Cities joining to offer quality, affordable broadband — pissing off today’s FCC!

❝ This is a story that defies two strongly held beliefs. The first—embraced fervently by today’s FCC — is that the private marketplace is delivering world-class internet access infrastructure at low prices to all Americans, particularly in urban areas. The second is that cities are so busy competing that they are incapable of cooperating with one another, particularly when they have little in common save proximity.

❝ These two beliefs aren’t necessarily true. Right now, the 16 very different cities that make up the South Bay region of Southern California have gotten fed up with their internet access situation: They’re paying too much for too little. So they are working together to collectively lower the amounts they pay for city communications by at least a third. It’s the first step along a path that, ultimately, will bring far cheaper internet access services to the 1.1 million people who live in the region.

Maybe cities can cooperate and save money without compromising their local autonomy. At this same moment, though, the FCC is on a march to smother local authority by blocking states from regulating any aspect of broadband service, supporting states that have raised barriers to municipal networks, deregulating pricing for lines running between cities, and removing local control over rights-of-way that could be used to bring cheaper access into town…the FCC would like to bar other regions from acting in just this kind of sensible way.

The FCC has never been allowed much freedom to aid advocates of modern tech. Overlap of interests doesn’t signify choice. With a reactionary creep in the White House, options narrowed a lot more. Just another good reason to fight hard enough to elect alternatives that are competent technically, moderate or better, politically…and keep on trying for better.

Breakthrough in cost and efficiency in “artificial leaf” technology


Only symbolism, folks – but, you get the idea 🙂

New research out of Melbourne has broken records and brought emission-less hydrogen energy a step closer to commercial production. Thom Mitchell reports.

Researchers at Monash University have published a breakthrough paper detailing their success in creating hydrogen and oxygen from water and sunlight in a process which artificially mimics photosynthesis, the source of most of the world’s energy, including the fossil fuels that currently dominate energy markets.

The research represents a new level of efficiency in this so-called ‘artificial leaf’ technology which scientists say could become commercially viable within a few years because researchers have managed to produce a record-high level of hydrogen using nickel as a type of conductor, rather than more expensive precious metals.

“The reason this technology has not been at the forefront [of the discussion around renewable energy] is that it’s not that efficient,” said Professor Douglas MacFarlane, one of the researchers behind the paper…“There are better catalysts and materials that people have been working on for probably 10 or 15 years, but what we’ve done is show that you can actually do this with cheaper materials that are [still, and in this case particularly, efficient ].”

The process the researchers followed involves taking water, sunlight, and some conventional wiring, and using them to produce oxygen and the hydrogen that can then be converted into a range of fuels, including electricity, and stored with relative ease…

“The idea of making a fuel directly from sunlight is rapidly becoming practical at a household and petrol station level, and even at the solar farm level.”…

‘Artificial leaf’ devices are considered to be effective if 10 per cent of the solar energy captured is converted into hydrogen and earlier efforts had resulted in a conversion rate of around 18 per cent.

However they required more expensive and rarer metals for use as catalysts, whereas the Monash researchers were able to achieve a conversion rate of solar energy to hydrogen of around 22 per cent using nickel instead.

And hydrogen is a simple clean-burning gas. Storable, usable in fuel cells, a replacement for fossil fuels and absent the storage questions required of direct conversion of solar energy to electricity.

The kind of Green Science bound to piss off fossil fuel-reactionaries like the Koch Brothers even more than the EPA or James Hansen do.

Thanks, Honeyman

Health care is getting more affordable — see that on the local news, yet?

Every two years, the Commonwealth Fund surveys Americans on how difficult it is to afford medical care. The 2014 survey showed something new: for the first time in a decade, the number of Americans who say they can afford the health care they need went up.

The Commonwealth Fund fielded the survey during the second half of 2014, meaning they captured the people who signed up for Obamacare during the open enrollment period earlier in the year. And it showed, for the first time in the survey’s 10-year history, a decline in the number of Americans who reported having difficulty paying medical bills or who carried medical debt.

The Commonwealth Fund also looked at Americans who said they put off care because it was too expensive. And there, too, they saw a decline: 36 percent of Americans reported delaying care because of the price, an all-time low in the survey’s history.

This also coincided with an increase in the number of Americans who reported having health insurance, a finding that lines up with other national surveys on coverage.

In a way, it seems obvious that more people with health insurance would mean more Americans able to afford care. But that notion hasn’t always been taken for granted with Obamacare. Some of the plans sold on the new marketplaces have had especially narrow networks that limit coverage to a smaller set of doctors. These plans have also had particularly high deductibles, often over $2,000.

