Matt Taibbi: The SuperRich in America Have Become ‘Untouchables’ Who Don’t Go to Prison
by Amy Goodman & Matt Taibbi on Democracy Now – Apr. 15th, 2014
Taibbi discusses his new book, “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.”
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, attorney James Kidney, who was retiring from the Securities and Exchange Commission, gave a widely reported speech at his retirement party. He said that his bosses were too, quote, “tentative and fearful” to hold Wall Street accountable for the 2008 economic meltdown. Kidney, who joined the SEC in 1986, had tried and failed to bring charges against more executives in the agency’s 2010 case against Goldman Sachs. He said the SEC has become, quote, “an agency that polices the broken windows on the street level and rarely goes to the penthouse floors. … Tough enforcement, risky enforcement, is subject to extensive negotiation and weakening,” he said.
Well, for more, we turn to our guest, Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist, formerly with Rolling Stone magazine, now with First Look Media. His new book is called The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.
Matt, we welcome you back to Democracy Now! It’s a remarkable, important, certainly needed book in this day and age. Talk about the thesis. What is the divide?
Continue reading Amy Goodman interviews Matt Taibbi
But a financial transaction tax would go a long way towards fixing it..
If you read one business book this year, make it “Flash Boys” by Michael Lewis. The journalist famous for “Moneyball” and “The Big Short” takes readers inside the parasitic world of high-frequency trading that is harming the broader economy.
The technical architecture of high-frequency trading is right out of a sci-fi movie — the schemes rely on algorithms that seem artificially intelligent, and the velocity of transaction signals approach light speed. As Lewis recounts, all that technological wizardry is marshaled to let insiders know information before everyone else, which consequently lets those insiders extract wealth from the market.
The good news is that a financial transaction tax can at once raise public resources and disincentivize the most predatory schemes. The even better news is that structural changes in the industry have made such a tax more economically viable than ever.
Before getting to that change, consider the basics of the tax proposal. The idea is that if a tiny fee is slapped on securities transactions — say, a cent — the tax will barely affect the average investor but will force high-frequency, high-volume traders to pay a lot. Consequently, those predators might see less of an upside from — or even abandon – their market-rigging schemes. And if they don’t, then at least the government will generate new resources to enforce laws protecting average investors.
Of course, when this idea gained steam before, it was deflated by those arguing that the tax would prompt stock exchanges to move to jurisdictions that don’t impose such a levy. In this tale, the city, state or country that creates a transaction tax won’t stop high-frequency trading — it will only hurt itself by driving financial business to another locale.
On its face, it is a powerful argument — so powerful, in fact, that when Chicago’s municipal government recently considered a financial transaction tax, the proposal was quickly dismissed. The Illinois legislature then gave the Chicago Mercantile Exchange an $85 million tax cut when company executives threatened to move the company out of state.
No doubt, fear of such flight seems logical. Essentially, tax opponents ask us to assume that in the Internet era, stock exchanges — like many other information-sector enterprises — are no longer moored to specific geographies because they can supposedly conduct business through any digital conduit.
But that’s where the aforementioned structural change has created a flaw in the logic. In a financial world where microseconds are now king, all conduits are not created equal and average Internet velocity is no longer enough. That reality potentially reduces some of the industry’s geographic mobility. Why? Because while speculators themselves no longer need to physically be on specific trading room floors, they do need their computers to either be physically near those exchanges’ computers or hooked up to them through special ultra-fast conduits. Additionally, the newly computerized exchanges need ever-more massive data centers and conduits to process the accelerating information flow.
All of that technology requires financial firms to make huge investments in lots of immobile digital infrastructure. That means it may now be prohibitively expensive and/or logistically difficult for those financial firms to simply pick up and move. Indeed, just like petroleum companies cannot realistically threaten to leave oil-rich locales if they don’t like a tax, parts of the financial world are captive to the locales in which they’ve built their digital systems.
This is the silver lining of speed-driven finance. Simply put, the federal, state and local governments that host the financial industry have more leverage because, despite threats, they don’t have to fear the industry leaving.
The only question, then, is political: Will those governments use this new leverage? Or will they do nothing to protect the average investor?
How to Tap Latent Conservative Support for Climate-Change Policy
It’s all a matter of how the issue is framed and what values activists appeal to.
Both last month’s Senate Climate Talkathon and Tom Steyer’s $100 million dollar pledge to back environment-friendly candidates indicate the same thing: Democrats are getting serious about global warming again. But even when Democrats have managed to close ranks behind previous legislative efforts like Waxman-Markey, Republicans have stymied them. Can the left forge a coalition to tackle the problem?
The environment was once a bipartisan issue. The 1970 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, and the 1973 Endangered Species Act were all passed with bipartisan support, as was legislation strengthening those acts in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, the environment has become increasingly divisive. Data from the Pew Research Center show that the decrease in support for environmental protection is not only very recent but also one-sided:
Despite that decline, Republican support for environmental causes is stronger than it might appear. Two Ph.D. students at the University of California Santa Barbara, Phillip Ehret and Aaron Sparks, found that a quarter of individuals self-identifying as “very conservative” or “conservative” support environmental regulations, even if they risk harming the economy. A Yale Study finds that 85 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans favor “regulating CO2 as a pollutant” and majorities from both parties favor investing in renewable energy. If Republican voters are concerned about the environment, why haven’t we seen an action? One explanation is that the framing of environmental issues is often anathema to conservatives. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer’s important paper on the subject, “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes,” finds that liberals view environmental issues as moral concerns informed by a harm principle, while conservatives view environmental issues through the lens of purity, and particularly for religious people, stewardship.
In 1971’s Octogesima Adveniens, Pope Paul VI laid out a religious case for protecting the environment, using the language of responsibility, duty to future generations, and purity—in other words, the conservative framing under Feinberg and Willer’s standards:
Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation … thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable …. The Christian must turn to these new perceptions in order to take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all.
In his 2006 “Letter to a Southern Baptist Pastor,” E.O. Wilson showed how to use the religious framing in defense of the environment:
You have the power to help solve a great problem about which I care deeply. I hope you have the same concern. I suggest that we set aside our differences in order to save the Creation. The defense of living nature is a universal value. It doesn’t rise from, nor does it promote, any religious or ideological dogma. Rather, it serves without discrimination the interests of all humanity. Pastor, we need your help. The Creation—living nature—is in deep trouble.
The environmental movement has stumbled because it has not framed the issue as Wilson and Paul VI did. A 2012 study by Matthew C. Nisbet, Ezra M. Markowitz, and John E. Kotcher found that climate campaigns overwhelming frame the issue in terms of harm and care, fairness, and oppression of marginalized groups. These frames fall into what Feinberg and Willer would consider left-wing frames, alienating conservatives.
Continue reading Framing the discussion on climate change
Secular stagnation or secular boom?:
(by Antonio Fatas – Apr. 17th, 2014)
The notion that some countries are caught in a long and protracted period of low growth … has been labeled “secular stagnation”. The pessimism that the idea of secular stagnation has created has been reinforced by the notion the potential for emerging markets to grow is becoming weaker. …
Let’s start with a simple chart that summarizes the pattern of annual growth in … advanced and emerging markets…
… So stagnation might be the right label for 50% of the world, but accelerating growth is the right label for the other half.
