Monday, August 31, 2009

the great american bank robbery

William K. Black, the former litigation director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board who investigated the Savings and Loan disaster of the 1980s, discusses the latest scandal in which a single bank, IndyMac, lost more money than was lost during the entire Savings and Loan crisis. He will examine the political failure behind this economic disaster, in which not only massive fraud has taken place, but a vast transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class continues as the federal government bails out the seemingly reckless, if not the criminal. Black teaches economics and law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City and is the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One. (Run Time: 1 hour, 38 min.)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

renewables target will take 100 years...,

TheAustralian | EXXONMOBIL Australia chairman John Dashwood has expressed scepticism at federal laws requiring 20 per cent of electricity be sourced from renewable sources by 2020, saying such a transformation was likely to take 100 years.

Mr Dashwood said the transformation would take "a mammoth effort".

"Renewable energy growth is unlikely to even match the forecast growth for the overall electricity market," Mr Dashwood told an American Chamber of Commerce in Australia business luncheon today.

"History shows that transforming the primary sources of energy require enormous investments in infrastructure and is likely to be a 100-year challenge," he said.

"However, energy needs must be meet in the interim with available and affordable options."

Mr Dashwood said ExxonMobil's own research had shown that by 2030 fossil fuels would still supply about three-quarters of the world's total energy demand.

happy 150th oil! so long and thanks for modern civilization

Wired | One hundred and fifty years ago on Aug. 27, Colonel Edwin L. Drake sunk the very first commercial well that produced flowing petroleum.

The discovery that large amounts of oil could be found underground marked the beginning of a time during which this convenient fossil fuel became America’s dominant energy source.

But what began 150 years ago won’t last another 150 years — or even another 50. The era of cheap oil is ending, and with another energy transition upon us, we’ve got to scavenge all the lessons we can from its remarkable history.

“I would see this as less of an anniversary to note for celebration and more of an anniversary to note how far we’ve come and the serious moment that we’re at right now,” said Brian Black, an energy historian at Pennsylvania State University and and author of the book Petrolia. “Energy transitions happen and I argue that we’re in one right now and that we need to aggressively look to the future to what’s going to happen after petroleum.”

When Drake and others sunk their wells, there were no cars, no plastics, no chemical industry. Water power was the dominant industrial energy source. Steam engines burning coal were on the rise, but the nation’s energy system — unlike Great Britain’s — still used fossil fuels sparingly. The original role for oil was as an illuminant, not a motor fuel, which would come decades later.

Before the 1860s, petroleum was a well-known curiosity. People collected it with blankets or skimmed it off naturally occurring oil seeps. Occasionally they drank some of it as a medicine or rubbed it on aching joints.

Some people had the bright idea of distilling it to make fuel for lamps, but it was easier to get lamp fuel from pig fat or whale oil or converted coal. Without a steady supply, there was no point in developing a whole system and infrastructure dedicated to petroleum.

starving for gas

Online Opinion | Nowadays not many people seem aware that nearly everything they eat and most of what they drink is produced using nitrogen fertilisers. And nitrogen fertilisers are almost entirely made from natural gas.

Indeed half the world's people would not be here today were it not for the tripling in global food production achieved largely through the use of this invaluable petrochemical byproduct. Admirers of Brillat-Savarin might plausibly contend the present human race is mostly made of gas.

Today’s high-yielding food crops, to a very great degree, depend on high levels of applied nitrogen: without it, yields collapse. Since the Green Revolution the entire world food supply has become more and more critically reliant on this input.

However, worldwide, natural gas reserves are running out just as quickly as oil which, presumably, is why China wishes to secure such a long term contract for gas from Australia and no doubt many other suppliers.

Earlier this month the International Energy Agency's chief economist Dr Fatih Birol told Britain’s The Independent newspaper that world oil production will peak within 10 years. The average rate of decline in the world’s 800 major oilfields is now 6.7 per cent a year - almost double what it was two years ago. "One day we will run out of oil. It will not be today or tomorrow, but one day we will run out of oil and we have to leave oil before oil leaves us. We have to prepare ourselves for that day," he said.

The same story, though far less well advertised, applies to natural gas which, within a few years of oil, will also reach its peak and start to decline. According to the International Fertilizer Industry Association, natural gas currently furnishes the feedstock for 97 per cent of the world’s nitrogen fertilisers. As gas output dwindles these will become increasingly scarce and unaffordable to most farmers, Australia’s included.

Unless a replacement source of ammonia for making fertiliser is found, then quite simply, global food output will - probably quite quickly - revert towards what it was in the 1960s, around a third of what we enjoy today. Those who are tempted to deride this statement can easily test the proposition in the privacy of their own backyard or balcony by growing one lettuce or tomato plant in plain sand with a standard N fertiliser, and one without.

In the 1960s we only had three billion mouths to feed (one billion of them actually starving). By the time the gas runs low and global food supplies start their downward plummet, there will be eight billion humans on the planet. According to UN population forecasts this number will be reached in 2025.

Furthermore about five billion of these people will live in cities. Unlike the 1960s, most will have not the slightest capacity or knowledge of how to produce their own food.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

bloomberg lp vs. the fed

Bloomberg | The Fed has refused to name the financial firms it lent to or disclose the amounts or the assets put up as collateral under the emergency programs, saying disclosure might set off a run by depositors and unsettle shareholders.

Bloomberg LP, the New York-based company majority-owned by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, sued on Nov. 7 under the Freedom of Information Act on behalf of its Bloomberg News unit.

Public Interest
“Our argument is that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the banks’ interest in secrecy,” said Thomas Golden, a lawyer with New York-based Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP who represents Bloomberg.

Preska’s Aug. 24 ruling rejected the Fed’s argument that the records should remain private because they are trade secrets and would scare customers into pulling their deposits.

“What has the Fed got to hide?” said Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who sponsored a bill to require the Fed to submit to an audit by the Government Accountability Office. “The time has come for the Fed to stop stonewalling and hand this information over to the public,” he said in an e- mail.

The Clearing House Association LLC, an industry-owned group in New York that processes payments between banks, filed a declaration that accompanied the request for a stay.

Negative Consequences
“Experience in the banking industry has shown that when customers and market participants hear negative rumors about a bank, negative consequences inevitably flow,” Norman Nelson, vice president and general counsel for the group, said in the document. “Our members have accessed the discount window with the understanding that the Fed will not disclose information about their borrowing, especially their identity.”

Members of the Clearing House are ABN Amro Holding NV, Bank of America Corp., Bank of New York Mellon Corp., Citigroup Inc.Deutsche Bank AG, HSBC Holdings Plc, JPMorgan Chase Inc., UBS AG, U.S. Bancorp and Wells Fargo & Co.

The case is Bloomberg LP v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 08-CV-9595, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

the problem with federal reserve transparency

The Atlantic | Last week, the Federal Reserve lost a lawsuit. As a result, it is required to disclose the details of loans in some of its lending programs. Currently, this information is kept secret, and the Fed insists it must remain that way. As a result, the Fed is expected to appeal the case. It has already requested a delay on enforcement of the court order. After all, once the cat is out of the bag, it's not really possible to put it back in. I think the question at hand is a difficult one. I've got mixed feelings on which side is right.

First, what's the Fed's argument for keeping this information secret? Bloomberg explains the Fed's reasoning given to the judge, Loretta Preska:
Preska's Aug. 24 ruling rejected the Fed's argument that the records should remain private because they are trade secrets and would scare customers into pulling their deposits.
The trade secret argument seems a bit of a stretch. Are there really banks out there claiming that the secret to their success is getting loans from the Federal Reserve? That seems highly unlikely.

The other argument, however, is relevant and important. I see it as the crux of the Fed's case. Let's imagine your bank needed an emergency loan from the Federal Reserve. Currently, you'd never find out, since it's secret. But if the Fed ultimately loses the case, then imagine if its emergency loan balance listing by bank became published daily for public consumption. You could see your bank on there. That might, and probably should, cause some alarm to those banks' customers.

The Fed's argument is essentially that disclosing this information will cause bank panics. Ignorance is bliss. If people never find out about these loans, then assuming the bank pays it back, everything will turn out fine. Why scare the public for no reason?

rising plague

The Scientist | How do you look the family members of a critically ill patient in the eyes and tell them that their loved one is going to die because there are no drugs left to treat their illness? I'm an infectious diseases specialist. I'm not supposed to have to bear such bad news to patients or their families. I expect to cure my patients' infections, and their families and friends hope that I can. It's been that way ever since the 1940s, when penicillin burst onto the scene. But this is the 21st century, and things are different now.

The discovery of antibiotics in the mid 20th century was nothing less than a revolution in public health and medicine. It was a revolution as significant to human civilization as the discoveries of Isaac Newton or Thomas Edison's first light bulb. Physicians trained in the era immediately preceding the dawn of antibiotics learned how to resign themselves to the fact that they could not change the course of their patients' illnesses in most cases. Their job was largely to make an accurate diagnosis so they could relate the unalterable prognosis to the patient. In an instant, antibiotics changed all that by empowering physicians to eradicate diseases with aplomb. What a stunning power to acquire!

How ghastly then, having acquired this brilliant power, to watch helplessly as it shrinks back into history, leaving us once again at the mercy of even the most mundane microbes. That's the reality that we're facing now. Rising Plague is a fervent plea -- in the words of the poet -- that we not let antibiotics "go gentle into that good night."

In my latest book I describe how the relentless escalation of antibiotic resistance has created a critical need for new antibiotics. Just when we need it most, the discovery and development of new antibiotics is dying. I share with you real patient stories to underscore that the loss of effective antibiotics is not a hypothetical problem. Antibiotic resistance is killing thousands of people every year, and devastating their families. I know this because I have seen it first-hand.

The antibiotic problem didn't take shape overnight. And one can't blame physician misuse of antibiotics for all of our problems. Despite how widespread that belief is, it does not reflect reality, and it serves as a poor foundation for effective response planning.

We instead must alter our worldview of antibiotics and bacteria. Bacteria have been creating and defeating antibiotics for 20 million times longer than humans have known of the chemicals' existence. We will never stop antibiotic resistance from occurring.

Friday, August 28, 2009

fresh narrative....,

OilandGlory | John Bumgarner, a former cyber-security expert for the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, is attracting much attention for his report concluding that Russia's military offensive in Georgia last year was coordinated with a pre-arranged civilian cyber-attack on the country. What appears to have gone unreported is Bumgarner's conclusion that the region's oil apparatus was a strategic target of the overall conventional-and-cyber offensive.

The 100-page report, conducted for the U.S. Cyber-Consequences Unit, where Bumgarner is director of research, was distributed to U.S. officials and security experts. Bumgarner and I chatted by phone, and he emailed me the nine-page executive summary (thanks to Josh Foust for agreeing to post it at Incidentally, Foust has a good piece on the media war between Russia and Georgia at CJR).

Bumgarner says the report is the result of an examination of hundreds of public Internet forums, sharing of data with sources at home and abroad, and his own reporting on the attack from almost the instant it began. Others have reported that much of the findings were already known; but Bumgarner's findings appear to be the difference between barstool talk and authentic data. Nor is the report the kid-stuff such as carried out last week against 45 million Twitter users along with Facebook members, apparently by a Georgian blogger calling himself Syxymu (the blogger's attempt to Latinize the name of the Abkhazian capital, Sukhumi.).

defying experts - rogue computer code still lurks

NYTimes | Like a ghost ship, a rogue software program that glided onto the Internet last November has confounded the efforts of top security experts to eradicate the program and trace its origins and purpose, exposing serious weaknesses in the world’s digital infrastructure.

The program, known as Conficker, uses flaws in Windows software to co-opt machines and link them into a virtual computer that can be commanded remotely by its authors. With more than five million of these zombies now under its control — government, business and home computers in more than 200 countries — this shadowy computer has power that dwarfs that of the world’s largest data centers.

Alarmed by the program’s quick spread after its debut in November, computer security experts from industry, academia and government joined forces in a highly unusual collaboration. They decoded the program and developed antivirus software that erased it from millions of the computers. But Conficker’s persistence and sophistication has squelched the belief of many experts that such global computer infections are a thing of the past.

“It’s using the best current practices and state of the art to communicate and to protect itself,” Rodney Joffe, director of the Conficker Working Group, said of the malicious program. “We have not found the trick to take control back from the malware in any way.”

Researchers speculate that the computer could be employed to generate vast amounts of spam; it could steal information like passwords and logins by capturing keystrokes on infected computers; it could deliver fake antivirus warnings to trick naïve users into believing their computers are infected and persuading them to pay by credit card to have the infection removed.

There is also a different possibility that concerns the researchers: That the program was not designed by a criminal gang, but instead by an intelligence agency or the military of some country to monitor or disable an enemy’s computers. Networks of infected computers, or botnets, were used widely as weapons in conflicts in Estonia in 2007 and in Georgia last year, and in more recent attacks against South Korean and United States government agencies. Recent attacks that temporarily crippled Twitter and Facebook were believed to have had political overtones.

Yet for the most part Conficker has done little more than to extend its reach to more and more computers. Though there had been speculation that the computer might be activated to do something malicious on April 1, the date passed without incident, and some security experts wonder if the program has been abandoned.

gut harbors antibiotic resistance

The Scientist | The millions of microbes that crowd the human intestinal tract are teeming with new antibiotic resistance genes that could jump to disease-causing pathogens, according to researchers from Harvard University.

They found more than 90 undiscovered bacterial genes capable of conferring antibiotic resistance hiding in microbes harvested from two healthy adults. They report their findings in Science today (August 27).

"I thought this was an incredibly cool story," Gerry Wright, McMaster University chemical biologist, told The Scientist. "It tells you just how ignorant we are of microbial ecology."

Wright, director of McMaster's Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research, said that the findings raise several key questions. "If there's so much resistance out there, how come [antibiotics] work at all?" asked Wright, who was not involved with the study. "It either means that we really don't understand how antibiotics work or we really don't understand how microbes work."

This lack of understanding is underscored by the fact that humans have exposed their bodies to a potentially dangerous flood of antibiotics -- directly in medicines and indirectly through agriculture and cleaning products -- for decades. This exposure has likely selected for the newly discovered antibiotic resistance genes in our internal microbiome, according to lead author Morten Sommer, a postdoc in Harvard geneticist George Church's lab. "And that could be a problem when the microbiome interacts with disease-causing microbes," he told The Scientist.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

china eyes ban on rare metal exports

Telegraph | Beijing is drawing up plans to prohibit or restrict exports of rare earth metals that are produced only in China and play a vital role in cutting edge technology, from hybrid cars and catalytic converters, to superconductors, and precision-guided weapons. China mines over 95% of the worlds rare earth minerals and is looking to hoard its resources.

A draft report by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has called for a total ban on foreign shipments of terbium, dysprosium, yttrium, thulium, and lutetium. Other metals such as neodymium, europium, cerium, and lanthanum will be restricted to a combined export quota of 35,000 tonnes a year, far below global needs.

China mines over 95pc of the world’s rare earth minerals, mostly in Inner Mongolia. The move to hoard reserves is the clearest sign to date that the global struggle for diminishing resources is shifting into a new phase. Countries may find it hard to obtain key materials at any price.

Alistair Stephens, from Australia’s rare metals group Arafura, said his contacts in China had been shown a copy of the draft -- `Rare Earths Industry Devlopment Plan 2009-2015’. Any decision will be made by China’s State Council.

“This isn’t about the China holding the world to ransom. They are saying we need these resources to develop our own economy and achieve energy efficiency, so go find your own supplies”, he said.

Mr Stephens said China had put global competitors out of business in the early 1990s by flooding the market, leading to the closure of the biggest US rare earth mine at Mountain Pass in California - now being revived by Molycorp Minerals.

New technologies have since increased the value and strategic importance of these metals, but it will take years for fresh supply to come on stream from deposits in Australia, North America, and South Africa. The rare earth family are hard to find, and harder to extract.

Mr Stephens said Arafura’s project in Western Australia produces terbium, which sells for $800,000 a tonne. It is a key ingredient in low-energy light-bulbs. China needs all the terbium it produces as the country switches wholesale from tungsten bulbs to the latest low-wattage bulbs that cut power costs by 40pc.

No replacement has been found for neodymium that enhances the power of magnets at high heat and is crucial for hard-disk drives, wind turbines, and the electric motors of hybrid cars. Each Toyota Prius uses 25 pounds of rare earth elements. Cerium and lanthanum are used in catalytic converters for diesel engines. Europium is used in lasers.

Blackberries, iPods, mobile phones, plams TVs, navigation systems, and air defence missiles all use a sprinkling of rare earth metals. They are used to filter viruses and bacteria from water, and cleaning up Sarin gas and VX nerve agents.

Arafura, Mountain Pass, and Lynas Corp in Australia, will be able to produce some 50,000 tonnes of rare earth metals by the mid-decade but that is not enough to meet surging world demand.

New uses are emerging all the time, and some promise quantum leaps in efficiency. The Tokyo Institute of Technology has made a breakthrough in superconductivity using rare earth metals that lower the friction on power lines and could slash electricity leakage.

The Japanese government has drawn up a “Strategy for Ensuring Stable Supplies of Rare Metals”. It calls for `stockpiling’ and plans for “securing overseas resources’. The West has yet to stir.

another view on the flu...,

Der Spiegel | Interview with Epidemiologist Tom Jefferson - 'A Whole Industry Is Waiting For A Pandemic'

The world has been gripped with fears of swine flu in recent weeks. In an interview with SPIEGEL, epidemiologist Tom Jefferson speaks about dangerous fear-mongering, misguided, money-driven research and why we should all be washing our hands a lot more often.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Jefferson, the world is living in fear of swine flu. And some predict that, by next winter, one-third of the world's population might be infected. Are you personally worried? Are you and your family taking any precautions?

Tom Jefferson: I wash my hands very often -- and it's not all because of swine flu. That's probably the most effective precaution there is against all respiratory viruses, and the majority of gastrointestinal viruses and germs as well.

SPIEGEL: Do you consider the swine flu to be particularly worrisome?

Jefferson : It's true that influenza viruses are unpredictable, so it does call for a certain degree of caution. But one of the extraordinary features of this influenza -- and the whole influenza saga -- is that there are some people who make predictions year after year, and they get worse and worse. None of them so far have come about, and these people are still there making these predictions. For example, what happened with the bird flu, which was supposed to kill us all? Nothing. But that doesn't stop these people from always making their predictions. Sometimes you get the feeling that there is a whole industry almost waiting for a pandemic to occur.

SPIEGEL: Who do you mean? The World Health Organization (WHO)?

Jefferson: The WHO and public health officials, virologists and the pharmaceutical companies. They've built this machine around the impending pandemic. And there's a lot of money involved, and influence, and careers, and entire institutions! And all it took was one of these influenza viruses to mutate to start the machine grinding.

high speed trading goes off the street

Marketplace | Kai Ryssdal: It usually takes a while for Congress to catch on to exactly what Wall Street's doing. A couple of months ago the big story was high-frequency trading. How super speedy computers and complicated software could be skewing the market in favor of just a handful of firms.

Well, this week the Senate asked the SEC to take a look at the practice. One estimate by the research firm Tabb Group says almost three-quarters of all Wall Street trades are done by high-speed computers. Jill Barshay explains the action doesn't really happen on Wall Street at all.

JILL BARSHAY: When Vasant Dhar was running a hedge fund, he worked out what a lot of big banks and top flight money managers are realizing these days: You don't have to take big risks to make a lot of money. Instead, you just need speed.

VASANT Dhar: If you can have that edge, where you can get in your order a millisecond faster than someone else, then you're there before someone else was.

And being there first means making a fraction of a penny. Do that a few million times and you're talking real money. High-frequency trading is all about volume. The more trades you execute, the more money you make.

