The Age of Vulnerability

Two new studies show, once again, the magnitude of the inequality problem plaguing the United States. The first, the US Census Bureau’s annual income and poverty report, shows that, despite the economy’s supposed recovery from the Great Recession, ordinary Americans’ incomes continue to stagnate. Median household income, adjusted for inflation, remains below its level a quarter-century ago.

It used to be thought that America’s greatest strength was not its military power, but an economic system that was the envy of the world. But why would others seek to emulate an economic model by which a large proportion – even a majority – of the population has seen their income stagnate while incomes at the top have soared?

A second study, the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report 2014, corroborates these findings. Every year, the UNDP publishes a ranking of countries by their Human Development Index (HDI), which incorporates other dimensions of wellbeing besides income, including health and education.

America ranks fifth according to HDI, below Norway, Australia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. But when its score is adjusted for inequality, it drops 23 spots – among the largest such declines for any highly developed country. Indeed, the US falls below Greece and Slovakia, countries that people do not typically regard as role models or as competitors with the US at the top of the league tables…

In the US, upward mobility is more myth than reality, whereas downward mobility and vulnerability is a widely shared experience. This is partly because of America’s health-care system, which still leaves poor Americans in a precarious position, despite President Barack Obama’s reforms.

Those at the bottom are only a short step away from bankruptcy with all that that entails. Illness, divorce, or the loss of a job often is enough to push them over the brink…

American politicians continue to reject the words and work of prize-winning economists like Joe Stiglitz for a couple of reasons. First, he won’t keep quiet about endemic illness in our economy. Inequality of opportunity being among the primetime crimes. Second, he doesn’t mind pointing out who benefits from the lousy politics, sleazy economics of the conservatives who have built this inequality into a new testament of American capitalism. Starting with fossil fuel and energy barons and following the money trail into the pants of Congress.

RTFA for details of the latest Stiglitz essay on a nation with leaders who really don’t care about the lives of ordinary people. Just stay in line and don’t ask too many questions.

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Audi sedan ready for fast laps at German Gran Prix circuit — without a driver

Two years ago, the idea of driverless cars on our roads seemed crazy to many people. Today, the technology is being built into our cars, and a driverless Audi RS7 is set to lap Hockenheim at the same pace as a professional racing driver. The event on October 19 will show just how far driverless cars have come.

Audi has been working on autonomous vehicles for a number of years. In 2009, it tested a driverless Audi TTS on the Bonneville Salt Flats. In 2010 that TTS drove the Pikes Peak mountain race circuit in Colorado, followed by some impressive laps on California’s Thunderhill Raceway in 2012. Back then, the TTS couldn’t quite keep up with the pro drivers, but the RS7 is able to do just that.

Although Audi has received licenses for testing its driverless cars on public roads in Florida and California, the company says that the race track is the most demanding place for testing driverless cars. This, it says, is due to the high levels of precision and entire lack of errors that are required. The RS7 will use “specially corrected GPS signals for orientation on the track” that are accurate to within 1 cm and will receive data via WLAN or high-frequency radio should the need for fallback arise…

The automaker claims that the technologies it is developing for driverless cars will be featuring in vehicles by the end of this decade. These technologies will include cars’ ability to take over steering and acceleration when they’re in a traffic jam and automatic parking maneuvering.

The lap of Audi’s driverless RS7 around Hockenheim will be broadcast on the company’s website on October 19.

Old-timey motorheads like me will be waiting and watching.

A breakthrough in fusion energy


Click to enlargeEric Schulzinger/Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin Corp says…it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade.

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.

Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet, which could fit on the back of a large truck, and is about 10 times smaller than current reactors, McGuire told reporters.

In a statement, the company, the Pentagon’s largest supplier, said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years…

Lockheed sees the project as part of a comprehensive approach to solving global energy and climate change problems.

Compact nuclear fusion would produce far less waste than coal-powered plants since it would use deuterium-tritium fuel, which can generate nearly 10 million times more energy than the same amount of fossil fuels, the company said.

Ultra-dense deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found in the earth’s oceans, and tritium is made from natural lithium deposits.

It said future reactors could use a different fuel and eliminate radioactive waste completely.

McGuire said the company had several patents pending for the work and was looking for partners in academia, industry and among government laboratories to advance the work.

Lockheed said it had shown it could complete a design, build and test it in as little as a year, which should produce an operational reactor in 10 years, McGuire said.

Everything material about this is a positive. The only potential negatives are [1] Luddite fears over any power source that carries the word nuclear somewhere in the patent. It’s why for example no commercial food packaging in the United States uses gamma ray sterilization – even though it would dramatically increase safety from pathogens, reduce costs. And [2] the combination of American military vendors and the construction dollars needed to produce plants with appropriate safeguards will increase potential cost several-fold. The greedy bastards hate to leave well enough alone.

Still, the potential for cheap energy is so great it can overcome American greed. It will put creeps like the Koch Bros out of business yet do comparatively little harm to home-based energy sources like solar panels. Reactors like the smallest one proposed would produce sufficient electricity to power 100,000 homes. It needs a grid.

For the technically-interested, here’s a link to process details.

The Pentagon plans to deal with climate change — even if Congress won’t

In case the Pentagon didn’t make it clear enough that climate change is a real and dangerous thing in its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) earlier this year, perhaps the new Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap (PDF) will drive the point home. Some of the content is roughly the same, but that title sure makes it sound more desperate.

The gist is that the Pentagon’s futurists foresee a world where our changing climate has tremendous real-world effects, and they want to be ready. Lots of people know the climate is changing, but given the Pentagon’s budget, it’s nice to know they are preparing to protect us from things that might actually harm us …In the 2014 CCAR, the Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, writes that the Department of Defense will focus on just those sorts of threats:

A changing climate will have real impacts on our military and the way it executes its missions. The military could be called upon more often to support civil authorities, and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the face of more frequent and more intense natural disasters. Our coastal installations are vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased flooding, while droughts, wildfires, and more extreme temperatures could threaten many of our training activities. Our supply chains could be impacted, and we will need to ensure our critical equipment works under more extreme weather conditions. Weather has always affected military operations, and as the climate changes, the way we execute operations may be altered or constrained.

While scientists are converging toward consensus on future climate projections, uncertainty remains. But this cannot be an excuse for delaying action.

Unless, of course, you’re a numbnut Republican or one of the remaining cowardly lions known as Blue Dog Democrats. No action is preferable to delayed action as far as they are concerned. Not that Hagel is much of an advocate when he prates about scientists “converging” towards consensus. Almost as stupid as saying we’re fairly certain astronomers are nearing the day when they can confirm the Earth ain’t flat. Since they’re afraid of offending folks worrying about falling off the edge.

The plan is laid out in some detail in the 20-page PDF that talks about how recurrent flooding is already affecting the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, “which houses the largest concentration of US military sites in the world” (page 2) and how “climate change will have serious implications for the Department’s ability to maintain both its built and natural infrastructure, and to ensure military readiness in the future” (page 8).

The Pentagon is also aware that it will likely need to conduct more humanitarian missions after natural disasters and it will need to have its weapons work no matter what the weather is like out there. We’ll see if the message is heard this time.

Thanks, Mike, great minds and etc.

Liquid nicotine poisoning among kids explodes as parents take to e-cigarettes


Glamorous – and stupid

Poison control workers say that as the e-cigarette industry has boomed, the number of children exposed to the liquid nicotine that gives hand-held vaporizing gadgets their kick also has spiked.

More than 2,700 people have called poison control this year to report an exposure to liquid nicotine, over half of those cases in children younger than 6, according to national statistics. The number shows a sharp rise from only a few hundred total cases just three years ago.

As stupid and destructive as is cigarette smoking, cigarettes laying around didn’t poison children. Parents who convince themselves they’re not doing something as stupid as smoking cigarettes – not only are lying to themselves, they’re risking their kids.

The battery-powered electronic vaporizers often resemble traditional cigarettes and work by heating liquid nicotine into an inhalable mist. The drug comes in brightly colored refill packages and an array of candy flavors that can make it attractive to young children, heightening the exposure risk and highlighting the need for users to keep it away from youngsters…

Liquid nicotine also stands out because it doesn’t have to be swallowed to be harmful. Skin exposure can be toxic. Officials are calling for child-resistant caps, which many manufacturers have already begun using, but there is no uniform protocol.

