Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

Category: Science and Medicine

Obama Reassures NASA Workers of Commitment to Space Program

President Barack Obama traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida today (April 15, 2010) and addressed the scientists, engineers, astronauts and others gathered at NASA about his goals for the space program of the future.

Noted Obama,”It was here that NASA lunched Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the Hubbell Telescope.” Obama, reminisced about being held on his grandfather’s shoulders in 1961 in Hawaii to observe the return of astronauts from space. He said, “I have been part of that generation inspired by the space program…As president, I believe that space exploration is an essential part of our nation.  So, today, I’d like to talk about a new chapter in space exploration.”

Recapping history and the space race we ran with Russia back in the day, Obama tried to explain that we are no longer in the position that our cold war with Russia put us in back in 1957 and beyond.  He did not, however, repudiate the space program, but, instead, repeated his commitment to NASA, pointing out that it was Bush the younger, 8 years ago, who decreed that the next 3 launches of the Challenger will be its last, due to cost constraints. That was not Obama’s decision, but George W. Bush’s.

Obama said, “I am 100% committed to the mission of NASA and its future. Because, if we fail to press forward we are ceding our imperative to press forward, and that’s part of our national character.”

Obama also went on to say, “People, for years, have neglected NASA’s mission.” He cited a reluctance to set objectives and to allocate funds and said, “All that has to change.” Therefore, Obama announced that, at a time when budgetary constraints are causing most programs to be cut or frozen, the budget for space exploration would increase by $6 billion dollars over the next 5 years. He went on to say, “NASA’s budget has risen and fallen with the political winds,” a practice which he decried.


Some of the initiatives that Obama announced for NASA included ramping up robotic exploration of space, going to Mars, launching a successor to the Hubbell Telescope and extending the life of the International Space Station.  The president announced that, at a time of freezes, NASA must work hand-in-hand with an array of private sector corporations and said, “NASA has always worked well with the private sector.” Obama said that, with new companies competing, the pace could be accelerated and that “we must build on the good work already done on the Orion endeavor.  Orion will be readied for flight right here in this room.”

Another pledge was $3 billion for research to develop a new vehicle to reach deep space.  He announced the plan to “finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it.” This is at least 2 years earlier than previous plans, Obama noted. He announced that research should be made into ways to live and work in space for longer periods of time.

Said the president, “These are the questions that we can and will answer. We will not just continue on the same path, but leap into the future.”  He referred to these goals as “transformative strategies.” Noting that the Constellation program was not fulfilling its goals, he declared that the administration would take a look at it and try to improve it, but repeated, “Nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space, than I am.” He pledged, “We will actually reach space sooner and more often,” with the partnership between NASA and the private sector. “We will send many more astronauts into space over the next decade.”

Obama pledged to invest in groundbreaking research, to set a course with achievable milestones.  “By 2025, the first ever missions beyond the moon and into deep space” will take place. He mentioned potentially visiting an asteroid.  By the mid 2030’s he said that the United States will journey to Mars and back and noted, “And I expect to be around to see it.”

Been There/Done That:

Obama downplayed the idea of going back to the moon, saying, “Some say, moon first. We’ve been there before.” He pledged, instead, that the development of deep-space propulsion systems would be critical to the space program he supports. In poo-poohing a return to the moon, he said, “I believe it’s much more important to ramp up, and that’s how we’ll insure that our exploration will be much more in the next century than it was in the last.”

Jobs Creation for Space Exploration:

Obama pledged, 2,500 jobs along the space coast, more than under his predecessor, George W. Bush. He furthermore pledged to modernize the Kennedy Space Center. Third on his list was the promise of (potentially) 10,000 more jobs in the private sector that would be allied with the government’s space program. He did note, “Some will see their jobs end (a decision made 8 years ago) when the Constellation program comes to an end, but I have directed a $40 million initiative to develop a plan for regular job growth to be on my desk by August 15th of this year.”


Said Obama, “So this is the next chapter that we can reach together, right here at NASA.” He encouraged a “step-by-step push of the boundaries.” He urged a push for ways for people to live in space, calling it “humanity’s role in space.”

