; Best-selling writer Cory Doctorow on change and its discontents." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 23, 2009): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





December 27, 2009

Emails Vindicate Skeptics Who Questioned Scientific Basis of Global Warming




(p. A1) Just two years ago, a United Nations panel that synthesizes the work of hundreds of climatologists around the world called the evidence for global warming "unequivocal."

But as representatives of about 200 nations converge in Copenhagen on Monday to begin talks on a new international climate accord, they do so against a background of renewed attacks on the basic science of climate change.

The debate, set off by the circulation of several thousand files and e-mail messages stolen from one of the world's foremost climate research institutes, has led some who oppose limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and at least one influential country, Saudi Arabia, to question the scientific basis for the Copenhagen talks.

The uproar has threatened to complicate a multiyear diplomatic effort already ensnared in difficult political, technical and financial disputes that have caused leaders to abandon hopes of hammering out a binding international climate treaty this year.


. . .


(p. A8) On dozens of Web sites and blogs, skeptics and foes of greenhouse gas restrictions take daily aim at the scientific arguments for human-driven climate change. The stolen material was quickly seized upon for the questions it raised about the accessibility of raw data to outsiders and whether some data had been manipulated.

An investigation into the stolen files is being conducted by the University of East Anglia, in England, where the computer breach occurred. Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has also said he will look into the matter. At the same time, polls in the United States and Britain suggest that the number of people who doubt that global warming is dangerous or caused by humans has grown in recent years.


. . .


Science is about probability, not certainty. And the persisting uncertainties in climate science leave room for argument. What is a realistic estimate of how much temperatures will rise? How severe will the effects be? Are there tipping points beyond which the changes are uncontrollable?

Even climate scientists disagree on many of these questions. But skeptics have been critical of the data assembled to show that warming is occurring and the analytic methods that climate scientists use, including mathematical models used to demonstrate a human cause for warming and project future trends.

Both sides also have at times been criticized for overstatement in characterizing the scientific evidence. The contents of the stolen e-mail messages and documents have given fresh ammunition to the skeptics' camp.

The Climatic Research Unit's role as a central aggregator of temperature and other climate data has also made it a target. One widely discussed file extracted from the unit's computers, presumed to be the log of a researcher named Ian Harris, recorded his years of frustration in trying to make sense of disparate data and described procedures -- or "fudge factors," as he called them -- used by scientists to eliminate known sources of error.




For the full story, see:

ANDREW C. REVKIN and JOHN M. BRODER. "Facing Skeptics, Climate Experts Sure of Peril." The New York Times (Mon., December 7, 2009): A1 & A8.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated Sun., December 6, 2009 and has the title "In Face of Skeptics, Experts Affirm Climate Peril.")

(Note: ellipses added.)


Note: the online version of the article includes the following, very interesting, correction of the print version:

Correction: December 15, 2009
Because of an editing error, an article on Dec. 7 about the scientific evidence supporting global warming overstated the level of certainty expressed in a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a network of scientists, that human-caused warming was under way and, if unabated, would pose rising risks. The panel said that most warming since 1950 was "very likely" caused by humans, not that there was "no doubt." The article also misidentified the temperature data cited by a scientist at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit who had expressed frustration in a log about trying to make sense of disparate data. The data was direct measurements of temperature, not indirect indicators like the study of tree rings.

(Note: italics and bold in original.)





December 26, 2009

Emails Reveal Global Warming Scientists Exclude Contrary Views




ClimateGateEmails.gifSource of photo and email images: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



One can imagine Michael Crichton looking down on us with a sad smile:


(p. A3) The scientific community is buzzing over thousands of emails and documents -- posted on the Internet last week after being hacked from a prominent climate-change research center -- that some say raise ethical questions about a group of scientists who contend humans are responsible for global warming.

The correspondence between dozens of climate-change researchers, including many in the U.S., illustrates bitter feelings among those who believe human activities cause global warming toward rivals who argue that the link between humans and climate change remains uncertain.

Some emails also refer to efforts by scientists who believe man is causing global warming to exclude contrary views from important scientific publications.

"This is horrible," said Pat Michaels, a climate scientist at the Cato Institute in Washington who is mentioned negatively in the emails. "This is what everyone feared. Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult for anyone who does not view global warming as an end-of-the-world issue to publish papers. This isn't questionable practice, this is unethical."

John Christy, a scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville attacked in the emails for asking that an IPCC report include dissenting viewpoints, said, "It's disconcerting to realize that legislative actions this nation is preparing to take, and which will cost trillions of dollars, are based upon a view of climate that has not been completely scientifically tested--but rather orchestrated."

In all, more than 1,000 emails and more than 2,000 other documents were stolen Thursday from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University in the U.K. The identity of the hackers isn't certain, but the files were posted on a Russian file-sharing server late Thursday, and university officials confirmed over the weekend that their computer had been attacked and said the documents appeared to be genuine.


. . .


In one email, Benjamin Santer from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., wrote to the director of the climate-study center that he was "tempted to beat" up Mr. Michaels. Mr. Santer couldn't be reached for comment Sunday.

In another, Phil Jones, the director of the East Anglia climate center, suggested to climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State University that skeptics' research was unwelcome: We "will keep them out somehow -- even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!" Neither man could be reached for comment Sunday.




For the full story, see:

KEITH JOHNSON. "Climate Strife Comes to Light; Emails Illustrate Anger of Scientists Who Believe Humans Are Root of Global Warming." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 23, 2009): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the printed version of the article is mostly the same as the online version, but has some differences in order and content. The part quoted above is consistent with the printed version. The passages quoted are the same in both versions, except that the paragraph on the views of John Christy appears later in the online version, and the online version omits his phrase "but rather orchestrated." [I skimmed for differences, but am not absolutely sure that I caught them all.])

