Later On

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

Archive for December 20th, 2009

China moves ahead of the US in dominating a 21st-century market

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China is moving quickly to not only catch up with the US but move ahead. Evan Osnos in the New Yorker:

On March 3, 1986, four of China’s top weapons scientists—each a veteran of the missile and space programs—sent a private letter to Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the country. Their letter was a warning: Decades of relentless focus on militarization had crippled the country’s civilian scientific establishment; China must join the world’s xin jishu geming, the “new technological revolution,” they said, or it would be left behind. They called for an élite project devoted to technology ranging from biotech to space research. Deng agreed, and scribbled on the letter, “Action must be taken on this now.” This was China’s “Sputnik moment,” and the project was code-named the 863 Program, for the year and month of its birth.

In the years that followed, the government pumped billions of dollars into labs and universities and enterprises, on projects ranging from cloning to underwater robots. Then, in 2001, Chinese officials abruptly expanded one program in particular: energy technology. The reasons were clear. Once the largest oil exporter in East Asia, China was now adding more than two thousand cars a day and importing millions of barrels; its energy security hinged on a flotilla of tankers stretched across distant seas. Meanwhile, China was getting nearly eighty per cent of its electricity from coal, which was rendering the air in much of the country unbreathable and hastening climate changes that could undermine China’s future stability. Rising sea levels were on pace to create more refugees in China than in any other country, even Bangladesh.

In 2006, Chinese leaders redoubled their commitment to new energy technology; they boosted funding for research and set targets for installing wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric dams, and other renewable sources of energy that were higher than goals in the United States. China doubled its wind-power capacity that year, then doubled it again the next year, and the year after. The country had virtually no solar industry in 2003; five years later, it was manufacturing more solar cells than any other country, winning customers from foreign companies that had invented the technology in the first place. As President Hu Jintao, a political heir of Deng Xiaoping, put it in October of this year, China must “seize preëmptive opportunities in the new round of the global energy revolution.”

A China born again green can be hard to imagine, especially for people who live here. After four years in Beijing, I’ve learned how to gauge the pollution before I open the curtains; by dawn on the smoggiest days, the lungs ache. The city government does not dwell on the details; its daily air-quality measurement does not even tally the tiniest particles of pollution, which are the most damaging to the respiratory system. Last year, the U.S. Embassy installed an air monitor on the roof of one of its buildings, and every hour it posts the results to a Twitter feed, with a score ranging from 1, which is the cleanest air, to 500, the dirtiest. American cities consider anything above 100 to be unhealthy. The rare times in which an American city has scored above 300 have been in the midst of forest fires. In these cases, the government puts out public-health notices warning that the air is “hazardous” and that “everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors.” As I type this in Beijing, the Embassy’s air monitor says that today’s score is 500.

China is so big—and is growing so fast—that in 2006 it passed the United States to become the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases. If China’s emissions keep climbing as they have for the past thirty years, the country will emit more of those gases in the next thirty years than the United States has in its entire history. So the question is no longer whether China is equipped to play a role in combating climate change but how that role will affect other countries. David Sandalow, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy for Policy and International Affairs, has been to China five times in five months. He told me, “China’s investment in clean energy is extraordinary.” For America, he added, the implication is clear: “Unless the U.S. makes investments, we are not competitive in the clean-tech sector in the years and decades to come.” …

Continue reading. The US, of course, has the free market and the financial services industry, and that should solve all our problems.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 December 2009 at 3:18 pm

How healthcare reform will save money

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Very interesting article in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande:

Cost is the spectre haunting health reform. For many decades, the great flaw in the American health-care system was its unconscionable gaps in coverage. Those gaps have widened to become graves—resulting in an estimated forty-five thousand premature deaths each year—and have forced more than a million people into bankruptcy. The emerging health-reform package has a master plan for this problem. By establishing insurance exchanges, mandates, and tax credits, it would guarantee that at least ninety-four per cent of Americans had decent medical coverage. This is historic, and it is necessary. But the legislation has no master plan for dealing with the problem of soaring medical costs. And this is a source of deep unease.

Health-care costs are strangling our country. Medical care now absorbs eighteen per cent of every dollar we earn. Between 1999 and 2009, the average annual premium for employer-sponsored family insurance coverage rose from $5,800 to $13,400, and the average cost per Medicare beneficiary went from $5,500 to $11,900. The costs of our dysfunctional health-care system have already helped sink our auto industry, are draining state and federal coffers, and could ultimately imperil our ability to sustain universal coverage.

What have we gained by paying more than twice as much for medical care as we did a decade ago? The health-care sector certainly employs more people and more machines than it did. But there have been no great strides in service. In Western Europe, most primary-care practices now use electronic health records and offer after-hours care; in the United States, most don’t. Improvement in demonstrated medical outcomes has been modest in most fields. The reason the system is a money drain is not that it’s so successful but that it’s fragmented, disorganized, and inconsistent; it’s neglectful of low-profit services like mental-health care, geriatrics, and primary care, and almost giddy in its overuse of high-cost technologies such as radiology imaging, brand-name drugs, and many elective procedures.

