Later On

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

Archive for July 10th, 2013

Fun movie—for liberals, at least, but really for any political junkie

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The Campaign is a send-up of the current political scene, and many familiar issues make their appearance: Citizens United (by name), the Koch brothers (in the movie, the Motch Brothers). You can see the writers thinking, “Now what’s the worst possible mistake you can make on a campaign?” and then they march through a litany, all too many of which are familiar from the headlines. Several sequences are built on the structure made familiar in Airplane!: seeing just how far you can take a gag, getting more outrageous at each round, and always going further than the audience expects.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 4:50 pm

Posted in Humor, Movies & TV, Politics

Fold-out rooms: Compact living

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Some interesting stuff, but I don’t think it’s me.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 3:05 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

The Private Life of a Cat

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You can read about this 1944 film in this article. Here’s the movie:

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Cats, Movies & TV, Video

North Carolina shows the way…

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I wonder how the businesses in North Carolina will do when people cannot afford to buy things. A NY Times editorial today:

Every Monday since April, thousands of North Carolina residents have gathered at the State Capitol to protest the grotesque damage that a new Republican majority has been doing to a tradition of caring for the least fortunate. Nearly 700 people have been arrested in the “Moral Monday” demonstrations, as they are known. But the bad news keeps on coming from the Legislature, and pretty soon a single day of the week may not be enough to contain the outrage.

In January, after the election of Pat McCrory as governor, Republicans took control of both the executive and legislative branches for the first time since Reconstruction. Since then, state government has become a demolition derby, tearing down years of progress in public education, tax policy, racial equality in the courtroom and access to the ballot.

The cruelest decision by lawmakers went into effect last week: ending federal unemployment benefits for 70,000 residents. Another 100,000 will lose their checks in a few months. Those still receiving benefits will find that they have been cut by a third, to a maximum of $350 weekly from $535, and the length of time they can receive benefits has been slashed from 26 weeks to as few as 12 weeks.

The state has the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country, and many Republicans insulted workers by blaming their joblessness on generous benefits. In fact, though, North Carolina is the only state that has lost long-term federal benefits, because it did not want to pay back $2.5 billion it owed to Washington for the program. The State Chamber of Commerce argued that cutting weekly benefits would be better than forcing businesses to pay more in taxes to pay off the debt, and lawmakers blindly went along, dropping out of the federal program.

At the same time, the state is also making it harder for future generations of workers to get jobs, cutting back sharply on spending for public schools. Though North Carolina has been growing rapidly, it is spending less on schools now than it did in 2007, ranking 46th . . .

Continue reading. The is not a party that cares for citizens.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 12:24 pm

Posted in GOP, Government

If you show bad faith often enough, it gets noticed; or, We’re not all Charlie Brown with the football

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Kevin Drum points out one drawback of being as obstructionist as the GOP in the Senate: they are already doing everything they can to stop the Senate from getting anything done, so what new threat do they have? To shoot Harry Reid?

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 11:40 am

Posted in Congress

Speaking of governtment waste, is anyone taking a close look at the military

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The US spends as much on its military as all other nations on earth combined, and yet… I get the feeling that most of that money is wasted. Philip Bump has an intriguing note at the Atlantic Wire:

In May 2010, military commanders decided that a proposed command center in Afghanistan’s Helmand province wasn’t necessary. So, naturally, it is now complete and partially furnished, just in time for the U.S. withdrawal from the country. The facility will likely be torn down. It cost $34 million.

There’s a sense in which this isn’t that wasteful. In our rush to exit, the military will be abandoning or destroying $7 billion in equipment—in part because that’s the cheaper option. In that context, $34 million is barely a drop in the bucket. It is to $7 billion what four cents is to 10 bucks—just a tiny amount.

But as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction notes in a letter outlining the waste, this almost certainly was an avoidable cost.

One senior U.S. military official told me that this facility was designed for a military division that was never deployed and, subsequently, a decision was made not to construct the facility, but inexplicably the building construction started and is now complete. Military officials explained this is an example of what is wrong with military construction in general—once a project is started, it is very difficult to stop.

The IG toured the facility, taking photos of the amenities already in place. From left to right below: never-used cubicles, a large conference table, the facility’s electrical system. . .

Continue reading.

I imagine the GOP is on a warpath to cut military spending to trim the deficit, especially given appalling waste like this. No? I wonder why.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 11:36 am

A radical plan for shaking up the FISA court

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This approach sounds excellent. I have written my Representative and requested that he co-sponsor the bill. Ezra Klein reports in the Washington Post:

Rep. Steven Cohen thinks he knows how to fix the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Right now, all 11 judges are appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. “That’s a lot of similar minds being put on there,” Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, says. “We need to guarantee there’s a difference of opinion.”

Cohen’s FISA Court Accountability Actwould try to ensure that difference of opinion by splitting the power to appoint the judges: The chief justice would get to name three of the 11 FISA judges, and each of the four congressional leaders would get two appointments each. The result would be a guaranteed mixture of Republicans and Democrats serving on the court — a far cry from the current situation, in which the court is made up of 10 Republicans and one Democrat.

Cohen’s bill would also require a 60 percent supermajority for any decisions made by the full court. “If the 60% threshold is good enough for the Senate, it should be good enough for the FISA Court,” he wrote to his House colleagues. And in the cases where the FISA court rules against the government and the government then appeals to the appellate court, Cohen’s bill would state that only a unanimous decision on the appellate court could overturn the FISA court.

Finally, Cohen’s legislation would require the FISA court to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 11:06 am

Posted in Congress, Government, NSA

Nocebos are just as powerful as placebos

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Nocebos exercise their noxious effects on the body by stimulating worry, fear, and stress. Megan Scudellari reports in The Scientist:

Something strange was happening in New Zealand. In the fall of 2007, pharmacies across the country had begun dispensing a new formulation of Eltroxin—the only thyroid hormone replacement drug approved and paid for by the government and used by tens of thousands of New Zealanders since 1973. Within months, reports of side effects began trickling in to the government’s health-care monitoring agency. These included known side effects of the drug, such as lethargy, joint pain, and depression, as well as symptoms not normally associated with the drug or disease, including eye pain, itching, and nausea. Then, the following summer, the floodgates opened: in the 18 months following the release of the new tablets, the rate of Eltroxin adverse event reporting rose nearly 2,000-fold.1

The strange thing was, the active ingredient in the drug, thyroxine, was exactly the same. Laboratory testing proved that the new formulation was bioequivalent to the old one. The only change was that the drugmaker, GlaxoSmithKline, had moved its manufacturing process from Canada to Germany, and in the process altered the drug’s inert qualities, including the tablets’ size, color, and markings.

So why were people getting sick? In June, it turned out, newspapers and TV stations around the country had begun to directly attribute the reported adverse effects to the changes in the drug. Following widespread coverage of the issue, more and more patients reported adverse events to the government. And the areas of the country with the most intense media coverage had the highest rates of reported ill effects, suggesting that perhaps a little social persuasion was at play.

But Eltroxin takers were not making up their symptoms. The feelings were real, but in the vast majority of cases they could not be attributed to the drug’s pharmacological properties. The patients were victims of the nocebo effect.“Nocebo” (meaning “I shall harm”) is the dastardly sibling of placebo (“I shall please”). In a placebo response, a sham medication or procedure has a beneficial health effect as a result of a patient’s expectation. Sugar pills, for example, can powerfully improve depression when the patient believes them to be antidepressants. But, researchers are learning, the reverse phenomenon is also common: negative expectations can actually cause harm.

When Parkinson’s patients undergoing deep brain stimulation were told that their brain pacemaker was going to be turned off, symptoms of their illness became more pronounced, even when the pacemaker was left on.2 When people with and without lactose intolerance were asked to ingest lactose, but were actually given glucose, 44 percent of those with lactose intolerance and 26 percent of those without it still complained of stomach pain.3 And men treated for an enlarged prostate with a commonly prescribed drug and told that the drug “may cause erectile dysfunction, decreased libido, [and] problems of ejaculation,” but that these effects were “uncommon,” were more than twice as likely to experience impotence as those who were not so informed.4

On paper, it sounds like psychobabble—a negative effect caused by a sham treatment based on a patient’s expectations—but it is a real biochemical and physiological process, involving pain and stress pathways in the brain. And mounting evidence suggests that the nocebo effect is having a substantial negative impact on clinical research, medicine, and health.

