“Western Union Bullied the Makers of Public Policy into Serving Private Capital”


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

(p. A13) Until now there has been no full-scale, modern company history. Joshua D. Wolff’s “Western Union and the Creation of the American Corporate Order, 1845-1893” ably fills the bill, offering an exhaustive and yet fascinating account.
. . .
If people today remember anything about Western Union, it is that its coast-to-coast line put the Pony Express out of business and that its leaders didn’t see the telephone coming. Mr. Wolff tells us that neither claim is exactly true. It was Hiram Sibley, Western Union’s first president, who went out on his own, when his board balked, to form a separate company and build the transcontinental telegraph in 1861; he made his fortune by eventually selling it to Western Union. And the company was very aware of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, patented in 1876, but history had supposedly shown that it wasn’t necessary to control a patent to win the technology war. The company’s third president, William Orton, was sure that Bell and his “toy” would not get the better of Western Union: “We would come along and take it away from him.” They didn’t.
. . .
Mr. Wolff contends that the company’s practices set the template for today’s “corporate triumphalism,” not least in the way Western Union bullied the makers of public policy into serving private capital. Perhaps, but telecom competition today is so ferocious and differently arranged from that of the late 19th century that a “triumphant” company today may be toast tomorrow–think of BlackBerry–and can’t purchase help with anything like Western’s Union’s brazenness and scope. Western Union had friends in Congress, the regulatory bureaucracy and the press. Members of the company’s board of directors chaired both the 1872 Republican and Democratic national conventions. It seemed that, whatever the battles in business, politics, technology or the courts, the company’s shareholders won.

For the full review, see:
STUART FERGUSON. “Bookshelf; The Octopus of the Wires.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Dec. 23, 2013): A13.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 22, 2013, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Book Review: ‘Western Union and the Creation of the American Corporate Order, 1845-1893,’ by Joshua D. Wolff.”)

Book under review:
Wolff, Joshua D. Western Union and the Creation of the American Corporate Order, 1845-1893. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Wind Power Fined $1 Million for Killing Birds

GoldenEagleOverWindTurbine2013-12-29.jpg “A golden eagle flies over a wind turbine on Duke Energy’s wind farm in Converse County, Wyo.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) The Justice Department announced late . . . [in the week of Nov. 17-23] that a subsidiary of Duke Energy has agreed to pay $1 million for killing golden eagles and other federally protected birds at two of the company’s wind projects in Wyoming. The guilty plea was a long-overdue victory for the rule of law and a sign that green energy might be going out of vogue.

As Justice noted in its news release, this is the first time a case has been brought against a wind company for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The 1918 law makes it a federal crime to kill any bird of more than 1,000 different species. Over the past few decades, federal authorities have brought hundreds of cases against oil and gas companies for killing birds, while the wind industry has enjoyed a de facto exemption. By bringing criminal charges against Duke for killing 14 golden eagles and 149 other protected birds, Justice has ended the legal double standard on enforcement.

For the full commentary, see:
ROBERT BRYCE. “Wind Power Is Brought to Justice; Duke Energy’s guilty plea for killing protected birds is an ominous sign for renewable energy.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Nov. 29, 2013): A17.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed words, added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 28, 2013.)

Concentrating on One Task Results in Better Thinking

NassCliffordObit2013-11-10.jpg “Clifford Nass studied how new technology affected people.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.

Nass focused on how interruptions from technology would reduce a person’s ability to think well. But doesn’t his research also imply that interruptions from other causes, including those from co-workers in open “collaborative” office designs, would likewise reduce a person’s ability to think well?

(p. 27) Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor whose pioneering research into how humans interact with technology found that the increasingly screen-saturated, multitasking modern world was not nurturing the ability to concentrate, analyze or feel empathy, died on Nov. 2 near Lake Tahoe. He was 55.
. . .
One of his most publicized research projects was a 2009 study on multitasking.
. . .
“We all bet high multitaskers were going to be stars at something,” he said in an interview with the PBS program “Frontline.” “We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”
He added, “One would think that if people were bad at multitasking, they would stop. However, when we talk with the multitaskers, they seem to think they’re great at it and seem totally unfazed and totally able to do more and more and more.”
With children doing more multitasking and people asked to do more of it at work, he said, “We worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly.”
. . .
Dr. Nass found that people who multitasked less frequently were actually better at it than those who did it frequently. He argued that heavy multitasking shortened attention spans and the ability to concentrate.

For the full obituary, see:
WILLIAM YARDLEY. “Clifford Nass, Who Warned of a Data Deluge, Dies at 55.” The New York Times, First Section (Sun., November 11, 2013): 27.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date November 6, 2013.)

The famous study on multitasking that Nass authored is:
Ophir, Eyal, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner. “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) 106, no. 37 (September 15, 2009): 15583-87.

