Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for March 13th, 2010

Making CEOs Responsible for Company Financials Didn’t Stop Lehman From Cooking the Books

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And profits are so important that if a company can’t get them legitimately, it will immediately lie. Megan Carpentier at Washington Independent:

One of the major components of the post-Enron accounting reforms, and laughable so, was a provision requiring that all CEOs sign off on their company’s financial statements. It was supposed to prevent CEOs from willfully looking the other way while subordinates cooked the company books (i.e., deny them plausible deniability) and inculcate in American corporate culture a sense of responsibility. It was laughable then, and, as yesterday’s report on the book-cooking that went on at Lehman Brothers proves, it’s laughable today.

The provision was based on the assumption that when CEOs admitted they didn’t know about accounting “errors” that caused collapses and massive disruptions, that they were telling the truth and that, if they had to be personally responsible, they might look into accounting irregularities and stop mischievous underlings from ruining companies. It’s surprising now to think that Congress was that gullible, or thought the American people were.

In the case of Lehman CEO Richard Fuld, he’s been found “grossly negligent” for certifying accounting statements he made no effort to look into, just as you might think. According to Michael de la Merced and Andrew Sorkin, Lehman shifted $50 billion off its books with fraudulent accounting tricks in the months before its collapse. They’d been engaging in the transaction since 2001, and there wasn’t a thing that the post-Enron regulations did to stop it.

Richard S. Fuld Jr., Lehman’s former chief executive, certified the misleading accounts, the report said.

“Unbeknownst to the investing public, rating agencies, government regulators, and Lehman’s board of directors, Lehman reverse engineered the firm’s net leverage ratio for public consumption,” Mr. Valukas wrote.

Mr. Fuld was “at least grossly negligent,” the report states, adding that Henry M. Paulson Jr., who was then the Treasury secretary, warned Mr. Fuld that Lehman might fail unless it stabilized its finances or found a buyer.

But there’s more: Mike Spector, Susanne Craig and Peter Lattman at The Wall Street Journal report that a senior executive flagged the transactions for management and the auditors as fraudulent — but was, of course, ignored.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 7:02 pm

Posted in Business, Government, Law

Chamber of Commerce (Again) Hopes to Scale Back Proposed Black Lung Benefits

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Businesses don’t care about their employees or their customers, only their owners and their profits. An example reported by Mike Lillis in the Washington Independent:

With black lung disease on the rise in Appalachia, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (D) last year took action. As Democratic leaders were piecing together their sweeping health reform proposal, the nine-term Byrd attached language that would expand black lung benefits for coal miners and their families.

It hasn’t been well received by the business community.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is attacking the provision (again), Politico reported yesterday, and their strategy for killing it is clear: They want to put it in the same category as the special Medicaid deal carved out to win the support of Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson (D) — a deal so unpopular that even Nelson doesn’t support it any longer.

“This had to be another one of those backrooms deals that was put into the larger bill to cobble votes together,” Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s top lobbyist, told Politico.

Never mind that that wasn’t the case. Byrd’s office has been quick to point out that the language was a part of the Senate HELP Committee bill that passed that panel last July.

“This is nothing new coming from the chamber,” Byrd’s office said today in an email. “They were opposed to this provision before it passed the Senate in December, as they were with the entire health care reform bill.”

Under current law, miners have to prove that they’ve got black lung disease before they become eligible for benefits through the Black Lung Disability Trust, a 32-year-old program funded largely with an excise tax on coal companies. The Byrd amendments would (1) extend benefits to spouses of miners who’ve died from black lung, and (2) install the legal presumption that sick miners with at least 15 years experience are suffering from black lung, thereby allowing them to tap the benefits unless insurers can prove that the illness is something else.

In a January statement, Byrd said that the changes are only fair to the workers of Appalachia.

These black lung benefits have been promised to coal miners who come down with totally disabling black lung disease. But too often the coal companies and the insurers have chosen to elude their responsibility to these ailing miners by out-lawyering and literally out-lasting them.

Who will stand up for these families who have lost a loved one or the ability to earn a living because of the years they spent toiling inside a coal mine?

