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April 30, 2018

Macron Gives France Hope That "Tomorrow Can Be Better Than Today"




(p. A27) PARIS -- When people used to ask me what I missed about America, I would say, "The optimism." I grew up in the land of hope, then moved to one whose catchphrases are "It's not possible" and "Hell is other people." I walked around Paris feeling conspicuously chipper.

But lately I've had a kind of emotional whiplash. France is starting to seem like an upbeat, can-do country, while Americans are less sure that everything will be O.K.


. . .


The French haven't become magically cheerful, but there's a creeping sense that hope isn't idiotic, and life can actually improve. As is common with a new president, there was a jump in optimism after Emmanuel Macron was elected last year. But this time, optimism has remained strong, and in January it hit an eight-year high.

It helps that France's economy is finally growing more and that Mr. Macron has made good on promises ranging from overhauling the labor laws to shrinking class sizes at kindergartens in disadvantaged areas.


. . .


"The France of the optimists has won, and is dragging the other part of France toward its own side," said Claudia Senik, an economist who heads the Well-Being Observatory, an academic think tank here.

The French are even taking an intellectual interest in this alien idea. There are optimism clubs, conferences and school programs, scholars of positivity and books like "50+1 Good Reasons to Choose Optimism." In September Mr. Macron was a patron of the Global Positive Forum, a study group of "positive initiatives" in business and government. ("Tomorrow can be better than today," the forum's website insists.)



For the full commentary, see:

Druckerman, Pamela. "The New French Optimism." The New York Times (Friday, March 23, 2018): A27.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 22, 2018, and has the title "Are the French the New Optimists?")






April 29, 2018

Case Study of Effects of Closing a Factory




(p. B1) Perhaps the most illuminating business book of the year, for me, is Amy Goldstein's "Janesville: An American Story." If you really want to understand what's going on in today's real economy -- beyond the headlines about new stock-market highs, tax policy or the latest list of billionaires -- spend some time with this true tale of what happened in the middle-class town of Janesville, Wis., after General Motors closed a factory there.

Ms. Goldstein admirably shows all sides of this story, capturing in microcosm all of the issues that so many communities across the United States are facing. You will probably be left doing some hard thinking about what is driving the politics of the moment, although Ms. Goldstein brilliantly, and respectfully, paints the book's characters with such nuance that readers from across the ideological spectrum are likely to arrive at different conclusions about heroes and villains.

In crafting this deeply reported and riveting read, Ms. Goldstein spent considerable time in Janesville. As a result, you get a palpable sense of what life is like there; of the financial and psychological impact that a major plant closing has; and of the knock-on effects such an event has on other businesses and institutions. She paints vivid portraits of characters who include laid-off workers seeking retraining, union officials and local politicians, Speaker Paul D. Ryan among them. If you liked "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis," J. D. Vance's best-seller about growing up in Ohio and the decline of the industrial Midwest, I think you'll find that "Janesville" makes these issues real in a new and compelling way.



For the full commentary, see:

Sorkin, Andrew Ross. "DEALBOOK For a Year Filled With News, A List of Books Worth a Look." The New York Times (Tuesday, DEC. 26, 2017): B1 & B3.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date DEC. 25, 2017, and has the title "DEALBOOK; In a Year of Nonstop News, a Batch of Business Books Worth Reading.")


The Goldstein book mentioned above, is:

Goldstein, Amy. Janesville: An American Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.






April 28, 2018

Blacks Hurt by Increase in Irrelevant Degree Requirements for Jobs




(p. A15) Some 61% of employers have rejected applicants with the requisite skills and experience simply because they didn't have a college degree, according to a 2017 Harvard Business School study. If current trends continue, the authors found, "as many as 6.2 million workers could be affected by degree inflation--meaning their lack of a bachelor's degree could preclude them from qualifying for the same job with another employer."

The pernicious effects of degree inflation are obvious, as tuition and student debt rise and qualified workers arbitrarily lose employment opportunities. But the practice also flouts federal law.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In Griggs v. Duke Power (1971) the Supreme Court unanimously interpreted this to mean that when minority groups are disproportionately affected--or suffer a "disparate impact"--from the selection process, employers must show that any requirements are directly job-related and an accurate predictor of job performance.


. . .


. . . degree inflation has obvious disparate-impact implications. The Harvard report found that groups with college graduation rates below the national average are disproportionately harmed by the practice.


. . .


Employers also fail the Griggs test by demanding college degrees without evidence they are necessary for the job. In a 2014 survey, Burning Glass Technologies found that employers are increasingly requiring bachelor's degrees for positions whose current workers do not have one. For example, 65% of job postings for executive assistant and secretary positions call for a degree even though only 19% of people currently employed in such roles hold a degree.



For the full commentary, see:

Frederick M. Hess and Grant Addison. "Degree Inflation and Discrimination; Could civil-rights laws and 'disparate impact' protect job applicants who haven't finished college?" The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, April 3, 2018): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 2, 2018.)


The Harvard Business School study mentioned above, is:

Fuller, Joseph B., and Manjari Raman. "Dismissed by Degrees: How Degree Inflation Is Undermining U.S. Competitiveness and Hurting America's Middle Class." Accenture, Grads of Life, and Harvard Business School, Oct. 2017.






April 27, 2018

Double-Blind Study Shows Little Heart Benefit from Stents




(p. B3) A new study raised questions about the benefits of a relatively common procedure for heart patients--implanting tiny devices that prop open clogged arteries to relieve chest pain.

The 200-patient study conducted by U.K. researchers found that patients with stable chest pain, or angina, who received stent devices experienced no significant improvement in exercise time on a treadmill, compared with similar patients who received no stents during sham procedures.

All patients had received intensive treatment with heart drugs for six weeks before the real or fake procedures.

"Symptoms didn't improve as much as expected" in the patients who received stents, Rasha Al-Lamee, an interventional cardiologist at Imperial College London and one of the study's lead investigators, said in an interview. She presented results of the study at the Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics medical conference in Denver; results were simultaneously published online Thursday [November 2, 2017] by The Lancet.



For the full story, see:

Peter Loftus. "Study Questions Some Stent Use." The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Nov. 3, 2017): B3.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 2, 2017, and has the title "Study Raises Questions About Stents in Some Heart Patients.")


The Lancet article, summarized above, is:

Al-Lamee, Rasha, David Thompson, Hakim-Moulay Dehbi, Sayan Sen, Kare Tang, John Davies, Thomas Keeble, Michael Mielewczik, Raffi Kaprielian, Iqbal S. Malik, Sukhjinder S. Nijjer, Ricardo Petraco, Christopher Cook, Yousif Ahmad, James Howard, Christopher Baker, Andrew Sharp, Robert Gerber, Suneel Talwar, Ravi Assomull, Jamil Mayet, Roland Wensel, David Collier, Matthew Shun-Shin, Simon A. Thom, Justin E. Davies, Darrel P. Francis, Rasha Al-Lamee, David Thompson, Sayan Sen, Kare Tang, John Davies, Thomas Keeble, Raffi Kaprielian, Iqbal S. Malik, Sukhjinder S. Nijjer, Ricardo Petraco, Christopher Cook, Yousif Ahmad, James Howard, Matthew Shun-Shin, Amarjit Sethi, Christopher Baker, Andrew Sharp, Punit Ramrakha, Robert Gerber, Suneel Talwar, Ravi Assomull, Rodney Foale, Jamil Mayet, Roland Wensel, Simon A. Thom, Justin E. Davies, Darrel P. Francis, Ramzi Khamis, Nearchos Hadjiloizou, Masood Khan, Jaspal Kooner, Michael Bellamy, Ghada Mikhail, Piers Clifford, Peter O'Kane, Terry Levy, and Rosie Swallow. "Percutaneous Coronary Intervention in Stable Angina (ORBITA): A Double-Blind, Randomised Controlled Trial." The Lancet 391, no. 10115 (Jan. 6, 2018): 31-40.






