July 2010 Archives

$0 to recycle millions of computers, protect environments and bring Internet to America's poor

Whenever we “retire” an old computer, I immediately think, “Great! I can throw Linux on that!” Compared with Windows, Linux consumes far less memory and disk space to accomplish equivalent tasks.

But I hadn’t realized WHY Windows is so crappy. The more resource-wasting, user-unfriendly, and bug-infested Windows is, the more profit Microsoft and its hardware friends earn! This article cites many examples, including:

The Registry and product activation technologies lock a Windows install to a particular computer, and further, to the specific hardware configuration of that computer when the OS is installed. This restricts in-place hardware upgrades. It also ensures you can not move a Windows boot drive and still use the product. These artificial constraints limit product flexibility and lifespan to drive sales. In contrast, Linux allows in-place hardware upgrades without constraint. You can move a boot drive to either drive position on the install computer or a different computer and still boot the system….

Many PC’s today ship without an operating system CD. Instead they have a hidden disk partition with a backup image of the operating system or a recovery CD. I don’t know whether this “innovation” is due to Microsoft’s efforts or that of many major computer manufacturers. What I do know is that this limits the lifespan of the computer to the lifespan of its most vulnerable hardware component, the hard disk. Disk failure forces the user to buy a new retail copy of Windows, which probably costs more than the computer is worth at the time of the failure….

Windows' famous vulnerability to malware presents an insurmountable problem when it comes to keeping mature machines in service. Microsoft has terminated updates for many Windows XP and earlier systems. This effectively kills those computers because Windows requires security fixes. Moreover, the anti-malware overhead required to protect Windows computers compromises performance on processors operating at less than about a gigahertz.

As a software firm, Microsoft is pretty lousy. But as a profit-maximizing business, I marvel at its ability to squeeze every dollar out of its customers and keep so many of them hooked for decades.

The author notes that installing Linux — at no cost — on millions of dead Windows machines could create millions of excellent devices for Web surfing, social networking, email, etc.:

Linux is not only green in that it saves money, it’s also environmentally green. Open source software extends the useful life of computers and reduces e-waste. It provides a crucial alternative to Microsoft’s planned obsolescence business model. Linux enables mature computers to support education and computer access for those who need it when coupled with a good reuse model like that of Free Geek.

At zero cost, we could extend the useful lives of tens of millions of computers, spare China and Africa mountains of deadly toxins, and spread the Internet to the 25% of Americans who don’t own computers! It’s a win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win! It’s such a great idea I don’t know why government isn’t encouraging this with tax breaks for computer donations to refurbishers. Ha! Only joking! Government’s not doing this because Microsoft and Apple and Dell and Intel want to sell more computers and chips and expensive operating systems. Washington, DC cares only about corporate profit, not protecting other countries' environments from our crap or the ability of America’s poor to access information. Capitalism rules.

Posted by James on Jul 08, 2010

$187.51 + Apple pixie dust = $600 (plus app $, music $, book $ and iAd $)

An iPhone 4 costs Apple about $187.51 but brings Apple $600 plus who-knows-how-much in ancillary revenue for apps, music, books, and iAds.

I despise Apple’s closed-source, proprietary nature, but I sure admire its ability to exploit Americans' tech device fetish.

Posted by James on Jul 06, 2010

All men are created equal (but unequal parental wealth and schooling quickly fixes that)

On BusinessInsider.com, Michael Snyder lists (with citations) “22 Statistics That Prove The Middle Class Is Being Systematically Wiped Out Of Existence In America” (I’ve skipped a few):

  1. 83% of U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people
  2. 61% of Americans “always or usually” live paycheck to paycheck, which was up from 49 percent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2007
  3. 66% of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans
  4. 36% of Americans say that they don’t contribute anything to retirement savings
  5. 43% of Americans have less than $10,000 saved up for retirement
  6. 24% of American workers say that they have postponed their planned retirement age in the past year
  7. Over 1.4 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009
  8. Only the top 5% of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975
  9. For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together
  10. In 1950, the ratio of the average executive’s paycheck to the average worker’s paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one
  11. As of 2007, the bottom 80% of American households held about 7% of the liquid financial assets
  12. The bottom 50% of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1% of the nation’s wealth
  13. the average federal worker now earns 60% as much as the average worker in the private sector
  14. The top 1% of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America’s corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago
  15. the average time needed to find a job has risen to a record 35.2 weeks
  16. More than 40% of Americans who actually are employed are now working in service jobs, which are often very low paying
  17. For the first time in U.S. history, more than 40 million Americans are on food stamps, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that number will go up to 43 million Americans in 2011
  18. Despite the financial crisis, the number of millionaires in the United States rose a whopping 16% to 7.8 million in 2009
  19. 21% of all children in the United States are living below the poverty line in 2010 – the highest rate in 20 years
  20. The top 10% of Americans now earn around 50% of our national income

Posted by James on Jul 16, 2010

American "democracy": An illusion

Tens of millions of Americans vote on completely unauditable electronic voting machines owned and controlled by a few (mostly right-wing) companies. We have absolutely no reason to trust official vote “counts” on such machines because the software that runs on those machines is completely secret (and protected by law as “proprietary business secrets”). Even the election officials who nominally run our elections do not have access to the code that “counts” our votes. On this basis alone, American “democracy” is a sham.

But the problem is even more horrible. In theory, paper ballots of some kind could be quickly counted by computers and allow verification through audits and recounts. This is the promise of optical scan voting, which is much better than electronic voting machines. But optical scan is only superior if paper ballots are kept secure and audited and recounted as required. Sadly, this does not always happen.

In Arizona in 2006, optical scan was used, but many of those ballots have gone missing. Even worse, many of the official precinct tally sheets have also gone missing, and many of those that remain do not match the precinct vote counts as officially recorded by the state:

After many years of litigation, Election Integrity advocates have now finally been allowed to review the long sought-after poll tapes in question. What they’ve discovered is disturbing and, so far, without legitimate explanation.

Out of 368 precincts, 112 poll tapes are completely missing. Moreover, 102 of the “yellow sheets” —– certified precinct reports, signed by poll workers, detailing corresponding summary information, such as numbers of ballots received, cast and spoiled, as helpful for important auditing functions at the precinct level —– are missing as well.

Furthermore, of the poll tape records that are not missing, 50 of them do not match the results as recorded in the final canvas of the election, according to the Election Integrity advocates who have compared them to the original electronic database numbers.

Our election system is broken. We cannot expect honest government until we demand honest elections.

Posted by James on Jul 15, 2010

Americans: Lousy investors, free spenders

Pro athletes can buy the best investment advice available. But MOST end up broke… far sooner than you might think possible:

• By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.

• Within five years of retirement, an estimated 60% of former NBA players are broke.

If most pros — with the wealth to purchase top financial advice and overcome even big mistakes — blow it all so quickly, it’s no wonder so many ordinary Americans have lived on the financial precipice so long (and many have been pushed over the edge by the recession).

Our inability to budget and invest wisely is yet another glaring symptom of our dysfunctional educational system and consumption-crazed culture.

Posted by James on Jul 06, 2010

Andrew Breitbart is -- as he called Sen. Kennedy -- "a special pile of human excrement"

Since it has been all over the news, I haven’t bothered to mention Andrew Breitbart’s shameless, groundless attack on Shirley Sherrod. Breitbart methodically de-contextualized Sherrod’s speech — about the importance of NOT being racist — until the heavily edited clip made Sherrod appear a racist. It was gutter “journalism” at its worst, splicing and dicing material until up looked like down.

But I want to recommend Mitch Albom’s article, “In the Sherrod controversy, do shoot the messenger”. He notes Breitbart “called Sen. Edward Kennedy, hours after his death, ‘a special pile of human excrement.’” This is no journalist:

It’s not journalism if you look for only one point of view, post other people’s stuff and don’t even acknowledge how using chopped-up material to paint a full picture is wrong.

“Let me think about that,” was what Breitbart said when asked whether he might have vetted the footage more carefully if given another chance.

Let me think about that?

…even after all that, Breitbart’s Web site contains pieces like “If Anyone Needs to Apologize, It’s Shirley Sherrod.” Breitbart actually said the following of Sherrod: “This person has not gotten past black versus white.”

Breitbart is a moron, a complete ass, or both. What’s shocking and depressing is that many on the Right seem to love this guy’s brand of “journalism.”

Posted by James on Jul 25, 2010

Android or Google Android?

A decade ago, I wrote an (unsuccessful) grant application to study whether China would turn inward — spurning Western technology in favor of home-grown proprietary technologies — as its economy grew and grew, thus leveraging its massive market to foster indiginous technologies.

A decade later, it’s clear the Chinese are having their cake and eating it too. They’ve absorbed (and stolen) as much Western technology as they can get their hands on and then adapted it to make it their own.

Yesterday, we learned of the latest of many technology theft cases:

A former General Motors engineer and her husband were charged today in federal court with conspiring to sell stolen trade secrets about hybrid vehicles to Chinese automaker Chery Automobile.

Shanshan “Shannon” Du, 49, and her husband, Yu Qin, 51, both of Troy, stood mute before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark A. Randon on conspiracy and other charges. They had been under investigation for years and were charged in 2006 with destroying documents, but the case was dropped while a broader probe continued.

The indictment says Du, who was hired at GM in 2000 and worked in the company’s Advance Technology Vehicle Group, copied thousands of pages of GM trade secrets onto a portable computer hard drive five days after accepting a buyout offer in 2005. The indictment alleges the theft of secrets dates back to 2003.

GM estimates the value of the stolen documents at $40 million…

By the summer of 2003, Qin, who had been an engineer with Troy-based electrical systems and equipment maker Controlled Power Company, was telling people he had a deal to provide hybrid technology to Chery Automobile, the indictment says.

But not all Chinese firms are stealing technology. Chinese mobile device makers are legally using Android… but not Google Android:

Google uses its ownership of the Android Market as leverage to ensure interoperability between Android devices and to encourage a certain degree of consistency…

From the perspective of some carriers and handset makers, the downside [of using Google Android] is that it precludes certain kinds of deep customization and makes them beholden to Google and Google’s stewardship of the third-party application ecosystem. It’s possible, however, for handset makers and mobile carriers to replace the parts that are controlled exclusively by Google and integrate their own alternatives—thus allowing them to adopt Android without having to make any concessions to the American search giant.

That is exactly what the Chinese mobile industry is doing with OPhone. They are creating a completely distinct third-party Android software ecosystem that is independent from Google and they are building a heavily-customized userspace stack that integrates with completely different Web services and allows them to deliver the kind of user experience that they want.

In effect, they are using Android—but not Google’s Android. They don’t need Google’s Android Market and they aren’t necessarily integrating with Google’s search or other services.

China is clearly pursuing a home-grown technology path. But it’s hardly starting from scratch.

Posted by James on Jul 23, 2010

Another reason Texas air-brushed Jefferson from their "history" books

Even worse than his atheism, in right-wing minds, Jefferson battled the one true Republican principle: giving mega-corporations whatever they want:

Jefferson’s distrust of concentrated and consolidated power was such that he left a legacy for any and every dissenter against the state.

But Jefferson did not stop there.

He was, as well, a relentless critic of the monopolizing of economic power by banks, corporations and those who put their faith in what the third president referred to as “the selfish spirit of commerce (that) knows no country, and feels no passion or principle but that of gain.”

Jefferson might not have wanted a lot of government, but he wanted enough government to assert the sovereignty of citizens over corporations. To his view, nothing was more important to the health of the republic.

In the early years of the 19th century, as banks and corporations began to flex their political muscles, he announced that: “I hope we shall crush… in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

Posted by James on Jul 05, 2010

Apple's self-inflicted black eye

It’s not the mistake, Steve. It’s the cover-up!

Apple’s censoring negative comments:

If you were looking for a message thread on Apple’s support forums pointing to Consumer Reports' article ‘not recommending’ the iPhone 4, it’s not there any more. Apple’s support forum moderators deleted the thread. Bing cached it….

Sadly, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard about Apple deleting discussion board threads on topics which are unflattering to Apple’s products. It’s closer to the fiftieth time. In fact, we’ve heard so many reports about this happening that it seems safe to call this standard operating procedure for Apple’s discussion boards. That’s not to say that there are no negative threads on the discussion boards, but the ones that are there are the ones that Apple’s moderators have decided to leave active.

It’s hard to imagine what Apple hopes to gain by doing this. Instead of having one negative news story, now we have two: not only did Consumer Reports come out and say they don’t recommend the iPhone 4, but now Apple seems to be trying to prevent people from talking about it on their support board.

It doesn’t matter whether the iPhone 4’s problem is hardware or software. If Apple wants to break through to the corporate world and Windows users and Linux users, censorship is really, really stupid. Lying to customers about a broken product can taint your brand for years to come.

