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November 30, 2015

Sense of Purpose, Not Greed, Is Reason Multimillionaires Keep Working




(p. 10) I've often wondered why the so-called Masters of the Universe, those C.E.O.s with multimillion-dollar monthly paychecks, keep working. Why, once they have earned enough money to live comfortably forever, do they still drag themselves to the office? The easy answer, the one I had always settled on, was greed.

But as I watched the hours slowly drip by in my cubicle, an alternative reason came into view. Without a sense of purpose beyond the rent money, malaise sets in almost immediately. We all need a reason to get up in the morning, preferably one to which we can attach some meaning. It is why people flock to the scene of a natural disaster to rescue and rebuild, why people devote themselves to a cause, no matter how doomed it may be. In the end, it's the process as much as the reward that nourishes us.



For the full commentary, see:

TED GELTNER. "ON WORK; Bored to Tears by a Do-Nothing Dream Job." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., NOV. 22, 2015): 10.

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated on NOV. 21, 2015.)






November 29, 2015

For Movies, Film Option Survives Digital Advance




(p. B1) Faced with the possible extinction of the material that made Hollywood famous, a coalition of studios is close to a deal to keep Eastman Kodak Co. in the business of producing movie film.

The negotiations--secret until now--are expected to result in an arrangement where studios promise to buy a set quantity of film for the next several years, even though most movies and television shows these days are shot on digital video.

Kodak's new chief executive, Jeff Clarke, said the pact will allow his company to forestall the closure of its Rochester, N.Y., film manufacturing plant, a move that had been under serious consideration. Kodak's motion-picture film sales have plummeted 96% since 2006, from 12.4 billion linear feet to an estimated 449 million this year. With the exit of competitor Fujifilm Corp. last year, Kodak is the only major company left producing motion-picture film.


. . .


Film and digital video both "are valid choices, but it would be a tragedy if suddenly directors didn't have the opportunity to shoot on film," said Mr. Apatow. director of comedies including "Knocked Up" and "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," speaking from the New York set of his coming movie "Trainwreck," which he is shooting on film. "There's a magic to the grain and the color quality that you get with film."



For the full story, see:

BEN FRITZ. "Movie Film, at Death's Door, Gets a Reprieve." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., July 30, 2014): B1 & B8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated July 29, 2014.)






November 28, 2015

Price Theory Paradox When Gas Prices Fall




(p. A3) When gas prices fall, Americans reliably do two things that don't make much sense.

They spend more of the windfall on gasoline than they would if the money came from somewhere else.

And they don't just buy more gasoline. They switch from regular gas to high-octane.

A new report by the JPMorgan Chase Institute, looking at the impact of lower gas prices on consumer spending, finds the same pattern as earlier studies. The average American would have saved about $41 a month last winter by buying the same gallons and grades. Instead, Americans took home roughly $22 a month. People, in other words, used almost half of the windfall to buy more and fancier gas.


. . .


Professors Hastings and Shapiro showed that households adjusted their gas consumption much more sharply in response to changes in gas prices than in response to equivalent changes in overall income. In the fall of 2008, for example, as gas prices fell amid a broad economic collapse, consumers responded as if the decline of gas prices were the more important event, significantly increasing purchases of premium gas.

Moreover, this behavior was prevalent: 61 percent of the households made at least one irrational gas purchase. People "treat changes in gasoline prices as equivalent to very large changes in income when deciding which grade of gasoline to purchase," they wrote.



For the full commentary, see:

Binyamin Appelbaum. "When Gas Becomes Cheaper, Americans Buy Fancier Gas." The New York Times (Thurs., OCT. 20, 2015): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated on OCT. 19, 2015, and has the title "When Gas Becomes Cheaper, Americans Buy More Expensive Gas.")


The Hastings and Shapiro article mentioned above, is:

Hastings, Justine S., and Jesse M. Shapiro. "Fungibility and Consumer Choice: Evidence from Commodity Price Shocks." Quarterly Journal of Economics 128, no. 4 (Nov. 2013): 1449-98.






November 27, 2015

What If Steve Jobs Ran the I.C.U.?





We'd like to think that medical intensity and competence in the real world mirror the intensity and competence of television shows like ER and House. But too often it is like the horrible surreal story told below. What if we deregulated medicine to open it to the product and process innovations of intense innovative entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Sam Walton?



(p. 7) Omaha -- I've been watching the monitor for hours. Natalie's asleep now and I'm worried about her pulse. It's edging above 140 beats per minute again and her blood oxygen saturation is becoming dangerously low. I'm convinced that she's slipping into shock. She needs more fluids. I ring for the nurse.

I know about stuff like septic shock because for more than 20 years I was a transplant surgeon, and some of our patients got incredibly sick after surgery. So when I'm sitting in an I.C.U. in Omaha terrified that Natalie, my 17-year-old daughter, might die, I know what I'm talking about. I tell the nurse that Natalie needs to get another slug of intravenous fluids, and fast.

The nurse says she'll call the doctor. Fifteen minutes later I find her in the lounge at a computer, and over her shoulder I see a screen full of makeup products. When I ask if we can get that fluid going, I startle her. She says she called the resident and told him the vital signs, but that he thought things were stable.

"He said to hold off for now," she says.

"Get me two bags of saline. Now," I tell her.

She says, "I'm calling my supervisor," and she runs out of the lounge.


. . .


I know I shouldn't be my daughter's doctor. They taught us the problems with that during my first week in medical school.


. . .


But right now, I don't care about any of that. I'm the one with experience taking care of really sick patients, and if I know she needs more fluids, she's going to get them.

I break into the crash cart, a box on wheels full of stuff they use to resuscitate patients. I pull out two liters of saline solution and run both into Natalie's IV in less than 20 minutes. Natalie's pulse slows and her blood pressure rises. An hour later, after the nursing supervisor and on-call resident finally arrive, I've finished infusing a third liter. Natalie finally looks better.

This wasn't the first time during Natalie's illness eight years ago that I broke my promise to just be her dad. It started a week earlier when she came into the den and showed me the blood she'd coughed up. I suspect a father without my experience might have chalked it up to flu. Maybe because I was a transplant surgeon, and always considered the worst possible cause whenever a patient had a hiccup, I took her to the hospital. I was worried the blood meant she had a bacterial pneumonia, a bad one. And it did.

On the way to the hospital, Natalie took a deep breath and looked at me. "Am I going to die?" she asked. I'm convinced that she would have been dead before morning had I not been a doctor, and one who could recognize septic shock when it affected a normal teenager.



For the full commentary, see:

BUD SHAW. "A Doctor at His Daughter's Hospital Bed." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., SEPT. 6, 2015): 7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date SEPT. 5, 2015.)


The commentary quoted above is adapted from the book:

Shaw, Bud. Last Night in the Or: A Transplant Surgeon's Odyssey. New York: Plume, 2015.






November 26, 2015

Professors Oppose Diversity by Discriminating Against Conservatives




(p. A23) One of the great intellectual and moral epiphanies of our time is the realization that human diversity is a blessing. It has become conventional wisdom that being around those unlike ourselves makes us better people -- and more productive to boot.

Scholarly studies have piled up showing that race and gender diversity in the workplace can increase creative thinking and improve performance. Meanwhile, excessive homogeneity can lead to stagnation and poor problem-solving.