(Note: the title of the online version of the article is: "Climate Emails Stoke Debate; Scientists' Leaked Correspondence Illustrates Bitter Feud over Global Warming.")





December 25, 2009

After Lab Accident, Chip Innovator Shima Was Resilient




The incident recounted below is from the story of the development of the 4004 microprocessor (which was the first commercially available microprocessor). Hoff and Shima played important roles in the development of the chip.

I am not sure that the main "lesson" from the incident is about the importance of details. (After all, many entrepreneurs, including Simplot, embark on big projects without a clear idea of how to accomplish the details.) A bigger and sounder lesson may be the usefulness of resilience for successful inventors and entrepreneurs.


(p. 104) Hoff's counterpart at Busicom was a young Japanese named Masatoshi Shima who also had been thinking about problems of computer architecture. An equally formidable intellect, Shima came to the project through a series of accidents, beginning with a misbegotten effort to launch a small rocket using gunpowder he made by hand in his high school chemistry laboratory. As he carefully followed the formula, he claims to have had the mixture exactly right, except for some details that he overlooked. The mixture exploded, and as he pulled away his right hand, it seemed a bloody stump. At the local hospital (p. 105) a doctor with wide experience treating combat wounds felt lucky to save the boy's thumb alone,

This ordeal taught the teen-aged Shima that "details are very important." In the future he should "pay attention to all the details." But the loss of his fingers convinced his parents--and later several key Japanese companies--that the boy should not become a chemical engineer, even though he had won his degree in chemical engineering. Thus Shima ended up at Busicom chiefly because it was run by a friend of one of his professors.





Source:

Gilder, George. Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. Paperback ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990.





December 24, 2009

Heretics to the Religion of Global Warming




SuperFreakonomicsBK.jpg















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



(p. A19) Suppose for a minute--. . . --that global warming poses an imminent threat to the survival of our species. Suppose, too, that the best solution involves a helium balloon, several miles of garden hose and a harmless stream of sulfur dioxide being pumped into the upper atmosphere, all at a cost of a single F-22 fighter jet.


. . .


The hose-in-the-sky approach to global warming is the brainchild of Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue, Wash.-based firm founded by former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold. The basic idea is to engineer effects similar to those of the 1991 mega-eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which spewed so much sulfuric ash into the stratosphere that it cooled the earth by about one degree Fahrenheit for a couple of years.

Could it work? Mr. Myhrvold and his associates think it might, and they're a smart bunch. Also smart are University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and writer Stephen Dubner, whose delightful "SuperFreakonomics"--the sequel to their runaway 2005 bestseller "Freakonomics"--gives Myhrvold and Co. pride of place in their lengthy chapter on global warming. Not surprisingly, global warming fanatics are experiencing a Pinatubo-like eruption of their own.


. . .


. . . , Messrs. Levitt and Dubner show every sign of being careful researchers, going so far as to send chapter drafts to their interviewees for comment prior to publication. Nor are they global warming "deniers," insofar as they acknowledge that temperatures have risen by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century.

But when it comes to the religion of global warming--the First Commandment of which is Thou Shalt Not Call It A Religion--Messrs. Levitt and Dubner are grievous sinners. They point out that belching, flatulent cows are adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than all SUVs combined. They note that sea levels will probably not rise much more than 18 inches by 2100, "less than the twice-daily tidal variation in most coastal locations." They observe that "not only is carbon plainly not poisonous, but changes in carbon-dioxide levels don't necessarily mirror human activity." They quote Mr. Myhrvold as saying that Mr. Gore's doomsday scenarios "don't have any basis in physical reality in any reasonable time frame."

More subversively, they suggest that climatologists, like everyone else, respond to incentives in a way that shapes their conclusions. "The economic reality of research funding, rather than a disinterested and uncoordinated scientific consensus, leads the [climate] models to approximately match one another." In other words, the herd-of-independent-minds phenomenon happens to scientists too and isn't the sole province of painters, politicians and news anchors

.


For the full commentary, see:

BRET STEPHENS. "Freaked Out Over SuperFreakonomics; Global warming might be solved with a helium balloon and a few miles of garden hose." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., OCTOBER 27, 2009): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





December 23, 2009

Copenhagen Global Warming Performer Asks for More Summer "Because It's Too Cold to Be Out Here"




(p. 12) . . . a small contingent of climate skeptics and libertarians opposed to caps on heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions derided the United Nations talks.

"We want to be able to live our lives like we've always led them before -- as free citizens in free democracies," said David Pontoppidan, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Copenhagen, who addressed passers-by through a megaphone over the chatter of two helicopters hovering far above. "We want free debate; we want to be able to be taken seriously even though we don't agree with the U.N."


. . .

Leading the march from the square this afternoon, a man in blue coveralls, with vaudevillian face paint and a faux Cyrano nose, could be seen sweeping the street and peering into a rolling trash bin painted to resemble the planet. It emitted plumes of white dust and mournful musical notes.

"This is our comment on global warming," said the sweeper, Jens Kloft, a Danish performance artist. "We want to have an international compromise on global warming -- a better climate, but two more months of summer in Denmark please. Because it's too cold to be out here."




For the full story, see:

TOM ZELLER Jr. "Thousands March in Copenhagen, Calling for Action." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., December 13, 2009): 12.

(Note: the last two paragraphs quoted above are from the print version; the NYT deleted them from the online version. Also, the first paragraph quoted, is from the print version of that paragraph, and not the shortened online version. The online version of the article is dated Sat., December 12, 2009.)

(Note: ellipses added.)





