Archive for March, 2008

Blue Moon Economics

Friday, March 28th, 2008

– Kurt Cobb over at Resource Insights wrote an excellent piece on the state of the world’s economics the other day. I’m going to provide a couple of paragraphs to whet your appetite and then a link over to the full article on his site.

– It is a good site to know about and I’ve just added a link to it on my Blogroll.

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As the United States sinks into a financial vortex and begins to drag the rest of the world with it, commentators are reaching for every form of hyperbole available. Former chairman of the U. S. Federal Reserve Board Alan Greenspan characterized the current trouble as “the most wrenching since the end of the second world war.”

So unexpected and extreme have recent financial trends been that even the man who warned that derivatives are “financial weapons of mass destruction,” legendary investor Warren Buffett, has encountered difficulties when his companies waded into the derivatives market.

Concern about a cascade of failures among financial institutions led the Federal Reserve to make loans to the beleaguered investment bank Bear Stearns Cos. by invoking authority it last used in the 1960s.

All of the events of recent weeks including the wild swings in both the stock and commodities markets are signaling the advent a rare full-blown, long-term credit crisis not seen in, well, a blue moon. Some are saying we haven’t seen anything like it since the 1930s. As frightening as such pronouncements are, they all imply a rare but cyclical crisis that is understood to be severe, but ultimately of limited duration. Yes, such a crisis only occurs once in a blue moon, but when it does, despite all the damage that results, it eventually comes to an end.

All of this may turn out to be true, but only if the cause of this economic crisis is strictly as advertised, namely, too much credit given to too many people at prices too cheap for too long until many overreached and could not make good on their obligations. The problems appear to extend all the way from the humblest subprime mortgage holder to major financial institutions at the center of Wall Street.


Insecure About Climate Change

Friday, March 28th, 2008

By Joshua W. Busby

From the Council on Foreign Relations
Saturday, March 22, 2008; 12:00 AM

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, Americans witnessed what looked like an overseas humanitarian-relief operation. The storm destroyed much of the city, causing more than $80 billion in damage, killing more than 1,800 people, and displacing in excess of 270,000. The country suddenly had to divert its attention and military resources to respond to a domestic emergency. While scientists do not attribute single events to global warming, the storm gave Americans a visual image of what climate change — which scientists believe will likely exacerbate the severity and number of extreme weather events — might mean for the future.

The large, heavily populated coastal areas of the United States are vulnerable to these kinds of extreme weather events, suggesting homeland security will require readiness against climate change. Moreover, scientists tell us that poor countries in the developing world, particularly in Africa and Asia, are the most vulnerable. They are likely to be hit hardest by climate change, potentially putting hundreds of thousands of people on the move from climate change-related storms, floods and droughts. In such circumstances, outside militaries may be called on to prevent humanitarian tragedies and broader disorder.

A number of recent studies have begun making these kinds of links between climate change and national security. My report for the Council on Foreign Relations goes further, focusing on what should be done in three main areas: risk reduction and adaptation; mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions; and institutional changes in the U.S. government.


The Economist Has No Clothes

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

Unscientific assumptions in economic theory are undermining efforts to solve environmental problems

The 19th-century creators of neoclassical economics—the theory that now serves as the basis for coordinating activities in the global market system—are credited with transforming their field into a scientific discipline. But what is not widely known is that these now legendary economists—William Stanley Jevons, Léon Walras, Maria Edgeworth and Vilfredo Pareto—developed their theories by adapting equations from 19th-century physics that eventually became obsolete. Unfortunately, it is clear that neoclassical economics has also become outdated. The theory is based on unscientific assumptions that are hindering the implementation of viable economic solutions for global warming and other menacing environmental problems.

The physical theory that the creators of neoclassical economics used as a template was conceived in response to the inability of Newtonian physics to account for the phenomena of heat, light and electricity. In 1847 German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz formulated the conservation of energy principle and postulated the existence of a field of conserved energy that fills all space and unifies these phenomena. Later in the century James Maxwell, Ludwig Boltzmann and other physicists devised better explanations for electromagnetism and thermodynamics, but in the meantime, the economists had borrowed and altered Helmholtz’s equations.


See also:

A nuclear ‘who’s on first’

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

– Sometimes I see juxtapositions of two stories in the news that really capture my attention.

– I saw one such juxtaposition this last week.

– First, I saw a story about our surveillance society in the Seattle Times by Danny Westneat in which he wrote:

…while trying to convince the skeptical audience that the point is to root out terrorists, not fish for wrongdoing among the citizenry, deputy chief Joe Giuliano let loose with a tale straight out of “Dr. Strangelove.”

It turns out the feds have been monitoring Interstate 5 for nuclear “dirty bombs.” They do it with radiation detectors so sensitive it led to the following incident.

“Vehicle goes by at 70 miles per hour,” Giuliano told the crowd. “Agent is in the median, a good 80 feet away from the traffic. Signal went off and identified an isotope [in the passing car].”

The agent raced after the car, pulling it over not far from the monitoring spot (near the Bow-Edison exit, 18 miles south of Bellingham). The agent questioned the driver, then did a cursory search of the car, Giuliano said.

Did he find a nuke?

“Turned out to be a cat with cancer that had undergone a radiological treatment three days earlier.”

– Well, that’s impressive, if perhaps a bit scary.

