Private Railroad Fuels South Florida Boom

We underestimate how well private entrepreneurs can efficiently provide the infrastructure that consumers want to buy.

(p. B6) South Florida housing values are still rising even as home prices in much of the country are starting to come down. Values for homes located near the region’s expanding rapid transit rail system are appreciating even faster.

Brightline, the privately owned and operated rail service, opened stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach about five years ago, and more recently opened two more in Aventura and Boca Raton. Last week, Brightline started selling tickets for a new stop in Orlando, slated to open toward the end of the summer.

While mass transit systems throughout the U.S. are suffering from decreased business as more people work from home, Brightline reported a 68% increase in ridership in March of 2023, compared with the same month last year.

The popularity of the rail line is spilling over to the residential real-estate market, enabling home sellers to command higher prices for proximity to the transportation system, according to an analysis by the real-estate data and analytics firm Green Street.

For the full story, see:

Deborah Acosta. “South Florida Train Juices Home Values.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, May 24, 2023): B6.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 23, 2023, and has the title “The Biggest South Florida Housing Boom Is Near the Rail Stations.”)

Longevity Proof of Concept–A Jellyfish That Can Return to a Younger Form

(p. A15) When Benjamin Franklin wrote that “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” he must have thought he was stating an eternal truth. But if biotechnology researcher Nicklas Brendborg is to be believed, Franklin’s joke may need some updating. According to Mr. Brendborg, scientists have discovered a jellyfish the size of a fingernail that responds to stress by “ageing backwards,” reversing the normal direction of its development to become a bottom-dwelling polyp. This trick can be repeated over and over again with “no physiological recollection of having been older,” he explains, making this jellyfish “an example of the holy grail of ageing research—biological immortality.”

This tiny Methuselah is one of the striking examples in Mr. Brendborg’s breezy survey of the science of longevity, “Jellyfish Age Backwards,” which the author has translated from the Danish with Elizabeth DeNoma.

. . .

Short chapters built from short, declarative sentences combine with familiar material to give “Jellyfish Age Backwards” the feel of an introductory survey rather than a novel argument. Perhaps its piecewise construction is only a reflection of the disjointed state of the subject, where researchers are pulling on various threads but have not yet managed to knit them into a coherent whole. Mr. Brendborg finishes with a ringing declaration that the “noble” efforts of medical science will “eventually defeat” aging. But biology is complicated, as the author admits, and the strands of this multivariate and complex phenomenon may eventually prove to be tangled in some unresolvable knot.

For the full review, see:

Richard Lea. “BOOKSHELF; Dying Young At a Late Age.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Dec. 30, 2022): A15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 29, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Jellyfish Age Backwards’ Review: Dying Young at a Late Age.”)

The book under review is:

Brendborg, Nicklas. Jellyfish Age Backwards: Nature’s Secrets to Longevity. Translated by Elizabeth DeNoma. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2023.

Environmentalists Now Worry We Will Run Low on Squirrels

Really? Our dachshund, Walter Disney Diamond, would be happy to ship a few squirrels to whoever is worried. (His main activity is to dash outside to angrily defend our property rights in our fence against constantly interloping squirrels.)

(p. A19) Male Arctic ground squirrels go through puberty every year. As if that wasn’t hard enough, now the females have a problem, too.

According to a paper published on Thursday [May 25, 2023] in the journal Science, climate change appears to be making them emerge from hibernation earlier. That matters, because it could throw off the timing of the animals’ mating cycle.

. . .

Any decline in squirrel populations could disrupt the local food web. Almost all Arctic predators, from wolves to eagles, rely on them as a food source.

For the full story, see:

Mélissa Godin. “Squirrels Find Arctic Dating Scene a Bit Cold.” The New York Times (Saturday, May 26, 2023): A19.

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

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 25, 2023, and has the title “Just Between Us Squirrels, There Might Be Trouble in the Arctic Dating Scene.”)

Homo Sapiens’s Greater Genetic Diversity May Have Allowed Them to Adapt to Climate Change Faster than Neanderthals

(p. D5) Scientists have revealed a surprisingly complex origin of our species, rejecting the long-held argument that modern humans arose from one place in Africa during one period in time.

By analyzing the genomes of 290 living people, researchers concluded that modern humans descended from at least two populations that coexisted in Africa for a million years before merging in several independent events across the continent. The findings were published on Wednesday [May 24, 2023} in Nature.

“There is no single birthplace,” said Eleanor Scerri, an evolutionary archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Geoarchaeology in Jena, Germany, who was not involved in the new study. “It really puts a nail in the coffin of that idea.”

