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November 30, 2010

Syrian Government Wastes Water in Drought:         "No Money, No Job, No Hope"




SyrianRefugeesDrought2010-11-14.jpg "Refugees have left their farmlands and are living in tents in Ar Raqqah, Syria, because of a drought." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) AR RAQQAH, Syria -- The farmlands spreading north and east of this Euphrates River town were once the breadbasket of the region, a vast expanse of golden wheat fields and bucolic sheep herds.

Now, after four consecutive years of drought, this heartland of the Fertile Crescent -- including much of neighboring Iraq -- appears to be turning barren, climate scientists say. Ancient irrigation systems have collapsed, underground water sources have run dry and hundreds of villages have been abandoned as farmlands turn to cracked desert and grazing animals die off. Sandstorms have become far more common, and vast tent cities of dispossessed farmers and their families have risen up around the larger towns and cities of Syria and Iraq.

"I had 400 acres of wheat, and now it's all desert," said Ahmed Abdullah, 48, a farmer who is living in a ragged burlap and plastic tent here with his wife and 12 children alongside many other migrants. "We were forced to flee. Now we are at less than zero -- no money, no job, no hope."


. . .


(p. A17) The drought has become a delicate subject for the Syrian government, which does not give foreign journalists official permission to write about it or grant access to officials in the Agriculture Ministry. On the road running south from Damascus, displaced farmers and herders can be seen living in tents, but the entrances are closely watched by Syrian security agents, who do not allow journalists in.

Droughts have always taken place here, but "the regional climate is changing in ways that are clearly observable," said Jeannie Sowers, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who has written on Middle East climate issues. "Whether you call it human-induced climate change or not, much of the region is getting hotter and dryer, combined with more intense, erratic rainfall and flooding in some areas. You will have people migrating as a result, and governments are ill prepared."

The Syrian government has begun to acknowledge the scale of the problem and has developed a national drought plan, though it has not yet been put in place, analysts say. Poor planning helped create the problem in the first place: Syria spent $15 billion on misguided irrigation projects between 1988 and 2000 with little result, said Elie Elhadj, a Syrian-born author who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the topic. Syria continues to grow cotton and wheat in areas that lack sufficient water -- making them more vulnerable to drought -- because the government views the ability to produce those crops as part of its identity and a bulwark against foreign dependence, analysts say.



For the full story, see:

ROBERT F. WORTH. "Parched Earth Where Syrian Farms Thrived." The New York Times (Thurs., October 14, 2010): A1 & A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 13, 2010 and has the title "Earth Is Parched Where Syrian Farms Thrived.")



SyriaMaps2010-11-14.jpg

















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





November 29, 2010

School Choice "Makes Parents and Students Happier with Their Schools"





Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for 'Superman'" movie has brought renewed attention to the case for school choice. New York Times commentator Ross Douthat reasonably discusses that case:


(p. A21) Guggenheim's movie, which follows five families through the brutal charter school lotteries that determine whether their kids will escape from public "dropout factories," stirs an entirely justified outrage at the system's unfairnesses and cruelties. This outrage needs to be supplemented, though, with a dose of realism about what education reformers can reasonably hope to accomplish, and what real choice and competition would ultimately involve.

With that in mind, I have a modest proposal: Copies of Frederick Hess's recent National Affairs essay, "Does School Choice 'Work'?" should be handed out at every "Waiting for 'Superman' " showing, as a sober-minded complement to Guggenheim's cinematic call to arms.


. . .


A real marketplace in education, he suggests, probably wouldn't fund schools directly at all. It would only fund students, tying a school's budget to the number of children seeking to enroll. If there are 150 applicants for a charter school, they should all bring their funding with them -- and take it away from the failing schools they're trying to escape.

This is a radical idea, guaranteed to meet intense resistance from just about every educational interest group. But Hess makes a compelling case that it needs to be the school choice movement's long-term goal, if reformers hope to do more than just tinker around the edges of the system.

In the shorter term, meanwhile, he suggests that school choice advocates need to make a case for greater competition that doesn't depend on test scores alone. Maybe charter schools, merit pay and vouchers won't instantly turn every American child into a test-acing dynamo. But if they "only" create a more cost-effective system that makes parents and students happier with their schools -- well, that would be no small feat, and well worth fighting for.



For the full commentary, see:

ROSS DOUTHAT. "Grading School Choice." The New York Times (Mon., October 11, 2010): A21.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated October 10, 2010.)


The Hess article is:

Hess, Frederick M. "Does School Choice "Work"?" National Affairs, Issue 5, FALL 2010.





November 28, 2010

Whittle "Struggled for Years to Get Funding and Time to Pursue His Idea"




DeHavilandComet2010-11-14.jpg"When Britain Ruled The Skies: A De Havilland Comet under construction in Belfast in 1954." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.


(p. C8) Frank Whittle, the brilliant British military pilot and engineer who began patenting jet designs in 1930, struggled for years to get funding and time to pursue his idea. Even after World War II, when a competing Nazi design showed what fighter jets could achieve in battle, U.S. airlines were slow to see jets' potential for passenger travel.

It took another Brit, airplane designer Geoffrey de Havilland, to awaken postwar America's aviation behemoths. While Lockheed and Douglas were still churning out rumbling, low-flying propeller planes, De Havilland's jet-powered Comet began breaking records in 1952. Only after seeing Comets scorch the stratosphere at 500 miles an hour did Howard Hughes want jetliners for TWA and Juan Trippe get interested for Pan Am.

Among American plane makers, it was a military contractor that had struggled in the prewar passenger-plane market--Boeing--that first took up the jetliner challenge. In retrospect, the outcome seems obvious. The Boeing 707 inspired the term "jet set." Boeing's iconic 747 "Jumbo Jet" opened jet-setting to the masses.

