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June 22, 2018

Wages Rise as Fast-Food Jobs Go Unfilled




(p. A10) . . . in an industry where cheap labor is an essential component in providing inexpensive food, a shortage of workers is changing the equation upon which fast-food places have long relied. This can be seen in rising wages, in a growth of incentives, and in the sometimes odd situations that business owners find themselves in.

This is why Jeffrey Kaplow, for example, spends a lot of time working behind the counter in his Subway restaurant in Lower Manhattan. It's not what he pictured himself doing, but he simply doesn't have enough employees.

Mr. Kaplow has tried everything he can think of to find workers, placing Craigslist ads, asking other franchisees for referrals, seeking to hire people from Subways that have closed.



For the full story, see:

Rachel Abrams and Robert Gebeloff. "A Fast-Food Problem: Where Have All The Teenagers Gone?" The New York Times (Friday, May 4, 2018): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 3, 2018.)






June 21, 2018

Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists "Fantasize about Relocating" to "Detroit and South Bend"




(p. B1) It was pitched as a kind of Rust Belt safari -- a chance for Silicon Valley investors to meet local officials and look for promising start-ups in overlooked areas of the country.

But a funny thing happened: By the end of the tour, the coastal elites had caught the heartland bug. Several used Zillow, the real estate app, to gawk at the availability of cheap homes in cities like Detroit and South Bend and fantasize about relocating there. They marveled at how even old-line manufacturing cities now offer a convincing simulacrum of coastal life, complete with artisanal soap stores and farm-to-table restaurants.


. . .


(p. B4) Mr. McKenna, who owns a house in Miami in addition to his home in San Francisco, told me that his travels outside the Bay Area had opened his eyes to a world beyond the tech bubble.

"Every single person in San Francisco is talking about the same things, whether it's 'I hate Trump' or 'I'm going to do blockchain and Bitcoin,'" he said. "It's the worst part of the social network."


. . .


Recently, Peter Thiel, the President Trump-supporting billionaire investor and Facebook board member, became Silicon Valley's highest-profile defector when he reportedly told people close to him that he was moving to Los Angeles full-time, and relocating his personal investment funds there. (Founders Fund and Mithril Capital, two other firms started by Mr. Thiel, will remain in the Bay Area.) Mr. Thiel reportedly considered San Francisco's progressive culture "toxic," and sought out a city with more intellectual diversity.

Mr. Thiel's criticisms were echoed by Michael Moritz, the billionaire founder of Sequoia Capital. In a recent Financial Times op-ed, Mr. Moritz argued that Silicon Valley had become slow and spoiled by its success, and that "soul-sapping discussions" about politics and social injustice had distracted tech companies from the work of innovation.

Complaints about Silicon Valley insularity are as old as the Valley itself. Jim Clark, the co-founder of Netscape, famously decamped for Florida during the first dot-com era, complaining about high taxes and expensive real estate. Steve Case, the founder of AOL, has pledged to invest mostly in start-ups outside the Bay Area, saying that "we've probably hit peak Silicon Valley."


. . .


This isn't a full-blown exodus yet. But in the last three months of 2017, San Francisco lost more residents to outward migration than any other city in the country, according to data from Redfin, the real estate website. A recent survey by Edelman, the public relations firm, found that 49 percent of Bay Area residents, and 58 percent of Bay Area millennials, were considering moving away. And a sharp increase in people moving out of the Bay Area has led to a shortage of moving vans. (According to local news reports, renting a U-Haul for a one-way trip from San Jose to Las Vegas now costs roughly $2,000, compared with just $100 for a truck going the other direction.)



For the full commentary, see:

Kevin Roose. "THE SHIFT; Silicon Valley Toured the Heartland and Fell in Love." The New York Times (Monday, March 5, 2018): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 4, 2018, and has the title "THE SHIFT; Silicon Valley Is Over, Says Silicon Valley.")






June 20, 2018

"The Future Is Rich in Opportunity"




(p. A13) Ken Langone, 82, investor, philanthropist and founder of Home Depot, has written an autobiography that actually conveys the excitement of business--of starting an enterprise that creates a job that creates a family, of the joy of the deal and the place of imagination in the making of a career. Its hokey and ebullient name is "I Love Capitalism" which I think makes his stand clear.


. . .


Can capitalism win the future? "Yes, but we have to be more emphatic and forthright about what it is and its benefits. A rising tide does lift boats."

