Swine Flu Update

It turns out the swine flu outbreak may be a little bit less deadly than we thought.  Here's the latest from the Los Angeles Times:

As the World Health Organization raised its infectious disease alert level Wednesday and health officials confirmed the first death linked to swine flu inside U.S. borders, scientists studying the virus are coming to the consensus that this hybrid strain of influenza — at least in its current form — isn't shaping up to be as fatal as the strains that caused some previous pandemics.

....When the current virus was first identified, the similarities between it and the 1918 flu seemed ominous.

Both arose in the spring at the tail end of the flu season. Both seemed to strike people who were young and healthy instead of the elderly and infants. Both were H1N1 strains, so called because they had the same types of two key proteins that are largely responsible for a virus' ability to infect and spread.

Richard Webby, an influenza virologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, told the Times, "This virus doesn't have anywhere near the capacity to kill like the 1918 virus," which claimed an estimated 50 million victims worldwide.

Among those 50 million were my grandmother's two sisters.  So this is good to hear.  But wash your hands anyway, OK?

You Gonna Jump or Jerk Off?

If you're like me, you think the Patrick Swayze-Keanu Reeves vehicle Point Break is one of the better things to happen to 1991. And if you're like me, you have a suspicion that the production could somehow be even better were it performed live by young, yelly guys who never, ever put shirts on and a totally unpracticed Johnny Utah lead who is chosen from the audience and reads his lines off cue cards. Well, you're right on both accounts.

Point Break Live! debuted in Seattle in 2003, but two cities in California are lucky enough to be hosting its current runs. The LA show opened for what was supposed to be a couple of months in 2007 and is still going due to popular demand; San Francisco has brought the show back after a successful go last year. It's been to New York and Minneapolis and Las Vegas, and according to coproducer Thomas Blake, Nightline is soon to run a segment about how PBL! could change the face of theater. Let's hope that's true. Take, for example, this conversation I had with one of the actors after the show: 
 

Obama on Torture

Interesting comment from Obama right now about why he opposes waterboarding:

Not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways.

Obama has obviously seen all the internal reports by now, and he's carefully not saying that waterboarding didn't work.  This suggests that it may indeed have produced useful information.

Now there's a followup question directly asking whether waterboarding produced anything useful.  He's dodging a little bit (reports are classified, can't discuss it, etc. etc.), but making it sound as if it probably did.  On the other hand, after a bit of throat clearing toward the end of his answer, he says he's seen nothing that "would make me second-guess the decision that I've made" to ban waterboarding.  Which might suggest either that waterboarding produced only moderate amounts of useful information, or that he's convinced we could have gotten the same information with other methods.

Not sure what to make of all that, or even if I'm interpreting it correctly.  Just passing it along.

Calling All Campus Hellraisers

Today's fearless feats of student activism go far beyond the rallies, protests and marches of yesteryear—here's your chance to spread the word about your favorites.

Mother Jones and Campus Progress proudly introduce the Hellraisers, our first annual student activism awards.

Here's how it works: You tell us about your favorite activism antics. Selected nominees will be featured in the September/October 2009 issue of Mother Jones.

Anyone can nominate any current student activists (and we're not just talking college here! High schoolers, grad students, kindergartners—all okay).

Nominating is quick and easy. Do it here.

 

 

Volcker on Stimulus

Most liberal economists seem to think that we need a much bigger stimulus package than the one we passed in February.  However, most liberal economists also seem to think that Barack Obama ought to listen to Paul Volcker more than he does.  So now what do they think?

The U.S. economy is "leveling off at a low level" and doesn't need a second fiscal stimulus package, said former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, one of President Barack Obama’s top economic advisers.

Volcker, head of Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, said the 6.1 percent decline in first-quarter gross domestic product reported by the government today was "expected." More recent data show the contraction in housing, business spending and inventories has slowed, and stimulus spending is only just beginning to hit the economy, he said.

That's from Bloomberg Television's "Conversations with Judy Woodruff," which will air this weekend. There was also this about regulatory reform:

Volcker said he and National Economic Council Chairman Lawrence Summers have disagreed about how heavily regulated the financial industry should be.

"We've had a little talk about this," Volcker said. "I'm sure he'll recognize the wisdom of my views sooner or later."

That's a conversation it would be interesting to hear more about, wouldn't it?

Are Canadian Banks the Answer?

David Leonhardt's interview with President Obama includes a fair amount of conversation about the economy, including a question about whether big banks need to be split up:

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I’ve looked at the evidence so far that indicates that other countries that have not seen some of the problems in their financial markets that we have nevertheless don’t separate between investment banks and commercial banks, for example. They have a “supermarket” model that they’ve got strong regulation of.

Like Canada?

THE PRESIDENT: Canada being a good example....So — that doesn’t mean that, for example, an insurance company like A.I.G. grafting a hedge fund on top of it is something that is optimal....And in that sense I think you can make an argument that there may be a breaking point in which functions are so different that you don’t want a single company doing everything.

But when it comes to something like investment banking versus commercial banking, the experience in a country like Canada would indicate that good, strong regulation that focuses less on the legal form of the institution and more on the functions that they’re carrying out is probably the right approach to take.

I'm sort of waffly on the whole question of limiting bank size, but this isn't an especially persuasive answer.  The experience of Canada is, I suppose, an existence proof that big banks can be regulated effectively, but when Obama says "other countries" he sure seems to be suggesting more than just Canada.  And frankly, I think he'd run out of examples pretty quickly.  After all, big banks Europe are in pretty bad shape.  Ditto for big banks in Japan following their property crash.  And big banks in Russia.  And big banks in Asia following their 1997 meltdown.

In some sense, I guess this comes down to a belt and suspenders issue.  I suspect Obama is basically right: regulating leverage is more crucial than regulating bank size.  A big bank with reasonable gearing is pretty safe.  But if you really want to be safe, you'll have a fallback: not only will you regulate leverage, but you'll limit bank size and complexity as well, so that even if a bank manages to evade the leverage rules it still can't do too much damage.  It can only do that if it manages to evade two separate sets of rules.

More to the point, though, I wish Leonhardt hadn't let Obama off the hook by feeding him the Canada example.  I would have have been curious to hear what Obama had to say without prompting.  Does he really think the banking system in the rest of the world is doing well because it's better regulated than ours?  I'm not sure the evidence supports that.

Swine Flu Deja Vu--and SNAFU

The more we learn about the current swine flu outbreak, the more it all begins to sound like what happened in 2005, when the world faced a possible pandemic of avian flu. But with the exception of stocking up on Tamiflu, most governments seem to have taken little meaningful action in response to the bird flu scare, and learned few lessons.

In certain ways, the world’s experience with Avian flu may actually have rendered it less, rather than more prepared for a new outbreak. The Daily Telegraph (UK) reported earlier this week on a meeting of scientists held in Austria back in February, before the swine flu had surfaced. There, Harvard professor Thomas Monath warned that because so much attention had been focused on bird flu, if another strain popped up, “we would be screwed.” The Telegraph’s medical editor writes:

He warned vaccine manufacturing capacity is insufficient, meaning that if a pandemic strain of flu emerged now it would be impossible to make enough for the world’s population in time.

The scientific community had become “complacent” about a new flu pandemic because the avian influenza strain H5N1 has been around for 13 years without spreading around the world.

Prof Monath said: “If it’s a new strain of flu it will be nine months to a year before we have got really good geared up vaccine production. We will rely on antiviral drugs first and then it is a crash effort to make a vaccine. In the meantime there will be clearly an emerging uncontained problem,” he said.

A second unlearned lesson has to do with the way we treat our livestock. Here, again, explicit warnings have been ignored. In an excellent piece on Huffington Post, David Kirby outlines the links among the virulent new flu strains and “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFOs), otherwise known as factory farms, where tens of thousands of animals live packed together in poorly ventilated sheds, standing (and breathing) in their own excrement.

By now, the profound idiocy of the White House Military Office's decision to stage a terrifying photo op for an Air Force One jet over New York City on Monday has been widely, and rightly, condemned. However, I haven't heard anyone offer any proactive, money-saving solutions... until now! Esteemed employees of our federal government, please allow me, your comically named Mother Jones contributor, to acquaint you with a magical, spell-casting piece of computer wizardry called Photoshop. With Photoshop, anything can be anywhere, at any time! Skeptical? Well, just take a look at some examples after the jump!

Creation Museum Science Fair 2010

Let there be a science fair!

Next February, Cincinnati's Creation Museum will hold a science fair for budding creationists. All students in grades 7-12 are encouraged to apply, provided they agree with Answers in Genesis' Statement of Faith, which includes the following items:

2. The account of origins presented in Genesis is a simple but factual presentation of actual events and therefore provides a reliable framework for scientific research into the question of the origin and history of life, mankind, the Earth and the universe.

3. The various original life-forms (kinds), including mankind, were made by direct creative acts of God. The living descendants of any of the original kinds (apart from man) may represent more than one species today, reflecting the genetic potential within the original kind. Only limited biological changes (including mutational deterioration) have occurred naturally within each kind since Creation.

4. The great Flood of Genesis was an actual historic event, worldwide (global) in its extent and effect.

Thanks J-Walk Blog. After the jump: a sampling of other upcoming events at the Creation Museum, including a screening of a DVD about "the rampant misinformation propagated by ecological alarmists" and a lecture called, intriguingly, "God Didn't Make Any Apemen:"

Wind Power Gets Stimulus Windfall

The Department of Energy will devote $93 million of stimulus money to wind power technology. Not terribly surprising, considering that wind is all the rage at the moment. To wit: The wind industry now employs more people than the coal industry.

Most of the money will be spent on turbine-related projects (allocation breakdown after the jump). But Cleantech Blog points out that the biggest obstacle facing wind power is actually pipeline problems:

Look at the study “20% Wind Energy by 2030” released in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Energy to envision the implications of supplying 20% of the nation’s electricity needs by 2030 from wind. Oh, there’s plenty of wind to actually supply the electricity, no problem. It’s just that tons of new transmission capacity would be needed.


And there’s the rub. It’s only marginally easier to site and build a new transmission line than a new nuclear powerplant. Transmission lines take many years and sometimes even decades to get done, due to a variety of NIMBY forces and overlapping regulatory regimes at the local, state and federal levels. And, they cost a fortune, easily a million dollars a mile, often considerably more.

So, that “pipeline” from Dakota to Chicago is on the order of a billion dollars of merely enabling infrastructure – and since there are many pinchpoints in the national power grid, that wind power probably couldn’t go much further than the terminating point anyway.

And that NIMBY thing? Still a problem—and one that stimulus money probably won't solve.

According to the DOE, here's where the money will go: