People knew that smoking was deadly back in 1900


I’m listening to Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Yearsas a book on tape (not sure that I will finish it; this is the kind of book where “unabridged” is not a selling feature). A couple of interesting items from the first disc:

  • Mark Twain wanted perpetual copyright. He was highly motivated to produce works that his heirs could earn an income from and lobbied Congress to make copyright work the same way as land ownership. (Though I don’t think he was advocating for a property tax as well!) Twain’s energetic efforts, including writing pieces scheduled for release decades after his death, proved Gregory Mankiw’s point in “I Can Afford Higher Taxes. But They’ll Make Me Work Less.”
  • Mark Twain’s doctor told him, and Twain believed him, that his tobacco smoking habit would kill him via heart disease. This was at least as early as 1900. (Twain lived from 1835 to 1910, from the Steam Age to the Aviation Age.)

The second point is the one that I find most interesting because it wasn’t until the 1960s that health warnings were placed on cigarettes. This was, presumably, because people in Washington, D.C. thought that there were a lot of Americans who believed that conducting what had been an occasional Indian ceremony every 10 or 15 minutes was part of a healthy lifestyle.

If Twain knew that smoking would kill him, which of course it did, why did it take so long for tobacco smoking to become a public health issue in the U.S.? Is it that a lot of other stuff was also dangerous back then and, once antibiotics and vaccines were widespread we finally had the time and attention to think about a habit that killed people in their 60s and 70s? Or something else?

[On the copyright point, Twain's testimony, delivered in what would become his trademark white suit, did help change copyright in the U.S. from "42 years" to "death of author plus 50".]

The jet charter needs of preschool children


A friend sent me a CNN article regarding Anne Dias Griffin’s attempt to get $12 million per year in child support for three children under the age of 10. Part of the reason that she can’t make ends meet on the $50 million that she already has in the bank (most of that is proceeds from her 10-year marriage to rich guy Ken Griffin, under a prenuptial agreement that she is challenging in an attempt to get more) is that she wants to spend $3.6 million per year on jet charter.

I emailed a friend who owns a jet charter business to ask what kind of plane would be sensible for a Chicago resident with three children going to New York, California, etc., and how much it would cost. Here’s his answer:

Lear 60 or Hawker at $3,500 per hour at most.

… when the alimony doesn’t work pack it all into child support.

Let’s back out the numbers then. Ms. Griffin wants her preschool-age children to fly roughly 1000 hours per year, the same number as the FAA maximum for a full-time airline pilot (see FAR 121.471: “No certificate holder conducting domestic operations may schedule any flight crewmember and no flight crewmember may accept an assignment for flight time in scheduled air transportation or in other commercial flying if that crewmember’s total flight time in all commercial flying will exceed— (1) 1,000 hours in any calendar year;”).

How far can one go in an 8-passenger Lear 60 in 1000 hours? The plane cruises at roughly 500 miles per hour. The children would thus be flying close to 500,000 miles every year, equivalent to circling the Earth at the Equator almost 21 times.

You might ask how far Ms. Dias Griffin could go in a jet-powered plane with only 4 passenger seats plus two up front for the pilots. That would be something like a Piper Meridian turboprop or perhaps the forthcoming Cirrus Jet (thanks to the miracle of Chinese ownership, the personal jet is now slated for certification and delivery in the “fourth quarter” of 2015 (i.e., December 31 at 11:59 pm)). With $3.6 million, she could buy a new one roughly every 6 months.  At $1000 per hour to charter, she and the children could fly 3,600 hours per year at roughly 300 miles per hour, more than 1 million statute miles.

What if she earned a pilot certificate during the time that the four nannies are taking care of the children? (she does not seem to have a job) She could then fly the children herself in a Cirrus SR22 at a cost of roughly $250/hour (flight school rental block rate, including fuel). The $3.6 million would then cover 14,400 hours per year of flying time. As there are only 8760 hours in a year, Ms. Dias Griffin would be able to fly up to 1.75 million miles each year with her three children in the SR22 and have $1.5 million left over to pay for sundries. As the SR22 can seat five, assuming at least one occupant is a child, she could take along an instructor for two-pilot safety.