December 22, 2009

Packard Was Told, If He Wanted a Better Car "He Had Better Build It Himself"




PackardPanther1954SteeringWheel.JPGThe steering wheel of the 1954 Packard Panther. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 11) The company may have started on a dare, according to "Packard: A History of the Motor Car and the Company," edited by Beverly Rae Kimes (Automobile Quarterly Publications, 2002).

After graduating from Lehigh University's engineering school and returning home to Warren, Ohio, James Ward Packard considered buying his first car, a Winton. When Packard asked for some special features, he got this response from Alexander Winton: "The Winton waggon (sic) as it stands is the ripened and perfected product of many years of lofty thought ... and could not be improved in any detail. If Mr. Packard wants any of his own cats and dogs worked into a waggon, he had better build it himself."

Despite the rude reply, Packard bought the car, but it broke down often. Commiserating over dinner with George Weiss, a friend (and Winton stockholder), Packard decided to take Winton's words seriously. It must have been an especially satisfying day for Packard on June 17, 1899, when Weiss sold his Winton stock and invested in Packard's new business, soon to be named the Ohio Automobile Company.

Although its first cars looked conventional, they had some unusual features. It was one of a few cars with an accelerator pedal, and its H-gate gearshift pattern, a Packard patent, was widely used in later years.

Packard's reputation for reliability and durability was established with its model A and B cars, but the company did not stop development there, even taking the lessons of early mishaps to improve subsequent vehicles.

During the summer of 1900, a model B swerved into a ditch after hitting a pothole -- a hazard on cars with tiller steering, as the impact could jerk the steering lever from the driver's grasp -- injuring the passenger and damaging the car. Packard started work on a solution; when the model C was introduced later that year, it featured the industry's first steering wheel.


. . .


After flirting with Nash in the early 1950s, Packard purchased Studebaker in 1954 (which explains why the Packard Predictor resides in the Studebaker Museum). Studebaker was larger but struggling. The merger hastened the end of both makes.

Still, Packard left its mark on the American auto industry.



For the full story, see:

ROBB MANDELBAUM. "Collecting; Packard's Visions of the Future, When It Still Had One ." The New York Times, SportsSunday Section (Sun., September 10, 2009): 11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





December 21, 2009

Did Fairchild Fail Due to Bad Management or Disruptive Technology?




Clayton Christensen has shown how good management, following respected practices, can fail in the face of disruptive technologies. It would be interesting to investigate whether Fairchild was an example of what Christensen is talking about, or whether it just did not have good management.


(p. 89) Andrew Grove . . . had played a central role in bringing Fairchild to the threshold of a new era. But Fairchild would not enjoy the fruits of his work. Following the path of venture capital pioneer Peter Sprague were scores of other venture capitalists seeking to exploit the new opportunities he had shown them. Collectively, they accelerated the pace of entrepreneurial change--splits and spinoffs, startups and staff shifts--to a level that might be termed California Business Time ("What do you mean, I left Motorola quickly?" asked Gordon Campbell with sincere indignation. "I was there eight months!").

The venture capitalist focused on Fairchild: that extraordinary pool of electronic talent assembled by Noyce and Moore, but left essentially unattended, undervalued, and little understood by the executives of the company back in Syosset, New York. Fairchild leaders John Carter and Sherman Fairchild commanded the microcosm: the most important technology in the history of the human race. Noyce, Moore, Hoerni, Grove, Sporck, design genius Robert Widlar, and marketeer Jerry Sanders represented possibly the most potent management and technical team ever assembled in the history of world business. But, hey, you guys, don't forget to report back to Syosset. Don't forget who's boss. Don't give out any bonuses without clearing them through the folks at Camera and Instrument. You might upset some light-meter manager in Philadelphia.

They even made Charles Sporck, the manufacturing titan, feel like "a little kid pissing in his pants." Good work, Sherman, don't let the big lug put on airs, don't let him feel important. He only controls 80 percent of the company's growth. Widlar is leaving? Great, he never fit in with the corporate culture anyway. Sporck has gone off with Peter Sprague? There are plenty more where he came from.

"It was weird," said Grove, "they had no idea about what the company or the industry was like, nor did they seem to care. . . . Fairchild was just crumbling. If you wish, the semiconductor division management consisted of twenty significant players: eight went to National, eight went into Intel, and four of them went to Alcoholics Anonymous or something." Actually there were more than twenty and they went into startups all over the Valley; some twenty-six new semiconductor firms sprouted up between 1967 and 1970. "It got to the point," recalled one man quoted in Dirk Hanson's The New Alchemists, "where people were practically driving trucks over to Fairchild and loading up with employees."





Source:

Gilder, George. Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. Paperback ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990.

(Note: the first ellipsis was added; the others were in the original. The italics were also in the original.)





December 20, 2009

Steve Perry's Passion for Better Education





ManUpBK.jpg














Source of book image: http://www.renegadebook.com/Man%20Up!.jpg



I have seen Steve Perry interviewed on education issues a couple of times on CNN, and have been impressed. He makes a credible case for vouchers.

I have not read either of the books pictured in this entry, but have put them on my "to read" list.


The books are:

Perry, Steve. Man Up! Nobody Is Coming to Save Us. Renegade Books, 2006.

Perry, Steve. Raggedy Schools: The Untold Truth. Renegade Books, 2009.


RaggedySchoolsBK2.jpg









Source of book image: http://www.raggedyschools.com/images/bookstore_photo.jpg





December 19, 2009

Safe Drinking Water Matters More than Global Warming




(p. A17) Getting basic sanitation and safe drinking water to the three billion people around the world who do not have it now would cost nearly $4 billion a year. By contrast, cuts in global carbon emissions that aim to limit global temperature increases to less than two degrees Celsius over the next century would cost $40 trillion a year by 2100. These cuts will do nothing to increase the number of people with access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Cutting carbon emissions will likely increase water scarcity, because global warming is expected to increase average rainfall levels around the world.

For Mrs. Begum, the choice is simple. After global warming was explained to her, she said: "When my kids haven't got enough to eat, I don't think global warming will be an issue I will be thinking about."

One of Bangladesh's most vulnerable citizens, Mrs. Begum has lost faith in the media and politicians.

"So many people like you have come and interviewed us. I have not seen any improvement in our conditions," she said.

It is time the developed world started listening.




For the full commentary, see:

Bjørn LOMBORG. "Global Warming as Seen From Bangladesh; Momota Begum worries about hunger, not climate change." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 9, 2009): A17.





December 18, 2009

The Wall of Wall Street Failed to Repel the Invaders




WallStreetMap2009-11-11.jpg












"New York City's history begins in the small space below Wall Street." Source of caption and map: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. 34) Bowling Green was then part of "a parade ground where soldiers practiced maneuvers," he continued. "That very quickly turned into a market space where farmers in outlying districts brought their produce to sell. It became a famous place for prostitutes to haunt in the evening. And in the early 18th century it was where people played lawn bowling."

From the start, Mr. Caldwell said, it was a party town, known for its many taverns, "the all-purpose repositories of night life. There were theatrical performances, dancing, gambling and concerts."

In 1979 and 1980 archaeologists dug for the remains of two famous taverns that had stood on Pearl Street near Coenties Slip. Transparent panels in the plaza along Pearl Street display part of the stone foundation they found of the King's House tavern (also known as Lovelace Tavern), built in 1670. Light-colored paving stones nearby outline the modest footprint of the City Tavern (Stadt Herbergh), built in 1641. In 1653 it also became the first City Hall, the Stadt Huys. And it contained a jail.

"So you could, in one day, go from sitting on a court case to a drunken debauch to jail, without ever leaving this little place where we're standing," Mr. Caldwell noted.

A few blocks north, at what was then the edge of the city, the Dutch built a defensive wall across the island in 1653. Like Fort Amsterdam, it proved of no use when the British seized New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York.

"It was essentially an earthwork with a wooden palisade on top," explained Steve Laise, the National Parks Service's chief of cultural resources for Federal Hall National Memorial, a Greek Revival landmark on Wall Street. Today's Wall Street follows the dirt lane that was just inside this defense. "When you walk on Wall Street, you're literally walking in the footsteps of the burghers of New Amsterdam," Mr. Laise said.




For the full story, see:

JOHN STRAUSBAUGH. "Weekend Explorer; Home on the Corner of Boom and Bust." The New York Times (Fri., January 2, 2009): C29 & C34.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated Thurs., Jan. 1st.)





December 17, 2009

"Every Physicist Wants Two Things: Glory and Money"




(p. 54) . . . in 1950, Shockley published his book Electrons and Holes in Semiconductors, which stood for many years as the definitive work in the field and confirmed his credentials for the Nobel Prize that he shared with Brattain and Bardeen in 1956. The fact was that for his theory of the field effect transistor that later dominated the industry and for the junction transistor that was dominating it at the time, Shockley deserved the prize alone. He had at last made his point.

Yet Shockley was not satisfied. "Every physicist," he said at the time, "wants two things: glory and money. I have won the glory. Now I want the money."





Source:

Gilder, George. Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. Paperback ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






December 16, 2009

Chocolate Evidence of Early Indian Trade




CacaoJarsInRuins2009-11-11.JPG"Tests of jars found in the ruins of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico confirmed the presence of theobromine, a cacao marker." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A14) ALBUQUERQUE -- For years Patricia Crown puzzled over the cylindrical clay jars found in the ruins at Chaco Canyon, the great complex of multistory masonry dwellings set amid the arid mesas of northwestern New Mexico. They were utterly unlike other pots and pitchers she had seen.

Some scholars believed that Chaco's inhabitants, ancestors of the modern Pueblo people of the Southwest, had stretched skins across the cylinders and used them for drums, while others thought they held sacred objects.

But the answer is simpler, though no less intriguing, Ms. Crown asserts in a paper published Tuesday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: the jars were used for drinking liquid chocolate. Her findings offer the first proof of chocolate use in North America north of the Mexican border.

How did the ancient Pueblos come to have cacao beans in the desert, more than 1,200 miles from the nearest cacao trees? Ms. Crown, a University of New Mexico anthropologist, noted that maize, beans and corn spread to the Southwest after being domesticated in southern Mexico. Earlier excavations at Pueblo Bonito, the largest structure in the Chaco complex, had found scarlet macaws and other imported items.




For the full story, see:

MICHAEL HAEDERLE. "Mystery of Ancient Pueblo Jars Is Solved." The New York Times (Weds., February 4, 2009): A14.

(Note: the online version is dated Tues., Feb. 3rd.)


CacaoJar2009-11-11.jpg











"Researchers believe ancient Pueblos used the jars to drink chocolate." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





December 15, 2009

Wall Street Bet that Feds Would "Paper Over Mistakes"




In the commentary quoted below, "LTCM" stands for the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund.


(p. A25) Because families without the real economic means to repay traditional 30-year mortgages were getting them, housing prices grew to artificially high levels.

This is where the real sin of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac comes into play. Both were created by Congress to make housing affordable to the middle class. But when they began guaranteeing subprime loans, they actually began pricing out the working class from the market until the banking business responded with ways to make repayment of mortgages allegedly easier through adjustable rates loans that start off with low payments. But these loans, fully sanctioned by the government, were a ticking time bomb, as we're all now so painfully aware.

A similar bomb exploded in 1998, when LTCM blew up. The policy response to the LTCM debacle is instructive; more than anything else it solidified Wall Street's belief that there were little if any real risks to risk-taking. With $5 billion under management, LTCM was deemed too big to fail because, with nearly every major firm copying its money losing trades, much of Wall Street might have failed with it.

That's what the policy makers told us anyway. On Wall Street there's general agreement that the implosion of LTCM would have tanked one of the biggest risk takers in the market, Lehman Brothers, a full decade before its historic bankruptcy filing. Officials at Merrill, including its then-CFO (and future CEO) Stan O'Neal, believed Merrill's risk-taking in esoteric bonds could have led to a similar implosion 10 years before its calamitous merger with Bank of America.

We'll never know if LTCM's demise would have tanked the financial system or simply tanked a couple of firms that bet wrong. But one thing is certain: A valuable lesson in risk-taking was lost. By 2007, the years of excessive risk-taking, aided and abetted by the belief that the government was ready to paper over mistakes, had taken their toll.

With so much easy money, with the government always ready to ease their pain, Wall Street developed new and even more innovative ways to make money through risk-taking.




For the full commentary, see:

CHARLES GASPARINO. "Three Decades of Subsidized Risk; There's a reason Dick Fuld didn't believe Lehman would be allowed to fail." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., NOVEMBER 6, 2009): A25.





December 14, 2009

Gilder's Microcosm Tells the Story of the Entrepreneurs Who Made Personal Computers Possible




MicrocosmBK.jpg















Source of book image: http://images.indiebound.com/923/705/9780671705923.jpg




Many years ago Telecosm was the first George Gilder book that I read; I enjoyed it for its over-the-top verbal exuberance in detailing, praising and predicting the progress of the then-new broadband technologies. I bought his earlier Microcosm at about the same time, but didn't get around to reading it because I assumed it would be a dated read, dealing in a similar manner with the earlier personal computer (PC) technology.

In the last year or so I have read Gilder's Wealth and Poverty and Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise. There is some interesting material in Gilder's famous Wealth and Poverty, which has sometimes been described as one of the main intellectual manifestos of the Reagan administration. But Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise has become my favorite Gilder book (so far).

In each chapter, the main modus operandi of that book is to present a case study of a recent entrepreneur, with plenty of interpretation of the lessons to be learned about why entrepreneurship is important to the economy, what sort of personal characteristics are common in entrepreneurs, and what government policies encourage or discourage entrepreneurs.

In that book I read that the original plan had been to include several chapters on the entrepreneurs who had built the personal computer revolution. But the original manuscript grew to unwieldy size, and so the personal computer chapters became the basis of the book Microcosm.

So Microcosm moved to the top of my "to-read" list, and turned out to be a much less-dated book than I had expected.

Microcosm does for the personal computer entrepreneurs what Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise did for a broader set of entrepreneurs.

In the next few weeks, I will occasionally quote a few especially important examples or thought-provoking observations from Microcosm.




Reference to Gilder's MIcrocosm:

Gilder, George. Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. Paperback ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990.


Other Gilder books mentioned:

Gilder, George. Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise: Updated for the 1990s. updated ed. New York: ICS Press, 1992. (The first edition was called simply The Spirit of Enterprise, and appeared in 1984.)

Gilder, George. Telecosm: The World after Bandwidth Abundance. Paperback ed. New York: Touchstone, 2002.

Gilder, George. Wealth and Poverty. 3rd ed. New York: ICS Press, 1993.





December 13, 2009

Young Firms Create Two-Thirds of New Jobs




(p. A25) While a slight improvement over last month's numbers, today's employment update from the Bureau of Labor Statistics presents a dismal picture for American workers. As policy makers search for the best remedies to strengthen our economic performance, they can't afford to overlook new firms and young firms.

Unfortunately, in troubled economic times the language of recovery is too often tilted toward large, established companies or to "small businesses," a broad term that traditionally applies to businesses with fewer than 500 employees. The conventional wisdom is that such businesses account for half of the labor force and are therefore the engine of future job creation.

That's not quite the case. The more precise factor is not the size of businesses, but rather their age. According to the Census Bureau, nearly all net job creation in the U.S. since 1980 occurred in firms less than five years old. A Kauffman Foundation report released yesterday shows that as recently as 2007, two-thirds of the jobs created were in such firms. Put more starkly, without new businesses, job creation in the American economy would have been negative for many years.


. . .


Entrepreneurs have a proven track record of job creation, especially in the early years of their firms. Eliminating or lowering the economic and regulatory hurdles that stand in the way of their success will pave the way for sustained expansion after the government's current stimulus measures come to their inevitable end.




For the full commentary, see:

CARL SCHRAMM, ROBERT LITAN AND DANE STANGLER. "New Business, Not Small Business, Is What Creates Jobs; Nearly all net job creation since 1980 occurred in firms less than five years old." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., NOVEMBER 6, 2009): A25.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





December 12, 2009

Fat-Tailed Distributions Seldom Used "Because the Math Was So Unwieldy"




DragonCurveCartoon2009-10-28.jpg




















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




(p. C1) Last year, a typical investment portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds lost roughly a fifth of its value. Standard portfolio-construction tools assume that will happen only once every 111 years.

With once-in-a-century floods seemingly occurring every few years, financial-services firms ranging from J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. to MSCI Inc.'s MSCI Barra are concocting new ways to protect investors from such steep losses. The shift comes from increasing recognition that conventional assumptions about market behavior are off the mark, substantially underestimating risk.


. . .


(p. C9) Many of Wall Street's new tools assume market returns fall along a "fat-tailed" distribution, where, say, last year's nearly 40% stock-market decline would be more common than previously thought.

