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19 Apr 04:25

Joe Firestone: Using Generational Warfare to Divert Attention from Oligarchy and Corporatism

by Yves Smith

Yves here. Even though the pitched battle to cut, erm, reform Social Security and Medicare has died down, don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s over. Neoliberals keep stoking generational warfare to drive a wedge between the young and old so as to keep them from noticing who is behind the campaign to have old people die faster.

By Joe Firestone, Ph.D., Managing Director, CEO of the Knowledge Management Consortium International (KMCI), and Director of KMCI’s CKIM Certificate program. He taught political science as the graduate and undergraduate level and blogs regularly at Corrente, Firedoglake and Daily Kos as letsgetitdone. Cross posted from New Economic Perspectives

Some of the favored children of the economic elite who have a public presence, work hard in their writing and speaking to divert attention from inequality and oligarchy issues by raising the issue of competition between seniors and millennials for “scarce” Federal funds. That’s understandable. If millennials develop full consciousness of who, exactly, has been flushing their prospects for a decent life down the toilet, their anger and activism might bring down the system of wealth and economic and social privilege that benefits both their families and the favored themselves in the new America of oligarchy and plutocracy.

Here and here, I evaluated Abby Huntsman’s arguments for entitlement “reform,” and, of course, Pete Peterson’s son, Michael fights a continuing generational war against seniors in pushing the austerian line of the Peterson Foundation. Now comes Catherine Rampell, who, in a recent column, sets forth the position that seniors haven’t paid for their Social Security and Medicare because they “generally receive” more in benefits out of these programs than they pay into them. I’ll reply to all of the main points in Rampell’s argument, by quoting liberally and then replying to the points she makes in each quote. She says:

”Yes, seniors paid into Social Security and Medicare during the years they worked, if they worked. But they generally receive much more out of the entitlement system than they paid into it.”

She continues by citing an Urban Institute study and pointing out that earlier age cohorts received much more in benefits from Social Security than they paid in, and also says:

”But let’s consider the average worker who turned 65 in 2010. Generally speaking, the people in this cohort will, more or less, break even on Social Security, according to Eugene Steuerle, an Urban Institute fellow who co-authors the annual report. (Earlier generations made out like bandits; for example, members of an average one-earner couple who turned 65 in 1990 receive twice as much in Social Security benefits as they paid in taxes.)

Medicare, on the other hand, is pretty much a steal no matter when you turned 65.”

After citing some details documenting “what a steal” Medicare is, Rampell concludes the first part of her argument with this:

”It boils down to this: Despite all the “we already paid for it” rhetoric popular among seniors, seniors did not pre-pay for their entitlements. If anything, they paid for their parents’ entitlements, which were more modest than the benefits today’s retirees receive.”

This argument of Rampell’s is disingenuous, because it takes the claim that seniors have already paid for their entitlements as saying that they’ve paid dollar-for-dollar, more or less, for what they’re getting in benefits. But seniors who know how SS and medicare works certainly don’t mean this when they say they’ve already paid for it. What they surely mean instead, is that Congress has legislated the SS and Medicare safety nets, and the benefits that currently exist, for the purpose of seeing to it that seniors have a minimum of economic insecurity during the period of their lives when a large proportion of them no longer have the capability to earn a decent living due to illness, other infirmities, or an extreme reluctance of private sector employers to hire them even when they are very skilled.

To draw on the benefits of these programs seniors were required to pay FICA contributions during their working lives. These payments, according to the law, give them the right, in other words, entitle them, to receive the benefits of SS and Medicare that were mandated by Congress.

No one ever said to today’s seniors that there was some rule in the SS and Medicare programs requiring that their payments needed to, or ought to, correspond to the amount of their total benefits, since that was never the deal legislated by Congress. No, the deal was: “You pay your FICA contributions, and you get your benefits at retirement.” Simple as that!

So, people who followed the SS and Medicare rules and made their payments over the years rightly view themselves as having paid for their entitlement benefits, regardless of whether their cumulative FICA payments fall short of or exceed the cumulative sum of those benefits. Why shouldn’t they, and why is Rampell implying that the deal implicit in our major entitlement programs is anything different?

Additionally, I’m afraid that Rampell is also wrong when she says that today’s seniors “paid for” their parents’ entitlements. They certainly paid FICA and Medicare-related contributions, of course; but it is not true that these revenues paid for anything, in spite of Federal reports that appear to link the two, or the accounting that shows that the Social Security Administration has built up a $2.8 Trillion credit against future expenditures, and that Medicare has a much smaller volume of credit to be used for such expenditures.

The reality of Federal monetary operations is that Congress mandates the spending for all Federal programs and then spending occurs through the Treasury keystroking reserves into recipients’ accounts. Where do those reserves come from? They come from the Federal Reserve, of course, which has the delegated authority from Congress to credit reserves into Treasury accounts.

When, where, and why does it do this? The main trigger events are 1) tax and FICA contribution revenues, 2) sales of Treasury securities, 3) credits from coin sales and deposits at the Fed (coin seigniorge), 4) sales of Federal property, and 5) return of Fed profits to the Treasury. Tax and FICA payments cause the Fed to credit Treasury Tax and Loan (TT & L) accounts with reserves. Treasury coin sales and deposits at the Fed cause it to credit the Mint’s Public Enterprise Fund (PEF) account with reserves, and Fed profits and asset sales cause it to credit other Treasury accounts with reserves. So that’s how reserves get into what might be called Treasury income accounts.

From there, the Fed and the Treasury co-ordinate to ensure that there are sufficient reserve credits in Treasury spending accounts to allow Treasury to keystroke reserves into private sector accounts in fulfillment of all Treasury spending obligations. This occurs through the Treasury informing the Fed about its scheduled payments and peak reserve balance needs for a particular time period, and then the Fed and Treasury ensuring that the reserves will be there, if necessary through the issuance and sale of debt instruments, or even if Treasury would choose to do so through its creation (through the Mint), and deposit at the Fed, of platinum coins with face values specified by the Secretary (of course, this last option hasn’t yet been used).

So, two important points emerge from this account that Catherine Rampell and all who think that entitlement benefits are “paid for” by taxes and/or FICA contributions need to learn. First, once Congress mandates spending, there is no way that the Treasury can be forced into insolvency or an inability to pay its obligations as long as it is willing to make use of all the ways it can cause the Fed to create reserve credits in Treasury spending accounts which can then be used for its keystroking activities.

And second, there is no way, in the Federal Government spending context, to link any specific category of tax revenues or FICA contributions to benefit spending. There is no way to accurately say that this tax pays for that spending. Or that this spending is “paid for” by that tax. Or that millennials, and other age cohorts, are paying for seniors’ entitlement benefits, or for the difference between what seniors’ payments were before they began to receive benefits and what they are now getting paid afterwards.

The whole neoliberal construction of Government finance which assumes that the Government is a currency user with limited financial resources is false. The Government is a high-powered money creator of reserves, currency, and coins. It is the only high-powered money creator. It is the high-powered money monopolist.

So, Catherine Rampell, as well as all the conservative and/or austerian, and most of the progressive pundits and politicians of all stripes, are wrong to spend time debating who does or should “pay for” entitlement benefits with their taxes. Federal taxes don’t pay for anything. So, payments made to the Government “for” entitlement benefits should be, required, if at all, only for other purposes than “paying for” such benefits.

They have only the following functions. Some unknown level of taxation gives a national fiat currency its value, by ensuring that people will need that currency to pay their taxes. Taxes also can drain excessive reserves and net financial assets from the financial system, reducing aggregate demand when this is desirable. They can also be used to reduce levels of behavior society believes is undesirable, or to incentivize behavior it considers desirable, and to reduce the accumulation of wealth across generations, or to drive resources to charities, and for other purposes as well.

But, what they cannot do in a fiat currency system is to function as the actual effective means of “paying for” sovereign spending. The instrument that, in fact, enables such spending day-to-day is the sovereign and sole authority of the Government to create high-powered money. In the United States. This means it is the whole process of interaction among Congress, the Fed, and the Treasury that creates such high-powered money which determines the amount of spending we have and not the specific taxes we collect from any specific generational cohorts.

And this brings us to Rampall’s next point:

”So who’s making up the difference between what seniors paid yesterday and what they receive today? “Spoiled millennial [expletives]” like me, as well as Gen-Xers and both groups’ children. And absent a major influx of working-age immigrants, the burden per worker stands to grow enormously in the coming years. That’s because the bloated baby-boomer cohort is aging into retirement, Americans are living longer and health-care costs per person are rising.”

The facts of fiat money operations described earlier, make clear that nobody is making up that difference between seniors’ current benefits and seniors’ payments prior to their receiving entitlement benefits with their tax payments. What is happening instead, is that the Government is paying all benefits using established monetary operations, and its authority to create high-powered fiat money.

So, Rampell has nothing to worry about. Her money isn’t going to baby boomers or other seniors like me. Its destruction by the Government through taxation is fulfilling public purposes other than providing baby boomers and other seniors with their benefits.

But while on this subject, what’s the point of the reference to “the bloated baby boomer-cohort”? Are the boomers to blame for the size of their cohorts? Should they have increased their suicide and murder rates to bring the size of their cohort more in line with others? Do they bear a moral responsibility for continuing to live?

Full disclosure: I’m a senior, though not a boomer, but I don’t see what the point or the justification is for referring to them as “bloated” because their parents decided to celebrate the end of the Great Depression and World War II by having lots of children. In fact, I don’t think referring to the boomer cohort as “bloated” makes any more sense than referring to the millennial generation as “spoiled.” It’s the kind of thing that in days of more simplistic philosophy people used to call “cognitively meaningless,” and that we have always called ad hominem argument.

As for health care costs rising enormously, and “the extra burden” that will place on other generations, there are many ways of handling that other than reducing benefits to seniors. For example, we could begin by recognizing that increasing health care costs are not a burden for a Government that can create high-powered money to buy anything for sale within its own borders, and that the REAL financial problem of rising health care costs isn’t a government solvency problem, but a financial hardship problem for most Americans. It’s they who need both lower costs and good health care outcomes, not the Government.

So, rather than implying that Medicare benefits need to be cut, why doesn’t Rampell propose that HR 676, enhanced Medicare for All, be immediately passed by Congress? We know from experience in other nations that HR 676 or similar legislation would reduce the rate of increase of health care spending much below today’s levels.

In addition, if we can get down to the same percent of GDP Canada spends for health care with such legislation, then we will spend roughly $1 Trillion per year less than we spend now on health care. Since health care involves no deficit spending right now, that means $1 Trillion per year left in the pockets and bank accounts of sectors of the economy other than health care insurers and providers.

That’s an awful lot of new jobs created, along with better health care outcomes, if the experience of other nations with single-payer systems is any guide. So, why isn’t Rampell advocating that kind of solution, instead of saying things like “Look over here at that greedy old codger” and “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me; tax that senior standing under the tree”?

Maybe we can find an answer to that question by looking at the last paragraph in her column.

“But as a society, we must decide exactly how much we’re willing to subsidize the growing ranks of the elderly. Republicans argue that we should control entitlement spending because (I’m paraphrasing here) deficits are evil. They should be joined by Democrats, but for a different reason: Money for other worthy, traditionally liberal causes — education, infrastructure, children, the deeply poor — is being gobbled up by increasingly expensive and unfunded promises to the old.”

So, here we have everything in a nutshell. Rampell, consistent with her false belief that entitlements are “paid for” by inherently limited Government fund raising through taxing or borrowing, also appears to believes the falsehood that Federal money is limited by the Government’s ability to tax and borrow, and that the needs for a quality education for the young, infrastructure for a healthy economy, a good life and equal opportunity for children, the deeply poor, and, implicitly, opportunities for good jobs and a good life for her own millennial age cohort, are in competition for Federal money with the needs of seniors.

However, Federal money sufficient to fulfill all these needs can easily be made available if Congress is willing to appropriate it. For example, the faux entitlement solvency crisis that Rampell worries about can easily be fixed by passing legislation providing for annual automatic funding of expected costs for all SS and Medicare trust funds.

Congress does that now for Supplementary Medical Insurance (Medicare Part B), and Prescription Drug Benefits (Medicare Part D), and the same practice, using similar legislative language, can be extended to the SS Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and Disability Insurance (DI) trust funds. Solving the crisis can be done this way in an afternoon if Congress really wants to do it. End of faux problem; almost end of story, apart from possible debt limit problems.

Once legislation like this is passed, no gaps between SS revenue and benefits can be projected by institutions such as CBO, or other Petersonian deficit warriors. Because under current law, once those appropriations are set on automatic renewal annually, the Treasury will then have the obligation to spend those appropriations by using one or more of the various tools listed earlier to generate credits in the Treasury General Account (TGA).

Again, the Treasury has no fiscal solvency problem, under current law, provided it has an appropriation mandating it to spend, since it can always use its authority to create the reserves in the Treasury spending accounts to pay all its bills including all those exceeding its revenues. The customary way of creating such reserves is to sell Treasury debt instruments, destroying reserves in the private sector, while adding the net financial asset of Federal debt to that sector, and getting the Fed to place an equal amount of reserves in its accounts. But, this way of getting the necessary reserves can be interrupted by debt ceiling crises.

However, there are other ways it can be done that get around any refusal to raise the debt limit, if it wants to fulfill its obligations and pay all the benefits guaranteed by the change in the law to provide automatic appropriations that would solve this faux problem. The best way any gap appropriated by Congress can be closed under current law, is to use Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) to do it. I’ve explained how this would work in my kindle e-book, as well as http://neweconomicperspectives.org/category/joe-firestone-2 in many blog posts.

The basic idea is that its platinum coin seigniorage authority can be used by the Treasury to require the Fed to use its reserve creation authority to place reserves in Treasury accounts, without Treasury engaging in any additional taxing or borrowing. If Treasury doesn’t want to do this, then it can use a type of debt instrument which isn’t counted toward the debt limit such, as consols (See here).

Just as Congress, along with the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, can work together to solve faux self-created entitlement crises, it can also legislate the deficit spending needed to fulfill all the needs Rampell is worried about. It is a question of will and intention, not a question of financial capability. Rampell should not write disingenuously as if a future entitlement funding crisis is an inevitable fact of nature, rather than an aspect of “shock doctrine” and a political choice.

