by Bill Hayes
David Lazarus, a Los Angeles Times business columnist, argues that Cost has U.S. banks stalling on ID theft deterrent.
All we need to do is follow the example of about 130 other countries that have abandoned magnetic stripes, or mag stripes, on credit cards and equipped their plastic with harder-to-hack security chips. They also require that all card transactions include a personal identification number.
Everyone seems to agree that the United States needs to join the chip-and-PIN party. Frustratingly, though, various business interests are squabbling over who should foot the bill, rather than focusing on the best way to protect American consumers.
Chip-and-PIN cards became widely used in Britain a decade ago. Since then, fraud losses from counterfeit cards fell more than 63%, according to a 2012 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. [more]
by David De La Torre
In A memo to Obama, The Economist writes an open letter to President Obama.
Employment is essential to mobility. You know that; but while you have rightly tried to bolster the demand for labour, you’ve neglected the supply. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says that, by 2024, 2.5m fewer people will work because of the disincentives embedded in Obamacare. The fact is that all means-tested transfers, including Obamacare, discourage work, which can worsen mobility. Conversely, time spent on the job makes men and women more productive and valuable to their employers, leading to higher salaries later in life.
The solution is not to do away with means-testing or transfers, but to incentivise work in other ways. This is where the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) comes in. It costs $63 billion a year, but it is one of America’s most potent anti-poverty tools. Unlike most other parts of the safety net, it is contingent on work, and ample research shows that it boosts employment for those who get it. [more]
by Bill Hayes
In Is Funeral Home Chain SCI’s Growth Coming at the Expense of Mourners?, Bloomberg Businessweek’s cover story reports on the huge funeral chain Service Corporation International.
In the death-care industry, as practitioners call it, SCI casts a long shadow. Based in Houston and publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange (NYX), it operates more than 1,800 funeral homes and cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada. It has 20,000 employees and a market capitalization of $4 billion. For 40 years, SCI has gobbled competitors as the pioneer consolidator of a fragmented industry. Although it has overreached at times, suffering a corporate near-death experience after a late-1990s debt binge, SCI is hungry once again. “This summer they bought the Quattlebaums,” Zahn says, referring to an established family-owned funeral home catering to the Palm Beach elite. With that acquisition, SCI controls 8 of the 14 businesses Zahn considers rivals. “Then,” he adds, “there’s the Stewart deal.”
Already No. 1 in death care in North America, SCI expects by early 2014 to ingest the next-largest chain, Stewart Enterprises (STEI), based in New Orleans. In one gulp, SCI will grow to 2,168 locations. If the $1.4 billion transaction gets antitrust clearance from the Federal Trade Commission, the combined company would control some 15 percent of the U.S. industry, with much larger shares of prime markets in Florida, Texas, and California. In West Palm, a mecca for retirement (and therefore death), the Stewart merger would add a ninth business to the SCI stable, translating to more than 60 percent of the local market.
Explaining SCI’s business model, Zahn brakes the Cadillac in front of a large mustard-colored building that serves as the company’s regional embalming center. “Every body from every SCI home from North Palm Beach to Boca Raton comes here for embalming, and then it’s shipped back [to the funeral home] for the service,” Zahn says. “The families don’t know, but SCI saves a ton on overhead.” For cremations, SCI has a central oven facility in Fort Lauderdale. The chain’s locations share limos, hearses, and personnel. They enjoy volume discounts on caskets, flowers, and embalming fluid. “You feel like you’re competing against a factory,” Zahn says.
As uneasy as he is about SCI, Zahn and other small operators do cling to one competitive advantage: The chain charges customers more than independently owned rivals. [more]
In This Is the Man Bill Gates Thinks You Absolutely Should Be Reading, Wired magazine interviews Vaclav Smil, author of more than 30 books and a professor emeritus of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba.
Let’s talk about manufacturing. You say a country that stops doing mass manufacturing falls apart. Why?
In every society, manufacturing builds the lower middle class. If you give up manufacturing, you end up with haves and have-nots and you get social polarization. The whole lower middle class sinks.
You also say that manufacturing is crucial to innovation.
Most innovation is not done by research institutes and national laboratories. It comes from manufacturing — from companies that want to extend their product reach, improve their costs, increase their returns. What’s very important is in-house research. Innovation usually arises from somebody taking a product already in production and making it better: better glass, better aluminum, a better chip. Innovation always starts with a product.
Look at LCD screens. Most of the advances are coming from big industrial conglomerates in Korea like Samsung or LG. The only good thing in the US is Gorilla Glass, because it’s Corning, and Corning spends $700 million a year on research. [more]
by Bill Hayes
In A Star in a Bottle for the New Yorker, Raffi Khatchadourian reports on a massive international project to create a source of clean energy.
