Archive for March 1st, 2010

Our precious thin atmosphere

| March 1, 2010 | 3 Replies
Our precious thin atmosphere

Click on this link to see a beautiful photo of the Earth by the Goddard Space Flight Center. What is stunning to me is the thin-ness of the Earth’s precious atmosphere. Click on the image for a much-enlarged version.

earth-blue-marble

How was this photo taken?

This spectacular “blue marble” image is the most detailed true-color image of the entire Earth to date. Using a collection of satellite-based observations, scientists and visualizers stitched together months of observations of the land surface, oceans, sea ice, and clouds into a seamless, true-color mosaic of every square kilometer (.386 square mile) of our planet. These images are freely available to educators, scientists, museums, and the public. This record includes preview images and links to full resolution versions up to 21,600 pixels across.

Much of the information contained in this image came from a single remote-sensing device-NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS. Flying over 700 km above the Earth onboard the Terra satellite, MODIS provides an integrated tool for observing a variety of terrestrial, oceanic, and atmospheric features of the Earth. The land and coastal ocean portions of these images are based on surface observations collected from June through September 2001 and combined, or composited, every eight days to compensate for clouds that might block the sensor’s view of the surface on any single day. Two different types of ocean data were used in these images: shallow water true color data, and global ocean color (or chlorophyll) data.

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How big are the big banks?

| March 1, 2010 | 1 Reply
How big are the big banks?

At The New Republic, Simon Johnson and Peter Boone offer some eye-popping numbers to illustrate how big the big banks have gotten:

As a result of the crisis and various government rescue efforts, the largest six banks in our economy now have total assets in excess of 63 percent of GDP (based on the latest available data). This is a significant increase from even 2006, when the same banks’ assets were around 55 percent of GDP, and a complete transformation compared with the situation in the United States just 15 years ago, when the six largest banks had combined assets of only around 17 percent of GDP. If the status quo persists, we are set up for another round of the boom-bailout-bust cycle that the head of financial stability at the Bank of England now terms a “doom loop.”

From the same article, here’s more numbers to illustrate how big is big:

The big four have half of the market for mortgages and two-thirds of the market for credit cards. Five banks have over 95 percent of the market for over-the-counter derivatives. Three U.S. banks have over 40 percent of the global market for stock underwriting. This degree of market power brings with it not just antitrust concerns, which this administration has declined to act on, and a huge amount of economic risk–but great political influence as well. The banks are going to use that power to block legislation containing any meaningful financial reform. And they are likely to succeed.

Can we simply regulate banks? More bad news:

The idea that we can simply regulate huge banks more effectively assumes that regulators will have the incentive to do so, despite everything we know about regulatory capture and political constraints on regulation.

In their conclusion, the authors are not optimistic that the Obama White House has the will to push meaningful reform.

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Framing the deaths of children

| March 1, 2010 | Reply
Framing the deaths of children

An article at MSNBC caught my eye. The title: “Doctors hastened dying kids’ death, say parents.” My initial reaction was that the doctors had done something bad. The article turned out to be more nuanced than the headline, but the opening paragraph suggested that some doctors were acting nefariously:

It’s a situation too agonizing to contemplate — a child dying and in pain. Now a small but provocative study suggests that doctors may be giving fatal morphine doses to a few children dying of cancer, to end their suffering at their parents’ request.

But then I thought, what if the opposite were true? And then what if the opposite headline read like this:

A provocative study suggests that some doctors are refusing to give enough pain-relieving morphine to children dying of cancer, thereby exacerbating and extending their horrific suffering.

My point is not just to be provocative. Before going further, I should disclose that I am the parent of two young (healthy) children, so this horrid situation is something that I find extremely uncomfortable to even contemplate. Nonetheless, what would I do if I had a a child who was writhing in pain, and who had only weeks or months before he would die? Would it really a bad thing to give that child more pain medication in order to lessen his pain, knowing that it would shorten his already terribly shortened life expectancy?

I am amazed at how Americans make simplistic cartoons out of so many moral dilemmas. We call it “mercy killing,” even when the aim is to reduce suffering. I would never criticize a parent for wanting to relieve a child’s suffering by giving pain medication when that child is dying of cancer. Maybe we need a new language to meaningfully discuss this situation. How about calling it “relieving the suffering of an innocent child.” Why call it “killing” at all? Why even call it euthanasia (literally, “good death”)?

When a child is being non-stop crushed with pain, what kind of parent enhances the pain by withholding drugs in order to attempt to display an incredibly shallow version of moral superiority to others in the community? Shouldn’t the whole focus be what’s best for the child? Is it better for the child to be in excruciating pain, every hour of the day, or to be given relief from the pain, even though it shortens his life? I know that many people disagree with me–they think that any wretched existence is superior to the end of one’s earthly existence. Ironically, most of those people believe in an afterlife. I don’t get it.

When we’re dealing with the family pet, everyone knows the answer. We call it being “humane” to the pet when we choose to painlessly put the pet out of its misery. But somehow, when we are being “humane” to humans, we intensify and extend their suffering. What’s driving this upside-down logic? Are the critics merely having sport with doctors, most of whom are working extremely hard to give the families what they need and want?

This issue is not limited to dying children, of course. Hence the moral second-guessing when sick elderly adults choose to die in far off places like Switzerland.

There are many other ways to needlessly kill healthy children and to make them suffer and to deprive them of healthy minds, but we don’t use the word “kill” when describing legislation that does this. You know . . . legislation that cuts medical care, closes subsidized daycare, fails to fund nutrition education centers, or allows bad schools to continue to operate. Perhaps we should use the word “kill” in those situations, since that word often provokes people to take action.

But I also think that we need to jettison the “kill” language for those gut-wrenching situations where children are dying and parents are struggling to figure out what to do. We should start over when an entirely new language devoid of the word “kill,” because it is the disease that is killing such children, and the parents are trying to deal with the disease. Only with a new language with a more thoughtful version of causation is worth of such situations.

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“Collapse” goes mainstream

| March 1, 2010 | 2 Replies
“Collapse” goes mainstream

Last week I wrote about a new film, Collapse, and the arrival of Peak Oil as one of the primary factors driving that collapse. Two years ago, daring to speculate about the end of America, or of capitalism itself would have been greeted with a hearty guffaw, or at least some very skeptical glances. Today, these concerns are no longer solely the province of the “doomers”– there is a blossoming awareness of the gravity of the challenges facing us. Consider these warnings from mainstream, highly credible sources:

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argues that our debt and unprecedented deficits have become a national security issue, not merely a matter of economics. Reuters reported:

    Having to rely on foreign creditors hit “our ability to protect our security, to manage difficult problems and to show the leadership that we deserve,” she said.

    “The moment of reckoning cannot be put off forever,” she said. “I really honestly wish I could turn the clock back.”

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