« January 2017 | Main | March 2017 »


February 28, 2017

To Save Administrative Costs, Health-Care Providers Give Discounts for Paying Out-of-Pocket




(p. R6) As consumers get savvier about shopping for health care, some are finding a curious trend: More hospitals, imaging centers, outpatient surgery centers and pharmacy chains will give them deep discounts if they pay cash instead of using insurance.

When Nancy Surdoval, a retired lawyer, needed a knee X-ray last year, Boulder Community Hospital in Colorado said it would cost her $600, out of pocket, using her high-deductible insurance, or just $70 if she paid cash upfront.

When she needed an MRI to investigate further, she was offered a similar choice--she could pay $1,100, out of pocket, using her insurance, or $600 if she self-paid in cash.

Rather than feel good about the savings, Ms. Surdoval got angry at her carrier, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona. "I'm paying $530 a month in premiums and I get charged more than someone who just walks in off the street?" says Ms. Surdoval, who divides her time between Boulder and Tucson. "I thought insurance companies negotiated good deals for us. Now things are totally upside down."

Deep discounts
Not long ago, hospitals routinely charged uninsured patients their highest rates, far more than insured patients paid for the same services. Now, in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of health-care prices, the opposite is often true: Patients who pay up front in cash often get better deals than their insurance plans have negotiated for them.

That is partly due to new state and federal rules aimed at protecting uninsured patients from price gouging. (Under the Affordable Care Act, for example, tax-exempt hospitals can't charge financially strapped patients much more than Medicare pays.) Many hospitals also offer discounts if patients pay in cash on the day of service, because it saves administrative work and collection hassles. Cash prices are officially aimed at the uninsured, but people with coverage aren't legally required to use it.

Hospitals, meanwhile, have sought ever-higher rates from commercial insurers to make up for losses on other patients. Insurers pass those negotiated rates on to plan members, and given the growth in high-deductible plans, more Americans are paying those rates in full, out of pocket, than ever before.



For the full story, see:

Beck, Melinda. "Here's a Way to Cut Your Health-Care Bill: Pay Cash." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Feb. 16, 2016): R6.

(Note: bold heading in original.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 15, 2016, and has the title "How to Cut Your Health-Care Bill: Pay Cash.")






February 27, 2017

Glorious Colors of Fall Leaves Last Longer with Global Warming




(p. A20) IONA, Nova Scotia -- A century ago, the flaming fall foliage in Nova Scotia would have long faded by early November. But today, some of the hills are still as nubbly with color as an aunt's embroidered pillow.

Climate change is responsible, scientists say. As the seasonal change creeps later into the year, not only here but all across the northern United States and Canada, the glorious colors will last longer, they predict -- a rare instance where global warming is giving us something to look forward to.

"If climate change makes eastern North America drier, then autumn colors will be spectacular, as they are on the Canadian Shield in dry summers, especially the red maples," said Root Gorelick, a biology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. The Canadian Shield is a broad ring of forests and ancient bedrock that extends hundreds of miles from the shores of Hudson Bay.

Over the very long term, the warming planet may have a negative effect on fall foliage, but even then any adverse impact is uncertain. It is not just an aesthetic question, but an economic one as well: The changing colors drive billions of dollars in "leaf peeping" tourism in Canada and the United States.

"From a peeper's point of view, it's good news," said Marco Archetti, the lead author of a 2013 paper at Harvard on predicting climate change impacts on autumn colors in New England.


. . .


The Harvard study, which looked at the percentage and duration of autumn color in Harvard Forest in central Massachusetts from 1993 to 2010, predicted that with current climate change forecasts, the duration of the fall display would increase about one day for every 10 years. Look at it this way: Children born this year could have an extra week to enjoy the colors by the time they are 70.

The study further analyzed data for trees that turn red: red maple, sugar maple, black gum, white oak, red oak, black oak, black cherry and white ash. Only in white ash trees did the duration and full display of color decrease. In the others, the amount and duration of red leaves increased over the course of 18 years.

The Harvard study used data collected by John O'Keefe, the museum coordinator, now emeritus, at Harvard Forest, who made his observations by eye -- estimating the percentage of colored leaves for each species and the duration from when 10 percent of a tree's leaves turned color to when 90 percent had turned.

Those observations have been validated by Andrew Richardson, a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, who has since set up a network of 350 "phenocams," cameras that quantify the duration and intensity of autumn colors in locations from Alaska to Hawaii, Arizona to Maine and up into Canada.

"John's direct observations on the ground line up pretty well with the camera data," Professor Richardson said.



For the full story, see:

CRAIG S. SMITH. "How a Changing Climate Helps Add Color to a Leaf Peeper's Paradise." The New York Times (Thurs., NOV. 3, 2016): A20.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date NOV. 2, 2016, and has the title "How a Changing Climate Is Shaping a Leaf Peeper's Paradise." )






February 26, 2017

Giving $10,000 to Each Adult American Would Cost 13% of GDP




(p. A2) Imagine you're president and Congress gives you a huge chunk of money to spend as you wish. Instead of cutting taxes or splashing out more on health care, infrastructure and defense, why not send a check to every adult?

That's the essence of universal basic income, a centuries-old idea now enjoying a revival across the political spectrum.


. . .


To send every American adult $10,000 a year would cost $2.4 trillion, or 13% of gross domestic product. Junking the current safety net wouldn't come close to paying for this: Scrapping income support for the poor, disabled and unemployed would save just $500 billion. Get rid of health care for the poor (mostly Medicaid), and the savings rise to only $900 billion. Getting rid of Medicare and Social Security would balance the costs, but that would leave the average retiree considerably worse off--politically (and ethically) a nonstarter.



For the full commentary, see:

Ip, Greg. "CAPITAL ACCOUNT; Payout Proposal Ignores Labor Needs." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., July 14, 2016): A2.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 13, 2016, and has the title "CAPITAL ACCOUNT; Revival of Universal Basic Income Proposal Ignores Needs of Labor Force.")






February 25, 2017

Empathy Is "a Poor Moral Guide"




(p. C4) "Against Empathy" is an invigorating, relevant and often very funny re-evaluation of empathy, one of our culture's most ubiquitous sacred cows, which in Mr. Bloom's view should be gently led to the abattoir. He notes that there are no less than 1,500 books listed on Amazon with "empathy" in the title or subtitle. In politics, practically no higher value exists than being empathetic: Think of the words "I feel your pain" coming from Bill Clinton through a strategically gnawed lip.


. . .


Mr. Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale, is having none of it. Empathy, he argues, is "a poor moral guide" in almost all realms of life, whether it's public policy, private charity or interpersonal relationships. "Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism," he writes.


. . .


His point, . . . , is that empathy is untempered by reason, emanating from the murky bayou of the gut. He prefers a kind of rational compassion -- a mixture of caring and detached cost-benefit analysis. His book is a systematic attempt to show why this is so.

To those who say empathy is essential to morality, he'd reply that morality has many sources. "Many wrongs" -- like littering or cheating on your taxes -- "have no distinct victims to empathize with." Nor does it appear that the most empathetic people behave the most ethically. "There have been hundreds of studies, with children and adults," he writes, "and overall the results are: meh."



For the full review, see:

JENNIFER SENIOR . "Books of The Times; Have a Heart, but Be Careful Not to Lose Your Head." The New York Times (Weds., December 7, 2016): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 6, 2016, and has the title "Books of The Times; Review: 'Against Empathy,' or the Right Way to Feel Someone's Pain.")


The book under review, is:

Bloom, Paul. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. New York: Ecco, 2016.






February 24, 2017

Doctors Lack Incentives to Use Best Ovarian Cancer Treatment




(p. 22) In 2006, the National Cancer Institute took the rare step of issuing a "clinical announcement," a special alert it holds in reserve for advances so important that they should change medical practice.

In this case, the subject was ovarian cancer. A major study had just proved that pumping chemotherapy directly into the abdomen, along with the usual intravenous method, could add 16 months or more to women's lives. Cancer experts agreed that medical practice should change -- immediately.

Nearly a decade later, doctors report that fewer than half of ovarian cancer patients at American hospitals are receiving the abdominal treatment.

"It's very unfortunate, but it's the real world," said Dr. Maurie Markman, the president of medicine and science at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. He added, "The word 'tragic' would be fair."

Experts suggest a variety of reasons that the treatment is so underused: It is harder to administer than intravenous therapy, and some doctors may still doubt its benefits or think it is too toxic. Some may also see it as a drain on their income, because it is time-consuming and uses generic drugs on which oncologists make little money.



For the full story, see:

DENISE GRADY. "Ovarian Cancer Treatment Is Found Underused." The New York Times (Tues., AUG. 4, 2015): A1 & A13.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date AUG. 3, 2015, and has the title "Effective Ovarian Cancer Treatment Is Underused, Study Finds.")






February 23, 2017

Winemakers Adapt to Global Warming with Owls and Technology




(p. 7) As California heats up, winemakers are confronting new challenges large and small -- some very small.

Mice, voles and gophers love vineyards. "We're seeing more pest pressures due to warmer winters," Ms. Jackson said, walking through rows of cabernet grapes. Another emerging issue: Grapes ripen earlier, and swallows and crows are eating fruit before the harvest. "It's a big problem," she said.

That explains the owls. Sixty-eight boxes are occupied by hungry barn owls; during the harvest, a falconer comes to some vineyards every day, launching a bird of prey to scare away other birds with a taste for grapes.

The Jacksons have also begun analyzing their crops with increasingly sensitive tools. Ms. Jackson recently installed devices that measure how much sap is in the vines. They transmit the data over cellular networks to headquarters, where software calculates how much water specific areas of vineyards do or don't need. "Data-driven farming," Ms. Jackson said.

The Jacksons are also monitoring their crops using drones equipped with sensors that detect moisture by evaluating the colors of vegetation. The wrong color can indicate nutritional deficiencies in the crops, or irrigation leaks.

"Previously, it would require an experienced winemaker to go and look at the grapes," said Clint Fereday, the company's director of aviation. "Now we can run a drone, tag an area of the vines with GPS, and go right to the spot that has a problem."

The drones have other uses, too. An infrared camera can scan for people guarding illicit marijuana operations on nearby lands.

Not all the changes being made on the Jackson vineyards involve advanced technology. Some are simply ancient farming techniques that the drought has made increasingly relevant.

Field hands plant cover crops, like rye and barley, between every second row of vines, to help keep the soil healthy. The family is stepping up its composting program. Pressed grapes are composted, then placed beneath rows of vines, since the organic matter is better at retaining moisture than soil.

Ms. Jackson's husband, Shaun Kajiwara, is a vineyard manager for the company, overseeing the grapes that go into many of the upscale labels.


. . .


Ultimately, Mr. Kajiwara believes that with the right mix of new rootstocks, cover crops and fortuitous rainfall, some of the Jackson vineyards might not need irrigation at all. "In a few years, I think we could be dry-farmed up here," he said. "Our reservoir will just be insurance."

