Chas' Compilation

A compilation of information and links regarding assorted subjects: politics, religion, science, computers, health, movies, music... essentially whatever I'm reading about, working on or experiencing in life.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Milton Friedman's Cure for Health Care Costs

How to Cure Health Care
[...] The high cost and inequitable character of our medical care system are the direct result of our steady movement toward reliance on third-party payment. A cure requires reversing course, reprivatizing medical care by eliminating most third-party payment, and restoring the role of insurance to providing protection against major medical catastrophes.

The ideal way to do that would be to reverse past actions: repeal the tax exemption of employer-provided medical care; terminate Medicare and Medicaid; deregulate most insurance; and restrict the role of the government, preferably state and local rather than federal, to financing care for the hard cases. However, the vested interests that have grown up around the existing system, and the tyranny of the status quo, clearly make that solution not feasible politically. Yet it is worth stating the ideal as a guide to judging whether proposed incremental changes are in the right direction.

Most changes made in the final decade of the twentieth century were in the wrong direction. Despite rejection of the sweeping socialization of medicine proposed by Hillary Clinton, subsequent incremental changes have expanded the role of government, increased regulation of medical practice, and further constrained the terms of medical insurance, thereby raising its cost and increasing the fraction of individuals who choose or are forced to go without insurance.

There is one exception, which, though minor in current scope, is pregnant of future possibilities. The Kassebaum-Kennedy Bill, passed in 1996 after lengthy and acrimonious debate, included a narrowly limited four-year pilot program authorizing medical savings accounts. A medical savings account enables individuals to deposit tax-free funds in an account usable only for medical expense, provided they have a high-deductible insurance policy that limits the maximum out-of-pocket expense. As noted earlier, it eliminates third-party payment except for major medical expenses and is thus a movement very much in the right direction. By extending tax exemption to all medical expenses whether paid by the employer or not, it eliminates the present bias in favor of employer-provided medical care. That too is a move in the right direction. However, the extension of tax exemption increases the bias in favor of medical care compared to other household expenditures. This effect would tend to increase the implicit government subsidy for medical care, which would be a step in the wrong direction.

Before this pilot project, a number of large companies (e.g., Quaker Oats, Forbes, Golden Rule Insurance Company) had offered their employees the choice of a medical savings account instead of the usual low-deductible employer-provided insurance policy. In each case, the employer purchased a high-deductible major medical insurance policy for the employee and deposited a stated sum, generally about half of the deductible, in a medical savings account for the employee. That sum could be used by the employee for medical care. Any part not used during the year was the property of the employee and had to be included in taxable income. Despite the loss of the tax exemption, this alternative has generally been very popular with both employers and employees. It has reduced costs for the employer and empowered the employee, eliminating much third-party payment.

Medical savings accounts offer one way to resolve the growing financial and administrative problems of Medicare and Medicaid. It seems clear from private experience that a program along these lines would be less expensive and bureaucratic than the current system and more satisfactory to the participants. In effect, it would be a way to voucherize Medicare and Medicaid. It would enable participants to spend their own money on themselves for routine medical care and medical problems, rather than having to go through HMOs and insurance companies, while at the same time providing protection against medical catastrophes.

A more radical reform would, first, end both Medicare and Medicaid, at least for new entrants, and replace them by providing every family in the United States with catastrophic insurance (i.e., a major medical policy with a high deductible). Second, it would end tax exemption of employer-provided medical care. And, third, it would remove the restrictive regulations that are now imposed on medical insurance—hard to justify with universal catastrophic insurance.

This reform would solve the problem of the currently medically uninsured, eliminate most of the bureaucratic structure, free medical practitioners from an increasingly heavy burden of paperwork and regulation, and lead many employers and employees to convert employer-provided medical care into a higher cash wage. The taxpayer would save money because total government costs would plummet. The family would be relieved of one of its major concerns—the possibility of being impoverished by a major medical catastrophe—and most could readily finance the remaining medical costs. Families would once again have an incentive to monitor the providers of medical care and to establish the kind of personal relations with them that were once customary. The demonstrated efficiency of private enterprise would have a chance to improve the quality and lower the cost of medical care. The first question asked of a patient entering a hospital might once again become "What’s wrong?" not "What’s your insurance?"

I appreciate that he acknowledged that the vested interests of the status quo will make radical reform impossible. So he goes on to describe what can be done "realistically". THAT is worth aiming for.
     

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Five Tips for Saving Money on Drugs

Dos and Don'ts for Saving Money on Rx Drugs
If you think you’re spending a lot of money on prescription drugs, you’re probably right. In 2008, American patients and insurance companies spent more than $234 billion on prescriptions, up from $40 million in 1990. In 2020, annual spending on prescription drugs is expected to top $512 billion.

With all signs pointing to more spending increases, this article covers the dos and don’ts of how to save on prescription drugs. [...]

Follow the link for the tips.
     

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Economic forcast: Gloomy?

But isn't the economy improving? Yes, some economic indicators are, but other indicators are showing something else:



A new recession seems inevitable
[...] ECRI is one of the more widely respected firms on economic recessions, as it has never been wrong when forecasting that a recession would start, or failed to predict a recession well before it was widely accepted.

