The Underground Railroad Was No Myth

(p. C7) The first scholarly study of the Underground Railroad, published by Wilbur Siebert in 1898, named some 3,200 “agents,” virtually all of them white men, who presided over an elaborate network of fixed routes, illustrated with maps that looked much like those of an ordinary railroad.
That view largely held among scholars until 1961, when the historian Larry Gara published “The Liberty Line,” a slashing revisionist study that dismissed the Underground Railroad as a myth and argued that most fugitive slaves escaped at their own initiative, with little help from organized abolitionists. Scholarship on the topic all but dried up, as historians more generally emphasized the agency of African-Americans in claiming their own freedom.
But over the past 15 years, aided by newly digitized records of obscure abolitionist newspapers and local archives, scholars have constructed a new picture of the Underground Railroad as a collection of loosely interlocking local networks of activists, both black and white, that waxed and waned over time but nevertheless helped a significant number reach freedom.
. . .
In “Gateway to Freedom,” Mr. Foner ties much of that work together, while uncovering the history of the eastern corridor’s key gateway, New York City.
“This book is a capstone,” said Matthew Pinsker, a historian at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., who will be teaching it to K-12 educators at a workshop this summer. “The Underground Railroad was real, and Foner will help ordinary people understand that in a way that doesn’t rely on fiction or quilt stories, but on actual documents and records.”

For the full review, see:
JENNIFER SCHUESSLER. “Words From the Past Illuminate a Station on the Way to Freedom.” The New York Times (Thurs., JAN. 15, 2015): C1 & C7.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date JAN. 14, 2015.)

The book under review is:
Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.

How Air Conditioning Can Improve Metabolism

(p. 14) Sleep is essential for good health, as we all know. But a new study hints that there may be an easy but unrealized way to augment its virtues: lower the thermostat. Cooler bedrooms could subtly transform a person’s stores of brown fat — what has lately come to be thought of as “good fat” — and consequently alter energy expenditure and metabolic health, even into daylight hours.
. . .
“These were all healthy young men to start with,” . . . [senior author Francesco S. Celi] says, “but just by sleeping in a colder room, they gained metabolic advantages” that could, over time, he says, lessen their risk for diabetes and other metabolic problems. The men also burned a few more calories throughout the day when their bedroom was chillier (although not enough to result in weight loss after four weeks).
. . .
The message of these findings, Celi says, is that you can almost effortlessly tweak your metabolic health by turning down the bedroom thermostat a few degrees. His own bedroom is moderately chilled, as is his office — which has an added benefit: It “keeps meetings short.”

For the full story, see:
GRETCHEN REYNOLDS. “Let’s Cool It in the Bedroom.” The New York Times Magazine (Sun., JULY 20, 2014): 14.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date JULY 17, 2014.)

The academic paper discussed above, is:
Lee, Paul, Sheila Smith, Joyce Linderman, Amber B. Courville, Robert J. Brychta, William Dieckmann, Charlotte D. Werner, Kong Y. Chen, and Francesco S. Celi. “Temperature-Acclimated Brown Adipose Tissue Modulates Insulin Sensitivity in Humans.” Diabetes 63, no. 11 (Nov. 2014): 3686-98.

Castro to Writers and Artists: “Against the Revolution, No Rights at All”

(p. A13) Ricardo Porro, an architect who gave lyrical expression to a hopeful young Cuban revolution in the early 1960s before he himself fell victim to its ideological hardening, died on Thursday [December 25, 2014] in Paris, where he had spent nearly half a century in exile.
. . .
Mr. Porro’s two schools have voluptuous brick domes and vaults, built by hand in the Catalan style reminiscent of Antoni Gaudí, that are almost bodily in their gentle embrace. Supporting them, and contrasting with their soft curves, are angular columns and buttresses that speak of the shattering force of revolution.
. . .
Before the schools were completed, however, artistic expression was stifled as Cuba moved into the Soviet orbit. Mr. Castro had famously answered his own rhetorical question in 1961 about the rights of writers and artists: “Within the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, no rights at all.”
Almost overnight, the art schools’ distinctive style was officially anathema. “You realize that you’ve been accused of something,” Mr. Porro recalled in “Unfinished Spaces,” a 2011 documentary directed by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray. “And then you realize that you have been judged. And then you realize you are guilty. And nobody tells you.”

For the full obituary, see:
DAVID W. DUNLAP. “Ricardo Porro, 89, Exiled Cuban Architect.” The New York Times (Tues., DEC. 30, 2014): A13.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, are added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date DEC. 29, 2014, and has the title “Ricardo Porro, Exiled Cuban Architect, Dies at 89.”)

Cornwalis Betrayed the Slaves Who Had Helped Him

(p.161) Dug in on high ground, Cornwallis had been throwing up earthwork redoubts since early August, employing thousands of slaves who had defected to the British lines in expectation of earning their freedom.
. . .
(p. 164) Cornwallis had grown so desperate that he infected blacks with smallpox and forced them to wander toward enemy lines in an attempt to sicken the opposing forces.

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

Moral Progress Accelerated in the 18th Century

(p. A11) For hundreds of years, people flocked to public hangings as a form of entertainment. Onlookers crowded into town squares and brought their families, reveling in the carnival atmosphere. Today most people are sickened at the idea of merriment at an execution. (Many are disturbed that executions take place at all.) We recoil from other once-common practices, too: slavery, the mistreatment of children, animal cruelty. Such shifts in attitude or belief surely constitute a form of moral progress and suggest, for once, that civilization is advancing and not receding.
. . .
Mr. Shermer defines moral progress as an “increase in the survival and flourishing of sentient beings,” which he illustrates with graphs and charts that reveal, among other things, a decline in war-related deaths, the expansion of the food supply, the reduction in major epidemics, the growth of world GDP and the spread of democracy.
Humanitarian achievements in the West, Mr. Shermer notes, began in earnest [in] the 18th century. Yet the ability to reason ethically is not a product of the Enlightenment. A moral instinct seems to be present at birth: Even infants possess innate intuitions about fairness and reciprocity, as Mr. Shermer explains. All societies punish free riders. The Golden Rule and Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi (advocating proportionate punishment) predate the ancient Greeks. So why did we need an Enlightenment to jump-start our moral progress?

For the full review, see:
SALLY SATEL. “BOOKSHELF; Getting Better All the Time; Crowds once flocked to watch executions. Now we recoil at the idea. What causes such transformations of ethical standards?” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Jan. 20, 2015): A11.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed word, added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 19, 2015.)

The book under review is:
Shermer, Michael. The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2015.

Over-Regulation Could Stifle Drones’ Potential to Revolutionize Our Lives

(p. A15) In the early days of the automobile, Vermont enacted a law requiring someone to walk one-eighth of a mile in front of every car and wave a red flag to warn pedestrians. Iowa directed all motorists to call ahead to warn each town on their route that they were coming. Some jurisdictions set speed limits so low that drivers who obeyed them risked having their engines stall.
Those laws seem humorously quaint, but if they had been widely adopted and enforced, the automobile revolution might have been shut down and its manifold benefits denied to millions. Today over-regulation could stifle the development of drones, which have the potential to revolutionize many parts of the economy and our everyday lives.
To cite a few examples: Amazon hopes to launch Prime Air, which would use drones to deliver packages in less than 30 minutes after an order is placed. Texas Equusearch, which organizes missing-person recovery efforts, can replace the labor of 100 volunteers with one drone. Clayco Inc., a construction firm, intends to use drones for aerial imaging of construction projects–replacing either helicopters, which burn fossil fuels and can be dangerous to those below, or construction workers, who risk serious injury through falls when they must climb to reach high, hard-to-reach places to take photos.

For the full commentary, see:
JOSEPH R. PALMORE and CHRISTOPHER J. CARR. “Overregulated Drones Struggle for Take-Off; The FAA has been slow and stuck in the past–precisely what the technology is not.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Feb. 23, 2015): A15.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 22, 2015,)

Technology Getting Bum Rap for Job Woes

The job market has been anemic in a variety of ways, for several years. Some, as below, want to pin this on the advance of technology. I argue, to the contrary, that it is mainly due to our discouraging start-ups by bad policies (such as over-regulating and over-taxing). Start-ups, as Haltiwanger and his colleagues have been showing, are the main source of new jobs.

(p. A1) Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary, recently said that he no longer believed that automation would always create new jobs. “This isn’t some hypothetical future possibility,” he said. “This is something that’s emerging before us right now.”

Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at M.I.T., said, “This is the biggest challenge of our society for the next decade.”
Mr. Brynjolfsson and other experts say they believe that society has a chance to meet the challenge in ways that will allow technology to be mostly a positive force. In addition to making some jobs obsolete, new technologies have also long complemented people’s skills and enabled them (p. A3) to be more productive — as the Internet and word processing have for office workers or robotic surgery has for surgeons.
More productive workers, in turn, earn more money and produce goods and services that improve lives.
“It is literally the story of the economic development of the world over the last 200 years,” said Marc Andreessen, a venture capitalist and an inventor of the web browser. “Just as most of us today have jobs that weren’t even invented 100 years ago, the same will be true 100 years from now.”
. . .
There are certain human skills machines will probably never replicate, like common sense, adaptability and creativity, said David Autor, an economist at M.I.T. Even jobs that become automated often require human involvement, like doctors on standby to assist the automated anesthesiologist, called Sedasys.
. . .
Whether experts lean toward the more pessimistic view of new technology or the most optimistic one, many agree that the uncertainty is vast. Not even the people who spend their days making and studying new technology say they understand the economic and societal effects of the new digital revolution.
When the University of Chicago asked a panel of leading economists about automation, 76 percent agreed that it had not historically decreased employment. But when asked about the more recent past, they were less sanguine. About 33 percent said technology was a central reason that median wages had been stagnant over the past decade, 20 percent said it was not and 29 percent were unsure.
Perhaps the most worrisome development is how poorly the job market is already functioning for many workers. More than 16 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 are not working, up from 5 percent in the late 1960s; 30 percent of women in this age group are not working, up from 25 percent in the late 1990s. For those who are working, wage growth has been weak, while corporate profits have surged.

For the full story, see:
Claire Cain Miller. “Rise of Robot Work Force Stokes Human Fears.” The New York Times (Tues., DEC. 16, 2014): A1 & A3.
(Note: ellipses are added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 15, 2014, and has the title “As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up.”)

A relevant Haltiwanger paper is:
Haltiwanger, John C., Ron S. Jarmin, and Javier Miranda. “Who Creates Jobs? Small Vs. Large Vs. Young.” Review of Economics and Statistics 95, no. 2 (May 2013): 347-61.