It is a snapshot of the future for the Jackson family: a vineyard north of traditional wine country, where natural features might offset some of the deleterious effects wrought by climate change. And, in combination with the adaptations Ms. Jackson has put in place, it might just be enough to allow the company to keep making fine wines for many years to come.



For the full story, see:

DAVID GELLES. "A Winery Battles Warming." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., JAN. 8, 2017): 1 & 6-7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JAN. 5, 2017, and has the title "Falcons, Drones, Data: A Winery Battles Climate Change.")






February 22, 2017

Cuban Entrepreneurs Lost Faith in Fidel's Revolution




(p. 22) Ihosvany Oscar Artiles Ferrer, 44, a veterinarian who worked in Camagüey but recently moved to Queens, said the lack of wholesalers to buy supplies from made it difficult to eke out a profit.

"The private business is like a handkerchief the government puts over everything to be able to say to the United Nations that in Cuba people own small businesses," Mr. Artiles said.

"In the beginning, almost all of us were revolutionaries," he added. "But now, we quit all that because we don't believe in Fidel, in the revolution, in socialism or anything."



For the full story, see:

FRANCES ROBLES. "Stay or Go? Cuban Entrepreneurs Are Divided on Where to Stake Futures." The New York Times (Tues., MARCH 22, 2016): 22.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 21, 2016, and has the title "Stay or Go? Cuban Entrepreneurs Divided on Where to Stake Futures.")






February 21, 2017

NASA Funding Depends on "Pure Pork-Barrel Politics"




(p. A15) "Beyond Earth" is delightfully different from any other book I've ever read by human-spaceflight cheerleaders. The authors have put their thinking caps on and broken out of the usual orthodoxy by presenting cogent ideas on why humans should go into space, including their lovely idea of going to and living on obscure (to most folks) Titan. We go, they say, because we need to go, not just to explore and study but to find another place to live and, if we want to, screw it up just as much as we have screwed up Earth, because that's what we do, that's what makes us human. We may make mistakes but, by God, we also produce great civilizations and art and, yes, science in the process. We've done Earth, so let's now go wherever our abilities take us and physics allow.


. . .


The one great truth I always tell people wanting to understand the American space program is this: The federal government doesn't give a flip about human spaceflight. That's why Apollo was canceled just as it hit its stride, why the shuttle program was underfunded from its inception, and why, after the shuttle was retired, NASA had nothing to replace it with. No one who holds the purse strings for NASA really cares whether American astronauts ever go anywhere. It's just not that important to a country beset with a vast array of pressing problems.

What keeps the current space program going at all is pure pork-barrel politics. That's why President Obama didn't blink an eye when he signed NASA budgets that provided funds to build a giant rocket called the Space Launch System, which has no well-defined purpose, as well as a crewed capsule called Orion, which has no specifically assigned places to go. As proof that spending money isn't evidence of support, there wasn't one dime in those budgets to procure and deliver the accouterments needed for true human space endeavors--no space suits, no planetary landers, no rovers, no habitats, nothing but the bottom and top of a big, expensive rocket that will require a vast marching army to operate for no apparent reason.



For the full review, see:

HOMER HICKAM. "BOOKSHELF; Forget Mars, Aim for Titan." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., December 16, 2016): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 15, 2016,)


The book under review, is:

Wohlforth, Charles, and Hendrix. Amanda R. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets. New York: Pantheon, 2016.






February 20, 2017

Firm Success May Depend on Being Allowed to Create Corporate Culture Through Hiring




(p. B1) After submitting an online application, completing a video interview and meeting with a hiring manager, the last thing standing between many applicants and a job at G Adventures Inc. is a roughly two-foot-deep ball pit similar to what you might find at a Chuck E. Cheese's.

Candidates remove their shoes and join three of the Toronto-based tour company's employees, who spin a wheel with questions such as, "What's a signature dance move and will you demonstrate it?"

Sitting in a pool of plastic balls seemingly has little to do with selling package tours, but company founder Bruce Poon Tip says it reveals a lot about who will be successful at the 2,000-employee company.

Culture is "like a tribal thing for us," he says. Lately, many companies seem to agree.

Employers are finding new ways to assess job candidates' cultural suitability as they seek hires who fit in from day one. While few go as far as G Adventures, companies such as Salesforce.com Inc. have experimented with tapping "cultural ambassadors" to evaluate finalists for jobs in other departments. Zappos.com Inc. gives company veterans veto power over hires who might not fit in with its staff--even if those hires have the right skills for the job.

Though employment experts warn that fuzzy criteria such as culture fit may permit bias in the hiring process and result in a lack of diversity, companies say culture often determines who succeeds or fails in their workplace.



For the full commentary, see:

RACHEL FEINTZEIG. "'Culture Fit' May Be Key to Your Next Job." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., Oct. 12, 2016): B1 & B6.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the title "Culture Fit' May Be the Key to Your Next Job.")






February 19, 2017

Jewish Medical Inventor Invested in Human Capital Because That "Could Never Be Taken from Me"






Louis Sokoloff's son Kenneth authored, or co-authored, important papers on how patents aided invention in the 1800s.



(p. A21) Dr. Louis Sokoloff, who pioneered the PET scan technique for measuring human brain function and diagnosing disorders, died on July 30 [2015] in Washington.


. . .


. . . he leapt at the opportunity when he won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, guided by his grandfather's advice.

"He advised me to choose a profession, any one," he wrote, "in which all my significant possessions would reside in my mind because, being Jewish, sooner or later I would be persecuted and I would lose all my material possessions; what was contained in my mind, however, could never be taken from me and would accompany me everywhere to be used again."


. . .


