Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for March 6th, 2010

New secret to clean kitchen

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For me, the kitchen sink becomes intimating only with pots or pans: dishes, silverware, spatulas, etc., no problem. And even one pot or pan is no problem: I can clean it up in 30 seconds. But two start to be a problem, and three makes the sink start to become a landfill of dirty dishes.

So. My new secret: If I have a dirty pot or pan, I must wash that before taking out another one. Since washing a single pot or pan is no problem, I’ll do it—and indeed I often do, when the pot I want is the one that’s dirty. But making that a regular thing will not be hard, I think, and thus the sink will never become intimidating.

I roasted the lamb chops using the small sauté pan. Now I want to sauté some chopped spring onion, asparagus, and broccoli in the large sauté pan, so I first will wash and dry the small one. Voilà!

Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 5:40 pm

Posted in Daily life

"Kosher" salt

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I just had lamb chops (salt, pepper, roast at 300ºF for 30 minutes), and I of course used kosher salt, which sticks so much better.

That made me think about the name. Since all salt is kosher (well, perhaps not bacon salt—but salt as salt is kosher) in the sense of not being treyf, but not all salt is good for koshering meat (processing meat to make it kosher); only "kosher" salt is right for koshering. So "kosher" salt (for koshering) became kosher salt (with no quotation marks), and thus the idea that some salt is kosher and other salt is treyf.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 5:36 pm

Posted in Daily life, Food, Religion

Terrific article on Mayor Daley

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An absolutely fascinating article by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker, showing quite a bit about how politics works in Chicago. Mayor Daley turns out to be surprisingly progressive in his policies.

The link goes only to an abstract. To read the full article on-line, you have to be a subscriber. And I do in fact recommend that you subscribe: every issue has at least one, and more generally three or four, fascinating articles. I admit that I never read the short story, but I definitely get my money’s worth from this one.

So: go ahead and subscribe. And then you can read the whole Daley article.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 3:58 pm

Power strip with pedal switch

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 3:53 pm

Posted in Daily life

Good news on the methane

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RealClimate offers some reassurance regarding the Arctic methane deposits. Read the whole post. Here’s the conclusion:

Anyway, so far it is at most a very small feedback. The Siberian Margin might rival the whole rest of the world ocean as a methane source, but the ocean source overall is much smaller than the land source. Most of the methane in the atmosphere comes from wetlands, natural and artificial associated with rice agriculture. The ocean is small potatoes, and there is enough uncertainty in the methane budget to accommodate adjustments in the sources without too much overturning of apple carts.

Could this be the first modest sprout of what will grow into a huge carbon feedback in the future? It is possible, but two things should be kept in mind. One is that there’s no reason to fixate on methane in particular. Methane is a transient gas in the atmosphere, while CO2 essentially accumulates in the atmosphere / ocean carbon cycle, so in the end the climate forcing from the accumulating CO2 that methane oxidizes into may be as important as the transient concentration of methane itself. The other thing to remember is that there’s no reason to fixate on methane hydrates in particular, as opposed to the carbon stored in peats in Arctic permafrosts for example. Peats take time to degrade but hydrate also takes time to melt, limited by heat transport. They don’t generally explode instantaneously.

For methane to be a game-changer in the future of Earth’s climate, it would have to degas to the atmosphere catastrophically, on a time scale that is faster than the decadal lifetime of methane in the air. So far no one has seen or proposed a mechanism to make that happen.

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6 March 2010 at 2:46 pm

Solastalgia, Soliphilia and the Ecopsychology of our Changing Environment

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Interesting post by Paul Mason:

“As our environment continues to change around us, the question Albrecht would like answered is, how deeply are our minds suffering in return?” (Daniel Smith, 2010)

Pelourinho is the historical and cultural drawcard for tourists visiting Salvador da Bahia in Brazil. A lively epicentre of music, dance and restaurants, the area merits its prized holiday destination status. Tourists who visit the Mercado Modelo in Pelourinho might venture beneath this popular market into the slave chambers below and become aware of the tragic history of slavery that haunts the region. What many tourists might not know, however, is that the Pelourinho district underwent massive restoration efforts under the government during the 1970s and the 1990s. The area had become home to the poor and they were offered no more than a month’s wages or nothing at all to vacate and relocate. Studies show that of the 1300 families living in Pelourinho in 1992, only about 200 were able to remain in the neighbourhood (Collins, 2004:212). Those who have seen the changes can tell you how much the tourist development of Pelourinho affected the lives of the people that lived there. But even without a mastery of Portuguese, you don’t have to wander far off the pretty streets of Pelourinho to see a community in disarray. In my own travels, I encountered pregnant women high on drugs, old drunken men wielding screwdrivers as weapons and seven year olds with pocket-knives and guns. You only have to look at the long queue of tourists that line up daily at the tourist-police bureau to understand the amount of crime that plagues the region. Tourists are not being robbed by poor people that hate them, the tourists are being robbed by people who are indifferent to them.

The local government has not stopped removing people from their homes in their bid to increase tourism. There are still attempts to forcefully move people out of the coast-dwelling shanty-towns in order to erect 5-star resorts and luxury wharfs. One of the communities that I worked with in the Alto da Sereia were actively involved in public actions to resist these attempts. There are people who care, but I have to admit that Brazil was the first place where I learnt that indifference really is the opposite of love. So many people have grown up learning to be indifferent to their situation as a psychological survival strategy against solastalgia. This culturally entrained indifference is the source of a lot of crime in Brazil. In my own country, Australia, I am starting to see the cultural entrainment of ‘indifference‘ taking place in another sphere of human concern that affects our homes and where we live.

Solastalgia: noun. From the Latin solacium (comfort

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 2:41 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Interrogation sans torture

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As one suspected, the psychological damage from being tortured is in large part due to the feeling of helplessness in the victim. An interesting article by Dan Jones in New Scientist:

ABU GHRAIB and Guantanamo Bay: two names that have become synonymous in many people’s minds with torture and abuse of human rights by American interrogators. When Barack Obama entered the White House in January 2009, he set out to erase the stain such practices have left on America’s image. The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group established later that year has as one of its stated aims to interrogate without brute force and to employ "scientifically proven" techniques – though without saying what these might be.

It seems like a noble goal, but on closer inspection it raises a host of questions. Can science validate interrogation techniques – and if so, how? What is the effect on the human mind of coercive interrogation that stops short of physical torture? And, crucially, are there any interrogation techniques that can be shown to be both effective and humane?

In the past, the US military used a set of 19 approved interrogation methods laid down in the Army Field Manual 2-22.3, which explicitly prohibits threats or coercion. Following the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, the George W. Bush administration decided that this should change. So, after legal consultations, new ways to apply pressure on people under interrogation were drawn up. For several years they remained secret, but more recently we have acquired a pretty good idea of the techniques interrogators used at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the US base at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

Take, for example, the treatment log of Mohamed al-Kahtani, made public in March 2006. This revealed that for weeks on end he faced a daily routine of just 4 hours of interrupted sleep, prolonged stress positions, blaring music, extremes of temperature, and various humiliations – including being treated like a dog, and a mock birthday party at which he was shown puppet shows of himself engaging in sexual acts with Osama bin Laden.

The technique known as waterboarding, in which the subject experiences the sensation that they are drowning, was also common. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has claimed responsibility for planning the 9/11 attacks, was subjected to waterboarding more than 180 times in March 2003 alone.

Do any or all of these amount to torture? The 1984 UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is somewhat vague. It differentiates between torture – "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person" – and "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" (CIDT). This distinction may reflect the notion that inserting needles under someone’s fingernails or pulling out their teeth is in some way worse than, say, blindfolding and hooding, forced nudity, isolation, humiliation, forced stress positions, or deprivation of sleep or light.

Yet the UN convention is clear: both torture and CIDT are illegal. And maybe the distinction is unimportant anyway, as there appears to be little to choose between them in terms of the long-term ill-effects they cause to their victims.

Torture by another name?

For the past decade, Metin Basoglu, director of the Istanbul Centre for Behaviour Research and Therapy in Turkey, has been a key figure in investigating the psychological damage inflicted by physical torture and CIDT. From studies of hundreds of survivors of coercive interrogation by a variety of regimes around the world, Basoglu has arrived at a clear-cut answer. "The most common psychiatric condition after torture and harsh interrogation techniques is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), followed by depression and other anxiety disorders," he says (see "A tortured mind").

