Paul Allen’s Account of the Founding of Microsoft


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(p. C6) The first half of “Idea Man” sets forth Mr. Allen’s version of the Microsoft creation myth, depicting Mr. Gates as a petulant, ambitious and money-minded mogul-to-be and Mr. Allen as an underappreciated visionary. Pictures of them from the 1970s and early ’80s also tell this story, making Mr. Allen look like a hirsute, powerful older brother and Mr. Gates like a kid.
. . .
“Idea Man” is long overdue. It turns out to be as remote, yet as surpassingly strange, as its author, whose receipt of a diagnosis of Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009 has made it that much more important for him to tell his story. Though it is written in the smoothly proficient style of many a collaborator-assisted memoir, it is a book filled with wild extremes: breakthrough, breakup, power, indulgence, blue-sky innovation. And it winds up offering Mr. Allen’s guarded, partial answer to a universal question: what if you could make your wildest dreams come true?

For the full review, see:
JANET MASLIN. “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; The Reclusive Other Half of Microsoft’s Odd Couple Breaks His Silence.” The New York Times (Tues., April 19, 2011): C6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 18, 2011.)

The book under review is:
Allen, Paul. Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft. New York: Portfolio, 2011.

MOOCs “Will Really Scale” Once Credible Credentialing Process Is Mastered

A “MOOC” is a “massive open online course.”

(p. 1) Last May I wrote about Coursera — co-founded by the Stanford computer scientists Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng — just after it opened. Two weeks ago, I went back out to Palo Alto to check in on them. When I visited last May, about 300,000 people were taking 38 courses taught by Stanford professors and a few other elite universities. Today, they have 2.4 million students, taking 214 courses from 33 universities, including eight international ones.

Anant Agarwal, the former director of M.I.T.’s artificial intelligence lab, is now president of edX, a nonprofit MOOC that M.I.T. and Harvard are jointly building. Agarwal told me that since May, some 155,000 students from around the world have taken edX’s first course: an M.I.T. intro class on circuits. “That is greater than the total number of M.I.T. alumni in its 150-year history,” he said.
. . .
(p. 11) As we look to the future of higher education, said the M.I.T. president, L. Rafael Reif, something that we now call a “degree” will be a concept “connected with bricks and mortar” — and traditional on-campus experiences that will increasingly leverage technology and the Internet to enhance classroom and laboratory work. Alongside that, though, said Reif, many universities will offer online courses to students anywhere in the world, in which they will earn “credentials” — certificates that testify that they have done the work and passed all the exams. The process of developing credible credentials that verify that the student has adequately mastered the subject — and did not cheat — and can be counted on by employers is still being perfected by all the MOOCs. But once it is, this phenomenon will really scale.
I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment. “There is a new world unfolding,” said Reif, “and everyone will have to adapt.”

For the full commentary, see:
THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN. “Revolution Hits the Universities.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., January 27, 2013): 1 & 11.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 26, 2013.)

When Howard Phillips Was Told He Could Not Dismantle His Agency, He Resigned


“Mr. Phillips [on left] was named the head of the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1973 during President Richard M. Nixon’s administration.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.

(p. A24) Howard J. Phillips, a pillar of conservative activism who ran for president three times on the ticket of a political party he helped found, died . . . at his home in Vienna, Va. He was 72.

. . .
Mr. Phillips’s integrity as a conservative was on display in President Richard M. Nixon’s administration. In early 1973, the president signaled his intention to withhold financing from the Office of Economic Opportunity, an antipoverty agency with roots in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty. The president named Mr. Phillips acting director and charged him with dismantling it.
“I believe Richard Nixon epitomizes the American dream and represents all that is great in America,” Mr. Phillips said at the time.
Nixon was unable to carry out his plans, however, after Democrats successfully sued to prevent him from starving an agency that Congress had authorized. And when Nixon yielded and continued to finance Johnson’s Great Society programs, Mr. Phillips considered the president to have broken his word and resigned.

For the full obituary, see:
BRUCE WEBER. “Howard J. Phillips, Stalwart Conservative, Dies at 72.” The New York Times (Thurs., April 25, 2013): A24.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed words in caption, added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date April 23, 2013.)

Modern Cities Are “Successful Former Slums” that Allowed “Vibrant Economic Activity”

