The Glamour of Trains and Windmills Hides Their High Costs

(p. C12) When Robert J. Samuelson published a Newsweek column last month arguing that high-speed rail is “a perfect example of wasteful spending masquerading as a respectable social cause,” he cited cost figures and potential ridership to demonstrate that even the rosiest scenarios wouldn’t justify the investment. He made a good, rational case–only to have it completely undermined by the evocative photograph the magazine chose to accompany the article.

The picture showed a sleek train bursting through blurred lines of track and scenery, the embodiment of elegant, effortless speed. It was the kind of image that creates longing, the kind of image a bunch of numbers cannot refute. It was beautiful, manipulative and deeply glamorous.
. . .
The problems come, of course, in the things glamour omits, including all those annoyingly practical concerns the policy wonks insist on debating. Neither trains nor wind farms are as effortlessly liberating as their photos suggest. Neither really offers an escape from the world of compromises and constraints. The same is true, of course, of evening gowns, dream kitchens and tropical vacations. But at least the people who enjoy that sort of glamour pay their own way.

For the full commentary, see:

VIRGINIA POSTREL. “COMMERCE & CULTURE; The Allure of Techno-Glamour.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., NOVEMBER 20, 2010): C12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

Modern Lifestyles May Not Be Cause of Heart Disease

MummyCTscan2010-12-21.jpg“MODERN MEETS ANCIENT. CT scans of some Egyptian mummies, like the one being done on this priest, reveal signs of atherosclerosis.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D6) . . . a team of cardiologists used CT scanning on mummies in the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo to identify atherosclerosis — a buildup of cholesterol, inflammation and scar tissue in the walls of the arteries, a problem that can lead to heart attack and stroke.

The cardiologists were able to identify the disease in some mummies because atherosclerotic tissue often develops calcification, which is visible as bright spots on a CT image. The finding that some mummies had hardened arteries raises questions about the common wisdom that factors in modern life, including stress, high-fat diets, smoking and sedentary routines, play an essential role in the development of cardiovascular disease, the researchers said.
“It tells us that we have to look beyond lifestyles and diet for the cause and progression of this disease,” said Dr. Randall C. Thompson, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Mo., and part of the team of cardiovascular imaging specialists who traveled to Cairo last year. “To a certain extent, getting the disease is part of the human condition.”

For the full story, see:
NATASHA SINGER. “Artery Disease in Some Very Old Patients.” The New York Times (Tues., November 24, 2009): D6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 23, 2009.)

“A Nation’s Heroes Reveal Its Ideals”

(p. 133) Robert and John Hart were two Glasgow engineers and merchants who regarded James Watt with the sort of awe usually reserved for pop musicians, film stars, or star athletes. Or even more: They regarded him as “the greatest and most useful man who ever lived.” . . .
. . .
(p. 134) . . . the hero worship of the brothers Hart is more enlightening about the explosion of inventive activity that started in eighteenth-century Britain than their reminiscences. For virtually all of human history, statues had been built to honor kings, solders, and religious figures; the Harts lived in the first era that built them to honor builders and inventors. James Watt was an inventor inspired in every way possible, right down to the neurons in his Scottish skull; but he was also, and just as significantly, the inspiration for thousands of other inventors, during his lifetime and beyond. The inscription on the statue of Watt that stood in Westminster Abbey from 1825 until it was moved in 1960 reminded visitors that it was made “Not to perpetuate a name which must endure while the peaceful arts flourish, but to shew that mankind have learned to know those who best deserve their gratitude” (emphasis added).
A nation’s heroes reveal its ideals, and the Watt memorial carries an impressive weight of symbolism. However, it must be said that the statue, sculpted by Sir Francis Chantrey in marble, might bear that weight more appropriately if it had been made out of the trademark material of the Industrial Revolution: iron.

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.
(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

Environmentalist Antiglobalization “Vandals” Destroy Giorgio’s Corn

FidenatoGiorgioItalianFarmer2010-12-21.jpg “Last week, Giorgio Fidenato, who had planted genetically modified corn, stood amid stalks that had been trampled by antiglobalization activists.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A4) VIVARO, Italy — Giorgio Fidenato declared war on the Italian government and environmental groups in April with a news conference and a YouTube video, which showed him poking six genetically modified corn seeds into Italian soil.

In fact, said Mr. Fidenato, 49, an agronomist, he planted two fields of genetically modified corn. But since “corn looks like corn,” as he put it, it took his opponents weeks to find his crop.
The seeds, known as MON810, are modified so that the corn produces a chemical that kills the larvae of the corn borer, a devastating pest. Yet while European Union rules allow this particular seed to be planted, Italy requires farmers to get special permission for any genetically modified, or G.M., crop — and the Agriculture Ministry never said yes.
“We had no choice but to engage in civil disobedience — these seeds are legal in Europe,” said Mr. Fidenato, who has repeatedly applied for permission, adding that he drew more inspiration from Ron Paul than Gandhi.
. . .
After Mr. Fidenato’s provocation, investigators did genetic testing to identify the locations of the offending stalks in the sea of cornfields that surround this tiny town. Officials seized two suspect fields — about 12 acres — and declared the plantings illegal. Greenpeace activists surreptitiously snipped off the stalks’ tassels in the hope of preventing pollen from being disseminated.
On Aug. 9, 100 machete-wielding environmental activists from an antiglobalization group called Ya Basta descended on Vivaro and trampled the field before local police officers could intervene. They left behind placards with a skull and crossbones reading: “Danger — Contaminated — G.M.O.”
Giancarlo Galan, who became agriculture minister in April, called the protesters “vandals,” although he did not say he would allow genetically modified crops. But Luca Zaia, the previous agriculture minister and president of the nearby Veneto region, applauded the rampage, saying: “There is a need to show multinationals that they can’t introduce Frankenstein crops into our country without authorization.”
Over the past decade, genetically modified crops have been a major (p. A8) source of trade friction between Europe and the United States.
Both the United States Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Agency say that there is no scientific evidence that eating MON810 corn is dangerous.
. . .
. . . it is not clear that the battle of Vivaro will have a quick victor. Jail time or at least fines are expected for Mr. Fidenato (illegal planting) and Mr. Tornatore (trespassing and destroying private property).

For the full story, see:
ELISABETH ROSENTHAL. “In the Fields of Italy, a Conflict Over Corn.” The New York Times (Tues., August 24, 2010): A4 & A8.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 23, 2010.)

CornBorer2010-12-21.jpg“An ear of corn infested with corn borers. A modified variety is meant to counteract the pest.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

Government Mandates Insurers Pay for $4,300 Tests on Potential Donors Recruited by $60,000 a Week “Flirtatious Models”

(p. A16) BOSTON — On its face, it seemed reasonable enough: a bone marrow registry sending recruiters to malls, ballparks and other busy sites to enlist potential donors.

But the recruiters were actually flirtatious models in heels, short skirts and lab coats, law enforcement officials say, asking passers-by for DNA swabs without mentioning the price of the seemingly simple procedure. And the registry, Caitlin Raymond International, was paying up to $60,000 a week for the models while billing insurance companies up to $4,300 per test.
. . .
The registry is a nonprofit subsidiary of UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, . . .
. . .
James T. Boffetti, the state’s senior assistant attorney general, said the registry had hired models based on their photographs and had given them “explicit instructions” to wear heels and short skirts.
. . .
New Hampshire passed a law in 2006 requiring insurers to pay for tissue-typing tests for potential bone marrow donors.

For the full story, see:
ABBY GOODNOUGH. “Flirty Models Were Hired in Bid to Find Bone Marrow.” The New York Times (Fri., December 17, 2010): A16.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 16, 2010.)

Alex Was No Birdbrain: “Wanna Go Back”

AlexAndPepperberg2010-12-20.jpgAlex on left, Irene Pepperberg on right. Source of photo: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited below.

