“Discovering a Viper in the Bed of Their Child”


Source of book image: http://files.list.co.uk/images/2011/09/15/arguably-lst090367.jpg

(p. 8) Anyone who occasionally opens one of our more serious periodicals has learned that the byline of Christopher Hitchens is an opportunity to be delighted or maddened — possibly both — but in any case not to be missed. He is our intellectual omnivore, exhilarating and infuriating, if not in equal parts at least with equal wit. He has been rather famously an aggressive critic of God and his followers, after cutting his sacrilegious teeth on Mother Teresa. He wrote a deadpan argument for trying Henry Kissinger as a war criminal, then was branded an apostate by former friends on the left for vigorously supporting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (He memorably — a lot of what Hitchens has written merits the adverb — shot back that his antiwar critics were “the sort who, discovering a viper in the bed of their child, would place the first call to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”) And he is dying of esophageal cancer, a fact he has faced with exceptional aplomb.

This fifth and, one fears, possibly last collection of his essays is a reminder of all that will be missed when the cancer is finished with him.
. . .
(p. 9) At times the book feels like an ongoing argument with the leftist intellectuals on the other side of the Atlantic, who tend to view America as lacking in history, culture or moral standing.
In an essay on the journalism of Karl Marx, written for the left-leaning Guardian, he puts an elbow in the ribs of his old socialist friends: “If you are looking for an irony of history, you will find it . . . in the fact that he and Engels considered Russia the great bastion of reaction and America the great potential nurse of liberty and equality. This is not the sort of thing they teach you in school (in either country).”
“There is currently much easy talk about the ‘decline’ of my adopted country, both in confidence and in resources,” he writes in his introduction. “I don’t choose to join this denigration.”
Christopher Hitchens: American patriot. We’ve done a lot worse.
If there is a God, and he lacks a sense of irony, he will send Hitchens to the hottest precinct of hell. If God does have a sense of irony, Hitchens will spend eternity in a town that serves no liquor and has no library. Either way, heaven will be a less interesting place.

For the full review, see:
BILL KELLER. “Christopher Hitchens, a Man of His Words.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., September 11, 2011): 8-9.
(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs was added; ellipsis internal to a Hitchens quote was in the original.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated September 9, 2011.)

The full reference for Arguably, is:
Hitchens, Christopher. Arguably: Essays. New York: Twelve, 2012.


“Christopher Hitchens.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

For Inventors “Optimism Is Widespread, Stubborn, and Costly”

(p. 257) One of the benefits of an optimistic temperament is that it encourages persistence in the face of obstacles. But persistence can be costly. An impressive series of studies by Thomas ├ůstebro sheds light on what happens when optimists receive bad news. He drew his data from a Canadian organization–the Inventors Assistance Program–which collects a small fee to provide inventors with an objective assessment of the commercial prospects of their idea. The evaluations rely on careful ratings of each invention on 37 criteria, including need for the product, cost of production, and estimated trend of demand. The analysts summarize their ratings by a letter grade, where D and E predict failure–a prediction made for over 70% of the inventions they review. The forecasts of failure are remarkably accurate: only 5 of 411 projects that were given the lowest grade reached commercialization, and none was successful.
Discouraging news led about half of the inventors to quit after receiving a grade that unequivocally predicted failure. However, 47% of them continued development efforts even after being told that their project was hopeless, and on average these persistent (or obstinate) individuals doubled their initial losses before giving up. Significantly, persistence after discouraging advice was relatively common among inventors who had a high score on a personality measure of optimism–on which inventors generally scored higher than the general population. Overall, the return on private invention was small, “lower than the return on private equity and on high-risk securities.” More generally, the financial benefits of self-employment are mediocre: given the same qualifications, people achieve higher average returns by selling their skills to employers than by setting out on their own. The evidence suggests that optimism is widespread, stubborn, and costly.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

“It’s All about Creative Destruction”


“LARRY ELLISON: ‘It’s all about creative destruction.'” Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. R6) In Silicon Valley, a spot known for constant change, Larry Ellison has kept his job atop Oracle Corp. . . . for decades. And that gives him a unique perspective on the industry and where it’s headed.

The Wall Street Journal’s Kara Swisher spoke with Mr. Ellison about the state of tech innovation, the future of the Internet–and what keeps him inspired.
What follows are edited excerpts of their discussion.
. . .
MS. SWISHER: A lot of people talk about the end of Silicon Valley, the end of innovation. Do you imagine that?
MR. ELLISON: It’s all about creative destruction. Remember Woody Allen’s great line about relationships: “Relationships are like a shark. It either has to move forward, or it dies.”
That’s true of a company. If you don’t keep your technology current, if you’re not monitoring what is possible today that wasn’t possible yesterday, then someone’s going to beat you to the punch. Someone’s going to get ahead of you, and you’re going to lose your customers to some competitor.
We see a lot of companies in Silicon Valley that are under stress now. But there are a lot of other companies that have come along and are doing interesting things.
. . .
MS. SWISHER: What keeps you going?
MR. ELLISON: Red Bull.
I mean, this is going to sound really corny, but life’s a journey of discovery. I’m really fascinated by people, and by what can be done with technology. I also enjoy the competition, the process of learning as we compete, learning as we exploit these technologies to solve customer problems.
The whole thing is just fascinating. I don’t know what I would do if I retired.

