"What-Ebola?" Czar

Have you noticed that, ever since we got an Ebola Czar, the disease has practically disappeared from the news?  From the American news, anyway.  As you can see from this Guardian summary page, there are still plenty of stories, including new patients in the U.S.  This page, from late October, noted the 10,000th Ebola case, but an update later in the story shows that number has since increased to nearly 18,000.

I guess that's what happens when you put a PR specialist in charge of handling an epidemic.  The problem gets fixed one way or another.

Poisoned nets

Beginning a roundup of Saturday Rocket Science links:

Since the turn of the millennium, worldwide deaths from malaria have been cut almost in half, largely through the use of mosquito nets treated with long-lasting insecticide.

The Senate budget (yawn) weekend drama

It's not easy to tell what all these clowns are arguing about.  The gist seems to be that the leadership of both chambers of Congress, which is to say both parties, wants to do a fairly long-term $1+ trillion 1600-page budget compromise bill that takes us through next September rather than only through February, when the newly elected Congress will feature a very new mix of votes.  In order to reach their compromise, both sides honored the season by tacking some ornaments onto the tree, the most controversial of which is a technical change to the Dodd-Frank financial institution "reform" bill.

The Dodd-Frank amendment generally is described in the press as a measure to allow large federally insured banks to continue trading in derivatives, i.e. swaps and futures. Progressive darling Sen. Warren is more likely to call it a measure that all but guarantees future taxpayer bailouts of banks that will be permitted to engage in just the sort of mystifying financial shenanigans that caused the 2007-2008 financial crisis, to the extent that the crisis was not personally caused by President Bush's reading of "My Pet Goat" and secondarily by Vice President Chaney's coddling of torturers within the CIA. In fact, however, the Dodd-Frank provision on derivatives has very little to do with either increasing or decreasing the inherent riskiness of banks' business, or the risk of a future taxpayer bailout, as is ably explained in this Powerline piece:
The original legislation required major banks to “push out” some of their swaps business — for example, hedging the risk in their securities trading book for market making on behalf of clients — into “non-bank” subsidiaries which do not take deposits and are not insured or covered by the deposit insurance provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The idea was that a failure of one of these “push out” subsidiaries would have no call on the FDIC and “taxpayer bailouts”. Most more-or-less conventional hedging activity such as interest rate swaps, which mitigate risk in the banks’ loan books, was allowed to remain in the bank subsidiaries anyway. Hedging on equity securities and commodities would be forced into a non-bank subsidiary by the “push-out” rule. While relatively modest in volume terms for the banks, they are more profitable and likely have more strategic value for the banks’ clients (especially commodities hedging).
The revision would loosen this requirement of Dodd-Frank and permit much of the “push-out” swap activity to remain in the FDIC-insured bank subsidiaries of the large bank holding companies–mainly Citicorp, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. (Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs already conduct their swaps and derivatives activity in non-bank subsidiaries.) There are efficiency, cost and operational benefits for these institutions to retain all swaps activity done for hedging purposes in the bank subsidiaries, as explained by Fitch Ratings. Regional banks are interested in the change to Dodd-Frank as well since they do not typically have securities (non-bank) subsidiaries and conduct their swaps activities as a commercial banking service within their FDIC bank. But, admittedly, this is of interest to no more than about two dozen institutions, so politically could be viewed as narrow interest legislation.
However, there is no reason to think that the “push-out” provision of Dodd-Frank has lessened the “too big to fail” risk of major financial institutions at all! The recent analysis of the effects on “too big to fail”, i.e., “taxpayer” “bailouts” by the House Financial Services Committee, detailed the several mechanisms by which Dodd-Frank itself provides bailouts irrespective of whether an institution is an FDIC bank. Quite simply, if the concern is the risk in regulated FDIC backed banks, hedging of risks with swaps and other derivatives would seem beneficial. Indeed, both the former Federal Reserve Bank Chairman and FDIC Chairman, neither an ideologue and the latter a Democrat, support the change because to move this risk management hedging activity out of tightly regulated banks may actually increase systemic risk, as well as cost, for little discernible benefit.
So why oppose it? The counterargument is that all these activities simply cannot be controlled within the banks and inevitably will lead to future “bailouts”. In particular, I suspect that an exemption for high quality hedges on structured securities, i.e., bundles of underlying loans, has raised concerns among the Dems. But why a Credit Default Swap is a “risky bet,” but loans with the same borrower are not “risky bets,” has never been explained.
Eh. What difference, at this point, does it make? It has to do with big banks, and it's arcane, and journalists are as inclined as their reading public to equate "derivatives" with the collapse of the American banking system. So it's a good way to explain why attacking this budget deal and risking a government shutdown has suddenly become a principled Progressive stand in favor of middle-class America, instead of the terroristic right-wing tactic of only a couple of years ago.

The real problem with CROmnibus

Forget everything you've been reading about the unacceptable cost of avoiding a government shutdown.  The really big deal is the impact on the First Lady's healthy school lunch program.

Name that medieval map

Fun with cartography.

Fun with electromagnetism

Admittedly this parlor trick wouldn't scale up well in the field of public transport, unless copper were available by the mountainful for a dime, but it still looks like a good way to entertain the kids over the holidays.

Fun new ideas for Christmas parties

NSFW, so I won't quote it here, but if you're as crudely immune to all notions of propriety as I am, you'll enjoy this.  I'm going to go stock up on some cognac and piping supplies.

A centenary

The man who would become novelist Patrick O'Brian was born 100 years ago today.  The WSJ ran a short piece that perfectly captures the pleasures of O'Brian's most famous work, a series of 20 novels that he began at the age of 55, detailing an unlikely friendship during the Napoleonic Wars:
For those unfamiliar with the books, the two men meet cute. On the opening page of “Master and Commander,” the 1969 debut of what would become a fiction series with devotees around the world, Aubrey is attending a musical performance at the Governor’s House in Port Mahon, Minorca. A large man—his “big form overflowed his seat, leaving only a streak of gilt wood to be seen here and there”—the young lieutenant loses himself in the music and starts to keep time with gusto. This causes the small, dark man next to him, Dr. Maturin, to whisper, “If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead.”
Aubrey broods on the rebuke and decides to challenge the man to a duel, though this is entirely a case of misplaced anger: He is far less bothered by the remark than by the dismal state of his career. Aubrey’s mood soars, though, when he receives unexpected word that he has been given command of a sloop. “There you are, sir,’’ says Aubrey when he sees Maturin the next day. “I owe you a thousand apologies, I am afraid. I must have been a sad bore to you last night, and I hope you will forgive me. We sailors hear so little music—are so little used to genteel company—that we grow carried away. I beg your pardon.”
The novel continues: “ ‘My dear sir,’ cried the man in the black coat, with an odd flush rising in his dead-white face, ‘you had every reason to be carried away. I have never heard a better quartetto in my life.’ ”
And with that exchange, a great literary friendship begins.

The democratization of blood testing

Elizabeth Holmes, the world's youngest female self-made billionaire (at age 30), is the developer and majority owner of a $9 billion company that provides ultra-cheap blood tests requiring only a couple of drops of blood.  Her company's first director was one of her former Stanford University professors, who retired from his tenured position to join her after she dropped out in her sophomore year.  Later additions to the board included George P. Shultz, former Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State; Dr. William H. Foege, former director of the CDC; Dr. Bill Frist, a trained cardiac surgeon and former Senate Republican Majority Leader; Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State; Sam Nunn, former Democratic senator and chairman of the Armed Services Committee; William J. Perry, former Defense Secretary; and Richard Kovacevich, former C.E.O. and chairman of Wells Fargo.

Although Holmes' company is advancing steadily in its market, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of making blood tests so easy and cheap that patients can get them without going through a doctor.
Holmes believes that the seventy-five-billion-dollar testing marketplace could grow to two hundred billion dollars, as more people take it upon themselves to go to a pharmacy and request blood tests for pregnancy, high cholesterol, and other common medical issues. At the moment, most such blood tests require a doctor’s note; Holmes says that this would have to change, and could. “There are states in the U.S. where citizens can order tests directly,” she said. “The fact that in some states it’s illegal for someone to be able to get basic data about their body—for example, you’re pregnant or you’re not, you have an allergy or you don’t. Not a lot of sophistication has to go into the interpretation of that test.”
* * *
Prescriptionless blood tests raise a host of questions. “Will insurance be willing to pay for patient-ordered blood tests?” Bruce Deitchman, a dermatologist and pathologist, said. Deitchman has served as an alternate member of the American Medical Association’s expert panel that recommends reimbursement rates to Medicare. “Will Theranos insist that test results be sent to physicians, and will patients want their doctors to know?” He noted that doctors are legally obligated to follow up and address abnormal blood tests with patients. In the absence of a doctor, will Theranos be held to that standard?
If blood tests become as cheap and easy as Holmes wants, however, the medical establishment will no more be able to block patients' access to them than it can prevent their taking their own temperature and blood pressure.

Slow Yule progress

I don't remember taking a week to get my tree up in past years.  I am really slowing down!  Day three, and I've got the lights on and something less than half the ornaments; you can see the rest strewn all over my dining table.

But the hard part is behind me.  The empty boxes are even back upstairs in the closet, always a wearying task, which leaves only reassembling the stacking bookcase that the closet is behind.

This year's tree is a more moderate 9-foot specimen, because I promised I wouldn't do the 11-foot thing again.  It was hard enough dragging this guy upstairs, not to mention reaching the top without killing either of us.  That's a 6-foot ladder on the left, and an 8-foot ladder on the right.

My adorable husband, as always, has my number.  He presented me with several early Christmas presents in the form of extravagantly beautiful ornaments he saw me admiring:

A red truck with a Christmas tree in its bed.

These are probably Asian cranes, but they look just like whooping cranes.


A sea turtle with presents stacked on his back.

All my shopping is done and (I think) even all of my shipping, with the possible exception of some items that I somehow managed to direct to an apartment I briefly kept in Houston seven years ago when I was commuting up there to work on an extended case.  I think those have now been redirected to me here.  It's only December 10th!  This is fabulous progress.

Project Gutenberg has put a dent in my handicrafts, but this time of year a powerful urge comes over me to drop everything else and crochet angels, snowflakes, miniature stockings, and the like.  It also becomes difficult to resist buying little packages of stick-on jewels and beads every time I walk through the aisles of the local WalMart, even though I already have enough craft materials to choke a horse.

So that's enough ornament-hanging for today. Time to crochet.


The most interesting design website I've run across in a while.