Carnegie Objected to $2 a Year Fee to Use Private Library

(p. 44) The story of Andy Carnegie defeating the villainous adults played well in his Autobiography and the biographies that drew from it, but there is another side to the tale which we should not neglect. The Anderson Library was not a free public library, funded by the city, but a subscription library, which relied in great part on the support of its patrons.* Although “working boys” should, as he had argued, have been allowed to borrow books without paying the two-dollar subscription fee, Andy Carnegie, six months from his eighteenth birthday, was hardly a “working boy.” He held a man’s job and received a man’s pay of twenty-five dollars a month. Was it unreasonable for the librarians to ask him to contribute a two-dollar annual subscription fee to keep the library from having to close its doors for the third time in its young history?
Andy thought so. With a talent for cloaking self-interest in larger humanitarian concerns, he made a premature case for free public libraries.

Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.
(Note: italics in original.)
(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw’s book are the same.)

“Myth that Most C.E.O.’s Are Extroverts”


“”It’s a myth that most C.E.O.’s are extroverts,” says Dwight Merriman, chairman and co-founder of MongoDB, an open-source document database. He has overcome his own earlier shyness, he says, and relies on enthusiasm for his work.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT interview quoted and cited below.

(p. B2) Q. I take it you’re an introvert.

A. I am.
Q. You were C.E.O. of MongoDB for five years before becoming chairman, and a big part of that job no doubt required you to spend a lot of time with people and give a lot of talks. How did you handle that?
A. I think 95 percent of the time you can get past that with just sheer brute force. I remember public-speaking class in college. I really didn’t want to do it. But today, when I give talks to 1,000 people, I’m not nervous at all. I think you get used to it. You just have to force yourself out of your comfort zone.
And it’s a myth that most C.E.O.’s are extroverts. Many are, but probably no more than the general population. I do what works for me, which is being enthusiastic and passionate about what we’re doing. You’ve just got to find what works for you.

For the full interview, see:
ADAM BRYANT. “CORNER OFFICE: Dwight Merriman; Being an Effective Leader Without Being an Extrovert.” The New York Times (Fri., November 1, 2013): B2.
(Note: bold and italics in original.)
(Note: the online version of the interview has the date October 31, 2013, and has the title “CORNER OFFICE; Dwight Merriman of MongoDB on Leading by Enthusiasm.”)

Innovators Agree: Whiteboard Is Fast, Easy to Use and Big

(p. B1) . . . Evernote, like pretty much every tech company I’ve ever visited, is in thrall to the whiteboard. Indeed, as technologically backward as they may seem, whiteboards are to Silicon Valley what legal pads are to lawyers, what Excel is to accountants, or what long sleeves are to magicians.
They’re an all-purpose tool of innovation, often the first place a product or company’s vision is dreamed up and designed, and a constant huddling point for future refinement. And though many digital technologies have attempted to unseat the whiteboard, the humble pre-electronic surface can’t be beat.
The whiteboard has three chief virtues: It’s fast. It’s easy to use. And it’s big. “We’re often doing something I call ‘designing in the hallway,’ ” said Jamie Hull, the product manager for Evernote’s iOS apps. “When a new problem or request comes up, the fastest thing you can do is pull two or three people aside, go to the nearest wall, and figure it out.”
Unlike a computer or phone, the whiteboard is always on, always fully charged, and it doesn’t require that people download, install, and launch software to begin using it.

For the full commentary, see:
FARHAD MANJOO. “HIGH DEFINITION; High Tech’s Secret Weapon: The Whiteboard.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., Oct. 31, 2013): B1-B2.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Oct. 30, 2013. The online version combined paragraphs 1 and 2 above and 3 and 4 above. I have returned them to the form they had in the print version.)

Politically Correct Artisanal Locally Sourced Combat Video Game

CallOfDutyGhostsFemaleAvatar2013-11-06.jpgCall of Duty: Ghosts Female avatars have been added, and so has an “extinction” mode involving fighting aliens, in this game for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U and PC.” Source of caption and image: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited below.

From a review of the video game “Call of Duty: Ghosts”:

(p. C5) “. . . the South Americans torture a character using artisanal, locally sourced interrogation techniques supposedly (and naturally) used by Amazonian tribes.”

For the full review, see:
CHRIS SUELLENTROP. “VIDEO GAME REVIEW; A Fantastical Shootout, Moving Across Space and Time.” The New York Times (Weds., November 6, 2013): C5.
(Note: ellipsis added; bold in caption in original of both print and online versions.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 5, 2013.)