And if we look at the engines of growth, in particular investment rates (in physical capital) we can see again the divergence in performance.
… Looking at the above charts… Could it be that investment opportunities in emerging markets moved capital away from advanced economies? It’s not obvious because we know that the explosion in investment rates in emerging markets came in many cases with even larger increases in saving rates as (financial) capital flew away from these countries. In fact, interest rates in the world were trending downwards during this period. And this makes the performance of advanced economies even more surprising: despite a favorable environment in terms of low interest rates, investment and growth declined.
Maggie Koerth-Baker answers a new Science Question from a Toddler.
When Superman wants to super impress Lois Lane, he takes a lump of coal and squeezes it in his super fist until it becomes a diamond. Which is super.
Unfortunately, it’s not a scientifically accurate analogy for the creation of diamonds in nature. So when journalist Stephen Ornes’ 6-year-old son, Sam, asks how coal, which is black, can turn into diamonds, which are clear, there are actually a couple of issues we have to address. First, we need to know where diamonds actually come from. Then, even though diamonds aren’t coal, you’re still left with the basic question Sam is trying to get at—why can pure carbon be black under some circumstances and clear under others? Turns out, the answer has a lot to do with why life, itself, is based on carbon.
Coal is the compressed remains of ancient plants, dinosaur swamps sitting in the palm of your hand. But there are diamonds that are older than terrestrial plants. That fact alone should tell you that diamonds are not actually made from compressed coal. Instead, diamonds are probably formed deep in the Earth—much further down than the levels at which we find coal—where heat and pressure fuse atoms of carbon together into crystalline structures. Later, those crystals get vomited up from the depths with the help of volcanic vents. (You can read more about where diamonds really come from in a post I wrote back in 2012.)
It’s important to make the distinction between diamonds and coal because, if you don’t, then Sam’s question earns a misleadingly simple answer. Diamonds and coal are different colors because coal isn’t pure carbon. The stuff is loaded with impurities: Hydrogen, sulfur, mercury, and more. There’s a reason you don’t want to live next door to a coal-fired power plant and that reason is all the nasty stuff that gets released when the carbon in coal burns.
But that doesn’t mean pure carbon always looks like diamonds. As an example, George Bodner, professor of chemical education at Purdue University, points to carbon black—the black stuff you see when you burn something in the flame of a candle. Another good example, this one from David McMillin, a Purdue professor of inorganic chemistry, is graphite. Like diamond, graphite is carbon. Unlike diamond, it’s a shimmery, silvery black. So what gives? Continue reading Everything you ever wanted to know about diamonds
Arrive at a party in a fringed flapper dress or a hoop skirt, and you’re in costume. Come in the style worn by Katharine Hepburn or Barbara Stanwyck in the 1930s—a dress of woven silk gauze and chiffon that clings to the figure and plunges in the back—and you’re perfectly turned out. The story’s the same, minus the chiffon, for men. If you put on the shapeless “sack suit” of the turn of the century to attend a meeting, you’d look nearly as dowdy as you would if you were wearing a Civil War–era frock coat and sporting muttonchops. But if you appear in the artfully tailored suit favored by that international heartthrob the Prince of Wales circa 1933, you’re at the height of style.
The most-notorious fashion statements of the 1930s were the black shirts and brown shirts of fascism. Yet this era of dictators and worldwide economic depression also bequeathed to us the elements of modern style. That is the message of Elegance in an Age of Crisis, the handsomely illustrated volume accompanying this spring’s exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York. The same lesson surfaces in the glamorous retrospective of the couturier Charles James’s work on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this summer, and in the sumptuous exhibition catalogue, Charles James: Beyond Fashion.
Continue reading A perspective on fashion
The Four Elements
Note: This article was written by Brian Koberlein who reserves all rights to it.
Around 450 BC, the Greek philosopher Empedocles wrote that the world was comprised of four things: earth, air, fire and water. Plato referred to them as the four elements. These were not elements in the modern sense, but rather essences that gave everything their physical properties. The idea that everything was made of these fundamental elements had a deep influence on early Western science. It was a central aspect of alchemy until Robert Boyle demonstrated there were more than four elements in 1661. The four elements also connected to the four humours of the human body, which formed a basis of Western medicine until the 1800s.
Over the past two centuries, we have gained a much better understanding of the atomic elements and how they have formed. One of the things we have learned is that we—and every other living thing on Earth—are made up mostly of four elements. These four atomic elements are oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Together they make up about 96% of our bodies, as you can see in the figure.
There are 92 naturally occurring elements on Earth, from hydrogen to uranium, so why do these four make up such a majority of living things? Part of the reason lies in the fact that they are versatile elements, capable of producing a vast array of chemical compounds, but it also has to do with the fact that they are among the most abundant elements in the universe. To understand why, we have to look to the stars.
The first elements appeared a few minutes after the big bang, through a process known as nucleosynthesis. The elements produced by the big bang consisted of about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium (by mass) with trace amounts of lithium and beryllium. For the next several hundred million years only these four elements existed. Then the first stars appeared. They formed from large clouds of hydrogen and helium, and as they collapsed under their own weight the hydrogen in their cores began to fuse into helium.
The energy produced by this nuclear fusion gives a star the light and heat necessary to counter the force of gravity for a time, but as a star ages the amount of helium in the stellar core increased. As helium become more plentiful in the stars core, some of it fuses into carbon. The carbon interacts with the hydrogen to produce nitrogen and oxygen as well as helium, through a process known as the CNO cycle. As a star ages the CNO cycle becomes the dominant process by which a star creates light and heat. As a result, these elements become fairly plentiful within a star.
The first stars are thought to have been very large stars. Toward the end of a their lives they produced even heavier elements, such as silicon, neon, and eventually iron. Beyond iron there are no elements a star can fuse to produce energy. After several hundred thousand years these first stars had no further way to produce energy, and in the end they explode in a massive explosion known as a supernova. The gas and dust remnants of these stars were tossed out into the universe. Over time this gas and dust became part of clouds that formed new stars, which also fused hydrogen and helium into heavier elements until they too died in supernova explosions.
Then about five billion years ago a cloud of gas and dust began to form a new star. Thanks to the lives and deaths of earlier generations of stars this cloud was rich not just in hydrogen and helium, but also in carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and iron. As the star formed, some of the dust formed a disk around the star, out of which formed planets. The third planet from this star had the good fortune of being not too close to the star and not too far away. It had plenty of hydrogen and oxygen in the form of water, as well as carbon and nitrogen, all thanks to long dead stars. Eventually life appeared on this small world, and took advantage of these useful and plentiful elements.
The atoms in your body contain the history of the universe. The hydrogen in your body was born among the first elements, about 13.7 billion years ago. The carbon, nitrogen and oxygen in your muscles and mind were created within a star that died more than 5 billion years ago.
You are the universe made manifest.