April 26, 2018

Blockchain Tested to Speed Property Transfers




(p. B8) The blockchain technology that underpins cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin could change the way property deals are done and recorded more than any other new technology, real-estate and technology experts say.

And Sweden's nearly 400-year-old land mapping and registration authority is likely to become one of the first government agencies to test using blockchain technology for conducting property sales.

The Lantmäteriet expects to conduct the first such transaction in the next few months and is shortlisting volunteers who want to buy or sell a property using the blockchain system. "From the technology point of view, we are quite ready," said Mats Snäll, Lantmäteriet's chief digital officer.

Proponents of blockchain say the technology would make recording and transferring titles faster and much more efficient. Transactions that today take months to complete could take days or even hours, they say.

Blockchain technology also is practically bulletproof when it comes to fraudulent transactions, experts say.



For the full story, see:

Shefali Anand. "Test of Blockchain for Real Estate Is Readied." The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, March 7, 2018): B8.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 6, 2018, and has the title "A Pioneer in Real Estate Blockchain Emerges in Europe.")






April 25, 2018

Mackenzie Was Wrong in Thinking He Was a Failure, but Was Right About the Northwest Passage




(p. 10) In the summer of 1789, a young fur trader named Alexander Mackenzie led an expedition in search of a Northwest Passage. He and his voyageurs and Chipewyan guides were attempting, 14 years before Lewis and Clark, to cross North America, paddling birch bark canoes down a river they hoped would pierce the Rocky Mountains. Mackenzie was a businessman who wanted to speed the pace of trade by connecting New York and China via an interior passage through the continent. He did find such a route, without knowing it. Mackenzie died thinking he was a failure, when he was really just 200 years early.

Some ideas are fantastically ahead of their time. In 1636, René Descartes created contact lenses, using glass tubes filled with water; unfortunately, the wearer was unable to blink. Charles Babbage invented digital "difference engines" -- essentially modern programmable computers but powered by steam -- in the 1820s. And Kodak developed digital cameras in 1974 but discarded the product idea because it thought no one wanted to look at photos on televisions.

In a particularly ill-timed episode, Giovanni Caselli invented the fax machine in 1856. Letter writers could scribble a message onto electrically charged foil, and the portions covered by ink would block the flow of current. The stylus of Caselli's device then scanned each line of text, transmitting the signal via telegraph lines to a second machine, which would scrawl out a "fac simile" of the letter.

To be practical, the system required a coordinated investment throughout a region, and Napoleon III had plans to modernize all of France with Caselli's pantelegraph, more than a decade before Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. But before it could be installed, Napoleon III lost the Franco-Prussian War, his government fell, and Paris descended into the brutal anarchy of the Commune. Caselli faded into obscurity, and his technology was forgotten for a century.

Like the fax machine and computer, Alexander Mackenzie's Northwest Passage was too forward-looking to be practical or useful. Today the melting Northwest Passage -- along the North Slope of Alaska, through the maze of Canadian Arctic islands, then back down along Greenland's west coast, to the Atlantic -- is regularly in the news. A holy grail for generations of explorers is now finally open, because of climate change. Giant cargo and oil tankers regularly ply those seas, and even the Crystal Serenity cruise ship, with 1,700 people onboard (many in black tie), has made the journey the past two summers.


. . .


Ideas do not exist only on their own merits. Timing matters.



For the full commentary, see:

Brian Castner. "The Northwest Passage That Might Have Been." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sunday, March 11, 2018): 10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 10, 2018.)


Castner's commentary is related to his book:

Castner, Brian. Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage. New York: Doubleday, 2018.






April 24, 2018

Patients Lower Blood Pressure Best When It Is Self-Monitored




(p. D4) The most effective way to monitor blood pressure may be to do it yourself.

British researchers randomly assigned 1,003 patients with hypertension to one of three groups.


. . .


The study was published in Lancet.

"People who monitor their own blood pressure and share the readings with their physician get better control," said the lead author, Dr. Richard J. McManus, a professor of primary care at the University of Oxford. "Seventy-five million Americans have hypertension. If a good proportion of those self-monitored, it would lead to a big reduction in stroke."



For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS BAKALAR. "The Best Way to Monitor Your Blood Pressure? Do It Yourself." The New York Times (Tuesday, MARCH 13, 2018): D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 6 [sic], 2018, and has the title "The Best Way to Monitor Your Blood Pressure? Do It Yourself.")


The Lancet study summarized above, is:

McManus, Richard J., Jonathan Mant, Marloes Franssen, Alecia Nickless, Claire Schwartz, James Hodgkinson, Peter Bradburn, Andrew Farmer, Sabrina Grant, Sheila M. Greenfield, Carl Heneghan, Susan Jowett, Una Martin, Siobhan Milner, Mark Monahan, Sam Mort, Emma Ogburn, Rafael Perera-Salazar, Syed Ahmar Shah, Ly-Mee Yu, Lionel Tarassenko, F. D. Richard Hobbs, Brendan Bradley, Chris Lovekin, David Judge, Luis Castello, Maureen Dawson, Rebecca Brice, Bethany Dunbabin, Sophie Maslen, Heather Rutter, Mary Norris, Lauren French, Michael Loynd, Pippa Whitbread, Luisa Saldana Ortaga, Irene Noel, Karen Madronal, Julie Timmins, Peter Bradburn, Lucy Hughes, Beth Hinks, Sheila Bailey, Sue Read, Andrea Weston, Somi Spannuth, Sue Maiden, Makiko Chermahini, Ann McDonald, Shelina Rajan, Sue Allen, Brenda Deboys, Kim Fell, Jenny Johnson, Helen Jung, Rachel Lister, Ruth Osborne, Amy Secker, Irene Qasim, Kirsty William, Abi Harris, Susan Zhao, Elaine Butcher, Pauline Darbyshire, Sarah Joshi, Jon Davies, Claire Talbot, Eleanor Hoverd, Linda Field, Tracey Adcock, Julia Rooney, Nina Cooter, Aaron Butler, Naomi Allen, Maria Abdul-Wahab, Kathryn McNicholas, Lara Peniket, Kate Dodd, Julie Mugurza, Richard Baskerville, Rakshan Syed, Clare Bailey, Jill Adams, Paul Uglow, Neil Townsend, Alison Macleod, Charlotte Hawkins, Suparna Behura, Jonathan Crawshaw, Robin Fox, Waleed Doski, Martin Aylward, Christine A'Court, David Rapley, Jo Walsh, Paul Batra, Ana Seoane, Sluti Mukherjee, Jonathan Dixon, Peter Arthur, Karen Sutcliffe, Costas Paschallides, Richard Woof, Peter Winfrey, Matthew Clark, Roya Kamali, Paul Thomas, David Ebbs, Liz Mather, Andre Beattie, Karim Ladha, Larisa Smondulak, Surinder Jemahl, Peter Hickson, Liam Stevens, Tony Crockett, David Shukla, Ian Binnian, Paul Vinson, Nigel DeKare-Silver, Ramila Patel, Ivor Singh, Louise Lumley, Glennis Williams, Mark Webb, Jack Bambrough, Neetul Shah, Hergeven Dosanjh, Frank Spannuth, Carolyn Paul, Jude Ganesegaram, Laurie Pike, Vijaysundari Maheswaran, Farah Paruk, Stephen Ford, Vineeta Verma, Kate Milne, Farhana Lockhat, Jennifer Ferguson, Anne-Marie Quirk, Hugo Wilson, David Copping, Sam Bajallan, Simria Tanvir, Faheem Khan, Tom Alderson, Amar Ali, Richard Young, Umesh Chauhan, Lindsey Crockett, Louise McGovern, Claire Cubitt, Simon Weatherill, Abdul Tabassum, Philip Saunders, Naresh Chauhan, Samantha Johnson, Jo Walsh, Inderjit Marok, Rajiv Sharma, William Lumb, John Tweedale, Ian Smith, Lawrence Miller, Tanveer Ahmed, Mark Sanderson, Claire Jones, Peter Stokell, Matthew J. Edwards, Andrew Askey, Jason Spencer, Kathryn Morgan, Kyle Knox, Robert Baker, Crispin Fisher, Rachel Halstead, Neil Modha, David Buckley, Catherine Stokell, John Gerald McCabe, Jennifer Taylor, Helen Nutbeam, Richard Smith, Christopher MacGregor, Sam Davies, Mark Lindsey, Simon Cartwright, Jonathan Whittle, Julie Colclough, Alison Crumbie, Nicholas Thomas, Vattakkatt Premchand, Rafia Hamid, Zishan Ali, John Ward, Philip Pinney, Stephen Thurston, and Tina Banerjee. "Efficacy of Self-Monitored Blood Pressure, with or without Telemonitoring, for Titration of Antihypertensive Medication (TASMINH4): An Unmasked Randomised Controlled Trial." The Lancet 391, no. 10124 (March 10, 2018): 949-59.






April 23, 2018

Scientists Find 1.5 Million More Penguins




(p. D2) A new colony of Adélie penguins has been discovered near Antarctica, substantially increasing the known populations of the knee-high creatures.


. . .


Using a drone doctored to work in the extreme climate of the region, the researchers were able to get a precise estimate of the numbers of breeding pairs of Adélie penguins in the region: about 750,000 (or 1.5 million individuals).



For the full story, see:

Karen Weintraub. "Black and White: Big Colony of Penguins Is Spotted Near Antarctica." The New York Times (Tuesday, March 13, 2018): D2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 5 [sic], 2018, and has the title "A Supercolony of Penguins Has Been Found Near Antarctica.")






April 22, 2018

"Octopuses Try Hard to Escape from Captivity"




(p. A23) I can't stop telling people about the factoids I learned from Amia Srinivasan's book review essay "The Sucker, the Sucker!" in The London Review of Books about the personality of octopuses. An octopus's arms have more neurons than its brain, so each arm can taste and smell on its own and exhibit short-term memory. An octopus can change color to mimic other animals, but it cannot itself see color. So how does it know which color to change into? Good question.

Octopuses are curious but sometimes ornery. When researchers tried to train an octopus to pull a lever to get food, the octopus kept breaking off the lever. Octopuses try hard to escape from captivity, waiting for those moments when they aren't being watched. One octopus persistently shot jets of water at the nearby aquarium light bulbs, repeatedly short-circuiting the electricity supply until it was finally released into the wild.



For the full commentary, see:


Brooks, David. "The Sidney Awards, Part I." The New York Times (Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017): A23.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Dec. 25, 2017, and has the title "The 2017 Sidney Awards, Part I." The online version says that the New York edition of the print version of the commentary appeared on Dec. 25, 2017 on p. A25. It appeared on Dec. 26 on p. A23 of my National edition.)






April 21, 2018

Chinese Economy "on the Brink of a Precipitous Downturn?"




(p. A15) Reporters in China often run up against Potemkin projects--gleaming science parks sitting half empty, new districts with eerily few residents, solar-powered cities where most of the panels are disconnected. These wasteful investments, designed to fulfill local-government ambitions to boost construction and drive short-term growth, can be a nuisance when researching stories about innovation or environmental foresight. But what if such projects are not a distraction but the story itself? What if China's economy is, in fact, on the brink of a precipitous downturn? That is the question Dinny McMahon asks in "China's Great Wall of Debt."

Mr. McMahon, a former Beijing-based correspondent for this newspaper, suggests that China has powered ahead for as long as it has not because it is immune to crises but because its government has so far managed to intervene to stave them off. When China's stock market plunged in 2015, the central government directed fund managers to buy instead of sell and pressured journalists to write only optimistic reports. One reporter who strayed from the official line was trotted out on state television to apologize.

Such intervention has created a false sense of confidence, Mr. McMahon argues, which in turn has led to a bad case of economic bloating.



For the full review, see:

Mara Hvistendahl. ""BOOKSHELF; The Chinese Growth Charade; Ghost cities, shadow banks, white-elephant state projects: The country's pursuit of growth at all costs may come at a high price." The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, March 14, 2018): A15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 13, 2018, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; 'China's Great Wall of Debt' Review: The Chinese Growth Charade; Ghost cities, shadow banks, white-elephant state projects: The country's pursuit of growth at all costs may come at a high price.")


The book under review, is:

McMahon, Dinny. China's Great Wall of Debt: Shadow Banks, Ghost Cities, Massive Loans and the End of the Chinese Miracle. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.






April 20, 2018

Government Obstacles Slow 5G Innovation




(p. A13) . . . , governmental obstacles threaten to block a new wave of wireless innovation, known as fifth generation or "5G." It will multiply download speeds by at least 10 times, allowing wireless carriers to compete with cable companies for high-speed internet access. With superfast speeds and low lag times, 5G will enable advances in everything from driverless cars to the "tactile internet," in which surgeons can perform operations and builders operate construction equipment remotely, and entertainment can include sensations beyond the audiovisual.


. . .


In some places, outdated local requirements prohibit carriers from placing small cells in local rights-of-way and on government-owned utility poles. Zoning ordinances designed for much larger towers often require local zoning boards to approve small cells. Some localities refuse altogether to negotiate right-of-way access, while others impose prohibitive fees and other unreasonable conditions.



For the full story, see:

Robert McDowell. "Local Laws Imperil 5G Innovation; Misapplied zoning rules and huge fees block antennas the size of pizza boxes." The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, April 3, 2018): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date APRIL 2, 2018.)






