Saturday, January 31, 2015

Another argument against the TPP

I've been agitating against the TPP for a couple of years now. It's amazing the number of negatives this ultra-secret proposed treaty will wreak on the U.S. Joe Stiglitz has another: the cost of drugs.

One possible way of bumping prices is to prevent or severely limit the availability of generics here. Consider one example of the price differential. Gilead Sciences charges us $84,000 for a drug it sells in India for about $8,400. A second way is via the government. The TPP could eliminate the government's ability to regulate drug prices.

How Obama can continue to push this un-American treaty is beyond me.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Real Life Definitions

From our California correspondent

3D- printing in action

In January I wrote about the work being done with 3D-printing at Boston Children's Hospital. This work was in preparation for an operation on a girl's skull. Here's the operation:

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Questioning Biofuels

The World Resources Institute has issued a report challenging the efficacy of biofuels as a major energy resource. The report asserts that because of the inefficiency of biofuels they are unlikely ever to supply a substantial fraction of global energy demand. Furthermore, the strategy is likely to use up vast tracts of fertile land that could be devoted to helping feed the world’s growing population. It has driven up global food prices, worsened some types of air pollution and done relatively little to reduce overall emissions of carbon dioxide.

I cannot continue this conversation. It is classified now

For the past six years the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has been reporting on our financial activities there plus the progress of the Afghan Forces. We learned such things as the number of Afghan soldiers and police officers in uniform, how much we were spending for weapons and gear for Afghan forces, the cost of teaching Afghan soldiers to read and write. We could judge progress or the lack of it. That information will no longer be published for the masses (taxpayers), it is now classified. The reason being it could endanger Afghan and American lives.

Big Brother agrees!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Storm and TV

It had to happen

Soon we will be using a 3D-printer to make our meals. Here are some of the foods printed at a recent show in Paris:

There is an interesting article in the Washington Post discussing some of the advantages of creating meals via a printer.

The Foodini 3D-printer is expected to be released late this year.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The importance of safe havens

We've based a lot of our assumptions about terrorism on the assertion that terrorists need safe havens to plan international terrorist attacks. We have gone to war or released drones on this assumption. How good is this assumption?

Well, for one thing,we forget that the 9/11 hijackers passed undetected through border security 68 times and operated freely in nine states. For another, our fellow Americans have been responsible for half of the plots and attacks against the United States since 9/11 percent. Are we a safe haven that should be attacked? There have been 63 jihadi terrorist plots or attacks against the U.S. homeland between 9/11 and 2012. Yet, perpetrators of just eight of them traveled abroad to safe havens; the other two who went abroad traveled to Saudi Arabia and Canada.

Then, there is the question of what is a terrorist attack. Or, maybe I should ask what is the definition of a terrorist attack. Beheadings here have not been considered terrorist attacks, but they were when our reporters met that fate overseas.

A Discussion of Health Care Systems

Do vaccinations cause autism?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Replacing the sun

The Russian Federal Space Agency released a video that shows how earth could look in the light of other stars.

It's the end of the world

Almost every time a major storm is forecast, the media makes it sound like it never happened before. Today's examples:

NY Times - Likely to Be Among Largest Ever in New York City 
Washington Post - Potentially historic’ blizzard 
Boston Globe - Potentially catastrophic storm
BBC - historic blizzard 

And then there is the supermarket. After all, we need to have enough food to make it to the last day. Would you believe there were no bananas?

A commuter in China

Watermelon head

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Seeing your mother for the first time

Louise was born with albinism, which meant she could not see until, at the age of eight months, she was fitted with a pair of special eyeglasses. In the video below she sees her mother for the first time.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Lessons to be learned

You should read Stephen Walt's latest column in Foreign Policy. He thinks that there are five lessons we can learn from our foreign policy experiences: 
The first lesson is that the United States lacks a detailed and sophisticated understanding of many societies, and especially those whose history, culture, social networks, and aspirations are radically different from our own.
A second lesson — and one that is constantly being forgotten — is that military power is a crude instrument that always produces unintended effects.
Third well-intentioned outside interference often reinforces the corruption that makes local governments unpopular and ineffective.
Fourth, politicians in foreign lands will tell us what we want to hear, whether it’s true or not.
The last lesson is actually a bit of good news: Our counterproductive interference in the greater Middle East is probably unnecessary.
And lastly:
Remember, we have a terrorism problem in part because the United States has been repeatedly interfering in the greater Middle East, and not always for the right reasons or with much skill or effectiveness.

