Later On

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

Archive for February 16th, 2009

Still loving the Zarafina tea maker

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When I first saw the Zarafina, I thought it was just a gimmick. Au contraire, it is a surpassingly good and efficient tea maker, automatically brewing a pint of tea within minutes, and it allows you to specify whether you want the tea strong or not, whether you are making black, oolong, green, white, or herbal tea, and whether you are using loose tea or tea bags. It then adjusts the brewing temperature and time to match what you specified. I’m currently using it several times a day, using a Starbucks cup that also holds a pint.

Note that for white and green tea, you should drink it with lemon juice to maximize health benefits.

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2009 at 2:30 pm

The press: economic, mathematical, scientific illiterates reporting

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One should always be careful about press accounts of technical information. Dean Baker comments on the reporting on the stimulus package. Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC, and received his PhD in economics from the University of Michigan.

Okay folks, this is 2-year stimulus, not a 1-year package. (Actually, as the Republicans were fond of pointing out, much of the spending will not take place until 2011, year 3 of the package.) That means that there is a word to describe the Post’s claim that the package is more than 5 percent of GDP: “wrong.”

Of course, if the Post was interested in accurate reporting it might also have noticed that the package saved the government $140 billion by reversing a change in the tax code put in place by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that allowed banks to write off the bad debts of banks that they acquire. That would substantially reduce the long-term cost of the stimulus.

If might also have been helpful to put some of the items highlighted by Republicans in context so that their importance would be clearer to readers. The $198 million for Filipino World War II veterans comes to 0.024 percent of the stimulus package. The $50 million for the National Endowment of the Arts is 0.006 percent and the $25 million for the Smithsonian is equal to 0.003 percent of the stimulus.

Another post by Dean Baker:

Has the Post Ever Had a Headline About the “Whoppingly” Inefficient Health Care System?

Probably not, since it has no interest in health care reform that could jeopardize the incomes of the insurance industry, the health care industry and highly paid medical professionals. Therefore, the Post would never use a word like “whopping” or its derivatives in a headline about the health care system.

On the other hand, since it the editors have no qualms about using the news section to push its crusade for balanced budgets, it has no qualms about using “whopping” in a headline for an article about the budget deficit.

In addition to the unusual adjectival choice for a news headline, it’s also worth noting that the other half of the headline is wrong. The stimulus did not grow, it shrank. President Obama originally proposed a bill that was over $800 billion. He got a bill that was less than $800 billion, including a $70 billion fix to the Alternative Minimum Tax that everyone had anticipated whether or not there was a stimulus.

When it comes to providing information, the first paragraph does no better than the headline. What does it mean to tell readers: “But one thing is certain: It will blast another big hole in an already tattered federal budget.”

What is “big?” What is a “hole in the budget?” The only information readers get from this paragraph is that the Post is unhappy with the size of the deficit. That’s fine for the opinion page, but it doesn’t belong in the news section.

To round out its analysis, the Post tells us, among things, that among the issues that President Obama wants to tackle is “assuring that Social Security will survive for future generations.” It would be interesting to learn whether President Obama used this phrase or whether it originated with the Post, because it makes as much sense as saying that he will ensure that Ohio survives for future generations. It’s theoretically possible that both Social Security and the state of Ohio will cease to exist, but on what basis would any reasonable person expect either event.

The article concludes by presenting analysis from two budget hawks to balance out the piece.

Dean Baker is obviously a commenter worth following.

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2009 at 2:20 pm

Posted in Business, Media

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At long last: comparing medical treatments for effectiveness

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Excellent news:

The $787 billion economic stimulus bill approved by Congress will, for the first time, provide substantial amounts of money for the federal government to compare the effectiveness of different treatments for the same illness.

Under the legislation, researchers will receive $1.1 billion to compare drugs, medical devices, surgery and other ways of treating specific conditions. The bill creates a council of up to 15 federal employees to coordinate the research and to advise President Obama and Congress on how to spend the money.

The program responds to a growing concern that doctors have little or no solid evidence of the value of many treatments. Supporters of the research hope it will eventually save money by discouraging the use of costly, ineffective treatments.

The soaring cost of health care is widely seen as a problem for the economy. Spending on health care totaled $2.2 trillion, or 16 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, in 2007, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that, without any changes in federal law, it will rise to 25 percent of the G.D.P. in 2025.

Dr. Elliott S. Fisher of Dartmouth Medical School said the federal effort would help researchers try to answer questions like these: …

Continue reading.

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16 February 2009 at 2:15 pm

A bigger take than Madoff

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Not good:

In what could turn out to be the greatest fraud in US history, American authorities have started to investigate the alleged role of senior military officers in the misuse of $125bn (£88bn) in a US -directed effort to reconstruct Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The exact sum missing may never be clear, but a report by the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) suggests it may exceed $50bn, making it an even bigger theft than Bernard Madoff’s notorious Ponzi scheme.

"I believe the real looting of Iraq after the invasion was by US officials and contractors, and not by people from the slums of Baghdad," said one US businessman active in Iraq since 2003.

In one case, auditors working for SIGIR discovered that $57.8m was sent in "pallet upon pallet of hundred-dollar bills" to the US comptroller for south-central Iraq, Robert J Stein Jr, who had himself photographed standing with the mound of money. He is among the few US officials who were in Iraq to be convicted of fraud and money-laundering.

Despite the vast sums expended on rebuilding by the US since 2003, there have been no cranes visible on the Baghdad skyline except those at work building a new US embassy and others rusting beside a half-built giant mosque that Saddam was constructing when he was overthrown. One of the few visible signs of government work on Baghdad’s infrastructure is a tireless attention to planting palm trees and flowers in the centre strip between main roads. Those are then dug up and replanted a few months later.

Iraqi leaders are convinced that the theft or waste of huge sums of US and Iraqi government money could have happened only if senior US officials were themselves involved in the corruption. In 2004-05, the entire Iraq military procurement budget of $1.3bn was siphoned off from the Iraqi Defence Ministry in return for 28-year-old Soviet helicopters too obsolete to fly and armoured cars easily penetrated by rifle bullets. Iraqi officials were blamed for the theft, but US military officials were largely in control of the Defence Ministry at the time and must have been either highly negligent or participants in the fraud.

American federal investigators are now starting an inquiry into the actions of …

Continue reading.

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16 February 2009 at 2:13 pm

Ecology, social change, and what is central

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The Archdruid writes some good posts. Here’s a recent one:

Two weeks ago, in The Ecology of Social Change, I suggested that the great flaw in most of today’s schemes for social change is their failure to grasp the ecological dimensions of human society. That flaw has been almost impossible to avoid, because it is not simply a matter of consciously held beliefs; many of the people drafting plans for social change these days have learned quite a bit about ecology. It’s the unexamined and often unconscious presuppositions underlying most such plans that blind them to ecological reality – and the struggle to confront one’s own presuppositions is very challenging work.

One of the things that makes the end of the industrial age so difficult for many people today, after all, is the way that it drives a wedge between science and what has often been called scientism. Science, at its core, is simply a method of practical logic that tests hypotheses against experience. Scientism, by contrast, is the worldview and value system that insists that the questions the scientific method can answer are the most important questions human beings can ask, and that the picture of the world yielded by science is a better approximation to reality than any other. Science and scientism are not the same, but it’s one of the most common habits of modern thought to assume their identity – or, more precisely, to fixate on science and fail to notice that scientism as a distinctive worldview exists at all.

This is not a new thing; most sets of intellectual tools have given rise to their own worldview and values. Classical logic followed the same trajectory. Greek and Roman philosophers took logic as their basic toolkit, defined reality as whatever could be reduced to verbal statements and analyzed by logical means, and consigned the rest to the apeiron, the realm of the formless and unknowable. The results predetermined most of the successes and failures of the ancient world’s intellectual history. It’s easy enough to condemn the old philosophers for their failures – the debates about justice, for example, that never quite stopped to ask if there might be something wrong with the ancient world’s economic dependence on slavery – but of course equivalent blind spots pervade modern thinking as well.