To the rhetorical question, “Why spend money on NASA, on space exploration, at all?” Obama answered:  “You and I know this is a false choice.  For pennies on the dollar, space exploration has inspired generations of Americans, creating jobs, etc….I want to say clearly that is exactly why it is important that we push limits,” but he urged “clear aims” and “a larger purpose.”

Obama called the moon landing achieved under President John F. Kennedy in 1969 “one of the greatest achievements in human history.”


He added, “Is this a beginning or an ending of the space program? I choose to believe that this is the beginning of something, not the end of something.” He repeated that the race into space helped define the United States and  that the decision to retire the space shuttle after 3 more missions was made by “W” some time ago.

I watched the live speech on the Fox news channel, and I expected to hear derision and nay saying after the inspiring speech. The paid talking head was remarkably positive towards the president’s message. However, the  “expert” that Fox hired to be interviewed (Homer Hickam, supposedly a former NASA engineer),  upheld Fox’s anti-Obama bias almost to the point of being ludicrous and laughable. Hickam said, “If you want to talk about dinosaur bones, I’m your man” as the segment wound down, which had little or nothing to do with the issue of Obama’s speech on space exploration.

Hickam’s comments included these: “I just hope the people in charge don’t mess it up so bad that we can’t fix it.” (Oh. You mean like Bush did for 8 years? We’re all familiar with that strategy.)

He claimed that Obama has “a bad team” in John Holderin, his space expert. (I was tempted to ask, “There are worse team than those assembled by “W” when in office, including Brownie and Rumsfeld?) Hickam added, “They don’t have the ability to organize a Boy Scouts’ Jamboree,” which seemed, even for Fox, to be  hyperbole. After the additional comment that, “I think the people he’s got in charge don’t have a clue,” the Hickam person held up his handheld GPS, his cell phone ( he would have held up a microwave and a flat screen televison, if he had been given more time and ones that were small enough), claiming that all of these developments came to us courtesy of NASA.

Hickam  said, “That GPS saved my life when I was out there in the desert looking for dinosaur bones” (?) and went off on a conversational tangent about dinosaur bones. I am unsure where this so-called “expert” came from or under what conditions he left NASA, but the Obama speech was really inspiring and, in direct contradiction of Hickam’s later accusation that it was “so vague,” the speech set actual deadlines for many of these space initiatives, which is something I do not remember hearing from any president since JFK. Four of them are mentioned in the paragraphs above. The speech was interrupted  by spontaneous applause by the NASA scientists and engineers on several occasions.

I spent 3 weeks in Florida in January and February. NASA workers there were understandably concerned about their futures.  This speech went a long way towards reassuring top-notch current NASA workers (Homer Hickam is not among that group).  After this speech, they should feel more reassured that their jobs are not going away. This will help prevent a brain drain of our top researchers.  Obama’s commitment to the cause of space exploration, just as his commitment to passing a health care bill, seemed real and genuine during today’s speech.

Loss of Cell Phone Can Cause Loss of Mind…for Mom

sprint-Motorola-Clutch-i465-cell-phone-1The young man on the phone asked for my daughter, with whom I had just been speaking….

Me:  “She doesn’t live here. She was in college in Nashville and now she is working there. Can I help you?”

Verizon Guy: “Well, I’m from Verizon Wireless. We noticed that she just suspended her service with us, and we wanted to ask her why.”

Me: “Well, you should really be asking me. I’m the one who paid her phone bills all these years until she graduated August 14th. What’s your question?”

Verizon Guy: “We wanted to know if she was dissatisfied with the service or….? Why did she break her contract with us?”

Me:  “The service is great. The cost could definitely use some cutting, but the service was fine. She had to quit using Verizon, because she is going to be selling Sprint phones, and they frown on their employees using another service, which I’m sure you can understand. In fact, I was hoping that this fact would give her Papal Dispensation to not have to pay the breaking off fee or something… If you want to ask her about her experiences using Verizon over the years—which have been many and varied, including losing 9 cell phones and having her phone taken away twice in high school (service suspended) for failing to maintain a “B” average…I’ll be happy to give you her cell phone number. Trust me: it will be either in her hand or at her ear or mouth 90% of the time, so it shouldn’t be any problem for her to answer…And, by the way, suspending service is really a pain in the neck. You guys should work on making that an easier process; it works like a charm.” (A pause)  I can give you her cell phone number…”

VG:  “Oh, we’re not allowed to call anyone on their cell phones. If they’re driving, they might get in an accident.”