Not, it would seem, the Chamber of Commerce.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 6:56 pm

Christopher Hitchens on the ten commandments

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Via Open Culture:

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 4:26 pm

Posted in Daily life, Religion

Daylight Savings Time starts tomorrow, and it costs energy

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Interesting paper with the finding that going to DST does NOT save energy but instead costs energy:

You can’t save daylight by moving around the hands on your clock, of course. So daylight saving time remains as absurdly named as it ever was.

The general pointlessness of DST was the subject of a Rachel Maddow interview Friday (video below) with the author of a whole book (!) on the subject.

What’s germane here is that DST saves about as much energy as light, according to most studies.  In fact, a 2008 study found DST “may actually waste energy“:

Up until two years ago, only 15 of Indiana’s 92 counties set their clocks an hour ahead in the spring and an hour back in the fall. The rest stayed on standard time all year, in part because farmers resisted the prospect of having to work an extra hour in the morning dark. But many residents came to hate falling in and out of sync with businesses and residents in neighboring states and prevailed upon the Indiana Legislature to put the entire state on daylight-saving time beginning in the spring of 2006.

Indiana’s change of heart gave University of California-Santa Barbara economics professor Matthew Kotchen and Ph.D. student Laura Grant a unique way to see how the time shift affects energy use. Using more than seven million monthly meter readings from Duke Energy Corp., covering nearly all the households in southern Indiana for three years, they were able to compare energy consumption before and after counties began observing daylight-saving time. Readings from counties that had already adopted daylight-saving time provided a control group that helped them to adjust for changes in weather from one year to the next.

Their finding: Having the entire state switch to daylight-saving time each year, rather than stay on standard time, costs Indiana households an additional $8.6 million in electricity bills. They conclude that the reduced cost of lighting in afternoons during daylight-saving time is more than offset by the higher air-conditioning costs on hot afternoons and increased heating costs on cool mornings.

“I’ve never had a paper with such a clear and unambiguous finding as this,” says Mr. Kotchen, who presented the paper at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference this month.

A 2007 study by economists Hendrik Wolff and Ryan Kellogg of the temporary extension of daylight-saving in two Australian territories for the 2000 Summer Olympics also suggested the clock change increases energy use.

The Kotchen and Grant NBER paper is here.  It concludes: …

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 4:15 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Papal damage control underway regarding pedophile cover-up

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The Vatican is starting serious damage control, apparently depending heavily on lies and omissions. Rachel Donadio and Nicholas Kulish in the NY Times:

As new details emerged on allegations of child sexual abuse by a priest in the Munich archdiocese then led by Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican spoke out on Saturday to protect the pope against what it called an aggressive campaign against him in his native Germany.

At the same time, a high-ranking Vatican official overseeing internal investigations on Saturday acknowledged that 3,000 cases of suspected abuse of minors had come to its attention in the past decade, of which [only – LG] 20 percent had been brought to trial in Vatican courts.

In a note read on Vatican Radio on Saturday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said it was “evident that in recent days there are those who have tried, with a certain aggressive tenacity, in Regensburg and in Munich, to find elements to involve the Holy Father personally in issues of abuse.” He added, “It is clear that those efforts have failed.”

In Germany, a man who said he was sexually abused by a priest there in 1979 said Saturday that church officials had told him then that the priest would not be allowed to work with children again. Instead, the priest was allowed, under Benedict’s watch, to resume full duties almost immediately, where he went on to abuse more children. [This, along with Pope Benedict XVI's micromanaging style, pretty much establishes in my mind that Benedict covered up the problem, as it seems most Catholic Bishops did. The Church's aversion to scandal is MUCH greater than its commitment to justice. – LG]

The Vatican also sought to defend the pope against criticism that a Vatican rule requiring secrecy in abuse cases was tantamount to obstruction of justice in civil courts. [Yes, it is obstruction of justice: the things done were crimes and concealing the crime and helping the perpetrator is clearly obstruction of justice. – LG]

Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, the director of a tribunal inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal arm, dismissed as “false and calumnious” accusations that Benedict covered up abuse cases when he oversaw investigations for four years as prefect of that congregation before becoming pope…

Continue reading. Needless to say, Msgr. Scicluna does not adduce any facts to support his statements. And, later in the story:

… In Germany, where hundreds of people have come forward in the last few months with accusations of abuse by priests, new details emerged Saturday about a case in the Munich Archdiocese, where Benedict, then called Joseph Ratzinger, was archbishop.