Entitlement benefits aren’t in competition with other needs for scarce Federal funds, and what seniors have paid in FICA taxes aren’t important for the level of benefits we decide to allocate to them. The whole debate over what’s been paid in and what seniors get out is all sound and fury signifying nothing but neoliberal madness and moral bankruptcy.

The proper frame to use when evaluating the question of how much the Government ought to subsidize one generational cohort as opposed to another isn’t the competitive neoliberal framing used by Rampell at all. The framing Rampell should be using is this:

”We don’t let old folks sleep on the street. We take care of our own. We don’t let children go hungry. We take care of our own. We don’t exclude the 47%. We take care of our own.

We’re all stakeholders in this great nation. We take care of our own. White, black, brown, yellow and red, we take care of our own. Young or old, healthy or sick, we take care of our own.”

Contrary to what Rampell advocates, the Democrats shouldn’t join with the Republicans to cut entitlements or any other spending, just for the sake of deficit reduction. Instead, they should embrace the framing of FDR’s last years and his Second (economic) Bill of Rights. That is the heart and soul of the Democratic Party: its reason to continue to exist.

It must turn away from corporatism and neoliberalism and turn again to this vision, or face its own death. Because if it won’t undertake and complete the great work FDR set out for it in 1944, creating renewed political, and new economic and social democracy, and ending the new American oligarchy, then the American people need it no more. And it may as well consign itself to history, and give a new “party of the people” a chance to do what it will not.

15 Apr 19:00

In Brief: Amazon's Smartphone May Have 3D Interface

by Norman Chan
Tertiarymatt

Eye-gaze tracking, coming to a cellphone near you.

First tablets, then a settop box, and now a smartphone. Amazon is increasingly becoming not only a services company, but a devices one as well. There have been many rumors in the past few weeks indicating that Amazon is almost ready to reveal its first smartphone, with the Wall Street Journal claiming a June announcement for a product release before the end of the year. BGR today posted not only many more details about this potential upcoming phone, but also what they claim are photos of the device. The high-end phone will run a heavily-forked version of Android, run on hardware similar to that found in other new Android phones, and have a 4.7-inch 720p screen. That relatively low resolution is likely to its big differentiating feature: four IR cameras on the front of the phone used for face and eye tracking. Ostensibly, these cameras will track the user to facilitate a glasses-free 3D interface. BGR's sources claim that this 3D effect will not be like the parallax filters used in the Nintendo DS. Instead, it'd be more like the faux 3D parallax effect (and nauseating side effects) of iOS 7's wallpaper, but one that responds based on where you head is instead of how you tilt your phone. The increased battery drain from processing and rendering this effect is likely why the phone would have a 720p display (also likely heavily subsidized), and my guess is that this novel interface effect is a trojan horse to let Amazon track user behavior when using their phones. Amazon wants to know not only how you're browsing the web and using your phone, but where your attention is, as well. More scary than exciting stuff.

15 Apr 08:23

Awesome Jobs: Meet Linda Gormezano, Polar Bear Poop Tracker

by Erin Biba

Understanding the changing dietary habits of polar bears is the key to seeing how climate change and shrinking polar ice is affecting their lifestyles. And the best way to know what’s happening with their diet? Look at their poop, of course! Linda Gormezano, an ecologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, has trained her dog Quinoa to help her find the best samples left by bears as they cross the frozen Canadian tundra. Gormezano chatted with us about why poop is such a useful scientific specimen and what it’s like to spend months living in a camp in the heart of polar bear country.

A grouping of adult male polar bears along the coast of western Hudson Bay in summer (photo credit: Robert F. Rockwell)

What’s ecology and how does it apply to polar bear research?

Ecology is the interaction between animals and the environment. What we’re studying is how polar bears behave on land with respect to available food -- what they eat and where they eat it. What I’m particularly interested in is how they hunt other animals and how the calories they gain from consuming them are going to affect their annual energy budget as their access to ice becomes more limited.

We collect scat and hair samples non-invasively. After consuming food on the ice or on land some bears leave scat. Also some bears rest right along the coast, bedding down in sand and grass where they leave hairs behind, while others head further inland and leave hair in dens.

Linda Gormezano and her dog, Quinoa. (photo credit: AMNH)

What, exactly, is an energy budget?

Nobody really knows how often polar bears in western Hudson Bay capture seals, but they get a certain amount of energy from consuming seals they hunt out on the ice and that energy allows them to survive on land for 4-5 months each year. If the ice melting earlier each year causes polar bears to have less time to hunt seal pups in spring, they may be taking in fewer calories over the course of the year.

What we want to know is, now that they’re eating more of certain types of foods on land, what kind of energetic benefits might polar bears be experiencing? Up until now many have thought what they were eating on land wasn’t really helping them at all. To evaluate this, we are examining the energetic costs and benefits of capturing and consuming those foods as well as how often the behavior occurs. Only then can we determine whether these foods could help alleviate nutritional deficits that polar bears may come ashore with.

What do they eat on land?

They’ve always eaten food on land. From historical records, we know they’ve eaten grasses, marine algae, moss, rodents, eggs and birds, even muskoxen. Some of these records date back to the 1800s. Although they’ve always eaten food on land, polar bears are believed to currently be in poorer condition because they have less time to access seals on the ice.

But what we’re finding is they’ve switched their diet. I analyzed 642 polar bear scats collected from 2006 to 2008 and created an inventory of the foods they were eating. We compared our results to a study performed in the late 1960s to see how the frequency of certain foods has changed. We see that they’re eating more of what’s available on the landscape today – especially caribou, snow geese and their eggs.

A polar bear scat collected on land in summer in western Hudson Bay containing caribou fur, goose egg shells, a hatching membrane and marine algae (photo credit: Linda J. Gormezano)

Populations of caribou and nesting snow geese have both exploded since the 1960s. Also, because the polar bears are coming ashore earlier, they’ve started overlapping the incubation period of the snow geese. When the females are sitting on their nests polar bears can just wander through the colonies, scare off the females and eat their eggs. They occasionally capture the females as well.

The increased availability of these foods coincided with the climate-related changes to the ice, which have only become apparent in the last 30-40 years in the region. If eating these novel foods provides an energetic benefit to bears coming ashore hungry then they may compensate for calories that they lose from not being able to hunt seals. This could increase their chances of surviving on land as the ice-free period expands.

Would it be a surprise if you found out the new eating behavior was beneficial for them? After all, If it wasn’t helping them would they still eat it?

You would think any animal would engage in a behavior that’s going to benefit them otherwise it would be maladaptive. There are questions, however, as to whether a polar bear can energetically benefit from chasing after prey on land. That is, would they gain more calories from consuming an animal than they would spend in the chase to capture it?

A polar bear eating a freshly killed caribou along the coast. (photo credit: Robert F. Rockwell)

We’ve observed polar bears repeatedly chasing and capturing geese when they’re flightless in July and August. We have also found that they use energy-conserving techniques such as ambushing and stalking to hunt birds and caribou, which may allow the some bears to energetically profit, whereas a long chase might not.

Eggs are an important exception to this because very little energy is expended to obtain them. They just need to walk through a nesting colony.

How do you figure out what they’re eating?

We collected roughly 1,500 piles of polar bear scats in summer as the bears were coming ashore. We poke through them and see what remains we can identify.

We collected roughly 1,500 piles of polar bear scats in summer as the bears were coming ashore. We performed morphological analysis. In other words, we poke through them and see what remains we can identify. That involved removing different items like plants, hairs, bones and feathers and identifying them under a microscope or comparing them to a reference collection.

Right now we’re taking it further by doing genetic analysis. For example, we’re using sex markers to match up the diets with the sex of the animal and using barcoding techniques to see if there were certain animals we missed. A lot of times we just saw black substances in the scat and it wasn’t clear what it was. With the barcoding, which we are doing in collaboration with a lab in France, we can see how much of that unknown substance was really whale blubber, seal, or fat or muscle of a land animal. I’m in the process of analyzing those data right now.

Where do you stay when you’re collecting samples?

One thing I didn’t mention is I don’t find the scat, my dog Quinoa finds it. During a good portion of the summer we lived out of a camp, Nestor 2, in Wapusk National Park in Manitoba. It’s pretty remote and only accessible by helicopter. Some of the research is done by foot near the camp, but mostly we get transported down the coast and further inland by helicopter, which is based out of the nearest town, Churchill, Manitoba.

Nestor 2 camp, located in Wapusk National Park (photo credit: Robert F. Rockwell)

It’s a series of eight buildings, some recently built, others that have been there for many years. There’s a sleeping area, a cooking area, storage, and workspace. It’s right off the shore of the Mast river. We filter water and we’re mostly self-sustaining out there.

It’s a very small community. There are no more than 16 people there at one time. It’s in the middle of polar bear country so we have an electric fence around it and very strict protocols on how to deal with bears.

Like what?

We have ladders that go up on the buildings so when bears are sighted (we have a rotation of lookouts for bears) everyone gets on top of a building. Even in the middle of the night. The protocols are for the dog also. We made a special ladder for him so he went up on the roof as well. He fell in line.

If a bear is adamant and remains near the fence, we load our shotguns with cracker shells, which are basically noise makers. We have magnum slugs ready to go but we’ve never had to use them. In 46 years of the camp being in existence we’ve never had to destroy a bear.

These protocols are pretty amazing. When they come near the fence we shoot off these cracker shells and hopefully they learn to associate the shock with the loud noise and it scares most of the bears away. There have been exceptions. A cub was able to squeeze through the fence so that the mother and the cub were separated. We eventually got the cub out and no one got hurt.

After the summer work is completed, we close up the camp and take down the fence so bears can access the camp anywhere. Even though it’s locked up during winter, sometimes the bears get curious and try to get in. When opening it up in spring to do a series of projects, we have had damage from bears entering buildings -- very often they’ll just plow through the walls.

They’re attracted to all types of things. They’ve been known to eat SOS pads and cleaners and things that are oil-based. They’re also just curious. Even though there’s no food left and the place is cleaned well, any lingering scents or just curiosity can draw them in.

How many bears live nearby?

There’s a lot of movement of bears around the area. In summer when they’re coming off the ice, they move up and down the coast. Females with cubs and younger bears tend to move further inland and the adult males stay closer to the coast. So we tend to have more family groups and subadults around the camp, wandering around and possibly looking for food.

Ice flows along the coast as the ice breaks up in summer in western Hudson Bay (photo credit: Linda J. Gormezano)
Although other researchers are tracking movements with GPS collars on some of the females, we prefer to gather this information noninvasively so that the bears don’t experience the stress of being captured.

The number of bears coming ashore and passing through varies depending on the pattern and speed of ice-breakup in Hudson Bay. Some females are attracted to certain denning spots so they may cross the area where the camp is to go to those areas. By collecting passively shed hair from beds and dens we’re hoping to track movement patterns of bears traveling while they are on land and examine the relatedness of bears that hang out together along the coast or den near each other further inland.

Although other researchers are tracking movements with GPS collars on some of the females, we prefer to gather this information noninvasively so that the bears don’t experience the stress of being captured. (You can’t put collars on males because their necks are bigger then their heads and they just fall off.)

How did you train Quinoa to find bear scat?

I got him when he was six months old at a kennel in Rhode Island. His mother was trained for drug detection work and his father for bite work -- attacking and holding people. The people who raised Quinoa wanted to train him for bite work but he wasn’t aggressive enough. They said he was a lover not a fighter. So I thought he’d be perfect for finding scat because he had a strong play drive. He’s a Dutch Shepherd, very agile and high energy. When he was young I got him obsessed with playing ball and hid his toys to teach him to find things. As soon as he found the toy we would play ball.

Quinoa doing a passive alert at a pile of polar bear scat. (photo credit: Robert F. Rockwell)

Then I expanded it to scat. He’s trained on polar bear and coyote scat.

Where did you get the scat to train him?

I got it from zoos around the country, but also local zoos in the Bronx and Queens that housed polar bears. I trained him to do a passive alert when he smelled his target scent – in this case, polar bear scat. That is, he sits down quietly and waits for his reward, which is 5 tosses of a rubber ball or tug of war.

I trained him off of other scents like grizzly, black bear, and red fox to make sure he understood the difference. He knows he only gets the reward when he finds coyote and polar bear.

Does he mostly work in the woods?

In the National Park in Canada where we sample for polar bears the landscape is mostly open tundra. He does work in the woods, too. We work locally finding coyote scat in and around New York City. We were actually in the woods yesterday.

What’s a day like with Quinoa out in the tundra?

We woke up, packed both the collection and dog gear, brought lots of food and water and got ready to fly to study area. If I was working with the dog I often did not carry a shotgun. My PhD advisor at the time, Robert Rockwell, acted as bear warden as well as hair collector and there was usually one other person with a shotgun helping out while I was handling the dog.

Playing tug of war with Quinoa as a reward for finding polar bear scat. (photo credit: Robert F. Rockwell)

We took the helicopter to different spots, landed, and I would put the dog on a 30-foot line to begin sampling. He would weave back and forth along the coast, looking for scat while the others would collect hair or work on other projects that were currently going on. The helicopter would stay in the spot and listen by radio for when to pick us up or fly down the coast to the end of our transect and wait for us (usually half a mile away).

We were always in contact for situations where bears might approach.

What kinds of gear do you bring with you?

For a day of sampling we would bring food for me and the dog, water, reward balls, plastic bags, markers, GPS, and radios to keep in contact with everybody on the ground. We would also bring extra layers in case the temperature drops. In the summer it occasionally goes below freezing, but for the most part it was pretty warm.

If the wind picks up and shifts to the north, it could be 50 degrees and the temperature could drop 20-30 degrees in a matter of minutes. It gets horribly, bitingly cold. Even the dog now has a lot of clothing and booties.

Does he enjoy it?

He’s a working dog. Most Dutch Shepherds just enjoy working and pleasing their owner. He absolutely loves it. When we get close to working, if he sees me pack up the gear, he starts whining and crying and he gets very excited.

