When Christopher Hitchens Will Visit Nebraska

HitchensChristopherAfterTreatment2011-11-10.jpg

“Christopher Hitchens, after being released from the Texas hospital where he was treated for esophageal cancer.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

A few times I have had the pleasure of seeing Christopher Hitchens interviewed. His wit is always wonderful and he skewers much that deserves skewering. I admire his perseverance at being productive, even as he battles a difficult cancer. And I admire him for sticking to his reasoned principles, even when it might be easier to accept Pascal’s Wager.
I have enjoyed the few reviews by Hitchens that I have read. I have purchased, but not yet read, two of his books—when I have read, I will write.
ADDENDUM: I wrote the above words back on November 10th, scheduled to run today. Yesterday I saw in the paper that Hitchens died on Thursday, December 15, 2011.

(p. C1) HOUSTON — Christopher Hitchens, probably the country’s most famous unbeliever, received the Freethinker of the Year Award at the annual convention of the Atheist Alliance of America here on Saturday. Mr. Hitchens was flattered by the honor, he said a few days beforehand, but also a little abashed. “I think being an atheist is something you are, not something you do,” he explained, adding: “I’m not sure we need to be honored. We don’t need positive reinforcement. On the other hand, we do need to stick up for ourselves, especially in a place like Texas, where they have laws, I think, that if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ you can’t run for sheriff.”

Mr. Hitchens, a prolific essayist and the author of “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” discovered in June 2010 that he had Stage 4 esophageal cancer.
. . .
(p. C5) On balance, he reflected, the past year has been a pretty good one. He won a National Magazine Award, published “Arguably,” debated Tony Blair in front of a huge audience and added two states to the list of those he has visited. “I lack only the Dakotas and Nebraska,” he said, “though I may not get there unless someone comes up with some ethanol-based cancer treatment in Omaha.”

For the full story, see:
CHARLES McGRATH. “A Voice, Still Vibrant, Reflects on Mortality.” The New York Times (Mon., October 10, 2011): C1 & C5.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Houston Rejects Irrational Recycling Fad

RecyclingByCityGraph.gif

Source of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) HOUSTON — While most large American cities have started ambitious recycling programs that have sharply reduced the amount of trash bound for landfills, Houston has not.
. . .
Landfill costs here are cheap. The city’s sprawling, no-zoning layout makes collection expensive, and there is little public support for the kind of effort it takes to sort glass, paper and plastics. And there appears to be even less for placing fees on excess trash.

“We have an independent streak that rebels against mandates or anything that seems trendy or hyped up,” said Mayor Bill White, . . .

For the full story, see:
ADAM B. ELLICK. “Houston Resists Recycling, and Independent Streak Is Cited.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., July 29, 2008): A13.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Bailouts Damage “System Based on the Premise that Risk Can Bring Failure, as Well as Rewards”

CapitalismCommunismCartoon.jpg Source of the cartoon: online version of the WSJ quoted and cited below.

(p. A8) William O. Perkins III says he turned a $1.25 million profit trading Goldman Sachs Group Inc. stock last week.

You would think that would count as a pretty good paycheck for the Houston energy trader. Instead, the experience left him so angry about the demise of capitalism that he says he has decided to spend his profits on advertisements attacking President George W. Bush’s planned $700 billion Wall Street bailout.
. . .
So he says he bought Goldman Sachs at $129 a share. The stock fell, so he bought more at $100 a share. It fell again, and he bought at $90. The next day it rallied and he sold out at an average price of $130 a share, for a net gain of about $1.25 million over three days of trading, he said.
Trouble was, the stock didn’t rally because of the fundamental strength of the company, Mr. Perkins said. It rallied because the federal government announced that it would rescue Wall Street from its own subprime follies, he said.
“The stock did OK because the government came in and said, ‘No one can fail,'” he said. “It’s capitalism on the way up and communism on the way down.”
His success left him furious, and he decided that someone had to speak out about the damage such a plan would cause to a system based on the premise that risk can bring failure, as well as rewards.

For the full story, see:

MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS. “Trader Makes a Quick $1.25 Million on Rescue, Then Slams It.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., SEPTEMBER 24, 2008): A10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

After Tort Reform, 7,000 M.D.s Have Gone to Texas

(p. A9) When Sam Houston was still hanging his hat in Tennessee in the 1830s, it wasn’t uncommon for fellow Tennesseans who were packing up and moving south and west to hang a sign on their cabins that read “GTT” – Gone to Texas.

Today obstetricians, surgeons and other doctors might consider reviving the practice. Over the past three years, some 7,000 M.D.s have flooded into Texas, many from Tennessee.
Why? Two words: Tort reform.
In 2003 and in 2005, Texas enacted a series of reforms to the state’s civil justice system. They are stunning in their success. Texas Medical Liability Trust, one of the largest malpractice insurance companies in the state, has slashed its premiums by 35%, saving doctors some $217 million over four years. There is also a competitive malpractice insurance industry in Texas, with over 30 companies competing for business. This is driving rates down.
The result is an influx of doctors so great that recently the State Board of Medical Examiners couldn’t process all the new medical-license applications quickly enough. The board faced a backlog of 3,000 applications. To handle the extra workload, the legislature rushed through an emergency appropriation last year.

For the full commentary, see:

JOSEPH NIXON. “CROSS COUNTRY; Why Doctors Are Heading for Texas.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 17, 2008): A9.

Former New Orleanians Do Not Miss the Crime and Chaos

ReeseCarlaWithDaughterAndDog.jpg “Carla Reese, left, with her daughter Renee Roussell, who said that “there is nothing to go back to” in New Orleans.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) LAKE CHARLES, La. — With resignation, anger or stoicism, thousands of former New Orleanians forced out by Hurricane Katrina are settling in across the Gulf Coast, breaking their ties with the damaged city for which they still yearn.

They now cast their votes in small Louisiana towns and in big cities of neighboring states. They have found new jobs and bought new houses. They have forsaken their favorite foods and cherished pastors. But they do not for a moment miss the crime, the chaos and the bad memories they left behind in New Orleans.

This vast diaspora — largely black, often poor, sometimes struggling — stretches across the country but is concentrated in cities near the coast, like this one, or Atlanta or Baton Rouge or Houston, places where the newcomers are still reaching for accommodation.

The break came fairly recently. Sometime between the New Orleans mayor’s race in spring 2006, when thousands of displaced citizens voted absentee or drove in to cast a ballot, and the city election this fall, when thousands did not — resulting in a sharply diminished electorate and a white-majority City Council — the decision was made: there was no going back. Life in New Orleans was over.

For the full story, see:
ADAM NOSSITER. “With Regrets, New Orleans Is Left Behind.” The New York Times (Tues., December 18, 2007): A1 & A29.

JonesHurstWilliamsChurchWarehouse.jpg “Cynthia Jones, left, her sister, Pauline Hurst, and their mother, Evelyn Williams, at the church warehouse where they now work.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

The Spontaneous Order of Houston Tunnels

 

   "The three major sections of the tunnel system are connected under the building at 919 Milam Street in downtown Houston."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below. 

 

Houston is one of the most vibrant, free-wheeling cities in the United States.  It is the only major city that does not have zoning laws,  (See:   Bernard Siegan’s Land Use Without Zoning.)

The tunnels of Houston appear to be another great example of what Hayek called "spontaneous order." 

 

(p. A14) HOUSTON, Aug. 20 — Where is everybody? 

Seared by triple-digit heat and drenched by tropical storms, midday downtown Houston appears eerily deserted, the nation’s fourth-largest city passing for a ghost town.

On the street, that is.

But below, there are tunnels at the end of the light — nearly seven color-coded miles of them connecting 77 buildings — aswarm with Houstonians lunching, shopping and power-walking in dry, air-chilled comfort.

. . .

It was not centrally planned; it just grew, inspired by Rockefeller Center in New York. But it is not connected to a transit network. And, befitting Texans’ distrust of government, most of it is private; each segment is controlled by the individual building owner who deigns to allow the public access during business hours — and then locks the doors on nights and weekends. Some parts, like those belonging to the former Enron buildings now leased by Chevron, are closed to outsiders altogether.

Few claim mastery of the labyrinth.

