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August 31, 2013

Science Discovers New Six-Foot Lizard




MonitorLizardLuzonIsland2013-08-10.jpg "A 6-foot monitor lizard discovered on Luzon Island in the Philippines." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. D3) The number of lizard species in the world -- by most counts, around 4,000 -- has just increased by one, with the announcement of a new species found on Luzon island in the Philippines.

But this is not a reptile you'd want in a home terrarium. It's a 6-foot monitor lizard, gray with a spectacular pattern of colorful dots and other markings on its scales.

How did a species of lizard the size of a human remain undetected all these centuries? The answer is it didn't. "It's only new to science," said Rafe M. Brown, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas and senior author of a paper describing the new species, Varanus bitatawa, in Biology Letters.



For the full story, see:

HENRY FOUNTAIN. "OBSERVATORY; A New Lizard? Well, New to Science." The New York Times (Tues., April 13, 2010): D3.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 12, 2010.)






August 30, 2013

To Page and Brin Search Speed "Was Like Motherhood, and Scale Was Apple Pie"




(p. 37) The average search at that time, Hölzle recalls, took three and a half seconds. Considering that speed was one of the core values of Page and Brin-- it was like motherhood, and scale was apple pie-- this was a source of distress for the founders. "Basically during the middle of the day we were maxed out," says Hölzle. "Nothing was happening for some users, because it would just never get a page basically back. It was all about scalability, performance improvements." Part of the problem was that Page and Brin had written the system in what Hölzle calls "university code," a nice way of saying amateurish.


Source:

Levy, Steven. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.






August 29, 2013

Philosopher Herbert Spencer Defended Capitalism in America




BanquetAtDelmonicosBK2013-08-12.jpg












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






Spencer was sometimes a much better philosopher than the modern caricature portrays, a caricature exemplified by the review quoted below and, perhaps, by the book reviewed. I would like to look at this book sometime, because there may be some interesting history in it---though I am not optimistic about the book's economic assumptions, or its account of Spencer's philosophy.


(p. A11) Herbert Spencer, the 19th-century British philosopher, is remembered today as the forbidding -- almost forbidden -- father of "Social Darwinism," a school of thought declaring that the fittest prosper in a free marketplace and the human race is gradually improved because only the strong survive. In Barry Werth's satisfying "Banquet at Delmonico's," Spencer is also a querulous 62-year-old celibate whose 1882 American tour culminates in a feast to which are invited the "mostly Republican men of science, religion, business, and government" who shared and spread the Spencerian creed.

Applying Darwinian insights about evolution to political, economic and social life -- though he did not himself use the term "Social Darwinism" -- Spencer concluded that vigorous competition and unfettered capitalism conduced to the betterment of society. He predicted that the American, raised in liberty, would evolve into "a finer type of man than has hitherto existed," dazzling the world with "the highest form of government" and "a civilization grander than any the world has known."


. . .


The public clamor over the visit of a dyspeptic foreign philosopher to these shores was partly due to the indefatigable promotion of Edward Livingston Youmans, Spencer's chief American proselytizer, who called his beau ideal the most original thinker in the history of mankind. Youmans is among the several critics and apostles of Spencer and Darwin whose profiles Mr. Werth skillfully interweaves in this Gilded Age tapestry.



For the full review, see:

BILL KAUFFMAN. "BOOKSHELF; Darwin in the New World; When the father of Social Darwinism came to America, the place where the fittest were supposed to thrive." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., January 9, 2009): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)


The book under review is:

Werth, Barry. Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America. New York: Random House, 2009.


For a more balanced account of Spencer, see the first review below for the mostly good in Spencer, and the second review below for the mostly bad in Spencer:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "Spencer's Tragedy: Review of Herbert Spencer's The Principles of Ethics." Modern Age 24, no. 4 (Fall 1980): 419-421.

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "The State of Spencer: Review of Herbert Spencer's The Man Versus the State." Modern Age 28, nos. 2-3 (Spring/Summer 1984): 286-288.






August 28, 2013

Salt May NOT Be Bad for Our Health, After All




(p. A7) An influential government panel said there is no evidence that very low-salt diets prevent heart disease, calling into question current national dietary guidelines on sodium intake.

The Institute of Medicine, in a report released Tuesday [May 14, 2013], said there isn't sufficient evidence that cutting sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams per day cuts the risk of heart disease. The group of medical experts also said there is no evidence that people who already have heart disease or diabetes should cut their sodium intake even lower.



For the full story, see:

JENNIFER CORBETT DOOREN. "U.S. NEWS; Low-Salt Benefits Questioned." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., May 15, 2013): A7.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 14, 2013.)


For a summary of the Institute of Medicine report, see:

Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. "Sodium Intake in Populations: Assessment of Evidence." Report Brief. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 2013.







August 27, 2013

Urban Planners Made La Défense an Architectural Statement, But a Terrible Place to Live




LaDefenseFrenchPlannedBusinessHubb2013-08-04.jpg "La Défense can feel like a ghost town after 5 p.m. and on weekends, once the district's office workers have left." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. B1) . . . La Défense, begun during the presidency of Charles de Gaulle in the late 1950s and built just west of Paris by bulldozing slums and paving over farmland, has always worked better in architectural theory than in anthropological practice.

