“The World Before the Modern Era Was Overwhelmingly a Place of Tiny Coffins”

(p. 404) There is no doubt that children once died in great numbers and that parents had to adjust their expectations accordingly. The world before the modern era was overwhelmingly a place of tiny coffins. The figures usually cited are that one-third of children died in their first year of life and half failed to reach their fifth birthdays. Even in the best homes death was a regular visitor. Stephen Inwood notes that the future historian Edward Gibbon, growing up rich in healthy Putney, lost all six of his siblings in early childhood. But that isn’t to say that parents were any less devastated by a loss than we would be today. The diarist John Evelyn and his wife had eight children and lost six of them in childhood, and were clearly heartbroken each time. ‘Here ends the joy of my life,’ Evelyn wrote simply after his oldest child died three days after his fifth birthday in 1658. The writer William Brownlow lost a child each year for four years, a chain of misfortune that ‘hast broken me asunder and shaken me to pieces’, he wrote, but in fact he and his wife had still more to endure: the tragic pattern of annual deaths continued for three years more until they had no children left to yield.

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

Black Death Microbe Same as in Middle Ages But Now Does Much Less Harm


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

If the Black Death microbe is the same today as in the Middle Ages, maybe the difference in effects is partly due to our better nutrition, health, hygiene, and housing?

(p. D4) The agent of the Black Death is assumed to be Yersinia pestis, the microbe that causes bubonic plague today. But the epidemiology was strikingly different from that of modern outbreaks. Modern plague is carried by fleas and spreads no faster than the rats that carry them can travel. The Black Death seems to have spread directly from one person to another.

Victims sometimes emitted a deathly stench, which is not true of plague victims today. And the Black Death felled at least 30 percent of those it inflicted, whereas a modern plague in India that struck Bombay in 1904, before the advent of antibiotics, killed only 3 percent of its victims.
. . .
If Yersinia pestis was indeed the cause of the Black Death, why were the microbe’s effects so different in medieval times? Its DNA sequence may hold the answer. Dr. Poinar’s team has managed to reconstruct a part of the microbe’s genetic endowment. Yersinia pestis has a single chromosome, containing the bulk of its genes, and three small circles of DNA known as plasmids.
The team has determined the full DNA sequence of the plasmid known as pPCP1 from the East Smithfield cemetery. But, disappointingly, it turns out to be identical to the modern-day plasmid, so it explains none of the differences in the microbe’s effects.

For the full story, see:
NICHOLAS WADE. “Hunting for a Mass Killer in Medieval Graveyards.” The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D4.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 29, 2011.)

Huge Variance in Estimates of Number of Species

(p. D3) Scientists have named and cataloged 1.3 million species. How many more species there are left to discover is a question that has hovered like a cloud over the heads of taxonomists for two centuries.
“It’s astounding that we don’t know the most basic thing about life,” said Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.
On Tuesday, Dr. Worm, Dr. Mora and their colleagues presented the latest estimate of how many species there are, based on a new method they have developed. They estimate there are 8.7 million species on the planet, plus or minus 1.3 million.
. . .
In recent decades, scientists have looked for better ways to determine how many species are left to find. In 1988, Robert May, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, observed that the diversity of land animals increases as they get smaller. He reasoned that we probably have found most of the species of big animals, like mammals and birds, so he used their diversity to calculate the diversity of smaller animals. He ended up with an estimate 10 to 50 million species of land animals.
Other estimates have ranged from as few as 3 million to as many as 100 million. Dr. Mora and his colleagues believed that all of these estimates were flawed in one way or another. Most seriously, there was no way to validate the methods used, to be sure they were reliable.

For the full story, see:
CARL ZIMMER. “How Many Species? A Study Says 8.7 Million, but It’s Tricky.” The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 23 (sic), 2011.)

Fossil Shows Placental Mammals 35 Million Years Earlier


“The earliest known eutherian from the Jurassic of China.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) The split between placental mammals and marsupials may have occurred 35 million years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study.
. . .
The newly identified mammal was small, weighing less than a chipmunk. Based on its claws, it appears to have been an active climber. “This was a skinny little animal, eating insects,” said Dr. Luo. “We imagine it was active in the night and capable of going up and down trees.”
Its discovery helps reconcile fossil evidence and molecular analysis. Modern molecular studies, which use DNA to estimate dates of evolution, also put the emergence of placentals at about 160 million years ago.

For the full story, see:
SINDYA N. BHANOO. “OBSERVATORY; A Small Mammal Fossil Tells a Jurassic Tale.” The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 24 (sic), 2011.)

