Thursday, March 26, 2009

The world is slipping dangerously into protectionism, threatening to strangle global economic recovery, the World Trade Organization said.

In an alarm bell to WTO's 153 members, Director-General Pascal Lamy said free trade has suffered "significant slippage" this year as countries have erected new barriers to imports in the form of tariffs, subsidies and other measures designed to protect domestic industries.

Lamy said Thursday there was still no indication of a global descent into the trade wars that helped bring on the Great Depression. But he said "the danger today is of an incremental buildup of restrictions that could slowly strangle international trade and undercut the effectiveness of policies to boost aggregate demand and restore sustained growth globally."

Lamy's 47-page report obtained by The Associated Press lists dozens of government policies that are or would appear protectionist, if not illegal.

Trade has been a key driver of global economic expansion over the past three decades, growing faster than economic output and spurring gains in both rich and poor countries. But it is being hit hard by the economic crisis, with the WTO announcing earlier this week that commercial activity was expected to shrink by 9 percent this year, the worst collapse since World War II.

Protectionism will be one of the key issues when 20 of the world's leading economic powers meet in London next week. Those countries, which pledged in November in Washington to avoid spurring their economies at the expense of others, did not escape criticism in the WTO report.

Lamy said fiscal stimulus and government bailouts should be welcomed in the current environment because they aim to reverse a fall in global demand and revive international trade in goods and services. But he said the trade effects of such packages needed to be considered as they can provoke tit-for-tat retaliation that hurts all economies.

Fears are rampant that amid the most dangerous economic downturn in 80 years countries will resort to the same shortsighted trade policies after the 1929 stock market crash.

The United States then led that charge by raising tariffs on hundreds of foreign goods, sparking worldwide retaliation and the devastation of international commerce.

Part of the danger is that global trade rules provide so much space for maneuvering that countries can inflict serious damage on foreign exporters without violating any agreements.

Most nations can legally raise their tariffs somewhat above the level they currently charge on imports. They can attach extra duties on foreign goods they suspect are being "dumped" at below-market value. Complicated import licenses can be required. Safety standards for imports can be set so high that trade stops. Rich countries have the option of subsidies.

"The main risk is that governments will continue to cede ground to protectionist pressures, even if only gradually, as long as the global economic situation continues to deteriorate," Lamy warned. "In that case, the negative impact on trade will mount as the number of new measures accumulates. This will worsen the contraction of world trade and undermine confidence in an early and sustained recovery in global economic activity."

The report praises efforts by some leaders, such as Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to reject or reverse decisions aimed at making it harder for companies in foreign countries. President Barack Obama was also commended for ensuring that "Buy American" provisions in the United States' $789 billion stimulus package comply with international agreements.

But its shame list was longer.

In the footwear sector alone, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, the European Union, Turkey and Ukraine have enacted or are considering measures designed to slow imports from China or Vietnam, the report showed.

Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, France, India, Russia, and the United States were cited for automotive tariffs, subsidies, credits, licenses or other changes deemed dangerous to trade.

Argentina, the 27-nation EU, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Russia, Turkey, the U.S. and Vietnam were listed for protective steel regulations.

It was Lamy's second report on protectionism this year. Future reports are expected every two months as the WTO steps up its monitoring of the crisis.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Once dubbed the "Queen of Carbon Science" as one of the nation's foremost experts in the multifaceted field of carbon science, longtime Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Institute Professor Mildred Dresselhaus has been named the National Science Board's 2009 Vannevar Bush Awardee.

"Every morning before 6 a.m. for the past 40 years when I arrive at work, I pass a massive photograph of Vannevar Bush at his milling machine," said Dresselhaus, whose office is in the Vannevar Bush building at MIT. "When I see his smiling face, I get charged up for my day's adventure with the endless frontier of science and for my work with students and collaborators worldwide who will be enjoying the excitement of my adventures with me."

Each year, the National Science Board (NSB) presents the Vannevar Bush Award to an individual who, through public service activities in science and technology, has made an outstanding "contribution toward the welfare of mankind and the nation."

The NSB will honor Dresselhaus for her leadership through public service in science and engineering, her perseverance and advocacy in increasing opportunities for women in science, and for her extraordinary contributions in the field of condensed-matter physics and nanoscience.

Born Mildred Spiewak and raised in an impoverished household in the Bronx, Mildred Dresselhaus beat the odds by receiving a high quality education, joining the faculty at MIT in 1968, when women comprised just 4 percent of the student population and becoming a pioneer in the field of condensed matter and materials physics. Today, the percentage of women at MIT is 40 percent, and Dresselhaus holds the title of Institute Professor, the highest honor the university bestows on its faculty (she was the first woman to receive this title).

Over the course of her career, Dresselhaus' research has covered a wide range of topics in condensed matter and materials physics. She is best known for her work on carbon science and carbon nanostructures, and is also credited for being one of the researchers who caused the resurgence of the thermoelectrics research field 15 years ago by moving the field in the direction of nanostructures.

Her investigations into superconductivity, the electronic properties of carbon, thermoelectricity and the new physics at the nanometer scale have led to numerous scientific discoveries. She served as president of the American Physical Society, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and treasurer of the National Academy of Science, the Academy's first woman officer. In 1970, she co-founded the Women's Forum at MIT. In addition, she has been the doctorate supervisor of about 75 graduate students, and has had a special interest throughout her career in mentoring young people and in expanding the opportunities for women in science and engineering.

NSB members agreed that Dresselhaus is especially deserving of the Vannevar Bush Award for her outstanding contributions to both her scientific field and to the scientific community at large. She has received the National Medal of Science; the Buckley Prize for Condensed Matter Physics from the American Physical Society; the L'Oreal-UNESCO North American Laureate for Women in Science; the Founders Medal of the IEEE; the Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy, and Employment; the Oersted Medal for Physics Education from the American Association for Physics Teachers; and 25 honorary doctorates worldwide.

"We feel that the Vannevar Bush Award is an excellent and appropriate addition to this list," said NSB Chairman, Steven Beering.

Dresselhaus received her undergraduate education at Hunter College. After a year at Cambridge and another at Harvard, she completed her doctorate at the University of Chicago. Her thesis in 1958 explored the subject of microwave properties of superconductors in a magnetic field that could not be explained by the BCS fundamental theory of superconductivity, which came in 1957, many years after the discovery of superconductivity (1911).

Following her doctoral studies, Dresselhaus spent two years at Cornell as an NSF postdoctoral fellow, and then seven years as a staff member of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in the Solid State Physics Division. She joined the MIT faculty in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1967, and the Department of Physics in 1983, and was named an institute professor in 1985. She served as the director of the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy from 2000 to 2001, and as the chair of the Governing Board of the American Institute of Physics from 2003 to 2008.

Dresselhaus will receive the Vannevar Bush medal at a black-tie dinner and ceremony on May 13, 2009, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, along with recipients of the 2009 NSB Public Service Award, Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University and the American Chemical Society's Project SEED. NSF's Alan T. Waterman Awardee David Charbonneau of Harvard University will also be honored that evening.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

PASADENA, Calif. -- Loose soil piled against the northern edge of a low plateau called "Home Plate" has blocked NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit from taking the shortest route toward its southward destinations for the upcoming Martian summer and following winter.

The rover has begun a trek skirting at least partway around the plateau instead of directly over it.

However, Spirit has also gotten a jump start on its summer science plans, examining a silica-rich outcrop that adds information about a long-gone environment that had hot water or steam. And even a circuitous route to the destinations chosen for Spirit would be much shorter than the overland expedition Spirit's twin, Opportunity, is making on the opposite side of Mars.

Both rovers landed on Mars in 2004 for what were originally planned as three-month missions there.

Spirit spent 2008 on the northern edge of Home Plate, a flat-topped deposit about the size of a baseball field, composed of hardened ash and rising about 1.5 meters (5 feet) above the ground around it. There, the north-facing tilt positioned Spirit's solar arrays to catch enough sunshine for the rover to survive the six-month-long Martian winter.

The scientists and engineers who operate the rovers chose as 2009 destinations a steep mound called "Von Braun" and an irregular, 45-meter-wide (150-foot-wide) bowl called "Goddard." These side-by-side features offer a promising area to examine while energy is adequate during the Martian summer and also to provide the next north-facing winter haven beginning in late 2009. Von Braun and Goddard intrigue scientists as sites where Spirit may find more evidence about an explosive mix of water and volcanism in the area's distant past. They are side-by-side, about 200 meters, or yards, south of where Spirit is now.

It's mid-spring now in the southern hemisphere of Mars. The sun has climbed higher in the sky over Spirit in recent weeks.

The rover team tried to drive Spirit onto Home Plate, heading south toward Von Braun and Goddard. They tried this first from partway up the slope where the rover had spent the winter. Only five of the six wheels on Spirit have been able to rotate since the right-front wheel stopped working in 2006. With five-wheel drive, Spirit couldn't climb the slope. In January and February, Spirit descended from Home Plate and drove eastward about 15 meters (about 50 feet) toward a less steep on-ramp. Spinning wheels in loose soil led the rover team to choose another of its options.

"Spirit could not make progress in the last two attempts to get up onto Home Plate," said John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., project manager for both rovers. "Alternatively, we are driving Spirit around Home Plate to the east. Spirit will have to go around a couple of small ridges that extend to the northeast, and then see whether a route east of Home Plate looks traversable. If that route proves not to be traversable, a route around the west side of Home Plate is still an option."

During the drive eastward just north of Home Plate in January, Spirit stopped to use tools on its robotic arm to examine a nodular, heavily eroded outcrop dubbed "Stapledon," which had caught the eye of rover-team scientist Steve Ruff when he looked at images and infrared spectra Spirit took from its winter position.

"It looked like the material east of Home Plate that we found to be rich in silica," said Ruff, of Arizona State University, Tempe. "The silica story around Home Plate is the most important finding of the Spirit mission so far with regard to habitability. Silica this concentrated forms around hot springs or steam vents, and both of those are favorable environments for life on Earth."

Sure enough, Spirit's alpha particle X-ray spectrometer found Stapledon to be rich in silica, too.

"Now we have found silica on a second side of Home Plate, expanding the size of the environment we know was affected by hot springs or steam vents," Ruff said. "The bigger this system, the more water was involved, the more habitable this system may have been."

The contact measurement with the X-ray spectrometer also gave the team confidence in its ability to identify silica-rich outcrops from a distance with the rover's thermal emission spectrometer, despite some dust that has accumulated on a periscope mirror of that instrument. Researchers plan to use Spirit's thermal emission spectrometer and panoramic camera to check for more silica-rich outcrops on the route to Von Braun and Goddard. However, the team has set a priority to make good progress toward those destinations. Winds cleaned some dust off Spirit's solar panels on Feb. 6 and Feb. 14, resulting in a combined increase of about 20 percent in the amount of power available to the rover.

Opportunity, meanwhile, shows signs of increased friction in its right-front wheel. The team is driving the rover backwards for a few sols, a technique that has helped in similar situations in the past, apparently by redistributing lubricant in the wheel. Opportunity's major destination is Endeavour Crater, about 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter and still about 12 kilometers (7 miles) away to the southeast. Opportunity has been driving south instead of directly toward Endurance, to swing around an area where loose soil appears deep enough to potentially entrap the rover.

Friday, March 06, 2009

He looked nervous, even flustered, at first, and some of the prepared comedy was surprisingly lame. That doesn’t matter. Jimmy Fallon’s first few days don’t really reveal how “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” will fare.

Monitoring the opening kinks and experiments of a new talk show is a spectator sport, and this entry comes with an added “American Idol” edge: NBC had the last word during the auditions, but Internet users are now expected to comment and cavil interactively and build — or diminish — Mr. Fallon’s television audience.