April 19, 2018

"Overblown" Worries that A.I. Will Make Humans Obsolete




(p. B3) SAN FRANCISCO -- Apple has hired Google's chief of search and artificial intelligence, John Giannandrea, a major coup in its bid to catch up to the artificial intelligence technology of its rivals.


. . .


Mr. Giannandrea, a 53-year-old native of Scotland known to colleagues as J.G., helped lead the push to integrate A.I. throughout Google's products, including internet search, Gmail and its own digital assistant, Google Assistant.

He joined Google in 2010 when it purchased Metaweb, a start-up where he served as chief technology officer. Metaweb was building what it described as a "database of the world's knowledge," which Google eventually rolled into its search engine to deliver direct answers to users' queries. (Try googling "How old is Steph Curry?") During Mr. Giannandrea's tenure, A.I. research became increasingly important inside Google, with its primary A.I. lab, Google Brain, moving into a space beside the chief executive, Sundar Pichai.


. . .


On the debate over whether humanity should be worried about the rapidly accelerating improvements in A.I., Mr. Giannandrea told MIT Technology Review in an interview last year that the concerns were overblown.

"What I object to is this assumption that we will leap to some kind of superintelligent system that will then make humans obsolete," he said. "I understand why people are concerned about it but I think it's gotten way too much airtime. I just see no technological basis as to why this is imminent at all."



For the full story, see:

JACK NICAS and CADE METZ. "Lagging Rivals in A.I., Apple Adds A Top Google Executive to Its Team." The New York Times (Wednesday, April 4, 2018): B3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date APRIL 3, 2018, and has the title "Apple Hires Google's A.I. Chief.")






April 18, 2018

University of Chicago Defends Free Speech and Tough Intellectual Inquiry




(p. A15) Chicago

Snow carpets the ground at the University of Chicago, and footfalls everywhere are soft, giving the place a hushed serenity. Serene, too, is Robert Zimmer, the university's 70-year-old president, as he talks about a speaking invitation that could turn his campus turbulent.

Steve Bannon is scheduled to talk at the school early next month--there's no confirmed date--and Mr. Zimmer is taking criticism for the imminent appearance of Donald Trump's former right-hand man, a paladin of alt-robust conservatives. Mr. Bannon is precisely the sort of figure who is anathema on American campuses, yet Mr. Zimmer is unfazed by the prospect of his visit, confident that it will pass with no great fuss.


. . .


Mr. Bannon was invited to the university by Luigi Zingales, a finance professor. Would Mr. Zimmer ever contemplate having a quiet word with the prof and asking him to withdraw his invitation to Mr. Bannon? "I wouldn't even think of it," Mr. Zimmer answers, in a mildly but unmistakably indignant tone. And no, he won't be attending the Bannon event. "We have many, many talks," he says. "I'm really pretty busy."

Mr. Zingales's attitude is consistent with the norm Mr. Zimmer seeks to uphold. When I asked the professor by email why he extended the invitation, he replied that Mr. Bannon "was able to interpret a broad dissatisfaction in the electorate that most academics had missed. Remember the shock on November 9, 2016? Regardless of what you think about his political positions, there is something faculty and students can learn from a discussion with him."


. . .


The University of Chicago has long enjoyed a reputation for tough, even remorseless, intellectual inquiry. Its world-famous economics faculty, for instance, is not a place where faint-hearted academics go to road-test their research. In recent years, as colleges across America have censored unfashionable views, Chicago has also come to be known for setting the gold standard for free expression on campus. Mr. Zimmer, who became president in 2006, deserves much credit. He has been outspoken in defense of free speech and in 2014 even set up a committee--under the constitutional law scholar Geoffrey Stone --that produced the Chicago Principles, the clearest statement by any American university in defense of uninhibited debate.



For the full interview, see:


Tunku Varadarajan, interviewer. "THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; The Free-Speech University; Steve Bannon is giving a talk at Chicago. Its president is confident he won't be shouted down." The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018): A15.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date Feb. 16, 2018.)






April 17, 2018

Early Industrial Workers' Living Standards Improved Over Their Lifetimes




(p. C6) Historians have long debated whether the Industrial Revolution was a net benefit to those who labored in the mills. The first generation of workers generally enjoyed higher wages and liberation from the confines of rural life. Yes, there was child labor, but one girl who entered a New England mill at age 11 recalled: "It was paradise here because you got your money, and you did whatever you wanted to with it." In her book "Liberty's Dawn" (2013), Emma Griffin studied those early industrial workers longitudinally and found that their living standards improved markedly over a lifetime.


. . .


William Blake's "dark Satanic Mills" are now brightly lit in China, but are they still infernal? Today, Mr. Freeman reports, Foxconn offers "a library, bookstores, a variety of cafeterias and restaurants, supermarkets, . . . swimming pools, basketball courts, soccer fields, and a stadium, a movie theater, electronic game rooms, cybercafés, a wedding-dress shop, banks, ATMs, two hospitals, a fire station, a post office, and huge LED screens that show announcements and cartoons." But Chinese worker dormitories impose a positively Victorian regime of moral supervision: no drinking, gambling or visiting the opposite sex. Work rules are draconian. And surveillance cameras are everywhere (though, come to think of it, we have plenty of those in the West).

Ultimately, Mr. Freeman can't decide whether industrialism represents progress or dystopia, and that ambivalence reflects his clear eyes and fair-mindedness. He often lets workers speak for themselves, and they don't always agree. Xu Lizhi, one of those Foxconn employees who killed himself, was also a poet: "They've trained me to become docile / Don't know how to shout or rebel / How to complain or denounce / Only how to silently suffer exhaustion." But another worker from a small Hunan village was amazed by his company dormitory: "I had never lived in a multi-story building, so it felt exciting to climb stairs and be upstairs." Mr. Freeman reminds us that, benevolent or tyrannical, the factory was an exponential leap in the human experience.



For the full review, see:

Rose, Jonathan. "The Very Symbol of Modern Times; Workers' paradise or soul-deadening dystopia? Why society remains of two minds about the factory." The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018): C6.

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

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 23, 2018, and has the title "Review: The Very Symbol of Modern Times; Workers' paradise or soul-deadening dystopia? Why society remains of two minds about the factory.")


The book under review, is:

Freeman, Joshua B. Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.


The book by Emma Griffin, mentioned above, is:

Griffin, Emma. Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.







April 16, 2018

Pursuit of Slow Hunch Pays Off with Flu Drug




(p. B3) As Americans suffer through the worst influenza outbreak in almost a decade, a Japanese drugmaker says it has developed a pill that can kill the virus within a day.


. . .


"The data that we've seen looks very promising," said Martin Howell Friede, who leads the World Health Organization's advisory on vaccines, including for influenza. "This could be a breakthrough in the way that we treat influenza."


. . .


Shionogi scientists began researching a novel flu drug more than a decade ago, shelving almost 2,500 compounds in the process. Then, the 140-year-old Osaka company, which has created blockbuster drugs used to treat HIV and high cholesterol, had a breakthrough.

