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She’ll get a Macarthur Genius Grant for this

You know, so long as you avoid politics and stick to science, the world is full of wonderful stories.

Via Wired Blog:

A young professor has used her favorite childhood toy, a laser printer, and a toaster oven to make microfluidic devices – tiny computer chips with plumbing that are usually fabricated in multimillion dollar labs.

Microfluidics are essential to the whole new field of genomics and proteomics, which are at the center of the new advances we hear about in curing things like multiple sclerosis, diabetes, cancers, alzheimers, etc., etc. Her method makes the guts of the microfluidics chip in a few hours for a few dollars without a clean room. The others take a few months, cost thousands, and can’t survive without the aforementioned multimillion dollar lab.

Michelle Khine, as a new faculty member without a lab, figured out how to make a “lab on a chip” in her kitchen using Shrinky Dinks. It’s like something straight out of Heinlein.

The actual article is here. I may be wrong, but I’d be willing to bet that the way her name appears last in the list of authors is one of the clearer symptoms of typical academic politics at work that you’ll see.

Crossposted to Shakesville

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I once bought a house

Buying a house is a hugely intimidating process. At least it was for me. It was more expensive than what I make in years — incomprehensibly more expensive than anything else in my whole world — and I felt like I was signing over the rest of my life when I signed the papers.

Which brings me to the papers. There was a stack of them, I think it was six inches high (around 15cm for those of you who live in the civilized world). Theoretically, you read and understood every word before signing. There was what felt like a damn ceremony, where I went to some office, and signed papers for a few hours. If I started reading any of them, there was a pregnant stage wait. I could just feel the professionals thinking, “Oh my God. If this pointy-haired buyer keeps doing this, we’ll be here all day!” I’ve got news for them. If I’d read all those papers, we would have been there for several weeks.

So, in some respects, I was one of those ignorant buyers you hear about. (For instance, Krugman discussing the subprime situation, “the hundreds of thousands if not millions of American families lured into mortgage deals they didn’t understand.”) The only real difference between me and them was that when I tried to make sure I had a real estate agent I could trust, I was lucky and turned out to be right. But — and that’s a legal hole you could drive a bankruptcy through — if I’d been wrong, there could have been anything buried in that mountain of paper and I wouldn’t have known until the bills arrived. That’s true even though I’m absurdly over-educated, can do statistics and calculus, and understand a little bit about accounting and finance.

Given how easy legal obfuscation has made it to cheat people, all the professionals in the real estate and finance industries who had a part in this process do bear a great deal of the guilt for creating the situation we’re in. I’m not arguing with Krugman or anyone else who says that. The heaviest costs of digging ourselves out of this hole should fall on the financiers. Agreed.

It’s also clear that some buyers really were actively and unethically (if not criminally) cheated. There are too many stories of creditworthy people being steered toward higher-profit subprime loans when they could have qualified for ordinary ones. People whose ignorance was used to cheat them should have that wrong made right at whatever cost to the damn financial industry. I’m completely agreed on that, too.

However.

Some of the ignorant buyers were more than just ignorant. They were greedy, just like the bankers. Unlike the bankers, the only people they’re ruining are themselves, but the fact remains that they were not the unwilling dupes of Wall St.

They were willing. They were out there, scooping in the free money with both hands. I had people tell me that it didn’t matter how much a house cost because the monthly payments were “only” $3000, or whatever. (I live in California.) That’s called charging whatever the market will bear, but it didn’t seem to matter, because everyone knew that houses would coin hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for them from now till doomsday. I saw people re-mortgaging their houses to their maximum, then-current market value so that they could go buy Stuff.

Some buyers weren’t paying close attention to the terms of their loans because they thought none of that mattered. The money was going to keep growing forever.

That’s exactly the same mistake Wall St. made, and for the same reason. If we’re ever to get a handle on Enron-style scamming, we’re going to have to acknowledge that the greed of some of us little people is right in there with the greed of the big people, creating the problem. Our greed may be a lot smaller than theirs, but there’s more of us.

And that’s why I get angry when I read about all the poor people lured into loans by Wall St. Suddenly everyone’s transformed into a Hispanic family who had trouble reading the contract.

Bullshit. There are plenty of people out there who didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. There always are and there always will be. So when we’re thinking about reforms to the financial system to prevent these sorts of meltdowns in the future, let’s try to remember that the rules are there to stop the little people from going crazy, too. The financial industry is a problem, but it’s not the only problem.

