« May 2015 | Main | July 2015 »

June 30, 2015

How to Be an Effective Expert Witness

(p. B16) Dr. David Sackett, whose clinical trials proved the value of taking aspirin in preventing heart attacks and strokes, and who helped pioneer the use of exacting statistical data in treating patients, died on May 13 [2015] in Markdale, Ontario.

. . .

His colleagues also appreciated his sense of humor. He recalled that while he was testifying in a case as an expert witness, a lawyer handed him a research paper supposedly proving the safety of a drug that was in dispute. He read the paper and concluded that it was flawed.

"Well, I could take several more days and show you dozens more papers on this topic, but the jury would probably want to lynch me," the lawyer insisted.

"I would welcome that," Dr. Sackett said.

"Well, we could meet after the trial and go over these papers together," the lawyer suggested.

To which Dr. Sackett replied, "No, I meant that I would welcome the lynching."

For the full obituary, see:

SAM ROBERTS. "Dr. David Sackett, a Health Care Innovator, Dies at 80." The New York Times (Thurs., May 21, 2015): B16.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the obituary is MAY 19, 2015, and has the title "Dr. David Sackett, Who Proved Aspirin Helps Prevent Heart Attacks, Dies at 80.")

June 29, 2015

Common Sense "Rules" Often Contradict Each Other

(p. 43) The world we face is too complex and varied to be handled by rules, and wise people understand this. Yet there is a strange and troubling disconnect between the way we make our moral decisions and the way we talk about them.

From ethics textbooks to professional association codes to our everyday life, any discussion of moral choices is dominated by Rules Talk. If we're asked to explain why we decided to tell the painful, unvarnished truth to a friend, we might say, "Honesty is the best policy." But if we're asked why we decided to shade the truth we might say, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." It's clearly not a rule that is telling us what to do. Both maxims are good rules of thumb, but we don't talk about why we picked one and not the other in any particular case. "Better safe than sorry." But "He who hesitates is lost." "A penny saved is a penny earned." But "Don't be penny wise and pound foolish." When we hear the maxim, we nod. End of story. It's as if stating the rule is sufficient to explain why we did what we did.


Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

June 28, 2015

The Bureaucratic Absurdities of Socialized Medicine

(p. 13) Reading "Do No Harm," Henry Marsh's frank and absorbing narrative of his life in neurosurgery, it was easy to imagine him at the table. The men, and increasingly women, who slice back the scalp, open the skull and enter the brain to extract tumors, clip aneurysms and liberate nerves, share a certain ego required for such work. They typically are bold and blunt, viewing themselves as emperors of the clinical world. Marsh adds irony to this characterization, made clear in the opening line of the book, "I often have to cut into the brain and it is something I hate doing."

. . .

Britain's National Health Service is a socialized system, and Marsh chafes at new rigid rules imposed by its administrators. He is particularly incensed by a mandatory dress code: Neurosurgeons are subject to disciplinary action for wearing a wristwatch. There is scant evidence that this item contributes to hospital infections, but he is shadowed on ward rounds by a bureaucrat who takes notes on his dress and behavior. The reign of the emperor is ending, but Marsh refuses to comply and serve as a myrmidon.

Clinical practice is becoming a theater of the absurd for patients as well. Hospital charts are filled with N.H.S. forms detailing irrelevant aspects of care. Searching for a patient's operative note, Marsh finds documentation she passed a "Type 4 turd." He shows her an elaborate stool chart "colored a somber and appropriate brown, each sheet with a graphically illustrated guide to the seven different types of turd. . . . She looked at the document with disbelief and burst out laughing."

For the full review, see:

JEROME GROOPMAN. "Consider the Comma." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., MAY 24, 2015): 13.

(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs, added; ellipsis within paragraph, in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 21, 2015, and has the title "'Do No Harm,' by Henry Marsh.")

(p. C6) Amid the life-or-death dramas of neurosurgery in this book are some blackly comic scenes recounting the absurdities of hospital bureaucracy in the National Health Service: not just chronic bed shortages (which mean long waits and frantic juggling of surgery schedules), but also what Dr. Marsh calls a "loss of regimental spirit" and ridiculous meetings, like a slide presentation from "a young man with a background in catering telling me I should develop empathy, keep focused and stay calm."

For the full review, see:

MICHIKO KAKUTANI. "From a Surgeon, Exhilarations and Regrets." The New York Times (Tues., MAY 19, 2015): C1 & C6.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 18, 2015, and has the title "Books of The Times; Review: In 'Do No Harm,' a Brain Surgeon Tells All.")

The book under review, in both reviews, is:

Marsh, Henry. Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2015.

June 27, 2015

Dogs Split from Wolves at Least 27,000 Years Ago

The evidence quoted below might increase the plausibility of the theory that dogs helped give Homo sapiens a survival advantage over Neanderthals.

(p. A8) The ancestors of modern wolves and dogs split into different evolutionary lineages 27,000 to 40,000 years ago, much earlier than some other research has suggested, scientists reported Thursday.