As part of his studies, Basoglu has compared the effects of physical torture and CIDT…

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6 March 2010 at 1:41 pm

Why atheists?

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We now know that the human brain is pre-wired for religious belief, so that makes the presence of atheists an anomaly that requires explanation. Lois Lee and Stephen Bullivant write in New Scientist:

Editorial: Time to accept that atheism, not god, is odd

HERE’s a fact to flatter the unbelievers among you: the bright young things at the University of Oxford are among the most godless groups ever studied in the UK. Of 728 students surveyed in 2007, 48.9 per cent claimed not to believe in any god, with 49.6 per cent claiming no religious affiliation. And while a very small number of Britons typically label themselves as "atheist" or "agnostic" (most surveys put it at about 5 per cent), an astonishing 57.3 per cent of the Oxford sample did.

This may come as no surprise. After all, atheism is the natural stance of the educated and the informed, is it not? It is only to be expected that Oxford students should be wise to what their own professor Richard Dawkins calls "self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery" – and others call "faith". The old Enlightenment caricature, it seems, is true after all: where Reason reigns, God retires.

Of course, things are never quite that simple. Within the sample, for instance, the postgraduates (that is, the even-better educated) were notably more religious than the undergraduates, in terms of both belief in God and self-description. Although the greater number of non-Europeans in the postgraduate population is almost certainly a significant factor here, evidence from elsewhere backs the idea that there is no straightforward relationship between atheism and education.

Let’s look at some results from the World Values Survey, an international attempt to assess the global state of socio-cultural, moral, religious and political values. The 2005 results show that while there is a clear positive correlation between education and lack of belief in God, the effect is slightly weaker, not stronger, among those with a university education (14.8 per cent were non-believers) compared with those whose highest attainment was secondary level (17.2 per cent).

What is more, the survey shows a far stronger correlation between education and certain "irrational" beliefs: for example, only 29.6 per cent of those without even an elementary education believe in telepathy, compared with 51.8 per cent of people with degree-level education.

Closer to home, an analysis of the 2008 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey by David Voas of the University of Manchester reveals that the historical correlation between being educated and being "non-religious" has not only weakened but reversed…

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 1:37 pm

Happiness lies in experiences, not possessions

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The Eldest pointed out this article by Rachael Rettner:

If you’re trying to buy happiness, you’d be better off putting your money toward a tropical island get-away than a new computer, a new study suggests.

The results show that people’s satisfaction with their life-experience purchases – anything from seeing a movie to going on a vacation – tends to start out high and go up over time. On the other hand, although they might be initially happy with that shiny new iPhone or the latest in fashion, their satisfaction with these items wanes with time.

The findings, based on eight separate studies, agree with previous research showing that experience-related buys lead to more happiness for the consumer. But the current work provides some insight into why.

Among the reasons:

  • People are more likely to mull over their material purchases than they are experiential ones, second-guessing themselves about whether they really made the best choice.
  • We tend to think of experiences more on their own terms, rather than in comparison with other things.
  • It’s easier for us to decide on an experiential purchase than a material one.
  • We’re more upset if we learn that someone else got a better deal, or that a better option exists, for a material purchase than for an experience-related one.

Satisfaction with a purchase could also come down to mindset. When participants in one study thought of material purchases, such as a music CD, as an experience (many hours of enjoyable listening), they were more satisfied than those who viewed the purchase as just a material item.

In another study, 142 participants were asked to think about either a material or experience-related purchase they had made that cost at least $50. Then, they answered questions about: how difficult the decision was to make; how concerned they were that they made the right choice; and how satisfied they were with the purchase initially and at present.

The people who thought of a material purchase were significantly more likely to report feeling …

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

The Great Cardini

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Via Kafeneio, this clip. (More info at the link.)

I once say a protégé of Ricky Jay perform. Close-up sleight-of-hand is amazing.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 12:29 pm

Posted in Daily life, Video

Marc Thiessen’s peculiar views

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Marc Thiessen was a speechwriter under Bush and has recently published an extremely bad book, whereupon the Washington Post immediately hired him for their editorial page, which specializes in bad writers. Here’s a review of Thiessen’s book from Slate:

Matthew Alexander, the author of this review, is a former senior military interrogator who publishes under a pseudonym for security reasons.

My gut reaction on reading Marc Thiessen’s new book, Courting Disaster, was: "Why is a speechwriter who’s never served in the military or intelligence community acting as an expert on interrogation and national security?" Certainly, everyone is entitled to a voice in the debate over the lawfulness and efficacy of President Bush’s abusive interrogation program, regardless of qualifications. But if you’re not an expert on a subject, shouldn’t you interview experts before expressing an opinion? Instead, Thiessen relies solely on the opinions of the CIA interrogators who used torture and abuse and are thus most vulnerable to prosecution for war crimes. That makes his book less a serious discussion of interrogation policy than a literary defense of war criminals. Nowhere in this book will you find the opinions of experienced military interrogators who successfully interrogated Islamic extremists. Not once does he cite Army Doctrine—which warns of the negative consequences of torture and abuse. Courting Disaster is nothing more than the defense’s opening statement in a war crimes trial.

While many of Thiessen’s opinions are appalling from a moral perspective (he justifies torture and abuse through the religious writings of St. Thomas Aquinas), the book is comprised of errors, omissions, and a whopping dose of fear-mongering. I’ll concentrate here on his worst misstatements and why his conclusions ultimately make us less safe.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 10:57 am

Oldest known temple

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Patrick Symmes in Newsweek:

Turkey-ruins-FE05-wide-horizontal

A pillar at the Göbekli Tepe temple near Sanliurfa, Turkey, the oldest known temple in the world

They call it potbelly hill, after the soft, round contour of this final lookout in southeastern Turkey. To the north are forested mountains. East of the hill lies the biblical plain of Harran, and to the south is the Syrian border, visible 20 miles away, pointing toward the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, the region that gave rise to human civilization. And under our feet, according to archeologist Klaus Schmidt, are the stones that mark the spot—the exact spot—where humans began that ascent.

Standing on the hill at dawn, overseeing a team of 40 Kurdish diggers, the German-born archeologist waves a hand over his discovery here, a revolution in the story of human origins. Schmidt has uncovered a vast and beautiful temple complex, a structure so ancient that it may be the very first thing human beings ever built. The site isn’t just old, it redefines old: the temple was built 11,500 years ago—a staggering 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, and more than 6,000 years before Stonehenge first took shape. The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture—the first embers of civilization. In fact, Schmidt thinks the temple itself, built after the end of the last Ice Age by hunter-gatherers, became that ember—the spark that launched mankind toward farming, urban life, and all that followed.

Göbekli Tepe—the name in Turkish for “potbelly hill”—lays art and religion squarely at the start of that journey. After a dozen years of patient work, Schmidt has uncovered what he thinks is definitive proof that a huge ceremonial site flourished here, a “Rome of the Ice Age,” as he puts it, where hunter-gatherers met to build a complex religious community. Across the hill, he has found carved and polished circles of stone, with terrazzo flooring and double benches. All the circles feature massive T-shaped pillars that evoke the monoliths of Easter Island.

Though not as large as Stonehenge—the biggest circle is 30 yards across, the tallest pillars 17 feet high—the ruins are astonishing in number. Last year Schmidt found his third and fourth examples of the temples. Ground-penetrating radar indicates that another 15 to 20 such monumental ruins lie under the surface. Schmidt’s German-Turkish team has also uncovered some 50 of the huge pillars, including two found in his most recent dig season that are not just the biggest yet, but, according to carbon dating, are the oldest monumental artworks in the world.

The new discoveries are finally beginning to reshape the slow-moving consensus of archeology. Göbekli Tepe is “unbelievably big and amazing, at a ridiculously early date,” according to Ian Hodder, director of Stanford’s archeology program. Enthusing over the “huge great stones and fantastic, highly refined art” at Göbekli, Hodder—who has spent decades on rival Neolithic sites—says: “Many people think that it changes everythingIt overturns the whole apple cart. All our theories were wrong.”