“It’s one of Houston’s best-kept secrets,” said Sandra Lord, widely known as the Tunnel Lady, a Yankee transplant who dispels the mysteries for $10 a head and roams the downtown underworld with proprietary aplomb, sometimes stopping strangers to ask, “And you are?” Corporations pay Ms. Lord to orient new employees below ground, and nearly 45,000 natives and visitors have taken her Discover Houston Tours since 1988.

. . .

Ms. Lord, a writer and Houston historian, traced the origins of the tunnels to Ross Sterling, an oilman and governor during the Depression, who, inspired by Rockefeller Center, linked two of his downtown buildings underground in the early 1930s. Soon after, an entertainment entrepreneur, Will Horwitz, connected three of his vaudeville and movie theaters to save on air-conditioning.

And the tunnels grew from there, despite the private expense of digging connections. The oil bust of the 1980s forced many building owners to compete for business with amenities like tunnels.

Many were flooded by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, prompting installation of submarine-type doors with inflatable rubber insulation for airtight seals.

 

For the full story, see: 

RALPH BLUMENTHAL.  "It’s Lonesome in This Old Town, Until You Go Underground."  The New York Times  (Tues., August 21, 2007):  A14.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

Top photo shows "Sandra Lord, owner of Discover Houston Tours, leading a tunnel excursion . . . "  Bottom photo shows a map of the tunnels.  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above. 

 

U.S. Jobs Moving “Up the Occupational Chains” to Work that “Is Not as Rules-Based”

 

   Source of graphic:  online verion of the NYT article cited below.

 

(p. C1)  Jeffrey Taft is a road warrior in the global high-technology services economy, and his work shows why there are limits to the number of skilled jobs that can be shipped abroad in the Internet age.

Each Monday, Mr. Taft awakes before dawn at his home in Canonsburg, Pa., heads for the Pittsburgh airport and flies to Houston for the week.

He is one of dozens of I.B.M. services employees from around the country who are working with a Texas utility, CenterPoint Energy, to install computerized electric meters, sensors and software in a “smart grid” project to improve service and conserve energy.

Mr. Taft, 51, is an engineer fluent in programming languages and experienced in the utility business. Much of his work, he says, involves being a translator between the different vernaculars and cultures of computing and electric power, as he oversees the design and building of software tailored for utilities. “It takes a tremendous amount of face-to-face work,” he said.

What he does, in short, cannot be done overseas. But some of the programming work can be, so I.B.M. employees in India are also on the utility project team.

The trick for companies like I.B.M. is to figure out what work to do where, and, more important, to keep bringing in the kind of higher-end work that needs to be done in this country, competing on the basis of specialized expertise and not on price alone.

The debate continues over how much skilled work in the vast service sector of the American economy can migrate offshore to lower-cost nations like India. Estimates of the number of services jobs potentially at (p. C4) risk, by economists and research organizations, range widely from a few million to more than 40 million, which is about a third of total employment in services.

Jobs in technology services may be particularly vulnerable because computer programming can be described in math-based rules that are then sent over the Internet to anywhere there are skilled workers. Already, a significant amount of basic computer programming work has gone offshore to fast-growing Indian outsourcing companies like Infosys, Wipro and Tata Consultancy Services.

To compete, companies like I.B.M. have to move up the economic ladder to do more complicated work, as do entire Western economies and individual workers. “Once you start moving up the occupational chains, the work is not as rules-based,” said Frank Levy, a labor economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “People are doing more custom work that varies case by case.”

In the field of technology services, Mr. Levy said, the essential skill is “often a lot more about business knowledge than it is about software technology — and it’s a lot harder to ship that kind of work overseas.”

 

For the full story, see: 

STEVE LOHR.  "At I.B.M., a Smarter Way to Outsource."  The New York Times   (Thurs., July 5, 2007):  C1 & C4. 

 

Levy has co-authored a book that is relevant to the example and issues raised in the article.  See:

Levy, Frank, and Richard J. Murnane.  The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market.  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2004.

 

   IBM engineer Jeffrey Taft (blue shirt) has "local" knowledge of the connection between computer programming and the electric utility business.  Here he is on-site in Houston at the offices of CenterPoint Energy.  Source of graphic:  online verion of the NYT article cited above.