A man who said he was sexually abused by a priest in Essen in 1979 said that when the abuse was reported the church handled the accusation as an internal matter without notifying the police or prosecutors. In a telephone interview on Saturday, the victim, who asked to be identified as Wilfried F. to protect his anonymity, said the pastor forced him to perform oral sex.

Wilfried F. was 11 years old at the time. His story was first reported Saturday in the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung...

And also this:

… In the interview on Saturday, Monsignor Scicluna also addressed accusations that the Vatican was obstructing justice by imposing secrecy on reports of abuse.

In 2001, Benedict, who was then in charge of Vatican investigations of abuse allegations, sent a letter to bishops counseling them to forward all cases of abuse of minors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where they were to be subject to secrecy…

Sure sounds like obstruction of justice and a cover-up to me. Especially since they then didn’t do anything for 80% of the cases.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 4:03 pm

Not news: Disney Corp is contemptible

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An example:

Source: New York Times, March 9, 2010

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is a small advocacy group that last fall successfully got the Walt Disney Company to offer full refunds to people who had purchased the company’s "Baby Einstein" videos, which were supposed to make very young children into geniuses. But research found that Baby Einstein videos not only failed to make babies smarter, but they actually delayed language development in toddlers. Kids who watched the videos learned fewer words than babies who never watched them.

In 2006, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood complained to the Federal Trade Commission about Disney’s educational claims about the videos. As a result, Disney dropped the word "educational" from their marketing materials for the videos, but that wasn’t enough. Lawyers threatened a class-action lawsuit for deceptive practices unless Disney agreed to refund the purchase price to everyone who had bought the videos. Disney finally agreed to the refund, calling it an "enhanced consumer satisfaction guarantee," without mentioning the product’s defect or the lawyers’ demands.

Shortly after the New York Times announced the refunds, though, Disney contacted officials at the children’s mental health center that had long housed and sponsored the Campaign, and pressured them to evict the Campaign, saying the group should not advocate against corporations (even though advocacy is a core responsibility of the 1963 law that provides federal financing for community mental health centers).

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 3:43 pm

Test your broadband

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Very interesting post at Balloon Juice by mistermix:

Whatever else he is (secret Muslim, socialist, hater of America and Real Americans), Obama is arguably the first, and certainly the second (after Carter) technocrat President. Technocrats tend to appoint other technocrats to technology positions, instead of making those spots political rewards for clueless insiders. Nowhere is that more obvious than the FCC, which is now run by an asskicker named Julius Genachowski. He replaced a Clinton-appointed and Bush-promoted mediocrity, Michael Powell (son of Colin).

It’s too early to tell whether Genachowski’s efforts will turn into real change, but he’s making a lot of the right noises. Here’s a love letter from a normally skeptical tech site, written a few months back:

The Genachowski-led FCC has been relentless in its effort to disrupt the status quo. In office for six months, Genachowski and team are drafting a national broadband plan; working on net neutrality rules; fingering companies like Google, Apple, and Verizon; dealing with spectrum reallocation; handling the nuts-and-bolts of white space device deployment; threatening to extend neutrality rules to wireless networks; and considering the transition from traditional circuit-switched phone networks to a full-IP communications network. Now, we can add “shaking up the cable industry” to the list.
[...]
So Genachowski doesn’t seem to be a radical, but he does appear to be both relentless and ambitious in his quest to see these ideas carried through to their maximum potential for disruptive innovation. And he’s not above irritating just about every major incumbent with a network to do it.

This is a long-winded way of saying that everyone ought to visit the latest FCC effort, broadband.gov, and test your broadband connection. The FCC is collecting data about Internet speed across the country to find out where broadband stimulus money can best be spent. If that site gets a ton of hits, not only will it collect good data, but the FCC will have more proof that the public is watching and gives a shit.

