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June 30, 2013

iPhone: "A Gleaming World of Innovation and Opportunity, of Capitalism Behaving Well"

SubwayIphoneUse2013-06-21.jpg "The theft of electronic devices like iPhones has fueled a rise in subway crime this year, the police say. In the past, New Yorkers were mugged, sometimes killed, for bomber jackets, Cazal glasses and Air Jordan sneakers." Source of caption: print version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p.24) The current spate of iPhone thefts feels, if anything, more poignant than disruptive. Apple products have always read as cooler than their rivals' because their design suggests a gleaming world of innovation and opportunity, of capitalism behaving well -- a world that seems ever diminishing, ever less accessible to the struggling and young.

Unlike the sneakers and glasses that caused such a fury in the '80s and '90s, iPhones didn't originate in the celebrity system. They come with a democratic ethos (if not the analogous price tag); BlackBerrys are for suits, but even a child can work an iPhone. Wasn't everyone supposed to have a shot?

For the full story, see:

GINIA BELLAFANTE. "BIG CITY; Easy to Use and Easy to Steal, a Status Object Inches Out of Reach." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., October 30, 2011): 24.

(Note: the first paragraph quoted above is from the print version, rather than from the somewhat different online version. The second quoted paragraph is the same in both versions.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date October 28, 2011, and has the slightly different title "BIG CITY; Easy to Use, or Steal, but Inching Out of Reach.")

June 29, 2013

"Self-Reliant" Amish Depend on the Technologies of the Outside World

(p. 230) The Amish are a little sensitive about this, but their self-reliant lifestyle as it is currently practiced is heavily dependent on the greater technium that surrounds their enclaves. They do not mine the metal they build their mowers from. They do not drill or process the kerosene they use. They don't manufacture the solar panels on their roofs. They don't grow or weave the cotton in their clothes. They don't educate or train their own doctors. They also famously do not enroll in armed forces of any kind. (But in compensation for that, the Amish are world-class volunteers in the outside world. Few people volunteer more often, or with (p. 231) more expertise and passion, than the Amish/Mennonites. They travel by bus or boat to distant lands to build homes and schools for the needy.) If the Amish had to generate all their own energy, grow all their clothing fibers, mine all metal, harvest and mill all lumber, they would not be Amish at all because they would be running large machines, dangerous factories, and other types of industry that would not sit well in their backyards (one of the criteria they use to decide whether a craft is appropriate for them). But without someone manufacturing this stuff, they could not maintain their lifestyle or prosperity. In short, the Amish depend on the outside world for the way they currently live. Their choice of minimal technology adoption is a choice--but a choice enabled by the technium. Their lifestyle is within the technium, not outside it.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

June 28, 2013

Discrete Caution Is Not Always Prudent in Corrupt China


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

(p. A13) When economic reform and the seductive breeze of political liberalization come to China in the 1980s, the author's cautious father tells his children that if they want to succeed they should be discreet. He urges his son, who is at Shanghai's Fudan University, not to waste his time on useless foreign books. When the son first reads Shakespeare, he thinks that the expression "to be or not to be" is taken from Confucius. His father tells him that asking for too much freedom can land you in jail. "If you are not careful the government could crush you like a bug." Not long after this warning, the student democracy movement was smashed apart at Tiananmen Square, though Mr. Huang's father did not live to see it.

In the end, it is the father who suffers as his world collapses. Toward the end of his life he was told by the Party that he was to be rewarded for devising a money-saving program at his state factory with promotion and a better wage. Instead the promotion went to the girlfriend of the local Party secretary, and the firm's bosses split his wage rise among themselves. Embittered and exhausted, he died of a heart attack in 1988, ahead of his mother.

For the full review, see:

MICHAEL FATHERS. "BOOKSHELF; Coming of Age In Mao's China; Death cannot be controlled by the party, but disposing of a body can. So the author's father built a coffin in secret at his mother's request.." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., April 30, 2012): C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 29, 2012.)

The book under review, is:

Huang, Wenguang. The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012..

June 27, 2013

$30 Million First National Bank Regulatory Costs Due to Dodd-Frank Replacing Clear Rules with Regulator "Wild Card" Leeway

(p. 1D) The president of First National of Nebraska, the nation's largest privately held banking firm, said new federal regulatory and compliance efforts stand to cost the company as much as $30 million this year.

"It is a big uncertainty in the banking world," said Dan O'Neill, speaking Wednesday at the company's annual meeting in Omaha. "They are not operating off of concrete rules. A lot of it is their interpretation."

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was formed as a result of the federal Dodd-Frank laws passed in 2010 after widespread bank failures and bailouts using taxpayer money. . . .

. . .

The bureau, he said, worries banks because there is not a "clear body of rules" from which the regulator is operating in evaluating the fairness of a bank's business practices. He said the agency's regulators have a lot of leeway in deciding what to do af-(p. 2D)ter examining a bank; penalties for running afoul include fines.

"So it is a bit of a wild card," he said.

For the full story, see:

Russell Hubbard. "First National Chief Says Regulatory Costs Mounting." Omaha World-Herald (THURSDAY, JUNE 20, 2013): 1D-2D.

(Note: ellipses added.)

