Press Routinely Puffs Up Phony Scares

(p. 107) In the winter of 2001, . . . , a New York Times page-one lead story declared in breathless phrasing that the White House had just “canceled” regulations limiting arsenic in drinking water; taking their leads from the Times, all national newscasts that night declared that arsenic protection had been “canceled.” The Times went on to editorialize that government actually wanted Americans to “drink poisoned water” because this would serve the sinister interests of corporations, though how the conspiracy would serve sinister corporate interests was not explained, since the arsenic in drinking water occurs naturally. Government poisoning your water–a report you don’t want to miss tonight!

Except that nothing had been canceled. The White House had held up a pending rule to make arsenic protection more strict; while the pending rule was reviewed, prior rules remained in effect. The Environmental Protection Agency continued regulating arsenic in drinking water during the entire period when such protection was supposedly “canceled.” Then, in November 2001, the White House ended its review and put the much stricter rule into force. The New York Times did not play this as (p. 108) a headline lead, where the original scare story had been; enactment of the strict rule was buried in a small box on page A18. Network newscasts that had presented a shocking scandal of “canceled arsenic protection” as their big story also said little or nothing when instead stronger rules went into effect. This sort of puffing up of a phony scare, followed by studious ignoring of subsequent events that deflate the scare, is not rare. It is standard operating procedure in many quarters of journalism, including at the top.

Source:
Easterbrook, Gregg. The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Paperback ed. New York: Random House, 2004.
(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)

“The Internet Is Really the Work of a Thousand People”

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Paul Baran. Source of photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.

(p. A23) In the early 1960s, while working at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif., Mr. Baran outlined the fundamentals for packaging data into discrete bundles, which he called “message blocks.” The bundles are then sent on various paths around a network and reassembled at their destination. Such a plan is known as “packet switching.”

Mr. Baran’s idea was to build a distributed communications network, less vulnerable to attack or disruption than conventional networks. In a series of technical papers published in the 1960s he suggested that networks be designed with redundant routes so that if a particular path failed or was destroyed, messages could still be delivered through another.
Mr. Baran’s invention was so far ahead of its time that in the mid-1960s, when he approached AT&T with the idea to build his proposed network, the company insisted it would not work and refused.
. . .
Mr. Baran was also an entrepreneur. He started seven companies, five of which eventually went public.
In recent years, the origins of the Internet have been subject to claims and counterclaims of precedence, and Mr. Baran was an outspoken proponent of distributing credit widely.
“The Internet is really the work of a thousand people,” he said in an interview in 2001.
“The process of technological developments is like building a cathedral,” he said in an interview in 1990. “Over the course of several hundred years, new people come along and each lays down a block on top of the old foundations, each saying, ‘I built a cathedral.’
“Next month another block is placed atop the previous one. Then comes along an historian who asks, ‘Well, who built the cathedral?’ Peter added some stones here, and Paul added a few more. If you are not careful you can con yourself into believing that you did the most important part. But the reality is that each contribution has to follow onto previous work. Everything is tied to everything else.”

For the full obituary, see:
KATIE HAFNER. “Paul Baran, Internet Pioneer, Dies at 84.” The New York Times (Mon., MARCH 28, 2011): A23.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary is dated March 27, 2011.)

Does Montessori Nurture Creativity?

Ironically, the Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite, which are so overrepresented by the school’s alumni that one might suspect a Montessori Mafia: Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, videogame pioneer Will Wright, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, not to mention Julia Child and rapper Sean “P.Diddy” Combs.

Is there something going on here? Is there something about the Montessori approach that nurtures creativity and inventiveness that we can all learn from?
. . .
The Montessori Mafia showed up in an extensive, six-year study about the way creative business executives think. Professors Jeffrey Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of globe-spanning business school INSEAD surveyed over 3,000 executives and interviewed 500 people who had either started innovative companies or invented new products.
“A number of the innovative entrepreneurs also went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity,” Mr. Gregersen said. “To paraphrase the famous Apple ad campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think different, they act different (and even talk different).”
When Barbara Walters, who interviewed Google founders Messrs. Page and Brin in 2004, asked if having parents who were college professors was a major factor behind their success, they instead credited their early Montessori education. “We both went to Montessori school,” Mr. Page said, “and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit differently.”
Will Wright, inventor of bestselling “The Sims” videogame series, heaps similar praise. “Montessori taught me the joy of discovery,” Mr. Wright said, “It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you. SimCity comes right out of Montessori…”
Meanwhile, according to Jeff Bezos’s mother, young Jeff would get so engrossed in his activities as a Montessori preschooler that his teachers would literally have to pick him up out of his chair to go to the next task. “I’ve always felt that there’s a certain kind of important pioneering that goes on from an inventor like Thomas Edison,” Mr. Bezos has said, and that discovery mentality is precisely the environment that Montessori seeks to create.
Neuroscience author Jonah Lehrer cites a 2006 study published in Science that compared the educational achievement performance of low-income Milwaukee children who attended Montessori schools versus children who attended a variety of other preschools, as determined by a lottery.

Source:
Peter Sims. “The Montessori Mafia.” http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/04/05/the-montessori-mafia/ Posted: April 5, 2011, 10:57 AM ET
(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs is added; ellipsis at the end of a paragraph was in the original.)

The reference for the Science article mentioned above is:
Lillard, Angeline, and Nicole Else-Quest. “Evaluating Montessori Education.” Science 313, no. 5795 (September 29, 2006): 1893-94.

