American Elephants

Real Progress Against One of the World’s Most Devastating Problems. by The Elephant's Child

Nearly one billion people lack access to safe drinking water.  And waterborne pathogens cause way too many deaths.  The excellent news is that many people are working on solving the problem, with what looks to be great success.

— In India, the Tata Group, famous for launching the world’s cheapest car, the Nano compact, is taking on the challenge of providing clean drinking water to the 894 million people worldwide who lack access to it. 

The Tata Swach (Hindi for “clean” ) doesn’t require any electricity or running water.  At less than $22, the device is billed as the cheapest water filter in existence.  Tata’s filter lasts for 200 days for an average family of five.  It uses a combination of paddy husk ash and tiny silver particles to kill 80% of all bacteria that cause waterborne disease.  India produces 20 million tons of paddy husk ash each year as a byproduct of rice milling.

Tata plans on launching the filter first at a plant in West Bengal. They will initially produce 1 million units a year, with 3 million units as a goal within 5 years.  India has first dibs on the product, since 85% of Indians drink unfiltered water.  Ultimately, Tata hopes to export the filter to Africa.

— Dirty water can be purified somewhat by pouring it through sand and pebble filters.  This removes large particles, but is ineffective at removing pathogens, heavy metals, and other toxins that can be found in dirty water.

At Rice University, researchers have found that sand can be coated with graphite and the coating process can occur at room temperature, to form a ‘super sand.’ The super sand is cheap, as graphite is inexpensive, even using waste graphite from mining operations. Researchers found that two model contaminates — mercury and Rhodamine B dye— were removed as well with super sand as with commercially available active carbon filtration systems.

—At the University of South Florida, Assistant Professor Norma Alcantar has discovered that when mucilage, a type of gum used to store water, from the prickly pear cactus is mixed with water that contains high levels of sediment or the bacterium Bacillus cereus, both the bacteria and the sediment sink to the bottom.  The mucilage acts as a cheap and effective natural filter which could be used to produce clean water.I lived in Arizona for a time, and there are plenty of prickly pear.

— Researchers at MIT are working on a fog-harvesting device inspired b the Namib Beetle, an African species that gathers water droplets from the morning fog on its back, and lets the moisture roll into its mouth.  They are devising a human-scale fog-harvesting device made up of a mesh panel that collects water particles into a receptacle.

The beetle has a hard shell, but wind currents would drag away water droplets.  The mesh avoids that problem. The technology still has a long way to go for so far fog harvesters can capture just one liter of water per square meter of mesh each day.  A rural village needs more water than that and the mesh costs money.

There are good things going on out in the real world, beyond the corridors of Congress. It’s nice to hear about such progress.

Outed! Exposed! Caught Out! by The Elephant's Child

For years, ever since Franklin Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, Democrats have talked about old age insurance. You paid (that line on your paycheck marked FICA—which stands for the Federal Insurance Contributions Act) into the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund.  Insurance —you pay in all those years, and when you turn 65 you start receiving the benefits to which you are entitled from the Trust Fund, the “Lock-Box.”

I’m the president of the United States, and I want to make sure that I am not engaging in scare tactics.  And I’ve tried to be responsible and somewhat restrained so that folks don’t get spooked.

So said President Obama in his June 29 debt ceiling press conference. Only two weeks later, a CBS news anchor asked Obama whether he could “tell the folks at home that no matter what happens, the Social security checks are gonna go out on August 3?” President Obama replied that whether it was Social Security checks, veterans’ checks or disability checks:

I cannot guarantee that those checks go out on August 3 if we haven’t resolved this issue, because there may simply not be the money in the coffers to do it.

What President Obama made clear is that, just as Conservatives have been saying for years, there is no lock-box, and no Trust Fund.  Benefits are paid from current payroll tax collections.  The “Trust Fund” contains IOUs from the government which has spent the money supposedly in the trust fund and written IOUs to itself.

Social Security was based on the idea of a growing population, where there would always be more people in succeeding generations to pay for the smaller generations who were retiring.  A Ponzi Scheme.  The Baby Boom generation was one of those unknown unknowns.  Their parents, who had grown up in the Great Depression and gone to war, and come back to a peaceful, booming America, wanted children.  After what they had been through the new world looked promising and hopeful.  Who knew that everyone else had the same idea? So that generation so welcomed and so celebrated brought with them all sorts of problems.  And they got all excited about women’s rights and women’s careers, and weren’t much interested in having lots of children.

Well, there is more than enough in the Treasury to send out the Social Security checks, and the veterans checks and whatever else is necessary. But they need to cut back, way back, on the spending.  Our problem is not enough income, but too much outgo.  The debate about the debt limit has been confused by Obama’s inclination to refer to “revenues” (taxes) and “investments” (spending). He talks about “reducing the spending in the tax code” (raising taxes) and of “further improving Medicare” (cutting Medicare more) by further empowering the Independent Payment Advisory Board — those 15 unaccountable bureaucrats who will decide what Medicare will pay for.

He did it.  He tried to scare the old folks for political purposes. He exposed the fabled Trust Fund and the Lock Box. And he thinks that ordinary people are paying so little attention that they won’t know or understand the debate.  I think he’s wrong on that one too.

In 1940 — 222,488 beneficiaries received $35,000,000.
In 1950 — 3,477,243 beneficiaries received $961,000,000.
In 1960 — 14, 844,589 beneficiaries received $11,245,000,000.
In 1970 — 26,228,629 beneficiaries received $31,863,000,000.
In 1980 — 35,584,955 beneficiaries received $120,511, 000,000.
In 1990 — 39,832,125 beneficiaries received $247,796,000,000.
In 2000 —45,414,794 beneficiaries received $407,644,000,000.
In 2008 — 50,898,244 beneficiaries received $615,344,000,000.

The first of the baby boomers, born in 1945,  reached 65 last year. Their numbers will increase until the peak year of 2024, when numbers will begin to decline until 2030, when we reach the baby bust. It’s simple demographics.

The Known,The Unknown and The Unknowable. by The Elephant's Child

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.        Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

This was one of those instances when someone identified  succinctly, distinctions that we often do not appreciate — and which, unappreciated, often get us into trouble.  We know, for example, that a meal of a Big Mac, a chocolate shake and french fries contains a lot of calories.  We may not know the specific number, but we know it’s a lot. We know that we know.

We do not know what causes asthma. Science knows how to treat it, but we don’t know how it develops.

But there are a lot of things out there, big dangerous things, that we just don’t know exist, and we have no idea that they are there.  Pearl Harbor was an unknown unknown.  9-11 was an unknown unknown. There are other unknowns out there.

Mr. Rumsfeld was quoted at the time as if he had made a funny statement,  or was abusing the language, but as Mark Steyn called it, it is “in fact a brilliant distillation of quite a complex matter.”

When the unknown unknown appears, there are always those who claim that we should have known.  It’s the unknowns that are disastrous in effect that cause so much anger and distress.  Why didn’t you know?  And conspiracy stories about —who really knew what, and when did they know it — are common. The conspiracy tales about the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attack on the World Trade Center are never-ending.

To put it another way, imagine that there are termites crunching away in your ceiling, and unnoticed and unattended, your roof will collapse. You might have had someone in to inspect the attic, but you had no idea that you needed to.

The current War on Terror is rife with unknown unknowns.  We can’t even come up with a name for the war that everyone will agree on.  It’s not just al Qaeda. it’s a set of beliefs shared by many who belong to the same religion, yet some seek martyrdom and celebrate killing, in massive numbers, those who do not share their belief.  We have an enormously competent military who are trying to protect and defend us, and many intelligence agencies trying to locate those who want to commit terrorism. They want us to submit.  They want us not to be who we are, for we are too modern and too rich and too corrupt for them.

Politics is full of unknown unknowns.  A belief was hatched and promoted after we had suffered through a cooling period in the 1970s, that the earth was warming too much and the seas would rise and deserts would increase and it would get too hot for life as we know it — unless we DO something! So many things were done, we started putting food crops in our gas tanks, and spending vast sums on ancient technologies like windmills and the sun without any knowledge of what the consequences would be.

Germany, frightened by the nuclear power plants in Japan, is planning to get rid of their nuclear plants and replace them with modern coal plants. They have large shale oil deposits but are afraid of fracking which has been proven over a very long period.  The British powers-that-be are true believers and insist on moving to “clean” energy, driving the cost of energy up even as increasing numbers of people slip into energy poverty — people who cannot afford the energy they need to stay warm enough to live.

Congress makes laws and agencies issue regulations without the slightest knowledge of what their effects will be.  One known known is that the effects will not be what was intended.  Covering everyone with Medicaid may become a disaster. There are not enough doctors and large numbers of those in practice will not see Medicaid patients because the federal reimbursement is so low.

The decisions about what medicines you may take or what treatment you may receive has been removed from you and your doctor and given over to small groups of federal bureaucrats.  How many will lose their lives because of this decision?

We can’t know the unknown unknowns. We can struggle to be informed, to insist that officials are accountable, and we can examine the evidence of how similar policies have worked out. Maybe it will help, but that is an unknown as well.

Don Rumsfeld has titled his memoir Known and Unknown.

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