The new finding is based on a bone fragment found on the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia several years ago. When scientists studied the bone and reconstructed its genome -- the first time that had been done for an ancient wolf, or any kind of ancient carnivore -- they found it was a new species that lived 35,000 years ago.

Based on the differences between the genome of the new species, called the Taimyr wolf, and the genomes of modern wolves and dogs, the researchers built a family tree that shows wolves and dogs splitting much earlier than the 11,000 to 16,000 years ago that a study in 2014 concluded.

For the full story, see:

JAMES GORMAN. "Dogs Split From Wolves Much Earlier Than Thought." The New York Times (Fri., MAY 22, 2015): A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the story is MAY 21, 2015, and has the title "Family Tree of Dogs and Wolves Is Found to Split Earlier Than Thought.")

(Note: the online version says that the page on the New York edition was A10; my edition is the one that is sent to Omaha.)

June 26, 2015

Seven Seconds to See Whether Design Is Right or Wrong

(p. B14) Jacob Jensen, an industrial designer whose sleek minimalism exemplified the style known as Danish modern, most notably with the stereo systems and other audio products he created for the consumer electronics company Bang & Olufsen, died on May 15 [2015] at his home in Virksund, Denmark.

. . .

. . , Mr. Jensen wrote of his working method:

"In my view, constructing a fountain pen, writing a poem, producing a play or designing a locomotive, all demand the same components, the same ingredients: perspective, creativity, new ideas, understanding and first and foremost, the ability to rework, almost infinitely, over and over. That 'over and over' is for me the cruelest torture.

"The only way I can work," he continued, "is to make 30-40 models before I find the right one. The question is, when do you find the right one? My method is, when I have reached a point where I think, O.K., that's it, there it is, I put the model on a table in the living room, illuminate it, and otherwise spend the evening as usual, and go to bed. The next morning I go in and look at it, knowing with 100 percent certainty that I have 6-7 seconds to see and decide whether it's right or wrong.

"If I look at it longer, I automatically compensate. 'Oh, it's not too high,' and 'It's not so bad.' There are only those 6-7 seconds; then I make some notes as to what's wrong. Finished. After breakfast, I make the changes. That's the only way I know."

For the full obituary, see:

BRUCE WEBER. "Jacob Jensen, 89, Danish Designer, Dies." The New York Times (Fri., May 22, 2015): B14.

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

(Note: the date of the online version of the obituary is MAY 21, 2015, and has the title "Jacob Jensen, Designer in Danish Modern Style, Dies at 89.")

June 25, 2015

More Detailed Rules Reduce Ability to Improvise, and Result in More Deaths

(p. 41) How do wildland firefighters make decisions in life-threatening situations when, for instance, a fire explodes and threatens to engulf the crew? They are confronted with endless variables, the most intense, high-stakes atmosphere imaginable, and the need to make instant decisions. Psychologist Karl Weick found that traditionally, successful firefighters kept four simple survival guidelines in mind:

1. Build a backfire if you have time.
2. Get to the top of the ridge where the fuel is thinner, where there are stretches of rock and shale, and where winds usually fluctuate.
3. Turn into the fire and try to work through it by piecing together burned-out stretches.
4. Do not allow the fire to pick the spot where it hits you, because it will hit you where it is burning fiercest and fastest.

But starting in the mid-1950s, this short list of survival rules was gradually replaced by much longer and more detailed ones. The current lists, which came to exceed forty-eight items, were designed to specify in greater detail what to do to survive in each particular circumstance (e.g., fires at the urban-wildland interface).

Weick reports that teaching the firefighters these detailed lists was a factor in decreasing the survival rates. The original short list was a general guide. The firefighters could easily remember it, but they knew it needed to be interpreted, modified, and embellished based on (p. 42) circumstance. And they knew that experience would teach them how to do the modifying and embellishing. As a result, they were open to being taught by experience. The very shortness of the list gave the firefighters tacit permission-- even encouragement-- to improvise in the face of unexpected events. Weick found that the longer the checklists for the wildland firefighters became, the more improvisation was shut down. Rules are aids, allies, guides, and checks. But too much reliance on rules can squeeze out the judgment that is necessary to do our work well. When general principles morph into detailed instructions, formulas, unbending commands-- wisdom substitutes-- the important nuances of context are squeezed out. Better to minimize the number of rules, give up trying to cover every particular circumstance, and instead do more training to encourage skill at practical reasoning and intuition.


Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

June 24, 2015

Why I Will Never Write for the New Yorker

(p. 18) Norris is a master storyteller and serves up plenty of inside stuff. When Mark Singer wrote an article about the cost of going to the movies and buying refreshments, the editors cut his reference to Junior Mints. As one editor intoned, "A New Yorker writer should not be eating Junior Mints."

For the full review, see:

PATRICIA T. O'CONNER. "Consider the Comma." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., APRIL 19, 2015): 18.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date APRIL 14, 2015, and has the title "'Between You & Me,' by Mary Norris.")

The book under review, is:

Norris, Mary. Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.

