In Greece, Votes Are Traded for Government Jobs

(p. A4) Some members of Parliament have lobbied for fishing licenses for the owners of pleasure boats in the Aegean islands. Others have asked for government jobs for award-winning athletes or members of dismantled state agencies. One sought to exempt theaters and cinemas from a controversial property tax. Another to reduce fines for the owners of illegally built homes in parts of northern Greece. The list goes on.
In all, more than 90 such budget-busting proposals have been floated as lawmakers scramble to push through last-minute amendments to bills otherwise intended to meet the demands of creditors who want Greece to liberalize its job market, cut red tape and shrink state payrolls.
. . .
But the proliferation of items threatens to delay that step, as lawmakers go to the trough one last time. Greece’s practice of trading favors — often government jobs — for political support is as old as its 400 years of Ottoman rule, when the system evolved. The word for it, “rousfeti,” which means favor, has its roots in the Turkish word for bribe.
. . .
“In Greece, the cross is sold in exchange for a government job,” said one of them, Theodoros Pangalos, the outspoken deputy prime minister and seasoned Socialist, referring to the X that voters make on the ballot.
“No one has dared touch this system to date,” Mr. Pangalos, who will not seek re-election, said this month in an interview with the French-German television channel Arte. “But it is time for it to change.”

For the full story, see:
NIKI KITSANTONIS. “Despite Warning, Old Handouts Die Hard for Greek Politicians Facing Voters Soon.” The New York Times (Tues., April 10, 2012): A4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 9, 2012.)

George Mitchell, Father of Fracking, Took 20 Years to Make It Work


“George P. Mitchell with a statue of himself at The Woodlands in 2007.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ obituary quoted and cited below.

(p. B3) George P. Mitchell turned hydraulic fracturing from an experimental technique into an energy-industry mainstay, making it possible to pump oil and gas from once untappable rocks and unleashing an energy boom across the U.S.

Known as the father of fracking, Mr. Mitchell died Friday [July 26, 2013] at age 94 at his home in Galveston, Texas.
. . .
“George Mitchell, more than anyone else, is responsible for the most important energy innovation of the 21st century,” said Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of consulting firm IHS and a Pulitzer Prize winning author on energy.
. . .
His first efforts at fracking, in the late 1970s, were expensive, and at times investors and his board of directors questioned the spending. But by the late 1990s the company had figured out the right mix of techniques and materials to produce shale gas economically, and began to do so on a major scale.
Devon Energy Corp. bought Mr. Mitchell’s firm in 2002 for $3.1 billion, combined the hydraulic fracturing techniques with horizontal drilling, and helped launch the current surge in oil and gas production.

For the full obituary, see:
TOM FOWLER. “REMEMBRANCES; George P. Mitchell 1919-2013; ‘Father of Fracking’ Helped Unleash U.S. Energy Boom.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 27, 2013): B3.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date July 26, 2013, and has the title “REMEMBRANCES; ‘Father of Fracking’ Dies at 94; George P. Mitchell Helped Unleash U.S. Energy Boom.”)

Excite Rejected Google Because It Was too Good

(p. 28) Maybe the closest Page and Brin came to a deal was with Excite, a search-based company that had begun– just like Yahoo– with a bunch of sharp Stanford kids whose company was called Architext before the venture capitalists (VCs) got their hands on it and degeekified the name. Terry Winograd, Sergey’s adviser, accompanied them to a meeting with Vinod Khosla, the venture capitalist who had funded Excite.
. . .
(p. 29) Khosla made a tentative counteroffer of $ 750,000 total. But the deal never happened. Hassan recalls a key meeting that might have sunk it. Though Excite had been started by a group of Stanford geeks very much like Larry and Sergey, its venture capital funders had demanded they hire “adult supervision,” the condescending term used when brainy geeks are pushed aside as top executives and replaced by someone more experienced and mature, someone who could wear a suit without looking as though he were attending his Bar Mitzvah. The new CEO was George Bell, a former Times Mirror magazine executive. Years later, Hassan would still laugh when he described the meeting between the BackRub team and Bell. When the team got to Bell’s office, it fired up BackRub in one window and Excite in the other for a bake-off.
The first query they tested was “Internet.” According to Hassan, Excite’s first results were Chinese web pages where the English word “Internet” stood out among a jumble of Chinese characters. Then the team typed “Internet” into BackRub. The first two results delivered pages that told you how to use browsers. It was exactly the kind of helpful result that would most likely satisfy someone who made the query.
Bell was visibly upset. The Stanford product was too good. If Excite were to host a search engine that instantly gave people information they sought, he explained, the users would leave the site instantly. Since his ad revenue came from people staying on the site–” stickiness” was the most desired metric in websites at the time– using BackRub’s technology would be (p. 30) counterproductive. “He told us he wanted Excite’s search engine to be 80 percent as good as the other search engines,” says Hassan. And we were like, “Wow, these guys don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Hassan says that he urged Larry and Sergey right then, in early 1997, to leave Stanford and start a company. “Everybody else was doing it,” he says. “I saw Hotmail and Netscape doing really well. Money was flowing into the Valley. So I said to them, ‘The search engine is the idea. We should do this.’ They didn’t think so. Larry and Sergey were both very adamant that they could build this search engine at Stanford.”
“We weren’t … in an entrepreneurial frame of mind back then,” Sergey later said.

