Later On

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

Archive for February 12th, 2007

VA faces cutbacks

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As I blogged earlier, VA doesn’t have the resources now to meet the needs of veterans. Now Bush, the man who sent the troops to war without the equipment they needed (and they still can’t get armored Humvees) has decided to cut back on the VA:

The Bush administration plans to cut funding for veterans’ health care two years from now — even as badly wounded troops returning from Iraq could overwhelm the system.

Bush is using the cuts, critics say, to help fulfill his pledge to balance the budget by 2012.

After an increase sought for next year, the Bush budget would turn current trends on their head. Even though the cost of providing medical care to veterans has been growing rapidly — by more than 10 percent in many years — White House budget documents assume consecutive cutbacks in 2009 and 2010 and a freeze thereafter.

The proposed cuts are unrealistic in light of recent VA budget trends — its medical care budget has risen every year for two decades and 83 percent in the six years since Bush took office — sowing suspicion that the White House is simply making them up to make its long-term deficit figures look better.

“Either the administration is willingly proposing massive cuts in VA health care,” said Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, chairman of the panel overseeing the VA’s budget. “Or its promise of a balanced budget by 2012 is based on completely unrealistic assumptions.”

Edwards said that a more realistic estimate of veterans costs is $16 billion higher than the Bush estimate for 2012.

In fact, even the White House doesn’t seem serious about the numbers. It says the long-term budget numbers don’t represent actual administration policies. Similar cuts assumed in earlier budgets have been reversed.

The veterans cuts, said White House budget office spokesman Sean Kevelighan, “don’t reflect any policy decisions. We’ll revisit them when we do the (future) budgets.”

The number of veterans coming into the VA health care system has been rising by about 5 percent a year as the number of people returning from Iraq with illnesses or injuries keep rising. Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans represent almost 5 percent of the VA’s patient caseload, and many are returning from battle with grievous injuries requiring costly care, such as traumatic brain injuries.

All told, the VA expects to treat about 5.8 million patients next year, including 263,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The White House budget office, however, assumes that the veterans’ medical services budget — up 83 percent since Bush took office and winning a big increase in Bush’s proposed 2008 budget — can absorb a 2 percent cut the following year and remain essentially frozen for three years in a row after that.

“It’s implausible,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said of the budget projections.

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Written by Leisureguy

12 February 2007 at 8:05 pm

Sleep deprivation impairs memory

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Note to The Wife:

Want a sharper memory? Get some sleep.

Sleep deprivation tends to hamper the brain’s ability to make new memories, a new study shows. The study, published online in Nature Neuroscience, comes from researchers at Harvard Medical School and Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

In the study, Matthew Walker, PhD, and colleagues studied 28 healthy young adults aged 18-30 (average age: 22). Walker’s team split participants into two groups for the four-day study. Starting on the first day, the researchers kept one group awake for 35 straight hours at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Those participants were allowed to use the Internet or email, take short walks, read, or play board games. But they weren’t allowed to sleep — not even a quick nap.

Meanwhile, participants in the other group spent a normal night at home with no sleep restrictions.

At 6 p.m. the next day, all participants watched a slide show. They saw 150 slides of landscapes, objects, and people who weren’t celebrities.

Meanwhile, participants got high-tech brain scans, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Those brain scans showed that certain areas of the brain involved in memory were more active in participants who hadn’t been deprived of sleep.

After the slide show, everyone went home to sleep, with no sleep restrictions. But the study wasn’t over just yet. The following evening, participants took a pop quiz on the slides they had seen 24 hours earlier. They saw the same 150 slides, randomly mixed with 75 new slides.

Each slide was shown on a computer screen for a fraction of a second. Immediately after each image faded, participants had to indicate whether they’d seen it before. Those who had been sleep deprived on the first night of the study performed worst — even though they’d had a night to catch up on their sleep.

Those results could be particularly important nowadays, as many people skimp on sleep.

Walker’s team calls the findings “worrying … considering society’s increasing erosion of sleep time.”

Written by Leisureguy

12 February 2007 at 3:10 pm

Not to worry: the FBI’s on it

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Oh, wait…

The FBI lost 160 laptop computers in less than four years, including at least 10 that contained highly sensitive classified information and one that held “personal identifying information on FBI personnel,” according to a new report released today.

The bureau, which has struggled for years to get a handle on sloppy inventory procedures, also reported 160 missing weapons during the same time period, from February 2002 to September 2005, according to the report by the Justice Department inspector general’s office.