June 26, 2013

Larry Page Makes an O.K. Decision Now, Rather than a Perfect Decision Later

PageLarryGoogleCEO2013-06-21.jpg "Larry Page has pushed for quicker decision-making and jettisoned more than 25 projects that were not up to snuff." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Larry Page, Google's chief executive, so hates wasting time at meetings that he once dumped his secretary to avoid being scheduled for them. He does not much like e-mail either -- even his own Gmail -- saying the tedious back-and-forth takes too long to solve problems.

. . .

(p. A3) Borrowing from the playbooks of executives like Steven P. Jobs and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, he has put his personal imprint on the corporate culture, from discouraging excessive use of e-mail to embracing quick, unilateral decision-making -- by him, if need be.

"Ever since taking over as C.E.O., I have focused much of my energy on increasing Google's velocity and execution, and we're beginning to see results," Mr. Page, 38, told analysts recently.

. . .

Despite the many external pressures on Google, it is dominant in its business and highly profitable. But, when asked at a recent conference about the biggest threat to his company, Mr. Page answered in one word, "Google."

The problem was that the company had ballooned so quickly -- it now has more than 31,000 employees and $27.3 billion in revenue so far this year -- that it had become sclerotic. A triumvirate of Mr. Page, his co-founder, Sergey Brin, and Eric E. Schmidt, Google's former chief and current chairman, had to agree before anything could be done. The unwieldy management and glacial pace of decision-making were particularly noticeable in the Valley, where start-ups overtake behemoths in months.

It is different now.

"It's much more of a style like Steve Jobs than the three-headed monster that Google was," said a former Google executive who has spoken with current executives about the changes and spoke anonymously to preserve business relationships. "When Eric was there, you'd walk into a product meeting or a senior staff meeting, and everyone got to weigh in on every decision. Larry is much more willing to make an O.K. decision and make it now, rather than a perfect decision later."

For the full story, see:

CLAIRE CAIN MILLER. "Google's Chief Works to Trim a Bloated Ship." The New York Times (Thurs., November 10, 2011): A1 & A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 9, 2011.)

June 25, 2013

Limited Choice Is Cost of Amish Community Closeness

(p. 230) . . . the cost of . . . closeness and dependency is limited choice. No education beyond eighth grade. Few career options for guys, none besides homemaker for girls. For the Amish and minimites, one's fulfillment must blossom inside the traditional confines of a farmer, tradesman, or housewife. But not everyone is born to be a farmer. Not every human is ideally matched to the rhythms of horse and corn and seasons and the eternal close inspection of village conformity. Where in the Amish scheme of things is the support for a mathematical genius or a person who might spend all day composing new music?


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

(Note: ellipses added.)

June 24, 2013

We Should Disenthrall Ourselves of False Scientific Certainties

An Optimists Tour of the Future CoverBK2013-06-21.jpg

Source of book image: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-ELpfH2bTO7c/Tb53WpKuDxI/AAAAAAAADrE/Zq8BQiiasJc/s640/An+Optimists+Tour+of+the+Future+Cover.jpg

(p. C4) Among the scientific certainties I have had to unlearn: that upbringing strongly shapes your personality; that nurture is the opposite of nature; that dietary fat causes obesity more than dietary carbohydrate; that carbon dioxide has been the main driver of climate change in the past.

I came across a rather good word for this kind of unlearning--"disenthrall"--in Mark Stevenson's book "An Optimist's Tour of the Future," published just this week. Mr. Stevenson borrows it from Abraham Lincoln, whose 1862 message to Congress speaks of disenthralling ourselves of "the dogmas of the quiet past" in order to "think anew."

Mr. Stevenson's disenthrallment comes in the course of a series of sharp and fascinating interviews with technological innovators and scientific visionaries. This disenthralls him of the pessimism about the future and nostalgia about the past that he barely realized he had and whose "fingers reach deep into [his] soul." It eventually turns him into an optimist almost as ludicrously sanguine about the 21st century as I am: "I steadfastly refuse to believe that human society can't grow, improve and learn; that it can't embrace change and remake the world better."

Along the way, Mr. Stevenson is struck by other examples of how the way he thinks and reasons is "in thrall to a world that is passing." The first of these bad habits is linear thinking about the future. . . .

We expect to see changes coming gradually, but because things like computing power or the cheapness of genome sequencing change exponentially, technologies can go from impossible to cheap quite suddenly and with little warning.

For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "MIND & MATTER; A Key Lesson of Adulthood: The Need to Unlearn." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., February 5, 2011): C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

The book praised by Ridley, in the passages quoted above, is:

Stevenson, Mark. An Optimist's Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets out to Answer "What's Next?". New York: Avery, 2011.

June 23, 2013

Remedial Ed Does Not Remediate

(p. C4) Two economists looked at the achievements of 453,000 students who took a basic-skills test upon entering both two- and four-year public colleges in Texas in the 1990s. . . .

. . . the authors focused on the 93,000 students who either barely passed or barely failed the test. Those students, with nearly identical skills, got treated very differently: Most who barely failed took remedial courses; most who barely passed took college-level courses.

But there was no difference in subsequent achievement between those two groups. In fact, students who got remedial help were slightly less likely to finish one year of college. The study found no effects of remediation on income seven years after starting college.

For the full story, see:

CHRISTOPHER SHEA. "Week in Ideas; Education; Remedial Ed Needs Help." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., February 5, 2011): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The article summarized in the passages quoted above, is:

Martorell, Paco, and Isaac McFarlin, Jr. "Help or Hindrance? The Effects of College Remediation on Academic and Labor Market Outcomes." Review of Economics and Statistics 93, no. 2 (May 2011): 436-54.

June 22, 2013

Self-Taught Ovshinsky Created New Field in Physics and Licensed His Patents


"Stanford Ovshinsky helped to establish a new field of physics." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ obituary quoted and cited below.

(p. B5) Inspired by the structure of the brain, Stanford Ovshinsky created a new class of semiconductors that helped lead to flat-panel displays, solar cells and nickel-metal hydride batteries for cars, laptops and cameras.

Mr. Ovshinsky, who died Wednesday [October 17, 2012] at age 89, was an industrialist and self-taught scientific prodigy who helped found a new field of physics that studies the electronics of amorphous materials resembling glass.

. . .

"It was like discovering a new continent, like discovering America," said Hellmut Fritzsche, former chairman of physics department at the University of Chicago who worked with Mr. Ovshinsky. "Nobody in the past 50-60 years has created such a revolution in science."

The new materials--dubbed ovonics--were switches like transistors but worked better for many applications.

Mr. Ovshinsky used his discovery to fund a publicly traded research laboratory that teamed up with companies such as 3M Co., Atlantic Richfield Oil Corp. and General Motors, for which he developed the battery that powered the EV1, GM's electric car.

Companies around the world license his patents.

What made Mr. Ovshinsky's work particularly remarkable was that he had little connection to mainstream physics.

His education stopped after high school, . . .

For the full obituary, see:

STEPHEN MILLER. "Stanford Ovshinsky 1922-2012; An Inventor of Chips and Batteries." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., October 19, 2012): B5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date October 18, 2012.)

June 21, 2013

Amish "Are Big Boosters of Genetically Modified Corn"

(p. 222) The Amish use disposable diapers (why not?), chemical fertilizers, and pesticides, and they are big boosters of genetically modified corn. In Europe this corn is called Frankenfood. I asked a few of the Amish elders about that last one. Why do they plant GMOs? Well, they reply, corn is susceptible to the corn borer, which nibbles away at the bottom of the stem and occasionally topples the stalk. Modern 500-horsepower harvesters don't notice this fall; they just suck up all the material and spit out the corn into a bin. The Amish harvest their corn semimanually. It's cut by a chopper device and then pitched into a thresher. But if there are a lot of stalks that are broken, they have to be pitched by hand. That is a lot of very hard, sweaty work. So they plant Bt corn. This genetic mutant carries the genes of the corn borer's enemy, Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a toxin deadly to the corn borer. Fewer stalks are broken and the harvest can be aided with machines, so yields are up. One elder Amish man whose sons run his farm said he was too old to be pitching heavy, broken cornstalks, and he told his sons that he'd only help them with the harvest if they planted Bt corn. The alternative was to purchase expensive, modern harvesting equipment, which none of them wanted. So the technology of genetically modified crops allowed the Amish to continue using old, well-proven, debt-free equipment, which accomplished their main goal of keeping the family farm together. They did not use these words, but they made it clear that they considered genetically modified crops appropriate technology for family farms.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)

June 20, 2013

Nate Silver "Chides Environmental Activists for Their Certainty"


Source of book image: http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/OB-US032_bkrvno_GV_20120924132722.jpg

(p. 12) In recent years, the most sophisticated global-warming skeptics have seized on errors in the forecasts of the United Nations' International Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) in order to undermine efforts at greenhouse gas reduction. These skeptics note that global temperatures have increased at only about half the rate the I.P.C.C. predicted in 1990, and that they flatlined in the 2000s (albeit after rising sharply in the late '90s).

Silver runs the numbers to show that the past few decades of data are still highly consistent with the hypothesis of man-made global warming. He shows how, at the rate that carbon dioxide is accumulating, a single decade of flat temperatures is hardly invalidating. On the other hand, Silver demonstrates that projecting temperature increases decades into the future is a dicey proposition. He chides some environmental activists for their certainty -- observing that overambitious predictions can undermine a cause when they don't come to pass . . .

For the full review, see:

NOAM SCHEIBER. "Known Unknowns." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., November 4, 2012): 12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 2, 2012.)

The book under review, is:

Silver, Nate. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- but Some Don't. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.

June 19, 2013

Cars Increase Our Individual Freedom

(p. A13) Cars appeal powerfully to one of the most important conservative values: individual freedom. Straphangers in public conveyances can only travel in groups, moving along with hordes of strangers according to schedules imposed by others. Bicyclists, free as they may be, are clearly limited by distance and time constraints. Once you get into a car, however, you go wherever you want, whenever you want, subject only to your ability to put gas in the tank.

For the full commentary, see:

MICHAEL MEDVED. "OPINION; Honk If You Were Ever Devoted to a Car; I asked for a chance to say a proper goodbye to our family Plymouth. The night before we traded the car in, I slept in it." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 9, 2013): A13.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 8, 2013.)

June 18, 2013

Heart Disease Affected Ancients Who Differed in Culture, Class and Diet

EgyptologistPreparesMummy2013-06-16.jpg "Egyptologist Dr. Gomaa Abd el-Maksoud prepares the mummy Hatiay (New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, 1550-1295 BCE) for scanning. Hatiay was found to have evidence of extensive vascular disease." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A4) SAN FRANCISCO--It turns out there is nothing new about heart disease.

Researchers who examined 137 mummies from four cultures spanning 4,000 years said Sunday they found robust evidence of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, challenging widely held assumptions that cardiovascular disease is largely a malady of current times.

An international research team of cardiologists, radiologists and archeologists used CT scanners to evaluate the mummies, hunting for deposits of calcium in arterial walls that are a telltale sign of hardening of the arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. They found that 47, or 34%, of the mummies had such deposits, suggesting, they said, that cardiovascular disease was more common in historic times than many experts think.

. . .

The same researchers reported similar findings in 2009 from Egyptian mummies. Because those specimens were believed to have been from the upper echelons of society, the researchers surmised their calcified arteries could have developed from high-fat diets. But by expanding the research to other cultures, including Puebloans of what is now the U.S. Southwest, the researchers believe all levels of society were at risk, regardless of diet.

For the full story, see:

RON WINSLOW. "U.S. NEWS; Telltale Finding on Heart Disease." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., March 11, 2013): A6.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 10, 2013.)

June 17, 2013

Amish Factory Uses Pneumatics in Place of Electricity

(p. 219) The Amish also make a distinction between technology they have at work and technology they have at home. I remember an early visit to an Amish man who ran a woodworking shop near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. . . .

. . .

(p. 220) While the rest of his large workshop lacked electricity beyond that naked bulb, it did not lack power machines. The place was vibrating with an ear-cracking racket of power sanders, power saws, power planers, power drills, and so on. Everywhere I turned there were bearded men covered in sawdust pushing wood through screaming machines. This was not a circle of Renaissance craftsman hand-tooling masterpieces. This was a small-time factory cranking out wooden furniture with machine power. But where was the power coming from? Not from windmills.

Amos took me around to the back where a huge SUV-sized diesel generator sat. It was massive. In addition to a gas engine there was a very large tank, which, I learned, stored compressed air. The diesel engine burned petroleum fuel to drive the compressor that filled the reservoir with pressure. From the tank, a series of high-pressure pipes snaked off toward every corner of the factory. A hard rubber flexible hose connected each tool to a pipe. The entire shop ran on compressed air. Every piece of machinery was running on pneumatic power. Amos even showed me a pneumatic switch, which he could flick like a light switch to turn on some paint-drying fans running on air.

The Amish call this pneumatic system "Amish electricity." At first, pneumatics were devised for Amish workshops, but air power was seen as so useful that it migrated to Amish households. In fact, there is an entire cottage industry in retrofitting tools and appliances to run on Amish electricity. The retrofitters buy a heavy-duty blender, say, and yank out the electrical motor. They then substitute an air-powered motor of appropriate size, add pneumatic connectors, and bingo, your Amish mom now has a blender in her electricity-less kitchen. You can get a pneumatic sewing machine and a pneumatic washer/dryer (with propane heat). In a display of pure steam-punk (air-punk?) nerdiness, Amish hackers try to outdo one another in building pneumatic versions of electrified contraptions. Their mechanical skill is quite impressive, particularly since none went to school beyond the eighth grade. They (p. 221) love to show off their geekiest hacks. And every tinkerer I met claimed that pneumatics were superior to electrical devices because air was more powerful and durable, outlasting motors that burned out after a few years of hard labor. I don't know if this claim of superiority is true or merely a justification, but it was a constant refrain.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

(Note: ellipses added.)

June 16, 2013

Behind the Iron Curtain, Those Who Opposed "Were to Be Destroyed by "Cutting Them Off Like Slices of Salami""


Source of book image: http://www.opednews.com/populum/uploaded/iron-curtain-20882-20130113-95.jpg

(p. 16) That Soviet tanks carried Moscow-trained agents into Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and East Germany was known in the West at the time and has been well documented since. When those agents set out to produce not only a friendly sphere of Soviet influence but also a cordon of dictatorships reliably responsive to Russian orders, Winston Churchill was moved to warn, just days after the Nazis' surrender in 1945, that an Iron Curtain was being drawn through the heart of Europe. (He coined the metaphor in a message to President Truman a full year before he used it in public in Fulton, Mo.) And Matyas Rakosi, the "little Stalin" of Hungary, was well known for another apt metaphor, describing how the region's political, economic, cultural and social oppositions were to be destroyed by "cutting them off like slices of salami."

Applebaum tracks the salami slicing as typically practiced in Poland, Hungary and Germany, and serves up not only the beef but also the fat, vinegar and garlic in exhausting detail. She shows how the knives were sharpened before the war's end in Soviet training camps for East European Communists, so that trusted agents could create and control secret police forces in each of the "liberated" nations. She shows how reliable operatives then took charge of all radio broadcasting, the era's most powerful mass medium. And she demonstrates how the Soviet stooges could then, with surprising speed, harass, persecute and finally ban all independent institutions, from youth groups and welfare agencies to schools, churches and rival political parties.