Dr. Sokoloff's wife, the former Betty Kaiser, died in 2003, and his son, Kenneth, an economic historian, died in 2007.



For the full obituary, see:

SAM ROBERTS. "Louis Sokoloff, Pioneer of PET Scan, Dies at 93." The New York Times (Thurs., AUG. 6, 2015): A21.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date AUG. 5, 2015.)






February 18, 2017

Government Wastes Millions on Corrupt Nanotech Boondoggle




(p. A19) In Utica, a former industrial hub in upstate New York where the near collapse of manufacturing has made for a scarcity of jobs and a rarity of good news, the announcement in August 2015 that an Austrian chip maker had decided to put down roots in a fabrication plant built by the state was cause for jubilation.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo celebrated with an appearance in Utica, promising $585 million in state funds to cement the public-private partnership, which was to create 1,000 jobs. Some in the crowd wept with emotion.

But last week, after months of delays and mismanagement that culminated in September with federal prosecutors revealing a far-reaching bribery and bid-rigging scheme, state and local officials said that the Austrian chip maker, AMS, had abandoned the project.

The Utica project was merely one chunk of the multibillion-dollar investment with which the Cuomo administration has pledged to seed nanotechnology and high-tech industries in upstate cities starved for economic growth.


. . .


For the state, it seems, the strategy developed by Mr. Kaloyeros and trumpeted by Mr. Cuomo -- to lavish hundreds of millions of dollars in state subsidies on corporate partners to create high-tech jobs -- is unblemished. Yet the model has come in for repeated criticism from government watchdogs, who say an economic policy that tries to create risky new industries virtually from scratch, and that spends millions in taxpayer dollars to create every new job, is folly.

"We're incredibly skeptical of the economic logic behind these projects because they're too expensive," said John Kaehny, the executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good-government group. "There is no economic logic to (p. A21) this, really. But there's a huge political logic to it. The governor desperately needs for this to be a success for his political legacy in New York."



For the full story, see:

VIVIAN YEE. "How Missteps Doomed Plan for Growth, Foiling Cuomo." The New York Times (Weds., DEC. 28, 2016): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 27, 2016, and has the title "How Cuomo's Signature Economic Growth Project Fell Apart in Utica.")






February 17, 2017

Complex Regulations Stifle Innovation




(p. A15) In "The Innovation Illusion" . . . [Fredrik Erixon and Björn Weigel] argue that "there is too little breakthrough innovation . . . and the capitalist system that used to promote eccentricity and embrace ingenuity all too often produces mediocrity."

The authors identify four factors that have made Western capitalism "dull and hidebound." The first is "gray capital," the money held by entities such as investment institutions, which are often just intermediaries for other investors. Their shareholders, say the authors, tend to focus on short-term outcomes, a perspective that makes company managers reluctant to invest in the research and development that is the lifeblood of the new. The authors' second villain is "corporate managerialism," which breeds a "custodian corporate culture" that searches for certainty and control instead of "fast and radical innovation."

A third villain is globalization, though the authors have a novel complaint: The global economy, they say, has given rise to large firms that are more interested in protecting their turf than pursuing path-breaking ideas. Finally, they decry "complex regulation" for injecting uncertainty into corporate investment and thus stifling the emergence of new ideas and new products.

Echoing the views of Northwestern economist Robert Gordon, Messrs. Erixon and Weigel lament the paucity of big-bang innovation, writing that "the advertised technologies for the future underwhelm." They wonder why there hasn't been more progress in all sorts of realms, from the engineering of flying cars to the curing of cancer. Responding to those who worry that robots will drive up unemployment, they say that the real concern should be "an innovation famine rather than an innovation feast."



For the full review, see:


MATTHEW REES. "BOOKSHELF; Bending the Arc of History." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., December 13, 2016): A15.

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

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 12, 2016,)


The book under review, is:

Erixon, Fredrik, and Björn Weigel. The Innovation Illusion: How So Little Is Created by So Many Working So Hard. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2016.






February 16, 2017

Tech Firms Rally Their Customers to Fight Restrictive Regulations




(p. A23) The nasty battle between Uber and the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio over New York City's proposed cap on livery vehicles has ended, at least for now, with the city and the ride-hailing giant agreeing to postpone a decision pending a "traffic study." There's no doubt who won, though. The mayor underestimated his opponent and was forced to retreat.

It wasn't just conventional pressure -- ads, money, lobbying -- that caught the mayor off guard. Uber mobilized its customers, leveraging the power of its app to prompt a populist social-media assault, all in support of a $50 billion corporation. The company added a "de Blasio's Uber" feature so that every time New Yorkers logged on to order a car, they were reminded of the mayor's threat ("NO CARS -- SEE WHY") and were sent directly to a petition opposing the new rules. Users were also offered free Uber rides to a June 30 rally at City Hall. Eventually, the mayor and the City Council received 17,000 emails in opposition. Just as Uber has offloaded most costs of operating a taxi onto its drivers, the company uses its customers to do much of its political heavy lifting.

Uber's earlier strategy to win entry into the Portland, Ore., market followed a similar pattern. When the city wasn't allowing the company to operate taxis, Uber exploited rules that allowed it to act as a delivery company, and distributed free ice cream around town. Using data on these deliveries, the firm shrewdly recruited recipients as pro-Uber citizen lobbyists, pressuring local officials to allow their cars to pick up passengers. It worked.