At the current rate of increase, the cost of family insurance will reach twenty-seven thousand dollars or more in a decade, taking more than a fifth of every dollar that people earn. Businesses will see their health-coverage expenses rise from ten per cent of total labor costs to seventeen per cent. Health-care spending will essentially devour all our future wage increases and economic growth. State budget costs for health care will more than double, and Medicare will run out of money in just eight years. The cost problem, people have come to realize, threatens not just our prosperity but our solvency.

So what does the reform package do about it? Turn to page 621 of the Senate version, the section entitled “Transforming the Health Care Delivery System,” and start reading…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 December 2009 at 3:14 pm

Ten unsolved mysteries in the "War on Terror"

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Jane Mayer at the New Yorker:

The first year of the Obama Administration is almost over, yet many mysteries surrounding the so-called “dark side” of the “war on terror” remain unsolved. Here are ten:

  1. Did former Vice-President Cheney know the full, clinical details of the Bush Administration’s interrogation and detention program for terror suspects? Did he have a supervisory role?
  2. How much did President Bush know about the alleged abuse? Cheney has said that the former President “knew a great deal about the program” and “basically authorized it.” Did he know, for instance, that one suspect was waterboarded a hundred and eighty-three times? Did he know that another died in C.I.A. custody after having been left to freeze overnight? If he did know, what was his reaction?
  3. The C.I.A. destroyed ninety-two videotapes of interrogation sessions. What exactly was on the tapes, and why were they destroyed? Are there written transcripts describing what was on the tapes? Did the tapes document potential evidence of a crime? If so, did their destruction constitute obstruction of justice? And if so, which officials authorized the tapes’ destruction?
  4. Have all the former C.I.A. prisoners been accounted for? Some seem not to have been sent to Guantánamo when the C.I.A.’s black-site prisons were closed, in 2006. Instead, it appears they may have been sent to other countries, including Egypt, Jordan, and Libya. If so, who were these prisoners, and where are they now?
  5. Who provided the “muscle” in the C.I.A. interrogation and detention program? Were the notional global “hit squads” authorized, or made operational? Were their activities fully briefed to Congress? Were they staffed by C.I.A. officers, Special Operations officers, private contractors, or others? If there were abuses, will anyone face any consequences?
  6. Vice-President Cheney and other defenders of “enhanced interrogation” techniques have insisted that coercion produced intelligence and saved lives. Many other experts have argued that the same information or better could have been obtained by less controversial methods. Will the public ever be able to access the record, in order to judge this on its own?
  7. A small handful of politically appointed lawyers during the Bush years approved many forms of prisoner abuse that would previously have been judged criminal. Those lawyers have fanned out to teach, practice law, and, in one case, sit on the federal bench. Will there be professional consequences for any of these lawyers? A report on them by the Justice Department has been pending release for the entire last year. Why has it been so delayed?
  8. Several contract psychologists designed and helped to implement the C.I.A.’s program of “enhanced” interrogation techniques. Will these psychologists face professional consequences? They have indicated they would like to tell their story—will they?
  9. Who forged the “yellowcake” Niger documents that helped spur the U.S. into the war in Iraq?
  10. Who are the chief financiers of terror, and do any of them have state sponsors?

Bonus question: Where is Osama bin Laden?

The comments are interesting, too.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 December 2009 at 3:11 pm

Matt Taibbi can still shock

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David Sirota at OpenLeft:

There’s been some back and forth in the liberal blogosphere about Matt Taibbi’s latest masterpiece in Rolling Stone – the one about how Obama stuffed his administration with Wall Streeters. Taibbi, indeed, has two tiny things wrong: 1) He confused two guys named Jamie Rubin in one sentence and 2) He seemed to imply that Karen Kornbluh was a non-Rubinite, even though she was actually Bob Rubin’s former deputy chief of staff. The former is a minor screw up that doesn’t negate the thrust of the piece, and the latter actually gives Obama a benefit of the doubt he doesn’t deserve.

Of course, the criticism of Taibbi from liberals and conservatives in the Washington Establishment runs much deeper than a few non-germane factual errors. And it is telling – not about Taibbi, but about the rot, corruption and elitism that now defines Washington Establishment. 

When you read criticism from the American Prospect, you see the magazine acknowledging the factual accuracy of everything Taibbi has reported (accuracy which Reuters verifies and that Taibbi himself defends) – but you see some other stuff, too. You see an ugly form of jealousy at a reporter who doesn’t feel (as the Prospect so often does) the need to obsequiously worship Democratic politicians. You also see rage at a writer for being way more talented than almost any other writer in journalism. Even more important, you see an obnoxious Beltway elitism that suggests Taibbi doesn’t get it.

