Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Boggle: measuring how sunshine alters the moon's orbit

The July 11, 2009 issue of New Scientist ran a series of stories of why the moon still matters to astronomy, in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. One of them, by Stuart Clark, described how reflectors left on the lunar surface are helping test Einstein's theory gravity. Laser pulses bounced off these reflectors allow researchers to measure the distance between the earth and the moon to a precision of a few millimetres.

At such accuracy one has to factor in the effect of solar radiation pressure "which pushes the moon's entire orbit from its calculated path by about 4 millimetres."

Monday, July 27, 2009

No opponents, but few advocates: Refugee resettlement is like ending hunger

In another installment of her fascinating series on a refugee family resettling in America, Mary Wiltenburg analyzes the big picture in What it’s like to be a refugee in America (Christian Science Monitor, July 19, 2009).

The policy challenge is strikingly similar to the one of ending poverty and hunger in the world. America is remarkably generous (The US, Canada and Australia last year took in 92% of the world's resetlled refugees), but the scope of the problem is tremendous: the US, for example, will resettle about 75,000 people, but 13.6 million others worldwide are living under or seeking UN protection. The American system is creaking: new arrivals received assistance for 24 months when the current system was installed thirty years ago in the Carter Administration, but that's down to a maximum of eight months today.

Wiltenburg's political analysis applies to hunger and poverty, too:

"Refugee resettlement is a tiny program in the grand scheme of Washington. It has no real opponents, but advocates all have higher priorities and the refugees themselves have no political clout. It’s widely agreed that the program’s funding is due for a radical increase [but] how any politician will weigh the moral and political costs against the financial one is still a question."

National security rationales are often used to lobby for international relief programs of all kinds, but the logic is usually tenuous. The true motivation is compassion and generosity, which is unfortunately antithetical to the competitive tussle over resources that is the essence of politics.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Factoid: America has < 5% of the world’s people but almost 25% of its prisoners

Source:"A nation of jailbirds," Lexington opinion column in the The Economist, 4th April 2009.
"It imprisons 756 people per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the world average. About one in every 31 adults is either in prison or on parole. Black men have a one-in-three chance of being imprisoned at some point in their lives."
The first half of the story is a searing list of statistics on the brutality and ineffectiveness of the US prison system. But the point is that there's a politician who seems to have taken up this most unpopular of all issues in a democracy (after the rights of sex offenders): Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia.