February 28, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:06 PM


Inside the Complicated Faith of Johnny Cash (DAVE URBANSKI, FEBRUARY 26, 2013, Relevant)

A writer once tried to paint Cash into a corner, baiting him to acknowledge a single denominational persuasion at the center of his heart. Finally, Cash laid down the law: "I--as a believer that Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew, the Christ of the Greeks, was the Anointed One of God (born of the seed of David, upon faith as Abraham has faith, and it was accounted to him for righteousness)--am grafted onto the true vine, and am one of the heirs of God's covenant with Israel."

"What?" the writer replied.

"I'm a Christian," Cash shot back. "Don't put me in another box."

So, exactly what "kind" of Christian was Cash?

A staunch, conservative, Bible thumper? It sure seems so if you read the introduction to his 1986 novel about the life of the apostle Paul, Man in White: "Please understand that I believe the Bible, the whole Bible, to be the infallible, indisputable Word of God. I have been careful to take no liberties with the timeless Word."

But based on a passage from his 1997 autobiography, Cash doesn't seem as steadfast:

"Once I learned what the Bible is the inspired Word of God (most of it anyway) ... "(To be fair, he continues this shadow of doubt with a gushing endorsement of Scripture, noting how "truly exciting" it is to discover new interpretations and applications to his own life.)

Further, it certainly can be argued that Cash was a private man and preferred to keep his faith to himself. "I don't compromise my religion," Cash once declared. "If I'm with someone who doesn't want to talk about it, I don't talk about it. I don't impose myself on anybody in any way, including religion. When you're imposing you're offending, I feel. Although I am evangelical, and I'll give the message to anyone that wants to hear it, or anybody that is willing to listen. But if they let me know that they don't want to hear it, they ain't never going to hear it from me. If I think they don't want to hear it, then I will not bring it up. "

In short, "telling others is part of our faith all right, but the way we live it speaks louder than we can say it," Cash said. "The gospel of Christ must always be an open door with a welcome sign for all."

"There's nothing hypocritical about it," Cash told Rolling Stone scribe Anthony DeCurtis. "There is a spiritual side to me that goes real deep, but I confess right up front that I'm the biggest sinner of them all." To Cash, even his near deadly bout with drug addiction contained a crucial spiritual element. "I used drugs to escape, and they worked pretty well when I was younger. But they devastated me physically and emotionally--and spiritually ... [they put me] in such a low state that I couldn't communicate with God. There's no lonelier place to be. I was separated from God, and I wasn't even trying to call on Him. I knew that there was no line of communication. But He came back. And I came back."

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Posted by orrinj at 9:01 PM


In Search of Van Cliburn (PRUDENCE MACKINTOSH, FEBRUARY 28, 2013, Texas Monthly)

Van Cliburn was, of course, a world-renowned musician, a piano prodigy who vaulted to international stardom at age 23 when he won, against all odds, the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in 1958. No one had expected the Russians, who had recently launched Sputnik, to give the prize to an American, but Van was clearly the popular favorite. His playing of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto in D Minor brought the audience to its feet for an eight-minute ovation, according to Russians who were present. Even the judges were overcome. "Slava Richter was crying," recalled one. Emil Gilels, another judge, breached the rules of the competition by leading Cliburn back onstage for a second bow.

After much deliberation, Richter and Gilels nervously took the prominent jury's final vote to the politburo, the cultural minister, and finally the new premier, Khrushchev. The premier asked, "Is [Cliburn] the best?" The cultural minister replied, "Yes, he is the best." So Khrushchev said, "In this case, give him the first prize." The ticker-tape parade in New York upon Van's return to the U.S. remains the stuff of legends, and as almost every obituary published since his death yesterday at age 78 points out, his artistry was credited with helping to thaw the Cold War.

But amid all that hoopla and Russian grandeur, Van was also a Texan, a Southerner, a Baptist, a patriot who began each concert with the "Star-Spangled Banner," a musical idealist, and a man who loved his parents, his childhood friends, and black-eyed peas as much as I do. We both grew up in East Texas behind the Pine Curtain--he in Kilgore and I in Texarkana--so I always knew that if we met, we'd have more to chat about than my own devotion to the piano, challenged though it is by my perpetual intermediate level.

When Van revealed late last summer that he was suffering from advanced bone cancer, I worried that the conversation with him I often daydreamed about while listening to his lush and near-perfect recordings might never take place. I called his official gatekeepers at the Van Cliburn Foundation to see if I might visit him at his home in Fort Worth's Westover Hills. The director's reply was swift: "That will not be possible." I wasn't surprised. I'm from Dallas, and my name wasn't going to pop up on their big-donor database. I retreated, found Van's address, and sent him a letter that stopped just short of claiming that I was blood kin.

When I didn't hear back, I thought I'd meet Van another way. I headed to the library, where I checked out Chicago music critic Howard Reich's 1993 biography of him, as well as all of his recordings that I didn't already own. I read all of the archived newspaper and magazine articles about him and watched every YouTube video clip I could find featuring the six-foot-four virtuoso. Then, because I know firsthand how one can never shake the imprint of East Texas, I headed to Kilgore.

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Posted by orrinj at 8:57 PM


The Dispiriting Evidence on Preschool (SHIKHA DALMIA And LISA SNELL, 2/28/13, WSJ)

Consider graduation rates: Oklahoma has lost ground and Georgia is stagnant. Oklahoma ranked 24th in 1998 but 25th when its first batch of universal-preschool children graduated last year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics compiled by the United Health Foundation. Georgia's high-school graduation rate was 46th from the top in 1995. It dipped to 47th in 2009, the year its first batch graduated, before rising to 45th in 2012.

The preschool case also isn't helped by scores from the National Assessment for Educational Progress--the national report card. The average NAEP reading score for Oklahoma fourth-graders dropped four points between 1998 and 2011--although it went up nine points for Georgia. Yet none of the three states with fully realized universal pre-K (Florida, which began its program in 2005, is the third) was among the top-10 highest scorers on the NAEP reading test in 2011. Oklahoma remains below the national average and Georgia has just reached the national average.

As for black students, fourth-grade math and reading NAEP scores in Georgia and Oklahoma were above the national average of black students in other states when Georgia and Oklahoma embraced universal preschool. Now the scores are at the national average. Only Florida was among the top-10 scorers in reading for disadvantaged children in 2011.

More revealing, the NAEP reading gap between black and white children in Oklahoma was 22 points in 1992. In 2011, it was also 22 points. Georgia had a 28-point spread in 1992. In 2011? Twenty-three points. NAEP called Georgia's results "not significantly different."

February 27, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:53 PM


...is like the Royal Wedding for men.
Posted by orrinj at 9:31 PM


The worth of work (Karl D. Stephan, 26 February 2013, Mercator)

[W]hich is more important, the work or the pay you get for it? I bring up that question after reading an essay on work by the well-known medievalist C. S. Lewis. 

In the essay, Lewis distinguished between two types of work. The first type is work that is worth doing for its own sake.  Some professions are automatically included in this classification: teachers (Lewis was a professor at Oxford), doctors, pastors, and other members of the helping professions, for instance. As long as members of these groups do their work faithfully and competently, they should have no problem looking themselves in the mirror and saying, "I'm glad I do what I do, because it makes the world a better place."There are other types of work that can fit into this first category, and I'll get to those in a minute.

The second kind of work is done merely to get a paycheck.

...they either wouldn't do it without a paycheck or we need not worry about worthwhile professions being unfilled when jobs become disattached from pay.
Posted by orrinj at 9:13 PM


Free Energy: On their own, gladly (Dan DeLuca, 1/14/13, Inquirer)

When we last heard from Free Energy, the hook-happy Philadelphia rock quintet was touring hard behind its grabby 2010 debut album, Stuck on Nothing. The disc came with both hipster cred and corporate muscle, since it was produced by LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy and released on his DFA Records in conjunction with EMI, one of the few remaining major music labels.

Three years down the road, Free Energy is back - but this time they're on their own. On Tuesday, the band will release its seriously catchy second album, Love Sign (***), on its own Free Energy label. The band, led by Minnesota transplants Paul Sprangers and Scott Wells, is still based in Fishtown, though its members are now scattered across the United States. [...]

Free Energy's strength is that they're unafraid of the obvious, and free of self-consciousness that might prevent a more ironic band from repeatedly shouting out "Whoa-oa!" over crunching AC/DC power chords before their album is half a minute old. Like Stuck on Nothing, Love Sign is an energetic riff-fest with sweet ballads like "Hold You Close" and "True Love" in the mix.

Keeping elemental songs disarmingly direct "is the trick," Sprangers says. "It should sound effortless, like 'oh, man, a child could write that' - that simple."

Posted by orrinj at 9:08 PM


Japan Set to Join Trade Talks (MITSURU OBE, 2/27/13, WSJ)

Riding on a wave of strong public support, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to soon announce a decision to join U.S.-led free-trade talks, a move that is favored by industry but fiercely opposed by the nation's agriculture lobby.

The move would signal that Mr. Abe is using his popularity for a bold step that other administrations have avoided. It comes as the farm lobby's influence has weakened amid a shrinking and aging rural population and just after Mr. Abe secured a crucial pledge from President Barack Obama in talks last week that rice farmers, the strongest faction of the farm bloc, could be exempted.

Abe administration officials say they are looking to move as quickly as possible on launching talks for entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, known as TPP, with a potential announcement by the prime minister as early as next week.

Posted by orrinj at 7:59 PM


New App Turns Your iPhone Into a Mobile Urine Lab (MICHAEL V. COPELAND, 02.26.13, Wired)

Dubbed Uchek, what Ingawale has created is a seemingly simple app that analyzes chemical strips by first taking photos with your phone at predetermined times and comparing the results that appear on the pee-soaked strip to a color-coded map.

With the color comparisons as a guide, the app analyzes the results, and comes back in seconds with a breakdown of the levels of glucose, bilirubin, proteins, specific gravity, ketones, leukocytes, nitrites, urobilinogen and hematuria present in the urine. The parameters the app measures are especially helpful for those people managing diabetes, and kidney, bladder and liver problems, or ferreting out the presence of a urinary tract infection.

In use, the app delivers information that everyone can understand, returning either positive or negative results, numbers, or descriptors like "trace" or "large.

Posted by orrinj at 7:54 PM


Why Do Precious Leftists Loathe Tolkien's Shire? (DAVID PLATT, January/February 2013, Standpoint)

But wait. Things are not as they seem. There is an agenda here. There usually is when it comes to popular culture--but in the case of Tolkien we are looking at big politics. For the author of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and The Hobbit was the greatest conservative writer of the second-half of the 20th century. No--not in an Ayn Rand sense, nor in the raw modernist style embraced by T.S. Eliot or Wyndham Lewis. Rather, Tolkien combined remarkable talents for story-telling and philology with a matching ability to communicate conservative values and images with unequalled popularity. His pre-history of the West is dominated by hereditary structures and a settled social order that appealed to the nostalgia of a postwar generation. He was clearly doing something right, given that Rings has sold more copies than almost any other work of fiction in history. It has been voted the nation's favourite novel in England, Australia, the US and even Germany.

It is this astonishing success that underlies the fierce hostility one encounters from a literary and cultural establishment dominated by the liberal Left (notwithstanding the brief counter-cultural popularity which Rings had in the 1960s). While by no means all on the Right "get" Tolkien (the poet John Heath-Stubbs called it "a combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh"), all too often those who should know better are simply carried along by an ill-informed deference to established critics who shout louder. Too many conservatives simply do not engage in this area of cultural politics--and then naively wonder at general elections why the broadcast media is pumping out an undercurrent of left-wing assumptions which have scarcely moved on since 1945.

For the Left political battles are won indirectly through the domination of institutions, the professions, culture and received thought. The idea that our children, visual media and society could be significantly influenced by the social conservatism of Middle Earth is anathema to that world view. Germaine Greer wrote: "It has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century. The bad dream has materialised." E.P. Thompson blamed the Cold War mentality on "too much early reading of The Lord of the Rings". Rosemary Jackson described his works as "conservative vehicles for social and instinctual repression". 
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Posted by orrinj at 5:42 PM


Koop's Crusade : The surgeon general made public health a divine commandment. (Anthony Petrol, Feb. 27, 2013, Slate)

"Often I would spend several minutes of a speech extolling abstinence and monogamy (for social and moral reasons as well as health reasons)" Koop explained in his memoir: "And then at the end I would say that those foolish enough not to practice abstinence or mutually faithful monogamy should, for their protection and their partner's protection, use a latex condom." "Usually the press would repeat only the last phrase," he objected: "That annoyed me."

Of course, the consequence of his message was the falsehood that gay men could practice safe sex--false just because of condom failure, nevermind the plethora of associated problems--which contributed to the spread of AIDs.
Posted by orrinj at 5:30 PM


Japandroids Win Canucks Entrance Song Honors (Tom Breihan, 2/27/13, Stereogum)

February 26, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 11:54 AM


California's sad pension saga (Steven Malanga, February 24, 2013, LA Times)

[C]alifornia set its initial retirement age for state workers (and, beginning in 1939, for local government employees) at 65, at a time when the average 20-year-old entering the workforce could expect to live for another 46 years, until age 66. The system's first pensions were modest, though far from miserly. An employee's pension equaled 1.43% of his average salary over his last five years on the job, multiplied by the total number of years he had worked. That formula typically provided longtime workers with pensions equal to half or more of their final salaries.

The pensions were funded by three sources: contributions from employers (that is, state and local governments); contributions from employees (though some governments opted to cover that expense); and money that the pension fund would gain by investing those contributions. With the 1929 stock market crash in mind, California opted for a cautious investment approach.

"An unsound system," the 1929 commission warned, would be "worse than none." The employees' contributions were fixed, so if investment returns weren't sufficient to fund the promised pensions, the employers' contributions would have to increase to make up the difference.

In the decades since, that cautious approach has been virtually abandoned as public employee unions have taken control of the system. The retirement age has been lowered, benefits have been increased and investments have become far riskier.

The major changes began in the late '60s, during a time of rapidly growing public-sector union power. 

Not coincidentally, reform requires returning retirement age closer to life expectancy, increasing personal contribution and boosting the rate of return, by using personal accounts to exploit the rate of return available in the market,.

Posted by orrinj at 11:51 AM


Facebook's War on Cellphone Bills Takes One Giant Leap for Cheap Calls (CONNOR SIMPSON, 2/25/13, Atlantic Wire)

Facebook has been toying with the idea of Voice Over Internet Protocol talking for a few months now. Originally a Canadian experiment, Facebook updated its Messenger app in January to include VoIP calls for everyone. Using the same technology that was supposed to turn Skype into a technoglobal powerhouse, users now have the option to make voice calls using Messenger over Wi-Fi or their data packages. 

But Facebook's latest move looks to get rid of the potential data fees all together. Facebook cut a deal with 18 carriers in 14 countries to offer a discount on voice calls over the Messenger apps for Android and iOD, and the non-smartphone app Facebook for Every Phone -- effectively eliminating any reason to use your phone as a phone when calling friends

Posted by orrinj at 11:44 AM


Sanger's Racist Legacy Lives on in New York City Schools (Anne Hendershott, 2/26/13, Crisis)

Today, New York City's public school students--underage and without parental knowledge--are given access to birth control pills, Depo-Provera injections, and the insertion of plastic IUDs to prevent pregnancy. In an analysis of the records of 40 school based health centers in New York City--most of them in schools with large minority populations, the New York Post revealed that about 22,400 students sought reproductive care from January, 2009 through 2012.

In addition to these routine contraceptives, the City's schools are providing students with Plan-B, the "morning-after pill" to prevent pregnancy. The Post reports that "handouts of the morning-after pill to sexually active students have skyrocketed" from 5,039 doses given to teenage students during the 2009-10 school year, to 12,721 doses given in 2011-12. Under New York State law, minors can obtain reproductive services without their parent's permission.

Like Sanger's early alliances with the City, New York's Bureau of Maternal, Infant and Reproductive Health launched the current contraceptive project with a grant from the Fund for Public Health in New York.  According to an internal report published by the City, and obtained by a Freedom of Information Law request by the Post, New York City spent $2.7 million on the centers this fiscal year. While the report lauds the reduction in teen pregnancies in the city, it seems that there are some parents, like Mona Davids, president of the NYC Parents Union, who have been critical of the program.  According to the Post, Davids, an African-American, noted that most school based health centers are in poor neighborhoods: "This was population control on blacks and Latinos without our knowledge."

Davids is correct. The National Assembly on School Based Health Care Census report documents that nationally, 70% of the student body in schools with school based health centers are members of minority groups.

As Justice Ginsburg said: " Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don't want to have too many of."

Posted by orrinj at 11:38 AM


Home prices make strong gains (Alejandro Lazo, February 26, 2013, LA Times)

The widely followed Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index was up 0.2% from the prior month and 6.8% year-over-year. A broader quarterly index also released Tuesday by S&P/Case-Shiller showed national home prices up 7.3% on the year.

"Home prices ended 2012 with solid gains," David M. Blitzer, chairman of S&P's index committee, said in a statement. "Housing and residential construction led the economy in the 2012 fourth quarter."

Posted by orrinj at 5:39 AM


After 40 Years Of Research, What Do We Know About Preventing Breast Cancer? (Geoffrey Kabat, 2/24/13, Forbes)

Epidemiologic studies over the past 40 years have identified numerous risk factors for breast cancer, including: older age, an early age at menarche, a late age at first full-term birth, not having children, a family history of breast cancer in a first-degree relative, greater height, higher circulating estrogen levels, postmenopausal hormone use, breast density, history of breast biopsies, obesity (for postmenopausal breast cancer), and exposure to ionizing radiation.

Other, probable risk factors are alcohol intake, physical activity (protective), and breast feeding (protective).  Many other factors that have been studied do not seem to affect the risk of breast cancer (dietary fat intake, cigarette smoking, past oral contraceptive use, exposure to electromagnetic fields).

Known risk factors for breast cancer are relatively weak, contributing only a small elevation in risk.  Even having a family history of breast cancer in a first degree relative carries about a twofold increase in risk.  And the more recently discovered breast density is the strongest with roughly a 4-fold increase in risk.  Thus, these breast cancer risk factors are nothing like cigarette smoking as a risk factor for lung cancer, where a current smoker has roughly a 15-fold increased risk compared to that of someone who never smoked, and a heavy smoker might have a 40 or 50-fold increased risk.  Smoking accounts for the vast majority of lung cancer cases.  (The strongest risk factors for breast cancer are older age and being female: women between the ages of 65 and 69 have 15 times greater breast cancer incidence compared to women between the ages of 30 and 34, and women have more than one hundred times the incidence of breast cancer compared to men.)

Posted by orrinj at 5:34 AM


The Pentagon's Incredible $1.5 Trillion Mistake (DAVID FRANCIS, 2/26/13, The Fiscal Times)

Right now, each branch of the military has their own planes, meaning that numerous contracts existed with different contractors. Lockheed was expected to lower the cost of air defense by creating redundancies between the branches. It was ordered to produce three different versions of the F-35: the Marine version could take off and land vertically; the Navy version would be designed to take off from air craft carriers; and the Air Force version would take off from traditional runways. The Pentagon ordered nearly 2,500 planes for $382 billion, or fifty percent more than the original cost.

As the price soared, the Pentagon in 2010 deemed the program "too big to fail." Yet it continues to fall short. Recent engine troubles are just the latest in a series of mechanical failures. A pilot was killed when oxygen to the cabin was cut off. The aircraft are running too hot, limiting their ability to operate in warm environments.

The original delivery date was supposed to be 2010. Then it was delayed until 2012. Now, it's not expected to be in service until 2019.

But when they are put into active use, they have multiple tactical problems. They don't have a long range, so they need to be close to the field of battle. They lack the weapons systems to adequately support ground forces.  And they're at a disadvantage in a dogfight because of limited turning capability.

Even if the planes were perfectly functional, they were built for a different era. The United States has unsurpassed global air superiority. If the F-35 order is filled, DOD will have 15 times as many planes as China. The F-35 was designed to fight a war between large military powers, not ones against insurgents in Mali.

February 25, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 10:11 PM


Playing Hooky at the Office (Olivia Cvitanic, February 25, 2013, Pacific Standard)

If you're reading this on a weekday between nine and five, chances are, you're "cyberloafing." As a cyberloafer, you're not alone: a recent study revealed that between 60 and 80 percent of time people spend on the Internet at the office is not work related.

So while the majority of your office is probably unproductively surfing the web on the clock, they're probably wasting time differently based on age. "Older people are doing things like managing their finances, while young people found it much more acceptable to spend time on social networking sites like Facebook," said Joseph Ugrin, an assistant professor of accounting at Kansas State University and lead researcher on the cyberloafing study.

Ugrin joined forces with John Pearson, an associate professor of management at Southern Illinois University, to investigate what was revealed to be an in-office procrastination epidemic. Beyond just determining how much time employees spent cyberloafing, they wanted to know to what extent companies' anti-cyberloafing policies were working.

After all, bosses want their employees focused on work, and in recent years, companies have spent significant time and money to create best practices policies to curb  cyberloafing. These efforts--ranging from threats of firing and even Big Brother-type monitoring devices-- have met with limited success and much grumbling among workers. Plus, these measures did not seem to put a dent in the number of employees whose desks may also double as adult movie theaters. 

Posted by orrinj at 10:09 PM


Marriage ban for priests should be reviewed by next pope, says cardinal (Severin Carrell, 22 February 2013, The Guardian)

Britain's most senior Catholic has suggested Catholic priests should be able to marry and have children, saying the demand for celibacy was not of "divine origin".

In one of the most significant breaks with Catholic orthodoxy, Cardinal Keith O'Brien said many priests found it "very difficult to cope" with the celibate life and suggested lifting that ban could soon happen in the wider church.

Indeed, it's anti-Biblical.

Posted by orrinj at 10:06 PM


Are Red Wolves Worth the Trouble? (T. DeLene Beeland, , Feb. 25, 2013, Slate)

After spending three years working on a book about imperiled red wolves, I was talking with a colleague who asked me: "So, is the red wolf completely screwed?" She lowered her voice and continued in the hushed tone one reserves for discussing the dying. "Should we just, you know, let them go?" [...]

If you're not sure what a red wolf is, don't worry, you're not alone. Many people are unaware there are two species of wolves in the United States: the gray wolf and the red wolf. (On this point, don't rely on Wikipedia--while the site lists red wolves as a subspecies of gray wolf, few experts agree. It is widely referred to as its own species, Canis rufus.) 

Posted by orrinj at 9:58 PM


The Pill Pushers (CHRIS WILSON, Feb/March 2013, Book Forum)

Most of us would like to believe that our doctors spend every free moment buried in medical journals, impervious to the long tentacles of drug companies--no matter what their inexhaustible supplies of AstraZeneca pens and Eli Lilly clipboards may suggest to the contrary. But physician and journalist Ben Goldacre takes firm and decisive aim at that comforting myth in Bad Pharma, a sequel of sorts to his 2009 title, Bad Science.

Thanks to the moral ineptitude of oil and tobacco companies, we're all familiar with tales of soulless corporations skewing data, buying off critics, and silencing dissidents. Pharmaceutical companies are especially practiced in these dark arts because the regulatory process is long, bureaucratic, and deeply entangled with many different stakeholders--ensuring, in other words, that the drugmakers have ample room to induce all sorts of players into making new markets for them. Most accounts of how the industry games the regulatory process concern themselves with the new breed of shady marketing and advertising come-ons that sends patients flocking to their doctors demanding worthless, expensive medications. Goldacre covers this ground thoroughly, but he is more concerned with the phony ways that companies get their drugs past the phalanx of would-be regulators to begin with. It is surely the most comprehensive account of the subject to date.

Documents exposed by litigation and the diligent work of various watchdog concerns have provided an extensive public record of just how drug manufacturers can manipulate each stage of a drug's lifetime. Occasionally, some of these practices, such as false advertising and the suppression of harmful side effects, result in lawsuits like the one that GlaxoSmithKline settled last summer for $3 billion. Most of the time, though, the abuses take place in the expansive gray area where industry and academia intersect. Goldacre contends that every person and entity responsible for policing this relationship has failed us: companies themselves, regulators, researchers, journal editors, and doctors. The result is a glut of ineffective medications with poorly understood side effects that often continue to be prescribed years after they're shown to be useless.

Posted by orrinj at 9:58 PM


The Pill Pushers (CHRIS WILSON, Feb/March 2013, Book Forum)

Most of us would like to believe that our doctors spend every free moment buried in medical journals, impervious to the long tentacles of drug companies--no matter what their inexhaustible supplies of AstraZeneca pens and Eli Lilly clipboards may suggest to the contrary. But physician and journalist Ben Goldacre takes firm and decisive aim at that comforting myth in Bad Pharma, a sequel of sorts to his 2009 title, Bad Science.

Thanks to the moral ineptitude of oil and tobacco companies, we're all familiar with tales of soulless corporations skewing data, buying off critics, and silencing dissidents. Pharmaceutical companies are especially practiced in these dark arts because the regulatory process is long, bureaucratic, and deeply entangled with many different stakeholders--ensuring, in other words, that the drugmakers have ample room to induce all sorts of players into making new markets for them. Most accounts of how the industry games the regulatory process concern themselves with the new breed of shady marketing and advertising come-ons that sends patients flocking to their doctors demanding worthless, expensive medications. Goldacre covers this ground thoroughly, but he is more concerned with the phony ways that companies get their drugs past the phalanx of would-be regulators to begin with. It is surely the most comprehensive account of the subject to date.

Documents exposed by litigation and the diligent work of various watchdog concerns have provided an extensive public record of just how drug manufacturers can manipulate each stage of a drug's lifetime. Occasionally, some of these practices, such as false advertising and the suppression of harmful side effects, result in lawsuits like the one that GlaxoSmithKline settled last summer for $3 billion. Most of the time, though, the abuses take place in the expansive gray area where industry and academia intersect. Goldacre contends that every person and entity responsible for policing this relationship has failed us: companies themselves, regulators, researchers, journal editors, and doctors. The result is a glut of ineffective medications with poorly understood side effects that often continue to be prescribed years after they're shown to be useless.

February 24, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 6:36 PM


The Enigma of Mr. 105 : In which we ponder the sometimes crazy, occasionally confounding, reliably complicated life of Aroldis Chapman, the fastest pitcher on earth. (Craig Fehrman, 3/1/2013, Cincinnati Magazine)

Keith Law, a baseball analyst at ESPN, attended a September game where Chapman muscled his way up the velocity ladder--102, 103, 104, and, finally, 105 miles per hour, a new major-league record. By the end, even the opponent's fans were cheering him. "I remember sitting there, thinking, I could spend 30 more years in the game and never see a guy throw this hard," Law says.

Before Law went to ESPN, he worked in the Blue Jays front office. Once, he asked an older scout to name the best pitching prospect he'd ever seen. "Without really hesitating," Law recalls, "he said, 'Brien Taylor.' " Taylor was baseball's top draft pick in 1991, and he remains an almost mythical figure for talent evaluators, in part because he ruined his pitching arm in a brawl. Yet Taylor is the first comparison Law reaches for in explaining what makes Chapman so special.

"I'd almost emphasize the looseness more than the velocity," Law says of Chapman's arm. In other words, it's not just that Chapman throws 100 MPH--it's that he throws 100 MPH and looks like he's playing catch. That easy delivery comes from Chapman's rare athleticism; one gets the sense that, had he stuck with boxing, Chapman would have made a terrific light heavyweight (or a terrific wide receiver, or a terrific shooting guard). Law calls Chapman's fastball "electric" and praises his "wipeout slider." "And I've always thought his changeup is better than he gets credit for," he says.