But in 1952, that outcome was far from obvious. Mr. Verhovek zeroes in on the mid-1950s, when Comets first seemed to own the world and then started plunging from the sky in pieces. The Comet's fatal design flaw--the result of an insufficient appreciation of the danger of metal fatigue--holds resonance today as both Boeing and Airbus struggle to master the next generation of jetliner materials, composites of carbon fiber and plastic.


. . .


Although "Jet Age" inevitably centers on technology, Mr. Verhovek wisely focuses as well on the outsize personalities behind world-changing innovations. There's Mr. De Havilland, a manic depressive who was so dedicated to aviation that he kept going after two of his three sons died testing his planes. Mr. Whittle, we learn, sniffed Benzedrine to stay awake, popped tranquilizers to sleep and shriveled to just 127 pounds while developing the jet engine. And Boeing chief executive Bill Allen, a meticulous lawyer, bet the company on passenger jets when not a single U.S. airline wanted one.




For the full review, see:

DANIEL MICHAELS. "Shrinking the World; How jetliners commercialized air travel--stewardesses and all." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 9, 2010): C8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


The book under review is:

Verhovek, Sam Howe. Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World. New York: Avery, 2010.





November 27, 2010

Coke's Patent Law Motivated by Belief that Creative Craftsmen Were Source of Britain's Prosperity




William Rosen discusses the genesis and significance of the world's first patent law:


(p. 52) The Statute became law in 1624. The immediate impact was barely noticeable, like a pebble rolling down a gradual slope at the top of a snow-covered mountain. For decades, fewer than six patents were awarded annually, though still more in Britain than anywhere else. It was seventy-five years after the Statute was first drafted, on Monday, July 25, 1698, before an anonymous clerk in the employ of the Great Seal Patent Office on Southampton Row, three blocks from the present--day site of the British Museum, granted patent number 356: Thomas Savery's "new Invention for Raiseing of Water and occasioning Motion to all Sorts of Mill Work by the lmpellent Force of Fire."

Both the case law and the legislation under which the application was granted had been written by Edward Coke. Both were imperfect, as indeed was Savery's own engine. The law was vague enough (and Savery's grant wide-ranging enough; it essentially covered all ways for "Raiseing of Water" by fire) that Thomas Newcomen was compelled to form a partnership with a man whose machine scarcely resembled his own. But it is not too much to claim that Coke's pen had as decisive an impact on the evolution of steam power as any of Newcomen's tools. Though he spent most of his life as something of a sycophant to Elizabeth and James, Coke's philosophical and temperamental affinity for ordinary Englishmen, particularly the nation's artisans, compelled him to act, time and again, in their interests even when, as with his advocacy of the 1628 Petition of Right (an inspiration for the U.S. Bill of Rights) it landed him in the King's prisons. He became the greatest advocate for England's craftsmen, secure in the belief that they, not her landed gentry or her merchants, were the nation's source of prosperity. By understanding that it was England's duty, and--perhaps even more important--in England's interest, to promote the creative labors of her creative laborers, he anticipated an economic philosophy far more modern than he probably understood, and if he grew rich in the service of the nation, he also, with his creation of the world's first durable patent law, returned the favor.



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)





November 26, 2010

First Writing Grew from Commerce




CunneiformSumerianClayTablet3200BC.jpg













"A Sumerian clay tablet from around 3200 B.C. is inscribed in wedgelike cuneiform with a list of professions." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. C5) CHICAGO -- One of the stars of the Oriental Institute's new show, "Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond," is a clay tablet that dates from around 3200 B.C. On it, written in cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia, is a list of professions, described in small, repetitive impressed characters that look more like wedge-shape footprints than what we recognize as writing.

In fact "it is among the earliest examples of writings that we know of so far," according to the institute's director, Gil J. Stein, and it provides insights into the life of one of the world's oldest cultures.

The new exhibition by the institute, part of the University of Chicago, is the first in the United States in 26 years to focus on comparative writing. It relies on advances in archaeologists' knowledge to shed new light on the invention of scripted language and its subsequent evolution.

The show demonstrates that, contrary to the long-held belief that writing spread from east to west, Sumerian cuneiform and its derivatives and Egyptian hieroglyphics evolved separately from each another. And those writing systems were but two of the ancient forms of writing that evolved independently. Over a span of two millenniums, two other powerful civilizations -- the Chinese and Mayans -- also identified and met a need for written communication. Writing came to China as early as around 1200 B.C. and to the Maya in Mesoamerica long before A.D. 500.


. . .


The Oriental Institute, which opened in 1919, was heavily financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had been greatly influenced by James Henry Breasted, a passionate archaeologist.


. . .


Experts are still struggling to understand just how writing evolved, but one theory, laid out at the Oriental Institute's exhibition, places the final prewriting stage at 3400 B.C., when the Sumerians first began using small clay envelopes like the ones in the show. Some of the envelopes had tiny clay balls sealed within. Archaeologists theorize that they were sent along with goods being delivered; recipients would open them and ensure that the number of receivables matched the number of clay tokens. The tokens, examples of which are also are in the show , transmitted information, a key function of writing.



For the full story, see:

GERALDINE FABRIKANT. "Hunting for the Dawn of Writing, When Prehistory Became History." The New York Times (Weds., October 20, 2010): C5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 19, 2010.)





November 25, 2010

Neurosurgeons Treating Dogs is Mutually Beneficial to Dogs and Humans




(p. D3) An operation commonly performed to remove brain tumors from the pituitary glands of humans is now available to dogs, thanks to a collaboration between a neurosurgeon and some veterinarians in Los Angeles. And that is turning out to be good for humans.

