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January 31, 2011

Feds Protect Us from Freshly Baked Cookies




MastersElementaryBakeSale2011-01-30.jpg
"Schools like Omaha's Masters Elementary, which held a recent holiday bake sale, count on the profits from selling cupcakes, caramel corn and other goodies to raise money for field trips and other activities." Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.



(p. 1A) A business club at Millard West High School peddles freshly baked cookies, raking in $15,000 annually to help send students to national conferences.

At Omaha's Masters Elementary, cupcakes, fudge and other bake-sale treats raise $500 for field trips, rain jackets for the safety patrol and playground equipment.

But the federal government could slam the brakes on those brownies and lower the boom on the lemon bars.

A child nutrition bill passed recently by Congress gives a fed­eral agency the power to limit the frequency of school bake sales and other school-sponsored fundraisers that sell unhealthy food.

To some, the bake sale provision makes about as much sense as leav­ing the marshmallows out of Rice Krispies treats.

It maybe makes sense for the fed­eral government to monitor the qual­ity of ground beef, eggs and milk sold in grocery stores. But caramel corn and snicker doodles whipped up by parents for school bake sales?

"Aren't there more important (p. 2A) things for them to be wor­ried about?" Sandy Hatcher, president of Masters' parent organization, said of the fed­eral government.



For the full story, see:

MICHAEL O'CONNOR. "Putting the brakes on bake sales; New federal rules on frequency during school day may affect fundraising." Omaha World-Herald (Sun., December 12, 2010): 1A-2A.






January 30, 2011

Carlyle (and Rosen) on Arkwright




(p. 236) The greatest hero-worshipper of them all, Thomas Carlyle. described Arkwright as

A plain, almost gross, bag-checked, potbellied, much enduring, much inventing man and barber... . French Revolutions were a-brewing: to resist the same in any measure, imperial Kaisers were impotent without the cotton and cloth of England, and it was this man that had to give England the power of cotton.... It is said ideas produce revolutions, and truly they do; not spiritual ideas only, but even mechanical. In this clanging clashing universal Sword-dance which the European world now dances for the last half-century, Voltaire is but one choragus [leader of a movement, from the old Greek word for the sponsor of a chorus] where Richard Arkwright is another.

. . .


Arkwright was not a great inven-(p. 237)tor, but he was a visionary, who saw, better than any man alive, how to convert useful knowledge into cotton apparel and ultimately into wealth: for himself, and for Britain.



Source:

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

(Note: internal ellipses in original; ellipsis between paragraphs added.)





January 29, 2011

"It Isn't the Consumers' Job to Know What They Want"




iPadChild2011-01-21.jpg "Steven P. Jobs has played a significant role in a string of successful products at Apple, including the iPad, shown above, which was introduced last year." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. B1) Shortly before the iPad tablet went on sale last year, Steven P. Jobs showed off Apple's latest creation to a small group of journalists. One asked what consumer and market research Apple had done to guide the development of the new product.

"None," Mr. Jobs replied. "It isn't the consumers' job to know what they want."

For years, and across a career, knowing what consumers want has been the self-appointed task of Mr. Jobs, Apple's charismatic co-founder. Though he has not always been right, his string of successes at Apple is uncanny. His biggest user-pleasing hits include the Macintosh, the iMac, iBook, iPod, iPhone and iPad.

But as he takes a medical leave of absence, announced on Monday, the question is: Without him at the helm, can Apple continue its streak of innovation, particularly in an industry where rapid-fire product cycles can make today's leader tomorrow's laggard?


. . .


(p. B4) With the iPad tablet, Apple jump-started a product category. But with the iPod (a music and media player) and iPhone (smartphone), Apple moved into markets with many millions of users using rival products, but he gave consumers a much improved experience.

"These are seeing-around-the-corner innovations," said John Kao, an innovation consultant to corporations and governments. "Steve Jobs is totally tuned into what consumers want. But these are not the kind of breakthroughs that market research, where you are asking people's opinions, really help you make."

Regis McKenna, a Silicon Valley investor and marketing consultant, said employees at Apple stores provide the company with a powerful window into user habits and needs, even if it is not conventional market research.

"Steve visits the Apple store in Palo Alto frequently," said Mr. McKenna, a former consultant to Apple.


. . .


In a conversation years ago, Mr. Jobs said he was disturbed when he heard young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley use the term "exit strategy" -- a quick, lucrative sale of a start-up. It was a small ambition, Mr. Jobs said, instead of trying to build companies that last for decades, if not a century or more.

That was a sentiment, Mr. Jobs said, that he shared with his sometime luncheon companion, Andrew S. Grove, then the chief executive of Intel.

"There are builders and traders," Mr. Grove said on Tuesday. "Steve Jobs is a builder."



For the full story, see:

STEVE LOHR. "The Missing Tastemaker?" The New York Times (Weds., JANUARY 19, 2011): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated January 18, 2011 and has the title "Can Apple Find More Hits Without Its Tastemaker?.")





January 28, 2011

Patent Processing Delay Increases to 3.82 Years





Economists who study patents, sometimes have found that outside of pharmaceuticals, patents seldom have strong positive effects on innovation. That has led some economists and policy advisers to conclude that the patent system has more costs than benefits. But another possibility, supported by facts in the article quoted below, is that the patent system is badly designed and badly implemented.

So rather than abandon the patent system, maybe we should reform its rules, and allow the Patent Office to keep all of its fees to use for hiring and training more staff to process patents.



(p. 4A) MILWAUKEE -- A year and a half after President Barack Obama appointed an IBM Corp. executive to fix the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, it still cannot keep up with its work­load, continuing to battle the ef­fects of years of congressional raids on its funding.