Dhar: So it's like a cash machine with very little risk. That's what's really appealing about it. You just make money every day.

The high-frequency trader's building blocks are a lightning-fast computer and software that can buy shares by the bushel in the blink of an eye. There's one more key component: location.

If you're in Greenwich, Conn., and you place an order to buy a stock, it could take a half-a-thousandth of a second for the order to reach an exchange. But if your computer is sitting in the same building with the exchanges' matching engines, the computers that put buyers and sellers together, your order gets to the exchange 50 times faster.


Slate | "The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire," Berridge has said. This makes evolutionary sense. Creatures that lack motivation, that find it easy to slip into oblivious rapture, are likely to lead short (if happy) lives. So nature imbued us with an unquenchable drive to discover, to explore. Stanford University neuroscientist Brian Knutson has been putting people in MRI scanners and looking inside their brains as they play an investing game. He has consistently found that the pictures inside our skulls show that the possibility of a payoff is much more stimulating than actually getting one.

Just how powerful (and separate) wanting is from liking is illustrated in animal experiments. Berridge writes that studies have shown that rats whose dopamine neurons have been destroyed retain the ability to walk, chew, and swallow but will starve to death even if food is right under their noses because they have lost the will to go get it. Conversely, Berridge discovered that rats with a mutation that floods their brains with dopamine learned more quickly than normal rats how to negotiate a runway to reach the food. But once they got it, they didn't find the food more pleasurable than the nonenhanced rats. (No, the rats didn't provide a Zagat rating; scientists measure rats' facial reactions to food.)

That study has implications for drug addiction and other compulsive behaviors. Berridge has proposed that in some addictions the brain becomes sensitized to the wanting cycle of a particular reward. So addicts become obsessively driven to seek the reward, even as the reward itself becomes progressively less rewarding once obtained. "The dopamine system does not have satiety built into it," Berridge explains. "And under certain conditions it can lead us to irrational wants, excessive wants we'd be better off without." So we find ourselves letting one Google search lead to another, while often feeling the information is not vital and knowing we should stop. "As long as you sit there, the consumption renews the appetite," he explains.

Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we're restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a "CrackBerry."

The system is also activated by particular types of cues that a reward is coming. In order to have the maximum effect, the cues should be small, discrete, specific—like the bell Pavlov rang for his dogs. Panksepp says a way to drive animals into a frenzy is to give them only tiny bits of food: This simultaneously stimulating and unsatisfying tease sends the seeking system into hyperactivity. Berridge says the "ding" announcing a new e-mail or the vibration that signals the arrival of a text message serves as a reward cue for us. And when we respond, we get a little piece of news (Twitter, anyone?), making us want more. These information nuggets may be as uniquely potent for humans as a Froot Loop to a rat. When you give a rat a minuscule dose of sugar, it engenders "a panting appetite," Berridge says—a powerful and not necessarily pleasant state.

If humans are seeking machines, we've now created the perfect machines to allow us to seek endlessly. This perhaps should make us cautious. In Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin writes of driving two indoor cats crazy by flicking a laser pointer around the room. They wouldn't stop stalking and pouncing on this ungraspable dot of light—their dopamine system pumping. She writes that no wild cat would indulge in such useless behavior: "A cat wants to catch the mouse, not chase it in circles forever." She says "mindless chasing" makes an animal less likely to meet its real needs "because it short-circuits intelligent stalking behavior." As we chase after flickering bits of information, it's a salutary warning.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

climate wars - 3 part radio show canadian broadcast corp.

CBC | About 2 years ago I noticed that the military in various countries, and especially in the Pentagon, were beginning to take climate change seriously. Now, it's the business of the military to find new security threats. It's also in their own self-interest, since they need a constant supply of threats in order to justify their demands on the taxpayers' money, so you should always take the new threats that the soldiers discover with a grain of salt. You know, never ask the barber whether you need a haircut.

But I did start to look into this idea that global warming could lead to wars. It turned into a year-long trek talking to scientists, soldiers and politicians in a dozen different countries. I have come back from that trip seriously worried, and there are four things I learned that I think you ought to know.

The first is that a lot of the scientists who study climate change are in a state of suppressed panic these days. Things seem to be moving much faster than their models predicted.

The second thing is that the military strategists are right. Global warming is going to cause wars, because some countries will suffer a lot more than others. That will make dealing with the global problem of climate change a lot harder.

The third is that we are probably not going to meet the deadlines. The world's countries will probably not cut their greenhouse gas emissions enough, in time, to keep the warming from going past 2 degrees celsius. That is very serious.

And the fourth thing is that it may be possible to cheat on the deadlines. I think we will need a way to cheat, at least for a while, in order to avoid a global disaster.

That's what this series is going to deal with, and we'll be lucky if we get through it all in 3 episodes. But I’m going to start by giving you an example of what that global disaster might look like, and the best way to do that is with a scenario. This is NOT a prediction of what the future will look like, because there are far too many variables and sheer unknowns to predict the world of, say, 2046. It’s just a plausible example of what 2046 could look like if we get it wrong over the next ten or fifteen years. - Gwynne Dyer

a perfect storm of shortages

BBCNews | As the world's population grows, competition for food, water and energy will increase. Food prices will rise, more people will go hungry, and migrants will flee the worst-affected regions.

That's the simple idea at the heart of the warning from John Beddington, the UK government's chief scientific adviser, of a possible crisis in 2030.

Specifically, he points to research indicating that by 2030 "a whole series of events come together":

* The world's population will rise from 6bn to 8bn (33%)
* Demand for food will increase by 50%
* Demand for water will increase by 30%
* Demand for energy will increase by 50%

He foresees each problem combining to create a "perfect storm" in which the whole is bigger, and more serious, than the sum of its parts.

frontrunning and now the "trading huddle"

BusinessInsider | We find it hard to believe that the top hedge funds in the world get a lot of value out of Buy/Sell ideas from analysts, unless they're blatantly telegraphing market-moving reports, in which case that could be trouble.

Still, this timeline looks pretty damning:

Susanne Craig at WSJ takes a deep dive into the practices of Goldman Sachs (GS) stock analysts, and notes that preferred clients get, well, preferred access to ideas and advice.

Here's the nut of it:

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. research analyst Marc Irizarry's published rating on mutual-fund manager Janus Capital Group Inc. was a lackluster "neutral" in early April 2008. But at an internal meeting that month, the analyst told dozens of Goldman's traders the stock was likely to head higher, company documents show.

The next day, research-department employees at Goldman called about 50 favored clients of the big securities firm with the same tip, including hedge-fund companies Citadel Investment Group and SAC Capital Advisors, the documents indicate. Readers of Mr. Irizarry's research didn't find out he was bullish until his written report was issued six days later, after Janus shares had jumped 5.8%.