Rather than the Parisian business hub its founders described, it often seems more like the isolated end of a spoke that has highlighted a crucial flaw in urban planning -- a concern with making architectural statements -- rather than an affinity for the people in and around the buildings.

When non-French planning experts assess La Défense, they say it shares the same problems as the Canary Wharf complex in London, where developers have tried to supplant the City with Big Architecture and whose artificial origins may be hard to overcome. The experts look more favorably on the somewhat organic mix of (p. B6) business and residential of Lower Manhattan, which has evolved over the last century.

"La Défense has always suffered from a creative hypothermia," said Wojciech Czaja, an Austrian architecture critic. "It is a sad area because it is atmospherically and emotionally perceived as a business district only."

The public agency that manages the complex has hired an architectural firm to draft a new master plan in hopes of making the grandiose vision for La Défense a livable reality.


. . .


"There is nothing good about living here," said Carlin Pierre, 54, who works at a waste disposal center in the district and resides in one of the Brutalist communal, rent-subsidized housing blocks tucked amid the high-rise office buildings. "Sure, it's a nice area to come as a tourist, or even to work," Mr. Pierre said, "but it's terrible to live in La Défense."



For the full story, see:

GEORGI KANTCHEV. "Plan Aims to Enliven Paris's Financial District, Long Called Soulless." The New York Times (Tues., July 30, 2013): B1-B2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 30, 2013.)






August 26, 2013

Google Started in Garage




(p. 34) On September 4, 1998, Page and Brin filed for incorporation and finally moved off campus. Sergey's girlfriend at the time was friendly with a manager at Intel named Susan Wojcicki, who had just purchased a house on Santa Margarita Street in Menlo Park with her husband for $615,000. To help meet the mortgage, the couple charged Google $1,700 a month to rent the garage and several rooms in the house.


Source:

Levy, Steven. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.






August 25, 2013

Dubai Has Strong Ruling Clan, But Weak Institutions




DubaiBK2013-08-12.jpg
















Source of book image: http://www.christopherdavidson.net/sitebuilder/images/DVOS_cover-210x300.jpg



(p. 4) For Mr. Davidson, Dubai's greatest weakness lies in its autocratic governing system. Politics in the emirate, as in most of the Middle East, pivots not on institutions but on clans -- a ruling dynasty and its favorites who own and run Dubai in opaque fashion.

True enough, but most of the Middle East is authoritarian, yet Dubai's enlightened despotism and welcoming social environment have stood out for fostering economic advance. Like China, albeit on a tiny scale, Dubai is engaged in an experiment of economic liberalization without political democracy.

Mr. Davidson further contends that unstable neighbors threaten Dubai's success, but here he may have matters reversed. When Egypt and Iran stifle their entrepreneurs, many of them find a wide berth in Dubai. When Saudi Arabia imposes cultural restrictions on its population, Dubai offers a place to drink and let loose. When India and Pakistan have trouble creating jobs for their large populations, Dubai absorbs labor migrants. When Iraq or Lebanon descends into war, Dubai profits from rebuilding them.

In short, until a vast arc of countries from East Africa to Southeast Asia changes substantially, Dubai will remain poised to benefit by providing a relatively open, secure, low-tax, business-friendly alternative.



For the full review, see:

STEPHEN KOTKIN. "OFF THE SHELF; The Glittering Emirate, Revisited." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., December 7, 2008): 4.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 6, 2008, and the title "OFF THE SHELF; Dubai, the Glittering Emirate, Revisited.")


The book under review, is:

Davidson, Christopher M. Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.






August 24, 2013

A Path to Bringing Back the Extinct Woolly Mammoth




(p. D3) For the first time in 43,000 years, a woolly mammoth has breathed again on earth.

Well, not the mammoth itself but its hemoglobin, the stuff in red blood cells that takes on oxygen in the lungs and offloads it in the tissues. By reconstructing the mammoth's hemoglobin, a team led by Kevin L. Campbell of the University of Manitoba in Canada has discovered how the once-tropical species adapted to living in arctic temperatures.

Dr. Campbell's work raises a somewhat astonishing possibility: that much of the physiology of extinct animals may one day be recoverable from the DNA extracted from their remains.


. . .


Two years ago, scientists at Penn State University sequenced a large part of the mammoth's genome from a clump of hair. They published the sequence along with the arresting suggestion that for just $10 million it might be possible to complete the sequence and use it to generate a living mammoth.

The suggestion was not as wild as it might seem, given that the idea came from George Church, a leading genome technologist at the Harvard Medical School. The mammoth's genome differs at about 400,000 sites from that of the African elephant. Dr. Church has been developing a method for altering 50,000 sites at a time, though he is not at present applying it to mammoths. In converting four sites on the elephant genome to the mammoth version, Dr. Campbell has resurrected at least one tiny part of the mammoth.



For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Mammoth Hemoglobin Offers More Clues to Its Arctic Evolution." The New York Times (Tues., May 4, 2010): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 3, 2010.)






August 23, 2013

"Better Coffee Rockefeller's Money Can't Buy"




BlackPageMortonAndHusbandWilliamBlack2013-08-04.jpg




"Page Morton Black, a cabaret singer, and William Black, the founder of the Chock Full o'Nuts company, in the early 1960s." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. A17) For Gothamites of a certain vintage, it was . . . a part of life . . . -- a jaunty little waltz, its lyrics connoting warmth, fiscal security and celestial reward:


Chock Full o'Nuts is that heavenly coffee,

Heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee.

Chock Full o'Nuts is that heavenly coffee,

Better coffee a millionaire's money can't buy.



Page Morton Black, the cabaret singer whose sprightly rendition of that song in radio and television ads was indelibly engraved on New Yorkers' brains at midcentury, died on Sunday [July 21, 2013] at her home in the Premium Point enclave of New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 97.


. . .


Mrs. Black, the widow of William Black, the founder of the Chock Full o'Nuts company, curtailed her singing career after their marriage. But her voice lived on in the jingle, which was broadcast for more than 20 years.


. . .


The jingle's original last line, "Better coffee Rockefeller's money can't buy," was changed in 1957, after John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his family complained.


. . .


Chock Full o'Nuts, now owned by Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA, has revived the jingle, in a new arrangement, for its contemporary ads. The lyrics have been adjusted for inflation, with "billionaire" replacing "millionaire" in the last line.



For the full obituary, see:

MARGALIT FOX. "Page Morton Black, 97; Sang Heavenly Jingle." The New York Times (Tues., July 23, 2013): B3.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added; jingle italicized and indented in print version of obituary, by not online version.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the title "Page Morton Black, Who Sang Heavenly Jingle, Dies at 97.")






August 22, 2013

"We Just Begged and Borrowed" for Equipment




(p. 32) Google was handling as many as 10,000 queries a day. At times it was consuming half of Stanford's Internet capacity. Its appetite for equipment and bandwidth was voracious. "We just begged and borrowed," says Page. "There were tons of computers around, and we managed to get some." Page's dorm room was essentially Google's operations center, with a motley assortment of computers from various manufacturers stuffed into a homemade version of a server rack-- a storage cabinet made of Legos. Larry and Sergey would hang around the loading dock to see who on campus was getting computers-- companies like Intel and Sun gave lots of free machines to Stanford to curry favor with employees of the future-- (p. 33) and then the pair would ask the recipients if they could share some of the bounty.

That still wasn't enough. To store the millions of pages they had crawled, the pair had to buy their own high-capacity disk drives. Page, who had a talent for squeezing the most out of a buck, found a place that sold refurbished disks at prices so low-- a tenth of the original cost-- that something was clearly wrong with them. "I did the research and figured out that they were okay as long as you replaced the [disk] operating system," he says. "We got 120 drives, about nine gigs each. So it was about a terabyte of space." It was an approach that Google would later adopt in building infrastructure at low cost.

Larry and Sergey would be sitting by the monitor, watching the queries-- at peak times, there would be a new one every second-- and it would be clear that they'd need even more equipment. What next? they'd ask themselves. Maybe this is real.



Source:

Levy, Steven. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

(Note: italics in original.)






August 21, 2013

FDR and LaGuardia Legacy for NYC: Feds Fund Foolish Projects?




CityOfAmbitionBK2013-08-08.jpg











Source of book image: http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/OB-XZ916_bkrvam_DV_20130627152210.jpg






(p. 16) Fiorello La Guardia is regularly ranked not only as the greatest mayor of New York City, but as the greatest mayor of any city in all of American history. His pugnacious charisma, managerial competence and expansive vision still set a near-impossible standard for any candidate for municipal office.

But, as Mason B. Williams's fascinating new book "City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York" reminds us, La Guardia's success rested to a large degree on Franklin Roose­velt's decision to "channel the resources of the federal government through the agencies of America's cities and counties."

The questions raised by the New Deal's role in the development of New York remain relevant. President Obama champions infrastructure spending, but does that spending create local value? Should Washington support cities, like Detroit, that cannot support themselves? Does the power created by an expansive public sector lead to unacceptable abuse?


. . .


Williams tells the story of La Guardia and Roosevelt with insight and elegance, but his book doesn't address the deeper controversies around that partnership. Did La Guardia's New Deal spending saddle New York with obligations too expensive to maintain in the long run? Did a car-heavy construction strategy eventually enable an exodus from the city? La Guardia built much that still has value, but did the precedent of federal funding make foolish projects more likely?

Still, Williams's aim is to write history, not policy analysis, and he succeeds impressively at that. America's cities are the country's true economic heartland, and much of our most important past is urban. "City of Ambition" helps us to understand that past.




For the full review, see:

EDWARD L. GLAESER. "Fiorello!; LaGuardia's Outsize Personality Contributed to His Success, But So Did His Partnership with Franklin D. Roosevelt." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., July 18, 2013): 16.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 18, 2013, and the title "Fiorello!; 'City of Ambition,' by Mason B. Williams.")


The book under review, is:

Williams, Mason B. City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.






August 20, 2013

In Greece, Votes Are Traded for Government Jobs




(p. A4) Some members of Parliament have lobbied for fishing licenses for the owners of pleasure boats in the Aegean islands. Others have asked for government jobs for award-winning athletes or members of dismantled state agencies. One sought to exempt theaters and cinemas from a controversial property tax. Another to reduce fines for the owners of illegally built homes in parts of northern Greece. The list goes on.

In all, more than 90 such budget-busting proposals have been floated as lawmakers scramble to push through last-minute amendments to bills otherwise intended to meet the demands of creditors who want Greece to liberalize its job market, cut red tape and shrink state payrolls.


. . .


But the proliferation of items threatens to delay that step, as lawmakers go to the trough one last time. Greece's practice of trading favors -- often government jobs -- for political support is as old as its 400 years of Ottoman rule, when the system evolved. The word for it, "rousfeti," which means favor, has its roots in the Turkish word for bribe.


. . .


"In Greece, the cross is sold in exchange for a government job," said one of them, Theodoros Pangalos, the outspoken deputy prime minister and seasoned Socialist, referring to the X that voters make on the ballot.

"No one has dared touch this system to date," Mr. Pangalos, who will not seek re-election, said this month in an interview with the French-German television channel Arte. "But it is time for it to change."



For the full story, see:

NIKI KITSANTONIS. "Despite Warning, Old Handouts Die Hard for Greek Politicians Facing Voters Soon." The New York Times (Tues., April 10, 2012): A4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 9, 2012.)






August 19, 2013

George Mitchell, Father of Fracking, Took 20 Years to Make It Work




MitchellGeorgeFatherOfFracking2013-08-04.jpg












"George P. Mitchell with a statue of himself at The Woodlands in 2007." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ obituary quoted and cited below.




(p. B3) George P. Mitchell turned hydraulic fracturing from an experimental technique into an energy-industry mainstay, making it possible to pump oil and gas from once untappable rocks and unleashing an energy boom across the U.S.

Known as the father of fracking, Mr. Mitchell died Friday [July 26, 2013] at age 94 at his home in Galveston, Texas.


. . .


"George Mitchell, more than anyone else, is responsible for the most important energy innovation of the 21st century," said Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of consulting firm IHS and a Pulitzer Prize winning author on energy.


. . .


His first efforts at fracking, in the late 1970s, were expensive, and at times investors and his board of directors questioned the spending. But by the late 1990s the company had figured out the right mix of techniques and materials to produce shale gas economically, and began to do so on a major scale.

Devon Energy Corp. bought Mr. Mitchell's firm in 2002 for $3.1 billion, combined the hydraulic fracturing techniques with horizontal drilling, and helped launch the current surge in oil and gas production.



For the full obituary, see:

TOM FOWLER. "REMEMBRANCES; George P. Mitchell 1919-2013; 'Father of Fracking' Helped Unleash U.S. Energy Boom." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 27, 2013): B3.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date July 26, 2013, and has the title "REMEMBRANCES; 'Father of Fracking' Dies at 94; George P. Mitchell Helped Unleash U.S. Energy Boom.")






August 18, 2013

Excite Rejected Google Because It Was too Good




(p. 28) Maybe the closest Page and Brin came to a deal was with Excite, a search-based company that had begun-- just like Yahoo-- with a bunch of sharp Stanford kids whose company was called Architext before the venture capitalists (VCs) got their hands on it and degeekified the name. Terry Winograd, Sergey's adviser, accompanied them to a meeting with Vinod Khosla, the venture capitalist who had funded Excite.


. . .


(p. 29) Khosla made a tentative counteroffer of $ 750,000 total. But the deal never happened. Hassan recalls a key meeting that might have sunk it. Though Excite had been started by a group of Stanford geeks very much like Larry and Sergey, its venture capital funders had demanded they hire "adult supervision," the condescending term used when brainy geeks are pushed aside as top executives and replaced by someone more experienced and mature, someone who could wear a suit without looking as though he were attending his Bar Mitzvah. The new CEO was George Bell, a former Times Mirror magazine executive. Years later, Hassan would still laugh when he described the meeting between the BackRub team and Bell. When the team got to Bell's office, it fired up BackRub in one window and Excite in the other for a bake-off.

The first query they tested was "Internet." According to Hassan, Excite's first results were Chinese web pages where the English word "Internet" stood out among a jumble of Chinese characters. Then the team typed "Internet" into BackRub. The first two results delivered pages that told you how to use browsers. It was exactly the kind of helpful result that would most likely satisfy someone who made the query.

Bell was visibly upset. The Stanford product was too good. If Excite were to host a search engine that instantly gave people information they sought, he explained, the users would leave the site instantly. Since his ad revenue came from people staying on the site--" stickiness" was the most desired metric in websites at the time-- using BackRub's technology would be (p. 30) counterproductive. "He told us he wanted Excite's search engine to be 80 percent as good as the other search engines," says Hassan. And we were like, "Wow, these guys don't know what they're talking about."

Hassan says that he urged Larry and Sergey right then, in early 1997, to leave Stanford and start a company. "Everybody else was doing it," he says. "I saw Hotmail and Netscape doing really well. Money was flowing into the Valley. So I said to them, 'The search engine is the idea. We should do this.' They didn't think so. Larry and Sergey were both very adamant that they could build this search engine at Stanford."

"We weren't ... in an entrepreneurial frame of mind back then," Sergey later said.



Source:

Levy, Steven. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs added; ellipsis in last sentence, in original.)