(p. 8) “Alex & Me,” Irene Pepperberg’s memoir of her 30-year scientific collaboration with an African gray parrot, was written for the legions of Alex’s fans, the (probably) millions whose lives he and she touched with their groundbreaking work on nonhuman communication.
. . .
Alex, . . . , is a delight — a one-pound, three-dimensional force of nature. Mischievous and cocky, he also gets bored and frustrated. (And who wouldn’t, when asked to repeat tasks 60 times to ensure statistical significance?) He shouts out correct answers when his colleagues (other birds) fail to produce them. If Pepperberg inadvertently greets another bird first in the morning, Alex sulks all day and refuses to cooperate. He demands food, toys, showers, a transfer to his gym.
This ornery reviewer tried to resist Alex’s charms on principle (the principle that says any author who keeps telling us how remarkable her subject is cannot possibly be right). But his achievements got the better of me. During one training session, Alex repeatedly asked for a nut, a request that Pepperberg refused (work comes first). Finally, Alex looked at her and said, slowly, “Want a nut. Nnn . . . uh . . . tuh.”
“I was stunned,” Pepperberg writes. “It was as if he were saying, ‘Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it out for you?’ ” Alex had leaped from phonemes to sound out a complete word — a major leap in cognitive processing. Perching near a harried accountant, Alex asks over and over if she wants a nut, wants corn, wants water. Frustrated by the noes, he asks, “Well, what do you want?” Mimicry? Maybe. Still, it made me laugh.
After performing major surgery on Alex, a doctor hands him, wrapped in a towel, to an overwrought Pepperberg. Alex “opened an eye, blinked, and said in a tremulous voice, ‘Wanna go back.’ ” It’s a phrase Alex routinely used to mean “I’m done with this, take me back to my cage.” The scene is both wrenching — Alex had been near death — and creepy, evoking the talking bundle in “Eraserhead.”
Pepperberg frames her story with Alex’s death: the sudden shock of it, and the emotional abyss into which she fell. Ever the scientist, she wonders why she felt so strongly. The answer she comes up with is both simple — her friend was dead — and complex. At long last, and buoyed by the outpouring of support from people around the world, she could express the emotions she’d kept in check for 30 years, the better to convince the scientific establishment that she was a serious researcher generating valid and groundbreaking data (some had called her claims about animal minds “vacuous”). When Alex died, that weight lifted.

For the full review, see:
ELIZABETH ROYTE. “The Caged Bird Speaks.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., November 9, 2008): 8.
(Note: first two ellipses added; last two in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 7, 2010.)

(p. A21) Even up through last week, Alex was working with Dr. Pepperberg on compound words and hard-to-pronounce words. As she put him into his cage for the night last Thursday, she recalled, Alex looked at her and said: “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

He was found dead in his cage the next morning, Dr. Pepperberg said.

For the full obituary, see:
BENEDICT CAREY. “Brainy Parrot Dies, Emotive to the End.” The New York Times (Tues., September 11, 2007): A23.

A reporter questions Oxford professor Alex Kacelnik:

I asked him why more researchers weren’t working with African grays, trying to replicate Pepperberg’s achievements with Alex. “The problem with these animals is that they are the opposite of fruit flies,” he said, meaning that parrots live a long time–often, fifty to sixty years in captivity. “Alex was still learning when he died, and he was thirty.” He later elaborated: “Irene’s work could not really have been planned ahead, as nobody knew what was possible. . . . Alex’s development as a unique animal accompanied Irene’s as a unique scientist. Hers is not a career trajectory one would advise to young scientists–it’s too risky.”

For the full story, see:
Margaret Talbot. “Birdbrain.” The New Yorker (May 12, 2008).
(Note: ellipsis in original.)

The book on Alex by Pepperberg, is:
Pepperberg, Irene M. Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.

“Inventors Fear Wrong Answers Less than Noninventors”

(p. 123) [A] . . . study . . . conducted in 1962, compared the results of psychometric tests given to inventors and noninventors (the former defined by behaviors such as application for or receipt of a patent) in similar professions, such as engineers, chemists, architects, psychologists, and science teachers. Some of the results (p. 124) were about what one might expect: inventors are significantly more thing-oriented than people-oriented, more detail-oriented than holistic. They are also likely to come from poorer families than noninventors in the same professions. . . .
. . . , the 1962 study also revealed that independent inventors scored far lower on general intelligence tests than did research scientists, architects, or even graduate students. There’s less to this than meets the eye: The intelligence test that was given to the subjects subtracted wrong answers from right answers, and though the inventors consistently got as many answers correct as did the research scientists, they answered far more questions, thereby incurring a ton of deductions. While the study was too small a sample to prove that inventors fear wrong answers less than noninventors, it suggested just that. In the words of the study’s authors, “The more inventive an independent inventor is, the more disposed he will be–and this indeed to a marked degree–to try anything that might work.”

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.
(Note: word in brackets and ellipses added.)

A Late Bronze Age “Cornucopian Example of Multiculturism”

BronzeAgeContainer2010-12-20.jpg“Influences from Egypt and Mediterranean Asia appear to merge in this container, from around 1390 to 1352 B.C.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

The cultural flowering (see above and below) brought about by Late Bronze Age Mediterranean trade, is highly compatible with arguments made in Tyler Cowen’s Creative Destruction, which argues that capitalism promotes the important kind of diversity that within cultures increases creativity and options for individual choice.
It would be interesting and useful to know more about the causes and effects of the dark age mentioned below–the one that started around 1200 BC. An earlier entry mentioned archeological evidence of a small family group near Katilimata on Crete who attempted to hunker down to defend themselves and their property from the invaders from the sea mentioned below.
Sometimes the Phoenicians are given credit for the trade, and Paul Johnson in his recent Heroes book (p. 4), identifies the evil invaders who killed the trade as being the Philistines.

(p. C28) For a truly cornucopian example of multiculturalism, though, nothing matches the contents of the Late Bronze Age merchant ship recovered from the sea off the southern coast of Turkey. Discovered by a sponge diver in 1984 and considered the oldest surviving example of a seagoing ship, it probably sank around 1300 B.C., packed with cargo representing a dozen cultures, from Nubia to the Balkans.

Although the ship’s home port is unknown, it appears to have traveled a circular route through the Mediterranean and Aegean, stopping in Greece, Crete, Turkey, Syria and Egypt, picking up and unloading as it went. Bulk materials included copper ingots, Cypriot pottery, African wood and Near Eastern textiles, all for waiting markets.
Divers also found luxury items, possibly personal possessions of the ship’s crew and passengers. Examples of ivory containers in the form of ducks have parallels with Egyptian prototypes, but were probably made in Mediterranean Asia. The two sources merge in a figure found in a tomb: a nude female swimmer with a chic, Nile-style pageboy who is hitching a ride behind an ivory-headed bird.
More precious and enigmatic is a standing bronze figure of a woman, probably a goddess, her head and face still covered with the sheet gold that may once have encased her whole body in a radiant epidermis. The exhibition catalog suggests that she might be a talismanic charm intended to protect the ship from harm.
Harm came anyway, as it did to much of the Mediterranean world, around 1200 B.C. with the arrival of mysterious, sea-based invaders, who conquered most of the great maritime cities, interrupting trade and easy cultural exchange, and bringing on a dark age, a depression. The depression — or was it severe recession? — didn’t last forever. The passion for acquisition, exchange and accumulation survived it, as it always does.
This passion is, of course, our own. It is one reason that we can, if we try, identify with the diverse people who, thousands of years ago, made the objects in this show. The globalist, all-in-it-together world model they invented is another reason. Their dark age could be one too.

For the full review, see:
HOLLAND COTTER. “Art Review; ‘Beyond Babylon’; Global Exchange, Early Version.” The New York Times (Fri., November 21, 2008): C23 & C28.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 20, 2008.)

The Cowen book mentioned in my initial comments, is:
Cowen, Tyler. Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

The Paul Johnson book mentioned in my initial comments, is:
Johnson, Paul M. Heroes. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

“Can Congress Tell Us to Join a Gym?”

(p. A31) HENRY E. HUDSON, the federal judge in Virginia who ruled this week that the individual mandate provision of the new health care law is unconstitutional, has become the object of widespread derision. Judge Hudson explained that whatever else Congress might be able to do, it cannot force people to engage in a commercial activity, in this case buying an insurance policy.