Unfortunately, new research also shows that academia has itself stopped short in both the understanding and practice of true diversity -- the diversity of ideas -- and that the problem is taking a toll on the quality and accuracy of scholarly work. This year, a team of scholars from six universities studying ideological diversity in the behavioral sciences published a paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences that details a shocking level of political groupthink in academia. The authors show that for every politically conservative social psychologist in academia there are about 14 liberal social psychologists.

Why the imbalance? The researchers found evidence of discrimination and hostility within academia toward conservative researchers and their viewpoints. In one survey cited, 79 percent of social psychologists admitted they would be less likely to support hiring a conservative colleague than a liberal scholar with equivalent qualifications.



For the full commentary, see:

Arthur C. Brooks. "Academia's Rejection of Diversity." The New York Times (Sat., OCT. 31, 2015): A23.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date OCT. 30, 2015.)


The Behavioral and Brain Sciences article mentioned above, is:

Duarte, José L., Jarret T. Crawford, Charlotta Stern, Jonathan Haidt, Lee Jussim, and Philip E. Tetlock. "Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 38 (Jan. 2015) DOI: http://dx.doi.org.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/10.1017/S0140525X14000041






November 25, 2015

After Hiding Under Desk, Student Wants Gun to Protect Self and Others




(p. A1) ROSEBURG, Ore. -- A week has passed since J. J. Vicari huddled underneath a desk while gunshots exploded in the classroom next door. Now he is thinking about guns. Not about tightening gun laws, as President Obama urged after nine people were killed at the community college here. But about buying one for himself.

"It's opened my eyes," said Mr. Vicari, 19. "I want to have a gun in the house to protect myself, to protect the people I'm with. I'm sure I'll have a normal life and never have to go through anything like this, but I want to be sure."



For the full story, see:

JACK HEALY and JULIE TURKEWITZ. "Common Response After Killings in Oregon: 'I Want to Have a Gun'." The New York Times (Thurs., OCT. 8, 2015): A1 & A18.

(Note: the online version of the article was dated OCT. 7, 2015.)






November 24, 2015

Haiti Stagnates Under Crony Capitalism




(p. A13) A May 2015 World Bank "systematic country diagnostic" on Haiti is instructive.


. . .


As the World Bank report notes, Haiti suffers from crony capitalism that holds back economic growth.


. . .


The record of Haiti's elected politicians, since the transition to democracy at the beginning of the 1990s, is dismal. The political class still uses its power for personal aggrandizement, as the infamous dictators François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude did for almost 30 years.

Just as discouraging is that after more than two decades of going to the polls, Haitians have yet to taste economic freedom, and emigration has become the only option for those who hope to get ahead by hard work. The World Bank reports that between 1971 and 2013 gross domestic product per capita "fell by .7% per year on average."


. . .


The World Bank authors gently speculate that there is "little competitive pressure." They observe this "could be the result of high legal or behavioral entry barriers" and this "could facilitate tacit agreements among families/groups to allocate markets among themselves, which may harm productivity and incentive to innovate."

This is polite jargon for collusion, which Haitians already know. They also know that absent the political will to open markets to competition, elections won't matter much.



For the full commentary, see:

MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY. "Diagnosing What Ails Haiti's Economy; The World Bank fingers cronyism, of which Bill Clinton was for years a symbol." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Oct. 12, 2015): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated on Oct. 11, 2015.)


The World Bank report mentioned in the passages quoted above, is:

HAITI: TOWARDS A NEW NARRATIVE SYSTEMATIC COUNTRY DIAGNOSTIC, May 2015.






November 23, 2015

Give Entrepreneurs "the Solitude They Need to Think Creatively"




(p. R1) . . . , numerous entrepreneurs and CEOs are either self-admitted introverts or have so many introvert qualities that they are widely thought to be introverts. These include Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, Larry Page, co-founder of Google, Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, Marissa Mayer, current president and CEO of Yahoo, and Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.

As entrepreneurs, introverts succeed because they "create and lead companies from a very focused place," says Susan Cain, author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" and founder of Quiet Revolution, a website for introverts.


. . .


Many people believe that introverts, by definition, are shy and extroverts are outgoing. This is incorrect. Introverts, whom experts say comprise about a third of the population, get their energy and process information internally. Some may be shy and some may be outgoing, but they all prefer to spend time alone or in small groups, and often feel drained by a lot of social interaction or large groups.


. . .


Introverts not only have the stamina to spend long periods alone--they love it. "Good entrepreneurs are able to give themselves the solitude they need to think creatively and originally--to create something where there once was nothing," says Ms. Cain. "And this is just how introverts are wired."


. . .


While extroverts are networking, promoting or celebrating success, introverts have their "butt on the seat," says Laurie Helgoe, author of "Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength" and assistant professor in the department of psychology and human services at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va. "An introvert on his (p. R2) or her own is going to enjoy digging in and doing research--and be able to sustain him- or herself in that lonely place of forging your own way."

They don't need external affirmation

Another important characteristic of introverts is that they tend to rely on their own inner compass--not external signals--to know that they're making the right move or doing a good job. That can give them an edge in several ways.

For instance, they generally don't look for people to tell them whether an idea is worth pursuing. They tend to think it through before speaking about it to anybody, and rely on their own judgment about whether it's worth pursuing.

With extroverts, the need for social stimulation, for getting the idea in front of other people, can make them leap before they've thought something out, Ms. Buelow says. "It's very important for them to get outside feedback and motivation." Feedback is great, of course. But at a certain point a leader needs to decide on a plan and execute it.

Following their own compass also helps introverts stay focused on a venture. Extroverts can get sidetracked by seeking external validation, such as awards or media attention for a project, which can divert them from their main goals. While introverts welcome external validation, they won't let it define them or distract them. "It's about keeping the long-haul perspective," Ms. Buelow says.

What's more, because introverts aren't looking for outside events to validate their plans--or themselves--they don't take setbacks as personally as extroverts. Somebody who relies on external affirmation tends to take setbacks personally and may get dispirited if the company hits a rough patch.


. . .


. . . , in a 2009 study looking at how introverts and extroverts approached an "effortful task," Maya Tamir, director of the Emotion and Self-Regulation Laboratory at Boston College and Hebrew University in Jerusalem, found that extroverts sought a happy state while completing the task, while introverts preferred to maintain a neutral emotional state.

"The introverts' happy space is a quieter space with less interruptions," says Ms. Buelow. "They won't have that overstimulation."



For the full commentary, see:

ELIZABETH BERNSTEIN. "The Case for the Introverted Entrepreneur; Conventional wisdom says you need to be an extrovert to start a successful business. That's wrong for all sorts of reasons." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., August 24, 2015): R1-R2.

(Note: ellipses added; bold in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the title "Why Introverts Make Great Entrepreneurs; Conventional wisdom says you need to be an extrovert to start a successful business. That's wrong for all sorts of reasons.")


The Cain book mentioned in the commentary quoted above is:

Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. New York: Crown, 2012.


The Helgoe book mentioned in the commentary quoted above is:

Helgoe, Laurie. Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2013.


The Maya Tamir article mentioned above, is:

Tamir, Maya. "Differential Preferences for Happiness: Extraversion and Trait-Consistent Emotion Regulation." Journal of Personality 77, no. 2 (April 2009): 447-70.






November 22, 2015

Skills Gap Is Bigger Labor Market Problem than Technology Progress




(p. A17) Technology disrupting the workforce is not a new phenomenon and it has never proved a lasting impediment for those eager to work. The invention of, say, the internal-combustion engine put buggy-whip makers and carriage assemblers out of business, but it created many more jobs in the manufacture, advertising, sales and maintenance of automobiles. Other technologies, from the cotton gin to the airplane, expanded job opportunities and created goods and services that made the hard work worthwhile.

What is unique about today's digital revolution is the suspicion, fanned by progressives, that for the first time technology threatens to make obsolete not only some jobs--as assembly-line robotics has, for instance--but human labor itself.


. . .


That poor schooling, and not some intrinsic human limitation, is the real barrier to full employment seems to be borne out by what economists call the "skills gap." More than nine million Americans are currently looking for work, but 5.4 million job openings continue to sit unfilled, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of the largest increases have been in health care or professional and business services.

In a recent study by the large U.S. online job site, CareerBuilder, more than half the employers surveyed had positions for which they could not find qualified candidates: 71% had trouble finding information-technology specialists, 70% engineers, 66% managers, 56% health-care and other specialists, and 52% financial operations personnel. Nearly half of small and medium-size employers say they can find few or no "qualified applicants" for recent vacancies, according to the latest survey by the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

With the Labor Department conceding that help-wanted postings have "remained at a historically high level," this is the time not to rail against technology but to use it to make education more effective: gearing coursework to the learning styles of individual students, identifying and remedying disabilities early on, and providing online access to the best classes in the world.



For the full commentary, see:

LEWIS M. ANDREWS. "Robots Don't Mean the End of Human Labor; The left frets about the impact of technology, but new jobs will be created. The real problem is bad schools." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Aug. 24, 2015): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated on Aug. 23, 2015.)






November 21, 2015

Chinese Communists Fear the Magna Carta




(p. A5) HONG KONG -- China's leaders have long behaved as if nothing could daunt them. But an 800-year-old document written in Latin on sheepskin may have them running scared.


. . .


It is not clear why the public showing was moved off the Renmin University campus. But Magna Carta is widely considered a cornerstone for constitutional government in Britain and the United States, and such a system is inimical to China's leaders, who view "constitutionalism" as a threat to Communist Party rule.

In 2013, the party issued its "seven unmentionables" -- taboo topics for its members. The first unmentionable is promoting Western-style constitutional democracy. The Chinese characters for "Magna Carta" are censored in web searches on Sina Weibo, the country's Twitter-like social media site.

Hu Jia, a prominent Chinese dissident, said he was not surprised that the exhibit had been moved off the campus. He said that Renmin University had close ties to the Communist Party's training academy and that the principles the document stood for were contrary to the party's. More important, he said, Chinese leaders may have been concerned that the exhibit would be popular and that "many students would flock there."

"They fear that such ideology and historical material will penetrate deep into the students' hearts," Mr. Hu said.


. . .


Magna Carta has been the subject of several academic conferences and lectures in China this year, including two at Renmin University. One doctoral student in history who knows people at the museum said that the school had canceled the exhibit on orders of the Ministry of Education.

"To get kind of wound up about an old document like the Magna Carta? They're a little bit brittle and fragile, aren't they, Chinese leaders?" said Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat who was stationed in Beijing and now serves as director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney in Australia. "Poor dears."



For the full story, see:

MICHAEL FORSYTHE. "Magna Carta Visits China, but Venue Abruptly Shifts." The New York Times (Thurs., OCT. 15, 2015): A5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated OCT. 14, 2015, and had the title "Magna Carta Exhibition in China Is Abruptly Moved From University.")






November 20, 2015

FTC Retaliated Against, and Destroyed, Innocent Firm that Stood Up for Rule of Law




(p. A17) Sometimes winning is still losing. That is certainly true for companies that find themselves caught in the cross hairs of the federal government. Since 2013, my organization has defended one such company, the cancer-screening LabMD, against meritless allegations from the Federal Trade Commission. Last Friday, [November 13, 2015] the FTC's chief administrative-law judge dismissed the agency's complaint. But it was too late. The reputational damage and expense of a six-year federal investigation forced LabMD to close last year.


. . .


Unlike many other companies in similar situations, . . . , LabMD refused to cave and in 2012 went public with the ordeal. In what appeared to be retaliation, the FTC sued LabMD in 2013, alleging that the company engaged in "unreasonable" data-security practices that amounted to an "unfair" trade practice by not taking reasonable steps to protect patient information. FTC officials publicly attacked LabMD and imposed arduous demands on the doctors who used the company's diagnostic services. In just one example, the FTC subpoenaed a Florida oncology lab to produce documents and appear for depositions before government lawyers--all at the doctors' expense.

Yet after years of investigation and enforcement action, the FTC never produced a single patient or doctor who suffered or who alleged identity theft or harm because of LabMD's data-security practices. The FTC never claimed that LabMD violated HIPAA regulations, and until 2014--four years after its investigation began--never offered any data-security standards with which LabMD failed to comply.


. . .


. . . , the FTC is likely to simply disregard the 92-page decision--which weighed witness credibility and the law--and side with commission staff. That's the still greater injustice: The FTC is not bound by administrative-law judge rulings. In fact, the agency has disregarded every adverse ruling over the past two decades, according to a February analysis by former FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright. Defendants' only recourse is appealing in federal court, a fresh burden in legal fees.

That's what happens when a federal agency serves as its own detective, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. As Mr. Wright observed, the FTC's record is "a strong sign of an unhealthy and biased institutional process." And he puts it perhaps most powerfully: "Even bank robbery prosecutions have less predictable outcomes than administrative adjudication at the FTC." Winning against the federal government should never require losing so much.



For the full commentary, see:

DAN EPSTEIN. "Hounded Out of Business by Regulators; The company LabMD finally won its six-year battle with the FTC, but vindication came too late." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Nov. 20, 2015): A17.

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

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated on Nov. 19, 2015.)






November 19, 2015

Scientific Insight Requires Hard Work More than Easy Epiphany




(p. A21) The myth of the finches obscures the qualities that were really responsible for Darwin's success: the grit to formulate his theory and gather evidence for it; the creativity to seek signs of evolution in existing animals, rather than, as others did, in the fossil record; and the open-mindedness to drop his belief in creationism when the evidence against it piled up.

The mythical stories we tell about our heroes are always more romantic and often more palatable than the truth. But in science, at least, they are destructive, in that they promote false conceptions of the evolution of scientific thought.

Of the tale of Newton and the apple, the historian Richard S. Westfall wrote, "The story vulgarizes universal gravitation by treating it as a bright idea ... A bright idea cannot shape a scientific tradition." Science is just not that simple and it is not that easy.


. . .


Even if we are not scientists, every day we are challenged to make judgments and decisions about technical matters like vaccinations, financial investments, diet supplements and, of course, global warming. If our discourse on such topics is to be intelligent and productive, we need to dip below the surface and grapple with the complex underlying issues. The myths can seduce one into believing there is an easier path, one that doesn't require such hard work.

But even beyond issues of science, there is a broader lesson to learn, . . . . We all run into difficult problems in life, and we will be happier and more successful if we appreciate that the answers often aren't quick, or easy.



For the full commentary, see:

LEONARD MLODINOW. "It Is, in Fact, Rocket Science." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., MAY 16, 2015): A21.