Africa and America Compared

Friday, January 23, 2015

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Maybe low gas prices are not a totally good thing

It's good to pay only $35 when filling up my car with gas, rather than the $50 I've been paying for the past several months. While the fall in oil prices has lowered some of my daily costs, Wall Street on Parade doesn't think the oil price drop is a good thing for the economy.

Their reasoning is based on the fact that oil-related companies in the U.S. now account for between 35 to 40 percent of all capital spending. And these companies are cutting back capital spending, which translates into lost jobs. For example, Schlumberger is cutting 9,000 jobs; Baker Hughes, the oilfield services company, is cutting 7,000; BHP Billiton will cut 40 percent of its U.S. shale operations.

Of course, if the oil-related companies cut back, then their suppliers will have to. One instance: less steel piping is needed. Ergo U.S. Steel will lay off approximately 750 workers at two of its pipe plants.

And, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City released its “Fourth Quarter Energy Survey.” The survey found: “The future capital spending index fell sharply, from 40 to -59, as contacts expected oil prices to keep falling. Access to credit also weakened compared to the third quarter and a year ago."

Time for some music

From a Duncaster correspondent

Another strange action from Iran

The top guy in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has written a letter to Western youth urging them to make an effort to understand Islam before condemning it. This is in response to the Charlie Hebdo situation. He also says, “I don’t insist that you accept my reading or any other reading of Islam. What I want to say is: Don’t allow this dynamic and effective reality in today’s world to be introduced to you through resentments and prejudices.” He attributes the hatred of Islam by the leaders in the West to their determination to make money while oppressing non-Western nations.

A Costly Mistake

With all the problems JPMorgan has, it now has to eat $1.5 billion. Because of a failure to catch an error by GM's lawyers, JP's loan to GM was transferred from secured to unsecured. This happened just before GM declared bankruptcy in which unsecured loans were terminated.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A different world

The annual salary of Xi Jinping, the president of China, about 5% of Obama's salary, $22,000 vs. $400,000. Note that this is below our median wage of $28,031. It is also less than that needed to rent an apartment in Beijing. While Obama gets housing, entertainment, travel, use of a vacation home as part of his compensation, Mr. Xi has to be satisfied living at a leadership compound in central Beijing, or he can spend the night at the Xi family home, a grand traditional walled compound in the fashionable Nanlouguxiang neighborhood. And he might find a better deal at the tasteful and leafy Guanyuan complex, considering his older sister and brother-in-law were the property owners.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A different way to learn?

Practicing for an operation

And it's a serious operation - on a young girl's brain. That's what the doctors at Children's Hospital do - practice for an operation. What do they practice on? an organ, such as a brain, printed with a 3-D printer

They have built over 170 models over the past 18 months; in addition to brains they have built skulls, spines, rib cages, and blood vessels. The hospital is using the printers to avoid surgical complications, reduce the length of operations, and ultimately cut costs.

Here's a model of a brain:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Is Line 61 worse than Keystone?

The Keystone pipeline has certainly been in the news for quite a while. Well, it turns out that there is a pipeline running the length of Wisconsin carrying tar sands crude; its name is Line 61. The company owning Line 61, Enbridge, a $40 billion Canadian company, does not have a very good record vis-a-vis spills. They've had several hundred spills in the past decade, including the largest and most expensive inland oil spill in American history.

Now, they want to increase Line 61’s capacity threefold, making it a third larger than the projected Keystone. Furthermore, a spill from tar sands crude, which Line 61 carries, can be much more destructive than that coming through Keystone.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Bad parents

Holder makes a wise decision

Think calmly. Think rationally

That's Steven Walt's advice relative to the Hebdo and similar incidents. His theory is that the perpetrators of these incidents want us to get all het up about it and start doing things we shouldn't do, like going to war with the Islamist world instead of focusing on the bad actors. Such an act would make them heroes and aid in recruiting. The perpetrators do not now have the weapons or the backing to seriously harm us. 

Martin Wolf recommends six things we should and can do:
First, accept that we are playing the long game of containment.
Second, recognise that the heart of the struggle is elsewhere. The west can help. But it cannot win those wars.
Third, offer the lived idea of equality as citizens as an alternative to violent jihad.
Fourth, appreciate and respond to the frustrations many now feel.
Fifth, accept the need for measures to provide security. But remember that absolute safety is never achievable.
Finally, remain true to our beliefs, since without them we have nothing to offer in this struggle. We must not abandon either the rule of law or the ban on torture. Once we do, we have already lost this war of ideals and ideas.

$456,669 down the drain

The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published another dispiriting report.  In 2012 we signed a fixed price contract with Qesmatullah Nasrat Construction Company (QNCC) to build a dry fire range (DFR) at the Afghan Special Police Training Center. The DFR replicates a typical Afghan village and is used to conduct simulated police search and clearance exercises. Four months after the project was completed, the DFR’s buildings began to disintegrate. Why? Because the contractor did not comply with contractual requirements and used substandard bricks and other building materials. Plus, in the words of SIGAR "this problem was compounded by poor oversight on the part of the responsible U.S. government officials." 

This is not the only botched contract in this botched war.

Why not get your eyes tattooed?

This guy obviously loves tattoos. He has even had his right eye tattooed so that it is all black. I knew tattoos were quite common among the younger crowd, but I never dreamed someone would allow a needle to be placed in his eye simply to "beautify' themself. And it takes more than one needle - in fact, several - to do the job fully. Apparently this trend started with the movie "Dune" where some characters had eyes that were fully colored.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Death comes to us all

Comments of Inspector General re supervising JPMorgan

The Inspector General of the Fed has published a report of FRB New York's supervision of JPM. Its basic conclusion: "The Board Should Enhance Its Supervisory Processes as a Result of Lessons Learned From the Federal Reserve’s Supervision of JPMorgan Chase Company’s Chief Investment Office."

The bases for this conclusion are:
there was a missed opportunity for the consolidated supervisor and the primary supervisor to discuss risks related to the CIO and to consider how to deploy the agencies’ collective resources most effectively.
Second, we found that Federal Reserve and OCC staff lacked a common understanding of the Federal Reserve’s approach for examining Edge Act corporations. In our opinion, this disconnect could result in gaps in supervisory coverage or duplication of efforts.
Third, we found that FRB New York staff were not clear about the expected deliverables resulting from continuous monitoring activities. Enhanced clarity concerning the expected deliverables could improve the effectiveness of this supervisory activity.
Finally, we found that FRB New York’s JPMC supervisory teams appeared to exhibit key-person dependencies. In our opinion, these dependencies heightened FRB New York’s vulnerability to the loss of institutional knowledge.

An inch here, an inch there...

...and pretty soon you might have two quadrillion gallons of sea water, or enough to fill three billion Olympic-size swimming pools. The inch being measured is the rise of seas. A new study claims that the seas actually rose five - not six - inches in the 20th century. 

The study resolves concerns as to previous measurements where the measure of the rise from a tidal perspective disagreed from that calculated by scientists. The new method results in the same answer. However, the researchers say, “One of the main takeaway messages is that sea level is really complicated. We don’t have a complete understanding of what’s been happening.” Yet, this finding does not negate the view that oceans are rising and we will be in serious trouble in this century unless we smarten up.

Nature at work

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Governed by the rich

At least as measured by net worth. The Center for Responsive Politics has published its latest survey of the net worth of our Congressmen and Senators.

The survey for 2013 shows that the median net worth of a member of Congress was $1,029,505 — a 2.5 percent increase from 2012 — compared with an average American household’s median net worth of $56,355.  That is it would take 18 average American households to equal the wealth of 1 Congressional household. Fifty percent of our Congressmen are millionaires; that's obviously not the case with we average Joes.

As is pretty obvious things are not getting better for us. The median net worth of an American family has declined by nearly one-third between 2007 and 2013. Guess what? The change for our leaders was positive, not negative. The Senate’s median net worth went from $2.3 million to $2.8 million over that period, while for members of the House the numbers went from $708,500 to $843,507.

A Counter-Recruiter

That's what Rory Fanning calls himself. Although he was deployed twice to Afghanistan, he wants to dissuade people from being recruited into the military service. He has written his pitch in "An Open Letter to a Young Army Ranger, From an Old One: Why the War On Terror Isn’t Your Battle."

Two key excerpts:
If you are shipped off to Iraq for our latest war there, remember that the Sunni population you will be targeting is reacting to a U.S.-backed Shia regime in Baghdad that’s done them dirty for years. ISIS exists to a significant degree because the largely secular members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were labeled the enemy as they tried to surrender after the U.S. invasion of 2003. Many of them had the urge to be reincorporated into a functioning society, but no such luck; and then, of course, the key official the Bush administration sent to Baghdad simply disbanded Saddam Hussein’s army and tossed its 400,000 troops out onto the streets at a time of mass unemployment.
Here’s an interesting fact that you might consider, if spreading freedom and democracy around the world was on your mind. Though records are incomplete on the subject, the police have killed something like 5,000 people in this country since 9/11—more, in other words, than the number of American soldiers killed by “insurgents” in the same period. In those same years, outfits like the Rangers and the rest of the U.S. military have killed countless numbers of people worldwide, targeting the poorest people on the planet. And are there fewer terrorists around? Does all this really make a lot of sense to you?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Have you had the conversation?

More 3D Printing

Today it's Texas

On Thursday I reported on the large numbers of earthquakes in Ohio that seemed to be related to fracking activity.  Well, Irving, Texas, had ten earthquakes yesterday and a total of  twenty-six since October. The most severe quake measured at 3.6 on the Richter Scale.  

The U.S. Geological Survey issued the following, “Activities that have induced felt earthquakes in some geologic environments have included impoundment of water behind dams, injection of fluid into the earth's crust, extraction of fluid or gas, and removal of rock in mining or quarrying operations.”

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Your next house

Censoring the Internet

Philip Bennett and Moses Naim have a disturbing article on government censorship of the internet. These are some of the techniques used:

Here is their conclusion:
But states retain extraordinary capacities to alter the flow of information to suit their interests. And a growing number of governments are undermining the checks and balances that constrain chief executives. From Russia to Turkey, Hungary to Bolivia, leaders are packing Supreme Courts and the judiciary with loyalists and staging elections that reward their allies. They are weakening the institutions that exist to prevent the concentration of power. In such a political environment, independent media cannot survive for long. The internet can redistribute power. But it is na├»ve to assume that there is a simple technological fix for governments and their leaders who are determined to concentrate power and do whatever it takes to keep it. Censorship will rise and fall as technological innovation and the hunger for freedom clash with governments bent on controlling their citizens, starting with what they read, watch, and hear. 

Killing innocent people?

Der Spiegel would answer that question "Yes" if you apply it to those killed by drones and other surreptitious activities conducted by NATO in Afghanistan. The basis of their answer is what they say is a group of secret documents the magazine was able to peruse. Their analysis shows that NATO didn't just target the Taliban leadership, but also eliminated mid- and lower-level members of the group on a large scale. Some Afghans were only on the list because, as drug dealers, they were allegedly supporting the insurgents. More discouraging is their assertion that "Only women, children and the elderly were treated as civilians." Thus, any man was subject to being murdered. Many of them were killed not on the basis of proof but of suspicion only.

Comments by Der Speigel
Can a democracy be allowed to kill its enemies in a targeted manner when the objective is not to prevent an imminent attack? And does the goal of eliminating as many Taliban as possible justify killing innocent bystanders?
A democracy that kills its enemies on the basis of nothing but suspicion squanders its claim to moral superiority, making itself complicit instead.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Another question re JPMorgan

Two church-based funds have sued JPMorgan for breach of its duties. The churches claim that JP breached its duty as trustee by investing the church’s million-dollar trusts largely in products that generated revenue for the bank, with fees in some cases exceeding 8 percent a year. As a result, the churches had to cut their charitable programs. 


Death by car or by gun?

The Centers for Disease Control says that we are now statistically more likely to be killed by a gun than in a car accident. Fatal car accidents are on a downward slope due to improved technology, tougher laws and less driving by young people. Reports indicate that there are as many guns as people in the U.S. - 320,000,000. Most gun deaths are caused by suicides, accidents or domestic violence.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Don't apply for a drivers license in Russia

Supposedly, there are a lot of traffic accidents in Russia. In an attempt to address the problem, Russia will no longer grant driving licenses to transsexual and transgender people. Also, those with mental disorders such as fetishism, exhibitionism and voyeurism will also be barred from driving.

The Globe docks in Britain

Does fracking increase the number of earthquakes?