Shionogi scientists knew from their research that an anti-HIV drug the company had developed with a joint venture of Pfizer Inc. and GlaxoSmithKline Co. worked by blocking a metallic enzyme that HIV uses as a weapon to hijack human cells. They found the flu virus was also exploiting a metallic enzyme.

"So we said, 'why don't we build on our HIV knowledge to find a way to treat the flu?' And we did," said Takeki Uehara, who led the compound's development.



For the full story, see:

Preetika Rana. "Drugmaker: Pill Kills Flu in a Day." The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Feb. 12, 2018): B3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Feb. 10, 2018, and has the title "Experimental Drug Promises to Kill the Flu Virus in a Day.")






April 15, 2018

Human Ancestors May Have Had Capacity for Symbolic Thought 600,000 Years Ago




(p. D1) On Thursday [February 22, 2018], a team of researchers offered compelling evidence that Neanderthals bore one of the chief hallmarks of mental sophistication: they could paint cave art. That talent suggests that Neanderthals could think in symbols and may have achieved other milestones not preserved in the fossil record.

"When you have symbols, then you have language," said João Zilhão, an archaeologist at the University of Barcelona and co-author of the new study.


. . .


(p. D6) But a second study, which Dr. Zilhão and his colleagues published Thursday [February 22, 2018], in the journal Science Advances, hints that Neanderthals might well have been painting long before 64,000 years ago.

The scientists traveled to a cave on the coast of Spain where Dr. Zilhão had earlier discovered shells that had been drilled with holes and painted with ocher.


. . .


He and his colleagues discovered a layer of flowstone sitting atop the rock where they had found the shell jewelry. That flowstone turned out to be about 115,000 years old.


. . .


The colored, pierced shells themselves are probably not much older than that. Up until about 118,000 years ago, the cave was flooded, thanks to higher sea levels.

That finding provides strong evidence that the shells were made by Neanderthals. They were definitely living in Spain 115,000 years ago, while modern humans would not arrive in Europe for another 70,000 years.

The two new studies don't just indicate that Neanderthals could make cave art and jewelry. They also establish that Neanderthals were making these things long before modern humans -- a blow to the idea that they simply copied their cousins.

The earliest known cave paintings made by modern humans are only about 40,000 years old, while Neanderthal cave art is at least 24,000 years older. The oldest known shell jewelry made by modern humans is about 70,000 years old, but Neanderthals were making it 45,000 years before then.

"These results imply that Neanderthals were not apart from these developments," said Dr. Zilhão. "For all practical purposes, they were modern humans, too."

The new studies raise another intriguing possibility, said Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum: that the capacity for symbolic thought was already present 600,000 years ago in the ancestors of both Neanderthals and modern humans.

He agreed with Dr. Zilhão that the new study supports the idea that Neanderthals used language. In addition to the evidence of symbolic thought, researchers have also found that the inner ears of Neanderthals were tuned to the frequencies of speech, much like our own.

"We don't know how they spoke or what they said," said Dr. Finlayson. "But they had the ability of speech."

The cave paintings that Dr. Pike and his colleagues have dated are generally abstract. There's no evidence so far that Neanderthals painted images of lions and other animals, as modern humans did thousands of years later.

But Dr. Pike doesn't think a lack of animal imagery marks a mental deficiency in Neanderthals. It could simply reflect a cultural preference.'



For the full story, see:

Zimmer, Carl. "MATTER; The Neanderthal, the Artist." The New York Times (Tuesday, February 27, 2018): D1 & D6.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date FEB. 22, 2018, and has the title "MATTER; Neanderthals, the World's First Misunderstood Artists.")


The first article mentioned above and co-authored by Zilhão, is:


Hoffmann, D. L., C. D. Standish, M. García-Diez, P. B. Pettitt, J. A. Milton, J. Zilhão, J. J. Alcolea-González, P. Cantalejo-Duarte, H. Collado, R. de Balbín, M. Lorblanchet, J. Ramos-Muñoz, G. Ch Weniger, and A. W. G. Pike. "U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neandertal Origin of Iberian Cave Art." Science 359, no. 6378 (Feb. 23, 2018): 912-915.



The second article mentioned above and co-authored by Zilhão, is:

Hoffmann, Dirk L., Diego E. Angelucci, Valentín Villaverde, Josefina Zapata, and João Zilhão. "Symbolic Use of Marine Shells and Mineral Pigments by Iberian Neandertals 115,000 Years Ago." Science Advances 4, no. 2 (Feb. 22, 2018): 1-6.






April 14, 2018

Xerox Will Cease to Exist as Independent Firm




(p. A1) When Xerox introduced its popular copying machines in 1959, their wizardry was considered as high tech as the iPhone when Steve Jobs presented it to the world almost 50 years later.

But just as Xerox made carbon paper obsolete, the iPhone, Google Docs and the cloud made Xerox a company of the past.

On Wednesday [January 31, 2018], Xerox said that, after 115 years as an independent business, it would combine operations with Fujifilm Holdings of Japan. The deal signaled the end of a company that was once an American corporate powerhouse.

"Xerox is the poster child for monopoly technology businesses that cannot make the transition to a new generation of technology," said David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School.

The move offers a stark reminder that no matter how high a company may fly, it is still vulnerable to the next big breakthrough. Xerox joins once formidable tech companies like Kodak and BlackBerry that lost the innovation footrace.

Under the deal, Fujifilm will own just over 50 percent of the Xerox business. There are plans to cut $1.7 billion in costs in coming (p. A11) years. Fujifilm said its joint venture with Xerox would cut its payroll by 10,000 workers worldwide.

How Xerox fell so far is a case study in what management experts call the "competency trap" -- an organization becomes so good at one thing, it can't learn to do anything new.

Xerox traces its origins to the founding in 1903 of the M. H. Kuhn Company. But it was an invention dreamed up in a makeshift Queens lab in the 1930s -- a forerunner of the Silicon Valley garages used by the likes of Mr. Jobs -- that changed Xerox's trajectory.

That invention, by Chester Carlson, a patent lawyer, led to the creation of the modern copy machine. He even came up with a term for the process: "xerography." In 1959, Xerox, which had won the right to explore the technology, offered the office copier that went mainstream.



For the full story, see:

STEVE LOHR and CARLOS TEJADA, "Xerox, Tech Icon That Became a Verb, Is Suddenly Past Tense." The New York Times (Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018): A1 & A11.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date JAN. 31, 2018, and has the title "After Era That Made It a Verb, Xerox, in a Sale, Is Past Tense." The online version says that the New York edition also had title "After Era That Made It a Verb, Xerox, in a Sale, Is Past Tense." My copy was the "National Edition.")






April 13, 2018

Upward Mobility from Moving to the Robust Redundant Labor Markets of Open Boomtowns




(p. B3) Chicago in 1850 was a muddy frontier town of barely 30,000 people. Within two decades, it was 10 times that size. Within another two decades, that number had tripled. By 1910, Chicago -- hog butcher for the world, headquarters of Montgomery Ward, the nerve center of the nation's rail network -- had more than two million residents.

"You see these numbers, and they just look fake," said David Schleicher, a law professor at Yale who writes on urban development and land use. Chicago heading into the 20th century was the fastest-growing city America has ever seen. It was a classic metropolitan magnet, attracting anyone in need of a job or a raise.

