Diverse Civic Groups Support Fee for Driving in Manhattan

A year ago, officials from a prominent civic group floated a proposal to reduce traffic by levying a $7 fee on cars and trucks driving below 60th Street, but they found themselves treated not like visionary crusaders but like bird flu patients when policy makers at City Hall said very firmly that such a change was not on the mayor’s agenda for his second term.

Now a diverse array of civic and community groups — including such unlikely allies as conservative scholars and take-back-the-streets cycling advocates — are cautiously moving to raise the subject again in the hope of overcoming the resistance of New Yorkers and their political leaders.

. . .

The coalition wants more speed bumps on neighborhood streets and a crackdown on illegal parking, but it also asks that the city study congestion pricing.

”That is the gorilla in the room and, among all the measures we’re discussing, it has the most potential for reducing traffic,” said Paul Steely White, the director of Transportation Alternatives.

. . .

Advocates of congestion pricing are reluctant to make specific proposals on how it could be carried out in New York, but they often point to London as an example of a successful program.

Championed by an activist mayor, London’s program began in early 2003 and has significantly reduced traffic and sped up bus lines. London drivers must pay as much as $19 a day to enter the road pricing zone in the city center. They can pay in a variety of ways, including online, by phone, by mail or at designated shops or gas stations. Cameras around the congestion zone read vehicle license plates and feed the numbers to a computer that checks to see who paid their fees. Those who have not paid can be fined.


For the full story, see: 

WILLIAM NEUMAN. "Bigger Push for Charging Drivers Who Use the Busiest Streets." The New York Times  (Fri., November 24, 2006):  C9.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


Feynman: Nothing in Biology Requires Us to Die

   Source of book image: http://stochastix.wordpress.com/files/2006/08/the-pleasure-of-finding-things-out.gif


(p. 100)  It is one of the most remarkable things that in all of the biological sciences there is no clue as to the necessity of death.  If you say we want to make perpetual motion, we have discovered enough laws as we studied physics to see that it is either absolutely impossible or else the laws are wrong.  But there is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death.  This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable, and that it is only a matter of time before the biologists discover what it is that is causing us the trouble and that that terrible universal disease or temporariness of the human’s body will be cured.   



Feynman, Richard P.  The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman.  New York:  Perseus Books, 1999.


T.W. Schultz May Have Been Right to Emphasize Innovation Over Invention

Antikythera_fragment_A.jpg    On the left is a photo of Fragment A, the largest of the 82 fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism.  On the right is an x-ray (radiograph) of Fragment A.  Source of images:  http://www.xtekxray.com/antikythera.htm


When I was a young graduate student at Chicago, in the mid-1970s, T.W. Schultz was a gentle, but still active and sharp, old man.  I respected him and liked him, but sometimes thought he was a bit naive.  For instance, one of his positions was that most useful technology is already out there somewhere—the hard part is figuring out how to efficiently get the useful technologies to market at a price people are willing to pay.  (I’m writing this from memory.)  In other words, to use Schumpeter’s distinction between invention and innovation:  Schultz downplayed the role of invention and emphasized the role of innovation.

The amazing device discussed in the article below, seems like solid grist for T.W.’s mill.

(More grist would be a huge, fancy, ancient Chinese clock that is discussed in Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers book.) 

Also, do not neglect to pause for a moment to notice the vindication of Derek J. de Solla Price.  Few today know his name, but he should be remembered as one of the first (Galton might be the first) to apply bibliometric measures to the study of science. 


A computer in antiquity would seem to be an anachronism, like Athena ordering takeout on her cellphone.

But a century ago, pieces of a strange mechanism with bronze gears and dials were recovered from an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Greece.  Historians of science concluded that this was an instrument that calculated and illustrated astronomical information, particularly phases of the Moon and planetary motions, in the second century B.C.

. . .