Home Depot has changed lives. "We have 400,000 people who work there, and we've never once paid anybody minimum wage." Three thousand employees "came to work for us fresh out of high school, didn't go to college, pushing carts in the parking lot. All 3,000 are multimillionaires. Salary, stock, a stock savings plan."

Mr. Langone came up in the middle of the 20th century--the golden age of American capitalism. Does his example still pertain to the 21st? Yes, he says emphatically: "The future is rich in opportunity." To see it, look for it. For instance: "Look, people are living longer. They're living more vibrant lives, more productive. This is an opportunity to accommodate the needs of older people. Better products, cheaper prices--help them get what they need!"

Mr. Langone grew up in blue-collar Long Island, N.Y. Neither parent finished high school. His father was a plumber who was poor at business; his mother worked in the school cafeteria. They lived paycheck to paycheck. He was a lousy student but he had one big thing going for him: "I loved making money." He got his first job at 11 and often worked two at a time--paperboy, butcher-shop boy, caddie, lawn work, Bohack grocery clerk. He didn't mind: "I wanted to be rich."



For the full commentary, see:

Peggy Noonan. "DECLARATIONS; Wisdom of a Non-Idiot Billionaire." The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, May 12, 2018): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

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


The book mentioned in the commentary, is:

Langone, Ken. I Love Capitalism!: An American Story. New York: Portfolio, 2018.






June 19, 2018

Blockchain May Enable "Consent-Based Ad Models"




(p. A13) Internet advertising started simply, but over time organically evolved a mess of middle players and congealed into a surveillance economy. Today, between end users, publishers and advertisers stand a throng of agencies, trading desks, demand side platforms, network exchanges and yield optimizers. Intermediaries track users in an attempt to improve revenue.

It's an inevitable consequence of such a system that users end up treated as a resource to be exploited. When you visit the celebrity website TMZ, for instance, you face as many as 124 trackers, according to a Crownpeak test. Your data is stored and profiled to retarget promotions that shadow you around the Internet. You become the product. Some claim your data is not "sold," but access is certainly rented out.


. . .


For a solution, look to blockchain technology. More than a word peppering earnings calls, it can deliver the change brands, publishers and users need. Put simply, it's an immutable database that records transactions and produces trustworthy data.

In advertising, blockchain's reliable data can radically shrink the ad-tech blob and provide the foundation for consent-based ad models. Improved blockchain reporting and transparency would obviate much of the need for companies focused on measurement, verification and even some data suppliers. Companies like Brave are using blockchain to build software that allows for more-direct relationships between advertisers and publishers, as it was before the blob. (Earlier this month Brave announced a partnership with Dow Jones Media Group, a division of this newspaper's parent company.) Anonymous data on the blockchain or on a device can even replace the need for the mining of individual user data. Users should be compensated for their attention and seen as customers again.

The internet need not be characterized by predation and parasitism. It can once again be a place of infinite possibility. Innovation got us into this situation; it can get us out.



For the full commentary, see:

Brendan Eichand and Brian Brown. "The Internet's 'Original Sin' Endangers More Than Privacy." The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 28, 2018): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 27, 2018.)






June 18, 2018

Lack of "Air-Conditioning Can Be Deadly"




(p. A10) The number of air-conditioners worldwide is predicted to soar from 1.6 billion units today to 5.6 billion units by midcentury, according to a report issued Tuesday by the International Energy Agency.


. . .


While 90 percent of American households have air-conditioning, "When we look in fact at the hot countries in the world, in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, where about 2.8 billion people live, only about 8 percent of the population owns an air-conditioner," said Fatih Birol, executive director of the energy agency.

As incomes in those countries rise, however, more people are installing air-conditioners in their homes. The energy agency predicts much of the growth in air-conditioning will occur in India, China and Indonesia.

Some of the spread is simply being driven by a desire for comfort in parts of the world that have always been hot.


. . .


And when it gets hot, forgoing air-conditioning can be deadly. The heat wave that plagued Chicago in 1995 killed more than 700 people, while the 2003 European heat wave and 2010 Russian heat wave killed tens of thousands each.



For the full story, see:

Kendra Pierre-Louis. "World Tries to Stay Cool, but It Could Warm Earth." The New York Times (Friday, May 18, 2018): A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 15, 2018, and has the title "The World Wants Air-Conditioning. That Could Warm the World.")






June 17, 2018

Jeff Bezos Is "Exploring Strange New Worlds"




(p. A15) Jeff Bezos is the world's richest person. Amazon is on a tear--sales grew 43% last quarter--and may soon pass Apple as the world's most valuable company. Amazon has ruptured retail, floated in the cloud, and even made superhero TV shows like "The Tick." But what makes Mr. Bezos tick?