Patent on Cotton Gin Not Enough for Whitney to Get Rich

(p. 395) Whitney patented his ‘gin’ (a shortened form of ‘engine’) and prepared to become stupendously wealthy.
. . .
(p. 396) . . . , the gin truly was a marvel. Whitney and Miller formed a partnership with every expectation of getting rich, but they were disastrous businessmen. For the use of their machine, they demanded a one-third share of any harvest – a proportion that plantation owners and southern legislators alike saw as frankly rapacious. That Whitney and Miller were both Yankees didn’t help sentiment either. Stubbornly they refused to modify their demands, convinced that southern growers could not hold out in the face of such a transforming piece of technology. They were right about the irresistibility, but failed to note that the gin was also easily pirated. Any halfway decent carpenter could knock one out in a couple of hours. Soon plantation owners across the south were harvesting cotton with home-made gins. Whitney and Miller filed sixty suits in Georgia and many others elsewhere, but found little sympathy in southern courts. By 1800 – just seven years after the gin’s invention – Miller and Catharine Greene were in such desperate straits that they had to sell the plantation.

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

More Winners than Losers from Columbian Exchange


Source of book image:

(p. D2) The foods we consider local are results of a globalization process that has been in full swing for more than five centuries, ever since Columbus landed in the New World. Suddenly all the continents were linked, mixing plants and animals that had evolved separately since the breakup of the ancient supercontinent Pangaea.

What resulted, Mr. Mann argues in his fascinating new book, “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created,” was a new epoch in human life, the Homogenocene. This age of homogeneity was brought on by the creation of a world-spanning economic system as crops, worms, parasites and people traveled among Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia — the Columbian Exchange, as it was dubbed by the geographer Alfred W. Crosby.
. . .
“There’s no way the Industrial Revolution could have so occurred so quickly and so widely if the world had depended solely on Brazilians tapping rubber trees,” Mr. Mann said. Indeed, the Asian plantations proved crucial when Brazilian trees were struck by blight.
“On the whole, there are lots more winners than losers from the Columbian Exchange,” Mr. Mann said. “I don’t want to tell Italians they can’t have tomatoes, or people in Sichuan they can’t have peppers. People have a way of taking things and making them their own. I know nothing in my garden is native, but I still have this idiotic feeling that it’s my home.”
How does he reconcile this feeling with this book? What’s a locavore to do? Mr. Mann doesn’t presume to dictate anyone’s food preferences, but he does offer one piece of advice for locavores: go easy on the preaching.
“I’m willing to pay more to get fresh vegetables grown by nice people farming nearby,” he said. “It’s incredible to eat lettuce an hour after it was picked.
“But if your concern is to produce the maximum amount of food possible for the lowest cost, which is a serious concern around the world for people who aren’t middle-class foodies like me, this seems like a crazy luxury. It doesn’t make sense for my aesthetic preference to be elevated to a moral imperative.”

For the full review, see:
JOHN TIERNEY. “FINDINGS; Fresh and Direct From the Garden an Ocean Away.” The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D2.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 29, 2011.)

Haiku Economist Ziliak Praises and Analyzes Jobs Haiku

On 11/8/11 I received a gracious and interesting email from Steve Ziliak praising and analyzing my recent Jobs haiku. Economist Ziliak has written haiku and written about haiku.
He gave me his permission to share his email:

Dear Art,
Congratulations on your prize-winning haiku about the economy! I read all of the haiku selected by the Kauffman Foundation and posted by The Economist. Meaning no disrespect for the hard-working others, Steve Ziliak aka The Haiku Economist agrees that your haiku was the best of the bunch. Pairing jobs-with-Jobs is potentially hazardous to poetry to the point of being country-newspaper corny. But you’ve pulled it off well in a “senryu” thanks to the dead-serious yet softly spoken third line, “innovate to grow”. Thus “jobs” and “Jobs” serve as “cut words” (kiru or kireji), taking us from the literal to the figurative and back again (that is, to innovation, output, and employment). Well done.
Here are a few articles on the theory, Art, and history of haiku economics, which I first developed ten years ago (in 2001) when I was teaching at Georgia Tech:
(In 2002 I published “Haiku Economics” in Rethinking Marxism;
this link here is to “Haiku Economics, No. 2”, published in 2005).
And here is a link to my students’ achievements with haiku economics:
Congrats again, Art, and keep writing!
Things beyond number
all somehow brought to mind by
blossoming cherries.
– Basho
All the best,
Steve aka The Haiku Economist
Stephen T. Ziliak
Trustee and Professor of Economics
Roosevelt University
430 S. Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60605

Wozniak Waits 20 Hours to Be First in Line for iPhone 4S; They Say “4S” Means “For Steve”

WozniakIphone4S2011-11-04.jpg“Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak uses the voice feature on his new Apple iPhone 4S at the Apple Store in Los Gatos, Calif., on Friday. Wozniak, who created Apple with Steve Jobs in a Silicon Valley garage in 1976, waited 20 hours in line to be the first customer at the store to buy the new iPhone.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article cited below.

