Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Earth 2" about 20 light years away said to have 100% chance of life

Astronomers say that they have found an extrasolar planet in the “Goldilocks” zone, around an old M-star Gliese 581, planet G. It is about three times the size of Earth (in surface area?) but has only slightly higher gravity.

It has one side facing the star all the time, so that one side is hot, and the other side is cold. An annular “sunset” zone would have mild temperatures conducive to water and life as we know it.

If there is an ocean on the hot side, there is probably a constant hurricane brewing. Weather would be violent, so land-life would need considerable space and altitude to be safe from storms.

Because the planet is larger, the amount of real estate in the “annular” zone could be considerable. The geography of the planet could lead to interesting political issues if there is a civilization like ours. And the star is extremely old and stable, so it could have had time to develop.

Any civilization with fiat money would have business cycles like ours, including economic depressions. It’s interesting to wonder how easily democracy arises. On Earth, man is unusual in being both a social animal and an individualist, and that may be rare in nature.

The star is about 20 years away, but some scientists think that building a ramscoop spaceship that could reach it in about 100 Earth years is conceivable.

AMC Theaters has a pre-feature corporate trademark short i that shows an audience in an outdoor theater that appears to be on an M-star planet, which would be likely to have photosynthetic (perhaps carnivorous) plants with darker colors (blue and violet rather than green). There is even a hypothetical city in the short, with spires and domes, a kind of small Dubai. Maybe that’s what Gliese g will look like, an “Earth 2”. I couldn’t find a YouTube of this short.

Here is CNN’s “’100 percent’ chance for life on newly found planet?” link.

It won’t be too long before inhabitants will have had enough time for Facebook to reach them.

National Science Foundation video on Gliese.

Gliese 581 may have another earthlike planet that could have an atmosphere of mostly carbon monoxide, an “oil and diamond” planet.

Wikipedia attribution link for comparison of Gliese 581 to Sun.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Young women seem to benefit economically from delaying marriage, children (several USA Today stories)

Paul Wiseman has a USA Today story today (Sept 29) indicating that young single and childless women make more than young single men in many cities, although married men still make more money than women (not surprising to anyone who read George Gilder’s book “Men and Marriage” in the 1980s). The link is here.

More single women have college educations than single men, which is one reason for higher earnings. The disparity was higher in cities like Atlanta with large minority populations, where female achievement in school relative to boys is marked.

On June 22, Sharon Jayson had reported in USA Today that young adults were not rushing into marriage even though dating for a long time. Wariness about economic future is certainly one reason, as is the fact that having children is very expensive.

Some of the data for these reports come from various now-published Census data.

The "American Chronicle" has a "Jonathan Swift" article, "Impotence in Male Achievers Will End Earth", by John W. Sammon, April 13, 2008, link here.  Yes, the piece is strident (humorously so), but it has a point. A technological society offers introverted people other kinds of competitive opportunities.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

USA Today notes frivolous or wrongful federal prosecution happens, and ordinary individuals have insufficient protection for legal expenses

Kevin McCoy and Brad Heath have a major story on the front page of USA Today, Tuesday, Sept. 28, “not guilty, but stuck with big bills, damaged career: U.S. law designed to aid those wrongly charged rarely used”, link here.

The article concerns the 1997 Hyde Amendment, which is supposed to compensate victims of “frivolous” federal prosecution, but defendants have been compensated for costs only thirteen times, according to Gannett’s own investigation.

A better known law, from 1976, also called Hyde Amendment has to do with barring the use of certain federal funds to pay for abortions.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Obama administration wants Internet to be wiretap-friendly

Charlie Savage has a major detailed story Monday morning Sept. 27 in the New York Times (front page), “U.S. is working to ease wiretaps on the Internet; security vs. privacy; Officials say they are lacking the capability to track suspects”, link here.

The conceptual problem is that, when compared to practice with traditional phones, the decentralized design of the Internet, and particularly its encryption capabilities, make it difficult to intercept messages (in response to police or FBI wiretap orders) without specific search warrants, which law enforcement says may take too long in organized crime or terrorism-related investigations. (Remember that the NSA could not decrypt all its material until one day after 9/11 even though it had “suspicions”.)

The article discusses the supposed shortfalls of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEAS), with a main reference (website url) here.

The legislation would be developed in 2011.

