Nasa Myth #1; NASA is extraordinarily expensive

As I watch the US Space program as we knew it slowly come to an end I look at the budget cuts and the consequences that come from the cuts and ask why NASA? Especially when the US is in need of job creation. Probably the only government spending that really does create jobs is NASA.

At the height of the Apollo program, NASA consumed more than 4 percent of the federal budget. In the 1960s, that was a lot of money. Today, it’s a rounding error. NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2011 is roughly $18.5 billion — 0.5 percent of a $3.7 trillion federal budget. In 2010, Americans spent about as much on pet food.
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And those who complain that it is a waste to spend money in space forget that NASA creates jobs. According to the agency, it employs roughly 19,000 civil servants and 40,000 contractors in and around its 10 centers.

In the San Francisco area alone, the agency says it created 5,300 jobs and $877 million worth of economic activity in 2009. Ohio, a state hard-hit by the Great Recession that is home to NASA’s Plum Brook Research Station and Glenn Research Center, can’t afford to lose nearly 7,000 jobs threatened by NASA cuts.

Even more people have space-related jobs outside the agency. According to the Colorado Space Coalition, for example, more than 163,000 Coloradans work in the space industry. Though some build rockets for NASA, none show up in the agency’s job data.

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The biggest bargain on the planet, the US Postal Service.

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After reading Devin Leonard’s Bloomberg article about the United States Postal Service I have a renewed respect for “my” mailman.

It is no secret that the postal service’s business model is so badly broken that its collapse is imminent. With the rise of e-mail and the decline of letters, mail volume is falling at a staggering rate, and the postal service’s survival plan isn’t reassuring. Elsewhere in the world, postal services are grappling with the same dilemma only most of them, in humbling contrast, are thriving.

The USPS is a wondrous American creation.
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My Post Office in Sandy Spring early 1800.

Six days a week it delivers an average of 563 million pieces of mail — 40 percent of the entire world’s volume. For the price of a 44¢ stamp, you can mail a letter anywhere within the nation’s borders.
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The service will carry it by pack mule to the Havasupai Indian reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Mailmen on snowmobiles take it to the wilds of Alaska. If your recipient can no longer be found, the USPS will return it at no extra charge. It may be the greatest bargain on earth.
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It takes an enormous organization to carry out such a mission. The USPS has 571,566 full-time workers, making it the country’s second-largest civilian employer after Wal-Mart!

It has 31,871 post offices, more than the combined domestic retail outlets of Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and McDonald’s. Last year its revenues were $67 billion, and its expenses were even greater. Postal service executives proudly note that if it were a private company, it would be No. 29 on the Fortune 500.

The problems of the USPS are just as big as the USPS itself.

It relies on first-class mail to fund most of its operations, but first-class mail volume is steadily declining — in 2005 it fell below junk mail for the first time. This was a significant milestone. The USPS needs three pieces of junk mail to replace the profit of a vanished stamp-bearing letter.

During the real estate boom, a surge in junk mail papered over the unraveling of the postal service’s longtime business plan. Banks flooded mailboxes with subprime mortgage offers and credit-card come-ons. Then came the recession. Total mail volume plunged 20 percent from 2006 to 2010.

Since 2007 the USPS has been unable to cover its annual budget, 80 percent of which goes to salaries and benefits. In contrast, 43 percent of FedEx’s budget and 61 percent of United Parcel Service’s pay go to employee-related expenses. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the postal service’s two primary rivals are more nimble. According to SJ Consulting Group, the USPS has more than a 15 percent share of the American express and ground-shipping market. FedEx has 32 percent, UPS 53 percent.

This should be a moment for the country to ask some basic questions about its mail delivery system. Does it make sense for the postal service to charge the same amount to take a letter to Alaska that it does to carry it three city blocks?

Should the USPS operate the world’s largest network of post offices when 80 percent of them lose money? And is there a way for the country to have a mail system that addresses the needs of consumers who use the Internet to correspond?

Senator Thomas Carper (D-Del.) said last month, “If we do nothing, we face a future without the valuable services that the postal service provides.”

