“Brazen Federal Overreach” Blocks Wine Process Innovation

(p. A13) On May 27, our Napa Valley winery will pull eight cases of Cabernet Sauvignon out of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. We placed them there six months ago, protected from the elements, following similar experiments in the past two years. The cold water and the tides seem to expedite the aging process, and we believe that our ocean-aged fine wine–which we’ve trademarked as Aquaoir–could revolutionize how vintners around the world think about winemaking. The only obstacle: the federal government.
For more than a year, our winery has been targeted by the Treasury Department, specifically, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The agency believes our product is unfit for human consumption, despite an utter lack of evidence, and it has threatened to revoke our winemaking license. Washington doesn’t recognize this wine for what it is: the product of entrepreneurship and experimentation.
. . .
We don’t envision expanding into vast underwater wine-storage development. We simply want to try to understand the ocean-aging effects so that we can try to simulate them on dry land. It would be lamentable if brazen federal overreach blocked the potential for innovation in an industry that could be on the cusp of a true sea change. Only in Washington could you raise a glass to that.

For the full commentary, see:
JIM DYKE JR. “The Wine-Dark Sea of Regulation; We aged wine at the bottom of the ocean–then the feds threatened our license.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., May 21, 2015): A13.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is MAY 20, 2015.)

Nazi Urban Planners

(p. D5) Vienna
In May 1938, shortly after the Nazi annexation of Austria, Hitler made the following pronouncement: “In my eyes Vienna is a pearl to which I will give a proper setting.” That quote, with its ominous overtones, is the starting point of “Vienna: Pearl of the Reich. Planning for Hitler,” at the Architekturzentrum Wien, the National Architecture Museum of Austria, which is housed in Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier. This fascinating exhibition reveals the Third Reich’s plans for the Austrian capital. In this untold chapter of World War II, the perpetrators are not storm troopers or concentration camp Kommandants, but architects and urban planners.

For the full review, see:
A.J. GOLDMANN. “City Planning, Nazi Style.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., May 21, 2015): D5.
(Note: italics in original.)
(Note: the date of the online version of the review is MAY 20, 2015, and has the title “‘Vienna: Pearl of the Reich. Planning for Hitler’ Review.”)

Empathy for the Absent

In Practical Wisdom the authors argue for empathy and against rules. There is something to be said for their argument.
But we tend to empathize with those who are present and not those we do not see or even know.
For example in academic tenure and promotion decisions, slack is often cut for colleagues who already have their foot in the door. We know them, their troubles and challenges. So they are tenured and promoted and given salary increases and perks even though there are others outside the door who may have greater productivity and even greater troubles and challenges.
Charlie Munger in an interview at the University of Michigan spoke of how hard it is for physicians to hold their peers responsible when they are incompetent or negligent. They have empathy for their peers, knowing their troubles and challenges. And Munger also says few physicians are willing to suffer the long-lasting “ill will” from their peers who have been held accountable. They do not know so well the patients who suffer, and one way or another, the patients are soon out of sight.
Just as in academics we do not know so well the students who suffer; or the able scholars who suffer, standing outside the door.
Following rules seems unsympathetic and lacking in empathy. But it may be the best way to show empathy for the absent.

The book mentioned is:
Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

The interview with Munger is:
Quick, Rebecca (interviewer). “A Conversation with Charlie Munger.” University of Michigan Ross School of Business, Sept. 14, 2010.

Early Standard Oil Executive Preserved Shakespeare First Folios

(p. 17) “The Millionaire and the Bard,” by Andrea Mays, is an American love story. It is the engaging chronicle of a sober, hard-working, respectably married industrialist of the Gilded Age who became obsessed with the object of his desire. Though generally frugal and self-¬≠disciplined, he was willing to pay extraordinary sums in order to put his hands on his mistress, to gaze at her lovingly and longingly, to caress her. To possess her only once was not enough for him; he craved the experience again and again, without limit.
. . .
I am, as readers have probably surmised, speaking of the peculiar passion of book collecting. The lover in question was Henry Clay Folger, who made his fortune as one of the presidents and, by 1923, the chairman of the board of Standard Oil of New York. And the beloved, which he pursued with unflagging ardor, was a single book: “Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, Published according to the True Originall Copies.” Printed in London in 1623, seven years after the author’s death, it is the book known to all lovers of Shakespeare simply as the First Folio.
. . .
Andrea Mays is a professor of economics, and the great strength of her book is an unflagging interest in exactly how Folger played the game.
. . .
Rarely has a mad passion brought forth such a splendid and enduring fruit.

For the full review, see:
STEPHEN GREENBLATT. “In Love with Shakespeare.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., MAY 24, 2015): 17.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 22, 2015, and has the title “‘The Millionaire and the Bard,’ by Andrea E. Mays.”)

The book under review, is:
Mays, Andrea E. The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

It Takes Longer to Explain a Medical Bill than It Takes to Explain Newton’s Second Law

(p. 4) I CONFESS I filed this column several weeks late in large part because I had hoped first to figure out a medical bill whose serial iterations have been arriving monthly like clockwork for half a year.
As medical bills go, it’s not very big: $225, from a laboratory. But I don’t really want to pay it until I understand what it’s for. It’s not that the bill contains no information — there is lots of it. Test codes: 105, 127, 164, to name a few. CPT codes: 87481, 87491, 87798 and others. It tells me I’m being billed $29.90 for each of nine things, but there is an “adjustment” to one of $14.20.
At first, I left messages on the lab’s billing office voice mail asking for an explanation. A few months ago, when someone finally called back, she said she could not tell me what the codes were for because that would violate patient privacy. After I pointed out that I was the patient in question, she said, politely: “I’m sorry, this is what I’m told, and I don’t want to lose my job.”
. . .
One recent study found that up to 90 percent of hospital bills contain errors.
. . .
Before you embark on the journey of decoding your bill, you might also want to have a look at a tutorial — Understanding Your Medical Bill — produced by the Khan Academy, an online educator, and the Brookings Institution in Washington. It’s a bit over 12 minutes. That’s about five minutes longer than the Khan Academy’s tutorial explaining Newton’s second law.

For the full commentary, see:
ELISABETH ROSENTHAL. “The Medical Bill Mystery.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., MAY 3, 2015): 4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is MAY 2, 2015.)

Under Perverse Institutions, It Takes “Canny Outlaws” to Do What Is Right

Practical Wisdom is a hard book to categorize. It is part philosophy, and one of the co-authors is an academic philosopher. But most of the book consists of often fascinating, concrete examples. The examples are usually of perverse institutions and policies that create incentives and constraints that reward those who do bad and punish those who do good. The authors’ main lesson is that we all should become stoical “canny outlaws” by finding crafty ways to do what is right, while trying to avoid or survive the perverse incentives and constraints.
Maybe–for me the main lesson is that we all should get busy reforming the institutions and policies. But whether their lesson or my lesson is the best lesson, their book is still filled with many great examples that are worth pondering.
In the next few weeks, I will be quoting several of the more useful, or thought-provoking passages.

The book discussed, is:
Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

Mathematician Says Mathematical Models Failed

The author of the commentary quoted below is a professor of mathematics at the Baltimore County campus of the University of Maryland.

(p. 4) . . . , in a fishery, the maximum proportion of a population earmarked each year for harvest must be set so that the population remains sustainable.

The math behind these formulas may be elegant, but applying them is more complicated. This is especially true for the Chesapeake blue crabs, which have mostly been in the doldrums for the past two decades. Harvest restrictions, even when scientifically calculated, are often vociferously opposed by fishermen. Fecundity and survival rates — so innocuous as algebraic symbols — can be difficult to estimate. For instance, it was long believed that a blue crab’s maximum life expectancy was eight years. This estimate was used, indirectly, to calculate crab mortality from fishing. Derided by watermen, the life expectancy turned out to be much too high; this had resulted in too many crab deaths being attributed to harvesting, thereby supporting charges of overfishing.
In fact, no aspect of the model is sacrosanct — tweaking its parameters is an essential part of the process. Dr. Thomas Miller, director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, did just that. He found that the most important factor for raising sustainability was the survival rate of pre-reproductive-age females. This was one reason, in 2008, after years of failed measures to increase the crab population, regulatory agencies switched to imposing restrictions primarily on the harvest of females.    . . .
The results were encouraging: The estimated population rose to 396 million in 2009, from 293 million in 2008. By 2012, the population had jumped to 765 million, and the figure was announced at a popular crab house by Maryland’s former governor, Martin O’Malley, himself.
Unfortunately, the triumph was short-lived — the numbers plunged to 300 million the next year and then hit 297 million in 2014. Some blamed a fish called red drum for eating young crabs; others ascribed the crash to unusual weather patterns, or the loss of eel grass habitat. Although a definitive cause has yet to be identified, one thing is clear: Mathematical models failed to predict it.

For the full commentary, see:
Manil Suri. “Mathematicians and Blue Crabs.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., MAY 3, 2015): 4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is MAY 2, 2015.)