Every week, Goldman analysts offer stock tips at a gathering the firm calls a "trading huddle." But few of the thousands of clients who receive Goldman's written research reports ever hear about the recommendations.

This story will bring fresh, unwanted attention to the bank, which is reeling from a string of undesirable media stories.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

friedmanist assault on peak oil theory...,

NYTimes | REMEMBER “peak oil”? It’s the theory that geological scarcity will at some point make it impossible for global petroleum production to avoid falling, heralding the end of the oil age and, potentially, economic catastrophe. Well, just when we thought that the collapse in oil prices since last summer had put an end to such talk, along comes Fatih Birol, the top economist at the International Energy Agency, to insist that we’ll reach the peak moment in 10 years, a decade sooner than most previous predictions (although a few ardent pessimists believe the moment of no return has already come and gone).

Like many Malthusian beliefs, peak oil theory has been promoted by a motivated group of scientists and laymen who base their conclusions on poor analyses of data and misinterpretations of technical material. But because the news media and prominent figures like James Schlesinger, a former secretary of energy, and the oilman T. Boone Pickens have taken peak oil seriously, the public is understandably alarmed.

A careful examination of the facts shows that most arguments about peak oil are based on anecdotal information, vague references and ignorance of how the oil industry goes about finding fields and extracting petroleum. And this has been demonstrated over and over again: the founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil first claimed in 1989 that the peak had already been reached, and Mr. Schlesinger argued a decade earlier that production was unlikely to ever go much higher.

goldman's golden goose grab...,

NYTimes | “A geek who writes code — those guys are now the valuable guys,” Mr. Donefer said.

The spate of lawsuits reflects the highly competitive nature of ultrafast trading, which is evolving quickly, largely because of broader changes in stock trading, securities industry experts say.

Until the late 1990s, big investors bought and sold large blocks of shares through securities firms like Morgan Stanley. But in the last decade, the profits from making big trades have vanished, so investment banks have become reluctant to take such risks.

Today, big investors divide large orders into smaller trades and parcel them to many exchanges, where traders compete to make a penny or two a share on each order. Ultrafast trading is an outgrowth of that strategy.

As Mr. Aleynikov and other programmers have discovered, investment banks do not take kindly to their leaving, especially if the banks believe that the programmers are taking code — the engine that drives trading — on their way out.

This spring, Mr. Aleynikov quit Goldman to join Teza Technologies, a new trading firm, tripling his salary to about $1.2 million, according to the complaint. He left Goldman on June 5. In the days before he left, he transferred code to a server in Germany that offers free data hosting.

At Mr. Aleynikov’s bail hearing, Joseph Facciponti, the assistant United States attorney prosecuting the case, said that Goldman discovered the transfer in late June. On July 1, the company told the government about the suspected theft. Two days later, agents arrested Mr. Aleynikov at Newark.

After his arrest, Mr. Aleynikov was taken for interrogation to F.B.I. offices in Manhattan. Mr. Aleynikov waived his rights against self-incrimination, and agreed to allow agents to search his house.

He said that he had inadvertently downloaded a portion of Goldman’s proprietary code while trying to take files of open source software — programs that are not proprietary and can be used freely by anyone. He said he had not used the Goldman code at his new job or distributed it to anyone else, and the criminal complaint offers no evidence that he has.

Why he downloaded the open source software from Goldman, rather than getting it elsewhere, and how he could at the same time have inadvertently downloaded some of the firm’s most confidential software, is not yet clear.

At Mr. Aleynikov’s bail hearing, Mr. Facciponti said that simply by sending the code to the German server, he had badly damaged Goldman.
The MSM has finally gotten around to narratizing the frontrunning fraud perpetrated by Goldman Sachs. This summer has already shown the issue to complex to be digested by the public at large. So justice, as with political leadership, is reduced to a lowest common denominator in which the people will get precisely what their effort and attention spans lead them to deserve.

the "fantastical and absurd" report...,

FinancialSense | Perhaps you've heard or read about the Maltese-flagged freighter named Arctic Sea, which recently disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean and was subsequently recovered after various contradictory reports. According to Filin, the Arctic Sea had been loaded with four X-55 cruise missiles while docked at the Baltic Sea port of Kaliningrad. The missiles were without warheads, as the warheads were shipped separately on another vessel . Filin alleges that the warheads were customized for carrying Soviet-produced biochemical material previously "shipped to Iran from Russia by air."

According to Filin, the contraband aboard the Arctic Sea was masked by timber loaded in Finland, and the ship's destination was Algeria, where representatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard were waiting to take delivery. Filin wrote: "Russian specialists would arrive in Iran within the near future, who would prepare the aviation system of Iranian Su-24 aircraft to use the X-55 in combat conditions and train representatives of the Iranian armed forces in the operational use of the system." The reason for the transfer of biochemical material to Iran, along with modified warheads and missiles, is to give Iran a counterstrike potential in the event of an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear weapons facilities.

In this way Russia strengthens Iran while weakening the position of Israel and the United States. It goes without saying that Moscow envisions the destabilization of the Middle East and the disruption of its main centers of oil production and shipping. Should Iran unleash biochemical warheads against Israel, there would be a further escalation of violence with the result that oil prices would reach -- according to Filin -- $200-$300 per barrell. The consequences, of course, would be devastating for the oil-dependent Western economies, which are already suffering from widespread financial troubles.

On the Russian side, however, high oil prices would empower the Russian state while stabilizing the Iranian clerical regime under a defiant nationalist banner. Moscow also envisions the closing of the Strait of Hormuz, a massive mobilization of terrorists, and a fresh violence in Iraq. According to Filin, "Upon learning of the Arctic Sea and its cargo, a major Western state that favors a strategic partnership with Ukraine, was prepared to intercept the ship. But fearing this would cause a serious international scandal that would disrupt the 'reboot' of its relations with the Putin regime, the [aforesaid] state decided to act informally, which it did."

In other words, the pirates that siezed the Arctic Sea off the coast of Sweden were American special forces (disguised as Swedish police). This embarrassing episode, according to Filin, enraged the Kremlin which subsequently lashed out at the pro-American regime in Ukraine. For reasons unstated by Filin, the Kremlin believes that Ukraine was responsible for alerting the Americans about the Arctic Sea and its cargo. Consequently, Russian President Medvedev wrote a scathing open letter to Ukrainian President Yuschenko, calling his policies "deliberately anti-Russian." This resulted in heightened tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

before it slips down the memory hole...,

Jerusalem Post | Pirates recently gained control over a Russian ship off the shores of Sweden in order to prevent weapons smuggling to Iran on Israel's behalf, according to a report by Russian newspaper Nuvia Gueta.

According to Saturday's report, which Army Radio cited, the Russian ship was carrying a load of X-55 cruise missiles intended for Teheran. Several days after the pirates seized the ship, Russian navy forces gained control over the vessel off the coast of West Africa.

Army Radio said Russian authorities denied the report, saying "the allegations are baseless."

Dmitri Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, said the report was fantastical and absurd.

Monday, August 24, 2009

a crime story

countdown to dollar implosion

Financial Sense | Every few months a chart comes along that needs almost no follow-on paragraphs to make the point of the issue. The chart provided by CIGA Eric covers several important types of US$-based bonds, their inflow and outflow, and the aggregate GrandNet. The financial data is publicly available from the USGovt TIC Reports. The messages are clear. Inflows of foreign funds are dwindling. In the case of USAgency Mortgage Bonds and USCorp Bonds, the nation is witnessing something unprecedented, the net outflow of funds. This is outright rejection. This chart exposes the isolation problem of the USDollar in the bond world, clearly the most important market beneath the currency market. The printing press is the last option.

Ominous is a strong word. Abandonment is better, but disaster is better still. “I find this simple chart so ominous I had to send it. Decelerating year-over-year inflows and outflows across the board. Stick your head in the sand if you like, but string this trend out a little longer and you’re going to have flight from the dollar.” So wrote CIGA Eric. See the article that displays this graph and his few words on the JSMineset weblog (CLICK HERE).

The foreign creditors are moving away from the United States, plain and simple. The big bold red series shows the Grand Net US$-based bond reduction in net flow change from a high around $950 billion in early 2007 to a figure now approaching only $200 billion, thus a severe cut in net inflow. The greater alarm comes from the USCorporate Bonds in the yellow series, whose net flow change is down from a plus $600 billion high at the same time to a slight net outflow negative figure now. The USAgency Mortgage Bonds in chartreuse/mauve/pink have net flow change with peak of plus $300 billion at the same time to a net outflow of a frightening $150 billion now. Since the important peak for mortgage and corporate bonds, the USTreasurys in blue series have recovered from a $200 billion net positive inflow to a $400 billion net inflow. However, one should suspect that the USFed is purchasing the USTreasurys from convenient accounts bearing foreign names, using American funds, and laced with sinister motives founded in deception. Foreigners in all likelihood are not the primary purchasers.

The United States credit markets are losing their legitimate liquidity and increasingly are turning to the desperate reckless alternative, namely the dreaded MONETIZATION. Mortgages in the United States must maintain funding from the USFed and USGovt by direct purchase, no longer a market action. There are mainly sellers. The corporations in the US must maintain funding from a more desperate means. See the Samurai Bonds offered in Japanese Yen denomination, the ones growing in popularity. My view is that a good slice of USGovt Treasury Bonds will be denominated in foreign currency routinely within one year, if the US$ system survives in its current form that long. The conclusion is clear from the messages, both graphic and statistical, that THE US$-BASED BONDS OF ALL TYPES WILL RELY ON DIRECT MONETIZATION VERY SOON OR IMMEDIATELY.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

the women's crusade

NYTimes Magazine | Bill Gates recalls once being invited to speak in Saudi Arabia and finding himself facing a segregated audience. Four-fifths of the listeners were men, on the left. The remaining one-fifth were women, all covered in black cloaks and veils, on the right. A partition separated the two groups. Toward the end, in the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience noted that Saudi Arabia aimed to be one of the Top 10 countries in the world in technology by 2010 and asked if that was realistic. “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates said, “you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.” The small group on the right erupted in wild cheering.

Policy makers have gotten the message as well. President Obama has appointed a new White House Council on Women and Girls. Perhaps he was indoctrinated by his mother, who was one of the early adopters of microloans to women when she worked to fight poverty in Indonesia. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is a member of the White House Council, and she has also selected a talented activist, Melanne Verveer, to direct a new State Department Office of Global Women’s Issues. On Capitol Hill, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has put Senator Barbara Boxer in charge of a new subcommittee that deals with women’s issues.

Yet another reason to educate and empower women is that greater female involvement in society and the economy appears to undermine extremism and terrorism. It has long been known that a risk factor for turbulence and violence is the share of a country’s population made up of young people. Now it is emerging that male domination of society is also a risk factor; the reasons aren’t fully understood, but it may be that when women are marginalized the nation takes on the testosterone-laden culture of a military camp or a high-school boys’ locker room. That’s in part why the Joint Chiefs of Staff and international security specialists are puzzling over how to increase girls’ education in countries like Afghanistan — and why generals have gotten briefings from Greg Mortenson, who wrote about building girls’ schools in his best seller, “Three Cups of Tea.” Indeed, some scholars say they believe the reason Muslim countries have been disproportionately afflicted by terrorism is not Islamic teachings about infidels or violence but rather the low levels of female education and participation in the labor force.

all it's lacking is a spark

NYTimes | I have been writing about the simmering undertone of violence in our politics since October, when Sarah Palin, the vice-presidential candidate of a major political party, said nothing to condemn Obama haters shrieking “Treason!,” “Terrorist!” and “Off with his head!” at her rallies. As vacation beckons, I’d like to drop the subject, but the atmosphere keeps getting darker.

Coburn’s implicit rationalization for far-right fanatics bearing arms at presidential events — the government makes them do it! — cannot stand. He’s not a radio or Fox News bloviator paid a fortune to be outrageous; he’s a card-carrying member of the United States Senate. On Monday — the day after he gave a pass to those threatening violence — a dozen provocateurs with guns, at least two of them bearing assault weapons, showed up for Obama’s V.F.W. speech in Phoenix. Within hours, another member of Congress — Phil Gingrey of Georgia — was telling Chris Matthews on MSNBC that as long as brandishing guns is legal, he, too, saw no reason to discourage Americans from showing up armed at public meetings.

In April the Department of Homeland Security issued a report, originally commissioned by the Bush administration, on the rising threat of violent right-wing extremism. It was ridiculed by conservatives, including the Republican chairman, Michael Steele, who called it “the height of insult.” Since then, a neo-Nazi who subscribed to the anti-Obama “birther” movement has murdered a guard at the Holocaust museum in Washington, and an anti-abortion zealot has gunned down a doctor in a church in Wichita, Kan.

This month the Southern Poverty Law Center, the same organization that warned of the alarming rise in extremist groups before the Oklahoma City bombing, issued its own report. A federal law enforcement agent told the center that he hadn’t seen growth this steep among such groups in 10 to 12 years. “All it’s lacking is a spark,” he said.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

building better bacteria

The Scientist | Researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute have developed a technique for generating modified strains of bacteria with novel, genetically engineered properties, they report online today (August 20) in Science. The advance could help scientists tweak microorganisms to more efficiently produce biofuels, the researchers say.

"I think it's an important and interesting advance," said James Collins, a bioengineer at Boston University who was not involved in the study. "I suspect this will turn out to be quite important for bioengineering and bioenergy systems."

Last year, Venter, an author on the paper (and a member of The Scientist's editorial board), reported that he and his collaborators had created a synthetic bacterial genome and cloned it into a yeast cell. However, they were unable to transfer the genome into a cell that would use the genetic code to produce a functioning version of the organism. In the current paper, the researchers present a technique for doing just that.

The Venter team first cloned the genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides into a yeast cell. They then altered the genome, using the myriad tools available for yeast gene manipulation. In the procedure's trickiest step, they transplanted the yeast-bound bacterial genome into a closely related bacterium, Mycoplasma capricolum, coaxing it to "take this bacterial genome and boot it up" and generate their mutant strain, said Sanjay Vashee, a synthetic biologist at the institute and the corresponding author on the paper.

The hurdle Vashee and his team had to overcome to achieve this feat involved bypassing the bacterial equivalent of an immune system -- essentially a collection of restriction enzymes. These enzymes, thought to have evolved to chew up the genomes of viruses infecting bacterial cells, were preventing the successful transplantation of the modified M. mycoides genome into wild-type M. capricolum. So the group developed two fixes, which together solved the problem: First, they inactivated M. capricolum's restriction enzymes. Then, they chemically modified their mutant M. mycoides genome where these enzymes typically cleave the genomes of intruders.

Decades of research on yeast genetics have yielded the know-how to do extensive genomic manipulations in yeast, but that capability doesn't exist for other microorganisms. "There are so many organisms in nature that we cannot manipulate," said Vashee. "If we can extend this -- and put those genomes into yeast, to manipulate them there -- we've got a new technology that can bring genomics to a wide host of organisms." (Vashee noted that the current study was conducted in a natural Mycoplasma genome -- not the synthetic genome the group assembled last year.)

virus benefits insect hosts

The Scientist | Bacteria-infecting viruses, generally thought to be harmful to their hosts, can also be surprisingly beneficial.

A bacteriophage infecting a bacterium living in the cells and body cavity of a small, plant-eating insect protects the insect from attack by a deadly wasp predator, reports a study published online in Science today (August 20). The discovery may help create more effective methods of pest control, the authors say.

"This is a wonderful paper," Christoph Vorburger, an ecologist at the University of Zurich, told The Scientist. "It is important because it shows clearly that genetic elements such as bacteriophages are vehicles for transmitting resistance to predators," added Vorburger, who was not involved in the study.

Small insects called pea aphids are parasitized by a species of wasp, Aphidus ervi. The wasp injects its eggs into the aphids, and the eggs develop, pupating and eventually killing the insects. Earlier work has shown that the symbiotic relationship between aphids and a species of bacteria called Hamiltonella defensa can keep the insect safe, but no one understood exactly how the bacterium offered protection.

Using genetic sequencing tests, Kerry Oliver from the University of Georgia and his colleagues determined that Hamiltonella harbors a bacteriophage. To find out whether the phage is what safeguards the insect, they then generated three aphid--lines one without the bacterium, one with the bacterium infected by the phage, and one with the uninfected bacterium. The team found that only aphids with the phage were protected from the wasps' egg.

Friday, August 21, 2009

swiss bunkers

Polarinertia | For over four years, I have developed a photographic documentary work on Swiss fortified constructions – bunkers. Each element of these photographs has a relation with Switzerland and particularly the mountain landscape that is an inherent part of our identity. The bunkers are a integral part of a finely developed popular defense military system in Switzerland, a military with historically strong links to the landscape.

After the cold war ended many of the bunkers became obsolete. The tendency is to forget them or even to renounce them, my approach on the contrary, aims to expose them from a new angle. This approach has led me to discover a great number of bunkers, some in remote areas, sometimes difficultly accessible, covering the whole of the Swiss territory. The relations between these basic shaped bunkers and the often-sumptuous landscape surrounds them became an essential part of the study. I looked for the most spectacular bunkers, notable for their camouflage devices, true theatre scenery made with the utmost care. A quality indeed fully Swiss.

open letter to the queen

Abundancy Partners | We live in tumultuous times. Many developed world citizens are losing their livelihoods. The effects on the world's poorest will, as ever, be dreadful. However we are surprised that the Academy has not addressed anything outside the narrow remit their letter covered. Far greater insecurities threaten the world's poorest due to our effects on the natural world.

The letter ignores the physical constraints which are central to this bubble and indeed most bubbles. It speaks of "the bigger picture" and of "individual risks being small" and "the system as a whole being vast", yet, for us has a limited horizon.

Our premise is that our current economic malaise is symptomatic of a far more serious systemic failure to acknowledge what Archbishop Rowan Williams has identified in saying "It has been said that 'the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment'. The earth itself is what ultimately controls economic activity because it is the source of the materials upon which economic activity works".

Energy underlies everything – Scylla and Charybdis of peak oil and climate change. The underlying cause of the current economic meltdown is a multi-generational debt-binge inextricably linked to a concomitant multi-generational energy-binge. The Academy's letter focuses on some "imbalances in the global economy". However, the key to addressing our current situation is to recognise the far more serious imbalances between our insatiable hunger for energy, its finite nature and the environmental pollution in its use.

Energy is the lifeblood of any economy. Our exponential debt-based money system is in turn based on exponentially increasing energy supplies. It is therefore clear that the supply of that energy deserves our very highest attention. That this attention doesn't appear in the Academy's analysis is deeply worrying.

The impending peaking of production of oil and other hydrocarbons, along with the resulting peak in food production and everything on which oil relies, is now widely accepted. Leading UK companies including Arup, Scottish and Southern Energy, Solarcentury and Virgin have warned that a peak in cheap, easily available oil production is likely to hit by 2013, posing a grave risk to the economy. On 2nd August 2009, the International Energy Association's Chief Economist, Dr Fatih Birol, warned of an oil crisis in 2010.