(p. 82) Babylon, London, and New York all had teeming ghettos of unwanted settlers erecting shoddy shelters with inadequate hygiene and engaging in dodgy dealings. Historian Bronislaw Geremek states that “slums constituted a large part of the urban landscape” of Paris in the Middle Ages. Even by the 1780s, when Paris was at its peak, nearly 20 percent of its residents did not have a “fixed abode”–that is, they lived in shacks. In a familiar complaint about medieval French cities, a gentleman from that time noted: “Several families inhabit one house. A (p. 83) weaver’s family may be crowded into a single room, where they huddle around a fireplace.” That refrain is repeated throughout history. A century ago Manhattan was home to 20,000 squatters in self-made housing. Slab City alone, in Brooklyn (named after the use of planks stolen from lumber mills), contained 10,000 residents in its slum at its peak in the 1880s. In the New York slums, reported the New York Times in 1858, “nine out of ten of the shanties have only one room, which does not average over twelve feet square, and this serves all the purposes of the family.”
San Francisco was built by squatters. As Rob Neuwirth recounts in his eye-opening book Shadow Cities, one survey in 1855 estimated that “95 percent of the property holders in [San Francisco] would not be able to produce a bona fide legal title to their land.” Squatters were everywhere, in the marshes, sand dunes, military bases. One eyewitness said, “Where there was a vacant piece of ground one day, the next saw it covered with half a dozen tents or shanties.” Philadelphia was largely settled by what local papers called “squatlers.” As late as 1940, one in five citizens in Shanghai was a squatter. Those one million squatters stayed and kept upgrading their slum so that within one generation their shantytown became one of the first twenty-first-century cities.
That’s how it works. This is how all technology works. A gadget begins as a junky prototype and then progresses to something that barely works. The ad hoc shelters in slums are upgraded over time, infrastructure is extended, and eventually makeshift services become official. What was once the home of poor hustlers becomes, over the span of generations, the home of rich hustlers. Propagating slums is what cities do, and living in slums is how cities grow. The majority of neighborhoods in almost every modern city are merely successful former slums. The squatter cities of today will become the blue-blood neighborhoods of tomorrow. This is already happening in Rio and Mumbai today.
Slums of the past and slums of today follow the same description. The first impression is and was one of filth and overcrowding. In a ghetto a thousand years ago and in a slum today shelters are haphazard and dilapidated. The smells are overwhelming. But there is vibrant economic activity.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.
(Note: italics, and bracketed “San Francisco” in original.)

How Electricity Matters for Life


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(p. C9) Top-drawer scientists always are excited about their field, but many have difficulty conveying this to a general audience. Not so Frances Ashcroft. She is a distinguished physiologist at Oxford University whose work has provided crucial insight into how insulin secretion is connected to electrical activity in cells. Her research has meant that children born with one form of diabetes can control it using oral medication instead of regular and painful insulin injections.

After Ms. Ashcroft made her breakthrough in 1984, she felt as if she were “dancing in the air, shot high into the sky on the rocket of excitement with the stars exploding in vivid colours all around me,” she writes in her engaging and informative “The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body.” Even today, thinking of it “sends excitement fizzing through my veins.”
Like so much else in our bodies, insulin secretion depends on crucial proteins in the cell walls that regulate the flow of ions (electrically charged atoms or molecules) between the interior of the cell and the fluids that surround it. The ions, mostly sodium, potassium and calcium, literally provide “the spark of life.” Ms. Ashcroft uses her research into cellular “ion channels” as an overture to a rich and stimulating account of how electricity and the varied ways in which animals and plants produce it explain so much of evolutionary biology.
. . .
. . . all of Ms. Ashcroft’s themes and variations represent facets of the same underlying ionic mechanism. In describing its wonders, she has produced a gem that sparkles.

For the full review, see:
WILLIAM BYNUM. “Singing the Body Electric.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., September 29, 2012): C9.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date September 28, 2012.)

The book under review, is:
Ashcroft, Frances. The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Harry Reid Hires GE Employee to Be His Chief Tax Policy Advisor

The “Capture Theory” associated with scholars George Stigler and Gabriel Kolko says that government regulatory bodies tend to be captured by the companies that they are intended to regulate. Stigler and Kolko would not be surprised by the passage quoted below.

(p. B5) . . . on Jan. 25, Mr. Reid’s office announced that he had appointed Cathy Koch as chief adviser to the majority leader for tax and economic policy. The news release lists Ms. Koch’s admirable and formidable experience in the public sector. “Prior to joining Senator Reid’s office,” the release says, “Koch served as tax chief at the Senate Finance Committee.”

It’s funny, though. The notice left something out. Because immediately before joining Mr. Reid’s office, Ms. Koch wasn’t in government. She was working for a large corporation.
Not just any corporation, but quite possibly the most influential company in America, and one that arguably stands to lose the most if there were any serious tax reform that closed corporate loopholes. Ms. Koch arrives at the senator’s office by way of General Electric.
Yes, General Electric, the company that paid almost no taxes in 2010. Just as the tax reform debate is heating up, Mr. Reid has put in place a person who is extraordinarily positioned to torpedo any tax reform that might draw a dollar out of G.E. — and, by extension, any big corporation.
Omitting her last job from the announcement must have merely been an oversight. By the way, no rules prevent Ms. Koch from meeting with G.E. or working on issues that would affect the company.

For the full story, see:
JESSE EISINGER, ProPublica. “A Revolving Door in Washington With Spin, but Less Visibility.” The New York Times (Thurs., February 21, 2013): B5.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 20, 2013.)

