Russia’s Space City Frozen in Time

Mansur Mirovalev:

Rockets still pierce the heavens in a halo of smoke during launches, and engineers and military men still crack open bottles of vodka to celebrate a successful launch. What has changed are the passengers. Nowadays Baikonur embraces the world, from wealthy space tourists to the world’s first Malaysian cosmonaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, who blasted off for the international space station on Oct. 10.
The city itself is a rusting relic of the golden age of Russian rocketry, yet if anything, its place in the space industry is heading toward expansion. For at least four years after the space shuttle program ends in 2010, the U.S. will completely depend on Russia – and Baikonur – to send its crews to the international space station.
Facilities and equipment are workable but old. Remnants of demolished buildings and pieces of rusty metal dot the landscape along the roads to the launchpads. Dozens of apartment blocks that were abandoned after the 1991 Soviet collapse stand in rows like tombstones, their windows bricked up.

Internet Freedom? Comcast Blocks the Bible

Peter Svensson:

To test claims by users that Comcast Corp. was blocking some forms of file-sharing traffic, The Associated Press went to the Bible.
An AP reporter attempted to download, using file-sharing program BitTorrent, a copy of the King James Bible from two computers in the Philadelphia and San Francisco areas, both of which were connected to the Internet through Comcast cable modems.
We picked the Bible for the test because it’s not protected by copyright and the file is a convenient size.
In two out of three tries, the transfer was blocked. In the third, the transfer started only after a 10-minute delay. When we tried to upload files that were in demand by a wider number of BitTorrent users, those connections were also blocked.
Not all Comcast-connected computers appear to be affected, however. In a test with a third Comcast-connected computer in the Boston area, we were unable to test with the Bible, apparently due to an unrelated error. When we attempted to upload a more widely disseminated file, there was no evidence of blocking.

Much more at the EFF.

Tree of Smoke

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson:

If this novel, Johnson’s first in nearly a decade, is-as the promo copy says-about Skip Sands, it’s also about his uncle, a legendary CIA operative; Kathy Jones, a widowed, saintly Canadian nurse; Trung, a North Vietnamese spy; and the Houston brothers, Bill and James, misguided GIs who haunt the story’s periphery. And it’s also about Sgt. Jimmy Storm, whose existence seems to be one long vision quest. As with all of Johnson’s work-the stories in Jesus’ Son, novels like Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Fiskadoro-the real point is the possibility of grace in a world of total mystery and inexplicable suffering. In Johnson’s honest world, no one story dominates. For all the story lines, the structure couldn’t be simpler: each year, from 1963 (the book opens in the Philippines: “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed”) to 1970, gets its own part, followed by a coda set in 1983. Readers familiar with the Vietnam War will recognize its arc-the Tet offensive (65 harrowing pages here); the deaths of Martin Luther King and RFK; the fall of Saigon, swift and seemingly foreordained. Skip is a CIA recruit working under his uncle, Francis X. Sands, known as the Colonel. Skip is mostly in the dark, awaiting direction, living under an alias and falling in love with Kathy while the Colonel deals in double agents, Bushmills whiskey and folk history. He’s a soldier-scholar pursuing theories of how to purify an information stream; he bloviates in gusts of sincerity and blasphemy, all of it charming. A large cast of characters, some colorful, some vaguely chalked, surround this triad, and if Tree of Smoke has a flaw, it is that some characters are virtually indistinguishable. Given the covert nature of much of the goings-on, perhaps it is necessary that characters become blurred. “We’re on the cutting edge of reality itself,” says Storm. “Right where it turns into a dream.” Is this our last Vietnam novel? One has to wonder. What serious writer, after tuning in to Johnson’s terrifying, dissonant opera, can return with a fresh ear? The work of many past chroniclers- Graham Greene, Tim O’Brien, the filmmakers Coppola, Cimino and Kubrick, all of whom have contributed to our cultural “understanding” of the war-is both evoked and consumed in the fiery heat of Johnson’s story. In the novel’s coda, Storm, a war clich√© now way gone and deep in the Malaysian jungle near Thailand, attends preparations for a village’s sacrificial bonfire (consisting of personal items smashed and axed by their owners) and offers himself as “compensation, baby.” When the book ends, in a heartbreaking soliloquy from Kathy (fittingly, a Canadian) on the occasion of a war orphan benefit in a Minneapolis Radisson, you feel that America’s Vietnam experience has been brought to a closure that’s as good as we’ll ever get. Copyright ¬© Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

A profession is born to help people navigate the health care maze

Victoria Colliver:

Margalit Mathan and Peter August found themselves caught in a maze of medical appointments and conflicting professional opinions when their 7-year-old daughter developed serious eye problems related to her juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
The Berkeley family decided to consult yet another professional. They turned to a health care advocate, an adviser who specializes in helping patients and their families cut through the health care bureaucracy to find the help they need.
“It’s been this huge roller coaster with the medical system and negotiating her different needs and the different information we’re getting from different doctors,” said Mathan, a high school psychologist. Her daughter, Siona, was diagnosed two years ago with arthritis, a condition that can cause eye inflammation and, in Siona’s case, led to glaucoma.
Private health care advocacy is a new and growing field emerging at a time when an increasing number of Americans find themselves dealing with a chronic disease, aging family members or the bureaucracy of health insurance.
A professional advocate might have some background in health care, such as nursing or medical social work. But the business of health advocacy is unregulated, and people who call themselves a health advocate might have no training other than helping a family member through a difficult illness.

On Air Travel: China vs the US

James Fallows:

Three weeks ago my wife and I flew China Eastern from Beijing to Shanghai and, thanks to traffic miracles on both ends and the absence of the usual Beijing departure hold, made it door-to-door in about four hours.
Today I flew US Airlines from Washington to Boston, a more-or-less comparable route, in just about the same door-to-door time. One difference: Beijing-Shanghai is more than half again as far (576 nautical miles, vs. 343). Another: often I’ve been loaded onto a 747 for the Chinese route, versus the Airbus 319 that is standard for US Air. But here’s the general compare/contrast rundown:

The Subprime Collapse Didn’t Start Bothering the Bush Administration until Wall Street Bankers Started Whimpering

Daniel Gross:

When individual borrowers began to suffer, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson didn’t seem overly concerned. The market would clear out the problem through the foreclosure process. Loans would get written off; properties would change hands and be resold. When upstart subprime mortgage lenders ran into trouble, Bernanke and Paulson shrugged again. The market would clear out the problem through the bankruptcy process. Subprime companies like New Century Financial filed for Chapter 11, others liquidated or restructured, and loans made to the lenders were written down. Meanwhile, Paulson and Bernanke assured us that the subprime mess was contained.
But as the summer turned to fall, and the next several shoes dropped, their attitude changed. And that is because the next group of unfortunates to fall victim to subprime woes were massive banks. In recent years, banks in New York, London, and other financial capitals set up off-balance-sheet funding vehicles called SIVs, or conduits. The entities borrow money at low interest rates for short periods, say 30 to 90 days, and use the funds to buy longer-term debt that pays higher interest rates. To stay in business, the conduits must continually roll over the short-term debt. But as they searched for higher yields, some conduits stuffed themselves with subprime-mortgage-backed securities. And when lenders became alarmed at the declining value of those holdings, they were reluctant to roll over the debt. Banks thus faced a choice. They could either raise cash by dumping the already-depressed subprime junk onto the market, or bring the conduits onto their balance sheets and assure short-term lenders they’d get paid back.

Related: Credit Risk is Rising Again.