(Note: ellipsis internal to third quoted paragraph, in original; other ellipses, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated on MAY 15, 2015.)


Mlodinow's book, related to the commentary quoted above, is:

Mlodinow, Leonard. The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos. New York: Pantheon Books, 2015.






November 18, 2015

Challenging Videogame Improves Attention and Memory in Seniors




(p. R1) Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and his colleagues at the University of California in San Francisco have found that playing a challenging videogame upgrades our ability to pay attention.

As reported in the journal Nature in 2013, the Gazzaley lab trained 60- to 85-year-old subjects on a game called NeuroRacer. The multitask version involves simulated driving along a winding road while quickly pressing keys or a game controller to respond to a green sign when it appears on the roadside. As a control, some subjects played a single-task version of the game that omits the winding road and involves only noticing and responding to the green sign. To ensure that subjects were genuinely challenged but not discouraged, the level of game difficulty was individualized.

After 12 hours of training spread evenly over a month, multitasking subjects were about twice as efficient at shifting attention as when they started, a huge improvement by any standard. Remarkably, their new scores were comparable to those of 20-year-olds not trained on NeuroRacer. The subjects still tested positive six months later.

The multitaskers also got an unexpected brain bonus. Their sustained concentration and working memory (briefly holding information such as a phone number) improved as well. The training had targeted neither of these functions, but the general benefits emerged nonetheless.



For the full commentary, see:

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND. "MIND AND MATTER; A Senior Moment for Videogames as Brain-Boosters." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Oct. 3, 2015): C2.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 30, 2015, and the title "MIND AND MATTER: Videogames for Seniors Boost Brainpower.")


The Gazzaley article mentioned above, is:

Anguera, J. A., J. Boccanfuso, J. L. Rintoul, O. Al-Hashimi, F. Faraji, J. Janowich, E. Kong, Y. Larraburo, C. Rolle, E. Johnston, and Adam Gazzaley. "Video Game Training Enhances Cognitive Control in Older Adults." Nature 501, no. 7465 (Sept. 5, 2013): 97-101.






November 17, 2015

Inflation of the Co-Authorship Bubble




CoauthorInflationGraph2015-10-30.jpg Source of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



(p. A1) . . . , there has been a notable spike since 2009 in the number of technical reports whose author (p. A10) counts exceeded 1,000 people, according to the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, which analyzed citation data. In the ever-expanding universe of credit where credit is apparently due, the practice has become so widespread that some scientists now joke that they measure their collaborators in bulk--by the "kilo-author."

Earlier this year, a paper on rare particle decay published in Nature listed so many co-authors--about 2,700--that the journal announced it wouldn't have room for them all in its print editions. And it isn't just physics. In 2003, it took 272 scientists to write up the findings of the first complete human genome--a milestone in biology--but this past June, it took 1,014 co-authors to document a minor gene sequence called the Muller F element in the fruit fly.


. . .


More than vanity is at stake. Credit on a peer-reviewed research article weighs heavily in hiring, promotion and tenure decisions. "Authorship has become such a big issue because evaluations are performed based on the number of papers people have authored," said Dr. Larivière.


. . .


Michigan State University mathematician Jack Hetherington published a paper in 1975 on low temperature physics in Physical Review Letters with F.D.C. Willard. His colleagues only discovered that his co-author was a siamese cat several years later when Dr. Hetherington started handing out copies of the paper signed with a paw print.

In the same spirit, Shalosh B. Ekhad at Rutgers University so far has published 32 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals with his co-author Doron Zeilberger. It turns out that Shalosh B. Ekhad is Hebrew for the model number of a personal computer used by Dr. Zeilberger. "The computer helps so much and so often," Dr. Zeilberger said.

Not everyone takes such pranks lightly.

Immunologist Polly Matzinger at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases named her dog, Galadriel Mirkwood, as a co-author on a paper she submitted to the Journal of Experimental Medicine. "What amazed me was that the paper went through the entire editorial process and nobody noticed," Dr. Matzinger said. When the journal editor realized he had published work crediting an Afghan hound, he was furious, she recalled.

Physicists may be more open-minded. Sir Andre Geim, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, credited H.A.M.S. ter Tisha as his co-author of a 2001 paper published in the journal Physica B. Those journal editors didn't bat an eye when his co-author was unmasked as a pet hamster. "Not a harmful joke," said Physica editor Reyer Jochemsen at the Leiden University in the Netherlands.

"Physicists apparently, even journal editors, have a better sense of humor than the life sciences," said Dr. Geim at the U.K.'s University of Manchester.



For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Scientists Observe Odd Phenomenon of Multiplying Co-Authors."The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Aug. 10, 2015): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the title "How Many Scientists Does It Take to Write a Paper? Apparently, Thousands.")






November 16, 2015

Audits Worth Less When the Audited Directly Pay for Them




(p. B1) Environmental regulators in Gujarat, one of India's fastest-growing industrial states, found themselves in an implausible situation a few years ago: Every single city breached national air quality standards. And yet environmental audits kept finding that factories met pollution limits.

So the Gujaratis hired some researchers from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to carry out an experiment, changing the way the audits were made. Instead of hiring their own auditors, companies had auditors assigned to them randomly. Instead of being paid by the companies they audited, auditors drew a fixed fee from a pool that all companies paid into.

Measured compliance rates abruptly plummeted. But once the new system was in place, the real emissions from polluting factories finally started to decline. The Gujaratis kept the new approach.

"When fact-checking is not done in an independent way, there is a long history of things turning out the way the entity being fact checked wants them to turn out," said Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago, a former chief economist for President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers who was one of the researchers involved in the study. "Until you change the incentives, this will not change."

The problem may seem remote, but it turns out that the same incentives apply in the United States, even in programs that, at first glance, appear to provide an unmitigated benefit.

Last month, the Energy Department released an extensive report assessing the impact of the federal weatherization program, which was begun in 1976 to shield the homes of low-income Americans from the elements, save them money on heating bills and improve energy efficiency.

It concluded that weatheriza-(p. B10)tion -- insulating homes, changing boilers, plugging leaky windows and the like -- was a stellar investment. Not only were the energy savings substantially larger than the cost of weatherizing homes, the report found, but the gains soared even more once the broader impacts on health were taken into account.

"The results demonstrate that weatherization provides cost-effective energy savings and health and safety benefits to American families," the Energy Department announced.

But do they? When Professor Greenstone and two other independent economists looked under the hood -- not a trivial challenge, given the report's 4,500 pages -- they found a collection of idiosyncratic choices and unorthodox assumptions that severely undermined the credibility of the enterprise.

In the end, they concluded, the government research effort, which was led by the Energy Department's own Oak Ridge National Laboratory, cannot tell us whether weatherization is a fabulous program or a waste of taxpayer dollars.



For the full commentary, see:

Eduardo Porter. "ECONOMIC SCENE; For Government That Works, Call In the Auditors." The New York Times (Weds., OCT. 7, 2015): B1 & B10.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date OCT. 6, 2015, and the title "ECONOMIC SCENE; For Government That Works, Call In the Auditors.")






