Archive for April 17th, 2007
From Cool Tools:
Lease complex, premium puzzles
ELMS Hand Cut Puzzle Rental Club
Dedicated jigsaw puzzlers know nothing matches the quality (or challenge) of a hand-cut wooden puzzle. But at about $2.00 or so per piece they are outrageously expensive (a 20″ x 24″ 1000-piece puzzle can cost $3,000). ELMS Puzzles solves the dilemma by offering a rental program that lets you keep a puzzle for three months, by which time you should either be done or realize you’ve met your match.
The wooden pieces (unlike cardboard) are very exact in their fitting so you have to be very certain about having the right piece. Also, many are cut with straight lines inside the puzzle — i.e. a piece in the middle won’t have interlocking pieces. Those who do puzzles by putting together the border and working their way in will really be challenged; and many of the pieces are cut in shapes appropriate for the puzzle. For example, a Christmas puzzle will have a piece the shape of a Christmas tree, the shape of a sleigh, the shape of an angel, etc. Oh, and no picture comes with the puzzle for those who “cheat” by looking at the top of the box.
While still not cheap, at $40 – $225 depending on the number of pieces, renting these puzzles becomes affordable for special occasions like family vacations with other puzzle fanatics. There are other companies that sell puzzles (Stave comes to mind from having seen their advertisements in The New Yorker), but ELMS are the only people I know who rent. I like the idea of renting 15 – 20 puzzles for the price of buying one.
I recognize this is not something everyone thinks is sane. Our family members are divided on it, some love them, others think it’s the biggest waste of time known to man. You either like jigsaw puzzles or are bored silly by them, but if you’re a fan you should enjoy the pleasure of a quality hand cut puzzle at least once.
– Julee Bode
ELMS Hand Cut Puzzle Rental Club
$75 (lifetime membership + first 200-piece puzzle)
ELMS Puzzles, Inc.
No wonder Wolfie was so conscious of corruption. Reuters:
The U.S. Defense Department ordered a contractor to hire a World Bank employee and girlfriend of then-Pentagon No. 2 Paul Wolfowitz in 2003 for work related to Iraq, the contractor said on Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for Science Applications International Corp., or SAIC, said the Defense Department’s policy office directed the company to enter a subcontract with Shaha Riza, under which she spent a month studying ways to form a government in Iraq.
Wolfowitz, a key Iraq war architect who left the Pentagon in 2005 to become president of the World Bank, is already under fire for overseeing a high-paying promotion for Riza after he took the helm of the poverty-fighting global lender.
Senior Democratic congressmen and other critics have pressed demands for his resignation, saying his actions have undermined the campaign against corruption in the developing world that has been a hallmark of his World Bank tenure.
SAIC said Riza’s subcontract lasted from April 25 to May 31, 2003. She was paid expenses but no salary during her trip to Iraq, at her request, according to the contractor.
Melissa Koskovich, a spokeswoman for SAIC, said the contractor “had no role in the selection of the personnel who comprised the Iraq Governance Group under this contract.”
Defense sources said the Pentagon was reviewing the matter.
More at the link.
If the GOP really pushed the Democrats into doing this, then good for the GOP (not a phrase I often find myself using). From Associated Press:
Under pressure from GOP conservatives, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee announced new rules Tuesday to overhaul the way lawmakers send taxpayer dollars to their districts and states.
The move by Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., came as conservatives including Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., increased the pressure to change the much-criticized, often secretive way in which “earmarks” are inserted into appropriations legislation.
The rules would require all earmarks — the footnotes in bills that lawmakers use to deliver federal bacon to their states — be clearly identified in documents accompanying appropriations bills. The requesting senator, the recipient of the earmark and its purpose would have to be made public and posted on the Internet.
Senators would also be required to certify that neither they nor their spouses would benefit financially from any earmark.
The idea is that greater openness and public scrutiny of earmarks — which critics often called “pork barrel” spending — would mean some of the more wasteful projects would get killed before being added to legislation.
“The changes that we are making in the appropriations process will help to restore confidence in the Congress,” said Byrd. “We will increase accountability and openness, while we also will work to substantially reduce the number of earmarks in legislation.”
The new rules resemble those passed by the Senate in January as part of an ethics reform bill that has yet to pass the House. But the annual appropriations process gets started next month and Senate Democrats had given no sign they would require changes to the earmarking process absent action on the ethics bill.
Coburn and DeMint had protested that Democrats had signaled they would ignore the rules, and they came to the floor Tuesday to press for broader and stronger earmark reforms, having won a unanimous 98-0 vote in January.
They lost a procedural bid to change Senate rules — a more difficult hurdle than simply altering Appropriations Committee policies — but Byrd’s announcement seemed linked to the conservative duo’s stepped-up efforts.
The Senate earmark reforms have stalled in the House, which has separately imposed new earmark rules on its members.
Coburn noted that the Appropriations Committee had not implemented the reforms when instructing senators on how to officially ask for earmarks. Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin said new instructions would be issued later Tuesday.
Earmarks blossomed under GOP control of Congress, much to the dismay of conservative stalwarts.
The public has been angered by scandals such as the bribery conviction of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., who obtained more than $2.4 million in bribes after using his seat on the House Appropriations Committee to obtain earmarks for defense contractors.
In Iraq, shootings like this are a daily occurrence. This does not make the Virginia Tech shooting less monstrous and horrible, but it does help one understand what life in Iraq is like these days. More here.
The profoundly tragic events at Virginia Tech yesterday have produced sorrow and grief across the country. While this massacre deserves the nation’s attention, it is also worth noting that such grief rips apart Iraqi lives nearly every day in the same manner.
University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole pointed out last night on PBS’s Newshour:
Remember that we’re all concerned, as we should be, about these events at Virginia Tech today. In Iraq this is a daily event. Imagine how horrible it would be if this kind of massacre were occurring every single day. And the people of Iraq feel that either the Americans are not stopping it or they’re actually causing it.
Echoing Cole, Iraq Slogger published a post today recounting the brutal scenes of violence that Iraq’s universities have witnessed in recent months:
On Monday, the same day as the Virginia Tech mass shooting, two separate shooting incidents struck Mosul University, one killing Dr. Talal Younis al-Jelili, the dean of the college of Political Science as he walked through the university gate, and another killing Dr. Jaafar Hassan Sadeq, a professor from the Faculty of Arts at the school, who was targeted in front of his home in the al-Kifaat area, according to Aswat al-Iraq.
In January, Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University sufferred a double suicide bombing in January that killed at least 70 people, including students, faculty, and staff. A month later, another suicide bomber struck at Mustansiriya, killing 40.
Kidnappings of students and faculty are another all-too-common occurrence on Iraq’s campuses. Members of the univerisity community have been abducted and murdered for sectarian reasons, or simply held for ransom. […]
In January, students reported that violent events had threatened students that attendance rates at Baghdad University had dropped to six percent.
Earlier this month, the Dr. Qais Jawad al-Azzawi, head of the Geneva-based Committee International Committee of Solidarity with Iraqi Professors said that 232 university professors were killed and 56 were reported missing in Iraq, while more than 3,000 others had left the country after the 2003 invasion.
The GOP really does want to destroy American values. Amazing. TPMmuckraker:
Over the past six years, the Bush administration has aggressively reshaped the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Many career analysts and attorneys have either been transferred or driven out; their replacements are long on conservative credentials and short on civil rights experience.
Here’s an inside account of what it’s like inside from Toby Moore, a redistricting expert with the division’s voting section until the spring of 2006. Like many of his colleagues, he left due to the hostile atmosphere in the section, where he says there was a pattern of selective intimidation towards career staff.