Years from now — maybe in a decade, maybe sooner — if all goes according to plan, the most complex machine ever built will be switched on in an Alpine forest in the South of France. The machine, called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, will stand a hundred feet tall, and it will weigh twenty-three thousand tons — more than twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower. At its core, densely packed high-precision equipment will encase a cavernous vacuum chamber, in which a super-hot cloud of heavy hydrogen will rotate faster than the speed of sound, twisting like a strand of DNA as it circulates. The cloud will be scorched by electric current (a surge so forceful that it will make lightning seem like a tiny arc of static electricity), and bombarded by concentrated waves of radiation. Beams of uncharged particles — the energy in them so great it could vaporize a car in seconds — will pour into the chamber, adding tremendous heat. In this way, the circulating hydrogen will become ionized, and achieve temperatures exceeding two hundred million degrees Celsius — more than ten times as hot as the sun at its blazing core.
No natural phenomenon on Earth will be hotter. Like the sun, the cloud will go nuclear. The zooming hydrogen atoms, in a state of extreme kinetic excitement, will slam into one another, fusing to form a new element — helium — and with each atomic coupling explosive energy will be released: intense heat, gamma rays, X rays, a torrential flux of fast-moving neutrons propelled in every direction. There isn’t a physical substance that could contain such a thing. Metals, plastics, ceramics, concrete, even pure diamond — all would be obliterated on contact, and so the machine will hold the superheated cloud in a “magnetic bottle,” using the largest system of superconducting magnets in the world. Just feet from the reactor’s core, the magnets will be cooled to two hundred and sixty-nine degrees below zero, nearly the temperature of deep space. Caught in the grip of their titanic forces, the artificial earthbound sun will be suspended, under tremendous pressure, in the pristine nothingness of ITER’s vacuum interior.
For the machine’s creators, this process — sparking and controlling a self-sustaining synthetic star — will be the culmination of decades of preparation, billions of dollars’ worth of investment, and immeasurable ingenuity, misdirection, recalibration, infighting, heartache, and ridicule. Few engineering feats can compare, in scale, in technical complexity, in ambition or hubris. Even the ITER organization, a makeshift scientific United Nations, assembled eight years ago to construct the machine, is unprecedented. Thirty-five countries, representing more than half the world’s population, are invested in the project, which is so complex to finance that it requires its own currency: the ITER Unit of Account.
No one knows ITER’s true cost, which may be incalculable, but estimates have been rising steadily, and a conservative figure rests at twenty billion dollars — a sum that makes ITER the most expensive scientific instrument on Earth. But if it is truly possible to bottle up a star, and to do so economically, the technology could solve the world’s energy problems for the next thirty million years, and help save the planet from environmental catastrophe. Hydrogen, a primordial element, is the most abundant atom in the universe, a potential fuel that poses little risk of scarcity. Eventually, physicists hope, commercial reactors modelled on ITER will be built, too — generating terawatts of power with no carbon, virtually no pollution, and scant radioactive waste. The reactor would run on no more than seawater and lithium. It would never melt down. It would realize a yearning, as old as the story of Prometheus, to bring the light of the heavens to Earth, and bend it to humanity’s will. ITER, in Latin, means “the way.”
The main road to the ITER construction site from Aix-en-Provence, where I had booked a room, is the A51 highway. The drive is about half an hour, winding north past farmland and the sun-glittered Durance River. Just about every form of energy is in evidence nearby, from hydroelectric dams to floating solar panels. Seams of lignite, a soft brownish coal, run beneath the soil in Provence, but the deposits have become too expensive to mine. Several miles from Aix, a large coal plant, with a chimney that climbs hundreds of feet into the sky, is being converted to burn biomass — leaves, branches, and agricultural debris. ITER is being built a mile or two from the wooded campus of the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique et aux Énergies Alternatives, a state-funded research organization, created in 1945 to advance nuclear power, and now also renewable energy. Evergreen oak and Aleppo pine cover the foothills; beneath them, the French government maintains its largest strategic oil reserve.
ITER’s headquarters, a five-floor edifice, was erected two years ago. An undulating wave of gray concrete slats shade its floor-to-ceiling windows. Its interior is simple: whitewashed walls, polished-concrete floors. The building’s southern façade overlooks a work site, more than a hundred acres of construction on the opposite side of a berm. By the time the reactor is turned on — the formal target date for its first experiment is 2020 — the site will be home to a small city. Nearly forty buildings will surround the machine, from cooling towers to a cryogenics plant, which will produce liquid helium to cool the superconducting magnets. A skywalk extends from the second floor of the headquarters to the berm, where a capacious NASA-style control room will one day be built. For now, the bridge ends in a pile of ochre dirt, and the only way to the vast expanse of construction is via a circuitous drive. [more]
by Bill Hayes
AsapSCIENCE presents What If You Stopped Going Outside?
by Bill Hayes
In A precarious time for Afghan women, the Los Angeles Times reports that women in Afghanistan have made some progress since 2001, but they are worried about the future.
Afghanistan is still a deeply conservative Islamic country where some village girls as young as 9 or 10 are forced to marry older men, and some women’s groups estimate that at least half of all marriages violate the Afghan legal marriage age of 16. Some women and girls who flee arranged marriages are hunted down by their fathers and brothers, beaten and sometimes killed. The practice of baad, or giving away a young woman as payment to settle debts or atone for family crimes, is illegal but still prevalent in rural areas.
Traditions still require burkas in public for millions of provincial women, but also in cities such as Kabul or Jalalabad. It is not uncommon, even in Kabul, to see women packed into the backs of station wagons or the open trunk of a car.
There are undisputed gains: Women now have the right to vote and some serve in parliament, the army and the national police force. There are 150 female judges. Yet the percentage of women in the government workforce has actually decreased by 4% since 2004.
Under the Taliban government, the only education for girls was in clandestine home schools. Today, 3 million girls attend school, but that’s still only 40% of all school-age girls. Because of family or economic pressures forcing girls to work or marry, the dropout rate for girls remains much higher than for boys.
Taliban extremists in remote districts still throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls, burn down girls’ schools and attack female polio vaccination workers. In the last six months, four Afghan policewomen have been assassinated. Prominent female politicians are routinely threatened or slain by insurgents. [more]
by David De La Torre
In In the beginning was the word, The Economist reports on the importance of talking to young children.
THE more parents talk to their children, the faster those children’s vocabularies grow and the better their intelligence develops. That might seem blindingly obvious, but it took until 1995 for science to show just how early in life the difference begins to matter. In that year Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas published the results of a decade-long study in which they had looked at how, and how much, 42 families in Kansas City conversed at home. Dr Hart and Dr Risley found a close correlation between the number of words a child’s parents had spoken to him by the time he was three and his academic success at the age of nine. At three, children born into professional families had heard 30m more words than those from a poorer background.
This observation has profound implications for policies about babies and their parents. It suggests that sending children to “pre-school” (nurseries or kindergartens) at the age of four — a favoured step among policymakers — comes too late to compensate for educational shortcomings at home. [more]
by Bill Hayes
In Gun Control and the Constitution: Should We Amend the Second Amendment?, Bloomberg Businessweek looks at former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ upcoming book Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.
The liveliest (and oldest) former member of the U.S. Supreme Court is at it again. John Paul Stevens, 93, served on the highest court in the land for an impressive 35 years, from 1975 until his retirement in June 2010. Known for his bow ties, brilliant legal mind, and striking transformation from Midwest Republican conservative to hero of the political left, Stevens remains an intellectual force to reckon with. In his latest book, the forthcoming Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution, he offers a half-dozen stimulating ideas for altering, and he would say improving, our foundational legal document. Today, let’s consider his most controversial proposal: changing the Second Amendment. Stevens is not going to win any friends at the National Rifle Association, because his undisguised agenda is to make it easier to regulate the sale and ownership of firearms. [more]
U.S. News publishes its political cartoons of the week.
For how to use editorial cartoons in the classroom, see Teaching With Editorial Cartoons.
by Bill Hayes
In How a Journalism Project No One Had Heard of Stole Times Columnist Bill Keller, Newsweek interviews Neil Barsky, who is creating the Marshall Project, a new journalism outlet devoted to criminal justice.
What’s the meaning behind the name?
I read a book this summer, Devil in the Grove. It won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction last year. It’s about a case in Florida in 1949 where four blacks were falsely accused of rape, and all the horrible things that happened in the wake of those accusations. And the book shows how Thurgood Marshall, before he had litigated Brown v. Board of Ed in 1954, and his team of attorneys, from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, tried heroically to save these men’s lives at great personal risk to them. And frankly I was inspired. I thought who better to name this project after than Thurgood Marshall. [more]
by Bill Hayes
The New York Times’ Room for Debate lets various knowledgeable contributors discuss news events and other timely issues. One recent debate covered: Saving Daylight, at What Cost?
For days after “springing forward,” many of us feel a little jet-lagged and cranky. And the research is piling up to show that the time change affects more than our mood. It changes energy use, health, worker productivity and even traffic safety.
Does daylight saving time do more harm than good? [more]
by Bill Hayes
Fareed Zakaria reports on Faux fur in Africa.
by Bill Hayes
In Down and Out in Amman for Foreign Affairs magazine, David Schenker reports on the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan.
Once a powerful voice for electoral reform, a vocal critic of palace corruption, and the leading opponent of economic normalization with Israel, lately the Jordanian Brotherhood has seen its local influence and standing erode. Other Islamists, too, are finding it hard to capture the public’s attention. Groups in the Jordanian parliament that are unaffiliated with the Brotherhood tried to push forward a bill to “harmonize” legislation with sharia; the motion failed, gathering just 27 of 150 votes. To be sure, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s authoritarian tendencies, imperious style, and economic mismanagement contributed to the popular alienation of the group. Yet unlike in Egypt, where the military was ultimately responsible for the group’s misfortune, in Jordan the Brotherhood’s setbacks have resulted from both self-inflicted wounds and the changing dynamic of local Islamist politics. [more]