Later On

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

Archive for May 9th, 2013

The tragedy of US higher education

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Via this post by Kevin Drum, a Reuters article by Felix Salmon:

The tragedy of Cooper Union is endemic to most American higher education, outside a few community colleges; Cooper is just the special case where the blind rush to some kind of global greatness directly and explicitly violates the institution’s founding mission. Now a fantastic reportby Stephen Burd shows that it’s not just Cooper which is becoming more expensive for precisely the students who can least afford it. Rather, that’s happening across the US: aid which should be going to the poorest students is in many cases going to some of the richest.

The title of the report is “Undermining Pell”. The Pell in question is Claiborne Pell, the Rhode Island senator who created the first grant designed to remove the financial barriers that prevent low-income students from enrolling in and completing college. The Pell Grant system has been growing fast, and reached $33 billion in the 2010-11 academic year, thanks in large part to the effect of the recession on poorer families’ incomes, and the way that high youth unemployment has encouraged American kids to go to college.

But the money is not, in truth, making college more affordable. Quite the opposite, writes Burd:

There is compelling evidence to suggest that many schools are engaged in an elaborate shell game: using Pell Grants to supplant institutional aid they would have provided to financially needy students otherwise, and then shifting these funds to help recruit wealthier students. This is one reason why even after historic increases in Pell Grant funding, the college-going gap between low-income students and their wealthier counterparts remains as wide as ever. Low-income students are not receiving the full benefits intended.

The big picture here is that colleges are spending as much money as they can on “merit” scholarships, rather than “need” scholarships. The former have two big advantages over the latter, as far as colleges are concerned. Firstly, by attracting the best students, rather than the merely impecunious, they improve the quality of the student body, at least in theory. Secondly, and more importantly, because they are smaller, they allow the university to make much more money. As Burd puts it: “it’s more profitable for schools to provide four scholarships of $5,000 each to induce affluent students who will be able to pay the balance than it is to provide a single $20,000 grant to one low-income student.”

The result, if you’re a poor student, looks something like this: . . .

Continue reading. And the Kevin Drum post is worth a look as well.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 11:54 am

A close look at Netflix

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I had no idea that Netflix sopped up 1/3 of the Internet each evening. Here’s a close look at the company in a Bloomberg Businessweek article by Ashlee Vance:

On a normal weeknight, Netflix (NFLX) accounts for almost a third of all Internet traffic entering North American homes. That’s more than YouTube, Hulu, (AMZN), HBO Go, iTunes, and BitTorrent combined. Traffic to Netflix usually peaks at around 10 p.m. in each time zone, at which point a chart of Internet consumption looks like a python that swallowed a cow. By midnight Pacific time, streaming volume falls off dramatically.

As prime time wound down on Jan. 31, though, there was an unusual amount of tension at Netflix. That was the night the company premièred House of Cards, its political thriller set in Washington. Before midnight about 40 engineers gathered in a conference room at Netflix’s headquarters. They sat before a collection of wall-mounted monitors that displayed the status of Netflix’s computing systems. On the conference table, a few dozen laptops, tablets, smartphones, and other devices had the Netflix app loaded and ready to stream.

When the clocks hit 12 a.m., the entire season of House of Cards started appearing on the devices, as well as in the recommendation lists of millions of customers chosen by an algorithm. The opening scene, a dog getting run over by an SUV, came and went. At 12:15 a.m., around the time Kevin Spacey’s character says “I’m livid,” everything was working fine. “That’s when the champagne comes,” says Yury Izrailevsky, the vice president in charge of cloud computing at Netflix, which has a history of self-inflicted catastrophes. Izrailevsky stayed until the wee hours of the morning—just in case—as thousands of customers binge-watched the show. The midnight ritual repeated itself on April 19, when Netflix premièred its werewolf horror series Hemlock Grove, and will again on May 26, when its revival of Arrested Development goes live.Netflix has more than 36 million subscribers. They watch about 4 billion hours of programs every quarter on more than 1,000 different devices. To meet this demand, the company uses specialized video servers scattered around the world. When a subscriber clicks on a movie to stream, Netflix determines within a split second which server containing that movie is closest to the user, then picks from dozens of versions of the video file, depending on the device the viewer is using. At company headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif., teams of mathematicians and designers study what people watch and build algorithms and interfaces to present them with the collection of videos that will keep them watching.

Netflix is one of the world’s biggest users of cloud computing, which means running a data center on someone else’s equipment. The company rents server and storage systems by the hour, and it rents all this computing power from Amazon Web Services, the cloud division of, which runs its own video-streaming service that competes with Netflix.