Many tech firms now recognize the organizing power of their user networks, and are weaponizing their apps to achieve political ends. Lyft embedded tools on its site to mobilize users in support of less restrictive regulations. Airbnb provided funding for the "Fair to Share" campaign in the Bay Area, which lobbies to allow short-term housing rentals, and is currently hiring "community organizers" to amplify the voices of home-sharing supporters. Amazon's "Readers United" was an effort to gain customer backing during its acrimonious dispute with the publisher Hachette. Emails from eBay prodded users to fight online sales-tax legislation.



For the full commentary, see:

EDWARD T. WALKER. "The Uber-ization of Activism." The New York Times (Fri., AUG. 7, 2015): A23.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date AUG. 6, 2015.)






February 15, 2017

Where Fidelistas Miss Mr. Hershey's Company Town




(p. A9) This small town on Cuba's northern coast is steeped in memory and wistfulness, a kind of living monument to the intertwined histories of the United States and Cuba and to the successes and failures of Fidel Castro's social revolution.

The town dates to 1916, when Milton S. Hershey, the American chocolate baron, visited Cuba for the first time and decided to buy sugar plantations and mills on the island to supply his growing chocolate empire in Pennsylvania. On land east of Havana, he built a large sugar refinery and an adjoining village -- a model town like his creation in Hershey, Pa. -- to house his workers and their families.

He named the place Hershey.

The village would come to include about 160 homes -- the most elegant made of stone, the more modest of wooden planks -- built along a grid of streets and each with tidy yards and front porches in the style common in the growing suburbs of the United States. It also had a public school, a medical clinic, shops, a movie theater, a golf course, social clubs and a baseball stadium where a Hershey-sponsored team played its home games, residents said.

The factory became one of the most productive sugar refineries in the country, if not in all of Latin America, and the village was the envy of surrounding towns, which lacked the standard of living that Mr. Hershey bestowed on his namesake settlement.


. . .


"I'm a Fidelista, entirely in favor of the revolution," declared Meraldo Nojas Sutil, 78, who moved to Hershey when he was 11 and worked in the plant during the 1960s and '70s. "But slowly the town is deteriorating."

Many residents do not hesitate to draw a contrast between the current state of the town and the way that it looked when "Mr. Hershey," as he is invariably called here, was the boss.

Residents seem amused by, if not proud of, the ties to the United States.

Most still use the village's original name, pronounced locally as "AIR-see." And Hershey signs still hang at the town's train station, a romantic nod to a bygone era, though perhaps also a symbol of hope that the past -- at least, certain aspects of it -- will again become the present.



For the full story, see:

KIRK SEMPLE. "CAMILO CIENFUEGOS JOURNAL; Past Is Bittersweet in Cuban Town That Hershey Built." The New York Times (Thurs., DEC. 7, 2016): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date DEC. 7, 2016, and has the title "CAMILO CIENFUEGOS JOURNAL; In Cuban Town That Hershey Built, Memories Both Bitter and Sweet.")






February 14, 2017

Government Sugar Protectionism Kills More Jobs than It Saves




(p. A13) As if domestic price-fixing by the government--here, driving prices up by setting production limits--weren't enough, the feds then set a limit on sugar imports, and punish any imports above that limit with heavy tariffs.

The result? Countries such as Canada openly advertise to U.S. companies that use sugar--for instance, in the food industry--that they will enjoy lower business costs if they move. And when companies leave, like some candy makers that have moved production overseas, they take their jobs with them. Even the Commerce Department admits that for every job that the sugar program "protects," it kills three others.

Reforming this policy sounds like a no-brainer, but the small number of beneficiaries use their benefits to influence--by lobbying, for instance, or with campaign contributions--politicians who block any reforms. No wonder sugar was the only commodity program not to be reformed by having its subsidies reduced in the most-recent farm bill, in 2013.



For the full commentary, see:

JOE PITTS and DAVID MCINTOSH. "Your Funny Valentine Candy Pricing; Making a box of chocolates more expensive is one of many ways federal sugar policy hurts U.S. taxpayers." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Feb. 12, 2016): A13.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 11, 2016.)






February 13, 2017

The Good Old Days Were Grim




(p. A15) In "Progress," the Swedish author Johan Norberg deploys reams of data to show just how much life has improved--especially over the past few decades but over the past couple of centuries as well. Each chapter is devoted to documenting progress in a single category, including food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy and equality.

In response to people who look fondly on the "good old days," Mr. Norberg underscores just how grim they could be. Rampant disease, famine and violence routinely killed off millions. In the 14th century, the so-called Black Death wiped out a third of Europe's population. Five hundred years later, cholera outbreaks throughout the world led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and even killed a U.S. president, James Polk.



For the full review, see:


MATTHEW REES. "BOOKSHELF; Bending the Arc of History." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., December 13, 2016): A15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 12, 2016,)


The book under review, is:

Norberg, Johan. Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. London, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2016.






February 12, 2017

"Worrying About Overpopulation on Mars"




(p. B4) Reflecting on my own brief experience as an invertebrate neuroscientist, I'd say that today's AI is at the jellyfish stage in the evolution of biological intelligence. Real brains--and genuine intelligence--are so far in the future as to be beyond any reasonable horizon of prediction.

Or, as chief scientist and AI guru Andrew Ng of Chinese search giant Baidu Inc. once put it, worrying about takeover by some kind of intelligent, autonomous, evil AI is about as rational as worrying about overpopulation on Mars.



For the full commentary, see:

CHRISTOPHER MIMS. "KEYWORDS; Artificial Intelligence Has a Way to Go." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Dec. 5, 2016): B1 & B4.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Dec. 4, 2016, and has the title "KEYWORDS; Artificial Intelligence Makes Strides, but Has a Long Way to Go.")