November 15, 2015

Dogged Dreamers Developed Deadly Dirigibles




(p. C7) "Dirigibility" means the ability to navigate through the air by engine power, unlike balloon flight, which is captive to the wind. Beginning and ending with the Hindenburg vignette, C. Michael Hiam gives in "Dirigible Dreams" a concise but comprehensive history of the airship and its evolution. With style and some flair, Mr. Hiam introduces a cast of dogged visionaries, starting with Albert Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian whose exploits from 1901 onward usually culminated in our hero dangling from a tree or a high building, shredded gas bags draped around him like a shroud. For all of these pioneers, problems queued up from the outset: Insurance companies, for example, refused to quote a rate for aerial liability. (Try asking your broker today.) And to inflate the craft the engineers were stuck with hydrogen, since non-flammable helium was too scarce and hot air has insufficient lifting force.


. . .


In 1929, British engineers pioneered a giant dirigible--at 133 feet in diameter, Mr. Hiam notes, it was "the largest object ever flown"--powered by six Rolls-Royce Condor engines. But too many died as the still-flimsy crafts plunged to the ground in flames. His Majesty's secretary of state for air perished in a luxurious airship cabin on the way to visit the king's subjects in India. One by one, nations gave up their dirigible dreams, especially after 35 souls burned to death on the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, N.J., one of the first transport disasters recorded on film. After that tragedy, commercial passengers never flew in an airship again, and by the start of World War II just two years later "the airship had become entirely extinct."



For the full review, see:

SARA WHEELER. "Inflated Hopes; Early airship experimenters found that insurance companies refused to quote rates for aerial liability." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Oct. 18, 2014): C7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated on Oct. 23, 2014.)


The book under review, is:

Hiam, C. Michael. Dirigible Dreams: The Age of the Airship. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge, 2014.






November 14, 2015

Good Deflation in Switzerland




(p. A2) It's as close to an economic consensus as you can get: Deflation is bad for an economy, and central bankers should avoid it at all costs.

Then there's Switzerland, whose steady growth and rock-bottom unemployment is chipping away at that wisdom.

At a time of lively global debate about low inflation and its ill effects, tiny Switzerland--with an economy 4% the size of the U.S.--offers a fascinating counterpoint, with some even pointing to what they call "good deflation."

Consumer prices in Switzerland have fallen on an annual basis for most of the past four years. They hit a milestone last month with an annual price drop of 1.4%, the biggest in more than five decades. Even after food and energy prices are stripped out, core prices fell 0.7%.

"It's hard not to call that deflation," said Jennifer McKeown of Capital Economics, referring to the technical term for a sustained slump in consumer prices.

And yet evidence of deflation's pernicious side effects--recession, weak employment, rising debt burdens--is pretty much nonexistent in Switzerland. Its economy is expected to expand this year and next, albeit slowly, in the 1% to 1.5% range. Unemployment was just 3.4% in September. Government debt is low.

"Usually people associate deflation with depression," said Charles Wyplosz, a professor at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. "In the Swiss case, the economy is doing OK."



For the full commentary, see:

BRIAN BLACKSTONE. "THE OUTLOOK; Switzerland Offers Counterpoint on Deflation's Ills." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Oct. 19, 2015): A2.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Oct. 18, 2015, and the title "THE OUTLOOK; Switzerland Offers Counterpoint on Deflation's Ills.")






November 13, 2015

Madly-Recycling Germans Pay to Burn British Trash




(p. A1) MAGDEBURG, Germany--Each day, trucks roll into this city filled with the latest hot import from the streets of Manchester, England: garbage.

The destination is a power plant that makes a business of turning trash into electricity, or as it touts in a brochure, "spinning straw into gold." The straw in this case is large, pillowy blobs of rubbish, neatly wrapped in plastic.


. . .


A waste not, want not attitude mixed with a national zeal for recycling has led to an awkward problem for Germany: It isn't producing enough of its own trash.

Over the past decade, heaps of garbage-burning power plants and composting facilities were built throughout Germany as the country shut off all its landfills to new household trash. But instead of growing, as many thought it would, household-waste production flattened, in part because sparing Germans edged their already-high recycling rate even higher.



For the full story, see:

ELIOT BROWN. "Germans Have a Burning Need for More Garbage; Lack of garbage forces power plants to import waste; 'straw into gold'."The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Oct. 20, 2015): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 19, 2015.)






November 12, 2015

The Cure for Technology Problems Is Better Technology




(p. D2) The real lesson in VW's scandal -- in which the automaker installed "defeat devices" that showed the cars emitting lower emissions in lab tests than they actually did -- is not that our cars are stuffed with too much technology. Instead, the lesson is that there isn't enough tech in vehicles.

In fact, the faster we upgrade our roads and autos with better capabilities to detect and analyze what's going on in the transportation system, the better we'll be able to find hackers, cheaters and others looking to create havoc on (p. B11) the highways.


. . .


"What happened at Volkswagen had to do with embedded software that's buried deep in the car, and only the supplier knows what's in it -- and it's a black box for everybody else," said Stefan Heck, the founder of Nauto, a new start-up that is introducing a windshield-mounted camera that monitors road conditions for commercial fleets and consumers. The camera uses artificial intelligence to track traffic conditions; over time, as more vehicles use it, it could provide users with traffic and safety information plus data about mileage and other automotive functions.

The end goal for intelligent-car systems, said Dr. Heck, is to create an on-road network with data that is constantly being analyzed to get a sharper picture of what's happening on the road. Sure, companies might still be able to cheat. But with enough independent data sources coming from different places on the road, it would become much more difficult.

He said there really isn't any going back -- software in cars is responsible not just for driver comforts like in-dash navigation, but also for critical safety and performance systems, many of which improve the car's environmental footprint.



For the full commentary, see:

Farhad Manjoo. "STATE OF THE ART; Our Cars Need More Technology." The New York Times (Thurs., Oct. 1, 2015): B1 & B11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date SEPT. 30, 2015, and the title "STATE OF THE ART; VW Scandal Shows a Need for More Tech, Not Less." )






November 11, 2015

In 13th Century England, William Marshal Defended Property and Brokered Magna Carta




(p. C7) On Saturday, May 20, 1217, two armies gathered outside Lincoln, a walled cathedral town in the northeast Midlands of England. One was a party of barons loyal to the French prince Louis the Lion, who had come to batter down the walls of the town's large stone castle. The second party was there to relieve the siege. It was led by an energetic 70-year-old: William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, the most famous knight of his time and one of the most storied men in Christendom. Marshal was the official guardian of the 9-year-old English king Henry III, whom Louis was aiming to replace. Lincoln was one of the most important strategic military bases in England, controlling the major roads between London, York and the southwest. The fate of a kingdom really did rest in William Marshal's hands.

According to a 19,000-line verse biography, written in old French during the 1220s and commissioned by Marshal's son, the aged hero prepared his men for a battle with a barnstorming speech. "Those men have seized and taken by force / our lands and our possessions," he cried. "Shame upon the man who does not strive, this very day, to put up a challenge / . . . if we beat them, it is no lie to say / that we will have won eternal glory / . . . I can tell you that they will come to a sticky end / as they descend into Hell." Then Marshal was astride his horse and at the front of the charge. He was so excited that he nearly rode off to fight without his helmet on.


. . .


Marshal was one of the few loyal men left at the end of John's reign, and in June 1215 he helped broker Magna Carta, the document that (temporarily) mollified the king's opponents by granting them a long list of legal rights and privileges. John died the next year, and the now-elderly Marshal was appointed as guardian to Henry III. He reissued Magna Carta as a political manifesto, rather than a peace treaty, which helped to begin the charter's long and legendary afterlife. He won the battle of Lincoln, and then he died. His corpse was wrapped in silk that he had brought home from a journey to the Holy Land.



