Saturday, January 19, 2008

Enlightenment in Many Flavors

Enlightened change from several years ago is finally coming home to roost. Remember Enron? That debacle will not soon be forgotten. This week, after a six year class action lawsuit, 1.5 million Enron shareholders found out how a $7.2 billion settlement would be split. The settlement fund was created when several large culpable banks, Enron directors and the former Arthur Anderson accounting firm anted up the huge pile of money The final payout will be about $6.79 a share on stock that originally cost anywhere from $1 to $90 depending on when it was purchased and more for preferred stock. Obviously, those who bought regular vanilla stock at under $6 are going to make out pretty well; others on the other end of the spectrum will go away grumbling. Who really made out in the class action law suit, of course, were the attorneys who will split $700 million in fees. I wonder what ever happened to the employees who lost their jobs and pensions and what they might think about this settlement? (WSJ, 1-17-08.)

Enlightened News You Can Use:

1.) If you are a chronic worrier, it may be in your genes. Researchers have shown there are indeed worry genes, but they don't have to incapacitate. An expert in worry, Dr. Robert Leahy, suggests two methods to stop the repetitive, troubling thoughts. First, reserve 20 minutes a day to it and then move on. This may give the worrier some measure of control over the beast. If that doesn't work, he then suggests a more dire strategy, "Practice saying or writing down whatever you fear most, such as 'this plane is going to crash' or 'I'm going to lose my job' and repeat it over and over again slowly, like a zombie, and [magically] the fear will begin to subside." Why? Because the mind just gets bored with it. Sounds too easy, doesn't it? But it would sure be worth a try, especially in the middle of the night when worry can really be a menacing companion. (WSJ, 1-15-08, p. D1.)

2.) Experts say the main way to keep from getting sick is to wash your hand three times a day with soap, and don't touch the mucous membranes. And forget the antibacterial variety--it enhances the microbe killing effects of soap zip. (SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, February 2008, p. 96.)

WSJ announced that the race to develop an electric car is heating up. Several auto makers are getting into the act including GM, Renault and Nissan, Chrysler, Toyota. . . and Fisker with its Karma. Huh? Is that a new religion? No, actually it's a new $80,000 battery-powered luxury car created by a start-up company based in California, which plans to begin delivering the model in 2009. That's next year, folks. Mr. Fisker says the Karma will use lithium-ion batteries and is a couple of years ahead of his competitors because it's already out of design and will soon be in production. Renault and Nissan say they too are near a mass-market solution to the lithium-ion battery problem most everyone has experienced. I'm sure the computers and cell-phones that have gone up in smoke have gotten their attention. Fisker would not say what kind of lithium-ion batteries would be used in the Karma, but he assured us that "safety concerns have all been resolved." Let's put this on our 2009 calendar to see if the Karma makes its debut, and if it does, we can say we have officially entered a new quieter age in transportation.

Electric cars are quiet. That is one thing that people like about them. However, blind people are requesting some noise be put back so that they can "see" approaching vehicles. SCIENTIFC AMERICAN this month emphasizes: "As electronics gets quieter, we are losing vital information that tells us about their performance and status. . .as we move toward solid-state devices with fewer moving parts, we are going to have to develop new diagnostic systems to cope with their impending failure. It's a little like the malodorous smell of natural gas--that smell isn't natural at all; it's been added by the gas company to guarantee that you know when theres a leak. What's the 21st century equivalent of that for cars?" (p.34) Leave it to the blind to remind we sighted people how much we rely on sound to navigate in our world.

What does a field of fake grass have in common with used tires? Well, the University of Idaho put the two together to save water, fertilizer, spraying for weeds and about $50,000 annually in field maintenance. The school says there is no more mud so the fields can be used year round, and the rubber granules used as infill provide an environmentally friendly way of recycling tires. This enlightened conversion received a 2007 merit award from the American Society of Landscape Architects. Kudos to the Vandals for such creativity and innovation. Will other outdoor athletic fields follow? Will we miss the grass stains as a sign of athletic achievement and manhood, or womanhood as the case may be?

And if we were wondering about the hypocrisy of Al Gore taking private jets hither and thither, we might reconsider our own vacation and business transportation. Apparently, many people have in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint by cutting back on vacations and staying home. One reformed vacation addict stated unapologetically to the WSJ (1-17-08): "Buying carbon offsets isn't a license to pollute. Plus, it's not exactly punishment to cut back on air travel with all the security issues." Not to mention snotty TSA officials, long over-due flights and over-worked stewardesses.

And finally, Harper's Magazine (WSJ, 1-15-08, p. B12) asks whether alternative-energy expansion is the next economic bubble. Some theorize that "when prices collapse back to their true value, financiers make up their losses by puring capital into another sector and creating another bubble." The global warming scare has made alternative energy the next best investment guess and money is pouring into wind and solar power installations as well as water desalinization plants. In a not to distant past, NIMBY (not in my backyard) described these projects. But with the price of oil having topped $100, even if only for a few days, barriers are being lowered and development is rushing into the void.

We know this train is moving down the track when the likes of Scientific American will sponsor a conference called "Investing in Renewables: Bottom Line for the Planet" to be held in Chicago May 28th. According to the full-page ad, this conference will address how business, science and policy impact global markets. Topics will include: future energy consumption, alternative fuels: solar, hydrogen and ethanol, plus waste management innovations. Conferences are all well and good for the money-guys, but where are the innovative scientists who create the alternative energy options?

Saudi Arabia would seem like unlikely place to launch such a technologically advanced world-class research university, but that is exactly what is happening on the shores of the Red Sea. King Abdullah himself is pouring $10 billion dollars into the gigantic educational venture in an effort to bring a flourishing scientific community back to the Middle East. Long before America was re-discovered, the Arabs were leaders in scientific and mathematical exploration, but this all came to an end with the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century. At the October 2007 groundbreaking, the King said it was time for science to come back to the desert.

Of note to those who would think this might not be a mentally stimulating environment for, let's say, women, future students and academics were assured that all will be welcome. What's more, the government will keep out of campus business, which will also be off-limits to the religious police. Many believe that this educational venture could have a huge impact locally and globally and could be a nation-changing enterprise. King Abdullah himself said he wanted to transform Saudi Arabia from a kingdom based on oil to a more knowledge-based society. If successful, other countries in the Arab and Muslim world might follow suit.
(SCIAM, February 2008, p. 18.) This is not a far-fetched notion and one that might ultimately meet with success, particularly since it sprang from the Arab culture itself.

Not far from the remote Amazon region, the Brazilians are trying their own cultural educational experiment by creating top-quality scientific institutes in an effort to leverage economic and social transformation across the country. Miguel Nicolelis, the neuroscientist who started the program with a $25 million donation, is targeting the young, however,and making science a "driving force for social change, [and] to demonstrate that, with opportunity, talent anywhere will have a shot." This enlightened doctor envisions a time when Brazil will be alive with talented scientists because they will have been raised from childhood with the critical thinking skills necessary to make this dream a reality (SCIAM, February 2008, p. 80.)

Both of these innovative efforts show enlightened educational leadership from unexpected sources. We will watch as these and other such global enterprises unfold and see how they begin to change the human fabric of their own regions and then the world.

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