Along the way, millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and Hungarians were ruthlessly driven from their historic homes to satisfy Soviet territorial ambitions. Millions more were deemed opponents and beaten, imprisoned or hauled off to hard labor in Siberia. In Stalin's paranoid sphere, not even total control of economic and cultural life was sufficient. To complete the terror, he purged even the Communist leaders of each satellite regime, accusing them of treason and parading them as they made humiliating confessions.

It is good to be reminded of these sordid events, now that more archives are accessible and some witnesses remain alive to recall the horror.

For the full review, see:

MAX FRANKEL. "Stalin's Shadow." The New York Times (Sun., November 25, 2012): 16.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 21, 2012.)

The book under review, is:

Applebaum, Anne. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. New York: Doubleday, 2012.

June 15, 2013

Cuban Government Employees "Are Known for Surly Service, Inefficiency, Absenteeism and Pilfering"

(p. A10) However small, . . . , the private sector is changing the work culture on an island where state employees earn meager salaries and are known for surly service, inefficiency, absenteeism and pilfering.

Sergio Alba MarĂ­n, who for years managed the restaurants of a state-owned hotel and now owns a popular fast-food restaurant, said he was very strict with his employees and would not employ workers trained by the state.

"They have too many vices -- stealing, for one," said Mr. Alba, who was marching with his 25 employees and two large banners emblazoned with the name of his restaurant, La Pachanga. "You can't change that mentality."

"Even if you could, I don't have time," he added. "I have a business to run."

For the full story, see:

VICTORIA BURNETT. "HAVANA JOURNAL; Amid Fealty to Socialism, a Nod to Capitalism." The New York Times (Thurs., May 2, 2013): A6 & A10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 1, 2013.)

June 14, 2013

Federal Food Regs Drive Sharon Penner to Stop Baking for Nebraska Children

PennerSharonSlicesHerBakedBread2013-06-11.jpg "Sharon Penner slices fresh bread, which she bakes a few times a week for Hampton, Neb., students. Penner, who has fed the town's schoolchildren for 43 years, saw new school nutrition rules that cut many of her goodies as a sign it was time to retire. With her in the school kitchen is assistant Judy Hitzemann." Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.

Have we gone too far when the preferences of Michelle Obama rule over the preferences of the parents of Hampton, Nebraska? And is it clear that the parents are wrong in thinking that fresh-baked bread (see photo above) and a timely pat on the shoulder (see photo below), are worth some extra calories?

(p. 1A) HAMPTON, Neb. -- Blame the broccoli. Blame the mandarin oranges. Blame all their cousins, from apples to yams, for removing Mrs. Penner's butter bars from the school lunch counter.

Then blame Mrs. Obama for removing Mrs. Penner.

So goes the thinking in this no-stoplight village of 423 people about 20 minutes northwest of York.

When the new federal school nutrition mandates went into effect this year, championed by first lady Michelle Obama, fresh-baked brownies, cookies and other sugary goodies disappeared from the school menu. And Sharon Penner, who has been feeding schoolchildren here for 43 years, decided it was a sign from above to retire.

Friday [May 17, 2013] will be the last school lunch the 70-year-old prepares for the Hampton Hawks.

Mrs. Penner is hanging up her apron.

"She is?" asked an incredulous sixth-grader named Treavar Pekar. (p. 2A) He stopped cold from scrubbing some of the six tables in the small cafeteria when I broke the news after lunch.


That about sums up the community response.

For the full story, see:

Grace, Erin. "Time to Hang Up Her Purple Apron." Omaha World-Herald (FRIDAY, MAY 17, 2013): 1A-2A.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Grace: Hampton lunch lady ready to hang up apron.")

PennerSharonComfortsBryceJoseph2013-06-11.jpg "Sharon Penner with Bryce Joseph, who needed some help after dropping his breakfast tray." Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited above.

June 13, 2013

If Anarcho-Primitives Destroy Civilization, Billions of City-Dwellers Will Die

(p. 211) . . . , the . . . problem with destroying civilization as we know it is that the alternative, such as it has been imagined by the self-described "haters of civilization," would not support but a fraction of the people alive today. In other words, the collapse of civilization would kill billions. Ironically, the poorest rural inhabitants would fare the best, as they could retreat to hunting and gathering with the least trouble, but billions of urbanites would die within months or even weeks, once food ran out and disease took over. The anarcho-primitives are rather sanguine about this catastrophe, arguing that accelerating the collapse early might save lives in total.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

(Note: ellipses added.)

June 12, 2013

Patents Turned Steam from Toy to Engine


Source of book image: http://img2.imagesbn.com/p/9781400067053_p0_v1_s260x420.JPG

(p. 20) The obvious audience for Rosen's book consists of those who hunger to know what it took to go from Heron of Alexandria's toy engine, created in the first century A.D., to practical and brawny beasts like George and Robert Stephenson's Rocket, which kicked off the age of steam locomotion in 1829. But Rosen is aiming for more than a fan club of steam geeks. The "most powerful idea" of his title is not an early locomotive: "The Industrial Revolution was, first and foremost, a revolution in invention," he writes, "a radical transformation in the process of invention itself." The road to Rocket was built with hundreds of innovations large and small that helped drain the mines, run the mills, and move coal and then people over rails.

. . .

Underlying it all, Rosen argues, was the recognition that ideas themselves have economic value, which is to say, this book isn't just gearhead wonkery, it's legal wonkery too. Abraham Lincoln, wondering why Heron's steam engine languished, claimed that the patent system "added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius." Rosen agrees, offering a forceful argument in the debate, which has gone on for centuries, over whether patents promote innovation or retard it.

Those who believe passionately, as Thomas Jefferson did, that inventions "cannot, in nature, be a subject of property," are unlikely to be convinced. Those who agree with the inventors James Watt and Richard Arkwright, who wrote in a manuscript that "an engineer's life without patent is not worthwhile," will cheer. Either way, Rosen's presentation of this highly intellectual debate will reward even those readers who never wondered how the up-and-down chugging of a piston is converted into consistent rotary motion.

For the full review, see:

JOHN SCHWARTZ. "Steam-Driven Dreams." The New York Times (Sun., August 29, 2010): 20.

(Note: ellipsis added; italicized words in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 26, 2010.)

The book under review, is:

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

June 11, 2013

Berkshire Agrees to Buy No More than 25% of DaVita, Firm Accused of Medicare Fraud

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has agreed to cap its ownership of DaVita Healthcare Partners at 25%. A previous entry on this blog quoted a story saying that Ted Weschler is behind Berkshire's purchases of DaVita stock. An even earlier entry on this blog discussed accusations that DaVita Healthcare Partners has committed substantial healthcare fraud by charging the taxpayer millions of dollars for medicine that is needlessly thrown away.

(p. 2D) Berkshire agreed not to buy more than 25 percent of DaVita HealthCare Partners Inc., a national network of medical infusion clinics.

Berkshire investment manager Ted Weschler has been buying DaVita stock for Berkshire since joining the Omaha investment company last year, totaling about 14 percent of the company, Bloomberg reported.

Weschler and DaVita President Javier Rodriguez signed a "standstill agreement" last week, a document often intended to clarify whether an investor wants to acquire controlling interest in a business. Some have speculated that Berkshire wants to acquire all of DaVita's stock, which artificially inflates the price of its shares.

DaVita legal officer Kim Rivera said Berkshire is a "supportive investor with a long-term view."

For the full story, see:

Steve Jordon. "WARREN WATCH; At Berkshire meeting, See's candymaker outshines Warren Buffett." Omaha World-Herald (SUNDAY, MAY 12, 2013): 1D & 2D.

June 10, 2013

After Failing to Enslave Indians, Starving Jamestown Colonists Ate 14-Year-Old Girl


"A facial reconstruction of a 14-year-old girl whose skull shows signs that her remains were used for food after her death and burial." Source of caption and image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

Acemoglu and Robinson in the long, but thought-provoking, opening chapter of their Why Nations Fail book, discuss starvation at the Jamestown colony. Only they don't mainly attribute it to a harsh winter or a slow rescue from England, as does the article quoted below (it is from the New York Times, after all).

Economists Acemoglu and Robinson (p. 23) instead criticize the colony's initial plan to thrive by enslaving natives to bring them gold and food. Eventually John Smith made the bold suggestion that the colonists should try to work to produce something to eat or to trade. The rulers of the colony ignored Smith, resulting in starvation and cannibalism.

(p. A11) Archaeologists excavating a trash pit at the Jamestown colony site in Virginia have found the first physical evidence of cannibalism among the desperate population, corroborating written accounts left behind by witnesses. Cut marks on the skull and skeleton of a 14-year-old girl show that her flesh and brain were removed, presumably to be eaten by the starving colonists during the harsh winter of 1609.

The remains were excavated by archaeologists led by William Kelso of Preservation Virginia, a private nonprofit group, and analyzed by Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The skull bears tentative cuts to the forehead, followed by four strikes to the back of the head, one of which split the skull open, according to an article in Smithsonian magazine, where the find was reported Wednesday.

It is unclear how the girl died, but she was almost certainly dead and buried before her remains were butchered. According to a letter written in 1625 by George Percy, president of Jamestown during the starvation period, the famine was so intense "thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them."

For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Girl's Bones Bear Signs of Cannibalism by Starving Virginia Colonists." The New York Times (Thurs., May 2, 2013): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 1, 2013.)

The Acemoglu book mentioned above is:

Acemoglu, Daron, and James Robinson. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. New York: Crown Business, 2012.

JamestownBonesShowCannibalism2013-05-14.jpg "Human remains from the Jamestown colony site in Virginia bearing evidence of cannibalism." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

June 9, 2013

Moore's Law: Inevitable or Intel?

I believe that Moore's Law remained true for a long time, not because it was inevitable, but because an exemplary company worked very hard and effectively to make it true.

(p. 159) In brief, Moore's Law predicts that computing chips will shrink by half in size and cost every 18 to 24 months. For the past 50 years it has been astoundingly correct.