In 2012, Chapman combined those skills with a new one: accuracy. People forget that Chapman's 105 MPH pitch was actually a ball, but last year, aided by that easy motion, he traded in a little velocity for precision control. It led to a season so remarkable fans can rotate and analyze it, like a diamond. At one point, Chapman's catchers recorded 15 straight put-outs--that means nothing but pop ups, foul outs, dribblers, and strikeouts. And speaking of strikeouts, according to ESPN, Chapman got 50 of them on pitches of 100-plus MPH. The rest of baseball managed only 52, combined.

Somehow, watching Chapman was even more impressive than his numbers. I reviewed every one of his saves (38) and blown saves (5) from 2012, and the weird thing is, you can't tell a difference. Not in his appearance, at least. Chapman's no longer the guy who threw a tantrum against Japan and drove his Louisville defenders nuts. He's remade himself, becoming not so much unflappable as simply detached. Take a game last June, against the Astros: Chapman secured the save in an astounding 3 minutes, 54 seconds. He needed 13 pitches to strike out the side. Yet his demeanor never changed, and throughout the season there was rarely any separation between "good" Chapman and "bad" Chapman, at least in the aesthetics.

Where you could find evidence of the good and the bad was in the numbers. He went on long streaks where every opponent looked like the Astros, but he also went on streaks where he completely fell apart. Oddly, those streaks never overlapped. In 2012, Chapman toggled between amazing and awful like a light switch. In fact, his season can be divided into four tidy sections: From Opening Day through June 6 (let's call it Streak A), he threw 29 dominant innings: no runs, nine walks, 52 strikeouts. But from June 7 through June 24 (Streak B), Chapman struggled: 6.1 innings, eight runs, four losses. The double somersault? Chapman meant it to mark the end of that swoon, and it did: from June 26 to September 4 he threw 30.2 innings with one run, 6 walks, and 56 strikeouts (Streak C). But the end of the season saw him slip again: more runs, more walks, even a long period where the Reds shut him down (Streak D).

This analysis may seem unfair; after all, no pitcher has ever kept up Streak A or Streak C levels for an entire season. But given what is known about Chapman's makeup--that he can get rattled, distracted, derailed--it seems important to note that his season was forcefully shaped by momentum. I noticed this while reviewing his outings as well. During Streaks B and D, Chapman's pacing and control eroded. In a game with the Detroit Tigers in June, he hit a batter with the bases loaded then walked a fringe player on four pitches--all while Miguel Cabrera (who went on to win the American League MVP) waited on deck; in a late-season appearance against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he threw 10 balls in his first 11 pitches.

Of course, baseball's a funny game, and a bad outing, especially for a reliever, can stem from something as simple as a grounder scooting past Zach Cozart's glove. So I asked Harry Pavlidis, a PITCHf/x expert with the website Baseball Prospectus, to analyze Chapman's streaks. PITCHf/x is just as high tech as it sounds: a two-camera system that lets people like Pavlidis track the movement and effectiveness of every single pitch--and dig deep into the performance of every single player.

"Selective endpoints are a classic danger in analysis," Pavlidis says. "Still, some things did pop up." When Chapman was at his best, during Streaks A and C, hitters would swing and miss at his fastball 40 percent of the time. "That's insane," Pavlidis says, "just crazy." During Streaks B and D, however, that percentage fell into the 20s (though for relievers that's still considered good).

This pattern repeated with other arcane measures--Chapman's ability to get groundballs with his fastball, the outcome of his two-strike sliders--and always switched with the various streaks. According to multiple forms of evidence, then, Chapman became a markedly different player during the two types of streak. "And that," Pavlidis admits, "is really curious."

Posted by orrinj at 11:39 AM


Napster: the day the music was set free (Tom Lamont, 2/23/13, The Observer)

"It's difficult to describe to people... how much material was suddenly available," the technology guru John Perry Barlow tells Alex Winter, the director of Downloaded, in his new documentary. Speaking to me on the phone from the US, Winter added: "There was no ramp up. There was no transition. It was like that famous shot from 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the prehistoric monkey throws a bone in the air and it turns into a spaceship. Napster was a ridiculous leap forward."

They're right, it was seismic. I was part of the web-straddling generation. The internet, when it came in our teens, was welcome, exciting and fathomable, but it changed things briskly and sometimes bewilderingly. Music was something you bought after protracted debate with friends in the aisles of Our Price, and then, suddenly, songs were accessible from home. They didn't cost anything. We were wilfully blinkered, probably, on the exact details of this last point.

I asked colleagues of a similar age what they remembered of Napster's arrival. "The thrill," said one, whose first download was by Smashing Pumpkins, "even when I listened to the music through my mum's tinny computer speakers." Another quickly sought to mine Marlena Shaw's backlist and "couldn't believe it worked". For my part - plundering singles by Artful Dodger, by Semisonic - I have a memory of actually looking over my shoulder. How was this possible? It was as if the door to a bank vault had been left open, no guards in sight.

Working in a warehouse in a rural area gives us extraordinarily limited radio options--two stations come in well, one's contemporary country.  This Winter we've used my Spotify account, run off our laptop through and old iPod docking clock/radio.  We've had access to darn near every song ever written. Of course, the flip-side of that is that choosing what to listen to can become time-consuming and divisive, so now we're streaming stations off the net (like The Current from Minnesota Public Radio).  Sometimes you just need a curator.

Posted by orrinj at 11:25 AM


Environmental Groups Target Ernest Moniz, President Obama's Likely Choice for Energy Secretary (Miranda Green, Feb 24, 2013, Daily Beast)

President Obama is widely expected to nominate Ernest Moniz as Energy secretary any day now, and environmental organizations are girding for a fight. 

"We're not sure Mr. Moniz will keep his eyes where they should be: on a no-carbon future where we are relying on wind and other forms of energy," says Mitch Jones, a program director at Food and Water Watch.

The anti-fracking organization, began an effort to block Moniz's nomination after reports surfaced that the long-haired MIT professor is the president's likely pick. The organization lambasted Moniz for his preference for fossil fuels as an energy source and for being a fracking "cheerleader."

Posted by orrinj at 11:19 AM


Obama's sequester deal-changer (Bob Woodward, 2/22/13,washpost.com)

Why does this matter?

First, months of White House dissembling further eroded any semblance of trust between Obama and congressional Republicans. (The Republicans are by no means blameless and have had their own episodes of denial and bald-faced message management.)

Second, Lew testified during his confirmation hearing that the Republicans would not go along with new revenue in the portion of the deficit-reduction plan that became the sequester. Reinforcing Lew's point, a senior White House official said Friday, "The sequester was an option we were forced to take because the Republicans would not do tax increases."

In fact, the final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester in exchange for what the president was insisting on: an agreement that the nation's debt ceiling would be increased for 18 months, so Obama would not have to go through another such negotiation in 2012, when he was running for reelection.

So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.

...and after they're made offer a deal for more cuts and some (tax credit and exemption removing) revenue boosts.
Posted by orrinj at 11:08 AM


Did Walker Percy Really Write the Last Self-Help Book? (PETER LAWLER, FEBRUARY 24, 2013, Big Think)

[S]elf-help books work well for a while but eventually fail, as all diversions do.  They claim to but do not really tell us who we are and what we're supposed to do.   They can't extinguish the experiences of self-consciousness or the self or soul by denying that what's distinctively human about each of us really exists.  They can't take out what the existentialists, such as the philosopher Heidegger, truthfully describe.  We're not organisms in an environment, and so we can't really lose ourselves--our personal identities--in some environment, in some COSMOS in which each of us is merely a part. We can't lose BEING LOST.  That's why the master psychologist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn heard just beneath the surface of all our happy-talk pragmatism the howl of existentialism.

For Percy, the resulting ANXIETY--the experience of being an inexplicable or absurd leftover in the world the EXPERTS describe--ought to be a prelude to WONDER about how strange the human self or soul is.  But for the experts, anxiety that has no environmental cause (such as being isolated from the other social animals) must have a physical or chemical cause.  So there must be a physical or chemical remedy--a mood-altering or mood-elevating drug.  As Percy explains, for our experts psyche-iatry--discovering who we are and what we're supposed to do through attentive conversation--is replaced by a kind of chemo-therapy. For Percy, Socrates and Freud were old-fashioned doctors of the soul;  the expert objection to their approach is that was time-consuming and expensive and the results uncertain or unreliable.  Who cares about the so-called REAL CAUSE if we can effectively manage the SYMPTOMS?   Why shouldn't we CHOOSE the moods that make us upbeat and productive?

Self-consciousness doesn't become the enemy, but something to be controlled or managed through technology.  But the truth is that even the drugs or chemo-therapy don't work better than diversions.  It's easy to zap self-consciousness out of existence, but that would make the zappers the masters and the zapped the slaves. The zappers, as a result, would be more miserably lonely than ever.  And, in our irrational pride and our love, we don't really want to surrender our personal identities.  We want to be able to manage our self-consciousness the way we can techno-control everything else.  But our experts don't really know what engineered mood or judicious mixture of moods would really make us happy or at home.  It turns out that our moods--the moods we've been given by nature--are indispensable clues to the truth about who we are and what we're supposed to do. That's why Percy says, against the cheomotherapists, that he has a right to his anxiety. It's his right to liberty that might lead to real truth and real happiness.

The other self-help books can't tell each of us why we have that right, because they don't even admit each of us is invincibly LOST IN THE COSMOS without help we can't possibly provide for ourselves.  We're born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.  Our alienation doesn't have an environmental or physical or political or Historical cause; it's part of and caused by our self-consciousness or personal identity.  It's at the core of our REAL psychology.

So every self-help book has been a failure until Percy's.  His is the first truthful and effective self-help book.  For that reason, it's also the last self-help book.  Percy explains, quite scientifically, why each of us is homeless, and, by so doing, he helps us be at home with our homelessness, and so free to be as at home as we can be with the good things of this world. 

Here's a great clip from another "self-help" author worth reading:

Posted by orrinj at 10:41 AM


Home prices in Broward and Palm Beach counties continue rapid rise (Donna Gehrke-White, 2/22/13, Sun Sentinel)

The median house price catapulted to $224,088 last month, up from $180,000 in January 2012, the group reported. The median price for condos and townhomes jumped even more -- 26.5 percent -- during the same period. Palm Beach County's median sales price of single-family houses also surged, up from $179,950 to $218,000.

Overall, the housing market in South Florida continued to rebound with the number of closings, pending sales and new listings up for every sector --- single-family homes, townhomes and condos, Realtors in both counties reported. [...]

A sign of a sellers' market: Inventory was down 26.5 percent from a year ago, with Broward houses only having a 3.8 months' supply.

Posted by orrinj at 9:40 AM


A Golden Rice Opportunity (Bjorn Lomborg, Project Syndicate)

Finally, after 12 years of delay caused by opponents of genetically modified (GM) foods, so-called "golden rice" with vitamin A will be grown in the Philippines. Over those 12 years, about eight million children worldwide died from vitamin A deficiency. Are anti-GM advocates not partly responsible?

Golden rice is the most prominent example in the global controversy over GM foods, which pits a technology with some risks but incredible potential against the resistance of feel-good campaigning. Three billion people depend on rice as their staple food, with 10% at risk for vitamin A deficiency, which, according to the World Health Organization, causes 250,000-500,000 children to go blind each year. Of these, half die within a year. A study from the British medical journal The Lancet estimates that, in total, vitamin A deficiency kills 668,000 children under the age of five each year.

Yet, despite the cost in human lives, anti-GM campaigners - from Greenpeace to Naomi Klein - have derided efforts to use golden rice to avoid vitamin A deficiency. In India, Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist and adviser to the government, called golden rice "a hoax" that is "creating hunger and malnutrition, not solving it."

The New York Times Magazine reported in 2001 that one would need to "eat 15 pounds of cooked golden rice a day" to get enough vitamin A. What was an exaggeration then is demonstrably wrong now. Two recent studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition show that just 50 grams (roughly two ounces) of golden rice can provide 60% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A. They show that golden rice is even better than spinach in providing vitamin A to children.

Posted by orrinj at 9:34 AM


I can't stop my cyber loafing (Lucy Kellaway, 2/24/13, Financial Times)

One day last week I was sitting at my desk reading an academic paper on cyber loafing when I glanced at my screen and saw a colleague had tweeted: "This shouldn't be funny but it is." I clicked on the link and found a series of pictures of ships with silly names. There was HMS Gay Viking, HMS Spanker, SS Lesbian, USS Saucy, SS Iron Knob. At first I laughed but, as I read on to HMS Cockchafer and HMS Grappler, I thought: surely not? Thus I found myself checking on Wikipedia and discovering HMS Cockchafer was the fifth Royal Navy ship of that name, that it was built in 1915, defended the southeast coast of England during the first world war and was later part of the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran.

Having established that, I saw Twitter was suggesting I follow someone whose name was dimly familiar, so I Googled her and started reading her dull CV until I was distracted by a non-story on the BBC website about David Cameron weighing in on the non-story of Hilary Mantel having said the bleeding obvious: that Kate Middleton looks like a shop-window mannequin. What the hell was I doing? It was the middle of a working day and I had quite a bit to do, but had just squandered a whole hour on nothing.

The reason I'm flaunting this disgraceful theft of time from my employer is that I was reading (before I got distracted) a shocking piece of research telling me that when it comes to cyber loafing, I'm an amateur. According to Joseph Ugrin from Kansas State University, the average US worker spends 60-80 per cent of their time online at work doing things unrelated to their jobs.

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Posted by orrinj at 9:27 AM


The workers are revolting (Ade McCormack, 2/22/13, Financial Times)

Over 12,000 years ago, humans existed as hunter-gatherers. Mastery in this field was paramount to survival. These hunter gatherers were highly mobile (lunch literally had to be pursued) and highly social. Poor collaboration resulted in escaped prey or repeated mistake making in terms of eating poisonous berries. You might say that productivity was measured in meals eaten. You literally ate what you killed.

Circa 12,000 years ago, both hunter and prey gathered around the oases and this gave rise to the agricultural revolution. Mobility was still required as livestock and crops did not occupy the same 'office block' as the workers; though more recently industrial agriculture has endeavoured to eliminate the mobility requirement. Sociability remained high and productivity could be measured by livestock sold or bales of corn harvested.

In the eighteenth century the ability to harness steam gave rise to the industrial revolution. Mobility was no longer a requirement. Workers simply needed to turn up to a building defined by the property portfolio manager. Sociability was discouraged because now workers were being paid for their time rather than their productivity. This model encouraged the workers to do as little as possible to get the best return on their time. In response to this management science was created. Collaboration was constrained to the channels defined by the 'corporate' organogram.

Up until very recently this was the default model. However, as if by force of nature, technologies have emerged to enable mobility and being social.

...having mastered productivity will people seek to use their time for increased sociability or more labor? 

Posted by orrinj at 8:58 AM


The Food Threat to Human Civilization (Paul & Anne Ehrlich, 2/21/13, Project Syndicate)

Humanity faces a growing complex of serious, highly interconnected environmental problems, including much-discussed challenges like climate change, as well as the equally or more serious threat to the survival of organisms that support our lives by providing critical ecosystem services such as crop pollination and agricultural pest control. We face numerous other threats as well: the spread of toxic synthetic chemicals worldwide, vast epidemics, and a dramatic decline in the quality and accessibility of mineral resources, water, and soils.

Resource wars are already with us; if a "small" nuclear resource war erupted between, say, India and Pakistan, we now know that the war alone would likely end civilization.

But our guess is that the most serious threat to global sustainability in the next few decades will be one on which there is widespread agreement: the growing difficulty of avoiding large-scale famines.

Anti-GM foods activist sees the science -- and the light (Gwyn Morgan, 02/7/201, Winnipeg Free Press)

 When British environmentalist and author Mark Lynas gave a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on Jan. 3, he was instantly transformed from an organizer of the movement against genetically modified foods into a high-profile apostate.

The text of his speech, available on his website (www.marklynas.org) and widely circulated on the Internet, should be read by all who worry about how farmers will be able to feed the world's growing population.

In the address, Lynas explained the reasons for his dramatic shift from a passionate opponent to a supporter of GM foods. His account reveals how a group of clever activists used fear-instilling tactics to turn millions of people against the only technology that offers any hope of preventing mass starvation.

It's an astonishing account of how anti-capitalist, anti-corporate ideologues campaigned against genome research, one of mankind's most significant scientific advancements, without even looking at the science. "In 2008, I was still penning screeds... attacking the science of GM," Lynas said. "I don't think I'd ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science."
He recalled how he and other anti-GM activists exploited fears about genetic manipulation: "These fears spread like wildfire, and within a few years GM was essentially banned in Europe... Africa, India and the rest of Asia. This was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with."

He described how GM opponents "employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag -- this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends."

Lynas said he began to reconsider things when he decided to look at the science. He found genetically modified plants produce higher yields, thereby reducing the loss of biodiverse natural areas to agriculture. He learned GM requires less fertilizer, thereby reducing nutrient-rich runoff that threatens rivers and streams.

He learned pest-resistant seeds reduce insecticide use and drought-resistant plants lessen the unsustainable depletion of aquifers. And he found GM research is safer and more precise than traditional plant-breeding methods.

Posted by orrinj at 8:53 AM


The Rise of the Robots (Robert Skidelsky, 2/19/.13, Project Syndicate)

So, what are people to do if machines can do all (or most of) their work?

Recently, automation in manufacturing has expanded even to areas where labor has been relatively cheap. In 2011, Chinese companies spent ¥8 billion ($1.3 billion) on industrial robots. Foxconn, which build iPads for Apple, hopes to have their first fully automated plant in operation sometime in the next 5-10 years.

Now the substitution of capital for labor is moving beyond manufacturing. The most mundane example is one you will see in every supermarket: checkout staff replaced by a single employee monitoring a bank of self-service machines. (Though perhaps this is not automation proper - the supermarket has just shifted some of the work of shopping onto the customer.)

For those who dread the threat that automation poses to low-skilled labor, a ready answer is to train people for better jobs. But technological progress is now eating up the better jobs, too. A wide range of jobs that we now think of as skilled, secure, and irreducibly human may be the next casualties of technological change.

As a recent article in the Financial Times points out, in two areas notoriously immune to productivity increases, education and health care, technology is already reducing the demand for skilled labor. Translation, data analysis, legal research - a whole range of high-skilled jobs may wither away. So, what will the new generation of workers be trained for?

Not work.

Posted by orrinj at 8:49 AM


The Coming Atlantic Century (Anne-Marie Slaughter, 2/21/13, Project Syndicate)

Western fortunes are rising, slowly but surely. Together, Europe and the US account for more than 50% of global GDP, have the largest military force in the world by many multiples, and control a growing proportion of global energy reserves. They also have a formidable diplomatic and development-assistance capacity, representing a peaceful community of democracies that share a common commitment to the rights, dignity, and potential of all human beings.

Imagine that community spreading down the east coast of Latin America and the west coast of Africa. It might be an Atlantic century after all.

Posted by orrinj at 8:39 AM


Interview with a writer: John Gray (JP O'Malley 22 February 2013, The Spectator)

In your new book you say: 'to think of humans as freedom loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.' Could you elaborate on this point?

Well there is a certain common view nowadays which says: what human beings have been until quite recently is different from what they really are. And only now do human beings have the chance to be what they are, which many people think is to be free. If we think of Homer; or the way things are described in the Bible; or medieval life: all these other ways of life are somehow today seen as not fully human. There is supposed to be a kind of essence to humanity, in which human beings want to shape their own lives.

So are you denying that it's a natural human impulse to crave freedom?

Of course not. Otherwise we wouldn't have the periods of freedom that we've had in human history. I'm just saying that it's not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one. You begin to see that when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand. It's then that human beings tend to look at solutions to these problems that typically involve restricting freedoms. In other words: when life gets rough, the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom, which is real --it's part of the human constitution you might say-- tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs.

February 23, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:00 PM


A World Without Work (ROSS DOUTHAT, 2/23/13, NY Times)

[T]he decline of work isn't actually some wild Marxist scenario. It's a basic reality of 21st-century American life, one that predates the financial crash and promises to continue apace even as normal economic growth returns. This decline isn't unemployment in the usual sense, where people look for work and can't find it. It's a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time -- wanted or unwanted -- is expanding from the bottom up. Long hours are increasingly the province of the rich.

Of course, nobody is hailing this trend as the sign of civilizational progress. Instead, the decline in blue-collar work is often portrayed in near-apocalyptic terms -- on the left as the economy's failure to supply good-paying jobs, and on the right as a depressing sign that government dependency is killing the American work ethic.

But it's worth linking today's trends to the older dream of a post-work utopia, because there are ways in which the decline in work-force participation is actually being made possible by material progress.

That progress can be hard to appreciate at the moment, but America's immense wealth is still our era's most important economic fact. "When a nation is as rich as ours," Scott Winship points out in an essay for Breakthrough Journal, "it can realize larger absolute gains than it did in the past ... even if it has lower growth rates." Our economy may look stagnant compared to the acceleration after World War II, but even disappointing growth rates are likely to leave the America of 2050 much richer than today.

Those riches mean that we can probably find ways to subsidize -- through public means and private -- a continuing decline in blue-collar work. Many of the Americans dropping out of the work force are not destitute: they're receiving disability payments and food stamps, living with relatives, cobbling together work here and there, and often doing as well as they might with a low-wage job. By historical standards their lives are more comfortable than the left often allows, and the fiscal cost of their situation is more sustainable than the right tends to admits. (Medicare may bankrupt us, but food stamps probably will not.)

There is a certain air of irresponsibility to giving up on employment altogether, of course. But while pundits who tap on keyboards for a living like to extol the inherent dignity of labor, we aren't the ones stocking shelves at Walmart or hunting wearily, week after week, for a job that probably pays less than our last one did. One could make the case that the right to not have a boss is actually the hardest won of modern freedoms: should it really trouble us if more people in a rich society end up exercising it?

...then there's no such thing.

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Posted by orrinj at 3:23 PM


Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us (Steven Brill, Feb. 20, 2013, TIME)

[W]hile Medicare may not be a realistic systemwide model for reform, the way Medicare works does demonstrate, by comparison, how the overall health care market doesn't work.

Unless you are protected by Medicare, the health care market is not a market at all. It's a crapshoot. People fare differently according to circumstances they can neither control nor predict. They may have no insurance. They may have insurance, but their employer chooses their insurance plan and it may have a payout limit or not cover a drug or treatment they need. They may or may not be old enough to be on Medicare or, given the different standards of the 50 states, be poor enough to be on Medicaid. If they're not protected by Medicare or they're protected only partly by private insurance with high co-pays, they have little visibility into pricing, let alone control of it. They have little choice of hospitals or the services they are billed for, even if they somehow know the prices before they get billed for the services. They have no idea what their bills mean, and those who maintain the chargemasters couldn't explain them if they wanted to. How much of the bills they end up paying may depend on the generosity of the hospital or on whether they happen to get the help of a billing advocate. They have no choice of the drugs that they have to buy or the lab tests or CT scans that they have to get, and they would not know what to do if they did have a choice. They are powerless buyers in a seller's market where the only sure thing is the profit of the sellers.

Indeed, the only player in the system that seems to have to balance countervailing interests the way market players in a real market usually do is Medicare. It has to answer to Congress and the taxpayers for wasting money, and it has to answer to portions of the same groups for trying to hold on to money it shouldn't. Hospitals, drug companies and other suppliers, even the insurance companies, don't have those worries.

Moreover, the only players in the private sector who seem to operate efficiently are the private contractors working -- dare I say it? -- under the government's supervision. They're the Medicare claims processors that handle claims like Alan A.'s for 84¢ each. With these and all other Medicare costs added together, Medicare's total management, administrative and processing expenses are about $3.8 billion for processing more than a billion claims a year worth $550 billion. That's an overall administrative and management cost of about two-thirds of 1% of the amount of the claims, or less than $3.80 per claim. According to its latest SEC filing, Aetna spent $6.9 billion on operating expenses (including claims processing, accounting, sales and executive management) in 2012. That's about $30 for each of the 229 million claims Aetna processed, and it amounts to about 29% of the $23.7 billion Aetna pays out in claims.

The real issue isn't whether we have a single payer or multiple payers. It's whether whoever pays has a fair chance in a fair market. Congress has given Medicare that power when it comes to dealing with hospitals and doctors, and we have seen how that works to drive down the prices Medicare pays, just as we've seen what happens when Congress handcuffs Medicare when it comes to evaluating and buying drugs, medical devices and equipment. Stripping away what is now the sellers' overwhelming leverage in dealing with Medicare in those areas and with private payers in all aspects of the market would inject fairness into the market. We don't have to scrap our system and aren't likely to. But we can reduce the $750 billion that we overspend on health care in the U.S. in part by acknowledging what other countries have: because the health care market deals in a life-or-death product, it cannot be left to its own devices.

Put simply, the bills tell us that this is not about interfering in a free market. It's about facing the reality that our largest consumer product by far -- one-fifth of our economy -- does not operate in a free market. 

So how can we fix it?

We should tighten antitrust laws related to hospitals to keep them from becoming so dominant in a region that insurance companies are helpless in negotiating prices with them. The hospitals' continuing consolidation of both lab work and doctors' practices is one reason that trying to cut the deficit by simply lowering the fees Medicare and Medicaid pay to hospitals will not work. It will only cause the hospitals to shift the costs to non-Medicare patients in order to maintain profits -- which they will be able to do because of their increasing leverage in their markets over insurers. Insurance premiums will therefore go up -- which in turn will drive the deficit back up, because the subsidies on insurance premiums that Obamacare will soon offer to those who cannot afford them will have to go up.

Similarly, we should tax hospital profits at 75% and have a tax surcharge on all nondoctor hospital salaries that exceed, say, $750,000. Why are high profits at hospitals regarded as a given that we have to work around? Why shouldn't those who are profiting the most from a market whose costs are victimizing everyone else chip in to help? If we recouped 75% of all hospital profits (from nonprofit as well as for-profit institutions), that would save over $80 billion a year before counting what we would save on tests that hospitals might not perform if their profit incentives were shaved.

To be sure, this too seems unlikely to happen. Hospitals may be the most politically powerful institution in any congressional district. They're usually admired as their community's most important charitable institution, and their influential stakeholders run the gamut from equipment makers to drug companies to doctors to thousands of rank-and-file employees. Then again, if every community paid more attention to those administrator salaries, to those nonprofits' profit margins and to charges like $77 for gauze pads, perhaps the political balance would shift.

We should outlaw the chargemaster. Everyone involved, except a patient who gets a bill based on one (or worse, gets sued on the basis of one), shrugs off chargemasters as a fiction. So why not require that they be rewritten to reflect a process that considers actual and thoroughly transparent costs? After all, hospitals are supposed to be government-sanctioned institutions accountable to the public. Hospitals love the chargemaster because it gives them a big number to put in front of rich uninsured patients (typically from outside the U.S.) or, as is more likely, to attach to lawsuits or give to bill collectors, establishing a place from which they can negotiate settlements. It's also a great place from which to start negotiations with insurance companies, which also love the chargemaster because they can then make their customers feel good when they get an Explanation of Benefits that shows the terrific discounts their insurance company won for them.

But for patients, the chargemasters are both the real and the metaphoric essence of the broken market. They are anything but irrelevant. They're the source of the poison coursing through the health care ecosystem.

We should amend patent laws so that makers of wonder drugs would be limited in how they can exploit the monopoly our patent laws give them. Or we could simply set price limits or profit-margin caps on these drugs. Why are the drug profit margins treated as another given that we have to work around to get out of the $750 billion annual overspend, rather than a problem to be solved?

