Later On

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

Archive for March 2nd, 2008

Industry hates consumers

leave a comment »

And they act on it:

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate recently spent weeks negotiating a moderate, bipartisan consumer product safety bill, the “CPSC [Consumer Product Safety Commission] Reform Act of 2007” (S. 2663). After these negotiations concluded, and with the bill cued go to the Senate floor soon, industry is making a last-ditch effort to derail or further weaken it. This week, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) and a few other Senate Republicans, apparently playing the role of mouthpiece for industry, circulated a strategy packet for defeating the CPSC bill. The packet includes a list of “Top Ten Reasons to Oppose the CPSC ‘Reform’ Act,” which is riddled with misstatements about the bill. Apparently, industry knows it can’t win an honest debate against an important consumer safety law, so it’s going dirty.

Consumer safety is a serious issue, worthy of an honest and fair debate. Senators Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Ted Stevens (R-AK) had that discussion and, with input from their fellow Senators, constituents, industry, and consumer groups, they arrived at a bipartisan compromise. The bill doesn’t give any stakeholder everything it wants — we certainly urge that the bill be strengthened — but it makes real improvements to current law. For example, the bill increases the CPSC’s budget and staff (which are currently at about half their original levels), adds whistleblower protection, creates a public database of consumer complaints like NHTSA’s, increases penalties for violations, and permits state attorneys general to bring enforcement actions to supplement the CPSC’s notoriously lax enforcement.

At the same time, industry already has succeeded in blocking and diminishing the effectiveness of many important provisions. For example, the bill’s civil-penalty cap was slashed from $100 million to $10 million (or $20 million in “aggravated” circumstances). This number is grossly inadequate to deter companies from ignoring their legal duty to report potential hazards to the CPSC. Manufacturers and retailers have a strong financial incentive to violate the reporting laws because disclosing a hazard can provoke a costly recall. Recalls can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. To save that kind of money, it makes sense to risk a $10 or $20 million fine. This kind of gaming the system leaves the public dangerously in the dark about potentially deadly risks.

Similarly, although the bill gives state attorneys general the power to enforce federal law, industry has succeeded in limiting them to seeking only injunctive relief, not fines. Suffice it to say, industry is getting plenty of what it wants in this bill.

Senators should know that the DeMint strategy — and especially the top ten list — is a flimsy hit job. Arguing against a moderate, bipartisan consumer safety bill is bad policy, and bad politics. Do so at your own peril.

We are following this bill closely and plan to blog more about industry’s attempts to weaken and block it, so stay tuned. In the meantime, you can learn more about the legislation here.

Written by Leisureguy

2 March 2008 at 5:49 pm

Scottish wildcat mum & kitten

leave a comment »

Mum & kitten

Hope they can save the species.

A rare Scottish wildcat kitten carries the hopes of its species on its tiny shoulders.

The unnamed male kitten was born to two pure bred Scottish wildcats, said to be Britain’s rarest mammal, at Wildwood Discovery Park, near Canterbury, Kent.

More at the link, including more photos.

Written by Leisureguy

2 March 2008 at 5:44 pm

Posted in Cats

Dr. Steve Brule

leave a comment »

Via Boing Boing:

Written by Leisureguy

2 March 2008 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Daily life, Video

The problem with American education

with one comment

UPDATE: Also this.

In a word: local control = school boards. Take a look at this article, which begins:

It wasn’t just the slate and pencil on every desk, or the absence of daily beatings. As Horace Mann sat in a Leipzig classroom in the summer of 1843, it was the entire Prussian system of schools that impressed him. Mann was six years into the work as Massachusetts secretary of education that would earn him lasting fame as the “father of public education.” He had sailed from Boston to England several weeks earlier with his new wife, combining a European honeymoon with educational fact-finding. In England, the couple had been startled by the luxury and refinement of the upper classes, which exceeded anything they had seen in America and stood in stark contrast to the poverty and ignorance of the masses. If the United States was to avoid this awful chasm and the social upheaval it seemed sure to create, he thought, education was the answer. Now he was seeing firsthand the Prussian schools that were the talk of reformers on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Massachusetts, Mann’s vision of “common schools,” publicly funded and attended by all, represented an inspiring democratic advance over the state’s hodgepodge of privately funded and charity schools. But beyond using the bully pulpit, Mann had little power to make his vision a reality. Prussia, by contrast, had a system designed from the center. School attendance was compulsory. Teachers were trained at national institutes with the same care that went into training military officers. Their enthusiasm for their subjects was contagious, and their devotion to students evoked reciprocal affection and respect, making Boston’s routine resort to classroom whippings seem barbaric.