In addition to the 10 or more laptops that were confirmed to contain classified information, the FBI could not say whether another 51 computers might also contain secret data, the report said. Seven were assigned to the counterintelligence or counterterrorism divisions, which routinely handle classified information.

“Without knowing the content of these lost and stolen laptops, it is impossible for the FBI to determine the extent of the damage these losses might have had on its operations or on national security,” the inspector general’s office said.

FBI Associate Deputy Director Joseph L. Ford said in a written response that the report overstated the number of missing weapons by 43, but acknowledged that “more needs to be done to ensure the proper handling of the loss and theft of laptop computers.”

The report mirrors the results of a similar audit in 2002, which reported 354 weapons and 317 laptops lost or stolen at the FBI.

Although the scale of the FBI’s losses have improved, the new report said, investigators were still troubled by the numbers of missing items and the haphazard recordkeeping surrounding them. The report said that in some cases FBI officials did not attempt to assess the potential damage to national security when a laptop containing classified information was lost.

The FBI maintains more than 52,000 weapons and 26,000 laptops, the report said.

“Our review determined that the FBI has made some progress in improving its controls over weapons and laptops,” Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said. “However, significant deficiencies remain, particularly with regard to the FBI’s response to lost or stolen laptops that may contain sensitive information.”

The previous reports of missing items at the FBI and other Justice Department agencies prompted stern rebukes in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and vows by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and others to improve weapon and computer security.

The 2002 report found nearly 1,000 missing firearms in Justice agencies, including at least 18 weapons later recovered by local police departments in connection with criminal investigations. Several were used in armed robberies and one was found in the pocket of a murder victim, according to the previous audit.

Written by Leisureguy

12 February 2007 at 2:09 pm

1 Teraflops chip with 80 cores

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Somewhere this game passed me by:

A chip with 80 processing cores and capable of more than a trillion calculations per second (teraflops) has been unveiled by Intel. The Teraflops chip is not a commercial release but could point the way to more powerful processors, said the firm. The chip achieves performance on a piece of silicon no bigger than a fingernail that 11 years ago required a machine with 10,000 chips inside it.

The challenge is to find a way to program the many cores simultaneously. Current desktop machines have up to four separate cores, while the Cell processor inside the PlayStation 3 has eight (seven of them usable). Each core is effectively a programmable chip in its own right. But to take advantage of the extra processing power, programmers need to give instructions to each core that work in parallel with one another.

There are already specialist chips with multiple cores – such as those used in router hardware and graphics cards – but Dr Mark Bull, at the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre, said multi-core chips were forcing a sea-change in the programming of desktop applications.

“It’s not too difficult to find two or four independent things you can do concurrently, finding 80 or more things is more difficult, especially for desktop applications. It is going to require quite a revolution in software programming. Massive parallelism has been the preserve of the minority – a few people doing high-performance scientific computing. But that sort of thing is going to have to find its way into the mainstream.”

The first time teraflops performance was achieved was 11 years on the ASCI Red Supercomputer built by Intel for the Sandia National Laboratory. That machine took up more than 2,000 square feet, was powered by almost 10,000 Pentium Pro processors, and consumed more than 500 kilowatts of electricity.

“Our researchers have achieved a wonderful and key milestone in terms of being able to drive multi-core and parallel computing performance forward,” said Justin Rattner, Intel Senior Fellow and chief technology officer. “It points the way to the near future when teraflops-capable designs will be commonplace and reshape what we can all expect from our computers and the internet at home and in the office.”

The Teraflops chip uses less electricity than many current high-end processors, making the design attractive for use in home computers. It consumes 62 watts, and the cores can power on and off independently, making it more energy efficient.

Intel says that commercial spin-offs of the chip could see it being used in high-definition entertainment PCs, servers and handheld devices. Possible uses include artificial intelligence, instant video communications, photo-realistic games and real-time speech recognition, said the firm.

Written by Leisureguy

12 February 2007 at 2:04 pm

Posted in Software, Technology

Vindication! Naps are good

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It’s in the news, it must be true:

The next time the boss finds you snoozing at your desk, take heart — literally.

A large new study has found that people who regularly took a siesta were significantly less likely to die from heart disease.

“Taking a nap could turn out to be an important weapon in the fight against coronary mortality,” said Dimitrios Trichopoulos of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, who led the study published today in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The study of more than 23,000 Greek adults — the biggest and best investigation of the subject to date — found that those who regularly took a midday siesta were more than 30 percent less likely to die from heart disease.

Other experts said the results were intriguing. Heart disease claims more than 650,000 Americans each year, making it the nation’s No. 1 cause of death.