Quinoa and Linda searching for polar bear scat along the shore of an inland lake. (photo credit: Robert F. Rockwell)

How long did you typically stay out in the park?

For the three years that we were collecting scat we would arrive at the end of May and stay until the middle of August. Rather than fly the dog the entire way from NY to Churchill, which was traumatic for him, we drove the dog to Winnipeg, parked our car, and then flew in from there. We usually did the drive in record time. Most normal humans would have taken longer, but we drove around the clock and could do it in three days from New York.

What are you working on now?

There have been sightings of coyotes in Central Park in New York City, as well as different areas of the Bronx, Manhattan and even in Queens. And we know for sure there are plenty of coyotes in Westchester. I’m collecting coyote scat as part of a collaborative project to track how coyotes are moving into and through the city. Are they staying in these parks and how many are there?

The idea is to collect scat and use genetic analysis to confirm that it’s definitely coyote. If the scat is viable enough we can identify individual coyotes and estimate the minimum number that are residing in a specific area.

Remote cameras were first set up and indicated that coyotes have begun to move in. It’s exciting to have the dog signal on scat in areas of New York City where you wouldn’t expect it.

You wouldn’t think of it as a place that’s wild enough to have coyotes, but they are very adaptable and can survive almost anywhere – even NYC parks apparently.

Photos courtesy Linda Gormezano

Not all science is done in a lab by guys in white coats staring into microscopes. Lots of discoveries require brave men and women to put their boots on the ground and get down and dirty in dangerous environments. Every month we’ll profile one of these field scientists, tell you how they do their job, and explain the science behind what they do. If there’s a scientist or field of science you’re dying to hear more about shoot us an email or a tweet: erin at erinbiba dot com, @erinbiba

16 Apr 10:55

Links 4/16/14

by Lambert Strether
Tertiarymatt

Link dump

Is that you, Polly? The amazing experiment that proves parrots give their children names Daily Mail

Rancher in land dispute is a bully, not a hero Las Vegas Sun

3 reasons the economy has some spring in its step Fortune

Flash In the Pan: On ‘Flash Boys,’ Michael Lewis’s Baffling New Book Maureen Tkacik, New York Observer (furzy mouse). Look! Over there! High frequency trading! 

Wall Street’s wily front group: Inside story of a rental scheme’s secret facelift David Dayen, Salon

Matt Taibbi: ‘Hands Down’ Bush Was Tougher On Corporate America Than Obama (VIDEO) Talking Points Memo. Democratic house organ feints left for the mid-terms.

Trillion-Dollar Firms Dominating Bonds Prompting Probes Bloomberg

“We are in great danger”: Ex-banker details how mega-banks destroyed America Salon

Intuit Does Subterfuge To Combat Free-Filing Tax Returns TechDirt

NY financial services regulator deepens probe into Credit Suisse FT

Cuomo to be ‘honorary chair’ of pro-charter retreat Capital New York

Defending Kickbacks Baseline Scenario

C.E.O. Pay Goes Up, Up and Away! Times

The lost promise of progressive taxes Reuters

Are ATMs the Right Channel for Serving the Underbanked? American Banker

Cannabis Goes Corporate The American Conservative

Winter Wheat Hit Hard by Widespread Cold Snap AgWeb

Why is Involuntary Part-Time Work Elevated? FEDS Notes

Losing Benefits Isn’t Prodding Unemployed Back to Work FiveThirtyEight. Chattel slavery has its advantages.

Private ownership of public infrastructure… A doom of inequality Angry Bear. “Don’t be caught without cash.”

Study: American policy exclusively reflects desires of the rich; citizens’ groups largely irrelevant Boing Boing

ObamaCare

Insurers see brighter Obamacare skies Politico

Abortion Coverage Details Hard To Find On Marketplace Plans KHN

Morning Plum: On Obamacare, the conversation is changing WaPo. “Conversation” is a favorite word for the Democratic nomenklatura because it implies equality while concealing power relations.

Health IT: The Coming Regulation The Health Care Blog

In Medical Decisions, Dread Is Worse Than Fear The Atlantic

Big Brother Is Watching You Watch

Accusation of FBI spying stalls 9/11 hearing Miami Herald

New York police end Muslim surveillance program Newsday

School Officials Bully Student into Deleting Recording of Bullying, Threaten him with Felony Wiretapping Photography is Not a Crime

FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States The Onion

Ukraine

Ukrainian forces move to dislodge separatists in the east FT

WH backs Ukraine crackdown The Hill

‘We Will Shoot Back’: All Eyes on Russia as Ukraine Begins Offensive in East Der Spiegel

Escalation of conflict in Ukraine puts country on brink of civil war – Putin Voice of Russia

Ukraine leader says Russia wants to set southeast ‘on fire’ Agence France-Presse

How to Save Ukraine Foreign Affairs

Radioactive Waste Is North Dakota’s New Shale Problem Online WSJ

Asian air pollution strengthens Pacific storms BBC

Manipulate Me: The Booming Business in Behavioral Finance Bloomberg

Struggling Dems waiting for Hillary in 2014 Politico

The Warren Brief The New Yorker. A biography. Unlike Obama, Warren’s written just one.

Can You Lie in Politics? Supreme Court Will Decide Roll Call

Why We’re in a New Gilded Age Paul Krugman, NYRB. Piketty.

‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’, by Thomas Piketty Martin Wolf, FT.

Comprehensive Disobedience: Occupying the Sharing Economy in Spain Shareable (diptherio)

Antidote du jour:

huskies_snow

See yesterday’s Links and Antidote du Jour here.

16 Apr 00:53

Tested Explains: How Google's Project Ara Smartphone Works

by Norman Chan
Tertiarymatt

So, this looks like it's totally going to happen.

Project Ara is real, and Google has its fingers on the pulse of the technologies required to make modular smartphones a reality. Given the overwhelming public response to the Phonebloks concept, it's something that users seem to want, too. But whether or not Project Ara modular phones have a future in the smartphone marketplace will largely depend on whether or not there's a strong hardware ecosystem to support it. The custom PC market wouldn't have flourished a decade ago if component manufacturers weren't making user-friendly video cards, storage drives, motherboards, and power supplies--the building blocks of a PC. That's the point of this week's Ara Developers Conference: getting partners excited and educated about how they can build hardware to support that vision for a modular phone.

The two-day conference, which was also streamed online, coincided with the release of the Project Ara MDK, or Module Developers Kit. This MDK provides the guidelines for designing Ara-compatible hardware, and along with the technical talks presented at the conference, offer the first clear look in the technologies that make Ara possible, if not completely practical. I attended the conference and read through the MDK to get a high-level understanding Google's plans for Ara, which goes far to address the concerns we and experts have had about the modular phone concept. I'm not yet a believer, but at least this clearly isn't a pipe dream. The following are what I consider the important takeaways from what Google has revealed so far.

A brief note: the conference was also the first public showing of a Project Ara working prototype (past photos have been of non-functioning mockups), though the unit was unable to boot up and had a cracked screen. A little appropriate, given that both the main processing unit and screen are replaceable modules.

Project Ara is two core components: the Endoskeleton and the Module

On the hardware side, Google has laid out specific guidelines for how Project Ara phones can be built. The most important piece of hardware is the chassis, or what Project Ara leads are calling the "Endoskeleton." Think of this as an analogue to a PC case--it's where all the modular components will attach. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the design of Razer's Project Christine, in that a central "spine" traverses the length of Project Ara phones, with "ribs" branching out to split the phone into rectangular subsections. In terms of spatial units, the Endoskeleton (or Endo) is measured in terms of blocks, with a standard phone being a 3x6 grid of blocks. A mini Ara phone spec would be a 2x5 grid, while a potential large phone size would be a 4x7 grid.

Fitting into the spaces allotted by the Endos structure would be the Project Ara Modules, the building blocks that give the smartphone its functionality. These modules, which can be 1x1, 2x1, or 2x2 blocks, are what Google hopes its hardware partners will develop to sell to Project Ara users. Modules can include not only basic smartphone components like the display, speakers, microphone, and battery, but also accessories like IR cameras, biometric readers, and other interface hardware. The brains of a Project Ara phone--the CPU and memory--live in a primary Application Processor module, which takes up a 2x2 module. (In the prototype, the AP was running a TI OMAP 4460 SoC.) While additional storage can be attached in separate modules, you won't be able to split up the the AP--processor, memory, SD card slot, and other core operational hardware go hand-in-hand.

Project Ara's prototype Application Processor module, which house the CPU, memory, SD card slot, and other core hardware.

Three new technologies make Project Ara work

Project Ara is only viable because its a confluence of new technologies that have been in development for years, and are almost ready to be put in consumer hardware. These three are the most important:

The first is UniPro, which is a high-speed interface protocol that Project Ara uses to allow its modules to speak to each other, though the hardware of the Endo. They share a common low-level language for communicating and building a network. The UniPro protocol has been in development for several years as a way to build a standard for mobile phone accessories--think of it like the USB protocol, but optimized for mobile. Its development is overseen by the MIPI Alliance, an organization composed of over 250 mobile companies, and Project Ara is tapping into the latest UniPro 1.6 spec, which offer high-bandwidth and low power connections between the modules.

Even though the modules know how to speak to each other, they need a way to physically connect to the Endo. The second technology Project Ara uses is capacitive M-PHY, a physical layer spec also developed by the MIPI Alliance and made to work with UniPro. For Project Ara, M-PHY is a capacitive interface, which means that the connection points won't be worn down over time from swapping modules in and out of the phone. Ara's implementation of the M-PHY interface block calls for 10 connection points, eight of which are for data (four pairs of lanes), one for power, and one for ground.

The final technology in Project Ara's module design is the use of electropermanent magnets for affixing the modules in place in the Endo. This is really cool--normal electromagnets magnetize depending on if current is running through them. That would be a battery drain, but electropermanent magnets only use current to flip magnetization on and off; it's able to retain its magnetized state without draining additional power. Project Ara engineers are hoping that electropermanent magnet design can be further miniaturized before modules go into production, since every bit of PCB space in the module is precious.

Google expects the Endoskeleton cost to be under $100

When users buy a Project Ara phone, they'll start by buying just the Endoskeleton and basic components, which Google has priced at around $50 for what they call a basic "grey" phone. That includes $15 for the Endo frame, $15 for the display, $5 for a battery, $10 for the main Application Processor module, and $5 for a Wi-Fi unit. These are just the bill of materials cost, and aren't what users will actually pay for modules, but Google is confident that getting started with a working Project Ara phone will cost well under $100. In terms of overall pricing for building a full-featured Project Ara phone, Google says that the only real cost overhead for Ara modules are Unipro technology and the electropermanent magnets. In addition, they expect that a flourishing component ecosystem will drive down prices and offer users more options for pricing.

Endoskeletons will last 5-6 years

Once you buy an Endo, Google expects that it should last you 5-6 years. The capacitive pads for the modules go a long way to keeping the metal Endos durable, and the UniPro/M-PHY interface has enough bandwidth for futureproofing (10Gb/s for most modules, 20Gb/s for large modules). The Endo will have a small battery built-in to supply reserve power, and that's one of the limiting factors for the lifespan of a Project Ara shell.

Modules are hot swappable

That built-in battery in the Endo is separate from the battery that will normally power the phone, and is needed to support hot swapping. Users will be able to swap out almost every module type without having to power down or reset their phone, the display and AP notwithstanding (for obvious reasons). That means that you'll be able to replace the main battery when it's low without turning off your phone, something that no smartphone can do today, even with external power attached.

Modules can have multiple functions

Google showed several prototype modules, including a Wi-Fi unit, biometric sensor (which measured pulse using an IR camera), and a dummy module that does nothing. The dummy module showed that developers will have about 40% of the PCB add their own hardware, with the rest dedicated to Ara-specific chips and tech, such as the magnets and UniPro processing. For larger modules, developers are able and encouraged to maximize their use of space, meaning that modules can have multiple functions. In fact, to build the display module, the Project Ara team used a Samsung screen that didn't take up all of the space available, so they packed in another small battery. Batteries everywhere, please.

3D Printing will get a boost from Project Ara

Even if Project Ara doesn't work out, there's one industry that may benefit from the R&D conducted for it: 3D printing. Google is working with 3D Systems in developing a new 3D printing machine that can print efficiently at volume, something that existing printers are not very good at. 3D printing will be used for Ara phone users to customize the casings for their modules, which are user-serviceable and snap fit around the PCB and safety shield.

The 3D printer in developing will print acrylic-based plastic, similar to what Shapeways calls its Detailed Plastic material. It'll be able to print cases in CMYK color (plus clear) with detail at 600DPI, and a sub-micron surface finish. The new printer, which is expected to be completed for Alpha testing mid-summer, prints using an assembly line track that goes in oval, like a racetrack. Unlike 3D printers like the MakerBot, the print head or build platform doesn't move back and forth across two axes--multiple heads and platforms work in unison, moving in just one direction to increase print efficiency.

Google is also working with Carnegie Mellon to develop conductive ink printing, so 3D printers can print electronics, like a Wi-Fi antenna while making a module casing. This technology is still a ways off, and won't make the 2015 Project Ara launch. There will also be a second Project Ara developers conference the July for artists and 3D printing companies to get involved.

Project Ara will not run stock Android

Because of the driver code required to support UniPro modules and other accessories, Project Ara phones will run a fork of Android for the foreseeable future, less the core Android team deems those features worthy to include in the mainline release. The software stack for Project Ara is one of the development threads that needs to be resolved before these phones can work, since Android doesn't support dynamic hardware configurations today. Ara will introduce generic class driers for UniPro modules (similar to how USB is processed), and some hardware drivers will be to be downloaded through a software distribution system like Google Play.

Project Ara isn't for the Internet of Things

Project Ara's leads made it very clear that they were not trying to build a jack-of-all-trades platform that would serve to be the hardware for the Internet of Things. That is, don't expect to plug Project Ara modules into watches or refrigerators. They want to build a viable smartphone platform first. But that doesn't mean that Project Ara devices have to be used as phones. You could imagine giving a child an Ara Endo with basic media and camera functionality but no Wi-Fi or cellular modules, allowing them access only when they're ready. It's like buying someone an iPod Touch that could later be upgraded to an iPhone.

