Thursday, May 12, 2005


Mini-Enrons: real estate that isn't real

There is a property price bubble in the U.S.. Canada might be in one as well but Canada has a powerful engine driving new home constrution that the U.S. does not have: marijuana grow-ops. Standard practise for grow-ops is to buy a house, use it for two to three years, and then abandon it. After being used as a grow-op for that length of time, the heat and humidity will force the house to be condemned. Given that there are 50,000-100,000 grow-ops in Canada of which circa 10,000 will need new houses every year. Hence Canada has an economic engine eating houses, and a side-effect of legalizing canabis would be a fall in new home construction.

All of this ignores the topic of the article which is the problem of fraudulent appraisals in the real estate industry, whcih, if it is a systemic problem in the industry, has the portential to have large knock on effects on the larger economy. Secondly, it could be a sign that the housing bubble is about to burst. The dot-com frauds happened as that bubble started to burst. In both cases, the market began to expect profits that were not happening, to meet those expectations people began to use fraudulent methods. The rest, as they say, is history.


Real-estate appraiser Karen Long isn't very busy, and she thinks she knows why. Her unwillingness to fudge figures has given her a reputation. She suspects her honesty keeps away clients who don't want surprises.

"If you're not going to meet [their anticipated] value, they just walk away and find another appraisal," says Ms. Long of State Center, Iowa. "It goes on all the time."

No one knows exactly how often appraisers tinker with reality. But reports suggest that they face enormous pressure to tweak their numbers. Some observers predict they'll face even more if the real estate market cools.

"I don't think that anyone can assume that the appraised value of their home is based on reality. Appraisal fraud is so common that homeowners need to assume the opposite," says research director David Callahan of Demos, a public policy center. Demos released a report about appraisal fraud in March, sparking intense discussion in the real estate press.

Homebuyers and sellers may barely give a second thought to appraisers. After all, appraisers are typically hired by mortgage brokers or lenders, and their reports often come out during the final loan-approval process, after both sides have settled on a price. And while buyers pay for appraisals, the typical fees - several hundred dollars - pale in comparison with all the other costs.

But a too-high or too-low appraisal can spell big trouble for buyers and lenders. Imagine, for example, that an appraiser artificially boosts the value of a $200,000 home to $230,000. The purchaser - or someone who's refinancing her home - "may decide to tap this artificial equity, and it's not really there," says Alan Hummel, an appraiser in Des Moines, Iowa, and former president of the Appraisal Institute. "When they turn around and try to sell the property, they're upside down. They can't sell it for what they owe against it."

The lender, often a bank, may find itself on the hook too: If it needs to foreclose on a default loan, it might not get the amount it lent out.

In a 2003 survey of 500 appraisers by a private firm, 55 percent of appraisers said they'd felt pressure to overstate values, according to the Demos report. The National Association of Realtors has warned the United States Senate about the prevalence of appraisal fraud, and thousands of appraisers have signed an online petition calling for reform.

Who's putting the pressure on appraisers? Appraisers blame mortgage brokers and lenders who are paid by commission. For them, just as for real estate agents, more expensive homes translate into more money.

"There are a certain number of mortgage brokers who will try to push appraisers on every single deal," says P. David Rij, an appraiser in San Diego. "They always want more than what the property is worth."

If home sales hit the skids, perhaps due to higher interest rates, some specialists expect appraisers to encounter more pressure, possibly leading to more fraud. "It's possible it will get worse," says Mr. Hummel.

Members of Congress have pushed for appraisal reform, but they've been unsuccessful. "There's been an absence of strong federal action to reduce appraisal fraud, even though there's a consensus among professionals in the field that this is a major problem," says Mr. Callahan of the Demos center. He isn't sure what changes will work. But a good start, he says, might be to create a "firewall" between brokers and appraisers to prevent conflicts of interest and undue influence. Perhaps, he says, appraisers could be assigned randomly.

For now, real-estate specialists say there are several ways to avoid appraisal fraud:

• Hire your own appraiser, especially if you're refinancing and don't want to borrow more than the home is worth. Don't let the cost deter you, says Hummel. "We're talking $500 to know what risk you have in this investment."

• Make sure your appraiser is state-certified, and look for membership in a professional appraiser organization, Hummel says. Special membership designations, like "senior residential appraiser," are a good sign too.

• Ask for references. "I would ask if they have banks or credit unions they're working for," Hummel says. "They'll typically hire the competent appraisers."

• Be wary of out-of-area appraisers who aren't familiar with your neighborhood. Go online and figure out the sale prices of homes nearby.

"I'd say most [appraisers] are trying to do the right thing," says Charles Drecksler, a Marietta, Ga., appraiser. "But you have those who are skirting the issue." (Link)

So what does the U.S. do when it is discovered that a terrorist targeting its enemies is on its soil? This is not a hypothetical situation. Luis Posada Carriles has been tied to a number of terrorist attacks in Cuba and Venezula. Unfortunately, America does not like the leadership in either country very much these days, for which reason they really don't want to turn Posada over to either country since that would be a diplomatic coup for either country. Though giving Chavez a coup means much less than giving Castro a coup. Personally, if I was in their boat, I'd bite my tongue and send him to Venezula.


US President George W. Bush has said on more than one occasion during the war on terrorism that "those who harbor terrorists are
as guilty as the terrorists themselves." ABCNews reports that this statement will be put to the test by a case involving Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban who sneaked into the US recently seeking political asylum.

The New York Times reported Monday that the Cuban government accuses Mr. Posada of being involved with the bombing of a Cuban passenger jet in 1976. Posada has also admitted to "plotting attacks that damaged tourist spots in Havana and killed an Italian visitor there in 1997," and he is also wanted in Venezuela on terrorism charges.

Thirty years ago [ reports] a Cuban plane was blown out of the sky off Barbados. All 73 passengers and crew members aboard Cubana Airlines Flight 455 — including Cuba's youthful fencing team — died. The terrorist attack shook Cuba as deeply as 9/11 did the United States. The Cubans have never forgotten or forgiven those they hold responsible, including Posada.
But as ABCNews also points out, the case is complicated by Posada's ties to political figures in the US, including his "pre-9/11 ties to Washington" and his allies in Florida's "powerful Cuban-American" community.

The privately run, George Washington University based National Security Archives details Posada's extensive career as a CIA- and FBI-trained operative. The Archives reports that Posada had been imprisoned in Venezuela for the '76 bombing, but escaped in '85, when he went to El Salvador "where he worked, using the alias 'Ramon Medina,' on the illegal contra resupply program being run by Lt. Col. Oliver North in the Reagan National Security Council."

The Archives also reports that although Posada has been in the US for at least six weeks, the FBI has "has indicated it is not actively searching for him." Posada's lawyer continues to say his client denies all involvement with the bombing.

The Miami Herald reports that the National Security Archives' publishing of the CIA documents makes Posada's request for asylum "much more difficult." But it also points out that at least one of the informants who place Posada at the meetings planning the '76 bombing, at another time said he wasn't involved.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Posada's appearance in the US could "could create tension between the politics of the global war on terrorism and the ghosts of the cold war on communism." It has also put the Bush administration in a difficult position.

If Mr. Posada has indeed illegally entered the United States, the Bush administration has three choices: granting him asylum; jailing him for illegal entry; or granting Venezuela's request for extradition.

A grant of asylum could invite charges that the Bush administration is compromising its principle that no nation should harbor suspected terrorists. But to turn Mr. Posada away could provoke political wrath in the conservative Cuban-American communities of South Florida, deep sources of support and campaign money for President Bush and his brother Jeb, the state's governor.

Perhaps even harder for the Bush administration to stomach, reports the Guardian, is that by handing Posada back to Venezuela to be tried for terrorism, it would be handing "a resounding victory" to two of the leaders in Latin and South American it despises the most: Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Cuba's Fidel Castro.