Schmidt’s thesis is simple and bold: …

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 10:49 am

Fat cat

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This is from three years ago, but I do love this big guy:

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6 March 2010 at 10:44 am

Posted in Cats, Daily life, Video

Embedded programs get ever larger

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How do they ever debug these programs? Robert Charette at IEEE Spectrum:

The avionics system in the F-22 Raptor, the current U.S. Air Force frontline jet fighter, consists of about 1.7 million lines of software code. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, scheduled to become operational in 2010, will require about 5.7 million lines of code to operate its onboard systems. And Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner, scheduled to be delivered to customers in 2010, requires about 6.5 million lines of software code to operate its avionics and onboard support systems.

These are impressive amounts of software, yet if you bought a premium-class automobile recently, ”it probably contains close to 100 million lines of software code,” says Manfred Broy, a professor of informatics at Technical University, Munich, and a leading expert on software in cars. All that software executes on 70 to 100 microprocessor-based electronic control units (ECUs) networked throughout the body of your car.

Alfred Katzenbach, the director of information technology management at Daimler, has reportedly said that the radio and navigation system in the current S-class Mercedes-Benz requires over 20 million lines of code alone and that the car contains nearly as many ECUs as the new Airbus A380 (excluding the plane’s in-flight entertainment system). Software in cars is only going to grow in both amount and complexity. Late last year, the business research firm Frost & Sullivan estimated that cars will require 200 million to 300 million lines of software code in the near future.

Even low-end cars now have 30 to 50 ECUs embedded in the body, doors, dash, roof, trunk, seats, and just about anywhere else the car’s designers can think to put them. That means that most new cars are executing tens of million of lines of software code, controlling everything from your brakes to the volume of your radio [see table, ”How and Where Is Software Used in Cars? ”].

”Automobiles are no longer a battery, a distributor or alternator, and a carburetor; they are hugely modern in their complexity,” says Thomas Little, an electrical engineering professor at Boston University in Massachusetts, who is involved in developing intelligent transportation systems. ”The goals to save energy, reduce [emissions], and improve safety have driven the specialization and adoption of electronics in particular.”

I have experienced that complexity myself recently…

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 10:43 am

"Free will is an illusion," says biologist

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Of course, he had no choice. Here’s the post:

freewill

Three different models explain the causal mechanism of free will and the flow of information between unconscious neural activity and conscious thought (GES = genes, environment, stochasticism). In A, the intuitive model, there is no causal component for will. Will influences conscious thought, which in turn influences unconscious neural activity to direct behavior. In B, a causal component of will is introduced: unconscious neural activity and GES. But now will loses its “freedom.” In C, the model that Cashmore advocates, will is dispensed with. Conscious thought is simply a reflection of, rather than an influence on, unconscious neural activity, which directs behavior. The dotted arrow 2 in C indicates a subservient role of conscious thought in directing behavior. Credit: Anthony Cashmore.

(PhysOrg.com) — When biologist Anthony Cashmore claims that the concept of free will is an illusion, he’s not breaking any new ground. At least as far back as the ancient Greeks, people have wondered how humans seem to have the ability to make their own personal decisions in a manner lacking any causal component other than their desire to "will" something. But Cashmore, Professor of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania, says that many biologists today still cling to the idea of free will, and reject the idea that we are simply conscious machines, completely controlled by a combination of our chemistry and external environmental forces.

In a recent study, Cashmore has argued that a belief in free will is akin to religious beliefs, since neither complies with the laws of the physical world. One of the basic premises of biology and biochemistry is that biological systems are nothing more than a bag of chemicals that obey chemical and physical laws. Generally, we have no problem with the “bag of chemicals” notion when it comes to bacteria, plants, and similar entities. So why is it so difficult to say the same about humans or other “higher level” species, when we’re all governed by the same laws?

No causal mechanism

As Cashmore explains, the human brain acts at both the conscious level as well as the unconscious. It’s our consciousness that makes us aware of our actions, giving us the sense that we control them, as well. But even without this awareness, our brains can still induce our bodies to act, and studies have indicated that consciousness is something that follows unconscious neural activity. Just because we are often aware of multiple paths to take, that doesn’t mean we actually get to choose one of them based on our own free will. As the ancient Greeks asked, by what mechanism would we be choosing? The physical world is made of causes and effects – “nothing comes from nothing” – but free will, by its very definition, has no physical cause. The Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius, in reference to this problem of free will, noted that the Greek philosophers concluded that atoms "randomly swerve" – the likely source of this movement being the numerous Greek gods.