Fat-tailed distributions are nothing new. Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot recognized their relevance to finance in the 1960s. But they were never widely used in portfolio-building tools, partly because the math was so unwieldy.



For the full story, see:

ELEANOR LAISE. "Some Funds Stop Grading on the Curve." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., SEPTEMBER 8, 2009): C1 & C9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





December 11, 2009

Walt Disney, Like Brer Rabbit, "Constantly Wriggling Out of the Snares Set for Him"




(p. 325) The real Disney may yet elude his most fervent admirers' and detractors' suffocating grasp. When he was young, he was a sort of human Brer Rabbit, constantly wriggling out of the snares set for him by the likes of Charles Mintz and Pat Powers (not to mention Laugh-O-gram's creditors). He emerged finally, and unexpectedly, as the creator of a new art form, one whose potential has still scarcely been tapped, by him or anyone else. It is hard to imagine that man--the passionate young artist, the intense "coordinator," the man who scrutinized every frame of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with a lover's zeal--trapped forever in anyone's briar patch.



Source:

Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. 1 ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007.

(Note: italics in original.)





December 10, 2009

Congress Keeps Funding "Parochial" Earmarks




EarmarkArtMuseumAirCond2009-10-29.jpg"Reps. Donald Payne and Rodney Frelinghuysen are seeking $1.5 million to equip the Newark Museum, above, with new air-conditioning units." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A3) Energy Secretary Steven Chu set out this year to address America's energy future with a network of new research labs. But lawmakers drafted their own blueprint: Instead of fully funding Dr. Chu's request, an energy-spending bill sets aside millions of dollars for such projects as an aviation-research institute, an environmentally friendly locomotive and air conditioning for a New Jersey museum.

When President Barack Obama signed a spending bill for the 2009 fiscal year in March, he said he wanted earmark-laden legislation to be an "end to the old way of doing business, and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability."

Congress, however, hasn't given up earmarks -- the term for seemingly parochial projects funded at the behest of lawmakers.



For the full story, see:

STEPHEN POWER. "Earmarks Sap Energy Chief's Priorities." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., OCTOBER 15, 2009): A3.





December 9, 2009

Stimulus Recipients "Have Strong Incentives to Inflate Their Reported Numbers"




(p. A19) After reporting GDP, the government released new numbers claiming that the stimulus programs have "created or saved" over a million jobs. These data were collected from responses by government agencies that received federal funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Agencies were required to report "an estimate of the number of jobs created and the number of jobs retained by the project or activity." This report is required of all recipients (generally private contractors) of agency funds.

Unfortunately, these data are not reliable indicators of job creation nor of the even vaguer notion of job retention. There are two major problems. The first and most obvious is reporting bias. Recipients have strong incentives to inflate their reported numbers. In a race for federal dollars, contractors may assume that the programs that show the most job creation may be favored by the government when it allocates additional stimulus funds.

No dishonesty on the part of recipients is implied or required. But when a hire conceivably can be classified as resulting from the stimulus money, recipients have every incentive to classify the hire as such. Classification as stimulus-induced is even more likely if a respondent must only say that, except for the money, an employee would have been fired. In this case, no hiring need occur at all.


. . .


Net labor market figures do exist. Administrations have always been held to the time-tested and well-understood monthly job numbers put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports the unemployment rate and the net job gain or loss for the economy as a whole. It is important to use reliable, accurate and well-understood numbers to determine the true causes of recovery. The unemployment rate, now at 9.8%, has continued to rise, and job losses have remained at high levels throughout the stimulus period. Few will be comforted by the good-news-only claim that the stimulus "created or saved" over one million jobs.




For the full commentary, see:

EDWARD P. LAZEAR. "Stimulus and the Jobless Recovery; Jobs 'created or saved' is meaningless. What matters is net job gain or loss, and that means the unemployment rate." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 2, 2009): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated Nov. 1st.)





December 8, 2009

"Market Wu" Annoys Maoists and Corrupt Bureaucrats




WuJinnglian2009-10-24.jpg "Wu Jinglian helped to create China's market economy, and now he is defending it against conservative hardliners in the Communist Party." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 1) AT 79, Wu Jinglian is considered China's most famous economist.

In the 1980s and '90s, he was an adviser to China's leaders, including Deng Xiaoping. He helped push through some of this country's earliest market reforms, paving the way for China's spectacular rise and earning him the nickname "Market Wu."

Last year, China's state-controlled media slapped him with a new moniker: spy.

Mr. Wu has not been interrogated, charged or imprisoned. But the fact that a state newspaper, The People's Daily, among others, was allowed to publish Internet rumors alleging that he had been detained on suspicions of being a spy for the United States hints that he is annoying some very important people in the government.

He denied the allegations, and soon after they were published, China's cabinet denied that an investigation was under way.

But in a country that often jails critics, Mr. Wu seems to be testing the limits of what Beijing deems permissible. While many economists argue that China's growth model is flawed, rarely does a prominent Chinese figure, in the government or out, speak with such candor about flaws he sees in China's leadership.

Mr. Wu -- who still holds a research post at an institute affiliated with the State Council, China's cabinet -- has white hair and an amiable face, and he appears frail. But his assessments are often harsh. In books, speeches, interviews and television appearances, he warns that conservative hardliners in the Communist Party have gained influence in the government and are trying to dismantle the market reforms he helped formulate.

He complains that business tycoons and corrupt officials have hijacked the economy and manipulated it for their own ends, a system he calls crony capitalism. He has even called on Beijing to establish a British-style democracy, arguing that political reform is inevitable.

Provocative statements have made him a kind of dissident economist here, and revealed the sharp debates behind the scenes, at the highest levels of the Communist Party, about the direction of China's half-market, half-socialist economy.

In many ways, it is a continuation of the debate that has been raging for three decades: What role should the government play in China's hybrid economy?

Mr. Wu says the spy rumors were "dirty tricks" employed by his critics to discredit him.

"I have two enemies," he said in a recent interview. "The crony capitalists and the Maoists. They will use any means to attack me."


. . .


(p. 7) In interviews, Mr. Wu says he feels compelled to speak out because conservatives and "old-style Maoists" have been gaining influence in the government since 2004. These groups, he said, are pressing for a return to central planning and placing blame for corruption and social inequality on the very market reforms he championed.

At the same time, Mr. Wu says, corrupt bureaucrats are pushing for the state to take a larger economic role so they can cash in on their positions through payoffs and bribes, as well as by steering business to allies.

"I'm not optimistic about the future," Mr. Wu said. "The Maoists want to go back to central planning and the cronies want to get richer."



For the full story, see:

DAVID BARBOZA. "China's Mr. Wu Keeps Talking." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., September 26, 2009): 1 & 7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


WuChinaTimeline2009-10-24.jpgSource of timeline graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





December 7, 2009

The Real Disney and the Disney of Academic Critiques




(p. 324) Disney seems no more real in the growing body of academic critiques of the man and the company that bears his name. Many of these critiques are vaguely if not specifically Marxist in their methodology, and they display the usual Marxist tendency to bulldoze the complexities of human behavior in the pursuit of an all--embracing interpretation of Disney's life and work. What fatally cripples most academic writing about Walt Disney is simple failure to examine its supposed subject. Disney scholarship, like many other kinds of scholarship in today's academy, feeds on itself. The common tendency is for scholars to rush past the facts of Disney's life and career, frequently getting a lot of them wrong, in order to write about what really interests them, which is what other scholars have already written. It is this incestuous quality, even more than such commonly cited sins as a reliance on jargon, that makes so much academic writing, on Disney as on other subjects, claustrophobically difficult to read.



Disney has attracted other writers whose unsupportable claims and speculations sometimes win approval of scholars all too eager to believe the worst of the man. The persistent accusations of anti-Semitism are only the mildest examples of an array whose cumulative effect is to portray a Disney who was, among other vile things, racist, misogynist, imperialist, sexually warped. a spy for J. Edgar Hoover, desperate to conceal his illegitimate Spanish birth, (p. 325) and so terrified of death that he had his body cryogenically frozen. Pathologies are undoubtedly at work here, none of them Disney's.



Source:

Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. 1 ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007.





December 6, 2009

Wind Power is Volatile and Unreliable, Especially When Power Demand is Highest




BPA_real_time_wind_ForJuly2009.png Graph of total electric power load and total wind power generation from the Bonneville Power Authority (BPA) for a week in late July 2009. Source of graph: http://blog.oregonlive.com/environment_impact/2009/07/real_time_wind.jpg


(p. A14) For more than a century, producing power has been a matter of flipping a switch. Need more electricity? Fire up some fuel. Need less? Dial the flame back down.

Things won't be that easy in a world that gets much of its energy from renewable sources, which come and go at nature's whim. Wind tends to blow hardest at night -- a problem, since people use electricity mostly during the day. Sunshine can lose its intensity in seconds if eclipsed by a cloud -- inconvenient for people who like their air conditioners to run steadily on summer days.


. . .


Most of the electricity in Bonneville's service area comes from hydroelectric power. To compensate for the volatility of wind, Bonneville tweaks the amount of water it lets through the dams. But that doesn't work for the most extreme shifts in wind. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing hard, Bonneville releases extra water over the tops of dams without using it to generate electricity. Otherwise, electrical wires might get overloaded. And when the wind is so strong that Bonneville can't ditch enough water, the utility orders wind turbines shut off.

"Everything changes with wind," says Bart McManus, a wind expert at Bonneville.

Sudden doldrums can be as troublesome as sudden gusts. That was the problem on Feb. 26, 2008, in Texas, which produces more wind power than any other state.

At 3 p.m. that afternoon, Texas's wind farms, concentrated in the western part of the state, were throwing off about 2,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve about one million households. Then a cold front blew in. By 6:30 p.m. -- when electricity demand typically peaks -- wind production in Texas had cratered to about 360 megawatts.

Exacerbating matters, Texans began turning up their heat -- much of which, in rural parts of the state, comes from electricity. So, just as wind power unexpectedly plummeted, demand for power spiked.



For the full commentary, see:

JEFFREY BALL. "Unbridled Energy: Predicting Volatile Wind, Sun
Utilities Ramp Up Focus on Forecasting When Renewable Fuel Is at a Peak to Avoid Squandering Power That Still Can't Be Stored." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., OCTOBER 5, 2009): A14.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the last sentence of the quoted passage, appeared in the print edition, but was inexplicably deleted from the online version.)


For an updated "Near-Real-Time" graph of BPA load and wind generation, see:

http://www.transmission.bpa.gov/Business/Operations/Wind/baltwg.aspx






December 5, 2009

Malaria "Weakly Related to Temperature"; "Strongly Related to Poverty"




(p. A17) In the West, campaigners for carbon regulations point out that global warming will increase the number of malaria victims. This is often used as an argument for drastic, immediate carbon cuts.

Warmer, wetter weather will improve conditions for the malaria parasite. Most estimates suggest that global warming will put 3% more of the Earth's population at risk of catching malaria by 2100. If we invest in the most efficient, global carbon cuts--designed to keep temperature rises under two degrees Celsius--we would spend a massive $40 trillion a year by 2100. In the best case scenario, we would reduce the at-risk population by only 3%.

In comparison, research commissioned by the Copenhagen Consensus Center shows that spending $3 billion annually on mosquito nets, environmentally safe indoor DDT sprays, and subsidies for effective new combination therapies could halve the number of those infected with malaria within one decade. For the money it takes to save one life with carbon cuts, smarter policies could save 78,000 lives. . . .

Malaria is only weakly related to temperature; it is strongly related to poverty. It has risen in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 20 years not because of global warming, but because of failing medical response.




For the full commentary, see:

BJORN LOMBORG. "Climate Change and Malaria in Africa; Limiting carbon emissions won't do much to stop disease in Zambia." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 2, 2009): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated Nov. 1st.)





December 4, 2009

Calderón's Decision Is Bigger than Reagan's Firing of Air Traffic Controllers




ElectriciansProtestMexico2009-10-29.jpg"The Mexican Union of Electricians protests the government's decision to liquidate the state-owned electricity company in Mexico City." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A19) Eight days ago, just after midnight on a Sunday morning, Mexican President Felipe Calderón instructed federal police to take over the operations of the state-owned electricity monopoly, Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LyFC), which serves Mexico City and parts of surrounding states. The company's assets will stay in the hands of the government but will now be run by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), a national state-owned utility and the major supplier of LyFC's energy.

The net effect of the move is to dethrone 42,000 members of the Mexican Union of Electricians, which had won benefits over the decades to make Big Three auto workers in Detroit blush. When the liquidation is complete, it is expected that the company will employ about 8,000. To appreciate the magnitude of Mr. Calderón's decision, think of Ronald Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers--only bigger. As one internationally renowned Mexican economist remarked on Sunday, it is "the most important act of government in 20 years."



For the full commentary, see:

MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY. "Mexico's Calderón Takes on Big Labor; Its state-owned electricity company was bleeding the national treasury dry." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., October 19, 2009): A19.





December 3, 2009

Walt Disney: Motive Was "Fun" (Not "Money")




(p. 291) Said Bob Gurr, a member of the WED staff: "One big thrust behind our design work for the World's Fair was the fact that we were going to own all the equipment. In other words, somebody else would build the pavilion, on somebody else's property, but the show equipment that went in there was Disney's, and he had a ready-made location waiting for it. The fact that the Fair was going to run two years meant he could build more expensively, and Disney priced these projects in a way that the sponsors were paying for everything for a two-year use."

Disney approached the fair with a certain skepticism, even so. "You don't like to do those things unless you have fun doing 'em," he said in 1961, when work on the exhibits was just getting under way "You don't do 'em for money." Robert Moses, the imperious road builder who was in command of the fair, "wanted us to develop the amusement area and we looked at it," Disney said, 'but it just wasn't for us. I wouldn't want to try to do anything in New York. I'm not close enough. . . . On top of that, I mean I don't know whether I want to do any outside of Disneyland because you don't want to spread yourself thin."




Source:

Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. 1 ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)





December 2, 2009

Despite Importance of Economic Historians, History Departments Hire Fewer Economic Historians




HistoryFieldFacultyGraph2009-10-29.jpg



















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




(p. C7) Over the last three decades the number of history faculty members at four-year institutions has more than doubled to 20,000-plus, said Robert B. Townsend, assistant director for research at the American Historical Association. Yet the growth has been predominantly in the newer specializations, spurring those in diplomatic, military, legal and economic history to complain they are being squeezed out.

In 1975, for example, three-quarters of college history departments employed at least one diplomatic historian; in 2005 fewer than half did. The number of departments with an economic historian fell to 31.7 percent from 54.7 percent. By contrast the biggest gains were in women's history, which now has a representative in four out of five history departments.



For the full story, see:

PATRICIA COHEN. "Great Caesar's Ghost! Are Traditional History Courses Vanishing?" The New York Times (Thurs., June 11, 2009): C1 & C7.

(Note: the online version is dated Weds., June 10.)





December 1, 2009

Angel Investors Face High Risk and Negative Returns




Some of the difficulties in angel investing are highlighted below. These difficulties support the view that self-financing is likely to remain a crucial mode of initial financing for many high-level entrepreneurs.


(p. B1) An angel investor is anyone who privately provides capital to a promising business, often a start-up, that isn't run by a friend or family member. Scott Shane, an economist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, estimates that the U.S. has at least 140,000 active angels who collectively invest some $20 billion a year in new businesses.


. . .


Being an angel is hellishly risky. To be sure, one recent study found that 7% of the angel investments with final outcomes went up at least tenfold. And many fledgling angels are driven by the dream of finding the next Google while it still is in the cradle.

But roughly half of all new businesses fail within their first five years, according to the Small Business Administration. Not surprisingly then, researchers have estimated that at least half of all angel investments lose money and 48% of investments with final outcomes result in a 100% loss.

Worse, those returns were earned by "accredited" angels, individual investors with at least $200,000 in annual income and $1 million or more in net worth. The vast majority of the profits from angel investing appear to be earned by the top 10% of angels, who tend to be rich, well-connected veterans of high-growth industries. Unaccredited angels, with less capital to offer and weaker links to expert advice, are likely to see fewer deals with potential for high returns.

Furthermore, these private businesses are illiquid, so angels can't dump their holdings at will, the way mortals do every day in the stock or bond market. Thus, being an angel takes enormous patience. "Your losers die faster than your winners win," said Robert Wiltbank, a business professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore.


. . .


So why would anyone want to be an angel, and who should consider it? "You get to play God a little," said Paul Kedrosky, an active angel investor and a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship. "You get the charge of helping to create something exciting, without having too many annoying partners."





For the full commentary, see:

JASON ZWEIG. "THE INTELLIGENT INVESTOR; Can Angel Investors Earn Heavenly Returns?" The Wall Street Journal (Sat., OCTOBER 31, 2009): B1.

(Note: ellipses added.)





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