Project Ara will launch early next year

As part of Google's ATAP (Advanced Technologies and Products) division, Project Ara is only given 24 months to go from concept to real product that users can buy--or at least one that demonstrates market viability. That urgency, along with the fact that only three Googlers are working Ara full-time, allows the team to take more risks and recruit technologists without having to commit them to a long-term tenure. It's a model that Google is adapting from DARPA, where Project Ara lead Paul Eremenko worked before Motorola and Google. Eremenko will take Project Ara through fruition in April 2015, which means Project Ara phones are much closer to reality than concept. Two more developer conferences are planned before the year is out, and pre-production prototypes are scheduled for December. That basic "Grey" Endo may be available for early-adopters to tinker with as early as January 2015.

Got any questions about Project Ara you didn't see answered here? Post your thoughts in the comments below and I'll do my best to address them based on what I know so far.

16 Apr 13:00

The Science of Caffeine

by Will Smith
15 Apr 09:30

Planned Obsolescence Disguised as Innovation, Oligopoly Disguised as a Free Market, and the Enrichment of Oligarchs

by Yves Smith

Yves here. We are delighted to feature this post from Roy Poses, who with his colleagues at Health Care Renewal, have been providing consistently high quality analysis of the often dubious practices and economics of the health care system.

By Roy Poses, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at Brown University, and the President of FIRM – the Foundation for Integrity and Responsibility in Medicine. Cross posted from the Health Care Renewal website

The New York Times published another article in its series on the high cost of US health care.  This one, focused on the care of type 1 diabetes mellitus and other chronic diseases, shines some light on the business management practices that now determine how our health care system functions, or not, and implies who benefits the most from them.

Planned Obsolescence Disguised as Innovation

The article first discussed the brave new world of type 1 diabetes treatment.  The introductory theme was:

Today, the routine care costs of many chronic illnesses eclipse that of acute care because new treatments that keep patients well have become a multibillion-dollar business opportunity for device and drug makers and medical providers.

Much of modern diabetes treatment seems to depend on medical devices and disposable medical supplies:

That captive audience of Type 1 diabetics has spawned lines of high-priced gadgets and disposable accouterments, borrowing business models from technology companies like Apple: Each pump and monitor requires the separate purchase of an array of items that are often brand and model specific.

A steady stream of new models and updates often offer dubious improvement: colored pumps; talking, bilingual meters; sensors reporting minute-by-minute sugar readouts. [Diabetes patient] Ms. Hayley’s new pump will cost $7,350 (she will pay $2,500 under the terms of her insurance). But she will also need to pay her part for supplies, including $100 monitor probes that must be replaced every week, disposable tubing that she must change every three days and 10 or so test strips every day.

Of course, the device and supply manufacturers claim that the high prices reflect the value of the wondrous new innovations:

Companies that produce the treatments say the higher costs reflect medical advances and the need to recoup money spent on research.

Yet now the Times reporter was able to find physicians who claim the “innovations” are really just the latest version of planned obsolescence:

Diabetes experts say a good part of what companies label as innovation amounts to planned obsolescence. Just as Apple customers can no longer buy an iPhone 3 even if they were content with it, diabetics are nudged to keep up with the latest model.

For example,

Those companies spend millions of dollars recruiting patients at health fairs, through physicians’ offices and with aggressive advertising — often urging them to get devices and treatments that are not necessary, doctors say. ‘They may be better in some abstract sense, but the clinical relevance is minor,’ said Dr. Joel Zonszein, director of the Clinical Diabetes Center at Montefiore Medical Center.
People don’t need a meter that talks to them,’ he added. ‘There’s an incredible waste of money.’

Pharmaceutical companies have also discovered this model.

insulin … has been produced with genetic engineering and protected by patents, so that a medicine that cost a few dollars when Ms. Hayley was a child now often sells for more than $200 a vial, meaning some patients must pay more than $4,000 a year.

In particular,

Synthetic human insulin is safer for patients, who sometimes developed reactions
to animal insulin. But it is made by only three companies: Eli Lilly, Sanofi and Novo Nordisk. Manufactured in microbes, each one’s product has minor dissimilarities that reflect the type of cell in which it was made. Since the companies owned the cell lines, it is nearly impossible for other companies to make exact copies or even similar versions that would be cheaper, even once the patents expire. And the pharmaceutical companies defend the patents ferociously.

What’s more, the three companies continued to refine their product, adding chemical groups that made the insulin absorb somewhat more quickly or evenly, for example. They are called insulin analogues, and their benefits are promoted tirelessly to doctors and patients.

Of course, the pharmaceutical companies also claim that it’s all about innnovation,

Dr. Todd Hobbs, chief medical officer of Novo Nordisk, defended the rising prices of insulin, linking them to medical benefits. ‘The cost to develop these new insulin products has been enormous, and the cost of the insulin to the consumer in developed countries has risen to enable these and future advancements to occur,’ he wrote in an email.

 Not everyone is convinced,

‘The insulins are tweaked for minor benefits that may help a small number of patients with difficult-to-control diabetes, and result in major price increases for all,’ [Kings College, London, UK Professor] Dr. Pickup said. Because of analogues, he added, Britain’s National Health Service has had to spend 130 percent more on insulin in the past five years.

In the United States, said Dr. Zonszein at Montefiore, the price of Humalog, Lilly’s analogue insulin, was typically two to four times that of its older human insulin line, called Humulin. ‘There is not a lot of difference between Humulin and analogues,’ he said, but he noted that Humulin was getting ‘hard to find.’ Sanofi Aventis has stopped selling its older product in the United States, and Mr. Kliff, the financial analyst, said other companies were likely to follow suit, effectively forcing patients to use the costlier versions.

The arguments about valuable innovation also do not explain why the prognosis of diabetes in the US does not seem to reflect all the money we spend on the disease,

Complication rates from diabetes in the United States are generally higher than in other developed countries. That is true even though the United States spends more per patient and per capita treating diabetes than elsewhere, said Ping Zhang, an economist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The high costs are taking their toll on public coffers, since 62 percent of that treatment money comes from government insurers. The cumulative outlays for treating Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes reached nearly $200 billion in 2012, or about 7 percent of America’s health care bill.

So to summarize, there is considerable evidence that companies that make drugs and devices to manage type 1 diabetes constantly provide “innovations,” yet most are minor changes that encourage obsolescence of previous products, but do not provide important increases in benefits or reductions in harm for patients. 

Oligopoly Disguised as a Free Market

Many in the US sing the praises of our supposed free-market health care system.  As noted above however, the insulin market is an oligopoly, dominated by three companies.  The diabetes device market is also dominated by a few companies, and in particular, the insulin pump market is dominated by a single company,

Medtronic is the dominant insulin pump manufacturer, serving 65 percent of American patients and the majority of those worldwide. Though smaller companies sell cheaper pumps, it is hard to make inroads: Once familiar with the Medtronic system and its extensive support network for troubleshooting problems, patients are reluctant to switch. Doctors are leery of prescribing equipment from a new company that may be out of business in a year; their office computer may not sync with the new software anyway.

Of course, Medtronic public relations will justify it all again based on innovation,

Medtronic declined to talk about specific prices, but said a core tenet was to make only ‘a fair profit.’ Amanda Sheldon, a spokeswoman, added: ‘We are committed to reinvesting in research and development of new technologies to improve the lives of people with diabetes, and our current pricing structure ensures that we can bring new products to market.’

The article also discussed the prices of treating chronic diseases other than diabetes.  For example, see how a nominally non-profit hospital priced treatments for chronic diseases,

Dr. Kivi was on high doses of steroids for debilitating joint pain that left him unable to walk at times.

But when his last three-hour infusion at NYU Langone Medical Center’s outpatient clinic generated a bill of $133,000 — and his insurer paid $99,593 — Dr. Kivi was so outraged that he decided to risk switching to another drug that he could inject by himself at home. 

However,  this pricing appears to have been facilitated by the hospital’s increasing market domination generated by its purchase of physician practices,

He had moved his care to NYU Langone to follow his longtime doctor, who had moved her practice from a nearby hospital where the same infusion had been billed at $19,000. The average price that hospitals paid for Dr. Kivi’s dose of Remicade late last year was about $1,200, according to Medicare data.

So in summary, a few companies now dominate the production of drugs and devices for the management of diabetes, and a few large hospitals may increasingly dominate the treatment of particular chronic diseases.  Such oligopolists are able to increase prices without improving treatment to or outcomes of patients.

Enrichment of the Oligarchs

This example shows how the current US health care system is dominated by huge organizations, mostly for-profit corporations but including some nominally non-profit corporations that act similarly.  They loudly proclaim innovation, but much of that innovation seems to provide few benefits to patients, and actually appears to be planned obsolescence.  The result is high and ever-rising prices. So if patients do not benefit from this, who does?

It does not appear to be the health care professionals,

Meanwhile, as the price of supplies rises, endocrinologists remain among the lowest-paid specialists in American medicine, meaning severe physician shortages in many areas and long waits to see a doctor.

We  have seen other examples of how leaders of the big health care organizations have become as rich as royalty.  Therefore, let us consider the pay of the leaders of the organizations mentioned above.  I will focus on the two US based corporations, Eli Lilly and Medtronic, and the New York hospital, NYU Langone Medical Center.

Eli Lilly

According to the company’s 2014 proxy statement, the 2013 total compensation of its five highest paid hired executives was

- John C Lechleiter PhD, CEO                                      $11,217,000

- Derica W Rice, CFO                                                   $5,176,822

- Jan M Lundberg, PhD, EVP, Science and Technology   $4,774,535

- Michael J Harrington, General Counsel                          $3,174,222

- Erico A Conterno, President Lilly Diabetes                    $3,009,041

Note that all of these executives save Mr Harrington have also amassed more than 100,000 shares of company stock, and Dr Lechleiter has amassed more than 1,000,000.

It should be no surprise, given our recent discussion (e.g., here) of the currently symbiotic relationship among top health care corporations and academic medicine, that several of the members of the Lilly board of directors that has exercised stewardship over the company, and is thus responsible for these gargantuan compensation packages and the business practices discussed above are top academic leaders.  These include,

- Alfred G Gilman, MD, PhD, Regental Professor Emeritus, recent (until 2009) executive vice presdient, provost, and dean of medicine, University of Texas Southwestern 

- William G Kaelin Jr, MD, Professor of Medicine, Associate Director of Basic Science, Dana-Farber Cancer Center, Harvard University

- Marschall S Runge MD, Executive Dean and Chair of the Department of Medicine, University of North Carolina Medical School

- Katherine Baicker PhD, Professor of Health Economics, Harvard University School of Public Health  (I must note that Prof Baicker is also – amazingly – on the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee, MEDPAC).

- Ellen R Marram, Trustee, New York-Presbyterian Hospital

- Ralph Alvarez, President’s Council, University of Miami

- R David Hooper, Trustee, Children’s Hospital of Colorado

- Franklyn G Pendergast MD PhD, Professor, Mayo Medical School

All but the newest directors were paid at least $250,000 a year by the company (and thus by the executives the directors are supposed to supervise), and all but the newest directors had accumulated tens of thousands of shares of stock or the equivalent as pay for their services.

Medtronic

Similarly, according to the company’s 2013 proxy (the latest now available), CEO Omar Ishrak made $8,975,866 in 2013, and the next four highest paid executives all made over $2,500,000 each.   Mr Ishrak owned or could acquire the equivalent of more than 500,000 shares of stock, and the other top paid executives owned of could acquire from over 100,000 to over 1,000,000 shares of stock.

Again, the executives were nominally supervised by a board of directors that included an academic and non-profit leader, Dr Victor J Dzau, MD former chancellor for health affairs at Duke University, and president-elect of the Institute of Medicine (note that we discussed Dr Dzau’s conflicts of interest most recently here).  It also included a former government leader, Michael O Leavitt, former US Secretary of Health and Human Services; and a hospital leader, Preetha Reddy, Managing Director of Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Limited (India). 

NYU Langone Medical Center

The Medical Center’s 2011 US form 990 is old, but the latest available, and is remarkably obscure, omitting, for example, mentioning the titles of any of the people listed as highest paid officers and employees.  The current CEO, was listed as receiving total compensation of just over $2.000,000.  Four individuals then received over $1,000,000.  The 990 form also mentioned that the Medical Center provided some individuals with first class travel, tax gross-up payments, housing allowances, and reimbursement for personal services.  Neither the 990, nor the center’s web-site makes all the possible conflicts of interest of its trustees obvious.   

So in summary, the large organizations, for-profit and non-profit, that are able to greatly increase their prices through planned obsolescence disguised as innovation, and oligopoly disguised as free markets, are able to make their top executives very rich, and also enrich those who are supposed to exercise stewardship over them. 

Summary

An extensive journalistic investigation revealed how certain aspects of chronic care in the US health care system are dominated by a few large organizations.  These organizations are able to charge very high prices, mainly through market domination, and with the aid of marketing and public relations that tout planned obsolescence as valuable innovation.  The leaders of these organizations have become wealthy, often fabulously so.  This state of affairs has not been challenged by those who are supposed to provide stewardship, including many prominent academics.

The US health care system is the most expensive, on a per capita basis, in the world, and far more expensive than that in any other developed country.  Yet there is no evidence that its results are superior to those of other countries.  What evidence there is suggests in fact that our results are mediocre at best.

The current example suggests how the US system differs from those of other countries.  It has an ostensible free market focus.  Yet the system appears more to be an oligopoly, with most of its market components dominated by a few large organizations, run as an oligarchy, by a small, overlapping in-group of managers, executives and their cronies, with elements of corporatism, that is with the cooperation of, rather than regulation by government entities and leaders

A real free market health care system would include a level playing field.  This could only be achieved by the government acting as a fair umpire, not a crony.  Anti-competitive practices would have to end.  Oligopolies would have to be broken.  Deceptive marketing and public relations would have to be exposed.  Leaders would have to be made accountable, especially for putting patients’ and the public’s health ahead of their own enrichment.  All this would be horribly difficult, as the oligarchs have amassed much money and control, and would oppose, possibly violently, any effort to challenge them.  If we do not challenge them in the US, however, not only will our health care continue to become ever more expensive, less accessible, and less beneficial to patients, but we will all cease to be citizens of one of the first real democracies, and end up serfs instead. 