If the iPhone 4 is deficient and you can fix it by shipping every buyer a “bumper” that retails for $25 (as I’ve heard), ship every buyer a $25 bumper! Otherwise, you risk becoming the next BP, which cost itself billions and billions (and everyone else billions and billions more, plus countless wildlife deaths) trying to cut corners to save millions.

Conversely, Intel earned its reputation by standing behind its products and recalling anything defective:

Intel has recalled its fastest chip—the 1.13-GHz Pentium III—saying the chip could cause system errors when running certain programs and at a particular temperature.

The problem is with certain circuits of the chip that have been shown to malfunction in laboratory tests under certain conditions, said Intel spokesman Howard High. Intel said it has not received reports from customers of any problems, but the glitch has been noted by some hardware review sites in recent days….

“Clearly if they want a replacement, then we will replace (it),” High said. “If they want a refund, we’ll accommodate them.”

Posted by James on Jul 13, 2010

BP continues to amaze

Every day, it seems, I learn shocking new facts about BP. Today I learned that just five years ago BP narrowly — and only by dumb luck — avoided a Gulf oil catastrophe on the scale of its current catastrophe:

Thunder Horse, BP’s hulking $1 billion oil platform, was listing precariously to one side, looking for all the world as if it were about to sink.

Towering 15 stories above the water’s surface, Thunder Horse was meant to be the company’s crowning glory, the embodiment of its bold gamble to outpace its competitors in finding and exploiting the vast reserves of oil beneath the waters of the gulf.

Instead, the rig, which was supposed to produce about 20 percent of the gulf’s oil output, became a symbol of BP’s hubris. A valve installed backward had caused the vessel to flood during the hurricane, jeopardizing the project before any oil had even been pumped. Other problems, discovered later, included a welding job so shoddy that it left underwater pipelines brittle and full of cracks.

“It could have been catastrophic,” said Gordon A. Aaker Jr., a senior engineering consultant on the project. “You would have lost a lot of oil a mile down before you would have even known. It could have been a helluva spill — much like the Deepwater Horizon.”

…The near sinking of Thunder Horse in 2005 was caused by a shockingly simple mistake: a check valve had been installed backward, and that caused water to flood into, rather than out of, the rig when it heated up during the hurricane.

After costly repairs to fix that damage, BP discovered a more significant problem: rudimentary mistakes in the welding of pipes in the underwater manifold, which connects dozens of wells and helps carry the oil back to the platform, had caused dangerous cracks and breaks.

Had the well been active, the damaged pipes would have caused a major oil spill. As it was, the company had to remotely rip out, retrieve and fix dozens of complex and heavy pieces of equipment lying on the sea floor, some weighing more than 400 tons.

Altogether, the blunders cost BP and its minority partner, Exxon Mobil, hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs and set back production, today at 300,000 barrels of oil and oil equivalents a day, by three years.

Posted by James on Jul 13, 2010

BP sucks (Episode #438 of this never-ending series)

BP is skimming and burning oil at less than 1% the rate it claimed it could:

In the 77 days since oil from the ruptured Deepwater Horizon began to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, BP has skimmed or burned about 60 percent of the amount it promised regulators it could remove in a single day.

The disparity between what BP promised in its March 24 filing with federal regulators and the amount of oil recovered since the April 20 explosion underscores what some officials and environmental groups call a misleading numbers game that has led to widespread confusion about the extent of the spill and the progress of the recovery…

In a March report that was not questioned by federal officials, BP said it had the capacity to skim and remove 491,721 barrels of oil each day in the event of a major spill.

As of Monday, with about 2 million barrels released into the gulf, the skimming operations that were touted as key to preventing environmental disaster have averaged less than 900 barrels a day.

Skimming has captured only 67,143 barrels, and BP has relied on burning to remove 238,095 barrels. Most of the oil recovered — about 632,410 barrels — was captured directly at the site of the leaking well.

Posted by James on Jul 06, 2010

BP: Truly a psychopathic organisation

BP simply doesn’t care about anything or anyone other than its quarterly profit. On top of all the other amazing things we’ve learned about how BP allowed this (completely predictable) “accident” to happen and take every step to look like it was trying to save the Gulf while doing the bare minimum toward actually trying to save the Gulf and instead focus its efforts at capturing the oil, rather than plugging the hole, we now learn this:

BP admits failing to use industry risk test at any of its deepwater wells in the US…

The procedure, known as a safety case, was developed in Britain after the catastrophic Piper Alpha oil rig explosion of 1988 in which 167 people lost their lives.

Royal Dutch Shell confirmed that it always develops safety cases – a lengthy written document – on each of its thousands of wells in the world, even though they are only mandatory in some countries.

However, BP admitted to The Sunday Telegraph that it does not use safety cases on any of its US wells.

Posted by James on Jul 04, 2010

BP well problem far worse than busted well cap

I’ve been expecting this but hoping for a happy surprise:

Thad Allen, the U.S. official in charge of the response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, ordered BP Plc to prepare for reopening the company’s Macondo well after a “seep” was detected.

Allen said a “seep” was found “a distance” from the well and anomalies had been observed at the well head.

Let’s all pray the relief wells stop this thing! Otherwise, I don’t see how they’ll EVER be able to shut down this leak.

And if we can’t stop the leak, we can’t rule out the ultimate nightmare scenario — that we’ve lit the fuse on a massive methane release that could possibly destroy humanity. BP has basically ripped such large cracks miles deep into the seafloor that we can’t completely trust the seafloor to contain immense volumes of oil and methane under the Gulf of Mexico. Who knows what will happen now that the frozen methane and oil under tremendous pressure has a direct route to the Gulf? One little hiccup has already destroyed a $600 million oil rig.

I’d like to believe those experts who say a massive release is not a realistic danger. But BP’s “experts” have been off by several orders of magnitude on their pre-disaster estimate of a worst-case release, their post-gusher estimates of the quantity of oil flowing out, and their pre-disaster promise of how much leaked oil they would be able to recapture and/or burn off. And, clearly, no one knows what’s going on miles under the seafloor. So, can anyone know how close we’ve come to self-destruction?

Humanity’s curiosity, greed, and technical ingenuity are already causing the fastest mass extinction event in Earth’s history. If we start a nuclear war or release giant quantities of methane, we could instantly doom ourselves (and trillions of other innocent creatures) to extinction.

People! Stop playing Russian roulette with Planet Earth!

Posted by James on Jul 19, 2010

But I thought Apple's core value was wowing users

It appears Apple is preparing to regularly disrupt its desktop / tablet / phone users with ads they can’t avoid (except perhaps by paying Apple an extortionary fee):

Apple could be creating an operating system supported by advertisements, allowing users to obtain the software at a reduced price, or for free, in exchange for being required to view ads.

The patent application for the invention “Advertisement in Operating System” was republished as a continuation this week. It was first revealed last October, and was originally filed for on April 18, 2008. The invention is credited to Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs, as well as Freddy A. Anzures, Mike Matas, Gregory N. Christie and Patrick Coffman.

The application describes an operating system that would present the user with an advertisement, preventing them from doing basic functions on the system for a set period of time. At the conclusion of the advertisement, the user would be able to resume their activities on the machine.

This is insane. It would completely violate Apple’s core value, delivering a superior user experience. And it would kill off Apple in businesses because studies show distractions and interruptions dramatically lower worker productivity.

I have to believe Apple is too smart to go ahead with this. But even contemplating this seriously enough for Jobs himself to file this patent application — plus his initial denial of problems with the iPhone 4, even though problems could be fixed by a several-dollar bumper — suggests Jobs is becoming drunk with power.

This is another example why I love Linux so much. Relying on a proprietary operating system (Windows, Mac, Google, or whatever) leaves you at the mercy of a private, profit-seeking corporation. And many such firms — esp. those publicly owned — place profit first, second and third.

UPDATE: The consensus is that Apple is not stupid enough to annoy users who are doing standard computer operations. These intrusive ads are probably going to be used as a “tax” to consume free content. For example, Internet video streams and unpaid apps the user could pay a fee to avoid ads in. This would be a more reasonable use, but I still don’t like my operating system being able to block me from using my computer.

Posted by James on Jul 22, 2010

Cheating is contagious, and there's an epidemic among American kids

In May, I expressed horror after learning 25% of kids believe cheating isn’t cheating.

Well, this New York Times article provides even more shocking facts about American kids and cheating:

In surveys of 14,000 undergraduates over the last four years, an average of 61 percent admitted to cheating on assignments and exams.

The figure declined somewhat from 65 percent earlier in the decade, but the researcher who conducted the surveys, Donald L. McCabe, a business professor at Rutgers, doubts there is less of it. Instead, he suspects students no longer regard certain acts as cheating at all, for instance, cutting and pasting a few sentences at a time from the Internet….

At M.I.T., David E. Pritchard, a physics professor, was able to accurately measure homework copying with software he had developed for another purpose — to allow students to complete sets of physics problems online. Some answered the questions so fast, “at first I thought we had some geniuses here at M.I.T.,” Dr. Pritchard said. Then he realized they were completing problems in less time than it took to read them and were copying the answers — mostly, it turned out, from e-mail from friends who had already done the assignment.

About 20 percent copied one-third or more of their homework.

I’m heartbroken to learn that 20% of MIT students are cheating and two-thirds of students nationwide admit to cheating (even though 25% of students don’t consider cheating cheating!). Depressing symptoms of our diseased culture and a sad omen for America’s future. But adults deserve the blame too because I’m guessing kids are looking at adult society and absorbing the negative lessons they see all around them.

Posted by James on Jul 07, 2010

Corrupt pols -> impotent SEC -> Massive insider trading and financial fraud

As if you needed more proof the stock markets are rigged:

Samuel Wyly and Charles Wyly — billionaire brothers in Texas who have spent millions funding political campaigns — committed violations of federal securities laws and fraud by using offshore accounts to secretly trade the shares of public companies whose boards they sat on, reaping more than $550 million in profit, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission complaint filed Thursday.

The politically-active Wylys, who have been generous donors to Republican causes over the years, have faced questions in recent years — including a Senate probe — about whether they ran an extensive network of tax shelters.

How does this happen? Well, ridiculously rich guys eager to become absurdly rich guys pay millions — which they call “pocket change” to politicians to protect them from pesky SEC investigations. And with all that pocket change raining down on Congress, the SEC is starved of resources. Salaries are low and bodies are few, so it’s staffed with young lawyers who don’t know jack about financial markets… esp. how to spot fraud and manipulation.

This is the SEC that couldn’t spell Madoff after Harry Markopolos spotted them the M, A, D. O, F, and F… and wrote them detailed letters — year after year — explaining Madoff’s scam.

The SEC is a failing mom-and-pop shop surrounded by 100 Wal-Marts. They’re completely outgunned. So the Wylys were able to steal over $500 million using a fraud that “lasted 13 years.”

So far, we’ve caught only the guys whose sinister names — “Made Off” and “Wily” — gave them away. How many more crooks there must be who’ve escaped justice thanks to their less obvious names!

Posted by James on Jul 31, 2010

Crafty squirrels

I see squirrels every day but never realized what amazing creatures they are:

They’ll gather acorns and other nuts, assess which are in danger of germinating and using up stored nutrients, remove the offending tree embryos with a few quick slices of their incisors, and then cache the sterilized treasure for later consumption, one seed per inch-deep hole.

But the squirrels don’t just bury an acorn and come back in winter. They bury the seed, dig it up shortly afterward, rebury it elsewhere, dig it up again. “We’ve seen seeds that were recached as many as five times,” said Dr. Steele. The squirrels recache to deter theft… [W]hen squirrels are certain that they are being watched, they will actively seek to deceive the would-be thieves. They’ll dig a hole, pretend to push an acorn in, and then cover it over, all the while keeping the prized seed hidden in their mouth. “Deceptive caching involves some pretty serious decision making,” Dr. Steele said. “It meets the criteria of tactical deception, which previously was thought to only occur in primates.”

Posted by James on Jul 07, 2010

Dark matter, we're closing in on you!

The mysteries of dark matter and dark energy intrigue me because normal matter constitutes only about 5% of the universe’s energy density.

Well, this theory of dark matter sounds pretty compelling. Humanity may soon solve the dark matter mystery. As horribly as our species all too often behaves, we can accomplish some astonishing feats, like — perhaps — understanding dark matter.

Posted by James on Jul 13, 2010

Doping in cycling! Who could have imagined?

The Wall Street Journal covers Floyd Landis' allegations about illegal doping (blood transfusions and testosterone patches) by himself, Lance Armstrong and their teammates. According to Landis, the practice is quite widespread in cycling. Though Landis has lied before, his story sounds sadly credible.

Posted by James on Jul 03, 2010

Economists' models perfectly predict behavior... in their mathematical fantasy world

I was very disappointed by academic economics while earning my Ph.D., in part because the field seemed to care only about trees, never the forest. And it only cared about certain trees, the biggest and most easily accessible. So I always enjoy reading another article showing how narrow-minded economists have been.

The book, and Ms. Reinhart’s and Mr. Rogoff’s own professional journeys as economists, zero in on some of the broader shortcomings of their trade — thrown into harsh relief by economists’ widespread failure to anticipate or address the financial crisis that began in 2007.

“The mainstream of academic research in macroeconomics puts theoretical coherence and elegance first, and investigating the data second,” says Mr. Rogoff. For that reason, he says, much of the profession’s celebrated work “was not terribly useful in either predicting the financial crisis, or in assessing how it would it play out once it happened.”

“People almost pride themselves on not paying attention to current events,” he says.

In the past, other economists often took the same empirical approach as the Reinhart-Rogoff team. But this approach fell into disfavor over the last few decades as economists glorified financial papers that were theory-rich and data-poor.

Much of that theory-driven work, critics say, is built on the same disassembled and reassembled sets of data points — generally from just the last 25 years or so and from the same handful of rich countries — that quants have whisked into ever more dazzling and complicated mathematical formations.

But in the wake of the recent crisis, a few economists — like Professors Reinhart and Rogoff, and other like-minded colleagues like Barry Eichengreen and Alan Taylor — have been encouraging others in their field to look beyond hermetically sealed theoretical models and into the historical record.

“There is so much inbredness in this profession,” says Ms. Reinhart. “They all read the same sources. They all use the same data sets. They all talk to the same people. There is endless extrapolation on extrapolation on extrapolation, and for years that is what has been rewarded.”

This rings so true. For several decades, I read Business Week religiously, but nothing I read ever seemed relevant to any of my classes or any of the research anyone I knew was conducting.

Similarly, I wanted (in the mid 1990s) to study China’s emerging economy, but professors generally seemed to think studying anything other than the U.S. or Western Europe was a waste of time. And I had been fascinated since college by Kahneman and Tversky’s “prospect theory” about how people behave systematically irrationally, but the entire economics field was built atop two bedrock assumptions: 1) that people behave rationally or, at least, “as if” they are rational; and, 2) that people are perfectly informed about all relevant information or, at least, behave “as if” they are perfectly informed. Relaxing these ideological constraints was too difficult — both mathematically and econometrically — except in very simple models. Viewing themselves as social physicists rather than historians or sociologists, most academic economists stuck with the absurd but mathematically tractable assumptions. They’d rather correctly predict and explain behavior in their imaginary fantasy world than get things mostly correct in the real, messy world of human beings.

I found the experience frustrating, so I admire anyone who persevered against the powerful tide pushing the field toward mediocrity and managed to achieve real insight into the messy, complex world we people actually inhabit.

Posted by James on Jul 04, 2010

Energy execs: "Have they no grandchildren?"

Tom Friedman bookends his latest column with quips about myopic oil and coal executives protecting their profit margins by sacrificing their grandchildren:

Joe Romm, the climateprogress.org blogger, once said: The best thing about improvements in health care is that all the climate-change deniers are now going to live long enough to see how wrong they were. Alas, so are the rest of us….

[H]edge fund manager Jeremy Grantham… in his July letter to investors, noted: “Conspiracy theorists claim to believe that global warming is a carefully constructed hoax driven by scientists desperate for … what? Being needled by nonscientific newspaper reports, by blogs and by right-wing politicians and think tanks? I have a much simpler but plausible ‘conspiracy theory’: the fossil energy companies, driven by the need to protect hundreds of billions of dollars of profits, encourage obfuscation of the inconvenient scientific results. I, for one, admire them for their P.R. skills, while wondering, as always: “Have they no grandchildren?”

Posted by James on Jul 26, 2010

Enjoy today because we may have just months left (no joke)

Yesterday, I thought we had only 16 million years left till the next mass extinction. But after reading this article — the scariest thing I’ve ever read — I fear I might have been 16 million years too optimistic. If this article’s fears come to pass, BP has triggered the imminent eruption of a civilization-annihilating methane bubble that will soon destroy humanity, along with most life on Earth:

251 million years ago a mammoth undersea methane bubble caused massive explosions, poisoned the atmosphere and destroyed more than 96 percent of all life on Earth. Experts agree that what is known as the Permian extinction event was the greatest mass extinction event in the history of the world.

55 million years later another methane bubble ruptured causing more mass extinctions during the Late Paleocene Thermal Maximum (LPTM).

The LPTM lasted 100,000 years.

Those subterranean seas of methane virtually reshaped the planet when they explosively blew from deep beneath the waters of what is today called the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, worried scientists are increasingly concerned the same series of catastrophic events that led to worldwide death back then may be happening again-and no known technology can stop it.

The bottom line: BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling operation may have triggered an irreversible, cascading geological Apocalypse that will culminate with the first mass extinction of life on Earth in many millions of years.

The oil giant drilled down miles into a geologically unstable region and may have set the stage for the eventual premature release of a methane mega-bubble.

…Many geologists concur: “The consequences of a methane-driven oceanic eruption for marine and terrestrial life are likely to be catastrophic. Figuratively speaking, the erupting region "boils over,” ejecting a large amount of methane and other gases (e.g., CO2, H2S) into the atmosphere, and flooding large areas of land. Whereas pure methane is lighter than air, methane loaded with water droplets is much heavier, and thus spreads over the land, mixing with air in the process (and losing water as rain). The air-methane mixture is explosive at methane concentrations between 5% and 15%; as such mixtures form in different locations near the ground and are ignited by lightning, explosions and conflagrations destroy most of the terrestrial life, and also produce great amounts of smoke and of carbon dioxide."

The story is being discussed at TIME and Business Insider and The Nation and City-Data.com.

The author of the original article also claims that BP is preparing some desperate measures — called an “explosively pumped flux compression generator” (EPFCG) — it hopes could prevent apocalypse. The fear is that the immense pressure of the methane has weakened — and will continue to progressively weaken until it fails entirely — the seafloor that protects humanity from the deadly methane long trapped below. The EPFCG would be deployed in the hope that it would re-strengthen the seafloor:

The pulse can be shaped and directed and used to knock out electronics-or more importantly in this case—to fuse virtually any material—including crumbling rock strata deep under the sea. The fantastically energized pulse can also compress objects to very high pressures and densities.

According to engineers familiar with the technology, the devices can generate plasma arcs hotter than the surface of the sun that will melt and fuse materials in nanoseconds.

I sure as heck hope this is all untrue. And there are credible scientists saying this is not a realistic fear. But given the willful secrecy the U.S. government has placed on this, it’s possible there are real fears beyond the oil-and-gas gusher itself.

Posted by James on Jul 14, 2010

Enjoy today because we may have only 16 million years left

Mass extinctions strike the Earth every 27 million years:

Over the last 500 million years or so, life on Earth has been threatened on many occasions; the fossil record is littered with extinction events. What’s curious about these events is that they seem to occur with alarming regularity….

Adrian Melott at the University of Kansas and Richard Bambach at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC… have brought together a massive set of extinction data from the last 500 million years, a period that is twice as long as anybody else has studied. And their analysis shows an excess of extinctions every 27 million years, with a confidence level of 99%….

The last extinction event in this chain happened 11 million years ago so, in theory at least, we have plenty of time to work out where the next catastrophe is coming from.

Posted by James on Jul 13, 2010

Exercise makes you smarter

The New York Times reported that over a decade ago:

Dr. Fred Gage and his colleagues at the Laboratory of Genetics at the Salk Institute in San Diego elegantly proved that human and animal brains produce new brain cells (a process called neurogenesis) and that exercise increases neurogenesis. The brains of mice and rats that were allowed to run on wheels pulsed with vigorous, newly born neurons, and those animals then breezed through mazes and other tests of rodent I.Q., showing that neurogenesis improves thinking.

Those researchers are now beginning to learn how exercise makes us smarter:

The more active BMP [bone-morphogenetic protein] and its various signals are in your brain, the more inactive your stem cells become and the less neurogenesis you undergo. Your brain grows slower, less nimble, older.

But exercise countermands some of the numbing effects of BMP, Dr. Kessler says. In work at his lab, mice given access to running wheels had about 50 percent less BMP-related brain activity within a week. They also showed a notable increase in Noggin, a beautifully named brain protein that acts as a BMP antagonist. The more Noggin in your brain, the less BMP activity exists and the more stem cell divisions and neurogenesis you experience. Mice at Northwestern whose brains were infused directly with large doses of Noggin became, Dr. Kessler says, “little mouse geniuses, if there is such a thing.” They aced the mazes and other tests.

Whether exercise directly reduces BMP activity or increases production of Noggin isn’t yet known and may not matter. The results speak for themselves. “If ever exercise enthusiasts wanted a rationale for what they’re doing, this should be it,” Dr. Kessler says. Exercise, he says, through a complex interplay with Noggin and BMP, helps to ensure that neuronal stem cells stay lively and new brain cells are born.

Posted by James on Jul 29, 2010

Fabulous article on creativity (and America's recent failure to cultivate it)

Treat yourself to a full read of this article on creativity. It’s worth it.

Here’s the main point:

In the 50 years since Schwarzrock and the others took [creativity] tests, scholars—first led by Torrance, now his colleague, Garnet Millar—have been tracking the children…

Nobody would argue that Torrance’s tasks, which have become the gold standard in creativity assessment, measure creativity perfectly. What’s shocking is how incredibly well Torrance’s creativity index predicted those kids’ creative accomplishments as adults. Those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers. Jonathan Plucker of Indiana University recently reanalyzed Torrance’s data. The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.

Like intelligence tests, Torrance’s test—a 90-minute series of discrete tasks, administered by a psychologist—has been taken by millions worldwide in 50 languages. Yet there is one crucial difference between IQ and CQ scores. With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.

Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

Another key point is that the creative process can be taught:

[C]reativity training that aligns with the new science works surprisingly well. The University of Oklahoma, the University of Georgia, and Taiwan’s National Chengchi University each independently conducted a large-scale analysis of such programs. All three teams of scholars concluded that creativity training can have a strong effect. “Creativity can be taught,” says James C. Kaufman, professor at California State University, San Bernardino.

What’s common about successful programs is they alternate maximum divergent thinking with bouts of intense convergent thinking, through several stages. Real improvement doesn’t happen in a weekend workshop. But when applied to the everyday process of work or school, brain function improves.

Another point the article makes is that other countries — including Britain, the European Union, and China — are very consciously enhancing their educational systems' focus on fostering creativity, even as we have sucked creativity out of our system:

When faculty of a major Chinese university asked Plucker to identify trends in American education, he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. “After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,” Plucker says. “They said, ‘You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.’”

Though of less practical significance, I also liked this:

During improvisation, the highly trained music majors used their brains in a way the nonmusicians could not: they deactivated their right-temporoparietal junction. Normally, the r-TPJ reads incoming stimuli, sorting the stream for relevance. By turning that off, the musicians blocked out all distraction. They hit an extra gear of concentration, allowing them to work with the notes and create music spontaneously.

Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins has found a similar pattern with jazz musicians, and Austrian researchers observed it with professional dancers visualizing an improvised dance.

I witnessed this just days ago while vacationing in Boston. A young street musician was absolutely wailing away on an electric guitar in rapturous concentration, with eyelids practically glued together and accompanied by a little electronic box playing background drum and trumpet sounds. He was REALLY good, and I had my kids — who also loved listening to him — give him a few dollars. Two musicians came up at the same time, praised him to the sky and wanted to know his name and give him their cards. One said, “If my late husband were here, he would call you ‘stone-cold crazy,’ and that was his ultimate compliment!” We forced out of him that he was a student at Berklee College of Music, which I’ve just read is probably the #1 place in the world to study jazz guitar. So many street musicians are looking around hoping you’ll give them money. This guy, while playing, was in his own world, totally oblivious to the busy city around him. Positive psychologists call this state of complete concentration on task “flow,” and it’s something few kids experience in U.S. schools these days. But we can make it happen:

Consider the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new public middle school in Akron, Ohio. Mindful of Ohio’s curriculum requirements, the school’s teachers came up with a project for the fifth graders: figure out how to reduce the noise in the library. Its windows faced a public space and, even when closed, let through too much noise. The students had four weeks to design proposals….

Along the way, kids demonstrated the very definition of creativity: alternating between divergent and convergent thinking, they arrived at original and useful ideas. And they’d unwittingly mastered Ohio’s required fifth-grade curriculum—from understanding sound waves to per-unit cost calculations to the art of persuasive writing. “You never see our kids saying, ‘I’ll never use this so I don’t need to learn it,’ ” says school administrator Maryann Wolowiec. “Instead, kids ask, ‘Do we have to leave school now?’ ” Two weeks ago, when the school received its results on the state’s achievement test, principal Traci Buckner was moved to tears. The raw scores indicate that, in its first year, the school has already become one of the top three schools in Akron, despite having open enrollment by lottery and 42 percent of its students living in poverty.

With as much as three fourths of each day spent in project-based learning, principal Buckner and her team actually work through required curricula, carefully figuring out how kids can learn it through the steps of Treffinger’s Creative Problem-Solving method and other creativity pedagogies. “The creative problem-solving program has the highest success in increasing children’s creativity,” observed William & Mary’s Kim.