So far, nine dogs and one cat that otherwise would have died have been treated successfully.


. . .


What Dr. Mamelak has gained from teaching the procedure to veterinarians is access to tissue samples from the treated dogs. That's significant because Cushing's afflicts only one in a million humans, making it a difficult disease to study. By contrast, it afflicts about 100,000 dogs a year in the United States. The canine tissue samples are enabling him and his colleagues to develop drugs to one day treat Cushing's disease in both humans and dogs.

"We have a full loop," he said. "We're using a human procedure in animals, and using their tissue to study the disease."



For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "Observatory; They Fetch, They Roll Over, They Aid Tumor Research." The New York Times, Science Times Section (Tues., October 26, 2010): D3.

(Note: ellipsIs added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 22 (sic), 2010.)





November 24, 2010

"It Can Be Hard to Tell a Crank from an Unfamiliar Gear"




VanValenLeigh2010-11-13.jpg














"Leigh Van Valen." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. 33) His beard, it was said, was longer than God's but not as long as Charles Darwin's. Thousands of books teetered perilously in his office, and a motion-sensitive door startled visitors with cricket chirps. He took notes on his own thoughts while conversing with others.

The evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen's eccentricities were legend far beyond the University of Chicago, where brilliant and idiosyncratic professors rule. He named 20 fossil mammals he had discovered after characters in J. R. R. Tolkien's fiction, and his most famous hypothesis -- among the most cited in the literature of evolution -- was named for the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass."

That hypothesis helped explain why organisms, competing for survival, developed two sexes. It did not explain why Professor Van Valen gave better grades to students who disagreed with him -- provoking an instant evolutionary adaptation in the tone of student essays -- much less why he wrote songs about the sex lives of dinosaurs and paramecia.


. . .


After his Red Queen paper was initially, and repeatedly, rejected, Dr. Van Valen started his own journal, Evolutionary Theory, to publish it. As its longtime editor, he treated all submissions seriously. "It can be hard to tell a crank from an unfamiliar gear," he wrote.



For the full obituary, see:

DOUGLAS MARTIN. "Leigh Van Valen, a Revolutionary in the Study of Evolution, Dies at 76." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., October 31, 2010): 33.

(Note: ellipsIs added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 30, 2010 and has the title "Leigh Van Valen, Evolution Revolutionary, Dies at 76.")





November 23, 2010

When Inventors Could Get Patents that Were Durable and Enforceable, "the World Started to Change"




(p. 50) . . . Coke, who had . . . been made Lord Chief Justice of' England, drafted the 1623 "Act concerning Monopolies and Dispensations with penall Lawes and the Forfeyture thereof," or, as it has become known, the Statute on Monopolies. The Act was designed to promote the interests of artisans, and eliminate all traces of monopolies.

With a single, and critical, exception. Section 6 of the Statute, which forbade every other form of monopoly, carved out one area in which an exclusive franchise could still be granted: Patents could still be awarded to the person who introduced the invention to the realm--to the "first and true inventor."

This was a very big deal indeed, though not because it represented the first time inventors received patents. The Venetian Republic was offering some form of patent protection by 1471, and in 1593, the Netherlands' States-General awarded a patent to Mathys Siverts, for a new (and unnamed) navigational instrument. And, of course, Englishmen like John of Utynam had been receiving patents for inventions ever since Henry VI. The difference between Coke's statute and the customs in place before and elsewhere is that it was a law, with all that implied for its durability and its enforceability. Once only inventors could receive patents, the world started to change.



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)





November 22, 2010

Ice Entrepreneur Gorrie Died Dispirited for Lack of Funds




ConnectionsBK.jpg



















Source of book image:
http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51E2APGW55L._SS500_.jpg



(p. 241) In May of the following year [i.e., in May 1851] Gorrie obtained a patent for the first ice-making machine.


. . .


But he was unable to find adequate backing, and in 1855 he died, a broken and dispirited man.



Source:

Burke, James. Connections. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Co., 1978.

(Note: ellipsis and bracketed information added.)





November 21, 2010

Noise Pollution from "Clean" Wind Energy




(p. A1) VINALHAVEN, Me. -- Like nearly all of the residents on this island in Penobscot Bay, Art Lindgren and his wife, Cheryl, celebrated the arrival of three giant wind turbines late last year. That was before they were turned on.

"In the first 10 minutes, our jaws dropped to the ground," Mr. Lindgren said. "Nobody in the area could believe it. They were so loud."

Now, the Lindgrens, along with a dozen or so neighbors living less than a mile from the $15 million wind facility here, say the industrial whoosh-and-whoop of the 123-foot blades is making life in this otherwise tranquil corner of the island unbearable.

They are among a small but growing number of families and homeowners across the country who say they have learned the hard way that wind power -- a clean alternative to electricity from fossil fuels -- is not without emissions of its own.

Lawsuits and complaints about turbine noise, vibrations and subsequent lost property value have cropped up in Illinois, Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, among other states.



For the full story, see:

TOM ZELLER Jr. "For Those Living Nearby, That Miserable Hum of Clean Energy." The New York Times (Weds., October 6, 2010): A1 & A3.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 5, 2010 and has the title "For Those Near, the Miserable Hum of Clean Energy.")






November 20, 2010

Capitalism's Market Entrepreneurs Benefit the Common Man




VanderbiltFiskCartoon2010-11-14.jpg"Rails to riches: An 1870 cartoon depicting James Fisk's attempt to stop Cornelius Vanderbilt from gaining control of the Erie Railroad Company." Source of caption and cartoon: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


I have read H.W. Brands' Masters of Enterprise book and found that it contained some interesting anecdotes, but not very insightful interpretation. From Amity Shlaes' useful review quoted below, I would expect the same from Brands' most recent book.


(p. C7) Mr. Brands laments that capitalism's triumph in the late 19th century created a disparity between the "wealthy class" and the common man that dwarfs any difference of income in our modern distribution tables. But this pitting of capitalism against democracy will not hold. When the word "class" crops up in economic discussions, watch out: it implies a perception of society held in thrall to a static economy of rigid social tiers. Capitalism might indeed preclude democracy if capitalism meant that rich people really were a permanent class, always able to keep the money they amass and collect an ever greater share. But Americans are an unruly bunch and do not stay in their classes. The lesson of the late 19th century is that genuine capitalism is a force of creative destruction, just as Joseph Schumpeter later recognized. Snapshots of rich versus poor cannot capture the more important dynamic, which occurs over time.

One capitalist idea (the railroad, say) brutally supplants another (the shipping canal). Within a few generations--and in thoroughly democratic fashion--this supplanting knocks some families out of the top tier and elevates others to it. Some poor families vault to the middle class, others drop out. If Mr. Brands were right, and the "triumph of capitalism" had deadened democracy and created a permanent overclass, Forbes's 2010 list of billionaires would today be populated by Rockefellers, Morgans and Carnegies. The main legacy of titans, former or current, is that the innovations they support will produce social benefits, from the steel-making to the Internet.

The second failing of "Colossus" is its perpetuation of the robber-baron myth. Years ago, historian Burton Folsom noted the difference between what he labeled political entrepreneurs and market entrepreneurs. The political entrepreneur tends to compete over finite assets--or even to steal them--and therefore deserves the "robber baron" moniker. An example that Mr. Folsom provided: the ferry magnate Robert Fulton, who operated successfully on the Hudson thanks to a 30-year exclusive concession from the New York state legislature. Russia's petrocrats nowadays enjoy similar protections. Neither Fulton nor the petrocrats qualify as true capitalists.

Market entrepreneurs, by contrast, vanquish the competition by overtaking it. On some days Cornelius Vanderbilt was a political entrepreneur--perhaps when he ruined those traitorous partners, for instance. But most days Vanderbilt typified the market entrepreneur, ruining Fulton's monopoly in the 1820s with lower fares, the innovative and cost-saving tubular boiler and a splendid advertising logo: "New Jersey Must Be Free." With market entrepreneurship, a third party also wins: the consumer. Market entrepreneurs are not true robbers, for their ruining serves the common good.



For the full review, see:

AMITY SHLAES. "An Age of Creative Destruction." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 16, 2010): C7.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 29 (sic), 2010.)


The book under critical review by Shlaes:

Brands, H.W. American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900. New York: Doubleday, 2010.


The Folsom book rightly praised in passing by Shlaes is:

Folsom, Burton W. The Myth of the Robber Barons. 4th ed: Young America's Foundation, 2003.






November 19, 2010

Invention Aided By the Intelligent Hand and Spatial Intelligence




(p. 36) For centuries, certainly ever since Immanuel Kant called the hand the window on the mind," philosophers have been pondering the very complex way in which the human hand is related to the human mind. Modern neuroscience and evolutionary biology have confirmed the existence of what the Scottish physician and theologian Charles Bell called the intelligent hand. Stephen Pinker of Harvard even argues that early humans' intelligence increased partly because they were equipped with levers of influence on the world. namely the grippers found at the end of their two arms. We now know that the literally incredible amount of sensitivity and articulation of the human hand, which has increased at roughly the same pace as has the complexity of the human brain, is not merely a product of the pressures of natural selection, butt an initiator of it: The hand has led the brain to evolve just as much as the brain has led the hand. The hands of a pianist, or a painter, or a sushi chef, or even, as with Thomas New-(p. 37)comen, hands that could use a hammer to shape soft iron, are truly, in any functional sense, "intelligent."

This sort of tactile intelligence was not emphasized in A. P. Usher's theory of invention, the components of which he filtered through the early twentieth-century school of psychology known as Gestalt theory, which was preeminently a theory of visual behavior. The most important precepts of Gestalt theory (to Usher, anyway, who was utterly taken with their explanatory power) are that the patterns we perceive visually appear all at once, rather than by examining components one at a time, and that a principle of parsimony organizes visual perceptions into their simplest form. Or forms; one of the most famous Gestalt images is the one that can look like either a goblet or two facing profiles. Usher's enthusiasm for Gestalt psychology explains why, despite his unshakable belief in the inventive talents of ordinary individuals, he devotes an entire chapter of his magnum opus to perhaps the most extraordinary individual in the history of invention: Leonardo da Vinci.

Certainly, Leonardo would deserve a large place in any book on the history of mechanical invention, not only because of his fanciful helicopters and submarines. hut for his very real screw cutting engine, needle making machine, centrifugal pumps, and hundreds more. And Usher found Leonardo an extraordinarily useful symbol in marking the transition in mechanics from pure intuition to the application of science and mathematics.

But the real fascination for Usher was Leonardo's straddling of two worlds of creativity, the artistic and the inventive. No one, before or since, more clearly demonstrated the importance to invention of what we might call "spatial intelligence"; Leonardo was not an abstract thinker of any great achievement, nor were his mathematical skills, which he taught himself late in life, remarkable. (p. 38) His perceptual skills, on the other hand, developed primarily for his painting, were extraordinary, but they were so extraordinary that Usher could write, "It is only with Leonardo that the process of invention is lifted decisively into the field of the imagination. . . . "



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.





November 18, 2010

Some Hispanics Support Arizona Immigration Law




StoletoSpousesDisagreeArizonaLaw2010-11-14.jpg"Shayne Sotelo opposes Arizona's new immigration law, while her husband, Efrain, supports it." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 28) PHOENIX -- Arizona's immigration law, which politicians have debated in the Legislature, lawyers have sparred over in the courtroom and advocates have shouted about on the street, has found its way up a driveway in central Phoenix, through the front door and right onto the Sotelo family's kitchen table.


. . .


That such a divisive social issue would divide some families is not surprising. But what makes the Sotelos stand out is that they are both Latinos, he a Mexican immigrant who was born in the northern state of Chihuahua and she a descendant of Spanish immigrants who grew up in Colorado.

While polls show that a vast majority of Latinos nationwide side with Mrs. Sotelo in opposing Arizona's law, that opposition is not uniform. "All Latinos are not opposed to this law -- that's too simplistic," said Cecilia Menjivar, an Arizona State University sociologist. There are other Mr. Sotelos out there, including an Arizona state legislator, Representative Steve B. Montenegro, a Republican who immigrated from El Salvador and became the only Latino lawmaker to vote in favor of the bill.


. . .


[Mr. Sotelo] thinks his adopted state has been unfairly maligned since the law passed. "I'm a Hispanic, and I don't have any issues walking the streets," he said. "They make it seem like the police or sheriff are out there checking everyone's papers, and that's not so."



For the full story, see:

MARC LACEY. "One Family's Debate Shows Arizona Law Divides Latinos, Too." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., October 31, 2010): 28.

(Note: ellipses added; bracketed name added to replace "He.")

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 30, 2010 and has the title "Arizona Immigration Law Divides Latinos, Too.")





November 17, 2010

Public Employees' Union Was Biggest Spender in 2010 Election




(p. A1) The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is now the biggest outside spender of the 2010 elections, thanks to an 11th-hour effort to boost Democrats that has vaulted the public-sector union ahead of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and a flock of new Republican groups in campaign spending.

The 1.6 million-member AFSCME is spending a total of $87.5 million on the elections after tapping into a $16 million emergency account to help fortify the Democrats' hold on Congress. Last week, AFSCME dug deeper, taking out a $2 million loan to fund its push. The group is spending money on television advertisements, phone calls, campaign mailings and other political efforts, helped by a Supreme Court decision that loosened restrictions on campaign spending.

"We're the big dog," said Larry Scanlon, the head of AFSCME's political operations. "But we don't like to brag."



For the full story, see:

BRODY MULLINS And JOHN D. MCKINNON. "Campaign's Big Spender; Public-Employees Union Now Leads All Groups in Independent Election Outlays." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., OCTOBER 22, 2010): A1 & A4.





November 16, 2010

"The Roiling World of Opera More Appealingly Straightforward than the Roiling World of Academe"




GillRichardEconomist2010-11-13.jpgGillRichardOperaSinger2010-11-13.jpg



















At left, Richard Gill as Harvard economist. At right, Richard "Gill as Frère Laurent, one of his numerous singing roles he preformed at the Met." Source of part of caption, and of photos: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.


(p. B19) Richard T. Gill, in all statistical probability the only Harvard economist to sing 86 performances with the Metropolitan Opera, died on Monday in Providence, R.I. He was 82.


. . .


Mr. Gill, a longtime Harvard faculty member who wrote many widely used economics textbooks, did not undertake serious vocal training (which he began as an anti-smoking regimen) until he was nearly 40. At the time, he had seen perhaps 10 operas and rarely listened to classical music.


. . .


In some respects, he later said, Mr. Gill found the roiling world of opera more appealingly straightforward than the roiling world of academe.

"Performing is a great reality test," he told Newsweek in 1975. "There's no tenure in it and the feedback is much less complicated than you get in academia. When you go out on that stage, you put your life on the line."



For the full obituary, see:

MARGALIT FOX. "Richard T. Gill, Economist and Opera Singer, Dies at 82." The New York Times (Thurs., October 28, 2010): B19.

(Note: ellipses added.)





November 15, 2010

If the Uncredentialed Succeed, It Must Be Luck




(p. 33) Newcomen and Calley had, in broad strokes, the design for a working engine. They had enjoyed some luck, though it was anything but dumb luck. This didn't seem to convince the self-named (p. 34) experimental philosopher J. T. Desaguliers, a Huguenot refugee Like Papin, who became one of Isaac Newton's assistants and (later) a priest in the Church of England. Desaguliers wrote, just before his death in 1744, that the two men had made their engine work, but "not being either philosophers to understand the reason, or mathematicians enough to calculate the powers and to proportion the parts, very luckily by accident found what they sought for."

The notion of' Newcomen's scientific ignorance persists to this day. One of its expressions is the legend that the original engine was made to cycle automatically by the insight of a boy named Humphrey Potter, who built a mazelike network of catches and strings from the plug rod to open the valves and close them. It is almost as if a Dartmouth ironmonger simply had to have an inordinate amount of luck to succeed where so many had failed.

The discovery of the power of injected water was luck; understanding and exploiting it was anything but. Newcomen and CalIey replaced the accidental hole in the cylinder with an injection valve, and, ingeniously, attached it to the piston itself. When the piston reached the bottom of the cylinder, it automatically closed the injection valve and opened another valve, permitting the water to flow out.



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)





November 14, 2010

Steven Johnson Ignores Role of Market in Enabling Innovation




WhereGoodIdeasComeFromBK.jpg






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





Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map is one of my favorite books. I also enjoyed his The Invention of Air. I have not yet read his Where Good Ideas Come From. Based on the review quoted below, I do not expect to be as enthused about the new book.

I have read elsewhere that Johnson criticizes patents. If all would-be innovators were independently wealthy then innovation without patents might work. But William Rosen in The Most Powerful Idea in the World has recently shown that patents financed a key group of craftsmen who otherwise would not have been able to create the steam engines that powered the industrial revolution.

The issues are difficult and important---I will write more in a month or two after I have had a chance to read Johnson's book.


(p. A21) Mr. Johnson thinks that the adjacent possible explains why cities foster much more innovation than small towns: Cities abound with serendipitous connections. Industries, he says, may tend to cluster for the same reason. A lone company in the middle of nowhere has only the mental resources of its employees to fall back on. When there are hundreds of companies around, with workers more likely to change jobs, ideas can cross-fertilize.

The author outlines other factors that make innovation work: the tolerance of failure, as in Thomas Edison's inexorable process-of-elimination approach to finding a workable light-bulb filament; the way that ideas from one field can be transformed in another; and the power of information platforms to connect disparate data and research. "Where Good Ideas Come From" is filled with fascinating, if sometimes tangential, anecdotes from the history of entrepreneurship and scientific discovery. The result is that the book often seems less a grand theory of innovation than a collection of stories and theories about creativity that Steven Johnson happens to find interesting.

It turns out that Mr. Johnson himself has a big idea, but it's not a particularly incisive one: He proposes that competition and market forces are less important to innovation than openness and inspiration. The book includes a list of history's most important innovations and divides them along two axes: whether the inventor was working alone or in a network; and whether he was working for a market reward or for some other reason. Market-led innovations, it turns out, are in the minority.



For the full review, see:

MEGAN MCARDLE. "Serendipitous Connections; Innovation occurs when ideas from different people bang against each other." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., OCTOBER 5, 2010): A21.





November 13, 2010

Increase in Equality of Happiness Between Blacks and Whites




(p. B1) White Americans don't report being any more satisfied with their lives than they did in the 1970s, various surveys show. Black Americans do, and significantly so.

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, the University of Pennsylvania economists who did the study, point out that self-reported measures of happiness usually shift at a glacial pace. The share of whites, for example, telling pollsters in recent years that they are ''not too happy'' -- as opposed to ''pretty happy'' or ''very happy'' -- has been about 10 percent. It was also 10 percent in the 1970s.

Yet the share of blacks saying they are not too happy has dropped noticeably, to about 20 (p. B12) percent in surveys over the last decade, from 24 percent in the 1970s. All in all, Mr. Wolfers calls the changes to blacks' answers, ''one of the most dramatic gains in the happiness data that you'll see.''



For the full commentary, see:

DAVID LEONHARDT. "ECONOMIC SCENE; For Blacks, Progress In Happiness." The New York Times (Weds., September 15, 2010): B1 & B12.


The working paper referred to in the commentary is:

Stevenson, Betsey, and Justin Wolfers. "Subjective and Objective Indicators of Racial Progress." May 12, 2010.





November 12, 2010

Guidelines for Innovative Thinking?




innovation-cartoon.jpg Source of cartoon: http://filipspagnoli.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/innovation-cartoon.jpg?w=361&h=364


The NYT ran the above cartoon by New Yorker cartoonist Leo Cullum as part of Cullum's obituary.


(p. A22) Leo Cullum, a cartoonist whose blustering businessmen, clueless doctors, venal lawyers and all-too-human dogs and cats amused readers of The New Yorker for the past 33 years, died on Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 68 and lived in Malibu, Calif.

Mr. Cullum, a TWA pilot for more than 30 years, was a classic gag cartoonist whose visual absurdities were underlined, in most cases, by a caption reeled in from deep left field. "I love the convenience, but the roaming charges are killing me," a buffalo says, holding a cellphone up to its ear. "Your red and white blood cells are normal," a doctor tells his patient. "I'm worried about your rosé cells."


. . .


His most popular cartoon, from 1998, showed a man addressing the family cat, which is sitting next to the litterbox. "Never, ever, think outside the box," he says.




For the full obituary, see:

WILLIAM GRIMES. "Leo Cullum, New Yorker Cartoonist, Dies at 68." The New York Times (Tues., October 26, 2010): A22.

(Note: the online version of the obituary is dated October 25, 2010.)

(Note: ellipsis added.)





November 11, 2010

Toricelli Experiment Dispoved Aristotlelian Theory that a Vacuum Was Impossible




(p. 8) Florence, in the year 1641, had been essentially the private fief of the Medici family for two centuries. The city, ground zero for both the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, was also where Galileo Galilei had chosen to live out the sentence imposed by the Inquisition for his heretical writings that argued that the earth revolved around the sun. Galileo was seventy years old and living in a villa in Arcetri, in the hills above the city, (p. 9) when he read a book on the physics of movement titled De motu (sometimes Trattato del Moto) and summoned its author, Evangelista Torricelli, a mathematician then living in Rome. Torricelli, whose admiration for Galileo was practically without limit, decamped in time not only to spend the last three months of the great man's life at his side, but to succeed him as professor of mathematics at the Florentine Academy.


. . .


(p. 9) . . . , Torricelli used a tool even more powerful than his well--cultivated talent for mathematical logic: He did experiments. At the behest of one of his patrons, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, whose engineers were unable to build a sufficiently powerful pump, Torricelli designed a series of apparatuses to test the limits of the action of contemporary water pumps. In spring of 1644, Torricelli filled a narrow, four-foot-long glass tube with mercury--a far heavier fluid than water--inverted it in a basin of mercury, sealing the tube's top. and documented that while the mercury did not pour out, it did leave a space at the closed top of the tube. He reasoned that since nothing could have slipped past the mercury in the tube, what occupied the top of the tube must, therefore, be nothing: a vacuum.


. . .


