How Do We Fix It? Napoleon’s Buttons And Our Crazy Problem With Science

Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous invasion of Russia during the brutally cold winter of 1812 might have gone a lot better if only he’d known about the chemical properties of tin.

“The buttons that were on his jacket were made out of tin,” says materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez. “When it gets really cold, tin undergoes a chemical transformation, changing from one state to another.”
“It becomes dust.”
Because of crumbling buttons, “their coats were open and their pants were falling down. Their buttons were disintegrating” as they tried to fight the Russians. Things went horribly wrong for the invading French army.
The Napoleon example is what Ramirez calls, a “big-ass hook.”  She uses it when teaching, writing or doing her Science Underground podcasts to make her subject that much more interesting – “so that I grab your attention.”
Ainissa is on a mission: to make science fun for kids and adults.  She’s the author of “Save Our Science” and “Newton’s Football,” a lively book about the science of America’s favorite sport.
Just like Napoleon, the failure to understand the basics of science puts us in peril.  “STEM” jobs – requiring skills in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math – are among the best-paid and hottest growth sectors for employment.  But most students graduate college or high school without any knowledge of STEM, which closes off a broad range of career opportunities.
“We all start off as scientists,” Ainissa told us on on our “How Do We Fix It?” podcast. “If you look at a 4-year-old’s hands, they’re completely dirty, because they’re engaging with the world.  But then something happens. School happens and we forget that we are curious beings.  We feel we need to worry about what we get on a test and don’t think about understanding.”
“As a science evangelist I’m trying to get us back with our wonder.”
Sadly, most of us  lost our initial curiosity about science, including me.  And Ainissa is right. We need to get it back.  As citizens, widespread ignorance of science means we are more likely to fall for absurd vaccine conspiracy theories or for politicians who deny the reality of climate change.
Ainissa says schools and major corporations could help put the sizzle back into science.
Too often schools teach to the test. “That has nothing to do with understanding, learning and wonder.” Science should be woven into projects and stories that children learn in other subjects.
Many kids go to McDonald’s after school to use their WiFi and do homework. “There’s a huge opportunity for there to be science on McDonald’s WiFi system to students,” says Ainissa.
“Walmart has many millions of people coming through their doors every day. If you could get 10% to look at a small screen that shows a science PSA (Public Service Announcement), you significantly move the needle,” One place to do this would be in the electronics aisle, where dozens of new TV sets are turned on.
Ainissa also sees opportunities for citizen action. Flint’s water crisis only became widely known after parents worked with scientists from Virginia Tech to confirm there were unsafe levels of lead . “They couldn’t get the information directly, but by using science kits available at a hardware store they were able to test what was in it.”
“They also tested the water in different regions, so they had good data.”  Parents empowered by science were able “to pushback and show that the water in Flint was unacceptable.”

The Best Argument I’ve Heard To Turn Climate Skeptics Into Believers

Looks pretty peaceful doesn’t it?  I love our part of the Connecticut shoreline.  On most days the waters from Long Island Sound are calm and there is a lovely balance between sky, land and sea.

But what if this picture were to change in the years to come with dramatic sea level rise and climate change?

I’m no alarmist. In fact, it’s quite possible that over the next one hundred years, the average increase temperature will be relatively modest.  Scientists don’t know exactly what will happen. But that’s not an argument for doing nothing.

Quite the reverse.

Environmental economist Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund, co-author of the book “Climate Shock,” says “first  and foremost, climate change is a risk management problem.” Even if you are a climate skeptic and believe that the possibility of a global disaster is minimal, consider this: “Most of us have auto and home insurance to cover us in the event of a disaster.”

“If you had a 10% chance of having a fatal car accident, you’d take necessary precautions. If your finances had a 10% chance of suffering a severe loss, you’d reevaluate your assets. So if we know the world is warming and there’s a 10 percent chance this might eventually lead to a catastrophe beyond anything we could imagine, why aren’t we doing more about climate change right now?”

I don’t believe our house here is likely to be flooded or damaged by fire anytime soon, but I still pay a lot money each year for coverage just in case. Shouldn’t we be doing the same thing to deal with the risk of global warming?

Gernot makes the case for an insurance policy. A price would be placed on carbon emissions,  either through a tax or a system of cap and trade.

This would mean ending subsidies for fossil fuels and boosting incentives for renewable forms of energy. “We need new technologies. We need energy efficient technologies,” Gernot said this week on the “How Do We Fix It?” podcast.

“You set the right incentives and get out of the way.”  Use the market to reduce the CO2 emissions. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley will do their thing.

