To the Ultimate Luddites: “Build Coffins, That’s All You’ll Need”

   Charlton Heston as Robert Neville, the last scientist on earth.  Source of photo:


In the 1970s, one of my favorite films was "The Omega Man" (1971) starring Charlton Heston as the doctor/scientist who was the last healthy man on earth.  A plague had killed most of humanity, leaving a few in a demented "tertiary" condition.  Heston as "Robert Neville" had developed a vaccine, but only had been able to test it on himself, as the world collapsed.  

Those in the "tertiary" state had been organized by a former broadcast commentator named "Matthias" into the "family" whose goal it was to burn books, and destroy all remnants of science and technology. 

At one point near the end, the family captures Neville, and as the family destroys Neville’s paintings, and laboratory, Matthias rants that Neville is the last scientist, the last remnant of the old world, and that all will be well when they have destroyed him.  Then comes one of my favorite exchanges.


Matthias: Now we must build.

Robert Neville: Build coffins, that’s all you’ll need.


When I saw the movie again today (3/16/07) for the first time in decades, I was worried that I had built it up in my memory, and that the reality would be way disappointing. 

I was relieved to see that the movie, though not perfect, was still plenty good enough.


Pushing the Flywheel of Business (and Life)


FlywheelGiant.gif   A flywheel lathe from the mid-1700s.  Source of image:


In Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, I really liked his flywheel analogy, that makes the point that in business (and life), success often is mainly due to the day-in-day-out exertion of effort and care.  The version below is from a Collins article, based on his book.


Now picture a huge, heavy flywheel. It’s a massive, metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle. It’s about 100 feet in diameter, 10 feet thick, and it weighs about 25 tons. That flywheel is your company. Your job is to get that flywheel to move as fast as possible, because momentum — mass times velocity — is what will generate superior economic results over time.

Right now, the flywheel is at a standstill. To get it moving, you make a tremendous effort. You push with all your might, you make a tremendous effort…and finally you get the flywheel to inch forward. After two or three days of sustained effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster. It takes a lot of work, but at last the flywheel makes a second rotation. You keep pushing steadily. It makes three turns, four, five, six turns. With each turn it moves faster, and then – at some point, you can’t say exactly when – you break through. The momentum of the heavy wheel kicks in your favor. It spins faster and faster, with its own weight propelling it. You aren’t pushing any harder, but the flywheel is accelerating, its momentum building, its speed increasing.



Jim Collins.  "Good to Great."  Fast Company 51 (September 2001):  90.


Under Capitalism, the “Innately Conscientious” Usually Earn More


In the excerpt below, the WSJ summarizes an article that appeared in Forbes on March 12, 2007.  The summarized study implies that those who are innately conscientious end up being rewarded with higher income.  I hope it is true.  My guess is that the world comes closer to working that way under capitalist institutions, than under other economic systems.  (Note that this study was done by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, which implies that we’re talking about what happens in the United States.)


The insight originates in 1979, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics paid 12,700 young people $50 to take a range of tests, one of which required a simple code to be deciphered. The BLS has since surveyed the test takers regularly. Going through the data, Carmit Segal, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Business School, found a strong relationship between someone’s score in the coding test and his or her income over 20 years later, even taking into account differences in IQ.

Ms. Segal argues those who did well on the test were driven entirely by an innate conscientiousness, because candidates had nothing to gain from doing well on it.


For the full story, see: 

"The Informed Reader; Workplace; Job Test That Predicts Effort Gets Help From Professors."  The Wall Street Journal  (Mon., February 26, 2007):  B6.

(Note:  the online version has a different subtitle:  "A Tricky Test Could Reveal Job Applicants’ Work Ethic")


“We In Las Vegas Reinvent Ourselves All the Time”


   Dust from the implosion of the Stardust.  Source of the photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


If any city in the United States has dynamism, it is Las Vegas.  Yet, note in the passage below, that even in Las Vegas there are those who want dynamism to die.  


Las Vegas has become known in recent decades for tearing down the notable resorts that first put the Strip on the map, and famous places like the Dunes, the Hacienda and the Sands have been replaced by the Bellagio, the Mandalay Bay and the Venetian.