My April 2014 posting on net neutrality


Net Neutrality is back in the news. I haven’t changed my views substantially since my April 2014 on the topic, though I am fearful that the cure of an additional layer of government regulation may prove to be worse than the disease. (Internet providers to consumers are already functioning under a certain amount of government regulation, e.g., municipal regulations that exclude competitors.)

What do readers think? Who has a good argument against net neutrality when both publishers and consumers are already supposedly paying for the bandwidth consumed?

Why you should never invest in a startup company


I was talking to some folks at an MIT spinoff company. They may need a cash infusion this summer. Why? They got a $1 million grant from the U.S. Navy. The money was supposed to start flowing last fall. But then the Navy installed a new computer system for managing these research grants and payments. It is now “chaos” in Washington, D.C. The Navy still wants them to do this research but the money won’t flow until this summer, roughly a 9-month delay.

This is a good illustration of why you never invest in a startup! It is impossible to predict all of the ways that things can go wrong and revenue can be delayed.

Incompetence of medical researchers leads to doubt regarding climate change?


“Feeding Infants Peanut Products Could Prevent Allergies, Study Suggests” (nytimes) is a recent example of the public learning about the incompetence of medical researchers. Previously these folks had told parents to keep children in a nut-free bubble so as to prevent nut allergies from developing. Now they are saying that a nut-free bubble may lead to a nut rash later in life. In a society that spends so much of its time and effort trying to separate children from nuts and so much money on medical research, how could this question not have been answered definitively and correctly many years ago?

From a consumer’s point of view an epidemiologist or other medical researcher is a “scientist” in the same category as a physicist or chemist.  So the manifest inability of “scientists” to answer a simple question such as “Is a child more or less likely to develop a peanut allergy given early peanut exposure?” could easily make a consumer skeptical when a “scientist” says “I have a pretty good idea what the average global temperature 100 years from now is going to be.”

What do readers think? Do these constant reversals on everyday questions make consumers wary of science in general?

Related: Back in the early 1980s the great mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota would say “The methods of the biologist are not distinguishable from those of the stamp collector.”

[Of course it may well be the case that Earth turning into Venus 100 years from now is a simpler question than the origin of nut rashes. But that would not be obvious to someone without a degree in the physical sciences.]

Frog by Mo Yan


The plague of snow here in Boston enabled me to read Frog by Mo Yan.  The book seems more accessible to a U.S. reader in its themes than the typical work of a non-American Nobelist. At the core of the story is an older infertile woman who attacks the fertility of younger women, i.e., in line with a lot of Western fairy tales. The “old witch” in Frog, however, attacks the younger women not with the aid of spells but through a “one-child policy” bureaucracy and the coercive power of the state.

The book opens with a discussion of traditional medicine being supplanted by modern techniques. We learn the philosophy of the wisest midwife in China circa 1950: “The melon will fall when it is ripe.” (Not something the American health care system generally agrees with, as noted in The Business of Being Born.)

The central section is the most familiar, covering the struggle between people who wanted to have at least two children and the state.

The last third of the novel covers the softening of the policy into cash fines, readily affordable for the successful but prohibitive for the poor. As in the U.S., the wealthy infertile also have access to surrogate mothers, though the medical bureaucracy is not as involved as here (think turkey baster!), and the surrogate mom is also the egg donor. Throughout the novel, but especially in the last third, there is a focus on the cash implications of children and child birth, what they cost parents and what has to be paid when things go wrong, e.g., a botched abortion that results in the death of the mother.