Levy, Steven. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs added; ellipsis in last sentence, in original.)

It’s Hard to Be Consistent


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

(p. A13) Both Adam Smith and Horatio Alger would find something to like in the rise of T. Boone Pickens. “Boy geologist” Boone quit a promising job at Phillips Petroleum in the mid-1950s and built, over the following decades, Mesa Petroleum, a top North American independent oil and gas producer. Mesa found lots of oil and gas, provided jobs for hundreds of workers, and earned wealth for thousands of investors. During the same years, Mr. Pickens’s attempts to take over Cities Service, Gulf Oil, Phillips and Unocal made the whole oil industry shape up: His bids required the managers of each company to look hard at its practices and improve its shareholder returns.

Such accomplishments are the core of Mr. Pickens’s 1987 autobiography, “Boone,” which was updated 13 years later and retitled “The Luckiest Guy in the World.” In those books, Mr. Pickens’s political philosophy rang loud and clear. “I believe,” he stated, “the greatest opportunity lies in a free marketplace.” He warned: “There are powerful forces afoot trying to restrict that freedom in the interests of the vested and already wealthy. I am talking about a relatively small collection of corporate executives who would use the engine of American commerce for their own narrow ends.”
. . .
Now Mr. Pickens has new dreams — and he is lobbying Washington to make them come alive.
In particular, Mr. Pickens wants the federal government — through a mix of tax incentives, mandates and subsidies — to override the market and redirect the uses of natural gas.
. . .
“The First Billion” argues for this plan, along with recounting Mr. Pickens’s business ups and downs. The book is often entertaining, featuring the usual “Boone-isms”: e.g., “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” But readers unfamiliar with Mr. Pickens’s earlier memoirs may not realize that the new one represents a kind of bait-and-switch. Mr. Pickens’s standing to pronounce on energy matters was earned as a free-market producer. He is now using that standing to defy the market itself.

For the full review, see:
ROBERT BRADLEY JR. “BUSINESS BOOKSHELF; When Effort Is Energetic.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., September 10, 2008): A13.
(Note: ellipses added.)

The book under review is:
Pickens, T. Boone. The First Billion Is the Hardest: Reflections on a Life of Comebacks and America’s Energy Future. New York: Crown Business, 2008.

New Technologies Often Are Feared at First

(p. 4) It is hard to think of a technology that wasn’t feared when it was introduced. In his Atlantic article, Mr. Carr says that Socrates feared the impact that writing would have on man’s ability to think. The advent of the printing press summoned similar fears. It wouldn’t be the last time.
When Hewlett-Packard invented the HP-35, the first hand-held scientific calculator, in 1972, the device was banned from some engineering classrooms. Professors feared that engineers would use it as a crutch, that they would no longer understand the relationships that either penciled calculations or a slide rule somehow provided for proficient scientific thought.
But the HP-35 hardly stultified engineering skills. Instead, in the last 36 years those engineers have brought us iPods, cellphones, high-definition TV and, yes, Google and Twitter. It freed engineers from wasting time on mundane tasks so they could spend more time creating.
Many technological advances have that effect. Take tax software, for instance. The tedious job of filing a tax return no longer requires several evenings, but just a few hours. It gives us time for more productive activities.

For the full commentary, see:
DAMON DARLIN . “PING; Technology Doesn’t Dumb Us Down. It Frees Our Minds.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., September 21, 2008): 4.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date September 20, 2008.)

Global Warming Allows Russians to Build Liquefied Natural Gas Plant in Arctic

NovatekArcticLiquefiedNaturalGasPlant2013-08-04.jpg “A rendering of Novatek’s proposed $20 billion liquefied natural gas plant on Russia’s Arctic coast, scheduled to be done by 2016.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) YURKHAROVSKOYE GAS FIELD, Russia — The polar ice cap is melting, and if executives at the Russian energy company Novatek feel guilty about profiting from that, they do not let it be known in public.

From this windswept shore on the Arctic Ocean, where Novatek owns enormous natural gas deposits, a stretch of thousands of miles of ice-free water leads to China. The company intends to ship the gas directly there.
. . .
Novatek, in partnership with the French energy company Total and the China National Petroleum Corporation, is building a $20 billion liquefied natural gas plant on the central Arctic coast of Russia. It is one of the first major energy projects to take advantage of the summer thawing of the Arctic caused by global warming.
The plant, called Yamal LNG, would send gas to Asia along the sea lanes known as the Northeast Passage, which opened for regular international shipping only four years ago.

For the full story, see:
ANDREW E. KRAMER. “Polar Thaw Opens Shortcut for Russian Natural Gas.” The New York Times (Thurs., July 25, 2013): B1 & B6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the interview has the date July 24, 2013, and has the title “Polar Thaw Opens Shortcut for Russian Natural Gas.”)

“Web Links Were Like Citations in a Scholarly Article”

(p. 17) Page, a child of academia, understood that web links were like citations in a scholarly article. It was widely recognized that you could identify which papers were really important without reading them– simply tally up how many other papers cited them in notes and bibliographies. Page believed that this principle could also work with web pages. But getting the right data would be difficult. Web pages made their outgoing links transparent: built into the code were easily identifiable markers for the destinations you could travel to with a mouse click from that page. But it wasn’t obvious at all what linked to a page. To find that out, you’d have to somehow collect a database of links that connected to some other page. Then you’d go backward.

Levy, Steven. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

For Hubbard and Kane “Institutions Explain Innovation”


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

(p. A11) Messrs. Hubbard and Kane argue, as do others, that certain policies and core principles are the key: property rights, flexible work rules, open markets. For the authors, such matters explain economic growth entirely.

To those who would cite the primacy of technological breakthroughs, Messrs. Hubbard and Kane assert that inventions only spark growth if there are systems in place (such as intellectual-property rights) that enable inventions to flourish and their value to spread. “The wheel and the windmill were invented many times,” they write, “then forgotten, until finally one society had the institutional framework to implement them widely and pass them on permanently.” In short, “institutions explain innovation.”

For the full review, see:
Matthew Rees. “BOOKSHELF; How the Mighty Fall; The Roman empire eventually lost its economic vitality thanks to price controls, heavy taxes and state-sponsored debt relief..” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., June 21, 2013): A11.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 20, 2013.)

The book under review is:
Hubbard, Glenn, and Tim Kane. Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

If Terry Were from Texas, He Might Oppose Federal Ethanol Mandates

(p. 1A) WASHINGTON — The ethanol industry is again under fire from critics who want to eliminate the federal mandate that oil companies blend biofuels into the gasoline supply.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee is holding hearings on the Renewable Fuel Standard [RFS], which called for 15 billion gallons of biofuels to be used in 2012. The requirements reach 36 billion gallons by 2022.
. . .
(p. 2A) Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said it’s clear that members from Texas and Louisiana will be targeting the usage requirements.
. . .
Terry has been a champion of the Keystone XL pipeline, making him an ally of Gulf Coast lawmakers and the oil industry on that issue.
Their split over the ethanol issue causes some awkward moments, he said.
“I say, ‘You do realize I’m from the Cornhusker State,'” Terry said. “If I was from Dallas, you know, who knows? I’d have a different view on the RFS.”

For the full story, see:
Joseph Morton. “Big Oil Revs Up Efforts to Repeal Rules Forcing Ethonal in the Mix.” Omaha World-Herald (MONDAY, JULY 8, 2013): 1A-2A.
(Note: ellipses and bracketed abbreviation added.)
(Note: the online version of the article has the title “RENEWABLE FUEL STANDARD; Ethanol Critics Rev Up Efforts to Repeal Biofuel Rules on Gas.”)

“No Innovation Happens with 10 People in a Room”


“Paul English, the co-founder of Kayak, said the company valued testing new ideas, not talking about them.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B2) Q. You were a co-founder of Kayak nine years ago. What’s unusual about the culture?

A. We’re a little bit reckless in our decision-making — not with the business, but the point is that we try things. We give even junior people scary amounts of power to come up with ideas and implement them. We had an intern last summer who, on his very first day at Kayak, came up with an idea, wrote the code and released it. It may or may not have been successful, but it almost doesn’t matter, because it showed that we value speed, and we value testing ideas, not talking about them.
. . .
Q. What else?
A. We’re known for having very small meetings, usually three people. There’s a little clicker for counting people that hangs on the main conference room door. The reason it’s there is to send a message to people that I care about this issue. If there’s a bunch of people in the room, I’ll stick my head in and say, “It takes 10 of you to decide this? There aren’t three of you smart enough to do this?”
I just hate design by consensus. No innovation happens with 10 people in a room. It’s very easy to be a critic and say why something won’t work. I don’t want that because new ideas are like these little precious things that can die very easily. Two or three people will nurture it, and make it stronger, give it a chance to see life.

For the full interview, see:
ADAM BRYANT, interviewer. “CORNER OFFICE; Paul English; Ten People in a Meeting Is About Seven Too Many.” The New York Times (Fri., July 26, 2013): B2.
(Note: ellipsis added; bold and italics in original.)
(Note: the online version of the interview has the date July 25, 2013, and has the title “CORNER OFFICE; Paul English of Kayak, on Nurturing New Ideas.”)

“A Jigger of Asperger’s in the Mix”

(p. 11) Page was not a social animal– people who talked to him often wondered if there were a jigger of Asperger’s in the mix– and could unnerve people by simply not talking. But when he did speak, more often than not (p. 12) he would come out with ideas that bordered on the fantastic.

Levy, Steven. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.