. . .

The researchers concluded that as far back as a million years ago, the ancestors of our species existed in two distinct populations. Dr. Henn and her colleagues call them Stem1 and Stem2.

About 600,000 years ago, a small group of humans budded off from Stem1 and went on to become the Neanderthals. But Stem1 endured in Africa for hundreds of thousands of years after that, as did Stem2.

If Stem1 and Stem2 had been entirely separate from each other, they would have accumulated a large number of distinct mutations in their DNA. Instead, Dr. Henn and her colleagues found that they had remained only moderately different — about as distinct as living Europeans and West Africans are today. The scientists concluded that people had moved between Stem1 and Stem2, pairing off to have children and mixing their DNA.

. . .

It’s possible that climate upheavals forced Stem1 and Stem2 people into the same regions, leading them to merge into single groups. Some bands of hunter-gatherers may have had to retreat from the coast as sea levels rose, for example. Some regions of Africa became arid, potentially sending people in search of new homes.

Even after these mergers 120,000 years ago, people with solely Stem1 or solely Stem2 ancestry appear to have survived. The DNA of the Mende people showed that their ancestors had interbred with Stem2 people just 25,000 years ago. “It does suggest to me that Stem2 was somewhere around West Africa,” Dr. Henn said.

. . .

Dr. Scerri speculated that living in a network of mingling populations across Africa might have allowed modern humans to survive while Neanderthals became extinct. In that arrangement, our ancestors could hold onto more genetic diversity, which in turn might have helped them endure shifts in the climate, or even evolve new adaptations.

“This diversity at the root of our species may have been ultimately the key to our success,” Dr. Scerri said.

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer. “A Study’s New Twist on How the First Humans Evolved.” The New York Times (Tuesday, May 30, 2023): D5.

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

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 24, 2023, and has the title “Study Offers New Twist in How the First Humans Evolved.”)

The article in Nature mentioned above is:

Ragsdale, Aaron P., Timothy D. Weaver, Elizabeth G. Atkinson, Eileen G. Hoal, Marlo Möller, Brenna M. Henn, and Simon Gravel. “A Weakly Structured Stem for Human Origins in Africa.” Nature 617, no. 7962 (May 25, 2023): 755-63.

Defending Free Speech as “Our Salvation From Intellectual Mediocrity and Social Ossification”

(p. B11) Robert J. Zimmer, a mathematician who as president of the University of Chicago championed diversity not only quantitatively, in the recruitment of students and faculty, but also by protecting free expression on campus with a protocol that was later embraced by dozens of colleges across the country, died on Tuesday [May 23, 2023] at his home in Chicago.

. . .

Mr. Zimmer, who presided over the university from 2006 to 2021, was instrumental in shepherding what became known as the Chicago Principles, a set of guidelines recommended by the Committee on Free Expression, a faculty group he appointed in 2014.

Those guidelines have become a bulwark against what critics perceive as the stifling of academic freedom by colleges where students are able to insulate themselves against discomforting viewpoints — practices that are often lumped together as “cancel culture.”

“Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community,” the faculty committee concluded.

In August 2016, during Mr. Zimmer’s presidency, the university informed incoming freshmen: “We do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

. . .

As a private institution, the University of Chicago was under no obligation to abide by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. But, Bret Stephens wrote in a New York Times opinion essay in 2017, the real crux of Mr. Zimmer’s case for free speech, offensive or not, was that it was “our salvation from intellectual mediocrity and social ossification.”

According to Mr. Stephens, Mr. Zimmer balked at the notion that unfettered free speech would jeopardize the cause of inclusion because it might upset, among others, some of the people who were seeking to be included.

“Inclusion into what?” Mr. Zimmer had wondered in a speech that year. “An inferior and less challenging education? One that fails to prepare students for the challenge of different ideas and the evaluation of their own assumptions? A world in which their feelings take precedence over other matters that need to be confronted?”

For Mr. Zimmer, the mathematician, that kind of education wouldn’t count.

For the full obituary, see:

Sam Roberts. “Robert J. Zimmer, 75, Who Protected Free Speech on Campus, Dies.” The New York Times (Saturday, May 27, 2023): B11.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date May 24, 2023, and has the title “Robert J. Zimmer, Who Promoted Free Speech on Campus, Dies at 75.”)

Lockdowns in China Move Atlas to Shrug

(p. A1) By the usual measures, Loretta Liu had it made. She graduated in 2018 from one of China’s top universities, rented an apartment in the glamorous city of Shenzhen, and had been hired as a visual designer at a series of high-flying companies, even as youth unemployment in China was reaching record highs.