. . .


. . . , Mr. Bezos is now channeling pioneers, be they Columbus or James T. Kirk, exploring strange new worlds. His strategy is that he doesn't let business models get in his way while exploring on the edge.


. . .


I'm convinced the real secret to Mr. Bezos's success is that he hates PowerPoint slides. He insists instead on six-page narratives at meetings. Stories codify exploration. Here's one: Put Alexa in every doctor's office to listen and correctly fill in medical records automatically from the transcripts, freeing doctors to actually care for patients! Business model to come (but pretty obvious).



For the full commentary, see:

Andy Kessler. " INSIDE VIEW; Columbus Discovers the Amazon." The Wall Street Journal (Monday, May 7, 2018): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 6, 2018.)






June 16, 2018

"Politicians Use Economics the Way a Drunk Uses a Lamppost"




(p. A13) Mr. Blinder cites what he calls the Lamppost Theory: "Politicians use economics the way a drunk uses a lamppost--for support, not for illumination."


For the full review, see:

Matthew Rees. "BOOKSHELF; What They Don't Teach in Econ 101." The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, April 17, 2018): A13.

(Note: italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 18, 2018, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; 'Advice and Dissent' Review: What They Don't Teach in Econ 101.")


The book under review, is:

Blinder, Alan S. Advice and Dissent: Why America Suffers When Economics and Politics Collide. New York: Basic Books, 2018.






June 15, 2018

Paying Consumers for Their Data




(p. B4) WASHINGTON--For every link you click, every photo you post, every word you search, somebody markets the data to advertisers seeking to target you. Consumer data is a valuable commodity, and that is one reason Google, Facebook and others let you use their platforms at no cost.

An Australian app maker called Unlockd thinks it has a better idea: The consumer should get a cut of this mobile-data business, in the form of rewards or other incentives. Other newcomers and smaller firms are taking a similar tack. Should this approach take off, some see it becoming a viable alternative to the ad model driving big platforms like Alphabet Inc.'s Google.



For the full story, see:

McKinnon, John D. "Startup Wants to Reward Your Clicking." The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, May 10, 2018): B4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 9, 2018, and has the title "Startup Takes on Google With a New Approach: Rewards for Users.")






June 14, 2018

Government Uses Cruel Painful Snare Traps to Kill Gorgeous Respectful Foxes




(p. A18) BRIGANTINE, N.J. -- Red foxes can be found all over New Jersey, wandering out of the woods and poking through garbage at dusk in search of a meal. In many places, they might be overlooked, if not seen as a disease-carrying nuisance. But not in Brigantine, an island community where the fox has become an unofficial ambassador.

Many residents warmly share stories of their encounters, like the fox that would routinely come up to a back door or the time a children's soccer game had to pause so one could cross the field. A fox makes an appearance on the cover of the city's tourism guide, as much of an attraction as its golf course and pristine beaches. A real estate company regularly sends its mascot, Briggy the Fox, to community events.

Yet the island is also the seasonal home to piping plovers, a small bird that returns every year to dig its nests on the beach. The bird is an endangered species in New Jersey that state wildlife officials closely watch and fiercely protect, including from foxes, creating a bitter conflict that has caused an uproar as residents protest the trapping and killing of the animals.

Some are challenging the use of snare traps, a contraption that they describe as cruel and painful. The contretemps has also stirred a wider debate: Is it fair to kill one animal for the sake of protecting another?

"It disgusts me," said Donna Vanzant, who owns a marina. "Why go after these gorgeous animals? Just let nature take its course."

State lawmakers recently wrote a letter to wildlife officials expressing their "deep concern," and the City Council passed a resolution condemning the "inhumane and indiscriminate killing of red foxes." Briggy the Fox attended the meeting and held a sign: "Please stop killing my friends."

"Everyone on the island cherishes the foxes and does not want them killed," said Donna Grazioli DeAngelis, a retired teacher who started a petition online, which about 90,000 people have signed. "They have been so respectful, so perfect in every way," she said of the foxes. "People paint them, photograph them. They haven't been a nuisance in any way."


. . .


"It's an overreach and overreaction," Philip J. Guenther, Brigantine's longtime mayor, said of the fox trapping. "It just doesn't seem to make any sense from a protection standpoint."