Me: “Trust me. I just hung up. She’s not driving. She’s sitting around at her boyfriend’s eating bon bons and waiting for him to get out of the shower so she can take him to work, because his car broke down. Go ahead and call her. I’ll give you her number…but I can tell you why she quit Verizon…, which, by the way, we are THRILLED about.just THRILLED. Do you know how much money we’ll save in just a month? True, she had to pay $140 to get out of her contract, but we’ll make that up in one month or less and, from now on, she will have to pay for her own phone bill and…more importantly, her own lost phones.”

VG:  “Did your daughter have the insurance for lost phones?”

Me: “Yes, she did, but she used it entirely too frequently. Let me run this down for you….Phone #1: dropped it in the bathtub.

Phone #2: Dropped it in the toilet.

Phone #3: Dropped it in a swimming pool….

Now it gets more interesting and varied from this point on.

Phone #4: A man at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard in Colona, Illinois called us up late one weekend night. He said, ‘A gentleman just found your daughter’s phone in a ditch outside and brought it in the store and we called the ‘home’ number.’ My husband went out and picked it up and thanked the kind man.  How did her phone get in a ditch outside a Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard in Colona, Illinois? Beats the hell out of me!

Phone #5: Left it on the counter at the Coop Tape and Record Store in Iowa City, Iowa during her freshman year in school. (That one we got back).

Phone #6: Dropped it in a Porta-Potty at the fairgrounds. (That one we did NOT get back…nor did we WANT it back.)

Phone #7: Was stolen from her glove box while her car was sitting in our driveway, unlocked.

Phone #8: Left it in a cab in Chicago…a cab that drove away. Never got it back, but picture her running after the cab like a dog trying to bite the tires. Called the cab main office. Never saw the phone again.”

Phone #9: A bus ran over it in New York City while she was there doing a music business internship.  Yes, we had the insurance for lost phones, which we always made her pay herself. Did it help? What do you think?

Now, she does not have insurance for lost phones because she chose to purchase a used cell phone on Craig list rather than pay $500, but she does get a special employee discount plan.

All the years she had her phone with Verizon, the bills were astronomical. It wasn’t until quite some time along that we found out we were paying 10 cents per text message and she had set the World Speed Record for texting. I swear to heaven, I don’t know how that many text messages can be sent in one day.  No one at the store ever mentioned that there was a better way to pay for this, so we just kept getting astronomical bills until my sister-in-law clued me in that there was an “unlimited” option that would help.

However, when Verizon had their Blackberry Storm special, we both got them. This was right after the unfortunate city bus accident in New York City. We both took them back. Neither one of us liked them. I couldn’t work it at all. I need a button or a toggle or something. That flat screen was a mystery, and who wants all their computer messages scrolled across their phone without a password? Not me, said the Little Red Hen. What’s the point of having a password if the cell phone computer messages are just there for the world? Kind of defeats that option of the Internet, doesn’t it?

My husband and I got the simplest phone they had. . I don’t text. I don’t know how to take a picture. I can just barely work the message function. Hers? With a little tweaking, she could put herself in orbit!

When we found out that she was going to be working for Sprint, we were ecstatic! I said to my spouse, ‘I’ll bet you that we save at least $150 a month on our phone bills now!’ My husband doubted my claim. It escalated into one of those old-married-couple fights over who was right. I made him get the bill from last month out. It was over $300. Her share of that bill? $157! So, we are DELIGHTED that she is now going to be paying for her own cell phone usage AND her own cell phones, on her own dime. And how much will this service cost her, with the Super Duper phone that sends the Internet to you and all that rot, with Sprint? $35. She just has to hope she doesn’t lose Phone #10.”

VG: (Suppressed laughter). “What did your daughter say when you asked her about all the lost phones?

