Later On

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

Archive for August 25th, 2008

The FBI: another opportunity missed

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This is maddening:

Long before the mortgage crisis began rocking Main Street and Wall Street, a top FBI official made a chilling, if little-noticed, prediction: The booming mortgage business, fueled by low interest rates and soaring home values, was starting to attract shady operators and billions in losses were possible.

“It has the potential to be an epidemic,” Chris Swecker, the FBI official in charge of criminal investigations, told reporters in September 2004. But, he added reassuringly, the FBI was on the case. “We think we can prevent a problem that could have as much impact as the S&L crisis,” he said.

Today, the damage from the global mortgage meltdown has more than matched that of the savings-and-loan bailouts of the 1980s and early 1990s. By some estimates, it has made that costly debacle look like chump change. But it’s also clear that the FBI failed to avert a problem it had accurately forecast.

Banks and brokerages have written down more than $300 billion of mortgage-backed securities and other risky investments in the last year or so as homeowner defaults leaped and weakness in the real estate market spread.

In California alone, lenders have foreclosed on $100 billion worth of homes over the last two years and are foreclosing at a rate of 1,300 houses every business day, according to a recent report from

Most observers have declared the mess a gross failure of regulation. To be sure, in the run-up to the crisis, market-oriented federal regulators bragged about their hands-off treatment of banks and other savings institutions and their executives. But it wasn’t just regulators who were looking the other way. The FBI and its parent agency, the Justice Department, are supposed to act as the cops on the beat for potentially illegal activities by bankers and others. But they were focused on national security and other priorities, and paid scant attention to white-collar crimes that may have contributed to the lending and securities debacle.

Now that the problems are out in the open, the government’s response strikes some veteran regulators as too little, too late.

Swecker, who retired from the FBI in 2006, declined to comment for this article.

But sources familiar with the FBI budget process, who were not authorized to speak publicly about the growing fraud problem, say that he and other FBI criminal investigators sought additional assistance to take on the mortgage scoundrels.

They ended up with fewer resources, rather than more.

In 2007, the number of agents pursuing mortgage fraud shrank to around 100. By comparison, the FBI had about 1,000 agents deployed on banking fraud during the S&L bust of the 1980s and ’90s, said Anthony Adamski, who oversaw financial crime investigations for the FBI at the time.

The FBI says it now has about 200 agents working on mortgage fraud, but critics say the agency might have averted much of the problem had it heeded its own warning.

“The FBI correctly diagnosed that mortgage fraud was epidemic, but it did not come close to meeting its announced goal,” said William K. Black, who was a federal regulator during the S&L crisis and now teaches economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“It used everyday procedures and woefully inadequate resources to deal with an epidemic,” he said. “The approach was certain to bring symbolic prosecutions and strategic defeat.”

The mortgage debacle has laid bare a system marked by dubious practices at every stage of the process.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 5:18 pm

Dazed Iraqi teen suicide bomber says she didn’t want to die

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She’s just 15 years old. The story is here, including this (12-minute) video of her capture. Story begins:

The 15-year-old girl had the chubby cheeks of a child who hadn’t lost her baby fat when she was arrested Sunday by an alert policeman. Around her chest was a vest packed with explosives. The policeman chained her to the bars of a window, stripped off her dress, found the vest and deactivated the bomb. Had he not intervened, Rania would have been this year’s 31st suicide bomber in Iraq.

A day later, Rania seemed in a daze as she spoke about the people who put her up to it: the relatives who forced her to don the vest and apparently drugged her, her husband, whom police accuse of being a member of the group al Qaida in Iraq, and her mother, who seemed to play a central role in turning Rania into a human bomb but whom she looked to as a rescuer.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Dazed Iraqi teen suicide bomber says …“, posted with vodpod

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 5:10 pm

Diacritical marks at half price

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Tom Colvin notes:

I doubt that you’ve ever heard of the small computer utility Diacrit.  But if you ever need to write using foreign accent marks — mañana, amigo — and other special characters, this little tool is invaluable.  I rely on it almost daily.

