“The Adventurous, Pioneering Spirit”


Source of book image: http://www.jetagebook.com/

(p. 30) “Jet Age” is ostensibly about the race between two companies and nations to commercialize a military technology and define a new era of air travel. There’s Boeing with its back to the wall and its military contracts drying up, betting everything on passenger jets, pitted against de Havilland and the government-subsidized project meant to reclaim some of Britain’s lost glory. . . .
. . .
But the book is really about the risk-taking essential for making any extreme endeavor common­place. “Jet Age” celebrates the managers, pilots, engineers, flight attendants and, yes, even passengers (for without passengers there is no business) who gambled everything so that we might cross oceans and continents in hours rather than days.
It is easy to forget, in this time of overcrowded flights, demoralizing security checks, embattled flight attendants and dwindling service, that risk was once embraced as a necessary, even desirable, part of flying. Quoted in the book, the celebrated aviator Lord Brabazon summed it up in post-accident testimony: “You know, and I know, the cause of this accident. It is due to the adventurous, pioneering spirit of our race. It has been like that in the past, it is like that in the present, and I hope it will be in the future.”

For the full review, see:
MICHAEL BELFIORE. “Fatal Flaws.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., February 6, 2011): 30.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 4, 2011.)

The book under review is:
Verhovek, Sam Howe. Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World. New York: Avery, 2010.

Abraham Lincoln’s Defence of the Patent System

William Rosen quotes a key passage from Abraham Lincoln’s speech on “Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements”:

(p. 323) The advantageous use of Steam-power is, unquestionably, a modern discovery. And yet, as much as two thousand years ago the power of steam was not only observed, but an ingenious toy was actually made and put in motion by it, at Alexandria in Egypt. What appears strange is that neither the inventor of the toy, nor any one else, for so long a time afterwards, should perceive that steam would move useful machinery as well as a toy. . . . . . . in the days before Edward Coke’s original Statute on Monopolies, any man could instantly use what another had invented; so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention. . . . The (p. 324) patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery of new and useful things.

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

Roy E. Disney as a “Real-life Jiminy Cricket”

DisneyRoyE2011-03-08.jpg“Roy E. Disney, shown in 1996, was considered a tough and outspoken critic of top executives at the Walt Disney Company.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B18) LOS ANGELES — Roy E. Disney, who helped revitalize the famed animation division of the company founded by his uncle, Walt Disney, and who at times publicly feuded with top Disney executives, died on Wednesday in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 79.

His death, at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, was caused by stomach cancer, a spokeswoman for the Walt Disney Company said. Mr. Disney, who had homes in Newport Beach and the Toluca Lake district of Los Angeles, was the last member of the Disney family to work at the entertainment conglomerate built by his uncle and his father, Roy O. Disney.
As a boy the younger Roy would play in the halls of his uncle’s studio, where animators often used him as a test audience as they toiled on movies like “Pinocchio.” As an adult he helped bring the animation studio back from the brink, overseeing a creative renaissance that led to “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.”
But the soft-spoken Mr. Disney was primarily known for a willingness to question the company’s top managers, aggressively and publicly, when he felt they were mishandling the family empire. Some people in the company referred to him as its real-life Jiminy Cricket: a living conscience who was at times intensely disliked by management for speaking out.
. . .
Returning to the company in 1984, Mr. Disney set about revitalizing the floundering animation division. He obtained financing, for instance, for a computerized postproduction facility, helping to make possible the revolving ballroom scene in “Beauty and the Beast.”