. . .


Also unchanged is a bureau­cracy that publishes entire pat­ent applications online 18 months after they are filed, whether they have been acted upon or not. That puts American ingenuity up for grabs, free to anyone with an Internet connection.


. . .


Applications now languish so long that technologies can be­come obsolete before a patent is ruled upon.

Consider:

>> The agency took 3.82 years on average for each patent it is­sued last year, up from 3.66 years in 2009 and 3.47 in 2008. Many took years longer.

>> The total number of appli­cations awaiting a final decision remains stuck at 1.22 million, nearly unchanged from levels of the past three years.

>> The agency imposed a hiring freeze in 2009 and lost examiners last year, and has been unable to replace them because of budget constraints.

In 2010, the Patent Office col­lected $53 million in fees that it wasn't allowed to keep, according to limits imposed by Congress.

Delays by the Patent Office often inflict the deepest damage on garage inventors and start-up companies that may have no oth­er assets than their unprotected ideas.


. . .


"A lot of companies actually die awaiting their patent because the Patent Office is so slow," said Michel, the former patent court judge.



For the full story, see:

MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL. "Patent agency more harm than help for many inventors; Though more than 1 million applications are stalled, they're already posted online." Omaha World-Herald (Sun., January 23, 2011): 4A.

(Note: ellipses added.)





January 27, 2011

Stranded Chinese Drivers Curse Government and Buy Noodles from Entrepreneurs




StrandedTrafficChinaEntrepreneurs2011-01-21.jpg"Enterprising residents of Hetaocun sold food to stranded travelers at a markup." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A7) HETAOCUN, China -- Compared with some of the more spectacular recent traffic jams in China, among them a 60-mile snarl last summer that paralyzed a major artery outside Beijing for two weeks, the thousands of travelers who spent the night trapped on a snow-coated highway in southwest Guizhou Province on Monday did not even warrant a mention in the local news media.


. . .


Stranded drivers chain-smoked, stomped their feet against the chill and cursed the government for failing to come to their rescue. As the night wore on, fuel lines froze and cellphone batteries died.

The residents of Hetaocun, however, saw the unmoving necklace of taillights from their mountain village and got entrepreneurial. They roused children from their beds, loaded boxes of instant noodles into baskets and began hawking their staples to a captive clientele. The 500 percent markup did not appear to dent sales.

"It rarely snows here, so this is a good thing," said Yi Zhonggui, 42, as he wove past stalled vehicles with his wife and 4-year-old daughter lugging thermoses of hot water.

As the supply of noodles ran low, residents began gathering up the walnuts that give the village its name. In between cries of "walnuts, walnuts," salesmen like Chen Xianneng obliged the desperate with snippets of news from the front, even if the information was based on hearsay.



For the full story, see:

ANDREW JACOBS. "Hetaocun Journal; As Traffic Backs Up, Villagers See Opportunity." The New York Times (Weds., JANUARY 19, 2011): A7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated January 18, 2011 and has the title "Hetaocun Journal; In China, Traffic Jam Benefits Enterprising Villagers.")





January 26, 2011

REVISE THIS ONE: Patents Needed to Provide Money for "the Many Fruitless Experiments"




(p. 234) . . . ; together, Watt and Arkwright wrote a manuscript entitled "Heads of a Bill to explain and amend the laws relative to Letters Patent and grants of privileges for new inventions," essentially a reworking of Coke's Statute of 1623 that had created England's first patent law. In addition to its policy prescriptions, which were largely an unsuccessful argument against the requirement that patent applications be (p. 235) as specific as possible, the manuscript offered a remarkable insight into Watt's perspective on the life of the inventor, who should, in Watt's own (perhaps inadvertently revealing) words, "be considered an Infant, who cannot guard his own Rights":

An engineer's life without patent is not worthwhile . . . few men of ingenuity make fortunes without suffering to think seriously whether the article he manufactures might, or might not, be Improved. The man of ingenuity in order to succeed must seclude himself from Society, he must devote the whole powers of his mind to that one object, he must persevere in spite of the many fruitless experiments he makes, and he must apply money to the expenses of these experiments, which strict Prudence would dedicate to other purposes. By seclusion from the world he becomes ignorant of its manners, and unable to grapple with the more artful tradesman, who has applied the powers of his mind, not to the improvement of the commodity he deals in, but to the means of buying cheap and selling dear, or to the still less laudable purpose of oppressing such ingenious workmen as their ill fate may have thrown into his power.


Source:

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

(Note: the second ellipsis and the italics in original; the first ellipsis added.)





January 25, 2011

Cuban Government Gets Billions by "Exporting" Doctors; Some Defect




RamirezFelixCubanDoctor2011-01-21.jpg "Dr. Felix Ramírez in Gambia in 2008." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



(p. A1) Felix Ramírez slipped into an Internet cafe in the West African nation of The Gambia, scoured the Web for contact information for U.S. diplomats, then phoned the U.S. embassy in Banjul, the capital.

He told the receptionist he was an American tourist who had lost his passport, and asked to speak to the visa section. As he waited to be connected, he practiced his script: "I am a Cuban doctor looking to go to America. When can we meet?"

Dr. Ramírez says he was told to go to a crowded Banjul supermarket and to look for a blond woman in a green dress--an American consular official. They circled one another a few times, then began to talk.

That furtive meeting in September 2008 began a journey for the 37-year-old surgeon that ended in May 2009 in Miami, where he became a legal refugee with a shot at citizenship.