The letter refers to the "overheating economy" but gives no mention of the effect and cause of the overheating of planet Earth. Climate change is now recognised by the world's scientists, political and business leaders as the most serious threat to mankind and is described by Sir Nicholas Stern as "the greatest market failure of our times". On an almost daily basis we get increasingly urgent signals that unstoppable, runaway climate chaos is almost upon us.

natural gas not so sustainable

Examiner | It does not appear that Mr. Podesta's plan addresses the number one concern regarding the expansion of natural gas drilling domestically, and that is the over 300 compound chemical cocktail that is injected into the ground to force the gas to the surface. (for a list of 54 known chemicals in the fracking fluids and their effects, check HERE). His suggestion of public disclosure by gas producers does not go far enough. So what if gas developers disclose the chemical cocktail that they use; they still inject it into the ground where it seeps into our domestic freshwater supply. Even if the fracking goes on far below the groundwater table level, the tailing ponds on the surface have the potential to leak topdown into the water supply. Look at the map below where they want to drill (click for enlargement):

Do we really have the luxury of poisoning this much of our freshwater suply in the name of natural gas development? The question needs to be asked again: What do we value more, energy to run our machines or water to sustain human life?

Fracking processes are improving. There are best practices that use non-toxic cocktails, but these methods are employed in areas few and far between. Perhaps in the future, they will become standard.

What happens when the domestic natural gas wells run dry, though? Won't we simply be in the same position we find ourselves currently today? At least both Podesta and Chu refer to natural gas as a transition fuel (Pickens for that matter too), but our money, time, and effort could be better spent expanding clean energy in the form of wind, solar, biofuels, and geothermal as well as energy efficiency measures.

Drilling for more natural gas simply ruins more landscapes and runs the risk of poisoning our entire domestic freshwater supply. Is this the lowest level of risk our society can muster?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Is there any point in fighting to stave off industrial apocalypse?

Guardian | The collapse of civilisation will bring us a saner world, says Paul Kingsnorth. No, counters George Monbiot – we can't let billions perish.

The root cause of all these trends is the same: a rapacious human economy bringing the world swiftly to the brink of chaos. We know this; some of us even attempt to stop it happening. Yet all of these trends continue to get rapidly worse, and there is no sign of that changing soon. What these graphs make clear better than anything else is the cold reality: there is a serious crash on the way.

Yet very few of us are prepared to look honestly at the message this reality is screaming at us: that the civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it. Instead, most of us – and I include in this generalisation much of the mainstream environmental movement – are still wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. We still believe in "progress", as lazily defined by western liberalism. We still believe that we will be able to continue living more or less the same comfortable lives (albeit with more windfarms and better lightbulbs) if we can only embrace "sustainable development" rapidly enough; and that we can then extend it to the extra 3 billion people who will shortly join us on this already gasping planet.

I think this is simply denial. The writing is on the wall for industrial society, and no amount of ethical shopping or determined protesting is going to change that now. Take a civilisation built on the myth of human exceptionalism and a deeply embedded cultural attitude to "nature"; add a blind belief in technological and material progress; then fuel the whole thing with a power source that is discovered to be disastrously destructive only after we have used it to inflate our numbers and appetites beyond the point of no return. What do you get? We are starting to find out.


Physorg | Charles Kolb, Ph.D., reports that the concept of urban metabolism has existed for decades. It views large cities as living entities that consume energy, food, water, and other raw materials, and release wastes. The releases include carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas; air pollutants, sewage and other water pollutants; and even excess heat that collects in vast expanses of concrete pavement and stone buildings. Humans directly produce a significant share of this waste, but emissions from industrial, power generation and transportation systems respire the largest quantities of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants. Other urban metabolizers include sewage systems, landfills, domestic pets and pests like rats, which in some cities outnumber people.

During the last five years, this body of knowledge has drawn into sharper focus the hazards of poor air quality in megacities, not just on the large local populations but also on population centers, agricultural activities and natural ecosystems located downwind from these sprawling areas, Kolb said. He is with the Center for Atmospheric and Environmental Chemistry and the Center for Aerosol and Cloud Chemistry of Aerodyne Research Inc. in Billerica, Mass.

"Carbon dioxide and other pollutants in megacities make them immense drivers of climate change," he said. "They impact climate on both a regional and global level because these long-lived greenhouse gases are dispersed around the world."

More than half the world's population today lives in cities, and the world's largest urban areas are growing rapidly. The number of megacities — metropolitan areas with populations exceeding 10 million — has grown from just three in 1975 to about 20 today.

Kolb said that the most highly polluted megacities are in developing countries. They include Dhaka, Bangladesh; Cairo, Egypt; and Karachi, Pakistan. Some megacities in less developed regions have recently mounted air quality management campaigns that have resulted in lower levels of pollution; they include Mexico City, Mexico; Beijing, China; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Even the cleanest megacities like Tokyo/Osaka in Japan and New York City and Los Angeles in the United States — all in the developed world — still have serious problems, Kolb said.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

what's really wrong with american healthcare?

The Atlantic | After the needless death of his father, the author, a business executive, began a personal exploration of a health-care industry that for years has delivered poor service and irregular quality at astonishingly high cost. It is a system, he argues, that is not worth preserving in anything like its current form. And the health-care reform now being contemplated will not fix it. Here’s a radical solution to an agonizing problem.

How does a nation that might close down a business for a single illness from a suspicious hamburger tolerate the carnage inflicted by our hospitals? And not just those 100,000 deaths. In April, a Wall Street Journal story suggested that blood clots following surgery or illness, the leading cause of preventable hospital deaths in the U.S., may kill nearly 200,000 patients per year. How did Americans learn to accept hundreds of thousands of deaths from minor medical mistakes as an inevitability?

My survivor’s grief has taken the form of an obsession with our health-care system. For more than a year, I’ve been reading as much as I can get my hands on, talking to doctors and patients, and asking a lot of questions.

Keeping Dad company in the hospital for five weeks had left me befuddled. How can a facility featuring state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment use less-sophisticated information technology than my local sushi bar? How can the ICU stress the importance of sterility when its trash is picked up once daily, and only after flowing onto the floor of a patient’s room? Considering the importance of a patient’s frame of mind to recovery, why are the rooms so cheerless and uncomfortable? In whose interest is the bizarre scheduling of hospital shifts, so that a five-week stay brings an endless string of new personnel assigned to a patient’s care? Why, in other words, has this technologically advanced hospital missed out on the revolution in quality control and customer service that has swept all other consumer-facing industries in the past two generations?

I’m a businessman, and in no sense a health-care expert. But the persistence of bad industry practices—from long lines at the doctor’s office to ever-rising prices to astonishing numbers of preventable deaths—seems beyond all normal logic, and must have an underlying cause. There needs to be a business reason why an industry, year in and year out, would be able to get away with poor customer service, unaffordable prices, and uneven results—a reason my father and so many others are unnecessarily killed.

Before exploring alternative policies, let’s reexamine our basic assumptions about health care—what it actually is, how it’s financed, its accountability to patients, and finally its relationship to the eternal laws of supply and demand. Everyone I know has at least one personal story about how screwed up our health-care system is; before spending (another) $1trillion or so on reform, we need a much clearer understanding of the causes of the problems we all experience.

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