It’s a mutually beneficial frenemy relationship. Over the years, Netflix has built an array of sophisticated tools to make its software perform well on Amazon’s cloud. Amazon has mimicked the advances and offered them to other business customers. President Barack Obama’s data-fueled reelection campaign, for example, was run almost entirely on Amazon with the help of code built by Netflix engineers. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 11:21 am

Brain the command center for aging

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Some years back—perhaps even a decade or so—I read about the nasty effects of chronic inflammation (which has a variety of causes, obesity being one) and learned that turmeric is such a powerful anti-inflammatory that even small amounts—eaten, for example, in a diet with a lot of curry—was significantly protective. Just 1/2 tsp of turmeric daily is enough to help, and so I began including that amount in my daily hot cereal. Reading this article by Kate Yendell in The Scientist makes me glad I did:

Inflammation in the hypothalamus may underlie aging of the entire body, according to a study published today (May 1) in Nature. Over-activation of the inflammatory protein nuclear factor κB (NF-κB) in the brain region leads to a number of aging-related changes in mice, from cognitive decline to muscle weakness. Unexpectedly, this process promotes aging at least in part by suppressing gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which stimulates adult neurogenesis.

“I think it’s pretty exciting,” said Brian Kennedy, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California, who was not involved in the study. “It’s one of the first studies to modulate inflammatory pathways [to] show effects on longevity.”

“The hypothalamus has been one of our focuses for many years,” said Dongsheng Cai, one of the paper’s authors and medical scientist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “It is tiny, but it is a very crucial structure in the brain in terms of regulation of life-supporting activities,” such as metabolism, reproduction, and growth.

NF-κB is transcription factor that, among other functions, turns on genes involved in inflammation and immune response, and can be activated in the presence of pro-inflammatory cytokines. The researchers measured NF-κB activation in mouse brains as they aged and noted that, while the protein was barely active in the hypothalamuses of young mice, it became increasingly active as the mice got older.

To further probe NF-κB’s effects on aging, the researchers then either inhibited or constitutively activated the protein in mouse hypothalamic tissues by manipulating the upstream activator IKK-β.  The mice with activated NF-κB showed deficits in cognition and muscle endurance, thinning skin, loss of bone mass, deterioration of cartilage in their tails, and early death.

“Many different aspects of aging are being slowed together,” said Richard Miller, a biogerontologist at the University of Michigan who did also not participate in the research. “That means that whatever they’re working on is somehow slowing that basic aging process itself.”

The scientists also discovered that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 11:18 am

Posted in Daily life, Health, Science

Why Cops Bust Down Doors of Medical Pot Growers, But Ignore Men Who Keep Naked Girls on Leashes

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Kristen Gwynne in AlterNet:

Earlier this year, men wearing black ski masks whipped out their guns and raided [3] the home of 62-year-old Cathy Jordan, a medical marijuana patient and activist in Florida. They seized 23 of her plants, two of which were mature enough to be used for her medicine. Police officers with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Department, the team of armed men, made no arrests, but later charged Jordan and her husband with marijuana cultivation. A district attorney later dropped the case.

In Colorado this year, a 13-person SWAT raid on two medical marijuana users began with a kicked-in door and a flash bang grenade.

“They acted like they were coming for a big terrorist,” Chuck Ball, one of the patients, told KRDO [4]. “They came in here, drug me across the kitchen floor and handcuffed me,” he said. “They kept telling me to shut up.”

According to KRDO, “Ball said the raid was prompted by tips to investigators from his roommate’s estranged ex who told police that there was an illegal number of medical marijuana plants in the house.”

No charges were filed because the patients were growing a legal amount of medical marijuana.

Strange, isn’t it, that hunches and vague tips about potential marijuana growing (in a state that recently legalized the drug!) is motivation enough to send a SWAT team busting down a door? Compare that to recent reports that police in Cleveland, Ohio ignored years of tips and calls about strange things going on in the home of the three Cleveland men suspected of holding captive, brutally raping and beating three women for nearly a decade.

Before the big break on Monday, neighbors say they knew something was up and claim that they repeatedly called the cops. The police did not appear concerned; they certainly lacked the enthusiasm many law enforcement officers display when going after drug crimes (and non-crimes):

USA Today [5]:

Elsie Cintron, who lives three houses away, said her daughter once saw a naked woman crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard several years ago and called police. “But they didn’t take it seriously,” she said.

Another neighbor, Israel Lugo, said he heard pounding on some of the doors of Castro’s house, which had plastic bags on the windows, in November 2011. Lugo said officers knocked on the front door, but no one answered. “They walked to the side of the house and then left,” he said.

. . . Israel Lugo said he, his family and neighbors called police three times between 2011 and 2012 after seeing disturbing things at the home of Ariel Castro. Lugo lives two houses down from Castro and grew suspicious after neighbors reported seeing naked women on leashes crawling on all fours behind Castro’s house.

Lugo said about two years ago his sister told him she heard a woman pounding on a window at Castro’s home as if she needed help. When his sister looked up, she saw a woman and a baby standing in a window half covered with a wooden plank. His sister told him and Lugo called the police.

. . . A third call came from neighborhood women who lived in an apartment building. Those women told Lugo they called police because they saw three young girls crawling on all fours naked with dog leashes around their necks. Three men were controlling them in the backyard. The women told Lugo they waited two hours but police never responded to the calls. Still looking it into it, though.

Without proof of the 911 calls, it is hard to say definitively that the Cleveland Police Department failed to properly follow up on tips (and it is assuring the public that it did all it could to find the young women). If the neighbors aren’t making it up, which seems unlikely, there is some explaining to do.

Retired law enforcement veteran Stephen Downing, former captain of detectives in the LAPD, says he has not seen proof that the police officers failed to adequately respond to information in this case; indeed, police cannot possibly crack every case and investigate every angle all the time. At the same time, we must recognize that police are incentivized to go after certain crimes — like drug crimes — and not other, far more heinous crimes, like rape.

In the first place, federal cash giveaways make police departments’ reactions to drug cases much more swift and severe. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 11:09 am

Posted in Government, Law

Military unable to deal with sex crimes, apparently

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Jennifer Steinhauer writes in the NY Times:

An aviation commander for the Navy was raped by a co-worker, but there was no prosecution and the female accuser was denied re-enlistment. A noncommissioned officer was assaulted by a captain, who was found guilty but then granted clemency without explanation.

Both cases come from the victims’ accounts, and as in all military criminal cases, the person in charge of deciding whether to prosecute and whether to uphold a conviction was a senior commander — the boss — of the accused.

As Washington grows increasingly alarmed about sexual assault in the military, lawmakers of both parties and in both chambers of Congress are moving to introduce legislation seeking to prevent and to better prosecute abuses. President Obama has expressed fury over the issue and this week the administration asked lawmakers to the White House to discuss the legislation with Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama.

Embarrassed military officials have repeatedly pledged that they are working to stop the abuse; a Pentagon survey released Tuesday estimates that 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted last year.

But they are largely opposed to what many experts and lawmakers believe is a crucial step toward reducing assault and more effectively punishing abusers: the reversal of a centuries-old policy stemming from English law that gives commanders the power to decide whether and how an offender should be tried.

The policy comes from a time before there were military judges and a court-martial appeals process. Unlike civilian judges, a military commander decides who gets prosecuted for what crimes and at what level of severity. The commander who convenes the court-martial picks the jurors who will hear the case and after trial must approve or disapprove findings of guilt and sentences.

“We have a system partly from the 20th century and partly from the 18th century,” said Eugene R. Fidell, who teachers military justice at Yale Law School. Commanders believe “as an article of faith that they must have the power to decide who gets prosecuted.”

Victims and their advocates say that such a process serves as a disincentive for reporting sexual assault because victims fear and often experience retribution from their peers and superiors and are not given the due process civilians receive.

“Placing the fate of a case with one person from beginning to end is illogical, it’s not practical and it also is a completely unjust system in which neither the victim nor the accused is well served,” said Anu K. Bhagwati, the director of the Service Women’s Action Network.

Next week, Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, will introduce legislation — certain to be controversial at the Pentagon — that would . . .

Continue reading. The military seems quite happy with things the way they are and will resist change to the utmost. Perhaps the reasons for their inability can be glimpsed in this story by Katie Halper at AlterNet:

This has not been a great PR week for the military. On Sunday a serviceman was arrested [3] for sexual assault. And in what sounds like an Onion headline, the sexual assaulter really was the chief of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention unit. Tuesday, a Pentagon report [4] revealed that sexual assault had jumped from 19,000 cases in 2010 to 26,000 in 2012. That’s an increase of 35%! Another highlight of Tuesday was testimony from the Air Force’s top commander, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, before the Senate[5] Armed Services Committee. Welsh managed to trivialize sexual assault both by emphasizing how common it was in society outside of the military and comparing it to consensual sexual interactions. Welsh noted  [6]that 20% of women report they had been sexually assaulted,

“before they came into the military…. So they come in from a society where this occurs…. Some of it is the hookup mentality of junior high even and high school students now, which my children can tell you about from watching their friends and being frustrated by it.”

Wow. Welsh is a true renaissance man. A general and a social scientist who studies sexual behavior. Somehow, however, he fails to grasp that really subtle distinction between sex between consenting adults and rape. In all fairness, he’s doing a great job representing the military, which is unable to recognize or respond to sexual assault and rape.

Sexual assault in the military is systemic and rampant, not an isolated incident. In fact, a woman serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is more [7] likely to be raped by a fellow service member than to be killed in the line of fire. Since 2006, more than 95,000 service members have been sexually assaulted in the U.S. military. More than 86% [7] of service members do not report their assault. Less than five [7] percent of all sexual assaults are prosecuted, and less than a third of those cases result in imprisonment. There are an estimated 13,000 homeless female veterans in the U.S. and 40%  [8]of them reported experiencing sexual assault. An Air force brochure  [9]on sexual assault advises women how to respond to rape: “It may be advisable to submit [rather] than resist,” As Spencer Ackerman writes, [9] “it does not offer instruction to servicemembers on not committing sexual assault. Prevention is treated as the responsibility of potential victims.”

Instead of shifting the blame and responsibility onto victims, attributing the epidemic to the prevalence of sexual assault outside the military, or to  so-called “hook up” mentality, the military needs to take responsibility and enact policy changes.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 11:00 am

Posted in Law, Military

Intriguing: Game-based training and research on training

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Greg Miller writes at Wired Science:

In some professions, being able to spot a rare item in a cluttered image can make the difference between life and death. If an airport baggage screener catches something suspicious hidden among a would-be bomber’s personal effects, she could save hundreds of lives. If a radiologist misses a tumor on a mammogram, one could be lost.

To study how people perform on these sorts of visual scanning tasks, a cognitive psychologist has teamed up with the developer of a smartphone app in which users scan mock X-ray images for illicit items.

People do more visual searches on the Kedlin Company’s Airport Scanner game in a single day than researchers could reasonably expect to observe in the lab in a year, says Stephen Mitroff of Duke University. Mitroff is combing that torrent of data for clues to better training methods or changes in the workplace that could make doctors, baggage screeners, and other professional searchers better at their jobs.

Mitroff found the app late one night after his one-year-old daughter had woken him up. As he sat in her bedroom waiting for her to fall back to sleep, he flipped through his phone looking for games. Airport Scanner caught his eye. Visual search is one of Mitroff’s top research interests, and he runs a small lab at Raleigh-Durham International Airport for studies with TSA baggage screeners.

“I was skeptical, but curious, so I downloaded it,” he said. “I started playing and was amazed by how perfectly it captured so many research questions.”

He emailed Kedlin CEO Ben Sharpe to introduce himself, and a collaboration was born. (Mitroff has no financial stake in the company).Until recently, Mitroff studied visual search the way most scientists do, with computer-based tests. But that approach has limitations when it comes to studying some of the questions that interest researchers the most.

One such question is whether search performance drops off as the target of the search becomes more rare. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 10:50 am

Posted in Daily life, Games, Science

The FDA is terribly broken, putting us all at risk

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OTOH, the pharmaceutical companies are delighted. Here’s an article by Megan Scudellari in The Scientist:

Vioxx was on the market for 5 years before manufacturer Merck voluntarily withdrew the arthritis medication in 2004 due to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. An estimated 88,000–139,000 Americans had heart attacks while taking Vioxx, and as many as 55,000 died. Soon after, other painkillers in the same class of medicines came under scrutiny, including Bextra, which Pfizer removed from the market in 2005 upon the recommendation of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Americans cried out for better oversight of approved drugs. Then, in 2007, a cardiologist in Cleveland showed that Avandia, a blockbuster antidiabetic drug, increased the risk of heart attacks. An FDA advisory committee reviewed the evidence and found the claim to be true, but voted to keep Avandia on the market because of its efficacy, while mandating that the drug carry the FDA’s strictest warning label. The cries became louder.

Today, almost a decade since Vioxx was taken off the market and 6 years since Avandia made headlines, the national system for monitoring approved drugs has not gotten any better, critics say—despite the 2007 FDA Amendments Act (FDAAA) that granted the agency more power to oversee drugs once they hit the market.

“I don’t think there have been any significant changes,” says David Resnik, a bioethicist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “I don’t think anything has improved at all.”

Postmarket drug safety is a hot-button issue not only because of high-profile drug scares, but also because of accelerating efforts to get drugs to market sooner. Last July, for example, Congress passed the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act, which among other things created a new designation called a “breakthrough therapy.” Though the details of the new designation are still being worked out, it is considered one step above “fast track” status, and mandates that the FDA work closely with drug developers to expedite a breakthrough drug’s path to the clinic. A handful of experimental drugs have been granted the status, and at least one company, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, is launching shorter-than-normal Phase 3 trials—24 weeks instead of 48—for a combination of two cystic fibrosis drugs that received the designation in January. . .

Continue reading.


Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 10:46 am

Jack Lew, bad choice

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I assume that Wall Street made the choice of Jack Lew and Obama went along as ordered. Pam Martens writes of the latest wrinkle in Wall Street on Parade:

That shady offshore tax haven known as Ugland House in the Cayman Islands strikes again. After consuming a chunk of Jack Lew’s Senate confirmation hearing, with Senators grilling Lew on why he owned an investment housed in this offshore tax dodge while working for the Obama administration, the Cayman Islands’ address has surfaced once again in the foreclosure settlement scandal.

On April 30 of this year, just 18 days after the first wave of checks from the Federal government’s settlement of the so-called Independent Foreclosure Review began arriving in the mail – and bouncing – Citigroup Venture Capital International (CVCI), Lew’s former Ugland House investment, bought a large stake in the company that was mailing the checks, SourceHOV, parent of Rust Consulting. As reported by Naked Capitalism, the ownership stake was made despite Citigroup being one of the banks in the foreclosure settlement.

After correcting the humiliating problem of bouncing foreclosure victims’ checks, Rust Consulting came under fire yesterday for paying out 96,000 checks on behalf of claims against Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley with erroneous amounts that undervalued the claim. The Federal Reserve said in a statement: “The checks were for amounts that were smaller than the amounts that the Federal Reserve had specifically instructed Rust to send those borrowers.”

When Jack Lew left his executive position at Citigroup at the end of 2008 and joined Hillary Clinton’s State Department as Deputy Secretary of State, he retained his investment in CVCI, a $7 billion private equity fund. According to his January 11, 2009 financial disclosure report, his CVCI account at that point had a value of between $100,000 and $250,000. As indicated on the document below, released as part of Lew’s Senate confirmation hearing, he still owned $19,470 of this foreign hedge fund investment in calendar year 2010 while working in a high level, highly sensitive State Department post. In Lew’s confirmation hearing in February, he said he had since sold the position at a loss.

According to the General Accountability Office, Ugland House is home to 18,857 corporations. In 2009, President Obama called it either “the largest building in the world or the largest tax scam in the world.”

Lew was also challenged during his confirmation hearing on the fact that he accepted a $940,000 bonus from Citigroup in early 2009, even though the insolvent company was subsisting solely on taxpayer bailout funds at that time. Lew was Chief Operating Officer of the division that brought down the bank. According to public records, on January 14 of this year, just four days after Lew was nominated for Treasury Secretary, Citigroup completed a mortgage refinancing for Lew, changing his mortgage rate to 3.625 percent for a 30-year mortgage of $610,000 and simultaneously providing a $200,000 home equity loan at an unstated amount of interest.

Another issue for Lew in his confirmation hearing was . . .

Continue reading. This is one sleazy guy. Obama seems not to be able to pick people well—or maybe he does such choices with an eye to his own personal benefit down the line.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 10:36 am

NYPD, a secretive and out of control police force

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The NYPD is technically out of control; supported by Mayor Bloomberg, it does pretty much as it pleases, costing the citizens of the city millions of dollars in court settlements from its overreaching brutality every year. CJ Ciaramella reports in Salon:

The New York Police Department has come under fire for the potentially unconstitutional execution of its stop-and-frisk policy, and surveillance of Muslims. But if you think that the taxpayer-funded agency should be accountable to the public and forthcoming about what it’s doing, the story gets worse: It regularly flouts transparency laws, in an effort to make the records of how it perform its duties and the crimes it responds to next to impossible for the average citizen to obtain.

The NYPD’s roughly 34,500 officers serve a population of 8.2 million people, but multiple interviews with reporters who cover the police department, as well as organizations dedicated to transparency, reveal a police department stunning in its disregard for the information requests of citizens, advocacy groups and news organizations.

The city’s Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is running for mayor, recently released a report asserting that a third of all Freedom of Information records requests to the police department were ignored. The numbers are no surprise to journalists who cover the department, such as Leonard Levitt, a veteran cops reporter who now writes at NYPD Confidential.

“All I can tell you is that the NYPD does whatever it wants to regarding FOI requests,” Levitt said. “Which means they never turn anything over, at least not to me. The only time they did respond was after I got the NY Civil Liberties Union involved.”

The civil liberties group filed suit on behalf of Levitt to obtain Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s daily calendar. The department said the commissioner’s whereabouts were secret for security reasons, which is a novel line of argument, given that President Barack Obama’s daily schedule is public.

In the past several years, the NYCLU has also sued the department to get data on the notorious stop-and-frisk program, as well as details on the race of people shot by officers. The NYCLU, currently wrapped up in a court case against the city’s stop-and-frisk program, was not available for comment.

Remapping the Debate, a public policy organization, filed a lawsuit against the NYPD in late April for withholding documents on protest permits. The group waited 11 months with no response before filing the suit. . .

Continue reading. This organization requires a thorough reworking and housecleaning—starting with a new mayor, since nothing will be done under the current mayor.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 9:16 am

Posted in Government, Law

US government moves to increase surveillance of US citizens

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What kind of country are we becoming? The government wants greater powers to spy on us. No, thank you. Andrew Leonard writes in Salon:

Did the surveillance state just take another gigantic Big Brotherish step forward? The New York Times and Washington Post are reporting that the Obama administration is planning to support an FBI plan for “a sweeping overhaul of surveillance laws that would make it easier to wiretap people who communicate using the Internet rather than by traditional phone services.”

Facebook posts, Skype calls, Google chats, Apple’s iMessage — under the new plan, every form of Internet communication would have to be accessible to law enforcement wiretapping. Civil libertarians, Internet companies and privacy activists are all understandably unenthused. A blogger at FireDogLake immediately labeled the news proof that Obama intended to support the “end of the 4th Amendment on the Internet.”

That’s a little overheated. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure, chiefly by requiring that search warrants be authorized by a judge and supported by probable cause. According to all descriptions of the new FBI wiretapping plan, if law enforcement wants to listen in on your Facebook chats or Apple iMessages, law enforcement will have to get a court order, just at it would if it wants to wiretap your phone. If society is going to grant government the right to listen in to our old-school phone conversations, it’s hard to see how, in principle, it can deny the same right with regard to our Skype calls.

The more pertinent question is whether we can trust our government to responsibly seek those court orders, once it is armed with a massive expansion in surveillance power. The evidence there is not encouraging. On the same day that the news broke of the Obama administration’s plan to support expanded wiretapping capabilities, CNET’s Declan McCullagh reported that, according to documents obtained by the ACLU, the U.S. Department of Justice just doesn’t believe that it needs search warrants “to review Americans’ e-mails, Facebook chats, Twitter direct messages, and other private files.”

Now we’re talking violation of the Fourth Amendment. And if we combine that kind of cavalier attitude toward our constitutionally mandated protections with vastly expanded technical surveillance capabilities, then we’ve got a real problem. Civil libertarians have a right to be nervous. Expanded power implies expanded opportunities to abuse that power. . .

Continue reading. And check out the NY Times article by Charlie Savage:

The Obama administration, resolving years of internal debate, is on the verge of backing a Federal Bureau of Investigation plan for a sweeping overhaul of surveillance laws that would make it easier to wiretap people who communicate using the Internet rather than by traditional phone services, according to officials familiar with the deliberations.

The F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, has argued that the bureau’s ability to carry out court-approved eavesdropping on suspects is “going dark” as communications technology evolves, and since 2010 has pushed for a legal mandate requiring companies like Facebook and Google to build into their instant-messaging and other such systems a capacity to comply with wiretap orders. That proposal, however, bogged down amid concerns by other agencies, like the Commerce Department, about quashing Silicon Valley innovation.

While the F.B.I.’s original proposal would have required Internet communications services to each build in a wiretapping capacity, the revised one, which must now be reviewed by the White House, focuses on fining companies that do not comply with wiretap orders. The difference, officials say, means that start-ups with a small number of users would have fewer worries about wiretapping issues unless the companies became popular enough to come to the Justice Department’s attention.

Still, the plan is likely to set off a debate over the future of the Internet if the White House submits it to Congress, according to lawyers for technology companies and advocates of Internet privacy and freedom.

“I think the F.B.I.’s proposal would render Internet communications less secure and more vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves,” said Gregory T. Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “It would also mean that innovators who want to avoid new and expensive mandates will take their innovations abroad and develop them there, where there aren’t the same mandates.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 9:05 am

Syria is not Iraq

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A good article by Matthew Buss in The American Prospect. Let me just add that Bill Keller is the worst sort of hack: one with no moral sense and a worshipful attitude toward power. Bill Keller beat the drums fiercely in favor of going to war in Iraq, and he has not learned a thing from our experience there. He also suppressed the news about George W. Bush’s massive wiretapping program until after Bush was successfully re-elected. This is not what actual news reporters do. This is what GOP operatives do. I have enormous contempt for Keller, a man with no moral core, just toadying ambition.

Duss’s article:

For those advocating greater intervention in Syria by the United States, the memory of Iraq has turned into a real inconvenience.

“Iraq is not Syria,” proclaimed the headline of New York Times editor Bill Keller’s op-ed on Monday, by way of arguing for greater U.S. involvement in Syria’s ongoing civil war. Because of Iraq, Keller wrote, “in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.”

Let’s grant that it’s possible to over-learn the lessons of Iraq. The Iraq war, as costly a blunder as it was, should not discredit any and all military interventions, but it should—and has—raised the bar for when such interventions are necessary. What appears to persist, however, is the belief that “bold” U.S. moves—nearly always assumed to be military action—can change the situation for the better, and produce the outcomes that we would like to see.

And of those outcomes aren’t produced? Well, then it will be time for even bolder moves. Writing on Syria back in 2011, The Progressive Realist’s Eric Martin looked back at the run-up to the Iraq war and observed the steadily escalating calls for action—subsequently dubbed “The Regime Change Ratchet” by writer Matt Yglesias—that tend to drive public debate over any given foreign policy crisis. “This pattern of rhetorical escalation in response to the practical limitations of bringing about regime change from afar is a familiar dance,” wrote Martin, “most deftly performed by those inclined to advocate for more and bigger US interventions abroad.”