Me: “Well…I have always said she should become an attorney, because she LOVES to argue. She believes that “the best defense is a good offense.” She always tries to ‘deflect’ criticism away from herself by going on the attack and accusing you of something, sometimes something totally unrelated.  She said to me: ‘Well, YOU lose things, too.”
VG: “What did you say to that?”

Me: “I said, ‘Yes, I lose things, but I have NEVER EVER lost a cell phone. Not that I couldn’t, but I just never have. Yet she has lost 9 phones since she began using one at about age 13, at a rate of one phone per year.  Do you know what she said then…when I protested that neither her father nor I had ever lost OUR phones?

She said, ‘Well, I use my cell phone a lot more than you do.’

What’s that got to do with LOSING the phone you claim to use more than me? Wouldn’t that make you MORE careful about hanging on to it, since it is attached to the end of your arm (or ear) permanently? (Apparently not.). See what I mean about how she should go to law school and learn to argue for a living?”

There was a long pause.

Then the Verizon Guy said….

VG:  “If she is at her home, could you give me that cell phone number, please?”

Me:  “I can, and I will.  I am delighted that someone other than me is going to have a conversation with her about her cell phone usage. Good luck with that, then.”
And I hung up.

Chicago Storm on August 4th Was Electrifying!

Lightning Over ChicagoAn update to the storm I suffered through in a basement in Bridgeport, a southwest suburb of Chicago (home of the White Sox and Mayor Daley’s birthplace) on Monday, August 4th (article posted on www.associatedcontent.com).

It was some storm! I was impressed with the lightning. I learned that, over four hours, about a half-year’s worth of lightning bolts bombarded Chicago. It was truly a historic thunderstorm, with 90,000 thunderbolts hitting northern Illinois (according to the Lightning Detection Network).

At the storm’s peak, it was detonating 800 bolts per minute. In six months’ worth of time, we usually don’t have that much lightning.

WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling (brother of the OTHER Skilling of Enron fame) said on Tuesday, August 5th, “There was no precedent for this. In every way imaginable, that storm last night was in its own league.”

The amazing thing: nobody was struck by lightning and no fatalities were reported due to the massive and truly awesome display of electrical tension, which began when positively charged ice crystals at the top and negatively charged water droplets at the bottom created a volatile mix. As the warm, moist air floated to the clouds, the powder keg exploded. Most lightning is negatively charged, but there are indications that ,during parts of the Monday storm, there was more than two and one-half times the usual percentage of positively charged lightning bolts which are more powerful.

Skilling said, “Not only were the total numbers just off the charts, but there was a disproportionate number of strokes that were positively charged. That was an especially dangerous lightning display.”

Nearly 10,000 lightning strikes were recorded in the 10 miles around Chicago’s loop, one of the highest totals ever seen for an area of that size. While there were at least 7 fires caused by the lightning hitting homes that burned down (Woodridge, Lisle, Aurora, Schaumburg, Frankfort, Barrington and Lemont) the wind did more damage. Some good quotes were obtained from employees of the Signature Room on the 96th floor of the Hancock Building. Apparently, the patrons thought it was all great good fun and filmed the bar glasses as they moved back and forth.

Manager James Kuehner said, “You could tell when the building was getting hit, because everything was bright light and thunder at the same time.”

Yikes! We almost walked over to Chinatown, but the tornado sirens did not enhance the experience, for me, so, instead, we sat on the floor of an interior hallway, away from the windows, cranking the weather radio I had just bought at the Natural Disasters exhibit at the Field Museum. (We learned that cranking it did not work that well, but putting batteries in it did.)

Chicago News and Views

    A quick look at Chicago’s news, where I now report from, tells me that there are some issues in Chicago that have not made the local Quad City newspapers. For instance, there was a shooting near the Taste of Chicago, which Mayor Daley is trying to play down as having had anything to do with that massive annual event. The cab talk is all about whether it will have a negative effect on Chicago’s bid for the Olympics. If the shooting outside Grant Park and off the Festival site doesn’t do it, then will the 10.25% sales tax deter visitors to this fair city?