– But then consider the article out in the April 2008 edition of Scientific American Magazine. It’s entitled, “Detecting Nuclear Smuggling“. From it, I’ve lifted the following excerpts:

Existing radiation portal monitors, as well as new advanced spectroscopic portal machines, cannot reliably detect weapons-grade uranium hidden inside shipping containers. They also set off far too many false alarms.

Twice in recent years the two of us helped an ABC News team that smuggled a soda can–size cylinder of depleted uranium through radiation detectors at U.S. ports. The material did not pose a danger to anyone, but it did emit a radiation signature comparable to that of highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be assembled into a nuclear bomb.

Homeland Security was not fond of the ABC exercises and asserted publicly that if NRDC’s slug of depleted uranium had been HEU, inspectors would have identified and intercepted it. We disagree. Our analyses show that when even lightly shielded with lead and steel, depleted and highly enriched uranium have similarly weak radiation signals and would be equally hard to detect by either generation of monitor.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 275 confirmed incidents involving nuclear material and criminal intent occurred globally between January 1993 and December 2006. Four involved plutonium, but 14 involved HEU. More than 40 countries harbor HEU, with the highest risk of theft being from facilities in Russia, other former Soviet states and Pakistan. And a recent Harvard University study concluded that U.S.-funded security work had not been completed at 45 percent of nuclear sites of concern in countries once part of the Soviet Union.

– So we can detect a cat whose had a radiation treatment for cancer whizzing by at 70 MPH but we can’t find a good sized chunk of Uranium in a cargo container being shipped into the US from the Middle East?

– It does make you wonder.

New Family Of Superconductors Discovered

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

University of Saskatchewan Canada Research Chair John Tse and colleagues in Germany have identified a new family of superconductors – research that could eventually lead to the design of better superconducting materials for a wide variety of industrial uses.

In an article published in the journal Science, the team has produced the first experimental proof that superconductivity can occur in hydrogen compounds known as molecular hydrides.

“We can show that if you put hydrogen in a molecular compound and apply high pressure, you can get superconductivity,” said Tse. “Validation of this hypothesis and understanding of the mechanism are initial steps for design of better super-conducting materials.”


Four Online Telescopes Serve the Stars to Interstellar Paparazzi

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

Urban astro-nerds, rejoice! The smog and lights of the city will obscure your view of the heavens no more. And your star photography will twinkle. Now you can go online to access high-quality scopes at dark-sky sites worldwide and order them to take photos for you — cheaply or for free, and at decent resolution. It may take some preparation, but even if the results aren’t exactly Hubble-icious, there’s something out-of-this-world about playing astronomer for a night.

Thanks to Wired

Report: 32% Of Prayers Deflected Off Passing Satellites

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

HOUSTON—According to an official NASA report released Saturday, nearly 32 percent of all prayers exiting Earth are deflected off satellites orbiting the planet—ultimately preventing the discharged requests for divine intervention from ever making it to the Gates of Heaven. “After impact with the satellite, these diverted prayers typically plummet back into the atmosphere, where they either burn up or eventually land, unanswered, in a body of water,” the report read in part. “Of the remaining prayers, research confirms 64 percent fail to make it past the stratosphere because they aren’t prayed hard enough, 94 percent of those with enough momentum are swallowed by a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and 43 percent are eaten by birds.” The report concluded that, of the 170 billion prayers issued last month, one made it to God, whose reply was intercepted by a hurricane and incorrectly delivered to a Nigerian man who reportedly did not know what to do with his brand-new Bowflex machine.

Thanks to The Onion

First ‘Rule’ Of Evolution Suggests That Life Is Destined To Become More Complex

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

– I don’t find the core idea here at all surprising.  Evolution is an arms race between those evolving and better perceptions, better reasoning and better equipment are what it is all about.  All of these lead to higher complexity.

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Researchers have found evidence which suggests that evolution drives animals to become increasingly more complex.

Looking back through the last 550 million years of the fossil catalogue to the present day, the team investigated the different evolutionary branches of the crustacean family tree.

They were seeking examples along the tree where animals evolved that were simpler than their ancestors.

Instead they found organisms with increasingly more complex structures and features, suggesting that there is some mechanism driving change in this direction.


Self-Experimenters: Psychedelic Chemist Explores the Surreality of Inner Space, One Drug at a Time

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

Alexander Shulgin is the world’s foremost “psychonaut.” The 82-year-old chemist has not only created more of the 300 known consciousness-altering (or psychoactive) compounds than anyone living or dead, he has, by his own account, sampled somewhere between 200 and 250 of them himself—most of them cooked up in the musty lab behind his home in the hills east of Berkeley, Calif., where he has shared many a chemical voyage with his wife of 26 years, Ann.

“I take them myself because I am interested in their activity in the human mind. How would you test that in a rat or mouse?” says Shulgin, known to friends as Sasha.

He has paid the price for his avocation. Some of his creations have induced uncontrollable vomiting, paralysis and the feeling that his bones were melting, among other terrors. And though some believe Shulgin has opened the doors of perception to a new class of potentially therapeutic mind-altering compounds, others argue that he bears responsibility for the damage that ongoing abuse of such now-illicit substances can cause.


Homosexual Geneticists Isolate Cause of Christianity

Monday, March 24th, 2008

Thanks to ScienceBlogs & Greg Laden, I can offer you this gem:

Click me for the YouTube video.