Just bringing these overall profits down to those of the software industry would save billions of dollars. Reducing drugmakers' prices to what they get in other developed countries would save over $90 billion a year. It could save Medicare -- meaning the taxpayers -- more than $25 billion a year, or $250 billion over 10 years. Depending on whether that $250 billion is compared with the Republican or Democratic deficit-cutting proposals, that's a third or a half of the Medicare cuts now being talked about.

Similarly, we should tighten what Medicare pays for CT or MRI tests a lot more and even cap what insurance companies can pay for them. This is a huge contributor to our massive overspending on outpatient costs. And we should cap profits on lab tests done in-house by hospitals or doctors.

Finally, we should embarrass Democrats into stopping their fight against medical-malpractice reform and instead provide safe-harbor defenses for doctors so they don't have to order a CT scan whenever, as one hospital administrator put it, someone in the emergency room says the word head. Trial lawyers who make their bread and butter from civil suits have been the Democrats' biggest financial backer for decades. Republicans are right when they argue that tort reform is overdue. Eliminating the rationale or excuse for all the extra doctor exams, lab tests and use of CT scans and MRIs could cut tens of billions of dollars a year while drastically cutting what hospitals and doctors spend on malpractice insurance and pass along to patients.

..it would seem obvious that the best solution is to take steps towards having individuals pay charges out of their own pockets.  

Posted by orrinj at 7:51 AM


This Charleston Harbor Battle Is Over Cruise Ships (KIM SEVERSON, February 19, 2013, NY Times)

Michelle Ridgway, a marine ecologist who serves on the state science panel for cruise ships, watched as Alaska cruise ship traffic grew to about a million people a year and changed her hometown, Ketchikan. "The pulp mill closed and the place turned into Disneyland," she said.

Posted by orrinj at 7:44 AM


U.S., Japan focus on trade to boost both economies (Don Lee, 2/22/13, Los Angeles Times)

Obama would like to see Japan join the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia and seven other countries in negotiations for an Asia-Pacific free-trade agreement. [...]

For Abe, who took office in December for a second time as prime minister, his meetings in Washington were aimed at promoting his own economic program. The Japanese have dubbed his plan "Abenomics" -- an effort to break out of a devastating deflationary period with fiscal and monetary stimulus and other efforts.

"I am back, and so shall Japan be," Abe said Friday afternoon in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Abe, 58, who studied political science briefly at USC and delivered his speech in English, said in a news conference afterward that he hoped Japan could decide quickly about entering the talks.

Obama welcomed Abe's overall message of strengthening bilateral relations, saying after their private meeting in the Oval Office that they agreed their No. 1 priority had to be "making sure that we are increasing growth and making sure that people have the opportunity to prosper if they're willing to work hard, in both countries."

Trade wasn't a top priority in Obama's first term, but in his State of the Union address, he pledged to pursue free-trade talks with both Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.

Posted by orrinj at 7:40 AM


Americans frequent victims of 'seafood fraud' (AFP, February 23, 2013)

Fish sold in the United States is often deliberately mislabeled, making American consumers the unwitting victims of "widespread seafood fraud," according to a report out on Thursday.

Fully one-third of 1,215 fish samples collected by researchers proved to be a different variety than what was written on the label, according to Oceana, an advocacy group working to protect the world's oceans.

The report was released as Europe is roiling from its own food packaging scandal, after millions of prepared food items labeled as containing beef were found to have been made with horsemeat.

And no one notices the taste.
Posted by orrinj at 7:35 AM


Devastating Sequester Spending Cuts? Give Me a Break! (Jonathan Karl, Feb 22, 2013 , ABC News)

The Obama administration's list of what will happen if upcoming spending cuts go into effect is downright terrifying. In recent days, officials have warned of more forest fires, workplace deaths and, heaven-forbid -- chicken shortages.

And today the White House brought out Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to warn of big air travel delays across the country as air traffic controllers are forced off the job because of budget cuts.

LaHood even suggested that some smaller airports - he specifically mentioned the airport at golfing paradise Hilton Head, S.C. -- might have to reduce hours of operation or even temporarily close. 

A rise in workplace deaths would be unfortunate, but the rest just achieve good public policy.

February 22, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 6:43 PM


Fewer Americans are stuck in underwater mortgages (Alejandro Lazo, February 22, 2013, LA Times)

Nearly 2 million Americans got out of negative equity positions as home prices rose last quarter, according to new estimates. [...]

"Underwater" homeowners -- those who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth -- have played a counterintuitive role in the housing market's recovery, helping boost home prices in an unexpected way.

Rather than walking away from their properties en masse, many of these borrowers have continued paying their home loans, even when they are stuck in high-interest-rate loans.

As foreclosures have eased, for-sale inventory has plummeted. In many markets, the level of competition for a home is now so severe, it's reminiscent of the bubble days.

Swimming, not drowning.

Posted by orrinj at 6:01 PM


Dollar Rises Against Global Currencies (Neil Shah, 2/22/13, WSJ)

The dollar is strengthening. The Wall Street Journal Dollar Index, which measures the greenback against seven currencies, has risen 5% since mid-September. 

Posted by orrinj at 5:32 AM


Tech is destroying the line between manufacturing and services (Saul Kaplan, 2/21/13, Fortune)

Once we realize that manufacturing is a capability we can get on with democratizing it. We can all be manufacturers. In the State of the Union Address President Obama announced his plan for a $1 billion investment to build a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation composed of fifteen advanced manufacturing hubs. To bring manufacturing back to the U.S. we don't need fifteen hubs, we need fifteen million makers creating stuff.

It won't be long before everyone will have access to a 3D printer. Talk about democratized manufacturing capability. Armed with a 3D printer, individual makers can create their own digital design for any imagined object or borrow a design from anywhere around the world. By simply pressing a button makers can set a 3D printer into motion rendering the physical object with layers of plastic or other material right before their eyes. What was science fiction ten years ago is reality today. It wasn't long ago we listened to the whir of a dot-matrix printer spitting out documents from our computers, now a 3D printer renders any object we can dream up the same way. With the magic of 3D printing capability we are all manufacturers, constrained only by our imaginations.

Posted by orrinj at 5:28 AM


No going back (HIS EXCELLENCY ABDI FARAH SHIRDON PRIME MINISTER OF SOMALIA 22 February 2013 Subjects:International politics Economics Democracy and government Culture Conflict Civil society Somalia, 2/21/13, OpenDemocracy)

As my government approaches its 100th day in office, I would like to share some of our recent achievements and the challenges we face.

To begin with the most dramatic development, security is our people's greatest concern, our number one priority and our number one success. Only recently Mogadishu was close to being completely overrun by the foreign-led, Al Qaeda-allied Al Shabaab. Thanks to our brave fighters and those of Amisom, the insurgency is on its knees, our city has been liberated and, to quote a recent report, "the sound of hammers has replaced that of guns" as Somalis return to rebuild homes and businesses, lives and careers.

In December we removed 60 illegal checkpoints that were extorting more than $1m a month in bribes from innocent civilians in Mogadishu, replacing them with police and security forces. The story doesn't end in the capital. Since the end of last year, we have liberated the towns of Kismayo, Marca, Jowhar, Wanlaweyn, Janale and Awdeghle towns, where we are working hard to develop representative local authorities and deliver local services.

Talking of representative government, our political institutions, like other organisations in Somalia, are in their infancy. How could this be otherwise in a country eviscerated by more than two decades of conflict? Yet after eight years of difficult transitional authority, we managed the move to a fully-fledged government smoothly and entirely peacefully, after what a recent UN report on Somalia called "the most transparent and representative" election in more than 20 years, the first held in Somalia during that period.

We now have a lean, effective Cabinet - how many countries in the world can boast of having 10 ministries? Then there is a robust and lively legislature, which has already made its mark under the excellent leadership of Speaker Jawari, who presided over 46 sessions in the first four months of the parliament's life. Fifteen sub-committees will be holding the government to account in the spirit of parliamentary democracy. A permanent Human Rights Commission will address the troubling record of human rights abuses, especially the killing of journalists and sexual violence against women.

To judicial reform, security turnaround and political development, we must add the beginnings of economic recovery. Poverty and unemployment, the natural legacy of war, are widespread in Somalia. We are making progress by creating a conducive environment for economic recovery. We have instituted strict public finance management rules and are steadily establishing transparent and accountable public finances. Tax collection is a priority that will lay the foundations of a normal, functioning economy. We have energised the Central Bank.

Economic growth will come from a combination of the public and private sectors.

Posted by orrinj at 5:22 AM


Our First Ex-President (Steve Klugewicz, 2/21/13, Imaginative Conservative)

The reality of his stepping down was a watershed moment for the country then, as the pope's resignation is for the Church now.

Though Americans embraced the republican tenet of the necessity of rotation in office and were indeed already getting used to the presence of former chief executives at the state level, the case of Washington's departure was quite different. This was no mere stepping down of a Roman consul of the old Republic. Both the office of the American presidency and the first man to occupy it possessed an air of regality. In fact, upon Washington's election to the presidency in 1788, those with monarchical leanings, such as Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, pushed to give the new chief executive a regal title. Hamilton favored "His Excellency," whereas Adams put forward the ungainly "His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of Same." Others suggested "His Elective Highness" or "His Exalted High Mightiness." Though the Senate and Washington finally agreed on "Mister President" (Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette would still employ "His Excellency"), Washington was the one man in the country who possessed such an innate dignity and royal bearing that he needed no kingly titles to prop him up.

Even before he assumed the presidency, Washington was widely considered one of the greatest men of his age. Among Americans, he was already being called the father of his country ("you will become the father to more than three millions of children," Hamilton had told him in urging him to accept the presidency), and King George III had famously declared him "the greatest character of the age" when he laid down his sword in 1783. He was trusted by Americans like no other public figure before or since. Historian Forrest McDonald has argued that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention would never have invested the presidency with such powers as it did if not for the fact that they believed that Washington would serve as the country's first chief executive.

Washington knew, as does Pope Benedict, that he was setting a modern precedent by voluntarily relinquishing power and that his actions after leaving office would have a great effect on the future of the people he had led.

Posted by orrinj at 5:18 AM


Breast practices: The mammogram dilemma : Your annual screening may cause you more harm than good. (H. Gilbert Welch, February 21, 2013, LA Times)

For decades, researchers have documented the problem of false positive mammograms. These are the mammograms that are judged to be possibly indicative of cancer but are subsequently proved not to be. In the interim, many healthy women have the scare of their life.

There will necessarily always be some false positive mammograms. But their frequency in the U.S. is extreme: Somewhere between 25% and 45% of women will have one in a 10-year course of mammography.

More recently, researchers have focused on the harm of overdiagnosis: the detection of abnormalities that meet the pathologic definition of cancer but are not destined to cause problems. The problem here is that anything called "cancer" gets treated with surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy.

There will also always be some overdiagnosis -- it's a side effect of trying to catch cancer early. But it appears that somewhere between a quarter and one-half of all cancers detected during routine screenings fall in this category, and that is totally unacceptable.

False positives and overdiagnosis have the same root cause. They are the product of the conventional paradigm of cancer screening: Look harder and harder to find smaller and smaller abnormalities.

Call it the "find more" approach. Digital mammograms find more cancer than plain films, so they must be an improvement. Because breast MRIs find more cancer than digital mammograms, they must be better yet. It's why newly touted 3D mammograms will undoubtedly be said to be better than anything else.

It's a cycle of increasing intervention, a cycle that aggravates both the false positive and overdiagnosis problem. And it's not clear it adds anything (but cost).

There is a fundamental asymmetry to screening: Only a very few can possibly benefit (those women who would die if their breast cancer wasn't detected and treated), but any participant can be harmed. It requires a more elegant approach, one that finds the cancers that matter while minimizing the collateral damage.

Posted by orrinj at 5:15 AM


7 Reasons Why Coffee Is Good For You (Kris Gunnars, 02.21.2013, Popular Science)

Coffee isn't just warm and energizing, it may also be extremely good for you.

In recent years and decades, scientists have studied the effects of coffee on various aspects of health and their results have been nothing short of amazing.

Here are 7 reasons why coffee may actually be one of the healthiest beverages on the planet.

1. Coffee Can Make You Smarter

Coffee doesn't just keep you awake, it may literally make you smarter as well.

The active ingredient in coffee is caffeine, which is a stimulant and the most commonly consumed psychoactive substance in the world.

Caffeine's primary mechanism in the brain is blocking the effects of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called Adenosine.

By blocking the inhibitory effects of Adenosine, caffeine actually increases neuronal firing in the brain and the release of other neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine (1, 2).

Many controlled trials have examined the effects of caffeine on the brain, demonstrating that caffeine can improve mood, reaction time, memory, vigilance and general cognitive function (3).

Bottom Line: Caffeine potently blocks an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, leading to a net stimulant effect. Controlled trials show that caffeine improves both mood and brain function.

Posted by orrinj at 5:05 AM


Oscars 2013: what the nominations say about America : From Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained to Lincoln and Life Of Pi, the Oscar-nominated Hollywood films champion hope, faith and vengeance - or the moral values of the wild west (David Cox, 2/21/13, guardian.co.uk)

[A]merica's time-honoured vision of itself, as celebrated by the nominees, has a more robust side. Good must triumph over evil, and this may require the best efforts of American heroes. As frontiersmen or their descendants, these heroes aren't required to stand on ceremony.

The faint-hearts and surrender-monkeys of the old world may get side-tracked by scruples; but that isn't the American way. Go get the bad guy, dead or alive, appears to remain the favoured approach. Unfortunately, the nominees' enthusiastic endorsement of this outlook cannot disguise its limitations.

What the critic Michael Medved once called Hollywood's relentless message "that violence offers an effective solution for all human problems" lives on in this year's Oscar lists. Watching Django Unchained, you can feel Quentin Tarantino's delight in bounty-hunter justice. Like so many American film-makers before him, he seems to be pleading wistfully for a world in which you can simply confront evil, open fire and sling the corpse behind your saddle.

That the pursuit of such a course can dehumanise the pursuer is acknowledged but embraced. Django hesitates to shoot a man in front of his child. He is educated out of such misgivings by a wiser man, and learns to enjoy violence for its own sake; this makes him more effective at exacting justice.

The gun lobby is using Django Unchained to promote its cause among African Americans. If the film's equation of violence with justice also inspires imitation, its impact will hardly be benign. Yet at least this film is located firmly in a more primitive past. Translated to our own era, its outlook seems more dubious.

Zero Dark Thirty's much-discussed ambiguity on the use of torture reflects the film's sympathy for total war on those deemed to be the enemies of what is right. 

February 21, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 4:36 PM


A Simple Route to Major Deficit Reduction (MARTIN FELDSTEIN, 2/21/13, WSJ)

Limiting the tax savings from all deductions and the two major tax exclusions to 2% of an individual's adjusted gross income would reduce the deficit in 2013 by $220 billion. This 2% cap does not refer to the amounts of the deductions and exclusions but to the tax saving. This means that for someone taxed at a 25% marginal tax rate, the 2% cap would limit deductions and exclusions to 8% of that individual's adjusted gross income.

The 2% cap could also be modified to retain the existing deduction for all charitable contributions and to allow employees to exclude the first $8,000 of employer-paid health-insurance premiums from the cap. This would still reduce the current year's deficit by $141 billion. That translates to about a $2.1 trillion reduction in the national debt over the next decade.

Higher tax rates, in short, are not necessary in order to raise substantial revenue. Indeed, some of the $2.1 trillion could be used to reduce current tax rates and promote growth.

Posted by orrinj at 1:25 PM


The future of free-market healthcare (Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Avik Roy FEBRUARY 20, 2013, Reuters)

The great irony of Obama's triumph, however, is that it can pave the way for Republicans to adopt a comprehensive, market-oriented healthcare agenda.  The market-oriented prescription drug program in Medicare has controlled the growth of government health spending. Similarly, conservatives can use Obamacare's important concession to the private sector -- its establishment of subsidized insurance marketplaces -- as a vehicle for broader entitlement reforms.

While most Americans view their healthcare system as "free-market," Switzerland actually has the most market-oriented healthcare system in the West. It translates into universal coverage and low entitlement costs. Swiss government entities spent about 3.5 percent of gross domestic product on healthcare in 2010, compared to 8.5 percent in the United States. That's a difference of more than $5 trillion over 10 years: real money, especially relative to our $16 trillion debt.

There is no "public option" in Switzerland. Instead, citizens qualify for means-tested, sliding-scale subsidies and choose among a variety of regulated, private-sector insurance products. The Swiss have the freedom to choose their own doctors, as Americans do, and access to the latest medical technologies. They also have short waiting times for appointments.

Posted by orrinj at 1:08 PM


What's the Matter With Vermont? : Anti-vaccine activists derailed a bill that could have blunted the whooping cough epidemic. (Helena Rho, Feb. 21, 2013, Slate)

Act 157 originated when a pediatrician neighbor of Till's came to him with a concern. In a local kindergarten class, 75 percent of students were not fully vaccinated. Till researched the issue and thought it was reasonable to get rid of the philosophical exemption in order to increase vaccination rates. Till proposed a bill in the House, and state Sen. Kevin Mullin proposed an almost identical bill in the Senate.
The Senate bill passed quickly, but not so in the House. Delays sometimes happen in Vermont's "citizen legislature," where lawmaking is a part-time endeavor by ordinary people for just 18 weeks of the year. The bill languished in the health care committee. Then the Legislature was off for a week because the first Tuesday in March is reserved for town meetings in communities across the state.

By the time the Legislature reconvened in the capitol building, the anti-vaccination community had organized itself. "They were in the building every day, in people's faces," Till says. The activists blared the discredited claims of Andrew Wakefield that vaccines do more harm than good, that vaccines cause autism. Wakefield, a British physician, was stripped of his medical license for fabricating a connection between vaccines and autism. Till could not believe what was happening: "He is God to these people." Millions of lives have been saved through vaccines, numerous scientific studies have debunked the myth that vaccines cause autism, and the only studies to show a link have been exposed as frauds. Yet anti-vaxxers were successfully spreading misinformation.

The most egregious was their exploitation of the death of 7-year-old Kaylynne Matten of Barton, Vt. The anti-vaccine community claimed her death was due to adverse effects of the flu vaccine. However, the coroner listed the cause of death as complications from parainfluenza virus, a different category of virus from influenza.

State Rep. Warren Kitzmiller initially supported the bill in the House. He suffered from polio as a child, a terrible disease that regularly killed or crippled tens of thousands of children in the United States during an outbreak. Polio has been almost eliminated thanks to vaccines, but it persists in parts of the world because of suspicion about vaccines. After the anti-vax lobbying effort, Kitzmiller said that he could hardly remember his illness. He said he made a miraculous recovery. He voted against the bill.

Till could not even convince his own health care committee in the House that Vermont's declining vaccination rates were a public health problem.
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Posted by orrinj at 5:34 AM


What George W. Bush did right (Christian Caryl, February 21, 2013, Chicago Tribune)

In his 2003 speech, Bush called upon Congress to sponsor an ambitious program to supply antiretroviral drugs and other treatments to HIV sufferers in Africa. Since then, the U.S. government has spent some $44 billion on the project (a figure that includes $7 billion contributed to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, a multilateral organization). By way of comparison, America's most recent aircraft carrier -- which will join the 10 we have in service -- is set to cost $26.8 billion. One medical expert calls PEPFAR the "largest financial commitment of any country to global health and to treatment of any specific disease worldwide."

It's impossible to tell exactly how many lives the program has saved, though Secretary of State John Kerry recently claimed that 5 million people are alive today because of it. That's probably as good an estimate as any.

Just to give you an idea of the scale, here are some headline figures from a recent op-ed by U.S. Global AIDS coordinator Eric Goosby:

"In 2012 alone, PEPFAR directly supported nearly 5.1 million people on antiretroviral treatment -- a threefold increase in only four years; provided antiretroviral drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV to nearly 750,000 pregnant women living with the disease (which allowed approximately 230,000 infants to be born without HIV); and enabled more than 46.5 million people to receive testing and counseling."

So it's safe to say this one program has been a titanic force for good over the past decade. The number of deaths from AIDS has been steadily declining over the past few years, and PEPFAR has certainly been a big help. But ask an American -- or a Western European -- if they've ever heard of the program, and they're almost certain to draw a blank. That's partly because the United States has done very little to publicize the success of PEPFAR, and partly because the Bush presidency was overshadowed by much more high-profile aspects of his foreign policy (such as the invasion of Iraq).

Indeed, Bush still enjoys high popularity ratings in Africa, where he's widely regarded as one of the continent's great benefactors. (Meanwhile, the Obama administration's proposed PEPFAR cuts have triggered protests around Africa -- even in Kenya, where the president's family ties have ensured him plenty of favorable coverage.)

"Bush did more to stop AIDS and more to help Africa than any president before or since," says New York Times correspondent Peter Baker, who's writing a history of the Bush-Cheney White House that's due to appear in October. "He took on one of the world's biggest problems in a big, bold way and it changed the course of a continent. If it weren't for Iraq, it would be one of the main things history would remember about Bush, and it still should be part of any accounting of his presidency."

Nor is liberating 30 million Iraqis and setting off the Arab Spring anything to sneeze at.

Posted by orrinj at 5:34 AM


What George W. Bush did right (Christian Caryl, February 21, 2013, Chicago Tribune)

In his 2003 speech, Bush called upon Congress to sponsor an ambitious program to supply antiretroviral drugs and other treatments to HIV sufferers in Africa. Since then, the U.S. government has spent some $44 billion on the project (a figure that includes $7 billion contributed to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, a multilateral organization). By way of comparison, America's most recent aircraft carrier -- which will join the 10 we have in service -- is set to cost $26.8 billion. One medical expert calls PEPFAR the "largest financial commitment of any country to global health and to treatment of any specific disease worldwide."

It's impossible to tell exactly how many lives the program has saved, though Secretary of State John Kerry recently claimed that 5 million people are alive today because of it. That's probably as good an estimate as any.

Just to give you an idea of the scale, here are some headline figures from a recent op-ed by U.S. Global AIDS coordinator Eric Goosby:

"In 2012 alone, PEPFAR directly supported nearly 5.1 million people on antiretroviral treatment -- a threefold increase in only four years; provided antiretroviral drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV to nearly 750,000 pregnant women living with the disease (which allowed approximately 230,000 infants to be born without HIV); and enabled more than 46.5 million people to receive testing and counseling."

So it's safe to say this one program has been a titanic force for good over the past decade. The number of deaths from AIDS has been steadily declining over the past few years, and PEPFAR has certainly been a big help. But ask an American -- or a Western European -- if they've ever heard of the program, and they're almost certain to draw a blank. That's partly because the United States has done very little to publicize the success of PEPFAR, and partly because the Bush presidency was overshadowed by much more high-profile aspects of his foreign policy (such as the invasion of Iraq).

Indeed, Bush still enjoys high popularity ratings in Africa, where he's widely regarded as one of the continent's great benefactors. (Meanwhile, the Obama administration's proposed PEPFAR cuts have triggered protests around Africa -- even in Kenya, where the president's family ties have ensured him plenty of favorable coverage.)

"Bush did more to stop AIDS and more to help Africa than any president before or since," says New York Times correspondent Peter Baker, who's writing a history of the Bush-Cheney White House that's due to appear in October. "He took on one of the world's biggest problems in a big, bold way and it changed the course of a continent. If it weren't for Iraq, it would be one of the main things history would remember about Bush, and it still should be part of any accounting of his presidency."

Nor is liberating 30 million Iraqis and setting off the Arab Spring anything to sneeze at.

Posted by orrinj at 5:27 AM


Do You Really Need That Test? Doctors Warn on 90 Treatments ( YUVAL ROSENBERG, 2/20/13, The Fiscal Times)

The new list adds 90 more treatments that should be scrutinized, with the stated intent of prompting conversations between patients and doctors about which are really necessary. Doctors might order tests that aren't needed in order to placate patients, increase profits or avoid potential lawsuits and accusations of negligence.

"We always talk about this campaign as removing waste, improving quality and improving safety," says Daniel Wolfson, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the ABIM Foundation. "As a byproduct, it might or might not reduce costs. We hope that it would, but it's not our primary objective. Our primary objective is to change the American public's attitude that more is always better and physicians' attitudes about their responsibility to be good managers of resources on behalf of their patients."

While the campaign itself won't measure any cost reductions achieved, there are billions in savings to be had by eliminating waste. The U.S. spends an estimated $2.5 trillion a year on health care, or more than $8,000 per person - far more than in other developed countries. Much of that money is wasted. The U.S. health care system squandered about $750 billion a year as of 2009, or more than a third of total health care expenditures, according to a report released last year by the Institute of Medicine. That included some $210 billion in excess costs due to unnecessary services.

February 20, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:41 PM


Tesla's Explosive Revenue Suggests a Bright Future (Kevin Bullis, February 20, 2013, Technology Review)
Tesla announced today that its revenues have jumped by 500 percent and that it's now making enough cars per week to deliver 20,000 of the vehicles by the end of this year. It also said it expects to make a small profit next quarter. Based on its gross margins, it seems that Tesla is now actually making its cars for less than it's selling them for, rather than losing money on every one it makes, as had been the case previously. Improved productivity and lower costs for parts are helping.

Posted by orrinj at 6:56 PM


Vacancy rate for US housing falls to pre-bust levels (Mark Trumbull, February 20, 2013, CS Monitor)

According to the Census Bureau, vacancy rates for residential housing in the United States have fallen to levels last seen before the peak of the housing boom in 2006 and the subsequent recession.

In the final quarter of 2012, the vacancy rate was 1.9 percent of homeowner housing, and 8.7 percent of the rental housing market. That's down from rates as high as 2.9 percent (2008) in the owner market and 11.1 percent (mid-2009) for rentals.

And the borders haven't opened yet.
Posted by orrinj at 6:25 PM


The "Red" White but Not True Blue: The Truth about Harry Dexter White--Soviet Agent (Ron Radosh, February 19th, 2013, PJ Media)

[A] new book, Benn Steil, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, deals with White's activities as a Soviet spy. He has also published an excerpt as a major article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, (available for purchase on the magazine's website), titled "Why a Founding Father of Postwar Capitalism Spied for the Soviets."

Steil's article is of importance for two reasons. First, it brings to the mainstream what many of us have known for years--that the New Deal administration was heavily penetrated by Soviet spies, many of them American citizens who were working for Stalin's intelligence agencies. Indeed, this is the focus of a new book, M. Stanton Evans and Hebert Romerstein's Stalin's Secret Agents: The Subversion of Roosevelt's Government, which fills in the broader picture. The most well-known, of course, is Alger Hiss. But he was merely the tip of the iceberg.

Second, since others who found evidence in the Venona papers and Alexander Vassiliev's KGB papers of White's espionage, the former Treasury undersecretary's reputation was defended by many writers who saw that charge as mere anti-Communist slander. Stephen Schlesinger, for example, writes that "Among historians, the verdict about White is still unresolved, but many incline toward the view that he wanted to help the Russians but did not regard the actions he took as constituting espionage." In a letter to The New York Times, White's daughter argues that "The content and provenance of all these documents have been studied in depth by serious scholars and have been found to raise as many questions as they answer. However they are interpreted, it can by no means be said that they establish my father's guilt." She then adds that "It should also be remembered that White himself vigorously and eloquently denied the accusations against him."  And James J. Broughton authored an entire article devoted to exonerating White.