Mr. Fallon was cute and funny on “Saturday Night Live,” but he is not necessarily the ideal choice for the “Late Night” core audience of young males: his humor is mischievous, not anarchic. (If fans had a call-in vote, they might have elected Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.)

Still, Mr. Fallon is engaging and has an antic, quick-witted charm. He seemed more confident by the show’s third night and, oddly enough, had better comic chemistry with Cameron Diaz on Wednesday than with Tina Fey, his former “Weekend Update” co-anchor on “SNL,” the night before. Most of his skits and routines, however, seemed written for the Web, not for broadcast.

It’s still too soon to pass judgment on Mr. Fallon’s talents as a talk show host, but it’s a perfectly good time to examine NBC’s latest test of synergy, the marriage of the Internet and a television show.

Almost all shows nowadays have Web sites with extraneous videos, fan blogs and viewer e-mail exchanges. But Mr. Fallon has gone further to co-opt the Internet than either of his two network rivals, Jimmy Kimmel on ABC and Craig Ferguson on CBS, or even cable upstarts like Chelsea Handler, the host of “Chelsea Lately” on E! In the months leading up to his debut on Monday, Mr. Fallon tried to pump up younger viewers’ interest with “Late Night” Webisodes. He has pages on Facebook, Myspace and Twitter.

Perhaps accordingly, many of the routines he worked into the show in its first nights might have been better suited to YouTube. And that youth-oriented material clashes with the highly conventional, even fusty jokes in his opening monologue (“Everybody’s cutting back, everybody: Madonna’s now down to one teenage boyfriend”), as well as with the choice of a veteran actor, Robert De Niro, to be his first guest.

Twitter is so overexposed that it has become a joke, but Mr. Fallon apparently isn’t in on it. He interviewed Ms. Diaz by posing questions submitted via Twitter. Those turned out to be as dull and anodyne as any taken from a live audience. (“If Cameron wasn’t acting, what would her dream job be?” Ms. Diaz didn’t have a ready answer, so Mr. Fallon supplied it: “Forest ranger.”)

Wednesday’s quite funny parody of romance novels, “bromance novels,” came with a link on the show’s Web site ( that allows users to watch a video of the shooting of the cover art.

Mr. Fallon consistently tried to incorporate a wackier Web spirit into his on-air performance, even picking random people in the studio audience and assigning them made-up Facebook identities. None were very funny.

Remarkably, given how many months he has had to prepare, many of his supposedly wacky, Web-style pranks were oddly plodding and unimaginative. On the first night three audience members were invited onstage to lick something in exchange for $10. The things were all inanimate objects: a lawn mower, a copier, a fishbowl. The slow-motion “super-sexy replay” was funny once, not three times.

Mr. Fallon does not have a sidekick, but he does have a cool band, the Roots, whose musicians are deadpan and steadfastly underwhelmed by his jokes, and over time that could serve as a comic foil to his eager-to-please persona.

There were other amusing moments, including a random, bizarre video of German soccer players dancing that was found on the Web and a mock charitable appeal for laid-off Wall Street workers, a Save the Bankers Foundation, that could have just as easily been a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

And Mr. Fallon got better, and more relaxed, after his debut, though he joked with Tina Fey about his “flop sweat” moment with Mr. De Niro. (When performers admit to being nervous, it’s a little like a woman on a date bemoaning how fat she is: nobody wants to hear it.)

The first days are tough because large audiences tune in to see what all the prepremiere fuss was about, boosting ratings and expectations, then quickly turn away if not instantly amused. And most hosts go through a trial-and-error period. Mr. Kimmel started out more loutishly and live; now he is more buttoned-down, and his show is taped, even though it is still called “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

Mr. Ferguson began with a very conventional “Tonight Show” format, then slowly allowed more of his own offbeat storytelling and Monty Pythonesque eccentricities into his act.

NBC picked Mr. Fallon, and he can sometimes seem like an old person’s notion of a hip young comic, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t funny or that he cannot hold his own on “Late Night.” Only time, not Twitter, will tell.