Humans May Not Have Killed Off the Woolly Mammoth After All

MammothTusk2014-04-10.jpg “A mammoth tusk.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D2) A 50,000 year analysis of Arctic vegetation history reveals that a change in diet may have led to the demise of the woolly mammoth, the woolly rhinoceros and other large animals, according to a study in the journal Nature. About 10,000 years ago in the Arctic steppe, grasslands began to replace forbs, a flowery plant cover. Animals may have relied on forbs as a source of protein.

For the original story, see:
“‘Observatory; Tiny Plants’ Loss May Have Doomed Mammoths.” The New York Times (Tues., FEB. 11, 2014): D2.
(Note: Sindya N. Bhanoo is listed as the author of the second “Observatory” short entry, but it is not at all clear if that is intended to imply that she also is author of the first “Observatiory” short entry on the “Tiny Plants Loss . . . ” Her name does not appear anywhere in the online version.)
(Note: the online version of the interview has the date FEB. 10, 2014, and has the title “‘SCIENCE; Tiny Plants’ Loss May Have Doomed Mammoths.” )

The study in Nature mentioned above, is:
Willerslev, Eske, John Davison, Mari Moora, Martin Zobel, Eric Coissac, Mary E. Edwards, Eline D. Lorenzen, Mette VestergĂ„rd, Galina Gussarova, James Haile, Joseph Craine, Ludovic Gielly, Sanne Boessenkool, Laura S. Epp, Peter B. Pearman, Rachid Cheddadi, David Murray, Kari Anne BrĂ„then, Nigel Yoccoz, and Heather Binney. “Fifty Thousand Years of Arctic Vegetation and Megafaunal Diet.” Nature 506, no. 7486 (Feb. 6, 2014): 47-51.

Gas Company Literally Tried to Short-Circuit Edison’s Lights

(p. 104) The willingness of Edison to turn his laboratory into a public theater had succeeded, only too well. When he appeared, a shout, “There is Edison!” rang out, causing a surge of bodies in his direction. One report claimed that the crowds “more than once threatened to break down the timbers of the building,” a statement that may not have been hyperbole; the lab assistants were convinced that collapse was possible and hurried outside, bolstering the floor supports below with telegraph poles and lumber. Where the realm of science ended and that of entertainment began could no longer be distinguished, judging by the printed condemnation of the behavior of a minority of the visitors who “cared nothing for science, who regarded the laboratory as they would a circus.”
In the laboratory itself, the lights were arranged on a table to resemble a miniature layout of Menlo Park, and Edison had assigned assistants on all four sides to look out for sabotage. Their vigilance was needed that day, as one man was caught applying a jumper wire that ran under his clothes and down both sleeves, deliberately short-circuiting four of the lights. He turned out to be an electrician employed by the Baltimore Gas Company and was marched out, with language ringing in his ears “that made the recording angels jump for their typewriters,” Edison later recalled.

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.

In the Gilded Age Moguls Cleaned Up Their Own Mess and the Economy Was Not Hurt


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) Takeover wars seem to have lost their sizzle. What happened to the battles of corporate goliaths? Where have they gone, those swaggering deal makers? “Harriman vs. Hill” is a corporate dust-up that takes us back to the beginning of the 20th century, when tycoons who traveled by private rail merrily raided each other’s empires while the world around them cringed.
. . .
Mr. Haeg conveys a vivid picture of the Gilded Age in splendor and in turmoil. Champagne still flowed in Peacock Alley in the Waldorf-Astoria, but fistfights erupted on the floor of the exchange, and a young trader named Bernard Baruch skirted disaster with the help of an inside tip, then perfectly legal. There were scant rules governing stock trading, the author reminds us–no taxes, either. “If you won in the market, you kept it all.”
In that era, moguls were left to clean up their own mess.   . . .
. . .
Though hardly a cheerleader, Mr. Haeg is admiring of his cast, nostalgic for the laissez-faire world they inhabited. Observing that the economy wasn’t upset by the stock market’s mayhem, he concludes that, “in a perverse way, the market had worked.”

For the full review, see:
ROGER LOWENSTEIN. “BOOKSHELF; When Titans Tie the Knot; Businessmen of a century ago didn’t place ‘competition’ on a revered pedestal. Merger and monopoly were considered preferable.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Feb. 14, 2014): A13.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 13, 2014, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Book Review: ‘Harriman vs. Hill,’ by Larry Haeg; Businessmen of a century ago didn’t place ‘competition’ on a revered pedestal. Merger and monopoly were considered preferable.”)