It seems that we’re now at Martin’s Step 3:

Step 3 (with Regime X still in place): Sanctions? Regime isolation? Is that all the President is going to do in the face of Regime X’s perfidy?  Those timid jabs will never work, and the President’s dithering will make us look weak and lacking in resolve. Our enemies will be emboldened.  The President must use our military to deal a swift blow.  No one is advocating a prolonged occupation, just a decapitation maneuver, and then a rapid hand off to the indigenous forces for democratic change.The past weekend’s airstrikes on Syria by Israel have raised pressure on the Obama administration to take military action, with some claiming that the Israeli strikes undercut claims that Syrian air defenses would pose a genuine threat to a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone. In typical fashion, craps enthusiast Senator John McCain, who will apparently be appearing on every Sunday talk show from now until the end of time, has called for “game-changing action,” as if another roll of the military dice were all that was needed to better our luck.

However, an analysis by military expert Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies cautioned that the limited strikes carried out by Israel do not offer an appropriate model for the broader effort that a no-fly zone would require.

These details are of little interest to those for whom crises such as Syria are less a test of American capability and leadership than of American honor. It’s a test expressly designed for any non-interventionist to fail. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 8:40 am

The US: The last empire?

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Tom Englehardt is always worth reading. Here’s a column from yesterday:

It stretched from the Caspian to the Baltic Sea, from the middle of Europe to the Kurile Islands in the Pacific, from Siberia to Central Asia.  Its nuclear arsenal held 45,000 warheads, and its military had five million troops under arms.  There had been nothing like it in Eurasia since the Mongols conquered China, took parts of Central Asia and the Iranian plateau, and rode into the Middle East, looting Baghdad.  Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, by far the poorer, weaker imperial power disappeared.

And then there was one.  There had never been such a moment: a single nation astride the globe without a competitor in sight.  There wasn’t even a name for such a state (or state of mind).  “Superpower” had already been used when there were two of them.  “Hyperpower” was tried briefly but didn’t stick.  “Sole superpower” stood in for a while but didn’t satisfy.  “Great Power,” once the zenith of appellations, was by then a lesser phrase, left over from the centuries when various European nations and Japan were expanding their empires.  Some started speaking about a “unipolar” world in which all roads led… well, to Washington.

To this day, we’ve never quite taken in that moment when Soviet imperial rot unexpectedly — above all, to Washington — became imperial crash-and-burn.  Left standing, the Cold War’s victor seemed, then, like an empire of everything under the sun.  It was as if humanity had always been traveling toward this spot.  It seemed like the end of the line.

The Last Empire?

After the rise and fall of the Assyrians and the Romans, the Persians, the Chinese, the Mongols, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the English, the Germans, and the Japanese, some process seemed over.  The United States was dominant in a previously unimaginable way — except in Hollywood films where villains cackled about their evil plans to dominate the world.

As a start, the U.S. was an empire of global capital.  With the fall of Soviet-style communism (and the transformation of a communist regime in China into a crew of authoritarian “capitalist roaders”), there was no other model for how to do anything, economically speaking.  There was Washington’s way — and that of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (both controlled by Washington) — or there was the highway, and the Soviet Union had already made it all too clear where that led: to obsolescence and ruin.

In addition, the U.S. had unprecedented military power.  By the time the Soviet Union began to totter, America’s leaders had for nearly a decade been consciously using “the arms race” to spend its opponent into an early grave.  And here was the curious thing after centuries of arms races: when there was no one left to race, the U.S. continued an arms race of one.

In the years that followed, it would outpace all other countries or combinations of countries in military spending by staggering amounts.  It housed the world’s most powerful weapons makers, was technologically light years ahead of any other state, and was continuing to develop future weaponry for 2020, 2040, 2060, even as it established a near monopoly on the global arms trade (and so, control over who would be well-armed and who wouldn’t).

It had an empire of bases abroad, more than 1,000 of them spanning the globe, also an unprecedented phenomenon.  And it was culturally dominant, again in a way that made comparisons with other moments ludicrous.  Like American weapons makers producing things that went boom in the night for an international audience, Hollywood’s action and fantasy films took the world by storm.  From those movies to the golden arches, the swoosh, and the personal computer, there was no other culture that could come close to claiming such a global cachet.

The key non-U.S. economic powerhouses of the moment — Europe and Japan — maintained militaries dependent on Washington, had U.S. bases littering their territories, and continued to nestle under Washington’s “nuclear umbrella.”  No wonder that, in the U.S., the post-Soviet moment was soon proclaimed “the end of history,” and the victory of “liberal democracy” or “freedom” was celebrated as if there really were no tomorrow, except more of what today had to offer.