Congress could require major changes to P2P services like Skype or to social networking sites like Facebook, as well as Blackberries (RIM). It’s not clear there could much concern over straightforward blogging, videos, or “Web 1.0” publishing sites. I will be tracking the technical and practical issues on my main blog later. The bill, in the works in the Obama administration, is sure to be controversial.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Princeton professor chides our "strategic ingorance", and lists the practices that future generations will judge us harshly for

The Washington Post has a futurist article today by Kwame Anthony Affiah, philosophy professor at Princeton (“The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen”) has a “disturbia” piece in Outlook Section B of the Washington Post today, “How future generations will judge us: Which actions today will seem appalling tomorrow?”

We play Dr. Phil and say “what we people thinking?” when we look at our own history, with practices in the past that are now seen as shameful. One of the obvious ones is slavery, followed by segregation. Affiah talks about “strategic ignorance”. You could apply that to today’s trade problems. When we buy “cheap” imports (that in a different system might have been made at home with union labor), we don’t think about working conditions and exploitation half way across the world.

Affiah lists four big wrongs:

(1) The prison system

(2) Industrial meat production. Those who saw the movie “Babe” know what he is talking about

(3) The institutionalization and isolation of many of our elderly. In poorer cultures, extended families stay together, and splitting off is not a valid choice. This issue is just now running away from us, with smaller families, and extended life spans; the individualist solution (even on Oprah with Dr. Oz) has been to demand that people be responsible for their own health habits lifetime. But the religious right has been able to tie this issue to “demographic winter”.

(4) The environment, and probably peak oil – the traditional “inconvenient truths”; Al Gore was only the beginning.

Others will come up with more items, such as financial ponzi schemes, tolerating the pre-existing conditions problem for health care, or gross homophobia. Or maybe that the tobacco industry was so powerful for so long. In fact, all of these issues are linked, in some way, to “culture wars” and “family values”, and perhaps to hyperindividualism. Both the far Left and the far Right demand that everyone have their own personal skin in their communities, and in various ways trying to implement such requirements (on individual people, making sure that nobody “gets out of things”) can bring back totalitarianism or at least authoritarianism. (I often speak about the Vietnam era draft with the deferment problem as a typical example – when today we debate “don’t ask don’t tell”.) But even hyperindividualism (which much of his article amounts to) can lead us to very disturbing end points.

Something else, too: most of the “abuses” of the past have indeed occurred in a “family based” society, where family values, lineage, and religion could be used to cover up other problems. Back in 2004, another Princetonian, David Callahan, showed us a lot of this in his book “The Cheating Culture”.

The link is here.

Friday, September 17, 2010

New "KPC" superbugs have resistance against "last chance" antibiotics

Antibiotic resistance is rapidly becoming a major public health problem, if one judges from a USA Today article Sept. 17 by Steve Sternberg, “Germ beats ‘last resort’ antibiotics; Bug hits hospitals in USA and spreads overseas”, link here. The online headline says a new strain has hit 20 states, especially New York and New Jersey.

The resistant bacteria carry a gene that enables them to produce an enzyme, KPC, or Klebsiella pneumoniae carbapenamase, that disables a major group of “last best chance” antibiotics.

There is another so-far rare bug from India, NDM-1, but KPC’s are rapidly becoming a problem. It’s hard to control without the strictest infection control procedures, at least in hospitals.

Some drugs are coming onto the market to fight MRSA, which gets a lot of attention in the media and is passed around in contact sports. But less work is being done now with novel bacteria. The only medication that works may be polymixin, which is very toxic to kidneys.

Here is the CDC reference link.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

As for excessive time online, academic researcher says, really, "The kids are all right"

As for time online and computer use, a Metro section headline of the Washington Post today (Sept. 15) says “The Kids Are All Right” as far as time spent online goes. The online story, by Donna St. George, is “U-Md. Researcher links kids’ computer use with test scores, behavior”, link here.

As far as how much time tweens spend on computers, “Worry Not” the researchers say.

I must add, I’ve seen 11 year old (sixth graders) who can get Microsoft XP systems to boot again after they go down on Bue Screens. In fact, some kids (particularly in areas requiring mathematical skills, including music aptitude) do seem to have the ability to accomplish great things once they are focused on them. Look at how Facebook and Napster got invented (however controversial they are or were).

After all, computer use does involve analytic and communications skills – even if chat room talk is not “standard English”.