The latest study seems to indicate that is the case. The study looked at wells and fracking in Ohio last year and tentatively concluded that fracking built up subterranean pressures that repeatedly caused slippage in an existing fault as close as a half-mile beneath the wells. In the area they concentrated on, there were 77 well-related earthquakes from March 4 to March 12, two of which were fairly serious. However, Michael R. Brudzinski, a professor and seismologist at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, said. “It appears you have to be quite close to the fault for fracking operations to trigger earthquakes. Having that sort of information helps us to see that this stuff is pretty rare.”

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Cap the salary of CEO of non-profits?

That's what Dean Baker is proposing. He is not talking about all non-profits, only those whose salaries are subsidized with our tax dollars. Donations that are eligible for tax deductions are, in fact, a form of subsidy. Baker uses the $7,000,000 salary of Jim Harbaugh as an example. If his salary is covered only by donations, then the tax benefit to the donors is $2,800,000; i.e. the government is giving the university a subsidy.

Baker is proposing a maximum salary of $400,000 to the CEOs of the subsidized entities. It's an intriguing point when one considers the money paid to some CEOs of non-profits now, such as the United Way.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Climate change by 90 companies

Scientific American has a brief article on climate-change deniers. I guess it's linked to the 20th anniversary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report which linked human activity to climate change for the first time. The article refers to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists which claims that about 63 percent of all industrial emissions since 1854 have come from just 90 entities - 83 producers of coal, oil, and natural gas, and seven cement manufacturers. Here's a chart of the top 20.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Why don't Muslim leaders condemn atrocities by the extremists?

That's been a question I've had for quite a while. But, Rabbi Marc Schneier, President of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, says that moderate Muslim leaders have been speaking out. It's just that the press does not publish their protests.

Schneier cites a number of protests by moderate Muslims. For example, back in September more than 120 Muslim scholars from around the world joined an open letter to the “fighters and followers” of the Islamic State, denouncing them as un-Islamic by using the most Islamic of terms. They spoke up re the recent incidents in Australia and Pakistan.

Schneier seems to have a point.

Friday, January 02, 2015

How can they call it Masterpiece?

I haven't watched Masterpiece Mystery for a long time. Four-and-a-half years ago I thought it was terrible. I summarized my opinions about Wallander, Lewis and Foyle's War. Tonight I watched Endeavour, which is supposedly a tale of Inspector Morse as a young detective. The fellow, Shaun Evans, who plays Morse, could not carry John Thaw's shoes. The plot was stupid and made little sense, the dialogue was hard to understand in many places (although this may be a function of my age) and the acting was not very good. Basically, a waste of time, which is not a good way to start the new year.

The ACLU hires Internet Infrastructure Technologist

Clearly, more and more of us do more and more online. Should we not have the same protection as we have in much of our off-line life? Should we not have free expression, free association, privacy, and a functioning free press? To achieve these goals you need a highly competent technologist. So the ACLU has contracted with Dan Gillmor, who seems to have a strong background in the field. 

He writes about his task and his concerns on the ACLU web site:  
The civil liberties that the ACLU has long fought to protect require strong encryption and other privacy enabling technologies to exist in a In the same way, as our society moves further and further online, the design choices made in the underlying communications technology infrastructure can critically shape what kinds of society are possible. These choices are governed by similar planning and implementation work. For example:
Will it be possible to communicate confidentially with your doctor, your business partner, your mate, or your friend?
Will you know for sure who you are talking to?
Can you be confident that no one else is listening?
Can you try on new identities as you grow and change, or will you have one single "face" that you must present for all your communications and that will follow you for your entire life?
What assurances do you have that when you send someone a message, they will actually get it, and it will not be tampered with along the way?
Who else gets to know who you communicated with?
What authorities are you willing to trust with your data or your identity?
Do you get a choice of authorities, or is it decided for you?
What recourse do you have if these authorities misbehave?

Sound questions. Will he be able to help the ACLU in its work to keep us free?

Lobbying away the environment

Thursday, January 01, 2015

It's worth a shot

In December North Korea proposed that we enter into a joint investigation to identify the Sony hackers. Nothing was heard from our side as to this proposal. Now we learn that North Korea has proposed talks with South Korea. In February talks between both Koreas resulted in reuniting some families who had been separated since war's end in 1953. Attempts to hold further talks in October failed. 

South Korea thinks talks are a good idea provided they include "practical and frank discussions on all issues of mutual concern". Would they not be a good idea for us at least trying to set them up?