For his part, President Castro has already said he plans to make Posada's presence in the US a major political issue. The Associated Press reports that President Castro gave a four-hour TV appearance Wednesday going over the documents that proved Posada's connection to the CIA. He also highlighted Posada's connection to Oscar Bosch, a man labelled a terrorist in some US documents that also link him to the '76 bombing.

Bosch was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, and denies involvement in the bombing, although on several occasions he has said it was a "legitimate target in the war on Castro."

An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle argues that the US "should deport Posada immediately," and that not doing so "undercuts worldwide respect and support for the war on terrorism, a worthy cause that shouldn't be misused by the likes of Posada."

The official blindness [to Posada's presence in the US] can be blamed on upside-down political priorities. Washington is paralyzed when it comes to offending the Cuban population in Florida, even in a case as overboard as this one. Posada's career as an anti-Castro militant, dating back to the American-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, makes him an icon to some. But there can't be safe harbor for an alleged mass killer linked to the jet bombing, as well as to other violent acts and bomb plots.

The New York Times also argues that Posada not be allowed to remain in the US, but says the US government needs to explore other options than sending him back to Cuba or Venezuela, such as sending him to a European country willing to try him, or to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

How to deal with Posada had already provoked much argument in the Miami area. The Miami Herald reports that the debate is fierce on both sides. (Link)


Saying one thing and meaning another: the dollar and the yuan

So the Bush aministration want to devalue the dollar. This explains why they have been willing to let the dollar sink against the euro and the yen. I am not entirely sure why they are doing this. It could be a protectionist measure to boost American jobs and closse their trade deficit, but that doesn't sound like the Bushites. The American economy is driving by consumer consumption and a lower dollar hurt consumption because he price of everything, especially oil, goes up. The American economy is not export-driven so a devaluation does not make immediate sense to me. I can see a lot of arguements against one.

Either they are stupid or I am missing something, and both are valid options.


Pressure from the Bush administration and the US Congress on Beijing to float the exchange rate of the yuan is increasing. But there is no economic justification for changing China's fixed-exchange rate regime. Rather than yuan revaluation, US demands for exchange rate adjustment in China should be seen for what they are: Washington's explicit support for dollar devaluation.

According to officials in the Bush administration and in the US Congress, the intensification of pressure on China is primarily a response to complaints by US manufacturers. These manufacturers allege that China's exchange rate puts them at an unfair competitive disadvantage. Considering that wages in China are about one-tenth the level of wages in the US, a revaluation of the yuan by 25% - the eventual targeted exchange rate adjustment Washington seeks - would do little to improve the competitiveness of US manufacturers vis-a-vis manufacturers in China.

In addition, because China's exports have a large import component, the revaluation of the yuan would reduce input prices for China's exports, diminishing the impact of revaluation on export prices. Like the issue of competitiveness, the associated issue of China's growing trade surplus with the US is irrelevant to the exchange rate of the yuan.

Since the devaluation of the yuan in 1994, the average annual rate of growth of US exports to China has been 14%. Over the same period, the average annual rate of growth of US imports from China has been 18%. The long-term comparability in US-China export and import growth rates strongly suggests that China's exchange rate is neither under- nor over-valued relative to the dollar. Rather, the large and growing US trade deficit with China reflects the different nature of the two countries' economies.

The consumption- and profit-driven US economy naturally seeks the cheapest source for consumer goods. Thanks to heavy US investment over the past 15 years, China is the cheapest source for these consumer goods. Rather than consumption-based, China's economy is driven by investment and export production. As a result, China does not have outsized demand for consumer goods.

Unless the Chinese suddenly drop their strong bias toward savings, a consumption boom in China is extremely unlikely. Along the same vein, unless private consumption collapses in the US and Wal-Mart goes bankrupt, reversal of the US trade deficit with China will not materialize regardless of a 25% revaluation of the yuan against the dollar. Rather than focusing on the spurious issues of competitiveness and deficits, Washington should ponder the impact of a dollar devaluation on inflation in the US.

Though referred to by the Bush administration as yuan revaluation, what Washington is begging Beijing for is dollar devaluation. Like the 1985 Plaza Accord, Washington is again asking one of its largest trade partners to allow the dollar to depreciate. However, instead of Japan, as was the case in 1985, the US is pushing China to allow the dollar to depreciate against the yuan. The Plaza Accord led to the eventual devaluation of the dollar by about 50% against other major currencies. There is strong reason to believe that what begins as dollar depreciation against the yuan will eventually become another Plaza-style dollar devaluation.

China's foreign exchange reserves, the second-largest in the world after Japan, are expected to reach nearly $750 billion by the end of 2005. These reserves are overwhelmingly invested in US treasury notes. Presumably, Beijing would be loath to take a large capital loss on its investment in these notes in the event of an exchange rate adjustment in China.

Because an exchange-rate adjustment would result from a policy change in Beijing, it is likely that any adjustment would be preceded by the rebalancing of China's foreign exchange reserves, and related investments, out of the US dollar into other currencies. This rebalancing could trigger the devaluation of the dollar against the euro and the yen, currencies which the People's Bank of China would be selling its dollar reserves for.

The rebalancing of reserves by the People's Bank of China could inspire similar reserve rebalancing among other central banks in Asia and the rest of the world, all of which have substantial holdings of US dollars and US treasury notes. By begging Beijing for a dollar devaluation, Washington is inadvertently laying the groundwork for a much larger devaluation of the dollar, higher inflation, higher interest rates, and slower economic growth in the US. (Link)


A South-South alliance forming?

I was just about to call it a day, and send out my update email when I remember that I had not checked one of my regular news sources. When I did I found this article concerning an attempt to build a South American-Arab axis. Another name for such a coalition would be the "Axis of Oil" since the proven oil reserves betwen these two regions is big, very big.

Moreover, it continues the trend of South America breaking free of the American hegemony that it has existed under since the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 when the U.S. declared that the Americas where off limits to all other powers. In practice the Americas have been the U.S.'s "near abroad" for almost 200 years. But now China has been making deals in the region. Getting economic control of the ports at both ends of the Panama Canal was a major coup. One that the Texas Republican party is willing to go to war to change.

Interesting time my friends.


There could hardly be a more graphic instance of an emerging new world order than Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the premiers of both Syria and Lebanon all flying for a get-together in Brasilia in Brazil, designed from scratch in the 1950s by modernist icon Oscar Niemeyer as the futuristic capital of the new world.

They were among the heads of state and ministers from 33 South American and Arab League states gathered in the Brazilian capital for the first-ever Arab-South American summit. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim has described the summit as an "alliance of civilizations" - a reference to 150 years of Syrian-Lebanese immigration to South America. More than 10 million people of Arab descent live in South America, most of them in Brazil, which holds the largest Arab diaspora in the world.

The "Declaration of Brasilia" to be endorsed this Wednesday calls for close political and economic ties between South America and the Arab world; demands that Israel disband its settlements in the West Bank, including "those in East Jerusalem", and retreat to its borders before 1967; criticizes US "unilateral economic sanctions against Syria", which violates principles of international law; and forcefully condemns terrorism. Israel is also implicitly criticized for holding an undeclared nuclear arsenal. The declaration also calls for a global conference to define the meaning of terrorism, and defends peoples' rights to "resist foreign occupation in accordance with the principle of international legality and in compliance with international humanitarian law".

It's unlikely that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will lose any sleep over what happened in Brasilia - despite all the inevitable hardline Israeli-American rumblings. Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa said, "It's their [Israel's] problem if they are concerned. If they don't want to be concerned anymore, they should change their policy in the occupied territories."