Before the Industrial Age began in the late 18th Century, carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere were roughly 280 parts per million for thousands of years.  Today the level is 400 parts per million and rising. Even if emissions were stabilized tomorrow the carbon number would continue to rise.

Scientists first made the link between greenhouse gas emissions and rising temperatures in the 19th century. Today, all but a handful of climate scientists say there is an urgent need for action to reduce carbon dioxide levels as soon as possible.

“We know we need to act,” says Gernot.

Gernot Wagner (right) and Martin Weitzman (left), authors of “Climate Shock.”

Top photo by Linda Jessee.

Hacking, Data Theft, And Why Adam Levin Scared the S**t Out of Me

My friends and family sometimes tease me about being an optimist – seeing the world as a better place than it really is. 

Well, last week the guy here in the photo turned me into a gloomy pessimist about the dangers of hacking and the data theft. Unless our security systems get better fast, mayhem might be around the corner. The threat to individuals, businesses, the government, and the financial system is scary. 

After years of thinking that Adam Levin was perhaps was a little bit alarmist on the subject, I’ve come around to his way of thinking.  Adam, who’s the co-founder and Chairman of and the security firm IDT 911, has turned me into a hacking hawk. 

“This is a pandemic,” he said this week on our podcast How Do We Fix It?  “It’s depressing when people say there’s fear-mongering going on in the identity theft world. There isn’t enough fear-mongering.” 

He’s right.  We’ve been inundated with the shock-horror of over-the-top news media coverage about the omnipresent threat of criminals, rapists, and child abductors lurking in our midst.  But arguably, not enough has been made of criminals and spies breaking into the computer systems that all of us rely on.  

Only last week, the head of The Office of Personnel Management was finally forced to resign after it was revealed that highly sensitive personal data involving more than 22 million people was stolen. 

A couple of weeks ago, Fortune published a hair raising account of last November’s break-in at Sony Pictures. The attack was a huge embarrassment for the firm as private emails became a matter of public gossip and scandal. For several weeks, one of the biggest players in Hollywood was forced back to an era of faxes and typewriters. Its computer systems were frozen.

We are all at risk of being victims.

So how do you reduce your threat?  Adam says we all need to consider that this is a potential threat to our money, property and privacy. Here are some of the tips that he recommends.

– Remember the 3Ms. MINIMIZE your risk of exposure

Don’t carry your social security card with you, in case your wallet or purse is stolen.  Limit the number of credit and debit cards that you have.  Secure your computer and smartphone with strong passwords. Be careful about giving your social security number to any business or health care provider that does not really need it. 
– MONITOR your personal finances.  Get a free credit report every year at  Also, go and other sites and get a free reading of your credit score.  Check your bank and other financial accounts as frequently as possible.

– If you become an identity theft victim, MANAGE the damage. Adam says there are programs to help consumers. Some are free through your work or insurance company.  Identity protection services offer instant alerts in case someone tries to apply for credit using your name.  The Consumer Federation of America has a helpful site:

– Credit cards offer more protections for consumers. “With a credit card, it’s their money. With a debit card it’s your money,” says Adam. If you’re a victim of debit card fraud it can take 7-10 days for the bank to return the money to your account. 

– If anyone calls you and starts asking for your information, hang up. Don’t give it to them. Use as many different passwords as you can for websites that you visit.

Two years ago Edward Snowden started a worldwide debate about Government snooping and  surveillance.  Today, there needs to be a similar outcry over the threat data theft presents to our privacy and security.

President Obama’s Amazing Grace Eulogy, and the Power of Love at Emanuel AME Church


Richard Davies

President Obama’s “Amazing Grace” eulogy (from ABC News coverage)
It’s been a long time since you could say it was a good week for President Obama.
And for good measure, this was also one for the history books.

In addition to two sweeping Supreme Court decisions on Obamacare and same-sex marriage, the President scored a crucial win in Congress, thanks mostly to well-organized support by Republicans. He gained full authority to negotiate a sweeping Asia free-trade agreement. After all the gloom and gridlock of late it was enough to make your head turn.

At the end of the week Obama flew to Charleston, South Carolina to deliver a moving, rousing and eloquent eulogy toRev. Clementa Pinckney, who wasmurdered nine days before at the historic church he led.

The President is very good at this: much better at giving speeches and presiding over somber public ceremonies than the daily grind of…

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President Obama’s Amazing Grace Eulogy, and the Power of Love at Emanuel AME Church

  President Obama’s “Amazing Grace” eulogy (from ABC News coverage)
It’s been a long time since you could say it was a good week for President Obama.
And for good measure, this was also one for the history books.