 

I did the test. My result:

Broadband test

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 3:39 pm

Click this link

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Please.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 10:48 am

Posted in Daily life, GOP

No more Thomas Jefferson in Texas textbooks (and thus in textbooks nationally)

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DJ Carella in ThinkProgress:

The Texas Board of Education has been meeting this week to revise its social studies curriculum. During the past three days, “the board’s far-right faction wielded their power to shape lessons on the civil rights movement, the U.S. free enterprise system and hundreds of other topics”:

– To avoid exposing students to “transvestites, transsexuals and who knows what else,” the Board struck the curriculum’s reference to “sex and gender as social constructs.”

– The Board removed Thomas Jefferson from the Texas curriculum, “replacing him with religious right icon John Calvin.”

– The Board refused to require that “students learn that the Constitution prevents the U.S. government from promoting one religion over all others.”

– The Board struck the word “democratic” from the description of the U.S. government, instead terming it a “constitutional republic.”

As the nation’s second-largest textbook market, Texas has enormous leverage over publishers, who often “craft their standard textbooks based on the specs of the biggest buyers.” Indeed, as The Washington Monthly has reported, “when it comes to textbooks, what happens in Texas rarely stays in Texas.”

UPDATE: Following repeated failed attempts to add figures in Hispanic history to the textbooks, one board member, Mary Helen Berlanga, stormed "out of the meeting late Thursday night, saying, ‘They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist.’"

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 10:45 am

Why does Obama hate the Public Option?

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Greenwald has an excellent column on the Public Option and how Obama is killing it. He begins:

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about what seemed to be a glaring (and quite typical) scam perpetrated by Congressional Democrats:  all year long, they insisted that the White House and a majority of Democratic Senators vigorously supported a public option, but the only thing oh-so-unfortunately preventing its enactment was the filibuster:  sadly, we have 50 but not 60 votes for it, they insisted.  Democratic pundits used that claim to push for "filibuster reform," arguing that if only majority rule were required in the Senate, then the noble Democrats would be able to deliver all sorts of wonderful progressive reforms that they were truly eager to enact but which the evil filibuster now prevents.  In response, advocates of the public option kept arguing that the public option could be accomplished by reconciliation — where only 50 votes, not 60, would be required — but Obama loyalists scorned that reconciliation proposal, insisting (at least before the Senate passed a bill with 60 votes) that using reconciliation was Unserious, naive, procedurally impossible, and politically disastrous.

But all those claims were put to the test — all those bluffs were called — once the White House decided that it had to use reconciliation to pass a final health care reform bill.  That meant that any changes to the Senate bill (which had passed with 60 votes) — including the addition of the public option — would only require 50 votes, which Democrats assured progressives all year long that they had.  Great news for the public option, right?  Wrong.  As soon as it actually became possible to pass it, the 50 votes magically vanished.  Senate Democrats (and the White House) were willing to pretend they supported a public option only as long as it was impossible to pass it.  Once reconciliation gave them the opportunity they claimed all year long they needed — a "majority rule" system — they began concocting ways to ensure that it lacked 50 votes.

All of that was bad enough, but now the scam is getting even more extreme, more transparent.  Faced with the dilemma of how they could possibly justify their year-long claimed support for the public option only now to fail to enact it, more and more Democratic Senators were pressured into signing a letter supporting the enactment of the public option through reconciliation; that number is now above 40, and is rapidly approaching 50.  In other words, there is a serious possibility that the Senate might enact a public option if there is a vote on it, because it’s very difficult for these Senators to vote "No" after pretending all year long — on the record — that they supported it.  In fact, The Huffington Post‘s Ryan Grim yesterday wrote:  "the votes appear to exist to include a public option. It’s only a matter of will."

The one last hope for Senate Democratic leaders was to avoid a vote altogether on the public option, thereby relieving Senators of having to take a position and being exposed.  But that trick would require the cooperation of all Senators — any one Senator can introduce a public option amendment during the reconciliation and force a vote — and it now seems that Bernie Sanders, to his great credit, is refusing to go along with the Democrats’ sham and will do exactly that:  ignore the wishes of the Senate leadership and force a roll call vote on the public option.

