Most Scientists’ Lives Are “Like Those of Anxious Middle Managers”

(p. 64) The truth is that scientists come in all types, just like everyone else. They are people, not pop paradigms. They worry about how they are going to pay their bills, and they get envious of the researchers who got the credit they should have gotten. They compete for grants and complain when those grants are awarded to someone else. They focus on prestige and work for advancement and usually do what their bosses (or, less directly, granting agencies) say. Most scientists, as the great British molecular biologist J. D. Bernal noted back in the 1930s, live lives more like those of anxious middle managers than great visionaries.

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

Governments Still Give Sugar’s Fanjuls a Sweet Deal

FanjulSugarOperations.jpg “As Florida buys U.S. Sugar, company land could go on the block. The Fanjul family, with sugar operations like this one in Palm Beach County, is waiting.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

Many years ago, CBS’s “Sixty Minutes” program ran a wonderful Steve Kroft piece (called, I think, “A Sweet Deal”) exposing how protectionist federal government sugar import quotas, benefit the extraordinarily wealthy and powerful Fanjul family, at the expense of ordinary consumers.
Nothing has changed:

(p. 1) IN June, Gov. Charlie Crist announced that Florida would buy one of the state’s two big sugar enterprises, the United States Sugar Corporation. He billed the purchase as a “jump-start” in the environmental restoration of the Everglades, which cane growers are accused of polluting with fertilizer runoff.

But in the end, the $1.7 billion buyout, scheduled to be completed in early 2009, may also prove to be a financial boon to the state’s remaining sugar superpower, Florida Crystals.
One of the country’s wealthiest families, the Fanjuls of Palm Beach, controls Florida Crystals and today touches virtually every aspect of the sugar trade in the United States.
. . .
“This is going to be a really good deal for the Fanjuls,” says Dexter Lehtinen, a former federal prosecutor whose 1988 lawsuit against the state led to a settlement instituting tough clean water standards. “The state embarked on a nonachievable goal, and now in desperation to wrap up some package, they’re going to have to give access to Florida Crystals on favorable terms.”
Others, like makers of candy and cereal, say the (p. 9) Fanjuls already control too much of the sugar trade. They want to buy sugar cheap and say the Fanjuls have long charmed Congress into legislating price supports that keep it expensive.
Free-trade advocates also complain, saying that a private business has used the shelter of the federal sugar program, created in the Depression to nurture struggling farmers, to increase its corporate hammerlock.
“These people have been absolutely extorting consumers for decades, and the only reason they’re existing in the first place is, they were able to get sweet deals from governments that were propping them up,” says Sallie James, a trade policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, referring to Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar.

For the full story, see:
MARY WILLIAMS WALSH. “Florida Deal for Everglades May Help Big Sugar.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., September 14, 2008): 1 & 9.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

FanjulsPepeJrPepeAndAlfonsoJr.jpg “Three leaders of the Fanjul family: Pepe Jr., left; J. Pepe, center; and Alfonso Jr., called Alfy. After Fidel Castro chased the family from Cuba, it rebuilt its sugar empire in the United States.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

FanjulWaterSugarGraphic.jpg Source of graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

Resilience is Key to Surviving Disasters (and to Successful Entrepreneurship)

I believe that resilience is a key characteristic of successful entrepreneurs. Amanda Ripley has some plausible and useful comments on resilience in the passages quoted below.

(p. 91) Resilience is a precious skill. People who have it tend to also have three underlying advantages: a belief that they can influence life events; a tendency to find meaningful purpose in life’s turmoil; and a conviction that they can learn from both positive and negative experiences. These beliefs act as a sort of buffer, cushioning the blow of any given disaster. Dangers seem more manageable to these people, and they perform better as a result.    . . .

. . .    A healthy, proactive worldview should logically lead to resilience. But it’s the kind of unsatisfying answer that begs another question. If this worldview leads to resilience, well what leads to the worldview?

(p. 92) The answer is not what we might expect. Resilient people aren’t necessarily yoga-practicing Buddhists. One thing that they have in abundance is confidence. As we saw in the chapter on fear, confidence—that comes from realistic rehearsal or even laughter—soothes the more disruptive effects of extreme fear. A few recent studies have found that people who are unrealistically confident tend to fare spectacularly well in disasters. Psychologists call these people “self-enhancers,” but you and I would probably call them arrogant. These are people who think more highly of themselves than other people think of them. They tend to come off as annoying and self-absorbed. In a way, they might be better adapted to crises than they are to real life.

Ripley, Amanda. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.
(Note: ellipses added.)

James Burke (and Art Diamond) on the Importance of Serendipity


Source of book image:

Like other James Burke books, The Pinball Effect is a good source of interesting and thought-provoking stories and examples, usually related to science and technology. One of his themes in the book is the importance of serendipity in making unanticipated connections.

My (and not Burkes’) musings on serendipity:

Serendipity might be an example of Hayek’s local knowledge, that the free market encourages the entrepreneur to take advantage of. Serendipity is an occurrence of one person in a particular time and place, with a mind prepared to be alert for it. As such it could not be planned by a central authority, and would usually be vetoed by a committee decision process. To maximally benefit from serendipity, we need a system that allows the motivated individual to pursue their discoveries.

Burke’s musings on serendipity:

(p. 3) In every case, the journeys presented here follow unexpected paths, because that’s how life happens. We strike out on a course only to find it altered by the action of another person, somewhere else in time and space. As a result, the world in which we live today is the end-product of millions of these kinds of serendipitous interactions, happening over thousands of years.

Burke, James. The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible – and Other Journeys. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997.

Why You Want Your Surgeon to Be a Disciple of Lister

The sources of new ideas are diverse. Sometimes, as below, even a newspaper article can provide inspiration.
The passage below also provides another example of the project oriented entrepreneur, who is motivated by a mission to get the job done.

(p. 60) In Lister’s early years, the mid-1800s, half of all amputation patients died from hospital fever; in some hospitals the rate was as high as 80 percent. Lister, like all surgeons, had little idea of how to improve the situation. Then he chanced on a newspaper article that caught his interest. It described how the residents of a local town, tired of the smell of their sewage, had begun treating it by pouring into their system something called German Creosote, a by-product of coal tar. Something in the creosote stopped the smell. Lister had heard about the work of Pasteur, and he made the same mental connection the French chemist had: The stink of sewage came from putrefaction, rotting organic matter; the stink of infected wounds also came from putrefaction; whatever stopped the putrefaction of sewage might also stop the putrefaction of infected wounds. So Lister decided to try coal-tar chemicals on his patients. And he found one that worked exceptionally well: carbolic acid, a solution of what today is called phenol.   . . .
. . .
(p. 61) Lister’s insistence on stopping the transfer of bacteria in the operating room became absolute. Once when a visiting knighted physician from King’s College idly poked a forefinger into a patient’s incision during one of Lister’s operations, Lister flung him bodily from the room.

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Rosenberg Spying Shows “United States Had (and Has) Real Enemies”


“DOOMED. In 1952, sympathizers gathered near the prison where the convicted spies awaited execution.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 6) You could choose to ignore, or somehow explain away, the Hitler-Stalin pact, or be wedded to the original Port Huron Statement instead of the “compromised second draft,” but if you seriously considered yourself fiercely loyal to the far left, you believed that the Rosenbergs were not guilty of espionage. At least you said you did.

For more than 50 years, defending Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was an article of faith for most committed American leftists. That the couple was framed — by officials intent on stoking anti-Soviet fervor and embarrassed by counterespionage lapses that allowed Russian moles to infiltrate the government — was at the core of a worldview of Communism, the Korean War and the ensuing cold war, and an enduring cultural divide stoked by McCarthyism.
Now, that unshakeable faith has been rattled seismically. Not for the first time, of course; in the 1990s, secret Soviet cables released by Washington affirmed the spy ring’s existence. But this time, the bedrock under that worldview seemed to transmogrify into clay.
The rattler was Morton Sobell, 91, the case’s only living defendant. He admitted in an interview that he and Julius Rosenberg had indeed spied for the Soviet Union. His admission prompted the Rosenbergs’ sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol — self-described magnets for global anguish over their parents’ execution in 1953 — to publicly accept, for the first time, that their father committed espionage. Ronald Radosh, co-author of “The Rosenberg File,” a comprehensive account of the trial, declared that “a pillar of the left-wing culture of grievance has been finally shattered.”
“The Rosenbergs were Soviet spies,” he said in an op-ed article in The Los Angeles Times, and “it is time the ranks of the left acknowledge that the United States had (and has) real enemies and that finding and prosecuting them is not evidence of repression.”

For the full commentary, see:
SAM ROBERTS. “Ideas & Trends; A Spy Confesses, and Still Some Weep for the Rosenbergs.” The New York Times, Week in Review Section (Sun., September 21, 2008): 6.

Deaths in ‘Natural’ Disasters Caused by Absence of Economic Growth

We are often made to feel guilty for the suffering of other countries in “natural” disasters. But the deaths are more due to the lack of infrastructure, sound buildings and the like, which in turn are due to the countries’ lack of economic growth, which in turn is due to their rejection of the process of capitalist creative destruction.

(p. 90) The simple truth is that money matters more than anything else in most disasters. Which is another way of saying that where and how we live matters more than Mother Nature. Developed nations experience just as many natural disasters as undeveloped nations. The difference is in the death toll. Of all the people who dies from natural disasters on the planet from 1985 to 1999, 65 percent came from nations with incomes below $760 per capita, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The 1994 Northridge earthquake in California, for example, was similar in magnitude and depth to the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. But the Northridge earthquake killed only sixty-three people. The Pakistan earthquake killed about a hundred thousand.

People need roofs, roads, and health care before quibbles like personality and risk perception count for much. And the effect is geometric. If a large nation raises its GNP from $2,000 to $14,000 per person, it can expect to save 530 lives a a year in natural disasters, according to a study by Matthew Kahn at Tufts University. And for those who survive, money is a form of liquid resilience: it can bring treatment, stability, and recovery.

Ripley, Amanda. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.