So it hasn’t been totally clear whether these plans would make it easier for Americans to afford coverage: would enrollees with a $2,000 deductible, for example, still find it too expensive to go to the doctor?

The Commonwealth Fund survey suggests that the answer is no: that the plans sold on the marketplace are making it easier for the people who buy them to see the doctor — which is one of the main points of having health insurance to begin with.

Makes sense to me. My Medicare Advantage has gone up a very small percentage; but, I’m entering the second year with a new provider – and all the insurance companies seem to play the same game of lowballing the first year.

The few other folks and family members I chatted with on the topic – admittedly a short sample – all agree with the article.

The Medicare “miracle” arrives as expected, on time

So, what do you think about those Medicare numbers? What, you haven’t heard about them? Well, they haven’t been front-page news. But something remarkable has been happening on the health-spending front, and it should (but probably won’t) transform a lot of our political debate…

…A funny thing has happened: Health spending has slowed sharply, and it’s already well below projections made just a few years ago. The falloff has been especially pronounced in Medicare, which is spending $1,000 less per beneficiary than the Congressional Budget Office projected just four years ago…

First, our supposed fiscal crisis has been postponed, perhaps indefinitely. The federal government is still running deficits, but they’re way down. True, the red ink is still likely to swell again in a few years, if only because more baby boomers will retire and start collecting benefits; but, these days, projections of federal debt as a percentage of G.D.P. show it creeping up rather than soaring. We’ll probably have to raise more revenue eventually, but the long-term fiscal gap now looks much more manageable than the deficit scolds would have you believe.

Second, the slowdown in Medicare helps refute one common explanation of the health-cost slowdown: that it’s mainly the product of a depressed economy, and that spending will surge again once the economy recovers. That could explain low private spending, but Medicare is a government program, and shouldn’t be affected by the recession. In other words, the good news on health costs is for real…

But what accounts for this good news? The third big implication of the Medicare cost miracle is that everything the usual suspects have been saying about fiscal responsibility is wrong…

It turns out, however, that raising the Medicare age would hardly save any money. Meanwhile, Medicare is spending much less than expected, and those Obamacare cost-saving measures are at least part of the story. The conventional wisdom on what is and isn’t serious is completely wrong…

What’s the moral here? For years, pundits and politicians have insisted that guaranteed health care is an impossible dream, even though every other advanced country has it. Covering the uninsured was supposed to be unaffordable; Medicare as we know it was supposed to be unsustainable. But it turns out that incremental steps to improve incentives and reduce costs can achieve a lot, and covering the uninsured isn’t hard at all.

RTFA, wander through some of the details.

Please, understand that this nation is also capable of implementing the single-payer system that every sensible nation already has in place. Just like the sudden “solution” to a percentage of school loan debt – you don’t need a middleman to process the paperwork. Funneling compensation through insurance companies is like funneling government loans through banks. You only add a additional layer of profit on top of what’s necessary – to reward corporations for adding nothing of value.

Netherlands #1 for plentiful, nutritious, healthy and affordable food

The Netherlands is No. 1 in the world for having the most plentiful, nutritious, healthy and affordable diet, beating France and Switzerland into second place. Chad is last in 125th spot behind Ethiopia and Angola, according to a new food database by worldwide development organization Oxfam.

European countries occupy the entire top 20 bar one – Australia ties in 8th place – while the US, Japan, New Zealand, Brazil and Canada all fall outside. African countries occupy the bottom 30 places in the table except for four – Laos, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India are there too.

Oxfam’s “Good Enough to Eat” index [.pdf] compares 125 countries where full data is available to create a snapshot of the different challenges people face in getting food. Oxfam’s GROW campaign is calling for urgent reform to the way food is produced and distributed around the world to end the scandal of one in eight people going hungry despite there being enough to feed everyone. The new index looks at whether people have enough to eat, food quality, affordability, and dietary health…

The countries whose citizens struggle for enough food, with the worst rates of malnourishment and underweight children, are Burundi, Yemen, Madagascar and India. On the other side of the table, Cambodia and Burundi are countries that score better by having among the lowest levels of obesity and diabetes in the world, while US, Mexico, Fiji, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia score most poorly with high rates of obesity and diabetes.

Iceland scores a perfect mark for the quality of its food, in terms of nutritional diversity and safe water. Iceland’s obesity and diabetes levels push it down the table, to 13th spot. Similarly, unhealthy eating pushes the US down to 21st place.

Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said: “This index lays bare the common concerns that people have with food regardless of where they come from. It reveals how the world is failing to ensure that everyone is able to eat healthily, despite there being enough to go around.”

“Poverty and inequality are the real drivers of hunger. Hunger happens where governance is poor, distribution weak, when markets fail, and when people don’t have enough money and resources to buy all the goods and services they need,” she said. “Having sufficient healthy and affordable food is not something that much of the world enjoys.”

RTFA for a snapshot of the report and a modicum of detail. Go on to the .pdf report in depth on 125 countries.

The first thing that jumps out at me is the unity between a sound diet and exercise. The pairing that makes extra sense for health in the Netherlands – and probably the opposite for Iceland in my meager experience. A lot of exercise in Iceland is the same as Scotland, e.g. elbow-bending.

Fact remains, this sort of knowledge helps any of us at the individual level. You won’t be doing yourself any harm by comparing your own lifestyle with the models appropriate to the nations doing well. Especially if you fit the failed model of nations like the US.

iPotty…now with added iPad [sold separately]

One of the more bizarre products on show at CES, the base of the iPotty looks like a traditional potty with a removable bowl, seat and a pee-guard for the boys. But at the front it all gets a little weird, because there’s a stand designed specifically to hold an iPad.

The iPotty has been designed to help children learn to use the potty by keeping them entertained when nature calls. The idea is that they won’t mind sitting there for longer if they’re watching a favorite cartoon or playing Angry Birds. And we’ve seen enough iPad toy add-ons – from the Mattel Apptivity Play to the iTikes range – to know kids love playing with an iPad…

Currently, there are no specific apps for the iPotty…There are plenty of potty training apps in the Apple App store though, and obviously there’s no shortage of other apps which could be used to distract/entertain children while they sit on the potty.

Maker CTA Digital says there’s also a seat cover which means the iPotty can be used as a traditional seat when your little one is not peeing or pooping. The iPad stand can also be removed completely … which could come in handy if you’ve got guests coming round and you don’t want them to know you’re the sort of parents who would buy an iPad potty.

I believe you will be exempt from patent lawsuits by Samsung.

Real class warfare attacks the poor and fat

Over the past year we’ve heard a lot about class warfare, the “Buffett Rule” and the tax code and so on. But if you want to see a blatant form of poor vs. rich, walk into a grocery store. Here we are forced to decide between what’s good for our kids and what we can afford to feed them.

Ground beef that is 80/20 is fattier but cheaper than 90/10. Ground turkey breast is leaner than the other two but is usually the more expensive. And many of us can’t even begin to think about free-range chicken and organic produce — food without pesticides and antibiotics that’ll cost you a second mortgage in no time at all.

Recently Michelle Obama’s campaign to get healthier foods into poor neighborhoods came under new scrutiny because two studies found her notion of “food deserts” — poor urban neighborhoods where access to fresh fruits and vegetables are supposedly nonexistent — doesn’t quite jibe with the research. The studies have even found that there isn’t a relationship between the type of food offered in neighborhoods and obesity among the children living there…

But it is also true that The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recently published a study that found $1 could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips but just 250 calories of vegetables and 170 calories of fresh fruit. And it is also true that Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, is also the fattest.

In fact, the five poorest states are also among the 10 fattest, and eight of the 10 poorest states are also among the 10 with the lowest life expectancy.

I guess one could dismiss this as one big coincidence, but is it also a coincidence that half of the top 10 states with the highest median incomes are also in the top 10 in life expectancy?

I don’t know about “food deserts,” but I do know just as there is a link between education and poverty, there appears to be a correlation between poverty and health…

The first lady was accused by Republicans of politicizing the healthy food conversation. I wish the topic were politicized — maybe then Washington would talk about it more.

President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act was characterized by many as “socialized medicine.” Well, why aren’t those same critics leading the charge against the nation’s expanding waistline, seeing as how taxpayers pay the price when the cost comes due?

The explosive increase in the rate of Type 2 diabetes in children coincides with the rise of child obesity, childhood poverty. American conservatives couldn’t care less. Republicans don’t say it on camera; but, I don’t doubt in the least they feel better about poor people dying young instead of worrying over the cost of care as they die off.

Yes, that’s the sort of comment that gets TV talking heads and useless mainstream politicians all publicly upset. They forget about it when the next reality star wanders down the yellow brick road. Meanwhile, poor kids eat what their parents can afford to feed them. They’re chained to lousy nutrition, lousy habits are built for life – Class Warfare prevails.

IBM is developing an air battery for 500-mile range electric cars

One nagging issue with electric vehicles is range. While today’s lithium-ion batteries are much better than yesterday’s nickel-metal hydride batteries, they still don’t offer enough energy storage to take an EV much further than 100 miles without a lengthy recharge. Even if the Li-ion batteries were up to the challenge, there is still the awkward problem of where to pack 1,000 pounds (or more) of bulky storage cells into a vehicle’s chassis.

IBM thinks it has a solution with a promising new lithium-air battery. According to the technology giant, a typical Li-air battery cell has a theoretical energy density more than 1,000 times greater than today’s industry-standard Li-ion battery cell. Even better, Li-air batteries are one-fifth the size and they offer a lifespan at least five times as long.

So, what has been holding IBM back? It appears that there was a problem with the the original Li-air automotive application, as frequent recharging cycles compromised battery life. However, the engineers have recently found alternative electrolyte compounds that look very promising. The team’s goal is to have a full-scale prototype ready by 2013, with commercial batteries on sale by the end of the decade.

Bravo! I’m afraid we’ll have to replace my wife’s decades-old Volvo before an affordable EV is actually available on the car lots of New Mexico. But – I keep watch on projects like this, anyway. Maybe, we’ll get the opportunity to buy one, yet.

Black Friday sales show the class divide between shoppers


Neiman Marcus sold out 10 Ferraris at $395,000 each under an hour of making them available

As the busiest retail weekend of the year begins late Thursday night, the differences between how affluent and more ordinary Americans shop in the uncertain economy will be on unusually vivid display.

Toys “R” Us, Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Best Buy and Target will start their Black Friday sales earlier than ever — at 9 and 10 p.m. in some instances — with dirt-cheap offers intended to secure their customers’ limited dollars. A half a day later, on Friday morning, higher-end stores like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom will open with only a sprinkling of special sales.

The low-end and midrange retailers are risking low margins as they cut prices to attract shoppers, while executives at luxury stores say that they are actually able to sell more at full price than in recent boom years.

“We’re now into a less promotional environment than we were before the recession,“ said Stephen I. Sadove, chairman and chief executive of Saks. In the third quarter, for instance, Saks reduced the length of an annual sale to three days from four, and excluded the high-margin category of cosmetics from another regular sale.

Retail analysts are expecting a decent holiday season, with many estimating that sales will increase about 3 percent over last year, with contributions from shoppers across income levels. Yet the Friday after Thanksgiving, the kickoff to the highest-revenue weeks for stores, is expected to lay bare the increasingly parallel universes of retailing in America, the analysts said.

“Those in a more modest income situation are the people who are going to the Wal-Marts and the Best Buys and the Targets at 8, 9, 10, 11 p.m. with little kids in tow because they can’t afford a baby sitter,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultant firm. “It’s a very unpleasant shopping experience, frankly, for a lot of people.”

Meanwhile, many affluent shoppers will avoid the scene altogether, he said. “The women who are shopping the fourth floor at Saks are not Black Friday shoppers,” he said…

“If you talk to people who are in my business, people who analyze our business, they would consistently tell you that stores at the mall, especially anchor stores, are more promotional than they were last year,” he said. “Now that may not be true at the high end — the strength of the business or the higher-end consumer has allowed them to do a little less promotion — but that’s high end.”

At Saks Fifth Avenue and other luxury stores, full-price selling has generally been increasing. So the few deals at luxury stores on Friday are not so much bargains as token nods to the Black Friday tradition. Saks is offering half off cashmere sweaters, Neiman Marcus is giving discounts on a future shopping trip when people spend more than $100, while Nordstrom says it does not have big promotions planned.

High-end retailers “don’t have to do anything desperate — it’s kind of hard to see a 5 a.m. queue outside of a Fifth Avenue luxury retailer,” said Chris Donnelly, a senior executive in Accenture’s retail practice. “If you don’t have to put it on sale and people are still going to buy it, why put it on sale?”

Since I’m a news junkie who actually prefers to watch news instead of consuming what some media hack considers entertainment – I get a lot of my TV news coverage from business channels like Bloomberg TV. Folks in business, concerned with markets and investing, haven’t any inclination to watch crap. There’s a lot more news on hand in a half-hour of Bloomberg TV than you might bump into on CNN or one of the truly cruddy network news programs in an hour or two.

Consequently, I absorb a lot of business and sales analysis – by osmosis, I guess.

Some of the soundest economists I’ve watched feel the growth in sales for this holiday season will surpass 6%. More than anything suggested in this article. The question is how much of that is the bump at the upper end from the folks with serious increases in their disposable income – over the same period that’s seen a continuation of the decline in real income for the American middle class that started to nosedive with the Bush/Cheney election?