June 23, 2015

"Brazen Federal Overreach" Blocks Wine Process Innovation

(p. A13) On May 27, our Napa Valley winery will pull eight cases of Cabernet Sauvignon out of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. We placed them there six months ago, protected from the elements, following similar experiments in the past two years. The cold water and the tides seem to expedite the aging process, and we believe that our ocean-aged fine wine--which we've trademarked as Aquaoir--could revolutionize how vintners around the world think about winemaking. The only obstacle: the federal government.

For more than a year, our winery has been targeted by the Treasury Department, specifically, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The agency believes our product is unfit for human consumption, despite an utter lack of evidence, and it has threatened to revoke our winemaking license. Washington doesn't recognize this wine for what it is: the product of entrepreneurship and experimentation.

. . .

We don't envision expanding into vast underwater wine-storage development. We simply want to try to understand the ocean-aging effects so that we can try to simulate them on dry land. It would be lamentable if brazen federal overreach blocked the potential for innovation in an industry that could be on the cusp of a true sea change. Only in Washington could you raise a glass to that.

For the full commentary, see:

JIM DYKE JR. "The Wine-Dark Sea of Regulation; We aged wine at the bottom of the ocean--then the feds threatened our license." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., May 21, 2015): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is MAY 20, 2015.)

June 22, 2015

Nazi Urban Planners

(p. D5) Vienna

In May 1938, shortly after the Nazi annexation of Austria, Hitler made the following pronouncement: "In my eyes Vienna is a pearl to which I will give a proper setting." That quote, with its ominous overtones, is the starting point of "Vienna: Pearl of the Reich. Planning for Hitler," at the Architekturzentrum Wien, the National Architecture Museum of Austria, which is housed in Vienna's MuseumsQuartier. This fascinating exhibition reveals the Third Reich's plans for the Austrian capital. In this untold chapter of World War II, the perpetrators are not storm troopers or concentration camp Kommandants, but architects and urban planners.

For the full review, see:

A.J. GOLDMANN. "City Planning, Nazi Style." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., May 21, 2015): D5.

(Note: italics in original.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the review is MAY 20, 2015, and has the title "'Vienna: Pearl of the Reich. Planning for Hitler' Review.")

June 21, 2015

Empathy for the Absent

In Practical Wisdom the authors argue for empathy and against rules. There is something to be said for their argument.

But we tend to empathize with those who are present and not those we do not see or even know.

For example in academic tenure and promotion decisions, slack is often cut for colleagues who already have their foot in the door. We know them, their troubles and challenges. So they are tenured and promoted and given salary increases and perks even though there are others outside the door who may have greater productivity and even greater troubles and challenges.

Charlie Munger in an interview at the University of Michigan spoke of how hard it is for physicians to hold their peers responsible when they are incompetent or negligent. They have empathy for their peers, knowing their troubles and challenges. And Munger also says few physicians are willing to suffer the long-lasting "ill will" from their peers who have been held accountable. They do not know so well the patients who suffer, and one way or another, the patients are soon out of sight.

Just as in academics we do not know so well the students who suffer; or the able scholars who suffer, standing outside the door.

Following rules seems unsympathetic and lacking in empathy. But it may be the best way to show empathy for the absent.

The book mentioned is:

Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

The interview with Munger is:

Quick, Rebecca (interviewer). "A Conversation with Charlie Munger." University of Michigan Ross School of Business, Sept. 14, 2010.

June 20, 2015

Early Standard Oil Executive Preserved Shakespeare First Folios

(p. 17) "The Millionaire and the Bard," by Andrea Mays, is an American love story. It is the engaging chronicle of a sober, hard-working, respectably married industrialist of the Gilded Age who became obsessed with the object of his desire. Though generally frugal and self-­disciplined, he was willing to pay extraordinary sums in order to put his hands on his mistress, to gaze at her lovingly and longingly, to caress her. To possess her only once was not enough for him; he craved the experience again and again, without limit.

. . .

I am, as readers have probably surmised, speaking of the peculiar passion of book collecting. The lover in question was Henry Clay Folger, who made his fortune as one of the presidents and, by 1923, the chairman of the board of Standard Oil of New York. And the beloved, which he pursued with unflagging ardor, was a single book: "Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, Published according to the True Originall Copies." Printed in London in 1623, seven years after the author's death, it is the book known to all lovers of Shakespeare simply as the First Folio.

. . .

Andrea Mays is a professor of economics, and the great strength of her book is an unflagging interest in exactly how Folger played the game.

. . .

Rarely has a mad passion brought forth such a splendid and enduring fruit.

For the full review, see:

STEPHEN GREENBLATT. "In Love with Shakespeare." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., MAY 24, 2015): 17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 22, 2015, and has the title "'The Millionaire and the Bard,' by Andrea E. Mays.")

The book under review, is:

Mays, Andrea E. The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

June 19, 2015

It Takes Longer to Explain a Medical Bill than It Takes to Explain Newton's Second Law

(p. 4) I CONFESS I filed this column several weeks late in large part because I had hoped first to figure out a medical bill whose serial iterations have been arriving monthly like clockwork for half a year.