Dr. Ramírez is part of a wave of Cubans who have defected to the U.S. since 2006 under the little-known Cuban Medical Professional Parole immigration program, which allows Cuban doctors and some other health workers who are serving their government overseas to enter the U.S. immediately as refugees. Data released to The Wall Street Journal under the Freedom of Information Act shows that, through Dec. 16, 1,574 CMPP visas have been issued by U.S. consulates in 65 countries.

Cuba has been sending medical "brigades" to foreign countries since 1973, helping it to win friends abroad, to back "revolutionary" regimes in places like Ethiopia, Angola and Nicaragua, and perhaps most importantly, to earn hard currency. Communist Party newspaper Granma reported in June that Cuba had 37,041 doctors and other health workers in (p. A12) 77 countries. Estimates of what Cuba earns from its medical teams--revenue that Cuba's central bank counts as "exports of services"--vary widely, running to as much as $8 billion a year. Many Cubans complain that the brigades have undermined Cuba's ability to maintain a high standard of health care at home.



For the full story, see:

JOEL MILLMAN. "New Prize in Cold War: Cuban Doctors." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., JANUARY 15, 2011): A1 & A12.


CubanDefectingDoctorsGraph2011-01-21.jpg















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







January 24, 2011

Fluorescent Bulbs Burn Out Much Faster than Utility Predicted




(p. A5) When it set up its bulb program in 2006, PG&E Corp. thought its customers would buy 53 million compact fluorescent bulbs by 2008. It allotted $92 million for rebates, the most of any utility in the state. Researchers hired by the California Public Utilities Commission concluded earlier this year that fewer bulbs were sold, fewer were screwed in, and they saved less energy than PG&E anticipated.

As a result of these and other adjustments, energy savings attributed to PG&E were pegged at 451.6 million kilowatt hours by regulators, or 73% less than the 1.7 billion kilowatt hours projected by PG&E for the 2006-2008 program.

One hitch was the compact-fluorescent burnout rate. When PG&E began its 2006-2008 program, it figured the useful life of each bulb would be 9.4 years. Now, with experience, it has cut the estimate to 6.3 years, which limits the energy savings. Field tests show higher burnout rates in certain locations, such as bathrooms and in recessed lighting. Turning them on and off a lot also appears to impair longevity.



For the full story, see:

REBECCA SMITH. "The New Light Bulbs Lose a Little Shine; Compact Fluorescent Lamps Burn Out Faster Than Expected, Limiting Energy Savings in California's Efficiency Program." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., JANUARY 19, 2011): A5.





January 23, 2011

More Economic Freedom in World (But Not in U.S.)




FreedomIndexTable2011.jpgSource of table: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A15) Riots in Greece and France! An IMF bailout for Ireland! The Euro under threat! A new government in London! Tea parties in America! Is it the end of capitalism? Many were predicting just that last year.

The 2011 Index of Economic Freedom, released today by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, tells a different story. The Index records countries' commitment to the free enterprise/capitalist system by measuring 10 categories of economic freedom: fiscal soundness and openness to trade and investment, government size, business and labor regulation, property rights, corruption, monetary stability and financial competition.

The good news this year? One hundred and seventeen countries, mainly developing and emerging market economies, improved their scores, and the average level of economic freedom around the world improved by about a third of a point on the Index's 0 to 100 scale.


. . .


For the U.S. and the U.K., the Index of Economic Freedom confirms what those countries' voters already knew, that there is an urgent need for real change. The U.S. dropped to ninth place in the 2011 Index from eighth (its lowest economic freedom score in a decade), and the UK fell all the way to 16th place from 11th.



For the full commentary, see:

TERRY MILLER. "The U.S. Loses Ground on Economic Freedom." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., JANUARY 12, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the last sentence quoted above is the slightly more informative print version rather than the slightly less informative online version.)





January 22, 2011

When Yarn Was Scarce There Was Less Incentive to Develop Power Looms




(p. 223) Though power looms had existed, at least in concept, for centuries (under his sketch for one, Leonardo himself wrote, "This is second only to the printing press in importance; no less useful in its practical application; a lucrative, beautiful, and subtle invention"), there was little interest in them so long as virtually all the available yarn could be turned into cloth in cottages. This fact reinforced the weaver's independence; but it also encouraged another group of innovative types who were getting ready to put spinning itself on an industrial footing.


Source:

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





January 21, 2011

Those Who Paid Attention to Risk, Did Better in Crisis




DownsideRiskCROcentralityGraph2010-1.jpgSource of graph: screen capture from p. 43 of NBER paper referenced below.



At the American Economic Association meetings in Denver from January 6-9, I attended several sessions dealing the causes and cures of the economic crisis of the last few years.

One issue that came up more than once was whether, and to what extent, various decision makers were blameworthy in what happened. Was this a crisis that well-trained, hard-working and prudent managers, regulators and legislators should have seen coming? Or was it a once in 100 year storm that nobody should be expected to have foreseen?

One compelling bit of evidence was presented in a talk on January 8th by Charles Calomiris in which he presented a graph from a 2010 NBER paper by Ellul and Yerramilli. The graph, shown above, indicates that firms that took risk seriously, as proxied by their giving an important pre-crisis role to a Chief Risk Officer (CRO), tended to suffer less downside volatility during the crisis.


Source:

Ellul, Andrew, and Vijay Yerramilli. "Stronger Risk Controls, Lower Risk: Evidence from U.S. Bank Holding Companies." NBER Working Paper # 16178, July 2010.






