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Saturday, February 26, 2005

"The irregularity and diversity of time"

A letter to the editor of the North American Review in 1815 begins this way:
Sir,
I address you on a subject which causes some inconvenience here [Boston], and probably, the same difficulty exists in other parts of the United States; this is the irregularity and diversity of time. There is no common standard, and every district is regulated by a clock of its own. The difference between the time in Boston, and the villages about it, is always considerable, and in some instances it varies upwards of half an hour. There is generally this difference at least between Salem and Boston; this often interferes with appointments in business, and in certain circumstances a criminal might be able to prove an alibi on this very ground. . . . It would be a great convenience to many persons, if every city and village had a horizontal [sun]dial in some publick, central situation. The clocks and watches might then all be regulated by this, and time would have a common regulator.

"Regulation of Time," North American Review, vol. 1:3 (September 1815): 334-335.
The writer's proposal was a very modest one and would not have standardized time, as we know it, over great stretches of the landscape. Standardization occurred in two stages over the nineteenth century. First, American railroads developed a patchwork of dozens of different time zones (the "hardscrabble" system of some 55 time zones, if I remember right). Then in 1880s, in an effort to pre-empt moves in several state legislatures and in Congress to legislate standard time zones (one proposal was for a single, nationwide zone), the railroads, newly organized in a national association, reduced their motley collection to our present-day time zones.

Friday, February 25, 2005

More on currency

More on American currency since 1861 from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco's American Curreny Exhibit:

Federal Reserve notes are the only U.S. currency issued today. Federal Reserve notes were initially issued in denominations ranging from $5 to $10,000. The $100 note has been the largest denomination printed since 1946. In 1969, all notes greater than $100 were retired because of declining demand.

The design of Federal Reserve notes has changed some over the years. In 1929, the size of the notes was reduced. It also was decided that all currency would have a portrait on the front. Denominations under $100 would have buildings or monuments on the back. The inscription "In God We Trust" was added in 1955.


How could something so familiar be so new?

The Federal Reserve introduced the one dollar bill in . . . believe it or not, 1963. That's according to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco's excellent website, American Currency Exhibit, which offers historical background as well as lots of beautiful images of currency since the colonial period. I polled a number of colleagues on my corridor the other day and all were, like me, astounded to realize that an object so much a part of everyday life could be so new.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Automation '50s : : Nanotech '00s

The state of nanotechnology today -- the bottom-up process of manufacturing by assembling atoms and molecules, first envisioned in 1959 by physicist Richard Feynman and more elaborately in 1986 by K. Eric Drexler -- resembles that of automation in the 1950s. Experts and novelists imagine "fantastical future possibilities" for nanotechnology (in the words of a Times reporter yesterday), while actual progress proceeds at a "more mundane" level.
Kenneth Chang, "Tiny is Beautiful: Translating 'Nano' into Practical," New York Times, 2/22/2005, natl. ed., D: 1-4.
For a fictional treatment of nanotechnology, I especially like Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer.

Among experts and novelists on automation in the 1950s, John Diebold, author of the classic Automation: The Advent of the Automatic Factory (1952), played the role of evangelist, while Kurt Vonnegut, who caught wind of "numerically controlled machine tools" while working as a publicist at General Electric, envisioned the darker side in his novel Player Piano, also published in 1952. (By the way, I'm not endorsing Amazon.com by linking to its records for these books, but its "search inside this book" tool is so useful.)

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Negotiating the shoals of monopsony

Interesting story in the Times this morning about the lawn mower manufacturer Toro and its successful efforts to sell its machines through Wal-Mart without undermining its brand or alienating its traditional dealers: in effect, Toro has managed to resist the monopsonistic power relations that have generally accompanied Wal-Mart's rise to dominance in retailing.
Dan Mitchell, "Manufacturers Try to Thrive on the Wal-Mart Workout," New York Times, 2/20/05, sec. 3: 3.

Reminders of spring

Coupled with this morning's wet, slushy snow, the Times' article on Saturday about the shareholder proposals that nuns are preparing for shareholder meetings serves as a reminder that spring -- and the shareholder-meeting season -- is around the corner. This time I'm going to keep a closer eye out for reports of shareholder meetings in Germany, where attendance at the meetings of the biggest companies can reach phenomenal numbers (in the 10,000s). What a contrast with the U.S. (with the lone exception, to my knowledge, of Warren Buffett's meetings).
Leslie Wayne, "Shareholders Who Answer to a Higher C.E.O," New York Times, 2/19/05, B: 1-2.

Reminder in the brouhaha at Harvard

Today is becoming a day of reminders. The ruckus at Harvard over President Larry Summers' remarks about women and aptitude for science and engineering offers two reminders:
  1. the people who live inside mentalit├ęs are the least well-positioned to perceive them; and
  2. sexism still doesn't carry quite the social stigma that racism does.

Closing off "avenues of pursuit"

The class-action law that President Bush signed on Friday has been getting a lot of attention, as has the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's successful lobbying on behalf of it and other legislative changes. Two interesting aspects to the class-action story, which seeks to foreclose the state courts as a forum for pursuing multistate class-action law suits in which aggregate claims exceed $5 million:
  • As historian James McPherson once observed, "states' rights" ideology as a rule has served as a means to achieving some more fundamental goal than as an end in itself. Here's a(nother) case in point, where one might have expected states' rights-friendly Republicans to oppose legislation that mandates removal to the federal courts. Instead, they have taken the lead in nationalizing the issue.
  • It also serves as a reminder that exploiting or fiddling with the American political structure has been a potent weapon in political struggles since the adoption of the Constitution. Legal historian Harry Scheiber pointed out the "avenues of escape," inherent in the structure, that businesses used in the nineteenth century to escape regulation. The structure creates, in effect, multiple opportunities across branches, levels, and geographic units of government for "forum shopping" in search of favorable legal treatment. Branch-jumping,level-jumping, and jurisdiction-jumping (within branches or levels) are all possible avenues of escape or pursuit, depending on the circumstances. In this case, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (formed at the instigation of the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1912, by the way) and its allies seem to have succeeded in closing off the "avenue of pursuit" offered by the state courts, which have generally been seen as friendlier forums than the federal courts.
David Rogers and Monica Langley, "Bush Set to Sign Landmark Bill on Class Actions," Wall Street Journal, 2/18/05, A: 1, 7; Stephen Labaton, "Quick Victories Encourage Business Lobby," New York Times, 2/18/05, C: 1,2; Gretchen Morgenson and Glen Justice, "Taking Care of Business His Way: Hardball Tactics at U.S. Chamber," New York Times, 2/20/05, sec. 3: 1, 7.