Posted by James on Jul 12, 2010

FBI wanted to get Howard Zinn fired

I’m disappointed, but not surprised, to learn the FBI closely monitored Howard Zinn for political — not criminal — reasons.

But I am surprised the FBI began monitoring Zinn in the 1940s, when he was just an NYU student.

And I’m angry to learn the FBI tried to get Zinn fired from his professorship at Boston University:

“[The] Boston [office] proposes under captioned program with Bureau permission to furnish [name redacted] with public source data regarding Zinn’s numerous anti-war activities … in an effort to back [redacted] efforts for his removal.”

Curiously, reports Raw Story, “The bureau’s response to the request does not appear to have been included in the released documents.” What else is the FBI withholding regarding its spying on Zinn?

Posted by James on Jul 31, 2010

For posterity: US & UK governments knowingly lied us into war they craved

It has long been obvious to anyone paying attention, but it’s important to record (again) for posterity that the Bush and Blair administrations knew Saddam Hussein posed no significant threat but were so eager to invade Iraq that they spread complete lies to “justify” invasion.

The latest insider to confirm this is Britain’s former First Secretary for the Middle East at the United Nations, Carne Ross, who testified:

“There was no deliberate discussion of available alternatives to military action in advance of the 2003 invasion,” Mr Ross added.

“There is no record of that discussion, no official has referred to it, no minister has talked about it, and that seems to me to be a very egregious absence in this history – that at some point a Government before going to war should stop and ask itself, ‘are there available alternatives?’”

Giving evidence before the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, Mr Ross said that “nuanced” intelligence about the threat from Iraq was “massaged” into “more robust and terrifying” messages about Saddam’s supposed WMD.

Mr Carne, who served at the UN between 1997 and 2002, claimed that the British and United States governments were fully aware that there was no “substantial threat” from Iraq ahead of the war.

He said: “It remains my view that the internal Government assessment of Iraq’s capabilities was intentionally and substantially exaggerated in public Government documents during 2002 and 2003….

“This process of exaggeration was gradual, and proceeded by accretion and editing from document to document, in a way that allowed those participating to convince themselves that they were not engaged in blatant dishonesty,” he said.

“But this process led to highly misleading statements about the UK assessment of the Iraqi threat that were, in their totality, lies.”

Our governments have knowingly lied us into unnecessary, costly, deadly wars.

Remember this every time government says “Trust us” …as it does with warrantless domestic spying, which continues to this day, even though it’s baldly unconstitutional. Trust us not to abuse our power to peer into every detail of your (and your Congressman and Senators') electronic lives, including where your car goes, where your cell phone goes, every email/IM/Tweet/fax you receive or send, every website you visit, every phone call you make or receive, every credit card transaction you make, etc.. Trust us.

Posted by James on Jul 13, 2010

FOX News: Bush "should have been indicted for torturing, spying, arresting w/o warrant"

Raw Story and CrooksAndLiars.com both report on the following exchange on FOX News between Ralph Nader and FOX News Senior Judicial Analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano:

“What about the more serious violations of habeas corpus,” wondered Nader. “You know after 9/11 Bush rounded up thousands of them, Americans, many of them Muslim Americans or Arabic Americans and they were thrown in jail without charges. They didn’t have lawyers. Some of them were pretty mistreated in New York City. You know they were all released eventually.”

“Well that is so obviously a violation of the natural law, the natural right to be brought before a neutral arbiter within moments of the government taking your freedom away from you,” answered Napolitano.

“So what President Bush did with the suspension of habeas corpus, with the whole concept of Guantanamo Bay, with the whole idea that he could avoid and evade federal laws, treaties, federal judges and the Constitution was blatantly unconstitutional and in some cases criminal,” he continued.

“What should be the sanctions [for Bush and Cheney]?” asked Nader.

“They should have been indicted. They absolutely should have been indicted for torturing, for spying, for arresting without warrant,” said Napolitano.

Posted by James on Jul 13, 2010

Glenn Beck mocked his future self

Glenn Beck 2006:

On the August 24 [2006] edition of his CNN Headline News program, nationally syndicated radio host Glenn Beck claimed that Braille on walls (used to identify rooms for blind people) “drives me out of my mind.” When he made his comment, Beck was discussing the “politically correct world we live in,” which, he claimed, will not allow “stereotypes or sensitive questions” to be broached. He explained that “a blind person would have to be feeling all of the walls to find [the] ‘kitchen.’ ” Beck then waved his hands about, presumably to mimic the actions of a frustrated blind person. He then said, “Just to piss them [blind people] off, I’m going to put in Braille on the coffee pot … ‘Pot is hot.’”

Glenn Beck 2010:

Beck… tearfully told the Salt Lake City crowd of 6,000 that he’s recently been diagnosed with macular dystrophy…. He said a doctor told him he may or may not go blind in a year.

Philosopher John Rawls argued moral decisions should be made as if we do not know which person we actually are, as if we had an equal probability of being any person on Earth. Glenn Beck can mock blind people because he fails to realize he has sight because he’s lucky and is rich because he’s lucky. Beck should pick up a copy of A Theory of Justice and try to develop a conscience.

Posted by James on Jul 20, 2010

Great kindergarten teachers' impact on students lasts decades

“The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers”:

Mr. Chetty and five other researchers… examined the life paths of almost 12,000 children who had been part of a well-known education experiment in Tennessee in the 1980s. The children are now about 30…

they were making about an extra $100 a year at age 27 for every percentile they had moved up the test-score distribution over the course of kindergarten. A student who went from average to the 60th percentile — a typical jump for a 5-year-old with a good teacher — could expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow…

The Tennessee experiment… randomly assigned students to a kindergarten class. As a result, the classes had fairly similar socioeconomic mixes of students and could be expected to perform similarly on the tests given at the end of kindergarten.

Yet they didn’t. Some classes did far better than others. The differences were too big to be explained by randomness.

…the explanation: teachers.

Some are highly effective. Some are not. And the differences can affect students for years to come…

Mr. Chetty and his colleagues… estimate that a standout kindergarten teacher is worth about $320,000 a year. That’s the present value of the additional money that a full class of students can expect to earn over their careers. This estimate doesn’t take into account social gains, like better health and less crime.

Given a class size of 20, that’s an increase of $16,000 per student.

Posted by James on Jul 28, 2010

Hooray for California!

Twenty months after Californians voted 63% to 37% to require “that all whole eggs sold in California come from hens that are able to stand up, extend their limbs, and spread their wings without touching either one another or the sides of the cage,” this will become Californian law in 2015. I wish this law took effect immediately. And I wish it actually enabled chickens to walk around in the sunshine and live outside cages. And I wish this applied also to chickens raised as food. Nevertheless, it will be a vast improvement over the absolutely cruel and revolting conditions endured by most American chickens.

The abuse and torture of many of the animals — esp. billions of pigs and chickens — Americans eat is an inexcusable horror. As helpful as California’s new law will eventually be, I’m disappointed more than 1/3rd of California voters opposed even the right of chickens to stand up. Billions of chickens live in darkness, practically stacked up one atop another:

More chickens are killed for meat in the U.S. by far than all other animals combined – nearly 9 billion in 2009. These birds, referred to by the poultry industry as “broilers” or “roasters,” are raised in a manner that would shock most Americans. They are crowded with thousands of others in windowless sheds, without access to fresh air and sunlight, for their entire short lives. Ammonia in the air and on the litter causes irritation and burns. They grow so large, so fast that their legs have trouble holding up the excessive weight (i.e., the birds “outgrow their strength”). Every aspect of the birds’ living conditions, from the lighting to the feed, is manipulated to increase production and decrease costs….

National Chicken Council guidelines provide only 0.6 – 0.7 square feet of space per bird, about the size of an 81⁄2 X 11 inch sheet of paper.16 Intensively raised poultry grow rapidly, and as a chicken approaches market age and weight, the bird’s own body takes up most of the allotted space, leaving no room to perform simple activities without coming in contact with other birds. While NCC guidelines grant each chicken only about 100 square inches, she needs 138 square inches just to stretch one wing, 178 to preen, 197 to turn around, and 291 inches – or about 2 square feet – to flap her wings….

High stocking densities also result in more chicken waste products (urine and feces) being discharged into the air and into the litter on which birds sit and lie. This can lead to irritation and burning of the eyes, respiratory tract, and skin.

Posted by James on Jul 08, 2010

How stupid are we?

In the 1980s, Republican operatives developed a scheme they called “starve the beast.” The idea was that Republicans — whom Americans thought of as more fiscally responsible than Democrats, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — would run up giant deficits through tax cuts for the rich and wasteful military spending (corporate welfare). This would drive up interest rates (further benefiting the rich, who profit by lending their piles of cash) and then force cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security — programs they dislike because they benefit ordinary Americans, not the rich and corporations — on the grounds that America’s debt was unsustainably high.

Reagan I, Reagan II and Bush I worked hard and effectively to run up the national debt. But the “liberal” Bill Clinton (who never saw a free trade agreement he didn’t like and who practically eliminated all welfare programs) slashed the national debt. As Rep. Alan Grayson recently said on The Ed Show, “We were seven years away from paying off the national debt completely under Clinton.”

George W. brought “starve the beast” back, giving America’s most wealthy a massive tax cut and running up record deficits to fund his two unnecessary wars. Even worse, the financial market mess and economic recession “Junior” handed President Obama has helped expand America’s budget deficit gap into a multi-trillion-dollar-per-year chasm.

But the problem — every Republican will so eagerly tell you — is wasteful government bureaucracy. And the solution is cuts in Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.

Are we really that stupid?

Posted by James on Jul 15, 2010

Ideological fact-blindness

After Enron, bankrupt megabanks, and BP, Tea Partiers fear big government

Posted by James on Jul 13, 2010

If at first you don't succeed, buy truckloads of sand and cover up the oil-soaked sand

If this is true, BP’s cover-up is even more devilish than I could have imagined:

We’re getting reports from the gulf that BP is involved in another cover-up – in the literal meaning.

British Petroleum is trucking in sand to cover up the oil. Let me repeat that – instead of cleaning up the oil they are just bringing in sand from other beaches and covering it up. In the photos and the video you can see the layering of Grand Isle, LA sand, oil and then a sand of a different type. Photo-journalists have four independent confirmations by local Sheriff’s in Grand Isle, Louisiana.

CS Muncy, a freelance photo-journalist from New York has gone down to report the story on his own dime. He’s a friend of The Mudflats and has sent us these photos.

Posted by James on Jul 04, 2010

"I'm going to tell my mommy on you!"

For all the talk about the importance of emotional intelligence, many American kids today seem to lack it.

[University] housing officials say… students seem to lack the will, and skill, to address these ordinary conflicts. “We have students who are mad at each other and they text each other in the same room,” says Tom Kane, director of housing at Appalachian State University, in Boone, N.C. “So many of our roommate conflicts are because kids don’t know how to negotiate a problem.”

…Administrators point to parents who have fixed their children’s problems their entire lives. Now in college, the children lack the skills to attend to even modest conflicts. Some parents continue to intervene on campus.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I am talking to a student and thinking I am making headway and the student gets out their phone and says, ‘Can you talk to my mom about this?’ ” Mr. Kane says. Or housing officials field calls from parents pleading or demanding that the college get involved in a dispute, only for the officials to discover that the dispute was little more than a minor irritation, if anything.

…Ms. English says: “It surprises me when students say, ‘My roommate’s mother called and yelled at me,’ and I think, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I can’t believe parents call students. Ten years ago, I never heard of that.”

…Five years ago, 5 to 10 students at Marist might have asked to change roommates after the first six weeks; now 30 to 40 do.

Parenting is not about solving your child’s every problem and satisfying their every desire. Proper parenting involves teaching your kids to cooperate, share, and compromise and letting them make and learn from mistakes. Disappointment is part of life, and the earlier kids experience small-scale disappointments, the better. Giving them every toy they want and letting them stay up past their bedtimes or watch TV whenever they want is the road to future disappointment. Boundaries and rules are important because kids need to become increasingly responsible and self-sufficient.

Posted by James on Jul 23, 2010

Is 0.1% Armageddon risk worth extracting deep water oil?

In my previous post, I reported on a terribly scary story claiming the intense pressure unleashed by BP’s well may have so disturbed the fragile seabed that shields us from massive quantities of frozen methane deep under the Gulf that we may be headed toward a massive methane eruption that could wipe out humanity.

I’ve since read articles claiming to “debunk” this. But the U.S. government has told BP to delay its well head pressure test for 24 hours from fear the seabed is already cracked, which we already knew. If the well — which descends through one mile of water and 2 ½ miles of seafloor — is cracked below the seafloor, as it appears to be, then tightly covering the wellhead will greatly increase pressure on subsurface cracks, perhaps causing more damage and raising the danger of global catastrophe. This is why BP is drilling its two relief wells to intercept the original well near the bottom of the well.