January 20, 2011

Economic Importance of Inarticulate Knowledge Undermines Case for Central Planning




(p. 78) . . . the intelligence of humans, though immensely strengthened by articulation, nonetheless contains a large component of tacit understanding by individuals who know more than they can say. If this is also true with respect to the sorts of knowledge relevant to our economic activities, then no comprehensive planning agency could obtain the sort of knowledge necessary for economic planning, for it would lie buried deep in the minds of millions of persons.


Source:

Lavoie, Don. National Economic Planning: What Is Left? Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1985.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






January 19, 2011

What Motivated Paterno to Win 400 Games---"Gettin' Paid"




Paterno400WinsGettinPaidClip.jpgSource of image: screen capture from YouTube clip referenced below.


What motivates employees? Economists have emphasized pay as the primary incentive, while recognizing that there may be "compensating differentials" for aspects of the work that are pleasant or unpleasant.

In recent years many non-economists, such as Daniel Pink in Drive, have emphasized non-pecuniary incentives.

Joe Paterno entered the debate at age 83, after he became the first major college coach to win 400 games on November 6, 2010.

Right after the victory, he was interviewed on the field by "Heather" of ESPN. Starting at 1:33 seconds into the clip referenced below, here is the key dialogue:

Heather: "Coach Paterno, what has motivated you to get to this point?"

Paterno: "Oh geez, I don't know---gettin' paid."




Source: YouTube clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQzdVeYtm5w

(Note: the clip was posted on 11/6/10 by shellymic and has the title "Joe Pa FIRST to 400 Wins!")





January 18, 2011

Artisan's Skills Were Still Required for Kay's Flying Shuttle




(p. 223) Kay's flying shuttle made it possible for weavers to produce a wider product, which they called "broadloom," but doing so was demanding. Weaving requires that the weft threads be under constant tension in order to make certain that each one is precisely the same length as its predecessor; slack is the enemy of a properly woven cloth. Using a flying shuttle to carry weft threads through the warp made it possible to weave a far wider bolt of cloth, but the required momentum introduced the possibility of a rebound, and thereby a slack thread. Kay's invention still needed a skilled artisan to catch the shuttle and so avoid even the slightest bit of bounce when it was thrown across the loom.


Source:

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





January 17, 2011

UNESCO Condemns Africans to Live in a Poorer Past: More on Why Africa is Poor




DjenneMaliBrickBuildings2011-01-12.jpg "As a World Heritage site, Djenné, Mali, must preserve its mud-brick buildings, from the Great Mosque, in the background, to individual homes." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 4) DJENNÉ , Mali -- Abba Maiga stood in his dirt courtyard, smoking and seething over the fact that his 150-year-old mud-brick house is so culturally precious he is not allowed to update it -- no tile floors, no screen doors, no shower.

"Who wants to live in a house with a mud floor?" groused Mr. Maiga, a retired riverboat captain.

With its cone-shaped crenellations and palm wood drainage spouts, the grand facade seems outside time and helps illustrate why this ancient city in eastern Mali is an official World Heritage site.

But the guidelines established by Unesco, the cultural arm of the United Nations, which compiles the heritage list, demand that any reconstruction not substantially alter the original.

"When a town is put on the heritage list, it means nothing should change," Mr. Maiga said. "But we want development, more space, new appliances -- things that are much more modern. We are angry about all that."


. . .


Mahamame Bamoye Traoré, the leader of the powerful mason's guild, surveyed the cramped rooms of the retired river boat captain's house, naming all the things he would change if the World Heritage rules were more flexible.

"If you want to help someone, you have to help him in a way that he wants; to force him to live in a certain way is not right," he said, before lying on the mud floor of a windowless room that measured about 6 feet by 3 feet.

"This is not a room," he said. "It might as well be a grave."



For the full story, see:

NEIL MacFARQUHAR. "Ancient City in Mali Rankled by Rules for Life in Cultural Spotlight." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., January 9, 2011): 4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated January 8, 2011 and had the title "Mali City Rankled by Rules for Life in Spotlight.")



DjenneMaliResidents2011-01-12.jpg "Many residents of Djenné say they long for more modern homes, but Unesco preservation guidelines limit alterations to original structures." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.






January 16, 2011

Cornucopians Win Another Bet with Malthusians




(p. D1) Five years ago, Matthew R. Simmons and I bet $5,000. It was a wager about the future of energy supplies -- a Malthusian pessimist versus a Cornucopian optimist -- and now the day of reckoning is nigh: Jan. 1, 2011.

The bet was occasioned by a cover article in August 2005 in The New York Times Magazine titled "The Breaking Point." It featured predictions of soaring oil prices from Mr. Simmons, who was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the head of a Houston investment bank specializing in the energy industry, and the author of "Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy."

I called Mr. Simmons to discuss a bet. To his credit -- and unlike some other Malthusians -- he was eager to back his predictions with cash. He expected the price of oil, then about $65 a barrel, to more than triple in the next five years, even after adjusting for inflation. He offered to bet $5,000 that the average price of oil over the course of 2010 would be at least $200 a barrel in 2005 dollars.

I took him up on it, not because I knew much about Saudi oil production or the other "peak oil" arguments that global production was headed downward. I was just following a rule learned from a mentor and a friend, the economist Julian L. Simon.

As the leader of the Cornucopians, the optimists who believed there would always be abundant supplies of energy and other resources, Julian figured that betting was the best way to make his argument. Optimism, he found, didn't make for cover stories and front-page headlines.


. . .


(p. D3) When I found a new bettor in 2005, the first person I told was Julian's widow, Rita Simon, a public affairs professor at American University. She was so happy to see Julian's tradition continue that she wanted to share the bet with me, so we each ended up each putting $2,500 against Mr. Simmons's $5,000.