What a classy and wonderfully symbolic way to pay tribute to his friend and the values they shared.

Source of photo and caption:
AP. “Even Wozniak stood in line for new iPhone.” Omaha World-Herald (Saturday October 15, 2011): 9A.

Unable to Compete with Cotton “European Textile Workers Bayed for Protection”

(p. 390) Cotton is such a commonplace material now that we forget that it was once extremely precious – more valuable than silk. But then in the seventeenth century, the East India Company began importing calicoes from India (from the city of Calicut, from which they take their name), and suddenly cotton became affordable. Calico was then essentially a collective term for chintzes, muslins, percales and other colourful fabrics, which caused unimaginable delight among western consumers because they were light and washable and the colours didn’t run. Although some cotton was grown in Egypt, India dominated the cotton trade, as we are reminded by the endless numbers of words that came into English by way of that trade: khaki, dungarees, gingham, muslin, pyjamas, shawl, seersucker, and so on.
The sudden surge of Indian cotton pleased consumers, but not (p. 391) manufacturers. Unable to compete with this wonder fabric, European textile workers bayed for protection almost everywhere, and almost everywhere they received it. The importation of finished cotton fabrics was banned in much of Europe throughout the eighteenth century.

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

Global Warming Benefits Commerce by Opening Northeast Passage

NortheastPassageMapB2011-11-04.jpg “The Northeast Passage Opens Up. The Arctic ice cap has been shrinking, opening up new shipping lanes. This has given access to oil and gas fields, as well as fishing in international waters that were not accessible before.” Source of caption and map: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) ARKHANGELSK, Russia — Rounding the northernmost tip of Russia in his oceangoing tugboat this summer, Capt. Vladimir V. Bozanov saw plenty of walruses, some pods of beluga whales and in the distance a few icebergs.

One thing Captain Bozanov did not encounter while towing an industrial barge 2,300 miles across the Arctic Ocean was solid ice blocking his path anywhere along the route. Ten years ago, he said, an ice-free passage, even at the peak of summer, was exceptionally rare.
But environmental scientists say there is now no doubt that global warming is shrinking the Arctic ice pack, opening new sea lanes and making the few previously navigable routes near shore accessible more months of the year. And whatever the grim environmental repercussions of greenhouse gas, companies in Russia and other countries around the Arctic Ocean are mining that dark cloud’s silver lining by finding new opportunities for commerce and trade.
Oil companies might be the most likely beneficiaries, as the receding polar ice cap opens more of the sea floor to exploration. The oil giant Exxon Mobil recently signed a sweeping deal to drill in the Russian sector of the Arctic Ocean. But shipping, mining and fishing ventures are also looking farther north than ever before.
“It is paradoxical that new opportunities are opening for our nations at the same time we understand that the threat of (p. B13) carbon emissions have become imminent,” Iceland’s president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, said at a recent conference on Arctic Ocean shipping held in this Russian port city not far south of the Arctic Circle.
At the same forum, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia offered a full-throated endorsement of the new business prospects in the thawing north.
“The Arctic is the shortcut between the largest markets of Europe and the Asia-Pacific region,” he said. “It is an excellent opportunity to optimize costs.”

For the full story, see:
ANDREW E. KRAMER. “Amid the Peril, a Dream Fulfilled.” The New York Times (Tues., October 18, 2011): B1 & B13.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 17, 2011 and has the title “Warming Revives Dream of Sea Route in Russian Arctic.”)

VladimirTikhonovTankerBeringStrait2011-11-04.jpg“The tanker Vladimir Tikhonov in the Bering Strait.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

Schumpeter’s Simile for Capitalist Mobility

(p. 156) In fact, the upper strata of society are like hotels which are indeed always full of people, but people who are forever changing.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. The Theory of Economic Development: An Inquiry into Profits, Capital, Credit, Interest, and the Business Cycle. Translated by Redvers Opie. translation of 2nd German edition that appeared in 1926; translation first published by Harvard in 1934 ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1983.