Today, as researchers gain a better understanding of the molecular details underlying consciousness, some people think that we may discover a molecular mechanism responsible for free will – but Cashmore doesn’t think so. Such a discovery, he says, would require a new physical law that breaks the causal laws of nature. As it is, the only “wild card” that allows any room for maneuvering outside of genetics and one’s environment is …

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 10:39 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

The man who became allergic to radio waves

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Very interesting article in Popular Science by James Geary:

Per Segerbäck lives in a modest cottage in a nature reserve some 75 miles northeast of Stockholm. Wolves, moose and brown bears roam freely past his front door. He keeps limited human company, because human technology makes him physically ill. How ill? On a walk last summer, he ran into one of his few neighbors, a man who lives in a cottage about 100 yards away. During their chat, the man’s cellphone rang, and Segerbäck, 54, was overcome by nausea. Within seconds, he was unconscious.

Segerbäck suffers from electro-hypersensitivity (EHS), which means he has severe physical reactions to the electromagnetic radiation produced by common consumer technologies, such as computers, televisions and cellphones. Symptoms range from burning or tingling sensations on the skin to dizziness, nausea, headaches, sleep disturbance and memory loss. In extreme cases like Segerbäck’s, breathing problems, heart palpitations and loss of consciousness can result.

A cellphone has to be in use — either making or receiving a call, or searching for a signal, when radiation levels are highest — for it to have this kind of effect on Segerbäck. Phones that are on but neither sending nor receiving usually don’t produce enough radiation to be noticeable. But it’s not the sound of the phone that sets him off. Once, while on a sailboat with friends, he recalls, he was on the front deck when, unknown to him, someone made a call belowdecks. Headache, nausea, unconsciousness. When Segerbäck is within range of an active cellphone (safe distances vary because different makes and models produce different radiation levels), he experiences the feeling that there is "not enough room in my skull for my brain."

Sweden is the only country in the world to recognize EHS as a functional impairment, and Segerbäck’s experience has been important in creating policy to address the condition. Swedish EHS sufferers — about 3 percent of the population, or some 250,000 people, according to government statistics — are entitled to similar rights and social services as those given to people who are blind or deaf. Today, local governments will pay to have the home of someone diagnosed with EHS electronically "sanitized," if necessary, through the installation of metal shielding…

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 10:34 am

How to be calm in a stressful situation

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A useful post at WikiHow:

The clock is ticking. Everyone’s counting on you. Which wire should you cut? [The blue wire, no? – LG]

While most of us never have to deal with the life-or-death dilemmas of a bomb squad, everyday situations such as job interviews, public speaking, and family emergencies, can be every bit as stressful if we are not accustomed to dealing with them. Learning how to remain calm in times of stress will not only make things go more smoothly immediately, it can also, over time, help you lead a healthier, happier life. Here’s how to keep your cool when the pressure mounts…

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 10:31 am

Posted in Daily life

The Maryland solution to hospital charges

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Maggie Mahar at Health Beat:

While health care reformers argue about what it would take to “break the curve” of health care inflation, the state of Maryland has done it, at least when it comes to hospital spending.

In 1977, Maryland decided that, rather than leaving prices to the vagaries of a marketplace where insurers and hospitals negotiate behind closed doors, it would delegate the task of setting reimbursement rates for acute-care hospitals to an independent agency, the Maryland Health Services Cost Review Commission.

When setting rates, the Commission takes into account differences in labor markets and how much a hospital pays in wages; the amount of charity care the hospital does; and whether it treats a large number of severely ill patients. For example, the Commission sets the price of an overnight stay at St. Joseph Medical Center in suburban Towson  at $984,  while letting  Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore Maryland, charge  $1,555. For a basic chest X-ray, St. Joseph’s asks  $81 and Hopkins’ is allowed to  charge  $155. The differences reflect Hopkins’s higher costs as a teaching hospital and the fact that it cares for generally sicker patients.

Such adjustments are never perfect, but in this case, it appears that the Commission is treating hospitals equitably..Since the program started, the Wall Street Journal reports that  Maryland hospitals have enjoyed a steady profit margin, unlike hospitals in other states that often make more money during boom years and less during a recession. Statewide hospital profit margins average 2.5% to 3%.—just enough of a surplus to give  hospitals maneuvering room when setting budgets.  Before the commission was established, Maryland hospitals were losing money covering the uninsured.

What is most remarkable is how state regulation of prices has contained costs. When the program began in 1977, the state’s hospital costs were 25% higher than the national average. Today, Maryland’s hospital costs are 2% lower than the national average.  Meanwhile, over the same span, Maryland boasts the nation’s second-slowest increase in hospital costs .

One reason the Maryland solution works is that Medicare and Medicaid have agreed to accept the prices that the Commission sets—as long as Maryland’s hospital costs grow slower than Medicare payments nationwide.

The deal makes sense for the government because for Medicare, the elephant in the middle of the room is health care inflation.If Medicare spending continues to grow faster than the economy, Medicare is in trouble. ( Yesterday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid announced that in 2009  U.S. health spending reached $2.5 trillion, and that health care’s share of the economy grew 1.1 percentage points to 17.3 percent—the largest one-year increase since the federal government began keeping track in 1960 )

Below, a chart from the American Hospital Association illustrating Maryland’s remarkable success.

Maryland

Maryland’s approach gives its hospitals relief from low Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.  As a result, Maryland’s hospitals cannot argue that they must shift costs to private insurers. State regulations require that they charge all insurers the same rate for a particular service– no more and no less. Thus, the Maryland plan does away with secretive negotiations between providers and private insurers which often turn on just how much market clout the hospital has.

As I noted in part 1 of this post, in other states, a “brand-name” provider may be able to demand twice as much as another hospital or physicians’ group  for comparable services simply because insurance companies know that their customers want to see that name in the insurers’ network. If an insurer resists paying a premium for a marquee name, the provider will refuse to take its plan and customers will switch to another insurance company.  It’s worth noting that in Maryland, at Johns Hopkins  Hospital, the profit margin from operations has been running somewhere  between 2% and 4%, not far from the state-wide average of  2.5 % to 3%.

By contrast, Massachusetts serves as a prime example of how providers  with clout use market leverage to hike prices.  As I explained in part 1, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakely recently released a report which reveals that: …

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6 March 2010 at 10:28 am

Vatican and gays

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John Hooper for the Guardian:

The Vatican was today rocked by a sex scandal reaching into Pope Benedict’s household after a chorister was sacked for allegedly procuring male prostitutes for a papal gentleman-in-waiting.

Angelo Balducci, a Gentleman of His Holiness, was caught by police on a wiretap allegedly negotiating with Thomas Chinedu Ehiem, a 29-year-old Vatican chorister, over the specific physical details of men he wanted brought to him. Transcripts in the possession of the Guardian suggest that numerous men may have been procured for Balducci, at least one of whom was studying for the priesthood.

The explosive claims about Balducci’s private life have caused grave embarrassment to the Vatican, which has yet to publicly comment on the affair.

While Catholicism does not condemn homosexuality outright, its teaching is that homosexual acts "are intrinsically disordered". The Catechism of the Catholic church states unequivocally: "Under no circumstances can they be approved."

Balducci was arrested on 10 February, suspected of involvement in widespread corruption. A senior Italian government official, he is alleged to have to steered public works contracts towards favoured bidders. He has not been charged.

It was during this investigation into corruption that wiretaps revealed his alleged sexual activity. In one conversation, Ehiem tells Balducci: "I saw your call when I was in the Vatican, because I was doing rehearsals … in the choir … in St Peter’s." He then suggests Balducci meet a man who he describes is "two metres tall … 97 kilos … aged 33, completely active."

Balducci is also a senior adviser to the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, the department that oversees the Roman Catholic church’s worldwide missionary activities.

Since 1995, he has been a member of one of the world’s most exclusive fraternities …

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 10:25 am

Posted in Daily life, Religion

Chow.com: a site for food lovers

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Via Kafeneio, I found Chow—a site well worth bookmarking.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2010 at 9:30 am

Posted in Daily life, Food

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