. . .


The past year the price has rebounded, but the average for 2010 has been just under $80, which is the equivalent of about $71 in 2005 dollars -- a little higher than the $65 at the time of our bet, but far below the $200 threshold set by Mr. Simmons.

What lesson do we draw from this? I'd hoped to let Mr. Simmons give his view, but I'm very sorry to report that he died in August, at the age of 67. The colleagues handling his affairs reviewed the numbers last week and declared that Mr. Simmons's $5,000 should be awarded to me and to Rita Simon on Jan. 1, . . .



For the full commentary, see:

JOHN TIERNEY. "Findings; Economic Optimism? Yes, I'll Take That Bet." The New York Times (Tues., December 28, 2010): D1 & D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 27, 2010.)





January 15, 2011

Higher Cancer Rates Due More to Longer Life Spans than to Modern Life Styles




PrehistoricSkullCancer2011-01-12.jpg"DIAGNOSIS. Evidence of tumors in the skull of a male skeleton exhumed from an early medieval cemetery in Slovakia. Often thought of as a modern disease, cancer has always been with us." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. D1) When they excavated a Scythian burial mound in the Russian region of Tuva about 10 years ago, archaeologists literally struck gold. Crouched on the floor of a dark inner chamber were two skeletons, a man and a woman, surrounded by royal garb from 27 centuries ago: headdresses and capes adorned with gold horses, panthers and other sacred beasts.

But for paleopathologists -- scholars of ancient disease -- the richest treasure was the abundance of tumors that had riddled almost every bone of the man's body. The diagnosis: the oldest known case of metastasizing prostate cancer.

The prostate itself had disintegrated long ago. But malignant cells from the gland had migrated according to a familiar pattern and left identifiable scars. Proteins extracted from the bone tested positive for PSA, prostate specific antigen.

Often thought of as a modern disease, cancer has always been with us.


. . .


(p. D7) . . . , Tony Waldron, a paleopathologist at University College London, analyzed British mortality reports from 1901 to 1905 -- a period late enough to ensure reasonably good records and early enough to avoid skewing the data with, for example, the spike in lung cancer caused in later decades by the popularity of cigarettes.

Taking into account variations in life span and the likelihood that different malignancies will spread to bone, he estimated that in an "archaeological assemblage" one might expect cancer in less than 2 percent of male skeletons and 4 to 7 percent of female skeletons.

Andreas G. Nerlich and colleagues in Munich tried out the prediction on 905 skeletons from two ancient Egyptian necropolises. With the help of X-rays and CT scans they diagnosed five cancers -- right in line with Dr. Waldron's expectations. And as his statistics predicted, 13 cancers were found among 2,547 remains buried in an ossuary in southern Germany between A.D. 1400 and 1800.

For both groups, the authors wrote, malignant tumors "were not significantly fewer than expected" when compared with early-20th-century England. They concluded that "the current rise in tumor frequencies in present populations is much more related to the higher life expectancy than primary environmental or genetic factors."


. . .


"Cancer is an inevitability the moment you create complex multicellular organisms and give the individual cells the license to proliferate," said Dr. Weinberg of the Whitehead Institute. "It is simply a consequence of increasing entropy, increasing disorder."

He was not being fatalistic. Over the ages bodies have evolved formidable barriers to keep rebellious cells in line. Quitting smoking, losing weight, eating healthier diets and taking other preventive measures can stave off cancer for decades. Until we die of something else.

"If we lived long enough," Dr. Weinberg observed, "sooner or later we all would get cancer."



For the full story, see:

GEORGE JOHNSON. "Unearthing Prehistoric Tumors, and Debate." The New York Times (Tues., December 28, 2010): D1 & D7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 27, 2010.)





January 14, 2011

Taking Away Patents Would Be "Cutting Off the Hopes of Ingenious Men"




(p. 208) For Watt, the theft (as he saw it) of his work was a deeply personal violation. In (p. 209) 1790, just before realizing the extent of what he perceived as Hornblower's theft of his own work he wrote,

if patentees are to be regarded by the public, as . . . monopolists, and their patents considered as nuisances & encroachments on the natural liberties of his Majesty's other subjects, wou'd it not be just to make a law at once, taking away the power of granting patents for new inventions & by cutting off' the hopes of ingenious men oblige them either to go on in the way of their fathers & not spend their time which would be devoted to the encrease [sic] of their own fortunes in making improvements for an ungrateful public, or else to emigrate to some other Country that will afford to their inventions the protections they may merit?


Source:

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

(Note: italics and ellipsis in original.)





January 13, 2011

Witch Tax Rebellion in Romania: "We Do Harm to Those Who Harm Us"




(p. 16A) MOGOSOIA, Romania--Everyone curses the tax man, but Romanian witches angry about having to pay up for the first time are planning to use cat excrement and dead dogs to cast spells on the president and government.

Also among Romania's newest taxpayers are fortune tellers--but they probably should have seen it coming.


. . .


Romanian witches from the east and west will head to the southern plains and the Danube River on Thursday to threaten the government with spells and spirits because of the tax law, which came into effect Jan. 1.

A dozen witches will hurl the poisonous mandrake plant into the Danube to put a hex on government officials "so evil will befall them," said a witch named Alisia. She identified herself with one name--customary among Romania's witches.


. . .


. . . spiritualism has long been tolerated by the Orthodox Church in Romania, and the late Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, had their own personal witch.

Queen witch Bratara Buzea, 63, who was imprisoned in 1977 for witchcraft under Ceausescu's repressive regime, is furious about the new law.

Sitting cross-legged in her villa in the lake resort of Mogosoaia, just north of Bucharest, she said Wednesday she planned to cast a spell using a particularly effective concoction of cat excrement and a dead dog, along with a chorus of witches.

"We do harm to those who harm us," she said. "They want to take the country out of this crisis using us? They should get us out of the crisis because they brought us into it."



For the full story, see:

ALISON MUTLER. "Witches Curses Over Paying Tax." The Denver Post (Thurs., January 6, 2011): 16A.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Curses! Romania's witches forced to pay income tax.")


If you prefer a briefer version of the witch story, you may consult:

The Associated Press. "A Tax on Witches? A Pox on the President." The New York Times (Fri., January 7, 2011): A9.

(Note: the online version of the NYT article is dated January 6, 2011.)





January 12, 2011

Mutual Benefits from Ending Labor Market Mismatch




(p.6) This is the Mark Twain people love to quote ("Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society." "A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way"), and whenever he hits his stride in the "Autobiography," you feel happy for him -- e.g., writing about Virginia City, Nev., in 1863:

"I secured a place in a nearby quartz (p. 7) mill to screen sand with a long-handled shovel. I hate a long-handled shovel. I never could learn to swing it properly. As often as any other way the sand didn't reach the screen at all, but went over my head and down my back, inside of my clothes. It was the most detestable work I have ever engaged in, but it paid ten dollars a week and board -- and the board was worthwhile, because it consisted not only of bacon, beans, coffee, bread and molasses, but we had stewed dried apples every day in the week just the same as if it were Sunday. But this palatial life, this gross and luxurious life, had to come to an end, and there were two sufficient reasons for it. On my side, I could not endure the heavy labor; and on the Company's side, they did not feel justified in paying me to shovel sand down my back; so I was discharged just at the moment that I was going to resign."



For the full review, see:

GARRISON KEILLOR. "Riverboat Rambler." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., December 19, 2010): 1, 6-7.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 16, 2010, and had the title "Mark Twain's Riverboat Ramblings." )



The book under review, is:

Smith, Harriet Elinor, ed. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.






January 11, 2011

The Fragility of China's Red Capitalism




RedCapitalismBK2011-01-04.jpg













Source of book image: http://media.wiley.com/product_data/coverImage300/63/04708258/0470825863.jpg




Red Capitalism is scheduled for release on February 15, 2011. I have not read it, but from early reports it would appear to be a credible account that updates and supports concerns about China's economy expressed by David Smick (The World Is Curved) and others.


The reference is:

Walter, Carl E., and Fraser J. T. Howie. Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China's Extraordinary Rise. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2011.


The Smick book mentioned, is:

Smick, David M. The World Is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy. New York: Portfolio Hardcover, 2008.





January 10, 2011

London's Albion Mills Was "Likely" Destroyed By Millers' Arson




(p. 187) The Albion Mills, as it would be called, was built on a scale hitherto unimagined. The largest flour mill in London in 1783 used The Albion Mills, as it would be called, was built on a scale hitherto unimagined. The largest flour mill in London in 1783 used four pairs of grinding stones; Albion was to have thirty, driven by three steam engines, each with a 34-inch cylinder. Within months after its completion, in 1786, those engines were driving mills that produced six thousand bushels of flour every week--which both fed a lot of Londoners and angered a lot of millers.

The Albion Mills was London's first factory, and its first great symbol of industrialization; its construction inaugurated not only great age of steam-driven factories, but also the doomed though poignant resistance to them. That resistance took the shape of direct action--no one knows how the fire that destroyed the Albion Mills in 1791 began, but arson by millers threatened by its success seems likely-- . . .



Source:

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

(Note: ellipsis added.)





January 9, 2011

U.S. Sets Capital Requirement Too High for Entrepreneurs' Visas




WongBrian2011-01-02.jpg "Brian Wong, above at his company's office in San Francisco, is a Canadian citizen hoping for a rule change that would ease U.S. visa restrictions." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. B7) San Francisco entrepreneur Brian Wong has already hired two employees and secured $300,000 in funding for his start-up, and hopes to have a staff of 40 or more full-time workers by this time next year.

But there's at least one red flag in his business plan: Mr. Wong isn't American; he's Canadian.


. . .


. . . foreign entrepreneurs have long played an outsized role in the U.S. start-up sector, especially in the tech industry. Immigrants are nearly 30% more likely to start a business than nonimmigrants, the Small Business Administration says. University of California researchers estimate about a third of Silicon Valley technology firms were started by Indian or Chinese entrepreneurs, while a joint study with Duke University found at least one immigrant founder in over a quarter of all engineering and technology firms launched in the U.S. since the mid 1990s, together generating nearly 450,000 jobs by 2005. Google Inc., Intel Corp., Yahoo Inc. and eBay Inc. all had at least one immigrant founder.

Yet many of these companies were also started on a shoestring, leading some tech industry insiders to say the bill's capital requirements are far too high.


. . .


. . . , the start-up visa's high capital requirement is certain to filter out sole-proprietorships, while ensuring it attracts innovative, mostly tech-savvy entrepreneurs, says Bob Litan, a researcher at the Kauffman Foundation. The downside, he says, is that only a handful of immigrant entrepreneurs will qualify.

"Hardly any businesses get venture capital in a given year," Mr. Litan says. "This isn't going to have much of an impact on the U.S. economy and I suspect that's why so few people are opposed to it."


. . .


Without a visa, Mr. Wong says he'll be forced to launch his start-up back in Canada, taking the new jobs with him.



