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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: September 20, 2008

“We have made a mistake in this society. The assumption that everybody can be a homeowner is wrong. We pushed and encouraged people into home ownership — people who in some cases weren’t ready for it. You can’t act on wishes that are unrealistic without having negative consequences.” —Representative Barney Frank

DIPLOMATS ARE RETURNING from conflict areas with post-traumatic stress disorder at twice the rate of servicemen according to Steve Kashkett, vp of the American Foreign Service Association, the union representing US diplomats. “Seasoned diplomats are fleeing Foggy Bottom in droves,” reports Mother Jones, “leaving America critically short of diplomat expertise just when it is needed most. The State Department, by its own projections, will lose 14% of its veteran diplomats every year from 2007 to 2011, an entire generation in a few years time.” A reduced budget and Condoleeza Rice’s vow to move diplomats “out from behind their desks and into the field” has resulted in a brain drain leaving American embassies understaffed with 15% vacancies, the magazine says.

PACKED WITH VITAMIN C, the African baobab which looks like a coconut filled with powdery pulp, has been approved entry into the European Union and is predicted to turn into a billion dollar market helping farmers in Southern Africa to make a living. The fruit itself can be roasted, mashed or pureed, the nuts turned into oil and the accompanying leaves eaten as vegetables.

UNLIKELY AS IT MIGHT SEEM, the world’s solar king turns out to be a Chinese billionaire named Shi Zhengrong, whose company, Suntech Power, has just surpassed Sharp as the biggest producer of solar panels whose capacity — within two years — will be equivalent to four conventional power plants. “We believe that within ten years Suntech will be an energy giant like BP or Shell today,” says the Australian-educated scientist who is probably China’s richest man. Much of his business comes from Germany which is far ahead of most countries in subsidizing solar energy, helping to close the gap in costs between different techniques. Visiting him at his headquarters on an industrial estate near Wuxi where Suntech’s manufacturing costs are less than half those of companies outside China, the Guardian reported that although 98% of the company’s output is currently exported, Shi forecasts that there would be a solar boom in China “very soon.”

SO-CALLED FAITH HEALING can be a killer when parents are so dedicated to their religion that they bar their children from getting medical help is the long-accepted assessment echoed by the current issue of the Skeptical Inquirer. The article is prompted by a new book, When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law by Shawn Francis Peters, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which points out that 39 states provide religious exemptions to child abuse or neglect charges. Typical offenders, writes Peters, are “intensely religious parents whose doctrines revolve around the doctrines and practices of small, close-knit Christian churches that ground their doctrines in narrowly literal interpretations of the Bible.” The book lists hundreds of examples of parents allowing their children to die rather than allowing doctors to intervene.

EVEN WITH 20 MINUTES every hour now devoted to commercials (up from 14 minutes a few years back) television advertisers are unhappy because of the growing number of channel surfers who use Tivo or other devices to skip the ads altogether. One solution is the one adopted by a Mad Men program to restrict advertising to a single 60-second one (an idea they’ll repeat with the season’s finale) and another is the way MTV integrated mini stories (ads for Dove body wash) loosely related to the plot of the teen reality show, The Hills. “We are trying to think of the program and the ads as one total experience,” explains John Shea, an MTV marketing vp.

ACCORDING TO BRITISH AUTHOR Theodore Dalrymple, heroin addiction is often a spiritual problem and the drug is not highly addictive, nor does withdrawal require medical assistance. “The very concept of treatment is probably wrong,” he writes in his book Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy.  “The addict has made a determined effort to become an addict. It is something he does, not something that happens to him.” Dalrymple, a prison doctor and hospital psychiatrist, says: “People are often very surprised to learn that withdrawal from opiates (unless combined with other drugs and with the single rare exception of withdrawal in pregnancy) is a trivial mental condition, unlike withdrawal from alcohol when it results in Delirium Tremens. The misconception arises because of the repeated misrepresentation in books and films.”

THE WILCOCK WEB: If only we’d allowed the Russians to conquer the wild Afghanistan tribes long ago instead of backing the wrong side…. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) is signing up volunteers who will link their computers to a system that will give advance warning of quakes because “digital data travels faster than seismic waves”…. California’s Salk Institute claims that a new drug, AICAR, “tricks the muscle into ‘believing’ it has been exercising and “proves you can have a pharmacological equivalent to exercise.” Unfortunately, the results come only from experiments on mice…..Luxury items bought in flight by Virgin Upper Class passengers await them as they disembark at Heathrow airport…. NASA’s Orion program collected gallons of urine from volunteers while testing new toilet designs for the latest line of space capsules….After having the picture of a fly drawn on the urinals, managers at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport found that “penile aim” improved by 80%…. After spending millions installing shiny steel public toilets downtown, Seattle has had to remove them following predictions that they would be monopolized by druggies and hookers came true…. “Men are the only animals who devote themselves to making each  other unhappy,” wrote H.L. Mencken. “It is, I suppose, one of their godlike qualities”… Sales of tea have increased for the 15th successive year… Lady customer at Trader Joe’s: “The bananas with the biggest curve are always the sweetest”….Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you.”  — Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)