(p. 10) Torricelli was not, even by the standards of his day, a terribly ambitious inventor. When faced with hostility from religious authorities and other traditionalists who believed, correctly, that his discovery was a direct shot at the Aristotelian world, he happily returned to his beloved cycloids, the latest traveler to find himself on the wrong side of the boundary line between science and technology

But by then it no longer mattered if Torricelli was willing to leave the messiness of physics for the perfection of mathematics: vacuum would keep mercury in the bottle, hut the genie was already out. Nature might have found vacuum repugnant for two thousand years, but Europe was about to embrace it.



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)





November 10, 2010

Feds Chastise Us for Being Fat AND Urge Us to Eat More Cheese Pizzas




PizzaCheeseFat2010-11-08.jpg "A government-created industry group worked with Domino's Pizza to bolster sales by increasing the cheese on pies." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 1) Domino's Pizza was hurting early last year. Domestic sales had fallen, and a survey of big pizza chain customers left the company tied for the worst tasting pies.

Then help arrived from an organization called Dairy Management. It teamed up with Domino's to develop a new line of pizzas with 40 percent more cheese, and proceeded to devise and pay for a $12 million marketing campaign.

Consumers devoured the cheesier pizza, and sales soared by double digits. "This partnership is clearly working," Brandon Solano, the Domino's vice president for brand innovation, said in a statement to The New York Times.

But as healthy as this pizza has been for Domino's, one slice contains as much as two-thirds of a day's maximum recommended amount of saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease and is high in calories.

And Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture -- the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting.


. . .


When Michelle Obama implored restaurateurs in September to help fight obesity, she cited the proliferation of cheeseburgers and macaroni and cheese. "I (p. 23) want to challenge every restaurant to offer healthy menu options," she told the National Restaurant Association's annual meeting.

But in a series of confidential agreements approved by agriculture secretaries in both the Bush and Obama administrations, Dairy Management has worked with restaurants to expand their menus with cheese-laden products.



For the full story, see:

MICHAEL MOSS. "While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., November 7, 2010): 1 & 23.

(Note: the online version of the story is dated November 6, 2010.)

(Note: ellipsis added.)



PizzaGraphic2010-11-08.jpgSource of graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





November 9, 2010

If You Think Life Was Better in the Past, "Say One Single Word: Dentistry"




(p. 2) In general, life is better than it ever has been, and if you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: "dentistry."


Source:

O'Rourke, P. J. All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty. paperback ed. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994.






November 8, 2010

Being Bilingual Increases "Cognitive Reserve"




BilingualDementia2010-10-23.gif













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



At first glance the graph and the text quoted below seem inconsistent on whether bilingualism delays the onset of dementia. The text says no, the graph says yes. On closer reading, the text is referring to the "physical signs of deterioration" while the graph is referring to "visible symptoms."


(p. D1) A lifetime of speaking two or more languages appears to pay off in old age, with recent research showing the symptoms of dementia can be delayed by an average of four years in bilingual people.

Multilingualism doesn't delay the onset of dementia--the brains of people who speak multiple languages still show physical signs of deterioration--but the process of speaking two or more languages appears to enable people to develop skills to better cope with the early symptoms of memory-robbing diseases, including Alzheimer's.

Scientists for years studied children and found that fluently speaking more than one language takes a lot of mental work. Compared with people who speak only one language, bilingual children and young adults have slightly smaller vocabularies and are slower performing certain verbal tasks, such as naming lists of animals or fruits.

But over time, regularly speaking more than one language appears to strengthen skills that boost the brain's so-called cognitive reserve, a capacity to work even when stressed or damaged. This build-up of cognitive reserve appears to help bilingual people as they age.



For the full story, see:

SHIRLEY S. WANG. "Building a More Resilient Brain." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., OCTOBER 12, 2010): D1 & D2.





November 7, 2010

How Scientific Progress Was Slowed By Too Much Respect for Aristotelian Theory




William Rosen has a wonderful early example of how too much respect for theory can keep us from making the observations that would eventually prove the theory to be wrong:


(p. 7) Aristotle argued against the existence of a vacuum with unerring, though curiously inelegant, logic. His primary argument ran something like this:

1. If empty space can be measured, then it must have dimension.
2. If it has dimension, then it must be a body (this is something of a tautology: by Aristotelian definition, bodies are things that have dimension).
3. Therefore, anything moving into such a previously empty space would he occupying the same space simultaneously, and two bodies cannot do so.

More persuasive was the argument that a void is unnecessary, that since the fundamental character of an object consists of those measurable dimensions, then a void with the same dimensions as the cup, or horse, or ship occupying it is no different from the object. One, therefore, is redundant, and since the object cannot be superfluous, the void must be.

It takes millennia to recover from that sort of unassailable logic, temptingly similar to that used in Monty Python and the Holy GraiI to demonstrate that if a woman weighs as much as a duck, she is a witch. Aristotle's blind spot regarding the existence of a void would be inherited by a hundred generations of his adherents. Those who read the work of Heron did so through an Aristotelian scrim on which was printed, in metaphorical letters twenty feet high: NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM.



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)





November 6, 2010

Chinese Government Fines BYD and Seizes BYD Factory Site




WangMungerBuffettBYD2010-10-23.jpg"BYD Chairman Wang Chuanfu, left, at a celebration last month in Shenzhen city with Berkshire Hathaway's Charles Munger, center, and Warren Buffett." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. B3) BEIJING--China's central government ordered BYD Co. to surrender land in a zoning dispute, a decision that is likely to slow the Chinese battery and auto maker's push to expand in the nation's growing auto market.