“It’s interesting. A little siesta, a little snooze may be beneficial,” said Gerald Fletcher, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., speaking on behalf of the American Heart Association. “It’s simple, but it has a lot of promise.”

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Written by Leisureguy

12 February 2007 at 12:26 pm

Top American general doesn’t buy Iran story

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He doesn’t believe it:

The top American military officer, General Peter Pace, declined Monday to endorse the conclusions of U.S. military officers in Baghdad, who told reporters on Sunday that the Iranian government is providing high-powered roadside bombs to insurgents in Iraq. General Pace made his comments during a visit to Australia, and VOA’s Al Pessin reports from Canberra.

Peter Pace (file photo)
Peter Pace (file photo)

General Pace said he was not aware of the Baghdad briefing, and that he could not, from his own knowledge, repeat the assertion made there that the elite Quds brigade of Iran’s Republican Guard force is providing bomb-making kits to Iraqi Shiite insurgents.

“We know that the explosively formed projectiles are manufactured in Iran. What I would not say is that the Iranian government, per se [specifically], knows about this,” he said. “It is clear that Iranians are involved, and it’s clear that materials from Iran are involved, but I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit.”

Military officers who spoke to reporters in Baghdad, Monday, on condition of anonymity, said the high-powered projectile bombs are made with parts manufactured in Iran and that intelligence indicates the parts are sent to Iraq with the approval of senior Iranian officials. The officials said the bombs, whose projectiles can pierce the skin of an armored vehicle, have killed 170 American troops.

General Pace at Australian War Memorial, 12 Feb. 2007
General Pace at Australian War Memorial, 12 Feb. 2007

General Pace also commented on an issue that has received a lot of attention in recent hours – the question of whether setting a specific timeline for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is a good idea. He says a withdrawal before Iraq’s government and military can maintain stability would be disastrous and would have a ‘spillover’ effect in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The general commented shortly after meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, but without specific reference to Howard’s long-distance dispute with U.S. presidential contender Barack Obama.

“I don’t see precise timelines as being useful. It should not be an open-ended commitment. Certainly it’s time for the Iraqis, as they are, to stand up and take on more of their own responsibility. But to put a precise timeline on it means that you are signaling to your potential enemies that, if they just hold their breath for this amount of time, then we’ll all be gone and they can come back out of the woodwork.”

The latest person to enter the race to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate next year, Senator Obama, has called for a withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq by March of next year. The Australian prime minister said terrorists would support such a plan. From around the world, Obama shot back that, if Howard feels so strongly, he should send 20,000 more Australian troops to Iraq.

General Pace at arrival ceremony in Canberra, 12 Feb. 2007
General Pace at arrival ceremony in Canberra, 12 Feb. 2007

Australia has just 1,400 troops in Iraq, and its entire active duty military is only 52,000 strong. But General Pace told reporters Monday the Australian troops are making a valuable contribution, in spite of their low numbers.

“The fight we’re in against terrorism is not about large armies versus large armies. It’s about small groups of individuals – five, 10, 15, 20 – who are reaching out to assist those who are in need,” he said. “And, in that regard, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, Australia should be able to take great pride.”

The general says all nations that value freedom should participate in fighting the global terrorist threat.

Written by Leisureguy

12 February 2007 at 12:13 pm

How we got into trouble with Iran

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We could have had a more productive approach, but… the Bush White House happened.

I would genuinely love to hear a Bush supporter defend this kind of abject stupidity. From a Newsweek article describing how and why U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorated in 2002:

In a pattern that would become familiar, however, a chill quickly followed the warming in relations. Barely a week after the Tokyo meeting, Iran was included with Iraq and North Korea in the “Axis of Evil.” Michael Gerson, now a NEWSWEEK contributor, headed the White House speechwriting shop at the time. He says Iran and North Korea were inserted into Bush’s controversial State of the Union address in order to avoid focusing solely on Iraq. At the time, Bush was already making plans to topple Saddam Hussein, but he wasn’t ready to say so. Gerson says it was Condoleezza Rice, then national-security adviser, who told him which two countries to include along with Iraq. But the phrase also appealed to a president who felt himself thrust into a grand struggle. Senior aides say it reminded him of Ronald Reagan’s ringing denunciations of the “evil empire.”

Once again, Iran’s reformists were knocked back on their heels. “Those who were in favor of a rapprochement with the United States were marginalized,” says Adeli. “The speech somehow exonerated those who had always doubted America’s intentions.”

Examples like these lead me to believe that our worst assumptions about the Bush gang — their breathtaking incompetence, their inability to put policy over politics, their tragic shortsightedness — aren’t nearly harsh enough. In instances like this one, the Bush White House’s stupidity is truly dangerous.

Think about the story here: the president’s chief speechwriter in 2002 fully acknowledged that he and the Secretary of State created the “axis of evil” line as a purely rhetorical exercise. Merit, diplomacy, and common sense were irrelevant.

The State of the Union could have just mentioned Iraq, but that would have made it appear that the administration was focused on an invasion (which, of course, it was). Instead, Gerson and Rice added Iran for purely rhetorical purposes, which in turn, led to a deteriorating relationship.

And all of this was acceptable to the president, of course, because “axis of evil” was reminiscent of “evil empire.” As if that was a good reason to antagonize Iran and utterly destroy promising diplomatic negotiations.

Isaac Chotiner asks, “Iran and North Korea were included [in an Axis of Evil] because of Bushian nostalgia and the desire to make people think war with Iraq wasn’t already a sure thing?” As it turns out, yes, that’s exactly why.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention that, a year later, the Bush gang continued to screw up the relationship with Iran even more.

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Written by Leisureguy

12 February 2007 at 10:47 am

Because it’s software doesn’t mean it works

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Face-composite software, for example:

Face-composite software is commonly used to generate images of crime suspects. But how accurate is it? We’ve reported here on a study suggesting that building face-composites may actually harm the memory of eyewitnesses. Now a new review article is suggesting that there are additional problems with the system:

Facial composite systems produce a poor likeness of the intended face. For instance, studies in which individuals attempt to create composites of celebrities have yielded extremely poor results. In one particular study, only 2.8 percent of participants correctly named a well-known celebrity that had been created by other participants using the face-composite software. In a separate study, participants were unable to discriminate composites of their classmates from composites of students at entirely different schools.

So not only do face-composite systems impact the memory of eyewitnesses, they also don’t appear to offer much help in identifying suspects. And there are additional problems:

Analyses of the first 180 DNA exonerations to occur in the United States revealed that mistaken eyewitness testimony was involved in 75percent of the cases. Guilty suspects may likewise be comforted or encouraged by poor composites poor composites that lead crime investigators towards innocent parties, says Wells. “Imagine the solace of the culprit who sees a composite of his face in the newspaper that looks nothing like his face.”

In light of the strong evidence against the usefulness of composites, combined with evidence of potential harm, I’d be interested to see arguments in favor of the system. Does it have any redeeming qualities?

Written by Leisureguy

12 February 2007 at 9:54 am

The GOP solution to scandal

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Remove those who are pointing out the scandal:

Two senior officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who opposed many questionable management and spending decisions by the agency’s former director are being moved to lower-ranking positions effective Thursday, officials said.

Deputy Director Edgar A. Domenech, who also served as acting director last year, is being moved out of ATF headquarters to lead the agency’s Washington field office. The assistant director for field operations, Michael Bouchard, will become an assistant to Michael J. Sullivan, a U.S. attorney who is temporarily running ATF.

The transfers are widely seen within ATF as demotions. They come seven months after the sudden departure of Carl J. Truscott, the former director, who clashed with Domenech and other senior executives over spending and management practices.

An inspector general’s report issued after his departure showed that Truscott — who previously served as head of President Bush’s security detail at the Secret Service — engaged in a wide-ranging pattern of questionable expenditures on a new ATF headquarters, personal security and other items. The report also said that he violated ethics rules by forcing employees to help his nephew prepare a high school video project.

Domenech took over for Truscott after he resigned and reversed a decision to include a costly engraved quotation from Bush’s speech to Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the new headquarters entrance.

ATF spokeswoman Sheree Mixell characterized the moves as routine and said “both are important positions.”

Domenech and Bouchard could not be reached to comment last week.

The new deputy director will be Ronnie A. Carter, a 27-year ATF veteran, who has headed the agency’s Dallas office since 2002. Bouchard’s replacement is William J. Hoover, a 20-year veteran. Hoover headed the Boston office for about three years before taking over the Washington office in January 2006.

Written by Leisureguy

12 February 2007 at 9:32 am

Once again the propaganda machine lurches forth

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This time trying to sell us on making an attack on Iran. Juan Cole points out weaknesses in the propaganda:

This NYT article depends on unnamed USG sources who alleged that 25 percent of US military deaths and woundings in Iraq in October-December of 2006 were from explosively formed penetrator bombs fashioned in Iran and given to Shiite militias:

‘ In the last three months of 2006, attacks using the weapons accounted for a significant portion of Americans killed and wounded in Iraq, though less than a quarter of the total, military officials say.’

This claim is one hundred percent wrong. Because 25 percent of US troops were not killed fighting Shiites in those three months. Day after day, the casualty reports specify al-Anbar Province or Diyala or Salahuddin or Babil, or Baghdad districts such as al-Dura, Ghaziliyah, Amiriyah, etc.–and the enemy fighting is clearly Sunni Arab guerrillas. And, Iran is not giving high tech weapons to Baathists and Salafi Shiite-killers. It is true that some casualties were in “East Baghdad” and that Baghdad is beginning to rival al-Anbar as a cemetery for US troops:

Robert Burns of AP observes,

“The increasingly urban nature of the war is reflected in the fact that a higher percentage of U.S. deaths have been in Baghdad lately. Over the course of the war through Feb. 6, at least 1,142 U.S. troops have died in Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency, according to an AP count. That compares with 713 in Baghdad. But since Dec. 28, 2006, there were more in Baghdad than in Anbar – 33 to 31.”

Over all, only a fourth of US troops had been killed Baghdad (713 or 23.7 percent of about 3000) through the end of 2006. But US troops aren’t fighting Shiites anyplace else– Ninevah, Diyala, Salahuddin–these are all Sunni areas. For a fourth of US troops to be being killed or wounded by Shiite EFPs, all of the Baghdad deaths would have to be at the hands of Shiites!

The US military often does not announce exactly where in Baghdad a GI is killed and so I found it impossible to do a count of Sunni versus Shiite neighborhoods. But we know that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was running interference for the Mahdi Army last fall, and it seems unlikely to me that very many US troops died fighting Shiites in Baghdad. The math of Gordon’s article does not add up at all if this were Shiite uses of Iran-provided EFPs.

So the unnamed sources at the Pentagon are reduced to implying that Iran is giving sophisticated bombs to its sworn enemies and the very groups that are killing its Shiite Iraqi allies every day. Get real!

Moreover, there is no evidence of Iranian intentions to kill US troops. If Iran was giving EFPs to anyone, it was to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its Badr Corps paramilitary, for future use. SCIRI is the main US ally in Iraq aside from the Kurds. I don’t know of US troops killed by Badr, certainly not any time recently.

It is far more likely that corrupt arms merchants are selling and smuggling these things than that there is direct government- to- militia transfer. It is possible that small Badr Corps stockpiles were shared or sold. That wouldn’t have been Iran’s fault.

Some large proportion of US troops being killed in Iraq are being killed with bullets and weapons supplied by Washington to the Iraqi army, which are then sold by desperate or greedy Iraqi soldiers on the black market. This problem of US/Iraqi government arms getting into the hands of the Sunni Arab guerrillas is far more significant and pressing than whatever arms smugglers bring in from Iran.

We now know that Iran came to the US early in 2003 with a proposal to cooperate with Washington in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and that VP Richard Bruce Cheney rebuffed it. The US could have had Iran on its side in Iraq!

The attempt to blame these US deaths on Iran is in my view a black psy-ops operation. The claim is framed as though this was a matter of direct Iranian government transfer to the deadliest guerrillas. In fact, the most fractious Shiites are the ones who hate Iran the most. If 25 percent of US troops are being killed and wounded by explosively formed projectiles, then someone should look into who is giving those EFPs to Sunni Arab guerrillas. It isn’t Iran.

Finally, it is obvious that if Iran did not exist, US troops would still be being blown up in large numbers. Sunni guerrillas in al-Anbar and West Baghdad are responsible for most of the deaths. The Bush administration’s talent for blaming everyone but itself for its own screw-ups is on clear display here.

For more skepticism, see this column at Huffington; and Glenn Greenwald; and Think Progress.

Written by Leisureguy

12 February 2007 at 9:24 am

Great little feature on the history of shaving

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Including the history of the blade, the history of lather, and so on. What is especially fun is looking for the products you know to flash by: the Merkur Slant Bar, the Merkur Vision, the Merkur double-edged blade, …

Written by Leisureguy

12 February 2007 at 8:37 am

Posted in Daily life, Shaving, Video

Starting the week of shaving sticks

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This morning, QED Mocha-Java, along with the Vision. Wonderfully smooth shave, topped off with the alum bar and a new bay rum, Ogallala Bay Rum aftershave and Ogallala Bay Rum cologne. The coffee is Ethiopian Harrar.

Written by Leisureguy

12 February 2007 at 8:01 am

Posted in Daily life, Shaving

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