     Another city vignette: a newborn baby boy was found abandoned in the courtyard of an Uptown apartment building at about 2:00 a.m. The 5 lb. Baby boy left in the 4600 block of North Beacon Street inside a grocery bag amid shrubbery was crying to save his life (which it did) in the 70-degree temperature. His body temperature had dropped to 86 degrees in the cool night air and he might not have survived if one of the apartment’s residents had not gone outside to investigate, found the child, and taken it to a nearby fire station. The child had cried for at least two hours before anyone thought to investigate, but it was after 2 in the morning.

      A third interesting story detailed how a Lake Hills man known as Edward F. Bachner IV tried to hire a hit man to kill his wife, after he had taken out a $5 million dollar life insurance policy on her. The odd thing is that the wife didn’t know about the “hit-for-hire” until she found out in court, and the method that the would-be murderer eventually settled on to do her in: Pufferfish.  I just wrote a story entitled “Pufferfish.” Who knew that Pufferfish venom is among the most deadly of poisons? Dr. Frank Paloucek, clinical expert in toxicology, says that the Tetraodontidae family of poisons (specifically, the deadly poisonous pufferfish) “would be a terrible way to die, in my opinion, because you could be very easily conscious at the time you stop breathing. You wouldn’t be feeling that you weren’t breathing, and you would be conscious of it, and you would die because you would pass out. The death is a respiratory death. Your lungs stop working and your brain loses enough oxygen for long enough, and then you’re dead.” Yup. That’ll do it. Stay away from Pufferfish. Edward F. Bachner IV had apparently pretended to be someone who had a legitimate reason for owning pufferfish poison, and he had a bunch of it! He also had 50 knives, garrotes that could be used to choke people to death, a gun, two passports, and a phony CIA badge. Wow! The Pufferfish Conspiracy has made all the papers, and I’m thinking that I was way ahead of THAT learning curve with my little story! Just so you know: “If it was a 220-pound person, you would need one-thousandth of a gram, or one-32,000th of an ounce to kill an adult” with Pufferfish poison. Another wow, there. The reason given? Marine animals have to be far more poisonous than land animals to kill their pretty, because they are operating in 3 dimensions instead of 2. (I’m not sure I understood that last part, but I’m just here to report the news of the day in Chicago by the Lake.)

      There was also a story about a 96-year-old man who has a lot of opinions (Garrison Keillor) and a happy story about a young boy who was lost for hours, but was found unharmed. That, at least, was a “happy” ending.

Ames Professor’s Paper Sparks the Design of the Speedo LZR Racer Swimsuit

Speedo LZR Racer Swimsuit

Speedo LZR Racer Swimsuit

I’m always interested to learn that the Midwest has done itself proud. That would appear to be the case in the very hot topic of the LZR (pronounced “laser” swimsuit designed by Speedo and currently showcased in the June 30, 2008, issue of Newsweek with Cindy McCain on the cover.

The controversy over the swimsuit, made of high-density microfiber and lined with polyurethane panels, which appears to be contributing to a rash of World Records being set by those wearing them, has Iowa roots.

It seems that a professor of physiology at Ames (Iowa State University) named Rick Sharp, a former collegiate swimmer himself, wrote two papers questioning Speedo’s performance claims for the LZR’s predecessor, the Speedo Fastskin suit. Speedo did not take offense at Professor Sharp’s comments, but, instead, called him up in 2004 and invited him to lead a team of outside experts that would design a better suit.

Sharp recalls, in the Newsweek article, “I laughed and said, ‘Have you read my papers?'”

Speedo had, indeed, read Sharp’s papers. They had taken his doubts into consideration and, says Jason Rance, Chief of Speedo’s Aqualab global R&D Center in England, “He was asking all the right questions.”

NASA fluid-mechanics engineer Stephen Wilkinson was also enlisted to use wind tunnels to detect surface friction on spacecraft re-entering Earth’s atmosphere technology to blow air across a variety of fabrics at 63 mph, the simulated speed of a swimmer as fast as Michael Phelps, this year’s American gold medal hopeful.