In addition to two sweeping Supreme Court decisions on Obamacare and same-sex marriage, the President scored a crucial win in Congress, thanks mostly to well-organized support by Republicans.  He gained full authority to negotiate a sweeping Asia free-trade agreement.  After all the gloom and gridlock of late it was enough to make your head turn.

At the end of the week Obama flew to Charleston, South Carolina to deliver a moving, rousing and eloquent eulogy to Rev. Clementa  Pinckney, who was murdered nine days before at the historic church he led.

The President is very good at this: much better at giving speeches and presiding over somber public ceremonies than the daily grind of governance.  But his even partisan critics cannot deny that Barack Obama’s heartfelt and at times profound remarks on race come from his own lived experience.

During his long address, Mr. Obama evoked the history of black America, through slavery, discrimination and violence. The crowd responded warmly with many “amens”, “yes sirs”, and standing ovations.  There were strains of the church organ and electric guitar.

To the surprise of the congregation and those watching on TV (the three legacy broadcast networks broke into their daytime programing), the President launched forth with a rousing chorus of “Amazing Grace.” His singing may be much better remembered than what he said!

But what moves me the most about what happened in Charleston and elsewhere in recent days has nothing to do with the President words or the  fuss over that blighted Confederate Flag.

It has been the stunning response of the good people of the Emanuel AME Church. After a young white man seized by racial hatred murdered their pastor and eight others in the church basement and devastated their community, they responded with words of love and even forgiveness.

Somewhat incredible you may think.  The increasingly noisy critics of organized Christian religion might stop to ponder that.

This church still stands strong and proud in the belief that love is more powerful than hate. Its open-doors policy to strangers and newcomers remains in place.  As one AME pastor in New Haven, Connecticut told a news reporter, he prefers God’s protection to security guards or surveillance cameras at his church.

One member of the congregation who stood in line for hours before the President’s eulogy said: “I want to be here to show love. You can feel the love, and see the love.”

And love was also front and center at The Supreme Court this week.  The hashtag #lovewins was tweeted more than five million times in the hours after the court’s decision was released.

Writing for the majority in same-sex marriage case, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that “no union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, devotion, sacrifice and family.”

Every year in late June the major decisions of the Supreme Court are a time for passionate debate about moral and ethical concerns raised in the U.S. Constitution.  This year the  practical importance of love is part of our national conversation. Amen to that.

Lessons I learned from “How Do We Fix It?” Podcast #1

  Developmental Psychologist Abigail Baird… Our first guest on our new podcast.

This is launch day, and there’s excitement in our house.  

I’m writing this on the morning of June 10th, two months to the day since I moved on from full-time employment as Business Correspondent and news anchor at ABC News Radio to work on my digital audio startup.

Our new weekly half-hour podcast, How Do We Fit It?, is now searchable on iTunes and other podcast sites.  There are four episodes so far with new ones being added each week.  Please subscribe! 

With a great deal of help from our fab producer, Miranda Shafer, we built a website that has lots of info on us and what we are up to.  We’re also posting photos on Instagram and thoughts on Twitter and Facebook.

My buddy, former Popular Mechanics Editor-in-Chief,  Jim Meigs, and I are both practical guys, impatient for solutions.  We’ve spent decades reporting the news, and want to move past tired old left vs. right rhetoric of yesterday to something new.

Instead of despair, our podcasts are about hope.  Each show is a lively conversation, built around a smart guest, who is known for fresh thinking and innovative ideas.

The expert we reached out to for our first show is Abigial Baird.  As Developmental Psychologist at Vassar College, Abi studies the teenage brain.  She’s a thinker and a doer – the proud mother of two young twins.

As dads and journalists, Jim and I know what a challenge technology presents for parents and kids.   Computers, video games and mobile devices are a huge temptation. But are they an obstacle or a great opportunity as children learn about the world? 

Here on our first show, Abi shares her humor, enthusiasm and wisdom as a caring parent and a whip-smart neuroscientist.  We learned a lot listening to her.  We think you will too!

Please download and subscribe to our podcasts.  If you like what you hear, share us on social media.  We’d very much like to read your suggestions for new shows.

We are public radio without the N P R.  Thanks for being part of our brand-new community.

Why demography may change the Republican Party

“Republicans stand a slim chance of winning the presidency in 2016 – unless they nominate a transformational candidate who can dramatically broaden the GOP’s appeal,” warns conservative  polling expert Whit Ayers in the Wall Street  Journal.  

He makes a surprisingly strong case.

Mitt Romney won nearly 60% of white voters in 2012, but still lost the election by wide margin.  And things may get harder for the Republicans in the years to come, despite their recent success in the off-year 2014 Congressional races.

As recently as 1992, whites accounted for 83% of the national electorate, notes Ayers, who is President of a GOP polling firm. By 2016 the electorate will be about 69% white.

Only “by nominating a candidate who can speak to minorities, especially Hispanics,” will Republicans compete in the race for the White House, he says.

That could mean a move to the center on immigration reform and poverty programs.  Both are important to millions of Hispanic voters. Vague talk of opportunity, individual liberty and free enterprise – traditional GOP themes – will only go so far.

But Democrats have no reason to be smug.  In recent years Republicans have gained a great deal of ground in many statewide races.  And by fielding younger, optimistic-sounding Senate races against older, and at times grumpier Democratic incumbents, the GOP made sizeable gains in 2014.

Well-disciplined party operatives know the importance of charisma, message and tone.  But without pragmatic policies to match the mood of most voters, Republicans could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in 2016 and beyond. 

Will this Wearable Video Camera Help Police-Community Relations After Ferguson?




There is no video of the police shooting of 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

This stark fact could  lead to changes soon at many police departments across the country.

Deprived of the facts about exactly what happened,  raw emotions play a heightened role in the debate.  People have very different of who was to blame.

Could technology help change minds and alter the tenor of the debate?

“Everybody wishes right now there was a video record of what happened” Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst at the ACLU told Businessweek.   Studies revealed that wearable video cameras would have a positive impact on police-community relations.

Wall Street is  betting that the uproar over over what happened in Ferguson will have a direct impact on sales of body cameras like the one pictured above.

Shares in the firm that makes it, stun gun manufacturer Taser International (TASR), jumped more than 9% today on the stock market, and have rallied in recent days.

“The era of on-officer video has arrived. The technology is poised to help keep officers safer and more accountable on the job, while protecting law enforcement agencies from nuisance lawsuits,” says



Count ’em! Signs the economy is ready for liftoff

GTY gas pump ml 140616 16x9 608 Gas Prices Up as Mideast Turmoil Threatens US Economy

              (Photo Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Motorists are about to get a price break from the soaring cost of gas. New claims for unemployment benefits are close to a 7-year-low.  Businesses plan to hire more workers.

Call me a Pollyanna, but I think the US economy is ready for stronger growth. And after years of flat-ling, living standards may be set to improve

One thing I love about reporting the economy is that you can never be sure of anything. It’s easy to change your mind when confronted with fresh evidence.

So, if you’re among the majority of gloomy Americans who still think the economy is in a funk, here goes….

The US Labor Department said this morning that first-time jobless claims dropped again last week.  For several months, the weekly average for new claims has been sharply lower than last year’s level – an indication of fewer pink slips from employers.

A new mid-year employment survey says today there is “forward momentum in the job market.” CareerBuilder, a job placement firm, asked more than 2,100 HR and hiring managers about their hiring plans for the next six months.

“Employers expect to add more jobs in the back half of the year,” spokeswoman Jennifer Grasz of CareerBuilder tells me. “The results of this year’s survey were indicative of a more confident employer population compared to 2013.”

“Fed, Confident in Economy, Details End of Bond-Buying Program,” proclaims a headline in The New York Times.

Because of recent improvements, the new Fed statement says the central bank plans to stop adding to its bond holdings by October.

“The labor market appears to be firing on all cylinders and is finally self-sustaining,” wrote two PNC Financial Services economists, Stuart Hoffman and Gus Faucher, in their recent note.

The price of oil has dropped for 9 straight days as global supplies continue to flow despite the growing problems in various parts of the Middle East – the world’s most important oil-producing region.

The truth is supplies are plentiful.  US refineries are producing more gasoline, which may lead to sharply lower prices for motorists in the weeks ahead.

Although the insurgency in Iraq is a humanitarian disaster, it hasn’t halted oil exports. The fighting now seems unlikely to spread to Iraq’s major oil fields.

Tensions between Israel and Hamas have escalated in the past week, but they aren’t threatening any major oil production.

Oil exports from Libya may rise after an agreement between the government and local militias cleared the way for export terminals to open. And US production continues to soar.

Cheaper oil is a short-term plus for the airlines. Revenue at American, United and Southwest – three of the largest US carriers – is up this summer, compared to last year.

Until now the biggest drag on US growth has been flat living standards. Since the stock market bounced back from the 2008 financial crisis, there’s been a yawning gap between the Main Street and Wall Street economies.

Consumer spending is has been limited to only modest gains.  Long-term unemployment is still way above average.

But if the CareerBuilder forecast is correct, and the job market shows much stronger signs of life, more of us will have reason to agree with Pharrell Williams and be Happy.

 (Parts of this post from my MorningMoneyMemo blog at