According to Moore, his supervisor and the political appointees in the section consistently criticized his work because it didn’t jibe with their pre-drawn conclusions. That was bad enough, he said, but the real trouble came after he and three colleagues recommended opposing a Georgia voter I.D. law pushed by Republicans. After the recommendation, which clashed with the views of Moore’s superiors, they reprimanded him for not adequately analyzing the evidence and accused him of mistreating his Republican colleague, with whom he’d had frequent disagreements. But it got worse. Moore said that his Republican superiors even monitored his emails, eventually filing a complaint against him with the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility for allegedly disclosing privileged information in one email (he was cleared of wrongdoing). Fed up, and worried that it was too dangerous to his professional future to remain there, he left.
Moore said that his experience was similar to others in the section who’d disagreed with conservative attorneys working at the Justice Department. Over the following year, all three of Moore’s colleagues who’d joined him in opposing the law either left or were transferred out of the section. The senior member of the team, Robert Berman, the deputy chief of the section and a 28-year veteran of the Civil Rights Division, was transferred to the Office of Professional Development — what Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) has called “a dead-end job.”
The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility opened and conducted an investigation into the section’s handling of the Georgia I.D. law. Joe Rich, the former chief of the voting section, told me that he was interviewed by investigators in 2006. It’s not clear, however, what the outcome of the investigation was.
“Mr. Moore’s allegations about political interference in the Civil Rights Division surrounding the Georgia memo, are very much in line with what we are learning daily about this Justice Department,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) told TPMmuckraker. Nadler is the chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee that held a hearing on the voting section last month. “A clear picture is developing of a department culture that seems to encourage politically-motivated, improper and lawless activity.”
The Wife emails:
Julien has been keeping a video blog of his tour – well he started to but hasn’t updated it since before San Francisco. Anyway, people are making comments, and there was one from a little girl. One of the songs he sang was about a little witch who is sick and her broom is broken and the black birds lead her to the river and she is cold and she dies. (I told you there were some strange lyrics) Anyway, a little girl posted this:
Bonjour Julien Clerc,
Merci beaucoup pour le spectacle hier au soir a San Francisco. On l’a beaucoup aime. J’ai une question sur l’histoire de la sorciere, est ce que tu es sur que la petite sorciere est bien morte, parce que moi je peux lui reparer son balais.
Thank you very much for the show last night in San Francisco. We liked it very much. I have a question about the story of the witch, are you sure that the little witch is really dead, because I think I can fix her broom.
And he has good reasons. Go read.
This is the usual GOP approach to democracy. Dana Milbank reports:
Those wondering why the Bush administration has failed to spread democracy across the globe might find a clue in yesterday’s meeting of the State Department’s “Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion.”
About a third of the way through the meeting, and not long after Undersecretary Paula Dobriansky boasted to the television cameras that “our entire session today is open to the public” and attended by the press, State Department officials ordered reporters to leave.
“This is the way they wanted it to happen, and this is the way it’s going to be,” explained department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos. “They seem to have wanted you all out.”
The spokesman declined to say who “they” were. “You got a problem?” Gallegos challenged. “Write a letter.”
So much for promoting the values of a liberal democracy.
The GOP, masters of unintentional comedy. And there’s more:
Then there was the question of what to say about Iraq, whose democracy has deteriorated to the point that it no longer qualifies to attend meetings of the Community of Democracies. The committee resolved to deal with this issue by avoiding it. In the three-hour meeting — at least the portion of it reporters were allowed to witness — Iraq got only three passing references.
To help fill the time without talking about Iraq, the committee members took turns bathing Rice in praise.
“You had no notes. You just spoke honestly to us. I was very impressed,” said Mark Palmer.
“I have to say, as I listen to you, Madam Secretary, that something comes through that’s very genuine,” said Brian Atwood.
“Very comprehensive and coherent,” commented Carl Gershman.
“Powerful,” agreed Crocker.
“Your insightful words,” said Kenneth Wollack, “come from the heart as well as the head.”
Rice reciprocated by praising her committee. “We’ve already gotten some outstanding recommendations. . . . I think the other recommendations are great. . . . I couldn’t agree more. . . . I agree completely. . . . Great comments. . . . I find myself in violent agreement with what’s been said around the table.”
