Friday, December 19, 2014

Volcker speaks

One of the concessions made to the finance industry in the just-passed budget is the postponement of the Volcker rule until 2017. The rule, which is named after a former Fed chief, Paul Volcker, tries to reduce banks' risks through limitations on fund ownership and proprietary trading.  Dodd Frank was passed in 2010 and the rule has yet to be implemented. Volcker's comment: “It is striking, that the world's leading investment bankers, noted for their cleverness and agility in advising clients on how to restructure companies and even industries, however complicated, apparently can't manage the orderly reorganization of their own activities in more than five years.”
Runners-up in National Geographics Magazine photo contest

A study of recommendations made by Dr.Oz

Dr. Oz has been in the news lately with challenges to some of his recommendations. These challenges have hammered Oz for months. He's so popular that he was hauled before Congress in June. In October a study on coffee beans and weight loss was retracted; it made the national news because Oz had recommended it. Now the British Medical Journal has published a study which furthers questions the value of Oz's recommendations.

The researchers selected 40 episodes from last year, identifying 479 separate medical recommendations. They found that only 46 percent of his recommendations were supported by research. 15 percent were plain wrong and 39 percent could not be checked. In the words of the report, “Consumers should be skeptical about any recommendations provided on television medical talk shows, as details are limited and only a third to one half of recommendations are based on believable or somewhat believable evidence.”

Young Musicians

From our Arlington, Ma. correspondent

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Is she worth $7,000,000?

The president of RPI, Shirley Ann Jackson, was paid over $7,000,000 in 2012. Plus, she was housed in a large mansion, traveled first class and had a chauffeured luxury car to transport her around the campus. She must be fairly talented as she is on the board of IBM, Marathon Oil and a few other companies. So, financially she seems to be well set even though RPI is not a football power.

But under her, RPI's debt ran up to $828 million―over six times its level when she took office. Moody’s has downgraded RPI’s credit rating twice, and describes the financial outlook for RPI as “negative.” She seems to be against labor; she abolished the Faculty Senate and stymied attempts to unionize. For whatever reason, RPI's tuition is far above the average of New York's four year colleges: $45,100 versus $25,608.

What really intrigued me was a set of rules she has established:
1) Only she is authorized to set the temperature in conference rooms; 
2) Cabinet members all rise when she enters the room; 
3) If food is served at a meeting, vice presidents clear her plate; and 
4) She is always to be publicly introduced as “The Honorable Shirley Ann Jackson.”

The Power of the Pope

Apparently, the Obama administration has been working to normalize relations with Cuba for a few years. They recognized the importance of the Roman Catholic religion in Cuba and sought the help of the pope, first Benedict and now Francis. The administration saw the pope as a “guarantor” that both sides would live up to the terms of a deal. The pope hosted at least one meeting at the Vatican and wrote a personal letter to Obama and Castro.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

3D Prosthetics

Violation of the Nuremburg Code?

The Nazis were certainly experimenters when it came to medicine. Their doctors and scientists tried all sorts of nefarious things on Jews and other prisoners. Naturally, the subjects of these experiments did not give their consent. So, after the war the Nuremberg Code, which declared medical experiments were a crime against humanity, was promulgated. In 1998 the International Criminal Court stated that medical experiments conducted on detainees captured in international or internal conflicts were war crimes.

Now the Physicians for Human Rights organization wants the government to establish a commission of inquiry to examine the participation of CIA and private medical personnel in the interrogation program to determine whether we have breached domestic and international laws.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Enough is enough

Echocardiograms can be very profitable.

Echocardiagrams, which take ultrasound pictures of the heart, have become quite popular. Although they have been in use since the 1970s, the number ordered by cardiologists increased by 90% from 1999 to 2008. The price can vary all over the lot. In NJ, the price averages about $5,500; in Boston area hospitals the average is $1,300. In Philadelphia, prices range from $700 to $12,000.

Of course comparisons with other countries are mind-boggling: Belgium $80, Germany $115 Japan $88.