Achuthan predicts the recession will happen even without a new shock to the economy, such as a spike in oil and gas prices or a Greek sovereign debt default sparking a financial meltdown. If those things occur, he says they will simply make an inevitable recession more painful.

In fact, Achuthan said data gathered since his September forecast only confirms his view that economic growth has slowed to such a degree that a downturn is now unavoidable, likely by late summer.

"Now that we have several months of definitive hard data, this is not a forecast," he said, pointing to key measures that don't receive as much attention from the public or many economists.

Specifically, he identifies annual growth in industrial production, real personal income and spending, as well as the year-over-year change in gross domestic product, a broad measure of the nation's economic activity. That GDP reading has been stuck between 1.5% and 1.6% growth for the last three quarters, far less encouraging that the rising quarterly GDP, which is more widely reported.

"Basically, growth has flatlined," he said.

Some might think that a new downturn would be a so-called double-dip recession, in that it comes before the economy has fully recovered from the jobs lost during the Great Recession. But Achuthan said if the economy falls into recession at this point, it would be a new recession, not a double dip, given the time that has passed since the formal end of the recession in 2009 and the economic growth since then.

He said improved consumer confidence and economists' stronger outlook are due to gains in jobs and stocks over the last six months.

The unemployment rate has fallen for five straight months, dropping to 8.3% in January compared to 9.1% in August. Filings for new jobless benefits have fallen to a nearly four-year low. And the Standard & Poor's 500 (SPX) index has gained 27% since an October low to reach the highest level since June 2008.

Even ECRI's own leading indicators have been showing steady improvement since October. But Achuthan said those readings are still recessionary.

He said the time it takes employers to increase staff means that job growth is a so-called lagging indicator, which reflects economic conditions in the past rather than pointing to future growth.

"Job growth always follows consumer spending growth, not the other way around," Achuthan said.

That doesn't necessarily mean the economy will start losing jobs again by this summer, when he expects the recession to start. He said hiring can continue in the early months of a downturn, but there will definitely be job losses ahead. [...]

Read the whole thing to see why. The worst part is, the obvious signs of a new recession may not start to manifest until after the November elections.
     

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Do "Feelings" win elections more than facts?

How Obama could win in a landslide
[...] In his book "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," Drew Westen convincingly argues that "people vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the candidate who presents the best arguments." [...]

More about that book:

THE POLITICAL BRAIN
The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation

[...] In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Elections are decided in the marketplace of emotions, a marketplace filled with values, images, analogies, moral sentiments, and moving oratory, in which logic plays only a supporting role. Westen shows, through a whistle-stop journey through the evolution of the passionate brain and a bravura tour through fifty years of American presidential and national elections, why campaigns succeed and fail. The evidence is overwhelming that three things determine how people vote, in this order: their feelings toward the parties and their principles, their feelings toward the candidates, and, if they haven't decided by then, their feelings toward the candidates' policy positions.

Westen turns conventional political analyses on their head, suggesting that the question for Democratic politics isn't so much about moving to the right or the left but about moving the electorate. [...]

The only thing missing is Barbara Streisand singing "Feelings...".
     

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Thursday, February 09, 2012

What "do no evil" Google Knows about You

And what it does with it:

Google knows too much about you
(CNN) -- If you use Google, and I know you do, you may have noticed a little banner popping up at the top of the page announcing: "We're changing our privacy policy and terms." It gives you the choice to "Learn More" or, another option, the one I'm betting most people followed, to "Dismiss."

Who wants to read about what Google plans to do with all that information it has about us?

[...]

If Americans -- or people anywhere -- decided to take up Google's offer to check out its new policy, they would discover something so troubling, so frightening, really, that it would override the national tendency to leave companies alone to make money how they see fit. At least in the case of companies such as Google -- and now Facebook -- which know more about us than even our closest friends.

Here's what Google knows about you, what it stores right there on its servers, waiting for a hacker:

Google has every e-mail you ever sent or received on Gmail. It has every search you ever made, the contents of every chat you ever had over Google Talk. It holds a record of every telephone conversation you had using Google Voice, it knows every Google Alert you've set up. It has your Google Calendar with all content going back as far as you've used it, including everything you've done every day since then. It knows your contact list with all the information you may have included about yourself and the people you know. It has your Picasa pictures, your news page configuration, indicating what topics you're most interested in. And so on.

If you ever used Google while logged in to your account to search for a person, a symptom, a medical side effect, a political idea; if you ever gossiped using one of Google's services, all of this is on Google's servers. And thanks to the magic of Google's algorithms, it is easy to sift through the information because Google search works like a charm. Google can even track searches on your computer when you're not logged in for up to six months.

Facebook has even more interesting stuff: your pictures, your comments, your likes, your friends, your un-friends.

[...]

Google's famous motto is "do no evil." I won't accuse Google of deliberately doing evil. It has done much to improve our lives. It makes no secret of the fact that it seeks to make profits, which it richly deserves. I do believe, however, that it deliberately tries to deceive us when it claims the new privacy policy seeks "to provide you with as much transparency and choice as possible."

I followed the instructions and with some difficulty eventually downloaded pages upon pages of personal material about myself from Google. What I was looking for was a simple, shall we say beautiful, button telling Google not to save anything I don't explicitly want it to save. But there was no such button.