Carnegie’s Uncle Aitkin Expected to Make a Good Profit Starting a Private Lending Library

Shortly after arriving in Allegheny City (near Pittsburgh) Andrew Carnegie’s Uncle Aitkin had complained in a letter:

(p. 42) “There is no possibility of getting papers or periodicals to read here for a small sum–most of the people being in the habit of purchasing them for their own use. This has been to me a great deprivation. I really find that books here are as dear as in the old country everything considered.”

Uncle Aitkin hoped to remedy this flaw in American cultural life–and make a profit at it–by starting up his own lending library. “I am now convinced that for any one to keep a library and to give works out at a cheaper rate would pay very well & I think I will be engaged in this business in a short time,–after I make a little money by lecturing etc.” Regrettably–for Uncle Aitkin and for Allegheny City’s starved readers–he never got around to setting up his business.

Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.
(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw’s book are the same.)

Over-Regulated Tech Entrepreneurs Seek Their Own Country

The embed above is provided by YouTube where the video clip is posted under the title “Balaji Srinivasan at Startup School 2013.”

(p. B4) At a startup conference in the San Francisco Bay area last month, a brash and brilliant young entrepreneur named Balaji Srinivasan took the stage to lay out a case for Silicon Valley’s independence.

According to Mr. Srinivasan, who co-founded a successful genetics startup and is now a popular lecturer at Stanford University, the tech industry is under siege from Wall Street, Washington and Hollywood, which he says he believes are harboring resentment toward Silicon Valley’s efforts to usurp their cultural and economic power.
On its surface, Mr. Srinivasan’s talk,—called “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit,”—sounded like a battle cry of the libertarian, anti-regulatory sensibility long espoused by some of the tech industry’s leading thinkers. After arguing that the rest of the country wants to put a stop to the Valley’s rise, Mr. Srinivasan floated a plan for techies to build an “opt-in society, outside the U.S., run by technology.”
His idea seemed a more expansive version of Google Chief Executive Larry Page’s call for setting aside “a piece of the world” to try out controversial new technologies, and investor Peter Thiel’s “Seastead” movement, which aims to launch tech-utopian island nations.

For the full commentary, see:
FARHAD MANJOO. “HIGH DEFINITION; The Valley’s Ugly Complex.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Nov. 4, 2013): B4.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 3, 2013, and has the title “HIGH DEFINITION; Silicon Valley Has an Arrogance Problem.”)

Spain’s $11 Billion Per Year Slows Global Warming by 61 Hours

(p. A17) Today Spain spends about 1% of GDP throwing money at green energy such as solar and wind power. The $11 billion a year is more than Spain spends on higher education.
At the end of the century, with current commitments, these Spanish efforts will have delayed the impact of global warming by roughly 61 hours, according to the estimates of Yale University’s well-regarded Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy model. Hundreds of billions of dollars for 61 additional hours? That’s a bad deal.

For the full commentary, see:
BJORN LOMBORG. “Green Energy Is the Real Subsidy Hog; Renewables receive three times as much money per energy unit as fossil fuels.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Nov. 12, 2013): A17.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 11, 2013.)

Farm Land Reverts to Forest as Farmers Move to Cities

OrtegaDeWingLandRevertsToForest2013-10-27.jpg “NEW GROWTH; Marta Ortega de Wing once raised pigs in Chilibre, Panama, on land now reverting to nature, a trend dimming the view of primeval forests as sacred.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) CHILIBRE, Panama — The land where Marta Ortega de Wing raised hundreds of pigs until 10 years ago is being overtaken by galloping jungle — palms, lizards and ants.

Instead of farming, she now shops at the supermarket and her grown children and grandchildren live in places like Panama City and New York.
Here, and in other tropical countries around the world, small holdings like Ms. Ortega de Wing’s — and much larger swaths of farmland — are reverting to nature, as people abandon their land and move to the cities in search of better livings.
These new “secondary” forests are emerging in Latin America, Asia and other tropical regions at such a fast pace that the trend has set off a serious debate about whether saving primeval rain forest — an iconic environmental cause — may be less urgent than once thought. By one estimate, for every acre of rain forest cut down each year, more than 50 acres of new forest are growing in the tropics on land that was once farmed, logged or ravaged by natural disaster.
“There is far more forest here than there was 30 years ago,” said Ms. Ortega de Wing, 64, who remembers fields of mango trees and banana plants.
The new forests, the scientists argue, could blunt the effects of rain forest destruction by absorbing carbon dioxide, the leading heat-trapping gas linked to global warming, one crucial role that rain forests play. They could also, to a lesser extent, provide habitat for endangered species.

For the full story, see:
ELISABETH ROSENTHAL. “New Jungles Prompt a Debate on Saving Primeval Rain Forests.” The New York Times (Fri., January 30, 2009): A1 & A10.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article has the date January 29, 2009 and has the title “New Jungles Prompt a Debate on Rain Forests.”)