Later On

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

Archive for April 27th, 2021

6 Road Design Changes That Can Save Lives

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Schuyler Null, Anna Bray Sharpin, and Paula Cunha Tanscheit write at World Resources Institute:

Urbanization is by and large a good thing, corresponding with steady declines in extreme poverty. More compact cities may also hold the key to a sustainable future.

But this trend has come with a side effect: more dangerous city streets.

With more vehicles and more people in cities, there are more opportunities for crashes—especially as cities race to keep up with infrastructure demands, sometimes leading to sloppy or ill-planned growth.

The World Health Organization estimates some 1.3 million people die in road-related crashes every year, a 4 percent increase from their last estimate in 2015. Ninety percent of fatalities occur in the developing world, where urbanization is fastest. The majority of these aren’t people in cars — they are walking or riding motorcycles or bicycles.

To reverse this trend, it’s not enough to ask drivers, pedestrians, and other people using the road to simply drive or walk differently; city planners should be intentionally designing roads and cities with safety in mind.

A video produced by WRI Brasil explains six simple road design changes that can significantly improve road safety. These changes put people—not vehicles—at the center of design to reduce speeds, demand more awareness from drivers and create more opportunities for safe crossings. They can even help make cities greener.

1. Shorter Blocks

City blocks can vary in size considerably, from less than 300 feet (90 meters) wide to more than 600 feet in some places. Shorter blocks improve pedestrian safety by creating more intersections and therefore providing more opportunities to cross the street safety. More junctions also mean more places where cars must stop, reducing vehicle speeds. In cases where long blocks are already established, mid-block crossings and pedestrian refuge islands can increase the number of safe crossing options and reduce the need for pedestrians to cross at un-marked locations.

2. Narrower Lanes

On a basic level, narrower lanes shorten the distance of pedestrian crossings, putting people in harm’s way for less time. But they also provide more space for sidewalks, a critical need in dense urban environments. They also have a psychological effect on drivers: Reduced street widths tend to lower vehicle speeds as drivers become more aware of risk.

3. More Roundabouts

Depending on the scale and complexity of the intersection, installing roundabouts or traffic circles can significantly benefit safety. Circular junctions reduce the severity of crashes because all traffic is moving in the same direction, vehicles are forced to slow down and there is a lower chance of head-on collisions. Studies have shown an incredible 70-90 percent reduction in fatal and serious injuries in some places where roundabouts or traffic circles have been installed.

4.  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2021 at 3:23 pm

DNA of Giant ‘Corpse Flower’ Parasite Surprises Biologists

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The world’s biggest flower, Rafflesia arnoldii, is a parasite that spends much of its life inside its vine hosts. New genomic work suggests that the parasites in this group of plants have lost an astonishing share of their genes.

Christie Wilcox writes in Quanta:

They are invisible at first. In their Southeast Asian forest homes, they grow as thin strands of cells, foreign fibers sometimes more than 10 meters long that weave through the vital tissues of their vine hosts, siphoning nourishment from them. Even under a microscope, the single-file lines of cells are nearly indistinguishable from the vine’s own. They seem more like a fungus than a plant.

But when the drive to breed awakens them, the members of the Rafflesiaceae family erupt as immense, stemless, rubbery red “corpse flowers” covered in polka dots, with a putrid smell like rotting meat designed to draw pollinating carrion flies. The blooms of one species, Rafflesia arnoldii, are the largest flowers in the world — each one can be more than a meter across and weigh a whopping 10 kilograms, roughly the heft of a toddler.

More than a decade ago, Rafflesiaceae parasites caught the eye of Jeanmaire Molina, an evolutionary plant biologist at Long Island University in Brooklyn, who wondered if their genomes were as bizarre as their outward forms. Her initial investigations suggested they were. As she and her colleagues described it in a 2014 paper in Molecular Biology and Evolution, they successfully assembled the mitochondrial DNA from one Philippines species of Rafflesia. But they were unable to detect any functional genes from its chloroplasts. The plants seemed to have simply ditched their entire chloroplast genome.

That was almost unthinkable. Chloroplasts are best known for using light to make food, but like all the food-making organelles called plastids, they contain genes that are involved in many key cellular processes. Even malaria parasites still carry a plastid genome, Molina noted, and their last photosynthetic ancestor lived hundreds of millions of years ago.

This shocking finding has now been confirmed by an independent research team from Harvard University. The draft genome for another member of the Rafflesiaceae family that they recently published in Current Biology is full of surprises, showing how far parasites can go in shedding superfluous genes and acquiring useful new ones from their hosts. It also deepens mysteries about the role of highly mobile genetic elements that don’t encode proteins in enabling evolutionary changes. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the study is how much we still have to learn about genomics, particularly in plants, and in parasites — a category of organisms that includes more than 40% of all known species.

Losing to Win

Like Molina, Charles Davis, a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University and the curator of vascular plants in the Harvard University Herbaria, was drawn into studying the Rafflesiaceae because they are the most “charismatic and enigmatic of all the quarter-million species of flowering plants,” he said.

He has been trying to reveal their many secrets for nearly 15 years, but a nuclear genome sequence always proved elusive. Finally, his doctoral student Liming Cai (now a postdoctoral researcher in systematic biology at the University of California, Riverside) stepped up to spearhead the project, and with the help of the university’s informatics group and its director of bioinformatics, Timothy Sackton, the team was finally able to put together a draft genome for Sapria himalayana, a species with blooms the size of a human head.

Sapria’s genome follows several trends seen in many other parasitic plants (and in parasites more generally). Like them, Sapria has done away with many genes considered essential to its free-living relatives. Because parasites steal from their hosts, they essentially outsource the labor of metabolism, so they don’t need all the moving biochemical parts of an independent plant cell.

Still, Davis was shocked to see that nearly half of the genes widely conserved across plant lineages had disappeared from Sapria. That’s more than twice as many genes as are lost from the parasitic plants called dodders (genus Cuscuta), and four times the losses in cereal-killing witchweeds (genus Striga). “We knew that there would be loss,” he said, “but we didn’t think it would be on the order of 44% of its genes.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2021 at 3:16 pm

Good news on IRS and tax collection

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The GOP has systematically attacked and defunded the IRS to cripple it so that it cannot accomplish its mission of collecting taxes owed. Partly that is because Republicans in general don’t want to pay taxes and if they can safely cheat (by crippling IRS enforcement capabilities), they will. Partly it’s because Republicans in general do not like government and by cutting government revenue they can weaken government. As Grover Norquist famously wrote, “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Their hatred of government seems to be caused by the government helping people.

I am mightily pleased to read that Democrats are funding the IRS so that it can do its job and get the funds needed for the government to operate effectively. This will have almost no effect on those who routinely pay their taxes, but I imagine this initiative will be disturbing to those who evade paying the tax they owe.

I expect the number of random audits will increase, and that too is good. Through random audits the IRS can determine how much money is being lost to tax evasion. Random audits strike me as simply a sensible quality-control measure.

I wonder whether the tax-audit software will be beefed up with AI pattern recognition that will learn to detect common sorts of fraud. One simple check would be to implement a software check to see whether Benford’s law is violated in the tax information an individual or corporation provides. That would be easy to implement, and it’s hard to fool Benford’s law.

Jeff Stein reports in the Washington Post:

White House officials plan to make a massive increase in enforcement at the Internal Revenue Service a central component of the tax proposal they will unveil this week alongside a $1.8 trillion spending package, according to four people briefed on the matter.

President Biden’s American Families Plan, set to be released ahead of the president’s joint address to Congress on Wednesday, calls for devoting hundreds of billions of dollars to child care, universal prekindergarten, and paid family and sick leave, among other domestic priorities.

The tax side of the plan to pay for those efforts includes increasing the amount of capital gains paid by investors above $1 million, as well as increasing the top income tax rate.

But probably the single biggest source of new revenue in the plan comes from dramatically expanding the clout of the nation’s tax agency. It seeks to beef up the number of agents and give the IRS new tools and technology to execute collections and crack down on avoidance, the people said. White House officials have eyed raising as much as $700 billion from toughening IRS enforcement and auditing over 10 years, two of the people said, although the precise amount in the plan remained unclear. Enforcement will be focused on the wealthy, the people said.

The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private administration deliberations. Officials cautioned the plan had not been finalized. White House officials are looking at increasing the agency’s budget by $80 billion over 10 years, a figure first reported by the New York Times.

If approved, the coming White House proposal would represent a remarkable change to the IRS, which has been beset for more than a decade by problems from steep budget cuts and a growing list of responsibilities. The IRS lost roughly 18,000 full-time positions after 2010, due primarily to cuts pushed by Republicans in Congress under President Barack Obama, with the number of auditors falling to lows unseen since the 1950s.

The federal government is losing billions in unpaid taxes, in part due to racial disparities in the tax code

Those changes have hampered the IRS’s ability to collect taxes even from those who legally owe them, particularly among the rich. Former IRS commissioner Charles Rossotti joined economists Larry Summers and Natasha Sarin in a recent analysis that found the tax agency could raise as much as $1.4 trillion in additional tax revenue with better data, technology, and personnel. Sarin is now deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department under Secretary Janet Yellen. IRS Commissioner Charles P. Rettig told Congress earlier this month that it “would not be outlandish” to believe the tax gap could exceed $1 trillion annually. The tax gap is the difference between the amount of taxes owed and the amount of tax revenue collected.

White House officials learned during the process of drafting the American Families Plan that they could raise significantly more money from the plan than they initially anticipated, two people familiar with the matter said. Senior administration officials consulted with career staffers at the Treasury Department about revenue estimates, one person familiar with the matter said.

“Democrats believe we should audit rich tax cheats more than poor grandmothers who claim a kid as a dependent,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the author of the Stop CHEATERS Act, a sweeping bill aimed at dramatically increasing enforcement, auditing and reporting requirements. Khanna noted widespread support from Democrats’ disparate factions for the measure. “I am happy to have that debate with Republicans every day between now and 2022.” . . .

Continue reading.

And see also “Finally: Biden Plans to Start Auditing the Rich Again,” a post by Kevin Drum with an interesting graph.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2021 at 10:52 am

The Edwin Jagger razor head is excellent — and so is Institut Karité

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Institut Karité has quite a range of shea-butter-based products, and their 25% shea butter shaving soap, which is what is in the tub, makes quite a good lather, this morning achieved with the aid of a silvertip shaving brush from Whipped Dog — which, despite its modest cost ($32, as I recall), is an excellent brush. Because I had the brush set at standard depth (some asked for knot to be set deeply), I got the benefit of the full loft, and the feel and performance of this little brush are first rate. Its octagonal handle also provides a pleasant grip.

This Edwin Jagger head is mounted on some stock bulldog handle, and the result is a highly satisfactory razor. Three passes stripped away all traces of stubble, and a dot of Institut Karité aftershave balm finished the job. This balm really does the job and dries (and/or is absorbed) quickly, leaving no greasy feel, just smooth, soft skin.

A good start to a day that has dawn clear and sunny..

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2021 at 9:13 am

Posted in Shaving

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