Samples were stitched together and tried out on Iowa State University swimmers. Says Sharp, “We had one suit that looked great on paper. But then, when we dove into the pool, it ballooned out like a parachute.”

The polyurethane panels that act like a girdle to streamline the swimmers bodies also had to be redesigned so that the girdle structure wasn’t too far up the rib cage, therefore inhibiting swimmers’ breathing.

Whatever the case, the LZR, which had been previously approved for use at the Beijing Olympics, has sparked a storm of protest from competitors, who claim that it constitutes an unfair advantage for other swimmers. The Speedo people, for their part, don’t expect to market many of the $290 a pair men’s jammers nor the $550 full bodysuit. They are meant for true athletes like Phelps and could be considered “the couture version” of Speedo, according to Warnaco Group President Helen McCluskey. The $40 to $78 knock-off versions with stars-and-stripes motifs that will be marketed to little kids: that’s where the market is, with 300,000 kids on swim teams.

Meanwhile, even endorsers of other swimsuits seem to be defecting in droves to the new LZR Suit to get the “rocket” effect that NASA was aiming for. One prominent endorser of a competitor, Olympic medallist Erik Vendt, who previously shilled for TYR, the second-largest U.S. swimwear maker, has switched to the Speedo LZR Racer. A Japanese swimmer under contract to Mizuno just set a world record wearing a LZR. Speedo spent tens of millions developing the LZR Racer over the last four years and, says U.S. swim coach Mark Schubert, “every world record is in jeopardy. The suit is definitely a factor.”

The Clean Energy Scam: Ethanol


     As a full-time resident of the Midwest (Iowa-born, Illinois-resident), the section of the United States  that stands to benefit most from the newfound emphasis on ethanol and the development of biofuels, the April issue of Time magazine, with an article (pp. 40-45) by Michael Grunwald entitled “The Clean Energy Scam” caught my attention. The subtitle read, “Hyped as an eco-friendly fuel, ethanol increases global warming, destroys forests and inflates food prices. So why are we subsidizing it?”  Why, indeed?

    Like all Midwesterners who hail from corn-growing states, it occurred to me that   $4-a-gallon gas might prove to be a boon to mankind and that ethanol, made from corn, stood a good chance of being in the forefront of  new efforts to tap into alternative energy sources. “Good for Iowa!” I initially thought. “You go, Hawkeyes!”

     After all Iowa, my home state, according to this article,  gains over 50,000 jobs (nothing to sneeze at in a state with only about 3 million residents and no really large cities) and $2 billion in income as it turns corn into fuel. Iowa produced nearly 2 billion gallons of ethanol last year, 30% of the entire United States total. Certainly the new initiatives will see even more emphasis on this alternative energy source. As the article put it (p. 44), “If biofuels are the new dot-coms, Iowa is Silicon Valley, with 53,000 jobs and $1.8 billion in income dependent on the industry.”  The article even calls Iowa “America’s biofuel mecca.” (p. 44)and says that the industry has taken off with such gusto that Iowa is even importing corn for the initiative. It relates that John McCain’s absence from the landscape during the Iowa caucuses in 2000 was  due to the fact that he had called ethanol “an outrageous agribusiness boondoggle” back then. By 2006, a more politically astute McCain was calling ethanol “a vital alternative energy source,” but he still did almost no campaigning in Iowa this season, which we can chalk up to his faltering campaign (see my article regarding McCain’s “Second Coming” on www.jollyjo.com).

     In 2007, fewer than 2% of United States gas stations even offered ethanol as a fuel. The U.S. produced 7 billion gallons of biofuel in 2007, which cost taxpayers at least $8 billion in subsidies. (“The Clean Energy Scam,” p. 44). However, Iowa is not the world, and when one reads, in the same article, that regular gasoline isn’t even offered at a Brazilian “gas” station. Our country produces 5 billion gallons of sugarcane ethanol, which supplies 45% of its transportation needs. Here at home, the demand for ethanol is expected to increase five-fold in the next ten years. In 1995, ethanol was a $5 billion-dollar industry in the United States. By 2005, it is projected to be a $38 billion-dollar industry, worldwide, which will increase to $100 billion by the year 2010.