August 17, 2013

It's Hard to Be Consistent




TheFirstBillionIsTheHardestBK2013-08-08.jpg









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






(p. A13) Both Adam Smith and Horatio Alger would find something to like in the rise of T. Boone Pickens. "Boy geologist" Boone quit a promising job at Phillips Petroleum in the mid-1950s and built, over the following decades, Mesa Petroleum, a top North American independent oil and gas producer. Mesa found lots of oil and gas, provided jobs for hundreds of workers, and earned wealth for thousands of investors. During the same years, Mr. Pickens's attempts to take over Cities Service, Gulf Oil, Phillips and Unocal made the whole oil industry shape up: His bids required the managers of each company to look hard at its practices and improve its shareholder returns.

Such accomplishments are the core of Mr. Pickens's 1987 autobiography, "Boone," which was updated 13 years later and retitled "The Luckiest Guy in the World." In those books, Mr. Pickens's political philosophy rang loud and clear. "I believe," he stated, "the greatest opportunity lies in a free marketplace." He warned: "There are powerful forces afoot trying to restrict that freedom in the interests of the vested and already wealthy. I am talking about a relatively small collection of corporate executives who would use the engine of American commerce for their own narrow ends."


. . .


Now Mr. Pickens has new dreams -- and he is lobbying Washington to make them come alive.

In particular, Mr. Pickens wants the federal government -- through a mix of tax incentives, mandates and subsidies -- to override the market and redirect the uses of natural gas.


. . .


"The First Billion" argues for this plan, along with recounting Mr. Pickens's business ups and downs. The book is often entertaining, featuring the usual "Boone-isms": e.g., "Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser." But readers unfamiliar with Mr. Pickens's earlier memoirs may not realize that the new one represents a kind of bait-and-switch. Mr. Pickens's standing to pronounce on energy matters was earned as a free-market producer. He is now using that standing to defy the market itself.



For the full review, see:

ROBERT BRADLEY JR. "BUSINESS BOOKSHELF; When Effort Is Energetic." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., September 10, 2008): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)


The book under review is:

Pickens, T. Boone. The First Billion Is the Hardest: Reflections on a Life of Comebacks and America's Energy Future. New York: Crown Business, 2008.






August 16, 2013

New Technologies Often Are Feared at First




(p. 4) It is hard to think of a technology that wasn't feared when it was introduced. In his Atlantic article, Mr. Carr says that Socrates feared the impact that writing would have on man's ability to think. The advent of the printing press summoned similar fears. It wouldn't be the last time.

When Hewlett-Packard invented the HP-35, the first hand-held scientific calculator, in 1972, the device was banned from some engineering classrooms. Professors feared that engineers would use it as a crutch, that they would no longer understand the relationships that either penciled calculations or a slide rule somehow provided for proficient scientific thought.

But the HP-35 hardly stultified engineering skills. Instead, in the last 36 years those engineers have brought us iPods, cellphones, high-definition TV and, yes, Google and Twitter. It freed engineers from wasting time on mundane tasks so they could spend more time creating.

Many technological advances have that effect. Take tax software, for instance. The tedious job of filing a tax return no longer requires several evenings, but just a few hours. It gives us time for more productive activities.



For the full commentary, see:

DAMON DARLIN . "PING; Technology Doesn't Dumb Us Down. It Frees Our Minds." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., September 21, 2008): 4.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date September 20, 2008.)






August 15, 2013

Global Warming Allows Russians to Build Liquefied Natural Gas Plant in Arctic




NovatekArcticLiquefiedNaturalGasPlant2013-08-04.jpg "A rendering of Novatek's proposed $20 billion liquefied natural gas plant on Russia's Arctic coast, scheduled to be done by 2016." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. B1) YURKHAROVSKOYE GAS FIELD, Russia -- The polar ice cap is melting, and if executives at the Russian energy company Novatek feel guilty about profiting from that, they do not let it be known in public.

From this windswept shore on the Arctic Ocean, where Novatek owns enormous natural gas deposits, a stretch of thousands of miles of ice-free water leads to China. The company intends to ship the gas directly there.


. . .


Novatek, in partnership with the French energy company Total and the China National Petroleum Corporation, is building a $20 billion liquefied natural gas plant on the central Arctic coast of Russia. It is one of the first major energy projects to take advantage of the summer thawing of the Arctic caused by global warming.

The plant, called Yamal LNG, would send gas to Asia along the sea lanes known as the Northeast Passage, which opened for regular international shipping only four years ago.



For the full story, see:

ANDREW E. KRAMER. "Polar Thaw Opens Shortcut for Russian Natural Gas." The New York Times (Thurs., July 25, 2013): B1 & B6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date July 24, 2013, and has the title "Polar Thaw Opens Shortcut for Russian Natural Gas.")






August 14, 2013

"Web Links Were Like Citations in a Scholarly Article"




(p. 17) Page, a child of academia, understood that web links were like citations in a scholarly article. It was widely recognized that you could identify which papers were really important without reading them-- simply tally up how many other papers cited them in notes and bibliographies. Page believed that this principle could also work with web pages. But getting the right data would be difficult. Web pages made their outgoing links transparent: built into the code were easily identifiable markers for the destinations you could travel to with a mouse click from that page. But it wasn't obvious at all what linked to a page. To find that out, you'd have to somehow collect a database of links that connected to some other page. Then you'd go backward.


Source:

Levy, Steven. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.






August 13, 2013

For Hubbard and Kane "Institutions Explain Innovation"




HowTheMightyFallBK2013-08-08.jpg












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






(p. A11) Messrs. Hubbard and Kane argue, as do others, that certain policies and core principles are the key: property rights, flexible work rules, open markets. For the authors, such matters explain economic growth entirely.

To those who would cite the primacy of technological breakthroughs, Messrs. Hubbard and Kane assert that inventions only spark growth if there are systems in place (such as intellectual-property rights) that enable inventions to flourish and their value to spread. "The wheel and the windmill were invented many times," they write, "then forgotten, until finally one society had the institutional framework to implement them widely and pass them on permanently." In short, "institutions explain innovation."



For the full review, see:

Matthew Rees. "BOOKSHELF; How the Mighty Fall; The Roman empire eventually lost its economic vitality thanks to price controls, heavy taxes and state-sponsored debt relief.." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., June 21, 2013): A11.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 20, 2013.)


The book under review is:

Hubbard, Glenn, and Tim Kane. Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.







August 12, 2013

If Terry Were from Texas, He Might Oppose Federal Ethanol Mandates




(p. 1A) WASHINGTON -- The ethanol industry is again under fire from critics who want to eliminate the federal mandate that oil companies blend biofuels into the gasoline supply.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is holding hearings on the Renewable Fuel Standard [RFS], which called for 15 billion gallons of biofuels to be used in 2012. The requirements reach 36 billion gallons by 2022.


. . .


(p. 2A) Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said it's clear that members from Texas and Louisiana will be targeting the usage requirements.


. . .


Terry has been a champion of the Keystone XL pipeline, making him an ally of Gulf Coast lawmakers and the oil industry on that issue.

Their split over the ethanol issue causes some awkward moments, he said.

"I say, 'You do realize I'm from the Cornhusker State,'" Terry said. "If I was from Dallas, you know, who knows? I'd have a different view on the RFS."



For the full story, see:

Joseph Morton. "Big Oil Revs Up Efforts to Repeal Rules Forcing Ethonal in the Mix." Omaha World-Herald (MONDAY, JULY 8, 2013): 1A-2A.

(Note: ellipses and bracketed abbreviation added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "RENEWABLE FUEL STANDARD; Ethanol Critics Rev Up Efforts to Repeal Biofuel Rules on Gas.")






August 11, 2013

"No Innovation Happens with 10 People in a Room"




EnglishPaulKayakCofounder2013-08-04.jpg













"Paul English, the co-founder of Kayak, said the company valued testing new ideas, not talking about them." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. B2) Q. You were a co-founder of Kayak nine years ago. What's unusual about the culture?

A. We're a little bit reckless in our decision-making -- not with the business, but the point is that we try things. We give even junior people scary amounts of power to come up with ideas and implement them. We had an intern last summer who, on his very first day at Kayak, came up with an idea, wrote the code and released it. It may or may not have been successful, but it almost doesn't matter, because it showed that we value speed, and we value testing ideas, not talking about them.


. . .


Q. What else?

A. We're known for having very small meetings, usually three people. There's a little clicker for counting people that hangs on the main conference room door. The reason it's there is to send a message to people that I care about this issue. If there's a bunch of people in the room, I'll stick my head in and say, "It takes 10 of you to decide this? There aren't three of you smart enough to do this?"

I just hate design by consensus. No innovation happens with 10 people in a room. It's very easy to be a critic and say why something won't work. I don't want that because new ideas are like these little precious things that can die very easily. Two or three people will nurture it, and make it stronger, give it a chance to see life.



For the full interview, see:

ADAM BRYANT, interviewer. "CORNER OFFICE; Paul English; Ten People in a Meeting Is About Seven Too Many." The New York Times (Fri., July 26, 2013): B2.

(Note: ellipsis added; bold and italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date July 25, 2013, and has the title "CORNER OFFICE; Paul English of Kayak, on Nurturing New Ideas.")






August 10, 2013

"A Jigger of Asperger's in the Mix"




(p. 11) Page was not a social animal-- people who talked to him often wondered if there were a jigger of Asperger's in the mix-- and could unnerve people by simply not talking. But when he did speak, more often than not (p. 12) he would come out with ideas that bordered on the fantastic.


Source:

Levy, Steven. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.






August 9, 2013

Less Credentialed Hazlitt Got More Right than Keynes and White




TheBattleOfBrettonWoodsBK2013-07-21.jpg




















Source of book image:
http://s.s-bol.com/imgbase0/imagebase/large/FC/7/0/6/9/9200000009899607.jpg



(p. C5) One of the many merits of "The Battle of Bretton Woods," a superb history of mid-20th-century monetary affairs, is the timing of its publication. Today, as never before, central banks are printing money, suppressing interest rates and manipulating markets. You wonder where it will all end.


. . .


(p. C6) According to Mr. Steil, the recondite Bretton Woods debates failed to engage the American public as a political issue. If so, it was no fault of Henry Hazlitt's. An editorial writer for the New York Times, Hazlitt directed persistent, withering fire against White's and Keynes's brainchild. (His collected editorials, titled "From Bretton Woods to World Inflation," were published in 1984.) The conference had it all wrong, Hazlitt thundered in the Times. The IMF would subsidize unsound policies. What was wanted were sound ones.

"The broad principles should not be difficult to formulate," the readers of the Times were reminded on the eve of the gathering in New Hampshire. Governments should balance their budgets, forswear 1930s-style impediments to free trade (quotas, exchange restrictions) and refrain from "currency and credit inflation." And the currency itself? It should be "redeemable in something that is itself fixed and definite: for all practical purposes this means a return to the historic gold standard."