Technology historians say the instrument is technically more complex than any known for at least a millennium afterward.  Earlier examinations of the instrument, mainly in the 1970s by Derek J. de Solla Price, a Yale historian who died in 1983, led to similar findings, but they were generally disputed or ignored.

The hand-operated mechanism, presumably used in preparing calendars for planting and harvesting and fixing religious festivals, had at least 30, possibly 37, hand-cut bronze gear-wheels, the researchers said.  . . .

. . .

Dr. Charette noted that more than 1,000 years elapsed before instruments of such complexity are known to have re-emerged. A few artifacts and some Arabic texts suggest that simpler geared calendrical devices had existed, particularly in Baghdad around A.D. 900.

It seems clear, he said, that ”much of the mind-boggling technological sophistication available in some parts of the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman world was simply not transmitted further.”

”The gear-wheel, in this case,” he added, ”had to be reinvented.”


For the full story, see: 

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD.  "Early Astronomical ‘Computer’ Found to Be Technically Complex."  The New York Times  (Thurs., November 30, 2006):  A7.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

The reference for the Nature article reporting the new analysis, is:

Freeth, T., Y. Bitsakis, X. Moussas, J. H. Seiradakis, A.Tselikas, E. Mankou, M. Zafeiropoulou, R. Hadland, D. Bate, A. Ramsey, M. Allen, A. Crawley, P. Hockley, T. Malzbender, D. Gelb, W. Ambrisco, and M. G. Edmunds. "Decoding the Ancient Greek Astronomical Calculator Known as the Antikythera Mechanism." Nature 444 (Nov. 30, 2006): 587-91.

The reference to the Boorstin book, is:

Boorstin, Daniel J.  The Discoverers.  New York:  Random House, 1983, pp. 59-61.

On the Chinese clock, the Boorstin book relies on:

Needham, Joseph.  Science and Civilization in China. Vol. 4 Physics and Physical Technology. Part II: Mechanical Engineering. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1965, Figure 650, p. 449.

One of Derek J. de Solo Price’s most important books, is:

Price, Derek J. de Solla.  Little Science, Big Science. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.


 Antikythera_model_back_gears.jpg   A computer model re-construction of the Antikythera Mechanism.  Source of image:  http://www.xtekxray.com/antikythera.htm


Incentives Influence Doctors’ Choice of Prostate Therapy

(p. A1)  The nearly 240,000 men in the United States who will learn they have prostate cancer this year have one more thing to worry about:  Are their doctors making treatment decisions on the basis of money as much as medicine?

Among several widely used treatments for prostate cancer, one stands out for its profit potential.  The approach, a radiation therapy known as I.M.R.T., can mean reimbursement of $47,000 or more a patient.

That is many times the fees that urologists make on other accepted treatments for the disease, which include surgery and radioactive seed implants.  And it may help explain why urologists have started buying multimillion-dollar I.M.R.T. equipment and software, and why many more are investigating it as a way to increase their incomes.

. . .

(p. C7)  The one certainty about I.M.R.T. is that for doctors who own the technology, it can be much more lucrative than alternative treatments.  Medicare and other insurers typically pay urologists only $2,000 or less for performing surgery to remove the prostate or for implanting radioactive seeds.  The insurers say the much higher I.M.R.T. payments, which in some cases exceed $50,000, are based on the technology’s cost.  


For the full story, see: 

STEPHANIE SAUL.  "Profit and Questions as Doctors Offer Prostate Cancer Therapy."  The New York Times  (Fri., December 1, 2006):  A1 & C7.

Evan Williams Spurns Bad Money

   Evan Williams (on left) with Noah Glass, co-founded Odeo.  Source of photo:  http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/25/technology/25podcast.html?ex=1267419600&en=b80f1d3808f556cc&ei=5088


Evan Williams’ story illustrates Christensen and Raynor’s advice that disruptive innovators need to seek good money, and spurn bad money.  Good money is patient for growth, but impatient for profit.  Bad money is the opposite. 


