“To Live Was to Be Not Dead Yet”

In the passage below, Johnson begins by noting the reality captured in a phrase of Charles Dickens in the following pasage from Bleak House:  "Jo lives—that is to say, Jo has not yet died—in a ruinous place . . ." 


(p. 85)  The phrasing captures the dark reality of urban poverty; to live in such a world was to live with the shadow of death hovering over your shoulder at every moment.  To live was to be not dead yet. 

From our vantage point, more than a century later, it is hard to tell how heavily that fear weighed upon the minds of individual Victorians.  As a matter of practical reality, the threat of sudden devastation—your entire extended family wiped out in a matter of days—was far more immediate than the terror threats of today.  At the height of a nineteenth-century cholera outbreak, a thousand Londoners would often die of the disease in a matter of weeks—out of a population that was a quarter the size of modern New York.  Imagine the terror and panic of a biological attack killed four thousand otherwise healthy New Yorkers over a twenty-day period.  Living amid cholera in 1854 was like living in a world where urban tragedies on that scale happened week after week, year after year.  A world where it was not at all out of the ordinary for an entire family to die in the space of forty-eight hours, children suffering alone in the arsenic-lit dark next to the corpses of their parents.



Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.


“Under the Spell of a Theory”


Johnson’s wonderful book is part mystery, part history, part philosophy of science, and part musing on political philosophy.  The passage below warms the heart (and stimulates the brain) of the libertarian.  Against great odds, Dr. Snow persisted in presenting ever-more convincing evidence for his correct water-borne theory of cholera.  Meanwhile Chadwick, the main advocate of government public health activities, continued to direct policy on the basis of the mistaken theory that cholera was spread by foul vapors in the air. 


(p. 120) Herein lies the dominant irony of the state of British public health in the late 1840s.  Just as Snow was concocting his theory of cholera as a waterborne agent that had to be ingested to do harm, Chadwick was building an elaborate scheme that would deliver the cholera bacteria directly to the mouths of Londoners.  (A modern bioterrorist couldn’t have come up with a more ingenious and far-reaching scheme.)  Sure enough, the cholera returned with a vengeance in 1848-1849, the rising death toll neatly following the Sewer Commission’s cheerful data on the growing supply of waste deposited in the river.  By the end of the outbreak, nearly 15,000 Londoners would be dead.  The first defining act of a modern, centralized public-health authority was to poison an entire urban population.  (There is some precedent to Chadwick’s folly, however.  During the plague years of 1665-1666, popular lore had it that the disease was being spread by dogs and cats.  The Lord Mayor promptly called for a mass extermination of the city’s entire population of pets and strays, which was dutifully carried out by his minions.  Of course, the plague turned out to be (p. 121) transmitted via the rats, whose numbers grew exponentially after the sudden, state-sponsored demise of their only predators.)

Why would the authorities go to such lengths to destroy the Thames?  All the members of these various commissions were fully aware that the waste being flushed into the river was having disastrous effects on the quality of the water.  And they were equally aware that a significant percentage of the population was drinking the water.  Even without a waterborne theory of cholera’s origin, it seems like madness to celebrate the ever-increasing tonnage of human excrement being flushed into the water supply.  And, indeed, it was a kind of madness, the madness that comes from being under the spell of a Theory.  If all smell was disease, if London’s health crisis was entirely attributable to contaminated air, then any effort to rid the houses and streets of miasmatic vapors was worth the cost, even if it meant turning the Thames into a river of sewage.



Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.


Why is Al Gore Afraid of Bjorn Lomborg’s Questions?

GoreAlCartoon.gif   Al Gore.  Source of the image:  online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below. 


(p. A16) The interview had been scheduled for months. Mr. Gore’s agent yesterday thought Gore-meets-Lomborg would be great. Yet an hour later, he came back to tell us that Bjorn Lomborg should be excluded from the interview because he’s been very critical of Mr. Gore’s message about global warming and has questioned Mr. Gore’s evenhandedness. According to the agent, Mr. Gore only wanted to have questions about his book and documentary, and only asked by a reporter. These conditions were immediately accepted by Jyllands-Posten. Yet an hour later we received an email from the agent saying that the interview was now cancelled. What happened?

. . .

Clearly we need to ask hard questions. Is Mr. Gore’s world a worthwhile sacrifice? But it seems that critical questions are out of the question. It would have been great to ask him why he only talks about a sea-level rise of 20 feet. In his movie he shows scary sequences of 20-feet flooding Florida, San Francisco, New York, Holland, Calcutta, Beijing and Shanghai. But were realistic levels not dramatic enough? The U.N. climate panel expects only a foot of sea-level rise over this century. Moreover, sea levels actually climbed that much over the past 150 years. Does Mr. Gore find it balanced to exaggerate the best scientific knowledge available by a factor of 20?

Mr. Gore says that global warming will increase malaria and highlights Nairobi as his key case. According to him, Nairobi was founded right where it was too cold for malaria to occur. However, with global warming advancing, he tells us that malaria is now appearing in the city. Yet this is quite contrary to the World Health Organization’s finding. Today Nairobi is considered free of malaria, but in the 1920s and ’30s, when temperatures were lower than today, malaria epidemics occurred regularly. Mr. Gore’s is a convenient story, but isn’t it against the facts?

. . .

Al Gore is on a mission. If he has his way, we could end up choosing a future, based on dubious claims, that could cost us, according to a U.N. estimate, $553 trillion over this century. Getting answers to hard questions is not an unreasonable expectation before we take his project seriously. It is crucial that we make the right decisions posed by the challenge of global warming. These are best achieved through open debate, and we invite him to take the time to answer our questions: We are ready to interview you any time, Mr. Gore — and anywhere.


For the full commentary, see:

FLEMMING ROSE and BJORN LOMBORG  "Will Al Gore Melt?"  The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., January 18, 2007):  A16. 

(Note:  ellipses added.) 


Aaron Brown Asks UNL Tough Questions on Students’ Right to Defend Themselves


  Source of image is screen capture from KETV web page:  http://www.ketv.com/news/13120432/detail.html


Aaron Brown was an excellent student in my micro-principles course several years ago, and now he is a law student at UNL.  You may also remember him as a frequent contributor of comments to entries on this blog.

He’s gotten some attention today (4/26/07) by speaking out for the right of college students to defend themselves by bearing arms.

For the KETV (Omaha ABC channel 7) story, see:  http://www.ketv.com/news/13120432/detail.html

For the KOLN (Omaha Fox channel 10) story, see:  http://www.kolnkgin.com/news/headlines/7209236.html


Concrete Used in Pyramids

T.W. Schultz used to emphasize that the level of technology in an economy depended more on the incentives and institutions for adoption and diffusion, and less on the invention of the technology, which he thought was a shorter hurdle than usually thought.  The Antikythera Mechanism is one historical technology that dramatically supports Schultz’s view.  If it survives scrutiny, the following article would provide an additional example supporting Schultz. 

(p. A18) Reporting the results of his study, Michel W. Barsoum, a professor of materials engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, concluded that the use of limestone concrete could explain in part how the Egyptians were able to complete such massive monuments, beginning around 2550 B.C. They used concrete blocks, he said, on the outer and inner casings and probably on the upper levels, where it would have been difficult to hoist carved stone.

”The sophistication and endurance of this ancient concrete technology is simply astounding,” Dr. Barsoum wrote in a report in the December issue of The Journal of the American Ceramic Society.

Dr. Barsoum and his co-workers, Adrish Ganguly of Drexel and Gilles Hug of the National Center for Scientific Research in France, analyzed the mineralogy of samples from several parts of the Khufu pyramid, and said they found mineral ratios that did not exist in any known limestone sources. From the geochemical mix of lime, sand and clay, they concluded, ”the simplest explanation” is that it was cast concrete.

For the full story, see: 

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD.  "Study Says That Egypt’s Pyramids May Include Early Use of Concrete."  The New York Times  (Fri., December 1, 2006):  A18.

Self-Proclaimed Advocate for Poor, Gets Two $400 Haircuts: Looking Good in Council Bluffs


EdwardsHair.jpg   "John Edwards appearing at a public forum in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on March 9, two days after one of his $400 haircuts."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below. 


John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat, announced on Thursday that he was reimbursing his campaign $800 to cover what his aides said was the cost of two haircuts — yes, you read that correctly — by a Beverly Hills barber, though, perhaps, the word stylist is more applicable.

. . .  

Mr. Edwards has presented himself in the Democratic field as an advocate of working-class Americans, lamenting the nation’s growing economic disparity.

Mr. Edwards was disparaged as “the Breck Girl” by Republicans when he ran for president in 2004. More recently, he was captured on camera, waiting for an interview to begin and presumably unaware that he was being taped, fussing with his hair for nearly two minutes.

That clip found its way to You Tube, with the song “I Feel Pretty” playing in the background. Posted on Nov. 8, 2006, it was viewed 289,288 times as of Thursday evening.


For the full story, see: 

ADAM NAGOURNEY.  "In the Beverly Hills Style: Candidate’s $400 Coiffure."  The New York Times (Fri., April 20, 2007):  A19.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


As of 4/21/07, the "John Edwards Feeling Pretty" video clip, can be found on YouTube at:



The Case Against Gun Control


   Venus Ramey shows how she balanced her pistol on her walker to shoot out the tires of an intruder on her farm.  Source of photo:  screen capture from CNN clip "Granny’s Packing Heat" as viewed on 4/23/07.


In the wake of the Virginia Tech killings, there have been some renewed calls for more gun control (see the WSJ and NYT articles cited way below).  But we should not forget that a gun can also be a leveler; it gives the ordinary citizen a fighting chance against the thief and the murderer.

There was a great scene in the first Indiana Jones movie (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984) where Indy is being chased by a huge bad guy armed with swords.  The crowd clears, and the the huge man confidently and ominously twirls his swords.  Indy looks at him quizzically for a couple of seconds, pulls out a pistol, and shoots him. 

When I first saw that scene, the theater erupted in laughter and applause.

Laughter and applause are also appropriate responses to the story of 82 year old, former Miss America, Venus Ramey: 


Miss America 1944 has a talent that likely has never appeared on a beauty pageant stage: She fired a handgun to shoot out a vehicle’s tires and stop an intruder. Venus Ramey, 82, confronted a man on her farm in south-central Kentucky last week after she saw her dog run into a storage building where thieves had previously made off with old farm equipment.

Ramey said the man told her he would leave. "I said, ‘Oh, no you won’t,’ and I shot their tires so they couldn’t leave," Ramey said.

She had to balance on her walker as she pulled out a snub-nosed .38-caliber handgun.

"I didn’t even think twice. I just went and did it," she said. "If they’d even dared come close to me, they’d be 6 feet under by now."


For the full story, see: 

Associated Press.   "Armed Miss America 1944 Stops Intruder."  Forbes.com Posted 04.21.07, 5:00 AM ET Downloaded on 4/23/07 from http://www.forbes.com/feeds/ap/2007/04/21/ap3637737.html


CNN has a great clip on this story, under the heading "Granny’s Packing Heat."


The WSJ article mentioned above, is:

VANESSA O’CONNELL, GARY FIELDS and DEAN TREFTZ.  "Next Debate: Should Colleges Ban Firearms? The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., April 18, 2007):  B1 & B10. 


The NYT article mentioned above, is:

LESLIE EATON and MICHAEL LUO.  "Shooting Rekindles Issues of Gun Rights and Restrictions." The New York Times (Weds., April 18, 2007):  A19.


“Solitude Serves as a Refreshing Balm”

The WSJ summarizes an April 2007 Psychology Today article.  The study that is discussed sounds relevant to the one-sided push for more collaboration and team production in business, and co-authorship in academics.  The benefits of collaboration should not blind us to the costs.


Amanda Guyer, a psychologist at the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., has found that individuals who withdraw from other people’s company are more sensitive than extroverts to a wide range of positive emotional cues. Situations rife with emotional triggers, such as parties, can be wearying for such people, while solitude serves as a refreshing balm.


For the full story, see:

"Informed Reader; PSYCHOLOGY; Loners May Not Fear Others, They Just Need Some Solitude."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., March 1, 2007):  B7.


Castro’s Legacy of “Death, Tears and Blood”

Like thousands of other Cubans, I was arrested in the middle of the night. Fidel Castro’s police raided my parents’ home, stuck a machine gun in my face and took me away. It was 1960 and I was 22 years old.

The news that the Cuban dictator is gravely ill floods my mind with memories of my years spent in captivity. I believe that those of us who were political prisoners know his legacy better than anyone. For 22 years, I was an inmate in his vast prison system, mostly confined to an island gulag, for crimes I did not commit.

. . .

The legacy of Castro for Cuba will be much like that of Stalin in Russia, Pol Pot and Ieng Sari in Cambodia and Hitler in Germany. It will be the memories of the unknown numbers of victims, of concentration camps, torture, murder, exile, families torn apart, death, tears and blood. Castro will go down in history as one of the cruelest of all dictators — a man who tormented his own people.

But his poisonous legacy will also include the double standard by foreign governments, intellectuals and journalists who fought ferociously against the unspeakable violations of human rights by right-wing dictatorships, yet applauded Castro. To this day many of these intellectuals serve as apologists and accomplices in the subjugation of the Cuban people. Rafael Correa, the recently inaugurated president of Ecuador, has declared that in Cuba there is no dictatorship. Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, considers Castro his mentor and has already shown that he is willing to silence his own critics at the point of a gun. Venezuela, once a democracy, is the new Cuba, replete with a growing population of political prisoners.


For the full commentary, see: 

ARMANDO VALLADARES.  "Castro’s Gulag." The Wall Street Journal  (Mon., March 5, 2007):  A16.


Obama Should Support School Vouchers Experiment


There’s something about our nation’s capital that converts many leading Democrats to school choice. Perhaps it’s the glimpse that Washington, D.C. affords into inner-city public schools.

But in most cases this appreciation of school choice extends only to their own children — and not to the millions of children in failing public schools. Indeed, a nearly perfect correlation exists among Democratic presidential candidates who have exercised school choice for their own children and those who would deny such choices to the parents of other children.

. . .

The mystery man is Sen. Barack Obama, who sends his child to a private school in Chicago yet once referred to school vouchers as "social Darwinism." Still, he says that on education reform, "I think a good place to start would be for both Democrats and Republicans to say . . . we are willing to experiment and invest in anything that works."

Well, school choice works. Every study that compares children who applied for school choice scholarships and received them with those who applied but did not shows improved academic performance. More important, every study that has examined the effect of school choice competition has found significantly improved performance by public schools.

Given their track records it is doubtful how many candidates will agree with Sen. Obama’s professed openness to experiment. But as he might say, we can always have the audacity to hope.


For the full commentary, see:

CLINT BOLICK.  "Selective School Choice."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., March 2, 2007):  A11.

(Note:  ellipsis between paragraphs was added; ellipsis within Obama quote was in the original.)