Washington was so concerned about the summit turning into a forum against President George W Bush's Greater Middle East and against Israel that it pressured the pliable, dependent leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Morocco not to attend. As much as Brazil counts on Arab support in its pledge for a permanent United Nations Security Council seat, the Arab League counts on South America to support an Egyptian bid.

South America is avidly cultivating much stronger ties with China, Russia and the Arab world - and there's little Washington can do about it. The US officially requested to be an observer at the summit. The Brazilians politely declined: "It's a public meeting, you can watch it on TV."

Not surprisingly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Abbas were welcomed in Brasilia as heroes. Brazilian President Luis Ignacio "Lula" da Silva diplomatically praised the Palestinians for their "patience" during the Middle East peace process. Al-Jazeera went live with the opening remarks by the co-hosts, Lula and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, also the current president of the Arab League. Lula insisted once again that "poor countries [must] receive the benefits of globalization". The Algerians are excitedly talking about "a coalition on cultural, political and economic terms". Al-Sharq al-Awsat, a leading Arab paper, stressed how the summit could influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The London Arabic-language daily al-Hayat published a half-page photo of Talabani arriving in Brasilia.

South-South cooperation
The key point of all this is economic. Bilateral trade between South America and the Arab world stands only at US$10 billion a year, but growth possibilities are endless. The main success of the summit is the PetroSul agreement, which creates a continental oil major composed by Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela.

Arabs are delighted to find good products and competitive prices in South America and a business climate much more relaxed than in Europe, and especially post-September 11 US. For instance, Brazil will export even more sugar, beef and chicken to the Middle East. According to the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, exports may double within five years.

According to Georgetown University's Tarik Youssef, "From the Arabs' perspective, Latin America is probably the best case to benchmark the pace of progress in the Arab world," meaning in both the political and economic spheres. Arabs may learn one or two practical things in South America in terms of privatization and fiscal and political reforms. Brazil is forcefully engaged in a campaign for the elimination of rich countries' agricultural subsidies - a popular theme also in the Arab world. The summit is the first step toward a future free trade agreement between the Mercosur and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

No wonder Washington hawks are uneasy. There's an emerging geopolitical axis on the map - Arab-South American. It's non-aligned. And it's swimming in oil. Between them, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Egypt, Qatar, Libya, Oman, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil pump about 27.2 million barrels of oil a day, about 32.5% of global production.

One of the key reasons for Talabani's presence at the summit is that Brazil will inevitably be back to oil-field development in Iraq. Brazil had very close commercial relations - in the oil service industry and in the military sector - with Iraq during Saddam Hussein's time. Brazilian technical expertise helped in the discovery of some of the largest Iraqi oilfields. Both Venezuela and Brazil hope to win plenty of service contracts in the Arab world. Venezuela, instead of just supplying about 13% of the daily US oil consumption, is avidly diversifying - striking new deals with Spain and China. The last thing Hugo Chavez wants is to be dependent on the US market.

The writing on the (global) wall is now inevitable: region-to-region economic deals, more exports, and increased distancing from the weak dollar. In this renewed South-South cooperation, trade and commerce prevail over invasion and regime change; respect to UN resolutions regarding military occupations prevail over alienated terrorism rhetoric. There's an alternative global agenda in town. (Link)


Is this a civil war?

"I just think this Sunni thing is going to be pretty hard," said Phebe Marr, a leading U.S. Iraq expert reached in the protected Green Zone in Baghdad. "The American public has to get its expectations down to something reasonable."

You can tell that you understanding of a situation is weak when it is reasonable to ask the question above. Chances are that you understanding is weak because it is an unmitigated mess. Which is in turn an excellent description of the current situationn in Iraq.

This article also suggests that the Iraqi insurgents have reached the point where they can attack on thhe strategic level. In this case, it is suggested that they are trying, fairly successfully, to encircle Baghdad.

Read the article with a critical eye and it will tell you alot.


An unchastened insurgency sowed devastation across Iraq Wednesday as experts here said the country is either on the verge of civil war or already in the middle of it.

In the course of the day: Four car bombs detonated in Baghdad; a man wearing explosives at an army recruitment center in Hawija, north of Baghdad, blew himself and many others up; a car bomb exploded in a marketplace in Tikrit, north of Baghdad; and the country's largest fertilizer plant was heavily damaged by a bomb in the usually quiet southern city of Basra. Meanwhile, U.S. Marines were winding up a remarkable pitched battle against surprisingly well-equipped and determined insurgents on Iraq's western border. Some 76 Iraqis were reported killed and more than 120 wounded in the one day of violence.

With security experts reporting that no major road in the country was safe to travel, some Iraq specialists speculated that the Sunni insurgency was effectively encircling the capital and trying to cut it off from the north, south and west, where there are entrenched Sunni communities. East of Baghdad is a mostly unpopulated desert bordering on Iran.

"It's just political rhetoric to say we are not in a civil war. We've been in a civil war for a long time," said Pat Lang, the former top Middle East intelligence official at the Pentagon.

Other experts said Iraq is on the verge of a full-scale civil war with civilians on both sides being slaughtered. Incidents in the past two weeks south of Baghdad, with apparently retaliatory killings of Sunni and Shia civilians, point in that direction, they say.

Also of concern were media accounts that hard-line Shia militia members are being deployed to police hard-line Sunni communities such as Ramadi, east of Baghdad, which specialists on Iraq said was a recipe for disaster.

"I think we are really on the edge" of all-out civil war, said Noah Feldman, a New York University law professor who worked for the U.S. coalition in Iraq.

He said the insurgency has been "getting stronger every passing day. When the violence recedes, it is a sign that they are regrouping." While there is a chance the current flare of violence is the insurgency's last gasp, he said, "I have not seen any coherent evidence that we are winning against the insurgency."

"Everything we thought we knew about the insurgency obviously is flawed," said Judith Kipper of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It was quiet for a little while, and here it is back full force all over the country, and that is very dark news."

The increased violence coincides with the approval of a new, democratic government two weeks ago. But instead of bringing the country together, the new government seems to have further alienated even moderate Sunnis who believe they have only token representation.

"That is a joke," said Sunni politician Saad Jabouri, until recently governor of Diyala Province, in an interview here. "The only people they allowed in the government are ones who think like them," he said of the majority Shia faction, who mostly come from Islamic parties.

Military and civilian experts said the insurgency seemed designed to outlast the patience of the American and Iraqi peoples.

"I just think this Sunni thing is going to be pretty hard," said Phebe Marr, a leading U.S. Iraq expert reached in the protected Green Zone in Baghdad. "The American public has to get its expectations down to something reasonable."

Lang said there is new evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime carefully prepared in advance for the insurgency, with former Iraqi officers at the core of each group. They are well coordinated and have consistently adjusted their strategy, he said.

Now the 140,000-plus U.S. troops in the country are mainly "a nuisance" factor in the insurgents' overall goal of preventing the new government from consolidating.

"They understand what the deal is here," Lang said, "to start applying maximum pressure to the economy and the government and make sure it will not work." Their roadside bombs are intended to keep U.S. forces inside their bases, he said.

All the while the insurgents are gaining strength, he said. "The longer they keep going on the better they will get," said Lang, a student of military history. "The best school of war is war."

The Sunni insurgents could win the battle if they persevere long enough to sour U.S. voters, Feldman said.

He said, "There is no evidence whatsoever that they cannot win." (Link)


Radiation based microbattery

Let me introduce you to Jacob's Laws of Technological Development. These three laws tell you when to expect major revolutions in science and technology. They out like the three key technological areas that have knock-on effects in every other area of technology. They are:

Improvements in instrumentation will cause revolutions in the sciences.

Improvements in materials science will cause revolutions in technology.