     So, as the old Wendy’s ad used to put it, “Where’s the beef?” What’s wrong with using corn and sugar and soybeans to make biofuels to power our vehicles, rather than continuing to be at the mercy of the Mideastern oil-rich countries?

     The April Time article from which these facts are taken posits the following reasons why ethanol (et. al.) is/are not the ideal alternative fuel source(s) of the future for the world.

     Number One Argument Against Ethanol“Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous,” according to the Time piece. As writer Michael Grunwald eloquently phrased it (p. 42), “Several new studies show (that) the biofuel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended; it’s dramatically accelerating global warming, imperiling the planet in the name of saving it.”

     Number Two Argument Against Ethanol:  Biofuels are jacking up world food prices and endangering the hungry, world-wide. The author cites tortilla riots in Mexico over rising prices and destabilization of Pakistan caused by rising flour prices. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute says that the emerging struggle pits  800 million people with cars against 800 million of the world’s hungry. In 2004, two University of Minnesota researchers predicted that the world’s hungry would drop to 625 million by the year 2025. Last year, however, after adjusting for the biofuel effect, they increased their original prediction to 1.2 billion hungry in that time period.

     NumberThree Argument Against Ethanol and other Biofuels: The Amazon is doomed, unless steps are taken to prevent its brutal rush from forest to farmland. “Strange as it sounds, we’re better off growing food and drilling for oil.” (p. 44) Why? It seems that the scientists who originally put forth dreams of petroleum independence as a result of the increased growth of biofuels didn’t take into account that  plants need land to grow. They don’t spring, fully-grown, from a parking lot in downtown Santa Monica. Land is needed to grow soybeans, sugar cane or corn. Why should this matter?  It matters because many nations are industrially deforesting their countries so that they, too, can feed at the trough of biofuel largesse. Brazil is the best example. Besides the fact, as Grunewald puts it, that “every acre used to generate fuel is an acre that can’t be used to generate the food needed to feed us,” there is the problem of carbon storage. We need forests and foliage to take in carbon dioxide and, in turn, give off oxygen, but in countries like Brazil, forest land is burning that is roughly equivalent in size to the state of Rhode Island. The Amazon faces the very real prospect of turning into a desert unless something  is done. Deforestation now accounts for 20% of all carbon emissions and Brazil vaulted into fourth place as a worldwide polluter, as a result of its slash-and-burn policies in converting jungle into farmland. As Grunewald put it (p. 42), “…unless the world can eliminate emissions from all other sources—cars, power plants, factories, even flatulent cows—it needs to reduce deforestation or risk an environmental catastrophe.”

     Number Four Argument Against the Use of Bio-Fuels: the “experts” have changed their minds. One of the original leading proponents of the use of biofuels, rather than petroleum products, was University of California  Berkeley professor Alexander Farrell. His 2006 Science article, which calculated the emissions reductions of various ethanols, used to be considered the Bible for promoting the initiative. Today, in 2008, he says, “The situation is a lot more challenging than a lot of us thought,” as the effects of deforestation are felt.

     With all this in mind, the experts now are calling for better biofuels that don’t trigger massive carbon releases by displacing wildland (sugar, for example, is a better biofuel and burns cleaner than corn) and a mix of fuel sources. Leading supporters of the environment like Robert Kennedy, Jr., argue for a more widespread array of alternative fuels. Not just corn, soybeans, sugar or other foodstuffs, but wind and solar power, as well. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Nathanael Greene says, in “Growing Energy,” (2004) “We’re all looking at the numbers in an entirely new way.”

     But, as a Midwesterner, I predict that the powerful agriculture lobby will not agree with the conclusions of Michael Grunewald’s Time piece, and I’m not sure that I do, either. If subsidies are given to Iowa farmers to pay them not to grow certain crops, in order to keep the market from being glutted and the prices to drop, then the WTO (now meeting in Cancun, Mexico) might consider such subsidies to African countries to preserve the rainforest from unnecessary destruction. And if Americans would get on the hybrid car bandwagon (I’ve owned three) and/or the hydrogen or electric car, when it appear on the scene, that would help. And, just as the Midwest is a source of corn for biofuel, flat states like Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota are veritable wind wizards. I hope to see the new-fangled windmills dotting the Midwestern landscape, and, while I’m not sure that nuclear power plants are terribly cost-effective, nor is there a good solution to the spent nuclear fuel rods in this country, in Europe, France has successfully harnessed the atom and even learned to recycle the spent nuclear material.

     So the answer, as the song says, may be “blowin’ in the wind,” growing in the ground or a host of other places, none of which we should neglect to thoughtfully consider.

The Price You Pay Can Make A Difference in Pleasure

      Who knew that an area of our brain known as the medial orbifrontal cortex could affect whether we enjoy something purchased at bargain basement prices as much as an item or service for which we have paid Top Dollar? New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, conducted by researchers at the California Institute of Technology and at Stanford demonstrates that the price people pay for something can change how much pleasure they derive from that item or service.

     Neuro-economist Antonio Rangel of the California Institute of Technology and Baba Shiv, a Stanford University behavioral economist had subjects evaluate bottles of wine. One bottle of wine cost $10; one bottle cost $90. In reality, both bottles were filled with the same exact wine.

     The researchers then conducted a brain-imaging study of the wine tasters and learned that the wine drinkers who thought they were drinking the more expensive vintage experienced a greater degree of activation in their media orbitofrontal cortex. These wine drinkers also reported that the expensive wine was better, even though, in reality, the wines were identical.

     Many studies have shown that, because of a general assumption that something expensive should be better, consumers value everything from clothing to food more highly when the price is marked up.  This effect, called the price-placebo effect, because it seems similar to the placebo effect in medicine, has been reported in a number of studies over the years. Researcher Baba Shiv said, “The price-placebo effect comes from the fact that you form this global belief that low price equals low quality.” My friends who believe that anything marked “Sony” must be better than a competing brand would fall into the majority of buyers.

     In addition to the wine study, there was a corollary study involving solving word puzzles.  Subjects were offered an “energy drink,” which they were told would boost their puzzle-solving performance. Some were asked to buy the drink at full price of $1.89. Others were offered the same drink, but told that, because of a bulk purchase, they could purchase the energy drink for only eighty-nine cents. Those who paid full price for the energy drink were able to solve nearly two times as many puzzles as those who received the discounted energy drink.

    Some of the explanation for the improved puzzle-performance on the part of those who paid full price was attributed to persistence: “I paid full price and I’m going to hang in there and solve this (these) puzzles!” The studies bring up an interesting question: If I paid Top Dollar for something, and, as a result, derived more pleasure from it, was I ripped off, or did I actually get a better deal than the person who got a discount? If you found that comment confusing and contradictory, join the club; it becomes almost like as complicated as chess trying to decide if it is better to get a bargain or to pay full price.

     The implications in these studies were very interesting, in light of the large number of consumers today who purchase many items in discount houses such as Sam’s Wholesale Club, Circuit City, Best Buy, and/or CostCo. When I recently purchased a Calvin Klein black pea coat from Sam’s for $25, I remember feeling that, although the coat looked good on me, fit well, and was a “name” brand with a much-higher price tag attached (from the original Calvin Klein stores), I found myself telling people that the coat had come from Sam’s Club and “only cost $25.” Rather than enjoying it less because of that fact, however, I actually think I enjoyed it more, feeling that I had gotten a bargain.

     I wonder if the item makes a difference? A coat, after all, is more of a necessity than wine, puzzles or hookers…the third purchased “service” the article discusses at length.

     The original article discussed former Governor Eliot Spitzer’s purchase of sexual services from a prostitute in The Emperors’ Club known as “Kristen” and debated, at length, whether Spitzer got 10 times the value for his $1000-an-hour tryst of someone who only paid a prostitute $100 an hour.

     For me, the ultimate answer to that question is whether the price Spitzer paid— his future in politics, his family, his reputation and his aspirations for higher office—were worth the few hours of hedonistic pleasure he derived in hiring a high-priced call girl for sexual services. Logic would suggest that Spitzer not only crossed the line morally, but also paid far more than what “Kristen’s” services were worth.


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