We can get into a debate about what kids need to learn. One thing is how to see things in context – academically, you get that from English and social studies, the old fashioned way. That’s also called “seeing around corners”.

The other issue is familial and “first world” social bonds “for their own sake”, as I hinted at on my “BillBoushka” blog entry today.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

School districts are quick to suspend students when they suspect drug use, sometimes incorrectly

The Byron Nelson high school in Trophy Club,Texas (north of Fort Worth) was involved in an unfortunate incident. A 16 year old male student showed up in school “red eyed” after the violent death of his father, and the school suspected him of marijuana use, suspended him and then sent him to an alternative school. His mother had his doctor test him for drugs, and when the tests came back negative, the school district allowed the student back to school but wouldn’t remove the suspension from his record.

The school district says it does not test students but must remove them and turn them over to parents if it suspects drug use, even when the suspicion is unfounded. But apparently they don't always expunge disciplinary records when allegations are incorrect.

Fox 4 News in Dallas-Fort Worth has the following story by Sophia Reza, link here.

MSNBC has the following video:

Friday, September 10, 2010

Some physicians can get deep discounts for self-pay

I overheard a conversation today in a doctor’s office that brings up another subtle point about health insurance. This was after one of those mandatory all-night fasts before a blood drawing.  (Yes, they make everybody do this on Medicare.)

Some doctors have discount arrangements with certain labs. If an insurance company rejects a claim or part of a claim, sometimes doctors can get discounted prices anyway if the patient self-pays immediately and doesn’t go through insurance.

Of course, this sounds like the reverse of normal health insurance practice. In most cases, large health insurance companies have contracts with major labs and hospitals and get discounted prices up front. That means that a copay is based on a deeply discounted price to start. That’s a major way in which the uninsured get soaked, and I’m not sure that Obamacare has really addressed this.

AOL presents face-off on "childlessness"

AOL struck a nerve ending Thursday night with an “AOL Original” faceoff on a site called “Lemondrop”. The lead article, by Maressa Brown, is “Do Moms Make Better Employees? I, a ‘Childless Woman’, Think Not”, link here. She refers to a “Daily Mail” article in Britain, by Carol Sarler, “Why bosses are right to distrust women who don’t want children … by a VERY outspoken mother (and ex-boss)” link (website url) here. The latter article talks about a concept called “essential humanity”. True, she seems to be going after “healthy” young women who can have children. I think many women would feel disturbed by the idea that employers or anyone else in “power” has the ability to demand “submission”.

Brown says the British article stirred a lot of discussion among her own friends and coworkers, most of whom she says found the tone offensive, and finally asks “What does motherhood have to do with the judgment of an employee’s worth?”

It strikes me that men face the same darts being thrown at them, especially gay men. There is a vocal minority in our culture today, loosely called the “natural family” movement, whose writings imply that parenthood and intergenerational responsibility or “generativity” are moral responsibilities of everyone, even more so in this age of sustainability concerns. This ties back to the “demographic winter” argument, and the writings of Allan Carlson, Paul Mero, and Phillip Longman. It even comes across as an attack on hyperindividualism, and the whole “it’s not about you” concept of Rev. Rick Warren.

I wonder if the mommy blogs (like Dooce) have taken this issue up. I haven’t looked, but maybe I will later.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Very low interest rates let borrowers "mooch" on savers (at least indirectly!)

The New York Times today ran an interesting front page perspective by Graham Bowley, “Falling Rates Aid Debtors but Hamper Savers”, link (website url) here.

The problem is particularly serious for retirees living off their savings.  When people refinance or otherwise borrow, they do not pay as much as they should if the nation's policy were more serious about improving savings, as for retirement (hence the verb in the title of the post). It may be wise to borrow more. 

The low interest rates effectively transfer wealth from savers back to borrowers. Savings CD’s that earn 1.5% now could have earned 4.5% three years ago.

Bond prices rise, however, as companies issue bonds at lower rates of interest. Another Times story reported that many stadiums around the country that have been torn down for new ones still owe bond interest.

The Market Rate Insight blog has a posting Sept 7 about deposit balances trending down after two decades of growth, here.

I suspect my own car loan from 2009 might have been at a lower rate had I waited until this year, but repairs on the oldie were too much. So I a borrower be, too.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Reich: too much concentration of wealth among too few makes economy unsustainable

September 2, Robert Reich, a secretary of Labor during the Clinton years, aired an op-ed in the New York Times, “How to End the Great Recession.” The link is here.