45% of Mummies Had Heart Disease

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“A mummy enters the CT scanner at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. It was one of 52 mummies examined for signs of heart disease.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.

(p. 6A) Atherosclerosis — hardening of the arteries — was surpris­ingly widespread during an­cient times, at least among the Egyptian mummies examined by an international team of sci­entists and heart specialists.

Their research, whose re­sults were presented April 3 in New Orleans at the annual meeting of the American Col­lege of Cardiology, found that 45 percent of the mummies they put through CT scans had signs of atherosclerosis.
That raises questions about whether hardening of the arter­ies is the modern disease that many think it is.
“We found it so easily and frequently that it appears to have been common in this soci­ety,” said Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Hospi­tal in Kansas City.

For the full story, see:
MC CLATCHY NEWSPAPERS. “Hardened Arteries Go Back Centuries.” Omaha World-Herald (Mon., April 18, 2011): 6A.

The Elite Feel More Important, and Receive More Funding, During Crises

(p. 103) Claims of disastrous decline will he praised in the elite parts of society. Since many crave recognition or rewards from elites, people oblige by producing claims of disastrous decline. More generally, when things really are bad we naturally turn to eminent or powerful people for their advice and succor; when things are fine, the elite classes are of diminished importance to society. Important people like to feel important, and thus are biased toward viewing events in bleak terms. Consider that, during the 1990s, when nearly everything in the United States was trending positive, left-wing leaders as exemplified by the Manhattan chardonnay circuit, and right-wing leaders as exemplified by the Heritage Foundation circuit, slugged it out as though the world was ending: the left claiming religious fanatics were taking over the country, the right claiming the left was destroying the family and opposed to reading of the classics, to name a few totally cooked-up charges of that period. As Orlando Patterson, a Harvard University sociologist, noted in 1998, “It’s astonish-(p. 104)ing how the Washington and New York elites, who benefit so much from the improvement of the United States, are so out of sync with it, endlessly talking about how things are getting worse when the country is clearly improving.”

To those who benefit from bad news, either by fund-raising or increased self-importance, problems are not just problems but crises–the health care crisis, the farm-bill crisis, the tax crisis, the welfare crisis, the litigation crisis, the postage-rate crisis.

Source:
Easterbrook, Gregg. The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Paperback ed. New York: Random House, 2004.

Are Small Bets Enough to Get Breakthrough Innovation, Or Do You Usually Need Big Bets?

LittleBetsBK.jpg

Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

I am dubious of the main thesis of the book discussed in the review quoted below. But it sounds like an interesting read.

“I’ll be happy to give you innovative thinking,” a bedraggled employee tells his boss in a classic Leo Cullum cartoon. “What are the guidelines?”

Guidelines are what Peter Sims seeks to provide in “Little Bets,” an enthusiastic, example-rich argument for innovating in a particular way–by deliberately experimenting and taking small exploratory steps in novel directions. Some little bets will not pay off, of course, in which case little is lost; but others may pay off in big ways.
. . .
The point is that good (or even just delicious) ideas rarely emerge fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus; rather they evolve in a discursive and unpredictable fashion. The challenge is to enable this process rather than squelch it because it is hard to manage or because its results are hard to predict.
Light, bright and packed with tidy anecdotes, “Little Bets” feels at times like a motivational speaker’s presentation. Its claims are often attractive, but the analytical apparatus can be shaky: correlation is confused with causation; counter-evidence is ignored (such as those who put down small bets but never enjoy large returns); the role of circumstance or luck is underestimated; and some facts seem cherry-picked to push the message.

For the full commentary, see:
DAVID A. SHAYWITZ. “BOOKSHELF; Where the Action Is; Taking small exploratory steps and ‘prototyping,’ as when Chris Rock tests out jokes at obscure comedy clubs.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., APRIL 22, 2011): A11.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

The book under review is:
Sims, Peter. Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. New York: Free Press, 2011.

Energy Regulations Give Us Less Choice and Worse Washing Machines

(p. A17) It might not have been the most stylish, but for decades the top-loading laundry machine was the most affordable and dependable. Now it’s ruined–and Americans have politics to thank.

In 1996, top-loaders were pretty much the only type of washer around, and they were uniformly high quality. When Consumer Reports tested 18 models, 13 were “excellent” and five were “very good.” By 2007, though, not one was excellent and seven out of 21 were “fair” or “poor.” This month came the death knell: Consumer Reports simply dismissed all conventional top-loaders as “often mediocre or worse.”
How’s that for progress?
The culprit is the federal government’s obsession with energy efficiency. Efficiency standards for washing machines aren’t as well-known as those for light bulbs, which will effectively prohibit 100-watt incandescent bulbs next year. Nor are they the butt of jokes as low-flow toilets are. But in their quiet destruction of a highly affordable, perfectly satisfactory appliance, washer standards demonstrate the harmfulness of the ever-growing body of efficiency mandates.
. . .
Front-loaders meet federal standards more easily than top-loaders. Because they don’t fully immerse their laundry loads, they use less hot water and therefore less energy. But, as Americans are increasingly learning, front-loaders are expensive, often have mold problems, and don’t let you toss in a wayward sock after they’ve started.

For the full commentary, see:
SAM KAZMAN. “How Washington Ruined Your Washing Machine; The top-loading washer continues to disappear, thanks to the usual nanny state suspects.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., March 17, 2011): A17.
(Note: ellipsis added.)