With the publication of Steil's book and article, we know that White, whom Steil points out had "by 1944 achieved implausibly broad influence over U.S. foreign and economic policy," sought to implement what Steil calls "a far more radical reordering of U.S. foreign policy, centered on the establishment of a close permanent alliance with...the Soviet Union." In this regard, he was on the same wavelength as his friend Henry A. Wallace, who had said he would appoint White to the Cabinet if he was to become president.

To accomplish this aim, White did more than Wallace. He took the next step, and from the 1930s on, "acted as a Soviet mole, giving the Soviets secret information and advice on how to negotiate with the Roosevelt administration and advocating for them during internal policy debates." Steil goes so far as to argue that White "was arguably more important to Soviet intelligence than Alger Hiss."

Posted by orrinj at 6:22 PM


The Upside of the Sequester (RICK NEWMAN, February 19, 2013, US News)

It's still not the best way to fix the government's finances. Since it would do nothing to prioritize the most useful federal programs, the sequester could inadvertently cost the government revenue, through tax receipts lost due to a slowdown in economic activity. That would obviously make the debt problem worse. It would be better if politicians could agree on targeted cuts that would be phased in slowly, giving everybody affected time to adjust.

Yet even critics of the sequester grudgingly acknowledge it will help with deficit reduction. Budget gurus Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, for instance, called the sequester "mindless" in their latest blueprint for government reforms. Yet they also identified the sequester as one of four essential steps that must be taken to get the government back on track, with the other steps including tax and entitlement reform, along with further tax hikes and spending cuts.

Posted by orrinj at 10:44 AM


Old and Rich? Less Help for You (YUVAL LEVIN, February 19, 2013, NY Times)

Both sides should agree at least to spend less money on the wealthy -- via means testing. It may surprise some Americans to learn that the United States spends quite a lot on the affluent, especially through the entitlement programs at the heart of the budget fight: Social Security and Medicare. Both programs move money from relatively poorer young people to relatively richer old people, and they are growing ever more expensive. Means-testing -- allocating benefits according to need -- might offer both sides a way out.

The approach would require agreement on two principles. First, give less to the wealthy rather than take more from them. For Medicare, such means testing would mean giving prosperous older people fewer benefits rather than charging them higher premiums for the same benefits other elderly Americans get. Charging wealthy older Americans more, and then giving money back to them through an expensive and inefficient benefit, makes no sense. The goal should be to better target public benefits to those who need them.

Second, assess wealth based on lifetime earnings rather than on income or assets -- the latter would discourage saving, and working past retirement age, as well as invite tax evasion and benefits fraud, as demonstrated by the abuse of Medicaid's long-term care benefit. Basing benefits on lifetime earnings, on the other hand, would encourage saving over time, would be far more difficult to game and, provided it was based on pre-retirement earnings, would not discourage older Americans who are able to work from continuing to do so.

While many liberals oppose raising the Medicare age of eligibility, doing so on a means-tested basis would address most of their concerns while saving lots of money. For older people with the greatest lifetime earnings, the eligibility age could gradually rise to 70 from 65.

Posted by orrinj at 10:40 AM


How robots are eating the last of America's--and the world's--traditional manufacturing jobs (Christopher Mims, February 15, 2013, Quartz)
Baxter, the affordable, humanoid industrial robot recently unveiled by Rethink Robotics, is so easy to program that I once did it one-handed and drunk. We were at a party at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and he was standing in the corner, looking lonely. No, really--Baxter has expressive eyes projected on a touchscreen where you'd expect it to have a face, virtually guaranteeing that you'll anthropomorphize it.

Drink in hand, I walked over and, with only the vaguest sense of how to get it to respond to my touch, grabbed it by the wrist. I guided its "hand" over to a box full of small objects. Its caliper-like fingers closed on a widget. Then I moved its hand, which offered almost no resistance at all, to another position on the table. It dropped the object.

After that, it dutifully repeated the procedure I had taught it, again and again, emptying the box. In a display of the sort of capabilities that used to be almost impossible in robotics but are now routine, its machine vision allowed it to cope with the differences in position and shape of each of the widgets. Baxter was untroubled by the poor lighting, loud music or my clumsiness. In less time than it takes to update my calendar, I had, in essence, trained Baxter to pack a box for shipping, or to transfer goods from one conveyor belt to another--two tasks that are common in manufacturing and distribution centers.

Since the end of the second world war, the proportion of people in the US who are working in manufacturing has declined steadily, from nearly 40% during the war to less than 10% today:

Many have blamed this decline on outsourcing--the movement of factories to countries where labor is cheaper. And there's no doubt that outsourcing has led to fewer factory jobs in the US and other rich countries.

And yet the US, like almost every other rich country on the planet, manufactures more stuff than it ever did. Manufacturers have replaced workers with machines--trading labor for capital. This means the manufacturing workers who remain are many times more productive than their forebears 50 years ago.

Baxter and robots like it represent an inflection point in the long trend of top-of-the-line manufacturing: The point at which the old system, in which unskilled laborers still have a place in factories, is retired forever. 

Posted by orrinj at 10:29 AM


Clayton Christensen Wants to Transform Capitalism (JEFF HOWE, 02.12.13, Wired)

Howe: And then your dissertation ended up on the best-seller list? Not bad.

Christensen: It became Innovator's Dilemma, yes. I brought one big question with me to Harvard. Why do smart companies fail? It was clear that CPS, which made advanced ceramics--silicon nitride--was going to make it. But there were big companies like GE that had spent more than $100 million trying to make ceramics into a business. They all stumbled and withdrew. I couldn't attribute it to stupidity; they're all smart people who knew so much more about business than I did. That's where the basic puzzle came from. How did these big, smart businesses fail and not CPS? I had my dissertation all laid out. I was going to study mechanical motor drives--the switches that turn an engine on and off. The industry had gone through upheaval as the mechanical switches were replaced by electronic ones. Then one of the faculty said to me, "Check out disk drives. I think the same phenomenon happened there too."

Howe: Disk drives: The fruit flies of the business world, I think you called them.

Christensen: Right. I didn't know anything except that disk drives were a thing inside a computer. But it turned out disk drives have really short lifespans. Every few years a new innovation turns the industry upside down. I kept seeing mentions of something called the Disk/Trend Report. It was published by some guy in Mountain View, California. It turned out that he had data on every disk drive company ever organized, whether it sold a product or not. He had the background on the people who started them, on the technologies themselves, sales by product line, everything. My kids helped me put it all into a spreadsheet. You could see how, in each generation, an established company would start focusing on bigger, more powerful disks for the top end of the market and then just get wiped out when the lower end of the market found a way to make smaller, cheaper disks, even though those had lower profit margins. It made my thesis. Smart companies fail because they do everything right. They cater to high-profit-margin customers and ignore the low end of the market, where disruptive innovations emerge from.

Howe: Is this around the time that Intel CEO Andy Grove heard about your work?

Christensen: This was before the book came out. I'd published two papers on my theory, and a woman who worked in the bowels of Intel's engineering department went to Andy and said, "You have to read this article. It says Intel is going to get killed." I hadn't even mentioned Intel, but the implications were there. So Grove called me up, and he's a very gruff man: "I don't have time to read academic drivel from people like you, but I have a meeting in two weeks. I'd like you to come out and tell me why Intel's going to get killed." It was a chance of a lifetime. I showed up there. He said, "Look, I'll give you 10 minutes. Explain what you think of Intel." I said, "I don't know anything about Intel. I don't have an opinion. But I have a theory, and I think my theory has an opinion on Intel." I described the idea of disruptive innovations, and he said, "Before we discuss Intel, I need to know how this worked its way through another industry, to visualize it." So I described how mini mills killed off the big steel companies. They started by making rebar cheaper than the big mills did, and the big mills were happy to be rid of such a low-margin, low-quality product. The mini mills then slowly worked their way upward until there was nothing left to disrupt.

Howe: What did Grove say?

Christensen: He cut me off before I could finish. "All right. I got it," he said, and then he described the whole thing. Instead of the mini mills, there were two microprocessor companies, Cyrix and AMD, making cheap, low-performance chips. Grove says, "What you're telling me, Clay, is that we have to go down and kill them, set up our own business unit, and launch our own low-end competitor." I didn't say anything. I wasn't going to be suckered into telling Andy Grove what he should do with Intel. I knew nothing about semiconductors. Instead of telling him what to think, I told him how to think.

Howe: What did Intel wind up doing?

Christensen: They made the Celeron Processor. They blew Cyrix and AMD out of the water, and the Celeron became the highest-volume product in the company. The book came out in 1997, and the next year Grove gave the keynote at the annual conference for the Academy of Management. He holds up my book and basically says, "I don't mean to be rude, but there's nothing any of you have published that's of use to me except this."

Howe: If you had to list some industries right now that are either in a state of disruptive crisis or will be soon, what would they be?

Christensen: Journalism, certainly, and publishing broadly. Anything supported by advertising. That all of this is being disrupted is now beyond question. And then I think higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse. Generally, universities are doing very well financially, so they don't feel from the data that their world is going to collapse. But I think even five years from now these enterprises are going to be in real trouble.

Posted by orrinj at 10:20 AM

...AND LOWER...:

Automation Sets Us Free : A 1929 essay by Arthur D. Little argued that workers and consumers would benefit from more mass production, not less. (Arthur D. Little, March/April 2013, MIT Technology Review Magazine)

Excerpted from "Research and Labor: A Chemist Looks at Modern Life," in the December 1929 issue of The Technology Review, by Arthur D. Little, founder of the management consulting firm that bears his name.

We are living in the age of science, the machine, and mass production. Like all the ages which have gone before, it is not without its contemporary critics. They would have us believe that ... the worker has become the slave of the machine, and that mass production has engulfed us in materialism, converted the craftsman into the tightener of the bolt, and robbed the world of beauty ... All this, if true, would be, indeed, a sorry outcome of the long series of intellectual triumphs which, during the last one hundred and fifty years, have given man so large a measure of mastery over his environment ... [...]

The machine is saving us much time. We produce, transport, and distribute the necessities of life with the expenditure of a small fraction of the time and effort required of our forefathers. The time cost of living has gone down. 

February 19, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:57 PM


Why even Amsterdam doesn't want legal brothels : The Dutch experiment in legalised prostitution has been a disaster (Julie Bindel, 2 February 2013, The Spectator)

Twelve years on, and we can now see the results of this experiment. Rather than afford better protection for the women, it has simply increased the market. Rather than confine the brothels to a discrete (and avoidable) part of the city, the sex industry has spilt out all over Amsterdam -- including on-street. Rather than be given rights in the 'workplace', the prostitutes have found the pimps are as brutal as ever. The government-funded union set up to protect them has been shunned by the vast majority of prostitutes, who remain too scared to complain.

Pimps, under legalisation, have been reclassified as managers and businessmen. Abuse suffered by the women is now called an 'occupational hazard', like a stone dropped on a builder's toe. Sex tourism has grown faster in Amsterdam than the regular type of tourism: as the city became the brothel of Europe, women have been imported by traffickers from Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia to meet the demand. In other words, the pimps remained but became legit -- violence was still prevalent but part of the job, and trafficking increased. Support for the women to leave prostitution became almost nonexistent. The innate murkiness of the job has not been washed away by legal benediction.

The Dutch government hoped to play the role of the honourable pimp, taking its share in the proceeds of prostitution through taxation. But only 5 per cent of the women registered for tax, because no one wants to be known as a whore -- however legal it may be. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:19 PM


Sam Adams: Now (finally) in a can : His grail? A can he deems worthy of his beer (Jenn Abelson,  February 16, 2013, Boston Globe)

In summer 2011, they traveled to Ball's factory near Denver to study the canning process -- the thickness of aluminum, molecular properties, how beer pours from a can, and what impacts the flow. They hung out with well-lubricated football fans in Foxborough to understand why drinkers prefer beer in cans -- they account for roughly 57 percent of the US retail market, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago market research firm. The Bunker Hill team interviewed taste experts around the world and examined thousands of plastic coffee cup lids to understand the range of drink delivery options (the peel, the pucker, the pinch, and the puncture).

The big discovery: Conventional cans don't allow enough air into people's mouths as they drink. Turns out, much of what consumers believe they taste is actually smell -- that's why food tastes so bland when people are congested. Increasing exposure to the beer's aromas of hops and fruit can make a big difference in taste, said Roy Desrochers, a professional beer taster at GEI Consultants in Woburn.

So the team began looking for ways to improve air flow. Over several months, IDEO proposed dozens of designs and created eight prototypes that expanded the size and shape of the can's opening. Larger apertures -- one shaped like a bell, another like a peanut -- were supposed to enhance the air flow and access to aromas. The most promising idea, according to Koch, was a design that allowed drinkers to tear off the entire top. [...]

On Thursday, Desrochers gave his final evaluation to Koch. The new can, he said, had strong benefits both in ergonomics and flavor. The hourglass curve and wider lid deposits the beer further in the mouth so a drinker doesn't have to tilt his head back.

"With a traditional can, you feel like you're sucking liquid out," Desrochers said. "With the new design, the beer flows in nicely . . . and you don't get the sensation that it might spill out the side of your mouth."

The bigger lid forces people to open their mouths wider, allowing more air to pass through and go up into the nasal passages. This increased exposure to the smells brings out the flavors of the beer -- the hops, the grains, the fruitiness -- earlier in the drinking experience, which is what consumers associate with a fresher beverage, according to Desrochers. And the outward-turned lip pours the beer directly on the palate, maximizing the sweetness from the malt.

Posted by orrinj at 7:14 PM


A Cheerful Welcome To The Robots, Our Future Work Overlords (Scott Winship, 2/18/13, Forbes)

Even if growth rates never return to their glory days, we are on the verge of realizing absolute annual gains that will be permanently larger than in the Golden Age. How those gains are distributed is an important consideration, but the situation is less dire than many believe. Median income has risen by at least one-third since 1979, and the evidence that the labor market is polarizing has been, in the words of Urban Institute and Georgetown economist Harry Holzer, "overblown."

The second blind spot among the neo-Luddites is their failure to consider the gains we will receive as consumers from technological advances even as they misunderstand the reduced demand for labor technology may create. Technology makes us more productive--it allows us to produce the same stuff, but more cheaply. Too many people hear "producing the same stuff more cheaply" as "producing the same stuff with fewer workers" and see mass unemployment as our fate. Rising productivity actually means "producing the same stuff with fewer hours worked." That can be achieved by having fewer workers do the same amount of work, but it is also consistent with the same number of workers all scaling back their hours.

It hardly seems worth arguing that most Americans would work less per week and for less of their lifetimes if they could. One hundred years ago essentially all men in their early 60s worked; today just six in ten do, and the typical retirement age has steadily declined (while life expectancy has increased). During their working years, men now have more leisure time than in the past. Work has increased markedly for women, but consistent with their rising education levels, longer delays in marriage and childbearing, and reduced fertility, this is mainly reflective of greater opportunities to balance work and family. Unpaid time doing housework has declined more among women than work has increased, meaning that they too have more leisure time than in the past.

Of course, people will only choose to work less if they can afford to. But technological advance will radically increase productivity--reducing demand for labor--only insofar as it also radically reduces the prices of what we buy. Ignoring this connection leads to absurd fears about the future. 

...that your biggest economic worry is that you'll have to work less to enjoy a higher standard of living in the future.

Posted by orrinj at 6:34 PM


Defense Department set to announce furlough plan Wednesday (Chris Carroll, 2/19/13, Stars and Stripes)

 The Defense Department intends to notify Congress on Wednesday of a plan to furlough nearly 800,000 civilian employees one day each week beginning in April, a defense official said Tuesday.

800 freakin' thousand.

Posted by orrinj at 5:34 AM


The Silence of Animals by John Gray: review : John Gray's study of the human condition, The Silence of Animals, intrigues Jane Shilling. (Jane Shilling, 19 Feb 2013, The Telegraph)

In modern Western society, the melancholy experiences of the last century have largely (though not entirely) put us off the idea that the remedy for mankind's ills is an -ism, forcibly applied. The brutal utopianisms of imperialism, Nazism and communism are generally regarded by right-thinking people as a kind of atrocious collective delirium. We look back on those passages of our collective experience as a man convalescing from a dangerous fever might recollect his febrile ravings - with a horrified determination never to return to those shameful states of delusion.

But the human inclination to meddle with the status quo is irrepressible: we can't not be doing something. With utopianism off the list of possibilities, meliorism - or the notion that every day in every way, things are getting better and better (or would be, if only a different political party had won the last election) - seems an attractive alternative.

Eschewing convulsive messiness in the form of revolutions and invasions, meliorism imagines a brighter future arrived at by gentler means: education; a respectful relationship with the environment; the eradication of poverty, ignorance and disease; and, of course, capitalism (properly regulated) - all leading to a moment in the not unimaginably distant future when peace and prosperity will cover all the world. Or something along those lines.

Who could possibly object to such a benevolent vision? Well, the political philosopher John Gray, for a start. Gray, whose academic career included professorships at the London School of Economics, Oxford, Harvard and Yale, is a critic of the neo-liberal philosophy that proposes that advances in human scientific knowledge will necessarily be accompanied by equivalent progress in ethics and politics.

First, the End of History does not promise ethical progress.  It concerns the means by which we organize society, not the ends towards which it is organized.

But, secondly, because, in practice,  it does universally render higher standards of living more equitably distributed, it achieves ethical and political progress. To ignore the universal affluence that Western man lives in is to make one's critique of our culture risible.

Posted by orrinj at 5:31 AM


No Country for Old Age (MARK W. FRAZIER, February 18, 2013, NY Times)

Entitlement programs like retirement benefits will inevitably force China into a trade-off between social expenditures and domestic security and military spending. Policy makers concerned about China's rising military spending would do well to monitor China's social spending. [...]

A final obstacle, paradoxically, is the Chinese themselves, who (like Americans) strongly oppose an increase in the age at which retirees become eligible for full benefits. Chinese officials often argue that early retirement helps make room for young workers. But the current retirement age -- 55 for women (50 for those in blue-collar jobs) and 60 for men -- adds to the demographic burden. The one-child policy means that an ever-shrinking share of workers is paying the taxes that finance pensions and health care -- the demographic phenomenon that causes the Chinese to fear "growing old before getting rich."

It's just a bigger, poorer Japan.

Posted by orrinj at 5:26 AM


'Sharon was about to leave two-thirds of the West Bank (ELHANAN MILLER, February 19, 2013, Times of Israel)

"The military unequivocally decided that [Ahmed] Shafiq will be president, not [Mohammed] Morsi," Eitan told The Times of Israel. "But the Americans put all the pressure on. The announcement [of the president] was delayed by three or four days because of this struggle."

Immediately after Egypt's presidential elections in June 2012, Eitan spoke to unnamed local officials, who told him that with a mere 5,000-vote advantage for Islamist candidate Morsi, the military was prepared to announce the victory of his adversary Shafiq, a secular military man closely associated with the Mubarak regime.

But secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Eitan said, decided to favor democracy at all costs and disallow any falsification of the vote.

"This is idiocy. An act of stupidity that will resonate for generations," Eitan said. "I also thought Mubarak should be replaced, but I believed the Americans would be smart enough to replace him with the next figure. Mubarak would have agreed to that, but the Americans didn't want that; they wanted democracy. But there is no real democracy in the Arab world at the moment. It will take a few generations to develop.

Posted by orrinj at 5:15 AM


China, technology and the U.S. middle class (Chrystia Freeland FEBRUARY 15, 2013, Reuters)

The main point of democracy is to deliver positive results for the majority.

All of which is why understanding what is happening to the middle class is urgently important. There is no better place to start than by talking to David Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Autor is one of the leading students of the most striking trend bedeviling the middle class: the polarization of the job market. That is a nice way of saying the economy is being cleaved into high-paying jobs at the top and low-paying jobs at the bottom, while the middle-skill and middle-wage jobs that used to form society's backbone are being hollowed out.

But when I asked him this week what had gone wrong for the U.S. middle class, he gave a different answer: "The main problem is we've just had a decade of incredibly anemic employment growth. All of a sudden, around 2000 and 2001, things just slowed down."

Academics can usually be counted on to have a confident explanation for everything. That is why I was surprised and impressed by Autor's answer when I asked him where the jobs had gone. "No one really understands why that is the case," he said.

It was a winningly modest reply. But work by Autor and two colleagues -- David Dorn, a visiting professor at Harvard, and Gordon Hanson of the University of California, San Diego -- is starting to untangle the two forces that both the conventional wisdom and the academy agree are probably responsible for a lot of what is happening to the middle class.

Those forces are technological change and trade. The easy assumption is that the two go together. After all, trade needs technology -- it is hard to imagine outsourcing without the Internet, sophisticated logistics systems and jet travel. Technology is dependent on trade, too: The opportunity for global scale is one reason technological innovation has yielded such outsize rewards.

But in a careful study of local labor markets in the United States, Autor, Dorn and Hanson have found that trade and technology had very different consequences for jobs.

"We were surprised at how distinct the two were," Autor said. "We found that the trade shock had a very measurable impact on the employment rate. Technology led to job polarization, but its employment effect was minimal." Trade, at least in the short term, really did ship jobs overseas. Technology did not kill jobs per se, but it did hollow out those essential jobs in the middle.

The big surprise, at least for believers (like me) in the classic liberal economic view that trade benefits both parties, is the strong and negative impact of globalization on U.S. workers -- Autor estimates it accounts for 15 to 20 percent of jobs lost.

That first sentence is the key.  The main point of economics is to create wealth.  A main point of politics is to deliver it equitably.  The main point of neither is work.  Jobs were just one method for redistributing wealth.

Posted by orrinj at 5:09 AM


Who's to Blame for the Sequester? (Michael Tomasky Feb 19, 2013, Daily Beast)

Whose "idea" was the sequester, and why should it matter? My Twitter feed these last couple of weeks has been overflowing with people going beyond the usual "communist" and "idiot" name-calling that I get every day and throwing the occasional "liar" in there because I "withhold" the information that the sequester was the Obama administration's idea. Very well, consider that nugget hereby unwithheld. Let's grant that this is true. But it's true only because the Republicans were holding a gun to the administration's head--and besides, the Republicans immediately voted for it. In any case the important thing now is that outside of Fox News land, it's an unimportant fact whose "idea" it was.

The GOP ought not share the credit for returning spending to historical norms, even if the UR deserves some.

February 18, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:36 PM


Arms Sales by Big Firms Hit First Slump in Years ( NICLAS ROLANDER, 2/18/13, WSJ)

Arms sales by the world's largest weapons makers fell in 2011, representing the first decline since the mid-1990s as austerity measures and a reduced U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan hit military spending.

There's little left to fight about.

Posted by orrinj at 9:04 PM


Watch 1,200 Miles In 156 Seconds, Using Less Juice : Take a ride on the backbone of America's infrastructure--freight trains--as they carry a supply of OJ from Florida to New Jersey. (Co.Exist, 2/18/13))

According to the Association of American Railroads, freight trains are four times more fuel efficient than trucks, with 75% fewer carbon emissions for the same distance (it has a handy calculator here, if you want to plug in a few actual journeys). The video above shows off some new diesel locomotives that General Electric says are particularly efficient, using "11% less fuel than the existing locomotive average in North America."

Posted by orrinj at 8:58 PM


The best reason to worry about the deficit (Ezra Klein, February 15, 2013, Washington Post)

The reason to worry about the deficit today -- and, more to the point, the trends in government spending and taxation that drive it -- is that the most worthwhile kinds of government spending are getting squeezed out.

The key insight behind this theory is that some forms of government spending rise automatically and rapidly, and are very politically difficult to cut, while other forms of government spending need congressional approval every single year and have few constituencies to protect them. In the first category are Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, all of which are projected to consume much more of the federal budget in the coming years. In the second category are things like education funding, research and development, stimulus, infrastructure investment, and even the military. And the fear is the first category is squeezing out the second category.

As David Leonhardt notes in 'Here's the Deal," the federal government has been tracking spending on "Major Physical Capital, Research and Development, and Education and Training" since 1962. Over that period, it's fallen from around 2.6 percent of GDP from the mid-60s to the mid-80s to 1.8 percent from the '80s until the financial crisis. The stimulus pushed it above 2 percent again, but that's a temporary lift. Between the cuts from the 2011 Budget Control Act and the possible cuts from the sequester, this spending -- which is essentially the investments we make in our future -- is likely to be driven to historic lows. Meanwhile, an Urban Institute study finds that "looking solely at the federal budget, an elderly person receives close to seven federal dollars for every dollar received by a child."
"Growth of entitlements is crowding out programs for younger families and their kids and are likely to impair social mobility," says Isabelle Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families and the Budgeting for National Priorities Project at Brookings.

Posted by orrinj at 8:54 PM


Obama Faces Risks in Pipeline Decision (JOHN M. BRODER, CLIFFORD KRAUSS and IAN AUSTEN, February 17, 2013, NY Times)

The proposed northern extension of the nearly 2,000-mile Keystone XL pipeline would connect Canada's oil sands to refineries around Houston and the Gulf of Mexico, replacing Venezuelan heavy crude with similar Canadian grades.

...to destabilize an enemy regime and benefit an ally.  Of course, this president hates making decisions.

Posted by orrinj at 8:23 PM


Reaganism After Reagan (RAMESH PONNURU,  February 17, 2013, NY Time)

When Reagan cut rates for everyone, the top tax rate was 70 percent and the income tax was the biggest tax most people paid. Now neither of those things is true: For most of the last decade the top rate has been 35 percent, and the payroll tax is larger than the income tax for most people. Yet Republicans have treated the income tax as the same impediment to economic growth and middle-class millstone that it was in Reagan's day. House Republicans have repeatedly voted to bring the top rate down still further, to 25 percent.

A Republican Party attentive to today's problems rather than yesterday's would work to lighten the burden of the payroll tax, not just the income tax. An expanded child tax credit that offset the burden of both taxes would be the kind of broad-based middle-class tax relief that Reagan delivered. Republicans should make room for this idea in their budgets, even if it means giving up on the idea of a 25 percent top tax rate.

When Reagan took office, he could have confidence in John F. Kennedy's conviction that a rising tide would lift all boats. In more recent years, though, economic growth hasn't always raised wages for most people. The rising cost of health insurance has eaten up raises. Controlling the cost of health care has to be a bigger part of the Republican agenda now that it's a bigger portion of the economy. An important first step would be to change the existing tax break for health insurance so that people would be able to pocket the savings if they chose cheaper plans.

Reagan was a New Dealer and believed in defined benefits.  Modernity requires defined (and mandated) contributions.

February 17, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 3:42 PM


Why humans lost their body hair: to stop their brains from overheating as we evolved (STEVE CONNOR, 17 FEBRUARY 2013, Independent)

The need to keep a cool head is why man became a naked ape according to scientists who believe they can finally explain why humans are the only primate to lose their body fur.

Bare skin allows body heat to be lost through sweating which would have been important when early humans started to walk on two legs and began to  develop larger brains than their ape-like ancestors, scientists said.

Yet the great men of history wore beards or wigs?

Posted by orrinj at 3:28 PM

...A THOUSAND WORDS (via Bruno Behrend):

Posted by orrinj at 12:13 PM


Christopher Dawson and the History We Are Not Told (Jeffrey Hart, 2/16/13, Imaginative Conservative)
As an historian, Dawson radically revises our sense of the continuity of Western culture, but within that continuity, its vicissitudes and heroisms. For the ordinary educated consciousness, what happened in Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman order tends to be a blank page labelled "the dark ages." The period from the fifth to the tenth centuries was indeed characterized by social chaos, roving bands of pillagers, Norse invasions, but as Dawson makes clear, there were heroic continuities, an enormous effort on the part of beleaguered communities to preserve and add to the inheritance of religion, culture, and learning and to provide the basis for a revival of civilized order. [...]

