February 21, 2017

NASA Funding Depends on "Pure Pork-Barrel Politics"



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


. . .


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

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



For the full review, see:

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

(Note: ellipsis added.)

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


The book under review, is:

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






February 20, 2017

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



For the full commentary, see:

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

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






February 19, 2017

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





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



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


. . .


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

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


. . .


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



For the full obituary, see:

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

(Note: ellipses added.)

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






February 18, 2017

Government Wastes Millions on Corrupt Nanotech Boondoggle



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

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

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

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


. . .


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

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



For the full story, see:

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

(Note: ellipsis added.)

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






February 17, 2017

Complex Regulations Stifle Innovation



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

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

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

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



For the full review, see:


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

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

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


The book under review, is:

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






February 16, 2017

Tech Firms Rally Their Customers to Fight Restrictive Regulations



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

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

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

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



For the full commentary, see:

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

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






February 15, 2017

Where Fidelistas Miss Mr. Hershey's Company Town



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

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

He named the place Hershey.

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

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


. . .


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

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

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

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



For the full story, see:

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

(Note: ellipsis added.)

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






February 14, 2017

Government Sugar Protectionism Kills More Jobs than It Saves



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

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

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



For the full commentary, see:

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

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






February 13, 2017

The Good Old Days Were Grim



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

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



For the full review, see:


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

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


The book under review, is:

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






February 12, 2017

"Worrying About Overpopulation on Mars"



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

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



For the full commentary, see:

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

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









Eight Most Recent Comments:



Aaron said:

An appropriately sweet topic this Valentine's day, though this may make you this holiday's Scrooge.



Freya Osborne said:

Great post.Thanks for sharing Best Treadmill Review



Ed Rector said:

There are more than 2000 colleges in the USA offering tens of thousands of degrees/majors. Oh yes, there are also a few thousand JC's, trade schools and apprentice programs that train welders. Who should decide what any individual student wants to study?? Senator Rubio, the Mercatus Center or the individual student?? And you call yourselves 'freedom-loving Libertarians' !!



Aaron said:

You need a "like" button. Here's to enjoying bacon and eggs on an unusually warm fall day and doing so guilt free.



Aaron said:

I'd also suggest that work is just part of who some people are and a reason they got rich. A friend's dad comes to mind; he's a millionaire and in his 60s and a couple years ago I saw him cleaning one of his rental houses and wondered why he didn't pay someone to do it, but he's just one of those guys who'd rather work than golf or relax.



Jim Rose said:

It is often forgotten that the Minister for International trade and industry in the late 1960s up until 1971 was Tanaka – the most corrupt man in postwar Japanese politics. He had previously been Minister for Public Works, but to generate the necessary bribe income to pay an entire generation of Japanese politicians to step aside to allow him to become Prime Minister in the early 1970s at a young age, he thought the Ministry of International trade and industry was a better position to garner influence and donations. My professors in Japan worked in the Ministry of International trade and industry and the Ministry of Finance in the 1970s and 1960s. None of them seemed to carry over their picking winners skills into their private portfolios when they retired. see http://utopiayouarestandinginit.com/2014/03/14/if-you-are-so-smart-why-arent-you-rich/



Aaron said:

Interested to see how not only did Hamilton gain a vote, but also how Jefferson lost one.



Dave Megan said:

Merging of companies is always better when they have a better goal. It will give better service for the public.





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