For the full story, see:

Rick Rojas. "To Save One Precious Animal, a Town Must Sacrifice Another." The New York Times (Monday, May 7, 2018: A18.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 6, 2018, and has the title "Trapping Foxes to Save Plovers Sets Off Showdown at Jersey Shore." The online version says the print version appeared on May 6 on p. A17 of the New York Edition. My print version, as usual, was the National Edition.)






June 13, 2018

China's "Double Whammy for Prospective Entrepreneurs"




(p. B12) China's past attempts to stoke indigenous innovation have a checkered history. A flood of cheap capital and high, state-set solar power rates in the mid-2000s secured China's place as the world's number one solar cell manufacturer. But it also led to enormous overcapacity, which sank prices and pushed debt burdens higher, making investment in real R&D more difficult. For investors, China's solar champions have been a losing proposition--American depositary receipts of top firms such as JinkoSolar are worth less than half of their peak in 2010. Robotics, a key element of Beijing's "Made in China 2025" plan to dominate high-tech manufacturing, is exhibiting similar tendencies.

The state-centric nature of China's financial system--and its weak intellectual property protection--represents a double whammy for prospective entrepreneurs. Small private-sector firms often only have access to capital through expensive shadow banking channels, and face the risk that some better connected, state-backed firm will make off with their designs--with very little recourse.



For the full story, see:

Nour Malas and Paul Overberg. "'Chinese Innovation Won't Come Easily Without U.S. Tech." The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, March 23, 2018): B12.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 22, 2018, and has the title "Can China's Red Capital Really Innovate?")






June 12, 2018

The Diversity That Matters Most Is Diversity of Thought




(p. A15) If you want anyone to pay attention to you in meetings, don't ever preface your opposition to a proposal by saying: "Just to play devil's advocate . . ." If you disagree with something, just say it and hold your ground until you're convinced otherwise. There are many such useful ideas in Charlan Nemeth's "In Defense of Troublemakers," her study of dissent in life and the workplace. But if this one alone takes hold, it could transform millions of meetings, doing away with all those mushy, consensus-driven hours wasted by people too scared of disagreement or power to speak truth to gibberish. Not only would better decisions get made, but the process of making them would vastly improve.


. . .


In the latter part of her book, Ms. Nemeth explores in more detail how dissent improves the way in which groups think. She is ruthless toward conventional "brainstorming," which tends toward the uncritical accumulation of bad ideas rather than the argumentative heat that forges better ideas. It's only through criticism that concepts receive proper scrutiny. "Repeatedly we find that dissent has value, even when it is wrong, even when we don't like the dissenter, and even when we are not convinced of his position," she writes. "Dissent . . . enables us to think more independently" and "also stimulates thought that is open, divergent, flexible, and original."


. . .


Ms. Nemeth's punchy book also has an invaluable section on diversity in groups. All too often, she writes, in pursuit of diversity we focus on everything but the way people think. We look at a group's gender, color or experience, and once the palette looks right declare it diverse. But you can have all of that and still have a group that thinks the same and reinforces a wrong-headed consensus.

By contrast, you can have a group that is demographically homogeneous yet violently heterogeneous in the way it thinks. The kind of diversity that leads to well-informed decisions is not necessarily the kind of diversity that gives the appearance of social justice. That will be a hard message for many organizations to swallow. But as with many of the arguments that Ms. Nemeth makes in her book, it is one that she gamely delivers and that all managers interested in the quality and integrity of their decision-making would do well to heed.



For the full review, see:

Philip Delves Broughton. "BOOKSHELF; Rocking The Boat." The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, May 9, 2018): A15.

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

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 10, 2018, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; 'In Defense of Troublemakers' Review: Rocking the Boat.")


The book under review, is:

Nemeth, Charlan. In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business. New York: Basic Books, 2018.






June 11, 2018

San Francisco Suffers Net Loss of People as Tech Booms




(p. A3) San Francisco is such a boomtown that people are leaving in droves.

In 2016 and 2017, more people moved out of the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward metropolitan area--an urban core of 4.7 million people in a broader region known as the Bay Area--than moved into it from other parts of California or the U.S., according to U.S. census data.

In the year that ended July 1, the region showed a net loss of nearly 24,000 residents to the rest of the country, roughly double the loss of the previous year and a sharp reversal from net annual gains of about 15,000 as recently as 2013-14.

Economists said the outflow is being driven by the high cost of housing in the area, where the average home value in several counties surpasses $1 million.