So now what is to be done?  They only need 50 votes, so they can’t use the filibuster excuse.  They don’t seem able to prevent a vote, as they tried to do, because Sanders will force one.  And it seems there aren’t enough Senate Democrats willing to vote against the public option after publicly saying all year long they supported it, which means it might get 50 votes if a roll call vote is held.  So what is the Senate Democratic leadership now doing?  They’re whipping against the public option, which they pretended all year along to so vigorously support:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 10:41 am

Paul Ryan And The Republican Vision

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Jonathan Chait in the New Republic:

Conservatives are very excited about Paul Ryan and his budget roadmap. Liberals are also excited, for very different reasons, about Ryan and his roadmap. This tells you that the roadmap is a highly clarifying document.

Ryan and his conservative allies believe that the roadmap clarifies the fact that they have laid out a plan to put the United States on sound fiscal footing, and the Democrats have not. I find this claim highly unconvincing, as does the well-respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which has a report showing that Ryan’s plan would dramatically increase the budget deficit. Ryan disputes the some of the claims in the report. CBPP stands by its report and plans to issue a response to Ryan’s response tomorrow.

I’m going to return to the question of whether Ryan’s plan increases or decreases the deficit in some future postings. It’s an interesting question, but I don’t think it’s the most interesting thing about Ryan’s plan. What I want to focus on is the ideological character of his plan.

The roadmap clarifies the essence of the Republican Party’s approach to domestic policy issues. The essence is opposition to the downward redistribution of income. The principle first emerged under Ronald Reagan, but only in fits and starts–Republican presidents agreed to a tax reform in 1986 and a deficit reduction in 1990 that did redistribute income from rich to poor. Over the last twenty years, though, opposition to downward redistribution has hardened into the sacred tenet of Republican policymaking. Ryan’s plan both codifies this principle and shows just how far the party is willing to go in its service.

Every major element of Ryan’s plan reflects this commitment. Begin with his proposed tax changes. Ryan would not only retain the Bush tax cuts for the highest earners, he would further lower the top tax rate to 25%. On top of that, he would repeal all taxes on corporate income, inherited estates, capital gains, and dividends. In other words, he would completely eliminate the most progressive elements of the tax code, and slash the next most progressive element. In their place he would impose a value-added tax, which would not bring in nearly enough revenue to replace the revenue lost from his tax cuts, but would fall much more heavily on the poor and middle class.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the current tax system in this country is only very slightly progressive. State and local taxes are regressive, federal taxes are somewhat progressive, and the net effect redistributes income, very slightly, from the rich to the not-rich:

 

Taxes

Ryan’s plan would make the federal tax code regressive, especially at the top, on top of an already-regressive state and local tax base. According to the Tax Policy Center, the richest 1% of all taxpayers, who earn more than 21% of the national income and currently pay about 25% of federal taxes, would pay 13% of federal taxes under Ryan’s plan…

Continue reading. The GOP always works to increase the wealth of the wealthy and to grind the middle and lower classes into servitude. That’s the GOP philosophy.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 10:07 am

The best argument against global warming

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An op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle by Peter Gleick:

Here is the best argument against global warming:

. . . .

Oh, right. There isn’t one.

There is no good argument against global warming. In all the brouhaha about tiny errors recently found in the massive IPCC report, the posturing by global climate deniers, including some elected officials, leaked emails, and media reports, here is one fact that seems to have been overlooked:

Those who deny that humans are causing unprecedented climate change have never, ever produced an alternative scientific argument that comes close to explaining the evidence we see around the world that the climate is changing.

Deniers don’t like the idea of climate change, they don’t believe it is possible for humans to change the climate, they don’t like the implications of climate change, they don’t like the things we might have to do to address it, or they just don’t like government or science. But they have no alternative scientific explanation that works.

Here is the way scientists think science works: Ideas and theories are proposed to explain the scientific principles we understand, the evidence we see all around us, and the mathematical models we use to test theories. Alternative theories compete. The ones that best explain reality are accepted, and any new idea must do a better job than the current one. And in this world, no alternative explanation for climate change has ever come close to doing a better job than the science produced by the climate community and represented by the IPCC and thousands of other reports. Indeed, the evidence that man-made climate change is already happening is compelling and overwhelming. And our water resources are especially vulnerable (see, for just one example, this previous blog post).

But the world of policy often doesn’t give a hoot for the world of science. That, of course, permits climate deniers to simply say “no, no, no” without having to come up with an idea that actually works better to explain what we see and know. That’s not science. It’s ideology…

Continue reading. The comments following the article are frightening in that they show almost total ignorance of the facts of the issue—even on who states that the heavy snowfall on the East Coast proves that global warming isn’t happening! Ye Gods. I recall Kierkegaard’s comment that it’s a terrible death to be trampled to death by geese.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 9:58 am

The Conventional Wisdom Isn’t Always Wrong

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Subtitled "Five things you think are true that are", Joshua Keating’s article in Foreign Policy is a refreshing read and a relief from the knee-jerk contrarianism that is so much in print these days.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 9:52 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

Does the GOP really want to raise ethics issues?

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Steve Benen:

For some reason, Republicans decided this week that what they really wanted to talk about was ethics. As the GOP sees it, notwithstanding their own party’s humiliating culture of corruption, this is an issue that might prove embarrassing for Democrats given recent incidents involving David Paterson, Eric Massa, and Charlie Rangel.

Today, the Democratic National Committee decided to launch its own ad, raising the stakes a bit.

For those of you who can’t watch clips from your work computers, the voice-over tells viewers, "Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell — a caucus racked by scandal. David Vitter — prostitution, violating his vows to his family and the public. John Ensign — an FBI investigation, allegations of hush money and jobs for silence, all to cover up his affair.

"Mitch McConnell and Michael Steele — they’ve done nothing to hold them accountable. After years of scandal, tell Republicans it’s time to clean up their act."

Towards the very end, the on-screen visual includes pictures of Tom DeLay — specifically, his mug-shot after his arrest — and Jack Abramoff.

The spot is reportedly poised to begin airing on cable in D.C., where pundits and politicos are most likely to see it.

To reiterate a point from the other day, there are obviously some Dems who’ve run into trouble of late. But if Republicans think they can claim the high ground on ethics, and that this has the potential to be a winning issue for them, they should expect to see more ads like this one.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 9:39 am

Posted in Congress, Daily life, GOP, Video

French bread spiked with LSD in CIA experiment

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I don’t think that US allies sign up for things like this. Henry Samuel in the Telegraph, via Boing Boing:

In 1951, a quiet, picturesque village in southern France was suddenly and mysteriously struck down with mass insanity and hallucinations. At least five people died, dozens were interned in asylums and hundreds afflicted.

For decades it was assumed that the local bread had been unwittingly poisoned with a psychedelic mould. Now, however, an American investigative journalist has uncovered evidence suggesting the CIA peppered local food with the hallucinogenic drug LSD as part of a mind control experiment at the height of the Cold War.

The mystery of Le Pain Maudit (Cursed Bread) still haunts the inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit, in the Gard, southeast France.

On August 16, 1951, the inhabitants were suddenly racked with frightful hallucinations of terrifying beasts and fire.

One man tried to drown himself, screaming that his belly was being eaten by snakes. An 11-year-old tried to strangle his grandmother. Another man shouted: "I am a plane", before jumping out of a second-floor window, breaking his legs. He then got up and carried on for 50 yards. Another saw his heart escaping through his feet and begged a doctor to put it back. Many were taken to the local asylum in strait jackets.

Time magazine wrote at the time: "Among the stricken, delirium rose: patients thrashed wildly on their beds, screaming that red flowers were blossoming from their bodies, that their heads had turned to molten lead."

Eventually, it was determined that the best-known local baker had unwittingly contaminated his flour with ergot, a hallucinogenic mould that infects rye grain. Another theory was the bread had been poisoned with organic mercury.

However, H P Albarelli Jr., an investigative journalist, claims the outbreak resulted from a covert experiment directed by the CIA and the US Army’s top-secret Special Operations Division (SOD) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 9:37 am

How to master roasted vegetables

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Excellent reference article by Frances Lam in Salon. Worth copying and keeping.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 9:32 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Recipes

First corporation as Congressional candidate

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John Wagner in the Washington Post:

Murray Hill might be the perfect candidate for this political moment: young, bold, media-savvy, a Washington outsider eager to reshape the way things are done in the nation’s capital. And if these are cynical times, well, then, it’s safe to say Murray Hill is by far the most cynical.