The nuns are let off

In fact, the investigation praised nuns rather than excoriate them as was expected when the investigation began in 2012. Was the change due to the replacement of Pope Benedict by Pope Francis? Here is the conclusion of the report:
Our times need the credible and attractive witness of consecrated religious who demonstrate the redemptive and transformative power of the Gospel. Convinced of the sublime dignity and beauty of consecrated life, may we all pray for and support our women religious and actively promote vocations to the religious life.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Outsourcing for the military

Outsourcing some military operations is not new to us; we did it in the last century. But in the 21st century the scale of outsourcing has dramatically increased, both in scale and in time. Lieutenant Colonel Katherine E. White asserts that our management of this outsourcing has not improved, so that outsourcing has become an inefficient, wasteful process. She thinks a culture change is needed. 

First of all, those who use contractors have to acknowledge that they are an integral and essential part of contingency operations personnel. Those agencies that use contractors have to make the contractors an integral part of the agency and a part that does the job required. Acquisition experts who administer contracts, allocate resources, and demand accountability are needed. Thus, agency contracting must be seen as a viable career option; otherwise, the best and the brightest will go elsewhere. 

I guess having a directorate is a big deal in the military. White thinks it vital that a contracting directorate be created. Doing so will make outsource management less likely to be vulnerable to budget cuts and potentially lose acquisition personnel in key areas. Furthermore, establishing a directorate means opportunity for career advancement for personnel, which translates to expertise in acquisition management. 

We've had a fair amount of screw-ups with outsourcing. Maybe White has a point.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Mark Bittman has hope

I've always thought of Mark Bittman as simply a food writer. Thus, I have seldom read his columns. However, in today's NY Times he has a column entitled "Is it bad enough yet?". It begins:
THE police killing unarmed civilians. Horrifying income inequality. Rotting infrastructure and an unsafe “safety net.” An inability to respond to climate, public health and environmental threats. A food system that causes disease. An occasionally dysfunctional and even cruel government. A sizable segment of the population excluded from work and subject to near-random incarceration.
You get it: This is the United States, which, with the incoming Congress, might actually get worse.
This in part explains why we’re seeing spontaneous protests nationwide, protests that, in their scale, racial diversity, anger and largely nonviolent nature, are unusual if not unique.
Clearly, this is not a column about food. Bittman is talking about the current state of the U.S., which he acknowledges as terrible. He thinks the basic cause of our problems is inequality and therefore our problems are interrelated.
Everything affects everything. It’s all tied together, and the starting place hardly matters: A just and righteous system will have a positive impact on everything we care about, just as an unjust, exploitative system makes everything worse.
Bittman thinks that the various protest movements - be it the Moral Mondays in NC, the marches re Brown and Garner, the walkouts by fast food workers, etc. - can bring about "a just and righteous system" in this country.

I wish I had his faith. I had hopes for the Occupy movement, but that failed. Looting and violence when protesting does not help the cause. Ineffective and uncaring political leaders don't want the change that is needed.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Uruguay may be doing the right thing

A few days ago I told you that I was impressed by Jose Mujica, the president of Uruguay. Now I've learned a little more about the country and am even more impressed.

It is South America's second smallest country yet has seen annual economic growth of 5.6% since 2004. Its per capita environmental footprint is low. The Happy Planet Index gives a high rating to the country. 

You'd have to say it's fairly liberal. It was the first nation to legalize marijuana.  It has also legalized gay marriage and prostitution. Naturally, it provides universal health care. And it has challenged the legitimacy of the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) trade agreements.

It is a welcoming nation. I spoke of its accepting Syrian refugees. Now it has also accepted the first six US prisoners resettled to South America from Guantánamo. 

Are we all God's children?

Pope Francis said, “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures” as he was consoling a boy whose dog had recently died. Some, such as the Humane Society and PETA, think his comment means that dogs will also be admitted to heaven.

Swapping us for the financiers

Dodd-Frank included a "Prohibition Against Federal Government Bailout of Swaps Entities". It was addressed to the problem with derivatives, a major cause of the Great Recession. The section requires that some of the riskiest derivative transactions be "pushed-out" from the big banks, so that taxpayers would not be on the hook via the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) for bad "swaps" deals gone awry. But, the House has decided to get rid of the protection we have against bailing out banks for gambling; they would allow derivative failures to be paid for by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, namely us.

Senator Warren has a strong argument for the Senate not approving this removal of our protection.