Welcome to week 200! The articles below caught my attention this week. Please note that what are intended to be relatively objective “briefs” are preceded by dashes (——–), whereas additional material or relatively subjective comments are preceded by asterisks (********). The links to articles preceded by [SR] require a subscription to be read in their entirety, although complete articles may frequently be found by a title search.
You can find a pdf of this issue, a cumulative pdf for issues 1-156, and a cumulative pdf for issues 157-present at: https://sites.google.com/site/brucedeanlarson/the-invisible-forces.
(9 February 2015): “Isolated Scholars: Making Bricks, Not Shaping Policy” (http://chronicle.com/article/Isolated-Scholars-Making/151707/)
——–[This “Point of View” by Andrew J. Hoffman appeared in the February 13th paper copy of The Chronicle of Higher Education.] In a 1963 letter published in Science, Bernard K. Forscher “lamented that academic scholarship had become fixated on generating lots of pieces of knowledge—bricks—and was far less concerned with putting them together into a cohesive whole. In time, he said, brick-making had become an end in itself.” Forscher’s lament is relevant today, as “Academic success lies in publishing academic journal articles that make incremental contributions to theory, not in summarizing the broader contributions of the community of scholars. Specialization, not generalization, is the signal of academic rigor. The conventional rules of academic tenure and promotion steer all in that direction. . . . It is time for that to change. It is time to build the wall from the large and growing body of research in the physical and social sciences on a host of issues: not just climate change, but also nanotechnology, nuclear power, autism and vaccines, GMOs, and more. Academic scholarship can and must enter more fully into the national debate on these issues, and other academics must build on that scholarship.”
********There can be no doubt that incentives influence scholarly output in multiple ways. Of course, there is not just one incentive scheme for higher education—each college or university has its own criteria for tenure and promotion. However, these criteria often have a disciplinary basis resulting in too little interdisciplinary “wall building.” It does seem that contemporary problems require wall builders and brick makers. How do we ensure that we have the “right” amounts of each?
********Andrew Hoffman is the author of the forthcoming book How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate (http://www.amazon.com/Culture-Shapes-Climate-Change-Debate/dp/0804794227/). Having nearly completed Merchants of Doubt (http://www.amazon.com/Merchants-Doubt-Handful-Scientists-Obscured/dp/1608193942/), I look forward to another opportunity to examine how rational discussion of policy alternatives might take place, as well as the factors that prevent that discussion from taking place.
(12 February 2015): “Sleuthing Search Engine: Even Better Than Google?” [SR](http://www.wsj.com/articles/sleuthing-search-engine-even-better-than-google-1423703464)
——–“In the run-up to Super Bowl XLIX, a team of social workers in Glendale, Ariz. spent two weeks combing through local classified ad sites. They were looking for listings posted by sex traffickers. Criminal networks that exploit women often advertise on local sites around events that draw large numbers of transient visitors.” Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, who directs the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research at Arizona State University, led the Glendale effort. During the last five years she has worked with “authorities in Houston, Las Vegas and Phoenix to find and hunt down traffickers.” Her work has become easier as she now analyzes “criminal networks using visual displays from a powerful data-mining tool” called Memex, which was developed by the U.S. the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). “Unlike a Google search, Memex can search not only for text but also for images and latitude/longitude coordinates encoded in photos. . . . It also recognizes photo backgrounds independently of their subjects, so it can identify pictures of different women that share the same backdrop, such as a hotel room—a telltale sign of sex trafficking, experts say.”
********The article goes on to say, “Memex is part of a wave of software tools that visualized and organize the rising tide of online information. Unlike many other tools, though, it is free of charge for those who want to download, distribute and modify.” You can learn more about Memex at: http://www.darpa.mil/newsevents/releases/2014/02/09.aspx. You can learn more about DARPA at: http://www.darpa.mil/About.aspx. According to Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (https://www.epic.org/), when law-enforcement authorities use such software, “the question that moves in the background is how much of this is actually lawful.” Good question.