As medical bills go, it's not very big: $225, from a laboratory. But I don't really want to pay it until I understand what it's for. It's not that the bill contains no information -- there is lots of it. Test codes: 105, 127, 164, to name a few. CPT codes: 87481, 87491, 87798 and others. It tells me I'm being billed $29.90 for each of nine things, but there is an "adjustment" to one of $14.20.

At first, I left messages on the lab's billing office voice mail asking for an explanation. A few months ago, when someone finally called back, she said she could not tell me what the codes were for because that would violate patient privacy. After I pointed out that I was the patient in question, she said, politely: "I'm sorry, this is what I'm told, and I don't want to lose my job."

. . .

One recent study found that up to 90 percent of hospital bills contain errors.

. . .

Before you embark on the journey of decoding your bill, you might also want to have a look at a tutorial -- Understanding Your Medical Bill -- produced by the Khan Academy, an online educator, and the Brookings Institution in Washington. It's a bit over 12 minutes. That's about five minutes longer than the Khan Academy's tutorial explaining Newton's second law.

For the full commentary, see:

ELISABETH ROSENTHAL. "The Medical Bill Mystery." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., MAY 3, 2015): 4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is MAY 2, 2015.)

June 18, 2015

Under Perverse Institutions, It Takes "Canny Outlaws" to Do What Is Right

Practical Wisdom is a hard book to categorize. It is part philosophy, and one of the co-authors is an academic philosopher. But most of the book consists of often fascinating, concrete examples. The examples are usually of perverse institutions and policies that create incentives and constraints that reward those who do bad and punish those who do good. The authors' main lesson is that we all should become stoical "canny outlaws" by finding crafty ways to do what is right, while trying to avoid or survive the perverse incentives and constraints.

Maybe--for me the main lesson is that we all should get busy reforming the institutions and policies. But whether their lesson or my lesson is the best lesson, their book is still filled with many great examples that are worth pondering.

In the next few weeks, I will be quoting several of the more useful, or thought-provoking passages.

The book discussed, is:

Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

June 17, 2015

Mathematician Says Mathematical Models Failed

The author of the commentary quoted below is a professor of mathematics at the Baltimore County campus of the University of Maryland.

(p. 4) . . . , in a fishery, the maximum proportion of a population earmarked each year for harvest must be set so that the population remains sustainable.

The math behind these formulas may be elegant, but applying them is more complicated. This is especially true for the Chesapeake blue crabs, which have mostly been in the doldrums for the past two decades. Harvest restrictions, even when scientifically calculated, are often vociferously opposed by fishermen. Fecundity and survival rates -- so innocuous as algebraic symbols -- can be difficult to estimate. For instance, it was long believed that a blue crab's maximum life expectancy was eight years. This estimate was used, indirectly, to calculate crab mortality from fishing. Derided by watermen, the life expectancy turned out to be much too high; this had resulted in too many crab deaths being attributed to harvesting, thereby supporting charges of overfishing.

In fact, no aspect of the model is sacrosanct -- tweaking its parameters is an essential part of the process. Dr. Thomas Miller, director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, did just that. He found that the most important factor for raising sustainability was the survival rate of pre-reproductive-age females. This was one reason, in 2008, after years of failed measures to increase the crab population, regulatory agencies switched to imposing restrictions primarily on the harvest of females.    . . .

The results were encouraging: The estimated population rose to 396 million in 2009, from 293 million in 2008. By 2012, the population had jumped to 765 million, and the figure was announced at a popular crab house by Maryland's former governor, Martin O'Malley, himself.

Unfortunately, the triumph was short-lived -- the numbers plunged to 300 million the next year and then hit 297 million in 2014. Some blamed a fish called red drum for eating young crabs; others ascribed the crash to unusual weather patterns, or the loss of eel grass habitat. Although a definitive cause has yet to be identified, one thing is clear: Mathematical models failed to predict it.

For the full commentary, see:

Manil Suri. "Mathematicians and Blue Crabs." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., MAY 3, 2015): 4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is MAY 2, 2015.)

June 16, 2015

Genius Physicist Dyson: Global Warming Is a Religion Where Belief Is Strong, Evidence Weak

(p. 8) On to controversial topics: What books would you recommend on climate science? On the relationship between science and religion?

On climate science, I recommend "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming," by Bjorn Lomborg. On science and religion, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," by William James. Lomborg is an economist, and James was a psychologist. Both books were written by skeptics, with understanding and respect for the beliefs that they were questioning. The reason why climate science is controversial is that it is both a science and a religion. Belief is strong, even when scientific evidence is weak.

For the full interview, see:

"Freeman Dyson: By the Book." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., April 16, 2015): 8.

(Note: bold in original.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date April 19, 2015.)

