Patt Morrison for December 21, 2010

Mercer 13053

Water, water, everywhere – but how to save it?

Since Friday, Pacific storms have pummeled California, dumping more than 12 inches of rain in the Santa Monica Mountains and 13 feet of snow at Mammoth Mountain ski resort. An even fiercer storm is predicted tonight for Southern California, with possible rates of two inches an hour in the region. All that water may not mean a complete end to the drought, but it can help the drought-like conditions we’ve faced for the last few years - or can it? With water racing down burned hills and mountainsides, filling the concrete-lined Los Angeles River and running straight into the ocean, are we able to save any of this sudden abundance of rainfall for drier times?
Just as the healthcare reform bill was being signed into law, California-based insurance company Anthem-Blue Cross shocked its customers by announcing its intentions to increase rates by as much as 39%. Because of an accounting error caught by the California insurance commissioner’s office Anthem was eventually forced to lower its increase to 15 – 20%, but nonetheless both state and federal regulators were relatively powerless to stop Anthem from dramatically jacking up rates. This lack of power was promised to be rectified once the healthcare reform law was put into place. Today the Obama Administration announced its rules governing insurance rate increases and while the government will force insurance companies to justify higher rates there is little in the way of new powers given to the states to stop them from happening. One analyst characterized the new rules as “regulation by public shame” as the best the government can do is to embarrass an insurance company into lowering its higher premiums. Is this enough to protect consumers?
Mercer 13052
The Bush administration was blasted for tainting science with politics, perhaps most notably in 2006, when scientist James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute, accused White House officials of preventing him from talking about findings that linked carbon emissions to global warming. Now after a long delay, the Obama administration is releasing its guidelines to wall off science from politics. The four-page document prohibits agencies from editing or suppressing reports and says scientists are generally free to speak to journalists and the public about their work. It also instructs agencies to describe both optimistic and pessimistic projections, one guideline experts feel might have helped the administration avoid overly optimistic estimates during this year’s BP oil spill. But not everyone thinks the wall is high enough—some scientists say the guidelines are too general, give too much discretion to the government agencies and leave open the possibility of another Hansen episode. Reading between the lines, what do the guidelines say and are they strict enough to keep science objective?
Mercer 13049
The Federal Communications Commission, like the rest of Washington D.C. these days, is a divided and partisan commission—so it’s not surprising that on something as controversial as new internet guidelines, shaped by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and widely referred to as “net neutrality” for its open access mandate, ideological outlooks guided the commissioners decisions. It’s also not surprising that nobody is particularly happy with the outcome. The net neutrality rules are designed to keep open and fair access to broadband, specifically by preventing the nation’s biggest telecommunication companies from walling off their corners of the internet. The FCC’s three Democrats are voting in favor of net neutrality with hesitation, criticizing the plan’s allowance of tiered access to specific internet services. The two Republican commissioners are voting against it, saying that net neutrality is government interference in the free market of the internet. How will the little guys in all of this, the end internet users, feel about net neutrality?
Mercer 13047
If you were able to read every book published over the last 200 years you’d probably have a pretty good idea of the political, social, scientific, religious, cultural and ethnic trends in society—an individual book tells one story, but put together millions of books can tell the story of the human race. Technology is making it possible to capture and analyze the billions of words used to write the millions of books published in recent history, which is showing us how we’ve grown and changed as a society. Researchers at Google and Harvard’s engineering school are hard at work scanning as many books as possible into a 500-billion-word database that grows by the day. In a paper published in the journal Science they tracked the frequency with which words were used (references to God have been dropping off since 1830), how generations have looked at the history of their predecessors (references to past years have been dropping off more quickly as cultures shift their focus to the present) and how we’ve historically viewed celebrities (modern fame both accrues and fades faster now than a century ago). Patt takes you into the fascinating, and growing, world of cultural anthropology.
Mercer 13048

It's a bird, it's a plane... no, it's a flying car!

It’s almost 2011 and yet the world of the Jetsons still seems far off. People have been dreaming of flying cars for decades, while the drivers of Los Angeles dream about flying cars every day as they sit in traffic commuting to and from work. The prototypes still need a lot of work and there is nothing close to any kind of workable regulatory structure in place to deal with millions of flying cars buzzing around our skies, but the reality of a flying machine that you can park in your garage every night is getting closer. Entrepreneurs, NASA and the Pentagon are all working individually, and in some cases collaboratively, to construct a flying car that is commercially and aerodynamically viable. This year a dune buggy type vehicle that uses a parachute and prop engine was approved for flight by the FAA and for use on the road by the state of Florida. Could a robot maid be far behind?
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