What verbal statements were to classical logic, quantification is to the scientific method: …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2009 at 1:51 pm

Could liquid wood replace plastic?

Good question, eh? More information here:

Almost 40 years ago, American scientists took their first steps in a quest to break the world’s dependence on plastics.

But in those four decades, plastic products have become so cheap and durable that not even the forces of nature seem able to stop them. A soupy expanse of plastic waste – too tough for bacteria to break down – now covers an estimated 1 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean.

Sensing a hazard, researchers started hunting for a substitute for plastic’s main ingredient, petroleum. They wanted something renewable, biodegradable, and abundant enough to be inexpensive.

Though they stumbled upon a great candidate early on, many US chemists had given up on it by the end of the 1990s. The failed wonder material: lignin, the natural compound that lends strength to trees. A waste product from paper production, much of the lignin supply is simply burned as fuel.

But while many scientists turned to other green options, a German company, Tecnaro,  says it found the magic formula. Its “liquid wood” can be molded like plastic, yet biodegrades over time.

Now, Tecnaro’s success could revive interest in lignin and propel the search for better and cheaper bioplastics.

“The lignin itself was misunderstood completely by [leaders in the field] and the majority of people,” says Simo Sarkanen, an environmental science professor at the University of Minnesota. …

Continue reading.

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16 February 2009 at 12:30 pm

Big Web problem: writing equations

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And not just mathematical equations: chemical equations also are a problem. Interesting article on the topic:

The world wide web was invented at a physics laboratory, and the first users were scientists and engineers. You might think, therefore, that this new channel of communication would be especially well adapted to scientific discourse—that it would facilitate the expression of ideas like [and here you need to click the link to see the equations – LG]

If only it were so! The truth is, the basic protocols of the Web offer almost no support for rendering mathematics or other specialized notations such as chemical formulas. Presenting such material on a Web page often requires software add-ons or plug-ins to be installed by the author or the reader or both. Fine-tuning the display of mathematics can be a fussy and finicky process, not much easier than formatting equations with a typewriter. The results sometimes render differently—or not at all—in various Web browsers. This is a sad situation: As the Web has evolved into a thriving marketplace and playground, the scholarly and scientific community that created the technology has not been well served.

The confused state of online mathematical typography is worrisome as well as sad. In years to come the Web will surely be the most important conduit for scientific information. Already it is a major channel for distributing publications and preprints in many disciplines, and it is becoming a venue for less-formal jottings and conversations—everything from homework assignments to blogs. Ideally, the Web would serve as an extension of the blackboard where people gather to talk about science and math during coffee breaks. We need chalk for that blackboard.

The problem is not one of simple neglect. Over the years there have been many earnest efforts to build a reliable facility for writing and reading mathematics online. The trouble is, no one solution has yet gained the kind of widespread adoption that would make it a standard, supported in mainstream Web servers and browsers. Still, there’s room for hope. We have technologies that work, if we can agree on how to use them. And a minor change to the infrastructure of the Web might smooth the way for more online math…

Continue reading.

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16 February 2009 at 12:26 pm

Superclocks: More accurate than time

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Very interesting article in New Scientist. It begins:

For those physicists and philosophers puzzled by nature’s fourth dimension, Patrick Gill has a wry response. "Time," he says, "is what you measure in seconds."

For Gill, that is a statement of professional pride. He is what you might call Britain’s top timekeeper. Within the windowless – and largely clockless – cream-brick confines of the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), near London, Gill and his colleagues are busy developing the next, staggeringly accurate generation of atomic clocks. These tiny timepieces are the devices that ensure radio, television and mobile-phone transmissions stay in sync, prevent the internet from turning into a mess of missing data packets, make GPS accurate enough to navigate by, and safeguard electricity grids from blackout. They are, in short, the heartbeat of modern life.