The secretary of state offered the committee members a provocative thought to start their deliberations. She asserted that the “first goal” of American foreign policy should be developing democracies. “Now, why don’t I say ‘war on terror’ or whatever?” she continued. “Because without well-governed, democratic states, you’re likely to have failed states or authoritarian states that are going to submerge but not deal with the unhealthy political forces that lead to extremism.”
But the participants’ thoughts were more academic as they moved from election management to Bangladesh to education to the relative merits of opium poppy and pomegranates in Afghanistan.
“Poverty is a cancer that affects democracy,” Atwood argued.
“The real cancer is corruption,” Gershman rebutted.
And there’s still more, but I have to stop. My stomach hurts.
We need an administration that understands and appreciate’s the government’s responsibility to protect the public, rather than the GOP administration that mainly exists to raid the Treasury and protect the profits of Big Business. The GOP, as AmericaBlog points out, slashes the budgets of protective agencies (like the FDA), and then says, “See, it doesn’t work.” They totally miss the point: it’s the responsibility of the administration to make it work. Via AmericaBlog, this story from Associated Press. (Note: all the good stuff is below the fold, so be sure to click the “Read more” link.)
Just 1.3 percent of imported fish, vegetables, fruit and other foods are inspected — yet those government inspections regularly reveal food unfit for human consumption.
Frozen catfish from China, beans from Belgium, jalapenos from Peru, blackberries from Guatemala, baked goods from Canada, India and the Philippines — the list of tainted food detained at the border by the
Food and Drug Administration stretches on.
Add to that the contaminated Chinese wheat gluten that poisoned cats and dogs nationwide and led to a massive pet food recall, and you’ve got a real international pickle. Does the United States have the wherewithal to ensure the food it imports is safe?
Food safety experts say no.
With only a minuscule percentage of shipments inspected, they say the nation is vulnerable to harm from abroad, where rules and regulations governing food production are often more lax than they are at home.
“FDA doesn’t have enough resources or control over this situation presently,” said Mike Doyle (news, bio, voting record), director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, which works with industry to improve safety.
Last month alone, FDA detained nearly 850 shipments of grains, fish, vegetables, nuts, spice, oils and other imported foods for issues ranging from filth to unsafe food coloring to contamination with pesticides to salmonella.
And that’s with just 1.3 percent of the imports inspected. As for the other 98.7 percent, it’s not inspected, much less detained, and goes to feed the nation’s growing appetite for imported foods.
Each year, the average American eats about 260 pounds of imported foods, including processed, ready-to-eat products and single ingredients. Imports account for about 13 percent of the annual diet.
“Never before in history have we had the sort of system that we have now, meaning a globalization of the food supply,” said Robert Brackett, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
FDA inspections focus on foods known to be at risk for contamination, including fish, shellfish, fruit and vegetables. Food from countries or producers previously shown to be problematic also are flagged for a closer look.
Consider this list of Chinese products detained by the FDA just in the last month: frozen catfish tainted with illegal veterinary drugs, fresh ginger polluted with pesticides, melon seeds contaminated with a cancer-causing toxin and filthy dried dates.
But even foods expected to be safe can harbor unexpected perils. Take wheat gluten: Grains and grain byproducts like it are rarely eaten raw and generally pose few health risks, since cooking kills bacteria and other pathogens.
Even so, the FDA can’t say for sure whether the ingredient used in the pet foods was inspected after it arrived from China. And if the wheat gluten was, officials said, it wouldn’t have been tested for melamine. Even though the chemical isn’t allowed in food for pets or people, in any quantity, it previously wasn’t believed toxic.
How did the melamine wind up in the wheat gluten? Investigators still don’t know. Meanwhile, China is struggling to overhaul its food system and improve safety standards, but still faces major hurdles.
Farmers use pesticides and chemical fertilizers to build produce yields and antibiotics are used on seafood and livestock. Heavy metals also can be introduced into the food chain by widespread industrial pollution.
Increasingly, those foods are sold in a now global marketplace.
While the European Union, Canada and Mexico still top the list of food exporters to the U.S., China is coming up fast. Since 1997, the value of Chinese food imports, including commodities like wheat gluten, has more than tripled, to $2.1 billion from $644 million, according to Agriculture Department statistics. It accounts for 3.3 percent of the total food the U.S. buys abroad.
For suspect imported products — and wheat gluten is now one of them — the FDA issues alerts to its inspectors. The FDA flags Chinese food and other imported products it regulates, like cosmetics, for that extra scrutiny more than any other country except Mexico.
All told, the U.S. is expected to import a record $70 billion in agricultural products for the 12 months ending in September, according to an Agriculture Department forecast. The value of those imports will be about double the nearly $36 billion purchased overseas in 1997.
Contributing to that growth are the fresh fruits and vegetables imported during the offseason, when domestic production dwindles or ends.
About one-quarter of our fruit, both fresh and frozen, is imported. For tree nuts, it’s about half. And for fish and shellfish, more than two-thirds come from overseas.
Even as the amount of imported food increased, the percentage of FDA inspections declined — from 1.8 percent in 2003 to 1.3 percent this year to an expected 1.1 percent next year.
“Inspections have a very important role but they’re not the solution. They are the verification,” FDA commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach said.
The FDA and the USDA have adopted a “risk-based” inspection philosophy, focusing on specific foods, sources or producers that they believe represent the largest potential risk to the public’s health.
“The public at large is not at any increased risk,” said Craig Henry, senior vice president and chief operating officer for scientific and regulatory affairs of the Grocery Manufacturers-Food Products Association, an industry group. [Well, an industry group thinks we shouldn't worry. Big surprise. Technical name for the statement: "Worthless testimony; self-serving testimony. See also: lies." - LG]
Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, countered that “risk-based” is just shorthand for “reduced resources.”
“Whenever they say ‘risk-based approach,’ it often means they don’t have enough staff to actually do the job. They’re doing triage. They’re trying to hit what’s most important to inspect but they’re missing a lot,” DeWaal said.
Groups lobbying to increase the FDA’s budget say its spending on food safety has languished, despite the agency’s outsized role in ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply.
A recent Government Accountability Office report noted that most of the $1.7 billion the federal government allocates to food safety goes to the USDA, which is responsible for regulating about 20 percent of the food supply. The FDA, responsible for most of the other 80 percent, gets about 24 percent of the total spent on food safety.
Unlike the FDA, the USDA requires foreign inspection certificates to accompany all products it regulates, which include meat and poultry. Those imports are then reinspected at each port of entry before they are allowed into this country — something that doesn’t happen to all FDA-regulated imports.
It’s a success, all right, just not for the US (or the Iraqis). From Reuters:
The head of an al Qaeda-led group in Iraq said the country has become a “university of terrorism” producing highly qualified warriors since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
In an audio recording posted on the Internet on Tuesday, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq, said his fighters were successfully confronting U.S. forces in Iraq and have begun producing a guided missile called al-Quds 1 or Jerusalem 1.
“The largest batch of soldiers for jihad … in the history of Iraq are graduating and they have the highest level of competence in the world,” Baghdadi said.
He also sought to mend fences with other anti-U.S. insurgent groups in Iraq following reports of tensions between them.
“From the military point of view, one of the (enemy) devils was right in saying that if Afghanistan was a school of terror, then Iraq is a university of terrorism,” said the leader of the group set up last year by al Qaeda’s Iraq wing and some other Sunni groups.
“We would like to inform the mujahideen all over the world, and especially in Iraq, that the Quds (Jerusalem) 1 rocket has gone into the phase of military production,” Baghdadi said, adding that its length, weight, range and precision “matches those of world powers”.
Glenn Greenwald has another great column today, quoting media pundits trotting out the GOP talking points as if those were the facts, interposed with polls showing (a) how very much the public disagrees with those talking points, and (b) how the public’s view of events is totally opposed to what the media pundits say that it is. Media pundits operate at a higher level, a level that facts cannot reach and where facts, apparently, do not matter. Watch out for them—they’re hazardous to your view of reality.