T. S. Eliot, lecturing in the United States, was once asked what writer was then the most powerful intellectual influence in England. Eliot answered, Christopher Dawson. That this influence was rarefied need not be doubted, but Dawson was a prolific writer, an original thinker, a skillful polemicist, and clearly, a deeply felt presence for such a person as Eliot - of which more in a moment. But before speaking of what I would call the Dawson Revolution in our sense of the shape of Western history, I would like to revert to what I have called the aesthetics of erudition, or what might also be called the humility of learning. For example, I will adduce his Gifford Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh in and 1949 and later published as his magisterial Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950).
The Gifford Lectureship is a very distinguished matter, and it is characteristic of Dawson that he felt he could not rise to the occasion. Yet he did so magnificently, though his manner was Dawsonish. As his daughter records, "His shy manner and quiet intonation, combined with a lack of confidence in his own powers, must have made him seem the most unassuming of Gifford Lecturers, and of course, the deepest thinkers are not invariably the best speakers."
But open the published version of these Gifford Lectures. The first thing you encounter is a frontispiece photograph entitled "Figure of Christ: From the Bewcastle Rood (c. 700)." In this book there are eight such photographs of various historical objects with immensely erudite commentaries by Dawson listed as "Notes on the Illustrations." Because the learning here is so recondite, exquisite, and, when seen in perspective, important, I will quote in full the "note" on the Bewcastle Christ. The reader of this essay may savor it as a good introduction to Dawson:

The Anglian High Crosses are among the earliest and most remarkable monuments of Western Christendom. Although they date from the first age of Northumbrian Christianity, they show an astonishing mastery of design and execution, unlike anything to be found elsewhere in Western Europe during this period. The new art owes its origin to the deliberate importation of Christian artists and Christian craftsmen from the Mediterranean world by the leaders of the Anglian church, above all St. Wilfrid and St. Benedict Bishop in the second half of the seventh century. But while the ornamentation, especially the vine scroll, shows clear signs of Mediterranean (Syrian) influence, the style is not purely imitative, but represents an original Anglian renaissance of classical Roman traditions. It is in fact a true 'Romanesque' art which anticipates the Continental development by centuries. The Bewcastle cross has a particularly close association with the great age of the Northumbrian church, because it was erected in commemoration of King Alchfrith, the friend of St. Wilfrid and the supporter of the Roman party at the Synod of Whitby (664). It stands on the site of an old Roman fort high up on the Cumbrian moors beyond the Roman Wall. The figure of Christ in Majesty resembles that on the earlier and even finer Rood at Ruthwell in Durnfriesshire. In both cases, the face is unbearded, but carries a moustache. The Bewcastle inscription is entirely runic, whereas at Ruthwell the corresponding figure has a Latin inscription - IHS XPS IUDEX AEQUITATIS. BESTI ET DRACONES COGNOVERUNT IN DESERT0 SALVATOR-EM MUNDI. It seems that both of these great crosses were set up as triumphant assertions of the Cross over the forces of outer barbarism.

There is much of Dawson here in what amounts to a "minor" passage in a major work: his sense of the past as a living and present thing, his immersion in detail, his connoisseur's judgments, his awareness of civilization as over against the "outer barbarism."

The queer thing about calling them the Dark Ages is that they were the period when the Light spread universally to Europe.

For a spectacularly good account of Dawson's thought and import, we recommend our friend James Lothian's The Making and Unmaking of the English Catholic Intellectual Community, 1910-1950
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Posted by orrinj at 11:46 AM


The Blind Faith Needed in Evolution (Fr. Nikita Grigoriev, February 5, 2013, OrthodoxNet)

Adaptation is often confused with evolution. Adaptation is a fact and it's quite real. Evolution is a myth and does not exist in reality at all, only in fantasy. There is a fine line separating them. Adaptation is when an individual or a species collectively changes to adapt to their environment. Such changes can be subtle or very striking. The changes are physical (phenotype) and, in the case of an individual, can be brought about in a direct response to a stimulus from the environment. An example of this is a suntan, or the strong right arm of a blacksmith, to use Lamacrk's example. These are temporary adaptations of an individual and are definitely not inherited or passed on to the next generation.

The phenotype (physical characteristics) of the next generation individual are determined at birth by, and only by, the combination of genes that the individual received from his or her parents (genotype) at the time of conception. Now, in the case of a population (large number of individuals of a species), adaptation does have a genetic aspect. A population adapts to its environment by favoring those gene combinations within the species that produce individuals that are more adapted to their environment. This is like a special breed within a species. And this is a very important point: this group remains a breed within the species, not a new species.

The genotype (gene pool) of this breed is definitely skewed with a preponderance of gene combinations that produce the favored phenotype (physical characteristics) that is advantageous for surviving and thriving under these conditions. This is why St. Bernards and not Chihuahuas (both members of the species Canis - dog) are used for rescuing avalanche victims. Granted, dogs are bred "artificially" by humans to adapt them to special environments but they still remain dogs, and don't become a "new species".

This is observed naturally among different "breeds" of humans, who are all nevertheless human and not some other "species". Hence, aboriginal people who live in tropical areas generally have dark skin (high melanin for UV protection) and a higher surface area to volume ratio (tall and lanky - for easier heat dissipation). Conversely Inuits, the people of the Arctic regions, tend to have fair skin (low melanin - not much need for sun protection) but a considerably lower surface area to volume ratio (a propensity for portliness - for better heat retention).

So there certainly does seem to be a process in nature that also "breeds" species to adapt them to their environment. This is what Darwin called "natural selection". This is all still "adaptation" not "evolution".
This natural process tends to "concentrate" certain gene combinations within the species that produce individuals that are more adapted to their environment. But these concentrations of certain genotypes within the gene pool of the species are just that: concentrations. When the conditions that favor this particular concentration of genes are removed, the concentration disperses and the "special breed" eventually ceases to exist, its genes becoming gradually diluted and dispersed throughout the vast general gene pool of their species at large. So far - so good. This is all solid science.

But the next step is where Darwin's cart goes completely off its rails. Darwin then made a leap of blind faith and this is where he, and all those who followed him, went off a cliff. Darwin assumed (he didn't observe - nobody has ever observed this) that these physical changes due to natural selection add up and eventually result in the formation of an entirely new species. This idea is called "evolution." This is where it crosses over from "adaptation", which is true science and which happens all the time, to "evolution", which is not true but a fantasy based on thin air and pure speculation and never happens in reality.

Posted by orrinj at 11:17 AM


Asset Quality Misrepresentation by Financial Intermediaries: Evidence from RMBS Market (Tomasz Piskorski, Columbia Business School - Finance and Economics, Amit Seru, University of Chicago - Booth School of Business and NBER, James Witkin, Columbia University - Columbia Business School, February 12, 2013, SSRN)
We contend that buyers received false information about the true quality of assets in contractual disclosures by intermediaries during the sale of mortgages in the $2 trillion non-agency market. We construct two measures of misrepresentation of asset quality -- misreported occupancy status of borrower and misreported second liens -- by comparing the characteristics of mortgages disclosed to the investors at the time of sale with actual characteristics of these loans at that time that are available in a dataset matched by a credit bureau. About one out of every ten loans has one of these misrepresentations. These misrepresentations are not likely to be an artifact of matching error between datasets that contain actual characteristics and those that are reported to investors. At least part of this misrepresentation likely occurs within the boundaries of the financial industry (i.e., not by borrowers). The propensity of intermediaries to sell misrepresented loans increased as the housing market boomed, peaking in 2006. These misrepresentations are costly for investors, as ex post delinquencies of such loans are more than 60% higher when compared with otherwise similar loans. Lenders seem to be partly aware of this risk, charging a higher interest rate on misrepresented loans relative to otherwise similar loans, but the interest rate markup on misrepresented loans does not fully reflect their higher default risk.

Posted by orrinj at 10:11 AM


Germany wants comprehensive EU-U.S. free trade deal: minister (Reuters, Feb 17, 2013)

German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler wants the European Union and the United States to reach a comprehensive transatlantic free trade agreement rather than settle for the limited deal some southern EU nations favor.

Roesler told Der Spiegel magazine on Sunday he and the German government want a sweeping free trade deal, while France and southern EU nations, by contrast, want to protect their agriculture industry with regulations and also keep out genetically modified U.S. foodstuffs, the magazine said.

Roesler has backing from a study by the Ifo economic institute think tank that said the advantages of the free trade zone would be larger with a comprehensive deal. [...]

The Ifo study, carried out for the Economy Ministry, found that per capita gross domestic product (GDP) would rise by 0.1 percent in the EU and 0.2 percent in the United States with the free trade deal if only customs barriers were abolished.

But more could be expected if the governments introduced common technical standards, safety standards and competition rules, Ifo said.

Posted by orrinj at 9:50 AM


Ordered Liberty under God : a review of Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World by Robert P. Kraynak (Douglas C. Minson, 1/21/13, Imaginative Conservative)

The stated purpose of Christian Faith and Modern Democracy is twofold. Kraynak argues that liberalism requires Christianity to provide a sufficient foundation for human dignity--an account it is unable to generate on its own and upon which modern democracy depends. Having made his case for liberalism's theoretical dependence on Christianity, Kraynak then devotes the bulk of his book to developing an argument that Christianity in no way necessitates modern liberal democracy. In fact, he proposes that liberal democracy and Christianity are profoundly irreconcilable.

Kraynak's thesis is nothing if not bold. For most American Christians, who can perceive no tension between their religious and political devotion, it would appear that Kraynak's intellectual project is both perverse and impossible. Remarkably, however, one leaves the book impressed that Kraynak is equal to his task.

Much as Richard John Neuhaus has observed that modern atheism is a "Christian" atheism-- in the sense that the only God it bothers to deny is the monotheistic, eternal, and personal God of the Judeo-Christian tradition--Kraynak contends that modern democratic liberalism is the only form of democracy that is a candidate for serious consideration. Modern democracy, unlike ancient Greek democracy, for example, is democracy as an end unto itself, a political expression of the rights that accompany a particular conception of human nature and human dignity. This particular notion of dignity is equated with "autonomy and mastery of one's fate." As such, liberal democracy is more than merely a system of social and political order: "it is a philosophy of freedom."

Christianity's account of human dignity, by contrast, is essentially hierarchical and unsuited to the purposes of modern democracy. Kraynak's treatment of the politics of human dignity is particularly insightful, both for its lucidity and its ecumenical scope. Kraynak examines the way that the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin all reflect a hierarchy of being in their understanding of the imago dei, human reason, and human responsibility. His examination of Christianity's understanding of man as conceived within and measured by a cosmological order has important implications for law and justice and provides a stark contrast to the liberal democratic view of human dignity as absolute and undifferentiated. For Kraynak, the Christian understanding of human nature finds its political expression in Augustine's doctrine of Two Cities-- a doctrine that both accommodates a range of political systems and finds every particular regime (including our own) ultimately inadequate.

Over and against the prevailing conception of democracy, which only thinly disguises its claim to being the best regime, Kraynak offers a theory of Christian constitutionalism. Such constitutionalism is "more open to the diversity of political regimes than liberalism" and is less ambitious than its secular counterparts. Rooted in a substantial view of higher goods and higher spheres that cannot be absorbed by the state, the temporal ends of the state are more narrowly conceived than is the case with modern liberalism.

In effect, Christian constitutionalism in no way aspires to resolve or overcome what Peter Augustine Lawler has suggested is humanity's essentially "alien" nature. The citizens of the City of Man are ever and necessarily strangers in a strange land, pilgrims on a journey, temporal beings longing for eternity and transcendence. Thus is the City of Man "desacralized." Nonetheless, because it is divinely ordained, it can never be purely secularized. It is limited to temporal ends, but with an eye to eternal concerns.

Christian constitutionalism provides an alternative framework for limited government on a distinctly "illiberal" foundation. Indeed, Kraynak draws upon Reformed notions of "sphere sovereignty," Roman Catholic conceptions of subsidiarity, and Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian Realism to provide a metaphysical foundation for a pluralistic social order. But offering an alternative to the prevailing democratic orthodoxy is not Kraynak's primary concern-- it is only an element of his contention that liberal democracy cannot be harmonized with the Christian faith.

While all states and peoples are inevitably tending towards modern liberal democracy (the only way we know of that our temporal ends can be reasonably well satisfied) this End of History is ultimately only desirable to the extent that they also strive towards satisfying those eternal concerns. In the absence of the latter, the former just represents the senescent condition in which they'll die off.

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Posted by orrinj at 9:32 AM


Why Darwinist Materialism is Wrong : According to a semi-established consensus among the intellectual elite in the West, there is no such person as God or any other supernatural being. a review of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian  Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False  By Thomas Nagel (ALVIN PLANTINGA, 11/06/12, New Republic)

Now you might think someone with Nagel's views would be sympathetic to theism, the belief that there is such a person as the God of the Abrahamic religions.  Materialist naturalism, says Nagel, cannot account for the appearance of life, or the variety we find in the living world, or consciousness, or cognition, or mind -- but theism has no problem accounting for any of these.  As for life, God himself is living, and in one way or another has created the biological life to be found on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere as well).  As for the diversity of life: God has brought that about, whether through a guided process of evolution or in some other way.  As for consciousness, again theism has no problem: according to theism the fundamental and basic reality is God, who is conscious.  And what about the existence of creatures with cognition and reason, creatures who, like us, are capable of scientific investigation of our world?  Well, according to theism, God has created us human beings in his image; part of being in the image of God (Aquinas thought it the most important part) is being able to know something about ourselves and our world and God himself, just as God does.  Hence theism implies that the world is indeed intelligible to us, even if not quite intelligible in Nagel's glorified sense.  Indeed, modern empirical science was nurtured in the womb of Christian theism, which implies that there is a certain match or fit between the world and our cognitive faculties.

Given theism, there is no surprise at all that there should be creatures like us who are capable of atomic physics, relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and the like.  Materialist naturalism, on the other hand, as Nagel points out, has great difficulty accounting for the existence of such creatures.  For this and other reasons, theism is vastly more welcoming to science than materialist naturalism.  So theism would seem to be a natural alternative to the materialist naturalism Nagel rejects: it has virtues where the latter has vices, and we might therefore expect Nagel, at least on these grounds, to be sympathetic to theism.

Sadly enough (at least for me), Nagel rejects theism.  "I confess to an ungrounded assumption of my own, in not finding it possible to regard the design alternative [i.e., theism] as a real option.  I lack the sensus divinitatis that enables -- indeed, compels so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose."  But it isn't just that Nagel is more or less neutral about theism but lacks that sensus divinitatis. In The Last Word, which appeared in 1997, he offered a candid account of his philosophical inclinations:

It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.

I am talking about something much deeper -- namely, the fear of religion itself.  I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. . . . It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief.  It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.

Here we have discomfort and distress at the thought that there might be such a being as God; but this discomfort seems more emotional than philosophical or rational.

So is there a strictly philosophical problem with theism, according to Nagel?  As far as I can see, the main substantive objection that he offers is an appeal to that notion of unity.  A successful worldview will see the world as intelligible; and intelligibility, as Nagel conceives it, involves a high degree of unity.  The world is intelligible only if there are no fundamental breaks in it, only if it contains no fundamentally different kinds of things.  Descartes, that great dualist, thought that the world displays two quite different sorts of things: matter and mind, neither reducible to the other.  Nagel rejects this dualism: his reason is just that such dualism fails to secure the unity necessary for the world's being intelligible.

Yet is there any reason to think that the world really is intelligible in this very strong sense -- any good reason to think that there is fundamentally just one kind of thing, with everything being an example of that kind, or reducible to things that are?  Here three considerations seem to be necessary.  First, we need to know more about this requirement: what is it to say that fundamentally there is just one kind of thing?  It is not obvious how this is to be understood.  Aren't there many different sorts of things: houses, horses, hawks, and handsaws?  Well, perhaps they are not fundamentally different.  But what does "fundamentally" mean here?  Is the idea that the world is intelligible only if there is some important property that houses, horses, hawks, and handsaws all share?  What kind of property?

Second, how much plausibility is there to the claim that this sort of unity really is required for intelligibility?  Clearly we cannot claim that Descartes's dualism is literally unintelligible -- after all, even if you reject it, you can understand it.  (How else could you reject it?) Is it really true that the world is more intelligible, in some important sense of "intelligible," if it does not contain two or more fundamentally different kinds of things?  I see little reason to think so.

And third, suppose we concede that the world is genuinely intelligible only if it displays this sort of monistic unity: why should we think that the world really does display such a unity?  We might hope that the world would display such unity, but is there any reason to think the world will cooperate?  Suppose intelligibility requires that kind of unity: why should we think our world is intelligible in that sense?  Is it reasonable to say to a theist, "Well, if theism were true, there would be two quite different sorts of things: God on the one hand, and the creatures he has created on the other.  But that cannot really be true: for if it were, the world would not display the sort of unity required for intelligibility"?  Won't the theist be quite properly content to forgo that sort of intelligibility?

I come finally to Nagel's positive thesis.  Materialist naturalism, he shows, is false, but what does he propose to put in its place?  Here he is a little diffident.  He thinks that it may take centuries to work out a satisfactory alternative to materialist naturalism (given that theism is not acceptable); he is content to propose a suggestive sketch.  He does so in a spirit of modesty: "I am certain that my own attempt to explore alternatives is far too unimaginative.  An understanding of the universe as basically prone to generate life and mind will probably require a much more radical departure from the familiar forms of naturalistic explanation than I am at present able to conceive."

There are two main elements to Nagel's sketch.  There is panpsychism, or the idea that there is mind, or proto-mind, or something like mind, all the way down.  In this view, mind never emerges in the universe: it is present from the start, in that even the most elementary particles display some kind of mindedness.  The thought is not, of course, that elementary particles are able to do mathematical calculations, or that they are self-conscious; but they do enjoy some kind of mentality.  In this way Nagel proposes to avoid the lack of intelligibility he finds in dualism.

But we haven't the faintest idea how a being with a mind like ours can be composed of or constructed out of smaller entities that have some kind of mindedness. How do those elementary minds get combined into a less than elementary mind?

Of course someone might wonder how much of a gain there is, from the point of view of unity, in rejecting two fundamentally different kinds of objects in favor of two fundamentally different kinds of properties.  And as Nagel recognizes, there is still a problem for him about the existence of minds like ours, minds capable of understanding a fair amount about the universe.  We can see (to some degree, anyway) how more complex material objects can be built out of simpler ones: ordinary physical objects are composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are composed of electrons and quarks (at this point things get less than totally clear).  But we haven't the faintest idea how a being with a mind like ours can be composed of or constructed out of smaller entities that have some kind of mindedness.  How do those elementary minds get combined into a less than elementary mind?

The second element of Nagel's sketch is what we can call natural teleology.His idea seems to be something like this.  At each stage in the development of our universe (perhaps we can think of that development as starting with the big bang), there are several different possibilities as to what will happen next.  Some of these possibilities are steps on the way toward the existence of creatures with minds like ours; others are not.  According to Nagel's natural teleology, there is a sort of intrinsic bias in the universe toward those possibilities that lead to minds.  Or perhaps there was an intrinsic bias in the universe toward the sorts of initial conditions that would lead to the existence of minds like ours.  Nagel does not elaborate or develop these suggestions.  Still, he is not to be criticized for this: he is probably right in believing that it will take a lot of thought and a long time to develop these suggestions into a truly viable alternative to both materialist naturalism and theism.

It's easy enough to demonstrate the falsity of materialism generally and Darwinism specifically, but it's always amusing what comes after.  Mr. Nagel can make the intellectual case for theism, but just can't take the emotional step to faith.  This tells us much about him and the social milieu within which he functions but nothing about Creation.

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Posted by orrinj at 9:20 AM


Obama sees the limits of government (Zachary Karabell, FEBRUARY 15, 2013, Reuters)

[T]he initiatives Obama proposed are striking not for their sweep but for their limited scope. That reflects both pragmatism and realism: Not only is the age of big government really over, so is the age of government as the transformative force in American society. And that is all for the best. [...]

[W]hile healthcare is billed as an expansion of government, it is more a continuing issue of cost and delivery of something that has to be paid for by someone and at some cost.

On almost every other front, government is receding ‑ not just from the financial crisis high tide of 2008-2009 but from decades before. Each of Obama's proposals hones and potentially reduces current spending, whether on education or on infrastructure. That $50 billion for roads appears large. In mid-2012, though, Congress authorized $120 billion in highway expenses through 2014, and much of what Obama proposes could be encompassed by focusing current spending.

Even if there is new spending there, it is a pittance compared to the interstate highway bills of the 1950s or the space program of the 1960s, let alone the many programs that encompassed the War on Poverty and led to a vast expansion of federal programs in healthcare, housing and education.

Take the minimum wage, the issue that received perhaps the most attention among the president's proposals, save gun control. But increasing the minimum wage isn't a government program. It's a bill that potentially mandates higher costs for some employers. Whether you love it or hate it, it is not an expansion of government ‑ and certainly not of government spending.

All these proposals, in fact, are small-bore for the post-New Deal era. They are small-bore compared to the massive 2009 stimulus bill of almost $800 billion. They are small-bore because there is no political ill for them to be larger-bore, and because it is unclear just how much government can use the bazooka of big spending to effect significant changes in society.

Posted by orrinj at 9:16 AM


"I'm Gonna Tell You What I'm Gonna Do": What It Was Like To Guard Michael Jordan, According To Craig Ehlo (Emma Carmichael, 2/16/13, Deadspin)

In honor of Michael Jordan's 50th birthday, we reached out to a man who, possibly more than anyone, understands the sneering greatness of Jordan in his prime: Craig Ehlo, the former NBA player (14 seasons with the Rockets, Cavaliers, Hawks, and SuperSonics) who was on the wrong side of "The Shot" in Game 5 of the 1989 Eastern Conference playoffs. Ehlo is now an assistant coach for the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team. What follows is his recollection of guarding Jordan, in his words.

I was lucky enough to play in the same division as the Bulls, so not only did we see them in the regular season, but also three or four times in the playoffs. So I saw him extra. I wouldn't say I was the unfortunate one, because still, like my dad always said, you'll be the best when you play the best. I was always thrilled to be in that position.
Usually, Ron Harper would start on him, then I would come in and go to him, and Ron would go to Scottie Pippen or something like that. I always felt very lucky that Coach Wilkens had that faith in me to guard him. Michael was very competitive when he got between the lines. He was never a bad talker or too arrogant, but it was just like what Jason [Williams] said: He'd tell you. He only did that to me one time, from what I remember. It was his 69-point game, and things were going so well for him that I guess he just went for it. We were running up the court side-by-side and he told me: "Listen man, I'm hitting everything, so I'm gonna tell you what I'm gonna do this time and see if you can stop it. You know you can't stop it. You know you can't stop this. You can't guard me.

"I'm gonna catch it on the left elbow, and then I'm gonna drive to the left to the baseline, and then I'm gonna pull up and shoot my fadeaway."

And sure enough ...

Like I said, he was never mean or bad about it. But on that one play I was like, OK, well, if he's gonna tell me what he's going to do, then I'm gonna take advantage of this. And I was right there with him when he did--but sure enough he banked it off the backboard. We were heading back down court, and he gave me that kind of shrugged-shoulder look that you'd always see and he's like: "I told you. I told you." And I just said, "Don't do that again."
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Posted by orrinj at 9:05 AM


Ben Carson for President : The Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon has two big ideas for America. (WSJ, 2/08/13)

"Here's my solution: When a person is born, give him a birth certificate, an electronic medical record, and a health savings account to which money can be contributed--pretax--from the time you're born 'til the time you die. If you die, you can pass it on to your family members, and there's nobody talking about death panels. We can make contributions for people who are indigent. Instead of sending all this money to some bureaucracy, let's put it in their HSAs. Now they have some control over their own health care. And very quickly they're going to learn how to be responsible."

The Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon may not be politically correct, but he's closer to correct than we've heard in years.

Ten Trillion and Counting : Interview with Paul O'Neill (PBS, Nov. 24, 2008)

We could actually save our way out of this dilemma, so that if we, the American people, saved 10 percent of our income, we would over time build up the resources to pay for these obligations that are coming along.

... There are 4 million live births in the United States every year. So if we, the American people, said we're going to assure financial security for our citizens when they get to be 65, if we believe that and put it in practice, we put $23,000 in a named account for an individual on the day they were born. ... If [it] grew at 6 percent, when you got to be 65, your annuity in your name would be worth $1.18 million. So we would create real financial security. It would cost us $92 billion a year to do that. Right this year the federal budget is going to be $3.1 trillion. Could we afford, in effect, to become a mandated-saving society? Absolutely.

February 16, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 11:15 PM


Breakdown of U.S. housing prices shows gains almost everywhere (Lew Sichelman, February 17, 2013, LA Times)

The latest numbers from the field are in, and the news is good. Housing prices were up almost everywhere across the country in 2012.

Of the 134 core-based statistical areas (CBSAs) that reported 500 or more sales last year, 123 saw gains, according to year-over-year data collected as of Dec. 31 by Pro Teck Valuation Services of Waltham, Mass. CBSAs are defined as "micropolitan" areas of at least 10,000 people who are tied to an urban center by commuting. [...]

Overall, the national median price per square foot rose from $81.08 in 2011 to $86.42 last year, according to Pro Teck, which takes its numbers at least daily from about 850 multiple listing services.

Posted by orrinj at 6:37 PM


The Health Benefits That Cut Your Pay (DAVID GOLDHILL, 2/16/13, NY Times)

NOT long ago, a 23-year-old woman joined my company as an assistant in the advertising sales department at a starting salary of $35,000. Smart, ambitious and poised, she should have a promising future. Unfortunately, her earnings prospects are threatened. Like many Americans, she's unaware of how much of her compensation is being eaten up by health care costs, and how much this share will grow as long as the increase in health costs exceeds growth in gross domestic product. That's just math.

The Affordable Care Act does require employers, beginning this year, to note on W-2's how much both the employee and the employer contributed to health care costs. Maybe that will help diminish the ignorance regarding true health care costs. But even with greater awareness, many Americans still might not understand that the largest effect of the cost of our health care system is to reduce the amount of money they actually take home.

I have estimated that our 23-year-old employee will bear at least $1.8 million in health care costs over her lifetime. 
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Posted by orrinj at 8:23 AM


Fracking is the only way to achieve Obama climate change goals, says senior scientist (Robin McKie, 2/16/13, The Observer)

America will only achieve the ambitious climate change goals outlined by President Barack Obama last week by encouraging wide-scale fracking for natural gas over the next few years. That is the advice of one of the nation's senior scientists, Professor William Press, a member of the president's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. [...]

 "Coal is burnt to provide the US with almost half its electricity. This is done in huge central power plants and the process is very dirty. By contrast, the burning of natural gas is clean and can be done in smaller, local, more efficient power station," said Press.

"For the amount of heat you produce, coal is, effectively, three times more powerful an emitter of carbon dioxide than natural gas. Relying on gas will therefore cut our carbon emissions substantially."

Posted by orrinj at 8:15 AM


The Pope Joins a Fine but Rarely Seen Tradition : A resignation that echoes across the ages, recalling other pontiffs who acted for the good of the church. (THOMAS F. MADDEN, 2/14/13, WSJ)

Given the list of hundreds of popes stretching across 20 centuries, one of the remarkable details about Pope Benedict XVI's resignation announcement earlier this week was that such papal events are astonishingly rare. And yet there is a simple reason that so few pontiffs have stepped down from the throne of St. Peter. Since the pope is the Vicar of Christ on Earth, placed in his position by the Holy Spirit and exempt from all human judgment, to whom would he submit his resignation? [...]

In 1415, Europe had endured nearly four decades of religious turmoil during which two (and at one point, three) rival popes reigned in different cities at the same time. Everyone knew that there could be only one true pope, but there was no good way to decide which of the various popes that was. Some in the Catholic hierarchy suggested that an ecumenical council should decide the issue, but such a council could only be called by a valid pope, which was of course the whole problem.

Papering over the difficulty, a council called itself into being at Constance, in present-day Germany, in 1414. The pope in Rome, Gregory XII, negotiated a plan with the leaders of the council that if they would recognize him and his predecessors at Rome as the true popes, he would call the council, thus giving it the legitimacy it needed. Then he would himself resign. The deal was struck and, after deposing the remaining antipope in Avignon, the council finally ended the Great Schism. Ex-Pope Gregory XII was praised across Europe for his willingness to put the good of the faith before his own interests. He spent the remaining two years of his life as Bishop of Porto.

The resignation of Benedict XVI is, therefore, big news as only the third resignation since it became an option. Yet across so much time, the reasons behind the decision remain remarkably similar. Like Celestine V and Gregory XII, Benedict puts aside his own power, privilege and position for the continued well-being of a centuries-old religion and its followers.

Posted by orrinj at 8:00 AM


A Star-Crossed Cult Figure, Unadorned (MARC MYERS, 1/31/13, WSJ)

Today, Mr. Van Zandt's cult status stems partly from his terse poetic purity and luckless-troubadour personal story. Son of a wealthy Texas oil-company attorney, he was a binge drinker who suffered from bouts of depression. Mr. Van Zandt recorded five albums between 1968 and 1972 that never managed to earn him widespread recognition. What he wound up with, though, was plenty of baggage. By '72, he was divorced, with a child he rarely saw; he had a heroin habit; and his girlfriend had just been murdered after being abducted while hitchhiking back to his Los Angeles apartment on an errand for him.

Haunted by her death, Mr. Van Zandt returned to Texas and continued to compose, recording sporadically in the 1980s and '90s. He also performed frequently, exposing a new generation of artists to his soul-wrenching roots approach. During this period, his personal problems only intensified--continued addictions along with bipolar disorder.

The material released on the new CD set was first discovered in 1996, as part of Mr. Van Zandt's original 1971-72 session tapes. But the tracks could not be released until litigation over rights was settled. "Many of the demos and alternate tracks I heard when I first pulled the tapes were beautiful, stripped-down versions of the originals, which tended to bury the essence of his songs with overdubbed strings, choirs and horns," said Cheryl Pawelski, Omnivore's founder and the set's producer.

The set's highlights include penetrating alternate takes of his "Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold," "To Live Is to Fly" and a 1972 mix of "Pancho & Lefty"--Mr. Van Zandt's best-known saga song. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:30 AM


All Criterion Films Streaming Free on Hulu This Weekend (in the US) (Open Culture, February 16th, 2013)

Over this Presidents' Day weekend, Hulu is streaming all of the Criterion Collection movies for free. That's right, free! We're talking hundreds of films by the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Charlie Chaplin, Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa, David Lynch, Nagisa Oshima, François Truffaut, and Orson Welles. So cancel your weekend plans, wish your friends and family well, and start packing in as many classic films as you can. 

Andrei Rublev, Babette's Feast, Wise Blood, Passion of Joan of Arc, Hidden Fortress, Four Feathers, Burden of Dreams...just not The Red Balloon

February 15, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 5:10 PM


Penny Wise: Time to Kill the One-Cent Coin? (HAROLD MAASS, 2/15/13, TheWeek.com)

President Obama dropped a bombshell in an online "Fireside Chat" Thursday that could reverberate -- and shatter piggy banks -- across the nation. Our commander-in-chief, it seems, wants to do away with the penny. Each one-cent piece costs 2.4 cents to mint and distribute, so the U.S. government loses money every time it puts one into circulation. The savings from eliminating the copper and zinc coins won't result in huge savings for the government, but it still makes sense, Obama says, as "anytime we're spending more money on something that people don't actually use, that's an example of something we should probably change."

Physical currency has outlived its usefulness.

February 14, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:13 PM


Avoiding the Curse of the Oil-Rich Nations (TINA ROSENBERG, 2/14/13, NY Times)

Oil-dependent countries, writes the Stanford professor Terry Karl, "eventually become among the most economically troubled, the most authoritarian, and the most conflict-ridden in the world." This phenomenon is called the resource curse. [...]

Petro-dependence also leads to conflict. The conventional wisdom used to be that grievances were the cause of conflict, but that ended after the economists Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler found in a series of ground-breaking studies that more important was the opportunity to grab oil or other commodity resources. They showed that if a third or more of a country's G.D.P. came from the export of primary commodities, the likelihood of conflict was 22 percent. Similar countries that did not export commodities had a 1 percent chance.

If a government can finance itself through the profits on oil, it needn't collect taxes. Let me suggest that this is not a good thing. Taxes create accountability -- citizens want to know how the government is spending their money. Substituting oil revenues decouples government from the people. The list of the world's worst-governed countries today features many that are dependent on the production of oil: Nigeria, Angola, Chad, Venezuela, Libya, Equatorial Guinea.

Am I my brother's keeper?

Posted by orrinj at 3:59 PM


Getting Married in Israel: Why It So Often Means Hiring a Detective (Daniel Estrin, 2 FEB 13 2013, The Atlantic)

One drizzly fall night two years ago, the Israeli detective Shimon Har-Shalom stepped off a plane in Moscow clutching a briefcase full of clues. After hurrying through a crowd of fur coats, he ducked into the last car of the downtown express train and removed his cap, revealing a black yarmulke and short, wispy silvery side locks of hair. He slid a file folder from his briefcase and shuffled its contents: a century-old marriage contract, certificates stamped with the hammer-and-sickle of the Soviet Union, and hazy family photographs.

The case Har-Shalom was working that night had bedeviled him for some time. Back in Jerusalem, he'd been hired by a Russian émigrée who was planning for her daughter's eventual wedding and needed Har-Shalom for a crucial ingredient -- proof that her child was Jewish.

Marriage in Israel is controlled by state religious authorities; there are virtually no civil weddings in the country. Jews who want a marriage license must first prove they are Jewish in accordance with Orthodox tradition, which means they need to have been born to an uninterrupted line of Jewish mothers. Such a pedigree can be difficult to prove, especially for the children of Israel's largest immigrant community, the former denizens of the Soviet Union, many of whom spent years obscuring their Jewish roots to avoid discrimination. Enticed by lax immigration policies, these émigrés flooded Israel two decades ago and gave birth to children who now are beginning to seek marriage.

Posted by orrinj at 3:51 PM


Mixed Messages in Obama's State of the Union (Matthew Rothschild, February 13, 2013, The Progressive)

And appallingly, he defended his drone warfare and assassination policy. "Where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans," he said. And in the very next sentence, he had the chutzpah to add: "As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight."

He said his Administration "has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations." But is it "legal" just because he and his Justice Department say it is?

He also said, in a bald-faced lie, that "throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts." Try running that past Sen. Ron Wyden, who for months has been trying to get his questions answered on the Administration's assassination doctrine.

He also sang from the hymnal of American exceptionalism. "America must remain a beacon to all who seek freedom during this period of historic change," he said. "In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights." Tell that to the people of Bahrain.

This was neither Obama's most eloquent defense of an affirmative role for government, nor was it close to his most honest discussion of U.S. foreign policy.

Instead, it was lukewarm liberalism at home coupled with Bush-league justifications for lawlessness and hypocrisy abroad.

Posted by orrinj at 3:15 PM


Hatchet Job of the Year goes to assault on Rachel Cusk (Alison Flood, 2/12/13, guardian.co.uk)

Camilla Long's comprehensive shredding of Rachel Cusk's memoir of her divorce, Aftermath, has won her the Hatchet Job of the Year award for the best worst review of the last 12 months.

Cusk took 160 pages to detail the end of her marriage, and how her life fell apart "like a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces". Long, in a review for the Sunday Times, takes just over 1,000 words to pull Cusk's memoir to bits, writing the novelist off as "a brittle little  and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish", and who "describes her grief in expert, whinnying detail".

Judges Lynn Barber, John Walsh and Francis Wheen chose Long's write-up ahead of Zoë Heller's dire review of Salman Rushdie's memoir Joseph Anton - "an unembarrassed sense of what he is owed as an embattled, literary immortal-in-waiting pervades his book", wrote Heller - and Craig Brown's rejection of Richard Bradford's The Odd Couple as "a triumph of 'cut and paste'" as their winner.

Posted by orrinj at 3:10 PM


Pyongyang's Nuclear Logic : Sometimes a Test is Just a Test (Jennifer Lind, Keir A. Lieber, and Daryl G. Press, February 14, 2013, Foreign Affairs)

Like the United States during the Cold War, North Korea has apparently decided that nuclear weapons are central to its national security strategy. With few friends, its conventional military forces outgunned, an economy in tatters, and facing off against a superpower prone to deposing dictatorships across the globe, the Kim regime set about building an operational nuclear arsenal. And just as NATO planned to thwart a Soviet invasion by striking targets in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, North Korea presumably plans to defend itself, should war erupt on the peninsula, by threatening U.S. regional allies and targets in the United States.

North Korea's mission requires small, lightweight warheads, and missiles that work -- and the only way to know that they work is to test them. So far, the weapons have proved unspectacular. The country's first nuclear test, conducted in 2006, was an embarrassment. Pyongyang had told the Chinese that the device would generate four kilotons of explosive power, but it ended up producing less than one. The second test in 2009 fared slightly better, producing between one and eight kilotons, although it is not known what size of a blast the North Koreans had sought. Moreover, Pyongyang has much more work to do before it can boast weapons that will actually fit on its missiles (which have been, themselves, a series of humiliating failures).

Observers in the West who presume that North Korea's behavior must be about signaling should remember NATO and the United States' own experience during the Cold War. The United States understood then that the ability to conduct nuclear operations was the very foundation of a credible deterrence strategy. Today, a sound strategy for dealing with North Korea should not ascribe ulterior motives to acts that the United States once considered rational and routine.

..which is that this explosion once again demonstrated that North Korea has no nuclear capacity.  They've essentially greenlighted a pre-emptive strike on our part, which would be our best way to establish that we're serious about deterrence.
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Posted by orrinj at 3:07 PM


European Union and U.S. to pursue transatlantic free-trade deal (Associated Press, February 14, 2013)

The European Union and the United States announced that they will pursue talks aimed at achieving an overarching transatlantic free-trade deal.

The 27-country EU said Wednesday that such an agreement, first announced in the State of the Union address by President Obama, would be the biggest bilateral trade deal ever negotiated. Any agreement could boost economic output in the EU by 0.5% and in the U.S. by 0.7%, according to some estimates. That would be a highly desirable outcome when the EU and the U.S. are both struggling with slow growth, high unemployment and high levels of debt.

Posted by orrinj at 2:57 PM


401(k) balances at record high (Melanie Hicken, February 14, 201, CNNMoney)

401(k) balances reached record highs in 2012, as a strong stock market and increased contributions helped retirement savers continue to recover from recession losses. [...]

"It is very encouraging to see that the retirement balances have completely bounced back from where they were during the height of the downturn and that participants have continued to have faith in the 401(k)," said Jeanne Thompson, Fidelity's vice president for retirement insights.

February 13, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:42 PM


Obama injects optimism into trade deal (James Politi and Richard McGregor, 2/13/13, Financial Times)

"Tonight, I am announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union - because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs," Mr Obama said.

The US and the EU already have a huge trade relationship, worth $2.7bn per day in goods and services, but since November 2011 they have been exploring the potential for deepening their ties further amid rising global competition, particularly from China.

The main focus of a trade agreement between the US and EU would be to harmonise standards and tackle the non-tariff barriers that have frequently caused disputes across the Atlantic.

Posted by orrinj at 9:38 PM


Baseball is back (thank goodness) and it's better than ever (really) (Tom Verducci, 2/12/13, SI)

Money doesn't buy championships

Okay, it helps. But the most important "skill" in baseball today is the ability to stay on the field. With steroids and greenies banned, younger players, who tend to be fitter and healthier, are more important than older players. And because service time is a major component of salary, younger players also are cheaper than older players.

I've already demonstrated how young starting pitching is an asset, not a liability. Keep this in mind as well: the average age of position players last year (28.5) dropped to its lowest level since 1993.
The Dodgers, emboldened by a ridiculously lucrative local TV contract that further defines our gluttony for entertainment, are the most intriguing team to watch this year because they have borrowed from an old model to try to win at today's game: overspend on veteran players the way the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies once did.

Posted by orrinj at 9:19 PM


3 Long-Lasting Sustainable Companies Teach How To Both Thrive And Give Back (Jay Coen Gilbert and Katie Kerr, 2/07/13, Co.Exist)

After nearly 225 years in business, King Arthur Flour knows a thing or two about success. The company's secret: focusing on employees. Based in Norwich, Vermont, this Rockstar (and America's oldest flour company) began as a family-owned business before transitioning towards an employee-ownership model in 1996 and finally becoming 100% employee owned and thriving. The Employee Stock Ownership Plan provides each employee with a stake in the company and therefore a bigger incentive to make it a success--a fact reflected in the company's growth. Revenue and their workforce have been steadily increasing over the last 10 years, both doubling in the years since converting to 100% employee ownership. Last year, KAF had gross sales of over $97 million and an employee count of 283--a huge increase from the six employees in 1990.

As an employee-owned B Corp, KAF has the freedom to emphasize values beyond profit, like environmental responsibility, community engagement, and the wellness and satisfaction of employees. More than 80% of health care premiums are paid for families and both full- and part-time employees receive a living wage. Providing employees with high-quality jobs and a great work environment also enables them to give back. With 40 hours of paid time to volunteer and company-wide service outings, KAF employees donated 1,524 hours of volunteer time in 2011. The company also donates both cash and products to local nonprofit organizations focusing on nutrition education, hunger relief, and environmental sustainability.

The ability to live their values at work is the secret to King Arthur Flour's longevity and success. Thriving for more than 200 years in a competitive and often unpredictable economy is an achievement in itself. Doing so while consistently contributing to a better world is what makes King Arthur Flour a Lifetime Rockstar.
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Posted by orrinj at 5:31 AM


The Arab Spring is great, says leading Israeli analyst (ELHANAN MILLER, February 13, 2013, Times of Israel)

When discussing the series of popular uprisings commonly known as the Arab Spring, pessimism seems to be the prevailing attitude among experts these days. But one observer, who has been monitoring and analyzing the Middle East for decades, is surprisingly upbeat.

"People were warning us about the rise of Islamism, but from day one my attitude was exactly the opposite: I was shining," said Yigal Carmon, founder and president of MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute. Carmon's assessment, as someone who hails from the heart of Israel's security establishment, might bear particular significance.

"It is indeed an Arab Spring," he told The Times of Israel this week, "where people are fighting for freedom, putting their lives on the line every day against dictatorship. There can be no other name for it."

Before the Arab Spring, Carmon said, the Middle East was "a frozen swamp of repression, on every level." But that stagnation, which he said left Arabs and Muslims "outside the world in its progress," is gone, never to return.

"They have begun their long quest to join humanity. This is an honorable journey which I have the utmost respect for," he said.

February 12, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:54 PM


America's Misguided Approach to Social Welfare : How the Country Could Get More for Less (Kimberly J. Morgan, January/February 2013, Foreign Affairs)

Several OECD countries have found ways to ensure widespread access to benefits and services without "socializing" the sectors in question. Australia, the Nordic countries, and most countries in southern Europe do all finance and provide health care through public agencies. However, in Canada, Japan, and much of continental Europe, although the government mostly pays for public health care, it is private actors and organizations that provide the health care itself. And in the continental European countries, private insurance either supplements a public insurance system (as in France and Germany) or is the dominant source of coverage (as in the Netherlands and Switzerland). In the Swiss system, for instance, all individuals have to buy insurance, insurers have to accept all who apply for coverage, and public subsidies ensure that coverage is affordable for all. (According to the Commonwealth Fund, about 30 percent of Swiss receive such subsidies.)

In terms of family welfare, in Germany, child care is mainly the responsibility of municipal governments, which funnel subsidies to nonprofit organizations that run daycare centers. In Australia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, most child care is publicly subsidized and is provided by either nonprofit or for-profit entities. In France, publicly subsidized babysitters care for nearly one-third of children under three. Even in the Scandinavian countries, where publicly provided daycare is most common, the state offers considerable benefits to parents who care for their children at home.

The success of some public-private partnerships in Europe shows that generous, effective, and broadly accessible social welfare policies do not require large government bureaucracies staffed with armies of public servants. The government does not have to perform the work itself. But it does have to mandate its provision and monitor the agencies that perform it. Leaving social welfare up to private-sector employers without adequate public support or regulation ensures that many people will fall through the cracks. If Americans truly believe that basic social services are things that all citizens deserve, they should not be content with a social welfare system that often makes getting such services a matter of privilege or luck.

For example, rather than leaving it up to employers and individuals to take care of pension benefits, the government could mandate their provision, making them a required supplement on top of existing Social Security benefits. Washington might also consider requiring all employers to provide three months of paid family leave, with the benefits paid for by a combination of employer and employee contributions. A similar measure could mandate that employers offer paid sick days to all employees. Or the federal government could provide incentives for states to formulate such policies themselves, encouraging local experimentation while helping families across the country get what is considered an unquestioned right almost everywhere else. California and New Jersey have adopted paid family leave funded by employee contributions, and although the benefits are fairly low, all new parents -- not just those with means or generous employers -- can take paid time off from work.

Those interested in effective social policy could also look closely at the activities subsidized through the tax code. When budgets are tight and poverty is high, giving rich people thousands of dollars in tax breaks so they can buy expensive homes does not seem like a wise use of public resources. There is no reason why U.S. tax-based subsidies could not be adjusted according to income, with the deductions or credits getting phased out as citizens' incomes climb. Making more tax breaks refundable (instead of in the form of deductions), moreover, would guarantee that the benefits flowed to people who truly needed them, rather than to those higher up the income-distribution scale. Even after granting such subsidies, the government could continue to rely heavily on the private sector to deliver services, but it could do so at lower cost and to greater effect for a larger share of the population.

Posted by orrinj at 9:49 PM


If Only We Were Swedenizing (James Pethokoukis, February 11, 2013 , National Review)

As The Economist points out, Scandinavia's socialist image is badly out of date. Sweden is the largest of the Nordics and perhaps the best example of their embrace of market capitalism. Over the past 20 years, Sweden's public spending has declined from three-quarters of GDP to just over half. Its corporate tax rate is half of America's, its annual deficit a rounding error of just 0.3 percent of GDP.

Late last year, the pro-free-enterprise Legatum Institute published its annual Prosperity Index, ranking major national economies on eight "foundations" of success, including economic fundamentals, entrepreneurship and opportunity, and governance. The top three finishers were Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, with Finland in seventh. And the U.S.? It finished twelfth, outside of the top ten for the first time. Legatum's damning assessment: "[America's] biggest fall is in entrepreneurship and opportunity, which has declined eight places in the last four years. Businesses' start-up costs are rising in the land of pioneers and patents. Fewer Americans believe that working hard will get them ahead."

Posted by orrinj at 5:40 AM


Interview: Amity Shlaes Discusses Coolidge (Ed Driscoll, February 11th, 2013, PJ Media)

During our wide-ranging interview, Shlaes discusses such topics as:

● Recovering a sense of traditional America after Woodrow Wilson's oppressive administration and collectivismduring WWI.

● The real version of Coolidge's "the business of America is business" quote.

● The surprising modernity of the 1920s and Coolidge himself.

● The tragic and untimely death of Coolidge's son, and how it impacted Coolidge himself.

● Coolidge's fear of where the unending expansion of government could lead.

● Who best fits the model of Coolidge today.

And much more. Click here to listen:

...he'd have been a great president.

Posted by orrinj at 5:24 AM


A Buckeye Tax Reform : Kasich joins the queue of income-tax cutting GOP Governors. (WSJ, 2/11/13)

The plan's centerpiece is a 20% cut over three years in all of the state's nine income tax rates. The top rate would fall to 4.725% from 5.925%. Ohio allows its cities to impose add-on income taxes, so the current rate in cities like Cleveland can reach 8.4%.

The plan would also provide an income-tax deduction on half of all small business and Subchapter S income up to $750,000. This effectively cuts the tax rate on job creators in half, but the income cap sounds like something from the Obama White House. Businesses that earn more than $1 million are most likely to expand operations from such a tax cut and should get it too.

To offset any lost revenue, Mr. Kasich wants to raise extraction taxes on drilling in the Utica Shale. The oil and gas industry hates the idea, but this makes more economic sense than taxing work and investment across the economy. The new severance tax would raise about $500 million a year and be in line with those of other energy-tax states. Drillers should note that extraction taxes in Alaska, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming help to keep income taxes low, while funding schools and police, and creating a political constituency in favor of drilling.

Mr. Kasich also wants to reform the sales tax, cutting the rate to 5% from 5.5% in exchange for taxing about 75 goods and services that are currently exempt. Barbers, accountants, lawyers, bowling alleys and funeral homes would now be taxed. An avalanche of lobbyists has descended on Columbus to protect these tax-free fiefdoms, and the Governor could get buried.

February 11, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 5:23 PM


Hispanic Support for Obama Was No Sure Thing (Charlie Cook, 2/11/13, National Journal)

 In January 2012, Obama's approval rating among Latinos stood at only 55 percent, 12 points below his share of the 2008 Latino vote. During 2011, his rating among this group dropped as low as 48 percent, with a 41 percent disapproval rating. In other words, Obama's big electoral win among Latino voters, who made up 14 percent of his total vote according to national exit polls, was not a foregone conclusion.

For much of the president's first term, grumbling among Latino voters was considerable. The jobless rate was significantly higher among Hispanics than the population as a whole; indeed, the Latino unemployment rate was at 12 percent or higher for 20 of 24 months during Obama's first two years in office; it was in double digits for 45 of the entire 48 months. Not that many blamed Obama for a recession that began before his election, but who could fault Hispanics for feeling disaffected or less-than-energized about his reelection?

And although Hispanics took offense at much of the rhetoric emanating from many conservatives and certain Republicans at the time, the deportation rate of undocumented workers was running at a higher rate in the first three years of Obama's presidency than it had during George W. Bush's administration. Given the key role that Latinos had played in Obama's 2008 win, this particular leg of his coalition looked pretty wobbly just a year and a half before Election Day.

Little wonder that when pollsters, including Gallup, Peter Hart and Bill McInturff for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, and others, asked Latino voters eight or nine months ago how enthusiastic they were about voting or how likely they were to vote, the response was like the sound of one hand clapping. It looked as if Obama might not only get a lower percentage of the Latino vote""that is, winning it but by an unimpressive margin""but that turnout among this key group might be lower as well.

So what happened? The president's trial-heat matchups against Romney and other potential Republican challengers were always better than Obama's often underwhelming approval ratings. Romney only exacerbated this lack of enthusiasm for the GOP by suggesting that some Hispanics might consider "self-deportation" and by making other clumsy moves as he sought to outflank Texas Gov. Rick Perry on the right during their party's presidential primaries. So to a certain extent, Romney's troubles were self-inflicted.

Posted by orrinj at 5:18 PM


Sequester debate offers House Republicans chance at redemption (Judd Gregg, 02/11/13, The Hill)

From the summer of 2011 until the end of 2012, House Republicans effectively removed themselves as an entity that the American people could look to for anything other than dysfunction and chaotic misdirection.

They were not seen as contributing to the process of leading the nation. To most folks on Main Street, they seemed irresponsible and destructive.

After the year-end "fiscal cliff" debacle, it did not look like much would change as the backbench breast-beaters talked with great bravado about how they would not allow a debt-ceiling extension. This was a course of assured self-destruction.

The national media, joined by a president panting for the chance for payback, were waiting to annihilate any remaining credibility Republicans had as stewards of the government. Little Big Horn would have looked like a win for Custer compared to what would have happened to the House Republicans had they chosen to fight on the debt ceiling.

It was therefore something of a delight to see a sudden burst of strategic reason prevail as the House Republicans turned their attention away from the debt ceiling and toward the sequester.

There will never be a better chance for Republicans to accomplish their goal of containing the rate of growth of spending than is now presented by using the sequester as the vehicle of leverage.

Posted by orrinj at 2:00 PM


Pope Benedict's resignation: a stunning shock : As John Paul II's right-hand man, he watched a papacy fall into decrepitude. Benedict may have had no wish to follow suit (Andrew Brown, 2/11/13, Guardian)

During the decrepitude of John Paul II, Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was his right-hand man. It may be that his experience then planted in him a wish to leave office while he was still able to discharge his duties. Modern medicine does not work well with autocratic regimes traditionally renewed by death or disease, and the papacy remains the last absolute monarchy in Europe.

In Benedict's resignation statement can be seen an implied rebuke to his predecessor, who argued that clinging to life and power for as long as possible was itself a form of witness to Christ's suffering. Benedict, however, says: "I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today's world ... both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me."

Posted by orrinj at 9:45 AM


Pope Benedict XVI to Resign (KEVIN DOLAK, Feb. 11, 2013, ABC News)

Pope Benedict XVI announced today that he will resign Feb. 28, saying his role requires "both strength of mind and body."

The pope's decision makes him the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years. A conclave to elect a new pope will take place before the end of March. The 85-year-old pope announced the decision to resign in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals.

The Reformation rolls on...

Posted by orrinj at 5:30 AM


Obama's Turn in Bush's Bind (PETER BAKER, 2/10/13, NY Times)

If President Obama tuned in to the past week's bracing debate on Capitol Hill about terrorism, executive power, secrecy and due process, he might have recognized the arguments his critics were making: He once made some of them himself.

Four years into his tenure, the onetime critic of President George W. Bush finds himself cast as a present-day Mr. Bush, justifying the muscular application of force in the defense of the nation while detractors complain that he has sacrificed the country's core values in the name of security.

Posted by orrinj at 5:21 AM


IBM's Watson Gets Its First Piece Of Business In Healthcare (Bruce Upbin, 2/08/13, Forbes)

[H]ospitals and health care networks who sign up will be able to buy or rent Watson's advice from the cloud or their own server. Over the past two years, IBM's researchers have shrunk Watson from the size of a master bedroom to a pizza-box-sized server that can fit in any data center. And they improved its processing speed by 240%. Now what was once was a fun computer-science experiment in natural language processing is becoming a real business for IBM and Wellpoint, which is the exclusive reseller of the technology for now. Initial customers include WestMed Practice Partners and the Maine Center for Cancer Medicine & Blood Disorders.

Even before the Jeopardy! success, IBM began to hatch bigger plans for Watson and there are few areas more in need of supercharged decision-support than health care. Doctors and nurses are drowning in information with new research, genetic data, treatments and procedures popping up daily. They often don't know what to do, and are guessing as well as they can. WellPoint's chief medical officer Samuel Nussbaum said at the press event today that health care pros make accurate treatment decisions in lung cancer cases only 50% of the time (a shocker to me). Watson, since being trained in this  medical specialty, can make accurate decisions 90% of the time. Patients, of course, need 100% accuracy, but making the leap from being right half the time to being right 9 out of ten times will be a huge boon for patient care. The best part is the potential for distributing the intelligence anywhere via the cloud, right at the point of care. This could be the most powerful tool we've seen to date for improving care and lowering everyone's costs via standardization and reduced error. Chris Coburn, the Cleveland Clinic's executive director for innovations, said at the event that he fully expects Watson to be widely deployed wherever the Clinic does business by 2020.

February 10, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 10:55 AM


Violent tide of Salafism threatens the Arab spring : A series of repressive dictatorships have been brought down in north Africa, but the ensuing struggles for power have left a vacuum that has allowed the rise of an extremist movement that is gathering both force and supporters (Angelique Chrisafis, Patrick Kingsley and Peter Beaumont, 2/10/13, The Observer)

If it is difficult to describe what is happening, it is because of terminology.

Although many of those involved in violence and encouraging violence could accurately be called Salafis, they remain an absolute minority of a wider minority movement that has emerged as a small but potent political force across post-revolutionary North Africa.

Although the encouragement to violence from this minority has been most marked in Tunisia, it has not been absent in Egypt.

"We've already started to see real threats," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre last week. "There are many instances in Egypt where Salafis have used the language of incitement against opponents.

"Last year, one Egyptian Salafi cleric, Wagdi Ghoneim, called for a jihad on protesters against President Mohamed Morsi, a demand he repeated this month. Another - Yasser el-Burhamy - reportedly banned Muslim taxi-drivers from taking Christian priests to church."

Yasser el-Shimy, Egypt analyst for the Crisis Group said: "All it takes is for one guy to take it upon himself to carry out a fatwa. But the prospects of that happening in Egypt are less - or certainly not more - than they are in Tunisia. In Egypt, there was a deeper integration of Salafis into the political process as soon as the revolution had taken place."

Most tellingly, two leading Egyptian Salafis last week condemned the death threats against ElBaradei and Sabbahi.

A spokesman for al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya - which only last week called for the crucifixion of masked Egyptian protesters known as the Black Bloc - "rejected" assassinations as a political tool, while the leader of the Nour party, Egypt's largest Salafi group, went further, criticising "all forms of violence".

Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the Nour party, said: "The Salafis in Tunisia are not organised well and they don't have the scholars who can teach them how to deal peacefully with things that they don't like in their country. It gives you a clear vision that we will not see in Egypt what we saw happen in Tunisia."

Bakkar also argued that Shaaban, the cleric who issued the fatwa against ElBaradei and Sabbahi, had little currency in Egyptian Salafism.

"He doesn't have many followers," said Bakkar, who claimed that Shabaan came from a school of Salafism that had preached obedience to former dictator Hosni Mubarak, and whose reputation had therefore been ruined in the post-revolution period.

The main Salafist political parties, which are represented in parliament, have far more of a stake in democratic transition than in Tunisia and Libya.

The best way to think about these terms is that all Muslims are generally Islamist, wishing their states to be founded in and to follow traditions of Islamic culture, just as all Americans are Christianist, adherents to the explicitly Christian Founding.  Rather few Americans are outright Theocrats, just as the genuine Islamicists are only a fraction of most Islamic nations.  And the numbers of the latter will fall over time as Democratic Islam becomes more pervasive and successful.  Sadly the transition won't be seamless, but what transition ever is?

Posted by orrinj at 10:50 AM


Climate change and the president (Editorial Board, 2/10/13, Washington Post)

Putting a slowly rising, significant price on carbon emissions would encourage people to burn less fossil fuel without micromanaging by Congress or the Energy Department. This approach would enlist market forces to green the energy sector. It would also allow for similar policies in other nations to connect with America's, creating a bigger, global market for carbon.

Posted by orrinj at 10:41 AM


Is a National Sales Tax Really Fair? (David Marotta, 2/10/13, Forbes)

A progressive income tax threatens our liberty and prosperity. It punishes the productive by taxing them the highest amounts, reduces employment by increasing the cost of employees and reveals our personal finances and thus invades our privacy.

A popular suggestion is to eliminate the income tax and replace it with a national sales tax, called the fair tax. The idea is that everyone pays their fair share based on what they spend rather than what they earn. Taxing consumption rather than productivity would encourage saving and investment, in turn stimulating production and economic growth.

The national sales tax would fall between 23% and 30%. It could replace the income tax and the 6.2% employee portion of the Social Security tax.

If the income tax was eliminated, the Internal Revenue Service, as well as thousands of pages of the tax code, would be obsolete. You would not be required to report your personal financial information to the government, which would both protect your privacy and reduce falsification on tax returns. [...]

Taxing income decreases productivity. Taxing consumption will similarly decrease spending. Less demand for consumer goods will reduce prices and also consumer debt. Families will be encouraged to have capital to save and invest as the tax burdens are removed on investments.

Deferred consumption, money not spent, is the textbook definition of capital. And because a sales tax is a consumption tax, more people will defer consumption and have capital to invest instead. Money invested earns more money. Increased savings and investing help create a healthy country with better economic growth.

If personal savings are to replace defined-benefit entitlements, you have to force people to save.  
Posted by orrinj at 9:35 AM


Amazon unpacked : The online giant is creating thousands of UK jobs, so why are some employees less than happy? (Sarah O'Connor, 2/08/13, Financial Times)

Amazon's warehouse in Rugeley, Staffs, looks like huge blue box. It is the size of nine football pitches

Between a sooty power station and a brown canal on the edge of a small English town, there is a building that seems as if it should be somewhere else. An enormous long blue box, it looks like a smear of summer sky on the damp industrial landscape.

Inside, hundreds of people in orange vests are pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screens of their handheld satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there. They do not dawdle - the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity in real time. They might each walk between seven and 15 miles today. It is almost Christmas and the people working in this building, together with those in seven others like it across the country, are dispatching a truck filled with parcels every three minutes or so. Before they can go home at the end of their eight-hour shift, or go to the canteen for their 30-minute break, they must walk through a set of airport-style security scanners to prove they are not stealing anything. They also walk past a life-sized cardboard image of a cheery blonde woman in an orange vest. "This is the best job I have ever had!" says a speech bubble near her head. [...]

There was an electric atmosphere in the big blue warehouse that autumn as the operation geared up for the first time. "At the start it was buzzing," said a member of the Amazon management team at the site, who did not want to be named. "Brothers, sisters, neighbours, everyone was just so pleased to have jobs. Everything was new."

Workers in Amazon's warehouses - or "associates in Amazon's fulfilment centres" as the company would put it - are divided into four main groups. There are the people on the "receive lines" and the "pack lines": they either unpack, check and scan every product arriving from around the world, or they pack up customers' orders at the other end of the process. Another group stows away suppliers' products somewhere in the warehouse. They put things wherever there's a free space - in Rugeley, there are inflatable palm trees next to milk frothers and protein powder next to kettles. Only Amazon's vast computer brain knows where everything is, because the workers use their handheld computers to scan both the item they are stowing away and a barcode on the spot on the shelf where they put it.

The last group, the "pickers", push trolleys around and pick out customers' orders from the aisles. Amazon's software calculates the most efficient walking route to collect all the items to fill a trolley, and then simply directs the worker from one shelf space to the next via instructions on the screen of the handheld satnav device. Even with these efficient routes, there's a lot of walking. One of the new Rugeley "pickers" lost almost half a stone in his first three shifts. "You're sort of like a robot, but in human form," said the Amazon manager. "It's human automation, if you like." Amazon recently bought a robot company, but says it still expects to keep plenty of humans around because they are so much better at coping with the vast array of differently shaped products the company sells.

What did the people of Rugeley make of all this? For many, it has been a culture shock. "The feedback we're getting is it's like being in a slave camp," said Brian Garner, the dapper chairman of the Lea Hall Miners Welfare Centre and Social Club, still a popular drinking spot.

One of the first complaints to spread through the town was that employees were getting blisters from the safety boots some were given to wear, which workers said were either too cheap or the wrong sizes. One former shop-floor manager, who did not want to be named, said he always told new workers to smear their bare feet with Vaseline. "Then put your socks on and your boots on, because I know for a fact these boots are going to rub and cause blisters and sores."

Others found the pressure intense. Several former workers said the handheld computers, which look like clunky scientific calculators with handles and big screens, gave them a real-time indication of whether they were running behind or ahead of their target and by how much. Managers could also send text messages to these devices to tell workers to speed up, they said. "People were constantly warned about talking to one another by the management, who were keen to eliminate any form of time-wasting," one former worker added.

In a statement, Amazon said: "Some of the positions in our fulfilment centres are indeed physically demanding, and some associates may log between seven and 15 miles walking per shift. We are clear about this in our job postings and during the screening process and, in fact, many associates seek these positions as they enjoy the active nature of the work. Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazon employee - managers, software developers, site merchandisers and fulfilment centre associates - and we measure actual performance against those expectations."

The reality is that labor sucks and we long to be free of it.  We want jobs, not work.

Posted by orrinj at 9:21 AM


Why I've fallen out of love with football (Simon Kuper, 2/08/13, Financial Times)

Much worse than the football is that vast critical apparatus attached to it. The 24-hour humourless hype is exhausting. Every comment by Alex Ferguson about a referee is treated as world news - bigger than, say, a massacre in Mali. Last June about 500 of us journalists crammed into one of the England team's meaningless press conferences in Donetsk, Ukraine. Meanwhile, the media lack resources to cover actual news.

Then there's the anger: at a referee who gives a penalty, or a player who dares change clubs. Heavy use of the word "hate" ("I hate Manchester United" et cetera) means football talk often sounds like fascist propaganda. Hysteria would be much reduced if fans and media shed the fairytale notion that a footballer must love whichever club he happens to play for. Footballers don't think that way. Listen to their language: they call themselves "professionals" with "careers". Football is a job - well-paid and often enjoyable, but employees don't love their employers. A friend who supports Manchester United told me he believed United's long-serving players Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs loved United. I asked him if he loved the bank where he worked. Obviously not, he said. Well, Scholes and Giggs don't love United either. They just have happy employee-employer relationships.

Anyone who peeks behind football's curtain discovers there is no magic there. Another friend, a Sunderland fan, during a stint writing about football found himself in the tunnel with Sunderland's players just before kick-off. He looked at them and realised, "It's just a job", and the magic died for him.

Mr. Kuper actually has it backwards.  The problem is that the game itself just isn't very good.  Nevermind all the rule changes that would be required to make it better, you now have such a thorough scouting system, such demand for young talent, and so much money being thrown around that, like the NBA and NFL, you're ending up with kids who get rich before they ever develop the skills of their profession.  And, unfortunately, because it is a truly global game, with myriad leagues for youngsters to sign with, you can't institute a baseball-style draft that would give you time to train them in the minor leagues.

Meanwhile, it is the seriousness with which they take the game that makes it amusing.  That vast critical apparatus and the hype are hilarious to observe.

Posted by orrinj at 8:55 AM


Swedes slam 'outdated' farming subsidies (The Local,  9 Feb 13)

Agricultural subsidies will take the biggest share of the European Union's budget to 2020, despite a 13 percent drop in future agricultural spending, under a deal struck by EU leaders this week.

France and other major farming nations thwarted attempts by Britain and its northern European allies to shift a greater share of EU spending towards new measures to boost growth and jobs, reported Reuters.

Posted by orrinj at 8:44 AM


Relax! You'll Be More Productive (TONY SCHWARTZ, 2/10/13, NY Times)

As athletes understand especially well, the greater the performance demand, the greater the need for renewal. When we're under pressure, however, most of us experience the opposite impulse: to push harder rather than rest. This may explain why a recent survey by Harris Interactive found that Americans left an average of 9.2 vacation days unused in 2012 -- up from 6.2 days in 2011.

The importance of restoration is rooted in our physiology. Human beings aren't designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we're meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.

In the 1950s, the researchers William Dement and Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that we sleep in cycles of roughly 90 minutes, moving from light to deep sleep and back out again. They named this pattern the Basic-Rest Activity Cycle or BRAC. A decade later, Professor Kleitman discovered that this cycle recapitulates itself during our waking lives.

The difference is that during the day we move from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes. Our bodies regularly tell us to take a break, but we often override these signals and instead stoke ourselves up with caffeine, sugar and our own emergency reserves -- the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.

Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.

"To maximize gains from long-term practice," Dr. Ericsson concluded, "individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis."

Posted by orrinj at 8:22 AM


Among US evangelicals, surprising support for immigration reform (Reuters, February 10, 2013)

Thou shalt compromise, at least on immigration reform. 

That is the message being heard from some leading evangelicals in the United States. After decades of promoting traditionally conservative causes like opposition to abortion, many evangelical leaders are now wielding their formidable influence to persuade Republican lawmakers to back one of President Barack Obama's top priorities. 

With Hispanic attendance at their churches rising, these evangelicals are among the loudest advocates of a US immigration reform. A group of pastors has launched a 40-day campaign to have churchgoers pray, read scripture passages about welcoming the stranger and lobby their members of Congress, many of them in the conservative South. 

"We have pastors preach in pulpits to parishioners in Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas - in all the wonderful red states across America," that aiding immigrants, illegal or not, is a Christian duty, said Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, one of the country's most prominent Hispanic evangelicals. [...]

Unlikely as it may have seemed at the height of the "culture wars" of the last two decades, these evangelicals are attempting to nudge Republicans to the center. The effort is well timed, coming as the Republican Party strives to improve its appeal to Hispanic voters who went solidly Democratic at 2012 elections. 

"This is one area where social conservative input is extremely welcomed by the Republican Party," said O'Connell. 

Pastors are asking worshippers to email their lawmakers and tell them: "I am a Christian, a conservative and I vote. I want you to support immigration reform this year," said Rodriguez. 

There is no other position consistent with faith.

Posted by orrinj at 8:15 AM


Many 2011 federal budget cuts had little real-world effect (David A. Fahrenthold, February 9, 2012, Washington Post)

In the real world, in fact, many of their "cuts" cut nothing at all. The Transportation Department got credit for "cutting" a $280 million tunnel that had been canceled six months earlier. It also "cut" a $375,000 road project that had been created by a legislative typo, on a road that did not exist.

At the Census Bureau, officials got credit for a whopping $6 billion cut, simply for obeying the calendar. They promised not to hold the expensive 2010 census again in 2011.

Today, an examination of 12 of the largest cuts shows that, thanks in part to these gimmicks, federal agencies absorbed $23 billion in reductions without losing a single employee.

"Many of the cuts we put in were smoke and mirrors," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a hard-line conservative now in his second term. "That's the lesson from April 2011: that when Washington says it cuts spending, it doesn't mean the same thing that normal people mean."

Now the failures of that 2011 bill have come back to haunt the leaders who crafted it. Disillusionment with that bill has persuaded many conservatives to reject a line-by-line, program-by-program approach to cutting the budget.

Instead, many have embraced the sequester, a looming $85 billion across-the-board cut set to take effect March 1. Obama and GOP leaders have said they don't like the idea: the sequester is a "dumb cut," in Washington parlance, which would cut the government's best ideas along with its worst without regard to merit.

There's so much bloat in a budget for an America on a global war footing you can't cut enough to get to the stuff with merit.

February 9, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:35 AM


A conversation about conservatism (Jennifer Rubin on February 8, 2013, Washington Post)

Just at a time when Republicans are debating what sort of party they should have and what sort of conservatism they can practice and still win elections comes along an important and highly readable book by Hoover scholar Peter Berkowitz, "Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation." [...]

I came to the conclusion that it was necessary to restate the connection between liberty, self-government and political moderation. "Constitutional Conservatism" represents my attempt to do so.  The book contains chapters on Edmund Burke, "The Federalist" and the high points of post-World War II American conservatism.  You could sum up the results in three propositions:

First, social conservatives and libertarians should rally around, and rededicate themselves to conserving, the principles of liberty inscribed in the United States Constitution.  
Second, dedication to conserving these principles of liberty would yield an alliance among conservatives that is both philosophically coherent and politically potent.  
Third, both the philosophical coherence and the political potency derive in significant measure from the lesson of moderation inscribed in the Constitution and in modern conservatism more generally.

The defense of political moderation is always needed because the tendency to take one single principle, right, or policy to an extreme is endemic to politics, yet we are called upon, particularly in a liberal democracy, to balance and blend competing principles, rights and policies as times change and as new opportunities and threats emerge and others recede. [...]

"Moderation," as you point out, has gotten a bad rap for mushiness or mechanical horse trading. You argue it is something different. Perhaps heterogeneity or "fusion" (Frank S. Meyer's term) would be better. What's the essence of conservative moderation and have you seen examples of such (e.g. Ryan's Roadmap for America, Bush on immigration reform) that embodies that ethos? Should we replace "moderation" with prudence or restraint or balance?

Yes, moderation has a bad name, and in some quarters it always has.  In "Reflections on the Revolution in France," Burke observed that one who seeks to defend a "scheme of liberty soberly limited" is likely to be accused of lacking "fidelity to his cause."  Purists, he says, will denounce moderation as the "virtue of cowards" and will condemn compromise as the "prudence of traitors."

Nevertheless, I prefer to stick with the term moderation -- or better still, political moderation -- because "heterogeneity" is very abstract and "fusion" (which Meyer did not care for) suggests that conservative principles can only be held together by some ineffable cosmic force.

The political moderation I defend has nothing to do with splitting the difference or compromise for the sake of compromise.  The essence of political moderation in a free society is balancing and blending competing and worthy principles for the sake of liberty.  And the essence of conservative political moderation is recognizing the mutual dependence and mutual tension between liberty and tradition.

Political moderation is bound up with an appreciation of the imperfections of human nature, respect for the limits of human knowledge, and recognition of the significance of circumstances in coloring conduct and shaping options.  Together, these yield a generally empirical, skeptical and anti-utopian sensibility.

Posted by orrinj at 7:31 AM


'Hitler's Pope' revealed as a secret friend to Holocaust victims (Dalya Alberge, 2/09/13, The Observer)

The Pope's Jews, which will be published next month, details how Pius gave his blessing to the establishment of safe houses in the Vatican and Europe's convents and monasteries. He oversaw a secret operation with code names and fake documents for priests who risked their lives to shelter Jews, some of whom were even made Vatican subjects.

Thomas shows, for example, that priests were instructed to issue baptism certificates to hundreds of Jews hidden in Genoa, Rome and elsewhere in Italy. More than 2,000 Jews in Hungary were given fabricated Vatican documents identifying them as Catholics and a network saved German Jews by bringing them to Rome. The pope appointed a priest with extensive funds with which to provide food, clothing and medicine. More than 4,000 Jews were hidden in convents and monasteries across Italy.

During and immediately after the war, the pope was considered a Jewish saviour. Jewish leaders - such as Jerusalem's chief rabbi in 1944 - said the people of Israel would never forget what he and his delegates "are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters at the most tragic hour". Jewish newspapers in Britain and America echoed that praise, and Hitler branded him "a Jew lover".

However, his image turned sour in the 1960s, thanks to Soviet antagonism towards the Vatican and a German play by Rolf Hochhuth, The Deputy, which vilified the pope, accusing him of silence and inaction over the Jews. It was a trend that intensified with the publication of Hitler's Pope, a book by John Cornwell.

However, as the Vatican's ambassador in Germany before the war, the future pope contributed to the damning 1937 encyclical of Pius XI, With Burning Anxiety, and, as Pius XII he made condemnatory speeches that were widely interpreted at the time - including by Jewish leaders and newspapers - as clear condemnations of Hitler's racial policies. Due to the Vatican's traditionally diplomatic language, the accusation that Pius XII did not speak out has festered.

Professor Ronald J Rychlak, the author of Hitler, the War and the Pope, said: "Gordon Thomas has found primary sources ... He has tracked down family members, original documentation and established what really was a universal perception prior to the 1960s. He's shown what the people at the time - victims, rescuers and villains - all knew: that Pius XII was a great supporter of the victims of the Holocaust."

Posted by orrinj at 7:28 AM


Scotland's independence referendum question is set, but who does it favour? (Ian Jack, 2/08/13, The Guardian)

As though it had passed through the hands of a newspaper headline writer, the Scottish question has become very short. "Should Scotland be an independent country?" are the six words that Scottish voters will say yes or no to in autumn next year, which, in referendums, may set a record for brevity.
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Posted by orrinj at 7:25 AM


Seven Days on the Queen Mary 2 (DWIGHT GARNER, February 8, 2013, NY Times)

If travel makes you a bit reckless and sharpens your senses, being aboard the Queen Mary 2 in winter doubles this sense of intoxication. The churning ocean, splashing up the sides of the elegant dining room's windows, two feet from your bottle of white Burgundy and your tuna tartare, flips the switch on your survival instincts. You find yourself ravenous: eating a bit more; planning to stay out a bit later; dwelling a bit more upon sex.

What is it about ships (and trains and planes) and sex?  [...]

A crossing on the Queen Mary 2 is the sort of thing people put on their bucket lists. More than a few passengers on our crossing seemed perilously close to kicking that bucket. The QM2's dance club pulled a frantic young crowd after midnight. But the average age on our crossing, I'd guess, was well over 60. There was an abundance of wheelchairs, walkers and canes, so many that if everyone had tossed theirs overboard at once they would have created an artificial reef.

People do die on passenger ships. While I was on a behind-the-scenes tour of the ship (these tours cost $120, and tickets are scarce), a medical officer displayed a small morgue, with metal drawers for four bodies. If more space is required, he said, smiling, there is always the ice cream freezer.

The demographics for cruise ships have always skewed old. Who else has the time to spend eight days crossing an ocean in January? By focusing so exclusively on the retired leisure class, though, the virtues of crossing are being lost on a younger generation.

You do begin to forgive the Queen Mary 2 its dowdy sensibilities. It is, you realize, nothing less than a floating distillation of English inclinations and values, a watertight container of cask-aged nostalgia. It has been built for survival, not speed. It is a place to have kippers for breakfast, clear marmite soup for lunch, well-brewed English tea in the afternoon and a pint of lager in the early evening. You are notified that "military or award decorations may be worn on formal nights." You may even stumble upon a group singalong -- one that I found absurdly moving -- of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." (This is a Scottish song, but let it go.)

A cynic will point out that the QM2, launched in 2004, was actually built in France. This person might also note that the ship's registry, in 2011, was switched to Bermuda, ending 171 years of British registry for Cunard ships. He or she will disclose that since 1998 Cunard has been a subsidiary of the Carnival Corporation, and that the Queen Mary 2's crew is international. You must maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of these unpleasant facts.

The Queen Mary 2 and her smaller sister ships, the Queen Victoria (launched in 2007) and the Queen Elizabeth (2010), travel almost everywhere there is water: the Far East, Central America, Scandinavia and Iceland, Australia and the Pacific islands, Africa, the Middle East. You can also book a world tour that will keep you in caviar -- Cunard is said to be among the world's largest single buyers -- for three months.

A trans-Atlantic crossing, however, is at the beating heart of Cunard's lingering gravitas. In winter, this is a relatively affordable passage to make: our tickets were a total of about $1,500, though alcohol, spa treatments, Internet and other things can easily cause this figure to double. The QM2 may no longer be the longest, tallest and widest passenger ship extant, but it is still the largest ocean liner -- sailing point-to-point, as in across the Atlantic, as opposed to a cruise ship, which makes a loop that finishes where it started -- ever built. It's the only ocean liner in regular service between Southampton and New York.

A crossing is an interior as much as exterior voyage. Sepia-tinted photographs on the QM2 walls depict the actors, writers, politicians, aristocrats and playboys who crossed regularly during Cunard's Champagne-soaked heyday, before the jet age robbed ocean liners of their reason for being. You recall Cunard's wartime service. Winston Churchill observed that the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth helped shorten World War II by at least one year, such were their troop-carrying capacities.

There's a strong temptation, during your first few days aboard the QM2, to scramble about frantically, trying to sample everything. It takes a few days to realize that the real pleasures of a winter crossing are deliberate ones. First of all there is the Bergmanesque beauty of the ocean, more entrancing to fixate upon than a fire.

You will find yourself devouring many books, because you're mostly unplugged. (Internet service on the QM2 is slow and extortionately expensive.) You will mostly ignore world events, because the small newspaper the ship prints and distributes each morning, culled from wire service reports, is as upbeat and inane as an issue of USA Today edited by cocker spaniels.

Cree spent many of her daytime hours walking the ship's promenade deck (three times around is about a mile) or soaking and reading in the Canyon Ranch Spa. I read, wrote a book review, and spent a fair amount of time in the late afternoons in an outdoor hot tub on Deck 8 with a commanding view over the aft.

It was cold out there, sometimes snowing, so these hot tubs were nearly always empty. The first evening I soaked there, alone in the gloaming, a pint of dry British cider at hand, watching the sky darken and the ship's wake spread out, I was keenly aware that this was perhaps among the top 200 moments of my life.

Thank God I had no cell service; I would have tweeted about it. I spied a smaller ship in the distance, and a snippet from Auden came to mind: "You were a great Cunarder, I / Was only a fishing smack."
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Posted by orrinj at 7:12 AM


Land Battles Rise as U.S. Eyes 450,000 Miles of New Pipe (Mike Lee & Ken Wells - Feb 4, 2013, Bloomberg)

When a power company tried to run cables over land owned by Larry Salois's mother near Cut Bank, Montana, the native American fought the $400 million project.
He lost when the state passed a law forcing him to sell a right-of-way. Typical of U.S. property battles sparked by the quest for energy security, Tonbridge Power Inc. said it needed the most direct path for its electric line to wind farms, even though it would run across land holding a historical icon. [...]

With the natural gas industry estimating that 450,000 miles (724,000 kilometers) of pipelines need to be built in the next 25 years, a distance to the moon and almost back to earth, conflicts will multiply over eminent domain, or the legal power to condemn private property.

Land owners increasingly are pit against private businesses in state legislatures and courts as the U.S. confronts the new transmission lines, pipelines and compressor stations needed to reduce oil imports and produce clean energy at home.

February 8, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 6:05 PM


February 5, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:22 PM


Auto Revolution: A Promising Future for Self-Driving Cars (Christian Wüst, 2/05/13, Der Spiegel)

Self-driving cars, long dismissed as a utopian pipe dream, are rapidly reaching the stage where they will be ready for the market. "We're not talking about 20 years here, but more like five," says Sebastian Thrun, initiator and director of Google's project.

Five years until the first driverless cars hit the streets? It sounds like just any of the other science-fiction ideas that seem to percolate out of the manically creative world that is Google headquarters. But could it be that the company is about to show the automobile industry what the future of mobility looks like?

In truth, however, the real surprise here is something else entirely: Everything Google can do, carmakers already do as well -- they just don't talk about it as openly. In one European Union-funded research project, Volvo successfully drove a convoy of five vehicles that only had a human driver in the lead car. BMW recently sent a robotic car on a two-hour drive from Munich to Nuremberg. And Volkswagen and a research team from Stanford University have caused a stir with their driverless Audi sports car, which that has been zipping around US racetracks.

Although Google doesn't enjoy a monopoly on the field, its prominent position allows it to exert pressure on others and demonstrate the feasibility of the idea. The auto industry isn't missing the technology needed for the next revolution in mobility. It lacks the guts to put that technology on the market.

"The necessary technology for autonomous cars is already in place," confirms Lothar Groesch, an expert on safety technology. Groesch, 66, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, has spent most of his career working in development for Daimler and Bosch, the automotive parts giant. But now his job as a freelance industrial consultant allows him to speak his mind freely, rather than being limited to what his bosses want him to say.

Groesch recently helped Bosch with its development of driver assistance systems. He quickly recognized that, when taken together, all of the instruments designed to assist drivers added up to a technology suite that will ultimately make it possible to liberate cars from their drivers.

The question is whether or not people will embrace it. Carmakers' greatest fear is that this development will rob the automobile of its magic, reducing the once all-powerful driver to a passive passenger.

Human drivers have done enough damage.

Posted by orrinj at 3:36 PM


Obama's embrace of the Bush doctrine and the meaning of 'imminence' (Peter Feaver, February 5, 2013, Foreign Policy)

The Obama Administration has embraced the Bush doctrine, or at least the preemption part of the Bush doctrine. According to news reports about the Justice Department's memo on drone strikes, the Obama Administration bases its policy on an expansive interpretation of the laws of war, which allow countries to act to head off imminent attack. In particular, according to the reporter who broke the story, the Obama Administration bases its legal reasoning by interpreting "imminence" in a flexible way: 

"The condition that an operational leader present an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future," the memo states.

Instead, it says, an "informed, high-level" official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been "recently" involved in "activities" posing a threat of a violent attack and that "there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities." The memo does not define "recently" or "activities."

This should sound familiar to anyone who has debated American foreign policy for the past decade, for precisely that sort of logic undergirded the Bush Administration's preemption doctrine. 

Posted by orrinj at 3:32 PM


The Right Way to Cut Pentagon Spending : The U.S. has an abysmal record of postwar drawdowns that undermine military readiness and modernization (MICHÈLE A. FLOURNOY, 2/05/12, WSJ)

Whether or not Congress avoids sequestration by March 1, defense spending will likely be cut by at least 10% over the next decade. As 20% of the federal budget and 50% of discretionary spending, it will be part of any longer-term budget deal.

Unfortunately, the United States has an abysmal record of managing postwar drawdowns of defense spending. Almost all have resulted in a "hollow force"--too much force structure with too little investment in people, readiness and modernization.

...that the US waltzed to victory in the wars that it began from scratch and struggled only in the conflicts where it had maintained a massive standing military.  In no small part, the determining factor was whether or not we'd remained locked in to antiquated strategy, armaments and tactics or not.

Posted by orrinj at 3:26 PM

...AND LOWER...:

Deficits will fall to less than $1 trillion in 2013, CBO reports (Lori Montgomery, February 5, 2013, Washington Post)

For the first time in five years, the federal budget deficit will come in under $1 trillion in 2013, congressional budget analysts said Tuesday, with the gap between taxes and spending falling to $845 billion in the fiscal year that ends in September.

Attributed in large part to tax hikes adopted on Jan. 1 and deep automatic spending cuts set to hit next month, new projections from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office show the deficit continuing to plummet in 2014 and 2015, and falling to less than 3 percent of the overall economy for much of this decade.

Posted by orrinj at 5:33 AM


How to stop the robots from taking all our jobs (James Pethokoukis | February 4, 2013, AEI)

Assuming the answer isn't to smash the machines, or at least unplug them, what can we do to create an economy that provides plentiful jobs and rising incomes? The good news is that the right policies to deal with technological acceleration are pretty much the same as if you're combating technological stagnation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee offer a list of ideas, mostly centered around education and entrepreneurship, that work either way and could appeal to both the left and the right.

Among them: 1) pay teachers more so better students want to become teachers; 2) hold teachers more accountable for performance by eliminating tenure; 3) encourage more high-skill immigration; 4) create special visas for entrepreneurs; 5) teach entrepreneurship throughout higher education; 6) create a database of "startup-in-a-box" templates; 7) lower governmental barriers to starting a business; 8) upgrade the nation's transportation, energy, and communication infrastructure; 9) increase government funding for basic research such as that carried out by DARPA and NIH; 10) resist efforts to regulate hiring and firing; 11) lower payroll taxes; 12) decouple benefits, such as health insurance, from jobs; 13) don't rush to regulate new innovation business structures such as crowdsourcing; 14) eliminate inefficient, crony capitalist distortions such as the home mortgage deduction and the Too Big To Fail big bank subsidy; 15) shorten copyright periods and increase the flexibility of fair use.

In addition, it may become more important for people to generate income from capital, not just labor, if machines depress wages over the long run. That's right, a return to the Ownership Society. A good first step would be to transform the income tax into a consumption tax by no longer taxing capital income. And we should make it easier for average families to own stock. But that's becoming harder to do with many companies going private. Noah Smith,a finance professor at Stony Brook University, recommends reforming regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley "that make it risky and difficult to go public."

Another option, suggested by economist Tyler Cowen, are so-called universal 401(k) plans where government would help fund tax-free retirement accounts for lower-income Americans, matching personal contributions to those accounts. "A fiscally responsible universal 401(k) plan would not make everyone happy. Libertarians and conservatives would be suspicious of government-created accounts. Liberals might not like freezing or reducing future expenditures on Medicare and Social Security."

...that people would rather engage in drudgery themselves than have a machine do it for them is disproved by the entire history of technology.

February 4, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 5:34 PM


Obama must face the rise of the robots (Edward Luce, 2/03/13, Financial Times)

No longer the realm of science fiction, the rise of robots now poses the central economic dilemma of the Obama era.

With each month, the US economy becomes steadily more automated. In January the US economy added just 4,000 manufacturing jobs, and the net increase since July is zero. Yet last month, manufacturing activity rose by its fastest rate since April, according to the Institute for Supply Management. The difference boils down to robots, which pose an increasingly nagging paradox: the more there are, the better for overall growth (since they boost productivity); yet the worse things become for the middle class.

Posted by orrinj at 3:53 PM


Thunderbirds being remade by Weta Workshop (Paul Harper,  Snappy_nz)

The series, given the working title Thunderbirds are Go!, will be produced using a both CGI animation and live-action model sets.

It will screen on ITV and UK's CITV Channel in 2015.

"Showcasing Pukeko Pictures' and Weta Workshop's ground-breaking creative and technical excellence, it will deliver a whole new level of action-adventure animation for today's audience, whilst also affectionately paying tribute to the legacy of model locations from the classic series," ITV said in a statement.

"Featuring the world's most famous family of heroes, International Rescue, Thunderbirds are Go! will blast the five brave Tracy brothers back on to television screens piloting their incredible vehicles into impossible rescues across the globe."
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Posted by orrinj at 3:51 PM


Tech, telecom giants take sides as FCC proposes large public WiFi networks (Cecilia Kang, Published: February 3, 2013, Washington Post)

The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing WiFi networks that have become common in households. They could penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees. If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and in many rural areas.

The new WiFi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing for a driverless car to communicate with another vehicle a mile away or a patient's heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town.

If approved by the FCC, the free networks would still take several years to set up. And, with no one actively managing them, con­nections could easily become jammed in major cities. But public WiFi could allow many consumers to make free calls from their mobile phones via the Internet. The frugal-minded could even use the service in their homes, allowing them to cut off expensive Internet bills.

"For a casual user of the Web, perhaps this could replace carrier service," said Jeffrey Silva, an analyst at the Medley Global Advisors research firm. "Because it is more plentiful and there is no price tag, it could have a real appeal to some people."

Posted by orrinj at 5:31 AM


A GOP Leader Aims to Change Party's Message (COREY BOLES, 2/03/13, WSJ)

In a policy speech scheduled for Tuesday to the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, Mr. Cantor plans to talk about a range of areas--from education to medical research to job training, as well as an overhaul of the tax code--in the context of how Republican ideas could benefit families across the nation, a top aide to the majority leader said.

He plans to detail both existing and new GOP policies that he believes would serve as a strong framework that Republicans could use to make the case that their party's ideas are better than Democrats', the aide said.

The overarching theme of the speech will be that, while Republican determination to pare back federal budget deficits and the size of the federal government shouldn't fade away, it should be supplemented with talk of how the party wants to make the government work better, the aide said.

February 3, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:56 AM


Nips and Tucks and Big Budget Cuts (TYLER COWEN, 2/03/13, NY Times)

One common argument against letting this process run its course is a Keynesian claim -- namely, that cuts or slowdowns in government spending can throw an economy into recession by lowering total demand for goods and services. Nonetheless, spending cuts of the right kind can help an economy.

Half of the sequestration would apply to the military budget, an area where most cuts would probably enhance rather than damage future growth. Reducing the defense budget by about $55 billion a year, the sum at stake, would most likely mean fewer engineers and scientists inventing weaponry and more of them producing for consumers. [...]

On a practical note, the military cuts would have to be defined relative to a baseline, which already specifies spending increases. So the "cuts" in the sequestration would still lead to higher nominal military spending and roughly flat inflation-adjusted spending across the next 10 years. That is hardly unilateral disarmament, given that the United States accounts for about half of global military spending. And in a time when some belt-tightening will undoubtedly be required, that seems a manageable degree of restraint.

The other half of sequestration would apply to domestic discretionary spending, where the Keynesian argument against spending cuts has more force.

But here, too, much of the affected spending should be cut anyhow. Farm support programs would be a major target, and most economists agree that those payments should be abolished or pared back significantly. Regulatory agencies would also lose funds, but instead of across-the-board cuts, we could give these agencies the choice of cutting their least valuable programs -- or, for that matter, we could cut farm subsidies even further.

We'd still just be trimming fat, when we need to get down to the excess muscle.

Posted by orrinj at 8:51 AM


Should illegal immigrants become citizens? Let's ask the founding fathers. (Elizabeth Cohen, 2/01/13, Washington Post)

During the 18th century, there were no illegal immigrants in the United States, but there was a large group of people who posed a far more noxious threat than those who overstayed a visa or crossed a border without an inspection. They were British Loyalists -- men who had taken up arms against the American revolutionaries and risked their lives to undermine the very foundation of our union.

Loyalists' actions prior to the founding could hardly be called exemplary, yet they sought citizenship after the nation was established. They and their families made up approximately 20 percent of the population, and most of them stayed here after surrendering, despite hostility and episodic violence against them.

In 1805 the Supreme Court heard the first case testing whether members of this population could be considered citizens. The court stated that, because the former Loyalists stayed while the states were debating and ratifying the Constitution, they were qualified for citizenship. This and later decisions showed how, over time, the country exercised reason and consent to create citizenship -- even allowing the original sin of fighting against the formation of the nation to be forgiven.

The court decisions created a sort of temporal formula: time + residence + good moral character = citizenship. We have always imposed a probationary residential waiting period on anyone wishing to become a citizen. For much of our history, that period held stable at five years.

Posted by orrinj at 8:45 AM


Speak, Memory (Oliver Sacks, 2/21/13, NY Review of Books)

Daniel Schacter has written extensively on distortions of memory and the "source confusions" that go with them, and in his book Searching for Memory recounts a well-known story about Ronald Reagan:

In the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan repeatedly told a heartbreaking story of a World War II bomber pilot who ordered his crew to bail out after his plane had been seriously damaged by an enemy hit. His young belly gunner was wounded so seriously that he was unable to evacuate the bomber. Reagan could barely hold back his tears as he uttered the pilot's heroic response: "Never mind. We'll ride it down together." The press soon realized that this story was an almost exact duplicate of a scene in the 1944 film A Wing and a Prayer. Reagan had apparently retained the facts but forgotten their source.
Reagan was a vigorous sixty-nine-year-old at the time, was to be president for eight years, and only developed unmistakable dementia in the 1990s. But he had been given to acting and make-believe throughout his life, and he had displayed a vein of romantic fantasy and histrionism since he was young. Reagan was not simulating emotion when he recounted this story--his story, his reality, as he believed it to be--and had he taken a lie detector test (functional brain imaging had not yet been invented at the time), there would have been none of the telltale reactions that go with conscious falsehood.

It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened--or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others' suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten. Similarly, while I often give lectures on similar topics, I can never remember, for better or worse, exactly what I said on previous occasions; nor can I bear to look through my earlier notes. Losing conscious memory of what I have said before, and having no text, I discover my themes afresh each time, and they often seem to me brand-new. This type of forgetting may be necessary for a creative or healthy cryptomnesia, one that allows old thoughts to be reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications.

Sometimes these forgettings extend to autoplagiarism, where I find myself reproducing entire phrases or sentences as if new, and this may be compounded, sometimes, by a genuine forgetfulness. Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one's memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.

Webster's defines "plagiarize" as "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own: use (another's production) without crediting the source ...to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source." There is a considerable overlap between this definition and that of "cryptomnesia." The essential difference is that plagiarism, as commonly understood and reprobated, is conscious and intentional, whereas cryptomnesia is neither. Perhaps the term "cryptomnesia" needs to be better known, for though one may speak of "unconscious plagiarism," the very word "plagiarism" is so morally charged, so suggestive of crime and deceit, that it retains a sting even if it is "unconscious."

In 1970, George Harrison composed an enormously successful song, "My Sweet Lord," which turned out to have great similarities to a song by Ronald Mack ("He's So Fine"), recorded eight years earlier. When the matter went to trial, the judge found Harrison guilty of plagiarism, but showed psychological insight and sympathy in his summary of the case. He concluded:

Did Harrison deliberately use the music of "He's So Fine"? I do not believe he did so deliberately. Nevertheless...this is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.

Posted by orrinj at 8:40 AM


'Immigrant areas have fewer social problems' (The Local, 3 Feb 13)

"The 20 best towns have more immigrants than average, that is to say 14.4 percent. There is no tendency whatsoever for towns with high numbers of immigrants to have worse results than others," said Stefan Fölster, head of the Reform Institute which published the new report.

In a debate article in the Dagens Nyheter daily, Fölster pointed out that central Sweden has regions where unemployment, welfare-dependency and private credit problems are close to the levels of Greece and Spain.

Fölster noted that many of these areas also have lower levels of immigration.

"In actual fact the integration problems which are commonly associated with immigrant areas are at least as common in areas which have fewer immigrants," Fölster. [...]

The five main categories considered are: schools, employment, health, money and 'hopelessness and alienation'.

Several areas of Sweden which have significant immigrant populations performed well in the index, including small regional towns such as Älmhult and Mullsjö in southern Sweden.

"The conclusion is no less than the integration problems for some immigrant groups are negligible. Instead there are many Swedes in towns with few immigrants whose 'integration problems' are at least as serious as among some immigrant groups," Fölster said.

Posted by orrinj at 8:35 AM


Toward a Canada-EU trade deal, sooner rather than later (The Globe and Mail, Jan. 22 2013)

Canada now has an additional reason for bringing its trade negotiations with the European Union to a successful conclusion, sooner rather than later. Efforts are under way to launch similar negotiations between the United States and the EU, which could overshadow the proposed Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and Europe, if the CETA talks drag on. As Lawrence Herman of Cassels Brock LLP puts it, there is a "downside risk that the final deal with Canada is delayed and that the EU then turns its attention to negotiations with the Americans."

David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, at the very start of his country's presidency of the G8 this year, wrote to the G8's other leaders, saying that, in trade, "the single biggest prize of all would be the beginning of negotiations on an EU-U.S. trade agreement."

Posted by orrinj at 8:31 AM


White House photo shows Obama firing shotgun (Zachary A. Goldfarb and Howard Schneider, Updated: Saturday, February 2, 2013, Washington Post)

[I]n Saturday morning, the White House released and promoted a photograph of Obama shooting skeet at the presidential retreat in Maryland.

White House aides were trying to end a growing distraction just as the president plans to make a fresh push to rally public support behind his ambitious agenda to tighten gun laws, traveling to Minnesota on Monday.

They'd rather have the President promote guns than be embarrassed.

Posted by orrinj at 8:28 AM


The Virtual Middle Class Rises (THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN, 2/02/13, NY Times)

I ENCOUNTERED something on this trip to India that I had never met before: a whole new political community -- India's "virtual middle class." Its emergence explains a lot about the rise of social protests here, as well as in places like China and Egypt. It is one of the most exciting things happening on the planet. Historically, we have associated democratic revolutions with rising middle classes achieving certain levels of per capita annual income -- say, $10,000 -- so people can worry less about basic food and housing and more about being treated as citizens with rights and with a voice in their own futures. But here's what's fascinating: The massive diffusion of powerful, cheap computing power via cellphones and tablets over the last decade has dramatically lowered the costs of connectivity and education -- so much so that many more people in India, China and Egypt, even though they're still just earning a few dollars a day, now have access to the kind of technologies and learning previously associated solely with the middle class.

...if only this information and technology revolution hadn't by-passed us we'd have rising living standards too.

Posted by orrinj at 8:12 AM


Harvard cheating punishment seen as fair (O'Ryan Johnson, 2/02/13, Boston Herald)

Banished from the cushy ivory tower, scores of cheating Harvard students were sentenced to six months' hard time in the real world before they can re-apply to the prestigious university.

The punishment came down on 60 crimson students ordered to "withdraw" -- a forced break that can only be absolved after the ousted undergrads hold "a full-time, paid, non-academic job in a non-family situation" for at least half a year, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences Michael D. Smith wrote in an email yesterday. After that, the dean added, Harvard will consider letting the students back on campus.

First, that work is punishment.  Second, that college isn't preparation for work.  At best, vice versa.

February 2, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:36 PM


Northern lights : The Nordic countries are reinventing their model of capitalism (Adrian Wooldridge, Feb 2nd 2013, The Economist)

Sweden has reduced public spending as a proportion of GDP from 67% in 1993 to 49% today. It could soon have a smaller state than Britain. It has also cut the top marginal tax rate by 27 percentage points since 1983, to 57%, and scrapped a mare's nest of taxes on property, gifts, wealth and inheritance. This year it is cutting the corporate-tax rate from 26.3% to 22%.

Sweden has also donned the golden straitjacket of fiscal orthodoxy with its pledge to produce a fiscal surplus over the economic cycle. Its public debt fell from 70% of GDP in 1993 to 37% in 2010, and its budget moved from an 11% deficit to a surplus of 0.3% over the same period. This allowed a country with a small, open economy to recover quickly from the financial storm of 2007-08. Sweden has also put its pension system on a sound foundation, replacing a defined-benefit system with a defined-contribution one and making automatic adjustments for longer life expectancy.

Most daringly, it has introduced a universal system of school vouchers and invited private schools to compete with public ones. Private companies also vie with each other to provide state-funded health services and care for the elderly. Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist who lives in America, hopes that Sweden is pioneering "a new conservative model"; Brian Palmer, an American anthropologist who lives in Sweden, worries that it is turning into "the United States of Swedeamerica".

Posted by orrinj at 9:47 AM


How Wine Tasting is More -- and Less -- of a Scam Than You Thought (Pacific Standard, 1/28/13)

How do we decide what makes one wine better than another? Expectation-influencing variables like a label and price make a big difference--just as they do for other "experiential goods" like food or hotels. With wine, however, blind taste tests by experts are supposed to eliminate those external cues. But it turns out the experts may be no more reliable than the rest of us. In these data points, drawn from his new book, Mind Over Mind: The Surprising Power of Expectations, journalist Chris Berdik takes a sobering look at our double vision.

Posted by orrinj at 9:41 AM


Report shows UN admitting solar activity may play significant role in global warming (Maxim Lott, Charles Couger, February 01, 2013, FoxNews.com)

The Earth has been getting warmer -- but how much of that heat is due to greenhouse gas emissions and how much is due to natural causes?

A leaked report by a United Nations' group dedicated to climate studies says that heat from the sun may play a larger role than previously thought.

"[Results] do suggest the possibility of a much larger impact of solar variations on the stratosphere than previously thought, and some studies have suggested that this may lead to significant regional impacts on climate," reads a draft copy of a major, upcoming report from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Posted by orrinj at 9:36 AM


Is Scientific Truth Always Beautiful? : A mathematician says the quest for elegance leads too many researchers astray (Christopher Shea, 1/28/13, Chronicle Review)

Does science have a "beauty" problem? David Orrell, a mathematician and consultant, argues that it does--or, at least, that some of its practitioners are in thrall to ideals involving "elegance," "symmetry," and "unity" that are beckoning them down false paths. [...]

His book arrives at a vulnerable moment for physics: during the "Higgs Boson Hangover," as Slate dubbed it. The discovery of the Higgs boson particle helps to complete and confirm the existing Standard Model of physics, but the Large Hadron Collider that produced it has not provided any evidence for the newer theories in physics that have been vying for attention.

Today the grandest quest of physics is to render compatible the laws of quantum physics--how particles in the subatomic world behave--with the rules that govern stars and planets. That's because, at present, the formulas that work on one level implode into meaninglessness at the other level. This is deeply ungainly, and significant when the two worlds collide, as occurs in black holes. The quest to unify quantum physics (micro) and general relativity (macro) has spawned heroic efforts, the best-known candidate for a grand unifying concept presently being string theory. String theory proposes that subatomic particles are not particles at all but closed or open vibrating strings, so tiny, a hundred billion billion times shorter than an atomic nucleus's diameter, that no human instrument can detect them. It's the "music of the spheres"--think vibrating harp strings--made literal.

A concept related to string theory is "supersymmetry." Physicists have shown that at extremely high energy levels, similar to those that existed a micro-blink after the big bang, the strength of the electromagnetic force, and strong and weak nuclear forces (which work only on subatomic levels), come tantalizingly close to converging. Physicists have conceived of scenarios in which the three come together precisely, an immensely intellectually and aesthetically pleasing accomplishment. But those scenarios imply the existence of as-yet-undiscovered "partners" for existing particles: The electron would be joined by a "selectron," quarks by "squarks," and so on. There was great hope that the $8-billion Large Hadron Collider would provide indirect evidence for these theories, but so far it hasn't.

Like other critics of string theory and its variants, Orrell argues that it is basically unfalsifiable.

You can hardly blame physiocists for wanting to be freed from the constraints of science, the way their biologist brethren have been.
Posted by orrinj at 9:31 AM


Budgetary Misnomers and the Cost of Defense (Paul R. Pillar, January 31, 2013, National Interest)

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, using data compiled by Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight, observes that the figures usually adduced to present spending on "defense" or "national security" understate by a long shot actual federal spending that is appropriately put under such labels. The figure most often cited is the "base" budget of the Department of Defense, which was $535 billion for FY2012. But military and defense expenditures go well beyond that, including such things as the development of nuclear weapons, which is done in the Department of Energy, or training of foreign military forces, which come under the international affairs section of the federal budget. Add in all those other things and the total is more like $930 billion rather than $535 billion. And that's just current expenditures, not taking into account follow-on effects such as additional interest to be paid on the national debt.

Probably the most egregious bit of military-related budgetary legerdemain has been the practice of keeping the operational costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan separate from the main Pentagon budget, as if those costs should not count as much because they are, well, sort of temporary. And so the base budget figure continues to get cited as "defense spending" even though it excludes the main, and costliest, activities in recent years of the U.S. military.

Posted by orrinj at 9:22 AM


A Not-So-Doomed GOP (Jonah Goldberg, February 1, 2013 , National Review)

 In states as diverse as Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, Michigan, New Jersey, Texas, and a half-dozen others, Republicans have been implementing impressive -- even miraculous -- reforms.

In pro-Obama Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker beat back a historic attack from organized labor. And Michigan -- Michigan! -- recently became a right-to-work state, which I'm pretty sure is mentioned in the AFL-CIO's bylaws as a sign of the end times.

I think an overlooked part of the story is the fact that Americans tend to see federal and local governments differently. At the local level, people seem to have a better grasp that it's their tax dollars at work. They are far more sensitive to tax increases and more easily outraged by spending boondoggles. They understand the importance of sustainable economic growth.

This fact benefits Republicans, although state-level Democrats tend to be more fiscally responsible at the local level as well. (Rahm Emanuel is far more fiscally responsible as Chicago's mayor than he ever was as Obama's chief of staff.)

Meanwhile, what gets Republicans elected at the local level gets them in trouble at the federal level. Again, there are many reasons for this. But I think one of them is that we've come to see the federal government as some sort of mystical entity empowered to right all of the wrongs in society. If there's a problem, there "should" be a federal response, the costs or feasibility of that response be damned.

While Romney's infamous riff about the "47 percent" was profoundly flawed, the simple reality is that millions of people who do, in fact, pay federal income taxes do not care about those tax dollars in the same way they care about their local tax dollars. This is true of people who get more from the federal government than they pay in, but it's also true for millions of affluent voters as well.

That is, of course, untrue, which is why W carried three consecutive national elections, running on the idea of reforming our entitlement system to make it more productive and efficient.  At the state level these governors have run on the same policies.  It is only at the national level that GOP nominees, activists, lobby groups, and think tanks labor under the delusion that folks are so concerned about those tax dollars that they want to get rid of the social safety net.  Had Mitt just run as he governed MA instead of as the Beltway wanted to he'd have won too.He could have beaten Obamacare with Romneycare.  He couldn't beat it with nothing.  Nihilism isn't conservative.  

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Posted by orrinj at 9:17 AM


Is Sweden a Red State? (Walter Russell Mead, 2/01/13, Via Medea)

Then came a set of reforms right out of the playbook now being used by Republican governors across the U.S.:

A centre-right coalition opened up the universal welfare state to choice and competition, using private companies and people power to improve quality and efficiency. State funding for education was reformed to follow the pupil, rather than the service, meaning that schools had to compete for custom for the first time. In healthcare, the private sector was invited to set up hospitals, GP clinics and even ambulances. [...]

Competition has delivered better services. At Kunskapsskolan, a private free school chain, children take greater responsibility for their own learning; setting their own goals, class schedules and recording progress online. The 10,000 pupils taught in its 33 schools consistently outperform the national average. Private healthcare companies have helped the Swedish healthcare system keep up with rapid change.

The reforms have made believers out of everyone. Sweden's powerful Municipal Workers' Union declared in 2001, "Competition between the various providers can promote and promulgate improvements in both productivity and quality." 

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February 1, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 5:46 PM


Full Throttle Ahead: US Tips Global Power Scales with Fracking : The United States is sitting on massive natural gas and oil reserves that have the potential to shift the geopolitical balance in its favor. Worries are increasing in Russia and the Arab states of waning influence and falling market prices. (Der Spiegel, 2/01/13)

When the flows of energy change, the strategic and military calculations of the major powers do as well.

It is still unclear who the winners and losers will be. The Chinese and the Argentines also have enormous shale gas reserves. Experts believe that Poland, France and Germany have significant resources, although no one knows exactly how significant. Outside the United States, extraction is still in its infancy.

The outlines of a changed world order are already emerging in the simulations of geo-strategists. They show that the United States will benefit the most from the development of shale gas and oil resources. A study by Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, concludes that Washington's discretionary power in foreign and security policy will increase substantially as a result of the country's new energy riches.

According to the BND study, the political threat potential of oil producers like Iran will decline. Optimists assume that, in about 15 years, the United States will no longer have to send any aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf to guarantee that oil tankers can pass unhindered through the Strait of Hormuz, still the most important energy bottleneck in the world.
The Russians could be on the losing end of the stick. The power of President Vladimir Putin is based primarily on oil and gas revenues. If energy prices decline in the long term, bringing down Russian revenues from the energy sector, Putin's grip on power could begin to falter. The Americans' sudden oil and gas riches are also not very good news for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

European industry is also likely to benefit from falling world market prices for oil and gas. But according to prognoses, without domestic extraction the Europeans' site-specific advantages deteriorate.

German chemical giant BASF has already invested a lot of money in the United States in the last two years. In Louisiana, for example, it has built new plants for the production of methyl amines and formic acid. "The local natural gas price is a criterion that affects the question of where we invest in new production facilities," says BASF Executive Board member Harald Schwager. At the moment, the United States has a clear advantage over Europe in this regard."

Posted by orrinj at 5:36 AM


Should people be off on Fridays? ((Vanessa Barford, 1/31/13, BBC News Magazine)

In the tiny African nation of The Gambia, public sector workers will now clock in at 8am and clock out at 6pm, Monday to Thursday. They'll still do a 40-hour week but have the luxury of Friday off.

President Jammeh wants the extra rest day to "allow Gambians to devote more time to prayers, social activities and agriculture".

...how does it make any sense to extend the workday?  Better to work them 5 days a week for just four hours.