The Lomborg book recommended by Dyson, is:

Lomborg, Bjørn. Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

June 15, 2015

Homo Sapiens Arrived in Europe at Least 41,000 Years Ago

(p. D6) . . . , research reported last week in the journal Science adds heft to recent findings that the first modern human migrants arrived earlier than previously thought, perhaps at least 43,000 to 45,000 years ago.

Two teeth found in separate archaeological sites in Italy appeared to tell the tale of the early effect of Homo sapiens in southern Europe. The teeth were those of modern humans who lived 41,000 years ago, scientists concluded. This seemed to settle a longstanding debate over whether the sharp stone blades and ornaments uncovered at the sites belonged to modern humans or Neanderthals.

For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "Teeth Tell of Earlier Trek to Europe by Humans." The New York Times (Tues., April 28, 2015): D6.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date APRIL 27, 2015, and has the title "Teeth Tell of Earlier Trek to Europe by Humans.")

The academic article summarized above, is:

Benazzi, S., V. Slon, S. Talamo, F. Negrino, M. Peresani, S. E. Bailey, S. Sawyer, D. Panetta, G. Vicino, E. Starnini, M. A. Mannino, P. A. Salvadori, M. Meyer, S. Pääbo, and J. J. Hublin. "The Makers of the Protoaurignacian and Implications for Neandertal Extinction." Science 348, no. 6236 (May 15, 2015): 793-96.

June 14, 2015

Jury Out on Whether Bossless Zappos Will Succeed

(p. A1) Brironni Alex was so good at answering telephone calls and emails from customers at Zappos.com Inc. that the company promoted her to customer-service manager.

But when the online retailer adopted a management philosophy called Holacracy, she lost her job title and responsibility for performance reviews. Since the end of April, Zappos has zero managers to oversee employees, who are supposed to decide largely for themselves how to get their work done.

"I am managing the work, but before I was managing the worker," says Ms. Alex, 26 years old, now part of a team implementing Holacracy throughout Zappos. Ex-managers haven't been guaranteed another job and could have their pay cut next year, though Zappos says that is unlikely. Ms. Alex says the changes give her more time for a workplace diversity committee and to perform on the Zappos dance team.

The shake-up has been jarring even for a company famous for doing things differently. Earlier this month, Zappos said about 14%, or 210, of its roughly 1,500 employees had decided Holacracy wasn't for them, and they will leave the retailer.

They were offered at least three months of severance pay by Zappos Chief Executive Tony Hsieh, who wrote in a 4,700-word memo in March that the company hadn't "made fast enough progress towards self-management."

. . .

(p. A10) Mr. Hsieh, 41, concedes that Holacracy "takes time and a lot of trial and error." He still has faith that the system empowers employees "to act more like entrepreneurs" and stokes faster "idea flow," collaboration and innovation, he says.

. . .

Research shows that the value of flat organizations is mixed, though highly motivated workers who thrive on creativity generally are best suited for going bossless.

The results at Zappos will be watched closely because it has long embraced employee independence even while striving to meet exacting customer-service standards. "Delivering Happiness," a 2010 book by Mr. Hsieh, was a best seller and spawned a management consulting firm.

. . .

"They are adopting Holacracy as more how to get to the next level, as opposed to how to fix something broken in their system, which is actually one of their unique challenges," says Brian Robertson, 36, the inventor of Holacracy. The term comes from the word "holarchy," coined by writer Arthur Koestler for self-organizing units that combine to form a larger organization.

For the full story, see:

RACHEL EMMA SILVERMAN. "Going Boseless Backfires at Zappos." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., May 21, 2015): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the story is MAY 20, 2015, and has the title "At Zappos, Banishing the Bosses Brings Confusion.")

June 13, 2015

Ed Telling's Band of Irregulars Had the Freedom to Perform

(p. 482) . . . Bill Sanders, Charlie Bacon's replacement as the head of corporate personnel, . . . had once served Telling in the East despite having hair that flowed far below his ears. Sanders had grown his hair out in order to irritate an old-school store manager who exercised his sovereign rights by refusing to hire any man not sporting a crew cut. The fact that Telling never told Sanders to cut his hair was an early indication to others in the East that Ed Telling was much more interested in people who could do the job and who exhibited a healthy contempt for the status quo than he was in appearances.

. . .

(p. 492) It was more than dumb luck that his band of loyalists happened to include several supersensitive and insecure men, some deeply religious men, some obsessively ambitious men, several quite short men, and others, from secretaries to former window-dressers, who never fit into the status quo until Ed Telling discovered them and helped them flourish among his private band of irregulars. Along the way, the Eastern Territory troupe was joined by others. Whether they were bright-button kids from Utah itching to accomplish an act that truly counted on a large scale, or frustrated wordsmiths so enamored of the metaphors of power that the practice of management appeared to them in Biblical panoramas, they all had a part. All irregulars were welcome, and in his quiet way Ed Telling played them all. Telling could sense through instinct which people were willing to submit and which ones were willing to fight. Far from being unaware of his motivational skills, Telling would on occasion call Pat Jamieson into his office after one of his managers left, then convey to Pat the elliptical words he'd uttered to the manager, and predict the number of days it would take the officer to come back with the problem ironed out. He was rarely off by more than twenty-four hours. He said his management style involved giving subordinates a great deal of freedom, "the freedom," he called it, "to perform."