Of course, one can turn to Microsoft’s character map or even learn the various shortcut keys.  But that’s a hassle for writers who only need this facility occasionally.  More significant, not all programs recognize these shortcut keys, requiring more arcane steps to enter such characters.  For example, I use an expensive bibliographic program, yet it’s a major task to enter book titles and author names with proper accents without the help of Diacrit.

Diacrit solves the problem.  One simply calls up the program, indicating which language or character set one needs,, and a small box containing the characters appears on-screen   Whenever one needs a special character, one just copies and pastes it into place.

Then he tells where you can get the package for half price ($9.75) on this Wednesday only (though you can download the package as a trial version and use it until Wednesday to help you decide).

It even has the Esperanto diacritics: Ĉ ĉ and so on.

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 4:44 pm

Posted in Daily life, Software

ListPro at 51% discount—but just for 4 more hours

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I almost missed this. Check it out. (After the 4 hours are up, the link will show some other deal. But ListPro looks very nice indeed for the list-oriented.)

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Daily life, Software

One chicken, four meals

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Very good post with recipes and also some excellent guidance for the kind of chicken you should buy.

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 3:18 pm

Yet another obesity mechanism discovered

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From New Scientist:

Next time you guiltily devour a pot of ice cream, blame it on childhood illness. By damaging a nerve involved in the sensation of creaminess, ear infections may up the odds of obesity in later life.

A team led by Linda Bartoshuk at the University of Florida in Gainesville surveyed 1300 people, 245 of whom had a history of ear infections, and found that among the over-30s, those who had suffered from ear infections were twice as likely to be obese as those with no such history. A subsequent analysis of four US medical databases confirmed the link. Those who had suffered from ear infections also rated fattier foods as 18 per cent more pleasurable than the others.

Infections may damage the chorda tympani taste nerve, which is stimulated at the front of the tongue and passes through the middle ear to the brain, says Bartoshuk. She says that the nerve normally inhibits some of the creamy sensations of fatty foods, as part of a response that inhibits tactile sensations that would otherwise make us gag. But nerve damage would lower this inhibiting effect, making foods seem creamier and so more pleasurable.

“When you taste milk, it seems like cream,” says Bartoshuk, who used an anaesthetic to turn off the nerve, and then tasted foods. She presented the work at the American Psychological Association meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, on Thursday.

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 1:32 pm

Posted in Daily life, Food, Science

UK window into CIA activities

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An interesting post by Joanne Mariner, a human rights attorney.

This Wednesday, unless the UK foreign secretary takes rapid action, Britain’s High Court will hold a hearing to assess whether the UK government should be ordered to hand over secret documents to lawyers for a Guantanamo detainee. The detainee in question, Binyam Mohamed, faces possible charges of conspiracy and material support for terrorism before a military commission at Guantanamo.

Mohamed, an Ethiopian national and former UK resident, was arrested in Pakistan in April 2002. Transferred to US custody, he was reportedly rendered by the CIA to Morocco, detained there secretly for over a year, and then moved for several months to a secret CIA detention site in Afghanistan. He then spent a few months in military detention at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, and was ultimately brought to Guantanamo Bay in September 2004.

Mohamed claims that he was brutally tortured during his time in secret detention, and that the evidence that will likely be used to prosecute him is a result of that torture. He also claims that the UK government has information that supports his claims of abuse.

Last week, in an important judgment, the UK High Court ruled in Mohamed’s favor. It found that the British government was under a legal obligation to disclose to Mohamed’s counsel the information it possesses relating to Mohamed’s whereabouts, treatment, and interrogation between April 2002 and May 2004. The court emphasized that this information is “not merely necessary but essential” to Mohamed’s defense against military commission charges.

While the court stopped short of ordering the foreign secretary to hand over the information—allowing additional time for the national security implications of disclosure to be considered—it will reach the mandatory disclosure question at its hearing this week.