“The Stardust was the Bellagio of its day, the most dazzling casino out there,” said Nicholas Pileggi, who spent four years researching the exploits of Frank Rosenthal, the mobster who ran the Stardust, for his best-selling nonfiction book “Casino” and the fictionalized screenplay for the Robert DeNiro film of the same name. “But time moves on.” 

The oldest casino structure on the Strip now is a part of a coffee shop at the Sahara and dates back just 55 years.

“Unlike most other cities, we in Las Vegas reinvent ourselves all the time,” Mr. Boyd said. “In order to keep up with the competition, you have to keep improving your product. That’s what we’re going to do here at the Stardust. But we still have great memories.”

Some are not so accepting of the changes in the city. Joel Rosales, 23, owns the Web site, which pays tribute to each property that is razed.

The loss of the Stardust, Mr. Rosales said, is particularly disappointing.

“Having been born and raised here in Vegas, it’s always been a rock,” he said of the resort. “I wouldn’t say I’m as upset as I am disappointed that we as a city have no sense of preserving our past and heritage, no matter how tacky or out-of-date it may be.”


For the full story, see: 

STEVE FRIESS.  "Aging Resort Demolished to Make Way for a Young One."  The New York Times  (Weds., March 14, 2007):   A14.


    Celebration of, and then demolition of, the Stardust.  Source of the photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above.


George Stigler on Astrology


I remember George Stigler saying (I think in conversation with me, but maybe as an aside in a lecture), that at first he had been inclined to reject a paper for the JPE that empirically tested astrology.  His reason was that, while he liked what the authors were doing, he was not sure that what they were doing, most appropriately belonged in an economics journal.

But when the authors convinced him that they would not be able to publish it anywhere else, he changed his mind and published it.

The episode tells us something about Stigler, and something about scientific method.  About Stigler, the episode provides strong evidence of the importance that Stigler placed on evidence, relative to theory.

On scientific method, the episode can be taken as an illustration of Karl Popper’s distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification.  There are many sources of hypotheses (the context of discovery).  Famously, Kepler’s inspiration for the elliptical paths of planets, had a somewhat mystical source in the "perfect" solids.  But what makes a theory "scientific" is not its context of discovery, but its context of justification, viz., is the theory subjected to empirical test?

Hypotheses are not ruled out of science ab initio, but by being inconsistent with the evidence.  I agree with this view, which explains why I am a (passive) member of the Society for Scientific Exploration, which is devoted to the empirical testing of politically incorrect theories (such as UFOs, the Shroud of Turin, ESP, the Loch Ness Monster, etc.)


The JPE astrology article, accepted by Stigler as editor, was: 

Bennett, James T., and James R. Barth. "Astronomics: A New Approach to Economics?" Journal of Political Economy 81, no. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1973): 1473-75.


A more recent empirical test of an astrological hypothesis is:

Wong, Ka-Fu, and Linda Yung. "Do Dragons Have Better Fate?" Economic Inquiry 43, no. 3 (July 2005): 689-97.


For more on Popper’s views of science, consult:

Popper, Karl R. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic Books, 1959.


Venturing Into the Mean Streets to Get the Job Done


(p. 108)  It is worth pausing for a second to reflect on Snow’s willingness to pursue his investigation this far.  Here we have a man who had reached the very pinnacle of Victorian medical practice—attending on the queen of England with a procedure that he himself had pioneered—who was nonetheless willing to spend every spare moment away from his practice knocking on hundreds of doors in some of London’s most dangerous neighborhoods, seeking out specifically those houses that had been attacked by the most dread disease of the age.  But without that tenacity, without that fearlessness, without that readiness to leave behind the safety of professional success and royal patronage, and venture into the streets, his "grand experiment"—as Snow came to call it—would have gone nowhere.   The miasma theory would have remained unchallenged,



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.


Reuniting the Victims of Communism

RussianSiblingsReunited.jpg   "Sergei and Pyotr Leontiev are reunited on the Russian TV show, ‘Zhdi Menya.’"  Source of the caption and photo:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.


(p. A1)  MOSCOW — In a television studio here, two old brothers hug and weep — reunited on prime time 60 years after Stalin’s terror tore them apart.

They are stars on "Zhdi Menya," or "Wait for Me," one of the most popular TV shows in Russia. With its mission to reunite loved ones, the program probes Russia’s 20th-century history and the scars it left on the lives of ordinary people. It has become a must-watch for Russians still trying to make sense of their tortured past.

The brothers in this episode, Sergei and Pyotr Leontiev, were separated in 1941 when their mother was sent to a prison camp 1,800 miles east of Moscow. She took with her Sergei, then 2 months old, but left behind seven other children whom she never saw again. Meanwhile, Pyotr and his sisters left home, taking jobs at factories in nearby towns.

Since its launch in 1998, "Zhdi Menya" has brought together 30,000 people sundered by Stalin’s purges, war and the collapse of the Soviet Union. That’s earned it a unique, and cherished, place in popular culture.

"We reconstruct the real history of this country," says Igor Kvasha, the program’s host. "Not the garbled version in the text books."

Yet the program is ostensibly unpolitical. A tear-jerking cross between Jerry Springer and the History Channel, it recounts the crimes of communism without apportioning blame. That makes it palatable to Russia’s leaders, for whom Soviet-era might is still a political touchstone.

. . .

(p. A12)   This focus on the victims of the communist regime contrasts with most mainstream media, which these days tend to humanize Soviet-era leaders and gloss over their crimes. A TV drama, "Stalin.Live," has been panned by critics for portraying Stalin as a sympathetic old man.

"There’s a lot of pseudo-historical stuff on TV these days," says Irina Petrovskaya, a television critic. "’Zhdi Menya’ is different because it’s totally authentic. That’s why it’s so popular."

Pyotr Leontiev wrote to the program in 2001 in search of his brother. He had spent years trying to trace him through official channels, but was rebuffed at every turn.

The Leontiev family had been devastated by war and terror. Their father, drafted in 1941, was declared missing in action in 1943. Their mother was arrested on charges of "speculation" — neighbors informed on her for selling a few pounds of tobacco and she was packed off to the Gulag with Sergei, her youngest son, still a babe in arms. His siblings had only his cradle to remember him by.

Researchers at "Zhdi Menya" contacted police in Karaganda, Kazakhstan — the site of the mother’s prison camp — and after trawling archives they found a Sergei Leontiev whose records matched Pyotr’s description. Within weeks they had tracked down Sergei, a retired carpenter. After a childhood in orphanages in Karaganda, he’d spent most of his life, impoverished, in workers’ barracks.

In the studio, Pyotr told his story: "The tragedy that befell our family wasn’t unique." He described how his mother was wrenched from her children, how their last sight of her and baby Sergei was on a prison train bound for the steppes. "We never heard from them again." The children, raised by a 19-year-old sister, were lucky: Children of "enemies of the people" were often separated, their names changed, and sent to orphanages thousands of miles apart.

To the strains of Mozart’s Requiem, Mr. Kvasha spoke to the audience: "It’s hard to imagine how many stories there are like this. They didn’t just take away people’s husbands, wives and parents. They deliberately destroyed archives, concealed people’s names. They took away their memory."

In a heart-rending moment, he led Pyotr Leontiev to his brother, who was sitting weeping in the audience. The two embraced.

Pyotr had mixed feelings about the encounter. The joy of seeing Sergei was clouded by the revelation that his mother had been worked to death in 1943. "It was very hard, a very sad day," says Pyotr.

The two men broke down and looked deeply into each other’s eyes. "We survived," Pyotr said to his brother. "We survived."


For the full story, see: 

GUY CHAZAN  "Family Viewing: TV Show Reunites Russian Siblings; Sundered by Stalin, Long-Lost Brothers Embrace on Prime Time."  The Wall Street Journal  (By  March 9, 2007):  A1 & A12.


 KvashaIgor.gif   The actor who hosts "Zhdi Menya" ("Wait for Me").  Source of image:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.


Futures Markets Would Reduce Chinese Volatility


ChinaFinancialMarket.gif   Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.


Market participants consider futures the next big thing for China’s financial-sector development. The exchange currently trades contracts in copper, aluminum, natural rubber and fuel oil — commodities that China imports in large quantities.

But trading is largely closed to foreigners. Futures on financial products, such as stock indexes and currencies, don’t yet exist in China, though they are integral to other market economies.

Reviving Case for Futures

China banned exchange-traded financial derivatives in 1995 in response to a meltdown in its bond-futures market. Within minutes, $10 billion in market value was wiped out, in what remains the country’s most damaging market debacle to date. By contrast, last week’s drop in stocks has revived the case for financial futures.

Officials now say share prices probably wouldn’t have fallen so abruptly on Feb. 27 if index futures existed. That’s because shares probably wouldn’t have surged as quickly as they did last year — the Shanghai Composite Index rose 130% — if investors had had the chance to use stock-index futures to bet against the market on its way up.

Futures contracts are thought to build more of a two-way market, because they give investors the right to buy — and sell — based on expectations about how the value of an index, stock, currency or commodity might move within a particular time frame. Without them, the only way for investors to make money is in a rising market, a risky prospect over the long term.


For the full story, see:

JAMES T. AREDDY.  "Futures Could Help Cure China’s Boom-Bust Cycles."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., March 8, 2007):  A2.

(Note:  the online version had a slightly different title:  "China Tries Longer-Term Response to Stock Volatility.")


Somaliland Works, Without Foreign Aid or Recognition: More on Why Much of Africa is Poor


   In Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland, there is sufficient public safety (in contrast to southern Somalia) for a money exchange to operate with large amounts of money on display.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


HARGEYSA, Somalia, March 1 — When the sun rises over the craggy hills of Hargeysa, it sheds light on a different kind of Somalia.

Ice cream trucks selling bona fide soft serve hit the streets. Money changers, unarmed and unguarded, push cash through the market in wheelbarrows. Politicians from three distinct parties get ready for another day of debate, which recently included an animated discussion on registering nomadic voters.

It’s all part of a Somali puzzle: how one area of the country, the northwest, also known as Somaliland, can seem so peaceful and functional — so normal, in fact — while the rest continues to be such a violent, chaotic mess.

This tale of two Somalias is especially striking now, as thousands of African Union peacekeepers prepare to rescue Mogadishu, the nation’s bloodstained capital, from itself. The internationally backed transitional government that seized Mogadishu in late December with Ethiopia’s help says it cannot survive without foreign aid and foreign peacekeepers to quell clan fighting and an escalating insurgency.

Somalilanders, who have wrestled with their own clan conflicts, find this ridiculous.

“You can’t be donated power,” said Dahir Rayale Kahin, the president of the Republic of Somaliland, which has long declared itself independent from the rest of Somalia. “We built this state because we saw the problems here as our problems. Our brothers in the south are still waiting — till now — for others.”

But Somalilanders are waiting, too: waiting to be recognized. In 1991, as Somalia’s government disintegrated and clan fighting in the south spun out of control, Somaliland, traditionally one of the poorest parts of Somalia, claimed its independence. But no country acknowledges it as a separate state and very few even contribute aid — which makes Somaliland’s success all the more intriguing.

. . .

“It all goes back to the Brits,” according to Hajji Abdi Waraabe, an 89-year-old member of Somaliland’s upper house of Parliament.

When the colonial powers sliced up the Horn of Africa in the 19th century, the British got Somaliland and the Italians got Somalia. While the British relied mostly on clan chiefs to govern, the Italians created an entire Italian-speaking administration and imported thousands of people from Italy to farm bananas, build cathedrals and teach the people how to pour espresso.

One result was that Mogadishu, along the southern coast, became a major commercial hub and one of the most beautiful cities in Africa, but its traditional systems of authority were weakened. That is partly why, many Somalia analysts say, warlords were able to outmuscle clan elders and dominate Mogadishu in the vacuum that formed after the central government fell.

The British, on the other hand, never invested much in Somaliland, leaving it poor and dusty but with its traditions more or less intact.  . . .

. . .

But the one issue that unites most Somalilanders is recognition. Somaliland has its own money, its own flag, its own national anthem and even its own passport.

“And we have peace, a peace owned by the community,” said Zamzam Adan, a women’s rights activist. “You’d think in this part of the world, that would count for something.”


For the full story, see:

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN.  "The Other Somalia: An Island of Stability in a Sea of Armed Chaos."  The New York Times  (Weds., March 7, 2007):  A11. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)


SOMALILANDmap.jpg  Top photo shows women selling jewelry.  Middle photo shows a traffic cop performing a defensible function of government.  At bottom, the map shows Somaliland relative to the rest of Somalia.  Source of photos and map:  online version of the NYT article cited above.