14 Apr 04:00

27p38

by Christopher Hastings
Tertiarymatt

Science is always making demands on us, it turns out. Many of them are sort of unreasonable.

27p38

27p38 is a post from: The Adventures of Dr. McNinja Ads by Project Wonderful! Your ad could be here, right now.

27p38 is a post from: The Adventures of Dr. McNinja

Ads by Project Wonderful! Your ad could be here, right now.
09 Apr 18:42

How To Get Into Hobby RC: Car Basics and Monster Truckin'

by Terry Dunn

After a few months of lightly tapping, it’s finally time to pound the drum about RC cars. Of course, there are countless styles of cars that you can get into. For now, I will focus on the type of cars that I recommended for beginners in the first article of this series: 2-wheel-drive, electric-powered, monster trucks.

Just like every other facet of RC, cars have benefited from recent advancements in radio, motor and battery technology. As I looked over my aging collection of well-used cars, I realized that none in my fleet reflected any of these modern advancements. So I took a two-pronged approach. I procured a new monster truck and I also modernized one of my older cars. Between this guide and a follow-up next week, I will cover my experiences with both projects.

The Case for RC Cars

I received my first RC car, a Kyosho Ultima, when I was in middle school. I really just wanted something to play with, but the Ultima turned out to be much more than a toy. Hobby-grade cars like the Ultima are meant to be worked on, and actually require some maintenance. As time went on, I found that I enjoyed wrenching on the car as much as driving it. It was also fascinating to make adjustments to the car and see how they affected its performance. That poor car endured countless modifications at my hand. Some ideas worked, but many didn’t. The Ultima always emerged relatively unscathed, and I got a little smarter each time. More than 25 years later, I still have most of the parts for that Ultima (in working order).

If a chemistry set is an ideal toy for aspiring chemists, then RC cars will cultivate the minds budding engineers.

If a chemistry set is an ideal toy for aspiring chemists, then RC cars will cultivate the minds budding engineers. Sure, they can teach you many lessons that carry over to full-size cars, but there is so much more. I learned about 2-stroke engines, electric motors, batteries, gearing, torque, and above all: the value of working with my hands. Countless times while working on space hardware in my professional career, I was able to apply a lesson learned from that Ultima. If, like me, you have a young tinkerer in your house, RC cars may be just the thing to let them explore relatively risk free.

Movin’ On Up

You may recall that I chose my recommended starter trucks (the Traxxas Stampede, ARRMA Granite and ECX Ruckus) because they are super tough and their big tires let them run just about anywhere. At the time, I did not have any experience with the Granite or the Ruckus, but I added them to the list because of their similarity to the Stampede. I am now the owner of a Ruckus and it has lived up to my expectations.

A Spektrum 2.4GHz pistol grip radio is included with the Ruckus. With 2.4GHz, there is really no need to worry about interference from other users.

My motivation for getting a Ruckus was to have a truck that reflects current technology. Whereas all of my older cars and trucks use 75MHz radios, the Ruckus comes with a Spektrum brand 2.4GHz radio system. The previous article in this series talked about the advantages of 2.4GHz systems. Another modern feature in my Ruckus is a brushless motor. ECX offers versions of the Ruckus with either a brushed or brushless motor, but I was anxious to see the difference a brushless motor would make. I’ve used brushless motors in my airplanes for years, but this is my first car with one.

Brush-less is More

There are a few things in this world where not having a certain option is touted as a benefit. The first things that come to my mind are “seedless”, “strapless”, and of course, “brushless”. I’ll give a generic explanation of what brushes are and why omitting them is generally a good thing. For a more detailed explanation, Horizon Hobby has a very informative video on this topic.

Although this brushless motor (top) and brushed motor (bottom) appear very similar, their efficiencies and performance potentials are very different.

Electric motors work by having a magnetic field (or several) with fixed polarity astride another magnetic field with alternating polarity. Working on the principle that opposite polarities attract and likes repel, the varying relationship between the two magnetic fields causes the motor shaft to spin. The fixed field is accomplished with simple magnets. The alternating field is created by passing electric current through coils of wire. By toggling the direction of the current in the coils (commutation), the polarity of the resulting magnetic field is also toggled.

In a brushed motor, commutation is a mechanical process. Voltage is provided to the motor through hard electrical contacts (the brushes) which are pushed by springs against a segmented contact (the commutator) on the spinning part of the motor (armature). As the commutator spins, the brushes contact different segments, which are wired to alternate the current in the coils. This process happens thousands of times per second.

Since commutation is self-contained, you do not need an external device to make brushed motors work. All you have to do is attach a DC energy source such as a battery, and the motor will spin. RC cars however, use an Electronic Speed Control (ESC) to regulate the input voltage to the motor and thus control how fast it spins. Think of an ESC as an electronic throttle.

A relatively powerful brushed motor might achieve efficiency values in the 50% range, while it is not uncommon for properly configured brushless motors to hover around 90% efficiency.

Brushless motors require specialized ESCs to operate. Here, commutation is an electronic process that is handled by the ESC. The motor itself is actually much simpler than a brushed motor because the brushes, springs and commutator are omitted. With those parts gone, we also lose a huge source of friction and electrical resistance…good riddance. The end result is that brushless motors are much more efficient than their brushed cousins.

A relatively powerful brushed motor might achieve efficiency values in the 50% range, while it is not uncommon for properly configured brushless motors to hover around 90% efficiency. For a given power source, going brushless could yield as much as 40% more output…that’s huge! That “bonus” energy could translate into more speed, quicker acceleration, and/or more run time.

Before we eat this presumed free lunch, let’s look at the drawbacks to brushless power. The most obvious difference is cost. In the case of the Ruckus, choosing the brushless option is a $120 upgrade over the base $170 truck…certainly a significant difference.

Another aspect to consider is that a brushless-powered truck may actually have too much power for beginners. Imagine learning to drive with a ’71 4-speed Hemi ‘Cuda. In fact, I was reluctant to allow my 11-year-old son to drive the Ruckus until he put in some time driving one of my slower cars. Right out of the box, the Ruckus was by far the fastest car in my inventory. While he quickly developed the skills to handle the Ruckus to my satisfaction, it still gets away from him at times. Being honest, it gets away from me on occasion! Of course, you can alter the gearing and the batteries to slow the truck down. However, if this will be your first truck, you probably are not yet confident making those types of changes.

Lastly, having so much power available can be hard on the vehicle. Beginners are going to crash into things. Having more power just means that they crash into them faster. Yes, the Ruckus and similar trucks are surprisingly tough, but there is a practical limit. And let’s not overlook the toughness of the things they may crash into (mailboxes, fenders, ankles, etc.).

The Ruckus from ECX is one of several monster trucks that provide a fun but forgiving introduction to RC cars.

To sum up the “brushed vs. brushless” argument, I’ll say that brushless is the better long-term investment. You’ll just need to be more diligent until you can handle the extra power with confidence. However, don’t feel that brushed motor vehicles are dogs. Until recently, cars with brushed motors were all I knew and I rarely felt that I needed more power. If you can’t have fun with a monster truck running a brushed motor, you probably should consider a different hobby.

Examining the Ruckus

This top view shows the overall layout of the truck. The steering servo and radio receiver are located beneath the forward grey panel. This helps protect them from water and dirt.

The Ruckus is a pre-built truck, so it arrived in a sizeable box. All I had to do was install four AA batteries into the Spektrum transmitter and charge the truck’s battery with the included charger. The battery that comes with the Ruckus is a 7-cell, 2400mAh Nickel Metal-Hydride (NiMH) pack. The included charger plugs into an AC outlet and has a single button to operate it--easy! With a fixed charge rate of 2 amps (2000mA), it theoretically would take 72 minutes to charge a fully depleted pack (2400mAh/2000mA = 1.2 hour = 72 minutes). There are other factors that affect the actual charge time, but 72 minutes is a good ballpark estimate.

The Ruckus includes a 7-cell 2400 mAh NiMh battery that provides plenty of power and good run times. I routinely get 7-8 minutes when driving on the street. The included charger will refill the battery in a little more than an hour.

Like most RC cars, the Ruckus includes a polycarbonate (Lexan) body that is attached to the car with nylon posts and small body clips (aka hitch pins, hair pins, or R-clips). The body adds style to a car, but it also provides a great deal of protection. Polycarbonate is incredibly tough stuff, so think of the body as a sacrificial shield for the expensive guts within. With the body removed, you can see the inner workings of the truck. The plastic chassis has a channel in the middle for the battery. A T-shaped plastic strap covers the battery to keep it in place.

The front of the Ruckus features a big bumper to help protect the Nylon suspension components. Also note the body mount rising above the chassis.

Probably the first things you’ll notice with the body removed are the long suspension arms and big oil-filled shocks. This long-travel suspension system (along with the big tires) is what makes monster trucks so versatile. They can run over or into just about anything without much damage

Looking behind the front wheels, you can see the steering mechanism. A servo operates the system of levers to articulate the steering. Most of the servo is hidden under the grey cover in the chassis, which protects it from the elements. The radio receiver is also in this compartment. You may notice that one of the steering arms is spring-loaded. This helps protect the gears inside of the servo from being damaged by sudden jolts to the front wheels.

This view of the Ruckus shows the battery strapped into place and plugged into the Tazer ESC. The equipment layout is clean and functional.

Moving further back in the chassis, the brushless ESC is mounted above the battery compartment. Notice that there are three sets of wires coming from the ESC. One small gauge, 3-conductor wire leads up to the receiver. Three larger wires connect the ESC to the motor. The final pair of wires connects the battery to the ESC. Like most modern ESCs, the Tazer included with the Ruckus features a Battery Eliminator Circuit (BEC). This allows the main battery to power both the motor and the radio gear (which operates on only 5-6 volts).

Brushless motors such as this one on the Ruckus (in red) provide much better efficiency than common brushed motors. The available power is surprising. However, brushless power isn’t necessarily the best option for everyone.

At the rear of the Ruckus, is the red anodized brushless motor, which is bolted to the transmission. The output of the transmission is a set of universal drive shafts that reach out to the rear wheels. As you push the suspension up and down, you can see how the drive shafts telescope in and out to accommodate this movement. In many ways, this system is probably more complex and capable than the drive system on your full-size car. Then again, your full-size car isn’t meant to tear across open fields at full throttle and jump off of ramps three times its height.

Hidden inside of the transmission is a differential. Just as with full-size cars, the point of a differential is to allow the left and right wheels to turn at different speeds…as when going around a turn. It is a vital piece of hardware. The Ruckus includes a gear-type differential, which effectively sends all of the motor’s power to the wheel with the least traction. Most full-size cars also have gear differentials. Did you ever notice how most tracks left on the street by burnouts are just one streak instead of two? A gear differential is the reason why.

Note how all of the plastic components of the truck fit together. The Ruckus is well engineered and tough enough to handle the abuse that rookies (and veterans) inevitable dish out.

Having power to just one wheel may sound like a bad thing, but it usually isn’t…at least not with backyard bashers. Let’s say you take a corner too hard and the truck tips up on two wheels. The rear tire that came off of the ground is now getting all of the power while the tire on the ground is coasting. This is just like letting off of the throttle and will usually prevent the truck from getting into an even worse attitude (although flips and roll-overs are to be expected…and enjoyed).

Race cars will typically have a ball differential instead of a gear differential. A ball differential is equivalent to a limited-slip differential in full-size cars. The main difference being that you can adjust the tension in the differential so that it distributes the power more evenly between the right and left…even if there is a difference in traction. Maybe Marisa Tomei can explain it better. After all, she earned an Oscar for explaining differentials.

With the higher efficiency of the brushless motor, I was getting seven or eight minutes of hard running from each charge.

When I first drove the Ruckus, I was startled by several things. First of all was the speed. It is considerably faster than any monster truck I’ve seen with a stock brushed motor. I was also surprised by how well it coasts. Without the drag of brushes on a commutator acting as a brake, the Ruckus goes surprisingly far after you let off of the throttle. The ESC provides electronic brakes (and reverse) if you need to stop in a hurry. The last big thing I noticed was how long it ran. I’ve had fast cars with brushed motors before, but the cost of that speed is run time. With the higher efficiency of the brushless motor, I was getting seven or eight minutes of hard running from each charge. Higher capacity batteries (more mAh ) are readily available and would stretch the run time even greater.

The tires that come with the ruckus are a compromise between on-road and off-road traction. They do really well on my paved street (often sending pebbles zooming in all directions) and they hook up reasonably well on the hard-packed dirt fields around my neighborhood. All in all, I’m comfortable taking it just about anywhere.

Between me and my son, we’ve jumped, cartwheeled, rolled, skidded, and generally abused the Ruckus. We haven’t broken any parts yet, but I’m sure that day will come. When it does, that will be a chance for us to fix it together. Having the Ruckus and being able to share it with my son has reignited my excitement for monster trucks.

Monster trucks are comfortable either on-road or off-road, so you can drive them just about anywhere. Trucks with brushless motors, such as my Ruckus, need a little extra space due to their high speed. So make sure you have enough room to let them fly.

Intermission

This guide will continue next week. In the next post, I will talk about the older RC car that I recently modernized. I will also discuss battery options and why I prefer the types of batteries that I use.

Photos courtesy Terry Dunn

11 Apr 00:00

Heartbleed Explanation

Tertiarymatt

A clear explication.

Are you still there, server? It's me, Margaret.
09 Apr 17:00

The Low-Budget Movie Gimmicks of Cinema Past

by David Konow
Tertiarymatt

I had no idea that Smell-O-Vision was a real thing.

With so many people watching movies at home with Blu-ray or through streaming services, Hollywood has been desperate to bring people back to theaters. This is why we’ve had the big 3D revival. With the success of films like Gravity, IMAX has also been a hot ticket. And overseas, 4D cinema has been very successful as well.

4D is a cinema technology that can encompass many different experiences, and one that used to be most associated with the gimmick of Smell-O-Vision. In Asia, there are theaters that pump scents into the theater, providing the audience with the extra "dimension" of smell. There has been some effort to try and have theaters like this in the States, and Robert Rodriguez tried a similar version with scratch-and-sniff cards, unsuccessfully, for Spy Kids: All the Time in the World. (Perhaps he shouldn’t have made a soiled diaper one of the scents.)

As silly as this gimmick may sound, when you look back in cinema history, it was something that was attempted way back in 1960. In fact, there have been many gimmicks that tried to give audiences much more than a regular movie could provide, often with a much smaller budget and less resources than the major studios had to play with.

As we’ve previously reported, the first 3D feature film, Bwana Devil, was an attempt to get people into theaters again, because a brand new technological innovation, television, was keeping a lot of people at home. In fact, the ads for Bwana Devil promised you would be seeing something “Newer than television!”

And even in the case of 3D, it was a cheaper technology because it was trying to give audiences something spectacular that was much less expensive than Cinerama widescreen, which required major reworking of theaters to support. With other gimmicks that followed, a lot of filmmakers have tried to bring audiences into theaters for cut-rate prices, and many of these innovations are amusing to look back on today. Here are some of my favorites.

The original version of 4D was first called “glorious Smell-O-Vision,” and it was used back in 1960 in the movie The Scent of Mystery. The technology was first developed by Mike Todd, a famous impresario who was married to Elizabeth Taylor. Todd produced the film Around the World in 80 Days, and he also developed the Todd A-O widescreen process, which was a variation on Cinerama with some of the bugs ironed out. Todd died in a plane crash in 1958, and his son, Mike Todd Jr., finished up his father’s work with Smell-O-Vision, and finally brought it to the big screen with Scent of Mystery.

Like 4D today, scents were pumped into the theater by tubes that were located under the seats. The smells that filled the air included roses, peaches, wood shavings, shoe polish, oil paint, garlic, the ocean breeze, incense, gun smoke, and more. This film was a mystery story, and the scents helped audiences follow the clues left behind, like perfume, and pipe tobacco, which the villain smoked.

The scents helped audiences follow the clues left behind, like perfume, and pipe tobacco, which the villain smoked.

The film had a “smell track” that released the right smells at the right time, but according to the book The Golden Turkey Awards (an early version of the Razzies) the wrong smells would be unleashed at the wrong time as well.

Funny enough, as the Golden Turkeys tells us, there was another film that was competing with Scent of Mystery at the time, Behind the Great Wall, a documentary on China, which was released in AromaRama. In this instance, the scents were pumped into the theater through the air conditioner. The film’s tagline promised, “You must breathe it to believe it!”

Scent of Mystery, which starred Peter Lorre and Denholm Elliott, reportedly made a small profit, but the reviews weren’t great. Films and Filming wrote, “Denuded of its aromas, it still stinks,” and Time reported, “most customers will probably agree that the smell they liked best was the one they got during intermission: fresh air.” The film also didn’t get a wide release; you could only see it L.A., New York, and Chicago.

In 1981, John Waters did his own variation of Smell-O-Vision, “Odoroma,” in his film Polyester. Like Rodriguez, Waters gave theatergoers scratch-and-sniff cards, and the smells included a rose, farts, a skunk, brand new leather car upholstery, and more. The stickers on the cards had numbers, and when a number flashed on the screen, it told you what number on the card to scratch and sniff.

Considering its low budget origins, it’s funny to see Smell-O-Vision, or 4D as it’s called today, make a minor comeback. But there’s plenty of other gimmicks we can’t imagine ever returning. Producer William Castle was the first filmmaker to offer theatergoers "death insurance" in case they died of fright from watching his movie Macabre. Castle knew nobody would collect, and the insurance company Lloyds of London went along with the gimmick, which made the movie a big hit.

“In the event of a coronary, insanity or death suffered during and / or following the showing of said motion pictures, I hereby hold this theater harmless.”

Several other low budget trashola movies from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s did something similar. For the triple bill of The Corpse Grinders, the Undertaker and His Pals, and The Embalmer, attendees were given a Certificate of Insurance--a disclaimer to sign saying their health was strong enough to take the shock of these three movies. It read: “In the event of a coronary, insanity or death suffered during and / or following the showing of said motion pictures, I hereby hold this theater harmless.” Trust me, nobody collected on this one either.

Night of a Thousand Cats, a crazy Mexican horror film about a millionaire who seduces women then feeds him to his army of felines, promised if you died of fright watching the movie, you would be given a “nice but simple funeral at no cost to the family.” Then in fine print, the ad read: “Casket optional on West Coast only.”

Another famed horror gimmick that launched in the early sixties was giving out barf bags to the audience. Blood Feast, which was the original gore film, did this first, and the gimmick was repeated for the seventies horror flick Mark of the Devil, as well as in the 1979 undead gorefest Zombie. It’s not known if these bags were ever utilized by theatergoers or not, although audiences definitely lost their lunch seeing the Exorcist, and some theaters lined the floors with kitty litter. (We couldn’t find any Blood Feast or Zombie barf-bags on Ebay, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they were worth a few bucks today.)

One of the kings of gimmicks in the ‘70’s was an exploitation producer named Sam Sherman, the man behind such cinema classics as Satan’s Sadists, an incredible late sixties biker film, and Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, the Plan 9 From Outer Space of the ‘70’s.

For the Sherman produced western Five Bloody Graves, the ads promised: “Free to the lucky winner, based on a drawing: ONE FROZEN-STIFF CORPSE.” The winner was given a deli coupon good for a frozen chicken. Horror of the Blood Monsters was two separate films cut together, one in color, one in black and white. The black and white footage was then supposed to be on another planet, and Sherman tinted it different solid colors every few minutes, which was supposed to be the planet’s atmosphere. This was dubbed Spectrum-X in advertisements.

For the Mad Doctor of Blood Island, you were given packets of what was supposed to be green monster blood at the door. The beginning of the film had a ritual where the audience had to stand up in the theater, recite an oath, then drink it. This again was Sherman’s idea, and once the green blood was made up and packaged, he tried drinking it himself. He had dysentery for two days.

The major studios weren’t above doing gimmicks, and two of my favorites were both done for premieres. In 1970, Paramount had a big budget film called The Adventurers, based on a trashy novel by Harold Robbins. The film premiered on an airplane, which was a brilliant idea because nobody would walk out on it, although the film was so bad I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone on the flight was frantically searching for a parachute.

Speaking of unique premieres, The Aviator reminded the world of the films Howard Hughes made when he romped through Hollywood such as Hell’s Angels and The Outlaw. Yet one Hughes film The Aviator didn’t cover was Underwater, which literally premiered underwater for 150 aqua-lunged guests. (Hughes’s moviemaking days ended with The Conqueror, a megaflop starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan).

A few others I’ll throw in I always found amusing. How about the 1973 horror film Wicked Wicked, which was done almost entirely in split screen, which MGM dubbed “Duo-Vision.” The ads promised: “See the hunter, see the hunted both at the same time.” (Split screen was a popular cinematic device back then, thanks to Woodstock, and Brian DePalma also used it in Sisters, Carrie, and Blow Out.)

I also loved that for Hammer film Rasputin the Mad Monk, starring Christopher Lee in the title role, you were given Rasputin beards at the door that you could wear during the screening. For one barely seen drive-in horror film, Scream Bloody Murder, you were given a blindfold at the box office because it was improbably too scary to bear. “So horrifying you need a blindfold to see it!,” the ads screamed.

All this stuff is funny to read about today, and yes, there were a lot of schlockmeisters who were trying to bring audiences into movies that were pretty awful to begin with, and wouldn’t have drawn flies without them. But also remember that with many of these gimmicks, some filmmakers were trying to give audiences something spectacular, something more than just a mere movie can offer, and while they often weren’t successful, we certainly appreciate the effort.

10 Apr 22:58

The Coffee Pot That Fueled Honoré de Balzac’s Coffee Addiction

by Dan Colman
11 Apr 08:00

Philosophize This!: The Popular, Entertaining Philosophy Podcast from an Unconventional Teacher

by Colin Marshall

philosophize-this

Podcasting has treated few fields of human inquiry as well as it has philosophy. You’ll already know that if you’ve subscribed to the philosophy podcasts we’ve featured before, like Philosophy BitesThe History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, and The Partially Examined Life. Perhaps we can chalk this up to what anyone who has taken a course under an astute philosophy professor has felt (see our list of 100 Free Philosophy Courses): the subject simply lends itself better to conveyance through the spoken words of living, breathing people, especially those with an enthusiasm for the subject. And those who’ve dedicated their lives to philosophy, given the field’s famously persistent lack of both financial rewards and concrete answers, tend to have more pure enthusiasm for their subject itself than do many other intellectual professionals. Stephen West, host of the newer Philosophize This! podcast [iTunes - Web - RSS - Libsyn), doesn't move among intellectual professionals. He never even took a philosophy course himself, with an astute professor or without one. Yet he can teach you about philosophy with greater clarity and engagement than most podcasters can muster even about their favorite television shows.

West begins the series, which has come to eighteen episodes since last June, with a two-part talk on the very origins of philosophy (Ionian and Italian), telling us what, exactly, the so-called "presocratic" thinkers thought about the human race and whether it had developed sufficiently advanced survival mechanics to begin thinking about things at all. He then continues through history and across the globe, explaining the ideas of the best-known philosophers from Socrates to Aristotle (a two-parter) to the Buddha to (most recently) Avicenna, breaking down how they came to those ideas, and connecting them to the broader philosophical experience in their historical context and ours today (which means references to, among other touchstones of modern life, The Walking Dead). And lest you doubt the un-degree'd West's qualifications, do read his brief autobiography, which tells the story of how he rose from the worst childhood I've read about in quite some time, guided during his all-day shifts driving a pallet jack by the great philosophers: "Hume, Kant, Hegel — these men were my fathers. They were the people who made me ask questions and strive to constantly improve myself." You might place West in the tradition, now somewhat withered, of the robust "blue-collar" thinking man, drawing his needed strength from ideas. But given the way he's harnessed our era's technology to become a philosophy teacher to thousands — hundreds of whom have left five-star reviews on iTunes, leading to an astonishing #32 ranking in its Top 100 podcast chart — I'd say he embodies a brand new type of homo philosophicus altogether.

You can listen to the first first episode of Philosophize This! above.

Related Content:

The Partially Examined Life: A Philosophy Podcast

The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps – Peter Adamson’s Podcast Still Going Strong

Philosophy Bites: Podcasting Ideas From Plato to Singularity Since 2007

Download 100 Free Philosophy Courses and Start Living the Examined Life

Take First-Class Philosophy Courses Anywhere with Free Oxford Podcasts

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Philosophize This!: The Popular, Entertaining Philosophy Podcast from an Unconventional Teacher is a post from: Open Culture. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, or get our Daily Email. And don't miss our big collections of Free Online Courses, Free Online Movies, Free eBooksFree Audio Books, Free Foreign Language Lessons, and MOOCs.

The post Philosophize This!: The Popular, Entertaining Philosophy Podcast from an Unconventional Teacher appeared first on Open Culture.

11 Apr 16:00

Your Body During Adolescence: A Nakedly Unashamed Sex Ed Film from 1955

by Ayun Halliday

A straight shooting sex ed film from 1955? That’s hard to imagine. In my experience, the films of that period tend to beat around the bush.

The reticence of those sharing its playing field makes Your Body During Adolescence all the more remarkable. It doesn’t seem so at first. The first minute is devoted to observing a group of coed, clean cut, and unsurprisingly Caucasian teens, posing for a yearbook photo. The narrator seems destined to soft peddle things, mildly taking note of differences in height and weight.

I freely admit that I underestimated him. The teens in whose classrooms this work was screened may have audibly squirmed at the mention of certain words, but our narrator is undaunted by penises, scrota and labia… Shout out to the educational consultants, Dr. Harold S. Diehl, Dean of the University of Minnesota’s Medical School and Anita Laton, an author and professor of Health and Hygiene at San Jose State. Alfred Kinsey would’ve approved.

The diagrams are less straightforward, but I kind of liked that. They look like Mid Century Dinnerware patterns, which is to say, a lot sexier than most of the sex organs one can find on the Internet.

For fun and comparison, have a look at Fuzzy Bunny’s Guide to You Know What, the Simpsons’ infamous “sex eductation” film.

I’d say they both get it right.

via The Atlantic

Related Content:

Watch Family Planning, Walt Disney’s 1967 Sex Ed Production, Starring Donald Duck

The Story Of Menstruation: Walt Disney’s Sex Ed Film from 1946

Ayun Halliday is the author of seven books, and creator of the award winning East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Your Body During Adolescence: A Nakedly Unashamed Sex Ed Film from 1955 is a post from: Open Culture. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, or get our Daily Email. And don't miss our big collections of Free Online Courses, Free Online Movies, Free eBooksFree Audio Books, Free Foreign Language Lessons, and MOOCs.

The post Your Body During Adolescence: A Nakedly Unashamed Sex Ed Film from 1955 appeared first on Open Culture.

11 Apr 12:18

How to pick a “Bespoke” Tailor.

by Tom Mahon

These are the points that are important to us:

1. If you’re told it’s ”Bespoke”, make sure it is. Ask the person your speaking with if he is the actual cutter.

Will he cut you a personal pattern? Any company or individual should have a pile of individual patterns adorned with names of his clients. Be very wary here, there are some good CMT houses (cut, make & trim) who merely receive your details and then effectively make you a ready-to-wear suit- using a standard template, not an individual pattern- that’s been slightly adjusted.

Yes, it’ll be a great suit, but it’s not “Bespoke”. Remember, a BMW is a great car, but it’ll never be a hand-built Aston Martin.

With a proper Bespoke Tailor, he’ll make you a set of patterns which will belong to you and nobody else but you. And he’ll hold on to them for next time, for years or even decades.

Cutting is an art. We’re like painters, novelists or film directors. Some you like, some you don’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean good or bad. Our job is to fit and flatter your body, and just as importantly, your mind.

Although we have our style of cut, you’ve got to feel your own individuality being expressed, or it simply won’t work. If you already find this with your current cutter, for goodness sake, hold on to him for dear life, don’t come to us.

2. But the cutter is only part of the equation. At this point we involve this next rare (& getting rarer) breed, the tailor, who actually sews the garments by hand. Obviously only using the highest quality cloth & trimmings (linings, buttons,etc) available.

Although tailors are very few and far between, you may find an old tailor who cuts & makes all his garments, but you’d be lucky, it’s just not commercially viable any more.

So now we’ve more to consider. We have a number of superb tailors, ranging from 28 to 78 yrs old. As you’d expect, they contribute hugely to the outcome of a garment. They’re individuals, they express themselves in their work.

Some make a slightly firmer coat, with more stitches per inch and a little less fullness, thus creating a slightly sharper image. Another might add lots of fullness, with easier stitching, to produce a more relaxed, draped style.

Again, the cutter has to decide who’s best for you, and as importantly, keep it that way. In some of the bigger houses your suit can get handed out to different tailors every time you order, and believe us here, you’ll notice.

3. Make sure it’s hand-made. Yes, I know we use sewing machines for parts of the garment, but that should be where it ends.

Make sure your coat has a “floating” canvas, this you should be able to feel, floating between the facing & forepart. If you can’t feel it, ask to be shown it at the fitting. A hand canvassed coat must be expected at this level. I point this out, as the far-inferior alternative is a “fused” canvas, which effectively glues the innards of your coat together.

The fused canvas looks impressive when it’s new, but it’ll subtract years off the garment’s life in the long run. Oh, and wait until you’ve had a few trips to the dry cleaners, or a bit of singing in the rain, and it becomes unstuck, yuk.

Look out for the obvious: hand-sewn buttonholes, hand-sewn edges, and make sure the buttons are made of animal horn, not plastic.

4. Don’t be convinced by the narcotic effect of labels, they mean nothing. Have your eyes and senses tuned. Don’t trust the glossy magazines for your info, they are writers, not cutters or coat makers. Their world is about PR, not about the actual stitching.

No journalist ever had to spend seven years as a proper tailor’s apprentice. Their agendas are different from yours.

Remember, all business is personal…. especially in tailoring.

 

(This post has been ‘re-posted’ – Originally written in January 2005)

Photo above of Mr Ravi Tailor, our dear friend and associate: www.aj-hewitt.com

11 Apr 13:00

Detail from page 329 of Family Man, now online! This webcomic...



Detail from page 329 of Family Man, now online!

This webcomic has been nominated for a 2014 Reuben award. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that. Such an honor! Gah!

10 Apr 03:53

The Napoleon of Food

Tertiarymatt

Oh pizza, I love you so much.

no one gets out of coffee alive.

In tonight’s comic, gluten is my Moriarty.

09 Apr 04:19

Leader Mail

Tertiarymatt

Yes. The small black fuzzy one at our place feels much the same way.

no one gets out of coffee alive.

Tonight’s reader mail is fwom an adowwable kitten.

07 Apr 11:50

Microglia in Mice and Men

by Virginia Hughes
Tertiarymatt

Two thoughts: Animal studies are often intended to point towards possible analogs in humans, not to be definitive; "fetal tissue harvester" has to be the grimmest job description I've heard in a while.

A hot debate has broken out among scientists who study microglia, the glorious cells best known as the soldiers of the brain’s immune system. OK, “debate” may be a strong word; it’s really just a series of gentlemanly letters published over the last couple of months in a neuroscience journal you’ve probably never heard of. Still, I think the debate is worth highlighting not only because I’m an unabashed fan of microglia, but because it raises one of the most pressing issues facing medical research: the differences between mice and people.

Microglia straddle the fields of immunology and neuroscience. The cells begin in the yolk sac as part of the immune system, in the same cellular lineage as the macrophages of the blood. But over the first week of life, microglia migrate to the brain and make it their permanent home. They become vigilant soldiers, constantly patrolling for any sort of cellular invader, whether a bacterial infection or a pile of protein trash. Once they spot the offender, they snap into action, morphing from their spindly resting state into a fat blob so they can literally eat the problem.

Microglia’s role in the immune system has been known for more than a century. But the cells’ popularity skyrocketed in the last decade or so, after being linked to neurodegenerative disease, developmental disorders, and plasticity in the healthy brain. The vast majority of these microglia studies rely on laboratory mice. And that’s not good, according to neuroscientists Amy Smith and Mike Dragunow.

As they point out in the March issue of Trends in Neurosciencemice and people are separated by 65 million years of evolution, leading to many genetic differences. What’s more, because of pressure from evolving pathogens, “the immune system is a ‘hot-spot’ for evolutionary changes,” the researchers write.

They describe many molecular differences between mouse and human microglia. To name just a few: The interferon-gamma receptor, which binds to an important immune molecule, is expressed by microglia in the mouse brain, but not in the human brain. Another immune player, the toll-like receptor 4, is expressed at high levels in mouse microglia but at low levels in human microglia. When exposed to valproic acid (an anti-seizure drug), mouse microglia die but human microglia don’t. In mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease, microglia seem virile, engulfing healthy neurons and contributing to the brain’s degeneration. But in postmortem brain tissue from people with the disease, the microglia are limp and atrophied, which might suggest that they initially play a protective role.

Mouse microglia. Image by Dorothy Schafer and Ryuta Koyama of the Stevens laboratory

With differences like those (and more), no one should assume that something discovered in rodents will be applicable to people. I suspect most scientists would agree with that statement. But Smith and Dragunow go a provocative step further, arguing that before publication, rodent studies should be verified in human brain cells.

Those sorts of comparisons certainly wouldn’t be easy, and may even be useless, due to several challenges surrounding the study of human microglia. Or so counters neuroscientists Linda Watkins and Mark Hutchinson in the April issue of the same journal.

For most researchers, the only way to closely examine human microglia is by taking the cells from a dead brain. Watkins and Hutchinson argue that the procedures for harvesting and storing postmortem tissue may well have an effect on microglia (which, after all, are programmed to notice and react to changes in the environment). Most commercially available tissue comes from first-trimester abortions, which damage the fetus’s skull in order to remove it. Then the brain tissue has to be “collected, packaged, and shipped to a processing center, typically arriving 1–2 days later,” Watkins and Hutchinson write. Everything the tissue is exposed to in the interim — changes in temperature, exposure to chemicals, sudden movements, rough handling — may change the microglia. One fetal brain results in anywhere from 3 to 12 vials of microglia, according to the scientists. That variability alone shows how much the brain can be damaged during its preservation.

Even if fetal brain tissue sustained no damage during processing, there’s still the issue of age. Microglia undergo many important molecular changes during late fetal development and even after birth, so first-trimester cells could look and behave very differently than those at a later stage, regardless of species.

These issues could be dealt with, to some extent. Scientists could be ever-so-careful when processing human brain tissue, and be sure to compare cells at the same stage of development. And, as Smith and Dragunow point out in their counter to the counter-argument, fetal brains aren’t the only option. Some brain banks store tissue from adults who suffered from various diseases during their lifetime. “By directly studying microglia in the diseased adult human brain,” they say, “the disease context can be studied and the information garnered used to help validate animal models of these diseases.”

But a much trickier problem plagues every study, no matter the species, attempting to study a disease state in the laboratory: variability. For the human fetal tissue, each sample of microglia is pricey — around $500 — and so researchers tend to limit their studies to cells from a single fetus. Yet one fetus could be very different, both genetically and environmentally, from the next. For example, usually nothing is known about the fetus’s mother, such as her medical history or diet, which could have a big influence on the functioning of her baby’s brain. The same argument applies for the adult brains, and maybe more so: An elderly person’s brain is the result of some combination of exposures and experiences acquired over decades.

The mouse-versus-human question goes way, way beyond microglia. More than 80 percent of drugs that seem promising in mouse models end up failing in clinical trials, as Steve Perrin pointed out in a Nature commentary last month. Perrin’s organization, the ALS Therapy Development Institute, has tested more than 100 compounds in a mouse model of ALS (a motor neuron disease). None of them worked, even those that other research groups had shown to slow disease. The same trend curses the cancer field, in which only 5 percent of drugs that seem to work in animal studies end up making it to commercial licensing.

I suppose this post hasn’t painted a very rosy picture of the state of basic medical research. I don’t think all is hopeless, though. Perrin suggests that researchers look more carefully at symptoms that crop up in animal models of disease. If they don’t closely mimic those seen in people, then they’re not likely to be a good model for testing treatments. He also argues that spurious findings can be avoided by more rigorous statistical analyses and a stronger focus individual variability.

Advancements are happening on the human side, too. Thanks to amazing new technologies in the stem-cell field, researchers can now take bits of a patient’s skin and reprogram it into pretty much any kind of cell in the body, including neurons and microglia. Researchers (or even robots) could then test a battery of drugs on the cells to see if any lead to noticeable improvements.

Still, there’s a sobering lesson in here for all of us who write about cures that happen in laboratory studies, and for everyone who reads the headlines about them. Lots of treatments will cure diseases in mice or Petri dishes, but the vast majority won’t pan out in people.

*

Related stories: 

Best Cells Ever (Only Human)
Supporting the Support Cells in Lou Gehrig’s Disease (Only Human)
The Constant Gardeners (Nature)
Brain Imaging Study Points to Microglia as Autism Biomarker (SFARI.org)

04 Apr 14:51

The bigger story of how private equity corrupts

by Eric Garland
Tertiarymatt

More on the same topic.

The other day I was talking with a friend of mine who does intelligence for large corporations. We were discussing my latest on Guitar Center’s subprime bond hustle and she said, “You should talk with Yves Smith from Naked Capitalism – her work on private equity suckering pension funds like CalPERS is a lot like […]

The post The bigger story of how private equity corrupts is from Eric Garland

29 Mar 19:58

How to get beyond the parasite economy

by Eric Garland
Tertiarymatt

Worth reading.

It is the middle of the night between Friday and Saturday, and I am thinking about Guitar Center. If the above sentence appears strange to you, we are in the same boat. I do not know how bizarre and random your life appears to you, but mine is definitely some sort of mysterious fractal. About […]

The post How to get beyond the parasite economy is from Eric Garland

01 Apr 16:01

New! Edison Nouveau Premiere in Cherry Blossom (Spring 2014 Edition)

by Brian Goulet
Tertiarymatt

Shared for Rosalind.



It's here! The Spring 2014 Seasonal Special Edition Edison Nouveau Premiere in vibrant Cherry Blossom acrylic resin. This is the wildest color Premiere we've ever offered! This is exactly the reason we love doing these seasonal pens, it allows us to really take a chance with color choices we'd be tentative to make with a regularly offered pen. Cherry Blossom is a vibrant pink that is ever-so-slightly translucent, with bold white swirls. Here in Virginia where GouletPens.com is located, Cherry Blossoms are sign that spring has finally arrived. After this long winter, we're all ready for spring!

Edison Nouveau Premiere Spring 2014 Cherry Blossom





Yes, I know, I know, today is April Fool's Day and some of you may think this pen is a joke, but I promise you it is for real. If you do want to see our April Fool's joke from last year, check out our $28.95 Edison Bulb Filler video here. We opted to skip doing anything silly this year, and it just so happens that today is the best day logistically for us to launch our new Premiere.

So what is the Seasonal Premiere all about? Check out our other video here that explains what it is and why we do it.

You may be curious about the Black Ice Premiere that we have left over from Winter 2014. It was a huge hit and we stocked up a bit, so we do still have some of those left. But with the launch of the Spring 2014 Cherry Blossom, the Black Ice is no longer in production and once the pens we have on hand are sold, they'll be gone for good. The same will go for the Cherry Blossom, they'll be here for about 3 months until we announce our Summer pen, sometime around the change in season (late June/early July).

Edison Nouveau Premiere Cherry Blossom, closeup of the swirls


The Premiere is available with a stainless steel nib in extra-fine, fine, medium, broad, 1.1mm, and 1.5mm stub nibs. The nibs are smooth with a touch of feedback, much to the liking of many Edison fans! The Premiere is a standard international cartridge/converter pen (converter included) that is also convertible to an eyedropper (see how here). We offer it exclusively at GouletPens.com for $149, starting today!

What do you think of the Cherry Blossom?

Write On,
Brian Goulet
02 Apr 12:37

The Worst Bit About Feeding Mosquitoes Is The Waiting

by Ed Yong
Tertiarymatt

More on malaria.

The worst thing about feeding hundreds of mosquitoes on your own blood is not the itching – if you do it enough times, your body gets used to the bites. It’s not even the pain, although it is always painful since the mosquitoes will use their snouts to root about your flesh in search of a blood vessel.

It is more that, sometimes, the little suckers take their time.

“They just walk around on your arm. You’re sitting there and thinking, ‘Seriously? I have things to do’,” says Chiara Andolina.

Andolina is an infectious-disease researcher who works at the Shoklo Malaria Research Unit, a world-renowned laboratory nestled in an unassuming town near Thai–Myanmar border. She runs the Unit’s insectory, where mosquitoes are bred, reared, infected with the Plasmodium parasites that cause malaria, and dissected.

There are only five or six such facilities in Thailand, largely because the malarial mosquitoes of South-east Asia are delicate, wilting flowers. In Africa, malaria is transmitted by Anopheles gambiae – a hardy insect with catholic tastes. They will go without food for days. They will endure through tough environmental conditions. They will suck blood from rabbits, cows… basically anything that they can get their proboscis into.

Their Asian cousins, Anopheles dirus, are very different. “You blow on them a little bit and they’re like: ‘No. I’m not mating today. I’m upset.’” They also refuse to eat anything except human blood, which is why Andolina has to feed them herself.

She does this simply by sticking her arm through a muslin sock and into their cages. It takes half an hour and she does it every four days. “They’re very spoiled,” she says.