These are momentous times for Gill and others like him in timekeeping laboratories around the world. A new generation of atomic tickers, known as optical clocks, have just wrested the record for accuracy from the ensembles of oscillating caesium atoms that held it for half a century. Soon, the new technology will be so refined that if such a clock had ticked away every second since the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, it would not yet have missed a beat. That is an awesome accomplishment – but it’s also a problem. At this astonishing precision, we might have to rethink not only how we measure time, but also our concept of time.

For most of us, the closest we get to thinking about the nuts and bolts of time is watching the seconds tick away on a wristwatch or wall clock. Thinking a bit deeper, we might light on the idea that those seconds we are counting ultimately just subdivide a natural unit of time: the time it takes our planet to turn once about its axis, a day. That is indeed the historical logic of timekeeping (see diagram). But Earth’s rotation is an imperfect metronome. As time has become an ever more important governing factor in our lives, we have sought faster, more stable beats against which to measure its passage.

A leap forward came in 1955 when, building on the work of Isidor Rabi of Columbia University in New York, and prototype clocks at what is now the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado, NPL physicist Louis Essen …

Continue reading.

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16 February 2009 at 12:21 pm

Noah’s Flood a myth

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Obviously, a myth can be based on reality, but the evidence for a gigantic flood is missing. There may have been local floods that grew in the telling (like the six-foot drifts of snow people my age had to walk through—five miles!! with wolves following us!!!—to get to school). At any rate, the Big Flood into the Black Sea didn’t happen:

The ancient flood that some scientists think gave rise to the Noah story may not have been quite so biblical in proportion, a new study says.

Researchers generally agree that, during a warming period about 9,400 years ago, an onrush of seawater from the Mediterranean spurred a connection with the Black Sea, then a largely freshwater lake. That flood turned the lake into a rapidly rising sea. (See a map of the region.)

A previous theory said the Black Sea rose up to 195 feet (60 meters), possibly burying villages and spawning the tale of Noah’s flood and other inundation folklore.

(Related: "Noah’s Flood" May Have Triggered European Farming" [November 20, 2007].)

But the new study—largely focused on relatively undisturbed underwater fossils—suggests a rise of no more than 30 feet (10 meters).

New Flood Evidence

Marine geologist Liviu Giosan and colleagues carbon-dated the shells of pristine mollusk fossils, which the researchers say bear no evidence of epic flooding.

Found in sediment samples taken from where the Black Sea meets the Danube River, the shells "weren’t eroded, agitated, or moved," said Giosan, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. "We know the mud is exactly the same age as the shells and so can determine what the sea level was about 9,400 years ago."

The results suggest the Black Sea rose 15 to 30 feet (5 to 10 meters), rather than the 150 to 195 feet (50 to 60 meters) first suggested 13 years ago by Columbia University geologist William Ryan and colleagues. Ryan declined to be interviewed for this story…

Continue reading.


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16 February 2009 at 12:03 pm

Computer modeling the economy

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Interesting article by Shankar Vedantam in the Washington Post:

Last year, as the financial meltdown was getting underway, a scientist named Yaneer Bar-Yam developed a computer model of the economy. Instead of the individuals, companies and brokers that populate the real economy, the model used virtual actors. The computer world allowed Bar-Yam to do what regulators cannot do in real life. It allowed him to change the way actors behaved and then study how those changes rippled through a complex ecosystem.

The fundamental principle behind the model was simple. Human beings regularly solve problems by imagining how particular behaviors can lead to specific outcomes. Regulators, managers and leaders try to do the same thing on a bigger scale. But in a system as complex as the economy, where feedback loops of rumor, fear and misinformation regularly trigger panic and herd behavior, the ability of individuals to forecast outcomes can diminish rapidly. The normal rules of human intuition break down: A positive intervention — the federal government announcing it is going to pump trillions of dollars into the economy — can be greeted by a plunge in the stock market. Trivial things can get amplified and assume gigantic proportions.

