Mary Priestley Praises the Middle Class

(p. 86) Joseph and Mary had not exactly entered English high society, but for the first time in their lives, they were down the hall from it. Mary was largely unimpressed by her firsthand view of the upper classes. One story has Shelburne arriving to welcome them at their new house in Calne, and finding Mary on a ladder, industriously papering the walls. Joseph apologized for their not providing a more gracious welcome, but Mary quickly dismissed her husband’s proprieties. “Lord Shelburne is a statesman,” she said, “and knows that people are best employed in doing their duty.” Later she would observe candidly to (p. 87) Shelburne, “I find the conduct of the upper so exactly like that of the lower classes that I am thankful I was born in the middle.”

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

Economic Freedom Map

EconomicFreedomPoster.JPG Source of image:

I heard a useful presentation by John Morton on the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom Map at the April 2009 Association of Private Enterprise Education meetings in Guatemala City. Using data developed by Jim Gwartney, Robert Lawson, and their associates, the map provides striking visual evidence of the relationship between economic freedom and economic growth.

For additional information, and to purchase a copy of the map, visit:

Bacon Died Experimenting and Hegel Died Contradicting Himself

(p. C32) The philosopher Francis Bacon, that great champion of the empirical method, died of his own philosophy: in an effort to observe the effects of refrigeration, on a freezing cold day he stuffed a chicken with snow and caught pneumonia.

As a philosopher dies, so he has lived and believed. And from the manner of his dying we can understand his thinking, or so the philosopher Simon Critchley seems to be saying in his cheekily titled “Book of Dead Philosophers.”
. . .
Mr. Critchley recounts that Voltaire, after decades of denouncing the Roman Catholic Church, announced on his deathbed that he wanted to die a Catholic. But the shocked parish priest kept asking him, “Do you believe in the divinity of Christ?” Voltaire begged, “In the name of God, Monsieur, don’t speak to me any more of that man and let me die in peace.”
Hegel, who, as much as any philosopher, Mr. Critchley says, saw philosophy as an abstraction, while he was dying of cholera, moaned, “Only one man ever understood me … and he didn’t understand me.”

For the full review, see:

DINITIA SMITH. “Books of The Times – Dying and Death: When You Sort It Out, What’s It All About, Diogenes?” The New York Times (Fri., January 30, 2009): C32.

(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs was added; ellipsis in Hegel quote was in original.)

The reference to Critchley’s book, is:
Critchley, Simon. The Book of Dead Philosophers. New York: Vintage Books, 2009.

Greenmarket Rules Are “Cumbersome, Confusing and Contradictory”

HesseDanteGreenmarket.jpg “Dante Hesse, . . . , of Milk Thistle Farm, thinks Greenmarket rules are too hard on dairies.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. (Note: ellipsis in caption added.)

(p. D4) The basic aim of the producer-only rules is to ensure that all foods sold at market originate entirely or mostly on family farms within a half day’s drive from New York City. The 10-page document detailing these rules, however, is anything but clear.

“Cumbersome, confusing and contradictory,” was the assessment of Michael Hurwitz, the director of Greenmarket, which operates 45 markets in the five boroughs.
Pickle makers can sell preserved foods such as peppers in vinegar, but not processed foods such as hot sauce. Farmers, on the other hand, can sell processed hot sauce if it is made with their peppers. Dairies may purchase a higher percentage of their milk for cheese if the cheese is made from one type of milk rather than two milks, such as cow and sheep. Cider makers can buy 40 percent of the apples they press from local farmers, whereas wheatgrass juice sellers must grow all their wheatgrass.

For the full story, see:
INDRANI SEN. “Greenmarket Sellers Debate Maze of Producer-Only Rules.” The New York Times (Weds., August 6, 2008): D4.

Joe Biden’s “First Principle of Life”: “Get Up!”

