Friday, May 15, 2009

When Comets Attack: Solving the Mystery of the Biggest Natural Explosion in Modern History.

Trees felled by the Tunguska blast.

On the morning of June 30, 1908, the sky exploded over a remote region of central Siberia. A fireball as powerful as hundreds of Hiroshima atomic blasts scorched through the upper atmosphere, burning nearly 800 square miles of land. Scientists today think a small fragment of a comet or asteroid caused the "Tunguska event," so named for the Tunguska river nearby. Now, a controversial new scientific study suggests that a chunk of a comet caused the 5-10 megaton fireball, bouncing off the atmosphere and back into orbit around the sun. The scientists have even identified a candidate Tunguska object—now more than 100 million miles away—that will pass close to Earth again in 2045. Is there a hidden, but powerful, danger inside the seemingly harmless comet?

More here.

Tincture of Lawlessness.

Anyone, said T.S. Eliot, could carve a goose, were it not for the bones. And anyone could govern as boldly as his whims decreed, were it not for the skeletal structure that keeps civil society civil -- the rule of law. The Obama administration is bold. It also is careless regarding constitutional values and is acquiring a tincture of lawlessness.

In February, California's Democratic-controlled Legislature, faced with a $42 billion budget deficit, trimmed $74 million (1.4 percent) from one of the state's fastest-growing programs, which provides care for low-income and incapacitated elderly people and which cost the state $5.42 billion last year. The Los Angeles Times reports that "loose oversight and bureaucratic inertia have allowed fraud to fester."

But the Service Employees International Union collects nearly $5 million a month from 223,000 caregivers who are members. And the Obama administration has told California that unless the $74 million in cuts are rescinded, it will deny the state $6.8 billion in stimulus money.

Such a federal ukase (the word derives from czarist Russia; how appropriate) to a state legislature is a sign of the administration's dependency agenda -- maximizing the number of people and institutions dependent on the federal government. For the first time, neither sales nor property nor income taxes are the largest source of money for state and local governments.

The federal government is.

The SEIU says the cuts violate contracts negotiated with counties. California officials say the state required the contracts to contain clauses allowing pay to be reduced if state funding is.

Anyway, the Obama administration, judging by its cavalier disregard of contracts between Chrysler and some of the lenders it sought money from, thinks contracts are written on water. The administration proposes that Chrysler's secured creditors get 28 cents per dollar on the $7 billion owed to them but that the United Auto Workers union get 43 cents per dollar on its $11 billion in claims -- and 55 percent of the company. This, even though the secured creditors' contracts supposedly guaranteed them better standing than the union.

Read the whole thing.

Troy's celebrated solar house left in dark.

Troy -- It was supposed to be a shining example of the green movement -- a completely independent solar-powered house with no gas or electrical hookups.

Seven months ago, officials gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the $900,000 house owned by the city of Troy that was to be used as an educational tool and meeting spot.
But it never opened to the public. And it remains closed.

Frozen pipes during the winter caused $16,000 in damage to floors, and city officials aren't sure when the house at the Troy Community Center will open.

Lemme get this straight. They spent $900,000 on an 800 square foot house! That's supposed to be some kind of model for the future???? To put that number in perspective I found a similar house (actually slightly larger) in the same town for $59,000. Just because something is technically feasible doesn't mean is remotely practical.

The article is here.


PRINCETON, NJ -- A new Gallup Poll, conducted May 7-10, finds 51% of Americans calling themselves "pro-life" on the issue of abortion and 42% "pro-choice." This is the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question in 1995.

The article is here.

I think the change (assuming the poll is correct) is largely attributable to advances in medical technology. With modern imaging, it has become clear to anyone not blinded by ideology that life begins at conception. That doesn't necessarily translate to immediate conversion into a hard core pro-lifer, but it does make abortion more morally suspect.

But I Thought All those Foreigners Were Going to Love Us Once We Elected Obama...

Ordered by Congress to "buy American" when spending money from the $787 billion stimulus package, the town of Peru, Ind., stunned its Canadian supplier by rejecting sewage pumps made outside of Toronto. After a Navy official spotted Canadian pipe fittings in a construction project at Camp Pendleton, Calif., they were hauled out of the ground and replaced with American versions. In recent weeks, other Canadian manufacturers doing business with U.S. state and local governments say they have been besieged with requests to sign affidavits pledging that they will only supply materials made in the USA.