Crossposted to Shakesville

Technorati tags: politics, subprime, debt, housing, current events

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Medicare costs and patient power

Social security is not in crisis, but even economists I respect say that Medicare really is a looming disaster. Huge scary numbers get tossed out whose extent can only be understood by using a faster-than-light spacecraft.

I’m not an economist, and I don’t know the best solution to solve the financial issues. But I think an important point is being missed by starting with the costs and going on from there. This is medicine, not banking. Economics is the last link in this particular series, not the first, so we need to think outside the (economics) box to really have any sense of what we’re up against.
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Globalization or greed

James Surowiecki writes about sovereign wealth funds, which are pots of money used by governments to buy things. Qatar, for instance, thinking of buying the British supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, and Dubai thinking of buying P&O which is a contractor for security in some US harbors.

National security and dislike of foreigners aside, there’s another angle to all this that you won’t see discussed too often in the financial press. Surowiecki mentions:

“The prospect of American companies being sold to foreign states is, to be sure, disconcerting. But it’s a problem of our own making. The reason that sovereign wealth funds are so flush with cash is all the dollars we spend on oil and Asian consumer goods. If we want to consume far beyond our means, then, one way or another we’re going to end up selling off assets to pay for it.”

But what he doesn’t discuss is why those dollars are spent that way. It’s not consuming beyond our means that’s the real root problem — or at least it’s not only that. A big part of it is decades of kleptocratic government policy.
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At least PRETEND you’re not sexist

We have a year to go, and already I’m tired of noticing how diseased some people are when it comes to women. Something about having to take a woman seriously as candidate for president seems to make these people break out.

Well, fine. I’m a big advocate of letting people do whatever they like in the privacy of their own homes. But when you’re in public, do cover up all the pus-filled boils.

The thing that really gets to me is all the jerks in the public eye — the talking heads, even the candidates themselves — who let the crap come out as if it was something perfectly normal. It means that to them it is perfectly normal. And that’s the most tiring, depressing, and soul-destroying thing of all. It’s not the knowledge that there are all kinds of bigots out there. I know there are. What’s so awful is that sexism is not something they have to hide. What’s so awful is what that means about everybody’s attitudes, not just theirs.

One recent example is the McCain staffer talking about “how to beat the bitch.” Once it got out, did McCain have to fire the person? No, he turned it into a fundraising event.

Imagine the reaction if Obama was the frontrunner, and the staffer had said, “How do we beat the nigger?”

That’s the difference I’m talking about. These days, racism has to be covered up, at least in public. It is Not Okay. But sexism is frivolous to worry about when we have “real problems.” Any women who are offended should lighten up and “get over it.” Or they should “have a sense of humor.”
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Insurance companies cause global warming

Seriously. I’m beginning to think they’re the source of all evil. Think about it. Insurance companies are at the heart of the US health care disaster. This post is an off-the-cuff rant, so I can’t be arsed to dig up the links, but go read Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein, Kevin Drum. Even I have a post about it. It’s obvious to the meanest intelligence.

But what brought this on is that my neighbor is cutting his trees to ten feet high. (Pollarding is the technical term.) I like those trees. They’re almost the only trees left on my street. This is a low rent district, full of little, ramshackle houses. With trees, it looked like something out of Harry Potter. Without trees, it looks like a slum. Even more important, the hummingbirds who visit my feeders live in those last few trees. They are currently Not Happy.

Now, my neighbor is a nice guy, so I went out to moan at him about what he was doing.

“It’s the insurance,” he said. “If I don’t cut them shorter, they won’t insure the house.”

What he means, of course, is that they’ll insure it, but they’ll want bags more money in case a branch comes off in a high wind and knocks off a roof tile or two. The trees themselves are too small and too far from any house to fall right over on one.

So, because the few little trees might, someday, cost the insurance company a few hundred dollars, it’ll either jack up premiums to the point where he has to pay hundreds extra every goddamn year, or it wants them gone. The neighborhoods I live in, nobody has an extra few hundred a year, so all the trees disappear, one by one.

This is the third neighborhood I’ve lived in during the last decade or so where I’ve seen this happen. Multiply that times thousands of neighborhoods, because I’m sure it’s the same thing everywhere. Then calculate how much CO2 that residential urban forest could have taken up. Calculate the increased heat island effect because the trees are no longer there to evaporate acres more water. Calculate the increased air conditioning used because there are no trees to throw shade. Calculate everything, and there’s only one conclusion.