His explanation is prosaic and telling. Technology has reduced the need for labor intensive jobs in the US and made it cheaper to ship jobs overseas. Wages fall. Families try to maintain their income with two working spouses, which works for a while. But then they go for easy credit. Eventually the credit bubble bursts, and everybody buys less. Hence, business depression, as people cannot afford to buy the goods and services that can be produced. Curiously, there is plenty while people go hungry.

In a way, this is nothing new. It’s not just the lessons of the Great Depression. All civilizations have had business depressions, even in ancient times. Civilizations comparable to ours on other planets in other solar systems will have business depressions.

What’s scary this time is that in other ways we are consuming beyond our means, leading to a world that is not sustainable. That’s particularly true with fossil fuels and with health care and elder care. With population replacement, the picture is mixed; affluent societies are no longer replacing their populations, but the poor are doing so, perhaps providing labor that is subject to abuse, eventually creating political instability and possibly eventually undermining democracy and commitment to individual rights. (This is the “demographic winter” argument.)

Reich is correct that when wealth is too heavily concentrated in a few people, economic mechanisms of recovery don’t work as well. An economic system where most people can earn a reasonable wage is more sustainable. Of course, wealthy people often say they have created new jobs with their own innovations, and in the area of “personal information technology” and social media that’s true, to the point that old mechanisms are seriously challenged further.

Time Magazine, with the September 6 issue, enriches the debate with a cover story issue, “Rethinking home ownership; why owning a home may no longer make economic sense,” by Barabara Kiviat.

But instead of this, I’ll give a reference to a Time essay by Joe Klein, “How can a democracy solve tough problems?”, link here. Hint: the Athenian kleroterion, where citizens are picked at random to make policy decisions every day, a kind of universal and expanded jury duty. What would the rules for Facebook use be in such a system?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Libertarian commentator John Stossel offers a new criticism against ADA; makes good point about "identity politics"

John Stossel is seen by some people as a provocative commentator (his “give me a break” column on ABC 20/20) from a libertarian perspective, but probably nothing like Newt Gingrich or even Sarah Palin.

Stossel has reissued one of his earlier arguments, that the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t actually help people with disabilities find jobs. The piece appears on p 38 Sept 2 in the conservative-leaning Washington Examiner; here is a copy online, “Good intentions gone bad”, link here.

His basic point is that the ADA tends to invite frivolous litigation, even “legal extortion” (Stossel talks about “professional litigants”), so employers are likely to look the other way on hiring people whom employers fear would sue them. (That really hasn’t been the case with race, however, very often, although occasionally there are unusual litigation incidents in the workplace today; I witinessed one in the 1990s.)

Stossel also argues that ADA requirements cause some small business owners to balk at spending money on needed renovations. He ends his essay with the use of the word “parasites”.

In information technology, I know of a case where an nearly “legally blind” technician was accommodated with a large terminal screen, and was the most productive employee on the team in resolving major technical support problems affecting customers. The individual also ran an ISP from home (he managed my web hosting for four years, with great stability).

Stossel has a point, however, when he talks about “identity politics”. Lazy thinking encourages people to perceive opposition to some statute purporting to help a particular class as dislike of the class of people itself. Here is his link at (“conservative”) Fox.

I recall a speech in 1996 at the Fairfax County government center by National Gay and Lesbian Task Force director Melinda Paras, about “fairness and compassion”. But the question is whether government can force it.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Value-Added Modeling used to evaluate, and sometimes fire, teachers

The method that controversial District of Columbia school chancellor Michelle Rhee used to evaluate teachers and fire some of them this summer has been used all across the country. It is called “Value –added modeling”, and is discussed in a September 1, 2010 New York Times story by Sam Dillon, “Method to grade teachers provokes battles”, link here.

The system evaluates how much a teacher’s students performance changed over the year. It is very effective in lower grades and with poorer performing schools where there is large room for improvement.

Teachers of AP students, however, tend not to benefit from such a system. After all, wealthier school districts have kids who take calculus in 11th grade and had started programming java in middle school, and can already get jobs or contracts with technology companies.

The Rand Corporation has a white paper “Evaluation Value-Added Models for Teacher Accountability” here.

The Educational Testing Service in Princeton NJ (responsible for teacher PRAXIS tests) has its own paper by Henry Braun on the VAT technology for assessing teachers, here.