This elitism has been echoed by everyone from Matt Yglesias to Andrew Sullivan. It is an elitism best summed up by the American Conservative magazine in its criticism of Taibbi:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

20 December 2009 at 3:06 pm

What happens when we kill off the microbes that keep us healthy?

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I guess we’ll find out. Katherine Harmon at Scientific American:

Bacteria, viruses and fungi have been primarily cast as the villains in the battle for better human health. But a growing community of researchers is sounding the warning that many of these microscopic guests are really ancient allies.

Having evolved along with the human species, most of the miniscule beasties that live in and on us are actually helping to keep us healthy, just as our well-being promotes theirs. In fact, some researchers think of our bodies as superorganisms, rather than one organism teeming with hordes of subordinate invertebrates.
The human body has some 10 trillion human cells—but 10 times that number of microbial cells. So what happens when such an important part of our bodies goes missing?

With rapid changes in sanitation, medicine and lifestyle in the past century, some of these indigenous species are facing decline, displacement and possibly even extinction. In many of the world’s larger ecosystems, scientists can predict what might happen when one of the central species is lost, but in the human microbial environment—which is still largely uncharacterized—most of these rapid changes are not yet understood. "This is the next frontier and has real significance for human health, public health and medicine," says Betsy Foxman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan (U.M.) School of Public Health in Ann Arbor.

Meanwhile, each new generation in developed countries comes into the world with fewer of these native populations. "They’re actually missing some component of their microbiota that they’ve evolved to have," Foxman says…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 December 2009 at 2:58 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Dark matter detected?

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Ker Than for National Geographic News:

Dark matter may have been "felt" for the first time deep in a Minnesota mine, physicists say.

Detectors in the mine, part of the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiment, were tripped recently by what might be weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPs.

WIMPs are among the most popular candidates for dark matter, the invisible material that scientists think makes up more than 80 percent of the mass in the universe.

Recently detectors in the mine recorded two hits with "characteristics consistent with those expected from WIMPs," according to a statement posted on the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search Web site.

There is a one-in-four chance, however, that the particles detected are not dark matter but ordinary subatomic particles such as neutrons, the team cautions. (Related: "Dark Matter Proof Found Over Antarctica?")

Mike Shull, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, also urged restraint in interpreting the results.

"I regard this as interesting but very much an interim ‘progress report’ on a promising technique," said Shull, who did not participate in the research.

"I hope they’ve detected [WIMPs]," he added, "It’s exciting if it’s true."

Scientists have predicted that WIMPs can interact with normal atoms but only weakly and very rarely—hence the name.

When such an interaction happens, a WIMP careens like a billiard ball off an atom, the theory goes. But the collision leaves behind a unique signature in the form of a small amount of heat, which can be detected.

The smashup also creates charged atoms, or ions, that are detectable.

The Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiment uses 30 detectors made of …

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 December 2009 at 2:55 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Alternative medicine

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Harriet Hall at Science-Based Medicine:

Chiropractors, homeopaths, naturopaths, acupuncturists, and other alternative medicine practitioners constantly criticize mainstream medicine for “only treating the symptoms,” while alternative medicine allegedly treats “the underlying causes” of disease.

Nope. Not true. Exactly backwards. Think about it. When you go to a doctor with a fever, does he just treat the symptom? No, he tries to figure out what’s causing the fever and if it’s pneumonia, he identifies which microbe is responsible and gives you the right drugs to treat that particular infection. If you have abdominal pain, does the doctor just give you narcotics to treat the symptom of pain? No, he tries to figure out what’s causing the pain and if he determines you have acute appendicitis he operates to remove your appendix.

I guess what they’re trying to say is that something must have been wrong in the first place to allow the disease to develop. But they don’t have any better insight into what that something might be than scientific medicine does. All they have is wild, imaginative guesses. And they all disagree with one another. The chiropractor says if your spine is in proper alignment you can’t get sick. Acupuncturists talk about the proper flow of qi through the meridians. Energy medicine practitioners talk about disturbances in energy fields. Nutrition faddists claim that people who eat right won’t get sick. None of them can produce any evidence to support those claims. No alternative medicine has been scientifically shown to prevent disease or to cure it. If it had, it would have been incorporated into conventional medicine and would no longer be “alternative.”

Are these practitioners treating the underlying cause, or are they simply applying their one chosen tool to treat everything? Chiropractors treat every patient with chiropractic adjustments. What if a doctor used one treatment for everything? You have pneumonia? Here’s some penicillin. You have a broken leg? Here’s some penicillin. You have diabetes? Here’s some penicillin. Acupuncturists only know to stick needles in people. Homeopaths only know to give out ridiculously high dilutions that amount to nothing but water. Therapeutic touch practitioners only know to smooth out the wrinkles in imaginary energy fields. They are not trying to determine any underlying cause: they are just using one treatment indiscriminately.

How do you define “cause”? …

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 December 2009 at 2:51 pm

Posted in Daily life, Medical, Science

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