Why you want to go to med school instead of vet school


A couple of recent news items:

  • Australian surgeon performs “intricate surgery” on a goldfish for a fee of 200 Australian dollars (about USD$179), including anesthesia. The surgery was a life-or-death issue for George the goldfish.
  • New York surgeon assists in a three-hour operation, performed by a different surgeon, and collects $117,000. Was the surgery for Peter Drier as valuable as it was for George the goldfish? The article says “Studies are limited but have generally concluded that after two years, patients who have surgery for disk problems do no better than those treated with painkillers and physical therapy…” [The total bill for Drier's surgery, including hospital fees, payment for the actual surgeon, and the anesthesia, was about $310,000.]

Both Scotland and the greater Boston area can remain part of their respective larger countries


A Scottish friend told me about the vote by Scotland to stay in the UK. I said “I think that the greater Boston area, which includes the southern New Hampshire suburbs, and thereby has about the same population as Scotland (4.7 versus 5.2 million), might also stay as part of a larger nation and not take up its own seat at the United Nations, set up its own military force headquartered at the Burlington Mall, establish embassies around the world, etc.” He did not appreciate the comparison…

Subway history: Don’t be early


While riding Boston’s Red Line I finished reading The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway. A critical lesson from the book is that you can’t get too far, either practically or financially, if you’re too early. Mass transit started in 1827:

Brower asked the coach-making business of Wade & Leverich in 1827 to design and build for him a vehicle that could hold twelve people [for trips up and down Broadway in New York].

But no other American city jumped on the experiment, and for a short period Boston and New York alone had these precursors to urban mass transit systems. While Americans were just getting used to the idea of riding with others, Brower began to hear of an even bigger, more lumbering vehicle taking over the streets of Paris and London. It was called an omnibus, and on a spring day in 1831, he introduced it to the streets of New York.

But before long more than a hundred decorated omnibuses were crowding the streets of the city, with names painted on the sides, from George Washington to Lady Washington to Benjamin Franklin. They were popular. And they caused complete chaos. For the individual owners of the omnibuses, nothing mattered more than the paying passenger. Drivers whipped their horses repeatedly to speed them past a competitor to the next potential fare, even if it meant a harrowing few seconds for those already on board. Grazing a lamppost to cut a corner or to cut in front of a rival was fair game, and pedestrians not paying attention could get maimed by a cornering horse or the trailing carriage.

By the 1840s the omnibus was not even a decade old on the streets of New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Albany, and Cincinnati. But already it was dying. A respected doctor and author named Asa Greene had made the routine challenge of crossing Broadway sound like a modern-day video game. “You must button your coat tight about you, see that your shoes are secure at the heels, settle your hat firmly on your head, look up street and down street, at the self-same moment, to see what carts and carriages are upon you, and then run for your life.” The street railway car carried more passengers, rode faster, and provided a quieter, smoother ride than the omnibus, and any fears that people had of its safety vanished once they climbed on board. The “age of the omnibus” that the newspapers had been so quick to herald only a few years earlier was over. The age of the street railway was here.

“We can travel from New York half-way to Philadelphia in less time than the length of Broadway,” The New York Tribune wrote.

The editor of Scientific American could see that this wasn’t sustainable:

In 1849, Beach, by now sporting the skinny mustache that would become his trademark feature, lived a walkable distance from his office. And yet dodging the horses, the carriages, and the throngs of people each day turned his short walk from his office near City Hall to his house over on West Twentieth Street into a treacherous hour-long commute. After three years of listening to a parade of inventors promote their dreams to him, Beach decided it was time to share his own dream for his city, in an essay he published in Scientific American. “Nothing less than a railway underneath, instead of one above,” he wrote. “Railway life down stairs, instead of railway life up stairs. The idea is at least original, but anything except feasible, that is so far as the expense is concerned, for there would lie no difficulty in executing the work. To tunnel Broadway through the whole length, with openings and stairways at every corner. This subterranean passage is to be laid down with double track, with a road for foot passengers on either side—the whole to be brilliantly lighted with gas. The cars, which are to be drawn by horses, will stop ten seconds at every corner—thus performing the trip up and down, including stops, in about an hour.”

Beach wasn’t crazy-early by London standards. London opened a steam-powered subway in 1863. But it would be more than 50 years before a subway could be opened in New York City due to a variety of practical and political obstacles. Beach built a 312-foot demonstrator powered by air:

The design for the car was unlike anything people were riding on the streets above. It was much smaller than the horsecars, and upholstered seats lined the sides so that it felt like a comfortable lounge inside, with bright lighting and plenty of room to hold twenty-two people. The sliding doors closed with a whoosh. As for the fan, Beach knew that he needed one so powerful it could easily blow a car 120 feet long and fourteen feet wide down the tracks. He found it in Connersville, Indiana, where the P. H. & F. M. Roots Company had built a powerful fan to ventilate mines. The Roots Patent Force Rotary Blower, nicknamed the Western Tornado, was the critical piece to Beach’s pneumatic subway. At fifty tons, it was so big it took a train with five platform cars to deliver it from Indiana. It was discretely placed at the Warren Street end of the tunnel, and testing of it began.

The pneumatic subway worked. But Beach didn’t just want to impress the visitors he was planning to invite down. He wanted to dazzle them, not to mention distract them from any fears they might have of being underground with vermin and demons. He remembered the stories about how dark and miserable the London subway was. And he knew he had only one chance to convince New York that his subway was the future of transportation. He spared no expense, using more than $70,000 of his own savings to make sure the station was a place where people would actually enjoy waiting. The waiting room was enormous, more than 120 feet long, and it was lavish, with chandeliers, mirrors, a towering grandfather clock, a fountain with a basin stocked with goldfish, paintings, settees, and a grand piano.

After two years of operating his tunnel, Beach finally conceded that pneumatic propulsion was not the future, after all. Blowing such a huge volume of air required tremendous energy that was too costly to sustain, and too hard to control over great distances. Moving packages was one thing.

Reluctantly, Beach embraced the idea he had loathed at the start, and he proposed steam power for his tunnel. The smoke, steam, and sparks London was dealing with were all surmountable with engineering changes, he believed, and he couldn’t deny that steam was a proven power source. On April 9, 1873, legislators passed Beach’s subway bill again. But it was too late. He didn’t have investors lined up, and when the economy collapsed on September 18, 1873, triggering the country’s worst depression, far worse than Black Friday in 1869, Beach was done for good. Banks folded. Businesses went under. Millions lost their jobs and all their money in the panic of 1873. And New York, the nation’s financial and cultural capital, became a city full of the homeless and hungry, with more than a quarter of its people suddenly out of work. Even Boss Tweed finally was brought down. After his arrest in 1871, it took almost two years for prosecutors to convict him, but they did, and on November 19, 1873, he was sentenced to twelve years in prison. By then, Tweed’s most stubborn foe was bankrupt and exhausted. After operating his one-car, one-station subway for almost three years, Alfred Ely Beach, still only forty-eight years old, abandoned the dream he had pursued for a quarter century and began to rent out his tunnel to anyone who would pay him. It was a pathetic end to what was once a promising vision. The pneumatic subway tunnel was converted into a shooting gallery and then eventually into a vault to store wines. Unable to continue affording the upkeep of his tunnel, Beach sealed it up for good in 1874 and returned to his roots as the editor of Scientific American.

Elevated trains started operating in Manhattan in 1878 (today’s High Line park is a remnant of that system, on a structure built from 1929-1934). The city hadn’t even figured out how to do power and communication lines:

By 1888, a sea of wires that stretched from pole to pole, rooftop to rooftop, filled the air over New York’s streets. The idea of burying lines in the ground had not yet been embraced, and so when New Yorkers gazed upward, their view was blocked by a dizzying collection of ugly black lines. In addition to Edison’s, there were wires from Bell Telephone, the Gold and Stock Ticker Company, the fire and police departments, private alarm companies, Western Union, and more. There was little incentive to share a power line, and so a single fifty-foot pole might carry a dozen or more wires. To no one’s surprise, the weight was often too much for the poles to hold, and they might snap and bring down dangerous live wires to the street. An attempt to legislate the crisis failed when the biggest companies simply ignored an order to put their lines underground and received no punishment.

Boston pulled slightly ahead of New York with a 1.5-mile long subway that opened in 1897 at a cost of $4.2 million (under the $5 million budget, unlike the Big Dig!). (The westegg.com inflation calculator says that this would be $116 million today or $77 million per mile. Compare to the Second Avenue Subway currently being built in Manhattan at a budgeted cost of $4.45 billion for two miles, i.e., $2.23 billion per mile (29X the cost per mile).)

New York in 1904 finally opened a 21-mile system that was built for $35 million ($1.6 million per mile or $41 million per mile in today’s money or 1/54th the cost of the Second Avenue Subway project).