Binyam Mohamed came to Britain in 1994, when …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 1:07 pm

Snippets from Froomkin

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I always read Froomkin’s column, and today’s column has two particularly interesting snippets:

Michael Isikoff and Tony Hopfinger write for Newsweek: “A two-year-old letter by Vice President Dick Cheney that pushed a controversial Alaska natural-gas pipeline bill is getting renewed scrutiny because of recently disclosed evidence in the Justice Department’s corruption case against Sen. Ted Stevens. In a conversation secretly tape-recorded by the FBI on June 25, 2006, Stevens discussed ways to get a pipeline bill through the Alaska Legislature with Bill Allen, an oil-services executive accused of providing the senator with about $250,000 in undisclosed financial benefits. According to a Justice motion, Stevens told Allen, ‘I’m gonna try to see if I can get some bigwigs from back here and say, ‘Look . . . you gotta get this done’.’ Two days later, Cheney wrote a letter to the Alaska Legislature urging members to ‘promptly enact’ a bill to build the pipeline. The letter was considered unusual because the White House rarely contacts state lawmakers about pending legislative matters. It also angered state Democrats, who accused Cheney of pushing oil-company interests. The former executive director of Cheney’s energy task force had gone to work as a lobbyist for British Petroleum, one of three firms slated to build the pipeline.

“Stevens confirmed to Newsweek last week that he asked Cheney to write the letter. ‘We wanted the federal government to tell the state to act quickly on it,’ he said. (A spokesman for Alaska’s other senator, Lisa Murkowski, said her office also had contacts with Cheney’s office.) A Cheney spokeswoman said his office does not comment on pending legal matters.

And this—Bush is incredibly stupid to halt progress toward nuclear safety to make a political point. I understand that he doesn’t like Russia’s invasion of Georgia—I don’t like it myself—but he did create a precedent in his invasion of Iraq, and saying that sovereign nations should not invade other sovereign nations sounds extremely out of place on the lips of Bush and those who supported the Iraq war. Anyway, here’s what he’s done now:

Daniel Dombey writes in the Financial Times: “The Bush administration is set to put a high-profile nuclear deal with Russia on hold, according to US diplomats.

“Officials expect Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, to recommend that George W. Bush, president, recall the civil nuclear co-operation agreement from Congress in the wake of Russia’s conflict with Georgia. . . .

“The move to put the nuclear agreement on ice would darken prospects for bilateral co-operation between the two countries in the area of nuclear safety.”

Do you feel safer now?

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 11:53 am

Education and evolution

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It’s quite clear that evolution is basic to an understanding of life and how it develops and diversifies, so the teaching of evolution—and the teaching of how to ask questions and seek answers—is highly important, even though education often leads to change and new things. (Old Spanish proverb: “Let no new thing arise.” And it’s still the guiding view for those who crave stability above all.)

At any rate, here’s a long and interesting post on education and the teaching of evolution. Do read the whole thing. It begins:

It is so nice teaching biology to adults when there are no (obvious) Creationists in the classroom. It does not always happen that way – I have had a couple of cases in the past – but this time it was really nice as I could freely cover all topics deeply within an evolutionary framework (not always seen in my public notes, though, as I try to gauge the class first and then decide how overtly to talk ebout everything in evolutionary terms). It is always a conundrum. If there is a potential resentment of my lectures, I have to thread carefully. I have to remember that I am not trying to turn them into biologists, but that I am trying to make them think for themselves and to understand evolution even if they do not want to ‘believe’ it for religious reasons. Thus, I first teach about cell, heredity and development, which gives them (and me) tools for coverage of evolution. Then I explain evolution using insects as an example before ending with a “humans, of course” as well. Then I cover Origin of Life, evolution of diversity and current diversity. But I do not leave evolution behind when I move on to ecology, behavior and physiology either. More easily this time, but sometimes a little more ‘sneakily’ if I know I have Creationists in class.

So, I know exactly how difficult it is to teach even younger students – they are more likely to act rebelliously (adults will go along in order to get the grade and move on) and they are still more under the influence of parents and do not have enough world experiences. I admire high school teachers who teach Biology in areas of the country in which Creationism is rampant and most of the kids are likely to be a priori biased against it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 11:39 am

Odd effect of evolution of secondary sex characteristics

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The ostentatious, sometimes bizarre qualities that improve a creature’s chances of finding a mate may also drive the reproductive separation of populations and the evolution of new species, say two Indiana University Bloomington biologists. In the September 2008 issue of Evolution (now online), Armin Moczek and Harald Parzer examine males from four geographically separated populations of the horned beetle species Onthophagus taurus. The beetles have diverged significantly in the size of the male copulatory organ, and natural selection operating on the other end of the animal — horns atop the beetles’ heads — seems to be driving it.