Then, last year, she quit. She now works as a groomer at a chain pet store, for one-fifth of her previous salary. She spends hours on her feet, wearing a uniform in place of her once carefully selected outfits.

And she is delighted.

“I was tired of living like that. I didn’t feel like I was getting anything from the work,” Ms. Liu said of her previous job, where she said she had little creative freedom, often worked overtime, and felt her mental and physical health deteriorating. “So I thought, there’s no need anymore.”

Ms. Liu is part of a phenomenon attracting growing attention in China: young people trading high-pressure, prestigious white-collar jobs for manual labor. The scale of the trend is hard to measure, but widely shared social media posts have documented a tech worker becoming a grocery store cashier; an accountant peddling street sausages; a content manager delivering takeout. On Xiaohongshu, an Instagram-like app, the hashtag “My first experience with physical labor” has more than 28 million views.

. . .

Around the world, the coronavirus pandemic spurred people to reassess the value of their work — see the “Great Resignation” in the United States. But in China, the forces fueling the disillusionment of young people are particularly intense. Long working hours and domineering managers are common. The economy is slowing, dimming the prospect of upward mobility for a generation that has known only explosive growth.

And then there were China’s three years of “zero Covid” restrictions, which forced many to endure prolonged lockdowns, layoffs and the realization of how little control their hard work gave them over their futures.

“Emotionally, everyone probably can’t bear it anymore, because during the pandemic we saw many unfair and strange things, like being locked up,” Ms. Liu said.

. . .

When Yolanda Jiang, 24, resigned last summer from her architectural design job in Shenzhen, after being asked to work 30 days straight, she hoped to find another office job. It was only after three months of unsuccessful searching, her savings dwindling, that she took a job as a security guard in a university residential complex.

At first, she was embarrassed to tell her family or friends, but she grew to appreciate the role. Her 12-hour shifts, though long, were leisurely. She got off work on time. The job came with free dormitory housing. Her salary of about $870 a month was even about 20 percent higher than her take-home pay before — a symptom of how the glut of college graduates has started to flatten wages for that group.

But Ms. Jiang said her ultimate goal is still to return to an office, where she hoped to find more intellectual challenges. She had been taking advantage of the slow pace at her security job to study English, which she hoped would help her land her next role, perhaps at a foreign trade company.

“I’m not actually lying flat,” Ms. Jiang said. “I’m treating this as a time to rest, transition, learn, charge my batteries and think about the direction of my life.”

For the full story, see:

Vivian Wang and Zixu Wang. “In China, Young Workers Ditch Prestige Jobs for Manual Gigs.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 11, 2023): A1 & A11.

(Note: bracketed year added.]

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “In China, Young People Ditch Prestige Jobs for Manual Labor.”)

The title of this blog entry alludes to Ayn Rand’s novel:

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957.

Opponents of Geoengineering View Global Warming as Nature’s Just Punishment of Us for Our Indulging in Technology and Capitalism

(p. A13) Make no mistake—Mr. Myhrvold is concerned about climate change.  . . .

He laments that policy makers largely scorn geoengineering—human interventions in the Earth’s natural systems to thwart or neutralize climate change.

. . .

Geoengineering is about “deliberately trying to reduce climate change.” Excess CO2 traps a little less than 1% of heat from the sun, “so if we could make the sun 1% dimmer, we could shut off climate change.” When Mount Pinatubo, a volcano in the Philippines, erupted in 1991, it lowered world-wide temperatures by 1 degree Celsius for about 18 months. Human-emitted particulate pollution has historically offset about 20% of human-emitted CO2. “Ironically,” he says, “the Clean Air Act made our air better but hurt climate change.”

The simplest solar-radiation management scheme, Mr. Myhrvold says, “is to emit particles in the stratosphere to mimic Mount Pinatubo. We invented a particularly elegant way to do this with balloons and a pipe to the sky.” By “we,” he means Intellectual Ventures, the company Mr. Myhrvold founded in 2000 after leaving Microsoft, where he spent 13 years and rose to the position of chief technology officer. Intellectual Ventures “creates, incubates and commercializes” new inventions.

“Marine cloud brightening” is another solar-related intervention. “The idea is to increase the number and size of low clouds that form over the oceans so that more incoming sunlight bounces back into space instead of heating the ocean.” Scientists have proposed a variety of ways to do this. One, which Mr. Myhrvold’s company has explored, is to outfit ships with equipment to spray seawater into the air as they traverse the ocean. “The salt particles can serve as nuclei for water vapor to condense into droplets, thus forming clouds.”

. . .

“Opponents worry that once you have geoengineering, people won’t make sacrifices to cut emissions. They want a sword of Damocles hanging over humanity as a means to force us to follow their ideology.”

Mr. Myhrvold uses an analogy he describes as “horrible in some ways.” When the AIDS epidemic hit, some people saw it as punishment from God. “Their attitude was, ‘This is what you get if you indulge in the practices we don’t approve of.’ ” In climate change, he says, this moralistic attitude takes the following form: “I don’t like aspects of our society, I don’t like technology, I don’t like capitalism, and this is nature’s retribution. And so we have to change the way we live.” Such beliefs “have become a very powerful disincentive, particularly for academic researchers.”

. . .

“You could imagine a world in which cardiology doesn’t exist because the medical profession said, ‘You fat bastards. You did it to yourselves. We’re not going to help you.’ ”

For the full interview, see:

Tunku Varadarajan, interview. “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; Emission Cuts Will Fail. What to Do Then?” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date February 17, 2023, and has the title “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; Emission Cuts Will Fail to Stop Climate Change. What to Do Then?”)

Nimbly Resilient African Coffee Farmers Switch to Coffee Bean that Withstands Global Warming

(p. A1) First the bad news. The two types of coffee that most of us drink — Arabica and robusta — are at grave risk in the era of climate change.

Now the good news. Farmers in one of Africa’s biggest coffee exporting countries are growing a whole other variety that better withstands the heat, drought and disease supersized by global warming.

. . .

Catherine Kiwuka, a coffee specialist at the National Agricultural Research Organization, called Liberica excelsa “a neglected coffee species.” She is part of an experiment to introduce it to the world.

. . .

(p, A6) In 2016, she invited Aaron Davis, a coffee scientist from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England, to Zirobwe. He was skeptical at first. He had tasted Liberica elsewhere and found it to be like “vegetable soup,” he said.

But then, the next day, he ground the beans from Zirobwe in his hotel room. Yes, a coffee researcher always packs a portable grinder when traveling.

“Actually, this is not bad,” he recalled thinking. It had potential.

. . .

Dr. Kiwuka and Dr. Davis teamed up. They would encourage farmers to improve the harvesting and drying of their Liberica crop. Instead of tossing them in with the robusta beans, they would sell the Libericas separately. If they met certain standards, they would get a higher price.

“In a warming world, and in an era beset with supply chain disruption, Liberica coffee could re-emerge as a major crop plant,” they wrote in Nature, the scientific journal, this past December.

For the full story, see:

Somini Sengupta. “Hardier Brew: African Farmers Bet on Climate-Resistant Coffee.” The New York Times (Saturday, April 29, 2023): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 28, 2023, and has the title “What Climate Change Could Mean for the Coffee You Drink.”)

The article in Nature Plants mentioned above is:

Davis, Aaron P., Catherine Kiwuka, Aisyah Faruk, Mweru J. Walubiri, and James Kalema. “The Re-Emergence of Liberica Coffee as a Major Crop Plant.” Nature Plants 8, no. 12 (Dec. 2022): 1322-28.

Chinese Communists Extend Control of Firms by Buying “Golden Shares”

(p. A1) In its uneasy dance with China’s private sector, the Communist Party is moving away from a public battle with some of the country’s biggest companies. Instead, it is inching toward a quieter form of control.

At the center of the effort is a push by various levels of government to take stakes in the private companies that have long driven Chinese innovation and job creation.

The government stakes are sometimes very small, like the 1% holding that a fund of Beijing’s cyberspace watchdog recently took in the digital-media unit of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. But they tend to give the government board seats, voting power and sway over business decisions. Colloquially, they are known as golden shares.

For the companies, there is little choice: Selling such a stake to a government entity that seeks one is crucial for staying in business. For the state, the stakes mean more direct involvement in some of China’s most high-profile companies—digital cornerstones of Chinese life and, in some cases, darlings of global investors.

. . .

(p. A9) One result of the new normal of subtle influence is that the boundary between the party-state and the private sector is getting increasingly muddled. That reverses a trend dating to the late 1970s, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had the party-state step back from business control and let entrepreneurs flourish.

For the full story, see:

Lingling Wei. “Stakes in Firms Give Beijing New Control.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, April 11, 2023): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 8, 2023, and has the title “China’s New Way to Control Its Biggest Companies: Golden Shares.”)

