Early Cars Were Playthings of the Idle Rich


Source of book image: http://www.2luxury2.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Steven-Parissien-The-Life-of-the-Automobile-678×1024.jpg

(p. C14) Mr. Parissien writes that Frenchman Nicolas Cugnot may well have built the first mechanical vehicle in 1769, a two-ton, steam-driven colossus that reportedly went out of control and crashed into a wall. It wasn’t until 1885 that Karl Benz, the acknowledged father of the automobile, debuted the first gasoline-powered motorcar, in Mannheim, Germany. It carried passengers just slightly quicker than they could walk.

With the arrival of that breakthrough, however, the race was on for who could come up with a sturdier, faster, more reliable motor car. Many of the innovators’ names are still familiar: Renault, Bentley and Daimler among them. Even piano makers Steinway & Sons tried their hand at building cars. Other companies appeared for a time and then vanished–Durant, Lanchester, Panhard and De Dion-Bouton–victims of bad guesses or bad timing. Much of Mr. Parissien’s story is devoted to the personalities, and eccentricities, of the men who created what for many years amounted to a plaything of the idle rich. Italian luxury builder Ettore Bugatti refused to sell one of his cars to King Zog of Albania because “the man’s table manners are beyond belief.”
It is the despotic Henry Ford who looms large in automotive history, not only for the introduction of his Model T but for his revolutionary system of shoveling raw materials in one end of his half-mile long Rouge River, Mich., factory complex and sending “Tin Lizzies” out the other end.

For the full review, see:
Patrick Cooke. “Book Review: ‘The Life of the Automobile’ by Steven Parissien; The history of cars, from playthings of the idle rich to emblems of the working man.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 24, 2014): C14.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 23, 2014, an has the title “Book Review: ‘The Life of the Automobile’ by Steven Parissien; The history of cars, from playthings of the idle rich to emblems of the working man.”)

The book under review is:
Parissien, Steven. The Life of the Automobile: The Complete History of the Motor Car. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2014.

Privatizing TSA Screeners Has Worked Well

(p. 241) Chris Edwards makes the case for “Privatizing the Transportation Security Administration.” “More than 80 percent of Europe’s commercial airports use private screening companies, including those in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain. The other airports in Europe use their own in-house security, but no major country in Europe uses the national government’s aviation bureaucracy for screening. Europe’s airports moved to private contracting during the 1980s and 1990s after numerous hijackings and terrorist threats, and it has worked very well. Canada also uses private screening companies at its commercial airports, and some airports also use private firms for general airport security. . . . The 2001 legislation that created TSA established the SPP [Screening Partnership Program], which has allowed some airports to opt out of TSA screening and use private firms. The firms contract with TSA and are under federal regulatory control. Originally, there were five airports in the program, with San Francisco being the largest. All five have had good results with private screening and have stuck with it. The number of SPP airports has grown to 16 today.” Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 742, November 19, 2013, http://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/privatizing-transportation-security-administration.

Taylor, Timothy. “Recommendations for Further Reading.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 28, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 235-42.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word, in original.)

HR Regulations and Fear of Lawsuits Keep Managers from Firing Workers Who Do Not Work

(p. 1B) The biggest problem in your workplace has a name. His name is Jeff. . . .
Jeff sits two cubicles down from us, or three, or four. His real name may be John, Juan or Joan. He gets to the widget factory late, he leaves early and always mucks up his part of any group project. He complains, loudly, about the smallest things, and when you bring doughnuts for your birthday he probably takes three and then talks with his mouth full, too.
. . .
(p. 2B) . . . , morale suffers greatly when most of a company’s employees perceive that their supervisor is failing to deal with their low-performing co-worker, month after month, year after year.
For this, Hoogeveen blames a corporate culture that is so concerned about HR regulations, and the often-imagined threat of litigation, that bosses often fail to take into account how the trouble employee affects the larger climate.
. . .
. . . if Jeff doesn’t improve, he needs to be fired. This is perhaps the worst part of a boss’s job, Hoogeveen thinks. His eyes mist as he recalls firing an employee whom he liked, but who was simply a bad fit at QLI.
It’s human nature to avoid this conflict, to maintain the status quo and let Jeff be, he says. That’s what can and does happen at most Omaha companies.
But it’s bad for the employees, and it’s bad for business.
“A lot of this stuff is incredibly easy to understand,” says Omaha’s workplace mechanic [Kim Hoogeveen]. “It’s incredibly difficult to live.”