“Nocebo is at least as important as the placebo effect and may be more widespread,” says Ted Kaptchuk, director of Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts.

Now that this pernicious phenomenon is starting to receive the recognition it deserves, the question is: What exactly can be done about it? . . .

Continue reading.

Somehow I am reminded of the Salem “witches.”

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 10:53 am

Obama’s plan to predict future leakers unlikely to work

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Jonathan Landay and Marisa Taylor report for McClatchy:

In an initiative aimed at rooting out future leakers and other security violators, President Barack Obama has ordered federal employees to report suspicious actions of their colleagues based on behavioral profiling techniques that are not scientifically proven to work, according to experts and government documents.

The techniques are a key pillar of the Insider Threat Program, an unprecedented government-wide crackdown under which millions of federal bureaucrats and contractors must watch out for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers. Those who fail to report them could face penalties, including criminal charges.

Obama mandated the program in an October 2011 executive order after Army Pfc. Bradley Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from a classified computer network and gave them to WikiLeaks, the anti-government secrecy group. The order covers virtually every federal department and agency, including the Peace Corps, the Department of Education and others not directly involved in national security.

Under the program, which is being implemented with little public attention, security investigations can be launched when government employees showing “indicators of insider threat behavior” are reported by co-workers, according to previously undisclosed administration documents obtained by McClatchy. Investigations also can be triggered when “suspicious user behavior” is detected by computer network monitoring and reported to “insider threat personnel.”

Federal employees and contractors are asked to pay particular attention to the lifestyles, attitudes and behaviors – like financial troubles, odd working hours or unexplained travel – of co-workers as a way to predict whether they might do “harm to the United States.” Managers of special insider threat offices will have “regular, timely, and, if possible, electronic, access” to employees’ personnel, payroll, disciplinary and “personal contact” files, as well as records of their use of classified and unclassified computer networks, polygraph results, travel reports and financial disclosure forms.

Over the years, numerous studies of public and private workers who’ve been caught spying, leaking classified information, stealing corporate secrets or engaging in sabotage have identified psychological profiles that could offer clues to possible threats. Administration officials want government workers trained to look for such indicators and report them so the next violation can be stopped before it happens.

“In past espionage cases, we find people saw things that may have helped identify a spy, but never reported it,” said Gene Barlow, a spokesman for the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, which oversees government efforts to detect threats like spies and computer hackers and is helping implement the Insider Threat Program. “That is why the awareness effort of the program is to teach people not only what types of activity to report, but how to report it and why it is so important to report it.”

But even the government’s top scientific advisers have questioned these techniques. Those experts say that trying to predict future acts through behavioral monitoring is unproven and could result in illegal ethnic and racial profiling and privacy violations.

“There is no consensus in the relevant scientific community nor on the committee regarding whether any behavioral surveillance or physiological monitoring techniques are ready for use at all,” concluded a 2008 National Research Council report on detecting terrorists. . .

Continue reading. And from a sidebar at the link:

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 10:41 am

Bank of America continues its illegal actions despite agreeing to stop

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Words fail me. David Dayen writes at Salon of a family whose home the Bank of America seems determined to steal. Read the article, please. From it:

. . . Every time Gisele would reapply for a loan, she would get a new single point of contact (SPOC). She would receive letters from different people inside the bank with contradictory information, some from an old SPOC saying she was denied a modification (without explanation), others from a new SPOC saying that her paperwork was in the underwriting process. This matches what Bank of America whistle-blowers have stated, that customer service representatives would facilitate delay by claiming that applications were “under review,” when they weren’t.

I’ll jump in here to add that practically all of this conduct occurred after Bank of America signed a supposedly important settlement with state and federal law enforcement officials over just this type of misconduct. The $25 billion National Mortgage Settlement was inked in February 2012. But based on Gisele Mata’s story, you would never know that anything changed at the bank over the years, despite the new mortgage servicing standards that were part of the settlement agreement.