(Note: This article was written by Brian Koberlein who retains all rights to it.)
Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech
NASA and JPL have announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting in the habitable zone of its star. This has led to some popular press announcements that Earth’s twin has been discovered, but these planets are twins more in line withDanny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger than identical twins. It should also be emphasized that being in the “Goldilocks Zone” of a star does not mean the planet harbors life, or even liquid water. So what do we know about this planet so far?
The planet is named Kepler-186f, and is the 5th planet from its star, Kepler 186. The star itself is a red dwarf about half the mass of the Sun. The Kepler study shows now evidence of large solar (stellar) flares over the 4-year observation period, but we do know the star is active, and even that it has starspots. This is an important factor when considering habitability, because red dwarf stars tend to have strong flares and stellar wind, which would act to strip closer planets of their atmosphere. Red dwarf stars also tend to be much hotter in their youth, only later cooling down to their reddish orange hue. So planets of such a star may be baked dry as well.
But it’s not all bad news. Since the star is smaller and thus cooler than the Sun, it’s habitable zone is closer to the star. In this case, Kepler-186f has an orbit roughly the size of Mercury’s orbit in our own solar system. At that distance the planet might not be tidally locked, so it could have a daily cycle similar to Earth’s. It is only about 10% larger than Earth, and while we can’t determine its mass directly, if it is about the same composition as Earth it would have a mass about 1.4 times that of Earth. That would give it a surface gravity only 15% stronger than Earth’s, so it isn’t likely to have a thick hydrogen-helium atmosphere.
If Kepler-186f has a strong magnetic field, then it is possible that it has a more Earth-like atmosphere, and would be capable of having liquid water on its surface. Given its size, it could also be geologically active. It is possible that the planet is the most Earth-like exoplanet discovered so far. However the most likely scenario is that it is dry and cold. More Mars-like than Earth-like.
Of course none of this should minimize the importance of this discovery. It shows that Earth-sized planets do exist within the habitable zones of their stars. We figured they must exist, but now we know. It is a first step toward discovering a truly Earth-like planet around another star.
Paper: Elisa V. Quintana et al. An Earth-Sized Planet in the Habitable Zone of a Cool Star. Science, Vol. 344 no. 6181 pp. 277-280 (2014) DOI: 10.1126/science.1249403
Nobel Lecture, 8 December, 1982
The Solitude of Latin America
Antonio Pigafetta, a Florentine navigator who went with Magellan on the first voyage around the world, wrote, upon his passage through our southern lands of America, a strictly accurate account that nonetheless resembles a venture into fantasy. In it he recorded that he had seen hogs with navels on their haunches, clawless birds whose hens laid eggs on the backs of their mates, and others still, resembling tongueless pelicans, with beaks like spoons. He wrote of having seen a misbegotten creature with the head and ears of a mule, a camel’s body, the legs of a deer and the whinny of a horse. He described how the first native encountered in Patagonia was confronted with a mirror, whereupon that impassioned giant lost his senses to the terror of his own image.
This short and fascinating book, which even then contained the seeds of our present-day novels, is by no means the most staggering account of our reality in that age. The Chronicles of the Indies left us countless others. Eldorado, our so avidly sought and illusory land, appeared on numerous maps for many a long year, shifting its place and form to suit the fantasy of cartographers. In his search for the fountain of eternal youth, the mythical Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca explored the north of Mexico for eight years, in a deluded expedition whose members devoured each other and only five of whom returned, of the six hundred who had undertaken it. One of the many unfathomed mysteries of that age is that of the eleven thousand mules, each loaded with one hundred pounds of gold, that left Cuzco one day to pay the ransom of Atahualpa and never reached their destination. Subsequently, in colonial times, hens were sold in Cartagena de Indias, that had been raised on alluvial land and whose gizzards contained tiny lumps of gold. One founder’s lust for gold beset us until recently. As late as the last century, a German mission appointed to study the construction of an interoceanic railroad across the Isthmus of Panama concluded that the project was feasible on one condition: that the rails not be made of iron, which was scarce in the region, but of gold. Continue reading 1982 Nobel Award for Literature: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
(Note: by Richard – Apr. 15th, 2014)
A congressional district can expand or contract in size, population, tax base, and other political measures from year to year. An example is the Georgia 05 which gained 13.08% in population between 2008-2009 while the neighboring GA 06 lost 9.7%. In the same period there was a variance of up to 42.5% in the population census counts between the lowest district, GA01, and the highest, GA13, for a Georgia congressional district.
The economic conditions between congressional districts can also be significant, again for example: the unemployment and change in household income percentage rates in the 2008-2009 period in the Georgia 04 was twice that experienced in Georgia 06. The ethnic composition is also markedly different, with the Black/White ratio in GA02 at 49.4% to 47.9%, while it is 8.8% to 81.6% in the GA06.
Politically of the fourteen congressional districts in Georgia in 2013, only five are currently held by Democrats; yet in the 2012 General Election the results were 53.3% for Romney, 45.5% for Obama, or less than an 8% differential, with the State segmented in a Democratic band in the center and southwest of the State, and Republican bands in the northwest and southeast. The Atlanta MSA consists of seven congressional districts, 140 cities and towns, and is home to 5.48 million inhabitants, or approximately 55% of the State’s 2012 total of 9.92 million. The Atlanta region encompasses 28 counties out of a total of 159 Statewide. The Atlanta MSA area represents approximately 10% of the 59k square miles land area of the State.
All these numbers can easily be reported somewhat differently based on sample dates, measures utilized, reporting entity, etc; however in simple terms it is accurate to say:
“Around 90% of the State’s land area is occupied by around 50% of the population who contributes less than 20% to the State’s total tax base, yet delivers half of the State’s Congressional delegation to Washington, two-thirds of which came from the Republican party, despite Republicans in the State having won the popular vote in the last ten general elections by an average of 4%”.
And finally, redistricting is performed after each census by the State legislature, which can yield customized districts that significantly favor the victorious political party. For example, the following is Georgia’s new redistricting map:
Bloomberg News reported, on April 8, that a Securities and Exchange Commission prosecuting attorney, James Kidney, said at his recent retirement party on March 27, that his prosecutions of Goldman Sachs and other mega-banks had been squelched by top people at the agency, because they “were more focused on getting high-paying jobs after their government service than on bringing difficult cases.” He suggested that SEC officials knew that Wall Street would likely hire them after the SEC at much bigger pay than their government remuneration was, so long as the SEC wouldn’t prosecute those megabank executives on any criminal charges for helping to cause the mortgage-backed securities scams and resulting 2008 economic crash.
His “remarks drew applause from the crowd of about 70 people,” according to the Bloomberg report. This would indicate that other SEC prosecutors feel similarly squelched by their bosses.
Kidney’s speech said that his superiors did not “believe in afflicting the comfortable and powerful.”
Referring to the agency’s public-relations tactic of defending its prosecution-record by use of what he considered to be misleading statistics, Kidney said, “It’s a cancer” at the SEC.
Two recent studies have provided additional depth to Kidney’s assertions, by showing that Obama and his Administration had lied when they promised to prosecute Wall Street executives who had cheated outside investors, and deceived homebuyers, when creating and selling mortgage-backed securities for sale to investors throughout the world.
President Obama personally led in this lying.
On May 20, 2009, at the signing into law of both the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act and the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, Obama said: “This bill nearly doubles the FBI’s mortgage and financial fraud program, allowing it to better target fraud in hard-hit areas. That’s why it provides the resources necessary for other law enforcement and federal agencies, from the Department of Justice to the SEC to the Secret Service, to pursue these criminals, bring them to justice, and protect hardworking Americans affected most by these crimes. It’s also why it expands DOJ’s authority to prosecute fraud that takes place in many of the private institutions not covered under current federal bank fraud criminal statutes — institutions where more than half of all subprime mortgages came from as recently as four years ago.”
Then, in the President’s Jan. 24, 2012 State of the Union Address, he said: “Tonight, I’m asking my Attorney General to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis. (Applause.) This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans. Now, a return to the American values of fair play and shared responsibility will help protect our people and our economy.”
However, two years later, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice issued on March 13, 2014 its “Audit of the Department of Justice’s Efforts to Address Mortgage Fraud,” and reported that Obama’s promises to prosecute turned out to be just a lie. DOJ didn’t even try; and they lied even about their efforts. The IG found: “DOJ did not uniformly ensure that mortgage fraud was prioritized at a level commensurate with its public statements. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Criminal Investigative Division ranked mortgage fraud as the lowest criminal threat in its lowest crime category. Additionally, we found mortgage fraud to be a low priority, or not [even] listed as a priority, for the FBI Field Offices we visited.” Not just that, but, “Many Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSA) informed us about underreporting and misclassification of mortgage fraud cases.” This was important because, “Capturing such information would allow DOJ to … better evaluate its performance in targeting high-profile offenders.”
Privately, Obama had told Wall Street executives that he would protect them. On March 27, 2009, Obama assembled the top executives of the bailed-out financial firms in a secret meeting at the White House and he assured them that he would cover their backs; he promised “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks”. It’s not on the White House website; it was leaked out, which is one of the reasons Obama hates leakers. What the DOJ’s IG indicated was, in effect, that Obama had kept his secret promise to them. Continue reading Fail: SEC
|Emanuel Pastreich, John Feffer, Foreign Policy in Focus, The Nation
The U.S. is poised to collapse with self-inflicted wounds.
This article is a joint publication of Foreign Policy In Focus and TheNation.com.
The U.S. security complex is up in arms about cyberhackers and foreign terrorists targeting America’s vulnerable infrastructure. Think tank reports have highlighted the chinks in homeland security represented by unsecured ports, dams and power plants. We’ve been bombarded by stories about outdated software that is subject to hacking and the vulnerability of our communities to bioterrorism. Reports such as the Heritage Foundation’s “Microbes and Mass Casualties: Defending America Against Bioterrorism” describe a United States that could be brought to its knees by its adversaries unless significant investments are made in “hardening” these targets.
But the greatest dangers for the United States do not lurk in terrorist cells in the mountains surrounding Kandahar that are planning on assaults on American targets. Rather, our vulnerabilities are homegrown. The United States plays host to thousands of nuclear weapons, toxic chemical dumps, radioactive waste storage facilities, complex pipelines and refineries, offshore oil rigs and many other potentially dangerous facilities that require constant maintenance and highly trained and motivated experts to keep them running safely.
The United States currently lacks safety protocols and effective inspection regimes for the dangerous materials it has amassed over the last 60 years. We don’t have enough inspectors and regulators to engage in the work of assessing the safety and security of ports, bridges, pipelines, power plants and railways. The rapid decline in the financial, educational and institutional infrastructure of the United States represents the greatest threat to the safety of Americans today.
And it’s getting worse. The current round of cutbacks in federal spending for low-visibility budgets for maintainence and inspection, combined with draconian cuts in public education, makes it even more difficult to find properly trained people and pay them the necessary wages to maintain infrastructure. As Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution points out, the 2015 budget fresh off the press includes a chart indicating that non-defense discretionary spending — including critical investments in infrastructure, education and innovation — will continue to drop severely, from 3.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013 to just 2.2 percent in 2024. This decision has been made even though the average rate for the last 40 years has been 3.8 percent and the United States will require massive infrastructure upgrades over the next 50 years.
The recent cheating scandal involving employees of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is emblematic of the problem. Nuclear officers charged with protecting and maintaining the thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons simply copied the answers for tests about how to employ the complex machinery related to nuclear missiles. The scandal is only the latest in a long series of accidents, mishaps and miscommunications that have nearly caused nuclear explosions and tremendous loss of life. As Eric Schlosser has detailed in his new bookCommand and Control, we have avoided inflicting a Hiroshima-sized attack on ourselves only through sheer dumb luck.
Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which painted a grim picture of America’s infrastructure. The average grade for infrastructure — covering transportation, drinking water, energy, bridges, dams and other critical infrastructure — was a D+. The failure to invest in infrastructure over the last 15 years, the report argues, bodes ill for the future and will guarantee further disasters. As political campaigns against “bureaucrats” render the federal government incapable of recruiting and motivating qualified people, these disasters appear almost unavoidable. The weakest link from the point of view of national security are the military and energy sectors. Continue reading Vulnerable to catastrophe
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s latest outrage, McCutcheon v. FEC, striking down aggregate limits on campaign contributions, reformers are asking an urgent question: Can the issue of money in politics ever really matter in an election? Could the fight against the corrupting influence of money finally rally the people?
Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post is skeptical. In an essay in March, Cillizza observed that a new GW Battleground poll found that six of 10 Americans were “entirely unmoved/unaffected by the recent focus by Democrats on villainizing the Kochs.” Indeed, 52 percent didn’t even know who the Koch brothers were. From this, Cillizza concludes that it makes no sense to make “campaign finance or money in politics” an issue in this, or any campaign. As he writes:
[V]oters almost never use campaign finance or money in politics as a voting issue. Yes, in polls people will say there is too much money in politics and that it’s a bad thing. But, time and time again in actual elections they don’t vote on it.
Cillizza’s view is commonplace—and true, when focused on normal politics, the politics of ordinary politicians, battling it out in ordinary elections. But it collapses a bunch of different points that, when separated, suggest a very different possibility, at least for a different kind of politics.
First: Americans overwhelmingly believe it “important” to “reduce the influence of money in politics”—more than 90 percent, according to a recent poll by the Global Strategy Group. This is the critical point to keep in view: Whether or not we Americans can recognize the “Kochs,” we certainly recognize a system of corruption. The vast majority of us—75 percent according to a poll by Reason—do.
So then why don’t we “vote on it”? Why is money in politics “almost never … a voting issue”?
A hint at the answer is the second point: While the Global Strategy Group found that more than 90 percent of Americans believe it important to reduce the influence of money in politics, they also found that more than 90 percent believe such influence just won’t be reduced anytime soon. We want it to be reduced, we believe it important, but we also believe we won’t get it. We thus resign ourselves to a corrupt status quo, and move on to other issues.
But why? There are plenty of proposals out there for fundamental reform, and at least a few (e.g., the Government by the People Act, or the American Anti-Corruption Act) that would genuinely change the system. If we, the people, want reform so much, why then don’t we rally to those who push it?
This is the third, and most difficult point: In July 2012, the Clarus Research Group asked this question:
When Congress passes laws that affect the way political campaigns are financed, do you think these laws have been designed more to help current members of Congress get re-elected or do you think these laws have been designed more to improve the system?
Eighty percent of Americans said they thought that reforms were only self-serving, designed only to “help current members of Congress get re-elected.” We want reform. We just don’t trust that we can actually get it. We believe we have a corrupt system. But we don’t believe insiders when they tell us they will fix it.
This is the politics of resignation. We accept the status quo not because we want it, and certainly not because we don’t care about “process.” To the contrary: We are resigned precisely because we view the very process by which we would effect change as corrupt. We thus steer away from the politics of reform, and focus our (dwindling level of) political attention on other issues instead. Continue reading The nihilist politics of resignation
Scientists discover how to generate solar power in the dark
(via The Atlantic – Todd Woody – Tue. Apr. 15th, 2014)
The next big thing in solar energy could be microscopic. Scientists at MIT and Harvard University have devised a way to store solar energy in molecules that can then be tapped to heat homes, water or used for cooking.
The best part: The molecules can store the heat forever and be endlessly re-used while emitting absolutely no greenhouse gases. Scientists remain a way’s off in building this perpetual heat machine but they have succeeded in the laboratory at demonstrating the viability of the phenomenon called photoswitching.
“Some molecules, known as photoswitches, can assume either of two different shapes, as if they had a hinge in the middle,” MIT researchers said in statement about the paper published in the journal Nature Chemistry. “Exposing them to sunlight causes them to absorb energy and jump from one configuration to the other, which is then stable for long periods of time.”
To liberate that energy all you have to do is expose the molecules to a small amount of light, heat or electricity and when they switch back to the other shape they emit heat. “In effect, they behave as rechargeable thermal batteries: taking in energy from the sun, storing it indefinitely, and then releasing it on demand,” the scientists said.
The researchers used a photoswitching substance called an azobenzene, attaching the molecules to substrates of carbon nanotubes. The challenge: Packing the molecules closely enough together to achieve a sufficient energy density to generate usable heat. Continue reading Solar power in the dark?
Shut Up and Deal
The electric-car company Tesla seems like everyone’s darling these days. Its stock, even amid a pervasive selloff in the tech sector, is up nearly forty per cent this year. It has announced plans to build a five-billion-dollar battery factory, which various Southwestern states are vying to host. And it’s now starting to sell cars in China. But there is one place where Tesla is getting no love: New Jersey. Last month, the state decreed that the company would have to shut down its showrooms. In doing so, New Jersey joined states like Texas and Arizona, where it’s effectively illegal to buy a Tesla. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to get a Model S in Beijing but not in Paramus.
Why was Tesla banned? It sold cars. It built showrooms where customers could check out a vehicle, arrange a test drive, and buy a car. The hitch was that Tesla sold cars directly to the public, without going through independent dealers. In most industries, this would hardly be a radical idea. Dell built its business on selling direct to consumers, and the most successful retail phenomenon of the past decade is the manufacturer-owned Apple Store. But the auto industry is different. In its early years, companies tried all kinds of ways of selling cars; you could buy them right at the factory, or at local department stores, or even from the Sears catalogue. But by the nineteen-twenties the industry’s major players had settled on a system of local, independently owned car dealers. Today, almost every new car in the U.S. is sold this way. In forty-eight states, direct sales by car manufacturers are restricted or legally prohibited, and manufacturers are often prevented from opening a dealership that would compete with existing ones. If Ford wanted to open a flagship store on Santa Monica Boulevard, it couldn’t.
Tesla, since it’s starting from scratch, has no existing dealers, and so in theory it isn’t encroaching on anyone’s turf. But auto dealers around the country have still been lobbying state governments to force the company to change its ways. Dealers like the existing system, and they don’t want other automakers to get any ideas. Fiona Scott Morton, an economics professor at Yale who has written extensively on car dealers, told me, “There isn’t a rational argument for why a new company should have to use dealers. It’s just dealers trying to protect their profits.”
Of course, no one involved presents it like this. State legislators insist that the status quo benefits consumers: the relevant Florida statute claims to be “providing consumer protection and fair trade.” We’re told that only independent dealers can guarantee service and warranty coverage. But look at the Apple Store: manufacturer-owned, and yet famous for the customer service and tech support provided at the Genius Bar. And while the argument is sometimes made that the use of independent dealers lowers prices, it’s hard to see how forcing Tesla to sell its cars through middlemen would make them cheaper. Indeed, a series of studies in the nineteen-eighties found that the various rules protecting dealers led to higher prices—six per cent higher, according to an estimate by the Federal Trade Commission. And in 2001 the Consumer Federation of America estimated that restrictive franchise laws could be costing consumers as much as twenty billion dollars a year. In any case, no one expects dealers to disappear. The question is whether automakers should be legally banned from trying out new ways to sell their cars.
It isn’t just auto dealers. State regulations are littered with provisions designed to protect incumbent businesses. In most states, retailers and restaurants have to buy alcohol from wholesalers rather than directly from producers. And there’s an ever-growing thicket of occupational licensing regulations. For some professions, a licensing requirement makes sense. But, according to a 2008 study, almost thirty per cent of jobs now require a license in some state or other, including many—auctioneer, shampooer, home-entertainment installer—where licensing seems totally unnecessary. Continue reading “You have to sell through a dealer” – because we said so.
(Note: This article was written by Brian Koberlein who retains all rights to it.)
BY BRIAN KOBERLEIN · 15 APRIL 2014
Credit: NASA/Margarita Karovska
Mira is a red star in the constellation Cetus. It is a variable star, meaning that its brightness changes over time. While there are some indications that its variable nature was known in ancient times, the earliest reliable documentation of its variability comes from the late 1500s. By the mid-1600s, astronomers had determined that Mira’s brightness varied over a period of 333 days. The name Mira is Latin for “wondrous”, and so Mira is indeed a wondrous star.
We now know that Mira is a binary star. The companion star, Mira B is a white dwarf, while the primary star Mira A is a 6 billion year old red giant star. Its mass is a bit more than that of our Sun, so in many ways looking at Mira A is glimpse into the future of our own Sun. That’s because Mira is a Sun-like star that is reaching the end of its life. Mira was just the first star of its kind to be observed. We now know of more than 6,000 similar stars, which are known as Mira variables.
Another Mira variable is the star Chi Cygni. This was discovered to be a variable star in the late 1600s, with a period of about 400 days. We now know its period is 408 days. Recently we have even been able to image the star. The Infrared Optical Telescope Array (IOTA) has used interferometry data from two telescopes to create infrared images of Chi Cygni. Over its variable period they observed the star swell and contract, as you can see in the image below. You can see a movie of its variation over seven years here. Continue reading Wonderous star
(Note: This article was written by Brian Koberlein who retains all rights to it.)
BY BRIAN KOBERLEIN · 15 APRIL 2014
Credit: NASA/Ian O’Neil
Although still mysterious, dark matter is five times more plentiful than regular matter in the universe. It affects the formation and clustering of galaxies, as well as the motion of stars through their galaxy. So it is tempting to wonder what effect dark matter might have on the formation and evolution of stars themselves. The problem is we can’t be sure without an understanding of type of dark matter which exists. That hasn’t stopped some astronomers from speculating, however. Continue reading Dark star
Taxpayers fund creationism in the classroom
A striking shift in public policy has flown largely under the radar. | AP/Getty
Taxpayers in 14 states will bankroll nearly $1 billion this year in tuition for private schools, including hundreds of religious schools that teach Earth is less than 10,000 years old, Adam and Eve strolled the garden with dinosaurs, and much of modern biology, geology and cosmology is a web of lies.
Now a major push to expand these voucher programs is under way from Alaska to New York, a development that seems certain to sharply increase the investment.
Public debate about science education tends to center on bills like one in Missouri, which would allow public school parents to pull their kids from science class whenever the topic of evolution comes up. But the more striking shift in public policy has flown largely under the radar, as a well-funded political campaign has pushed to open the spigot for tax dollars to flow to private schools. Among them are Bible-based schools that train students to reject and rebut the cornerstones of modern science.
Decades of litigation have established that public schools cannot teach creationism or intelligent design. But private schools receiving public subsidies can — and do. A POLITICO review of hundreds of pages of course outlines, textbooks and school websites found that many of these faith-based schools go beyond teaching the biblical story of the six days of creation as literal fact. Their course materials nurture disdain of the secular world, distrust of momentous discoveries and hostility toward mainstream scientists. They often distort basic facts about the scientific method — teaching, for instance, that theories such as evolution are by definition highly speculative because they haven’t been elevated to the status of “scientific law.”
And this approach isn’t confined to high school biology class; it is typically threaded through all grades and all subjects.
One set of books popular in Christian schools calls evolution “a wicked and vain philosophy.” Another derides “modern math theorists” who fail to view mathematics as absolute laws ordained by God. The publisher notes that its textbooks shun “modern” breakthroughs — even those, like set theory, developed back in the 19th century. Math teachers often set aside time each week — even in geometry and algebra — to explore numbers in the Bible. Students learn vocabulary with sentences like, “Many scientists today are Creationists.”
Some 26 states are now considering enacting new voucher programs or expanding existing ones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. One concept that is gaining popularity, on the table in eight states: setting up individual bank accounts stocked with state funds that parents can spend not just on tuition but also on tutors or textbooks, both secular and religious. On Friday, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled the approach constitutional; lawmakers there are already working to broaden eligibility.
Voucher advocates talk of soon reaching a tipping point, at least in a few key states, when so many students will receive private education on the public dime that everyone demands the option.
Already, about 250,000 students take advantage of vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. That’s just a fraction of the 55 million public school students in the U.S., but it’s up about 30 percent from 2010. Some states have built growth into their laws. In Florida, for instance, public subsidies are set to rise from $286 million this year to about $700 million in 2018 even without further legislative action, as long as demand remains high.
The shifting of public funds to religious schools, especially at a time when scientists are making great strides in understanding the origins of the universe, alarms advocates of strong science education.
“I don’t think the function of public education is to prepare students for the turn of the 19th century,” said Eric Meikle, project director at the National Center for Science Education.
Critics also contend that the growth of voucher programs undermines the bipartisan drive to set uniformly high academic standards across the U.S. through the Common Core, which covers math and language arts, and the Next Generation Science Standards, which set out clear expectations for teaching about evolution and the origins of life. Voucher schools are free to ignore those standards and set their own curriculum, generally with little state oversight.
Participating parents, however, say it’s only right that the state should help them pay for an education that reflects their values. In many cases, that means the book of Genesis rather than “The Origin of Species.” Gallup polls consistently show that nearly half of American adults believe God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. Continue reading Special report: Taxpayers fund creationism in the classroom
Parishioners from St. Mary’s Catholic Church of the Assumption in West sang and prayed near the end of a candlelight healing walk in July through the neighborhood hit hardest by the fatal fertilizer plant explosion in April. (Mona Reeder/Staff Photographer)
WEST EXPLOSIONIt could happen again
Eight months after fertilizer plant blast, no major safety changes result; legislation, lawsuits remain up in the air
DOUG J. SWANSON and DAVID TARRANT | STAFF WRITERSPHOTOGRAPHY BY
MONA REEDER, MICHAEL AINSWORTH, G.J. McCARTHY, TOM FOX and KYE R. LEE | STAFF PHOTOGRAPHERS - Published December 14, 2013
In the ritual of modern disaster politics, catastrophes are closely followed by elected officials on the scene to praise local grit and promise swift relief. Serious remedies and sweeping reforms, in many instances, arrive next. The aftermath of the April 17 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. proved in part to be no exception. Within days of the blast, President Barack Obama came to McLennan County. So did Gov. Rick Perry and both U.S. senators from Texas. Relief has come in the form of government checks. The town is rebuilding. Major reforms, however, have yet to be designed, much less implemented. In the weeks after the West disaster, investigators identified numerous ways it might have been prevented — or at least mitigated.Yet eight months after 15 people died and hundreds were injured, no significant measures have been adopted by state government to keep something like it from occurring again. Now, new houses rise in the lots where homes were destroyed. And on the streets downtown, residents talk of a rebound. But outside the city, in many ways, it’s as if nothing happened. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, speaking at West on the last day of August, told residents: “We get to define our lives by how we respond to the challenges we face.”
This is the state’s response at year’s end:
The Legislature, though it was in session when the plant blew up, did little beyond holding hearings. Perry has been silent on specific changes in Texas’ laws or regulatory approach. Texas has taken no measurable steps toward adopting a statewide fire code, which could have prevented the blast. The state has not tightened rules for storing or securing ammonium nitrate, the chemical that exploded at West. Texas still does not require facilities that stockpile such materials to carry liability insurance. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency whose mission includes the broader role of protecting the public’s health, has abandoned any role in West-related matters. “We haven’t really been involved,” an agency spokesman said.
Last month, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst instructed a Senate committee to study “regulatory and insurance requirements for the storage of ammonium nitrate.” He added that any changes should not cause “duplicitous practices and procedures for the Texas workforce.” Such caution is not out of character for a state long wary of rules that might inhibit commerce. Josh Havens, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said Perry believes “that smart and fair regulations, designed to protect citizens without creating an overly burdensome environment for business, are a key to economic success in this state and the nation.”
The governor has expressed no position on what the Legislature should do in response to West, Havens said. “It is their [legislators’] prerogative to review these statutes and propose any changes. … It would be premature to create more regulations or even speculate on what could have been done differently to prevent the incident from occurring without identifying a definitive cause of the incident.”
Elena Craft, an Austin-based health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the reluctance to regulate has left others at risk. “There’s nothing that’s been proposed or put in place that would be a meaningful long-term plan that would prevent another event like West,” she said. Continue reading “It’s as if we learned nothing.”
The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies
(via TruthOut – posted on Apr 13, 2014 - By Chris Hedges
Editor’s note: The following is the transcript of a speech that Chris Hedges gave in Santa Monica, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2013. To purchase a DVD of Hedges’ address and the Q-and-A session afterward, click here. Video clips from the Q-and-A session can be found here, here and here. Follow this link to become a Bedrock Supporter (a yearlong membership includes the DVD from this event).
* * *
The most prescient portrait of the American character and our ultimate fate as a species is found in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Melville makes our murderous obsessions, our hubris, violent impulses, moral weakness and inevitable self-destruction visible in his chronicle of a whaling voyage. He is our foremost oracle. He is to us what William Shakespeare was to Elizabethan England or Fyodor Dostoyevsky to czarist Russia.
Our country is given shape in the form of the ship, the Pequod, named after the Indian tribe exterminated in 1638 by the Puritans and their Native American allies. The ship’s 30-man crew—there were 30 states in the Union when Melville wrote the novel—is a mixture of races and creeds. The object of the hunt is a massive white whale, Moby Dick, which in a previous encounter maimed the ship’s captain, Ahab, by dismembering one of his legs. The self-destructive fury of the quest, much like that of the one we are on, assures the Pequod’s destruction. And those on the ship, on some level, know they are doomed—just as many of us know that a consumer culture based on corporate profit, limitless exploitation and the continued extraction of fossil fuels is doomed.
“If I had been downright honest with myself,” Ishmael admits, “I would have seen very plainly in my heart that I did but half fancy being committed this way to so long a voyage, without once laying my eyes on the man who was to be the absolute dictator of it, so soon as the ship sailed out upon the open sea. But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing, and tried to think nothing.”
Continue reading Chris Hedges address: Santa Monica, CA – Oct. 13th, 2013
(Note: This article was written by Brian Koberlein, and all rights to it are reserved by Mr. Koberlein.)
BY BRIAN KOBERLEIN · 13 APRIL 2014
When you look at the night sky it is easy to imagine that the stars are part of a great celestial sphere. Stars appear to be fixed in relation to each other, and they appear to move about the Earth in unison. This is why most ancient cultures imagined that the stars were a part of a sphere or shell of night, and that all the stars were the same distance away from us. This illusion occurs because even the nearest stars are very, very far away. So how is it possible to say with confidence (as I did in an earlier post) that Sirius is 8 light-years away, or that Betelgeuse is 640 light-years away?
There are actually several methods to determine cosmic distances, and these are combined to create what is known as the cosmic distance ladder, but the oldest and most direct method uses the property of parallax. Parallax occurs when you look at an object from two slightly different positions. You probably use it every day, because it is what gives humans depth perception. When you look at an object, each of your eyes has a slightly different point of view. Your brain uses this information to determine which objects are close and which are farther away. This is also why you have to wear special glasses when you go to see a 3D movie. The glasses ensure that your eyes each get a slightly different perspective, which gives the movie the illusion of depth. If you take off the glasses during the movie, it will look slightly blurry. Without the glasses, your eyes see both points of view blurred together.
You can see the effect of parallax with a simple experiment. Hold up your thumb at arm’s length, and look at it with only one eye. Without moving your thumb, switch eyes, and you will see that your thumb appears to move relative to more distant objects. This shift is known as a parallax shift. If you bring your thumb closer and do the experiment again, you’ll see that the parallax shift is larger. If it is farther away, the parallax shift is smaller.
With a little bit of trigonometry, you can calculate the distance to an object by measuring its parallax. This is how astronomers can measure the distances to nearby stars. Astronomers use the motion of the Earth to their advantage. The radius of the Earth’s orbit about the Sun is 93 million miles. By observing the position of a star on a particular night, and then on a night 6 months later, astronomers can measure the parallax shift of the star from two points of view 186 million miles apart. The bigger the parallax shift, the closer the star. You can see this in the figure below.
A simple example of parallax. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)
The parallax of even the closest stars is very small, on the order of an arcsecond, which is 1/3600 of a degree in angle. The star with the largest stellar parallax is Proxima Centauri, which has a parallax of 1.3 arcseconds. It is the closest star to Earth (except for the Sun), with a distance of 4.2 light-years. Current technology can typically measure parallax down to about a thousandth of an arcsecond, or a maximum distance of about 1,600 light years. For anything more distant, astronomers must use other methods.
Recently astronomers were able to use parallax to measure the distance to a black hole which orbits a star known as V404 Cygni. As the black hole orbits V404 Cygni, it pulls matter from the star into itself. As the material falls into the black hole it produces light. When only a small amount of matter is being drawn in, the region around the black hole doesn’t give off much light, (known as quiescence) but when a large amount of matter falls to the black hole it can give off an intense burst of light. As a result, V404 Cygni will appear to brighten from time to time. The light from the black hole was observed during quiescence over a period of three months using what is known as the High Sensitivity Array (HSA), which consists of five telescopes across the world. By observing the black hole at the same time, and using a technique known as interferometry, astronomers were able to make very precise measurements of the black holes position.
By comparing their measurements with earlier measurements, the authors were able to measure the parallax of a black hole for the first time. They determined that the black hole is about 7,800 light-years away, which is closer than previously thought. It is the farthest distance we’ve measured directly. In the future we hope to measure even greater distances. In October of last year for example, the European Space Agency launched the Gaia Mission, which should be able to measure parallax as small as 20 millionths of an arcsecond, which will measure distances of tens of thousands of light-years.
We should soon have a very accurate map of our cosmic neighborhood.
Paper: J. C. A. Miller-Jones et al. The First Accurate Parallax Distance to a Black Hole. ApJ 706 L230 (2009)
(Note: This article was written by Brian Koberlein and all rights to it are reserved to Mr. Koberlein.)
BY BRIAN KOBERLEIN · 14 APRIL 2014
Yesterday I wrote about how astronomers can use the principle of parallax to measure the distance to stars. However this principle was first applied to the moon and the planets. More than 2,000 years ago Hipparchus used the parallax of the moon to measure its distance. He found that the distance to the moon was about 60 times the radius of the Earth, or about 237,000 miles. (The actual average distance is 239,000 miles.) Earlier, Aristarchus measured the angle between the Moon and the Sun when the Moon was in its quarter phase (when half of it is illuminated from the Sun), and used trigonometry to determine that the Sun was about 20 times further away than the Moon, or about 4,740,000 miles. This distance is much lower than its actual value, but was the accepted value until at least the 1400s.
Despite their success with the Moon and the Sun, the distances to the planets were essentially unknown. It was known, for example that Mercury and Venus must be closer than the Sun, since they occasionally passed in front of (or transitted) the Sun. The other known planets, (Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) never transited the Sun, and so they must be farther away. But at the time astronomers didn’t have the necessary tools to measure planetary distances accurately. This was further complicated by the fact that until the 1500s it was generally thought that the Sun, Moon and planets moved around the Earth, which was fixed at the center of the universe. It was not until Copernicus published his heliocentric (sun-centered) view of the universe that astronomers could finally determine the size of our solar system. Continue reading Au explained
Rich people rule!, by Larry Bartels, Commentary, Washington Post:
Everyone thinks they know that money is important in American politics. But how important? .. For decades, most political scientists have sidestepped that question… But now, political scientists are belatedly turning more systematic attention to the political impact of wealth, and their findings should reshape how we think about American democracy. A forthcoming article … by … Martin Gilens and … Benjamin Page marks a notable step in that process. … They conclude that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
“Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But, …” and then they go on to say, it’s not true, and that, “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened” by the findings in this, the first-ever comprehensive scientific study of the subject, which shows that there is instead “the nearly total failure of ‘median voter’ and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories [of America]. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
(via N.Y. Times OpEd by Paul Krugman)
Health Care Nightmares, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times:
When it comes to health reform, Republicans suffer from delusions of disaster. They know, just know, that the Affordable Care Act is doomed to utter failure, so failure is what they see, never mind the facts on the ground. Thus, on Tuesday, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, dismissed the push for pay equity as an attempt to “change the subject from the nightmare of Obamacare”; on the same day, the nonpartisan RAND Corporation released a study estimating “a net gain of 9.3 million in the number of American adults with health insurance coverage…” Some nightmare. And the overall gain … must be considerably larger.
But … Obamacare is looking like anything but a nightmare… It will be months before we have a full picture, but it’s clear that the number of uninsured Americans has already dropped significantly…
Republicans clearly have no idea how to respond… At the state level, however, Republican governors and legislators are still in a position to block the act’s expansion of Medicaid, denying health care to millions of vulnerable Americans. And they have seized that opportunity with gusto: Most Republican-controlled states, totaling half the nation, have rejected Medicaid expansion. …
What’s amazing about this wave of rejection is that it appears to be motivated by pure spite. The federal government is prepared to pay for Medicaid expansion, so it would cost the states nothing, and would, in fact, provide an inflow of dollars. …Jonathan Gruber … recently summed it up: The Medicaid-rejection states “are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars of injections into their economy in order to punish poor people. It really is just almost awesome in its evilness.” Indeed.
And while supposed Obamacare horror stories keep on turning out to be false, it’s already quite easy to find examples of people who died because their states refused to expand Medicaid. According to one recent study, the death toll from Medicaid rejection is likely to run between 7,000 and 17,000 Americans each year.
But nobody expects to see a lot of prominent Republicans declaring that rejecting Medicaid expansion is wrong, that caring for Americans in need is more important than scoring political points against the Obama administration. As I said, there’s an extraordinary ugliness of spirit abroad in today’s America, which health reform has brought out into the open.
And that revelation, not reform itself — which is going pretty well — is the real Obamacare nightmare.
(This article was written by Brian Koberlein and all rights to the article belong to him.)
BY BRIAN KOBERLEIN · 12 APRIL 2014
Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Kornmesser
Earth is the one planet we know of that is well suited for life. Of course this is a sample size of only one, and it’s a biased sample, since we’re it. This means we should take any speculation on the existence of life on other planets with a grain of salt, but there are some things we can at least tentatively speculate on.
One of these is the possibility of liquid water on a planet. Life on Earth can survive in a wide range of environments, but generally needs to have access to water, so it seems like a decent starting requirement for life similar to Earth life. This means at the very least we need to consider the temperature of a planet.
The temperature of a planet depends on several things. Most importantly is the temperature of the star it orbits. Red dwarf stars are smaller and cooler, so planets would need to be closer than Earth to be equally warm. For stars larger and hotter than the Sun, the planets would need to be farther away. But it also depends on things light albedo (how much light a planet reflects back) and warming effects of its atmosphere (Earth would be an ice planet without the warming effects of water and carbon dioxide in its atmosphere). This can vary significantly. A planet could have the right distance from its star, but have an atmosphere that makes it too hot or too cold.
Still, a basic starting point would be to consider our own solar system. Earth is habitable, Venus is far too warm, and Mars is too cold. If we could tweak the atmospheres of Venus and Mars we might be able to make them habitable, so let’s take the average distances of Venus and Mars as the closest and farthest limit for a habitable planet around a star like our Sun. Within that range would then be the “Goldilocks Zone” for planets orbiting the Sun.
For stars hotter or cooler than the sun, this distance would need to be adjusted outward or inward. But this is easily done, and there is a simple for this based on a star’s temperature. From this equation you can define the Circumstellar Habitable Zone or CHZ. Given this equation you can then plot the distances of known extra-solar planets (exoplanets) by distance relative to the CHZ of their star to get an idea of just how many of them might be habitable.
Distribution of known exoplanets zone. Credit: Borucki et. al.
The result can be seen in the figure above. As you can see, most exoplanets are far too close to their star to be habitable. Of more than 1200 exoplanets, only 39 are in the CHZ of their star. Part of this is due to the bias inherent in finding planets. It is easier to detect planets with shorter orbital periods, and such planets are more likely to be too close to their star to be habitable. Still, this graph implies that about 3% of planets might be habitable.
Of course just because a planet is the right distance to be habitable doesn’t mean it will be. It might not have large quantities of water, or there might be other conditions that make it hostile to life, such as an extremely dense atmosphere. Even if the conditions are perfect, life simply might not arise on the planet. On the other hand, this also ignores moons around gas giants. Jupiter lies far outside the habitable zone of our solar system, but its moon Europa does have liquid water. It’s possible that life could arise on the moons of gas planets outside the habitable zone.
Of course this is all based on the assumption that life needs liquid water. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it doesn’t need to be based on carbon. We can speculate, but for now we still only have a sample size of one planet. Based on what we know exo-life certainly seems possible, but for now all we can do is keep looking.
(this article was written by Brian Koberlein and all rights to it are reserved to Mr. Koberlein)
BY BRIAN KOBERLEIN · 12 APRIL 2014
Credit: Reddit user SipTime
Yesterday on Reddit, a user named SipTime posted two images. One of sunrise in Florida, and another of sunset in Japan. The two photos were taken within minutes of each other. Sunrise and sunset at the same time.
Since we live on a small rocky sphere, this happens all the time. While the sun rises on one end of the planet, it sets on the other. Between these two points it is either noon or midnight. As the Earth turns, we move in and out of the shadow of our world. The Sun appears to rise and set as the Earth rotates upon its axis.
Of course we know that both are the same Sun. Since the Sun is about 150 million kilometers away, the light must travel for more than 8 minutes to reach us. All that distance and time, just to reach Earth. If it had traveled in a slightly different direction, it would have missed the Earth entirely. The Earth is only 12,700 kilometers wide, so the light of sunrise and sunset left the Sun in almost the same direction. A difference in direction of only 0.4% of a degree (18 seconds of arc) is enough to separated morning sunlight from evening.
So not only are these the same Sun, they are almost the same light.
We live on a small rock racing through space. And our days are marked by the rising and setting of a star.