Bar-Yam wanted to understand why the economy was so unstable. Commentators were focused on the housing crisis, but Bar-Yam was not sure whether the bursting of the real estate bubble was upstream or downstream of the instability in the economy. It seems intuitively obvious to say the housing crash destabilized the economy, but isn’t it possible that some underlying instability in the economy preceded the housing crash — and amplified its effects? If you take away one of the supports of a house built on stilts and a storm knocks the house down, the problem is not the storm but the missing support. If you rebuild the house on its shaky base — but put in expensive new storm windows — you are unlikely to fare better when the next storm rolls around.

Bar-Yam’s model suggested a different explanation for the instability in the economy: …

Continue reading.

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16 February 2009 at 11:41 am

10 daily habits writers should cultivate

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From B. J. Keltz’s Enriched by Words:

1.  Read; not just your genre, but a wide sampling of styles, subjects, and voices.  Read for pleasure.  Read to learn.

2. Move your body. Walking and exercise are great ways to work loose the log jams of the mind.  In addition, since writers tend to be sedentary, it helps keep your body fit.

3. Breathe. Practice breathing every day, not in a new age way, but to become aware.  Breathe deeply to nourish your body and to connect with the present.  Let your thoughts wander.  Sometimes you get the “click” just through breathing.

4.  Cross Pollinate. Take in art in all its forms:  dance, painting, music, you name it.  Enrich your writing compost pile with a variety of art experiences for your mind and senses.

5.  Get enough sleep. Seriously, it will help your mind stay alert and ready to write.

6.  Pay attention. See the world around you in terms of the five senses and with a writer’s eye.

7. Laugh. See the humor and joy in everyday life.  This makes you a more positive person, is fun, and releases tensions.

8.  Stretch. Long periods of time spent writing or thinking can be hard on your body.  Stand up, stretch, work the kinks out.  It is not a coincidence that moving the body can also frequently move your mind, bringing you the perfect phrase or fresh idea.

9.  Cultivate support from your loved ones and mentors.

10.  Write daily. Set a time or page goal.  Work from a prompt or free write.  Write every day without fail.

She omits:

a. Learn Esperanto

b. Learn to cook

c. Pay attention to your diet: “Eat food, mostly plants. Not a lot.” (Michael Pollan’s slogan)

d. Don’t learn Go (otherwise you’ll be spending lots of time that way)

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2009 at 11:31 am

Posted in Daily life, Writing

Global warming in Australia

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I have several readers from Oz, and they might well be interested in this post that shows clearly the warming trend there. Global warming continues to advance.

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2009 at 11:20 am

Problems with Obama’s pace of change

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Peter Wallsten in the LA Times:

Slowly over the last few weeks, some of Barack Obama’s most fervent supporters have come to an unhappy realization: The candidate who they thought was squarely on their side in policy fights is now a president who needs cajoling and persuading.

Advocates for stem cell research thought Obama would quickly sign an order to reverse former President Bush’s restrictions on the science. Now they are fretting over Obama’s statement that he wants to act in tandem with Congress, possibly causing a delay.

Critics of Bush’s faith-based initiative thought Obama had promised to end religious discrimination among social service groups taking federal money.

But Obama, in announcing his own faith-based program this month, said only that the discrimination issue might be reviewed.

And Obama’s recent moves regarding a lawsuit by detainees have left some liberal groups and Bush critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, feeling betrayed, given that Obama was a harsh critic of Bush’s detainee policies when running for office last year.

The anxiety is also being felt in the labor movement, one of Obama’s most important support bases. Some union officials and their allies are frustrated that at a crucial point in negotiations over his massive stimulus package, Obama seemed to call for limits on “Buy American” provisions in the bill aimed at making sure stimulus money would be spent on U.S.-made materials.