Mann also admired Prussia’s rigorous national curriculum and tests. The results spoke for themselves: illiteracy had been vanquished. To be sure, Prussian schools sought to create obedient subjects of the kaiser—hardly Mann’s aim. Yet the lessons were undeniable, and Mann returned home determined to share what he had seen. In the seventh of his legendary “Annual Reports” on education to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he touted the benefits of a national system and cautioned against the “calamities which result … from leaving this most important of all the functions of a government to chance.”

Mann’s epiphany that summer put him on the wrong side of America’s tradition of radical localism when it came to schools. And although his efforts in the years that followed made Massachusetts a model for taxpayer-funded schools and state-sponsored teacher training, the obsession with local control—not incidentally, an almost uniquely American obsession—still dominates U.S. education to this day. For much of the 150 or so years between Mann’s era and now, the system served us adequately: during that time, we extended more schooling to more people than any nation had before and rose to superpower status. But let’s look at what local control gives us today, in the “flat” world in which our students will have to compete.

The United States spends more than nearly every other nation on schools, but out of 29 developed countries in a 2003 assessment, we ranked 24th in math and in problem-solving, 18th in science, and 15th in reading. Half of all black and Latino students in the U.S. don’t graduate on time (or ever) from high school. As of 2005, about 70 percent of eighth-graders were not proficient in reading. By the end of eighth grade, what passes for a math curriculum in America is two years behind that of other countries.

Dismal fact after dismal fact; by now, they are hardly news. But in the 25 years since the landmark report A Nation at Risk sounded the alarm about our educational mediocrity, America’s response has been scattershot and ineffective, orchestrated mainly by some 15,000 school districts acting alone, with help more recently from the states. It’s as if after Pearl Harbor, FDR had suggested we prepare for war through the uncoordinated efforts of thousands of small factories; they’d know what kinds of planes and tanks were needed, right?

When you look at what local control of education has wrought, the conclusion is inescapable: we must carry Mann’s insights to their logical end and nationalize our schools, to some degree. But before delving into the details of why and how, let’s back up for a moment and consider what brought us to this pass.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 March 2008 at 11:29 am

Improvements in carbon cost of solar energy

leave a comment »

Good trend:

Solar power produces, per unit of energy, only about one-tenth as much carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions as does conventional power generation, a new study shows.

Solar panels don’t release harmful gases during use, but making the solar cells does consume materials and energy—mainly from conventional power sources such as coal-fired power plants, which in turn produce emissions. Industrial techniques for making glass and other materials in solar panels also produce gases such as carbon dioxide.

In the 1970s, manufacturing a solar cell required about as much energy as the cell could produce over its 20-year lifetime, so using solar power provided little if any energy gain. Also, as recently as 10 years ago, total emissions from solar cells were about twice what the new study shows. “Solar power has been criticized in the past” for requiring too much energy to produce, says Vasilis M. Fthenakis of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. “But what we find out is that those criticisms are not true with the new technologies.”

Fthenakis and his colleagues compiled production records from manufacturers of four popular kinds of solar cells: multicrystalline silicon, monocrystalline silicon, ribbon silicon, and thin-film cadmium telluride. They calculated that, for each unit of energy produced by solar cells, the net emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants due to the cells’ manufacture were between 2 and 11 percent of what power plants in the United States and the European Union would emit to make the same amount of energy, the scientists report online and in the March 15 Environmental Science & Technology.

The new tally shows that net emissions from solar power have decreased significantly in recent years. “There have been studies before, but they’ve become outdated because technology has been changing,” says Fthenakis, the study’s lead scientist.

“It’s a really solid piece of analysis,” comments Robert M. Margolis, senior energy analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Washington, D.C. “It’s the most up-to-date analysis on solar that’s out there.”

Much of the improvement is from reducing energy and materials for making solar cells. Compared to those made in the 1970s, modern panels contain about one-third as much purified silicon, which is energy intensive to make. And thin-film solar cells trim back even further by depositing silicon or other materials in layers only a few thousandths of a millimeter thick.

These improvements in efficiency mean that today’s solar panels can “pay back” in only 1 to 3 years the energy needed to make them, the study concludes.

Improvements in manufacturing efficiency could reduce emissions from solar power by another 50 percent within 5 to 7 years, the researchers say.

Written by Leisureguy

2 March 2008 at 10:04 am

Sophie Germain and Fermat’s Last Theorem, part 2

leave a comment »

Sophie Germain

Last week I posted the first part of the story of Sophie Germain’s attempt to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem. Here’s the second (and concluding) part of that story.

Written by Leisureguy

2 March 2008 at 10:02 am

Posted in Science

Tagged with

Look at what we’re doing

leave a comment »

Written by Leisureguy

2 March 2008 at 8:10 am

%d bloggers like this: