Galactic Merger

Colliding Spiral Galaxies Form NGC 2623 (Hubble Space Telescope)

Colliding Galaxies Form NGC 2623 (Hubble Space Telescope)

Two hundred fifty million light years away, two spiral galaxies have collided and are merging to create NGC 2623 (aka Arp 243). In the process, huge numbers of new stars are being forged in more than a hundred massive clusters.

For more about this image and the observations which led to it, see the European homepage for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Published in: on October 14, 2009 at 11:06 am  Leave a Comment  

The Evolving World of Books

A brief update to the continuing saga of Google’s enormous project to scan and make available as many as a million out-of-print but copyrighted books appears in New Scientist in My Book is Mine, Not Google’s. For anyone intrigued by the extraordinary potential or worried by the innumerable pitfalls of the project, it’s worth a quick perusal.

Published in: on October 9, 2009 at 3:21 pm  Leave a Comment  


“ . . . the only time in the last 20 million years that we find evidence for carbon dioxide levels similar to the modern level of 387 parts per million was 15 to 20 million years ago, when the planet was dramatically different.” Science Daily summarizes research reported yesterday on Science Express.

For a somewhat more detailed discussion of the research, see Just How Sensitive Is Earth’s Climate to Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide? in Scientific American.

Published in: on October 9, 2009 at 11:23 am  Leave a Comment  

Consumer Information Catalogue

The FCIC's Consumer Information Catalogue for Fall 2009 is now available.

The FCIC's Consumer Information Catalogue for Fall 2009 is now available.

Much earlier this year, we discussed some of the interesting free and low cost consumer publications available from the Federal Citizen Information Center. On several occasions we’ve recommended one of the FCIC’s featured “publication of the week” offerings, and every now and then we also order quantities of their free and low-cost consumer publications for distribution from the library. You’ll find many of these on the publications display to your right as you enter the front door of the library, on the way into the Community Room. Right now, you’ll find the latest edition of their quarterly Consumer Information Catalogue for Fall 2009.

You can also visit the FCIC website yourself, or request a free subscription to their catalogue of brochures, booklets, pamphlets and other information resources. Most of these publications are available in limited quantities and some have a relatively low price for acquisition. But the great majority are available free of charge. And dozens upon dozens of them have useful information on a whole range of practical interests – information that can save you time and money.

Published in: on October 8, 2009 at 3:58 pm  Comments (2)  

Catching Fire

Catching Fire

The London Telegraph reviews Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Sounds as though it might be a delightfully good read.

Published in: on October 8, 2009 at 3:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Kansas Public Employees Retirement System

KPERS Funding Crisis

Last year, a sharp decline in the value of its assets led the funding ratio of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System to plummet to just 49%, increasing its unfunded liabilities to $10 billion. In response to this precipitous drop, the Center for Applied Economics at the University of Kansas School of Business this past month released a 13-page technical report on The Funding Crisis in the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. They explain:

“The recent collapse of financial markets has resulted in a significant decrease in the value of the KPERS portfolio. But, the funding crisis in KPERS is not just the result of problems in financial markets. The problems in this defined benefit pension plan have emerged over several decades, and are symptomatic of the poor incentive structure
guiding the governance of many defined-benefit public pension plans. The financial market turmoil has exacerbated these problems, but KPERS is facing a long-run
deterioration in its funding status.

“The Kansas legislature has enacted several reforms over the past decade to address the KPERS funding problems. These reforms have included changes in benefits, increased
contribution rates, and administrative changes. Unfortunately, these reforms have failed to address the fundamentally flawed incentive structure built into the KPERS defined-benefit plan.

“This study explores current and past funding shortfalls in KPERS and the inherent challenges associated with the governance of defined-benefit pension plans. The study examines different measures of the magnitude of the funding shortfalls and the past legislative attempts to provide remedies.

“Some of the key facts and issues are:
• A sharp decrease in the value of assets in the KPERS system last year caused the funding ratio to fall to 49 percent. Unfunded liabilities in the system doubled, from about $5 billion to $10 billion.
• Assuming an eight percent return on assets, Kansas-government employers would have to significantly increase contribution rates to bring the KPERS system into actuarial balance. This would be difficult for state and local employers that are experiencing a revenue shortfall.
• KPERS is bankrupt under current operating assumptions. Using more realistic assumptions regarding the expected rate of return on assets, it is highly unlikely that the KPERS system will achieve actuarial balance over the appropriate time frame.
• The solution to the funding crises in KPERS will require fundamental reform. Everything should be on the table, including changes in benefits and increased employee contribution rates, as well as increased employer contribution rates. The governments of Kansas should also explore a complete shift to a defined-contribution arrangement, similar to the one used by the Kansas Regents system (and most private employers).”