For the full story, see:

ANGUS LOTEN. "New Pitch for Start-Up Visas; Senate Bill Would Make for Smoother U.S. Entry for Foreign Entrepreneurs ." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., December 16, 2010): B7.

(Note: ellipses added.)





January 8, 2011

Longfellow Created a "Hero Whose Bravery Can Inspire"




(p. C13) When it comes to the galloping meter of a narrative poem with a message, Longfellow has no equal.

Unfortunately, this poetic tradition has fallen on hard times. Academics have come to prefer different forms--mainly lyrical verse on personal topics more suited to the tastes of intellectuals than the masses. In recent years, many of Longfellow's works have fallen out of literary anthologies. The reputations of his contemporaries Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman have eclipsed his own.

In his day, however, Longfellow was America's most widely read poet--and his most widely read poem was interpreted as both a warning cry and a call to action on the eve of the Civil War. Yet Longfellow achieved a larger purpose, creating a national hero whose bravery can inspire his fellow citizens down the generations: "For, borne on the night wind of the past / Through all our history, to the last / In the hour of darkness and peril and need / The people will waken and listen to hear / The hurrying hoofbeats of that steed / And the midnight message of Paul Revere."



For the full review, see:

JOHN J. MILLER. "MASTERPIECE; Spotty History, Maybe, but Great Literature." The New York Times Book Review (Sat., December 18, 2010): C13.






January 7, 2011

Trade Stats Count iPhone as Chinese Export, Despite Only 3.6% of iPhone Costs from China




iPhoneGlobalTradeGraph2011-01-02.jpgSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. B1) . . . two academic researchers estimate that Apple Inc.'s iPhone--one of the best-selling U.S. technology products--actually added $1.9 billion to the U.S. trade deficit with China last year.

How is this possible? The researchers say traditional ways of measuring global trade produce the number but fail to reflect the complexities of global commerce where the design, manufacturing and assembly of products often involve several countries.

"A distorted picture" is the result, they say, one that exaggerates trade imbalances between nations.

Trade statistics in both countries consider the iPhone a Chinese export to the U.S., even though it is entirely designed and owned by a U.S. company, and is made largely of parts produced in several Asian and European countries. China's contribution is the last step--assembling and shipping the phones.

So the entire $178.96 estimated wholesale cost of the shipped phone is credited to China, even though the value of the work performed by the Chinese workers at Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. accounts for just 3.6%, or $6.50, of the total, the researchers calculated in a report published this month.



For the full story, see:

ANDREW BATSON. "Not Really 'Made in China'; The iPhone's Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., December 16, 2010): B1 & B2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated DECEMBER 15, 2010nd that were not in the print version.)


The research report breaking down iPhone costs by country is:

Xing, Yuqing, and Neal Detert. "How the Iphone Widens the United States Trade Deficit with the People's Republic of China." ADBI Working Paper Series, no. 257, December 2010.






January 6, 2011

Supervising a Talented Inventor




(p. 180) Anyone who has ever supervised a talented subordinate with a tendency to set his own priorities will find Watt's letters familiar: "I wish William could be brought to do as we do, to mind the business in hand, and let such as Symington [William Symington, the builder of the Charlotte Dundas, one of the world's first steam-engine boats] and Sadler [James Sadler, balloonist and inventor of a table steam engine] throw away their time and money, hunting shadows."


Source:

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

(Note: italics and bracketed words in original.)





January 5, 2011

Chinese Communist Oligarchs Unfriend the World




ChinaFacebookLightMap2011-01-02.jpg "The Facebook friendship map, created by Paul Butler." Source of caption and map: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. B7) The contrast between Facebook's spreading global network of users and its effective absence from China is starkly illustrated by a map, produced by a Facebook intern and flagged on the Economist's website earlier this month, that has lately become a point of fascination of the Chinese Internet.

Described by its creator Paul Butler as "a social graph of 500 million people," the map represents the worldwide volume of Facebook friendships across geographic locations using lines of varying intensity. Butler's methodology is interesting in its own right, but what appeared to most interest China's netizens was how China appears on the map. Or, rather, how it doesn't.


. . .


Since Facebook is blocked in China, the number Facebook friendship lines flowing in and out of the country is essentially negligible, making China almost impossible to see."



For the full story, see:

Josh Chin. "Facebook Gets Back Into China (Sort of...)." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., December 21, 2010): B7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Facebook Gets Back Into China (Sort of...)" and includes paragraphs at the end that were not in the print version.)





January 4, 2011

Bronson Alcott's Environmentalist Utopia Failed from Too Much Verbal Manure and Too Little Real Manure




(p. 21) Like many educational theorists, Bronson Alcott found his own children hard to manage. And, again like many visionaries, he also found it hard to hold down a job. As a result, the family moved 29 times in as many years. In 1843 Bronson helped found Fruitlands, a utopian community 15 miles west of Boston. Members of the commune, which numbered 13 people at its height, advocated abolitionism, environmentalism, feminism and anarchism, forswearing meat, alcohol, neckcloths, haircuts, cotton (because it was grown by slaves) and leather (because it was harvested from animals). Their rejection of one more animal product, manure, helps explain why Fruitlands failed after only eight months: this new Eden remained barren in the absence of fertilizer.

In "Transcendental Wild Oats," a satiric memoir Louisa based on the diary she kept at Fruitlands, one character asks "Are there any beasts of burden on the place?" and is answered, "Only one woman!" In real life, the expulsion of the lone female convert, probably for helping herself to some fish on the sly, left Louisa's mother, Abigail, to do all the women's work and much of the men's -- especially since Bronson and his sidekick, Charles Lane, made a habit of disappearing on recruiting trips at the very moment farm labor was required.