Google, like Facebook, owns trillions if not quadrillions-plus bits of information. They mine it, use it to sell ads, algorithm it. But my real fear is not Google. My real fear is that computer technology has turned into an arms race between good guys and bad guys. Google may see itself as a jaunty white hat wearer, valiantly protecting all our information. And it may be doing it to the best of its ability. But hackers are hard at work all the time. [...]

Is the concept of privacy, as we've known it, destine to become a thing of the past?

Read the whole thing for embedded links, and more about what is being attempted to contain this collection and use of personal data.

And here is something you can do, before March 1st:

How to delete your Google browsing history in three simple steps . . . before it's too late to hide your secrets


Also see:

Social Media Dangers in our Brave New World

Are Facebook's "Social Plugins" making the service less popular with older users?
     

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Intervention in Syria = American Military

And here are some good reasons why it shouldn't happen:

West must not intervene militarily in Syria
(CNN) -- Some of the bravest, noblest women and men I have met are members of the United States armed forces. To them, military intervention is not about winning a debate on television or sounding smart on Twitter. With the United Nations ruling out support for military options to stop the bloodbath in Homs in Syria, leading U.S. commentators are calling for NATO and the Arab League to intervene militarily.

In reality, this would mean the United States would once again carry the heavy burden of war. In NATO's recent operation in Libya, the United States provided 75% of the reconnaissance data, surveillance, intelligence and refueling planes. Syria is not Libya, and NATO without the United States is not up to the job.

The Arab League is no match for a brutal Syrian regime backed by Russia, China and Iran.

In essence, therefore, we must stop pretending about NATO or the Arab League intervening and accept that it is not "international intervention," but U.S. military intervention that is being sought in yet another Muslim-majority country. The Muslim dimension is important because the lessons of Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan are that, invariably, intervention leads to occupation, which leads to varying degrees of Islamist radicalization.

Whatever the motivations to advance U.S. military intervention, we need to address the following questions before contemplating placing U.S. armed forces in harm's way again, and demanding the U.S. taxpayer foot the bill. [...]

The author goes on to spell it out. He has spent time living in Syria, and has many good insights, on both Syria and the larger picture.


Also see:

Syria: Alawites, Sunnis, the Russia factor...
     

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Charging and Maintaining Deep Cycle Batteries

I got a deep cycle battery to use with my Ham Radio, as back-up emergency power. I thought it would be easy to deal with, but there is so much to know:

Deep Cycle Battery FAQ
[...] Deep cycle batteries are designed to be discharged down as much as 80% time after time, and have much thicker plates. The major difference between a true deep cycle battery and others is that the plates are SOLID Lead plates - not sponge. This gives less surface area, thus less "instant" power like starting batteries need. Although these an be cycled down to 20% charge, the best lifespan vs cost method is to keep the average cycle at about 50% discharge.

Unfortunately, it is often impossible to tell what you are really buying in some of the discount stores or places that specialize in automotive batteries. The golf car battery is quite popular for small systems and RV's. The problem is that "golf car" refers to a size of battery (commonly called GC-2, or T-105), not the type or construction - so the quality and construction of a golf car battery can vary considerably - ranging from the cheap off brand with thin plates up the true deep cycle brands, such as Crown, Deka, Trojan, etc. In general, you get what you pay for.

[...]

Cycles vs Life

A battery "cycle" is one complete discharge and recharge cycle. It is usually considered to be discharging from 100% to 20%, and then back to 100%. However, there are often ratings for other depth of discharge cycles, the most common ones are 10%, 20%, and 50%. You have to be careful when looking at ratings that list how many cycles a battery is rated for unless it also states how far down it is being discharged. For example, one of the widely advertised telephone type (float service) batteries have been advertised as having a 20-year life. If you look at the fine print, it has that rating only at 5% DOD - it is much less when used in an application where they are cycled deeper on a regular basis. Those same batteries are rated at less than 5 years if cycled to 50%. For example, most golf cart batteries are rated for about 550 cycles to 50% discharge - which equates to about 2 years.

Battery life is directly related to how deep the battery is cycled each time. If a battery is discharged to 50% every day, it will last about twice as long as if it is cycled to 80% DOD. If cycled only 10% DOD, it will last about 5 times as long as one cycled to 50%. Obviously, there are some practical limitations on this - you don't usually want to have a 5 ton pile of batteries sitting there just to reduce the DOD. The most practical number to use is 50% DOD on a regular basis. This does NOT mean you cannot go to 80% once in a while. It's just that when designing a system when you have some idea of the loads, you should figure on an average DOD of around 50% for the best storage vs cost factor. Also, there is an upper limit - a battery that is continually cycled 5% or less will usually not last as long as one cycled down 10%. This happens because at very shallow cycles, the Lead Dioxide tends to build up in clumps on the the positive plates rather in an even film. The graph above shows how lifespan is affected by depth of discharge. The chart is for a Concorde Lifeline battery, but all lead-acid batteries will be similar in the shape of the curve, although the number of cycles will vary.

[...]

Battery Charging
Battery charging takes place in 3 basic stages: Bulk, Absorption, and Float.