For the full story, see:

Nour Malas and Paul Overberg. "'San Francisco's Boom Leads to an Exodus." The Wall Street Journal (Friday, March 23, 2018): A3.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 22, 2018, and has the title "San Francisco Has a People Problem.")






June 10, 2018

Ecosocialism: The "Green-and-Red Agenda" to Eradicate Capitalism




Not all environmentalists are motivated by a desire to destroy capitalism. But some are. See below.



(p. 26) Joel Kovel, a former Freudian psychiatrist who evolved into an apostle of what he called ecosocialism, a so-called green-and-red agenda against the environmental evils of globalization and in favor of the nonviolent eradication of capitalism, died on Monday [April 30, 2018] in Manhattan.


. . .


Whenever he launched an ideological crusade, he did so zealously -- even if, as in the case of ecosocialism, its very definition and the collateral demand for an appealing alternative to capitalism were not self-evident.

Under ecosocialist theory, income would be guaranteed, most property and means of production would be commonly owned, and the abolition of capitalism, globalism and imperialism would unleash environmentalists to vastly curtail industrialization and development whose pollution would otherwise cause catastrophic global warming.

"Capitalist production, in its endless search for profit, seeks to turn everything into a commodity," Dr. Kovel wrote in 2007 on the socialist website Climate and Capitalism. "It is plain that production will have to shift from being dominated by exchange -- the path of the commodity -- to that which is for use, that is for the direct meeting of human needs."



For the full obituary, see:

Sam Roberts. "Dr. Joel Kovel, a Founder of Ecosocialism, Is Dead at 81." The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, May 6, 2018): 26.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date May 4, 2018, and has the title "Dr. Joel Kovel, a Founder of Ecosocialism, Is Dead at 81.")






June 9, 2018

More Firms Educate In-House




(p. B5) . . . Atlanta-based aluminum-products maker Novelis started a school within the company to impart lessons pulled from the factory floor with a faculty and nine "deans" to oversee it.

Federal policy for decades has pushed more people to go to four-year colleges, promoting a college-preparatory high-school curriculum and easing access to student loans. But technology is changing faster than colleges can keep up and employers say too many schools aren't teaching students the skills they need--or even basic critical thinking.

With the labor market the tightest it has been in a generation, this misalignment is causing big--and expensive--headaches for employers. So companies are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. Major employers like CVS Health Corp., Novelis, International Business Machines Corp., Aon PLC and JPMorgan Chase & Co. are hiring workers because of what they can do, or what the company believes they can teach them, instead of the degrees they hold.



For the full story, see:

Douglas Belkin. "'Education Is Moving to the Factory Floor." The Wall Street Journal (Friday, March 23, 2018): B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 22, 2018.)






June 8, 2018

"Wilson's Betrayal of Black Americans"




(p. C6) Instead of "The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made," Patricia O'Toole could have titled her new book "The Hypocrite."

After all, as she herself points out, to lay claim to the moral high ground as often and as fervently as President Wilson did during his eight years in the White House was to court charges that he failed to live up to his own principles. He called for an end to secret treaties while negotiating secretly with the Allies in World War I. He declared himself unwilling to compromise with belligerents abroad while showing himself very willing to compromise with segregationists at home. He pursued a progressive economic agenda while approving a regressive racial one. He spoke of national self-determination in the loftiest terms while initiating the American occupation of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.


. . .


"The Moralist" suggests that Wilson's betrayal of black Americans was born from simple expedience -- that he allowed the segregation of the Civil Service because he desperately needed the votes of Southern congressmen in order to pass his progressive economic agenda, including the introduction of a federal income tax.

"He knew the segregation was morally indefensible, but ending it would have cost him the votes of every Southerner in Congress," O'Toole writes.

The second part of her sentence is largely correct, but how can she be so sure about the first? As evidence she cites Wilson's own pleas to his critics. "I am in a cruel position," he told the chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., insisting he was "at heart working for these people." The testy exchange apparently left Wilson so rattled he took to his bed for a week.

But as O'Toole herself shows, his cries of political constraints were later followed by his claims that politics were irrelevant to racism anyway. In 1914, Wilson told the African-American editor William Monroe Trotter that eliminating segregation wouldn't do anything for racial animus, which he called "a human problem, not a political problem." (Wilson took to his bed after that "bruising quarrel" with Trotter, too.).



For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. "BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Woodrow Wilson's Flawed Idealism." The New York Times (Wednesday, May 2, 2018): C6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 1, 2018, and has the title "BOOKS OF THE TIMES; In 'The Moralist,' Woodrow Wilson and the Hazards of Idealism.")


The book under review, is:

O'Toole, Patricia. The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.






June 7, 2018

California Regulation Adds $9,500 to Average Home Cost




(p. A1) The California Energy Commission voted 5-0 to approve a mandate that residential buildings up to three stories high, including single-family homes and condos, be built with solar installations starting in 2020.

The commission estimates that the move, along with other (p. A2) energy-efficiency requirements, would add $9,500 to the average cost of building a home in California. The state is already one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, with a median price of nearly $565,000 for a single-family home, according to the California Association of Realtors.



For the full story, see:

Erin Ailworth. "Solar Panel Mandate Jols Housing Industry." The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, May 10, 2018): A1-A2.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 9, 2018, and has the title "California Takes Big Step to Require Solar on New Homes.")






June 6, 2018

Hundreds of Years of CO2 Emissions Could Be Stored Forever in Oman's Rocks




(p. A10) IBRA, Oman -- In the arid vastness of this corner of the Arabian Peninsula, out where goats and the occasional camel roam, rocks form the backdrop practically every way you look.

But the stark outcrops and craggy ridges are more than just scenery. Some of these rocks are hard at work, naturally reacting with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into stone.

Veins of white carbonate minerals run through slabs of dark rock like fat marbling a steak. Carbonate surrounds pebbles and cobbles, turning ordinary gravel into natural mosaics.

Even pooled spring water that has bubbled up through the rocks reacts with CO2 to produce an ice-like crust of carbonate that, if broken, re-forms within days.

Scientists say that if this natural process, called carbon mineralization, could be harnessed, accelerated and applied inexpensively on a huge scale -- admittedly some very big "ifs" -- it could help fight climate change. Rocks could remove some of the billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that humans have pumped into the air since the beginning of the Industrial Age.

And by turning that CO2 into stone, the rocks in Oman -- or in a number of other places around the world that have similar geological formations -- would ensure that the gas stayed out of the atmosphere forever.

"Solid carbonate minerals aren't going anyplace," said Peter B. Kelemen, a geologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has been studying the rocks here for more than two decades.

Capturing and storing carbon dioxide is drawing increased interest. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that deploying such technology is essential to efforts to rein in global warming.


. . .


The rocks are so extensive, Dr. Kelemen said, that if it was somehow possible to fully use them they could store hundreds of years of CO2 emissions. More realistically, he said, Oman could store at least a billion tons of CO2 annually. (Current yearly worldwide emissions are close to 40 billion tons.)



For the full story, see:


Henry Fountain. "How Oman's Rocks Could Help Save the Planet." The New York Times (Saturday, APRIL 28, 2018: A10-A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date APRIL 26, 2018.)






June 5, 2018

Ancient Skeletons Harbor a Common Cause of Liver Cancer




(p. A9) Scientists reported on Wednesday [May 9, 2018] that they have recovered DNA from the oldest viruses known to have infected humans -- and have succeeded in resurrecting some of them in the laboratory.

The viruses were all strains of hepatitis B. Two teams of researchers independently discovered its DNA in 15 ancient skeletons, the oldest a farmer who lived 7,000 years ago in what is now Germany.

Until now, the oldest viral DNA ever recovered from human remains was just 450 years old.

The research may provide clues to the continuing evolution of hepatitis B, a plague that infects an estimated 257 million people worldwide and contributes to an epidemic of liver cancer.


. . .


Chronic infections can lead to liver cancer. Each year, the World Health Organization estimates, hepatitis B kills 887,000 people. Researchers have long wondered how it became a worldwide menace.


. . .


. . . the skeletons in which the Cambridge geneticists found hepatitis range from 820 to 4,500 years old. The research, published in the journal Nature, demonstrates that hepatitis B existed across Europe and Asia as early as the Bronze Age.


. . .


Johannes Krause and his colleagues examined DNA extracted from the teeth of 53 ancient people in what is now Germany. Three of them were infected with hepatitis B, it turned out: one who lived about 1,000 years ago, a second person who lived 5,300 years ago and a third who lived 7,000 years ago.


. . .


Dr. Krause and his colleagues found that their Stone Age viruses were most closely related to strains of hepatitis B found today only in chimpanzees and gorillas.

He speculated that the virus jumped from apes to humans early in the history of our species in Africa. "It's more likely this is really an old pathogen in humans for the last hundred thousand years or more," he said.



For the full story, see:

Zimmer, Carl. "In Ancient Skeletons, Scientists Discover a Modern Foe: Hepatitis B." The New York Times (Thursday, May 10, 2018): A9.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MAY 9, 2018. The print version cited above is the National Edition.)