February 11, 2017

More Live to 100, and Those Who Do, Are Living Even Longer




(p. A13) There were 72,197 of them in 2014, up from 50,281 in 2000, according to the report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1980, they numbered about 15,000.

Even demographers seemed impressed. "There is certainly a wow factor here, that there are this many people in the United States over 100 years old," said William H. Frey, the senior demographer at the Brookings Institution. "Not so long ago in our society, this was somewhat rare."

Not only are there more centenarians, but they are living even longer. Death rates declined for all demographic groups of centenarians -- white, black, Hispanic, female, male -- in the six years ending in 2014, the report said.

Women, who typically live longer than men, accounted for the overwhelming majority of centenarians in 2014: more than 80 percent.



For the full story, see:

SABRINA TAVERNISE. "Centenarians Proliferate, and Live Longer." The New York Times (Thurs., JAN. 21, 2016): A13.






February 10, 2017

The Case Against "Mindful Dishwashing"




(p. 9) I'm making a failed attempt at "mindful dishwashing," the subject of a how-to article an acquaintance recently shared on Facebook. According to the practice's thought leaders, in order to maximize our happiness, we should refuse to succumb to domestic autopilot and instead be fully "in" the present moment, engaging completely with every clump of oatmeal and decomposing particle of scrambled egg. Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it's starting to feel suspiciously like it's actually adding to them. It's a special circle of self-improvement hell, striving not just for a Pinterest-worthy home, but a Pinterest-worthy mind.

Perhaps the single philosophical consensus of our time is that the key to contentment lies in living fully mentally in the present. The idea that we should be constantly policing our thoughts away from the past, the future, the imagination or the abstract and back to whatever is happening right now has gained traction with spiritual leaders and investment bankers, armchair philosophers and government bureaucrats and human resources departments.


. . .


So does the moment really deserve its many accolades? It is a philosophy likely to be more rewarding for those whose lives contain more privileged moments than grinding, humiliating or exhausting ones. Those for whom a given moment is more likely to be "sun-dappled yoga pose" than "hour 11 manning the deep-fat fryer."

On the face of it, our lives are often much more fulfilling lived outside the present than in it.


. . .


Surely one of the most magnificent feats of the human brain is its ability to hold past, present, future and their imagined alternatives in constant parallel, . . .


. . .


What differentiates humans from animals is exactly this ability to step mentally outside of whatever is happening to us right now, and to assign it context and significance. Our happiness does not come so much from our experiences themselves, but from the stories we tell ourselves that make them matter.


. . .


So perhaps, rather than expending our energy struggling to stay in the Moment, we should simply be grateful that our brains allow us to be elsewhere.



For the full commentary, see:

RUTH WHIPPMAN. "Actually, Let's Not Be in the Moment." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., NOV. 27, 2016): 9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date NOV. 26, 2016.)







February 9, 2017

The Octopus, Though Intelligent, Only Lives for Two Years




(p. C5) Around 600 million years ago there lived in the sea a small unprepossessing worm, virtually eyeless and brainless. For some reason this species split into two, thus seeding the vast zoological groupings of the vertebrates and the invertebrates. On one branch sit the mammals; on the other sit the molluscs (and many others). Among these two groups, two notable creatures eye each other warily: the human and the octopus. They have no common ancestor apart from that lowly worm, yet there is a strange affinity, a bond almost. For they are both evolutionary experiments in intelligence--pockets of genius in a vast ocean (sorry!) of biological mediocrity.

In "Other Minds," Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher at CUNY and an avid scuba diver, has given us a smoothly written and captivating account of the octopus and its brethren, as observed by humans. He celebrates the cephalopods: the octopus, the squid and the cuttlefish. He stresses their dissimilarity to us and other mammals, but he also wants us to appreciate what we have in common. Just as eyes have evolved independently in many lineages, so have intelligent minds. From those mindless worms, via two separate evolutionary paths, to the glories of consciousness and curiosity--we are brothers in big brains.


. . .


(p. C6) Mr. Godfrey-Smith mixes the scientific with the personal, giving us lively descriptions of his dives to "Octopolis," a site off the east coast of Australia at which octopuses gather. There they make their dens in piles of scallop shells. He also reproduces some excellent photographs of the octopuses and other cephalopods he has observed in his submerged city. It is with a jolt, then, that he announces the average life span of the cephalopod: one to two years. That's it: That marvelous complex body, the large brain, lively mind and amazing Technicolor skin--all over so quickly. There are boring little fish that live for 200 years, and the closely related nautilus can live for 20 years, but the octopus has only a year or two to enjoy its uniqueness. Mr. Godfrey-Smith speculates that the brevity results from a lifestyle that forces the animal to reach reproductive age as soon as possible, given the problem of predators such as whales or large fish.

Whatever the biological reason for such a brief life, it is a melancholy fact.


. . .


What is it like to be an octopus? It's not easy to say, but I speculate soft, malleable, brimming with sensation, vivid, expressive, exciting, complicated, tragic and determined. They make good, if brief, use of their portion of consciousness. They must live by the evolutionary laws that have created them, but there is an inner being that makes the best of its lot. Though it's easy to think of octopuses as alien, a better view is that they are our cousins in biological destiny--spirits in a material world.



For the full review, see:

COLIN MCGINN. "Experiments in Intelligence." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 3, 2016): C5-C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 4 [sic], 2016, and has the title "Our Noble Cousin: The Octopus.")


The book under review, is:

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.






February 8, 2017

Trump Victory Undercut Faith in Big Data




(p. B1) It was a rough night for number crunchers. And for the faith that people in every field -- business, politics, sports and academia -- have increasingly placed in the power of data.