China's Ministry of Land and Resources also hit BYD with a 2.95 million yuan ($442,000) fine, the ministry said on its website Wednesday. The ministry confiscated 121 acres of land in the central Chinese city of Xian, where BYD executives said the company has been building a car assembly plant. BYD had hoped to start production at the complex as early as next year.

The ministry said zoning for the land was "illegally adjusted" to industrial use from agricultural use but didn't elaborate. The decision comes as some government officials have shown concern about excess capacity in the auto industry.


. . .


Mid American Energy Holdings Co., a unit of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., owns 10% of BYD.



For the full story, see:

NORIHIKO SHIROUZU. "China Deals a Setback to BYD." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., OCTOBER 14, 2010): B3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Beijing Halts Construction of BYD Auto Plant.")





November 5, 2010

Private Property as the Guarantor of Free Speech




In the last year or two, some have called for government subsidized newspapers. Presumably they have never read Hayek, nor have they sufficiently pondered Liebling's famous quip:


"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."


Source: Abbott Joseph Liebling, The Press. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981, p. 32.

(Note: I believe that the 1981 Pantheon edition may be an exact reprint of the 1954 Ballantine Books edition. Also, I have not confirmed this, but have seen it claimed that the original location of this quote is Liebling's essay "Do You Belong in Journalism?" New Yorker, 4 May 1960.)





November 4, 2010

Consumers Sack Noisy Green Bags




SunChips2010-10-23.jpg














"Frito-Lay aims to quell complaints about SunChips bags by dumping the new bags for the old packaging." Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article cited below.



The Omaha World-Herald ran a similar article to the WSJ article quoted below, in which they noted that the noisy Sun Chip bags are made from Inego which is a plastic made from corn at a Cargill facility in Blair, Nebraska.


(p. B8) Frito-Lay, the snack giant owned by PepsiCo Inc., says it is pulling most of the biodegradable packaging it uses for its Sun Chips snacks, following an outcry from consumers who complained the new bags were too noisy.

Touted by Frito-Lay as 100% compostable, the packaging, made from biodegradable plant material, began hitting store shelves in January. Sales of the multigrain snack have since tumbled.


. . .


Consumers have posted videos on the Web poking fun at the new bags and lodged fierce complaints on social-networking sites. Since January, year-on-year sales of Sun Chips have decreased each month, according to SymphonyIRI, a Chicago market-research firm that tracks sales at retailers.



For the full story, see:

SUZANNE VRANICA. "Sun Chips Bag to Lose Its Crunch." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., OCTOBER 6, 2010): B8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: I noticed the "sack" pun in a commentary by Eric Felton, WSJ, 10/8/2010.)


The Omaha World-Herald article mentioned above, is:

AP. "Frito-Lay Is Pulling Most Noisy Bags from Shelves." Omaha World-Herald (Tuesday, October 5, 2010): 1D & 2D.

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Frito-Lay pulls most noisy bags.")





November 3, 2010

Paleolithic Humans Ate Carbohydrates




(p. D4) LONDON (Reuters) -- Starch grains found on 30,000-year-old grinding stones suggest that prehistoric humans may have dined on an early form of flatbread, contrary to their popular image as primarily meat eaters.

The findings, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal on Monday, indicate that Paleolithic Europeans ground down plant roots similar to potatoes to make flour, which was later whisked into dough.

"It's like a flatbread, like a pancake with just water and flour," said Laura Longo, a researcher on the team, from the Italian Institute of Prehistory and Early History.


. . .


The findings may . . . upset fans of the so-called Paleolithic diet, which follows earlier research that assumes early humans ate a meat-centered diet.



For the full story, see:

REUTERS. "Paleolithic Humans Had Bread Along With Their Meat." The New York Times (Tues., October 19, 2010): D4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 18, 2010.)





November 2, 2010

William Rosen's "The Most Powerful Idea in the World"




Most-Powerful-Idea-in-the-WorldBK2010-10-24.jpg














Source of book image: http://ffbsccn.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/the-most-powerful-idea-in-the-world.jpg




The range of William Rosen's fascinating and useful book is very broad indeed. He is interested in THE question: why did the singular improvement in living standards known as the industrial revolution happen where and when it did?

The question is not just of historical interest---if we can figure out what caused the improvement then and there, we have a better shot at continuing to improve in the here and now.

I especially enjoyed and learned from William Rosen's discussion, examples and quotations on the difficult issue of whether patents are on balance a good or bad institution.

Deirdre McCloskey taught me that the most important part of a sentence is the last word, and the most important part of a paragraph is the last sentence, and the most important part of a chapter is the last paragraph.

Here are the last couple of sentences of Rosen's book:


(p. 324) Incised in the stone over the Herbert C. Hoover Building's north entrance is the legend that, with Lincoln's characteristic brevity, sums up the single most important idea in the world:

THE PATENT SYSTEM ADDED

THE FUEL OF INTEREST

TO THE FIRE OF GENIUS



In the next few weeks I will occasionally quote a few of the more illuminating passages from Rosen's well-written account.


Book discussed:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.





November 1, 2010

Paternalistic Welfare State Discourages Integration of Immigrants




(p. A9) . . . Alf Svensson [is a] former leader of the center-right Christian Democrats.


. . .


Sweden's paternalistic welfare state is partly to blame for some immigrants' marginal status in the economy, said Mr. Svensson. "We had...a system which was 'taking care' of immigrants, which didn't give them a chance to flex their own wings and show what they could do, and this has made integation worse," he said.



For the full story, see:

MARCUS WALKER And CHARLES DUXBURY. "Far-Right Party Wins Seats in Sweden." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., SEPTEMBER 20, 2010): A9.

(Note: bracketed words and first two ellipses added; last ellipsis in original.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated SEPTEMBER 19, 2010.)





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