That’s because this little upstart is, in fact, a start-up. Murray Hill is actually Murray Hill Inc., a small, five-year-old Silver Spring public relations company that is seeking office to prove a point (and perhaps get a little attention).

After the Supreme Court declared that corporations have the same rights as individuals when it comes to funding political campaigns, the self-described progressive firm took what it considers the next logical step: declaring for office.

"Until now, corporate interests had to rely on campaign contributions and influence-peddling to achieve their goals in Washington," the candidate, who was unavailable for an interview, said in a statement. "But thanks to an enlightened Supreme Court, now we can eliminate the middle-man and run for office ourselves."

William Klein, a "hired gun" who has been enlisted as Murray Hill’s campaign manager, said the firm appears to be the first "corporate person" to run for office and is promising a spirited campaign that "puts people second, or even third."

The corporate candidate already has its own Web site, a Facebook page with 2,600 fans and an online ad on YouTube that has drawn more than 172,000 hits.

The ad makes a particularly passionate case for why it’s necessary to have more direct corporate representation in Congress.

In a soothing voice, a narrator bemoans that "as much as corporate interests gave to politicians, we could never be absolutely sure they would do our bidding." The ad includes images of gleaming office towers and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and promises Murray Hill will bring "enlightened self-interest and corporate accounting" to Congress.

It concludes with a rousing call to action: "Vote for Murray Hill Incorporated for Congress — for the best democracy money can buy."

The firm, whose clients include labor unions and environmentalists, is seeking to enter the Republican primary for the 8th District seat held by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D)…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 9:30 am

The origin of species

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We seem to have discovered at last how speciation works—and it is consistent with the idea that, were we to roll back life on Earth to the beginning and rerun the tape, we’d end up with totally different species. Bob Holmes has an excellent article in the latest New Scientist that explains. From the article:

… Whenever a large number of small factors combine to produce an outcome – whether it be a combination of nature and nurture determining an individual’s height, economic forces setting stock prices, or the vagaries of weather dictating daily temperatures – a big enough sample of such outcomes tends to produce the familiar bell-shaped curve that statisticians call a normal distribution. For example, people’s height varies widely, but most heights are clustered around the middle values. So, if speciation is the result of many small evolutionary changes, Pagel realised, then the time interval between successive speciation events – that is, the length of each branch in an evolutionary tree – should also fit a bell-shaped distribution (see diagram below). That insight, straightforward as it was, ran into a roadblock, however: there simply weren’t enough good evolutionary trees to get an accurate statistical measure of the branch lengths. So Pagel filed his idea away and got on with other things.

Then, a few years ago, he realised that reliable trees had suddenly become abundant, thanks to cheap and speedy DNA sequencing technology. "For the first time, we have a large tranche of really good phylogenetic trees to test the idea," he says. So he and his colleagues Chris Venditti and Andrew Meade rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in.

The team gleaned more than 130 DNA-based evolutionary trees from the published literature, ranging widely across plants, animals and fungi. After winnowing the list to exclude those of questionable accuracy, they ended up with a list of 101 trees, including various cats, bumblebees, hawks, roses and the like…

Origin of species

Read the whole article. Fascinating.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 9:28 am

Posted in Evolution, Science

Soft brush, great lather

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Some find Mitchell’s Wool Fat shaving soap hard to lather. Today I picked my softest, fluffiest brush, and I got a great lather. The secret is no secret: spend enough time brushing the tips of the wet brush briskly over the surface of the soap to load the brush with enough soap to get a good lather—45 second is not too much.

I think applied the fine lather to my beard, and with the Mühle porcelain-handled razor and an aging Gillette 7 O’Clock SharpEdge blade proceeded to get a fine shave, which I finished with TOBS Sandalwood aftershave.

As always, my first step was to wash my beard with MR GLO. Today I felt it was time to break out a new bar. Here’s a before-and-after photo of the soap:

As always, click photos to enlarge the image.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2010 at 9:15 am

Posted in Shaving

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