Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sky Divers

Soul Flyers World Champions Vince Reffet and Fred Fugen set a new world record by jumping from the very top of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai, the tallest man-made structure in the world, at 2700+ feet.

From ThisIsMarvelous

Segregation Forever?

ProPublica has embarked on another major project. This one looks at segregation in America today. The initial focus is on schools, using Tuscaloosa as an example. It features a family, the Dents, where the father went to a segregated school just about the time of Brown vs. Board of Education. His daughter started in an integrated school system in the 1970s. In the 21st century her daughter found herself in what was essentially a resegregated school system.

The change was triggered by a federal judge's release in 2000 of Tuscaloosa from the court-ordered desegregation mandate that had governed it for a single generation. The reasoning being that Tuscaloosa had successfully achieved integration, therefore, it could be trusted to manage that success going forward. this has happened now in hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia.

Today in Tuscaloosa the citywide integrated high school is gone, replaced by three smaller schools. The high school is 99 percent black. Predominantly white neighborhoods adjacent to the high school have been gerrymandered into the attendance zones of other, whiter schools. Black children across the South now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades. Nationally, the achievement gap between black and white students, which greatly narrowed during the era in which schools grew more integrated, widened as they became less so.

The article quotes a 2014 STUDY CONDUCTED BY RUCKER JOHNSON, a public-policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley; the study was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, it
found desegregation's impact on racial equality to be deep, wide, and long-lasting. Johnson examined data on a representative sample of 8,258 American adults born between 1945 and 1968, whom he followed through 2011. He found that black Americans who attended schools integrated by court order were more likely to graduate, go on to college, and earn a degree than black Americans who attended segregated schools. They made more money: five years of integrated schooling increased the earnings of black adults by 15 percent. They were significantly less likely to spend time in jail. They were healthier. 

Subsidizing professional sports

The average player in most professional sports makes much more money than the average doctor or lawyer. The price of a ticket to a game nowadays can top $100 before you buy that $10 hot dog. Yet, we, the public, subsidize the 132 major U.S. pro sports franchises about $2 billion a yearThe subsidies come in a variety of ways: free rent for a stadium or arena, free upgrades of scoreboards—which cost up to $30 million— taxes on alcoholic drinks and tobacco, and other benefits. 

We do this even in cities like Detroit that are just about broke. Today, professional teams in many cities,including Milwaukee, Cleveland, Miami, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Oakland and St. Louis, have their hands out for more money from the public. This makes absolutely no sense. Sure, the teams will trot out 'studies' claiming vast economic benefits to the cities, but, these cities do not get enough money from these teams to pay their pensions, fix their streets, improve their schools, etc. Insanity? I'd say so.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Maybe you shouldn't start a college

In 1997 Robert Gee started the National Graduate School of Quality Management, which offers master’s degrees in quality systems management. His problem was he founded it as a corporation. Thus, he had a board of directors, which showed its independence by firing Gee in 2012.

Some of the more outrageous things Gee had done:
  • gave himself a $152,175 bonus in 2009, and then created false documents to make it appear that the school’s board members held a meeting to award Gee the money for his “superior job performance.’
  • bought an ocean-view compound with four houses that included a presidential home for Gee, even though almost all of the school’s students take courses off-site in other states. Last year, the school sold those properties at a loss of at least $1.5 million.
  • spent $195,000 for four Mercedes
  • paid himself $732,891, which equaled that of the president of Tufts University, which had 5,500 students and 10,800 employees. Gee's college had 200 students.
Gee is now being sued by Massachu-setts seeking to force him to repay the school millions that he allegedly squandered. This is a civil, not a criminal, action. Had he not been a corporation would Gee have faced any charges?

Apparently, Gee doesn't care as he has formed another school, but this time it's based in Florida.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Junkyard in the Sky

Except that stuff in a junkyard stays more or less put. The junk in space moves around. And it moves fast, very fast, 18,000 miles per hour fast. NASA says that at that speed, even a half-inch piece of debris would have the kinetic force of a bowling ball thrown 300 miles per hour. And there is a lot of it - 135,000,000 pieces. 

These pieces can hang around for centuries and, at some point, collide with other debris or, maybe, a spacecraft. In 2011, the National Research Council estimated that portions of the space debris environment had already reached this "tipping point," with enough in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris.

Falling Behind

That's what a study commissioned by the New York Times  says is happening to the American lower- and middle-income tiers, as lower- and middle-income citizens of other countries are doing better than us. Median per capita income adjusted for inflation here has been essentially unchanged since 2000. In Britain and Canada it's increased by 20% and by 14% in the Netherlands. A poor American family (at the 20th percentile of the income distribution) makes significantly less money than a similar family in Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland or the Netherlands. Thirty-five years ago, the reverse was true.