What made Beach too early with his idea? The electric motor hadn’t been perfected. That was done by Frank Sprague, though Thomas Edison got the credit:

If one man deserves more credit than he’s received for the birth of the subway, it’s Sprague. The London Underground was a remarkable breakthrough for mankind, but its greatest flaw was the reason it was not replicated for thirty years. Steam trains in underground tunnels made no sense. Only once Sprague perfected the electric motor and the multiple-unit control system could cleaner and quieter subways be built around the world. Sadly for Sprague, who died on October 25, 1934, the shadow of Thomas Edison proved difficult to escape, even after Sprague branched out on his own. The roots of the resentment Sprague felt toward Edison can be traced back to an article that appeared in The New York Sun in 1919. The writer, Edward Marshall, interviewed Edison about the electric streetcar. Marshall credited Edison with “the pioneer appliance of cheap, quick power street transportation in America. Naturally he is proud of it.” Sprague, who in the 1880s had led the fierce competition to electrify street railways, could not sit by quietly while Edison received what he believed was undue reward. Two weeks after The Sun article appeared, Sprague answered back with a long-winded response that ran in The Sun under the headline INVENTORS OF THE ELECTRIC RAILWAY: FRANK J. SPRAGUE PROTESTS AGAINST THE SHARE OF THE GLORY ASSIGNED IN AN INTERVIEW TO THOMAS A. EDISON. The dispute played out in the pages of The Sun over the next few months, two engineering greats demanding the other back off certain claims. Neither would. Sprague went so far as to take the fight to Congress, asking for a correction in the description of Edison’s work that was used in awarding him the Congressional Medal of Honor. It was to no avail. Only long after Edison’s death in 1932 and Sprague’s death two years later did a third party attempt to resolve the matter. Sprague’s widow, Harriet, his second wife, published a short biography, for which the title alone revealed where she stood: Frank J. Sprague and the Edison Myth.

(Note that Sprague’s son, not Sprague himself, was the founder of the electronic components manufacturer “Sprague”.)

Payment for surrogate mothers


The New York Times has been running a series of stories about surrogate mothers (latest). In a July 6, 2014 article the Times says that the expected compensation for the woman who carries the baby for 9 months is about $25,000 (range from $20-30,000). Meanwhile the agency that carries a filing cabinet and a Web site around gets $20,000 and the lawyers who carry a PDF or two get $10,000. So the surrogate mom who does all the work gets paid less than the bureaucracy of surrogacy.

Per month of pregnancy the surrogate mother is receiving about $2800. Yet, according to attorneys interviewed recently for a book project the typical price received from a potential child support defendant in Massachusetts for an abortion is $250,000 after two or three months of pregnancy (the profitability of a pregnancy and abortion varies from state to state depending on each state’s child support guidelines and the extent to which obtaining custody of a living child will be profitable). So the woman who seeks to get paid for having an abortion gets paid at least $83,333 per month of pregnancy, 30X as much as the woman who gets paid for having a baby. Add in the fact that surrogacy fees are income and therefore taxable while abortion fees are potential tax-free if considered to be payment for physical damage and/or a pre-payment of tax-free child support (see this Forbes article), the abortion retailer may actually be netting 50X per month of pregnancy compared to the incubation retailer.

I can’t figure out if these discrepancies are a sign of an immature or a mature market…

Prices in the Good Old Days


I’m still working through The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway,which has some good facts but pretty much no rivalry, much less an “incredible rivalry” as promised by the title. I’m thinking that the author called this book “Some notes on the history of a couple of American subway systems” and a marketing person at Macmillan decided that wouldn’t sell very well.

One thing that is interesting about the book are the prices from around 1900. Here are some excerpts:

The news that New York was about to build a subway spread fast. Two dollars a day for eight hours of work was good money for a laborer. Engineers, axmen, levelers, steelworkers, inspectors, cement mixers, masonry men, accountants, stenographers, diggers, and even messengers were all suddenly needed. At the Municipal Lodging House on First Avenue at Twenty-third Street, skilled and unskilled laborers from around the country began to flock in day after day in search of a cot to sleep on and a penny to earn. There would be thousands of men within a few days. A three-room apartment in New York, which rented for eight dollars a month, could be divided among three, four, or as many as six workers to reduce the cost. A dozen eggs was going for twenty-five cents, about the same for three tins of sardines, while a dozen pints of beer could be had for a dollar fifty. At the saloons, drafts were five cents, whisky shots ten cents. With those basics, a group of immigrant workers could be quite content, as long as they had paychecks to purchase them.

they would earn two dollars a day for ten hours of work, gouging a trench into the ground by swinging axes, picks, shovels, and hammers,

At Sherry’s on Forty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, the Carte du Jour offered Little Neck clams for twenty-five cents, filet of sole for forty cents, filet mignon for sixty-five cents, roast lamb for seventy, venison in a port-wine sauce for a dollar, and, the real splurge, chicken partridge for two dollars and fifty cents.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that some people prefer to pay whatever prices prevail with money that others have earned…

And it took barely a minute of operation for the first theft on the subway to be reported, when a West Side resident named Henry Barrett told police that he took the first train at 7:02 P.M. and that one minute later his $500 horseshoe pin with fifteen diamonds on it was gone.