Russians Are Reading Book on How to Remove Dictators

(p. A24) . . . the book, “The End of the Regime: How Three European Dictatorships Ended,” is not about Russia or Vladimir Putin. It’s about three dictatorships — those of Francisco Franco in Spain, Antonio Salazar in Portugal and the colonels in Greece — and how those countries became democracies, returning to the global fold. A large number of Russians haven’t suddenly taken an interest in the history of 20th-century Southern Europe. Rather, discussions of the book have common themes: How do prolonged right-wing dictatorships end? And can Russia become a democracy?

As one might expect, the book is being widely discussed by opposition groups and those calling for an end to the war. More surprisingly, it is also being read by the Russian nomenklatura — those at the apex of the Russian state. It seems that the book has become a pretext for discussion of taboo topics, such as political transition, the health and death of the leader, defeat in a colonial war, the end of isolation and, indeed, the end of the regime.

. . .

Russian readers have found much that is resonant in the book. How the Greek dictatorship, for example, collapsed after an attempt to annex Cyprus, which it regarded as a historical part of the country. Or how the Portuguese regime caved in as a result of a colonial, imperialist war that dragged on for years. Or how Salazar, plagued by health problems, was removed from power but continued to think that he was ruling the country. (To maintain the illusion, a special newspaper was published just for him.) And then there is the story of how in Spain, the idea of a transition to democracy slowly took hold and was brought about by the ruling elite itself.

For the full essay, see:

Alexander Baunov. “Russians Are Still Asking Questions About What’s Next.” The New York Times (Thursday, April 27, 2023): A24.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date April 26, 2023, and has the title “Russians Seem Very Interested in My Book About How Dictatorships End.”)

Baunov’s essay discusses his Russian-language book:

Baunov, Alexander. The End of the Regime: How Three European Dictatorships Ended.

Scarce Metals, Batteries, and Factories Needed for EVs Are Very Hard to Quickly Ramp-Up

(p. B1) The Biden administration’s plan to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles — reaching a two-thirds share of new cars in less than a decade — pushes automakers further in a direction they have already been going. But meeting the new timetable will be a challenge.

. . .

But the industry and its customers have a long way to go. While sales of electric vehicles are (p. B3) rising, they accounted for only 5.8 percent of the 13.8 million new cars and trucks sold in the United States last year.

. . .

The owner of a 2018 Ford F-150 pickup truck, he often has to haul around a trailer full of equipment for his job, and he sometimes tows a camper for vacations — driving patterns that are not very suitable for E.V.s. It’s also not unusual for him to have to drive 300 miles on a work trip, and farther when he visits relatives in Michigan.

“I’m a person who likes to go and not have a lot of stops,” he said. “If I’m working, I can’t really wait an hour or more to recharge an E.V.”

On top of that, he lives in an apartment, so he would have no way to charge an E.V. at home.

Whether Americans are willing to accept changes to their work and lifestyle to drive electric vehicles is only one of several hurdles and uncertainties. The biggest is perhaps lithium. The soft, silver-white metal is the key element in E.V. batteries, and the world produces only a small fraction of the amount that will be needed for a majority of car buyers to go electric in the United States, Europe and China, markets where more than 50 million cars were sold last year.

“Can we really produce enough lithium for that?” asked Mike Ramsey, a Gartner analyst who follows the electric car business. “We’re not even at 10 percent now, and it’s difficult for companies to get the lithium they need.”

While mining companies are racing to expand lithium production, the pace at which they can is unclear. In North Carolina, for example, Albemarle is trying to reopen a pit mine along Interstate 85 near Kings Mountain, 32 miles west of Charlotte.

The mine was in operation from the 1940s to the 1980s, and to reopen it the company must work out plans for protecting surrounding groundwater, determining if the mine’s steep walls are suitable for new operations and dealing with any contaminants that may be found in the pit lake at the mine’s bottom.

Extracting lithium from the hard ore at the site involves a more difficult and costly process than other sources, and residents in the area have begun working to block the resumption of mining operations.

The supply and production of other metals — including nickel, rare-earth metals, manganese and cobalt — must also increase to support a tenfold rise in E.V. sales.

On another front, the plants and assembly lines needed to produce millions of E.V.s every year don’t exist yet. While G.M., Ford and other manufacturers have plants under construction, they will have to produce twice or three times as many battery plants to hit their sales targets and those the Biden administration is setting.

Building and ramping up dozens of new plants will take years, and that process can be fraught.

For the full story, see:

Neal E. Boudette. “A Test for Automakers: Meeting Biden’s Deadline.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 11, 2023): B1 & B3.

(Note: ellipses added.]

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “Automakers Face Test in Reaching U.S. Target for Electric Vehicles.”)