Three things are clear from this episode:

  1. Greed drove BP to take totally unacceptable risks;
  2. We don’t know what we’re doing when we drill miles below the surface; and,
  3. An immense amount of dangerous — potentially humanity-destroying — frozen methane is trapped beneath The Gulf of Mexico

These facts point unambiguously to the need to cease drilling deep under the Gulf of Mexico.

President Obama drew this conclusion, but a court overturned his eminently sensible ban on new deepwater drilling:

President Obama’s moratorium on new deepwater oil wells, which a judge overturned and the administration now is appealing, has only stoked the debate.

Administration officials have argued the fact that we know so little about the deep ocean — and what exactly caused the Deepwater Horizon oil rig to catch fire on April 20 — means we have no business punching new holes in great depths of the ocean floor for at least six months until we figure out a safer way to do it.

Assuming we escape Armageddon, let’s hope our courts overrule themselves.

If deep water drilling has even a 0.1% chance of triggering global Armageddon, is it worth it? I would much rather live in a world with slightly slower economic growth than die because humanity’s ability to drill for oil exceeds its understanding of the risks involved.

Posted by James on Jul 14, 2010

It's almost as if they TRIED to blow the well up

If BP were a person (and, of course, our Supreme Court says it is), it should be institutionalized as a serial-killing sociopath.

This is about the twentieth shocking revelation!

In the hours before the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, BP pumped into the well an extraordinarily large quantity of an unusual chemical mixture, a contractor on the rig testified Monday. …the more than 400 barrels used were roughly double the usual quantity, said Leo Lindner, a drilling fluid specialist for contractor MI-Swaco.

BP had hundreds of barrels of the two chemicals on hand and needed to dispose of the material, Lindner testified. By first flushing it into the well, the company could take advantage of an exemption in an environmental law that otherwise would have prohibited it from discharging the hazardous waste into the Gulf of Mexico, Lindner said….

Ronnie Penton, an attorney for one of the rig workers, said… the double-sized dose of spacer fluid, also known as a “pill,” skewed a crucial test of pressure in the well just hours before the blowout. Based on the test, BP concluded it was safe to continue displacing the heavy mud from the well in favor of much lighter sea water.

Posted by James on Jul 21, 2010

Male unemployment: 22% (or even worse)

From Brett Arends, WSJ.com and MarketWatch:

The official jobless rate, at 9.7%, is a fiction and should be treated as such. It doesn’t even count lots of unemployed people. The so-called “underemployment” or U-6 rate is an improvement: For example it counts discouraged job seekers, and those forced to work part-time because they can’t get a full-time job.

That rate right now is 16.6%, just below its recent high and twice the level it was a few years ago

And even that may not tell the full story. Many people have simply dropped out of the labor force statistics.

Consider, for example, the situation among men of prime working age. An analysis of data at the U.S. Labor Department shows that there are 79 million men in America between the ages of 25 and 65. And nearly 18 million of them, or 22%, are out of work completely. (The rate in the 1950s was less than 10%.) And that doesn’t even count those who are working part-time because they can’t get full-time work. Add those to the mix and about one in four men of prime working age lacks a full-time job.

Dean Baker, economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., says the numbers may be even worse than that. His research suggests a growing number of men, especially in deprived, urban and minority neighborhoods, have vanished from the statistical rolls altogether.

Posted by James on Jul 06, 2010

Mark Twain: Anti-war radical

Mark Twain’s autobiography has sat, mostly unpublished, for a century because Twain himself feared Americans would recoil at his unvarnished views: “From the first, second, third and fourth editions all sound and sane expressions of opinion must be left out. There may be a market for that kind of wares a century from now.” We’re now learning from Twain’s soon-to-be-released uncensored words that Twain considered US soldiers “uniformed assassins”:

Twain’s opposition to incipient imperialism and American military intervention in Cuba and the Philippines, for example, were well known even in his own time. But the uncensored autobiography makes it clear that those feelings ran very deep and includes remarks that, if made today in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan, would probably lead the right wing to question the patriotism of this most American of American writers.

In a passage removed by [his editor] Paine, Twain excoriates “the iniquitous [i.e., wicked] Cuban-Spanish War” and Gen. Leonard Wood’s “mephitic [i.e., poisonous and putrid] record” as governor general in Havana. In writing about an attack on a tribal group in the Philippines, Twain refers to American troops as “our uniformed assassins” and describes their killing of “six hundred helpless and weaponless savages” as “a long and happy picnic with nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there and imagine letters to write home to the admiring families, and pile glory upon glory.”

He is similarly unsparing about the plutocrats and Wall Street luminaries of his day, who he argued had destroyed the innate generosity of Americans and replaced it with greed and selfishness. “The world believes that the elder Rockefeller is worth a billion dollars,” Twain observes. “He pays taxes on two million and a half.”

If Twain was outraged by the relatively miniscule military misadventures of his age, it’s safe to say Twain would be devastated by events since JFK’s assassination, esp. the immensity and global reach of America’s military and the Pentagon’s massive budget — even as homeless people wander American streets looking for scraps to eat — and our long military occupations of Vietnam and Iraq, each of which left millions dead, parentless and/or homeless, and the corporatization of American life and governance.

Perhaps most depressingly, Mark Twain kept his most honest anger to himself for a century following his death! He could have made a difference by speaking loudly a century ago. How many times might anti-war activists have quoted Twain on “our uniformed assassins” in the 100 years since? Twain’s muscular anti-war statement might have helped Americans be more questioning and skeptical of our military and political leaders. Instead, we’ve become many times more monstrous than in Twain’s day.

Posted by James on Jul 11, 2010

Method #29,405 by which humanity may extinguish itself: Don't forget nuclear

With humanity so busy creating innovative new threats to our continued existence (like drilling holes miles under the Earth’s surface where we know potentially life-obliterating methane bubbles are trapped), let’s not forget an oldie but goodie we long ago grew complacent about but which is actually more dangerous than ever before:

Ms. Walker conducted nearly a hundred interviews on camera (and many more off), with physicists, writers, nuclear weapons experts (including the former C.I.A. officers Valerie Plame Wilson and Rolf Mowatt-Larssen) and a hefty roster of world leaders (including Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev and Pervez Musharraf). She also observed security agents in the former Eastern bloc and landed an interview with Oleg Khinsagov, a Russian smuggler who was arrested by Georgian officials while trying to deliver highly enriched uranium to a man believed to be affiliated with a terrorist group.

One of the crucial arguments of “Countdown to Zero” is that while nuclear arsenals might have worked as a cold war-era deterrent, they have no place in a world as volatile as ours. “No matter what you used to think, the only stable solution today is zero,” Ms. Walker said.

Of the statesmen who have changed their minds about nuclear weapons, few are more prominent than the four cold warriors — former Secretaries of State Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn — who together wrote an op-ed article for The Wall Street Journal in 2007 titled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.” Conspicuous by their absence in “Countdown to Zero,” these four men are the headliners of another pro-disarmament documentary titled “Nuclear Tipping Point,” produced by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a group founded by Mr. Nunn and Ted Turner.

Posted by James on Jul 19, 2010

MMS China: The first 9 dead miners/day are free

From Newsweek:

Entrepreneurs, especially from the coastal province of Zhejiang, flooded into the Shanxi mining sector. Those with seed capital and strong networking skills prospered, sometimes earning returns of a 1,000 percent within a few years. With wealth came power, as they entrenched themselves and used their money to ensure that officials wouldn’t be too curious about the unsavory aspects of their dealings, such as unsafe working conditions. One coal owner told Fortune last year that 20 percent of his operating costs went to corruption (like paying off inspection teams and local officials), and that illegal mine owners paid a higher premium. According to someone present in local discussions about accountability — who requested anonymity — officials debated how many workers had to die before they reported it to their superiors in the provincial hierarchy. The number was originally three, but officials from coal-mining towns complained that at that level, “we’d be reporting, like, every day,” so it was eventually raised to 10 deaths.

Posted by James on Jul 20, 2010

My 3-year-old behaves more responsibly than BP

A blogger discovered that a crisis response photo posted prominently on BP’s website had been Photoshopped, quipping:

I guess if you’re doing fake crisis response, you might as well fake a photo of the crisis response center. Why do they need a fake photo at all? Don’t they have a real crisis response center they could have used?

The Washington Post reports BP’s confession:

Scott Dean, a spokesman for BP, said that there was nothing sinister in the photo alteration and provided [what he claimed to be] the original unaltered version. He said that a photographer working for the company had inserted the three images in spots where the video screens were blank.

“Normally we only use Photoshop for the typical purposes of color correction and cropping,” Dean said in an e-mail. “In this case they copied and pasted three ROV screen images in the original photo over three screens that were not running video feeds at the time.”

So, BP’s admitting it Photoshopped the photo to make its crisis center look much busier than it was. But BP didn’t explain the photo’s metadata that says it was taken in 2001:

the meta info for the photo says it was created in 2001, not July 16, 2010 as claimed on BP’s site. It looks like BP took a photo from 2001, and in order to make it look like the command center in July of 2010, they pasted pictures of the oil well leaking over the old photo….

We’re to believe that a professional photographer did this poor a job, for pay, for a huge corporate client? Really? No one would hire this photographer again if this is true. Oh, and the photographer added the fake screens to the photo, what, without BP’s permission?

And this was not a one-off fake. Here’s another photo BP apparently faked.

BP is thoroughly shameless. It can’t even tell the truth about innocuous things.

Posted by James on Jul 21, 2010

My body (and yours) contains 2 quadrillion bugs... and I love 'em!

Recently, I made my annual pre-June visit to my allergy/asthma doctor to make sure I was prepared for my worst month, June.

It’s nearly mid-July, and all the prescriptions he wrote me are still sitting in my backpack unused. Hopefully they’ll stay there.

That’s partly because I now prevent many asthma problems by regularly taking cheap non-prescription allergy medicine. Prevention always beats treating symptoms.

But when I saw my doctor this year, I also had a lingering cough that he considered pneumonia. He quickly whipped out his pad and prescribed an antibiotic. I told him how attached I’ve grown to the HUNDREDS OF TRILLIONS of bacteria that live on and in me and said I didn’t want to do them any harm. Most serve as my loyal defenders against harmful bugs. So he wrote me a prescription for an antibiotic that is supposedly more targeted at the gut. But I still didn’t want to take antibiotics because I felt my body was healing itself and speeding up the process wasn’t worth nuking my friends.

The average human is composed of about 100 trillion cells. That’s a big number: 100,000,000 times 1 million! But our bodies also contain between 1,000 trillion and 2,000 trillion bacteria!!! And those little guys can really affect our health:

In 2008, Dr. Khoruts, a gastroenterologist at the University of Minnesota, took on a patient suffering from a vicious gut infection of Clostridium difficile. She was crippled by constant diarrhea, which had left her in a wheelchair wearing diapers. Dr. Khoruts treated her with an assortment of antibiotics, but nothing could stop the bacteria. His patient was wasting away, losing 60 pounds over the course of eight months. “She was just dwindling down the drain, and she probably would have died,” Dr. Khoruts said….

Dr. Khoruts mixed a small sample of her husband’s stool with saline solution and delivered it into her colon. Writing in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology last month, Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues reported that her diarrhea vanished in a day. Her Clostridium difficile infection disappeared as well and has not returned since.

The procedure — known as bacteriotherapy or fecal transplantation — had been carried out a few times over the past few decades. But Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues were able to do something previous doctors could not: they took a genetic survey of the bacteria in her intestines before and after the transplant.

Before the transplant, they found, her gut flora was in a desperate state. “The normal bacteria just didn’t exist in her,” said Dr. Khoruts. “She was colonized by all sorts of misfits.”

Two weeks after the transplant, the scientists analyzed the microbes again. Her husband’s microbes had taken over. “That community was able to function and cure her disease in a matter of days,” said Janet Jansson, a microbial ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a co-author of the paper. “I didn’t expect it to work. The project blew me away.”

Even more astonishing than the power of the bugs who live in each of us is the ignorance of many doctors to those bugs and their role in our health. I’ve spoken with doctors who had absolutely no clue our bodies contain 1 to 2 quadrillion bacteria, most of which actually benefit us.

Posted by James on Jul 13, 2010

Nearly 1 million top-secret security clearances... Who says America can't create jobs?

The Great Depression really ended only when World War II forced economies back to life. Now that America has outsourced most of our former manufacturing might, government is paying white collar college grads to spy on fellow Americans.

The U.S. government has purchased hundreds of billions of dollars of computers, software and networking equipment (unconstitutionally) used to collect and store incomprehensibly large databases of information about you, me and everyone we know. These purchases put food in the mouths — or, more accurately, skis on the feet and European vacation tickets in the hands — of IBM and SAIC employees' children.