Bulk Charge - The first stage of 3-stage battery charging. Current is sent to batteries at the maximum safe rate they will accept until voltage rises to near (80-90%) full charge level. Voltages at this stage typically range from 10.5 volts to 15 volts. There is no "correct" voltage for bulk charging, but there may be limits on the maximum current that the battery and/or wiring can take.

Absorption Charge: The 2nd stage of 3-stage battery charging. Voltage remains constant and current gradually tapers off as internal resistance increases during charging. It is during this stage that the charger puts out maximum voltage. Voltages at this stage are typically around 14.2 to 15.5 volts.

Float Charge: The 3rd stage of 3-stage battery charging. After batteries reach full charge, charging voltage is reduced to a lower level (typically 12.8 to 13.2) to reduce gassing and prolong battery life. This is often referred to as a maintenance or trickle charge, since it's main purpose is to keep an already charged battery from discharging. PWM, or "pulse width modulation" accomplishes the same thing. In PWM, the controller or charger senses tiny voltage drops in the battery and sends very short charging cycles (pulses) to the battery. This may occur several hundred times per minute. It is called "pulse width" because the width of the pulses may vary from a few microseconds to several seconds. Note that for long term float service, such as backup power systems that are seldom discharged, the float voltage should be around 13.02 to 13.20 volts.

Chargers: Most garage and consumer (automotive) type battery chargers are bulk charge only, and have little (if any) voltage regulation. They are fine for a quick boost to low batteries, but not to leave on for long periods. Among the regulated chargers, there are the voltage regulated ones, such as Iota Engineering and Todd, which keep a constant regulated voltage on the batteries. If these are set to the correct voltages for your batteries, they will keep the batteries charged without damage. These are sometimes called "taper charge" - as if that is a selling point. What taper charge really means is that as the battery gets charged up, the voltage goes up, so the amps out of the charger goes down. They charge OK, but a charger rated at 20 amps may only be supplying 5 amps when the batteries are 80% charged. To get around this, Statpower (and maybe others?) have come out with "smart", or multi-stage chargers. These use a variable voltage to keep the charging amps much more constant for faster charging. [...]

And that's just a sample, there's LOTS more to know, regarding the age of the batteries, different battery types, charging voltages, charging regulators, temperatures, storage, etc.

And if all that isn't overwhelming enough, consider these:

Mini Factoids

Nearly all batteries will not reach full capacity until cycled 10-30 times. A brand new battery will have a capacity of about 5-10% less than the rated capacity.

Batteries should be watered after charging unless the plates are exposed, then add just enough water to cover the plates. After a full charge, the water level should be even in all cells and usually 1/4" to 1/2" below the bottom of the fill well in the cell (depends on battery size and type).

In situations where multiple batteries are connected in series, parallel or series/parallel, replacement batteries should be the same size, type and manufacturer (if possible). Age and usage level should be the same as the companion batteries. Do not put a new battery in a pack which is more than 6 months old or has more than 75 cycles. Either replace with all new or use a good used battery. For long life batteries, such as the Surrette and Crown, you can have up to a one year age difference.

The vent caps on flooded batteries should remain on the battery while charging. This prevents a lot of the water loss and splashing that may occur when they are bubbling.

When you first buy a new set of flooded (wet) batteries, you should fully charge and equalize them, and then take a hydrometer reading for future reference. Since not all batteries have exactly the same acid strength, this will give you a baseline for future readings.

When using a small solar panel to keep a float (maintenance) charge on a battery (without using a charge controller), choose a panel that will give a maximum output of about 1/300th to 1/1000th of the amp-hour capacity. For a pair of golf cart batteries, that would be about a 1 to 5 watt panel - the smaller panel if you get 5 or more hours of sun per day, the larger one for those long cloudy winter days in the Northeast.

Lead-Acid batteries do NOT have a memory, and the rumor that they should be fully discharged to avoid this "memory" is totally false and will lead to early battery failure.

Inactivity can be extremely harmful to a battery. It is a VERY poor idea to buy new batteries and "save" them for later. Either buy them when you need them, or keep them on a continual trickle charge. The best thing - if you buy them, use them.

There is so much to know, not just about deep cycle batteries, but the many kinds of batteries, and the different requirements they have. Gosh, who knew? Well I guess I do now.
     

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Tuesday, February 07, 2012

NASA's internal culture and bureaucracy problem

Are the problems that caused the destruction of two space shuttles and their crews still ongoing? Here's one man's opinion:


Roger Boisjoly dies at 73; engineer tried to halt Challenger launch
The 1986 explosion that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger and killed seven astronauts shocked the nation, but for one rocket engineer the tragedy became a personal burden and created a lifelong quest to challenge the bureaucratic ethics that had caused the tragedy.

Roger Boisjoly was an engineer at solid rocket booster manufacturer Morton Thiokol and had begun warning as early as 1985 that the joints in the boosters could fail in cold weather, leading to a catastrophic failure of the casing. Then on the eve of the Jan. 28, 1986, launch, Boisjoly and four other space shuttle engineers argued late into the night against the launch.

In cold temperatures, o-rings in the joints might not seal, they said, and could allow flames to reach the rocket's metal casing. Their pleas and technical theories were rejected by senior managers at the company and NASA, who told them they had failed to prove their case and that the shuttle would be launched in freezing temperatures the next morning. It was among the great engineering miscalculations in history.