Critics contend that Judge Hudson has unduly restricted Congress’s authority to regulate interstate commerce, the principal basis on which the government defends the law. Some also claim that he ignored the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution, which allows Congress leeway to choose how to put in place national economic programs. Yet a closer reading shows that Judge Hudson’s analysis could prove irresistible to the Supreme Court and that there is a reasonable chance it will agree that the insurance mandate is invalid.
. . .
Indeed, the court has never confronted a federal statute that forces people to engage in some action like this. The conservative justices in particular will no doubt wonder what else Congress can make Americans do if it can make us buy health insurance. Can Congress tell us to join a gym because fit people have fewer chronic diseases? Can Congress direct us to purchase a new Chrysler to help Detroit get back on its feet?

For the full commentary, see:
JASON MAZZONE. “Can Congress Force You to Be Healthy?” The New York Times (Fri., December 17, 2010): A31.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 16, 2010.)

Under Health Care ‘Reform’ the Total Cost of Health Care Will “Go through the Roof!”


“Jonathan Bush, nephew of one former president and cousin of another, built a small medical practice into a national enterprise with nearly 1,200 employees.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B10) In the world of health care innovation, the founder and chief executive of Athenahealth has an outsize name. In part, that’s because his name is Jonathan Bush, and he is the nephew of one former president and the cousin of another. But it’s also because his company has mastered the intricacies of the doctor-insurer relationship and become a player in the emerging medical records industry.

Based in Watertown, Mass., Athenahealth offers a suite of administrative services for medical practices. It collects payments from insurers and patients, and it manages electronic health records and patient communication systems. All of this is done remotely through the Internet — or “in the cloud,” as Mr. Bush puts it. Doctors don’t have to install or manage software or pay licensing fees; instead, Athenahealth keeps a percentage of the revenue.
. . .
Q. What’s going on in the health care industry to deliver that kind of growth to you?
A. We are a disruptive technology. We are the only cloud-based service in an industry segment full of sclerotic, enormous, personality-free corporations that have been in business making 90 percent margins doing nothing for decades and decades.
Q. What keeps other companies from building cloud-based systems?
A. For software companies, the biggest barrier to entry is that they give up their business model. Those companies would get hammered on Wall Street if they started selling a service that they have to deliver at a loss for five years. In terms of new entrants, there are two things that we’ve done that would take a good decade to replicate. One, we’ve built out the health care Internet. We’ve been building connections into insurance companies and laboratories and hospital medical records for years and years and years.
And the other barrier to entry is that rules engine. Every time a doctor anywhere in the country gets a claim denied, we have analysts ask the Five Whys. When we get to root cause, we write a new rule into Athenanet and from that day on, no other doctor gets that particular denial from that particular insurance company ever again. We now know of 40 million ways that a doctor can have a claim denied in the United States. The average practice has to rework about 35 percent of their claims, and we only have to rework about 5 percent of ours.
Q. What’s the prognosis for bill collecting under health care reform?
A. Well, there’s going to be new connectors and a whole series of new insurance products that will be managed by the states’ health insurance commissioners. And the law provides for every state to do all of these its own way, so they will have their own rules and regulations, and each state will do it differently. That sounds like springtime in Complexity Land.
Q. What do you think will happen to the total cost of health care under reform?
A. Oh, it’s going to go through the roof! It’s widely accepted that this is not a cost-reform bill — it’s an access bill. It’s in fact a cost-expansion bill.

For the full story, see:

ROBB MANDELBAUM. “Views of Health Care Economics From a C.E.O. Named Bush.” The New York Times (Thurs., September 9, 2010): B10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article has the date September 8, 2010.)

The Hungry Innovate Because They Have Less to Lose

(p. 124) . . . , the eighteenth-century Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli,” who coined the term “human capital,” explained why innovation has always been a more attractive occupation to have-nots than to haves: not only do small successes seem larger, but they have considerably less to lose.

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.
(Note: ellipsis added.)