Government largesse is also bankrolling several million deskbound spies, an extrapolation I base on the fact that nearly 1 million hold top-secret clearances:

  • Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

  • An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

  • In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

  • Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

  • Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

This looks like make-work public works projects for yuppies because even intelligence insiders with the greatest access to the information generated confess to being perplexed why the system is gathering so much “intelligence”:

“There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that – not just for the DNI [Director of National Intelligence], but for any individual, for the director of the CIA, for the secretary of defense – is a challenge,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview with The Post last week.

In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials – called Super Users – have the ability to even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation’s most sensitive work.

“I’m not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything” was how one Super User put it. The other recounted that for his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ‘'Stop!“ in frustration….

Even the analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is supposed to be where the most sensitive, most difficult-to-obtain nuggets of information are fused together, get low marks from intelligence officials for not producing reports that are original, or at least better than the reports already written by the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency or Defense Intelligence Agency.

When Maj. Gen. John M. Custer was the director of intelligence at U.S. Central Command, he grew angry at how little helpful information came out of the NCTC. In 2007, he visited its director at the time, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, to tell him so. “I told him that after 4 ½ years, this organization had never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars!” he said loudly.

This would be comical, were it not so expensive and invasive. It perfectly illustrates Fred Brooks' famous line that “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”

During the Clinton presidency, America talked about how to spend “the peace dividend.” After 9/11, military and intelligence contracting skyrocketed. Corporate welfare recipients like Raytheon could not have conceived a more effective profit booster than 9/11, which has spawned an entire domestic spy industry that costs a fortune, produces little obvious value, violates the U.S. Constitution, and invades the privacy of all Americans.

Posted by James on Jul 20, 2010

Our chemical-saturated environment is poisoning us

Everywhere you turn in modern society, you’re surrounded by chemicals.

You can’t escape them. They’re in the air we breathe because we dump chemicals on our precious lawns and incinerate our chemical-laden garbage. They’re in our food and drink because farmers spray chemicals on our food as it grows, and we line our cans and bottles with chemicals. They’re also in our water, thanks to the dumping of unused chemicals and medicines that leach into our water supply.

Gulf of Mexico sea life has been assaulted — and will for years continue being assaulted by — both BP’s initial release of massive quantities of petrochemicals and its subsequent release of massive quantities of toxic chemicals it hoped would hide the petrochemicals from TV cameras. And human health is at risk from this double-barreled chemical attack.

We’ve now uncovered a new threat: cash register receipts. CBS News reports:

Extraordinarily high levels of BPA were found on two-fifths of the paper receipts tested recently by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.

In some cases, the amount of BPA on a given receipt was 1,000 times the levels found in a can of food.

Receipts were collected from ATM’s, grocery stores, fast food restaurants, gas stations and the like. “Wipe tests” showed that the coating of BPA of paper receipts would likely stick to the skin of anyone who handled them.

The chemical can be absorbed into the skin and transferred to the digestive tract by touching the mouth.

Animal tests have linked BPA exposure to a range of health problems, including cancer, obesity, diabetes, and early puberty.

Posted by James on Jul 28, 2010

Please support Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

John R. Talbott writes that the banking industry and its Obama Administration lackeys (esp. Timothy Geithner) are fighting fiercely to block President Obama from selecting Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Professor Warren is the blindingly obvious choice because the bureau was her idea and wouldn’t exist had she not pushed for it and because no one has greater capacity or credibility to run that bureau than Professor Warren. She knows the banking industry’s devious tricks and possesses the legal knowledge to defeat them.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about Washington, DC knows that the best person to run an agency is often not selected because those who oppose the agency’s mission — banks, in this case — fight for less effective agency heads who lack the motivation and/or competence to achieve the agency’s mission. The most obvious recent example is MMS, which was supposed to regulate the oil and gas industry but instead slept with its lobbyists, snorted its cocaine, and then took “jobs” in the industry in exchange for letting oil and gas companies (oxymoron alert) “regulate themselves.” MMS’s refusal to do its job aided and abetted BP’s destruction of the Gulf of Mexico.

Talbott notes the banking industry has a further reason to oppose Warren. After America’s megabanks became, in effect, insolvent, the Obama Administration and the Federal Reserve refused to shut them down, kick out executives, and reorganize the banks, as they should have. Instead, Obama and the Fed simply ignored the fact those banks were less-than-worthless and contrived schemes to shovel money at them. One way they’re doing that is by letting banks gouge customers (i.e., us) with high fees and penalties on accounts and credit cards and virtually zero interest rates on deposits. Elizabeth Warren would crack down on bank price gouging, making it harder for banks to “earn” profit and dig themselves out of their financial holes.

I just petitioned the President to nominate Professor Warren, and I encourage you to do the same.

Posted by James on Jul 19, 2010

Police abusing justice system to stop citizens from recording police misconduct

The ACLU of Maryland writes:

On March 5, 2010, Anthony Graber was riding his motorcycle on Interstate 95, and was confronted by a plainclothes Maryland State Police trooper as he came to a stop at an exit. Graber had a video camera prominently mounted on his helmet to record his ride, and the camera recorded the officer’s actions and statements at the outset of the encounter, which ended with Graber receiving a ticket for speeding. Five days later, Graber posted a video on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHjjF55M8JQ and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7PC9cZEWCQ&NR=1), showing the encounter, in which the state trooper leaps out of his unmarked vehicle, not in a uniform, and with his gun drawn, yelling at Graber for several seconds to get off of his motorcycle before identifying himself as a police officer.

On March 15, the trooper became aware of the video, and obtained an arrest warrant charging Graber with a violation of the state wiretap law, even though no violation actually occurred. Based on the wiretap charges, the State Police also obtained a search warrant authorizing them to seize all of the Graber family’s computers and hard drives, along with Graber’s video camera. Several weeks later, the Harford County State’s Attorney obtained a grand jury indictment adding several additional motor vehicle charges, and additional wiretap violations, including one alleging possession of “a device… primarily useful for the purpose of surreptitious interception of oral communications,” referring to the widely sold and clearly noticeable GoPro video camera that had been mounted on Graber’s motorcycle helmet.

Graber, a Staff Sergeant in the Maryland Air National Guard, and a computer systems engineer, faces up to 16 years in prison if convicted on all of the charges, along with the loss of his job if he is convicted of any of the wiretap charges, each of which is a felony with a maximum penalty of five years in prison…

It is antithetical to a democracy for the government to tell its citizens that they do not have the right to record what government officials say or do or how they behave… Citizens recording police conduct with video or cell phone cameras have documented important cases of misconduct around the country.

Were recording public police activities illegal, the law would be wrong and unconstitutional. But Maryland law allows this kind of recording: “for such recording to be illegal under the Maryland law, it must involve audio, and the subjects must have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their communications.” Since this happened in public and the police would have had every right to tell a court whatever Mr. Graber said during the traffic stop, the police have no grounds for their actions toward Mr. Graber.

The court must tell the police in unmistakable language that their abusive, illegal misconduct violated Mr. Graber’s rights. The court should further affirm the right of all Americans to record the public behavior of our civil servants, esp. when they are abusing power.

Posted by James on Jul 27, 2010

Praise for (limited, supervised) TV for kids (ages 2+)

No one loves books more than I do. But my soon-to-turn-four son can’t read yet. And educational research cannot be clearer that reading comes more easily the larger a young reader’s spoken vocabulary. So I’ve let Daryl spend more time watching TV than reading books. We read several books with him every day, but my wife believes we should be reading more and watching TV less, and my initial instinct — as it is to every “suggestion” she so wisely makes — was to say, “Of course, honey!” But the more I think about it, the more defensible — admirable, even — our current use of the TV seems.

Children under the age of 2 shouldn’t be watching TV. So the following applies only to children 2+.

Daryl’s TV watching is totally supervised. I pre-record shows, and we watch them together. He’ll often request that we watch a particular show (e.g., “Blue’s Clues” or “Team Umizoomi”) or episode (e.g., “the ‘Dinosaur Train’ where they visit Troodon Town”). But they’re all programs I’ve chosen. We also watch some quality children’s shows in Chinese, esp. “Pororo” and “Peppa Pig,” that we bought on DVDs. These boost his Chinese vocabulary and motivate him to speak more Chinese.

I read these good articles on young children’s use of TV: KidsHealth.org’s “How TV Affects Your Child” and PBS Parents' “TV and Kids under Age 3” by children’s media expert Shelley Pasnik

According to these articles, unsupervised TV has many harmful effects on children. But I don’t see any reason for concern about our current use of TV. Here’s why I believe we’re using it appropriately:

  • We shielded Daryl from TV for most of his first two years. TV watching during these earliest years is most detrimental because very young children learn little from watching TV. They learn far more effectively by interacting and communicating with adults.
  • We have no TV on our main floor or in Daryl’s bedroom, and we keep the TV off most of the time. So it’s not a constant background presence, as in many American households.
  • Daryl doesn’t watch ads because most of the shows I record don’t contain them. Otherwise, I skip the ads. When we occasionally watch live TV upstairs, he’s very aware of the ads and how they’re trying to manipulate us because I’ve emphasized that. He’ll ask me, “Are they trying to get us to buy this?” So he’s years ahead of the game (“Under the age of 8 years, most kids don’t understand that commercials are for selling a product. Children 6 years and under are unable to distinguish program content from commercials, especially if their favorite character is promoting the product.”).
  • Because he doesn’t watch ads, has no weight issues, and doesn’t eat while watching TV, the link between TV watching and obesity is of little concern.
  • Daryl watches only quality educational TV because I don’t record anything else and I let him watch only what I’ve already recorded. I first screen shows based on parental and expert opinion at Commonsense Media, and even then I usually watch the show a bit before showing it to Daryl. Quality matters tremendously: “Studies have found that children at 30 months of age who watched certain programs (one study focused on Dora the Explorer, Blues Clues, Clifford and Dragon Tales) resulted in greater vocabularies and higher expressive language whereas overall television viewing (including adult programs) has been associated with reduced vocabulary.”
  • I watch many shows with Daryl, and we talk about them. He asks me questions, and I point out things I notice or explain things I think he might not understand. When he watches the same episode for the tenth time, I’ll either sit next to him and do something else or sit near him. TV’s not our babysitter.
  • Thanks to his current favorite show, Dinosaur Train, Daryl can tell you what “omnivore,” “carnivore” and “herbivore” mean… and even name some animals and dinosaurs in each category. He knows his “bipeds” from his “quadripeds” (and knows “tri-” in “triceratops” means three, as in “tricycle” and “triangle”). He can tell you what a “cryolophosaurus” looks like (and even sing a song about one) and a “deinonychus” and a “giganotosaurus” and an “ankylosaurus” and a “microraptor.” He can tell you several interesting facts about “troodons,” maybe even which dinosaur time period they lived in (correct answer: “late Cretaceous”). He knows that in the earliest dinosaur period (triassic) there were no flowers but there were turtles that could not retract their heads. And his knowledge that there were once no dinosaurs has prompted him to ask how the Earth was formed. He also wants to know how the dinosaurs died. And he can even point out the theropod dinosaurs flying all around us. (Hint: you know them as “birds.” See: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/avians.html) And, besides all the facts he’s learned from the show, Daryl has also learned some excellent everyday vocabulary and watched some positive role models.
  • Daryl’s school friends watch a lot of junk TV. His friends like Batman and Spiderman, for example, which really aren’t appropriate at his age because they’re so violent. If we sharply curtailed his TV time, he’d probably be crying to watch the junk shows his friends watch.
  • Daryl engages with the material. He’s quite curious about dinosaurs now and is eager to visit museums where he can see dinosaurs. He was also excited to borrow a library book on dinosaurs and buy the book we saw recently. We should look through these books with him. TV can stimulate interest that can be followed up in books.
  • Daryl’s becoming sophisticated about reality vs. fantasy. Lately, he has been asking me “Is he real?” and “Are they real?” when we watch shows. I explain that dinosaurs were real long, long ago but that they didn’t talk. I also explain that the kids and the paleontologist on the show are real.
  • We’re beginning to use TV as an effective punishment. When he misbehaves, we threaten to take away TV. And if he persists, he loses his TV. This is a valuable tool.
  • The adults in our house set a good example. Aside from my wife’s parents watching Chinese TV while they watch Lia, we watch little TV until after the kids go to bed. So we’re setting a good example.
  • TV’s not cutting into Daryl’s exercise or creative activities. He’s usually exhausted by the end of a full day of daycare and really needs to plop down in front of a TV set for a bit. And he takes facts he’s learned watching “Dinosaur Train” and weaves them into his imaginary play. When he drives his toy train around, the content now is spun off of things he has learned watching “Dinosaur Train,” so the show has spurred his imagination.
  • Finally, TV encourages Daryl to read. His interest in reading “Green Eggs and Ham” was heightened by a short TV version of the book I recorded. The same is true of “The Zax” and “The Sneetches,” both of which were adapted for TV. Daryl’s interest in the TV shows and the books reinforce one another. (Also, because they differ in significant ways, they implicitly illustrate that stories are stories and can be modified.)