Katz, Donald R. The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears. New York: Viking Adult, 1987.

(Note: ellipses added.)

June 12, 2015

Constitutional Superheroes Created the American Nation

(p. 12) When and how did the United States ­become a nation? This question is the core of "The Quartet." In his customary graceful prose, Joseph J. Ellis, the author of such works of popular history as the prizewinning "Founding Brothers," argues that the United States did not become a nation with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Rather, he says, American nationhood resulted from the creation, adoption and effectuation of the United States ­Constitution.

Ellis declares, "Four men made the ­transition from confederation to nation ­happen. . . . George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison" (along with three supporting players: Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Jefferson). He writes that "this political quartet diagnosed the systemic dysfunctions under the Articles, manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Convention, collaborated to set the agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying conventions, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy to ensure state compliance with the constitutional settlement. If I am right, this was arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history."

. . .

Ellis's "quartet" are constitutional superheroes, the Fantastic Four of American nationalism.

For the full review, see:

R. B. BERNSTEIN. "Gang of Four." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., MAY 10, 2015): 12.

(Note: ellipsis internal to paragraph, in original; ellipsis between paragraphs, added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 5, 2015, and has the title "''The Quartet,' by Joseph J. Ellis.")

The book under review, is:

Ellis, Joseph J. The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

June 11, 2015

Having Your Intellectual Property Stolen, Modifies Your Views on Piracy

(p. C18) Dear Dan,

My nephew has been downloading music and movies illegally from the Internet. Without sounding self-righteous, how can I get him to respect intellectual-property rights?


My own view on illegal downloads was deeply modified the day that my book on dishonesty was published--when I learned that it had been illegally downloaded more than 20,000 times from one overseas website. (The irony did not escape me.) My advice? Get your nephew to create something and then, without his knowing, put it online and download it many, many times. I suspect that will make it much harder for him to keep up his blithe attitude toward piracy.

For the full advice column by Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at Duke , see:

DAN ARIELY. "ASK ARIELY; It's Risky to Rely on Retirement Questionnaires." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 23, 2015): C18.

(Note: italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the advice column has the date May 22, 2015.)

June 10, 2015

Hominins Used Stone Tools at Least 3.3 Million Years Ago

(p. A4) One morning in July 2011, while exploring arid badlands near the western shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya, a team of archaeologists took a wrong turn and made a big discovery about early human technology: Our hominin ancestors were making stone tools 3.3 million years ago, some 700,000 years earlier than previously thought.

The findings promise to extend knowledge of the first toolmakers even deeper in time, probably before the emergence of the genus Homo, once considered the first to gain an evolutionary edge through stone technology.

. . .

The stones showed that at least some ancient hominins -- the group that includes humans and their extinct ancestors -- had started intentionally knapping stones, breaking off pieces with quick, hard strikes from another stone to make sharp tools sooner than other findings suggested.

After further field research and laboratory analysis, the findings at the site known as Lomekwi 3 were described Wednesday in the journal Nature.

. . .

In a commentary in the journal, Erella Hovers, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote that some form of toolmaking may have extended back to the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and hominins, as much as seven million years ago.

Dr. Hovers and other scientists not involved in the new research said that the dating of the material appeared solid and that the objects were deliberately produced tools, not scraps of rock broken by accident or natural causes.

"Because the sediments in these layers are fine-grained, and a flake found by the authors could be fitted back onto the core from which it had been detached," Dr. Hovers said, "it is unlikely that the tools accumulated through stream activity or that substantial disturbance of the sediments occurred after the tools had been discarded."

For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "Stone Tools From Kenya Are Oldest Yet Discovered." The New York Times (Thurs., May 21, 2015): A4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the story is MAY 20, 2015.)

The academic article summarized above, is:

Harmand, Sonia, Jason E. Lewis, Craig S. Feibel, Christopher J. Lepre, Sandrine Prat, Arnaud Lenoble, Xavier Boës, Rhonda L. Quinn, Michel Brenet, Adrian Arroyo, Nicholas Taylor, Sophie Clément, Guillaume Daver, Jean-Philip Brugal, Louise Leakey, Richard A. Mortlock, James D. Wright, Sammy Lokorodi, Christopher Kirwa, and Dennis V. Kent. "3.3-Million-Year-Old Stone Tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya." Nature 521, no. 7552 (May 21, 2015): 310-15.

June 9, 2015

Sears Democratized the Washing Machine

(p. 301) The pieces of a new dream had finally been drawn in--big, diverse businesses that could combine as a sum greater than the proverbial parts. Now Sears could continue to "democratize" products that were previously too expensive or sophisticated for everyday people.

The automatic washing machine was an artifact owned only by the rich until Sears democratized the machine in 1942: $37.95--three bucks down and four more a month on time. The process was at the core of the entire industrial revolution-the humbling of products: buckles, buttons, and beer--and the efficient distribution of previously unattainable things to the huge pools of human desire called markets. Now the possibility stood before them of starting the cycle all over again.