For the full obituary, see:
BROOKS BARNES. “Roy E. Disney Dies at 79; Rejuvenated Animation.” The New York Times (Thurs., December 17, 2009): B18.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Koch Does Not Run with the Antelope

If you were standing amongst a herd of antelope when a dangerous predator arrived, you would not see the antelope defending themselves against the predator. What you would see would be their white rear ends disappearing in the distance.
Last July in Wichita I heard some executives from Koch Industries talking about Market-Based Management. A couple of them mentioned Koch’s stands in defense of the free market. As a result of these efforts, Koch Industries has become the target of many agencies of the government and of groups opposed to the free market. Once or twice I heard an executive say something like: ‘it would have been a lot easier if we had just painted our butts white and run with the antelope.’
Schumpeter thought that those in business would not defend the fortress of capitalism (CSD, p. 142). And the evidence suggests that Schumpeter was mainly right. But we can hope that there are enough exceptions, in unpretentious places like Wichita, to keep the fortress standing.

(p.A15) Years of tremendous overspending by federal, state and local governments have brought us face-to-face with an economic crisis. Federal spending will total at least $3.8 trillion this year–double what it was 10 years ago. And unlike in 2001, when there was a small federal surplus, this year’s projected budget deficit is more than $1.6 trillion.

Several trillions more in debt have been accumulated by state and local governments. States are looking at a combined total of more than $130 billion in budget shortfalls this year. Next year, they will be in even worse shape as most so-called stimulus payments end.
For many years, I, my family and our company have contributed to a variety of intellectual and political causes working to solve these problems. Because of our activism, we’ve been vilified by various groups. Despite this criticism, we’re determined to keep contributing and standing up for those politicians, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who are taking these challenges seriously.

For the full commentary, see:
CHARLES G. KOCH. “Why Koch Industries Is Speaking Out; Crony capitalism and bloated government prevent entrepreneurs from producing the products and services that make people’s lives better.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., MARCH 1, 2011): A15.

Koch’s book is:
Koch, Charles G. The Science of Success: How Market-Based Management Built the World’s Largest Private Company. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007.

Unclear Regulations Reduce Energy Innovation Investment


“Source of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. R3) Bill Gates reshaped the computer industry by pumping out new versions of Microsoft Windows software every few years, fixing and fine tuning it as he went along.

He’s now betting that he can reshape the energy industry with a project akin to shipping Windows once and having it work, bug-free, for 50 years.
Thanks to his role funding and guiding a start-up called TerraPower LLC, where he serves as chairman, Mr. Gates has become a player in a field of inventors whose goal is to make nuclear reactors smaller, cheaper and safer than today’s nuclear energy sources. The 30-person company recently completed a basic design for a reactor that theoretically could run untouched for decades on spent nuclear fuel. Now the company is seeking a partner to help build the experimental reactor, and a country willing to host it.
It’s a long-term, risky endeavor for Mr. Gates and his fellow investors. The idea will require years to test, billions of dollars (not all from him) and changes in U.S. nuclear regulations if the reactor is to be built here. Current U.S. rules don’t even cover the type of technology TerraPower hopes to use.
“A cheaper reactor design that can burn waste and doesn’t run into fuel limitations would be a big thing,” Mr. Gates says. He adds that in general “capitalism underinvests in innovation,” particularly in areas with “long time horizons and where government regulations are unclear.”
. . .
The company has made pitches in France and Japan, Mr. Myrhvold says; both have big nuclear-power industries. He’s also made the rounds in Russia, China and India, he says. So far, there have been no takers.
One country he is certain won’t be a customer anytime soon is the U.S., which doesn’t yet have a certification process for reactors like TerraPower’s. It would likely be a decade or more before the reactor could be tested on U.S. soil. “I don’t think the U.S. has the willpower or desire to build new kinds of nuclear reactors,” Mr. Myrhvold says. “Right now there’s a long, drawn-out process.”
. . .
Mr. Myrhvold says he hopes the process will speed up and spark innovation to meet the world’s growing energy demand. “Let’s try 20 ideas,” he says. “Maybe five of them work. That’s the only way to invent our way out of the pickle we’re in.”