Let’s see what kind of inflation rate we can get from the above numbers. Employers circa 1900 paid no benefits so the $2 per day/20 cents per hour rate is comparable to today’s full loaded cost for a worker. The New York Times in 2011 said that an unskilled construction worker was getting $58 per hour in total compensation (source). http://www.westegg.com/inflation/ says that 20 cents from 1900 would be equivalent to $5.32 in 2011. So real wages have risen by 10X for unskilled construction workers in Manhattan, consistent with the findings in A Farewell to Alms about economic growth hugely benefiting the unskilled (though in this case they also got a boost from unionization).

The filet mignon that was 65 cents back then is perhaps $50 now. The Westegg calculator says that official government inflation numbers would result in a rise up to about $18 over the same period. How about rent? It was $8 per month for a three-room apartment. That’s $221 in today’s money, supposedly, not enough for one night’s rent of a single room in Manhattan! Another way to look at it is that a three-room apartment could be rented with 40 hours of monthly labor (there were no income taxes back then so the arithmetic is simple). Today the three-room apartment would cost at least $3000 per month? And an after-tax wage for an unskilled worker might be $10-$40 per hour? So now it costs between 75 and 300 hours of monthly work?

The best in-wall speakers?



The new house that I’m setting up doesn’t have space for floor-standing speakers or even, in most rooms, bookshelf speakers. That means we need to try to recover unused space in the walls with in-wall speakers. What do folks like? When I last updated http://philip.greenspun.com/materialism/whole-house-music I concluded that B&W speakers were the best choice. Is there anything else worth considering in the in-wall world? Some of the Monoprice speakers were okay, and they are certainly cheap, but they don’t justify cutting open walls.

Thanks in advance for any advice.

Slick wall-mounted television but can one remotely locate the Verizon FiOS set-top box?


Consumer electronics nuts:

I’m about to dive back into the world of being a cable TV subscriber. The plan is to put a television on the wall and feed it with Verizon FiOS. But what’s the point of a slick wall-mounted television if one needs to have an ugly set top box on a nearby shelf? The CableCARD idea doesn’t seem to have taken off and does not provide full FiOS services. How about remotely locating the set-top box? Put it back in the closet where the main Verizon FiOS service comes into the house. Then run HDMI cable through the wall to the television (or somehow push the HDMI signal through CAT5 wire as Wikipedia suggests). Then run some sort of infrared repeater back from a sensor in the wall to the set-top box in the closet?

Comcast seems to have thought about this (reference).

I don’t want to get too experimental. Watching TV is already too complicated. What’s practical?

Maybe companies that want to do an offshore inversion should start a rock band first?


A friend of a friend just cited (in an email) the U2 rock band for having “social consciousness.” As noted in this February 2007 posting, referencing a New York Times article on the subject, the U2 folks had never paid any income tax and decided to invert themselves into an offshore Netherlands trust when the Irish tax man was coming for a piece of their pie.

If U2 is beloved despite minimizing their tax bill down to basically zero while U.S. companies are excoriated for trying to cut theirs to about 25 percent (see this Forbes article on Walgreen’s, for example, where the company was trying to cut from 36 percent as a U.S. company to “the high 20% range”), wouldn’t it make sense for these companies first to merge with a popular band and then do the foreign inversion?

What does the Apple Watch do that the Samsung Geek watch could not do?


A year ago I tried out what I call the “Samsung Geek Watch” (Galaxy Gear; see this posting). I eventually gave up on it. What (useful things) does the new Apple watch do that the Samsung watch could not do? At first glance it looks like a pretty similar array of stuff. Of course, this might not necessarily render the Apple Watch uninteresting. The iPhone operating system and the Samsung Note 3 operating system mostly perform the same functions, but the Samsung implementation is comically bad in critical areas, e.g., in searching for a contact to call the phone gives priority to contacts without associated phone numbers.

Fact-checking at the New York Times


A friend pointed me to a long New York Times article on yet another top-down idea for improving American schools. This is exactly the opposite approach taken by the country with the most effective schools (see my postings on The Smartest Kids in the World, including this one on Finland). To me the most interesting thing about the article is that the author, Andrew Ross Sorkin (“a financial columnist”!), writes toward the end “Teachers are not normal economic actors; almost all of them work for less money than they might fetch in some other industry”. A quick Google search brings up this reasonably thorough study, which comes to the conclusion that public school teachers are paid more than comparable workers in private jobs (a conclusion consistent with the fact that there are many more people who want to be teachers and have the qualifications than there are jobs). The fact-checkers (if there are any at the NYT) wouldn’t even have needed to search the Web but could have poked around in their own archives for stories such as “Still Doing the Math, but for $100K a Year” from 2009 (about teachers getting as much as $130,000 per year, plus benefits and pensions, in the economic wasteland of Rochester, New York).

Wikipedia says that Sorkin went to an expensively funded public high school (Scarsdale) and then an expensive college (Cornell). So his analytical skills are presumably about as good as what an American of his generation can develop.

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