Donald J. Trump's victory ran counter to almost every major forecast -- undercutting the belief that analyzing reams of data can accurately predict events. Voters demonstrated how much predictive analytics, and election forecasting in particular, remains a young science: . . .


. . .


(p. B5) This week's failed election predictions suggest that the rush to exploit data may have outstripped the ability to recognize its limits.


. . .


Beyond election night, there are broader lessons that raise questions about the rush to embrace data-driven decision-making across the economy and society.

The enthusiasm for big data has been fueled by the success stories of Silicon Valley giants born on the internet, like Google, Amazon and Facebook. The digital powerhouses harvest vast amounts of user data using clever software for search, social networks and online commerce. Data is the fuel, and algorithms borrowed from the tool kit of artificial intelligence, notably machine learning, are the engine.


. . .


The danger, data experts say, lies in trusting the data analysis too much without grasping its limitations and the potentially flawed assumptions of the people who build predictive models.



For the full story, see:

STEVE LOHR and NATASHA SINGER. "How Data Failed Us in Calling an Election." The New York Times (Sat., NOV. 10, 2016): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipses added.)






February 7, 2017

Rigid Labor Regulations Hurt Labor in India




(p. A9) . . . rigid and complex regulations have discouraged investment in labor-intensive industries in India, . . . .

Many economists say India's labor laws have encouraged enterprises to stay small, rely on informal labor or substitute capital for workers. A report by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said for India to return to a high-growth trajectory, it must "reduce barriers to formal employment by introducing a simpler and more flexible labor law which doesn't discriminate by size of enterprise."



For the full story, see:

NIHARIKA MANDHANA. "India State Tests Labor-Law Overhaul." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Dec. 6, 2014): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Dec. 7 [sic], 2014, and has the title "Modi's BJP-Controlled States Become Labs for Contentious Reform.")






February 6, 2017

One Way to Defend Free Trade (in Honor of Reagan's Birthday)




(p. A9) Baldrige also knew how to use humor to deflate tense moments, as when the U.S. toy balloon industry petitioned for protection against cheap Mexican imports. Baldrige was opposed, but after debate the entire cabinet favored sanctions. Sensing this was not where the president wanted to go, Baldrige pulled from his pocket a dozen toy balloons and tossed them on the cabinet table. As the room filled with laughter, he said, "This is what we are talking about." Reagan denied the sanctions.


For the full review, see:

CLARK S. JUDGE. "BOOKSHELF; The Cowboy At Commerce; During tense talks over steel imports, Baldrige insisted the tired Europeans work through lunch. He'd hidden snacks for his team nearby." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Jan. 5, 2016): A9.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 4, 2016, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; The Cowboy At Commerce; During tense talks over steel imports, Baldrige insisted the tired Europeans work through lunch. He'd hidden snacks for his team nearby.")


The book under review, is:

Black, Chris, and B. Jay Cooper. Mac Baldrige: The Cowboy in Ronald Reagan's Cabinet. Lanham, MD: Lyons Press, 2015.






February 5, 2017

Innovation Brought Rise of Middle Class and Decline of Aristocracy




(p. C7) Mr. Evans claims that "master narratives" have fallen into disrepute, and he does not aspire to provide one. But he returns repeatedly to such themes as the growth of "public space" as Europe urbanized and communications improved. He likewise describes the "shifting contours of inequality" as the middle classes burgeoned and benefited from the hastening pace of scientific innovation while the aristocracy slowly declined in status (albeit not in creature comforts).

Similarly, Mr. Evans offers an interesting discussion of how various forms of serfdom disappeared, even as the essence of rural immiseration generally did not. He conveys the degradation of existence for the emergent working class of the cities with controlled pathos yet without acknowledging the improvements in living standards that took place in advanced countries during the last decades of the century. He adduces evidence to show that the benefits of improved sanitation and hygiene, health and nutrition, consumer products and home conveniences, as well as longer life expectancy, went at first disproportionately to the urban middle and professional classes, strata that tripled as a fraction of the population in leading countries. Thus even in comparatively prosperous England, well-off adolescents at midcentury stood almost 9 inches taller than their proletarian contemporaries and by 1900 enjoyed a life expectancy 14 years longer.



For the full review, see:

STEPHEN A. SCHUKER. "The European Century." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 3, 2016): C7.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 2, 2016, and has the title "A Long Century of Peace.")


The book under review, is:

Evans, Richard J. The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914. New York: Viking, 2016.






February 4, 2017

Double-Blind Trials Are Not the Only Source of Sound Knowledge




(p. 1) . . . while all doctors agree about the importance of gauging the quality of evidence, many feel that a hierarchy of methods is simplistic. As the doctor Mark Tonelli has argued, distinct forms of knowledge can't be judged by the same standards: what a patient prefers on the basis of personal experience; what a doctor thinks on the basis of clinical experience; and what clinical research has discovered -- each of these is valuable in its own way. While scientists concur that randomized trials are ideal for evaluating the average effects of treatments, such precision isn't necessary when the benefits are obvious or clear from other data.

Clinical expertise and rigorous evaluation also differ in their utility at different stages of scientific inquiry. For discovery and explanation, as the clinical epidemiologist Jan Vandenbroucke has argued, practitioners' instincts, observations and case studies are most useful, whereas randomized controlled trials are least useful. Expertise and systematic evaluation are partners, not rivals.

Distrusting expertise makes it easy to confuse an absence of randomized evaluations with an absence of knowledge. And this leads to the false belief that knowledge of what works in social policy, education or fighting terrorism can come only from randomized evaluations. But by that logic (as a spoof scientific article claimed), we don't know if parachutes really work because we have no randomized controlled trials of them.