For the full review, see:

DAN JONES. "The Servant of Five Kings; One of the few men who remained loyal to King John, William Marshal helped broker Magna Carta." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Jan. 10, 2015): C7.

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

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 9, 2015.)


The book under review, is:

Asbridge, Thomas. The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones. New York: Ecco, 2014.






November 10, 2015

Steve Jobs as Demanding Consumer: Jerk or Benefactor?




(p. D2) Mr. Jobs said he wanted freshly squeezed orange juice.

After a few minutes, the waitress returned with a large glass of juice. Mr. Jobs took a tiny sip and told her tersely that the drink was not freshly squeezed. He sent the beverage back, demanding another.

A few minutes later, the waitress returned with another large glass of juice, this time freshly squeezed. When he took a sip he told her in an aggressive tone that the drink had pulp along the top. He sent that one back, too.

My friend said he looked at Mr. Jobs and asked, "Steve, why are you being such a jerk?"

Mr. Jobs replied that if the woman had chosen waitressing as her vocation, "then she should be the best."


. . .


. . . it wasn't until my mother found out that she had terminal cancer in mid-March and was given a prognosis of only two weeks to live that I learned even if a job is just a job, you can still have a profound impact on someone else's life. You just may not know it.


. . .


. . . one evening my mother became incredibly lucid and called for me. She was craving shrimp, she said. "I'm on it," I told her as I ran down to the kitchen. "Shrimp coming right up!"


. . .


The restaurant was bustling. In the open kitchen in the back I could see a dozen men and women frantically slaving over the hot stoves and dishwashers, with busboys and waiters rushing in and out.

While I stood waiting for my mother's shrimp, I watched all these people toiling away and I thought about what Mr. Jobs had said about the waitress from a few years earlier. Though his rudeness may have been uncalled-for, there was something to be said for the idea that we should do our best at whatever job we take on.

This should be the case, not because someone else expects it. Rather, as I want to teach my son, we should do it because our jobs, no matter how seemingly small, can have a profound effect on someone else's life; we just don't often get to see how we're touching them.

Certainly, the men and women who worked at that little Thai restaurant in northern England didn't know that when they went into work that evening, they would have the privilege of cooking someone's last meal.

It was a meal that I would unwrap from the takeout packaging in my mother's kitchen, carefully plucking four shrimp from the box and meticulously laying them out on one of her ornate china plates before taking it to her room. It was a meal that would end with my mother smiling for the last time before slipping away from consciousness and, in her posh British accent, saying, "Oh, that was just lovely."



For the full commentary, see:

NICK BILTON. "Rites of Passage; Life Lessons from Steve Jobs." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Fri., AUG. 7, 2015): D2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the title "Rites of Passage; What Steve Jobs Taught Me About Being a Son and a Father.")






November 9, 2015

Marxist Wrecks Brazil Economy




(p. A6) "The Brazilian model celebrated just a few years ago is turning into a slow-motion train wreck," said Mansueto Almeida, a prominent commentator on economic policy. "Our political leaders want to point fingers at China or some external villain, but they cannot escape the fact that this self-inflicted crisis was made in Brazil."

Even with the country's legacy of economic turmoil, some historians say that Ms. Rousseff's track record on economic growth ranks among the worst of any Brazilian president's over the last century.


. . .


Hoping to prevent Brazil from cooling too much after the sizzling boom of the previous decade, Ms. Rousseff, 67, a former Marxist guerrilla who was tortured during the military dictatorship in the 1970s and took office in 2011, doubled down on bets that she could stave off a severe slowdown by harnessing a web of government-controlled banks and energy companies.

Ms. Rousseff pressured the central bank to reduce interest rates, fueling a credit spree among overstretched consumers who are now struggling to repay loans. She cut taxes for certain domestic industries and imposed price controls on gasoline and electricity, creating huge losses at public energy companies.

Going further, she expanded the sway of Brazil's colossal national development bank, whose lending portfolio already dwarfed that of the World Bank. Drawing funds from the national treasury, the bank, known as the B.N.D.E.S., increased taxpayer-subsidized loans to large corporations at rates that were often significantly lower than those individuals could obtain from their banks.

Ms. Rousseff's critics argue that she also began using funds from giant government banks to cover budget shortfalls as she and her leftist Workers' Party headed into elections.

"They deliberately destroyed the public finances to obtain re-election," said Antônio Delfim Netto, 87, a former finance minister and one of Brazil's most influential economists. Taking note of the government's inability to rein in spending as a budget deficit expands, Mr. Delfim Netto and other economists are warning that officials may simply opt to print more money, stirring ghosts in an economy once ravaged by high inflation.


. . .


Unemployment is expected to climb even higher as the authorities ponder ways to cut a federal bureaucracy that grew almost 30 percent from 2003 to 2013, to 600,000 civil servants.

A pension crisis is also brewing, partly because of laws that allow many Brazilians to start receiving retirement benefits in their early 50s, even though life expectancy has increased and the fertility rate has fallen, limiting the number of young people to support the aging population.

"How can a person who is 52 years old be able to retire with a pension?" Luiz Fernando Figueiredo, a former central bank official, asked reporters. "These things have to be confronted. If not, the country will become another Greece."

Parts of Brazil's business establishment are in revolt, openly expressing disdain. Exame, a leading business magazine, devotes an entire section called "Only in Brazil" to documenting problems with the public bureaucracy.

These examples include a $120 million light-rail system in the city of Campinas that lies abandoned because of poor planning, and a measure requiring companies to obtain a special license before allowing employees to work on Sundays.



For the full story, see:

SIMON ROMERO. "As Boom Fades, Brazil Asks How Sizzle Turned to Fizzle."The New York Times (Fri., SEPT. 11, 2015): A1 & A6.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date SEPT. 10, 2015, and has the title "As a Boom Fades, Brazilians Wonder How It All Went Wrong.")






November 8, 2015

Recycling Is Costly "Religious Ritual"





John Tierney penned another eye-opening commentary, this one as a cover-story for the SundayReview Section of The New York Times. A few of the best passages are quoted below.



(p. 1) In 1996, I wrote a long article for The New York Times Magazine arguing that the recycling process as we carried it out was wasteful.


. . .


So, what's happened since then? While it's true that the recycling message has reached more people than ever, when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.

Despite decades of exhortations and man-(p. 4)dates, it's still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas. The slump has forced some recycling companies to shut plants and cancel plans for new technologies.


. . .


One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation's landfills. But that media-inspired fear was never realistic in a country with so much open space. In reporting the 1996 article I found that all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing. And that tiny amount of land wouldn't be lost forever, because landfills are typically covered with grass and converted to parkland, like the Freshkills Park being created on Staten Island.


. . .


Last week the National Institutes of Health announced that it had prematurely ended a large national study of how best to treat people with high blood pressure because of its exceptional results.

In this trial of more than 9,000 people age 50 and older with high blood pressure, an aggressive treatment strategy to keep systolic blood pressure below 120 was compared with a conventional one aimed at keeping it below 140. The subjects all had a high risk of heart attacks, stroke and heart failure. The N.I.H. concluded, six years into a planned eight-year study, that for these patients, pushing blood pressure down far below currently recommended levels was very beneficial.


. . .


As a business, recycling is on the wrong side of two long-term global economic trends. For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining. That's why we can afford to buy so much more stuff than our ancestors could. As a labor-intensive activity, recycling is an increasingly expensive way to produce materials that are less and less valuable.

Recyclers have tried to improve the economics by automating the sorting process, but they've been frustrated by politicians eager to increase recycling rates by adding new materials of little value. The more types of trash that are recycled, the more difficult it becomes to sort the valuable from the worthless.

In New York City, the net cost of recycling a ton of trash is now $300 more than it would cost to bury the trash instead. That adds up to millions of extra dollars per year -- about half the budget of the parks department -- that New Yorkers are spending for the privilege of recycling. That money could buy far more valuable benefits, including more significant reductions in greenhouse emissions.

So what is a socially conscious, sensible person to do?

It would be much simpler and more effective to impose the equivalent of a carbon tax on garbage, as Thomas C. Kinnaman has proposed after conducting what is probably the most thorough comparison of the social costs of recycling, landfilling and incineration. Dr. Kinnaman, an economist at Bucknell University, considered everything from environmental damage to the pleasure that some people take in recycling (the "warm glow" that makes them willing to pay extra to do it).

He concludes that the social good would be optimized by subsidizing the recycling of some metals, and by imposing a $15 tax on each ton of trash that goes to the landfill. That tax would offset the environmental costs, chiefly the greenhouse impact, and allow each municipality to make a guilt-free choice based on local economics and its citizens' wishes. The result, Dr. Kinnaman predicts, would be a lot less recycling than there is today.

Then why do so many public officials keep vowing to do more of it? Special-interest politics is one reason -- pressure from green groups -- but it's also because recycling intuitively appeals to many voters: It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint. It is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins.

Religious rituals don't need any practical justification for the believers who perform them voluntarily. But many recyclers want more than just the freedom to practice their religion. They want to make these rituals mandatory for everyone else, too, with stiff fines for sinners who don't sort properly. Seattle has become so aggressive that the city is being sued by residents who maintain that the inspectors rooting through their trash are violating their constitutional right to privacy.



For the full commentary, see:

JOHN TIERNEY. "The Reign of Recycling." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., OCT. 4, 2015): 1 & 4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date OCT. 3, 2015.)


The Kinnaman paper mentioned above, is:

Kinnaman, Thomas C., Takayoshi Shinkuma, and Masashi Yamamoto. "The Socially Optimal Recycling Rate: Evidence from Japan." Journal of Environmental Economics & Management 68, no. 1 (July 2014): 54-70.






November 7, 2015

Biography of Muhammad Documents Oldest and Youngest of His 12 Wives




(p. C6) The Prophet Muhammad might justly be described as the Jekyll and Hyde of historical biography. For centuries, he has been "alternately revered and reviled," as Kecia Ali, an associate professor of religion at Boston University, notes in her excellent overview of the abundant literature. As a result, Muhammad presents two violently incompatible faces to the historian. For devout Muslims, relying both on the Quran and the vast corpus of sacred traditions, the hadith, he serves as the unimpeachable model for human behavior, not only in matters of faith and ritual but in the most humdrum aspects of daily life, from marital and business relations to personal hygiene, including even the proper use of the toothpick. For non-Muslims, drawing on the same sources, he has been viewed from the earliest times as lustful and barbarous, as a raving impostor aping the ancient prophets; nowadays he is further charged with misogyny and pedophilia. The contrast is so stark as to appear irreconcilable.


. . .


Two of the book's best chapters deal with the most prominent of Muhammad's 12 or so wives: the saintly Khadija, a Meccan businesswoman 15 years older than he; and the more spirited--and controversial--Aisha, the child-bride who became Muhammad's "favorite wife" in later years. For both Muslim and non-Muslim biographers, Khadija represents a model wife. She is Muhammad's comforter in moments of doubt or distress--an "angel of mercy," according to the modern Egyptian biographer Muhammad Husayn Haykal--and their household is an abode of domestic felicity. Much is made of the fact that Muhammad took other wives only after Khadija's death.

His marriage to Aisha is another matter altogether. She was only 6 years old when she became engaged to Muhammad, but he considerately postponed consummation of the marriage until she was 9. Though earlier critics said surprisingly little about this marriage--they seemed not even to note the anomaly of the couple's ages--modern commentators have denounced it roundly, accusing Muhammad of pedophilia. Muslim biographers squirm to defend it, and some quibble over whether the bride was in fact only 9 when she was ushered into the marriage bed (to which she also brought her childhood toys, according to traditional accounts). A recent biography by one Abdul Hameed Siddiqui even goes so far as to praise the union with the fatuous remark that by marrying an older man, "the bride is immediately introduced and accustomed to moderate sexual intercourse." For pious Muslims, the marriage raises a painful dilemma. For non-Muslim polemicists, Ms. Ali says, the marriage and its presumed consummation are reasons to vilify Islam generally--to believe that "all of Islam and every Muslim is tainted."



For the full review, see:

ERIC ORMSBY. "Ways of Looking at the Prophet; Devout Muslims see him as the model for human behavior. Non-Muslims have seen him as lustful, barbarous or worse." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Jan. 10, 2015): C6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 9, 2015.)


The book under review, is:

Ali, Kecia. The Lives of Muhammad. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.






November 6, 2015

Lives Lost Due to Peer Review Delays




(p. A25) In this age of instant information, medicine remains anchored in the practice of releasing new knowledge at a deliberate pace. It's time for medical scientists to think differently about how quickly they alert the public to breakthrough findings.

Last week the National Institutes of Health announced that it had prematurely ended a large national study of how best to treat people with high blood pressure because of its exceptional results.

In this trial of more than 9,000 people age 50 and older with high blood pressure, an aggressive treatment strategy to keep systolic blood pressure below 120 was compared with a conventional one aimed at keeping it below 140. The subjects all had a high risk of heart attacks, stroke and heart failure. The N.I.H. concluded, six years into a planned eight-year study, that for these patients, pushing blood pressure down far below currently recommended levels was very beneficial.


. . .

The new information may justify a more vigorous strategy for treating blood pressure, but for now doctors and patients have been left with incomplete results, some headlines and considerable uncertainty about whether to modify current treatments.

Medicine needs to change its approach to releasing new, important information. Throughout science we are seeing more rapid modes of communication. The traditional approach was not to publish until everything was finalized and ready to be chiseled in stone. But these sorts of delays are unnecessary with the Internet. Moreover, although all the trial data has yet to be tabulated, an analysis was considered sufficiently definitive to lead independent experts to stop the multimillion-dollar study.

We believe that when there is such strong evidence for a major public health condition, there should be rapid release of the information that led to the decision to stop the trial. This approach could easily be accomplished by placing the data on the N.I.H. website or publishing the data on such platforms as bioRxiv.org, which enables fast, open review by the medical community.


. . .


Kudos to the scientists who conducted such a large, complex and important study with what will be likely to have lifesaving consequences for a condition that can be treated easily in most patients. Now the medical community needs to adopt a new approach in situations like this one to disseminate lifesaving results in a timely, comprehensive and transparent way. Lives depend on it.



For the full commentary, see:

ERIC J. TOPOL and HARLAN M. KRUMHOLZ. "Don't Sit on Medical Breakthroughs." The New York Times (Fri., SEPT. 17, 2015): A25.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date SEPT. 17, 2015, and the title "Don't Delay News of Medical Breakthroughs.")






November 5, 2015

Newly Found, Early Human Species, Respected Their Dead




(p. A1) [A] . . . new hominin species was announced on Thursday, [September 10, 2015] by an international team of more than 60 scientists led by Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist who is a professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The species name, H. naledi, refers to the cave where the bones lay undisturbed for so long; "naledi" means "star" in the local Sesotho language.

In two papers published this week in the open-access journal eLife, the researchers said that the more than 1,550 fossil elements documenting the discovery constituted the largest sample for any hominin species in a single African site, and one of the largest anywhere in the world.


. . .


The finding, like so many others in science, was the result of pure luck followed by considerable effort.

Two local cavers, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, found the narrow entrance to the chamber, measuring no more than seven and a half inches wide. They were skinny enough to squeeze through, and in the light of their headlamps they saw the bones all around them. When they showed the fossil pictures to Pedro Boshoff, a caver who is also a geologist, he alerted Dr. Berger, who organized an investigation.


. . .


(p. A3) Besides introducing a new member of the prehuman family, the discovery suggests that some early hominins intentionally deposited bodies of their dead in a remote and largely inaccessible cave chamber, a behavior previously considered limited to modern humans. Some of the scientists referred to the practice as a ritualized treatment of their dead, but by "ritual" they said they meant a deliberate and repeated practice, not necessarily a kind of religious rite.


. . .


At the news conference in South Africa on Thursday, [September 10, 2015] announcing the findings, Dr. Berger said: "I do believe that the field of paleoanthropology had convinced itself, as much as 15 years ago, that we had found everything, that we were not going to make major discoveries and had this story of our origins figured out. I think many people quit exploring, thought it was safer to conduct science inside a lab or behind a computer." What the new species Naledi says, Dr. Berger concluded, "is that there is no substitute for exploration."



For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "Cave Yields Addition to Human Family Tree."The New York Times (Fri., SEPT. 11, 2015): A1 & A3.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date SEPT. 10, 2015, and has the title "Homo Naledi, New Species in Human Lineage, Is Found in South African Cave,")






November 4, 2015

Seven Times More Trees in World than Previous Estimate




(p. A9) There are slightly more than three trillion trees in the world, a figure that dwarfs previous estimates, according to the most comprehensive census yet of global forestation.

Using satellite imagery as well as ground-based measurements from around the world, a team led by researchers at Yale University created the first globally comprehensive map of tree density. Their findings were published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

A previous study that drew on satellite imagery estimated that the total number of trees was about 400 billion. The new estimate of 3.04 trillion is multiple times that number, bringing the ratio of trees per person to 422 to 1.


. . .


The map was generated using 429,775 ground-based measurements in more than 50 countries, collected from a variety of sources, including the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the National Forest Inventory and several peer-reviewed studies, said Henry Glick, co-director of the Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative, a research program within the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

The effort paired existing tree-count data, in which a person either counted or estimated the number of trees in a given area, with environmental characteristics such as temperature and elevation. This enabled them to get a more accurate count than the rough forest-cover estimates via satellite. To fill in the gaps where there were no field measurements, they made estimates based on tree-density trends in regions with similar environmental characteristics, Mr. Glick said.



For the full story, see:

MARK ARMAO. "World Has Many More Trees Than Previously Thought, New Report Says." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., Sept. 3, 2015): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "World Has Many More Trees Than Previously Thought, New Report Says.")






November 3, 2015

Top-Down Aid "Hasn't Worked in Africa"




(p. 2) John Mackey is the co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Whole Foods Market, the nation's largest chain of natural foods supermarkets.

READING . . .

. . . "The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty," by Nina Munk. Sachs is an economist and I'm sure he doesn't like the book because it points out that his top-down aid type of approach hasn't worked in Africa. A more bottom-up approach through entrepreneurship and boot strapping seems to be more effective, which is the approach we take at our Whole Planet Foundation.



For the full interview, see:

KATE MURPHY, interviewer. "Download; John Mackey." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., NOV. 23, 2014): 2.

(Note: bold in original; ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date NOV. 22, 2014.)


The book praised in the interview is:

Munk, Nina. The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. New York: Doubleday, 2013.






November 2, 2015

Federal Agency Director Collects $750,000 for Lobbying




(p. A1) WASHINGTON -- In this city with a grand tradition of government officials who pass through the revolving door into a world of big paychecks, Jeffrey Farrow stands apart.

While earning more than $100,000 a year as executive director of a tiny federal agency called the Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, which has only one full-time federal employee, Mr. Farrow has simultaneously helped collect as much as $750,000 a year in lobbying fees. His clients have included the governments of Puerto Rico and the Republic of Palau, a tiny island nation in the western Pacific.

Mr. Farrow was at once a federal government bureaucrat and lobbyist. The revolving door did not even have to spin.

He managed this feat while running one of dozens of agencies that can get lost in the vast United States government -- this one responsible for identifying and helping preserve cemeteries and historic buildings in Eastern and Central Europe that are important to American Jews and others, including Orthodox Christians from Kosovo.


. . .


(p. A16) "A bizarre tale," said Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, in a letter he sent last month to Lesley Weiss, the chairwoman of the 30-year-old commission, asking her to explain Mr. Farrow's dual roles. "This lobbyist used federal personnel and resources to run a profitable personal business advancing the interest of foreign agents.".


. . .


Mr. Johnson, the Wisconsin senator, in a statement released by his office Friday, said the commission, despite its worthwhile mission, was an example of what is wrong with government.

"This relatively tiny agency is a classic example of the dysfunction and waste that typify far too much of the federal government," he said. "Established with the best of intentions to memorialize the horrors of 20th-century genocides, the Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad did little to accomplish that goal but was instead used to enrich a lobbyist."



For the full story, see:

ERIC LIPTON. "The Lobbyist With a Six-Figure Government Job."The New York Times (Fri., SEPT. 15, 2015): A1 & A16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date SEPT. 14, 2015.)






November 1, 2015

Political Freedom Depends on Economic Freedom--Hayek Was Right




(p. A12) The Commercial Press bookstore does not carry the banned political books. Instead, the collected speeches of China's president, Xi Jinping, are prominently displayed, as are at least four biographies of Lee Kuan Yew, the late Singaporean leader who was widely admired by Chinese officials.

It is the same pattern in 13 other Hong Kong stores owned by the parent company of Commercial Press, Sino United Publishing, the biggest bookseller and publisher in the city. Despite the interest from mainland tourists, books that paint Chinese politicians in a bad light are either not available or tucked out of sight on shelves far from heavily trafficked areas.


. . .


According to Hong Kong corporate records and one of the company's top executives, Sino United is owned, through a series of holding companies, by the Chinese government.

The company's dominant position in the city's publishing and bookselling industry is a major breach in the wall between the communist mainland and Hong Kong, a former British colony whose civil liberties -- including freedom of the press -- were guaranteed by treaty for half a century after it returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. It also illustrates how the central government in Beijing wields influence here not through force, but through its financial clout.

That influence has become even more apparent in the nearly three years since Mr. Xi became the top leader in China.



For the full story, see:

MICHAEL FORSYTHE and CRYSTAL TSE. "Hong Kong Bookstores Display Beijing's Clout." The New York Times (Tues., OCT. 20, 2015): A12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date OCT. 19, 2015,)






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