Sears could spin a grand, gilded net for the people that included housing, mortgages, all manner of insurance, variations on banking sources, investment services, and, of course, consumer goods. People could get a house from Sears again. When the system was up and running, they could even get the money to buy the house; get the stuff that goes in the house; and the services that ensure the sustenance of the house if something unforeseen happens.


Katz, Donald R. The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears. New York: Viking Adult, 1987.

June 8, 2015

"The Most Astonishing Feat Mankind Has Ever Accomplished"

(p. 11) It's been nearly half a century since David McCullough published "The Johns­town Flood," which initiated his career as our matchless master of popular history. His 10th book, "The Wright Brothers," has neither the heft of his earlier volumes nor, in its intense focus on a short period in its subjects' lives, the grandness of vision that made those works as ambitious as they were compelling. Yet this is nonetheless unmistakably McCullough: a story of timeless importance, told with uncommon empathy and fluency.

. . .

David McCullough is interested in only one thing, namely how it was possible that two autodidacts from Ohio managed to satisfy a longing that the species had harbored for centuries. "The Wright Brothers" is merely this: a story, well told, about what might be the most astonishing feat mankind has ever accomplished. As the comic Louis C.K. has said, reprovingly, to those who complain about the inconveniences and insults of modern air travel: "You're sitting. In a chair. In the SKY!!"

Which is saying a lot. On its own terms, "The Wright Brothers" soars.

For the full review, see:

DANIEL OKRENT. "'The Aviators." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., MAY 10, 2015): 11.

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

(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 4, 2015, and has the title "'The Wright Brothers,' by David McCullough.")

The book under review, is:

McCullough, David. The Wright Brothers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

June 7, 2015

Merton Miller Applauded Bankers Who Cleverly Evaded Government Interference with Free Markets

(p. 12) . . . Merton Miller, a Nobel laureate economist at the University of Chicago, . . . was in many ways the father of financial innovation. Miller praised complex financial instruments, in large part because they helped institutions avoid the law. He applauded bankers for cleverly avoiding government attempts to interfere with markets.

For the full review, see:

FRANK PARTNOY. "Societal Bonds." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., MAY 10, 2015): 28.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 8, 2015, and has the title "'Smart Money,' by Andrew Palmer.")

June 6, 2015

Science Fiction Creates "False Sense of Conflict between Humans and Machines"

(p. R4) "I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race," astrophysicist Stephen Hawking told the BBC. Tesla founder Elon Musk called AI "our biggest existential threat." Former Microsoft Chief Executive Bill Gates has voiced his agreement.

. . .

Taking part in the discussion [is] . . .; Guruduth S. Banavar, vice president of cognitive computing at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center; . . .

. . .

WSJ: Does AI pose a threat to humanity?

MR. BANAVAR: Fueled by science-fiction novels and movies, popular treatment of this topic far too often has created a false sense of conflict between humans and machines. "Intelligent machines" tend to be great at tasks that humans are not so good at, such as sifting through vast data. Conversely, machines are pretty bad at things that humans are excellent at, such as common-sense reasoning, asking brilliant questions and thinking out of the box. The combination of human and machine, which we consider the foundation of cognitive computing, is truly revolutionizing how we solve complex problems in every field.

. . .

(p. R5) WSJ: Some experts believe that AI is already taking jobs away from people. Do you agree?

. . .

MR. BANAVAR: From time immemorial, we have built tools to help us do things we can't do. Each generation of tools has made us rethink the nature and types of jobs. Productivity goes up, professions are redefined, new professions are created and some professions become obsolete. Cognitive systems, which can enhance and scale the capabilities of our minds, have the potential to be even more transformative.

The key question will be how to build institutions to quickly train professionals to exploit cognitive systems as their assistants. Once learned, these skills will make every individual a better professional, and this will set a new bar for the nature of expertise.

For the full interview, see:

TED GREENWALD, interviewer. "Does Artificial Intelligence Pose a Threat?" The Wall Street Journal (Mon., May 11, 2015): R4-R5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word, added; bold in original online version.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date May 10, 2015.)

June 5, 2015

"The General" at Sears Hated Bureaucracies that Restricted Individual Human Will

(p. 12) Though for fifty-four years he was known throughout the country as "the General," Wood actually quit the Army in 1915 at the age of thirty-six. The son of a Civil War hero, he had graduated from West Point in the class of 1900 and had served for ten years as right-hand man to the famously hard-driving General George Goethals while they built the apparently unbuildable Panama Canal. After he left the service, Wood did agree to come back as acting Quartermaster General during World War I, but in truth he never much cared for the Army. It always seemed such a top-heavy thing, and so restrictive of human will.

The General hated bureaucracies. Aside from his desire to personally raise the standard of living of an entire nation, he dreamed of creating an institution that could accomplish large works without restricting the individuality of the people within it. He said he wanted to make an American corporation that had a soul.


Katz, Donald R. The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears. New York: Viking Adult, 1987.

June 4, 2015

Entrepreneur Elon Musk Is Determined and Works Intensely

(p. C7) "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future" isn't the first biography we've had of Mr. Musk, nor will it be the last. But it is easily the richest to date. It's also the first one Mr. Musk has cooperated with, though he had no control, the author says, over its contents. Mr. Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek. He won over Mr. Musk, who initially declined to be interviewed, impressing him with his diligence after he had interviewed some 200 people.

The result is a book that is smart, light on its feet and possesses a crunchy thoroughness. Mr. Vance can occasionally veer toward hagiography and the diction of news releases. After noting that Mr. Musk's grand vision is to colonize Mars, for example, Mr. Vance writes:

"He's the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted. He's less a C.E.O. chasing riches than a general marshaling troops to secure victory. Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to ... well ... save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation."

. . .

The best thing Mr. Vance does in this book, though, is tell Mr. Musk's story simply and well. It's the story of an intelligent man, for sure. But more so it is the story of a determined one. Mr. Musk's work ethic has always been intense. One observer says about him early on, "We all worked 20 hour days, and he worked 23 hours."

For the full review, see:

DWIGHT GARNER. "Books of The Times; For Industrialist, Sky Is No Limit." The New York Times (Weds., MAY 13, 2015): C1 & C7.

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

(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 12, 2015, and has the title "Books of The Times; 'Elon Musk,' a Biography by Ashlee Vance, Paints a Driven Portrait.")

The book under review, is:

Vance, Ashlee. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. New York: Ecco, 2015.

June 3, 2015

A Highly Mathematical Model Endorses Friedman's View that Feds Directed Economics toward Highly Mathematical Models

(p. 1138) . . . , in many areas, the existing organization of research is characterized by large research institutions staffed with hundreds of
researchers and national funding agencies who set the research agenda for the field. Given the size of such institutions, if they decide to launch a new research program, then the critical mass of scholars can be reached with certainty, and individual researchers need not fear the coordination risk. Researchers should thus choose to work on that research topic, provided that they perceive an expected reward that is larger than s. (p. 1139) Unfortunately, if the large institution selects a poor idea (with a small or even negative θ), it would then be responsible for the emergence of a strand of research with modest scientific value. As an example, Diamond (1996) recalls Milton Friedman's criticism of the U.S. National Science Foundation, which, in his opinion, has directed the economics profession toward a highly mathematical model.12

. . .

12. Ironically, his opinion is endorsed in this paper by a "highly mathematical model."


Besancenot, Damien, and Radu Vranceanu. "Fear of Novelty: A Model of Scientific Discovery with Strategic Uncertainty." Economic Inquiry 53, no. 2 (April 2015): 1132-39.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

The 1996 Diamond article mentioned above, is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "The Economics of Science." Knowledge and Policy 9, nos. 2/3 (Summer/Fall 1996): 6-49.

June 2, 2015

Hamburger Grown in Lab from Cow Stem Cells

(p. D5) A hamburger made from cow muscle grown in a laboratory was fried, served and eaten in London on Monday in an odd demonstration of one view of the future of food.

. . .

The two-year project to make the one burger, plus extra tissue for testing, cost $325,000. On Monday it was revealed that Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, paid for the project. Dr. Post said Mr. Brin got involved because "he basically shares the same concerns about the sustainability of meat production and animal welfare."

The meat was produced using stem cells -- basic cells that can turn into tissue-specific cells -- from cow shoulder muscle from a slaughterhouse. The cells were multiplied in a nutrient solution and put into small petri dishes, where they became muscle cells and formed tiny strips of muscle fiber. About 20,000 strips were used to make the five-ounce burger, which contained breadcrumbs, salt, and some natural colorings as well.

For the full story, see:

Fountain, Henry. "Frying up a Lab-Grown Hamburger." The New York Times (Tues., Aug. 6, 2013): D5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 5, 2013, and has the title "A Lab-Grown Burger Gets a Taste Test.")

June 1, 2015

Ed Telling's Nimble, Intuitive Labor Decisions at Sears

(p. 49) Telling rarely gave a direct order, so the Searsmen near him knew they had to listen hard and learn to read his arcane signals. You had to understand his gnomic comments and apparent throwaway lines, for you would only hear what Telling thought about something twice. The requirement made people scared, because the third time he spoke you were gone. "No need to beat a horse if he's not able to pull," he'd say. "Let's get another horse."

He had a habit he said he couldn't do anything about of judging the utility and character of a man the first time he looked into his eyes. Quick-draw decisions like this were a part of the general managerial ethos at Sears. The practice might have descended from the store master's knack for spotting at fifteen paces a shopper in the mood to spend freely.


Katz, Donald R. The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears. New York: Viking Adult, 1987.


The StatCounter number above reports the number of "page loads" since the counter was installed late on 2/26/08. Page loads are defined on the site as "The number of times your page has been visited."

View My Stats