Friday, December 30, 2005

It's not as simple as either side wants it to be

Read this report from

Things are really getting better in Iraq

Like, for example, the price and availability of gasoline as reported in today's NY Times.

46 More

Forty-six more detainees joined the ranks of the hunger strikers at Guantanamo on Christmas Day. Now about 16% of the population are on the hunger strike.

Gee, Congress is actually trying to do something about a problem

The problem being the high cost of specialty drugs, some of which can cost $600,000 per year.

Senator Hatch, who, with Rep. Waxman, enacted the law to allow generic regular (i.e., chemical) drugs, is working on a similar bill for specialty drugs.

Senator Snowe has introduced a bill allowing the government to negotiate the price of drugs with the drug companies. They are not allowed to do so now. Can you imagine having that market power and not being able to use it? This is one of the reasons why the cost of the Medicare prescription program is astronomical (it's now at $720 billion over 10 years).

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Another day, another medical story questioned

Today comes news of two British medical journals, BMJ and The Lancet, questioning articles by Dr. Ram B. Singh which they published years ago. Dr. Singh claimed that heart-attack victims who ate more fiber, fruits and vegetables for a year cut their risk of death during the year by about half. It turns out that Dr. Singh, who is based in Moradabad, India, may not have followed Western medical journal standards or may have taken advantage of Western medical journal standards. The journals feel taken advantage of. Dr. Singh feels maligned. Who knows who is right?

Not the best advertisement

Tuesday's Wall Street Journal was not one that Mario Gabelli, one of the lions of the money business, will be passing along to his friends unless he is seeking their advice as to whether he should initiate action against the paper. The article in question reports on a civil case brought against Gabelli and some of his business colleagues. The issue in the case is whether the defendants falsely claimed to be small businesses when bidding in the auction conducted by the FCC years ago for pieces of the radio spectrum for cellphone services.

Being recognized as a small business in the auction conveyed two considerable benefits to the winning bidders: a 25% discount from their bid price and a low-interest loan. The suit alleges that Gabelli or his affiliates really controlled these small bidders even though Gabelli owned 49.9% of the company. Considering that none of the majority owners had any experience in the cell phone business nor did they put up the majority of the money, one can assume that they were grateful to Mr. Gabelli for letting them in on a good investment.

How good an investment? One firm paid $12.9 million of its $17.2 million bid and sold its licenses a year later for $98 million; the problem for the majority owner here was that, through fees and its share of the company, Gabelli walked away with 75% of the deal. Another of the firms sold its licenses for $144 million for which they had paid $18.9 million. Not bad for people with diverse backgrounds - aerobics instructor, administrative assistant, property manager, basketball player, accountant - totally removed from the cell phone business.

The evidence that has been unsealed in this case, which was filed in 2001, includes internal notes and legal memos which on the surface certainly lead one to believe that not everything was on the up and up. Gabelli claims that the suit was filed purely as a way to extort money from him. He may be right, but sometimes one evil action leads to the uncovering of other evil actions.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

We still have the safest airline system in the world

but the December 15 report of the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation does shake one up as it shows that more and more vital maintenance work is being done by organizations which are not certified by the FAA; the individual mechanics are certified, but there is not the level of oversight of the maintenance process itself and by the FAA that is mandated in organizations certified by the FAA.

Errors can happen anywhere, but the January 2003 crash of an Air Midwest plane in Charlotte was due to an incorrect adjustment of the flight-control system by a non-certified shop. I would think - and hope - that every plane flying commercial flights would have the same level of maintenance and that the FAA would do its darnedest to make sure that happens. So far, it hasn't.

A Gift

I was reading as I waited in the car for my wife to finish shopping when there was a knock on the window. Since my handicapped placard was not in quite the right place and not quite visible, I figured the elderly woman wanted to berate me for parking in a handicapped spot. Then, when she asked whether she could share something with me, visions of her version of how Jesus would save me sped through my mind. But, she wanted to share something real, something close to her and something that might be good for the world.

She had just picked up her mail and in it was a photograph of her second great-grandson which she wanted to share with whoever was around. I happened to be that lucky person to receive her gift. I hope that in 2006 I am lucky enough to again be in the right place at the right time when someone wants to share a similar gift.

The Lives They Led

I like reading the year-end edition of the NY Times Magazine. It's filled with obituaries of people who have died during the year. Many of the names I know, but there are always a number of people I'd never heard of who have led interesting lives.

Consider, for example, Miriam Rothschild. Sure, we've all heard of the Rothschilds and she was a member of the correct Rothschild family. But, the Times wrote about her not because of her fortune but because she liked fleas. She didn't like fleas in any weird sense, she was considered the world's expert on fleas. She produced a "Who's Who" of the flea world, replete with illustrations of various members of the flea family. She gained her knowledge of fleas without benefit of a formal education and she obtained specimens in conventional and unconventional ways, such as smuggling them out of Australia on flea-ridden mice. By her bedside she kept 60,000 microscope slides of fleas.

She inherited some of her eccentricity from her uncle, the second Lord Rothschild. He also collected animals, among them giant tortoises, which he rode, and zebras, which he used to pull his carriage to Piccadilly.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Another Economic Indicator

The National Assocation of Realtors' Affordability Index is not published by the government or a think tank. However, over the years the index has attracted some strong supporters and is highly thought of. Their latest reading is the lowest since 1991. In some areas, the index has dropped to mid-1980s levels.

Just how pervasive is the strong economy we hear so much of?

China and Endostatin

Endostatin is a cancer drug discovered in the '60s by Dr. Judah Folkman. He tried to commercialize it but the high costs of making it prevented his company, EntreMed, from making a success of it. Now, almost forty years later comes Dr. Luo Yongzhang, an American-educated researcher. He has apparently developed a version of endostatin that can be made at much less cost and is in talks with several US druge manufacturers to begin trials here.

I know that Dr. Hwang, the Korean stem cell researcher, has tarnished the reputation of Oriental researchers, but there is a strong possibility that Dr. Luo's work will be tested and pass the tests here.

The point of this post being that here is another example of the rise of China in the scientific world.

Death and taxes: The only certainties?

For some CEOs, death is now the only certainty as they have managed to convince their boards of directors that the CEO is so valuable that the stockholders should not only pay him exorbitant compensation but they should also pay the taxes on much of that compensation. This practice is known as the "gross up". And it is growing. In 2000 38% of the companies surveyed by the Wall Street Journal followed the practice. In 2004, 52% did.

Consider the deal the CEO of Home Depot has: the tax payments [paid by the shareholders] on his perks were $3.3 million; that topped his base salary of $2 million. Coke has paid its CEO $4 million since 2000, Regions Financial paid its CEO $27.3 million in gross-ups. The deal the executives of North Fork Bank have could yield them - and cost the shareholders - $125 million. BEA Systems paid $600,000 to cover the taxes on four years of chauffeur service for its CEO. Unisys even pays the taxes on its former CEO's pension.

CEO of a large US public company: it's still the greatest job in the world.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Beginning of a restoration of justice?

J. Michael Luttig is one of those conservative judges frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Supreme Court. Well, as happens more often than you think, this conservative judge has ruled against the Bush administration's attempt to move the Padilla case from the military to the civilian sphere. He sees it as an attempt to prevent Supreme Court review of the case. Luttig said that the government has left the impression that Padilla has been held for more than three years by mistake.

The charges against Padilla have gone from considering to explode a dirty bomb, to destroy a gas line to public buildings to, in the latest charge, fighting with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Witch hunt anyone?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Torture? We do not torture

For a very complete description of the administration's views on and acts of torture, read this from

Another toxic spill

A second city in China has cut off its water supply due to a chemical spill. This time cadmium was leaked from a state-owned smelter in the city of Shaoguan into the Bei River in Guangdong province. This time only 500,000 people were without water.

It won't be here forever

It's the first day of winter. The Fall was relatively mild, so, despite the sharp run-up in the price of oil, I haven't spent much on oil yet this heating season. In fact, I'm averaging less than $100 a month. I wonder how much longer heating oil, a finite resource, will be available to the average schmuck like me. Consider:
  • Another superpower - China - that needs oil is emerging. 40% of the demand for oil over the past few years have been the result of China's growth.
  • No one really knows how much oil is still in the ground and the oil people are not being very helpful in answering the question. Shell Oil lied about its reserves. Saudi Arabia, supposedly the largest source of oil, won't supply any verifiable information about its reserves. Much of the information we get about oil reserves comes from a guy working above a sub shop in a small town in Switzerland.
  • Unlike previous years, there have been no reserves discovered to replaced the oil that has been pumped during the past couple of years.
  • Who knows what Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, Russia or Saudi Arabia will feel about us tomorrow? They may decide that we are persona non grata and either hold us up or shut us off, assuming that they can find another willing buyer.
  • China is buying up oil sites all over the world. How willing would they be to sell it to us at a reasonable price if they decide to go back to their old ways?
We've got an upcoming catastrophe on our hands and we're doing damn little about it. Yes, we've muttered about hydrogen-powered cars and biodiesel fuel; we're even producing millions of gallons of ethanol a year. Some of our cars can run on a combination of ethanol and gas. There are some wind farms in the West. Some can afford solar panels.