(12 February 2015): “A Lesson in Entrepreneurship From a Doll” (http://www.wsj.com/articles/a-lesson-in-entrepreneurship-from-a-doll-1423704983)
——–“Doll company American Girl’s start this year, Grace Thomas, is a budding bakery owner. The nine-year-old with a passion for baking, is a lot like your typical entrepreneur, dealing with obstacles as they arise—but Grace is a doll. More toy companies are rolling out new products designed for young girls that tap into an influential marketing concept: the aspirational allure of an entrepreneur.” Grace isn’t alone in the market for entrepreneur dolls. Goldie of GoldieBlox Inc. is a “kid inventor and female-engineer role model who loves to build things.” Barbie is in on it, too. In June Mattel rolled out “entrepreneur Barbie, with her smartphone, tablet and briefcase, priced at about $12.99.” Grace, though, comes with a story of business development that “plays out in three related books” that illustrated “what’s needed to run a bakery, such as registering the business and obtaining a license” and a good deal more. Excluding the doll, “the business—a miniature bakery with make-believe ingredients—sells for $500.”
(12 February 2015): “Tax-Subsidy Programs Fuel Budget Deficits” (http://www.wsj.com/articles/corporate-tax-incentives-generate-budget-problems-1423696411)
——–“In states across the country, corporate-subsidy programs are coming under greater scrutiny from elected officials on both sides of the aisle because of the significant impact these initiatives are having on governments’ ability to balance the books.” Michigan, in particular, is taking a hard look at its subsidies. Republican Governor Rick Snyder “said the state has moved toward ensuring all future corporate subsidies come with an estimated timeline and price tag. But Michigan and other states will likely be spending years paying off tax credits that ramped up during the recession at the end of the last decade.” Although political scientist Kenneth Thomas of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, “estimated state and local incentives to businesses nationwide cost taxpayers at least $70 billion annually,” proponents of corporate-tax subsidies say “the incentives are a drop in the bucket, compared with the return to a state’s economy.”
********The thing that caught my attention was Governor Snyder’s statement about future corporate subsidies having “an estimated timeline and price tag.” I would have thought that would be standard operating procedure. It does make me want to take a look at one or more of these agreements.
(14 February 2015): “First Genetically Modified Apple Approved for Sale in U.S.” [SR](http://www.wsj.com/articles/first-genetically-modified-apple-approved-for-sale-in-u-s-1423863994)
——–“The Agriculture Department on Friday approved the first genetically modified apple for sale in the U.S. . . . The Arctic apple, designed by the Canadian company Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., resists browning when cut open or sliced. . . . The Agriculture Department . . . said the apple was given the green light because it didn’t pose a risk to other plants or agricultural products. The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the apple is safe to eat, but its review is voluntary and its approval isn’t required for the company to move forward.” Genetically modified crops have been grown in the U.S. since the 1990s, but “the Arctic apple is one of only a few genetically modified foods that appeal directly to consumers. In November, the Agriculture Department approved a modified potato.” The genetically modified potato was created by J.R. Simplot Co.
(14 February 2015): “The Container That Built America” [SR](http://www.wsj.com/articles/book-review-wood-whiskey-and-wine-by-henry-h-work-1423866084)
——–[A review of Wood, Whiskey and Wine, by Henry H. Work.] “The barrel is a small miracle: something made of wood without nails or glue, which can hold liquids almost indefinitely, save for a small amount of evaporation (wood being not absolutely airtight).” though once ubiquitous, their use has been eroded: “flour millers stopped using them in favor of sacks; manufacturers soon embraced cardboard and other lighter, less expensive containers. And then along game 55-gallon steel drums, pallets and forklifts. . . . the final blow was struck in 1956, when . . . Malcom P. McLean . . . conceived the 20- and 40-food containers that could go directly from ship to truck.” Barrels continue to be used, however, because “Spirits and wine stored in oak barrels tended to show marked improvement over time.”
********You can learn more about the book at: http://www.amazon.com/Wood-Whiskey-Wine-History-Barrels/dp/1780233566/. Evidently Mr. Work is a retired cooper, i.e., maker of barrels, so this might be called a labor of love. Judging from its Table of Contents, WWW appears to be a wide-ranging history of the barrel from the first century BCE rather than one that focuses on the U.S. This strikes me as a possible companion book for Marc Levinson’s The Box, which tells the fascinating story of the development of the 20- to 40-foot containers that are the fundamental shipping unit in international trade.