In fact, Gisele’s recent experience shows things getting worse. She was told this April that she had to get current on her loan within 15 days. When she reapplied for a modification, the bank told her it had no information on her application. Nevertheless, a new single point of contact said he would get the information to underwriting. Then she heard from a completely new representative at the bank, who told her she had to resend the information to him. It was her third reapplication and third “single point of contact” within 30 days.

Gisele had enough. She began to . . .

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 10:33 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Law

Maybe we’ll discover what was behind the vindictive persecution of Aaron Schwartz

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Abby Ohlheiser writes at the Atlantic Wire:

We might be about to learn a lot more about the Secret Service investigation into Aaron Swartz, thepolitical and internet activist who committed suicide earlier this year. That’s because a federal judge, in response to a FOIA lawsuit, has ordered the Department of Homeland Security (the parent organization of the Secret Service) to start releasing thousands of pages of documents, ASAP.

That request comes from Wired’s Kevin Poulsen, who sought documents relating to the Secret Service’s 2011 investigation into the activist’s downloading of JSTOR articles in bulk. Those downloads were central to the mounting legal troubles the Swartz faced just before his death, afterMassachusetts Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann refused to offer Swartz a plea deal without jail time. Here’s what Poulsen says about the request:

That criminal case was formally dismissed after Swartz’s death. Yet in February, the Secret Service denied in full my request for any files it held on Swartz, citing a FOIA exemption that covers sensitive law enforcement records that are part of an ongoing proceeding. Other requestors reported receiving the same response.

After enlisting the help of FOIA litigator David Sobel, who helped him file suit, it looks like Poulsen may get even more than what he asked for. It turns out that the government has “several thousand” additional pages of documents related to Sobel’s request than they initially thought. Of course, the last-minute revelation allowed the U.S. to request even more time in delivering them, indicating that the new trove may also help to drag out the process even further. On the other hand, Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s order requires the immediate release of all documents already processed by the government, and sets a deadline for their release timetable for August 5.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 10:26 am

What government regulations are for

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As pointed out, regulations can be used to throttle innovation. But regulations can also be used to save lives and improve quality of life. The only difference is in the quality of legislators. Currently, the US has incompetent, corrupt, or malicious legislators throughout the system, at all levels: local, state, and federal. Not all legislators fall into that barrel of rotten apples, but enough so that the US is declining rapidly.

One thing that could help a lot: public funding for elections and labeling campaign contributions as the bribes that they are.

Some good regulations are described by Igor Volsky at ThinkProgress:

s the nation breathes a sigh of relief for the many passengers of Asiana Airlines passengers on Flight 214 who escaped uninjured after their Boeing 777 crashed in San Francisco, aircraft safety experts are attributing the relatively small number of fatalities to government regulations adopted in the aftermath of past accidents.

In the past decade, the Federal Aviation Administration — the office responsible for overseeing all aspects of civil aviation — has instituted a series of aircraft safety standards that undoubtedly saved lives on Saturday, Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, told ThinkProgress on Tuesday morning, pointing to new mandates for everything from seating to enhanced training of flight attendants. American regulations lead the world and are typically adopted by airlines in Europe and Japan, with only minor adjustments.

For instance, in 1988 airplanes began installing so-called 16 G passenger seats that stay in place “when subjected to stresses up to 16 times the force of gravity” after regulators discovered “that passengers might survive a crash were they not crushed to death when the seats tore loose from the floor.” Despite initial opposition from the airline industry, final regulations were implemented in June of 2009 and Goelz believes that the stronger chairs prevented passengers from being thrown throughout the cabin as the rear of the Flight 2014 slammed down on the ground, allowing individuals to evacuate in time.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that if the old 9 G standard would have been part of that airplane those seats would have behaved as well as they did,” Todd Curtis, an air safety analyst added.

A series of evolutionary changes to fire code requirements also protected passengers on the flight. FAA implemented reduced flammability and nontoxic gas emissions of interior components after an Air Canada accident in 1983 caused a fire in which the overwhelming majority of passengers died from toxic gas and smoke. It also instituted an enhanced burn-through rate standard to guarantee that the skin of the airplane and insulation resist fire for up to four minutes, allowing passengers more time to escape. Regulations require that airlines and flight attendants be able to evacuate a full passenger load with only half of the exits operating in under 90 seconds.