Steps are being taken. But they're all very small steps given what will happen when the oil supply diminishes. We need another "Mission to the Moon". If the president of Brazil can vow that his country will become the world's leader in renewable energy and back it up with results, why can't we do something similar?

In only twenty-five years Brazil has moved from a dependence on foreign oil to just about energy independence. This has been due to their focus on ethanol-based fuels as well as - and probably more importantly - the availability of 'flex fuel' cars, i.e., cars that can run on either gas, ethanol or a combination thereof.

While the Sierra Club disputes the environmental benefits of ethanol, many scientists do not; they claim it is much less damaging to the environment.

At times, ethanol has been more expensive than oil, but, to me, it appears as though we won't see those days again. Even if moving to flex-fuel cars is more costly, how far ahead of the game will we be if we become truly energy independent?

An example of 21st century government

The latest 2008 Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, is using a grant from the largess of the Bush administration to ensure that black and Hispanic 12 - 14 year-olds in Massachusetts learn about abstinence. I'm not against abstinence but this federal program is spending $50 million of our money and it is given to states only if their sex education program does not consider condoms or other methods of birth control.

The goal of preventing births to teenagers is laudable. But, why is there only one way of achieving the goal? This is another example of our money being spent on religious prejudice.

Democracy? Have we deserted it?

The current flap about spying brings to mind an old adage: Sometimes when we try to do good in the world, we forget about the people at home. Here we are trying to 'export' democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously violating our own constitution and our own citizens' right to privacy.

The whole idea of checks and balances - the cornerstone of our government - is being thrown out the window in the name of the war on terror. Of course, our insipid congressmen, who are now elected for life it seems, have done little to restore these checks and balances. I can't remember too many Congresses that have been as ineffectual and as concerned with trivia (vide, the baseball steroid issue and the flap over a nipple) as this one. Hell, we're moving very quickly to a world where we are not the sole superpower and this Congress is more concerned with next year's election than with offering alternatives to the imperialists who run the executive branch and - the way things are going - run the government totally on their own, given the likely supine Supreme Court that will soon be in power.

Sure, some Senators are screaming about "the violation of our citizens' rights". But did they not pass the Patriot Act virtually unanimously? Did they not give Bush carte blanche in the war on terror? What are they doing or even saying about our wonderful actions in Guantanamo? Have they not approved the nominations of incompetent people to run our government? Did they not pass the tax cuts that could have paid for the bulk of this war? Did they not interfere in the Schiavo case?

It hurts me to say this but I suspect that most of the really nasty people in this world, including brutal dictators, very likely feel that they are doing the right thing. They feel that their nation's existence is threatened and anything goes in trying to save the nation, even if in saving it you destroy it. We are approaching such a situation. These people - who have shown so little ability to run this country effectively in almost any area - now claim that they are the only ones who know what is right and good for us.

Fortunately, I am old and may escape the results that, as night follows day, will befall this country due to the ineptitude and arrogance of our leaders, Democratic and Republican. Unfortunately, my children and grandchildren will not. Until today, just about every generation in this country was convinced - and rightfully so - that their kids would have a better life. I don't think that belief is justified any longer. Unless we a see a drastic change in the people who run this country, there is only one way this country will go and that is down.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Loss #2

Last month the proponents of teaching 'intelligent design' in high school science classes lost at the ballot box as all but one member of the school committee that proposed the policy wasnot reelected. Today, they lost their case in court. The judge ruled the policy unconstitutional because intelligent design is clearly a religious idea that advances "a particular version of Christianity."

Monday, December 19, 2005

Let's hope he's right

Some excerpts from last night's speech by Bush:

"this vote..means that America has an ally of growing strength in the fight against terror." What does the vote mean for Iran?

"they object to our deepest values and our way of life." No mention of the 2+ year occupation as being a possible cause.

"Now, there are more than 125 Iraqi combat battalions fighting the enemy, more than 50 have taken the lead" That's quite a change from the one battalion mentioned by our military leaders in their Congressional testimony of September 30, two-and-a-half months ago.

I hope that Bush is correct in placing a lot of his capital of another election. The first one did not have a very good rate of return.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Is Harvard hoarding?

At $26 billion, Harvard's endowment is larger than the GDP of many countries. In 2004 Harvard raised $590 miilion in donations. Yet, it only spent 4.5% of its endowment in 2004. Yale, with an endowment of $12.7 billion and an average annual return of 17.4% on that endowment over the past ten years, spent the same 4.5%. Very few of the colleges with huge endowments spend as much as 6% of their endowments each year.

The feds require foundations to spend at least 5% of their capital each year as they don't want the foundations to hoard their cash. However, there is no similar regulation for colleges and universities; they can keep as much of their endowment as they wish.

I can't help thinking that Harvard and other financial behemoths of the educational world are more interested in buildings and hoarding than in education.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Is this an example of anti-terrorist activity?

This from today's New Bedford Standard Times:
A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called "The Little Red Book."

Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library's interlibrary loan program.

The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand's class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents' home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.

The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a "watch list," and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further.

"I tell my students to go to the direct source, and so he asked for the official Peking version of the book," Professor Pontbriand said. "Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring inter-library loans, because that's what triggered the visit, as I understand it."

Although The Standard-Times knows the name of the student, he is not coming forward because he fears repercussions should his name become public. He has not spoken to The Standard-Times.

The professors had been asked to comment on a report that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to spy on as many as 500 people at any given time since 2002 in this country.

The eavesdropping was apparently done without warrants.

The Little Red Book, is a collection of quotations and speech excerpts from Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung. In the 1950s and '60s, during the Cultural Revolution in China, it was required reading. Although there are abridged versions available, the student asked for a version translated directly from the original book.

The student told Professor Pontbriand and Dr. Williams that the Homeland Security agents told him the book was on a "watch list." They brought the book with them, but did not leave it with the student, the professors said.

Dr. Williams said in his research, he regularly contacts people in Afghanistan, Chechnya and other Muslim hot spots, and suspects that some of his calls are monitored. "My instinct is that there is a lot more monitoring than we think," he said.

Dr. Williams said he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk. "I shudder to think of all the students I've had monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think of that," he said. "Mao Tse-Tung is completely harmless."
It's good to know our government is on the ball and rooting out terrorists.

Update, December 21:
Questions have arisen as to whether the student was attempting to perpetrate a hoax.

Whatever happened to the rule of law?

Today the President acknowledged that he has authorized wiretaps of "people with known links to Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations". How real these 'known links" are is really unknown as there has been no vetting of the names by the courts or any organization independent of the White House. Whether the "activities conducted under this authorization have helped detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks" is equally unverifiable.

Bush is asking for our trust. But, at a minimum, he has been mistaken before in matters of vital national interest, such as the raison d'etre of the Iraq War, and, when it came time to translate words into actions, such as with Katrina or post-war Iraq, the incompetence of the actors has been staggering.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Shades of the Pentagon Papers

Hidden in the bowels of today's article re the White House snooping on Americans is this (courtesy of Intel Dump):
  • The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.
Does this increase the likelihood that this article, in fact, is stating reality? I guess we should be thankful that legal action was not threatened.

Say it ain't so, Joe

It looks like another scientific hoax and medical journal scandal has surfaced with the claim by Roh Sung Il, a co-author of the acclaimed paper on the cloning of human embryos to make stem cells that appeared in Science last year, that the results were faked by the lead scientist, Hwang Woo Suk. This comes on the heels of the report last week of scientists' dropping test results from a study of Vioxx.

What is bizarre about this latest scandal is that Mr. Roh is the second co-author of the Science paper to say the reported results are questionable. Dr. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh wants his name removed from the article. Why didn't these co-authors question the results before the paper was published? Why did they allow their names to be used if they hadn't checked the results?

Perhaps Hwang is a charlatan. But what would you call Roh and Schatten?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

One more body part subject to the plastic surgeon

Did you guess what body part? Perhaps, the headline in today's Wall Street Journal might give you a clue - Virgin Territory: US Women Seek A Second First time. That's right, the hymen. Hymenoplasty, the reattachment of the hymen, is one of the fastest-growing procedures of the plastic surgeon. It's advertised in magazines, newspapers, radio and on-line. Where one surgeon performed two procedures a year ten years ago, now he does ten a month.

Why people choose to undergo unnecessary surgery befuddles me. To recover from this procedure takes six weeks; there is the ever-present risk of any operation; it's expensive, with $5000 being a typical charge. And, it's only good for one time. People who have this procedure done in hopes of improving their sex life for one night have far deeper problems that cannot be cured by any form of surgery.

Will this lead to any changes?

The situation at Hollinger Corp. is becoming more unusual. The SEC has issued notices to the former members of the audit committee that threaten them with legal action for failing to spot the fraudulent actions of Lord Black and his cohort. Like most boards of directors of public companies, those comprising the audit committee of Hollinger are not unknown: former governor of Illinois, wife of very prominent financier, former ambassador to Germany. Perhaps, this action will put a little of the fear of God in some corporate directors and make them stop being toadies to management.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

And the record-breaking pace continues

The October trade deficit set another record. The $68.9 billion gap between imports and exports does not bode well for our economy. What do our leaders think of this?

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

It looks as though some in our government want to ensure that nuclear weapons live on and adapt to the 21st century world. The Bush administration is worried that our nuclear arsenal is out of date and becoming too difficult and costly to maintain. After all, we have not built a new warhead in close to twenty years and we haven't tested one since 1992. So, it has been talking with Congress about spending our dollars to start researching a new generation of nuclear weapons. Thus far, Congress has approved $25 million for this research.

Why should Iran and North Korea stop their nuclear weapons programs if we are modernizing ours?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Reason has fled the scene

Some interesting examples of the high quality reasoning and sterling integrity of the boards of large corporations:

  • Nortel, which has been on the ropes since before the 21st century began, paid its outgoing CEO who failed to turn the company around $5 million in severance. Then, they turned around and paid the next savior not only $20.5 million in compensation but another $11.5 to Motorola to free the savior from a non-compete agreement.
  • Total compensation for CEOs at the largest companies was up 30% on average last year. How much was your raise? Since 1999, the median compensation of these guys has gone from $1 million to just under $2.5 million. I wonder whether profits had the same exponential growth.
  • Belden guaranteed their new CEO stock options worth at least $2.5 million per year for the first three years of his employment.
  • Whitehall Jewelers paid $980,000 to their new CEO while she was still working at Penney's.
  • The guy who took Newell Rubbermaid down the toilet was paid $4.6 million in severance although he had no employment contract.
  • Paxson Communications gave its incumbent president a $1.5 million signing bonus.

On the other hand there are a few sensible, generous CEOs:

  • The ex-CEO of Pepsi took a salary of $1 per year from 1998 - 2001 and established a scholarship fund for the children of Pepsi workers with the rest of the pay to which he was entitled.
  • The head of Best Buy distributes his options to the people on the store floor.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Methinks he protests too much

I don't know about you, but I'm getting tired of Bush's weekly sermons about how wonderful things are in Iraq. Maybe if he stayed home and didn't spend as much time talking about victory, he might figure out how to get out of the morass he has put us in.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

A Great American

We lost a great American when Gene McCarthy died today. His career was another example of how people can surprise you. He was just another Senator until he took up the gauntlet and tried to change America. He spoke with clarity and honesty the things that needed saying in that difficult time of the late '60s.

He was able to galvanize the youth of this country so that they had a real voice in running the country. His campaign was one of the reasons why Johnson did not run in 1968. It also led to our disengagement from another shameful war.

His was not a typical programmed campaign. He was spontaneous and had interesting ideas. He was the first candidate that I can recall who actually told us during the campaign who he would like to have in his cabinet.

If Bobby Kennedy had not been in the campaign, I wonder whether McCarthy might have been able to wrest the nomination from Humphrey.

Friday, December 09, 2005

They are only words

Courtesy of Economist's view here is another example of words not followed by any action. This appears to be the strategy of the Bush administration when it comes to fixing problems - make a speech extolling what you will do and then do zilch.

What kind of a country have we become?