Outrage spread in Canada, with the Toronto Star last week bemoaning "a plague of protectionist measures in the U.S." and Canadian companies openly fretting about having to shift jobs to the United States to meet made-in-the-USA requirements. This week, the Canadians fired back. A number of Ontario towns, with a collective population of nearly 500,000, retaliated with measures effectively barring U.S. companies from their municipal contracts -- the first shot in a larger campaign that could shut U.S. companies out of billions of dollars worth of Canadian projects.

Read the whole thing.

In Defense of Cars.

[L]iberals and SWPLs absolutely hate cars (even though most own one anyway), and they have wet dreams for a carless society. But my contention is that a “walkable” community is either a luxury for the affluent, or a dismal living situation that those too poor to afford a car have to settle for. It’s not something that makes sense for middle class America.

An interesting argument I hadn't really considered before.

One of my Progressive Friends on Facebook...

mentioned that he was concerned that "health care reform" might be derailed by industry pledges to contain costs.

I didn't press him on the issue, but it seems to me he means one of two things:

A) He doesn't believe the folks who say costs can be contained with the current system.

B) He doesn't care about containing costs per se. Rather, he's concerned with universal access.

If he doesn't believe pledges to contain costs, I can't say I blame him. The rise in health care costs in my lifetime (I'm 38) has been staggering. What used to be an afterthought in family budgets has become the second largest expense after housing (in some families it's now #1). That begs the question, "why are prices increasing in excess of inflation?".

As a general matter, inflation is caused by too much money chasing too few goods. Think of frontier mining towns in the 1800's where goods go for prices that would make your jaw drop today. The goods were scarce and money was plentiful. Roughly the same thing has occurred in medicine (and education) over the last 40 years. Supply has been tightly controlled in a number of ways. American medical schools graduate roughly the same number of doctors they did in 1960. In that time the U.S. population has doubled and we've gotten older, demographically speaking. We've managed to keep pace (sort of) by importing every English speaking doctor we can lay our hands on. Nevertheless it's undeniable that medical schools and the AMA which accredits them have operated as a cartel to maintain an artificially high price for health care. At the same time government has poured enormous sums into the health care industry, in part to make it more "affordable". In fact these efforts have had the opposite effect.

There are other culprits of course. Trial lawyers have imposed enormous burdens on those who practice medicine (and those who insure them). That's not to say people with real injuries don't deserve to be be made whole, but too often any undesirable medical outcome is seen as an opportunity for a payday. It needs to stop.

Finally, mandates from government tend to drive costs. When general political considerations trump specific medical judgments, cost containment is bound to be challenging at best. Of three health care programs currently run by the government: Medicare (health care for the elderly), Medicaid (health care for the poor), and the VA system (health care for veterans) none can be thought of models of fiscal probity and cost control. In fact medicare costs are so far out of control that they threaten to bankrupt the country. How then will extending medicare to everyone contain costs? If anything it will just add further strain to a badly malfunctioning system.

The access to argument on the other hand, seems stronger to me. Many Americans are filled with genuine fear of illness and the attendant costs. The prospect of losing one's health insurance when out of a job horrifies people from countries with single payer or government run systems. We are told that 47 million lack health insurance at any given moment, though I'm unclear as to how many of those are foreign nationals. Given that we have roughly 20 million illegal aliens in this country, it seems likely that a substantial portion of the uninsured aren't Americans at all. Of the rest, many are young and healthy and they perceive health insurance as a luxury good. If they show up at an emergency room with a broken wrist, they either pay out of pocket or don't pay at all since they law requires that they be treated in any case. They are in effect, free riders who are betting that they wont get cancer, diabetes, or something else similarly expensive...and for the most part they are right.

The people who really get screwed in the current system are those with long term illnesses. When they change insurers it can be extremely difficult for them to get coverage for their disease. Two decades ago when AIDS was killing a lot of people I knew, many of them told me how difficult it was to change jobs, particularly if they were thinking of working for a small business. The impact of one AIDS patient could make an employers insurance premiums unaffordable. This led to employers being hesitant to hire those with HIV/AIDS, not out of bigotry (though there probably was more than a little of that) but in in effort to be able to afford health care coverage for the rest of their employees.

There are no easy solutions to the problems afflicting health care in the United States. If there were they would have been tried by now and some politician would be gloating about having done it. In some places, usually regulatory, I think government can serve a useful role. But for those who crave government run health care I have this question: what has government ever done cheaper and better than the private sector?