For the full story, see:
ROBERT A. GUTH. “A Window Into the Nuclear Future; TerraPower–with the backing of Bill Gates–has a radical vision for the reactors of tomorrow.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., FEBRUARY 28, 2011): R3.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Lincoln’s Popular Speech on “Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements”

(p. 322) Lincoln, the only American president ever awarded a patent, had a long and passionate love for things mechanical. He made his living for many years as a railroad lawyer and appears to have absorbed something of the fascination with machines, and with steam, of the engineers with whom he worked. . . .     . . . , in 1859, after his loss in the Illinois senatorial race against Stephen Douglas, he was much in demand for a speech entitled “Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements” that he gave at agricultural fairs, schools, and self-improvement societies.

The speech–decidedly not one of Lincoln’s best–nonetheless revealed an enthusiasm for mechanical innovation that resonates (p. 323) powerfully even today. “Man,” Lincoln said, “is not the only animal who labors, but he is the only one who improves his workmanship . . . by Discoveries and Inventions.”

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

“The Information in a Message Is Inversely Proportional to Its Probability”


Source of book image: http://www.umcs.maine.edu/~chaitin/

(p. A13) What, exactly, is information? Prior to Shannon, Mr. Gleick notes, the term seemed as hopelessly subjective as “beauty” or “truth.” But in 1948 Shannon, then working for Bell Laboratories, gave information an almost magically precise, quantitative definition: The information in a message is inversely proportional to its probability. Random “noise” is quite uniform; the more surprising a message, the more information it contains. Shannon reduced information to a basic unit called a “bit,” short for binary digit. A bit is a message that represents one of two choices: yes or no, heads or tails, one or zero.

For the full review, see:

JOHN HORGAN. “Little Bits Go a Long Way; The more surprising a message, the more information it contains.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., March 1, 2011): A13.

Book being reviewed:
Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011.

Defending the Right to Bear Arms

(p. 20) State Representative Jack Harper, who introduced a bill allowing professors to carry guns, said an Arizona State University professor, whom he has refused to identify, first raised the issue with him. “When law-abiding, responsible adults are able to defend themselves, crime is deterred,” Mr. Harper said in a statement.

That is the philosophy in Arizona as a whole, where gun laws are among the least restrictive in the country. If law-abiding people can carry guns one step outside the campus to keep criminals at bay, supporters ask, why not allow them to enter a university with their firearms? That is already permitted in Utah, alone so far in allowing guns to be carried on all state campuses.
“I think that every person has the right to bear arms no matter what the circumstances,” said Ashlyn Lucero, a political science student at Arizona State University who has served in the Marine Corps, is the daughter of a sheriff and grew up hunting.
Ms. Lucero carries her Glock pistol whenever possible and would carry it on campus if she could. “If I’m going out to eat somewhere, I usually have a gun with me always,” she said. “It’s just one of those things that you never know what’s going to happen.”
Thor Mikesell, a senior majoring in music who grew up hunting, is also a backer of allowing guns on campus. “There’s no magic line, there’s no magic barrier that makes me more safe on the campus than it is when I’m being a real person in the real world outside of the school,” he said.
. . .
“This is not the 1890s’ O.K. Corral shoot ’em up, bang ’em up,” he said. “These are not vigilante kind of people. Their interest is their personal security and the security of their family.”
The State Senate president, Russell Pearce, who recently said he would not prevent senators from taking guns into the Senate chamber despite rules against it, is an advocate for loosening as many gun restrictions as possible.
. . .
“Guns save lives, and it’s a constitutional right of our citizens,” Mr. Pearce said of the guns-on-campus proposal. Speaking of the Tucson shooting, which took place at a shopping center and not on a university campus, Mr. Pearce, a former sheriff’s deputy, said, “If somebody had been there prepared to take action, they could have saved lives.”

For the full story, see:
MARC LACEY. “Lawmakers Debate Effect of Weapons on Campus.” The New York Times, First Section (Sun., February 27, 2011): 14 & 20.
(Note: ellipses added.)

The Dangers from Disease Are Much Greater than the Dangers from Vaccines


Source of book image:

Sometime during the weekend of Feb. 26-27, 2011, I saw several minutes of a C-Span book TV presentation by Paul Offit on his Deadly Choices book. He made a strong case that based on casual and unsound evidence, many parents are putting their children at risk by delaying or even foregoing having their children vaccinated.
As a result children are dying from diseases that they easily could have been protected against.

Book discussed:
Offit, Paul A. Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

“Rocket” Showed the Motive Power of the Industrial Revolution

Stephenson’s steam locomotive, called “Rocket,” won the Rainhill Trials in 1829. Rosen uses this as the culminating event in his history of the development of steam power.

(p. 310) The reason for ending with Stephenson’s triumph . . . seems persuasive. Rainhill was a victory not merely for George and Robert Stephenson, but for Thomas Saverv and Thomas Newcomen, for James Watt and Matthew Boulton, for Oliver Evans and Richard Trevithick. It was a triumph for the iron mongers of the Severn Valley, the weavers of Lancashire, the colliers of Newcastle, and the miners of Cornwall. It was even a triumph for John Locke and Edward Coke, whose ideas ignited the Rocket just as much as its firebox did.

When the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson met Stephenson in 1847, he remarked, “he had the lives of many men in him.”
Perhaps that’s what he meant.

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

Egypt’s Urban Decline as Cause (or Symptom) of Slow Growth


Source of graphs: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

We all know that correlation is not the same as causation. The main cause of Egypt’s slow growth is its lack of institutions and policies supporting entrepreneurial capitalism, and not the decline of Egyptian cities. (But the decline of Egyptian cities does not help.)

(p. B1) Since then, the cities of Asia have expanded rapidly, drawing in millions of peasant farmers looking for a better life — and, more often than not, finding it. Almost 50 percent of East Asians now live in cities. And Egypt? It is the only large country to have become less urban in the last 30 years, according to the World Bank. About 43 percent of Egyptians are city dwellers today.

This urban stagnation helps explain Egypt’s broader stagnation. As tough as city life in poor countries can be, it’s also fertile ground for economic growth. Nearly everything can be done more efficiently in a well-run city, be it plumbing, transportation or the generation of new ideas and businesses. “Being around other people,” says Paul Romer, the economist and growth expert, “helps make us smarter.”
Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economist (and weekly contributor to the Times’s Economix blog), has just published a book, “The Triumph of the City, making the case that cities are humanity’s greatest invention. Countries that become more urban tend to become far more productive, Mr. Glaeser writes. The effect is even bigger for poor countries than rich ones.
. . .
Three researchers — Michael Clemens, Lant Pritchett and Claudio Montenegro — recently found a novel way to measure how well various countries use the workers they have. The three compared the wages of immigrants to the United States with the wages of similar workers from the same country who remained home.
A 35-year-old urban Egyptian man with a high school education who moves to the United States can expect an incredible eightfold increase in living standards, the researchers found. Immigrants from only two countries, Yemen and Nigeria, receive a larger boost. In effect, these are the countries with the biggest gap between what their workers can produce in a different environment and what they are actually producing at home.
No wonder 19 percent of Egyptians told Gallup (well before the protests) that they would move to another country if they could. Mr. Clemens says that for every green card the United States awarded in a recent immigration lottery, 146 Egyptians had applied.

For the full commentary, see:
DAVID LEONHARDT. “Economic Scene; For Egypt, a Fresh Start, With Cities.” The New York Times (Weds., February 16, 2011): B1 & B11.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article was dated February 15, 2011.)

The scholarly article summarized is:
Clemens, Michael, Claudio Montenegro, and Lant Pritchett. “The Place Premium: Wage Differences for Identical Workers across the Us Border.” HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series # RWP09-004, January 2009.

The Glaeser book is:
Glaeser, Edward L. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.