Improvements in power supply will cause revolutions in technology.

This article deals with a revolutionary power supply.


Using some of the same manufacturing techniques that produce microchips, researchers have created a porous-silicon diode that may lead to improved betavoltaics. Such devices convert low levels of radiation into electricity and can have useful lives spanning several decades.

While producing as little as one-thousandth of the power of conventional chemical batteries, the new "BetaBattery" concept is more efficient and potentially less expensive than similar designs and should be easier to manufacture. If the new diode proves successful when incorporated into a finished battery, it could help power such hard-to-service, long-life systems as structural sensors on bridges, climate monitoring equipment and satellites.

The battery's staying power is tied to the enduring nature of its fuel, tritium, a hydrogen isotope that releases electrons in a process called beta decay. The porous-silicon semiconductors generate electricity by absorbing the electrons, just as a solar cell generates electricity by absorbing energy from incoming photons of light.

Supported by grants from the NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from the University of Rochester, the University of Toronto, Rochester Institute of Technology and BetaBatt, Inc. of Houston, Texas, describe their new diode in the May 13 issue of Advanced Materials.

Researchers have been attempting to convert various types of radiation into electricity since the development of the transistor more than 50 years ago. Mastering the junctions between relatively electron-rich and electron-poor regions of semiconductor material (p-n junctions) led to many modern electronic products.

Yet, while engineers have been successful at capturing electromagnetic radiation with solar cells, the flat, thin devices have been unable to collect enough beta-decay electrons to yield a viable betavoltaic device.

The BetaBatt will not be the first battery to harness a radioactive source, or even the first to use tritium, but the new cell will have a unique advantage - the half-millimeter-thick silicon wafer into which researchers have etched a network of deep pores. This structure vastly increases the exposed surface area, creating a device that is 10 times more efficient than planar designs.

"The 3-D porous silicon configuration is excellent for absorbing essentially all the kinetic energy of the source electrons," says co-author Nazir Kherani of the University of Toronto. Instead of generating current by absorbing electrons at the outermost layer of a thin sheet, surfaces deep within these porous silicon wafers accommodate a much larger amount of incoming radiation. In early tests, nearly all electrons emitted during the tritium's beta decay were absorbed.

There were a number of practical reasons for selecting tritium as the source of energy, says co-author Larry Gadeken of BetaBatt - particularly safety and containment.

"Tritium emits only low energy beta particles (electrons) that can be shielded by very thin materials, such as a sheet of paper," says Gadeken. "The hermetically-sealed, metallic BetaBattery cases will encapsulate the entire radioactive energy source, just like a normal battery contains its chemical source so it cannot escape."

Even if the hermetic case were to be breached, adds Gadeken, the source material the team is developing will be a hard plastic that incorporates tritium into its chemical structure. Unlike a chemical paste, the plastic cannot not leak out or leach into the surrounding environment.

Researchers and manufacturers have been producing porous silicon for decades, and it is commonly used for antireflective coatings, light emitting devices, and photon filters for fiber optics. However, the current research is the first patented betavoltaic application for porous silicon and the first time that 3-D p-n diodes have been created with standard semiconductor industry techniques.

"The betavoltaic and photovoltaic applications of 3-D porous silicon diodes will result in an exciting arena of additional uses for this versatile material," says co-author Philippe Fauchet of the University of Rochester.

"This is the first time that uniform p-n junctions have been made in porous silicon, which is exciting from the point of view of materials science," says Fauchet. For example, because of its characteristics and photon sensitivity, each diode pore could serve as an individual detector, potentially creating an extremely high-resolution image sensor.

"The ease of using standard semiconductor processing technology to fabricate 3-D p-n junctions was surprising," adds co-author Karl Hirschman of the Rochester Institute of Technology. That manufacturing ease is an important breakthrough for increasing production and lowering costs, and it makes the device scalable and versatile for a range of applications.

"The initial applications will be for remote or inaccessible sensors and devices where the availability of long-life power is critical," says Gadeken.

The BetaBattery may prove better suited to certain tasks than chemical batteries when power needs are limited. The structures are robust--tolerant to motion and shock, and functional from -148° Fahrenheit (-100° Celsius) to 302° F (150°C)--and may never have to be changed for the lifetime of the device. (Link)


Robot, fix thine self

This story is the place were a lot of sci-fi horror stories start. Then massive numbers of uncontrolable robots come in waves to attack and destroy humanity.

Maybe, we're not quite there.


US researchers have devised a simple robot that can make copies of itself from spare parts.

Writing in Nature, the robot's creators say their experiment shows the ability to reproduce is not unique to biology.

Their long-term plan is to design robots made from hundreds or thousands of identical basic modules.

These could repair themselves if parts fail, reconfigure themselves to better perform the task they have been set, or even to make extra helpers.

So far, the robots, if they can be called that, consist of just three or four mobile cubes.

Each unit comes with a small computer code carrying a blueprint for the layout of the robot, electrical contacts to let it communicate with its neighbours, and magnets to let them stick together.

By turning and moving, the cubes can pick up new units, decide where they belong, and stack them alongside each other to make new devices.

In a little more than a minute, a simple three-cube robot can make a copy of itself.

That offspring version can then make further copies. It is only a toy demonstration of the idea, but lead researcher Hod Lipson, of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has bold plans for these intelligent modular machines.

"Space applications clearly come to mind. If you're sending a robot to one of Jupiter's moons, and the robot breaks, then the mission is over," Dr Lipson told the BBC.

"So you would like to have a robotic system that can adapt, or to repair itself, remotely. So that would be one clear application."

Other applications could be down mines or in nuclear facilities. The researchers have previously used aspects of evolution to help them design robots.

Combining this with the biology of self-repair and of replication would make huge changes to the field of robotics. (Link)


Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Homophobia sells phones

Gee, use bigotry as a marketing tool, Talk about a niche market.


United American Technologies, a "Christian-based phone carrier" based in Oklahoma, has a pretty good sales pitch. According to a story by John Avlon in today's New York Sun, the company describes itself as "the only carrier that is taking an active stand against same sex marriages and hardcore child pornography." Here, we pick up a taped telemarketing call after one potential customer asks if AT&T sponsors child pornography:

United American Technologies: No. No, that's MCI.

Mr. Mirman: MCI has hardcore child pornography?

United American Technologies: Yes, they are. They have a pedophile Web site for men who love boys. It's a Montréal based Web site....

Mr. Mirman: And so MCI basically has a child pornography ring?

United American Technologies: That's correct.

Mr. Mirman: What about the others? What does Verizon do?

United American Technologies: Okay. Verizon, what they do is they train their employees to accept the gay and lesbian lifestyle.

With 2000 customers reportedly switching to United American Technologies each month, Christian-based lying and phone homophobia is a lucrative business. But they're not just in it for the money. A cut of the proceeds helps fund conservative political campaigns, via a 527 called "Faith Family and Freedom" created by the Republican floor leader of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. (Link)


How to have an exotic menu

Reminds me of Chinese thousand year eggs which aren't exactly a thousand years old. More like a month being pickled.


Eyewitness News caught restaurants selling frozen fish and making up fancy-sounding names in order to fool you. . . State officials tell Channel 9 that, more and more often, seafood outlets are selling fish that doesn't exist. Channel 9 found several restaurants selling White Snapper or Silver Snapper, a fish Lamee couldn't catch if she wanted to, because it doesn't exist.

At the Sea Harvest Restaurant in New Smyrna Beach, Channel 9 reporter Steve Barrett ordered Silver Snapper and wondered what it really was. In the dumpster out back, an answer was found: cod boxes from New Zealand. Oddly, cod isn't even on Sea Harvest's menu.