But while other cities have played this role through history -- enabling people who were geographically mobile to become economically mobile, too -- migration patterns like the one that fed Chicago have broken down in today's America. Interstate mobility nationwide has slowed over the last 30 years. But, more specifically and of greater concern, migration has stalled in the very places with the most opportunity.

As Mr. Schleicher puts it, local economic booms no longer create boomtowns in America.


. . .


Some people aren't moving into wealthy regions because they're stuck in struggling ones. They have houses they can't sell or government benefits they don't want to lose. But the larger problem is that they're blocked from moving to prosperous places by the shortage and cost of housing there. And that's a deliberate decision these wealthy regions have made in opposing more housing construction, a prerequisite to make room for more people.

Compare that with most of American history. The country's economic growth has long "gone hand in hand with enormous reallocation of population," write the economists Kyle Herkenhoff, Lee Ohanian and Edward Prescott in a recent study of what's hobbling similar population flows now.


. . .


Were it not for all the restrictions on housing in the most productive places -- if workers were able to more freely migrate to them -- Mr. Herkenhoff and his co-authors and the economists Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh have estimated that the nation's G.D.P. would be substantially higher. By their calculations, there are millions of workers missing from the Bay Area and metropolitan New York today.


The population growth that is occurring in these metro areas is fueled almost entirely by immigration, as Ryan Avent points out in "The Gated City," where he makes a similar argument to Mr. Schleicher. If we consider only domestic moves, about 900,000 more people have moved away from New York than to it since 2010. On net, about 47,000 have left both San Jose and Washington, D.C., while Boston has lost a net 36,000.



For the full commentary, see:

Emily Badger. "Why New York and the Bay Area Are Missing Millions of Workers." The New York Times (Friday, Dec. 8, 2017): B3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Dec. 6, 2017, and has the title "What Happened to the American Boomtown?")


The Herkenhoff et al. paper mentioned above, is:

Herkenhoff, Kyle F., Lee E. Ohanian, and Edward C. Prescott. "Tarnishing the Golden and Empire States: Land-Use Restrictions and the U.S. Economic Slowdown." Journal of Monetary Economics 93 (Jan. 2018): 89-109.


The Moretti and Hsieh paper mentioned above, is:

Hsieh, Chang-Tai, and Enrico Moretti. "Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation." Working paper, May 18, 2017.


The book by Ryan Avent, mentioned above, is:

Avent, Ryan. The Gated City. Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2011.






April 12, 2018

Millions of Dollars and 30 Years Later, A.I. Still Has Lacks Crucial Common Sense




(p. B6) SAN FRANCISCO -- Microsoft's co-founder Paul Allen said Wednesday [February 28, 2018] that he was pumping an additional $125 million into his nonprofit computer research lab for an ambitious new effort to teach machines "common sense."


. . .


"To make real progress in A.I., we have to overcome the big challenges in the area of common sense," said Mr. Allen, who founded the software giant Microsoft in the 1970s with Bill Gates.


. . .


In the mid-1980s, Doug Lenat, a former Stanford University professor, with backing from the government and several of the country's largest tech companies, started a project called Cyc. He and his team of researchers worked to codify all the simple truths that we learn as children, from "you can't be in two places at the same time" to "when drinking from a cup, hold the open end up."

Thirty years later, Mr. Lenat and his team are still at work on this "common sense engine" -- with no end in sight.

Mr. Allen helped fund Cyc, and he believes it is time to take a fresh approach, he said, because modern technologies make it easier to build this kind of system.

Mr. Lenat welcomed the new project. But he also warned of challenges: Cyc has burned through hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, running into countless problems that were not evident when the project began. He called them "buzz saws."



For the full story, see:

CADE METZ, "A.I.'s Greatest Challenge: Digitizing Common Sense." The New York Times (Thursday, March 1, 2018): B6.

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

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Feb. 28, 2018, and has the title "Paul Allen Wants to Teach Machines Common Sense.")






April 11, 2018

Value of Property Rights Now Seen by One Who Seized Land




(p. 4) MAZOWE, Zimbabwe -- The police first came early one morning five years ago, catching villagers by surprise as they worked in their fields. As hundreds of anti-riot police officers jumped down from their vehicles, their commander issued the villagers an order.

"He said that mother and daughter Grace Mugabe wanted this place," recalled a village leader, Denboy Chaparadza. "So you better move away."

The villagers understood right away: Grace Mugabe, the wife of Robert Mugabe, who was ousted from power in November after 37 years as Zimbabwe's leader, and their daughter, Bona, coveted the villagers' land. The Mugabes already owned property and businesses in Mazowe, about 25 miles north of Harare, the capital, and they were eager to expand.

Before the villagers could object, the police, armed with sticks and iron bars, demolished their modest houses. "Every house," Mr. Chaparadza said. "They left us out in the open. We felt betrayed."


. . .


One reason the 146 families who lived in Mazowe felt betrayed by their leader was that they themselves had seized the land from a white farmer in 2000, under Mr. Mugabe's fast-track land reform program. Now, they risked losing everything to his wife and daughter: 3,100 acres of prime land for farming and cattle ranching that abuts a lake and gold mines.


. . .


Determining who owns the land is a necessary step to development and democratization in Zimbabwe. Nearly all Zimbabweans who benefited from Mr. Mugabe's land reform policy lack titles, or legal ownership of their property -- leaving them at the mercy of the politically powerful.


. . .

Land also remains a tool of political control, one that Mr. Mnangagwa and other leaders of the governing ZANU-PF party have never shown a willingness to relinquish.


. . .


In recent years, as fighting over succession intensified inside ZANU-PF, land was used to punish and to keep people in line.

High-ranking officials expelled from the party had their land seized, or suffered repeated incursions into their properties by party youths. The threat of losing their farms led some officials to stay in ZANU-PF, instead of decamping to new opposition parties.


. . .


Mr. Chaparadza, the village leader, said that as part of any resolution of the land issue, the new government should compensate white farmers.

"Even if they come back, that's fine as long as they give us another place," he said. "We won't deny them. What we need is only some land where we can survive -- and title to the land.''



For the full story, see:

NORIMITSU ONISHI. "Land Issue Stands in Zimbabwe's Path." The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, January 21, 2018): 4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JAN. 20, 2018, and has the title "Resolving Who Owns What Land Lies at Heart of Zimbabwe's Future.")






April 10, 2018

FDA Regulations Stop Vape Shop Innovations




(p. A19) After Kimberly Manor lost her husband to lung cancer, she was inspired to make a dramatic career change. Kimberly now owns and operates Moose Jooce in Lake, Mich., a "vape shop" that sells various electronic nicotine devices. These products use battery-powered coils to vaporize liquids, with differing levels of nicotine or none at all. Thus, vapers may inhale nicotine without the tar or other harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke, since there is no tobacco and no combustion. Scientific evidence suggests this is a much safer alternative to smoking.

Ms. Manor estimates that her business has helped more than 500 people quit smoking, most of them longtime smokers in their 50s or older. Yet the Food and Drug Administration is discouraging more such enterprises. In a regulation issued in 2016 known as the "deeming rule," the agency ordered that vaping products would be subject to the same regulations developed for the cigarette industry under the Tobacco Control Act of 2009.

The deeming rule has been devastating to businesses like Ms. Manor's. To give just one example, vape shop owners frequently experiment by mixing new flavors for the liquid "juice." Now, each separate creation requires its own prohibitively expensive application for FDA approval, which means that vape shops have been forced to stop innovating.



For the full commentary, see:

Todd Gaziano and Tommy Berry, "Career Civil Servants Illegitimately Rule America; Leslie Kux has never been elected or confirmed by the Senate. She's issued nearly 200 regulations." The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, March 1, 2018): A19.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 28, 2018.)






April 9, 2018

By Many Metrics, Life Is Better Than Ever




(p. A15) . . . , Mr. Easterbrook argues, "at no juncture in American history were people better off than they were in 2016: living standards, per-capita income, buying power, health, safety, liberty, and longevity were at their highest."

A potent counter to today's unwarranted pessimism, the author claims, is not just the evidence that can be seen (rising employment, wages, wealth, health, lifespans and so on) but what has not been seen. Granaries, for instance, are not empty: The many predictions made since the 1960s that billions would die of starvation have not come true. "Instead, by 2015, the United Nations reported global malnutrition had declined to the lowest level in history. Nearly all malnutrition that persists is caused by distribution failures or by government corruption, not by lack of supply." In fact, obesity is rapidly becoming a global problem.

Similarly, even though there are occasional panics, "resources have not been depleted despite the incredible proliferation of people, vehicles, aircraft, and construction." Instead of oil and gas running out by the year 2000, as some in the 1970s predicted, both "are in worldwide oversupply" along with minerals and ores.


. . .


Data supporting this author's optimistic observations are presented throughout "It's Better Than It Looks." Similar catalogues can be found in books like Steven Pinker's "Enlightenment Now" (2018), Johan Norberg's "Progress" (2016), Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler's "Abundance" (2012) and Matt Ridley's "The Rational Optimist" (2010). I even touched on some of the same points in my own "The Moral Arc" (2015). Apparently, though, this chorus is not loud enough, since pessimism remains as prominent as it ever was.



For the full review, see:

Michael Shermer. "BOOKSHELF; Why Things Are Looking Up; Though declinists in both parties may bemoan our miserable lives, Americans are healthier, wealthier, safer and living longer than ever." The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 27, 2018, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; 'It's Better Than It Looks' Review: Why Things Are Looking Up; Though declinists in both parties may bemoan our miserable lives, Americans are healthier, wealthier, safer and living longer than ever.")


The book under review, is:

Easterbrook, Gregg. It's Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear. New York: PublicAffairs, 2018.






April 8, 2018

The More Governments Tax, the Less Workers Work




(p. A17) European countries trail the U.S. in working hard and controlling taxes, and their economies have lagged in comparison. France has a tax-to-GDP ratio of about 44%, and in Italy it's 43%. The French and Italians work almost 30% fewer hours per person than Americans. Notably, the French economy has flatlined since 2010 while Italy's has contracted.

These patterns are not a coincidence: High taxes discourage work and capital formation. Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that a 1% increase in a nation's tax rate is associated with a 1.4% decrease in hours worked per person in the working-age population. U.S. data dating to the 1970s also shows that higher taxes cause workers to limit their hours, reducing economic output.



For the full commentary, see:

Winkler, Rolfe and Justin Lahart. "Government Spending Discourages Work; The French and Italians pay higher taxes and put in 30% fewer hours per person than Americans." The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018): A17.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 26, 2018.)






April 7, 2018

Proof of Concept for Regenerating Limbs and Internal Organs




(p. D3) Scientists have decoded the genome of the axolotl, the Mexican amphibian with a Mona Lisa smile. It has 32 billion base pairs, which makes it ten times the size of the human genome, and the largest genome ever sequenced.

The axolotl, endangered in the wild, has been bred in laboratories and studied for more than 150 years. It has the remarkable capacity to regrow amputated limbs complete with bones, muscles and nerves; to heal wounds without producing scar tissue; and even to regenerate damaged internal organs.

This salamander can heal a crushed spinal cord and have it function just like it did before it was damaged. This ability, which exists to such an extent in no other animal, makes its genes of considerable interest.


. . .


The researchers have identified some of the genes involved in regeneration, and some genes that exist only in the axolotl, but there is much work still to be done.



For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS BAKALAR. "TAKE A NUMBER; 32 Billion." The New York Times (Tuesday, February 6, 2018): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date FEB. 1, 2018, and has the title "TAKE A NUMBER; The Smiling Axolotl Hides a Secret: A Giant Genome.")






April 6, 2018

Art Diamond Predicts a 40% Chance that Elon Musk Will Make It to Mars




(p. A1) What are the chances that readers will make it to the end of this article? About 40%.

If you do make it, that prediction will look smart. If you don't, well, we said the odds were against it.

Such is the nature of the 40% rule, a favorite forecasting tactic of Wall Street analysts and other prognosticators trying to make a bold call without being too bold.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said last month there's a 40% chance that Brexit will be reversed; Citigroup Inc. analyst Jim Suva wrote that there's a 40% chance Apple Inc. buys Netflix Inc.; and Nomura Holdings Inc. economist Lewis Alexander said there's a 40% chance Nafta gets ripped up.

The nice thing about 40% is that you never have to say you were wrong, says Peter Tchir, a market strategist at Academy Securities. Say you predict the Dow Jones Industrial Average has a 40% chance of hitting 30000 before year-end.

"Get it right and you can say 'See, I was telling everyone it could happen,' " he says. "Get it wrong and you can weasel your way out: 'I didn't say it was likely, I just said it was a strong possibility.' "



For the full story, see:

Winkler, Rolfe and Justin Lahart, "How Pundits Never Get It Wrong: Call a 40% Chance." The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018): A1 & A10.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Feb. 26, 2018, and has the title "How Do Pundits Never Get It Wrong? Call a 40% Chance.")






April 5, 2018

Independent Snapchat Entrepreneurs Turned Down Facebook's Three Billion Dollars




(p. A17) Snap Inc. provides a remarkable story, not only because it has accumulated so many users so rapidly but also because it has remained an independent company in the shadow of Facebook, which in 2012 acquired Instagram, also photo-centered, for $1 billion. A year later, noticing Snapchat's power to attract young users, Facebook offered Snap's founders $3 billion for the company, a figure that the book's publisher has rounded down for the title. Mr. Spiegel, the chief executive, said "no," and Snap's current market capitalization, around $23 billion, would seem to be sweet vindication. But Snap has yet to figure out how to convert its many users into net profits, and Instagram has shown no compunction about copying Snapchat features and has grown even faster.


. . .


In Mr. Spiegel's view, sharing snaps--of anything--was enjoyable because the images were ephemeral and didn't have to be composed for posterity. "It seems odd that at the beginning of the internet everyone decided everything should stick around forever," he said.



For the full review, see:

Randall Stross. "BOOKSHELF; A Startup in Focus; Snapchat was born when casual photos replaced text messages among Stanford students. It now boasts 187 million daily users." The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Feb. 12, 2018): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 11, 2018, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Review: A Startup in Focus; Snapchat was born when casual photos replaced text messages among Stanford students. It now boasts 187 million daily users.")