EVAN WILLIAMS recently bought his freedom.  It cost him a bit more than $2 million, and he says it was worth every penny.

I’m not talking about paying off a big debt to one of Tony Soprano’s loan-shark underlings.  Mr. Williams is a serial entrepreneur, one of those Silicon Valley characters who start company after company.  And he purchased his freedom from the venture capitalists and others who financed his company, Odeo.  Mr. Williams dug into his pockets and gave them back their money.  He got to keep his struggling podcast company and renamed it the Obvious Corporation.

In the process, Mr. Williams, who is 34, has become something of a cause célèbre among a small group of mostly young entrepreneurs who seem determined to turn their back on venture capitalists.  They say they yearn for a new entrepreneurship model.  They talk about building ”sustainable companies” suggesting something idealistic in their quest.  With comments on blogs urging Mr. Williams to ”keep up the goodness,” it feels a bit like the birth of a mini-movement in the Valley.

. . .

In candid posts on his blog, Mr. Williams chronicled Odeo’s story, warts and all. He admitted to making mistakes.  Getting too much venture money too early was one of them.  It made it harder to persuade the board and the company’s 14 employees to change course when, for example, Apple Computer introduced a competing product that cut into Odeo’s prospects.  ”It’s a bigger ship to turn,” Mr. Williams said.


For the full story, see: 

MIGUEL HELFT.  "STREET SCENE: VC NATION; Yearning for Freedom From Venture Capital Overlords."   The New York Times  (Fri., November 24, 2006):  C5.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


The reference for the Christensen and Raynor book is:

Christensen, Clayton M., and Michael E. Raynor. The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.


Ignoring the Elephant in the Stent Hearing Room

Stent.jpg   A stent.  Source of photo:  online version of the 3/27/07 NYT article cited below.


(p. C1)  See, there was an elephant in the hearing room last week that went almost entirely ignored.  One study after another has found that whether or not a stent is coated, angioplasty — the process of opening up an artery before a stent is inserted — and stenting do not actually reduce the risk of heart attack or extend life span for most patients.

“There’s a much more liberal use of angioplasty and stenting than there needs to be,” Dr. Eric J. Topol, a member of the panel, told me last week.

Dr. Calvin L. Weisberger, the top cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente, said, “A large pool of angioplasties and bypass surgeries are being done without scientific evidence.”

. . .

Angioplasty dates back to the 1970s, and stents became a part of the process in the 1990s.  Doctors have assumed, sensibly enough, that blocked arteries caused heart attacks by preventing blood from reaching the heart.  Opening those ar-(p. C14)teries would keep the blood flowing.

But when researchers tried to prove the theory, they kept coming up empty.  The reason seems to be that heart attacks aren’t generally caused by a big buildup of plaque that blocks an artery.  They occur instead when a small piece of plaque bursts, causing a cascade that can suddenly clog an open artery.  The best way to reduce the risk of that is through cholesterol-lowering drugs, diet and exercise, rather than by opening up a couple of clogged arteries.

Yet stent use keeps growing.  “Cardiologists just believe that if you open up a blockage, you’re going to help someone,” said Dr. Judith S. Hochman, director of the cardiovascular clinical research center at New York University.  “And they make money from these procedures.”

Ah, yes — money.  Medicare typically pays $12,000 to $15,000 for a coated stent procedure, according to Thomas Gunderson of Piper Jaffray.  Angioplasty and stenting have accounted for almost 10 percent of the increase in Medicare spending since the mid-1990s, Jonathan S. Skinner, a Dartmouth economist, estimates.


For the full commentary, see: 

DAVID LEONHARDT.  "ECONOMIX; What Money Doesn’t Buy in Health Care."  The New York Times  (Weds., December 13, 2006 ):  C1 & C14.


Added on 3/22/08: For a later, related story, see: 

BARNABY J. FEDER.  "In Trial, Drugs Equal Benefits of Artery Stents."  The New York Times  (Tues., March 27, 2007):  A1 & A13.