********I found two videos that provide very different views of how barrels are made. The traditional (handmade) approach to making a wine barrel is shown in this six-minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LBGPKgQ2ac. The modern (mass production) approach to making whiskey barrels is shown in this five-minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6OJcLXfbKLw. The latter video is from the “How It’s Made” television series.
(17 February 2015): “In ‘People Analytics,’ You’re Not a Human, You’re a Data Point” [SR](http://www.wsj.com/articles/in-people-analytics-youre-not-a-human-youre-a-data-point-1424133771)
——–What has come to be called people analytics “treats the humans in an organization just like any other asset in the supply chair: as something that can be monitored, analyzed and reconfigured.” Volometrix software, which is used by companies such as Qualcomm, Boeing, and Symantec, “ingests every email and calendar item of every employee in a company, and uses that data to build a picture of who is doing what, and with whom. . . . Volometrix automatically does what a manager might do, such as emailing individual salespeople to encourage them to increase the size of their networks” in the belief that larger networks lead to more sales.
********You can learn more about Volometrix at: http://www.volometrix.com/. Incidentally, this article appears in the new “Business & Tech” section of The Wall Street Journal, which replaces the “Marketplace” section after a 27-year run. Why? “Every business is a technology business. Whether it’s taxi cabs or taco delivery, today’s enterprises are urgently figuring out ways to manage the growth of information technology and to turn its disruptive potential to their advantage” [SR](http://www.wsj.com/articles/marketplace-section-renamed-business-tech-1424138463). I’m sure Clayton Christensen (http://www.amazon.com/Innovators-Dilemma-Revolutionary-Change-Business/dp/0062060244/) will be pleased—disruption has now been fully embraced by and embodied in the Journal.
(17 February 2015): “Taps Start to Run Dry in Brazil’s Largest City” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/world/americas/drought-pushes-sao-paulo-brazil-toward-water-crisis.html)
——–São Paulo, Brazil is facing a grim situation: “The taps are starting to run dry. As southeast Brazil grapples with its worst drought in nearly a century, a problem worsened by polluted rivers, deforestation and population growth, the largest reservoir system serving” the city “is near depletion. Many residents are already enduring sporadic water cutoffs, some going days without it. Officials say that drastic rationing may be needed, with water service provided only two days a week.” Contributing to the problem—“More than 30 percent of the city’s water is estimated to be lost to leaks and pilfering.”
********The article draws attention to the time dimension of the problem, noting that although officials “are promising ambitious solutions, like new reservoirs . . . they are a long way off.” Another solution might be desalinization plants, such as are being rehabilitated or newly developed in California to deal with its long-term drought. But the water produced by them is relatively expensive. You can learn more in “California Turns to the Ocean for Drinking Water” [SR](http://www.wsj.com/articles/california-turns-to-the-ocean-for-1424215351).
(18 February 2015): “Hospital Discharges Rise at Lucrative Times” (http://www.wsj.com/articles/hospital-discharges-rise-at-lucrative-times-1424230201)
——–“Under Medicare rules, long-term acute-care hospitals . . . typically receive smaller payments for what is considered a short stay, until a patient hits a threshold. After that threshold, payment jumps to a lump sum meant to cover the full course of long-term treatment. That leaves a narrow of maximum profitability in caring for patients at the nation’s about 435 long-term hospitals, which specialize in treating people with serious conditions who require prolonged care. General hospitals are paid under different rules.” A study by the Wall Street Journal “found that many long-term hospital companies discharge a disproportionate share of patients during that window when hospitals stand to make the most, a sign that financial incentives in the Medicare system may shape patient care.” The study was based on all hospital claims paid by Medicare during a six-year period from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The lump-sum payment thresholds are set yearly. Currently, the threshold for patients with “major complications” is 20 days. At one hospital, between mid-2011 and the end of 2013, “eight times as many Medicare patients on the day they reached their threshold as on the day before.”
********Discontinuities or “jumps” in payments provide strong incentives and it appears that they are at work in at least one part of Medicare. Although the solution seems simple, i.e., eliminate the discontinuities, many people benefit by their existence.
May you have a good week!