My only concern about TV is that the shows my soon-to-be-4-year-old son is watching aren’t age-appropriate for my 1-year-old daughter. But the older child wins out, and the younger watches. I’ve tried setting her up on a second TV, but they both shout for me to watch with them, and I can’t be in two places simultaneously. Perhaps the answer isn’t less TV but for my wife to join in our family TV watching! Then she too would know the difference between a stegosaurus and a kentrosaurus. (As Daryl could tell you, both have plates on their upper backs but the latter had spikes along its lower back where the former had plates.)

Posted by James on Jul 19, 2010

Prepare to save a life: CPR couldn't be easier!

Several years ago, my wife and I took a CPR course and got certified. Just days earlier, I had read a news story claiming chest compressions alone are just about as effective as full-blown CPR that cycles back-and-forth between chest compressions and blowing air into the victim’s mouth and nose.

Now, The New England Journal of Medicine has published two new studies providing even more support for the claim that chest compressions alone are sufficient:

Medical experts have been concerned for years about the low use of CPR outside hospitals and how to get more bystanders to perform it. One barrier has been the perceived complexity of the procedure, particularly rescue breathing, which involves positioning patients correctly so their airways remain open. The hope is that a more simplified CPR procedure will increase bystanders' willingness to perform it.

“If you do anything, if you attempt CPR, you can only make things better,” said Thomas Rea, first author of one of new studies and medical director for King County Medic One, which provides emergency services for the county in Washington state that includes Seattle. “You cannot make it worse.”

Some 300,000 people in the U.S. are treated for cardiac arrest outside the hospital each year, but less than one-third get CPR from bystanders who witness their collapse, according to the American Heart Association. Outside the hospital, only 8% of all victims survive cardiac arrest, but when CPR is administered in the minutes after the episode begins, the patient’s survival rate can double or triple.

Researchers examined in randomized trials the effectiveness of bystander-performed CPR on the victims' survival. Bystanders were instructed by phone by emergency personnel to give either chest-compression only or compression plus rescue breathing.

Together, the studies examined more than 3,000 patients and found no statistical difference in survival between the two groups. One study, conducted by researchers in Seattle and London, showed that 12.5% of the chest-compression-alone group survived to leave the hospitals to which they were admitted, and 11% survived when rescue breathing was added to the chest compressions.

The other study, conducted in Sweden, showed an 8.7% 30-day survival rate in the compression-only group and a 7% survival rate with standard CPR.

Posted by James on Jul 28, 2010

Smart technology will revolutionize education, but throwing computers at kids backfires

Several recent studies using different techniques and data sets have found, as one states, “the introduction of home computer technology is associated with modest but statistically significant and persistent negative impacts on student math and reading test scores.”

In The New York Times, Randall Stross summarizes the studies:

Ofer Malamud, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago, is the co-author of a study that investigated educational outcomes after low-income families received vouchers to help them buy computers.

“We found a negative effect on academic achievement,” he said. “I was surprised, but as we presented our findings at various seminars, people in the audience said they weren’t surprised, given their own experiences with their school-age children.”

“Scaling the Digital Divide,” published last month, looks at the arrival of broadband service in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005 and its effect on middle school test scores during that period. Students posted significantly lower math test scores after the first broadband service provider showed up in their neighborhood, and significantly lower reading scores as well when the number of broadband providers passed four.

The Duke paper reports that the negative effect on test scores was not universal, but was largely confined to lower-income households, in which, the authors hypothesized, parental supervision might be spottier, giving students greater opportunity to use the computer for entertainment unrelated to homework and reducing the amount of time spent studying.

The North Carolina study suggests the disconcerting possibility that home computers and Internet access have such a negative effect only on some groups and end up widening achievement gaps between socioeconomic groups. The expansion of broadband service was associated with a pronounced drop in test scores for black students in both reading and math, but no effect on the math scores and little on the reading scores of other students.

…The state of Texas recently completed a four-year experiment in “technology immersion.” The project spent $20 million in federal money on laptops distributed to 21 middle schools whose students were permitted to take the machines home. Another 21 schools that did not receive funds for laptops were designated as control schools.

At the conclusion, a report prepared by the Texas Center for Educational Research tried to make the case that test scores in some academic subjects improved slightly at participating schools over those of the control schools. But the differences were mixed and included lower scores for writing among the students at schools “immersed” in technology.

Technology is poised to revolutionize education. But its early impact will be greatest for mature, self-motivated students — esp. university, adult education, and advanced high school students — because, currently, most kids only use computers to play games. As educational technology becomes more game-like and immersive, its ability to motivate younger students to learn should rise.

Posted by James on Jul 11, 2010

Thanks, again, BP (this time for muscle spasms, unending headaches, and rectal bleeding)

I complained repeatedly in May about damage to animals from BP’s use of Corexit. But Corexit’s even more toxic than I feared because I hadn’t even considered that Corexit would seriously harm PEOPLE too!

The director of The Marine Environmental Research Institute described, on CNN, the terrible suffering inflicted by Corexit on some in the Gulf of Mexico:

Shrimpers who were exposed to a mixture of oil and Corexit dispersant in the Gulf of Mexico suffered severe symptoms such as muscle spasms, heart palpitations, headaches that last for weeks and bleeding from the rectum, according to a marine toxicologist who issued the warning Friday on a cable news network.

Dr. Susan Shaw, founder and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, said during a CNN broadcast that after personally diving the oil spill in late May, a “very fiery sore throat” plagued her from inhaling fumes coming off the water. Because she was covered from head to toe in a protective suit, Dr. Shaw was spared direct exposure….

“It ruptures red blood cells, causes internal bleeding and liver and kidney damage,” Dr. Shaw said. “This stuff is so toxic — combined, it’s not the oil alone, it’s not the dispersant — the dispersed oil that still contains this stuff, it’s very, very toxic and it goes right through skin.”

The claims would seem to echo a fellow toxicologist who described the effects of Corexit as the disruption of oil bilipid layers, which he called “the very basis of life.”

“Each of us is made out of cells,” Dr. Chris Pincetich explained in a recent interview. “Those cells are nothing more than an oil layer surrounding our proteins and RNA and all the other molecules talking to each other. You put in a chemical that disrupts that basic biological structure and you are putting yourself at risk from umpteen effects.”

Here’s an older article on Corexit by Dr. Shaw.

Posted by James on Jul 11, 2010

The fascinating life of Mr. Yu

Recent Chinese history is full of contradictions, and this interesting New York Times profile of a relatively high-level CCP official illustrates that many Chinese today embody those contradictions because their lives have been so shaped by them:

Mr. Yu grew up in the tumult of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the decade between 1966 and 1976 when concepts like universal rights and free speech were viewed as bourgeois contaminants from the West. Class struggle was the watchword of the day, and Mr. Yu, the son of rice farmers from coastal Zhejiang Province, was anointed the leader of his school’s Red Guard battalion. He was not quite 10 years old.

He recalled terrorizing landlords and merchants during so-called struggle sessions, a wooden revolver tucked into his pants. “I was so small I had to stand on a chair,” he said.

In 1978, two years after the death of Mao, during the gradual return to normalcy and the reopening of schools, he was one of the first of his generation to go to college. “I literally crawled out of the paddies to take the entrance exam,” he said, smiling and shaking his head at the memory.

Mr. Yu was a teacher at Peking University during the spring of 1989, and he said he went to Tiananmen Square several times to look after his students, who were part of the throngs protesting corruption and inflation and demanding democratic reforms. “I was so worried about them,” he said, recalling the denouement — a bloody military crackdown in which hundreds died — as “a regrettable tragedy.”

But he said those events taught him that China must have legal avenues for its citizens to express their disdain for injustice, or their desire for change. “In any nation, when people are demanding reform, this is a sign of prosperity,” he said. “To ignore these demands is to invite instability.”

…after he left Duke [University] to travel across 30 states on a Greyhound bus. He said he saw the chasm between the grotesquely rich and the abjectly poor, the lack of respect for the elderly, and the apathy on Election Day, especially among the “common people” who would seem to be the most invested in political change.

Mr. Yu also had a personal brush with a downside of abundant liberty. He said he was mugged twice, once by a man who put a knife to his back in a public restroom in Indianapolis.

To many outsiders, China seems oppressive. Economically, many Chinese industries today are quite free-wheeling (though others are heavily influenced or controlled by the national and provincial governments). Politically, China’s one-party government is relatively oppressive. But it’s no North Korea. As long as you’re not trying to organize political opposition, you can speak relatively freely. And the media does expose some wrong-doing (though often only after Netizens have spread the news).

Change is slow, but many Mr. Yus have studied in America and Europe and are pushing nudging China’s governments — national, provincial and local — to be more responsive to the people’s needs, even if China’s not adopting multi-party democracy any time soon. To me, responsiveness — doing the people’s will and serving the people’s interests — is more important than democracy.

In America, elections are bought with corporate campaign contributions, and bought-and-paid-for politicians do giant corporations' bidding. In reality, multi-party democracy per se guarantees little in terms of responsive government. A large majority of Americans are mad as heck at Congress and recent presidents. American democracy is broken because it’s not at all responsive to ordinary people’s needs and interests. Though China has serious problems (horrible pollution, child labor, low wages and excessive workweeks, etc.), China has arguably done a far better job in recent decades for its people, whose incomes have risen by double-digits annually for many years, whereas American real incomes have stagnated for decades, aside from the top 10% (who have done extraordinarily well).

Mr. Yu’s emphasis on responsive governance is spot on.

Posted by James on Jul 25, 2010

The global warming freight train

The LA Times editorializes:

recent figures released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that global land and ocean surface temperatures in June were the highest since record-keeping began in 1880. What’s more, the first half of 2010 was the hottest such period ever recorded, and Arctic sea ice melted at a record-setting pace in June.

The heat can probably be attributed at least in part to periodic and entirely natural changes in ocean temperatures and surface air pressure — the El Niño/La Niña phenomena most likely played a role. But the fact that peak years are getting hotter while even relatively “cool” years now tend to remain above historical averages (the 10 warmest years on record all occurred within the last 15 years, according to the NOAA) shows that something else is at work….

For us, it’s not a difficult decision which side to believe: scientists who directly observe and measure climate changes and whose accuracy is rigorously tested by their peers, or pundits with little knowledge of climate science whose views are informed by a long-held resentment of environmentalists and government regulation. Yet the latter group, working hand in hand with big energy companies that profit from the filthy status quo, have injected enough doubt into the national debate to paralyze Congress… and confuse the public, who in recent polls are increasingly inclined to believe that the threat of climate change has been exaggerated.

Though scientists have warned us for years that the train is coming at us fast — accelerating, even — many non-scientists say they can’t see the train or that the tiny speck on the horizon can’t possibly hurt us. And they reject science in favor of their untrained intuition.

How (bitterly) ironic it will be if humanity’s scientific creations destroy our environment even as humans fail — for decades — to trust scientific findings telling us our creations are destroying our planet. Perhaps some alien will discover our dead little planet some day and write a dissertation on our species' inability to stop polluting, despite knowing we were killing ourselves.

We believe in science when we want to heal our sick baby or know whether it will rain today. But when scientists tell us how to save (from ourselves) the Earth that sustains us: they’re witch doctors practicing voodoo.

Posted by James on Jul 22, 2010

The Great Recession is fueling religious extremism

These studies imply that the longer and harder The Great Recession grinds on, the more Americans will turn to extreme religion for emotional comfort:

In a series of studies, more than 600 participants were placed in anxiety-provoking or neutral situations and then asked to describe their personal goals and rate their degree of conviction for their religious ideals. This included asking participants whether they would give their lives for their faith or support a war in its defence.

Across all studies, anxious conditions caused participants to become more eagerly engaged in their ideals and extreme in their religious convictions. In one study, mulling over a personal dilemma caused a general surge toward more idealistic personal goals. In another, struggling with a confusing mathematical passage caused a spike in radical religious extremes. In yet another, reflecting on relationship uncertainties caused the same religious zeal reaction.

Researchers found that religious zeal reactions were most pronounced among participants with bold personalities (defined as having high self-esteem and being action-oriented, eager and tenacious), who were already vulnerable to anxiety, and felt most hopeless about their daily goals in life.

Bad times for the economy and society are boom times for religious extremism and charismatic religious nuts. Another reason to fear for our future.

Posted by James on Jul 08, 2010

The "military-industrial complex" Eisenhower warned us about has become King Kong

For fifty years since former Supreme Allied Commander and President Eisenhower warned “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” that complex has grown and grown. It now gets everything it wants and more, even over the objections of the Secretary of Defense, who asks, “Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?”

Nicholas Kristof writes President Obama is throwing away, on wars and weapons, obscene piles of money that could be spent far more effectively:

President Obama… is now requesting 6.1 percent more in military spending than the peak of military spending under Mr. Bush. And it is Mr. Obama who has tripled the number of American troops in Afghanistan since he took office. (A bill providing $37 billion to continue financing America’s two wars was approved by the House on Tuesday and is awaiting his signature.)