Goverment Planning Destroys Poor People’s Chance to Develop Themselves: More on Why Africa is Poor

  The refuse from homes demolished by the Abuja city government as part of their master plan.  Source of photo:    online version of the NYT article cited below. 


The story below, alas, is not an isolated example.  The lessons from Hernando de Soto’s The Other Path, have still not been learned. 


“They don’t want to see the common man, the poor man,” said Comrade Daniel, a motorcycle taxi driver, standing in the rubble of his neighborhood.  He lost first his home and then his livelihood to a recent campaign to rid this stately capital of the blemishes of poverty.  “They only care for themselves,” he said.

Mr. Daniel and others who live on the unruly edge of this tidy city in the mossy hills of central Nigeria say that Abuja has declared war on its poorest citizens.

. . .  

. . .  the city’s master plan was ignored for years by corrupt officials who allowed illegal neighborhoods to blossom, unauthorized street markets to spread and torpedo-like motorcycle taxis, called okada, often driven by illiterate young men, to choke the streets.

Much of that expansion was sanctioned — or at least overlooked — by the rulers of the day, and deeds were obtained by many of those who have lost their homes in the recent cleanup.  Mr. Daniel, the motorcycle taxi driver, had a deed to his land, having paid about $160 for a small plot.

In 2003, a new minister was appointed to run the capital, and he declared his intention to hew strictly to the old master plan.  Many political leaders cheered the decision, fretting that Abuja, built at enormous expense as an antidote to Lagos, was headed to the same chaotic fate.

But the declaration effectively rendered much of the daily life of millions of people illegal.  As with most Africans, Nigerians deal mostly in the informal economy, the vast, unregulated, untaxed network that emerges, through the inexorable logic of the marketplace, to fill vital needs left unmet by government and the formal economy.

. . .

The master plan’s housing estates unfurl with the orderliness of a planned subdivision:  town houses and apartments for the well heeled, tract homes and villas for the even better heeled.  But there is little provision for the army of civil servants, whose low wages place the graceful homes of Abuja out of reach.

As for the maids, drivers, security guards and laborers without whom this city would cease to function — people like Mr. Daniel and his sister — there is no place for them at all.  Many have moved farther still, commuting for hours from neighboring states to escape the bulldozers.

The government has said it plans to help resettle those displaced by the demolition, estimated to be in the tens of thousands, but those who have lost their homes say no one has offered them any compensation or a new place to live.  And so they are left with the bitter knowledge that their capital has no place for them.

With their home reduced to rubble, Vashti and Comrade Daniel have moved into the back room of a cousin’s house.  The house they lost was not some tin shack, but a proper house of bricks and mortar.  Mr. Daniel’s income has been slashed by two-thirds by the ban on okada, and he does not know how he will rebuild.

“They say they want to make Abuja like London, but London wasn’t built in a day,” he said.  “Once upon a time they had poor people in London, but they developed themselves.  We just want that chance.”


For the full story, see:

LYDIA POLGREEN.  "ABUJA JOURNAL; In a Dream City, a Nightmare for the Common Man."  The New York Times  (Weds., December 13, 2006):  A4.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


The reference to de Soto’s book is:

Soto, Hernando de. The Other Path. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.


  "Okada" are the motorcycle taxis that the city government of Abuja is trying to ban.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

 NigeriaMap.gif   Source of map:  online version of the NYT article cited above.


Publishing Pretty Papers Full of Clever Mathematical Tricks

  Source of book image:  http://images.amazon.com/images/P/0738203491.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpg


In his elegant and thoughtful foreward, physicist, futurist, and guru Freeman Dyson writes:

(p. viii)  Before I met Feynman, I had published a number of mathematical papers, full of clever tricks but totally lacking in im-(p. ix)portance.  When I met Feynman, I knew at once that I had entered another world.  He was not interested in publishing pretty papers.  He was struggling, more intensely than I had ever seen anyone struggle, to understand the workings of nature by rebuilding physics from the bottom up.   


