Later On

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

Archive for February 19th, 2011

Progress—great progress—in Atlanta

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In fact, the step they’ve taken should be emulated by every city. As Ed Brayton says, it should be Federal law.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2011 at 4:48 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

A familiar thing: Stamp “Secret” embarrassing screw-ups

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And then prosecute the hell out of any whistleblower who reveals the screw-up, as the Obama Administration has repeatedly done (despite its lip-service to transparency and openness—cf. the NSA equipment screw-up). Here’s another cover-up in progress, reported by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen in the NY Times:

For eight years, government officials turned to Dennis Montgomery, a California computer programmer, for eye-popping technology that he said could catch terrorists. Now, federal officials want nothing to do with him and are going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that his dealings with Washington stay secret.The Justice Department, which in the last few months has gotten protective orders from two federal judges keeping details of the technology out of court, says it is guarding state secrets that would threaten national security if disclosed. But others involved in the case say that what the government is trying to avoid is public embarrassment over evidence that Mr. Montgomery bamboozled federal officials.

A onetime biomedical technician with a penchant for gambling, Mr. Montgomery is at the center of a tale that features terrorism scares, secret White House briefings, backing from prominent Republicans, backdoor deal-making and fantastic-sounding computer technology.

Interviews with more than two dozen current and former officials and business associates and a review of documents show that Mr. Montgomery and his associates received more than $20 million in government contracts by claiming that software he had developed could help stop Al Qaeda’s next attack on the United States. But the technology appears to have been a hoax, and a series of government agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Air Force, repeatedly missed the warning signs, the records and interviews show.

Mr. Montgomery’s former lawyer, Michael Flynn — who now describes Mr. Montgomery as a “con man” — says he believes that the administration has been shutting off scrutiny of Mr. Montgomery’s business for fear of revealing that the government has been duped.

“The Justice Department is trying to cover this up,” Mr. Flynn said. “If this unravels, all of the evidence, all of the phony terror alerts and all the embarrassment comes up publicly, too. The government knew this technology was bogus, but these guys got paid millions for it.”

Justice Department officials declined to discuss the government’s dealings with Mr. Montgomery, 57, who is in bankruptcy and living outside Palm Springs, Calif. Mr. Montgomery is about to go on trial in Las Vegas on unrelated charges of trying to pass $1.8 million in bad checks at casinos, but he has not been charged with wrongdoing in the federal contracts, nor has the government tried to get back any of the money it paid. He and his current lawyer declined to comment…

Continue reading.

I know that some will object to pointing out the inconsistency between promises and performance in the Obama Administration, but this kind of rot gradually destroys government and our confidence in it, so it seems worth noting. Not that I expect the Obama Administration to do anything other than stonewall, cover-up, and attack its critics, while suing the socks off anyone who reveals what’s going on.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2011 at 1:40 pm

A full James Bond shave

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Floris No. 89 for both shaving soap and aftershave. Floris makes an excellent soap, as one would expect, and the lather was ample using the Sabini badger brush. Three smooth passes with the all-Feather combo (razor and blade), a good splash of the No. 89 aftershave, and I was ready for the day—some time back, in fact, but things got busy.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2011 at 1:10 pm

Posted in Shaving

Getting ready for the Food Wars

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Take a a look at this story in Bloomberg BusnessWeek by Eric Pooley and Philip Revzin and note the anomalous weather events that have hit the current harvest so hard:

As the Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali discovered in January, there is no surer route to political oblivion than to deny people access to affordable food. On Dec. 17, after Tunisian police assaulted a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi and seized his produce cart because, according to his family, he couldn’t afford to pay bribes, the 26-year-old Bouazizi doused himself with accelerant and lit a match. He died two weeks later. The riots that ensued—propelled in part by anger over high food prices—drove Ben Ali from power and spread to Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Algeria. Ben Ali may be remembered as the despot who was toppled by a vegetable cart.

The hunger that has roiled the Middle East was not caused by the whims of autocrats and cops. It began last year with crippling drought in Russia and later Argentina, and torrential rains in Australia and Canada. The deluges in Saskatchewan were so sustained and intense that farmers couldn’t plant some 10 million acres of wheat, according to the Canadian Wheat Board. “What is typically the driest province was never wetter,” said the governmental agency Environment Canada. Shrunken wheat harvests in those countries, along with cool, wet summer weather in the American Midwest that delayed the U.S. harvest, helped drive wheat prices at the Chicago Board of Trade up by 74 percent in the past year. Corn traded in Chicago rose by 87 percent during the same period. More recently, grain prices have spiked even higher because of yet another drought, this one threatening China’s wheat crop, the world’s largest. In that country’s eight major wheat-producing provinces, some 42 percent of winter wheat cropland has been hurt by a dry spell, according to Agriculture Minister Han Changfu.

Overall, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome says global food prices surged in January to record levels, based on data reaching back to 1990. “Whenever you get the market as tight as we are now, hoarding becomes widespread,” says Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist at the FAO. Wheat prices may keep rising until the summer, he predicts, because importers are speeding up purchases to outrun inflation. Prices are more likely to stay high or go higher in the next six months, he adds, than to decline.

Whether the world tips into agricultural catastrophe this year depends on the fate of the wheat on the North China Plain. “You need two perfect harvests through the summer of 2012 to get stockpiles back to an acceptable level,” says Jason Lejonvarn, a commodities strategist at Hermes Fund Managers in London. Unless sufficient moisture reaches the parched seedlings, a net exporter of wheat could become a net importer of wheat, further stressing world markets. Short of that, a Chinese ban on wheat exports would also send prices higher, meaning that global grain shortages—once thought to be a disaster of the past—could return. Even American commodities buyers are feeling the pinch. “There is not one crop you can point to that is without supply problems,” says Steve Nicholson, a commodity procurement specialist for International Food Products in St. Louis. “Production is not keeping up with demand.”

Even if the worst does not come to pass, this sudden fracture in the global food supply represents a massive test—or, more accurately, a series of them.

Continue reading. What do you think are the odds of getting two perfect harvests in each of the next two years, given the weather patterns we’ve been seeing? I would guess not higher than 20% at best.

Later in the story the obstacle to tackling the problem is mentioned:

The final test posed by the current crisis is the toughest of all. Scientists have been warning for years that carbon emissions from cars, planes, factories, and power plants would make the global climate warmer and more chaotic—altering weather patterns to make some places more prone to drought and others more prone to floods. And climate campaigners have been wondering for years what it would take to galvanize the U.S. and other nations into action. The newly ascendant Republicans in Washington won’t acknowledge the existence of the problem, let alone debate its solutions. But other leaders are speaking up. In South Korea, when President Lee Myung Bak launched a task force to study food shortages, he was blunt: “There is an increasing likelihood of a food crisis globally,” he said, “due to climate change.” Business leaders are equally frank. “The fact is that climate around the world is changing,” says Sunny Verghese, chief executive officer at Olam International, among the world’s three biggest suppliers of rice and cotton. “That will cause massive disruptions.”

The GOP is amazing in its ability to ignore reality in favor of fantasy, regardless of the damage done.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2011 at 12:57 pm

Interesting adaptation: Hudson-River fish now store toxins in body fat

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By storing in their body fat the toxins that businesses have poured into the river system, the fish protect themselves, but… Here’s the story in Science News by Janet Raloff. (Warning for Creationists: Story provides an example of evolution in action. Avert your eyes.) It begins:

Some fish in New York’s Hudson River have become resistant to several of the waterway’s more toxic pollutants. Instead of getting sick from dioxins and related compounds including some polychlorinated biphenyls, Atlantic tomcod harmlessly store these poisons in fat, a new study finds.

But what’s good for this bottom-dwelling species could be bad for those feeding on it, says Isaac Wirgin of the New York University School of Medicine’s Institute of Environmental Medicine in Tuxedo. Each bite of tomcod that a predator takes, he explains, will move a potent dose of toxic chemicals up the food chain — eventually into species that could end up on home dinner tables.

From 1947 to 1976, two General Electric manufacturing plants along the Hudson River produced PCBs for a range of uses, including as insulating fluids in electrical transformers. Over the years, PCB and dioxin levels in the livers of the Hudson’s tomcod rose to become “among the highest known in nature,” Wirgin and his colleagues note online February 17 in Science. Because these fish don’t detoxify PCBs, Wirgin explains, it was a surprise that they could accumulate such hefty contamination without becoming poisoned. His team now reports that the tomcod’s protection traces to a single mutation in one gene. The gene is responsible for producing a protein needed to unleash the pollutants’ toxicity.

All vertebrates contain molecules in their cells that will bind to dioxins and related compounds. Indeed, these proteins — aryl hydrocarbon receptors, or AHRs — are often referred to as dioxin receptors. Once these poisons diffuse into an exposed cell, each molecule can mate with a receptor and together they eventually pick up a third molecule. This trio can then dock with select segments of DNA in the cell’s nucleus to inappropriately turn on genes that can poison the host animal.

The tomcod actually has two types of AHRs, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2011 at 9:00 am

Bilingual babies have big language advantages

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Interesting article by Bruce Bower in Science News:

Babies living in bilingual homes get a perceptual boost by 8 months of age that may set the stage for more resilient thinking later in life, scientists reported February 18 at the American Association of the Advancement of Science annual meeting.Infants raised bilingual from birth can distinguish not only between their two native tongues but between two languages they’ve never been exposed to, just by watching adults speak without hearing what they say, said psychologist Janet Werker of the University of British Columbia.

Babies being raised to speak one language lack these visual discrimination skills, Werker and her colleagues have found.

Given regular exposure to two languages, infants develop a general ability to track closely what they hear and see in decoding languages, Werker proposed. In the visual realm, such information may include lip movements, the rhythm of the jaw opening and closing, and the full ensemble of facial movements while talking.

Her earlier studies found that newborn babies that had been exposed prenatally to two languages prefer to listen to those languages over others and distinguish between sounds in the tongues that they regularly hear spoken.

“Bilingual infants are able to keep their languages distinct from birth and may develop an increased sensitivity to voice and face cues for different languages,” Werker said.

Early perceptual strides taken by infants in bilingual homes may represent . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2011 at 8:54 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

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