[...]

Boisjoly could not watch the launch, so certain was he that the shuttle would blow up. In the months and years that followed, the disaster changed his career and permanently poisoned his view that NASA could be trusted to make the right decisions when matters came to life and death.

Boisjoly, 73, died of cancer Jan. 6 in Nephi, Utah, though news of his passing was known only in the southwest Utah community where he retired.

The Challenger disaster and the resulting investigation pulled back the curtain on NASA's internal culture, revealing a bureaucracy that had made safety secondary to its launch objectives and to the political support it needed to continue the shuttle program.

[...]

Boisjoly was not the only engineer who attempted to stop the launch and suffered for blowing the whistle. Allan J. McDonald was Thiokol's program manager for the solid rocket booster and became the most important critic of the accident afterward. When he was pressed by NASA the night before the liftoff to sign a written recommendation approving the launch, he refused, and later argued late into the night for a launch cancellation. When McDonald later disclosed the secret debate to accident investigators, he was isolated and his career destroyed.

The tragedy was particularly hard on Boisjoly, who would sometimes chop wood in the Utah winter to work out his anger. In a 2003 interview with The Times, he recalled that NASA tried to blackball him from the industry, leaving him to spend 17 years as a forensic engineer and a lecturer on engineering ethics.

When the space shuttle Columbia burned up on reentry in 2003, killing its crew of seven, the accident was blamed on the same kinds of management failures that occurred with the Challenger. By that time, Boisjoly believed that NASA was beyond reform, some of its officials should be indicted on manslaughter charges and the agency abolished.

NASA's mismanagement "is not going to stop until somebody gets sent to hard rock hotel," Boisjoly said. "I don't care how many commissions you have. These guys have a way of numbing their brains. They have destroyed $5 billion worth of hardware and 14 lives because of their nonsense." [...]

Harsh words. But spoken by someone in a position to know what he's talking about. There were two interesting comments left beneath the article:

B-737-247 at 8:06 AM February 7, 2012

"It was among the great engineering miscalculations in history."

Nonsense. Boisjoly and McDonald's engineering calculations were tragically accurate. The Challenger disaster was the result of a foolish and reckless management misjudgment, not an engineering miscalculation.

Boisjoly and McDonald were technically competent engineers with the strength of character to stand up for what was right when lives were at stake. Both of them paid a terrible price for their integrity.

It's a shame their gutless bosses could think only of what they thought (wrongly) to be their own selfish career interests. The result was the death of seven astronauts, the loss of a precious national asset and the destruction of many careers, deserved and otherwise.

RIP, Mr. Boisjoly.


=====****=====


hayes.whitt at 7:20 AM February 7, 2012

I remember this.. i[t] WAS front page news in 1986. Sadly, the press allowed NASA managemnet to control the story, and spin these good engineers as cranks who were trying to use the o-ring "debate" to elevate themselves after the accident. So much for the 4th estate.

THe public was as disintrested, ignorant, and unmotivated to do anything about it as they are now.

CEOs, Execs, and Generals place the blame on the workers who do the time. Same as it ever was.

Many of the same (or similar) pressures that NASA management face, would also be faced by a private company. Could they, would they, do it better? Possibly. We may yet see one day.
     

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Sunday, February 05, 2012

Is the Current Egyptian Government even More Repressive than the Previous One?

So far, it's not looking good:

Egypt to charge 43 over NGOs
Cairo (CNN) -- Forty-three people, including 19 Americans, face prosecution in an Egyptian criminal court on charges of illegal foreign funding as part of an ongoing crackdown on nongovernmental organizations, a prosecution spokesman said Sunday.

Those referred to court also include five Serbs, two Germans and three Arabs, said Adel Saeed, spokesman for the general prosecutor. The remaining people are Egyptian, he said.

The defendants include Sam LaHood, International Republican Institute country director and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Saeed said.

[...]

"We had been assured by leaders in the Egyptian government that this issue would be resolved, that harassment would end, that NGOs would be allowed to go back to business as usual and that their property would be returned," State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said last month. "It is, frankly, unacceptable to us that that situation has not been returned to normal."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson both spoke with high-ranking Egyptian officials following the raids to voice their concern.

Nuland said last month there are apparently "some Mubarak holdovers in the government who don't seem to understand how these organizations operate in a democratic society, and are putting out lots of disinformation about them."

Human Rights Watch called Sunday for Egyptian authorities to drop the charges and stop the criminal investigation into the NGOs.

"The Egyptian authorities are using a discredited Mubarak-era law to prosecute nongovernmental groups while proposing even more restrictive legislation," said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch's deputy Middle East director, in a statement. "The government should stop using the old law, halt the criminal investigations and propose a law that respects international standards."

[...]

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt's ruling military council, assumed control of the government following the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak last year.

"We're being accused of things we've never done," IRI President Lorne Craner said last month. "We are told we have operated without registration, and that is true because we filed our registration papers five and a half years ago. We were told the papers are complete and we're still waiting."

"We've operated for 30 years, everywhere from (dictator Augusto) Pinochet's Chile to Nicaragua, to the Soviet Union when it was the Soviet Union, to Central Europe, to Indonesia under Suharto," he said. "We work in China, Belarus. This has never, ever happened in the 30 years where we get our offices raided. And Egypt is supposed to be an American friend."