“Biologists have known that in these beetles there is an investment trade-off between secondary sexual characters and primary sexual characters,” Moczek said. “As horns get bigger, copulatory organs get smaller, or vice versa. What was not known was how frequently and how fast this can occur in nature, and whether this can drive the evolution of new species.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 11:25 am

Posted in Science

Dogs and wolves

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New Scientist magazine has a very interesting article on wolves and dogs—in particular, on how domestication has shaped the evolution of dogs away from certain wolf characteristics and increased the intelligence of dogs, including the acquisition of a basic sense of right and wrong. The article also includes this interesting sidebar:

Wild at heart

Genetic evidence tells us that domestic dogs are descended from grey wolves, with dogs being biologically classified as a subspecies of Canis lupus. Put a wolf into the alien environment of a human home, though, and it becomes very clear that domestication has taken dogs a long way from their wild roots.

The traits that we prize most in dogs are simply not there in wolves: they are hard to train, wary of new experiences, scared of strangers and unpredictably aggressive. They also have some rather antisocial habits. For example, they scent-mark a lot, like to escape and would probably trash your home. On the upside, wolves don’t bark – although that probably limits their ability to communicate with people (see main story). Instead, they howl.

Owning a pet wolf is increasingly fashionable and there are plenty of websites offering tips to would-be wolf tamers. However, the best advice, according to canine behaviour expert James Serpell from the University of Pennsylvania, is don’t. “Wolves do not make ideal house pets,” he says. That might also help to explain why our ancestors apparently only domesticated wolves once, despite the two species living together over large swathes of the globe for millennia.

Inevitably the article delves into evolutionary changes in dogs—evolution is inseparable from the life sciences—and there’s this interesting note:

… Domestic dogs evolved from grey wolves as recently as 10,000 years ago. Since then their brains have shrunk, so that a wolf-sized dog has a brain around 10 per cent smaller than its wild ancestor (see “Wild at heart”). That was one reason why animal behaviourists felt dogs were merely simple-minded wolves. It has become clear, though, that despite the loss of brain volume, thousands of years spent evolving alongside humans have had a striking effect on dog cognition.

For one thing, researchers are increasingly convinced that dogs must possess some sense of right and wrong in order to negotiate the complex social world of people. A pioneer in this area is Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado at Boulder, who has spent decades watching animals at play. He has championed the idea that in many social species, including dogs, one of the functions of rough-and-tumble play is to develop a rudimentary sense of morality (New Scientist, 13 July 2002, p 34).

The fact that play rarely escalates into full-blown fighting shows that animals abide by rules and expect others to do the same. In other words, they know right from wrong. Bekoff argues that this is a survival adaptation that allows animals to smoothly navigate other social interactions.

Friederike Range from the University of Vienna, Austria, takes the concept of dog morality even further. In a series of experiments, her team rewarded dogs with a food treat if they held up a paw. They found that when a lone dog was asked to give its paw but received no treat, it would persevere for the entire experiment, which lasted 30 repetitions. However, if they tested two dogs together but only rewarded one, the dog who missed out would make a big show of being denied its treat and stop cooperating after just a few rounds. “Dogs show a strong aversion to inequity,” says Range. “I prefer not to call it a sense of fairness, but others might.”

This is quite a claim: even the idea that primates respond to unfairness in a similar way to people is highly contested. So why would a dog need such a trait? Range points out that the concept of inequality is crucial for the stability of human societies; without it we would not punish freeloaders. Dogs probably evolved this response to help them negotiate our social world.

While the relationship between people and dogs may be built on fairness, it is mediated through effective communication. Perhaps that is why many researchers are fascinated by this aspect of canine cognition. …

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 11:22 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Tagged with ,

And the next day they all make resolutions

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Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 10:38 am

Posted in Daily life

“Going out to play”

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Excellent column in the LA Times on the notion of kids “going out to play.” Unsupervised freedom of the neighborhood—it was wonderful. I climbed trees, dug holes, play with cars in the dirt, and so on. Still remember the pleasure.