For people who’ve recently read The Son Also Rises (see below), Frog is interesting because it highlights how Chinese policy has shaped reproduction by social and educational class. In the early days of “one child” the government encouraged the least educated and economically successful people, i.e., peasant farmers, to have more children. More recently the “you can have as many kids as you want if you pay the fines” system encourages the most financially successful Chinese to have relatively more children. Frog should be interesting to Europeans because the Chinese have been working so hard in the opposite direction, i.e., to discourage fertility rather than encourage it. Frog should be interesting to American political thinkers (oxymoron to have those three words together?). Through immigration the U.S. will eventually get to the same levels of crowdedness as China did. What will we do then and what will it feel like to be a citizen living through it?

More: read Frog.


You know you’re a parent #452…


You know you’re a parent when (1) nobody invites you to an Oscars-watching party, (2) you forget that the Oscars are actually being broadcast, (3) you check out the awards on the Web and realize that you haven’t seen even one of the movies that earned awards.

What’s useful about the long lines at the California DMV?


Under the “success has many fathers” principle (failure is an orphan, of course) I wish to take credit for an awesome new iOS puzzle game: Patchmania. The creator, Jon Grall, was a star student in Software Engineering for Internet Applications (free online textbook) at MIT. Grall figured out the best and cheapest way to test the game: head for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. See his article “Playtesting Mobile Games at the DMV” for more proof of Hal Abelson’s theory that there is an inverse correlation between age and intelligence at MIT.

What happens when you combine the world’s two most arrogant organizations?


“The Government’s Bad Diet Advice” by Nina Teicholz (nytimes, Feb 20) is about what happens when you combine the world’s two organizations most certain that their employees are way smarter than the average American: the U.S. government and Harvard University. Notable excerpts:

the primary problem is that nutrition policy has long relied on a very weak kind of science: epidemiological, or “observational,”

Instead of accepting that this evidence was inadequate to give sound advice, strong-willed scientists overstated the significance of their studies.

Much of the epidemiological data underpinning the government’s dietary advice comes from studies run by Harvard’s school of public health. In 2011, directors of the National Institute of Statistical Sciences analyzed many of Harvard’s most important findings and found that they could not be reproduced in clinical trials.

Americans have been the subjects of a vast, uncontrolled diet experiment with disastrous consequences.


Health insurance premiums should be counted as tax revenue?


Among advanced economies, the U.S. has a moderate tax revenue as a percentage of the GDP. This chart shows federal, state, and local taxes to be roughly 35 percent of GDP (33 percent is the estimate for FY2015).

With Obamacare, however, the government now forces citizens, either individually or through employers, to purchase health insurance from a set of government-selected vendors. How is that materially different from a European government forcing citizens to pay some extra tax and then providing (or paying for) health care?

If we consider health insurance to be a tax, we have to add in roughly 9% of GDP to the tax burden, bringing the total U.S. tax burden up to over 40 percent of GDP and government spending to over 50 percent (probably higher if the cost of government pension commitments were accounted for properly).  Adding in the nominally private health insurance premium costs, the U.S. would have a smaller private sector than most European countries. We would be more government-dominated than Sweden, Germany, Greece, or the U.K. (Guardian table). We would be in the same ballpark as France and Denmark.

Does it matter? I think so. The share of the economy that is government-run should affect the growth rate that we can expect. Parts of the economy that are run by the government are insulated from competition and therefore don’t bother to strive for higher efficiency. So as investors we should look to buy stocks in countries that have a larger free market. That means putting less money in U.S. stocks and more in Australia, Eastern Europe, and Korea for example.

This can also lead to political unrest. Thomas Piketty’s Capital says that calamity ensues when the rich bastards’ rate of return on capital outstrips the growth rate of the economy, the potential source of the average worker’s pay raise. With a capital-rich but sclerotic government-dominated country like the U.S. has become, it could be the case that investors are getting their returns from fast-growing economies on the other side of the planet but they’re still living here in the slow-growing half-planned economy of the U.S. Piketty says that’s a recipe for burning envy and confiscatory wealth taxes.


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