But Goelz now fears that sequestration and the GOP’s zeal for applying greater cost benefit analysis to all safety regulations could prevent regulators from instituting such safety standards in the future. The regulations outlined above would “have a tough time meeting the kind of cost benefit analysis that these guys want,” Goelz said, noting House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster’s (R-PA) push for more burdensome economic analysis. Curtis disagreed with this characterization, arguing that the industry itself had incentives to unilaterally implement additional safety requirements.

Lawmakers gave the FAA relief from the first round of sequestration, “but the idea that they’re going to have another round of it is pretty ominous,” Goelz added, “safety investigators are going to ber laid off or pushed back.”

The GOP hates regulations because regulations prevent businesses (such as Wal-Mart, for example) for doing as they damn please.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 10:21 am

Posted in Business, Government, Law

Global temperature by decade

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Nothing to see here, folks. Move along, don’t worry. Everything will be fine. Probably…  well, possibly. At any rate, the GOP assures us that this is not happening: just a hoax.


Graph is from this Washington Post article by Ezra Klein.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 10:09 am

Posted in Global warming

Business controlling government: The case of Uber

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Kevin Drum reports in Mother Jones:

“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public,” Adam Smith wrote in the 18th century. Today in the LA Times, FCC commissioner Ajit Pai writes about the 21st centuryversion of this. He starts off with the travails of Uber, the taxi service you can hail on your smartphone instead of vainly flailing your arms around and hoping that someone eventually notices:

Like many consumers, I love Uber. But not everyone does….Last month brought another roadblock. The city of Los Angeles ordered the company (along with Lyft and Sidecar) to stop operating. In the last few weeks, four of Uber’s drivers have been arrested in undercover stings to catch “bandit taxicabs.”….What’s motivating all of this? Simply put, Uber and the other companies are a threat — a threat to entrenched incumbents.

….Tech start-ups in other industries face similar burdens. For example, Square has created a credit card reader for mobile devices. Small businesses love Square because it reduces costs and is convenient for customers. But some states want a piece of the action. Illinois, for example, has ordered Square to stop doing business in the Land of Lincoln until it gets a money transmitter license, even though the money flows through existing payment networks when Square processes credit cards. If Square had to get licenses in the 47 states with such laws, it could cost nearly half a million dollars, an extraordinary expense for a fledgling company.

Obstacles to entrepreneurship aren’t limited to the tech world. Across the country, restaurant associations have tried to kick food trucks off the streets. Auto dealers have used franchise laws to prevent car company Tesla from cutting out the middleman and selling directly to customers. Professional boards, too, often fiercely defend the status quo, impeding telemedicine by requiring state-by-state licensing or in-person consultations and even restricting who can sell tooth-whitening services.

Smart libertarians often point out that complex government regulations are essentially a barrier to entry for small companies. Big corporations may complain, but in a lot of cases it’s just kabuki: they have the legal support staff to comply with the new rules, and they know that small competitors don’t. In the end, the regulations often work in their favor.

It’s not always easy to tell which regs are genuine and which ones are mostly just fronts for established incumbents. Then again, sometimes it is, and the rules against Uber and its competitors are pretty obviously the latter. California’s big cities should get the message and do what’s right for their residents, not the taxi lobbyists who donate to their reelection campaigns.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 10:00 am

Errol Morris: Interview and book recommendations

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Errol Morris makes a fine documentary. Here he’s interviewed by the Browser:

The acclaimed documentary filmmaker tells us about his fascination with images, meaning and truth. And how we’ve learned to think and read critically but still don’t see critically

Your new book, which seeks out the elusive truth behind several famous photographs, is called Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of PhotographyTell us about the book and what its title means to you.

We think we know what we’re looking at when we look at a photograph. We think we’re looking at something objective. We think we can see reality. But often we’re just looking back at ourselves rather than out into the world. We are reinforcing our beliefs with what we see. The idea of my book is that there’s a mystery in every photograph. What are we really looking at? In my experience, trying to figure out just what’s going on inevitably involves an investigation. I like to think of myself as the new Sherlock Holmes of photography.