Insurance companies (help) cause global warming.

Why aren’t we regulating the piss out of these bastards, and making it impossible for them to aid and abet the murder of trees?


Crossposted to Shakesville

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Falafel: good food, no intelligence

Everyone’s heard the falafel story by now:

The FBI sifted through customer data collected by San Francisco-area grocery stores in 2005 and 2006, hoping that sales records of Middle Eastern food would lead to Iranian terrorists.

The idea was that a spike in, say, falafel sales, combined with other data, would lead to Iranian secret agents in the south San Francisco-San Jose area.

However, as the astute commenter, r@d@r points out on Krugman’s blog:

interesting assumption, considering the fact that one of the more prominent brands of falafel in this town is a kosher one, made by israeli immigrants.

Maybe if They hadn’t abbreviated it to “humint,” there would still be some humans in the system who could apply some intelligence to the ill-gotten garbage coming in.



cross-posted to Shakesville

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Test JAlbum post

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Support the Biofuels Moratorium

On the BBC, a report on what to do about the bad side of biofuels. Delay use until we can do it right. It’s such a novel concept, it makes headlines.

The UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, said …growth in the production of biofuels has helped to push the price of some crops to record levels. … [A]n ill-conceived dash to convert foodstuffs such as maize and sugar into fuel … created a recipe for disaster.

It was, he said, a crime against humanity to divert arable land to the production of crops which are then burned for fuel.

He called for a five-year ban on the practice. Within that time, according to Mr Ziegler, technological advances would enable the use of agricultural waste, such as corn cobs and banana leaves, rather than crops themselves to produce fuel.

He’s right on all counts.

It is a crime against humanity. That’s not even hyperbole. What else can you call it when food is burned in front of starving people, and whole countries are dropped into famine, forced migration, and war?

And he’s also right that microbial, non-polluting!, methods to use plant waste rather than food have already been demonstrated in labs. We need some more genetic engineering to improve the microbes and tailor them to work under industrial conditions before they’ll be practical. Given the relatively small scope of the remaining issues, five years will likely be plenty … IF the scientific resources needed are devoted to the problem. (A summary of biofuels in an earlier post of mine.)

I’d be the last person to say that global warming isn’t an emergency. But creating a disaster .. which is profitable for some … by going into a mad panic over another disaster is like the moronic rush to nukes. We could, for once try the breakthrough concept of thinking this thing through. It is not essential to try every bad choice before giving up and trying the actual solution.

Cross-posted to Shakesville

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Lessing is right: No more terrible

It goes without saying (but I’m saying it anyway) that killing thousands of people is terrible. On the scale of the thousands who die daily all over the world, the main difference in 9/11/2001 was the cost of the real estate destroyed.

The other main difference is that most US citizens never thought it could happen here. Now they have to think about it.

Lessing has done nothing but point out that others have been thinking about it all their lives. They’ve lived — or live — with the terror of bombs or kneecapping or lingering deaths down dark alleys every day of their lives.

Lessing has pointed out that the US is not special.

Technorati tags: Lessing, 9/11, terrorism, exceptionalism, politics, current affairs

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Ash Monday: Southern California Weather

It’s sunny here right now. It’s about 75F, 25C. Just like the stereotype.

Except there’s also a wind blowing off the Mojave Desert that is dry as an oven and gusts to 80 mph (approx 120 kph). (Sure, the sustained winds are half that, but it’s the gusts that rip the roof off. They came close to doing it to mine.)

The oven gale comes on top of months of almost no rain. Everything is dry as matchsticks. So it’s all going up in flames. Yesterday, the sky where I am was filled with ash and the sun was blood-red. After a brief run through the garden, trying to prop fallen plants back up, I look in the mirror and there’s ash in my eyebrows.

smoke-filled sky with the red sun barely shining through

But it is sunny. And 75F.

We’ve gotta be special around here. No normal bad weather for LA.

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In the event of an anaconda attack …

The following excerpt is from the US Government Peace Corps Manual for volunteers working in the Amazon Jungle (about 20 years ago, I think, when volunteers were a tough lot). It details what to do if an anaconda attacks you.

“Related to the boa constrictor, the anaconda is the largest snake species in the world. It grows to thirty-five feet in length and weighs 300 to 400 pounds.

  • 1. If you are attacked by an anaconda, do not run. The snake is faster than you are.
  • 2. Lie flat on the ground. Put your arms tight against your sides, your legs tight against one another.
  • 3. Tuck your chin in.
  • 4. The snake will begin to nudge and climb over your body.
  • 5. Do not panic.
  • 6. After the snake has examined you, it will begin to swallow you from the feet end – always from the feet end. Permit the snake to swallow your feet and ankles. Do not panic!
  • 7. The snake will now begin to suck your legs into its body. You must lie perfectly still. This will take a long time.
  • 8. When the snake has reached your knees slowly and with as little movement as possible, reach down, take your knife and very gently slide it into the side of the snake’s mouth between the edge of its mouth and your leg, then suddenly rip upwards, severing the snake’s head.
  • 9. Be sure you have your knife.
  • 10. Be sure your knife is sharp.”
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More Cellphone Adventures: Moving to Voip

It seems like a good time to think about how to dump Verizon, T, Qwest, and Co. With friends like these

Verizon Communications, the nation’s second-largest telecom company, told congressional investigators that it has provided customers’ telephone records to federal authorities in emergency cases without court orders hundreds of times since 2005. [emphasis added]

… who needs enemies?

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Double Standard: Alive and Well on the Left

Talking Points Memo is one of the best sources for US political news. I’m not aware of anything that even comes close (but then again there are rafts of things I’m unaware of).

They generally do a fine job of avoiding bias … and yet when it come to Hillary Clinton there’s an undertow, all the more noticeable for its absence otherwise.

Commenting on how the news media couldn’t stop criticizing her laugh, and then began criticizing the lack of it:

Yes, we’ve apparently reached a point in the media’s coverage of the campaign in which news outlets find it noteworthy when they don’t notice anything unusual about Sen. Clinton’s laugh.

As Greg Sargent put it, “We’ve come full circle: Damned if you do cackle; damned if you don’t.”

Indeed. That’s the normal operating procedure for discrimination: you’re never good enough, you’re too fat, too thin, too dumb, too smart, too soft, too bitchy, etc. etc. etc. It’s refreshing that they recognize it and expose it to daylight.

And then they make fun of how ridiculous the media focus is:

In related news, Rudy Giuliani delivered a speech yesterday in which he didn’t answer his cell phone; Mitt Romney answered questions without abandoning a position he held five minutes prior; John McCain hosted a town-hall forum in which he did not refer to anyone as a “little jerk”; and Fred Thompson went the whole day without responding to a reporter’s question with, “I don’t know anything about that.”

They’re right that the media are making drooling fools of themselves. However, note the examples. Clinton’s laugh is being compared to evidence of manipulative boorishness, pandering, lack of impulse control, and stupidity. But a laugh is like a person’s gait or breathing. It can be consciously controlled, but it doesn’t say anything about one’s morals, maturity, or intelligence.

What’s going on with Clinton is even worse than what TPM realizes. The real parallels would be to say, “In other news, Rudy Giuliani delivered a speech yesterday during which he was still bald; Mitt Romney answered questions without wrinkling his forehead; John McCain hosted a town-hall forum in which he gestured sometimes; and Fred Thompson went the whole day with bags under his eyes.”

That’s so bad, it’s not funny. That’s what Clinton is putting up with.

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A truly vicious political movement

Some things are beneath contempt, which to me means they’re beneath discussion. The attempted character assassination of a handicapped child for having the gall to support a government medical care program is one such thing. What’s worse is that the attack wasn’t a few crazies at the fringes. Senator Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, Minority Leader, helped get this ball of slime rolling.

But Paul Krugman has done one of his usual brilliant takedowns.

I think American children who need medical care should get it, period. Even if you think adults have made bad choices — a baseless smear in the case of the Frosts, but put that on one side — only a truly vicious political movement would respond by punishing their injured children.

Go read.

Technorati tags: S-CHIP, Graeme Frost, politics, current events,

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Even the Taleban pulls ahead of US

Not by much, admittedly, and not by choice, but still, there it is.

From a BBC report on the Taleban-controlled northwest frontier of Pakistan, this image bowled me over.

“The Taleban take advantage of solar energy,” says the caption.

Used to be, we didn’t have to worry about being outclassed by the likes of them on anything.

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