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 10:24 am

Posted in Daily life

Cute comment on the McCain homes

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From the Chicago Sun-Times, via AmericaBlog:

Joe Bungalow, we ask you to peek in your closet and count how many pairs of shoes you own.

Five pairs? Maybe six?

Consider this: John McCain’s family owns more homes than you own shoes.

We understand that you had to count your shoes. You might have forgotten the odd pair. (Oh yeah, those old loafers, haven’t worn them in years.)

But the odd ranch? …

More at the link.

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 10:20 am

Posted in Daily life, Election, GOP

Healthcare, the musical comedy version

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Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 10:06 am

Posted in Daily life

Tagged with ,

McCain: a man of the people

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From the NY Times (at the VERY end of the story):

Mr. McCain and a clutch of camera crews dropped in on the St. Albans Gun & Archery shop near Charleston, W.Va. But Mr. McCain avoided the guns. Instead, he and his wife, Cindy, looked for a scale to weigh catfish — the shop did not have one — and bought a $40 fishing rod, plus bobbers, hooks, sinkers and bait.

It was unclear why Mr. McCain drew a line at walking down the aisle of rifles at the shop, although such a stroll would have generated endless loops on cable news. On his campaign bus Friday morning, Mr. McCain told reporters that he did not own a gun, although he carried a pistol as a Navy pilot.

After the stop at the gun shop, Mr. McCain’s traveling press secretary, Brooke Buchanan, said that Mr. McCain would use his new fishing rod on the artificial lake at his 10-acre Arizona spread in Sedona.

So McCain built himself a lake. Well, so did George Bush, at this Crawford “ranch”. I hope the press asks him about the lake (how much it cost, for example), so McCain can say, “You know, for 5 years in Vietnam I was not able to go fishing…”

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 9:28 am

Posted in Election, GOP

Seeing only some posts

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Some who come to the blog for shaving info are dismayed to discover my political leaning is toward the left. So here’s a way to see only posts in a given category. Use a link of this form:

For example, will display (in abbreviated form—click post title to see the entire post) only posts about Megs; and will display (again, in abbreviated form) only posts about shaving.

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 9:09 am

Posted in Daily life, WordPress

Effects of having been a POW

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This video (again from TPMMuckraker) is amazing: when McCain is asked how on earth could he not know how many houses he has, responds with a statement about his time as a POW. Near as I can make out, he’s saying that his experiences as a POW have affected his memory. Otherwise, there’s no connection at all between the question and the answer.

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 9:06 am

Posted in Daily life

Good Thai dish

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Who was it who said, “There are no empty Tabasco sauce bottles”? I have the same feeling about bottles of Thai fish sauce. But this sounds like a great way to make a dent in the bottle—as it were:

The distinctively Thai combination of sweet, sour, salty and spicy can be achieved in many ways, which makes it easy to mimic. Nothing is simpler than throwing together a version of nam prik, the dipping sauce Thais use for fried spring rolls, grilled beef and all sorts of other dishes. That it can be assembled faster than you can heat your grill makes it even more attractive.

Grilled Shrimp with Nam Prik

Yield 4 servings   Time 10 minutes

Making a little extra nam prik and using it to baste the shrimp or vegetables while they are grilling is a nice if untraditional touch.

  • 1 1/2 pounds large shrimp
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon minced chili, or to taste
  • 3 tablespoons lime juice, or to taste
  • 3 tablespoons nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
  • Salt

1. Start a charcoal or gas grill. Heat should be medium-hot and the rack no more than 4 inches from the heat source. (You can use a broiler if you prefer.) If you like, peel and devein shrimp.

2. Combine sugar, chili, lime juice and nam pla. Taste, and adjust seasoning.

3. Lightly salt shrimp, then grill them about 2 minutes to a side. Divide nam prik among 4 bowls, and serve as a dip for shrimp.

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 8:57 am

Good snark by Yglesias

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And I quote:

No One Could Have Predicted…

… that having the United States of America assist an Ethiopan invasion-and-occupation of Somalia in order to depose an Islamist government could further radicalize Somalis and push them into the arms of al-Qaeda. After all, most people welcome foreign invasions of their country.

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2008 at 8:51 am

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