Under Mr. Obama, we are now spending more money on the military, after adjusting for inflation, than in the peak of the cold war, Vietnam War or Korean War. Our battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined…

an unbalanced focus on weapons alone is often counterproductive, creating a nationalist backlash against foreign “invaders.” Over all, education has a rather better record than military power in neutralizing foreign extremism. And the trade-offs are staggering: For the cost of just one soldier in Afghanistan for one year, we could start about 20 schools there.

…The American military has been eagerly reading “Three Cups of Tea” but hasn’t absorbed the central lesson: building schools is a better bet for peace than firing missiles (especially when one cruise missile costs about as much as building 11 schools).

Mr. Mortenson lamented to me that for the cost of just 246 soldiers posted for one year, America could pay for a higher education plan for all Afghanistan. That would help build an Afghan economy, civil society and future — all for one-quarter of 1 percent of our military spending in Afghanistan this year.

Posted by James on Jul 29, 2010

"The United States is the international 'bad boy' of computer recycling"

I love that this article describes a horrible practice, shames the U.S. government for failure, and tells us what we as individuals can do, even though our government is complicit:

Burning computer components releases dioxins, furans, PCB’s, and other toxins into the atmosphere, and also into the lungs of anyone nearby. Why would anyone incinerate a PC? It’s the cheapest, low-tech way to separate the worthless plastics from the salable metals. If you reside in a poor country without environmental and safety standards, this is how you separate and “recycle” materials. For example, yank the wires from desktops, then burn them to separate the worthless rubberized plastic coating from the salable copper within….

Companies called “fake recyclers” approach well-meaning organizations — charities, churches, and community organizations — and offer to hold a Recycling Day. The charity provides publicity, legitimacy, and a parking lot for the event. On the designated day, well-meaning residents drop off their old electronics for recycling. The fake recycler picks it up in their trucks, hauls it away for shipping, and makes money by exporting it to Chinese or African “recycling” centers. Nobody’s the wiser….

Organizations with outstanding reputations are conned into participating in this business while believing they are engaging in beneficial activity. It’s not their fault. Since fake recycling is unregulated by U.S. law, anyone is free to call themselves a recycler and sell materials into the overseas trade. Misrepresentation about it is not illegal. Fake recycling is a thriving business.

…the international community devised a set of rules and agreements to control e-waste disposal and make sure that it’s done properly. Generically called the Basel Conventions, these were initiated in 1989 in Basel, Switzerland, and have evolved forward since then.

Over 150 nations around the world adhere to the Basel Conventions. The United States is one of four that have not ratified — and do not adhere to — these international agreements. These charts show that the United States is the international “bad boy” of computer recycling. While one can only speculate as to why this is, it does seem clear that U.S. policy is captive to lobbyists and driven by narrow special interests.

It costs several dollars per item to properly dispose of much e-waste, and our society has decided not to pay that price. Instead those costs are imposed on the environment and those who work overseas in unsafe and unhealthy conditions…

About one-quarter of Americans do not own a computer. For many, a five to ten year old machine for basic activities like web surfing, word processing, and email means they don’t have to trek to the public library or wait at school to use a shared computer.

…please donate [old computers] to a refurbisher rather than to a recycler. A refurbisher reuses the equipment, while a recycler destroys it and reuses the component materials. Vendor take-back programs do not refurbish because they can not afford the labor to do this. They only recycle. But there are many non-profit refurbishers. You can find refurbishers to donate your old computer to here, here, and here.

Posted by James on Jul 08, 2010

To DIY or not to DIY

Cute story with a lesson and a laugh:

[My old piano] was tuned and playable, though the amiable repair guy warned me that numerous parts were so old and brittle that if he tinkered with them too much, he’d end up breaking more than he fixed….

I might have thought I’d save money taking a screwdriver to my antique Steinway, painstakingly made by expert craftsmen. But that’s looking like a rather unlikely, and rather disrespectful, point of view right now.

Instead, my experience leads me to theorize that complicated DIY projects follow an economic law that one might call diminishing returns to complexity: The more complicated the DIY project, the less one saves in money and time with every additional step. The amusement of others, meanwhile, probably follows the inverse rule: The more complicated this gets, the harder you all will be laughing — at me, not with me. My husband sure is.

…I told my piano troubles to a neighbor, who made me feel much better about the whole thing…

She: "How are you doing?"
Me: "I killed my piano. I have this 124 year-old Steinway that my husband got me when we were first married..."
She: "You've been married for 124 years?"

Posted by James on Jul 28, 2010

Useful psychology lesson for all you parents

An 11-year-old girl in Wales visited five schools and fell in love with each during her visit:

First off was Howell’s, an independent boarding school in Denbigh, complete with ponies and pool, all within Hogwarts' facade. I thought Hero might be a bit intimidated, but she said she just felt excited, as though she were about to step into a Harry Potter film. Every aspect of boarding school life enchanted Hero…

Hero suddenly lived and breathed Howells. This was a worry. I rang a psychologist friend, panicking over whether I could really afford [private school] fees. She said: “Don’t worry, children always love the most recent positive experience. Just make sure she visits a state school last.”

She did, and that’s where she decided to go:

Hero’s last taster day was at Ysgol Dyffryn Conwy, the mainly Welsh-speaking school a few hundred metres away from her primary school and full of children she knows. It’s the school Hero has always assumed she’d go to. She has skipped down its corridors going to music lessons or the climbing wall since she was a toddler, and knows virtually every nook and cranny and many of the teachers. So it was with enthusiasm, not nerves, that Hero set off. She loved every second of it….

“The thing is,” she concluded “I am in Wales and am mostly Welsh. I want to speak the language of my country. I’ve always been in the top sets and don’t see the point in changing from the school I’ve always thought I’d go to. Perhaps I won’t get quite as good grades as my friends who’ve gone to private school but I think I’ll do OK and will be happy.”

Hero can speak of nothing other than Dyffryn Conwy.

Posted by James on Jul 28, 2010

What if Graber had shot the plain-clothed cop?

Follow-up to my previous post. This discussion raises some interesting points. First,

The cop is in an unmarked car and plain clothes. He pulls up past the motorcycle while it’s stopped at an exit, veers in front of it, stops, and gets out with a gun drawn, saying, “Get off the motorcycle. Get off the motorcycle! Get off the motorcycle. State police.” …Right up until he says “State police,” it doesn’t look like a traffic stop to me. It looks like a crime in progress. Even then, pretty much anyone can say “police”. He could at least flash a badge.

What if Mr. Graber — fearful of the maniac pointing a gun at him — had pulled his gun and fired at the gun-waving screaming man? One commenter claims,

The motorcyclist would have been 100% within his rights to draw a gun and shoot his attacker in the face…. The law AFAIK is quite clear: Unidentified man, in unidentified car leaps out pointing a gun at you? YES, you are within your rights to SHOOT HIM IN THE FACE.

Someone else agreed:

You weren’t in error at all. Some people are offended by the concept of self-defense, but if your only option to instantly stop an obvious assailant is to disable their central nervous system by “shooting them in the face” that is what to do.

I don’t know the answer, but it seems extremely dangerous (and stupid) for a non-uniformed officer to point a gun at someone without flashing a badge first. Besides, this was a speeding case, and Mr. Graber had come to a complete stop. It’s not like Mr. Graber was a murder suspect fleeing the scene or holding a hostage.

It seems this is exactly why we should record public police activities. In fact, the police should record and critique themselves so they learn not to do such stupid and dangerous things. Instead, the Maryland police compounded their stupidity by abusing the law to punish Mr. Graber for the “crime” of posting the video on the Internet.

Second, I like this comment:

When law enforcement does nasty stuff they’re rarely punished. If a private citizen pulled a gun on a motorist, then broke into his home, kidnapped him for 26 hours, and stole his computers, there would be serious prison time, but when cops do this there are no real consequences.

The court should not merely rule against the police for their illegal behavior. Police officers who break the law should be punished, esp. when they break the law to cover up their own misbehavior.

Posted by James on Jul 27, 2010

Why do we indulge our pets while being rude to one another?

If you have a pet, you should treat it well. But why do we indulge our pets with designer doggy clothing while so often being rude to the people around us? I don’t know, but this is funny:

http://msnbcmedia3.msn.com/j/MSNBC/Components/Slideshows/_production/ss-100720-swim-fashionweek/100720-icecreamvan-dog1.grid-8x2.jpg

Posted by James on Jul 22, 2010

Will the U.S. Senate's incompetence and self-absorption destroy America?

“The Solar ‘Katrina’ Storm That Could Take Our Power Grid Out For Years” says America’s power grid could quickly be destroyed by giant EMP (electromagnetic pulses) from our sun, like those that struck the Earth in 1859 and 1921:

[John] Kappenman has accumulated a vast and compelling body of evidence indicating that sooner or later a major blast of EMP (electromagnetic pulse) from the Sun, a space weather Katrina, will knock out the electrical power grid and bring society to its knees.

“Historically large storms have a potential to cause power grid blackouts and transformer damage of unprecedented proportions. An event that could incapacitate the network for a long time could be one of the largest natural disasters we could face,” he declares. A bluff, friendly man, half science nerd, half overgrown farm boy, Kappenman insists that solar EMP blasts the size of those that occurred in 1859 (before society was electrified) and 1921 (before the power grid had developed to the point where it played any significant role) would today result in large-scale blackouts lasting for months or years….

Chaos could ensue:

“It’s the social breakdown… During Hurricane Andrew, which only affected several counties in Florida, the worst hit areas, without any electricity or anything, the National Guard, all they could do was leave jugs of fresh water at intersections and hope people would come take them… In the case of space weather the impact areas would cover major portions of the US at the same time, Oil and water pumping would cease, natural gas, too. There would be no ability to refuel a vehicle… rail transport, no ability to supply meaningful support from neighboring unaffected regions, because those regions would be extremely remote. No one keeps fuel at their factories any more, just-in-time manufacturing took care of that. You can’t just restart a nuclear power plant. For one thing, you need the operators to show up.”

Transformers are the most vulnerable component of our power system:

According to Kappenman’s research, a repeat of the geomagnetic storm that occurred in 1859 or 1921 would see the copper windings and leads of the 350 or so of the highest voltage transformers in the United States melt and burn out. These transformers connect nearly one third of the entire US power grid infrastructure, damage levels of unimaginable proportions from any other threat. Transformers weigh over 100 tons apiece and usually cannot be repaired in the field, and because of their size they cannot be flown in from overseas factories where they are now made. In fact, most transformers damaged by space weather incidents cannot be repaired at all, and need to replaced with new units. Currently, the worldwide waiting list for transformers is about three years, and about half of those made fail either in test or prematurely while in service.

We know how to protect transformers:

the grid can be protected from solar EMP devastation by outfitting it with surge suppressors, much like the ones that protect our computers and plasma televisions at home. In a nutshell, solar EMP blasts hit the Earth and discharge massive electrical currents into the planet’s surface, some of which current surges back up and into the grid. Surge suppressors placed between the surface and the transformer would protect the transformer from the space weather-induced electrical currents coming up from the ground.

Each surge suppressor would be about the size of a washing machine, and would cost $40,000-$50,000 apiece; with some 5,000 transformers in the North American grid, that works out to $250 million or so, according to Kappenman’s reckoning. Let’s say this estimate is overly optimistic and that the inevitable cost overruns occur. Even if the final price tag for protecting the power grid from space weather attacks ends up being more in the $500 million range, that’s less than 0.3% of what it cost to bail out AIG for gambling on toxic mortgages, or 1.0% of what Bernie Madoff is said to have bilked from his investors. Given that electrical industry revenues in the United States totaled approximately $368.5 billion in 2008, according to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, a one-time space weather security surcharge of less than 0.2% should amply fund the surge suppressor project. With around 115 million households in the United States, this surcharge would work out to less than $5 per.

But the power industry opposes this, apparently because it doesn’t want to be bothered. And, although “the GRID bill, HR-5026, passed UNANIMOUSLY by the U.S. House of Representatives this June,” the U.S. Senate is being its normal insane self, apparently oblivious to the danger.

Posted by James on Jul 19, 2010

Wisdom from Ronaldo

Ronaldo is the all-time World Cup scoring king. Germany’s Mirsolav Klose came within one goal of Ronaldo’s record but was unable to play in Germany’s final World Cup match. Unlike many record-holding athletes, Ronaldo is wonderfully unpossessive of his record. He said, “Congratulations to Klose, to score 14 goals at the World Cup is fantastic. It’s sad that he did not play on Saturday. I was not opposed to him breaking my record. I have made my history. Now it is time for others to write their stories.”

If you achieve something amazing and someone later comes along and does something even more amazing, that in no way diminishes your amazing accomplishment. (Are you listening, ‘72 Dolphins?!?!?)

Posted by James on Jul 11, 2010