For the full interview, see:
Kara Swisher, interviewer. “Silicon Valley, the Long View; Larry Ellison on how much simpler the consumer has it now.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., June 4, 2012): R6.
(Note: ellipses added; bold and italics in original.)

Global Warming Heretic Svensmark May Be the Next Shechtman

(p. C) The list of scientific heretics who were persecuted for their radical ideas but eventually proved right keeps getting longer. Last month, Daniel Shechtman won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of quasicrystals, having spent much of his career being told he was wrong.
“I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying,” he recalled, adding that the doyen of chemistry, the late Linus Pauling, had denounced the theory with the words: “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”
The Australian medical scientist Barry Marshall, who hypothesized that a bacterial infection causes stomach ulcers, received similar treatment and was taken seriously only when he deliberately infected himself, then cured himself with antibiotics in 1984. Eventually, he too won the Nobel Prize.
. . .
Perhaps it’s at least worth guessing which of today’s heretics will eventually win a Nobel Prize. How about the Dane Henrik Svensmark? In 1997, he suggested that the sun’s magnetic field affects the earth’s climate–by shielding the atmosphere against cosmic rays, which would otherwise create or thicken clouds and thereby cool the surface. So, he reasoned, a large part of the natural fluctuations in the climate over recent millennia might reflect variation in solar activity.
Dr. Svensmark is treated as a heretic mainly because his theory is thought to hinder the effort to convince people that recent climatic variation is largely manmade, not natural, so there is a bias toward resisting his idea. That does not make it right, but some promising recent experiments at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) raise the probability that Dr. Svensmark might yet prove to be a Shechtman.

For the full commentary, see:
MATT RIDLEY. “MIND & MATTER; Is That Scientific Heretic a Genius–or a Loon?” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., November 12, 2011): C4.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Catherine the Great as Benevolent Despot


Source of book image: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204644504576653083743832432.html?KEYWORDS=Catherine+Great

(p. C3) Bereft of husband and child, a lonely Catherine began to read the histories, philosophy and literature of Greece and Rome and of the Enlightenment. Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of Laws,” which analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of despotic rule, had a powerful impact on her. She was particularly interested in his thesis that the conduct of a specific despot could partially redeem that form of rule. Thereafter, she attributed to herself a “republican soul” of the kind advocated by Montesquieu.

Voltaire, the venerated patriarch of the Enlightenment, had concluded that a despotic government might well be the best possible form of government–if it were reasonable. But to be reasonable, he said, it must be enlightened; if enlightened, it could be both efficient and benevolent. Soon after ascending to the throne, Catherine began a correspondence with Voltaire that eventually extended to hundreds of letters over more than 20 years.
. . .
Near the end of her reign Catherine was asked how she understood the “blind obedience with which her orders were obeyed.” Catherine smiled and answered, “It is not as easy as you think…. I examine the circumstances, I take advice, I consult the enlightened part of the people, and so in this way I find out what sort of effect my laws will have. And when I am already convinced in advance of good approval, then I issue my orders and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience.”
Catherine died in 1796, when George Washington was finishing his second term in office. Since then, the temptations of absolute power have remained great; despots have continued to appear, afflicting people everywhere. We have learned, at enormous cost, the difficulty of combining despotism with benevolence. Few rulers have even tried. Catherine tried.

For the full commentary, see:
ROBERT K. MASSIE. “Catherine the Great’s Lessons for Despots; Russia’s erudite empress tried to redeem absolute rule; her failures highlight dangers still present today.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., November 12, 2011): C3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

For Massie’s full biography of Catherine the Great, see:
Massie, Robert K. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. New York: Random House, 2011.

Entrepreneurs Are Optimistic About the Odds of Success

(p. 256) The chances that a small business will survive for five years in the United States are about 35%. But the individuals who open such businesses do not believe that the statistics apply to them. A survey found that American entrepreneurs tend to believe they are in a promising line of business: their (p. 257) average estimate of the chances of success for “any business like yours” was 60%–almost double the true value. The bias was more glaring when people assessed the odds of their own venture. Fully 81% of the entrepreneurs put their personal odds of success at 7 out of 10 or higher, and 33% said their chance of failing was zero.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Ronald Reagan Celebrated Opening of Disneyland

ReaganCohostingOpeningDisneyland2012-08-17.jpg “Ronald Reagan, left, helped host a TV show about Disneyland’s opening in 1955.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 11) In an unusual collaboration of presidential scholarship and mass-market entertainment — featuring two men who, truth be told, were never particularly close — the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and the Walt Disney Company have joined together to open a sprawling, nine-month exhibition drawn from the Disney archives.
. . .
Reagan was one of three M.C.’s for the televised opening of Disneyland in 1955; a grainy video in the exhibit captures the event. As governor, Reagan petitioned the United States postmaster to issue a Walt Disney stamp, and he was on hand in 1990 for Disneyland’s 35th anniversary.
“He and Walt Disney did know each other,” said Robert A. Iger, the chief ex-(p. 16)ecutive and chairman of the Walt Disney Company. “They became Californians. And they clearly had mutual respect for one another.”

For the full story, see:
ADAM NAGOURNEY and BROOKS BARNES. “In New Exhibit, Disney Lends Its Star Power to Reagan, and Vice Versa.” The New York Times, First Section (Sun., July 22, 2012): 11 & 16.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the date of the online version of the article is July 21, 2012.)