Obama has been president for less than a month, and his liberal critics concede that the economic crisis has understandably taken the focus off their issues. But some of the issues in play were crucial to building excitement on the left and mobilizing grass-roots support for Obama’s candidacy.

“He made very clear promises, and he should live up to them,” said Arthur Stamoulis, director of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, which received an unqualified “yes” from Obama on a campaign questionnaire last year when the group asked if he would support “Buy American” requirements. “The fact that he’s hedging on this is not promising. He’s catering much too much to the desires of Republicans who are not going to support the change that voters wanted.”

Thea Lee, policy director of the AFL-CIO, said, …

Continue reading. Of course, what’s too slow for progressives is too fast for conservatives. OTOH, I don’t think conservatives will be placated by simply slowing the pace of change: they want no change.

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2009 at 10:50 am

People acting as their own censors

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This is absolutely terrible:

School Library Journal looks at school and public libraries that aren’t adding potentially controversial books for young people to their collections.

In the first survey of its kind, School Library Journal (SLJ) recently asked 655 media specialists about their collections and found that 70 percent of librarians say they won’t buy certain controversial titles simply because they’re terrified of how parents will respond. Other common reasons for avoiding possible troublemakers include potential backlash from the administration (29 percent), the community (29 percent), or students (25 percent), followed by 23 percent of librarians who say they won’t purchase a book due to personal objections.

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2009 at 10:36 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

Tagged with ,

Wikileaks going great guns

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From Russ Kick at The Memory Hole:

From Wikileaks:

Wikileaks has released nearly a billion dollars worth of quasi-secret reports commissioned by the United States Congress.

The 6,780 reports, current as of this month, comprise over 127,000 pages of material on some of the most contentious issues in the nation, from the U.S. relationship with Israel to the financial collapse. Nearly 2,300 of the reports were updated in the last 12 months, while the oldest report goes back to 1990. The release represents the total output of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) electronically available to Congressional offices. The CRS is Congress’s analytical agency and has a budget in excess of $100M per year.

Although all CRS reports are legally in the public domain, they are quasi-secret because the CRS, as a matter of policy, makes the reports available only to members of Congress, Congressional committees and select sister agencies such as the GAO.

They’ve added all those reports to the Open CRS system, which should mean that they’re now searchable at that site.

Also note this post at The Memory Hole:

This afternoon the Pentagon posted several new documents released due to Freedom of Information Act requests:

And another—as you can see, The Memory Hole is an invaluable resource for researchers.

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has issued a major new report, “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience” (available here).

CNN reports:

The report says the U.S. government “had neither the established structure nor the necessary resources to carry out the reconstruction mission it took on in mid-2003.”

It weaves interviews, facts and vignettes detailing the use of a “sea of taxpayer dollars” from mid-2002 through autumn 2008.

“Hard Lessons” also looks to the future. It stresses the importance of developing “an agreed-upon doctrine and structure” for reconstruction “so that the United States is ready when it next must intervene in a failed or failing state.” …

“The overuse of cost-plus contracts, high contractor overhead expenses, excessive contractor award fees, and unacceptable program and project delays all contributed to a significant waste of taxpayers’ dollars,” the report said.

One more:  Searchable Supreme & federal appellate cases online for free.

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2009 at 10:28 am

Who’s making America fat?

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The LA Times reviews Stuffed:

Author Hank Cardello was a food industry insider for 30 years, holding executive-level positions at some of the nation’s largest food and beverage companies, including General Mills and Michelob.

Jacket Copy caught up with the author to talk to him about his new book, "Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s Really Making America Fat," which takes a historical look at the power of the food industry. The book describes how the American public is swayed by their mega-marketing machine, the current controversies surrounding America’s eating habits (i.e. how we got this fat and why we argue over cupcakes) and how we can turn this whole thing around for good (i.e. how we all lose the weight and keep it off!).

JC: What was the impetus for writing this book? You write about a personal health issue (possibly being diagnosed with cancer) in your preface. Can you talk a bit about that?

Cardello: It’s unusual. I really didn’t want to write about this. But it helped people to understand. I made myself one of those proverbial promises at that time. I wanted to make an impact and help people live a little longer through food.

JC: You were in the food industry for 30 years, holding various executive-level positions, witnessing marketing tactics and general practices. Was there ever a moment that struck you as odd? Or shady? Or strange?

Cardello: When I first got into the business, obesity wasn’t on the radar. They want cake? Give it to them. Those rules are long gone … two-thirds of this country is waddling around.

People have changed, their waistlines have changed, so we have to change.

When I was at Michelob — the world’s greatest job for a 30-year-old guy — we came out with a malt beverage. It was marketed in inner cities. Looking back, I don’t think I would have done that. You’re selling to groups of people and communities who a) can’t afford it and b) shouldn’t be drinking it.

JC: How is your book different from "Fast Food Nation"? …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2009 at 10:14 am

The salmonella hearing

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Obama Foodorama has an excellent post by Eddie Gehman Kohan, complete with photos and warranted snark. It’s lengthy, and it’s worth reading. It begins:

Wednesday’s Congressional hearing on the ongoing peanut butter contamination scandal reminded Obama Foodorama of life back home in Hollywood. There were lights, cameras, props, a script, celebrities (albeit Washingtonians), mobs of fans and screaming photographers chasing people down the streets. But the event was not so much a movie premiere as it was the opening of a tired sequel to what’s turned into the longest running film franchise in American history: Apocalypse Chow, a bizarre, hyper-modern murder mystery mashed up with that excellent comedy Dumb & Dumber.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s subcommittee investigative hearing was called The Salmonella Outbreak: The Continued Failure to Protect The Food Supply, and that was the perfect title for this sequel, because it was exactly the same as every other Congressional hearing on food safety in the last decade–which each House member actually pointed out in their opening statements. Last year alone, during the 110th Congress, there were eight different hearings, and the same ground was plowed again and again, with no legislative action taken. Food safety oversight in the US has an ongoing identity crisis, but the questions remain the same year after year: Why is it de facto policy to allow 76 million Americans to become ill annually from food borne disease? Why are we content with 5,o00 food borne deaths annually? Why are our food safety standards trapped in the year 1900? Who is actually monitoring the food supply, the Centers for Disease Control, the Food Safety Inspection Service, the Food and Drug Administration, no one and everyone? What exactly do these agencies monitor, why is there a new food recall every week, and what are we going to do…? Please repeat these questions 1,000 times in a flat, droning voice, then repeat again. And again. In a couple hours, you’ll have replicated all of the House and Senate food safety action that’s gone on in recent memory.

Obama Foodorama had an excellent seat at the 4-1/2 hour screening of the 2009 version of Apocalypse Chow, thanks to world-renowned food poisoning attorney Bill Marler. A founding partner of Seattle’s Marler Clark law firm, Marler has represented clients in every actionable food borne disease outbreak for the last fifteen years. The subject of frequent excoriation by his many critics as an ambulance chasing mofo who dines out on suffering, Marler’s actually a brilliant fellow with a big heart. He’s a tireless champion of food safety, and writes Marler Blog, the best food safety blog on the internets. He also runs Outbreak!, a non-profit entity that funds global food safety education projects. He’s donated thousands of hours of his time to promoting The Cause, and generously finances dozens of non-profit projects that do the same. Two of Marler’s clients—one a family with a deceased father, and one a family with a gravely ill three-year-old child—testified at the hearing. As of today, Marler represents six different families in the salmonella outbreak, with perhaps thirty more to come. And he’s no stranger to Congressional testimony: He’s done it three other times, and he commented repeatedly that the hearing would be exact to other hearings he’s attended. (In pic: Bill Marler, standing center, during a break in the hearing) …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2009 at 10:06 am

Electronic gear-shifting for bikes

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Very cool. The story includes a useful interactive graphic. The story begins:

The bicycle, one of the world’s most resolutely human-powered machines, will join the long list of devices that have switched from the manual to the electronic when a new gear system makes its debut this weekend at the Tour of California.