For more details and analysis, see the technical report.

Published in: on October 7, 2009 at 3:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Planet-Forming Stars

For an interesting sidelight to our immediately preceding post on exoplanets, see Dirty Stars Make Good Solar System Hosts:

“The Sun’s abundance of heavy elements suggests its protoplanetary disk (the disk from which the Solar System formed) had close to the critical ratio of pebbles to gas; if the abundance of heavy elements had been slightly less, planetesimals and planets would have been far less likely to form, and we would not be here to study the question.”

Published in: on October 7, 2009 at 3:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hard Rain



Among the nearly 400 new worlds discovered in the search for exoplanets over the past decade, there are a number which excite the imagination with their alien strangeness. But few, perhaps, are more intriguing than COROT-7b, a rocky exoplanet with a mass just five times that of earth, which orbits an orange dwarf star – and where it rains molten rock.

For more on exoplanet discoveries and the search for additional exotic worlds, see the University of California’s, the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, NASA/JPL’s Exoplanet Exploration Program, the Kepler Mission Website or the 197-page document Earth-Like Exoplanets: The Science of NASA’s Navigator Program.

Published in: on October 7, 2009 at 3:04 pm  Comments (2)  

Food Safety


This past month the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services announced the release of a new consumer website for food safety. is “designed to help consumers and families get all the latest information on food safety and food recalls in one convenient place.

“The new site features information from all the agencies across the federal government that deal with critical food and food safety information, including preventive tips about how to handle food safely, alerts on life-saving food recalls, and the latest news from the key agencies.” The site also “provides consumers with one easy place to sign up to receive email and RSS alerts on recalled or potentially unsafe food, as well as get information from the top scientific experts across the government on food safety.”

There are further plans to enhance the value of the website for consumers in the future by developing “recall feeds for texting and mobile phones. The site will also feature a widget that the public and the media are encouraged to download and promote on their Web sites and social networking sites. The widget will instantly update viewers with the latest food safety recalls and will be a valuable public health and safety tool.”

Published in: on October 7, 2009 at 12:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mayan Deforestation

Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza

Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza

The Maya may well have doomed their civilization through deforestation. NASA features an interesting brief exploration of the role of satellite data in developing an understanding of past civilizations in The Fall of the Maya: “They Did It to Themselves”.

Published in: on October 7, 2009 at 11:35 am  Comments (1)  

Green Economy Profiles

Kansas -- Profile of the Green Economy

The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices engaged Collaborative Economics, Inc. to analyze and evaluate the emerging green economy in each of the fifty states. As they indicate, “the profile analyzes the scope of green business activity in each state from 2000 to 2007 (the latest year data is available) and patent activity from 1994 to 2008. Such an analysis can reveal areas of comparative advantage, targets for workforce development, and opportunities for building partnerships within and across green industry segments. This information also helps reveal the extent to which a state’s business base can meet the coming demand for things such as highly efficiency appliances, renewable energy generation systems, high-efficiency building products, and low-emission fuels.”

In the five-page review of the state of the Kansas green economy, CEI reports that “Kansas’ green economy displays a diverse array of green businesses with different levels of specialization. Kansas is clearly a national leader in green transportation . . . . Water management and
environmental quality present other areas of growing comparative advantage.” They further observe that “with more than 3,200 jobs, Air & Environment is the largest green segment in Kansas and accounts for more than 43 percent of green jobs in the state.” Moreover, “Kansas’ Transportation segment is more than three times more concentrated than the U.S. average, while Water & Wastewater is nearly twice as concentrated.” For more, see the full report.

In addition, you’ll find an interactive map of all the states at State Green Economy Profiles which will allow you to compare the relative strengths and weaknesses of each against the others. Just click on a state map for a .pdf of that state’s report.

Published in: on October 6, 2009 at 2:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Presidential Approval Tracker

White House

USA Today has an interesting graphic representation of historical presidential approval ratings from the Gallup organization, beginning with the Truman administration and continuing through the present Obama administration. See Presidential Approval Tracker.

Published in: on October 6, 2009 at 10:36 am  Leave a Comment