The paper by the Cambridge geneticists, mentioned above, is:

Mühlemann, Barbara, Terry C. Jones, Peter de Barros Damgaard, Morten E. Allentoft, Irina Shevnina, Andrey Logvin, Emma Usmanova, Irina P. Panyushkina, Bazartseren Boldgiv, Tsevel Bazartseren, Kadicha Tashbaeva, Victor Merz, Nina Lau, Václav Smrčka, Dmitry Voyakin, Egor Kitov, Andrey Epimakhov, Dalia Pokutta, Magdolna Vicze, T. Douglas Price, Vyacheslav Moiseyev, Anders J. Hansen, Ludovic Orlando, Simon Rasmussen, Martin Sikora, Lasse Vinner, Albert D. M. E. Osterhaus, Derek J. Smith, Dieter Glebe, Ron A. M. Fouchier, Christian Drosten, Karl-Göran Sjögren, Kristian Kristiansen, and Eske Willerslev. "Ancient Hepatitis B Viruses from the Bronze Age to the Medieval Period." Nature 557, no. 7705 (May 9, 2018): 418-23.


The paper co-authored by Krause, and mentioned above, is:

Krause-Kyora, Ben, Julian Susat, Felix M. Key, Denise Kühnert, Esther Bosse, Alexander Immel, Christoph Rinne, Sabin-Christin Kornell, Diego Yepes, Sören Franzenburg, Henrike O. Heyne, Thomas Meier, Sandra Lösch, Harald Meller, Susanne Friederich, Nicole Nicklisch, Kurt W. Alt, Stefan Schreiber, Andreas Tholey, Alexander Herbig, Almut Nebel, and Johannes Krause. "Neolithic and Medieval Virus Genomes Reveal Complex Evolution of Hepatitis B." eLife 7 (2018): e36666.






June 4, 2018

Robots Free Humans for More and Better Jobs




(p. A8) For companies, choosing the appropriate tasks to automate is important. Auto maker BMW AG automated some of the physical labor at the Spartanburg plant in South Carolina while retaining tasks involving judgment and quality control for workers.

Robots fit black, soundproofing rubber tubes to the inner rim of car doors, a task once done entirely by hand, on the more than 5,000 or so car doors that pass through the production line each day. Human workers do final checks on the tube's placement. The division of labor speeds up the process.

Since BMW introduced this and other automated processes over the past decade, it has more than doubled its annual car production at Spartanburg to more than 400,000. The workforce has risen from 4,200 workers to 10,000, and they handle vastly more complex autos--cars that once had 3,000 parts now have 15,000.

Being spared strenuous activities gives workers the time and energy to tackle more demanding and creative tasks, BMW said in a statement.

James Bessen, an economist who teaches at Boston University School of Law, said automation like that at the Spartanburg plant has enabled a huge increase in the quality and variety of products, which help spur consumer demand. BMW's share of luxury-car sales in the U.S. has risen sharply, with over 300,000 cars sold last year compared with just over 120,000 in 1997, company figures show.

Tesla Inc., by contrast, has struggled with production of the Model 3 car at its Fremont, Calif., plant after its use of robots got out of balance. Undetected errors in parts built by robots caused bottlenecks in production, meaning it could build only 2,020 cars a week compared with the 5,000 it originally promised, according to the company.

Analysts at investment research firm Bernstein said Tesla automated welding, paint and body work processes, as other manufacturers have done, but also automated final assembly work, in which parts, seats and the engine are installed in the car's painted shell. Errors in this work caused production bottlenecks. "Automation in final assembly doesn't work," said analyst Max Warburton.

"Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake...Humans are underrated," wrote Tesla CEO Elon Musk in a tweet last month.


. . .


At an aggregate level, however, the jobs created by automation outnumber those that are being destroyed, according to analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's David Autor and Utrecht University's Anna Salomons.



For the full story, see:

William Wilkes. "Big Companies Fine-Tune The Robot Revolution." The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, May 15, 2018): A1 & A8.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 14, 2018, and has the title "How the World's Biggest Companies Are Fine-Tuning the Robot Revolution.")


More of James Bessen's views on these issues, can be found in his discussion of ATMs in:

Bessen, James. Learning by Doing: The Real Connection between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.


The analysis by Autor and Salomons, mentioned above, appears in:

Autor, David, and Anna Salomons. "Is Automation Labor-Displacing? Productivity Growth, Employment, and the Labor Share." In Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Feb. 27, 2018.