If we are treating all of the people we have 'detained' - no matter where they are housed - according to humane conventions, why have we not let the Red Cross meet with all of the detainees? The State Department's legal adviser acknowledged that the Red Cross has not had access to those people held in the so-called secret prisons.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Beginning of the End for Merck?

"Taken together, these inaccuracies and deletions call into question the integrity of the data on adverse cardiovascular events in this article." from an editorial in today's New England Journal of Medicine commenting on a major Vioxx study reported in a previous issue of the Journal. The report apparently omitted the fact that three of the subjects died of heart attacks, which, in the Journal's view "made certain calculations and conclusions in the article incorrect".

Sleight of hand

Last month the House cut the budget as a way of paying for Katrina. Yesterday they voted three times to cut taxes. The cuts will amount to $94.5 billion over five years. Now, how much was that budget cut last month?

The House should learn that a budget is a function of both income and expense.

The Cyclotron Next Door

Johns Hopkins is getting rid of a cyclotron and a civil engineer from Alaska will be bringing it home via truck and barge. Home is a residential area near downtown Anchorage, Alaska. The engineer will put it in his garage. Strangely, many of his neighbors oppose the move.

How far I've strayed.. or come?

Today is, in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation on which one must attend Mass or - at least in the days I was growing up - one would commit a mortal sin. Well, I'm not going to Mass today. For the past forty years, my only attendance at Mass has been for weddings and funerals. (Notice how I automatically capitalized mass. The nuns and priests did a good job of indoctrination, particularly with the Catholic sense of guilt.)

Today has been a holy day of obligation for only 200 years. It was on December 8, 1854, that Pius IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary "in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin."

The world does evolve. But, I wonder why it took almost 1900 years to decide that Mary was born without sin, since the church had devoted so much to the 'honor and glory of the Blessed Virgin' - churches, painting, sculptures, names of saints, etc. - for hundreds of years before then.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Don't get sick in China

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal brought up another major problem for China: its health care system. As China started to adopt a more capitalist approach, it ordered hospitals to become profit-making entities. As a result, hospitals try to maximize their revenue from each patient. Studies by the World Bank as well as Chinese organizations have concluded that hospital doctors typically overprescribe drugs and diagnostic procedures. In the US about 15% of our total health care spending goes to drugs; in China the percent is 50. The World Bank estimates that as much as 37% of China's health dollars are wasted on unnecessary drug prescriptions.

But worse than the revenue-maximization policy is the Chinese payment policy: before you are treated, you must pay the bill even in cases of emergency. The article illustrates the situation by describing the efforts of a family to save the life of their seven-year-old son who has leukemia. The family earns $350 annually, the estimated cost of a six-month treatment is $18,500. And, the fees for each part of the treatment must be paid in advance. Thus far, the family is $4,000 in debt, much of it borrowed from their fellow villagers, who really can't afford it. So, an entire village is at risk of economic failure because of the illness of one small child. And, because of the policy the family takes the boy out of the isolation ward and the hospital after each treatment, thus increasing the risk of infection.

Fortunately, some in the Chinese media have started reporting on this problem. The government has begun to address the problem but estimates are that it will take 20 years.

It's clear that if China intends to be a major power with some sort of humane treatment of its citizens, it must address its health care and pollution problems now.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Another Report From the 9/11 Discourse Project

Okay, so it's no longer a public commission. It is a pressure group. But a pressure group that we need. I'm talking about the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, led by the former members of the 9/11 Commission. They've just issued another report on how well we are prepared to face another terrorist attack. Their conclusion: not very well. Of the 41 issues they rate on a scale of A to F, one issue receives an A-, four receive F. Let's look at some of these issues.

I know things move slowly in the government. But, does it take eight years to ensure that first responders will be able to talk with each other? Why is it taking so long to establish a consoldiated terrorist watch list within our government? How much have we talked with our allies about an international consolidated list?

I know that pork is also rampant in government. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seems to spend more money on pork than protection. Not all states, cities and towns in the US bear the same risk of terrorist attack. Yet, that's how we are spending our money four years after 9/11. Talk about stupidity and cupidity.

The government likes to make grandiose statements that are seldom followed up with real action. For instance, why hasn't the National Counterterrorism Center been adequately staffed? When will the FBI get its act together?

There is a risk of trampling on people's civil liberties while combating terrorism. Why hasn't the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board been established?