Barrett went inside ask why. The first manager insisted they sold Silver Snapper, but soon a second manager came clean. (Link)


Iraqi Sandstorm Posted by Hello


Iraqi sandstorm Posted by Hello


Doing journalism in Iraq

This a longish article, which means that I would normally pare it down, but this one is good enough that it is worth the time.


We spent 10 months in Iraq, working on a story, understanding who the people are who are fighting, why they fight, what their fundamental beliefs are, when they started, what kinds of backgrounds they come from, what education, jobs they have. Were they former military, are they Iraqi or foreign? Are they part of al-Qaida? What we came up with is a story in itself, and one that Vanity Fair ran in July 2004 with my text and pictures. [My colleague Steve Connors] shot a documentary film that is still waiting to find a home. But the basic point for this discussion is that we both thought it was really journalistically important to understand who it was who was resisting the presence of the foreign troops. . . Just the process of working on that story has revealed many things to me about my own country. I'd like to share some of them with you:

Lesson One: Many journalists in Iraq could not, or would not, check their nationality or their own perspective at the door.
One of the hardest things about working on this story for me personally, and as a journalist, was to set my "American self" and perspective aside. . . Going in to report a story with a pile of prejudices is no way to do a story justice, or to do it fairly, and that constant necessity to bite my tongue, wipe the smirk off my face or continue to listen through a racial or religious diatribe that I found appalling was a skill I had to practice. . .

Lesson Two: Our behavior as journalists has taught us very little. Just as in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, questioning our government's decisions and claims and what it seeks to achieve is criticized as unpatriotic. The other thing I found difficult was the realization that, while I was out doing what I believe is solid journalism, there were many (journalists and normal folks alike) who would question my patriotism, or wonder how I could even think hearing and relating the perspective "from the other side" was important. . .

Lesson Three: To seek to understand and represent to an American audience the reasons behind the Iraqi opposition is practically treasonous. Every one of the people involved in the resistance that we spoke to held us individually responsible for their security. If something happened to them -- never mind that they were legitimate targets for the U.S. military -- they would blame us. And kill us. We soon learned that they had the U.S. bases so well watched that we had to abandon our idea of working on the U.S. side of the story -- that is, discovering what the soldiers really thought about who might be attacking them. There were so many journalists working with the American soldiers that we believed that that story would be well told. More practically, if we were seen by the Iraqis going in and out of the American bases, we would be tagged immediately as spies, informants and most likely be killed. . .

Bear in mind that there are no real laws in Iraq. At the time that we were working, the American military was the law, and it seemed to me that they were pretty much making it up as they went along. I was pretty sure that if they wanted to "disappear" us, rough us up or even send us for an all expenses paid vacation in Guantanamo for suspected al-Qaida connections, they could do so with very little, or even no recourse on our part. . .

Recent actions indicate that the U.S. military will detain and/or kill any journalist who happens to be caught covering the Iraqi side of the militant resistance, and indeed a number of journalists have been killed by U.S. troops while working in Iraq. This behavior at the moment seems to be limited to journalists who also happen to be Arabs, or Arab-looking, but that is only a tangential story to what I'm telling you about here. . .

Dexter Filkins, who writes for The New York Times, related a conversation he had in Iraq with an American military commander just before we left. Dexter and the commander had gotten quite friendly, meeting up sporadically for a beer and a chat. Towards the end of one of their conversations, Dexter declined an invitation for the next day by explaining that he'd lined up a meeting with a "resistance guy." The commander's face went stony cold and he said, "We have a position on that." For Dexter the message was clear. He cancelled the appointment. . .

And many American journalists often refer to those attacking Americans or Iraqi troops and policemen as "terrorists." Some are indeed using terrorist tactics, but calling them "terrorists" simply shuts down any sense of need or interest to look beyond that word, to understand why indeed human beings might be willing to die in a violent struggle to achieve their goal. Pushing them off as simply "insane, wild Arabs" or "extremist Muslims" does them no service, but even more, it does the U.S. no service. If we as Americans fail to understand who attacks us and why, we will simply continue on this same path, and continue watching from afar as a war we don't understand boils over.

Lesson Four: The gatekeepers -- by which I mean the editors, publishers and business sides of the media -- don't want their paper or their outlet to reveal that compelling narrative of why anyone would oppose the presence of American troops on their soil. Why would anyone refuse democracy? Why would anyone not want the helping hand of America in overthrowing their terrible dictator? It's amazing to me how expeditiously we turn away from our own history. Think of our revolution. Think of our Founding Fathers. Think of what they stood for and hoped for. Think of how, over time, we have learned to improve on our own Constitution and governance. But think, mostly, about the words I just used: It was our decision and our determination that brought us where we are now. . .

Lesson Five: What it's like to be afraid of your own country.
Once the story was finished and set to come out on the street, I was rushing back to the States -- mostly because we could no longer work once the story was published -- and I found I was scared returning to my own country. And that was an amazingly strange and awful feeling to have. Again, you could call me paranoid, but the questions about what might happen to me once in America -- where at least I would have more rights -- kept racing through my brain. . .

But I would turn that question around: How many other American journalists, perhaps not as secure in their position as I, have thought to do a story and decided that it's too close to the bone, too questioning of the American government or its actions? How many times was the risk that our own government might come in and rifle through our apartment, our homes or take us away for questioning in front of our children a factor in our decision not to do a story? How many times did we as journalists decide not to do a story because we thought it might get us into trouble? Or, as likely, how often did the editor above us kill the story for the same reasons? . . .

We still have the freedom in this country as individuals and as journalists to defend the rights enshrined in the Constitution, to defend the values that we as individuals still hold dear -- so why aren't we doing it? Are we scared? If we're scared, then who will be there to defend those rights and values when it is proposed that they be taken away?. . .

It's time we looked in the mirror and began to take responsibility for what our country looks like, what our country is and how it behaves, rather than acting like victims before we actually are. Or do I need to start facing the reality that all I love and believe in is simply self-delusion? (Link)


Speciation observed

While religious leaders continue to lobby for the removal of evolution from the high-school biology curriculum, a Canadian researcher has documented extremely convincing evidence that speciation—the evolution of one species into two separate species—does occur.

Darren Irwin is an assistant zoology professor at UBC who has been studying Eurasian warblers for many years. In 2001 he reported in Nature magazine that the warbler species Phylloscopus trochiloides (greenish warbler) was what is known in biology as a “ring species.”

A ring species is an organism that originated near an inhabitable obstacle and slowly spread around that obstacle, eventually meeting itself at the other side. In the case of P. trochiloides, the species originated in Southern Asia and the obstacle was the treeless Tibetan Plateau. After spreading northwards through Nepal and China, greenish warblers from east and west converged in Siberia.

Irwin explains, “The genetic evidence reported in the 2001 paper was only based on a few genes. In 2002 we started using a new genetic technique that examines variation in dozens of genes.

“This more comprehensive look at genetic variation showed that there is a gradual genetic change around the ring, but distinct differences between the two Siberian species.

“These results strongly support the theory that the two Siberian forms of greenish warbler evolved into different species while still being connected by a chain of populations through which gene flow could occur.”

One of these gradual genetic changes is in the warblers’ song patterns. Moving west from Bangladesh, warblers increasingly favour one song pattern; moving east they favour another. In Siberia, where the two groups meet, neither group recognizes the others’ song. Because warblers choose mates based on song patterns, these two groups do not mate. “If two groups do not exchange genes through reproduction, they are on separate evolutionary pathways and therefore they are separate species,” Irwin says.

Since Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, many religious leaders have gone to great lengths to convince the public that the concept of evolution is a theory, not a scientific fact. Their reasons for this are understandable: evolution stands in direct opposition to Biblical mythology. When I asked Darren Irwin whether his research had established evolution as a fact, his answer was enlightening:

“Scientists are never able to completely prove any theory. Science is a process by which incorrect theories are shown to be incorrect, leaving us with the theories that are most consistent with the evidence.”