The book under review is:
Haeg, Larry. Harriman Vs. Hill: Wall Street’s Great Railroad War. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Re-Use of Plastic Bags Increases E. Coli Infections

(p. A13) Though reducing plastic-bag use might be good for the environment, encouraging the re-use of plastic bags for food-toting may not be so healthy for humans. After San Francisco introduced its ban on non-compostable plastic bags in large grocery stores in 2007, researchers discovered a curious spike in E. coli infections, which can be fatal, and a 46% increase in deaths from food-borne illnesses, according to a study published in November 2012 by the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University. “We show that the health costs associated with the San Francisco ban swamp any budgetary savings from reduced litter,” the study’s authors observed.
Affirming this yuck factor, a 2011 study from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found bacteria in 99% of reusable polypropylene bags tested; 8% of them were carrying E. coli. The study, though it mainly focused on plastic bags, also looked at two cotton reusable bags–and both contained bacteria.
Bag-ban boosters counter that consumers just need to wash their bags and use separate bags for fish and meat. If only my washing machine had a “reusable bag vinegar rinse cycle.” A paltry 3% of shoppers surveyed in that same 2011 study said they washed their reusable bags. Has anybody calculated the environmental impact of drought-ravaged Californians laundering grocery bags?

For the full commentary, see:
JUDY GRUEN. “Becoming a Bagless Lady in Los Angeles.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 8, 2014): A13.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 7, 2014.)

The 2012 study mistakenly labelled above as “published” is:
Klick, Jonathan and Wright, Joshua D., Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness (November 2, 2012). U of Penn, Inst for Law & Econ Research Paper No. 13-2. Available at SSRN: or

The 2011 article mentioned above, is:
Williams, David L., Charles P. Gerba, Sherri Maxwell, and Ryan G. Sinclair. “Assessment of the Potential for Cross-Contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags.” Food Protection Trends 31, no. 8 (Aug. 2011): 508-13.

Very Cold January Puzzled Global Warming True Believers

NiagraFallsInJanuay2014.jpg “Niagara Falls in January.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) At the exact moment President Obama was declaring last month that “climate change is a fact,” thousands of drivers in Atlanta were trapped in a grueling winter ordeal, trying to get home on roads that had turned into ribbons of ice.

As the president addressed Congress and the nation in his State of the Union speech, it was snowing intermittently outside the Capitol. The temperature would bottom out later that night at 13 degrees in Washington, 14 in New York, 1 in Chicago, minus 6 in Minneapolis — and those readings were toasty compared to some of the lows earlier in January.
Mr. Obama’s declaration provoked head-shaking from Congressional climate deniers, and unleashed a stream of mockery on Twitter. “As soon as he mentioned ‘climate change’ it started snowing on Capitol Hill,” said a post from Patrick J. Michaels, a climate skeptic at the Cato Institute.
The chortling was predictable, perhaps, but you do not necessarily have to subscribe to an anti-scientific ideology to ask the question a lot of people are asking these days:
If the world is really warming up, how come it is so darned cold?

For the full commentary, see:
Justin Gillis. “BY DEGREES; Freezing Out the Bigger Picture.” The New York Times (Tues., FEB. 11, 2014): D3.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date FEB. 10, 2014.)

Arc Lights Leapfrogged Gas Lights Before Incandescents Leapfrogged Them Both

(p. 85) The gas interests had been dealt a number of recent setbacks even before Edison’s announcement of a newly successful variant of electric light. An “enormous abandonment of gas” by retail stores in cities, who now could use less expensive kerosene, was noticed. The shift was attributed not to stores’ preference for kerosene but as a means of escaping “the arrogance of the gas companies.” Arc lights had now become a newly competitive threat, too. The previous month, Charles Brush had set up his lights in an exhibition hall in New York and then added a display in Boston. Sales to stores followed in several cities; then, as word spread, other establishments sought to obtain the cachet bestowed by the latest technology. William Sharon, a U.S. senator for and energetic booster of California, retrofitted the public spaces of his Palace Hotel in San Francisco with arc lights that replaced 1,085 gas jets.

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.

Detailed Government Rules Impede Progress


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) The rulebooks should be “radically simplified,” Mr. Howard says, on matters ranging from enforcing school discipline to protecting nursing-home residents, from operating safe soup kitchens to building the nation’s infrastructure: Projects now often require multi-year, 5,000-page environmental impact statements before anything can begin to be constructed. Unduly detailed rules should be replaced by general principles, he says, that take their meaning from society’s norms and values and embrace the need for official discretion and responsibility.

Mr. Howard serves up a rich menu of anecdotes, including both the small-scale activities of a neighborhood and the vast administrative structures that govern national life. After a tree fell into a stream and caused flooding during a winter storm, Franklin Township, N.J., was barred from pulling the tree out until it had spent 12 days and $12,000 for the permits and engineering work that a state environmental rule required for altering any natural condition in a “C-1 stream.” The “Volcker Rule,” designed to prevent banks from using federally insured deposits to speculate in securities, was shaped by five federal agencies and countless banking lobbyists into 963 “almost unintelligible” pages. In New York City, “disciplining a student potentially requires 66 separate steps, including several levels of potential appeals”; meanwhile, civil-service rules make it virtually impossible to terminate thousands of incompetent employees. Children’s lemonade stands in several states have been closed down for lack of a vendor’s license.

For the full review, see:
STUART TAYLOR JR. “BOOKSHELF; Stop Telling Us What to Do; When a tree fell into a stream in Franklin Township, N.J., it took 12 days and $12,000 for the necessary permits to remove it.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., April 8, 2014): A13.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 7, 2014, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Book Review: ‘The Rule of Nobody’ by Philip K. Howard; When a tree fell into a stream in Franklin Township, N.J., it took 12 days and $12,000 for the necessary permits to remove it.”)

The book under review is:
Howard, Philip K. The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2014.

Solitary Swimming Helps Creativity and Problem-Solving

(p. 5) Ms. Nyad has spent a lifetime in the water, chasing an elusive mark in marathon swimming, and she has written about the exhilarating out-of-body experience she has when powering through long distances. The medium makes it necessary to unplug; the blunting of the senses by water encourages internal retreat. Though we don’t all reach nirvana when we swim, swimming may well be that last refuge from connectivity — and, for some, the only way to find the solitary self.
. . .
For better or worse, the mind wanders: We are left alone with our thoughts, wherever they may take us. A lot of creative thinking happens when we’re not actively aware of it. A recent Carnegie Mellon study shows that to make good decisions, our brains need every bit of that room to meander. Other research has found that problem-solving tends to come most easily when our minds are unfocused, and while we’re exercising. The neurologist Oliver Sacks has written books in his head while swimming. “Theories and stories would construct themselves in my mind as I swam to and fro, or round and round Lake Jeff,” he writes in the essay “Water Babies.” Five hundred lengths in a pool were never boring or monotonous; instead, Dr. Sacks writes, “swimming gave me a sort of joy, a sense of well-being so extreme that it became at times a sort of ecstasy.” The body is engaged in full physical movement, but the mind itself floats, untethered. Beyond this, he adds, “there is all the symbolism of swimming — its imaginative resonances, its mythic potentials.”
Dr. Sacks describes a sublime state that is accessible to all, from his father, with his “great whalelike bulk,” who swam daily and elegantly until 94 years of age, to the very young.   . . .
. . .
I asked Dara Torres, who has logged countless training hours for her five Olympics, what she thinks about when she’s swimming. “I’m always doing five things at once,” she told me by phone (at the time, she was driving a car). “So when I get in the water, I think about all the things that I have to do. But sometimes I go into a state — I don’t really think about anything.” The important thing, she says, is that the time is yours. “You can use it for anything. It depends where your head is at — it’s a reflection of where you are.”
The reflection of where you are: in essence, a status update to you, and only you. The experience is egalitarian. You don’t have to be a great swimmer to appreciate the benefits of sensory solitude and the equilibrium the water can bring.

For the full commentary, see:
Justin Gillis. “BY DEGREES; Freezing Out the Bigger Picture.” The New York Times (Tues., FEB. 11, 2014): D3.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date FEB. 10, 2014.)

Rob Lowe: Libertarian Nerd


Rob Lowe. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 12) Chris Traeger on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” was a total nerd. Was it hard for you to play such an uncool character? My deep dark secret is that I was a nerd in school. I liked the theater. I liked to study. I wasn’t very good at sports. It took being famous to make me cool, which, by the way, I never forgot.
.. .
. . . what do you believe? My thing is personal freedoms, freedoms for the individual to love whom they want, do with what they want. In fact, I want the government out of almost everything.

For the full interview, see:
Brodesser-Akner, Taffy, interviewer. “”It’s Time to Get Back in the Pool’: Rob Lowe on Aging into the Good Roles and Cashing in on His Scandalous Legacy.” The New York Times Magazine (Sun., APRIL 6, 2014): 12.
(Note: ellipses added; bold in original.)
(Note: the online version of the interview has the date APRIL 4, 2014, and has the title “Rob Lowe on the Problems With Being Pretty.”)

Edison, Not Antitrust, Reduced Power of Hated Gas Monopolies

Counterbalancing the angst of those hurt by the death of an old technology is sometimes the triumph creative destruction provides to those who were less well-served by the old technology. Some look to governments to restrain a dominant technology; but sometimes a more effective way is to replace the old technology through creative destruction’s leapfrog competition.

(p. 84) Gaslight monopolies had few friends outside of the ranks of shareholders. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, gaslight had been viewed as pure and clean; seventy years later, its shortcomings had become all too familiar: it was dirty, soiled interior furnishings, and emit-(p. 85)ted unhygienic fumes. It was also expensive, affordable for indoor lighting only in the homes of the wealthy, department stores, or government buildings. The New York Times almost spat out the following description of how gas companies conducted business: “They practically made the bills what they pleased, for although they read off the quantity by the meter, that instrument was their own, and they could be made to tell a lie of any magnitude…. Everybody has always hated them with a righteous hatred.”

Edison credited the gas monopoly for providing his original motivation to experiment with electric light years before in his Newark laboratory. Recalling in October 1878 his unpleasant dealings years earlier with the local gas utility, which had threatened to tear out their meter and cut off the gas, Edison said, “When I remember how the gas companies used to treat me, I must say that it gives me great pleasure to get square with them.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle printed an editorial titled “Revenge Is Sweet” in which it observed that the general public greatly enjoyed the discomfort of the gas companies, too: “To see them squirm and writhe is a public satisfaction that lifts Edison to a higher plane than that of the wonderful inventor and causes him to be regarded as a benefactor of the human race, the leading deity of popular idolatry.”

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.
(Note: ellipsis in original.)