The reference to the book, is:

Feynman, Richard P. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. New York: Perseus Books, 1999.

Schumpeter’s “Sarcastic Remark” on Mathematics in Economics

Erich Schneider had been a student of Schumpeter’s at the University of Bonn in the late 1920s.  The following sentences are from his lectures on Schumpeter that he published in German in 1970, and that were were translated into English by W.E. Kuhn and published in that form in 1975.

(p. 41) When, after many years of separation, I saw Schumpeter again at Harvard in the fall of 1949 and heard his lectures on economic theory–which he gave at 2 p.m., as in Bonn–I found him to be exactly the same man as before. On that afternoon he talked about the nature of dynamic analysis and about the role of difference equations in the framework of such an analysis.

To the above passage, Schneider adds footnote 3:

(p. 59) He dropped the sarcastic remark: "There are economists who do not know what a difference equation is; but there are also those who know nothing else."

Schneider, Erich.  Joseph A. Schumpeter:  Leben Und Werk Eines Grossen Sozialokonomen (Life and Work of a Great Social Scientist). Lincoln, Neb.:  University of Nebraska–Lincoln Bureau of Business Research, 1975.

Environmentalists Back Biofuels that Cause Deforestation

  Forests are burned on plantations in Indonesia to clear land to produce palm oil which is "a key ingredient in biodiesel."  Source of caption quote and photo:  online version of WSJ article cited below.


(p. A1)  PONTIANAK, Indonesia — Investors are pouring billions of dollars into "renewable" energy sources such as ethanol, biodiesel and solar power that promise to reduce the world’s reliance on petroleum.  But exploiting these alternatives may produce unintended environmental and economic consequences that offset the expected benefits.

Here on the island of Borneo, a thick haze often encloses this city of 500,000 people.  The cause:  forest fires that have blazed across the island.  Many of them were set to clear land to produce palm oil — a key ingredient in biodiesel, a clean-burning diesel fuel alternative.

The bluish smoke is at times so dense that it leaves the city dark and gloomy even at midday.  The haze has sometimes closed Pontianak’s airport and prompted local volunteers to distribute face-masks on city streets.  From July through mid-October, Indonesian health officials reported 28,762 smog-related cases of respiratory illness across the country.

"I feel it in my breath when I breathe," said Imanuel Patasik, a 26-year-old delivery man, as he sat in one of Pontianak’s many open-air coffee shops on a recent evening.  When the smoke is really bad, he wears a mask to work, but still wakes up the next morning feeling sick.  "It’s part of life here," he sighed.

Seasonal rains have helped quell the fires over the past few weeks.  But the miasma of smoke from Borneo and the island of Sumatra — an annual phenomenon that blankets large parts of Southeast Asia in smog — underscores a troubling dark side of the world’s alternative-energy boom.  Among other problems, the fires in Indonesia spew millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, experts say.  In doing so, they exacerbate the very global-warming concerns biofuels are meant to alleviate.

Such side effects are not an isolated problem.  In Indonesia, Malaysia, Canada and elsewhere, forests are being slashed for new energy-yielding crops or other unconventional fuels.  In India, environmental activists say, water tables are dropping as farmers try to boost production of ethanol-yielding sugar.


For the full story, see:

PATRICK BARTA and JANE SPENCER.  "Crude Awakening As Alternative Energy Heats Up, Environmental Concerns Grow Crop of Renewable ‘Biofuels’ Could Have Drawbacks; Fires Across Indonesia Palm-Oil Boom Ignites Debate."  Wall Street Journal  (Tues., December 5, 2006):  A1 & A13.


   Midday in Pontianak the smoke haze from palm oil is dense, and causes respiratory problems.  Source of caption quote and photo:  online version of WSJ article cited above.