For the full story, see:
Hansen, Matthew. “Workplace Guru: Don’t Let Problem Worker Slide.” Omaha World-Herald (Mon., July 21, 2014): 1B-2B.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed name, added.)
(Note: the online version of the article had the title “Hansen: Don’t let Jeff — the problem worker — slide, workplace guru says.”)

Entrepreneur Gutenberg’s Press Creatively Destroyed the Jobs of Scribes

(p. 32) Poggio possessed . . . [a] gift that set him apart from virtually all the other book-hunting humanists. He was a superbly well-trained scribe, with exceptionally fine handwriting, great powers of concentration, and a high degree of accuracy. It is difficult for us, at this distance, to take in the significance of such qualities: our technologies for producing transcriptions, facsimiles, and copies have almost entirely erased what was once an important personal achievement. That importance began to decline, though not at all precipitously, even in Poggio’s own lifetime, for by the 1430s a German entrepreneur, Johann Gutenberg, began experimenting with a new invention, movable type, which would revolutionize the reproduction and transmission of texts. By the century’s end printers, especially the great Aldus in Venice, would print Latin texts in a typeface whose clarity and elegance remain unrivalled after five centuries. That typeface was based on the beautiful handwriting of Poggio and his humanist friends. What Poggio did by hand to produce a single copy would soon be done mechanically to produce hundreds.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed word, added.)

New Details on Babylonian Version of Noah’s Ark


Source of book image: http://britishmuseumblog.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/the-ark-before-noah_544.jpg

(p. C8) Mr. Finkel, a curator of cuneiform inscriptions at the British Museum, details his own long-standing fascination with the ark and that of his British Museum predecessors. First among these was George Smith, who in 1872, at age 32, deciphered a clay tablet that demonstrated that 1,000 years before the likely composition of the Book of Genesis, ancient Babylonians had been brooding over the same story of divine retribution that we find in the biblical account of Noah. So great was Smith’s shock that, on confirmation, he began to run about the room tearing off his clothes.
. . .
The tablets containing what we now know as the Epic of Gilgamesh were unearthed in the ruins of Nineveh, capital of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, who was an avid collector of texts. His famous library was torched in 612 B.C., but, as Mr. Finkel points out, “fire to a clay librarian” is not the disaster it is to one who studies works on paper. Fired clay tablets endure, and nothing, Mr. Finkel assures us, can equal the thrill of digging one out from the earth like a potato.
But the most important tablet of Mr. Finkel’s career didn’t come from the ground. It was delivered to him in 1985 by a man named Douglas Simmonds, who brought in a number of cuneiform tablets collected by his father, a member of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East at the end of World War II. One of these–an iPhone-shaped tablet–had what was recognizably the first lines of a Babylonian flood narrative, but the rest was illegible at a superficial glance, and Simmonds was reluctant to leave the tablet at the museum for analysis. It wasn’t until 2009 that Mr. Finkel was able to borrow this treasure and undertake a meticulous study, which revealed an “instruction manual for building an ark” in the tablet’s 60 lines.
. . .
So then what was the Ark Tablet for? It is puzzling that it contains no narrative, listing rather shape, size, materials and their quantities. Attractive though it may be to think it was a hand-held guide for the boat builder, Mr. Finkel suggests instead that it served as an aide-mémoire for an itinerant storyteller. The detail is explained by audience demand: No one wants to be put on the spot with difficult “how” questions when facing an audience who knew all about building coracles. Ancient audiences, it seems, were as intrigued–and as skeptical–about the ark as we are.

For the full review, see:
JANET SOSKICE. “Make Yourself an Ark; A newly deciphered tablet suggests the best shape for an ark: not a wooden box but a circular coracle made of reeds.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 17, 2014): C8.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 16, 2014, an has the title “Book Review: ‘The Ark Before Noah’ by Irving Finkel; A newly deciphered tablet suggests the best shape for an ark: not a wooden box but a circular coracle made of reeds.”)

The book under review is:
Finkel, Irving. The Ark before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 2014.

Countries that Protect Jobs Stifle Economic Growth

(p. 240) In an “Interview” conducted by Jessie Romero, John Haltiwanger discusses changing patterns of job creation and destruction: “But now we’re seeing a decline in the entry rate and a pretty stark decline in the share of young businesses. . . . But it’s also important to recognize that the decline in the share of young firms has occurred because the impact of entry is not just at the point of entry, it’s also over the next five or 10 years. A wave of entrants come in, and some of them grow very rapidly, and some of them fail. That dynamic has slowed down. . . . If you look at young small businesses, or just young businesses period, the 90th percentile growth rate is incredibly high. Young businesses not only are volatile, but their growth rates also are tremendously skewed. It’s rare to have a young business take off, but those that do add lots of jobs and contribute a lot to productivity growth. We have found that startups together with high-growth firms, which are disproportionately young, account for roughly 70 percent of overall job creation in the United States. . . . “I think the evidence is overwhelming that countries have tried to stifle the [job] destruction process and this has caused problems. I’m hardly a fan of job destruction per se, but making it difficult for firms to contract, through restricting shutdowns, bankruptcies, layoffs, etc., can have adverse consequences. The reason is that there’s so much heterogeneity in productivity across businesses. So if you stifle that destruction margin, you’re going to keep lots of low-productivity businesses in existence, and that could lead to a sluggish economy. I just don’t think we have any choice in a modern market economy but to allow for that reallocation to go on. Of course, what you want is an environment where not only is there a lot of job destruction, but also a lot of job creation, so that when workers lose their jobs they either immediately transit to another job or their unemployment duration is low.” Econ Focus, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Second Quarter 2013, pp. 30-34. http://www.richmondfed.org/publications/research/econ_focus/2013/q2/pdf/interview.pdf.

Taylor, Timothy. “Recommendations for Further Reading.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 28, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 235-42.
(Note: italics, ellipses, and bracketed word, in original.)

“Ego Depletion” from Distractions Reduces Ability to Perform Cognitively Demanding Tasks

(p. B1) One study from Microsoft indicated that programmers who were interrupted by an incoming email lost 10 minutes every time they switched from their original task, on top of however long it took them to answer the email. Earlier studies suggest that workers lose (p. B2) as much as 40% of their productive time when they are regularly interrupted.
. . .
. . . , people underestimate the cost of . . . distractions, partly because we underestimate the effects of what psychologists call “ego depletion.” The idea is that we have only so much willpower. Some neuroscientists believe the brain literally runs out of its fuel, glucose, when we have to perform cognitively demanding tasks. But exercising the self control required to not answer that incoming email is also cognitively demanding.

For the full story, see:
CHRISTOPHER MIMS. “KEYWORDS; The Distraction-Industrial Complex.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., June 30, 2014): B1-B2.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 29, 2014, and has the title “KEYWORDS; Say No to the Distraction-Industrial Complex.”)

One of the early articles in the substantial literature on ego depletion, is:
Baumeister, Roy F., Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice. “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74, no. 5 (May 1998): 1252-65.

An “Entrepreneurial” Scriptor for the Pope Could Earn 300 Florins a Year

Poggio was a scriptor for a pope who was fired. The jobless Poggio then sought classical manuscripts in obscure monasteries, and found De Rerum Natura.

(p. 21) Scriptors received no fixed stipend, but they were permitted to charge fees for executing documents and obtaining what were called “concessions of grace,” that is, legal favors in matters that required some technical correction or exception granted orally or in writing by the pope. And, of course, there were other, less official fees that would privately flow to someone who had the pope’s ear. In the mid-fifteenth century, the income for a secretary was 250 to 300 florins annually, and an entrepreneurial spirit could make much more. At the end of a twelve-year period in this office, Poggio’s colleague George of Trebizond had salted away over 4,000 florins in Roman banks, along with handsome investments in real estate.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

How Sega Came Out of Nowhere to Leapfrog Near-Monopolist Nintendo


Source of book image: http://images.eurogamer.net/2014/usgamer/original.jpg/EG11/resize/958x-1/format/jpg

(p. C10) “Console Wars” tells how Sega, an unremarkable Japanese manufacturer of games played in arcades, came out of nowhere to challenge Nintendo for dominance of the videogame world in the first half of the 1990s. Nintendo, which had revived the stagnant home videogame category a few years earlier, had something close to a monopoly in 1990 and behaved accordingly, dictating terms to game developers and treating retailers as peons. Sega, in Mr. Harris’s telling, was a disruptive force in a highly concentrated market, introducing more advanced gaming technology, toppling Nintendo from its perch and becoming the largest seller of home videogame hardware in the U.S. by late 1993.

Mr. Harris’s hero is a former Mattel executive named Tom Kalinske, who became president of Sega of America, then a small subsidiary, in 1990. Mr. Kalinske assembled a team of crack marketers who would not have gone near Sega but for his reputation and persuasiveness. Within a year and a half, according to Mr. Harris, Mr. Kalinske’s leadership, along with a new gaming system called Genesis and a marketing assist from a mascot named Sonic the Hedgehog, made Sega the U.S. market leader in videogames.
And then, after only three years at the top, Sega fell from its pedestal. Sega’s management in Japan, suffering mightily from not-invented-here syndrome, rejected Mr. Kalinske’s proposals to collaborate with Sony and Silicon Graphics on new gaming systems. Instead, over his objections, Sega pushed out its ill-conceived Saturn game console in 1995. While Saturn flopped, Sony struck gold with its PlayStation; Silicon Graphics sold its chip with amazing graphics capabilities to Nintendo; and the game, so to speak, was over.
. . .
The author admits he has taken liberties: “I have re-created the scenes in this book using the information uncovered from my interviews, facts gathered from supporting documents, and my best judgment as to what version most closely fits the historical record,” he writes. The result is more a 558-page screenplay than a credible work of nonfiction.

For the full review, see:
MARC LEVINSON. “Sonic Boom; How a no-name company took on Nintendo, tied its fate to a hyperactive hedgehog, and–briefly–won.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 24, 2014): C10.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 23, 2014, an has the title “Book Review: ‘Console Wars’ by Blake J. Harris; How a no-name company took on Nintendo, tied its fate to a hyperactive hedgehog, and–briefly–won.”)

The book under review is:
J., Harris Blake. Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.

Conserving Whales by a Market in Whale Shares

(p. 218) Ben A. Minteer and Leah R. Gerber propose “Buying Whales to Save Them.” “Under this plan, quotas for hunting of whales would be traded in global markets. But again, and unlike most ‘catch share’ programs in fifisheries, the whale conservation market would not restrict participation in the market; both pro- and antiwhaling interests could own and trade quotas  . . . . Conservation groups, for example, could choose to buy whale shares in order to protect populations that are currently threatened; they could also buy shares to protect populations that are not presently at risk but that conservationists fear might become threatened in the future.” “Despite the widely acknowledged failure of the IWC [International Whaling Commission] moratorium to curtail unsustainable whaling, the whale conservation market idea has proved to be wildly controversial within conservation and antiwhaling circles.  . . . Many critics of the idea are also plainly not comfortable with the ethics of putting a price on such iconic species–that is, with using contingent market methods for what they believe should be a categorical ethical obligation to preserve whales. On the other hand . . . the vulnerable status of many whale populations and the failure of the traditional regulatory response to halt unsustainable harvests call for a more innovative and experimental approach to whale policy, including considering unconventional proposals, such as the whale conservation market.” Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2013, http://www.issues.org/29.3/minteer.html.

Taylor, Timothy. “Recommendations for Further Reading.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 27, no. 4 (Fall 2013): 211-18.
(Note: italics, ellipses, and bracketed words, in original.)

How De Rerum Natura Aided the Early Italian Renaissance

I am interested in how the dominant ideas in a culture change. Greenblatt’s The Swerve discusses how some early Renaissance Italians sought lost and forgotten works from antiquity to broaden their ideas. In particular it emphasizes the rediscovery of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura.
I am not as unreservedly enthusiastic about Lucretius as Greenblatt is, but The Swerve includes much that is thought-provoking about a place and time that I need to better understand.
In the next few weeks I will quote a few of the passages that were especially memorable, important or amusing.

Book discussed:
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.