Although the battery-powered derailleur by Shimano promises to bring ease and accuracy to changing gears by enabling riders to shift with a light touch to two electronic switches, traditionalists worry that it may erode the basic tenets of the sport.

“People choose bicycles precisely because a bicycle’s motion requires only human effort, and nothing could be more simple, independent and autonomous,” Raymond Henry, a cycling historian in St. Etienne, France, wrote in an e-mail message. “Any source of external energy, however weak, runs counter to this philosophy.”

Whether the gear system becomes the next iPod and redefines bicycle technology or ends up as the sport’s version of the eight-track tape will hinge on a number of factors, the most obvious being performance, reliability and cost.

Two earlier attempts at electronic gear changing by a French company, Mavic, often malfunctioned in rain. Another company, Campagnolo, has delayed bringing its version to market because of the economic downturn.

Shimano’s version, known as the Dura-Ace Di2 7970, is being used by three professional teams competing in California: Columbia High Road, Garmin Slipstream and Rabobank. About 10 riders will race with the system even though they have used it on only one or two training rides after receiving them late this week. …

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Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2009 at 9:43 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

What the banks want

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Good post at Balloon Juice by Tim F, in which he quotes a lengthy and highly interesting communiqué from a friend. An extract from the post:

A friend of mine who’s a senior manager at a hedge fund wrote to me about this a few weeks ago (this is long, but I found it worth reading):

Imagine the panic among regular consumers if this FDIC insurance did not exist! Bank runs would most likely be weekly in the current environment. The government thought up a solution, and it is working great right now.

The government fixed the bank to consumer confidence issue, now it needs to fix the bank to bank confidence issue. What is effectively happening right now is that the way we are “fixing” the bank to bank confidence issue is we are just giving banks money. It’s moronic and stone-age in its methodology compared to the relative cheapness of the FDIC insurance scheme. We need a way to ensure that if a bank has a dealing with another bank, that a bank CAN go bankrupt and the other banks or hedge funds can quickly regain any assets they had stored with that bank.

The CEOs of a lot of banks oppose this. Why? …

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Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2009 at 9:36 am

Oversight is necessary

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Daphne Eviatar in the Washington Independent:

Amid the Democrats’ boostering and the Republicans’ assaults on the final stimulus package, almost no one is focusing on a key part of the bill that will be critical to making it work: accountability for how that $787 billion is spent. In fact, a look at the final bill reveals that to a large extent, the Democrats who drafted it and the Obama administration that pushed for it learned important lessons from the billions of dollars wasted by the Bush administration in Iraq. Some important provisions, however, were lost in the negotiations process.

The lead story in The New York Times Sunday serves as a sobering reminder of what can happen when government tries to spend a lot of money quickly, but doesn’t bother to keep track of where it’s going. In Iraq, no-bid contracts and nonexistent oversight led not only to brand-new trucks abandoned on roadsides and $45 cases of soda, but also to tens of thousands of dollars in cash delivered in pizza boxes and distributed as payoffs in paper sacks at drop-off spots around the Green Zone, according to a widening government investigation detailed by The Times.

The stimulus package goes a long way to keep that particular history from repeating itself.

For example, the bill creates a new board to oversee and coordinate federal spending and prevent “waste, fraud and abuse.” Any agency’s inspector general can review concerns about spending under the program, and the General Accountability Office (GAO) will conduct regular and reports on how the money is being spent. All this, plus a summary of the contracts themselves (the House bill had promised to put the entire contracts online—this was a concession to government contractors) are required to be posted online at

The bill also requires the government to put most contracts up for competitive bidding  — a sharp departure from business-as-usual under the Bush administration — and if for some reason the contract is not competitive, the government must publish a  justification for the exception.

But it’s disappointing that Congress scaled back its pledge to post the final contracts…

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Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2009 at 9:24 am

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