There is a lot of talk about terrorists getting their hands on WMD. What are we doing about preventing this from happening?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

How the other half lives

I know that I've led a sheltered life. But a feature article in the travel section of today's NY Times showed me just how sheltered I've been. I've never had a chocolate bath, been rubbed with Greek sea salt, wrapped in cactus, scrubbed with papaya, massaged with lava rock, had a cranberry enzyme bath, treated with Canadian maple sugar or bathed in wine (the subject of the article). However, those in the know and with the money try these activities in a bid to keep looking young.

I prefer the methods of maintaining one's youth described by Bram Stoker and Goethe. They, at least, are recognized as being fictional.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Competence, thy name is not the typical Bush appointee

I've written before on the seeming incompetence of Allan Hubbard, Bush's economic adviser. Now Economist's View (aka Mark Thoma) has another example.

Looking behind the numbers

Vox Baby has an interesting analysis of the November jobs report. The figures showed a gain of 215,000 jobs, but Samwick, the brains behind Vox Baby, dug deeper to show that, since the average work week declined by .1 hour, this 'gain' is misleading as the total hours worked declined, which, in turn, resulted in a decline in average weekly earnings.

The week the drinking water stopped

It appears as though China's pollution problem is escalating. In late November they had to shut off the water in Harbin, home of several million people, for a week due to an explosion at a chemical plant that released benzene and other toxic chemicals into a river. The chemicals are expected to reach Russia this week.

More countries - South Korea, Japan, Russia - are naming China as a major source of their pollution. Traces of mercury from China have been reported in New England.

Part of China's problem is the limited staffing of their 'EPA'; they employ 200 professionals, our EPA has 10,000.

It's a little more than standing up and standing down

I didn't hear Bush's speech on our current Iraq strategy this week nor did I read anything about it on our vacation, but reading the speech on the White House web site led me to the title of this posting. I'd like to comment on some of the "bullet points" in the executive summary.

Victory in Iraq is a vital U.S. interest.
It sure is a vital interest now that we have invaded it and made it the best recruiting vehicle the terrorists have. Could the bombers of London, Madrid and Bali be more emboldened by our leaving Iraq? I doubt it.

Failure is not an option.
It's a nice saying, but may be more wishful thinking than a statement of fact. Bush's words about Middle East reformers never again trusting us assumes that they trust us now, given our unalloyed support of Israel and Arab autocracies.

The Enemy is diffuse and sophisticated.
Bush fails to see that our occupation itself is now a reason for people joining and supporting the insurgency.

In discussing the 'security track' Bush does not mention the 'oil spot' theory of Andrew Kripenevich that has attracted the support of many including McCain.

The speech is short of many details and is riddled with inaccuracies but it is a start.

The Captain, The Chaplain, The Muslim

The name James Yee probably has vanished from your memory, but the 2003 accusation that a Muslim chaplain in the US Army was a traitor may not have so vanished. James Yee, third generation Chinese-American, West Point graduate, Army chaplain and converted Muslim, was the accused. He has written a book, "For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire", about his experience as an American accused of being an Al Qaeda operative.

Yee's life as a Muslim chaplain in the US Army started out on a very high note; he was held in such regard by his superiors that he was trotted out to give interviews to NPR, MSNBC and other media outlets. Yet, after being arrested he was held in solitary confinement for 76 days and, until the day of his discharge, was prevented from speaking publicly by a gag order. While in custody, he was strip-searched. Further, his married life was destroyed by the Army's claims - very likely made of whole cloth - that he was an adulterer and pornographer.

He writes of "forced cell extraction" of the Guantanamo detainees. In these exercises six to eight MPs in riot gear were used to immobilize a detainee in his cell and move him to a maximum security unit. According to Yee and many others Guantanamo is on a war footing in line with the apparent military belief that the camp might be infiltrated by Al Qaeda by land, sea or air. I guess infiltration from within was added when they arrested Yee.

The serious charges (including espionage) were dropped within a month after Yee's arrest, but he remained in solitary. The charge of mishandling classified documents was dropped when the prosecution could not prove he ever possessed classified documents.

This seems to be another blot on the American way of war.

The Rhine - Late Autumn 2005

Before sailing from Amsterdam to Basel over the past two weeks, I thought that the Rhine would be either castles or industry. I was wrong as the following photos show. However, I was struck at the narrowness of the river. It did not seem much wider than the Charles in Boston. Someone with a strong arm could probably throw a coin across.