Small Nuclear Reactor Is Easier to Cool and Protect


“A rendering of a smaller nuclear reactor being developed by Babcock & Wilcox for the Tennessee Valley Authority.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B6) “WASHINGTON — The Tennessee Valley Authority will pay Babcock & Wilcox, a nuclear equipment company, to complete extensive design work and apply for permission to build a new kind of nuclear plant, a “small modular reactor,” at a site in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the T.V.A. and the company announced . . . .

The two entities did not disclose the value of the contract, which will be paid in part by the Energy Department under a program to encourage nuclear innovation. The announcement is a step forward in a program that advocates hope will develop a new class of nuclear plants that can be mostly built in a factory, shipped by rail or barge, deployed quickly, and sold around the world, especially in places where the power grid could not handle a big plant.
“This technology is very different,” said Joe Hoagland, a senior vice president of the T.V.A. “It has built-in safety features and security features, so you can site it at places you wouldn’t site a large reactor.”
Because the reactors are relatively small, the idea is that in an emergency they can be cooled with the natural circulation of water and heat, rather than by systems that require pumps and valves and that could be disabled by power failures or human errors. The goal for Babcock & Wilcox is a reactor that can be operated by a relatively small control room crew, perhaps two operators, and meet security requirements with fewer guards.”

For the full story, see:
MATTHEW L. WALD. “Deal Advances Development of a Smaller Nuclear Reactor.” The New York Times (Thurs., February 21, 2013): B6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 20, 2013.)

Technology Brings Choices and Control, Which Brings Happiness

(p. 78) For the past 30 years the conventional wisdom has been that once a person achieves a minimal standard of living, more money does not bring more happiness. If you live below a certain income threshold, increased money makes a difference, but after that, it doesn’t buy happiness. That was the conclusion of a now-classic study by Richard Easterlin in 1974. However, recent research from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania shows that worldwide, affluence brings increased satisfaction. Higher income earners are happier. Citizens in higher-earning countries tend to be more satisfied on average.
My interpretation of this newest research–which also matches our intuitive impressions–is that what money brings is increased choices, rather than merely increased stuff (although more stuff comes with the territory). We don’t find happiness in more gadgets and experiences. We do find happiness in having some control of our time and work, a chance for real leisure, in the escape from the uncertainties of war, poverty, and corruption, and in a chance to pursue individual freedoms–all of which come with increased affluence.
I’ve been to many places in the world, the poorest and the richest spots, the oldest and the newest cities, the fastest and the slowest cultures, and it is my observation that when given a chance, people who walk will buy a bicycle, people who ride a bike will get a scooter, people riding a scooter will upgrade to a car, and those with a car dream of a plane. Farmers everywhere trade their ox plows for tractors, their gourd bowls for tin ones, their sandals for shoes. Always. Insignificantly few ever go back. The exceptions such as the well-known Amish are not so exceptional when examined closely, for even their communities adopt selected technology without retreat.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.
(Note: italics in original.)

Wealth from Innovation Is Nobler than Wealth from Litigation


Source of book image:×471.jpg

(p. C7) In business, Green routinely sued her competitors. . . .
. . .
It was precisely Green’s vision of life as a zero-sum game, a match between enemies, that proved her flaw. She appreciated the idea that dollars compound, but she never seemed to grasp that the compounding of ideas, innovation, is just as important, that in certain, non-litigious, environments ideas “fructify,” to use a period verb. Litigation like Green’s prevented the kind of innovation in which she might have wanted to invest. Wealth is created when Apple beats Samsung, but more wealth is created when Apple comes up with a new phone.

For the full review, see:
AMITY SHLAES. “Quarrelsome Queen of the Gilded Age.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., September 29, 2012): C7.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date September 28, 2012.)

The book under review, is:
Wallach, Janet. The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2012.

The Difference Between Bogart’s Smart and Sinatra’s Cool

(p. A11) Everyone loved Old Blue Eyes and mourned him when he died in 1998. Everyone except Michael Kelly.
Kelly hated Frank because Frank had invented Cool, and Cool had replaced Smart. What was Smart? It was Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “He possesses an outward cynicism, but at his core he is a square. . . . He is willing to die for his beliefs, and his beliefs are, although he takes pains to hide it, old-fashioned. He believes in truth, justice, the American way, and love. . . . When there is a war, he goes to it. . . . He may be world weary, but he is not ironic.”
Cool was something else. “Cool said the old values were for suckers. . . . Cool didn’t go to war; Saps went to war, and anyway, cool had no beliefs he was willing to die for. Cool never, ever, got in a fight it might lose; cool had friends who could take care of that sort of thing.”
It never, ever would have occurred to me to make the distinction until I read Kelly’s column. And then I understood Sinatra. And then I understood Kelly, too.

For the full commentary, see:
BRET STEPHENS. “GLOBAL VIEW; Remembering Michael Kelly; A columnist who hated phonies, stood for truth, and died for his beliefs.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., April 2, 2013): A11.
(Note: ellipses in original.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 1, 2013.)