The study concludes that the change is due to three reasons:

  • First, educational attainment in the United States has risen far more slowly than in much of the industrialized world over the last three decades, 
  • Companies in the United States economy distribute a smaller share of their bounty to the middle class and poor than similar companies elsewhere. Top executives make substantially more money in the United States than in other wealthy countries. The minimum wage is lower. Labor unions are weaker. 
  • Governments in Canada and Western Europe take more aggressive steps to raise the take-home pay of low- and middle-income households by redistributing income.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Deep Horizon Four Years Later

On April 20, 2010, BP's disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began. The National Wildlife Federation has published a report on some of the major effects of the oil spill. Their conclusions:
  • More than 900 bottlenose dolphins have been found dead or stranded in the oil spill area since April of 2010. In 2013, dolphins were found dead at more than three times normal rates.
  • Roughly 500 dead sea turtles have been found every year for the past three years in the area affected by the spill—a dramatic increase over normal rates.
  • Oyster reproduction remained low over large areas of the northern Gulf at least through the fall of 2012.
  • A chemical in oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has been shown to cause irregular heartbeats in bluefin and yellowfin tuna that can lead to heart attacks, or even death.
  • Loons that winter on the Louisiana coast have increasing concentrations of toxic oil compounds in their blood.
  • Sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico have higher levels of DNA-damaging metals than sperm whales elsewhere in the world—metals that were present in oil from BP’s well.
The spill has also effected humans as described by Dahr Jamail.


The Volcker Rule is not the most rigid law to prevent a recurrence of the Great Recession. Yet, banks - especially the banking monoliths - have fought the rule since it was initially proposed. The latest battle is over collateralized loan obligations (C.L.O.s), which are bundles of mostly commercial loans that are sold in various pieces to investors. There are now $431 billion worth of C.L.O.s outstanding.

The rule does not prevent banks from owning any C.L.O.s; it simply cannot own those issued and overseen by hedge funds and private equity firms and contain bonds, equity interests or other assets. If the security is made up only of commercial loans, banks can own them.

It seems as though the rule is trying to achieve its purpose of preventing risky trading. Why do the banks think they should take unnecessary risks with what will be our money?

Be Thankful

The older I get, the more I realize just how lucky I have been in being born when and where I was. Another instance of this realization came as I was reading the latest issue of Foreign Policy. This was an article about the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  

If I had been born there now, I would have a life expectancy of about 50 and my share of the country's GDP would be $300. Diseases like HIV/AIDS, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, hepatitis, tuberculosis, and dysentery are rampant. 

If I were a child, I would also face the risk of being accused of being a child sorcerer infected with the devil. The poorer my parents, the greater the risk that they would think I was a sorcerer and throw me out of the house and leave me to wander the streets trying to survive.

There is a wave of child sorcery in the Congo now and has been for a while. Children are accused of a wide variety of evils: strangling parents in their sleep, eating the hearts of their siblings, flying through the skies at night, stealing money or deliberately causing illnesses like HIV and polio. The churches in the Congo, 80% of which are Christian, are very active in this movement as they seek to exorcise the devil from the children and also, by the way, make some money. While some churches do offer some aid to the children, others may be denied food and water, whipped until they confess, or sexually abused.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

War has been good for man

That's the claim of Ian Morris, a professor at Stanford and author of War! What Is it Good For?. He bases his argument on three points:
  • by fighting wars, people have created larger, more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently.
  • while war is the worst imaginable way to create larger, more peaceful societies, it is pretty much the only way humans have found. 
  • as well as making people safer, the larger societies created by war have also—again, over the long run—made us richer. 
By creating larger societies, stronger governments, and greater security, war has enriched the world.
When we put these three claims together, only one conclusion is possible. War has produced bigger societies, ruled by stronger governments, which have imposed peace and created the preconditions for prosperity. 

Miss Universe

Venezuelans have won Miss Universe seven times, giving the country a reputation as a factory of beauty queens. Perhaps that - low self esteem - is why many Venezuelan women have had their buttocks enlarged. The enlargement is a result of their being injected with liquid silicone. However, the results of these injections have been so bad that the government banned the procedure in 2012. Yet, up to 30% of women between 18 and 50 choose to have these injections, according to the Venezuelan Plastic Surgeons Association.

The results of the injections can be quite devastating - inability to walk or bend down, intense pain, allergic reactions, chronic fatigue, even death.

Flowers at the National Gallery of Art

From McClatchy

Saturday, April 19, 2014

California Today and Maybe Yesterday

America: 2014

Most Difficult Job?

What is the "most difficult job on the planet"? Earlier this week I posted one possibility. Our New York correspondent didn't think too much of that possibility and suggested another.

Taming an eagle

In the mountains of Mongolia there is a tradition of training eagles to assist in hunting foxes and marmots. It takes about five years of training. The tradition had been reserved for 13-year-old boys. But, this is the 21st century and girls are now part of the training corps.

Dancing on a bionic leg

Adrianne Haslet-Davis was a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing last year. In March, less than a year later, she resumed her dancing career with a brief dance at the TED Conference. She was able to do so because of the work of Hugh Herr and his company, BiOM. I wrote about Herr's accomplishments with bionic legs last year. But the ankle of these bionic legs had never supported a dancer. The dancer's ankle has to respond to the many varied movements of dance. This is what Herr accomplished in Haslet-Davis' case. It stiffens up when the dancer needs a firmer stance or provides additional torque for forward thrust.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Guess the job

The following video is an advertisement, but very well done.

How long did it take you to figure out what the job is?