For the full review, see:

LEAH PRICE. "American Girl." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., December 12, 2010): 21.

(Note: the online version of the review is dated December 10, 2010.)



The books under review are:

Cheever, Susan. Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Francis, Richard. Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.





January 3, 2011

Not Long on Dong---Vietnam's Proletariat Use American Dollar Instead




HanoiBlackMarketMoneyExchange2010-12-29.jpg "A black-market money exchange in Hanoi trades dong for dollars." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


They say that for children, 'a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.' Maybe for adults, a spoonful of irony helps the zeitgeist go down?

America lost the war in Vietnam to the Communist Vietcong. Now, the Vietnam government, consisting of the linear descendants of the Communist Vietcong, has so run their currency (the dong) into the ground, that Vietnam's proletariat are choosing to use the American dollar instead of the Vietnamese dong.


(p. C1) HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam--At a time when many emerging markets are trying to stem a destabilizing rise in their local currencies against the dollar, up-and-coming Vietnam is grappling with a rather different problem: Residents can't get enough of the U.S. greenback, as their own currency, the dong, threatens to spiral lower.


. . .


. . . the Communist-run government's determination to hit persistently high growth targets, coupled with state-directed lending growth of more than 30% annually in recent years, have flooded Vietnam's economy with money and created a raft of problems for the local currency. The excess capital has triggered a sharper uptick in inflation than has been seen in other emerging markets, stripping confidence in the dong as residents doubt their government can manage rising costs in the months ahead.


. . .


. . . , the government is projecting an inflation rate of at least 7% a year for the next five years, far higher than its neighbors, in a sign that it intends to pursue its target-driven, growth-at-all-costs policies.

"This isn't a sustainable way to run an economy," says Nguyen Quang A, an economist who ran Vietnam's only independent economic think tank until its founders opted to close it amid tightening government censorship.



For the full story, see:

JAMES HOOKWAY. "Vietnam Battles Dark Side of Boom." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., DECEMBER 16, 2010): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated DECEMBER 15, 2010; the last couple of sentences (starting with "the government") appear in the online, but not in the print, version of the article.)





January 2, 2011

Suppression of Cistercians Did Not Delay Industrial Revolution




(p. 138) . . . , the Cistercians' proven ability to produce substantial quantities of high-quality iron not only fails to prove that they were about to ignite an Industrial Revolution when they were suppressed in the early sixteenth century, it actually demonstrates the opposite--and for two reasons. First, the iron of Laskill and Fontenoy was evidence not of industrialization, but of industriousness. The Cistercians owed their factories' efficiency to their disciplined and cheap workforce rather than any technological innovation; there's nothing like a monastic brotherhood that labors twelve hours a day for bread and water to keep costs down. The sixteenth-century monks were still using thirteenth-century technology, and they neither embraced, nor contributed to, the Scientific Revolution of Galileo and Descartes.

The second reason is even more telling: For centuries, the Cistercian monasteries (and other ironmakers; the Cistercians were leaders of medieval iron manufacturing, but they scarcely monopolized it) had been able to supply all the high-quality iron that anyone could use, but all that iron still failed to ignite a technological revolution. Until something happened to increase demand for iron, smelters and forges, like the waterpower that drove them, sounded a lot like one hand clapping. It would sound like nothing else for--what else?--two hundred years.



Source:

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

(Note: ellipsis added.)





January 1, 2011

Peer Review Versus Open Review (As Inspired by Wikipedia)




CohenDan2010-12-21.jpg "Dan Cohen, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, is among the academics who advocate a more open, Web-based approach to reviewing scholarly works." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) For professors, publishing in elite journals is an unavoidable part of university life. The grueling process of subjecting work to the up-or-down judgment of credentialed scholarly peers has been a cornerstone of academic culture since at least the mid-20th century.


. . .


"What we're experiencing now is the most important transformation in our reading and writing tools since the invention of movable type," said Katherine Rowe, a Renaissance specialist and media historian at Bryn Mawr College. "The way scholarly exchange is moving is radical, and we need to think about what it means for our fields."


. . .


(p. A3) Today a small vanguard of digitally adept scholars is rethinking how knowledge is understood and judged by inviting online readers to comment on books in progress, compiling journals from blog posts and sometimes successfully petitioning their universities to grant promotions and tenure on the basis of non-peer-reviewed projects.


. . .


Each type of review has benefits and drawbacks.

The traditional method, in which independent experts evaluate a submission, often under a veil of anonymity, can take months, even years.

Clubby exclusiveness, sloppy editing and fraud have all marred peer review on occasion. Anonymity can help prevent personal bias, but it can also make reviewers less accountable; exclusiveness can help ensure quality control but can also narrow the range of feedback and participants. Open review more closely resembles Wikipedia behind the scenes, where anyone with an interest can post a comment. This open-door policy has made Wikipedia, on balance, a crucial reference resource.

Ms. Rowe said the goal is not necessarily to replace peer review but to use other, more open methods as well.

In some respects scientists and economists who have created online repositories for unpublished working papers, like repec.org, have more quickly adapted to digital life. Just this month, mathematicians used blogs and wikis to evaluate a supposed mathematical proof in the space of a week -- the scholarly equivalent of warp speed.



For the full story, see:

PATRICIA COHEN. "Scholars Test Web Alternative to the Venerable Peer Review." The New York Times (Tues., August 24, 2010): A1 & A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 23, 2010, and had the slightly shorter title "Scholars Test Web Alternative to Peer Review.")






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