The book under review, is:

Gallagher, Billy. How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars: The Snapchat Story. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2018.






April 4, 2018

Italian Bureaucracy Leaves Innovative Restaurateur Feeling "Psychologically Violated"




(p. A7) ROME--The campaign leading up to Italy's national elections on March 4 [2018] has featured populist promises of largess but neglected what economists have long said is the real Italian disease: The country has forgotten how to grow.

Take Gianni Angelilli's pizzeria in downtown Rome. He uses an innovative dough mix and flexible cooking methods, drawing long lines and rave reviews. But Italy is too bureaucratic, the locals have no money and his ambition isn't what it used to be, Mr. Angelilli said. If he opens more outlets, they will be abroad.

"Now, foreigners have more desire to eat well than Italians," he said. "Italy is dead. Italy is finito."


. . .


Italian politics have become measurably more chaotic since the country's old party system--largely frozen during the Cold War--collapsed amid corruption scandals in the early 1990s. Data collected by Einaudi economist Luigi Guiso and others show that since 1992, coalitions have become more likely to crumble, lawmakers to defect and governments to need confidence votes in parliament. Politicians jostling for attention push more frequent, longer and more-complicated legislation.

"An excess has cluttered the bureaucratic machine," says Mr. Guiso. "The country has become cumbersome."

Yet the weakness of transient politicians has paradoxically made the public administration more powerful, at the same time as constant legal changes immobilize it, he says.

Mr. Guiso has practical experience. He is helping to set up a government-supported program to send young Italians to learn about entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley and at U.S. business schools, and he said Italian civil servants decided a tender offer inviting U.S. organizations to participate could be published in Italian only. After much persuasion, the civil servants agreed to publish the tender in English too--but insisted all applications must be in Italian, said Mr. Guiso. He said political friends apologized, saying there was nothing they could do.

Mr. Angelilli said his encounters with Italian bureaucracy while running his Pinsere pizzeria have left him feeling "psychologically violated." He said he had to pay a fine recently because his oven's air extraction, made to comply with European, national and regional laws, ran afoul of new city rules.



For the full story, see:

Marcus Walker and Giovanni Legorano. "The Real Italian Job: Rev Up Productivity." The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018): A7.

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

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Feb. 27, 2018, and has the title "Italy: The Country That Forgot How to Grow.")






April 3, 2018

Environment Can Affect Which Genes Are Activated




(p. D5) In September 1944, trains in the Netherlands ground to a halt. Dutch railway workers were hoping that a strike could stop the transport of Nazi troops, helping the advancing Allied forces.

But the Allied campaign failed, and the Nazis punished the Netherlands by blocking food supplies, plunging much of the country into famine. By the time the Netherlands was liberated in May 1945, more than 20,000 people had died of starvation.

The Dutch Hunger Winter has proved unique in unexpected ways. Because it started and ended so abruptly, it has served as an unplanned experiment in human health. Pregnant women, it turns out, were uniquely vulnerable, and the children they gave birth to have been influenced by famine throughout their lives.

When they became adults, they ended up a few pounds heavier than average. In middle age, they had higher levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. They also experienced higher rates of such conditions as obesity, diabetes and schizophrenia.


. . .


"How on earth can your body remember the environment it was exposed to in the womb -- and remember that decades later?" wondered Bas Heijmans, a geneticist at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

Dr. Heijmans, Dr. Lumey and their colleagues published a possible answer, or part of one, on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances. Their study suggests that the Dutch Hunger Winter silenced certain genes in unborn children -- and that they've stayed quiet ever since.

While all cells in a person's body share the same genes, different ones are active or silent in different cells. That program largely is locked in place before birth.

But scientists have learned that later experiences -- say, exposure to a virus -- can cause cells to quiet a gene or boost its activity, sometimes permanently.

The study of this long-term gene control is called epigenetics. Researchers have identified molecules that cells use to program DNA, but how those tools work isn't entirely clear. One of the best studied is a molecular cap called a methyl group.

At millions of spots across our DNA, genes may carry a methyl group. They seem to silence genes -- at least, researchers have found that silenced genes often have a collection of methyl groups lurking nearby.



For the full story, see:

Zimmer, Carl. "Dutch Genes Still Bear Scars of a Famine." The New York Times (Tuesday, February 6, 2018): D5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JAN. 31, 2018, and has the title "MATTER; The Famine Ended 70 Years Ago, but Dutch Genes Still Bear Scars.")






April 2, 2018

High Energy Costs Killed 15,000 of the Poor in Britain in Winter of 2014-2015




(p. A15) Higher costs from policies like stringent emissions caps and onerous renewable-energy targets make it even harder for the poorest citizens to afford gas and electricity.


. . .


In the U.K., the cost of electricity has increased by 36% in real terms since 2006, while the average income has risen only 4%. Environmentalists point out that energy usage has fallen as a result. But they ignore the fact that the poorest households cut back their consumption much more than average, while the richest have not reduced electricity consumption at all. Meanwhile, the share of income the bottom tenth of Britons spend on energy has increased rapidly, to almost 10%, while the share of income spent by the top tenth is still under 3%.

One 2014 poll shows that one-third of British elderly people leave at least part of their homes cold, and two-thirds wear extra layers of clothing, because of high energy costs. According to a report in the Independent, 15,000 people in the U.K. died in the winter of 2014-15 because they couldn't afford to heat their homes properly.

Climate change is a real challenge for every country, but we need to maintain some perspective. The United Nations' climate-change panel estimates that global warming could cause damage amounting to 2% of global gross domestic product toward the end of the century. That makes it a problem, but not the Armageddon produced by some feverish imaginations.



For the full commentary, see:

Bjorn Lomborg. "Climate-Change Policies Can Be Punishing for the Poor; America should learn from Europe's failure to protect the needy while reducing carbon emissions." The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Jan. 5, 2018): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Jan. 4, 2018.)






April 1, 2018

Victorian Britain Was "the Most Innovative, Advanced, Sophisticated and Prosperous Economy on the Planet"




(p. A19) Britain rose to global power over a long 18th century that began in 1688 with the Glorious Revolution and closed at Waterloo in 1815. Decline marked the 20th century, especially with the loss of both empire and commercial dynamism under the strain of two world wars. David Cannadine's "Victorious Century" charts the period between--one in which Britain could be seen as the most innovative, advanced, sophisticated and prosperous economy on the planet.


. . .


Mr. Cannadine presents the liberal spirit of progress as the hero of his tale. It guided Britain through conflicts, social disparities and political transitions while pointing toward a better society.



For the full review, see:

William Anthony Hay. "BOOKSHELF; The Spirit of Progress; Britain managed to balance change and continuity as turmoil and revolution overtook the Continent. Still, the change proved decisive." The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 19, 2018, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Review: The U.K.'s 'Victorious Century'; Britain managed to balance change and continuity as turmoil and revolution overtook the Continent. Still, the change proved decisive.")


The book under review, is:

Cannadine, David. Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906, The Penguin History of Britain. New York: Viking, 2017.






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