June 3, 2018

Finnish Public Push to End Universal Basic Income Experiment




(p. B1) LONDON -- For more than a year, Finland has been testing the proposition that the best way to lift economic fortunes may be the simplest: Hand out money without rules or restrictions on how people use it.

The experiment with so-called universal basic income has captured global attention as a potentially promising way to restore economic security at a time of worry about inequality and automation.

Now, the experiment is ending. The Finnish government has opted not to continue financing it past this year, a reflection of public discomfort with the idea of dispensing government largess free of requirements that its recipients seek work.



For the full story, see:

Peter S. Goodman. "Finland Will Stop Offering Unconditional Pay for Jobless." The New York Times (Wednesday, April 25, 2018): B1 & B4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 24, 2018, and has the title "Finland Has Second Thoughts About Giving Free Money to Jobless People." The print version cited above is the National Edition.)






June 2, 2018

Spreadsheets Created More and Better Jobs Than They Destroyed




BookkeepingVersusAnalystJobsGraph2018-05-19.jpgSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.




(p. A2) Whether truck drivers or marketing executives, all workers consider intelligence intrinsic to how they do their jobs. No wonder the rise of "artificial intelligence" is uniquely terrifying. From Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk, we are told almost daily our jobs will soon be done more cheaply by AI.


. . .


Until the 1980s, manipulating large quantities of data--for example, calculating how higher interest rates changed a company's future profits--was time-consuming and error-prone. Then along came personal computers and spreadsheet programs VisiCalc in 1979, Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983 and Microsoft Excel a few years later. Suddenly, you could change one number--say, this year's rent--and instantly recalculate costs, revenues and profits years into the future. This simplified routine bookkeeping while making many tasks possible, such as modeling alternate scenarios.


. . .


The new technology pummeled demand for bookkeepers: their ranks have shrunk 44% from two million in 1985, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet people who could run numbers on the new software became hot commodities. Since 1985, the ranks of accountants and auditors have grown 41%, to 1.8 million, while financial managers and management analysts, which the BLS didn't even track before 1983, have nearly quadrupled to 2.1 million.



For the full commentary, see:

Greg Ip. "CAPITAL ACCOUNT; We Survived Spreadsheets; We'll Survive AI." The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, August 3, 2017): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated Aug. 2, 2017, and has the title "CAPITAL ACCOUNT; We Survived Spreadsheets, and We'll Survive AI.")






June 1, 2018

AI "Will Never Match the Creativity of Human Beings or the Fluidity of the Real World"




(p. A21) If you read Google's public statement about Google Duplex, you'll discover that the initial scope of the project is surprisingly limited. It encompasses just three tasks: helping users "make restaurant reservations, schedule hair salon appointments, and get holiday hours."

Schedule hair salon appointments? The dream of artificial intelligence was supposed to be grander than this -- to help revolutionize medicine, say, or to produce trustworthy robot helpers for the home.

The reason Google Duplex is so narrow in scope isn't that it represents a small but important first step toward such goals. The reason is that the field of A.I. doesn't yet have a clue how to do any better.


. . .


The narrower the scope of a conversation, the easier it is to have. If your interlocutor is more or less following a script, it is not hard to build a computer program that, with the help of simple phrase-book-like templates, can recognize a few variations on a theme. ("What time does your establishment close?" "I would like a reservation for four people at 7 p.m.") But mastering a Berlitz phrase book doesn't make you a fluent speaker of a foreign language. Sooner or later the non sequiturs start flowing.


. . .


To be fair, Google Duplex doesn't literally use phrase-book-like templates. It uses "machine learning" techniques to extract a range of possible phrases drawn from an enormous data set of recordings of human conversations. But the basic problem remains the same: No matter how much data you have and how many patterns you discern, your data will never match the creativity of human beings or the fluidity of the real world. The universe of possible sentences is too complex. There is no end to the variety of life -- or to the ways in which we can talk about that variety.


. . .


Today's dominant approach to A.I. has not worked out. Yes, some remarkable applications have been built from it, including Google Translate and Google Duplex. But the limitations of these applications as a form of intelligence should be a wake-up call. If machine learning and big data can't get us any further than a restaurant reservation, even in the hands of the world's most capable A.I. company, it is time to reconsider that strategy.



For the full commentary, see:

Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis. "A.I. Is Harder Than You Think." The New York Times (Saturday, May 19, 2018): A21.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 18, 2018.)






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