“The theory of evolution is one of the most successful theories ever, in the sense that it is highly consistent with abundant evidence. We understand the mechanisms by which evolution operates, and these mechanisms have actually been observed on short time scales. This establishes evolution as a more successful theory than the theory of gravitation. The theory of gravitation is also consistent with evidence, but we don’t yet know how it works.”

The theory of gravitation, however, does not contradict religious doctrine, and so is universally accepted. (Link)


Private schools get a smackdown from public ones

So the private sector is not always better. No surprize to me, this is also true in health care, but I wouldn't trust the public sector to run a restaurant.


The crumbling neighborhood public school down the block or that gilded private school on a hill? There's a tendency to imagine the two this way - and to assume the private school will produce better students.

But beleaguered public schools have recently received a small, though noteworthy, boost. After accounting for students' socioeconomic background, a new study shows public school children outperforming their private school peers on a federal math exam.

Overall, private school students tend to do markedly better on standardized tests. But the reason, this study suggests, may be that they draw students from wealthier and more educated families, rather than because they're better at bolstering student achievement.

One study is unlikely to settle a long-simmering debate over the merits of public versus private education. But its authors say they hope it will give pause to a current trend in education reform: privatization.

From tax-dollar financed vouchers for private schools to a drive to put public schools in private hands, market-style reforms are all the buzz in education.

Competition, the reasoning goes, is healthy for schools. Those that must produce results to survive have to be better than those that don't face such pressure.

But these findings "really call into question the assumption of some of the more prominent reform efforts," says Christopher Lubienski, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who wrote the study with his wife Sarah Theule Lubienski, also an education professor at the university.

In particular, says Mr. Lubienski, it challenges the assumption that "the private-school model is better and more effective, and can achieve superior results. It really undercuts a lot of those choice-based reforms." (Link)


The Mecca of Arabic Studies

Economists talk about comparative advantage, where one country by virtue of geography, culture, politics or whatever has an advantage in a field of economic endeavour. Apparently Syria is the place to go to learn Arabic.


The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on his home city and the subsequent warsin Afghanistan and Iraq changed Jason Gluck's life. In January he left his lucrative job as a corporate lawyer in Washington, D.C., and traveled to Damascus in Syria to learn Arabic.

Says Mr. Gluck, "9/11 got me thinking about Middle East issues and made them immediate and personal. I want to contribute to that in any way I can by getting involved and working in the field."

Gluck is among a burgeoning group of a few hundred Western students living and studying in Damascus, the Syrian capital. There are currently as many as 50 Americans in Damascus, including a handful on government-sponsored Fulbright scholarships.

In many ways, Syria is an unlikely destination for students from the United States. The US has imposed sanctions on the country, accusing it of supporting terrorism and failing to stop militants entering Iraq.

Yet at the same time, Syria is fast becoming the "Mecca of learning Arabic," says Joshua Landis, professor of international studies at the University of Oklahoma. Mr. Landis has been living in and visiting Syria for 20 years.

For Western students, a new curiosity

Sept. 11 transformed everything, Professor Landis says. Suddenly, in the US, there was both curiosity about the Muslim world - and awareness that gaining knowledge about the region could be a career path.

"There's a book on Islam in most American households - it may not have been read, but it was bought after 9/11 because people felt they had to learn," he says. At the same time, he adds, "All the government bodies - the CIA and the State Department, for example - are desperate for Middle East expertise and Arabic speakers. So students see they can get a good job - if they can just learn this language."

That remains a big "if." Learning Arabic means learning to read and write a whole new alphabet that includes sounds notoriously difficult for English speakers. It also means learning to distinguish between fusha - modern standard Arabic used in the media across the Arab world - and amiya - the spoken dialect of daily life, which varies widely from country to country.

"You could learn three European languages in the time it takes to learn Arabic," says Landis.

But while taking on Arabic is a daunting task, many foreign students say it is made easier by the Syrians' friendliness and warmth - despite the general Western view of Damascus as a virulently anti-American capital city in a violent region.

Another factor: "In Damascus fewer people speak English well than in Egypt, so it's better for practicing," says David Duerden of Roxburg, Idaho, who studied Arabic in Cairo for four months before moving to Damascus with hopes to work for the US State Department. "They enjoy listening to you and don't ridicule your efforts."

Westerners learning Arabic in Damascus also praise the city's relaxed atmosphere and low cost of living. (A taxi ride across town costs 50 cents, and an extravagant meal at a top restaurant comes to between $10 and $20.)

Questions about security

Syria's authoritarian secular government ensures security by posting police throughout Damascus and the rest of the country. Extremist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood were outlawed in the 1980s. The political kidnappings that plague neighboring Iraq do not happen in Syria. The combination of an authoritarian government and a traditional society makes it extremely safe. "Damascus is one of the safest cities in the world," says Landis. "Compared to New York, Los Angeles, or St. Louis, it's the paragon of safety."

Students like Gluck and Mr. Duerden can choose from about 10 different institutions offering Arabic courses. Several, such as the University of Damascus, offer fusha courses with up to seven levels running simultaneously.

Arabic is the only language spoken in class, which can be intimidating, says Yon Janssen, a sociology student from Arlon, Belgium. "It's tough at first, but when you get through it, that's when you really start to profit," she says.

A month's tuition at the university, which includes classes five mornings a week, costs about $200. The British, French, German, Spanish, and Italian cultural centers also run classes, including some courses in amiya. Students can also get one-on-one instruction from private teachers.

Most Western students rent rooms for about $120 a month with families in the Christian quarter of the walled Old City, a neighborhood full of churches, mosques, and bustling souks. The city life gives people like Cristina Del Valle, a media student from Barcelona, a chance to use what they are learning.

"I live in a Syrian family house, so I practice every day and also see the way of life," she says.

Gluck says that making friends with Syrians has definitely strengthened his Arabic language skills. But it has brought other benefits as well.

"Being here has been incredibly enlightening," he says. "All the Arabs I've met have this amazing ability to distinguish between Americans and the American government. I wish I had a nickel for every time I've been told: 'I hate your government, welcome to my country!' It gives me hope for the future of East-West relations." (Link)


Sunscreen for a glacier

What is the SPF of metallic foil?


Workers at a Swiss ski resort have wrapped part of a retreating glacier in reflective sheeting to protect it, they say, from global warming.

The Gurschen glacier, nearly 3,000m (10,000ft) above sea level, is melting like many others worldwide, with the worst damage done in summer.

The thin protective layer of foil covers an area of 3-4,000 sq m (about 43,000 sq ft).

Officials at the Gemsstock resort think others may follow their lead.

"We think it will become common practice to cover parts of the glaciers," said Urs Elmiger of Andermatt Gotthard Sportbahnen, the cable car operator carrying out the project.

Short-term measure

The Gurschen glacier has sunk 20m (66 feet) in the last 15 years, making Andermatt's ski slopes very inaccessible.

The protection was laid over a ramp of snow that is built up at the beginning of each season but then melts again each summer.

"It needs a lot of work, energy and money to rebuild. And one day, if the melt increases, the cost of rebuilding the ramp will be very, very high," Mr Elmiger said.

Scientists said that while the technique might help preserve snow cover in small areas, it would not address the problem of vanishing ice fields around the world.

"It may be useful very locally, but it would be totally unfeasible - economically and ecologically - to cover completely even a small glacier," geography Professor Wilfried Haeberli, of the University of Zurich, told Reuters.

Researchers at the university say 70% of Switzerland's glaciers will disappear in the next 30 years, due to the effects of global warming.

Environmental groups protested as the glacier was covered, saying a fundamental change in climate policy - not short-term measures - was required.

Martin Hiller, of the WWF International group, said: "The solution is to switch to clean energy; we need to cut down on harmful pollutants, such as CO2." (Link)


Arrrrgh!!! (Polio)

We have been soooo close to wiping out a third disease. As in making it extinct... non-existant... never hurt us again (the first two were smallpox and SARS). But no, some dumdass, criminally negligent, pissant clerics had to open their ignorant mouths and what has happened? Polio has exploded. It had been within months of being wiped out.



A polio epidemic in Yemen has leapt to more than 60 cases making it one of the world's worst outbreaks of the disease.

UN health officials say the infections will probably soon exceed the 100 mark, as more suspected cases are examined.

Polio mainly affects young children and can cause irreversible paralysis. Yemen was previously considered polio-free.

Sixteen previously polio-free countries have reported new cases since 2003, when a polio vaccine boycott in Nigeria was blamed for spreading the disease.

Experts suspect the strain could have been carried from Nigeria to other countries by migrant workers or pilgrims visiting Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia.

Hard-line Islamic clerics claimed the polio vaccination was part of a plot by the US to make people infertile or give them HIV/Aids.

"They are having a pretty big epidemic... But we should be able to stop the virus relatively quickly," said World Health Organization official Oliver Rosenbauer.

The UN health body is behind a national immunisation drive in Yemen which will take place at the end of May.

Six million vaccination packs are expected to arrive in Yemen next week, Mr Rosenbauer said.

WHO figures show 198 new cases of polio have been reported so far in 2005, most of them in Nigeria and Yemen. (Link)


Tuesday, May 10, 2005


Ancient oceans were strange places

It is amazing what one can figure out using imagination and some math.


The ancient sea was more like a giant salty lake than a rolling ocean, report scientists from Imperial College London in the May edition of the Journal of the Geological Society. A new computer model that simulates how tides in North West Europe would have behaved 300 million years ago shows a sea with so little movement that it was unlike any on Earth today.

Using information on the ancient land masses and the tidal pull of the Moon, the new computer modelling system reveals a picture of a Palaeozoic ocean in which even basic lifeforms would have struggled to survive. Without tides, shallow coastal water is not mixed up, preventing life-saving oxygen from being circulated.

This shortage of oxygen causes lifeforms such as plankton to die and the decay of these lifeforms uses up further oxygen, contributing to the creation of an environment unable to support life. The Palaeozoic period lasted from 570 to 245 million years ago.

Dr Peter Allison, from the Department of Earth Sciences and Engineering and one of the authors of the study, said: "It is very difficult to understand how these huge ancient seas behaved, since we have no examples of this sort of water body on Earth today.

"We have used a new computer model to deduce the tidal range in ancient seas and show that they were almost tideless. Understanding the behaviour of these vast shallow expanses is critical to our knowledge of the ancient climate and environments and to understand how early marine life evolved and diversified," says Dr Allison.

According to the researchers' estimates, the new computer programme can model the behaviour of the sea many times faster than existing modelling systems. The model, developed by Dr Chris Pain, Dr Matthew Piggott and Martin Wells, has great potential for examining other patterns of ocean behaviour.

PhD student Martin Wells adds: "The modelling technology developed here at Imperial is a novel and fascinating means of investigating the ancient Earth. Although this is 'blue-skies' research now, we are validating an exciting new modelling technology which will ultimately help us to predict climate change." (Link)


And the sign said, "Tallinn or Bust"

The creative class is mobile, probably the most mobile section of the world's population, and it travels to centers of cultural excitement and low rent. Look at Paris is in the twenties and New York in the post-war era. However, they are on the move now, dislodged from their one bastion in California Bush's paranoia. They are up for grabs, if you are willing to make the investment to make your city a star of energy.


Bright lights gravitate toward constellations of creativity. So where better than America - big-bang engine of modern invention - to launch one's shining self into the firmament? Somebody say Estonia?

In a kind of literary franchise extension, sociologist Richard Florida builds on his 2002 "Rise of the Creative Class" with his ominous new book, "The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent."

These days, the world's rank-and-file creative workers can find plenty of nurturing environments in which conditions equal or trump America's legendary offerings, Florida maintains. He calls the impending shift - not so much a mass migration as the cultivation of indigenous talent pools that attract a trickle of like minds - the greatest current threat to America's global competitiveness. It is a bigger worry than China (and, presumably, than the outsourcing of low-wage jobs).

He also tries gamely - if generally - to float solutions to this drain. The book's real value may be as an identifier of how the world will come to look unless America wakes up to new realities.

First, to quantify: Florida concerns himself with individuals employed as architects and entertainers, lawyers and healthcare workers, artists and financiers, and other "related fields." In the United States, this rather nebulous collective includes 40 million people comprising what he calls a $2 trillion sector "larger than the manufacturing and service sectors combined."

The broad definition is intentional. "One of the greatest fallacies of modern times is that creativity is limited to a small group of people with particular talents," he writes, calling his label "neither elitist nor exclusionary."

Florida knows when to unfurl an illustrative anecdote. (He begins with an account of the production of the epic "Lord of the Rings" films far from Hollywood, in New Zealand.) And he packages his barrage of complex statistics as irresistible rankings by city and country. Readers in Minneapolis will find plenty to crow about. Readers in Ireland will find even more.

But the overall effort is somewhat uneven. To the degree that a trend is actually under way, the book is a fascinating road map. Florida's description of the rise of "global Austins" - small international cities ramping up their lifestyle amenities to lure firms - is compelling. To read that "universities are undeniably our strongest talent magnets," however, seems less than illuminating. And at times Florida appears to stray from his well-documented revelations, diverting a little too much energy to making statements about US government policies.

It may be too soon to anoint Tallinn, Estonia - or Dublin, Ireland, or Sydney, Australia - the world's new creative capital, as opposed to many thriving US cities. Still, by Florida's reckoning, America's magnetism for creative workers has weakened as the drawing power of other nations has become supercharged - owing to regulatory policies, quality of life, tolerance, and a range of other issues.

The US retains the greatest absolute number of these workers, with between 20 and 30 percent of the world's total. "But the creative class already accounts for a greater percentage of the workforce in several other well-established and up-and-coming nations," Florida writes.

The first step for a country being beaten at its own high-stakes game, Florida implies, is to come to terms with the fact that, as great and open and inspiring as the US remains, it does not have "some intrinsic advantage in the production of creative people." Does anyone believe that's the case?

The US - as Florida scarcely need say - has fared well largely because of its traditional openness to immigrants. He hits at today's more restrictive immigration policies. He should probably note that it's not especially easy for an American to emigrate and find full-time work.

Florida devotes considerable space to hammering at what he views as entrenched "partisan cleavage," spreading the blame for America's hostility toward creatives.

In places, Florida becomes deeply pessimistic. He lays out the kind of awareness required of America's political leadership, and then yanks out the rug.

"[D]on't expect to see that kind of leadership soon from either major political party, both of whose platforms veer increasingly out of touch with the global realities of the creative economy," he writes.

Florida saves his idealism for a wide-eyed celebration of the innate creativity of every human being. "Human beings are creative in many different ways, and in many different fields that go beyond acquired skills," he writes. Such statements may be indisputable. But the reader may hunger for more.

Ultimately, Florida calls it "impossible - and undesirable" to outline a specific plan for building a society that would attract and employ his creative class, instead offering what he calls signposts. "[T]his cannot be a top-down or centralized endeavor, but needs to emerge organically from the insights, efforts, and energies of varied groups of people and organizations." What's emerging organically, it could be argued, is the rise of new creative hotbeds like Australia, Belgium, Finland - and Estonia. (Link)


Monday, May 09, 2005


Quotes: Kansas and anti-evolution

No comment necessary


Asked where he saw atheism in the Kansas science standards, Harris replied, "I see it between the lines."

". . . a strategy letter from a Kansas Citizens for Science member . . . said the way to defeat the anti-evolution forces was be to portray them as political opportunists, evangelical activists, unprincipled bullies and ignoramuses."



Drinking beer makes you smarter

Please forgive the slight exaggeration in the headline, promoting the growth of new neurons may not make you smart... but on ther other hand it may.


Moderate alcohol consumption over a relatively long period of time can enhance the formation of new nerve cells in the adult brain. The new cells could prove important in the development of alcohol dependency and other long-term effects of alcohol on the brain. The findings are published by Karolinska Institutet.

The study, which was carried out on mice, examined alcohol consumption corresponding to that found in normal social situations. The results show that moderate drinking enhances the formation of new cells in the adult brain. The cells survive and develop into nerve cells in the normal manner. No increase in neuronal atrophy, however, could be demonstrated.

It is generally accepted these days that new nerve cells are continually being formed in the adult brain. One suggestion is that these new neurons could be important for memory and learning. The number of new cells formed is governed by a number of factors such as stress, depression, physical activity and antidepressants.

“We believe that the increased production of new nerve cells during moderate alcohol consumption can be important for the development of alcohol addiction and other long-term effects of alcohol on the brain,” says associate professor Stefan Brené.

“It is also possible that it is the ataractic effect of moderate alcohol consumption that leads to the formation of new brain cells, much in the same way as with antidepressive drugs.”

The researchers are now following up these exciting findings to understand the role that the new nerve cells thus formed play in cerebral activity. (Link)


I'm sorry he isn't who you think he is.

Just when I was about to give Bushy credit for an accomplishment, 'cause if you criticize you should also credit, I read this...


The capture of a supposed Al-Qaeda kingpin by Pakistani agents was hailed by President George W Bush as "a critical victory in the war on terror". According to European intelligence experts, however, Abu Faraj al-Libbi was not the terrorists' third in command, as claimed, but a middle-ranker derided by one source as "among the flotsam and jetsam" of the organization.

The backslapping in Washington and Islamabad has astonished European terrorism experts, who point out that the Libyan was neither on the FBI's most wanted list, nor on that of the State Department "rewards for justice" program.

Another Libyan is on the FBI list - Anas al-Liby, who is wanted over the 1998 East African embassy bombings - and some believe the Americans may have initially confused the two. When The Sunday Times contacted a senior FBI counter-terrorism official for information about the importance of the detained man, he sent material on al-Liby, the wrong man.

"Al-Libbi is just a 'middle-level' leader," said Jean-Charles Brisard, a French intelligence investigator and leading expert on terrorism finance. "Pakistan and US authorities have completely overestimated his role and importance. He was never more than a regional facilitator between Al-Qaeda and local Pakistani Islamic groups." (Link)


The World is getting better


The 2005 Spring Fest, a controversial UND student bash held every year in University Park, was very similar to last year's celebration, as Grand Forks Police issued just as many citations. But homeowners near University Park said this year, they noticed a decrease in students vomiting or defecating on their front yards. (Link)


Cultural confusion: Wham! in China

Wham! was the first western pop group to play in China. A recently released report from the British government describes the cultural confusion as neither the Chinese nor Wham knew what to expect.


When Wham! bounced on stage to play the first western pop concert in China, neither the Chinese nor George Michael knew quite how to behave.

The 15,000-strong audience in 1985 were unsure how they were supposed to react to Michael's strutting or his bouffant hairstyle. But he and bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were also at a loss to know how the people would respond to Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, Bad Boys and their other hits being performed with scantily clad dancers and strobing disco lights.

A British embassy report - released to the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act - described the cultural confusion on the day that pop came to Beijing.

The embassy's unnamed first secretary wrote: "The workers' gymnasium was almost filled and the concert, generally speaking, seems to have been a success. In deference to their Chinese audience, Wham! kept the volume of the music rather lower than normal, but there was overall a certain lack of mutual understanding.

"Neither the Chinese nor Wham! knew quite how to behave faced with something completely beyond their experience."

According to Simon Napier-Bell, the band's manager, Michael tried to get the spectators to clap along to Club Tropicana, but "they hadn't a clue - they thought he wanted applause and politely gave it".

He said some of the more adventurous Chinese did eventually "get the hang of clapping on the beat, even learnt to scream when George or Andrew waved their butts".

The diplomat reported that "there was some lively dancing but this was almost entirely confined to younger western members of the audience. Some Chinese did make the effort, but they were discouraged in this by the police.

"They were unable to deal satisfactorily with the younger westerners but they did on the whole manage to keep the Chinese in their place," he added.

Mr Napier-Bell had spent 18 months persuading Chinese bureaucrats that the communist system was robust enough to cope with a taste of western pop culture. In the official communist view, pop music was "banal and filthy".

After the concert, the diplomat wondered if the authorities would allow more. "There is no reason to suppose that the Chinese have been discouraged by their experience ... Financially they must have done very well.

"There was certainly considerable interest by the younger Chinese in the visit. There was a lively black market in tickets for the concert, although this was no doubt encouraged by Wham!'s generosity in giving a free copy of their latest tape away with each ticket." (Link)


Irshad Manji

I have read her book, its interesting if a bit slight. She raises many more questions then she answers, and she does come across as egotistical and narcissistic. However, she is picking a big fight, and a worthy one: dragging Islam out of the middle ages and into the twenty-first century.


A Muslim woman author, once described as Osama bin Laden's worst nightmare, is to call for the setting up of an Islamic reform movement to press for a change in the faith's attitudes towards human rights, women and pluralist societies at a public meeting this week.

Irshad Manji, a Canadian-based writer and broadcaster, is to launch her campaign for Ijtihad (independent thinking) with a claim for Islamic pluralism and the aim of setting up a foundation for young, reform-minded Muslims to explore and challenge their faith.

"No community, no ethnicity, no culture and no religion ought to be immune from respecting the universality of human rights," she said.

"This, of course, is a controversial message in an age of cultural relativism. I truly believe we can become pluralists without becoming relativists.

"Through our screaming self-pity and conspicuous silences, we Muslims are conspiring against ourselves. We're in crisis and we are dragging the rest of the world with us. If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it is now."

Ms Manji is the author of the bestselling book The Trouble with Islam: A Call for Honesty and Change, which as well as being read in the west has been published in Pakistan and is to appear this year in Turkey, Iraq and India.

She has been lionised in North America, where the television host Oprah Winfrey gave her a "chutzpah award" and Ms magazine named her a feminist for the 21st century.

It was the New York Times that described her as Bin Laden's worst nightmare; the Jakarta Post named her as one of three women making a positive change to Islam.

Her message has also produced death threats. "There is no doubt some young Muslims detest me and my message," she said. "They tend to be the vocal and vitriolic ones.

"But everywhere I go I am quietly approached by Muslims, especially young women, who are desperate to know that it is possible to dissent with mainstream orthodoxy while remaining faithful. The challenge now is to help transform that underground hunger for change into an above-the-ground phenomenon.

"There are many more reform-minded Muslims out there, it's just that most of us are working in isolation. We need to develop these kinds of relationships, to rely on each other."

In an introduction to her book, Khaleel Mohammed, professor of religion at San Diego state university, wrote: "I should hate Irshad Manji. If Muslims listen to her they will stop listening to people like me, an imam who spent years at a traditional Islamic university.

"She threatens my male authority and says things about Islam that I wish were not true. She has a big mouth ... but then I look into my heart and engage my mind and I come to a discomforting conclusion: Irshad is telling the truth." (Link)


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