Many countries have figured out profitable ways to run a postal service. The U.S. could learn a lot from them. Last summer the USPS sent a small team of analysts to Finland, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Canada. It is fascinating to learn what they discovered.

Three decades ago, most postal services around the developed world were government-run monopolies like the USPS. In the late ’80s, the European Union set out to create a single postal market. It prodded members to give up their monopolies and compete with one another. The effort roused an industry often thought to be sleepy and backward-looking.

Many countries closed as many of their brick-and-mortar post offices as possible, moving these services into gas stations and convenience stores, which then take them over…in Tokyo 7-11 was a great post office.

Today, Sweden’s Posten runs only 12 percent of its post offices. The rest are in the hands of third parties. Deutsche Post is now a private company and runs just 2 percent of the post offices in Germany. In contrast, the USPS operates all of its post offices.

Some of these newly energized mail services used the savings to pursue new business lines. Deutsche Post bought DHL, a package deliverer that competes with FedEx and UPS. “More than half of our workforce is outside of Germany,” says Markus Reckling, executive vice-president for corporate development at Deutsche Post. “It’s pretty much the same thing for our profits.”
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Many used their extra cash to create digital mail products that allow customers to send and receive letters from their computers. Itella, the Finnish postal service, keeps a digital archive of its users’ mail for seven years and helps them pay bills online securely. Swiss Post lets customers choose if they want their mail delivered at home in hard copy or scanned and sent to their preferred Internet-connected device. Customers can also tell Swiss Post if they would rather not receive items such as junk mail.

Sweden’s Posten has an app that lets customers turn digital photos on their mobile phones into postcards. It is unveiling a service that will allow cell-phone users to send letters without stamps. Posten will text them a numerical code that they can jot down on envelopes in place of a stamp for a yet-to-be-determined charge.

Anders Asberg, Posten’s head of marketing and development, says the service is experimenting with these initiatives, and he expects some will prove to be lucrative. “The customers are all on these digital interfaces now,” he says. “That’s where the growth is going to be in the future.”

Posten can afford to take chances. In 2009 the Swedish mail carrier merged with Post Danmark, the Danish postal service, creating PostNord, a company with $6.2 billion in net sales and $320 million in EBITDA. In 2010 the latter rose by 43 percent, to $490 million.
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It seems the European countries are on a reasonably viable course. The U.S. is not.

The USPS needs to close post offices, as many foreign postal services have done despite real opposition. The USPS also needs to create products for its wired customers if it wants to play a role in the future of communication.

But last but certainly not least, 44 cents is still the biggest bargain on the planet Raise the price…sure we will all complain but think of how inexpensive that is next time you send a note to your mom in Anchorage from Miami, door to door!

iPhone tracking function…is our privacy all but gone?

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When I first saw the MacIntosh 1984 Super Bowl spot I had really no idea that big brother would be placing a tracking device right in the palm of my hand…well it is 2011 and by now you have probably all heard the stories about the iPhone tracking function.

If you’re worried about privacy, you can turn off the function on your smartphone that tracks where you go. But that means giving up the services that probably made you want a smartphone in the first place. After all, how smart is an iPhone or an Android if you can’t use it to map your car trip or scan reviews of nearby restaurants?

The debate over digital privacy flamed higher this week with news that Apple’s popular iPhones and iPads store users’ GPS coordinates for a year or more. Phones that run Google’s Android software also store users’ location data. And not only is the data stored — allowing anyone who can get their hands on the device to piece together a chillingly accurate profile of where you’ve been — but it’s also transmitted back to the companies to use for their own research.

Now, cellphone service providers have had customers’ location data for almost as long as there have been cellphones. That’s how they make sure to route calls and Internet traffic to the right place. Law enforcement analyzes location data on iPhones for criminal evidence — a practice that Alex Levinson, technical lead for firm Katana Forensics, said has helped lead to convictions. And both Apple and Google have said that the location data that they collect from the phones is anonymous and not able to be tied back to specific users. But hey remember that movie Eagle Eye? I don’t trust anyone these days…do you?
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But lawmakers and many users say storing the data creates an opportunity for one’s private information to be misused. Levinson, who raised the iPhone tracking issue last year, agrees that people should start thinking about location data as just as valuable and worth protecting as a wallet or bank account number.

“We don’t know what they’re going to do with that information,” said Dawn Anderson, a creative director and Web developer in Glen Mills, Pa., who turned off the GPS feature on her Android-based phone even before the latest debate about location data. She said she doesn’t miss any of the location-based services in the phone. She uses the GPS unit in her car instead.

“With any technology, there are security risks and breaches,” she added. “How do we know that it can’t be compromised in some way and used for criminal things?”

Privacy watchdogs note that location data opens a big window into very private details of a person’s life, including the doctors they see, the friends they have and the places where they like to spend their time. Besides hackers, databases filled with such information could become inviting targets for stalkers, even divorce lawyers.

Do you sync your iPhone to your computer? Well, all it would take to find out where you’ve been is simple, free software that pulls information from the computer. Carumba! Your comings and goings, clandestine or otherwise, helpfully pinpointed on a map.

One could make the case that privacy isn’t all that prized these days. People knowingly trade it away each day, checking in to restaurants and stores via social media sites like Foursquare, uploading party photos to Facebook to be seen by friends of friends of friends, and freely tweeting the minutiae of their lives on Twitter.
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More than 500 million people have shared their personal information with Facebook to connect with friends on the social networking service. Billions of people search Google and Yahoo each month, accepting their tracking “cookies” in exchange for access to the world’s digital information. And with about 5 billion people now using cellphones, a person’s location has become just another data point to be used for marketing, the same way that advertisers now use records of Web searches to show you online ads tailored to your interest in the Red Sox, or dancing, or certain stores.

The very fact that your location is a moving target makes it that much more alluring for advertisers. Every new place you go represents a new selling opportunity. In that sense, smartphone technology is the ultimate matchmaker for marketers looking to assemble profiles on prospective customers.

What do you guys think?

Drive-in Movies

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Tonight I passed an empty lot where my childhood drive-in theater used to be….I am visiting my old home town and the whole experience brought back lots of great memories.

The drive-in theater was the creation of Camden, New Jersey, chemical company magnate Richard Holiingshead Jr. whose family owned and operated the R.M. Hollingshead Corporation chemical plant in Camden.

In 1932, Hollingshead conducted outdoor theater tests in his driveway at 212 Thomas Avenue in Riverton. After nailing a screen to trees in his backyard, he set a 1928 Kodak Projector on the hood of his car and put a radio behind the screen, testing different sound levels with his car windows down and up. Blocks under vehicles in the driveway enabled him to determine the size and spacing of ramps so all automobiles could have a clear view of the screen.

Following these experiments, he applied August 6, 1932, for a patent of his invention, and he was given U.S. Patent 1,909,537 on May 16, 1933. That patent was declared invalid 17 years later by the Delaware District Court.

Hollingshead’s drive-in opened in New Jersey June 6, 1933, on Admiral Wilson Boulevard. He advertised his drive-in theater with the slogan, “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” The facility only operated three years, but during that time the concept caught on in other states.

Early drive-in theaters had to deal with noise pollution issues. The original Hollingshead drive-in had speakers installed on the tower itself which caused a sound delay affecting patrons at the rear of the drive-in’s field. Attempts at outdoor speakers next to the vehicle did not produce satisfactory results.

In 1941, RCA introduced in-car speakers with individual volume controls which solved the noise pollution issue and provided satisfactory sound to drive-in patrons.

The drive-in’s peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with some 4,000 drive-ins spreading across the United States. Among its advantages was the fact that a family with a baby could take care of their child while watching a movie, while teenagers with access to autos found drive-ins ideal for dates…some of my best dates of all time were at the drive-in…I won’t mention any names but you know who you are.

During their height, some drive-ins used attention-grabbing gimmicks to boost attendance. They ranged from small airplane runways, unusual attractions such as a small petting zoo or cage of monkeys, actors to open their movies, or musical groups to play before the show. Some drive-ins held religious services on Sunday morning and evening, or charged a flat price per car on slow nights like Wednesday. The price was a dollar per car during “buck” nights in the 1950s and 1960s.
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In the UK a pseudo-drive-in has been launched where the cars are provided by the theater. It’s sponsored by Volvo. The urban Starlite Drive-in is inside the Truman Brewery in hip East London where the urban population will get the chance to watch classic films in a fleet of convertibles served by roller-skating waitresses.

Love it…maybe it will catch on…

Leeches, a medical marvel in Tokyo.

Dr.Asenoff my doctor in Tokyo is a medical marvel himself still practicing at 95 years of age…I was very happy to find an English speaking doctor and one that was so worried about my health, especially my Gout.
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However one day as I was getting yet another steroid shot to relieve the swelling from my monthly gout attack I noticed in his window a site that belonged to a scene from medieval ancient medicine, when doctors applied the worms to patients to ”cure” just about every condition and yes Druids danced by the light of the moon. But there they were, leeches in a Mason jar near stethoscopes, electronic devices and bottles of modern miracle drugs like Viagra and Prilosec.
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I asked him about the leeches and he told me that Japanese often apply leeches to their arms in the belief that their health will improve when their body produces a fresh supply of blood in response to the few ounces painlessly lost to the leeches. My doctor was using them to reduce swelling in some cases.

Leeches in modern medicine? A horrifying thought. I am sure in American medical school, nothing is taught about leeches. All I remember about that visit to the doctor is that leeches are one of the most shocking examples of the cultural differences I found in Asia.

Well, I shouldn’t say too much about the cultural divide when even Demi Moore made a public declaration that she uses leeches to keep herself “looking fresh and feeling healthy.” While I don’t endorse the personal use of leeches Demi is a great case history and it seems that leeches are medical marvels.

Today’s doctors use leeches, as well as maggots, with great success. Surgeons, for instance, use medical leeches to remove blood from the site of skin grafts or reattached parts and to relieve congestion in the blood vessels.

The leeches used for medical purposes are a European variety called Hirudo Medicinalis and are raised on special leech farms. Sounds like science fiction or just fiction doesn’t it?

The Hirudo leech works some additional magic by secreting a chemical in its saliva that acts as an anti-coagulant to prevent blood clotting… hirudotherapy.

Matching Languages and True Love.

I just read an article by Kathleen Doheny that made me pause and reflect about the friends I have met over the years. She suggests that the next time you have a first date, forget about chemistry and common interests. What really matters, new research suggests, is whether your language styles match.

I have lived overseas so long I wonder how this applies to couples where even the languages themselves don’t match.

The kind of language style the researchers focused on was the use of such words as personal pronouns (I, his, their); articles (a, the); prepositions (in, under), and adverbs (very, rather) — the types of words most people don’t give much thought to.

But when this language style is in synch with someone else’s, well, the sparks might just fly, said study author James Pennebaker, the chair of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He and his colleagues evaluated the language style of men and women who were speed dating and found that the more it matched, the better. When speed daters picked their matches, they tended to go for those whose language style matched their own, he found.

“You are four times more likely to match and probably go on a date if your language style matching is even just above average,” he said.

In a second study, Pennebaker’s team looked at couples’ instant message exchanges and SMS and found that language style matching mattered there, too. Participants were age 19, on average, many of them living in different towns as they attended school.
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“These are wonderful groups to study,” Pennebaker said. “They have notoriously unstable relationships.”

They had to be dating at least six months. “What we found is if their IMs were high in language style matching they were much more likely to be together three months later,” he said.

Those with the highest matching, he said, “were 50% more likely to be dating at follow-up.”

Some experts think you are attracted to a person and begin to talk like them. Others say when someone talks like you, you are attracted to them.

I think it may be a bit of both, and paying attention to the other person counts too. I have certainly heard the phrase, “Are you listening to me?” uttered to me in anger a few times in my life from a frustrated woman.

The new study shows that, “…the words we choose in everyday interactions are related to the success of our relationships, including whether the relationship progresses from a casual meeting to a romantic relationship and whether we resolve conflicts.”