(p. xxii) To me this is the first principle of life, the foundational principle, and a lesson you can’t learn at the feet of any wise man: Get up! The art of living is simply getting up after you’ve been knocked down. It’s a lesson taught by example and learned in the doing. I got that lesson every day while growing up in a nondescript split-level house in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware. My dad, Joseph Robinette Biden Sr., was a man of few words. What I learned from him. I learned from watching. He’d been knocked down hard as a young man, lost something he knew he could never get back. But he never stopped trying. He was the first one up in our house every morning, clean-shaven, elegantly dressed, putting on the coffee, getting ready to go to the car dealership, to a job he never really liked. My brother Jim said most mornings he could hear our dad singing in the kitchen. My dad had grace. He never, ever gave up, and he never complained. The world doesn’t owe you a living, Joey,” he used to say, but without rancor. He had no time for self-pity. He didn’t judge a man by how many times he got knocked down but by how fast he got up.

Get up! That was his phrase, and it has echoed through my life. The world dropped you on your head? My dad would say, Get up! You’re lying in bed feeling sorry for yourself? Get up! You got knocked on your ass on the football field? Get up! Bad grade? Get up! The girl’s parents won’t let her go out with a Catholic boy? Get up!

Biden, Joe. Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics. New York: Random House, 2007.
(Note: the italics in the quoted passage are in the original.)

“Every Organization Has Too Many Meetings”

HastieReidMeetings2009-05-15.jpg“Reid Hastie, a professor at the University of Chicago, contends that “every organization has too many meetings, and far too many poorly designed ones.” ” Source of photo and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

The author of the following wise words is a Professor of Behavioral Science at the School of Business at the University of Chicago. One of the main points of the commentary, in the language of economics, is that meeting planners often fail to consider the opportunity cost of attendees’ time:

(p. 2) As a general rule, meetings make individuals perform below their capacity and skill levels.

This doesn’t mean we should always avoid face-to-face meetings — but it is certain that every organization has too many meetings, and far too many poorly designed ones.
The main reason we don’t make meetings more productive is that we don’t value our time properly. The people who call meetings and those who attend them are not thinking about time as their most valuable resource.
. . .
Probably most important, we are blind to lost time opportunities. When we choose where to invest our time, as opposed to where to invest money, we are more likely to neglect what else we could have done with it.

For the full commentary, see:
REID HASTIE. “Preoccupations – Meetings Are a Matter of Precious Time.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., January 18, 2009): 2.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

An Environment Where Long-Term Hunches Could Thrive

An environment in which long-term hunches can be pursued, is important not just to science and invention. I speculate that it is also important to entrepreneurship.

(p. 74) If great ideas usually arrive in fragments, a partial cluster of neurons, then part of the secret to having great ideas lies in creating a working environment where those fragments are nurtured and sustained over time. This obviously poses some difficulty in modern work environments, with deadlines and quarterly reports and annual job reviews. (The typical middle manager doesn’t respond favorably to news that an employee has a hunch about something that probably won’t see results for twenty years.) But Priestley had created an environment for himself where those long-term hunches could thrive with almost no pressure, and his habit of simultaneously writing multiple documents (on multiple topics) kept the fragments alive in his mind over the decades. In the final pages of his memoirs, he mentions a lifelong habit of writing down “as soon as possible, every thing I wish not to forget.”

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

Global Warming Makes Arctic Less Hostile

StatoilHydroLNGplant2009-05-16.jpg “Statoilhydro’s pioneering liquefied natural gas plant on an island off Hammerfest in Norway has encountered an array of problems.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) HAMMERFEST, Norway — A Norwegian oil company has gone to the ends of the earth — almost literally — to get at some of the world’s last untapped energy resources.

StatoilHydro ASA operates a pioneering venture deep inside the Arctic Circle, energy’s final frontier. The company pumps natural gas from under the freezing waters of the Barents Sea, cools it into a liquid and exports it to Europe and the U.S.

The project, called Snoehvit, has taken StatoilHydro and the entire oil and gas industry into uncharted territory. Before, no one had ever produced liquefied natural gas in the Arctic — or in Europe, for that matter.

. . .
The oil companies are being aided by climate change. Lashed by storms and strewn with icebergs, the Arctic is one of the most hostile environments on earth. But global warming is melting the polar ice cap, opening up new shipping routes and unlocking once-inaccessible mineral deposits.

. . .
(p. B4) StatoilHydro, . . . , is upbeat. The plant is currently running at 80% to 90% of capacity, up from around 60% last year, company officials say. Outages are typical for the run-in period of a big LNG project, and flaring will soon be a thing of the past. Sure, they say, the start-up period has been troubled, but this is a field with a production life of up to 40 years.

For the full story, see:
GUY CHAZAN. “Norwegian Oil Firm Goes to Energy’s Last Frontier.” Wall Street Journal (Fri., FEBRUARY 13, 2009): B1 & B4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: LNG in the quotes is the abbreviation for liquefied natural gas.)

ArcticOilReserves2009-02-16.gif Source of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

How Democratic Presidents Save Us

Andrew Jackson was the first in a long line of populist Democratic presidents:

(p. 24) He relished the roles of protector and savior. Just after dusk on a cold March day in 1791, when Jackson was practicing law on the circuit around Jonesborough, Tennessee, he and his friend John Overton were traveling with a small group through dangerous territory. Reaching the banks of the Emory River in the mountains, the lawyers spotted a potentially hostile Indian party. “The light of their fires showed that they were numerous,” Overton recalled to Henry Lee, and “that they were painted and equipped for war.” Under Jackson’s leadership (Overton credited him with a “saving spirit and elastic mind”), the travelers scrambled into the hills on horseback, riding roughly parallel to the river–which they had to cross to make it home. Pursued by the Indians, Jackson, Overton, and two others pressed on through the night, coming to a place where the water looked smooth enough to allow a hastily constructed raft and the horses to make it to the other side. Jackson look charge of the raft piled high with saddles and clothes. Overton would follow with the horses.

There was immediate trouble. The waters were not as smooth as they had appeared; a powerful undercurrent swept the boat–and Jackson– downstream, toward a steep waterfall. “Overton and his companion instantly cried out and implored Jackson to pull back,” Lee wrote. But he either not being so sensible of the danger, or being unwilling to yield to it, (p. 25) continued to push vigorously forward.” Jackson struggled with his oars; disaster was at hand. He and the saddles could he lost, and the Indians were still on their trail. “Finding himself just on the brink of the awful precipice,” Lee recounted, Jackson extended his oar to Overton, who “laid hold of it and pulled the raft ashore, just as it was entering the suck of the torrent.” Catching their breath on the bank of the river, Overton and Jackson looked at each other.

“You were within an ace, Sir, of being dashed to pieces,” Overton told him. Jackson waved him off, replying, “A miss is as good as a mile; it only shows how close I can graze danger. But we have no time to lose–follow me and I’ll save you yet.” They eluded the Indians, arriving home exhausted but safe.

Meacham, Jon. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. New York: Random House, 2008.
(Note: the semi-colons in the above passage were hard to distinguish, in the online version, from colons. I judged them to be semi-colons from context, but I could be wrong.)

Life Thrived When Earth Was Far Warmer than Now

SnakeLargest2009-02-16.jpg “An artist’s rendering of the prehistoric snake Titanoboa cerrejonensis, which was 42 feet long and lived 60 million years ago.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A7) Some 60 million years ago, well after the demise of the dinosaurs, a giant relative of today’s boa constrictors, weighing more than a ton and measuring 42 feet long, hunted crocodiles in rain-washed tropical forests in northern South America, according to a new fossil discovery.
. . .
But the existence of such a large snake may also help clarify how hot the tropics became during an era when the planet, as a whole, was far warmer than it is now, and also how well moist tropical ecosystems can tolerate a much warmer global climate.

That last question is important in assessments of how human-driven global warming might affect the tropics.
. . .
The team examined how warm it had to be for a snake species to be that large by considering conditions favoring the largest living similar tropical snake, the green anaconda, said Jason J. Head, the lead author of the paper and a paleontologist at the University of Toronto. They concluded that Titanoboa could have thrived only if temperatures ranged from 86 to 93 degrees.

For the full story, see:
ANDREW C. REVKIN. “Fossils of Largest Snake Give Hint of Hot Earth.” The New York Times (Thurs., February 4, 2009): A7.
(Note: ellipses added.)