Friday, August 21, 2009

Accessing a Radioactivity iLab

Thursday, August 20, 2009

New Record High Ocean Temperature

Because I live near Chicago, and we are having one of the most comfortable, meaning coolest, summers on record, I do hear a number of people mentioning that 'global warming' is indeed not real. However, we need to remember that a key concept is carried by the word 'global' and that local weather can be entirely misrepresentative of warming. This is why 'global climate change' is a more accurate phrase, with climate replacing warming, that captures the essence of what the vast majority of scientists who study climate are worried about. Some areas of the world are expected to continue warming, however there are some areas that are actually expected to cool.

But key components of the global climate system are the oceans. Ocean currents help transfer energy, in the form of heat, around the world and help drive climate. The news continues to be a source of concern to scientists, as a new record high temperature was recorded this past year for the world's ocean temperatures. The largest increases have happened in the Arctic Ocean, which is why ice sheets continue to melt at high rates. The moral of the story is to not let local weather fool us into thinking we are suddenly in the clear.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Asteroid Hunters

When the dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago, it is widely believed that a large impact between the earth and an asteroid was responsible. There is evidence for such an impact near the Yucatan Peninsula. In 1994, for the first time in human history we were able to watch the Shoemaker-Lavy comet impact Jupiter. The Jupiter impacts, where some of the impact areas were larger than the earth itself, and studies of moon crater rates, showed us that large impacts do still happen, even though the inner solar system is not as crowded as it was millions of years ago with asteroids in earth-crossing orbits around the sun. Most scientists who study these events agree that the earth will ultimately experience another large impact with an asteroid.

While this is popularly the stuff of science fiction, with Hollywood movies such as Armegeddon, it is a serious topic when considered by scientists. Yes, there could, and likely will, be an impact one day in the not so distant future, between earth and a larger asteroid. And if that happens, there would be catastrophic, global consequences.

In 2005, Congress assigned NASA the mission of identifying 90% of the estimated 20,000 larger earth-crossing asteroids by the year 2020. In this case, 'large' would be asteroids with a diamter of 460 feet or more. This sized rock is large enough to survive passage through the atmosphere and devastate a large region on the ground. Of course, as this size increases, so does the impact energy and devastation area. The goal is to plot orbits and try to identify any that are on a possible collision course with the earth in the near future (within several decades worth of time until impact). To date, some 6000 have been identified and catelogued.

However, NASA reports conclude that the funding Congress was supposed to be providing to carry out this mission has never been given to NASA. In order to find such close objects to earth, a different network of telescopes is needed to accurately track such objects. It is to NASA's credit that they have been able to find 6000 at this point without the telescopes and funds.

With limited funding, it is doubtful NASA will be able to accomplish this mission, and little is being done anywhere else in the world regarding this issue. With enough warning time, there are possible interventions humans could make to save the earth from an impact event, and this is the purpose for beginning the NASA asteroid hunting mission in the first place. This is a mission worth completing.

Thoughts on Afghanistan

My good friend Zenpundit has posted the single best analysis of what we should be doing in Afghanistan that I have seen. A realistic set of goals for a truly tough situation. As this has been transitioning into 'Obama's war,' I hope the new administration will develop a strategy similar to Zen's.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

When Emotion and False Statements Drive Policy Debates

Publicity hound Rush Limbaugh comparing Pres. Obama to Adolf Hitler, and Sarah Palin stating the health care proposals coming out of Congressional committees promote suicide, take away health care from those who need it most, and says Obama's "evil plan" has "death panels" that will control what happens to those who are close to dying, have made the headlines this past week. That was by design. The more outrageous the statement, the more press coverage. And the more you can get the masses all riled up since just about no one ever does their own research for little things called facts. Democrats trying to hold town hall meetings across the country are being forced to cancel them due to unruly crowds and, in one case, death threats against the Congressman. The millions being spent to crush any type of reform whatsoever is making some progress, it seems, even though the main claims are inherently false, particularly the wild claims by Palin.

I am putting a Comcast news article below verbatim, since it does a fact check that completely contradicts what the far right campaign of fear mongors have been spreading daily.

"WASHINGTON — Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin says the health care overhaul bill would set up a "death panel." Federal bureaucrats would play God, ruling on whether ailing seniors are worth enough to society to deserve life-sustaining medical care. Palin and other critics are wrong.

Nothing in the legislation would carry out such a bleak vision. The provision that has caused the uproar would instead authorize Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients about end-of-life care, if the patient wishes. Here are some questions and answers on the controversy:

Q: Does the health care legislation bill promote "mercy killing," or euthanasia?

A: No.

Q: Then what's all the fuss about?

A: A provision in the House bill written by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., would allow Medicare to pay doctors for voluntary counseling sessions that address end-of-life issues. The conversations between doctor and patient would include living wills, making a close relative or a trusted friend your health care proxy, learning about hospice as an option for the terminally ill, and information about pain medications for people suffering chronic discomfort.

The sessions would be covered every five years, more frequently if someone is gravely ill.

Q: Is anything required?

Monsignor Charles Fahey, 76, a Catholic priest who is chairman of the board of the National Council on Aging, a nonprofit service and advocacy group, says no.