. . .


White was a Harvard Ph.D. Keynes was, at least according to Mr. Steil, "the most innovative and iconoclastic economist of his age, if not of all time." Hazlitt was no trained economist at all. But it was he, not the two acclaimed experts, who turned out to be right.



For the full review, see:

James Grant. "A Fateful Meeting That Shaped the World." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 16, 2013): C5-C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 15, 2013.)


The book under review is:

Steil, Benn. The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.






August 8, 2013

Biofuels Like Ethanol Raise Food Costs About 30%




(p. 5) Until January [2008], Keith Collins was the longtime and widely respected chief economist for the Department of Agriculture. In that position, he was a frequent booster of government policies that encouraged biofuel production.

In the months after his departure, he was hired by Kraft Foods Global to analyze the impact of biofuels on food prices. He delivered a stunning, and unexpected, roundhouse to his former employers.

The Bush administration had said biofuels were a minor factor in rising food costs. In a May 1 [2008] press conference, Edward P. Lazear, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said, "The bottom line is that we think that ethanol accounts for somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of the overall increase in global food prices."

A month later, in Rome at a United Nations conference on the food crisis, the agriculture secretary, Ed Schafer, echoed Mr. Lazear's analysis in defending American biofuels policy.

But Mr. Collins pointed out that the administration's analysis was more like a back-of-the-envelope calculation, and that it hadn't accounted for the impact of biofuels on crops other than corn. The push for ethanol has led farmers to grow more corn and less of other food crops, one factor in rising prices for commodities like wheat.

Based on his own analysis, Mr. Collins maintains that biofuels have caused 23 to 35 percent of the increases in food costs.



For the full commentary, see:

ANDREW MARTIN. "THE FEED; The Man Who Dared to Question Ethanol." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., July 13, 2008): 5.

(Note: bracketed years added.)






August 7, 2013

Feds Drop Charge Against 4th Amendment Flasher




AaronTobeyAaronFourthAmendmentFlasher2013-08-04.jpg





















Source of photo: http://tsanewsblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/AaronTobeyHero1.jpg (The WSJ article, cited below, had a similar photo in the print version of the article, but did not include it with the online version.)



(p. B6) Richmond International Airport officials have reached a settlement with Aaron Tobey, the so-called Fourth Amendment flasher.

Mr. Tobey in 2010 was arrested for alleged disorderly conduct at a checkpoint of the Virginia airport for stripping down to his running shorts. On his bare chest, Mr. Tobey had scrawled text of the Fourth Amendment on his chest in protest of the use of full-body scanners, which produced near-naked images of passengers.

The charge against him was dropped.


. . .


Government attorneys agreed not to appeal the Fourth Circuit ruling or further prosecute Mr. Tobey for interfering with TSA procedures, according to the Rutherford Institute, which represented him.

"Frankly, the nation would be better served if all government officials were required to undertake a training course on what it means to respect the constitutional rights of the citizenry," said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal defense group.



For the full story, see:

Gershman, Jacob. "Airport Settles Lawsuit Over Full-Body Scanners." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., July 15, 2013,): B6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date July 14, 2013.)






August 6, 2013

Steel Bankruptcies Led to Better Steel Industry Processes




(p. 3) A few years ago, an industry whose history and mythology were indelible parts of the American identity was dying. The great steel mills of Pennsylvania and the Midwest had literally built this country, but the twin burdens of competition and self-inflicted wounds had brought them to the edge of extinction.


. . .


Yet steel's savior was not the government bailouts it ardently sought but exactly what it so long tried to avoid: bankruptcy. Only when the companies failed were they successfully slimmed down and retooled into smaller but profitable ventures.


. . .


Bethlehem Steel, whose steel was used in the Hoover Dam, the Chrysler building and the George Washington Bridge, filed for bankruptcy in October 2001. It was followed by National Steel, Weirton Steel, Georgetown Steel and many others. The pain was great.

And necessary, some say. "If the steel companies had gotten all they wanted in terms of loan guarantees and import quotas, they would never have gotten better," said Richard Fruehan, director of the Sloan Study on Competitiveness in the Steel Industry. "The bankruptcies forced their hand."



For the full commentary, see:

DAVID STREITFELD. "THE NATION; Is Steel's Revival a Model for Detroit?" The New York Times, Week in Review Section (Sun., November 23, 2008): 3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated November 22, 2008.)






August 5, 2013

In the Plex Helps Us Understand Entrepreneurs Page and Brin




InThePlexBK2013-04-06.jpg















Source of book image: http://mastersofmedia.hum.uva.nl/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/intheplex.jpg




In the Plex goes from detail to detail of the values, actions and quirks of a large cast of characters who have been involved in the Google story. I did not find the book as consistently gripping as Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography.

But some of the details help suggest new hypotheses, or test old ones, on important issues of entrepreneurship and technological progress. Some parts are revealing of the goals and methods of Page and Brin.

During the next weeks I will quote some of the more interesting passages.


Book discussed:

Levy, Steven. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.






August 4, 2013

Hunter-Gatherers Had High Child Mortality and Died Before Age 40




(p. 31) Child mortality in foraging tribes was severe. A survey of 25 hunter-gatherer tribes in historical times from various continents revealed that, on average, 25 percent of children died before they were 1, and 37 percent died before they were 15. In one traditional hunter-gatherer tribe, child mortality was found to be 60 percent. Most historical tribes had a population growth rate of approximately zero. This stagnation is evident, says Robert Kelly in his survey of hunting-gathering peoples, because "when formerly mobile people become sedentary, the rate of population growth increases." All things being equal, the constancy of farmed food breeds more people.

While many children died young, older hunter-gatherers did not have (p. 32) it much better. It was a tough life. Based on an analysis of bone stress and cuts, one archaeologist said the distribution of injuries on the bodies of Neanderthals was similar to that found on rodeo professionals--lots of head, trunk, and arm injuries like the ones you might get from close encounters with large, angry animals. There are no known remains of an early hominin who lived to be older than 40. Because extremely high child mortality rates depress average life expectancy, if the oldest outlier is only 40, the median age was almost certainly less than 20.



Source:

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






August 3, 2013

Wittgenstein Heirs Lost Family Wealth and "Found Little Happiness"




TheHouseOfWittgensteinBK2013-07-21.jpg














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








(p. W10) As he lay dying during Christmas 1912 -- from a gruesome throat cancer -- the Viennese industrialist Karl Wittgenstein no doubt took some comfort in the fact that he was leaving to his heirs one of the largest fortunes in Europe. He had acquired his wealth in just 30 years, the period during which Wittgenstein, an engineer, transformed a small steel mill into Europe's largest steel cartel through a combination of hard work, luck and ruthlessness. As der österreichische Eisenkönig (the "Austrian iron king"), he was the chief executive, principal shareholder or director of dozens of industrial companies and banks that provided the ore, manufacturing and financing for most of the steel products of the Habsburg Empire.

In his spare time, Wittgenstein acquired a spectacular house in Vienna, grandly styled as the family's Palais Wittgenstein.


. . .


Today, though, the Wittgenstein millions are gone and the Palais replaced by a hideous concrete apartment block. "Riches," Adam Smith wrote, ". . . very seldom remain long in the same family." Alexander Waugh's grimly amusing "The House of Wittgenstein" shows how the family fortune was lost and how the family members themselves, despite instances of prodigious talent and accomplishment, found little happiness in their own lives or pleasure in their sibling relations.



For the full review, see:

JAMES F. PENROSE. "BOOKS; A Viennese Blend: Riches and Rancor; Blessed by Musical and Intellectual Gifts, and Lots of Money, a Family Still Struggled to Find Harmony." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 1, 2009): W10.

(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 28, 2009.)


The book under review is:

Waugh, Alexander. The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War. New York: Doubleday, 2009.






August 2, 2013

For Right to Rise, French Youth Must Leave France's "Decrepit, Overcentralized Gerontocracy"




(p. 4) The French aren't used to the idea that their country, like so many others in Europe, might be one of emigration -- that people might actually want to leave. To many French people, it's a completely foreign notion that, around the world and throughout history, voting with one's feet has been the most widely available means to vote at all.


. . .


When the journalist Mouloud Achour, the rapper Mokless and I published a column in the French daily Libération last September, arguing that France was a decrepit, overcentralized gerontocracy and that French youths should pack their bags and go find better opportunities elsewhere in the world, it caused an uproar.


. . .


It was a divide between those who have found their place in the system and believe fervently in defending the status quo, and those who are aware that a country that has tolerated a youth unemployment rate of 25 percent for nearly 30 years isn't a place where the rising generations can expect to rise to much of anything.



For the full commentary, see:

FELIX MARQUARDT. "OPINION; The Best Hope for France's Young? Get Out." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., June 30, 2013): 4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated June 29, 2013.)






August 1, 2013

"Quality of Life Is Better" with a Home Electricity Generator




LaDucaCharlesGeneratorBuyer2013-07-22.jpg "AGAINST ALL STORMS; Charles LaDuca of Bethesda, Md., spent about $12,000 to buy and install a 14-kilowatt generator, below." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. F8) After Tropical Storm Irene pummeled the Northeast in 2011, Keith and Barbara Wolff realized it was time to act. Though they were spared during Irene, several other storms had cut the power to their home in Brookfield, Conn., forcing them to throw out food, wear sweaters to keep warm and find coffee shops to recharge their cellphones and laptops.

So the Wolffs did what many of their neighbors had done: They bought a portable, gasoline-powered generator that produced enough electricity to run many of their essential appliances, including their refrigerator, water well, hot water tank, heater and home offices.

The Wolffs paid about $1,000 for a 7,500-watt generator made by Generac. A week after paying an electrician $900 to hook up the unit to their electrical system, they put their new purchase to work when a snowstorm knocked out their power for nine days.

"It was a pretty hefty investment, but it was well worth it because when it's cold out, you want to at least be able to take a shower," Mr. Wolff said. "There are two things you can do: Be completely aggravated and non-functional or do a workaround so your quality of life is better."



For the full story, see:

KEN BELSON. "Power Grids Iffy, Populous Areas Go for Generators." The New York Times (Thurs., April 25, 2013): F8.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated April 24, 2013.)



GeneracGeneratorBoughtByLaDuca2013-07-23.jpg















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







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