No wonder that, in the new century, neocons and supporting pundits would begin to claim that the British and Roman empires had been second-raters by comparison.  No wonder that key figures in and around the George W. Bush administration dreamed of establishing a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East and possibly over the globe itself (as well as a Pax Republicana at home).  They imagined that they might actually prevent another competitor or bloc of competitors from arising to challenge American power. Ever.

No wonder they had remarkably few hesitations about launching their incomparably powerful military on wars of choice in the Greater Middle East.  What could possibly go wrong?  What could stand in the way of the greatest power history had ever seen?

Assessing the Imperial Moment, Twenty-First-Century-Style

Almost a quarter of a century after the Soviet Union disappeared, what’s remarkable is how much — and how little — has changed.

On the how-much front: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 8:33 am

Hormone produced by fat cells controls diabetes

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Interesting that fat plays in some respects the role of an endocrine gland. Edyta Zielinska reports in The Scientist:

The small protein aP2, thought to only be involved in shuttling lipids throughout fat cells, is actually excreted outside the cell where it acts as a long range signaling molecule or hormone, controlling glucose levels, according to new research published this week (May 7) in Cell Metabolism. The findings suggest a new target for treating obesity-related diabetes.

“It was surprising to find that a critical hormone playing a pathological role in diabetes turned out to be the secreted form of aP2, which for decades has been considered a protein that resides inside the fat cells,” senior author Gökhan Hotamisligil from Harvard School of Public Health said in press release.

The protein aP2 occurs in the blood of obese individuals at much higher levels than in lean individuals, although it is also secreted by fat tissues during times of fasting. To test whether the protein controls glucose retention, the researchers first increased the levels of aP2 in normal mice and saw that the animals were less capable of controlling their glucose levels. When the team performed the reverse experiment, reducing aP2 in obese mice to the levels seen in lean mice using an antibody against the protein, glucose metabolism appeared more similar to that of lean mice.

The group hopes that the antibody could help treat diabetes and have licensed the technology to the biopharmaceutical company Union Chimique Belge in Belgium for development.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 8:30 am

The 1% continue to work to crush the 99%

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Dean Baker points out in TruthOut a tactic used by Wall Street to suck up more money at the expense of the rest of us:

The bond-rating agency Moody’s made itself famous for giving subprime mortgage backed securities triple-A ratings at the peak of the housing bubble. This made it easy for investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to sell these securities all around the world. And it allowed the housing bubble to grow ever bigger and more dangerous. And we know where that has left us.

Well, Moody’s is back. They announced plans to change the way they treat pension obligations in assessing state and local government debt.

Instead of accepting projections of pension fund returns based on the assets they hold, Moody’s wants to use a risk-free discount rate to assess pension fund liabilities. This will make public pensions seem much worse funded than the current method.

While this might seem like a nerdy and technical point, it has very real consequences. If the Moody’s methodology is accepted as the basis for accounting by state and local governments then they will suddenly need large amounts of revenue to make their pensions properly funded. This will directly pit public sector workers, who are counting on the pensions they have earned, against school children, low-income families, and others who count on state supported services.

In other words, this is exactly the sort of politics that the Wall Street and the One Percent types love. No matter which side loses, they win. While public sector workers fight the people dependent on state and local services, they get to walk off with all the money.

Wall Street is expert at these sorts of accounting tricks; it is after all what they do for a living. And this is not the first time that they have played these sorts of games to advance their agenda.

The current crisis of the Postal Service, which is looking at massive layoffs and cutbacks in delivery, is largely the result of accounting gimmicks. In 2006 Congress passed a law requiring an unprecedented level of pre-funding for retiree health care benefits. The Postal Service is not only required to build up a massive level of prefunding, it also is using more pessimistic assumptions about cost growth than any known plan in the private sector.

This requirement is the basis for the horror stories of multi-billion losses that feature prominently in news stories about the Postal Service. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 8:25 am

Cool brushes from the Strop Shoppe

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Kali of the Strop Shoppe sent me a link to some photos of new brushes she’ll be offering. At the link you can see photos of individual brushes. Here’s the full group:

Strop shop brushes

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 8:19 am

Posted in Shaving

BBS with a slant

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SOTD 9 May 2013

Today’s shave was exceptionally easy and smooth. I worked up a good lather from the Barrister & Mann soap whose name I can no longer make out, using the Ecotools brush. As usual, I spent some time simply enjoying the lather, then picked up my vintage Merkur Slant and set to work. The shave was surprisingly easy and comfortable, even for a slant, and I think the Astra Superior Platinum blade in the razor must be close to new: it glided through 3 passes of stubble removal.

A final rinse, a splash of Creed’s Green Irish Tweed, and the day await.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2013 at 8:14 am

Posted in Shaving

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