"We have to make decisions that are deliberative about our health care at every moment," Fahey said. "What I have said is that if I cannot say another prayer, if I cannot give or get another hug, and if I cannot have another martini — then let me go."

Q: Does the bill advocate assisted suicide?

A: No. It would block funds for counseling that presents suicide or assisted suicide as an option.

Q: Who supports the provision?

A: The American Medical Association, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and Consumers Union are among the groups supporting the provision. AARP, the seniors' lobby, is taking out print advertisements this week that label as false the claim that the legislation will empower the government to take over life-and-death decisions from individuals.

Q: Should the federal government be getting involved with living wills and end-of-life questions — decisions that are highly personal and really difficult?

A: It already is.

The government requires hospitals to ask adult patients if they have a living will, or "advance directive." If the patient doesn't have one, and wants one, the hospital has to provide assistance. The mandate on hospitals was instituted during a Republican administration, in 1992, under President George H.W. Bush.

Q: How does a living will work, and how is it different from a health care proxy?

A: A living will — also called an advance directive — spells out a patient's wishes if he or she becomes incapacitated. Often people say they don't want to be kept alive on breathing machines if their condition is terminal and irreversible.

A health care proxy empowers another person to make medical decisions should the patient become incapacitated.

There's also a power-of-attorney, which authorizes another person to make financial decisions for someone who is incapacitated.

Such legal documents have become standard estate-planning tools in the last twenty years.

Q: Would the health overhaul legislation change the way people now deal with making end-of-life decisions?

A: It very well could.

Supporters of the provision say the main consequence would be to formally bring doctors into a discussion that now takes place mainly among family members and lawyers.

"When you execute a legal document with your lawyer, it ends up in your files and in the lawyer's files," said John Rother, a senior policy and strategy adviser for AARP. "Unless the doctor is part of this discussion, it's unlikely that your wishes will be respected. The doctor will be the one involved in any decisions."

The American Medical Association says involving doctors is simple common sense.

"There has been a lot of misinformation about the advance care planning provisions in the bill," AMA President Dr. James Rohack said in a statement. "It's plain, old-fashioned medical care."

Q: So why are some people upset?

Some social conservatives say stronger language is needed to protect seniors from being pressured into signing away their rights to medical treatment in a moment of depression or despair.

The National Right to Life Committee opposes the provision as written.

"I'm not aware of 'death panels' in the bill," said David O'Steen, executive director of the group. "I'm not aware of anything that says you will be hauled before a government bureaucrat. But we are concerned ... it doesn't take a lot to push a vulnerable person — perhaps unwittingly — to give up their right to life-sustaining treatment."

The White House says it is countering false claims with a "reality check" page on its Web site, http://www.whitehouse.gov."

Would it not be wonderful to debate issues and ideas on merit, facts, and evidence? To take testimony and advice of experts in the field and make informed decisions? Whether it comes from the right or the left, shame on those who knowingly and blatantly state lies and exaggerations, who spend more effort and creativity on what names they will call their opponents than on new, original ideas if they think the other side is so wrong.

Do we really want to keep the status quo? How has that been working? How is it working for the 50 million uninsured, who may be finaincially ruined if someone in th efamily is seriously ill? That is a national embrrassment. Are we happy spending twice as much on average as the rest of the Western, industrialized world on health care, while having lower life expecancies, higher infant mortality rates, more obesity, and higher cancer rates? Keep in mind all of the other countries in this category insure every single citizen while having results we ae striving for as far as actual health goes.

Let's try to have an honest debate...how would that be for change?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Wikipedia for Schools, With a New Twist

When it comes to the use of Wikipedia as a primary research resource for school reports, many teachers do not allow it for fear of inaccurate information. At least in the sciences and other technical topics, I have yet to find any articles that are not accurate, and I do not mind if students use it. But like anything when it comes to research, one wants to ideally confirm information with multiple sources.

To help alleviate the fear factor many teachers have, there is a largely unknown version of Wikipedia that is specifically for schools. It has about 5500 articles on major topics in the main subject areas, and what is different is that each article has been reviewed for content accuracy by educators and is appropriate for children. What's more, the founders are purposely limiting the size of the site and offer a downloadable option, so you can copy it for free to a DVD or flash drive. The file size is about 3.5 GB. This version also provides school districts across the country an interesting option for one group of students.

I would imagine most districts have some number of students (primarily from low income homes) who have a computer at home, but their parents are unable to afford high-speed Internet access. Or perhaps a rural school district lies in a region of the country that still does not have infrastructure for high-speed Internet access. Districts have the option of purchasing DVDs and making and dispersing copies of the site to those families for use at home. This is the equivalent of providing a 20-volume encyclopedia (something like 34,000 images and 20 million words), for free, to eligible families. I could also imagine having students making the copies and/or dispersing them to families as a community service project.

This is another technological tool that will help level the playing field for students across the country who have not been able to have the same exposure to information due to location and socioeconomic status, and I look forward to still other innovative ways to continue to break down information divides that may still exist. If interested in this site, downloading instructions are available here.