Is the "Arab Spring" is having a late frost?

Egypt sends American workers to trial
CAIRO (AP) – Ignoring a U.S. threat to cut off aid, Egypt on Sunday referred 19 Americans and 24 other employees of nonprofit groups to trial before a criminal court on accusations they illegally used foreign funds to foment unrest in the country.

[...]

On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Egypt that failure to resolve the dispute may lead to the loss of American aid. The Egyptian minister, Mohammed Amr, responded Sunday by saying the government cannot interfere in the work of the judiciary.

"We are doing our best to contain this but … we cannot actually exercise any influence on the investigating judges right now when it comes to the investigation," Amr told reporters at a security conference in Munich, Germany. A few hours later, word of the referral to trials came.

The Egyptian investigation into the work of nonprofit groups in the country is closely linked to the political turmoil that has engulfed the nation since the ouster of Mubarak, a close U.S. ally who ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years.

Egypt's military rulers have been under fire by liberal and secular groups for bungling what was supposed to be a transition to democracy after Mubarak's ouster. The ruling generals who took power after the uprising, led by a man who was Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years, have tried to deflect the criticism by claiming "foreign hands" are behind protests against their rule and frequently depict the protesters as receiving funds from abroad in a plot to destabilize the country.

Those allegations have cost the youth activists that spearheaded Mubarak's ouster support among a wider public that is sensitive to allegations of foreign meddling and which sees a conspiracy to destabilize Egypt in nearly every move by a foreign nation.

Egypt has just been plunged into a new cycle of violence with 12 killed in four days of clashes. The clashes were sparked by anger at the authorities inability to prevent a riot after a soccer match last week left 74 people dead.

International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga, a remnant of the Mubarak regime who retained her post after his ouster, is leading the crackdown on nonprofit groups. On Sunday, she vowed to pursue the issue to the very end. The investigation into the funding issue, she claimed, has uncovered "plots aimed at striking at Egypt's stability." [...]

When all else fails... blame the foreigners.
     

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Is lsrael really ready to strike Iran? Why now?

Just a bluff? Fears grow of Israeli attack on Iran
[...] Is Israel bluffing? Israeli leaders have been claiming Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons since the early 1990s, and defense officials have issued a series of ever-changing estimates on how close Iran is to the bomb. But the saber-rattling has become much more direct and vocal.

[...]

Israel views Iran as a mortal threat, citing Iranian calls for Israel's destruction, Iran's support for anti-Israel militant groups and Iranian missile technology capable of hitting Israel.

On Friday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Israel a "cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut," and boasted of supporting any group that will challenge the Jewish state.

When faced with such threats, Israeli has a history of lashing out in the face of world opposition. That legacy that includes the game-changing 1967 Middle East war, which left Israel in control of vast Arab lands, a brazen 1981 airstrike that destroyed an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor, and a stealthy 2007 airstrike in Syria that is believed to have destroyed a nuclear reactor in the early stages of construction.

Armed with a fleet of ultramodern U.S.-made fighter planes and unmanned drones, and reportedly possessing intermediate-range Jericho missiles, Israel has the capability to take action against Iran too, though it would carry grave risks.

It would require flying over Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria or Turkey. It is uncertain whether any of these Muslim countries would knowingly allow Israel to use their airspace.

With targets some 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away, Israeli planes would likely have the complicated task of refueling in flight. Iran's antiquated air force, however, is unlikely to provide much of a challenge.

Many in the region cannot believe Israel would take such a step without a green light from the United States, its most important ally. That sense is deepened by the heightened stakes of a U.S. election year and the feeling that if Israel acts alone, the West would not escape unscathed.

The U.S. has been trying to push both sides, leading the charge for international sanctions while also pressing Israel to give the sanctions more time. In recent weeks, both the U.S. and European Union have imposed harsher sanctions on Iran's oil sector, the lifeblood of its economy, and its central bank. Israeli officials say they want the sanctions to be imposed faster and for more countries to join them.

Last week, The Associated Press reported that officials in Israel — all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss Iran — were concerned that the measures, while welcome, were constraining Israel in its ability to act because the world expected the effort to be given a chance.

Even a limited Israeli operation could well unleash regionwide fighting. Iran could launch its Shihab 3 missiles at Israel, and have its local proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, unleash rockets. Israel's military intelligence chief, Aviv Kochavi, warned last week that Israel's enemies possess some 200,000 rockets.

While sustained rocket and missile fire would certainly make life uncomfortable in Israel, Barak himself has said he believes casualties would be low — suggesting it would be in the hundreds.

Iran might also try to attack Western targets in the region, including the thousands of U.S. forces based in the Gulf with the 5th Fleet.

An Israeli attack might have other unintended consequences. A European diplomat based in Pakistan, permitted to speak only under condition of anonymity, said that if Israel attacks, Islamabad will have no choice but to support any Iranian retaliation. That raises the specter of putting a nuclear-armed Pakistan at odds with Israel, widely believed to have its own significant nuclear arsenal.

To some, the greatest risk is to the moribund world economy.