For the full commentary, see:

PAGAN KENNEDY. "The Thin Gene." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., NOV. 27, 2016): 1 & 6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date NOV. 25, 2016.)



The academic article calling for double-blind randomized trials to establish the efficacy of parachutes, is:

Smith, Gordon C. S., and Jill P. Pell. "Parachute Use to Prevent Death and Major Trauma Related to Gravitational Challenge: Systematic Review of Randomised Controlled Trials." BMJ 327, no. 7429 (Dec. 18, 2003): 1459-61.






February 3, 2017

Elephant Poaching Boosts Lion Population




(p. A7) In Mozambique, the number of people living inside the country's gigantic Niassa Reserve grew to around 35,000 in 2012 from about 21,000 in 2001, and those people are increasingly clashing with the park's lions--catching them in snares or hunting them when they attack livestock, said Alastair Nelson, the country director for New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. In a strange sense of how out-of-whack the area has become, the park's lion population has risen because of a jump in elephant poaching for ivory that has created a multitude of carcasses for the lions to feed on, Mr. Nelson said."


For the full story, see:

HEIDI VOGT. "Humans, Lions Struggle to Co-Exist." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Aug. 8, 2015): A7.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Aug. 7, 2015, and has the title "Human-Population Boom Remains Largest Threat to Africa's Lions in Wake of Cecil's Killing.")






February 2, 2017

Science Can Learn Much from Outliers "Who Are Naturally Different"




(p. 1) Abby Solomon suffers from a one-in-a-billion genetic syndrome: After just about an hour without food, she begins to starve. She sleeps in snatches. In her dreams she gorges on French fries. But as soon as she wakes up and nibbles a few bites, she feels full, so she ends up consuming very few calories. At 5 feet 10 inches tall, she weighs 99 pounds.

Now 21 years old, she is one of the few people in the world to survive into adulthood with neonatal progeroid syndrome, a condition that results from damage to the FBN1 gene.


. . .


(p. 6) Dr. Chopra told me that, as far as medical science is concerned, Abby Solomon is worth thousands of the rest of us.


. . .


"Nothing comes close to starting with people who are naturally different," he said. This is why he searches out patients at the extreme ends of the spectrum -- those who are wired to weigh 80 pounds or 380 pounds. He said, "We have the opportunity to help a bigger swath of humanity when we learn from these outliers."

In 2013, after hearing about Ms. Solomon's unusual condition from another patient, he asked her to visit his clinic. Ms. Solomon warned him that she would be able to carry on a conversation for only 15 minutes before she needed to snack on chips or a cookie. That remark inspired a revelation. Dr. Chopra realized that "she had to eat small, sugary meals all day to stay alive, because her body was constantly running out of glucose," he said.

The clue led Dr. Chopra and his colleagues to their discovery of the blood-sugar-regulating hormone, which they named asprosin. Ms. Solomon's natural asprosin deficiency keeps her on the brink of starvation, but Dr. Chopra's hope is that an artificial compound that blocks asprosin could be used as a treatment for obesity. He and his team have already tested such a compound on mice, and found that it can reverse insulin resistance and weight gain.



For the full commentary, see:

PAGAN KENNEDY. "The Thin Gene." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., NOV. 27, 2016): 1 & 6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date NOV. 25, 2016.)






February 1, 2017

Not All Old Ideas Should Be Recycled




(p. C16) "What is true in the consumer tech industry is true in science and other fields of thinking," Mr. Poole elaborates. "The story of human understanding is not a gradual, stately accumulation of facts" but rather "a wild roller-coaster ride full of loops and switchbacks."

Horses, for example, are once again being used in warfare in the Middle East. Vinyl records are back after losing out to digital CDs and internet streaming. Leeches, whose use was once considered a barbaric medieval practice, are now an FDA-approved "medical device" for cleaning wounds. Bicycles are making a comeback as a popular and efficient means of moving about in large, crowded cities. Blimps are starting to compete with helicopters for moving heavy cargo.


. . .


To understand this process of rediscovery--"old is the new new"--we need to abandon the myth of progress as something that results from a rejection of all that is old.

Still, not all old ideas will return reconfigured into new and useful ones, and it is here where readers may find room for disagreement, despite Mr. Poole's many caveats.


. . .


That there are many unsolved mysteries in science does not always mean that we should turn to the past for insight. Sometimes--usually, in fact--the bad ideas rejected by science belong in the graveyard. Phlogiston, miasma, spontaneous generation, the luminiferous aether--wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.

Nevertheless, those notions--and many others that Mr. Poole surveys in this thought-provoking book--were wrong in ways that led scientists toward a better understanding, and the middle chapters of "Rethink" elegantly recount these stories. Going forward, Mr. Poole ends by suggesting that we adopt a "view from tomorrow" in which we "try to consider an idea free of the moral weight that attaches to it in particular historical circumstances" and that "we could try to get into the habit of deferring judgments about ideas more generally" in order to keep an open mind. On the flip side, skeptics should not rush to dismiss a consensus idea as wrong just because consensus science is not always right. Most of today's ideas gained consensus in the first place for a very good reason: evidence. Do you know what we call alternative science with evidence? Science.



For the full review, see:


MICHAEL SHERMER. "Everything Old Is New Again." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 10, 2016): C16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 9, 2016, and has the title "Electric Cars Are Old News.")


The book under review, is:

Poole, Steven. Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas. New York: Scribner, 2016.






HP3D5006CropSmall.jpg






Archives















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