“Lowest-Paid Burger Flipper” Is “Better Off than King Henry”

(p. 76) After going from room to room, skipping none except the garage (that would be a project in itself), we arrived at a total of 6,000 varieties of things in our house. Since we have multiple examples of some varieties, such as books, CDs, paper plates, spoons, socks, on so on, I estimate the total number of objects in our home, including the garage, to be close to 10,000.
Without trying very hard, our typical modern house holds a king’s ransom. But in fact, we are wealthier than King Henry. In fact, the lowest-paid burger flipper working at McDonald’s is in many respects (p. 77) better off than King Henry or any of the richest people living not too long ago. Although the burger flipper barely makes enough to pay the rent, he or she can afford many things that King Henry could not. King Henry’s wealth–the entire treasure of England–could not have purchased an indoor flush toilet or air-conditioning or secured a comfortable ride for 500 kilometers. Any taxicab driver can afford these today. Only 100 years ago, John Rockefeller’s vast fortune as the world’s richest man could not have gotten him the cell phone that any untouchable street sweeper in Bombay now uses. In the first half of the 19th century Nathan Rothschild was the richest man in the world. His millions were not enough to buy an antibiotic. Rothschild died of an infected abscess that could have been cured with a three-dollar tube of neomycin today. Although King Henry had some fine clothes and a lot of servants, you could not pay people today to live as he did, without plumbing, in dark, drafty rooms, isolated from the world by impassable roads and few communication connections. A poor university student living in a dingy dorm room in Jakarta lives better in most ways than King Henry.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

Cooking Allowed the Toothless to Live


Source of book image: http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1344733081l/13587130.jpg

(p. C12) . . . the narrative, ragtag though it may be, is a good one and it starts with the single greatest achievement in cookware–the cooking pot. Originally made of clay, this simple invention allowed previously inedible foods to be cooked in water, a process that removed toxins, made them digestible and reduced the need for serious chewing, a deadly problem for the toothless. (Archaeologists find adult skeletons without teeth only at sites dating from after the invention of the cooking pot.)
. . .
When “Consider the Fork” turns to cultural history, Ms. Wilson’s points sometimes contradict one another. On one hand, she slyly condemns the rich throughout history and their use of cheap cooking labor. Yet she also relates how the Lebanese writer Anissa Helou remembers kibbé being made in Beirut by her mother and grandmother: They pounded the lamb in a mortar and pestle for an hour, a process described in loving terms. So is cooking labor a bedrock of family values or class exploitation?

For the full review, see:
CHRISTOPHER KIMBALL. “The World on a Plate.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 6, 2012): C12.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 5, 2012.)

The book under review, is:
Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

Berkshire Buys Big into DaVita, Firm Accused of Medicare Fraud

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway apparently has a large stake in DaVita Healthcare Partners. An earlier entry on this blog discussed accusations that DaVita Healthcare Partners has committed substantial healthcare fraud by charging the taxpayer millions of dollars for medicine that is needlessly thrown away. Apparently the DaVita investment is due to Ted Weschler, one of two deputies to whom Buffett has delegated the investment of some of Berkshire’s funds.

(p. 3D) Weschler is believed to be behind Berkshire’s aggressive move into DaVita Healthcare Partners — a stock he owned when he ran his own hedge fund. Berkshire bought 10.9 million shares last year, becoming Da-Vita’s largest stakeholder with 15.7 percent of the company. DaVita provides kidney dialy­sis services and is seen as a consistent cash-flow genera­tor. In November, the company closed its $4.7 billion purchase of Healthcare Partners, one of the country’s largest operators of medical groups and physi­cian networks. DaVita shares rose more than 35 percent in the past 12 months.

For the full story, see:

MarketWatch . “Buffett was avid hunter of 6 stocks last year; Wells Fargo, GM and DirecTV top Berkshire’s list.” Omaha World-Herald (Tues., March 12, 2013): 1D & 3D.

21st Century Person Would Be Sick in Dickens’ 1850 London

NancyFromOliverTwist2013-05-04.jpg “Anderson found Dickens World to be “surprisingly grisly” for a park that markets itself to children; he noted several severed heads and a gruesome performance of “Oliver Twist” in the courtyard. Here, a mannequin of Nancy from “Oliver Twist.”” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 48) . . . even if it were possible to create a lavish simulacrum of 1850s London — with its typhus and cholera and clouds of toxic corpse gas, its sewage pouring into the Thames, its (p. 49) average life span of 27 years — why would anyone want to visit? (“If a late-20th-century person were suddenly to find himself in a tavern or house of the period,” Peter Ackroyd, a Dickens biographer, has written, “he would be literally sick — sick with the smells, sick with the food, sick with the atmosphere around him.”)

For the full story, see:
SAM ANDERSON. “VOYAGES; The Pippiest Place on Earth.” The New York Times Magazine (Sun., February 7, 2012): 48-53.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 7, 2012 (sic), and has the title “VOYAGES; The World of Charles Dickens, Complete With Pizza Hut.”)

New Technology Gets Better, Cheaper and More Diverse

(p. 75) Devices not only get better, they also get cheaper while they get better. We turn around to peer through our window into the past and realize there wasn’t window glass back then. The past also lacked machine-woven cloth, refrigerators, steel, photographs, and the entire warehouse of goods spilling into the aisles of our local superstore. We can trace this cornucopia back along a diminishing curve to the Neolithic era. Craft from ancient times can surprise us in its sophistication, but in sheer quantity, variety, and complexity, it pales against modern inventions. The proof of this is clear: We buy the new over the old. Given the choice between an old-fashioned tool and a new one, most people–in the past as well as now–would grab the newer one. A very few will collect old tools, but as big as eBay is, and flea markets anywhere in the world, they are dwarfed by the market of the new. But if the new is not really better, and we keep reaching for it, then we are consistently duped or consistently dumb. The more likely reason we seek the new is that new things do get better. And of course there are more new things to choose from.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

Were Phone Phreaks Creative Incipient Entrepreneurs or Destructive “Sophomoric Savants”?


Source of book image: http://img1.imagesbn.com/p/9780802120618_p0_v2_s260x420.JPG

(p. C6) Mr. Lapsley also describes John Draper, aka Captain Crunch, who was probably the most celebrated of the phreakers; his nickname derived from the fact that whistles that used to come in Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes happened to generate the key 2600-Hz tone used in long-distance switching. . . .

The phone-phreak netherworld was introduced to a mass audience by the October 1971 issue of Esquire magazine, which included what has to be (at least indirectly) one of the most influential articles ever written: Ron Rosenbaum’s “Secrets of the Little Blue Box.” Not only did it turn phreakers into folk heroes, but it inspired two young men, Steve Wozniak (who provided the foreword for this book) and Steve Jobs, to construct and sell blue boxes. Going door to door in Berkeley dorms, they managed to sell several dozen at $170 each. The “two Steves” savored this mix of clever engineering and entrepreneurial hustle: As Mr. Lapsley quotes Jobs saying: “If we hadn’t made blue boxes, there would have been no Apple.” (Mr. Rosenbaum’s article also put the “phreak” into “phone phreak.”)
. . .: By the 1980s, computerized phone systems and fiber-optic cables rendered many of the old phreaking modes obsolete. In addition, I can’t help suspecting that the breakup of AT&T in 1984–the result of an antitrust lawsuit filed by the federal government–deeply discouraged the hard-core phreaks. Surreptitiously penetrating one of the shriveled new regional phone companies must have seemed a paltry caper compared with taking on mighty, majestic AT&T.
. . .
I must, however, take issue with one of Mr. Lapsley’s conclusions. In reflecting on the phreaks’ legacy, he writes: “The phone phreaks taught us that there is a societal benefit to tolerating, perhaps even nurturing (in the words of Apple) the crazy ones–the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers.” Is that truly what they taught us? . . .
Wilt Chamberlain supposedly once said that “nobody roots for Goliath.” Perhaps. But the lesson to be learned from those waging guerrilla war against giants like the phone company and the Internet is that sophomoric savants who tamper with society’s indispensable systems ultimately harm all too many innocent people.

For the full review, see:
HOWARD SCHNEIDER. “BOOKSHELF; Playing Tricks on Ma Bell.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., February 2, 2013): C6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 1, 2013.)

The book under review, is:
Lapsley, Phil. Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell. New York: Grove Press, 2013.

Much of Human Genome Consists of Usually-Inactive Ancient Retrovirus Genes

(p. C4) Might some forms of neurological illness, such as multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia, be caused at least partly by bacteria, viruses or other parasites? A largely Danish team has recently published evidence of a strong association between multiple sclerosis and a retrovirus, together with hints that a gene called TRIM5, which is used by cells to fight viruses, is especially active in people with MS.
. . .
The virus implicated in multiple sclerosis is called HERV-Fc1, a bizarre beast called an “endogenous” retrovirus. What this means is that its genes are part of the human genome. For millions of years, they have been integrated into our own DNA and passed on by normal heredity. It was one of the shocks of genomic science to find that the human genome contains more retroviral than “human” genes: some 5% to 8% of the entire genome.
Normally, the genes of endogenous retroviruses remain dormant, but–a bit like a computer virus that springs into action on a trigger–something wakes them up sometimes, and actual viruses are made from them, which then infect other cells in the body. The Danish scientists suggest that this is what happens in multiple sclerosis. Bjørn Nexø of Aarhus University writes that “retroviral infections often develop into running battles between the immune system and virus, with the virus mutating repeatedly to avoid the immune system, and the immune system repeatedly catching up. One can see the episodic nature of multiple sclerosis as such a running battle.”

For the full commentary, see:
MATT RIDLEY. “MIND & MATTER; The Good News About the Virus in Your Genes.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 10, 2012): C4.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 9, 2012.)

Chinese Couples Divorce to Avoid Government Regulations and Taxes

ShanghaiRealEstateMob2013-05-04.jpg “A police officer attempted to stop residents from rushing into a real estate trading center in Shanghai after new restrictions were announced.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A4) SHANGHAI — When the Chinese government announced new curbs on property prices this month, homeowners bombarded social networking sites with complaints. They formed long lines at property bureaus to register to sell their homes before the restrictions went into effect.

And some couples went even further: they filed for divorce.
Divorce filings shot up here and in other big cities across China this past week after rumors spread that one way to avoid the new 20 percent tax on profits from housing sales was to separate from a spouse, at least on paper.
The surge in divorce filings is the latest indication of how volatile an issue real estate has become in China in the past decade and how resistant people are to additional taxes.
. . .
On Friday, at a marriage registration center in the Pudong district, a 33-year-old woman named Frances Tao arrived with her husband. She acknowledged that they were filing for divorce, not to avoid the 20 percent capital gains tax on second homes, but to get around another restriction, which requires home buyers to put down a much higher deposit on a second home than on a primary residence.
Ms. Tao said that by divorcing, one of them would be able to purchase a first home and put down less money and get a better interest rate.
“We don’t have other choices,” Ms. Tao said. “But the government and developers continue to make a lot of money.”

For the full story, see:
DAVID BARBOZA. “In China, Checklist for a Home Seller: First, Get a Divorce.” The New York Times (Sat., March 9, 2012): A4.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 8, 2012.)

Knowledge Economy Migrating to Intangible Goods and Services

(p. 67) Our present economic migration from a material-based industry to a knowledge economy of intangible goods (such as software, design, and media products) is just the latest in a steady move toward the immaterial. (Not that material processing has let up, just that intangible processing is now more economically valuable.) Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, says, “Data from nearly all parts of the world show us that consumers tend to spend relatively less on goods and more on services as their incomes rise. . . . Once people have met their basic needs, they tend to want medical care, transportation and communication, information, recreation, entertainment, financial and legal advice, and the like.” The disembodiment of value (more value, less mass) is a steady trend in the technium. In six years the average weight per dollar of U.S. exports (the most valuable things the U.S. produces) (p. 68) dropped by half. Today, 40 percent of U.S. exports are services (intangibles) rather than manufactured goods (atoms). We are steadily substituting intangible design, flexibility, innovation, and smartness for rigid, heavy atoms. In a very real sense our entry into a service- and idea-based economy is a continuation of a trend that began at the big bang.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.
(Note: ellipsis in original; a graph is omitted that appears in the middle of the paragraph quoted above.)

The Process of Picking a Pope


Source of book image: http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/images/full13/9780300115970.jpg

(p. C3) The popes appointed by the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry III in the early 11th century were . . . unconventional but . . . edifying. Determined to purge the corruptions of Rome, Henry personally appointed four outstanding popes, reformers to a man, all of them Germans. The greatest of them, St. Leo IX (1049-1054), arrived in Rome as a barefoot pilgrim and was the first pope to travel widely through Europe, stirring local bishops to tackle corruption and undertake renewal.

Henry III’s German popes ended the tradition that the Bishop of Rome had to be a local man, and medieval conclaves chose popes from the small but international College of Cardinals. Exceptions to this rule were seldom a success.
The most notorious case was St. Celestine V (1294), an 85-year-old hermit and visionary from Naples chosen in the hope that an “angelic Pope” would free the papacy from its financial and political entanglements. But the old man was hopelessly incompetent and easily swayed by forceful politicians. After only six months, he was badgered into resigning by Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who succeeded him as Boniface VIII and promptly imprisoned him.
The experiment of electing a non-cardinal was tried again in 1378. After a run of seven French popes based in Avignon, the Roman mob demanded an Italian. Sixteen terrified cardinals obliged by electing Urban VI. A distinguished administrator as Archbishop of Bari, Urban VI was unhinged by his elevation. Aggressively paranoid, he alienated all supporters and appears to have murdered five of his cardinals. The French cardinals elected a rival pope, who returned to Avignon, starting a schism that would last a generation.

For the full commentary, see:
EAMON DUFFY. “When Picking A Pope Was A Perilous Affair.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., February 16, 2013): C3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date February 15, 2013.)

Duffy’s related book, is:
Duffy, Eamon. Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. Third ed., Yale Nota Bene. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

Stem-Cell Researchers Developing Experimental Personalized Medicine

(p. C4) Last month a team at Johns Hopkins University and the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, using a version of Dr. Yamanaka’s technique, successfully grew nerve cells from a patient suffering from a rare disease called Riley-Day syndrome, which is linked to early mortality, seizures and other symptoms and caused by a fault in one gene.
But the purpose was not to put these cells back into the patient. Instead the scientists tested 6,912 chemical compounds on the cells to see if they could find one that “rescued” the “expression” of the gene: that is to say, caused it to produce the protein it is supposed to produce. One of the compounds worked, inducing the gene to be actively transcribed by the cell.
In the not-very-distant future, when something is going wrong in one of your organs, one treatment may be to create some stem cells from your body in the laboratory, turn them into cells of that organ, or even rudimentary structures, and then subject them to experimental treatments to see if something cures the problem. The goal of personalized medicine, in other words, may be reached by stem-cell researchers before it’s reached by geneticists.

For the full commentary, see:
MATT RIDLEY. “MIND & MATTER; Stem-Cell Cures Without the Controversy.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 8, 2012): C4.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date December 7, 2012.)