Analysts believe an Israeli attack would cause oil prices to spike, since global markets so far have largely dismissed the Israeli threats and not "price in" the threat. According to one poll conducted by the Rapidan Group, an energy consulting firm in Bethesda, Maryland, prices would surge by $23 a barrel. The price of oil settled Friday at $97.84 a barrel.

"Traders don't believe there's anything but bluster going on," said Robert McNally, president of Rapidan and an energy adviser to former President George W. Bush. "A potential Israeli attack on Iran is different than almost every scenario that we've seen before."

McNally said Iran could rattle oil markets by targeting oil fields in southern Iraq or export facilities in Saudi Arabia or Qatar — and withhold sales of its own oil and natural gas from countries not boycotting.

Iran also could attempt to carry out its biggest threat: to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway through which a fifth of the world's oil passes. That could send oil prices soaring beyond $200 a barrel. But analysts note Iran's navy is overmatched.

If a surge in oil prices proved lasting, financial markets would probably plummet on concerns that global economic growth would slow and on the fear that any conflict could worsen and spread.

For the U.S. economy, higher gasoline prices would likely result in lower consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of U.S. economic activity. That could have devastating consequences for an incumbent president seeking re-election.

Nick Witney, former head of the EU's European Defense Agency, said "the political and economic consequences of an Israeli attack would be catastrophic for Europe" since the likely spike in the price of oil alone "could push the entire EU, including Germany, into recession."

He said this could lead to "messy defaults" by countries like Greece and Italy, and possibly cause a collapse of the already-wobbly euro. Witney, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, added that "the Iranians would probably retaliate against European interests in the region, and conceivably more directly with terrorism aimed at Western countries and societies."

Oil disruptions or higher oil prices will also dent growth in Asia. China, India, South Korea and Japan all buy substantial amounts of Iranian crude and could face temporary shortages.

China's fast-growing economy, which gets 11 percent of its oil from Iran, has urged all sides to avoid disrupting supplies. Any impact on China's economy, the world's second-largest, could send out global shockwaves if it dented Chinese demand for industrial components and raw materials.

Why is the issue coming to a head with such unfortunate timing, with the U.S. election looming and the global economy hanging by a razor's edge?

The urgency is fueled by a belief in Israel that Iran is moving centrifuges and key installations deep underground by the summer — combined with doubts about whether either Israel or the United States have the bunker-busting capacity to act effectively thereafter. [...]

But the global repercussions of trying to stop it, are enormous. Could the be a case of the cure being worse than the disease?
     

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Thursday, February 02, 2012

WebMD articles on COPD, Blood Pressure

Household Hazards for People With COPD
Many homes harbor dust, fumes, germs, and other irritants that aggravate COPD symptoms.
Smoking poses an enormous threat to the lungs of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) -- and no wonder. Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, including 43 that are known to cause cancer. Outdoor air pollution is another significant threat.

But those are not the only threats to people with COPD, a lung disease that encompasses both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Many homes harbor dust, fumes, germs, and other irritants that aggravate COPD symptoms like wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. The risks are especially high in the 20% of COPD sufferers who also have allergies.

You might be surprised at some of the things around the house that can cause trouble. For example, some air filters that help rid the air of dust give off small amounts of ozone, an air pollutant that is a lung irritant.

“Ozone can certainly be problematic for people with COPD,” says Byron Thomashow, MD, professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and chairman of the COPD Foundation. “That’s why I usually recommend HEPA filters,” which don’t give off ozone.

Here are nine other household hazards for people with COPD: [...]
Read the whole thing for more info.


Should Blood Pressure Be Taken in Both Arms?
Differences in Blood Pressure Between Arms May Signal Blood Vessel Problems
Jan. 30, 2012 -- Differences in blood pressure readings taken from the left and right arms may be a sign of heart and blood vessel disease and death risk, according to a new review of recent research.

Researchers found that a difference of 15 points or more in the readings between the left and right arms raised the risk of peripheral vascular disease, a narrowing or blockage of the arteries, by two-and-a-half times.

That same 15 point-difference in systolic readings (the top number in a blood pressure reading) also increased the risk of cerebrovascular disease by 60%. Cerebrovascular disease is associated with thinking problems, such as dementia, and an increased risk of stroke.

Researchers say the results suggest that doctors should routinely compare blood pressure readings from both arms to prevent unnecessary deaths.

Although the practice of taking blood pressure from both arms as a part of heart disease screening has been adopted in Europe, and some guidelines in the U.S. recommend it, American Heart Association spokesman Richard Stein, MD, says it’s not routinely done in the U.S.

“This is very interesting,” says Stein, professor of cardiology at the New York University School of Medicine. “It can translate immediately, as we learn more about it, into better detection of people at higher risk of disease.” [...]

Read the whole thing for more details of the research, and embedded links.
     

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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Mitt and the Mormon Question. No Problem.

At least it shouldn't be. Here's one good reasoned viewpoint on the subject:


Would A Mormon President Subvert American Democracy?
[...] What follows below is not a Romney-fan’s propaganda. Actually, my favorite used to be another aspirant. The LDS affiliation of Mitt Romney exposes us again to the temptation to make religion into a criterion for picking a candidate. Now then, the theological validity of Mormonism’s version of Christianity is beyond my competence and my interest. To many, the implications of a President embracing that creed are of concern. However, American public life and her high-level politics have created indicators that Mormons will not kidnap America and replace its system with their theocracy.