Andolina fed around 600 mosquitoes yesterday and you wouldn’t be able to tell – her arm is free of any marks because she has built up resistance to the allergens in the mosquito saliva. Her boss, François Nosten, had to fill in for her two weeks ago and his arm is still covered in welts. This is why there is no feeding rota. It’s just Andolina. She has tried to convince her research assistants to help but, for some strange reason, they aren’t keen.

The boxes contain two closely related species of mosquito: Anopheles dirus B and C. The two colonies have to be kept apart. If someone mixes them by mistake, it would be nigh impossible to fix the error. B and C look identical, even under the microscope, and only their genes reveal them to be distinct species. They also transmit very different malarial parasites: B carries Plasmodium falciparum, the main cause of malaria in these parts, while C transmits P. vivax. Andolina once spent a few years on an experiment that just wouldn’t work, because she was trying to infect one of the species with the wrong parasite.

Only female mosquitoes drink blood, and they use proteins in their meals to make the shells of their eggs. But they also need mating partners, and A. dirus are as finicky about sex as they are about food. Andolina used to have to force-mate them.

To begin: decapitate a male, and anaesthetise a female with ether. Next, unite the two by inserting the male’s still-protruding genitals into his unconscious partner. Get it right and the two insects (or one-and-a-half insects) lock together, sperm is transferred, and the female becomes pregnant. Andolina first learned to do this without a microscope. It took steady hands.

The females lay their eggs as little floating rafts. It takes two days for these to hatch into larvae, which hang from the water’s surface, breathing from their rear ends and sweeping up passing debris with brush-like mouthparts. Andolina keeps them in a succession of trays, nourished with tropical fish food. She needs to change the water regularly, or the larvae quickly succumb to all manner of bacterial, viral and fungal infections. They are not the toughest of species.

It takes another two weeks for them to turn into adults. Now, they’re ready for experiments. Typically, this involves infecting them with malaria.

Andolina loads a feeding pump with blood samples from people with malaria. The pump delivers the blood into a grey cylinder, with a membrane stretched across it. She places this on top of a sheet of muslin, draped over an empty noodle cup containing dozens of mosquitoes. The cylinder is like an upside-down feeding trough. The mosquitoes dangle upside-down from the muslin, pierce the adjacent membrane, and suck up the blood.

"Guys, what did you do with my noodlOH MY GOD!"

“Guys, what did you do with my noodlOH MY GOD!”

Once they are infected, security is paramount. The law dictates that there must be four doors between them and the outside world, so they’re kept inside an incubator within one of three adjoining rooms. Andolina counts them every day to make sure that none have escaped. If she ever misses one – and that hasn’t happened yet – she won’t be allowed to leave the lab until she has found and killed it.

“I don’t do it because I love mosquitoes,” says Andolina. Her work creates a ready supply of parasites. She provides these to collaborators in Paris and Singapore, who are trying to develop new drugs that target malarial parasites holding out in a patient’s liver.

More directly, she wants to see if a drug called primaquine can help to break the cycle of malaria transmission. The drug kills malarial parasites in the liver, but there’s a chance that it could also stop the mosquitoes from becoming infected. Andolina wants to see if mosquitoes are less likely to pick up the parasites after feeding on the blood of patients who have taken low doses of primaquine.

At high doses, the drug produces nasty side-effects in some patients. If lower doses are still effective, then primaquine could feature in the Shoklo Unit’s radical campaign to completely eliminate malaria from South-east Asia, by treating as many people as possible with antimalarial drugs.

This post first appeared on Mosaic as part of my feature on drug-resistant malaria.

03 Apr 16:48

lucybellwood: Erika Moen, Amy Falcone, Dylan Meconis, Steve...

Tertiarymatt

Dylan is also incapable of being serious.



lucybellwood:

Erika Moen, Amy Falcone, Dylan Meconis, Steve Lieber, and I talked about the ins and outs of freelancing at Emerald City Comicon this past weekend. Here’s a recording for those of you who couldn’t make it!

In which I talk about important lessons in professionalism using examples from Star Trek AND Say Yes to the Dress. 

04 Apr 15:00

Detail from page 328 of Family Man. Did I mention that this...

Tertiarymatt

Dylan is very good at what she does. yes.



Detail from page 328 of Family Man.

Did I mention that this comic has been nominated for an NCS Reuben Award? How lovely!

04 Apr 01:04

Warning issued over measles exposure in Seattle | Local News | The Seattle Times

by russiansledges
People who aren’t immune can get the measles just by walking into where someone with the disease has been in the past few hours, public-health officials said. The woman, who is in her 20s, became contagious with measles March 26 after visiting a Whatcom County family member with measles linked to an outbreak in British Columbia, Health Department spokesman Donn Moyer said. The woman visited Seattle for a Kings of Leon rock concert at KeyArena on March 28. That same day she was also at the Best Western Loyal Inn and the Wasabi Bistro, and the next day she went to Beth’s Cafe, Aurora Suzuki, Starbucks at First Avenue and Pike Street, and Pike Place Market. On those same dates she went to several Pierce County locations, including the LeMay Car Museum and Harmon Brewing Co. & Restaurant. Anyone who was in those locations at the listed times and who is unvaccinated, who isn’t sure if he or she is immune or who develops an illness with fever or an unexplained rash should consult a health-care professional immediately.
02 Apr 16:00

The Mystery of the Missing Black Holes

by Nadia Drake

In the census of black holes, there are basically two populations: The big, supermassive bruisers that churn away in the hearts of large galaxies, and the smaller, comparatively runty black holes that form when massive stars collapse and die.

But what about the medium-size black holes – the middleweights, the golden retrievers, the four-door sedans – that are neither galactic drain nor single stellar corpse?

According to some astronomers, these intermediate black holes, with masses equivalent to anywhere between 100 and 100,000 suns, should be everywhere. After all, those million-solar-mass galactic drains aren’t just born that way.

Trouble is, the middleweights are mostly missing. Decades of searching have only yielded a handful of strong candidates. Even this week’s episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which dealt at length with black holes, didn’t mention the missing middleweights. But whether astronomers are having a hard time finding these intermediate mass black holes because they’re tricky to find, or just really, really hard to make is an open question.

“Black holes in general are hard to find because by definition, they don’t radiate any electromagnetic radiation,” says Sydney-based astrophysicist Sean Farrell.

Artist's conception of a lonely black hole, floating near a star cluster on the outskirts of the Milky Way. (David A. Aguilar, CfA)

Artist’s conception of a lonely black hole, floating near a star cluster on the outskirts of the Milky Way. (David A. Aguilar, CfA)

In 2008, graduate student Joana Rodrigues spotted what’s still the leading intermediate mass black hole candidate. Rodrigues, then at the Universite de Toulouse, was working with Farrell and his colleagues; she was looking for lonely neutron stars and other objects that shone brightly in x-rays, using the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space telescope.

Rodrigues saw something unexpected: An object that glowed extremely brightly in x-rays – what astronomers call an ultra-luminous x-ray source, or ULX.  Hovering 290 million light-years away in the halo of a galaxy known as ESO 243-49, the object was perplexing for several reasons.

First, this wasn’t just any old super-bright thing. It was ridiculously bright – more than 10 times brighter than any known ULX, and at least 100 million times brighter than the sun. That incredible brightness suggested something very energetic and active was taking place. And, the object, now called HLX-1 (for hyper-luminous x-ray source), wasn’t in the right place. Rather than being at the heart of its galaxy, it was off in the galactic periphery. Lastly, there seemed to be a disk of hot, turbulent gas swirling around it.

At first, Farrell says, he was pretty sure they’d gotten the object’s location wrong. All signs pointed to HLX-1 being a massive black hole in the process of yanking material from some nearby stars – the kind of thing that should be in the heart of a galaxy, rather than on the outside.

But follow-up observations suggested that HLX-1 really was on the fringe, and that the superhot gas likely came from a star being ripped apart by a black hole with several hundred solar masses.

In other words, the team seemed to have found an intermediate mass black hole.

Now, nearly six years later, HLX-1’s story has gotten even weirder. New measurements suggest it’s probably around 10,000 solar masses – still within the intermediate range. And in addition to that gassy disk, Hubble space telescope observations point to a dense population of young blue stars clustered around the black hole.

“The location of HLX-1 out in the halo of ESO 243-49 is a very unusual place to find young stars,” Farrell says. “Something would have had to trigger the formation of these stars in the recent past.”

That something might be the recent collision and merger of a dwarf galaxy with ESO 243-49 – a dwarf galaxy whose stars were absorbed by the larger galaxy and whose heart was punted into space. That heart is HLX-1. It simultaneously clings to some of its original stars and also supports a younger population formed during the galactic merger.

“Mergers of dwarf galaxies with large galaxies like the Milky Way are really common,” Farrell says. “So if dwarfs contain central black holes, then such black holes should be deposited in the halos of large galaxies.”

At a meeting in the Netherlands this week, astronomer Roberto Soria of Australia’s Curtin University ranked the existing IMBH candidates. At the top of his list? HLX-1.

But even though HLX-1 is the strongest IMBH candidate, it isn’t alone. Another candidate, M82 X-1, is nipping at its heels (M82 X-1 was second on Soria’s list). In 2006, a team led by astrophysicist Philip Kaaret of the University of Iowa spotted M82 X-1, about 11 million light-years away.

M82, a galaxy 11 million light-years away, hosts the second strongest intermediate mass black hole candidate. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)

M82, a galaxy 11 million light-years away, hosts another intermediate mass black hole candidate. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)

If you look toward the Big Dipper’s ladle, on a dark night with good binoculars you can see M82, the candidate’s host galaxy (this is the same galaxy in which a type 1a supernova exploded earlier this year). It appeared to Kaaret and his colleague Hua Feng as though the object they’d found – also a ULX – measured between 200 and 800 solar masses, and was snacking on a nearby red giant star.

More recently, teams have found intermediate mass black hole candidates in an irregular dwarf galaxy called I Zwicky 18 and on the fringes of the Circinus spiral galaxy (though that one – at 90 solar masses – is a little on the light side to be a bona fide candidate, says its discoverer, Dominic Walton of Caltech).

The dearth of candidates begs the question of whether these medium black holes are really as numerous as expected. Some astronomers, like Kaaret, suggest maybe not.

“I think they are so hard to find because they are so hard to form,” he says. “Most ‘stellar mass’ black holes form in the collapse of a single star.  It looks like one can get up to masses of about 50 or 80 – but less than 100 – solar masses this way. Intermediate mass black holes need a different mechanism.”

Others scientists, like Farrell, think these black holes are just hard to find.

Because black holes don’t emit any electromagnetic radiation, they’re more or less invisible when thrust upon the backdrop of dark, empty space. So, astronomers searching the sky for these cosmic objects have to get kind of lucky. They need to be looking in the right place, with the right instrument. Unless you spy something like a telltale jet, or accretion disk, or cluster of strange young stars, it’s hard to know that you might be looking at a black hole.

Perhaps galactic halos are the place to look for this missing class of black hole, Farrell says.

If intermediate mass black holes do form the hearts of dwarf galaxies, and if dwarf galaxies frequently merge with one another and with larger galaxies, then there could be many dark, punted hearts floating on the peripheries of large galaxies. Just like HLX-1.

“I think the likelihood that there are potentially hundreds of quiet intermediate mass black holes floating around in galaxy halos is probably pretty high,” Farrell says.

03 Apr 06:30

Is a Footprint the Right Metaphor for Ecological Impact? | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network

Tertiarymatt

Click thru for full article.

Is a Footprint the Right Metaphor for Ecological Impact? | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network:

On the cover of Our Ecological Footprint, published in 1996, a giant foot stomps on the Western hemisphere, carrying the weight of cars, overpasses and skyscrapers. William Rees, a population ecologist at the University of British Columbia, first thought of the footprint metaphor while boasting to a graduate student about the “small footprint” of his new computer tower in 1992. Linguists trace the use of footprint to mean “space occupied” to 1965 when astronomers described the landing area for a spacecraft. It would be another fourteen years before a Senate committee first uttered “environmental footprint.” But is this the best metaphor for humanity’s impact on the natural world?

Today Our Ecological Footprint is a classic text among biologists, and “ecological footprint” and “carbon footprint” are terms as familiar as “Googling” and “selfie.” A number of NGOs offer ecological footprint calculators, including the Global Footprint Network, the WWF footprint calculator and the Earth Day Network Footprint Calculator. The calculators approximate the amount of biologically productive land required to generate the resources an individual or a population consumes and to absorb the waste that the individual or population leaves behind. The results of footprint calculators are often used to highlight global disparities. In 2007, for example, the U.S. footprint per capita was 9.0 global hectares while China’s was just 1.8. Global estimates of human impact on natural systems are bleak. Species are going extinct 1,000 to 10,000 times more rapidly than they historically have between major extinction events. There are as many introduced plant species on oceanic islands as native plants. Humans consume about one-third of all solar energy converted to plant matter through photosynthesis, and their actions directly impact 75 percent of terrestrial Earth – or, if we take climate change into account, the entire Earth. The magnitude of these changes has prompted some geologists and ecologists to favor the term “Anthropocene” when referring to the present geological age, even though the International Union of Geological Sciences still places us in the Holocene. Given the picture painted by such statistics, it is no surprise that the footprint metaphor has caught on. A footprint is a mark one never meant to leave: a revealing clue in a garden, a blemish on an otherwise sparkling floor. It evokes both the weight of whoever left it and that being’s ominous absence. Verbs popular among environmentalists include trample, trod, oppress and dominate. Heavy feet imply antagonism and the lack of intimacy between humans and the non-human world. Are we waiting for the other shoe to drop?

03 Apr 06:19

Listen/purchase: Foamy Lather by Ultralash An excellent and...

Tertiarymatt

Featuring a member of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum on some tracks, as well.



Listen/purchase: Foamy Lather by Ultralash

An excellent and unusual little record.

03 Apr 00:29

Lots of awesome stuff here, plus melodious voices: Erika Moen,...

Tertiarymatt

Dylan is incapable of being serious, it seems.



Lots of awesome stuff here, plus melodious voices:

Erika Moen, Amy Falcone, Lucy Bellwood, Dylan Meconis, and Steve Lieber discuss the ins and outs of freelancing in the creative world at ECCC 2014.