The Stinking Past

(p. 356) The people who cleaned cesspits were known as nightsoil men, and if there has ever been a less enviable way to make a living I believe it has yet to be described. They worked in teams of three or four. One man – the most junior, we may assume – was lowered into the pit itself to scoop waste into buckets. A second stood by the pit to raise and lower the buckets, and the third and fourth carried the buckets to a waiting cart. Nightsoil work was dangerous as well as disagreeable. Workers ran the risk of asphyxiation and even of explosions since they worked by the light of a lantern in powerfully gaseous environments. The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1753 related the case of one nightsoil man who went into a privy vault in a London tavern and was overcome almost at once by the foul air. ‘He call’d out for help, and immediately fell down on his face,’ one witness reported. A colleague who rushed to the man’s aid was similarly overcome. Two more men went to the vault, but could not get in because of the foul air, though they did manage to open the door a little, releasing the worst (p. 357) of the gases. By the time rescuers were able to haul the two men out, one was dead and the other was beyond help.

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

Entrepreneur Jobs Was an Exemplar of Creative Destruction

The clip embedded above from the CNBC web site, was broadcast on CNBC on Weds., Oct. 5, 2011.

I watched several commentaries on Steve Jobs after his death was announced today (Weds., Oct. 5). I think the one above, from CNBC, was one of the best.
It highlights many important aspects of Jobs’ life. That he came back from failure, that he brought us products we didn’t know we needed until he showed us what they could do, that his products disrupted the status quo of whole industries, that at his death he owned more shares of Disney than anyone else. (Steve Jobs and Walt Disney were two of the greatest “project entrepreneurs” of all time.)

Another Nod to Planck’s “Cynical View of Science”

The Max Planck view expressed in the quote below, has been called “Planck’s Principle” and has been empirically tested in three papers cited at the end of the entry.

(p. 12) How’s this for a cynical view of science? “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Scientific truth, according to this view, is established less by the noble use of reason than by the stubborn exertion of will. One hopes that the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck, the author of the quotation above, was writing in an unusually dark moment.
And yet a large body of psychological data supports Planck’s view: we humans quickly develop an irrational loyalty to our beliefs, and work hard to find evidence that supports those opinions and to discredit, discount or avoid information that does not.

For the full commentary, see:
CORDELIA FINE. “GRAY MATTER; Biased but Brilliant.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., July 31, 2011): 12.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated July 30, 2011.)

Three of my papers that present evidence on Planck’s Principle, are:
“Age and the Acceptance of Cliometrics.” The Journal of Economic History 40, no. 4 (December 1980): 838-841.
“Planck’s Principle: Do Younger Scientists Accept New Scientific Ideas with Greater Alacrity than Older Scientists?” Science 202 (November 17, 1978): 717-723 (with David L. Hull and Peter D. Tessner).
“The Polywater Episode and the Appraisal of Theories.” In A. Donovan, L. Laudan and R. Laudan, eds., Scrutinizing Science: Empirical Studies of Scientific Change. Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988, 181-198.

“Insanely Great” Entrepreneur Steve Jobs Wanted “a Chance to Change the World”

Steve Jobs died yesterday (Weds., October 5, 2011).
Jobs was an innovator of my favorite kind, what I call a “project entrepreneur.” He showed us what excitement and progress is possible if we preserve the institutions that allow entrepreneurial capitalism to exist.
When he was recruiting John Sculley to leave Pepsi and join Apple, Jobs asked him: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?” (p. 90).
Steve Jobs wanted to change the world. He got the job done.

Source of quote of Jobs’ question to Sculley:
Sculley, John, and John A. Byrne. Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple. paperback ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.

In Middle Ages “Nearly Everyone Itched Nearly All the Time”

(p. 346) . . . in the Middle Ages the spread of plague made people consider more closely their attitude to hygiene and what they might do to modify their own susceptibility to outbreaks. Unfortunately, people everywhere came to exactly the wrong conclusion. All the best minds agreed that bathing opened the epidermal pores and encouraged deathly vapours to invade the body. The best policy was to plug the pores with dirt. For the next six hundred years most people didn’t wash, or even get wet, if they could help it – and in consequence they paid an uncomfortable price. Infections became part of everyday life. Boils grew commonplace. Rashes and blotches were routine. Nearly everyone itched nearly all the time. Discomfort was constant, serious illness accepted with resignation.

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Neuroscientist Sees Entrepreneurs as “Never Satisfied” Due to “Attenuated Dopamine Function”


Source of book image:

David J. Linden is the author of The Compass of Pleasure and a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Professor of Neuroscience.

(p. 4) . . . , the psychological profile of a compelling leader — think of tech pioneers like Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison and Steven P. Jobs — is also that of the compulsive risk-taker, someone with a high degree of novelty-seeking behavior. In short, what we seek in leaders is often the same kind of personality type that is found in addicts, whether they are dependent on gambling, alcohol, sex or drugs.

How can this be? We typically see addicts as weak-willed losers, and chief executives and entrepreneurs are people with discipline and fortitude. To understand this apparent contradiction we need to look under the hood of the brain, and in particular at the functions that relate to pleasure and reward.
. . .
Crucially, genetic variants that suppress dopamine signaling in the pleasure circuit substantially increase pleasure- and novelty-seeking behaviors — their bearers must seek high levels of stimulation to reach the same level of pleasure that others can achieve with more moderate indulgence. Those blunted dopamine receptor variants are associated with substantially increased risk of addiction to a range of substances and behaviors.
. . .
The risk-taking, novelty-seeking and obsessive personality traits often found in addicts can be harnessed to make them very effective in the workplace. For many leaders, it’s not the case that they succeed in spite of their addiction; rather, the same brain wiring and chemistry that make them addicts also confer on them behavioral traits that serve them well.
So, when searching for your organization’s next leader, look for someone with an attenuated dopamine function: someone who is never satisfied with the status quo, someone who wants the feeling of success more than others — but likes it less.

For the full commentary, see:
DAVID J. LINDEN. “Addictive Personality? You Might be a Leader.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., July 24, 2011): 4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated July 23, 2011.)

The book mentioned above is:
Linden, David J. The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good. New York: Viking Adult, 2011.

“Coolidge Helped Americans Prosper by Letting Them Be Free”

(p. A15) Ronald Reagan, who grew up during the Coolidge presidency, admired “Silent Cal,” even going so far as to read a biography of the 30th president as he recovered from a surgery in 1985 and to praise him in letters to his constituents. To Reagan, Coolidge wasn’t silent, but was silenced by New Deal supporters, whose intellectual heirs control much of Washington today.
. . .
Unlike President Obama, President Coolidge didn’t want to “spread the wealth around,” but to grow it. He didn’t call for “shared sacrifice”–Americans had sacrificed enough during the great war–but for good character.
There “is no surer road to destruction than prosperity without character,” he said in a speech at the University of Pennsylvania in 1921. And from the White House lawn in 1924 he said, “I want the people of America to be able to work less for the Government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. That is the chief meaning of freedom.”
. . .
As Coolidge saw things in 1924, “A government which lays taxes on the people not required by urgent public necessity and sound public policy is not a protector of liberty, but an instrument of tyranny. It condemns the citizen to servitude.” Coolidge helped Americans prosper by letting them be free.

For the full commentary, see:
CHARLES C. JOHNSON. “How Silent Cal Beat a Recession; The late president inherited a bad economy, and he cut taxes and slashed spending to spur growth.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., August 4, 2011): A15.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Kiewit Corporation Earned Bonus from Los Angeles for Avoiding “Carmageddon”


“Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, at left of group, and other officials celebrate the demolition of two lanes of the Mulholland Drive bridge over Interstate 405 ahead of schedule last weekend. The event that many feared would result in epic traffic jams ended early and calmly.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.

(p. 6A) They paid Kiewit to build the Mulholland Bridge.

Now they’re paying Kiewit to tear it down.
And they’ll pay Kiewit to build it again.
It’s all part of the billion-dol­lar Interstate 405 improvement project in Los Angeles, which caught national attention last weekend when the busy freeway shut down for 36 hours so work­ers could remove the first chunk of the bridge that spans the Sepulveda Pass.
Omaha-based Kiewit Corp.’s Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. is the main contractor for the project.
Traffic officials in Southern California, who had predicted “Carmageddon” and warned motorists to stay away, were relieved when the closure of one of the nation’s busiest freeways — the stretch is traveled by an estimated 500,000 vehicles on a typical weekend — ended on 11:30 a.m. Sunday instead of 5 a.m. Monday as originally planned.

Kiewit reportedly got a (p. 7A) $300,000 bonus for beating the deadline.

For the full story, see:
STEVE JORDON. “KIEWIT WORK ON ‘CARMAGEDDON’ BRIDGE; IT’S UP, DOWN AND UP.” Omaha World-Herald (Sat., July 23, 2011): 6A-7A.

Americans Resented Being Kept as a Captive Market

(p. 300) This suppression of free trade greatly angered the Scottish economist Adam Smith (whose Wealth of Nations, not coincidentally, came out the same year that America declared its independence) but not nearly as much as it did the Americans, who naturally resented the idea of being kept eternally as a captive market. It would be overstating matters to suggest that the exasperations of commerce were the cause of the American revolution, but they were certainly a powerful component.

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.