It has been steady and true, but does Moore's Law reveal an imperative in the technium? In other words is Moore's Law in some way inevitable? The answer is pivotal for civilization for several reasons. First, Moore's Law represents the acceleration in computer technology, which is accelerating everything else. Faster jet engines don't lead to higher corn yields, nor do better lasers lead to faster drug discoveries, but faster computer chips lead to all of these. These days all technology follows computer technology. Second, finding inevitability in one key area of technology suggests invariance and directionality may be found in the
rest of the technium.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

June 8, 2013

The Eccentric History of How Bureaucratic Paper-Pushing Drives Clerks Crazy


Source of book image: http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1360928417l/15904345.jpg

(p. C4) If paperwork studies have an unofficial standard-bearer and theoretician, it's Mr. Kafka. In "The Demon of Writing" he lays out a concise if eccentric intellectual history of people's relationship with the paperwork that governs (and gums up) so many aspects of modern life. The rise of modern bureaucracy is a well-established topic in sociology and political science, where it is often related as a tale of increasing order and rationality. But the paper's-eye view championed by Mr. Kafka tells a more chaotic story of things going wrong, or at least getting seriously messy.

It's an idea that makes perfect sense to any modern cubicle dweller whose overflowing desk stands as a rebuke to the utopian promise of the paperless office. But Mr. Kafka traces the modern age of paperwork to the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which guaranteed citizens the right to request a full accounting of the government. An explosion of paper followed, along with jokes, gripes and tirades against the indignity of rule by paper-pushing clerks, a fair number of whom, judging from the stories in Mr. Kafka's book, went mad.

For the full story, see:

JENNIFER SCHUESSLER. "The Paper Trail Through History." The New York Times (Mon., December 17, 2012): C1 & C4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 16, 2012.)

Kafka's book, mentioned above, is:

Kafka, Ben. The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork. Cambridge, Mass.: Zone Books, 2012.

KafkaBenAuthor2013-05-13.jpg "Ben Kafka, author of "The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork."" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

June 7, 2013

We Worry Most About What We Cannot Control

(p. D7) Studies have compared Americans' perceived ranking of dangers with the rankings of real dangers, measured either by actual accident figures or by estimated numbers of averted accidents. It turns out that we exaggerate the risks of events that are beyond our control, that cause many deaths at once or that kill in spectacular ways -- crazy gunmen, terrorists, plane crashes, nuclear radiation, genetically modified crops. At the same time, we underestimate the risks of events that we can control ("That would never happen to me -- I'm careful") and of events that kill just one person in a mundane way.

For the full commentary, see:

JARED DIAMOND. "ESSAY; That Daily Shower Can Be a Killer." The New York Times (Tues., January 28, 2013): D1 & D7.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 28, 2013.)

June 6, 2013

Faculty Unions Oppose MOOCs that Might Cost Them Their Jobs in Five to Seven Years

ThrunSabastianUdacityCEO2013-05-14.jpg "Sebastian Thrun, a research professor at Stanford, is Udacity's chief executive officer." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Dazzled by the potential of free online college classes, educators are now turning to the gritty task of harnessing online materials to meet the toughest challenges in American higher education: giving more students access to college, and helping them graduate on time.

. . .

Here at San Jose State, . . . , two pilot programs weave material from the online classes into the instructional mix and allow students to earn credit for them.

"We're in Silicon Valley, we (p. A3) breathe that entrepreneurial air, so it makes sense that we are the first university to try this," said Mohammad Qayoumi, the university's president. "In academia, people are scared to fail, but we know that innovation always comes with the possibility of failure. And if it doesn't work the first time, we'll figure out what went wrong and do better."

. . .

Dr. Qayoumi favors the blended model for upper-level courses, but fully online courses like Udacity's for lower-level classes, which could be expanded to serve many more students at low cost. Traditional teaching will be disappearing in five to seven years, he predicts, as more professors come to realize that lectures are not the best route to student engagement, and cash-strapped universities continue to seek cheaper instruction.

"There may still be face-to-face classes, but they would not be in lecture halls," he said. "And they will have not only course material developed by the instructor, but MOOC materials and labs, and content from public broadcasting or corporate sources. But just as faculty currently decide what textbook to use, they will still have the autonomy to choose what materials to include."

. . .

Any wholesale online expansion raises the specter of professors being laid off, turned into glorified teaching assistants or relegated to second-tier status, with only academic stars giving the lectures. Indeed, the faculty unions at all three California higher education systems oppose the legislation requiring credit for MOOCs for students shut out of on-campus classes.

. . .

"Our ego always runs ahead of us, making us think we can do it better than anyone else in the world," Dr. Ghadiri said. "But why should we invent the wheel 10,000 times? This is M.I.T., No. 1 school in the nation -- why would we not want to use their material?"

There are, he said, two ways of thinking about what the MOOC revolution portends: "One is me, me, me -- me comes first. The other is, we are not in this business for ourselves, we are here to educate students."

For the full story, see:

TAMAR LEWIN. "Colleges Adapt Online Courses to Ease Burden." The New York Times (Tues., April 30, 2013): A1 & A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 29, 2013.)

KormanikKatieUdacityStudent2013-05-14.jpg "Katie Kormanik preparing to record a statistics course at Udacity, an online classroom instruction provider in Mountain View, Calif." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

June 5, 2013

Early Societies Were Violent, Superstitious and Unfair

(p. 89) Human nature is malleable. We use our minds to change our values, expectations, and definition of ourselves. We have changed our nature since our hominin days, and once changed, we will continue to change ourselves even more. Our inventions, such as language, writing, law, and science, have ignited a level of progress that is so fundamental and embedded in the present that we now naively expect to see similar good things in the past as well. But much of what we consider "civil" or even "humane" was absent long ago. Early societies were not peaceful but rife with warfare. One of the most common causes of adult death in tribal societies was to be declared a witch or evil spirit. No rational evidence was needed for these superstitious accusations. Lethal atrocities for infractions within a clan were the norm; fairness, as we might think of it, did not extend outside the immediate tribe. Rampant inequality among genders and physical advantage for the strong guided a type of justice few modern people would want applied to them.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

June 4, 2013

Edison, Not Muybridge, Remains the Father of Hollywood


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

(p. A13) Wish it though we might, this strangely off-center Briton isn't really the Father of Hollywood, nor even a distant progenitor of "Avatar." The famous time-lapse images that he took for Stanford, proving that a horse does take all four hoofs off the ground while galloping--and the tens of thousands of photographs that he went on to make of birds flying and people sneezing or bending over and picking things up--were soon so comprehensively overtaken by newer technologies (lenses, shutters, celluloid) that his stature as a proto-movie-maker was soon reduced to a way-station. His contribution was technically interesting but hardly seminal at all. The tragic reality is that Thomas Edison, with whom Muybridge was friendly enough to propose collaboration, retains the laurels--though, as Mr. Ball points out with restrained politeness, Muybridge might have fared better had he been aware of Edison's reputation for "borrowing the work of others and not returning it."

For the full review, see:

SIMON WINCHESTER. "BOOKSHELF; Lights, Camera, Murder; The time-lapse photos Muybridge took in the 19th century were technically innovative, but they didn't make him the Father of Hollywood." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., February 6, 2013): A13.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 6, 2013.)

The book under review is:

Ball, Edward. The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures. New York: Doubleday, 2013.

June 3, 2013

World Population Growth Rate "Expected to Hit Zero Around 2070"

(p. C4) In the 1960s, some experts feared an exponentially accelerating population explosion, and in 1969, the State Department envisaged 7.5 billion people by the year 2000. In 1994, the United Nations' medium estimate expected the seven-billion milestone to arrive around 2009. Compared with most population forecasts made in the past half century, the world keeps undershooting.

The growth rate of world population has halved since the '60s and is now expected to hit zero around 2070, with population around 10 billion, though some news outlets prefer to focus on the U.N.'s "high" estimate that it "could" reach 15 billion. The truth is, nobody can know, but if it's below 10 billion in 2100, we will have only increased in numbers by 1.5 times in the 21st century, compared with a fourfold increase in the 20th.

For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "MIND & MATTER; Who's Afraid of Seven Billion People?" The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 29, 2011): C4.

June 2, 2013

Tesla CTO Straubel Likes Biography of Tesla


J.B. Straubel, Chief Technology Officer of Tesla Motors. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 2) J. B. Straubel is a founder and the chief technical officer of Tesla Motors in Palo Alto, Calif. The company makes electric vehicles that some compare to Apple products in terms of obsessive attention to design, intuitive user interface and expense.

READING I like to read biographies of interesting people, mostly scientists and engineers. Right now, it's "Steve Jobs," by Walter Isaacson. One of my favorites biographies was "Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla," by Marc Seifer, which I read even before Tesla Motors started.

. . .

WATCHING I really like the movie "October Sky." It's about a guy who grew up in a little coal-mining town around the time of Sputnik. He fell in love with the idea of building rockets and the movie follows him through his high school years when he's building rockets and eventually he ends up becoming an engineer at NASA. I watch it every year or so. It's inspirational. I always come out of it wanting to work harder.

For the full interview, see:

KATE MURPHY. "DOWNLOAD; J. B. Straubel." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., April 7, 2013): 2.

(Note: ellipsis added; bold in original.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date April 6, 2013.)

June 1, 2013

Cities Provide Children "Options for Their Future"

(p. 85) As Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City (about Mumbai), says, "Why would anyone leave a brick house in the village with its two mango trees and its view of small hills in the East to come here?" Then he answers: "So that someday the eldest son can buy two rooms in Mira Road, at the northern edges of the city. And the younger one can move beyond that, to New Jersey. Discomfort is an investment."

Then Mehta continues: "For the young person in an Indian village, the call of Mumbai isn't just about money. It's also about freedom." Stewart Brand recounts this summation of the magnetic pull of cities by activist Kavita Ramdas: "In the village, all there is for a woman is to obey her husband and relatives, pound millet, and sing. If she moves to town, she can get a job, start a business, and get education for her children." The Bedouin of Arabia were once seemingly the freest people on Earth, roaming the great Empty Quarter at will, under a tent of stars and no one's thumb. But they are rapidly quitting their nomadic life and (p. 86) hustling into drab, concrete-block apartments in exploding Gulf-state ghettos. As reported by Donovan Webster in National Geographic, they stable their camels and goats in their ancestral village, because the bounty and attraction of the herder's life still remain for them. The Bedouin are lured, not pushed, to the city because, in their own words: "We can always go into the desert to taste the old life. But this [new] life is better than the old way. Before there was no medical care, no schools for our children." An eighty-year-old Bedouin chief sums it up better than I could: "The children will have more options for their future."


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

(Note: italics, an bracketed "new," in original.)


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