The e-cigarette industry doesn’t face the strict government regulations on traditional smokes that aim to keep them away from children, including prohibitions on candy or fruit flavors. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed issuing regulations, but no rules have been drafted.

Face it. E-cigs are generally owned by the same pigs who own the cigarette industry. They own the same flavor of politicians they always owned. A critical portion of the equation defining how long it took to get any legislation and regulation of cigarettes passed. It will be the same with e-cigs – unless we rid Congress of the greedy cowards cluttering up the place.

Pope suggests reforms making Catholic Church more liberal than Republican Party

A panel of high-ranking Catholic officials has proposed a dramatic change in the way the church treats gays and lesbians. The group of Cardinals, known as a synod, suggested the church is capable of “valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine.”

The Cardinals stopped well short of endorsing gay marriage, stating “unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.” But they also acknowledged, in a section called “Welcoming homosexual persons,” there “are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.” The Cardinals also suggest that same-sex couples should never be discriminated against in ways that could impact their children…

The new language is reflective of more inclusive thinking by Pope Francis on homosexuality. Earlier this year, Pope Francis may have hinted at support for civil unions for same-sex couples. Speaking specifically about gay priests last year, Francis said, “Who am I to judge [homosexual priests] if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem… they’re our brothers…”

Several of the world’s Catholic countries — including Argentina and Brazil — have begun to embrace gay marriage.

Unsurprising, the Catholic equivalent of Protestant fundamentalist ideologues have their knickers in a bunch over how this is progressing. As far as they’re concerned, the Church ended The Inquisition way too soon. Meanwhile, the Pope seems to be acting like his names’ source more and more.

Watch this space. Maybe we’ll see priests back in civil rights marches, again – along with the nuns who never left.

Pic of the Day


Click to enlarge
Anonymity for lottery winners is respected in China. But, regulations require winners to show up publicly to claim their winnings. So, a tradition has grown of winners arriving in disguise, in costume.

This week – the largest win in history happened – half a billion yuan/ab’t 80 million US dollars.

The winner chose to be a comic book bear.

Super-centenarian lies about her age because of mediocre Facebook code

Anna Stoehr
Click to enlarge

When silver surfer Anna Stoehr decided to join Facebook on the eve of her 114th birthday, she came across an oversight which Mark Zuckerberg and pals may not have anticipated.

Anna noticed 1900, the year she was born, was not listed as an option when she registered her date of birth to the site – that only stretches as far back as 1905.

So she was forced to do what countless other youngsters do every day to join the site, and lie about her her age…She got around the problem by knocking 15 years off her age and becoming, in the eyes of Facebook at least, a sprightly 99-year-old.

The supercentenarian’s interest in technology was piqued when she befriended Joseph Ramireza, a sales rep who had sold a phone to Anna’s 85-year-old son Harlan.

What followed was an unlikely friendship which saw Joseph visit Anna at her residential home in Minnesota, and teach her about the internet…Now a tech-savvy whizz, Anna can be found whiling her time away FaceTiming friends and family from her new iPad and connecting with friends on the social networking site.

With the help of Joseph, she has also drawn the problem to the attention of Mr Zuckerberg, writing a letter to the Facebook founder (on a typewriter) in which she says: ‘I’m still here.’

Seems like a reasonable goal to me. Facetime rocks! Too bad Facebook hasn’t a clue about age.

Thanks, Mike

The Western media focus on Ebola

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 6.29.11 PM

The Western media circus has lapped up the Ebola epidemic and paraded it around as its newest act. It’s everywhere you look — stories about “necessary” precautions, tales of children and even police cars under quarantine, fear that the disease has spread to other parts of the country. And it all has one singular focus: America and the West.

André Carrilho, an illustrator and cartoonist based in Lisbon whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and New York magazine, chose to play up this disparity in an August illustration, drawn shortly after two white missionaries stricken with Ebola were admitted to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

Thanks, Mike