The record of Utah State, when it was ardently LDS, is also an argument. In practice, LDS keep the worldly realm separated from the private pursuit of heaven. Yes, Mormonism involves a way of life. Furthermore, the Church is interested in conversions. Nevertheless, the instinct to “rescue souls” stops short of imposing the “right way” upon non-believers. Unlike the Sharia, it refrains from making outsiders to adhere to enforced norms that limit every aspect of life. Since Mormons know a personal realm, the faith can place politics outside of religion’s sphere. Accepting or rejecting Mormon theology does not have political consequences. The faith does not command unquestioned obedience in the public realm. At any rate, it does not do so to a larger extent than does the now discarded scarecrow of “Popism”.

The second point issues from an old moral obligation. To those that had no contact with Mormons such testimonials could be revealing. Nevertheless, at the outset a cautionary note is needed. We tend to judge exotic groups by the first “samples” we encounter. The resulting generalization can be quite misguided. I recall my college roommate and now best friend “I have never met a Hungarian before. So this is what you guys are like.” Since I am rather unlike other Magyars, I thought that this “discovery” was ironic.

Now to my story. In the seventies, we were moving back to the US. We knew that we had abandoned a secure existence to face uncertainty. On the plane, we sat near to a large group. Soon a gentleman came over and congratulated us because of the behavior of the children. Given our trepidation, this felt reassuring. I told Mr. Hugh Smith that much and explained our probable predicament. He then identified himself as a Mormon returning from Israel. [...]

Read the whole thing. Mr. Smith sounds like many of the Mormons I've known.
     

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Syria: Alawites, Sunnis, the Russia factor...


What a mess:

Where is Syria crisis heading?
[...] Individual states in the Arab League have called for al-Assad to step down, but the organization as a whole has failed to table a similar resolution -- and Phillips says that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

"While it seems likely there is going to be some internal negotiation (on a resolution) taking place, it certainly seems very unlikely Lebanon or Iraq -- states who are allied effectively to Iran and Syria -- will ever join calls for Assad to stand down," said Phillips.

Will the international community intervene like it did in Libya?

Nothing will happen in terms of military intervention in Syria unless Russia changes its current stance, according to Phillips.

"Russia have said quite clearly that they're not going to support anything that would risk al-Assad being forced from power," Phillips told CNN.

"If Russia gave the same kind of green light for Syria that it did for Libya, there's every possibility that you'd see military intervention, probably coming out of Turkey," Phillips said. "But Turkey have said they're highly reluctant to intervene unless they have NATO or U.N. backing."

Is the opposition united against the al-Assad regime?

The longer the fighting goes on in Syria, activists and Western diplomats say, the more radicalized the revolution is becoming.

Fringe elements of Muslim extremist groups are moving in and sectarian rifts are widening as feelings of despair descend on some flashpoint Syrian cities.

While the besieged city of Homs has traditionally been a place of religious tolerance, "there is a real sense now that that is changing and being manipulated by people on both sides" of the conflict, according to Phillips.

President al-Assad belongs to the Alawite Muslim sect while Sunni Muslims form the majority in Syria.

"The older Sunni merchant class that feel the city is theirs rightfully are now turning on the Alawites, who they see as these recent migrants that don't actually belong in the city," said Phillips.

Many Christians have fled to Damascus as communities begin to divide on sectarian lines. Salafists -- Islamic radicals, many of whom have brought terror tactics honed in neighboring Iraq -- are moving into Homs.

Hard-liners inside and outside the country are already jockeying for post-al-Assad power, while the Alawite community fears the prospect of persecution if the government falls.

"The regime is trying to persuade the Alawites that if they abandon the government, they will be wiped out in the dog-eat-dog aftermath," Phillips said.

No easy answers for this dilemma.


At U.N., Pressure Is on Russia for Refusal to Condemn Syria
[...] Fundamentally, the argument over Syria reflects a deeper divide between those who would use the Security Council to confront nations over how their governments treat civilians, versus those who consider that it has no role whatsoever in settling domestic disputes. Syria is the latest example in an argument that stretches back through all recent conflicts.

Russia, backed discreetly by China and India, rejects the idea that the world organization can interfere in the domestic politics of any country to force a leadership change. They all feel that they were duped into supporting a no-fly zone over Libya, which was promoted as a means to protect civilians last March. Instead, they said, NATO used it as a license to help overthrow the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The Russian envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin, adopted a “where will it all end” argument, telling reporters that the Security Council cannot prescribe ready recipes for the outcome of a domestic political process.

“Once you start, it is difficult to stop,” he said, adding that pretty soon the Council would start pronouncing “what king needs to resign, or what prime minister needs to step down.”

To a certain extent, the Arab League and the much of the world were ready to dump the eccentric Colonel Qaddafi because he had made many enemies. Mr. Assad, despite hostile relations with some neighbors and the West, continues to have a strong ally in Russia, yet analysts described Moscow as preoccupied with leadership change.

“That the Morocco resolution ‘calls for’ Assad to step aside is their worst example and fear,” said George Lopez, a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and a sometime adviser to the United Nations. “If today it is Assad, tomorrow Putin? They worry.” [...]

     

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