You describe Believing is Seeing as a series of detective stories. That’s also how you’ve described many of your films throughout the years. You have moonlighted as a private investigator and have suggested you are an “existential detective”. Is detective work the vocation that bridges all your work?

I’ve been fortunate to receive a number of awards over the years, but the award I’m probably most proud of is my Edgar for The Thin Blue Line from the Mystery Writers of America. Yes, I worked as a detective years ago, and I think that almost everything I do – this book included – is of a genre that I guess you could call detective nonfiction.

In the introduction, you write that you grew up surrounded by photographs of a father you never knew, and that despite an early childhood operation to correct eye misalignment you never gained stereoscopic vision. How does this personal history fuel your interest in photography and documentary?

I am nearly blind in one eye, and I do not have 3D vision. I’m not a great candidate for making 3D movies. When I was growing up, my father – who died of a heart attack when I was two years old – was very much there in photographs, books and other objects of his. But at the same time, he was not there. A photograph makes people seem so real and close, but you’re never really grabbing hold of them are you? They remain elusive. I often say that the biggest mystery of all is what’s inside the head – other people’s as well as our own. You look at a photograph, or stare into someone’s eyes, and you really never know. Trying to reconstruct the idea of a man from bits and pieces of evidence is a frustration.

The first set of essays in Believing is Seeing is about a pair of photographs from the Crimean War, taken in 1855 outside of Sevastopolin what was called the Valley of the Shadow of Death. For me, photographs like these – taken to document a historical event – are almost like a time machine. I fantasise about what it would be like to walk in the frame, look around and figure out what the photo really represents. Maybe that comes from looking at pictures of my father. Maybe it ties back to your detective question. Maybe they’re related.

Let’s get to the five books you’ve chosen, beginning with William Frassanito’s attempt to stitch together the history of the Battle of Gettysburg using photographs. Tell us about Gettysburg: A Journey in Time. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 9:57 am

Posted in Books

For fans of The Wire

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Read and enjoy. I probably should watch it again.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 9:50 am

Posted in Books, Movies & TV

Choir Singers Synchronize Heartbeats

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A fascinating note in The Scientist by Chris Palmer.

When members of a choir get together, they do more than harmonize their voices. Singing demands certain breathing patterns, and as breathing becomes coordinated, heart rates follow, according to research published Tuesday (July 9) in Frontiers in Psychology.

It’s been known since the mid-1800s that respiration rate and variability in heart rate are linked. In general, pulse increases during inhalation and decreases during exhalation. “When you exhale you activate the vagus nerve, we think, that goes from the brain stem to the heart,” lead author Bjorn Vickhoff, a musicologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, told BBC News. “And when that is activated, the heart beats slower.”

The entrainment of heart rate to breathing—called the respiratory sinus arrhythmia—underlies the proposed health benefits of activities such as yoga and prayer recitation. Rosary reading has been found to induce a rhythmic pattern of breathing once every 10 seconds, a rate suggested by previous research to create the strongest respiratory sinus arrhythmia.

Vickhoff’s team monitored the heart rates of 15 teenage choir members singing together and demonstrated that a similar entrainment could be achieved through singing. They further showed that the singers’ heart rates became synchronized.

Songs with more structure, such as slow chants requiring steady breathing every 10 seconds in between phrases, were found to induce a stronger synchrony in the singers’ heartbeats than free singing or humming.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 9:41 am

Posted in Daily life, Music, Science

Cause of homelessness: People who volunteer to work at homeless shelters

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To get an idea of how remote from the rest of us the 1% have become, check out this story by Scott Keyes at ThinkProgress:

According to a hedge fund manager writing in the Wall Street Journal, homelessness isn’t caused by deep-seated inequities in society, but rather by people like his teenage son who volunteer at homeless shelters.

Andy Kessler, who founded the billion-dollar Palo Alto investment firm Velocity Capital Management, penned an op-ed Monday in which he mocked young people for volunteering, arguing that they were delusional for thinking their efforts would make a difference. Instead, Kessler contended, they should try to make as much money as possible and trust that economic growth will help the world more than volunteering.

To illustrate his argument, Kessler points to his 16-year-old son, who has been volunteering at a homeless shelter. Though his son wants to do good, Kessler writes that it’s volunteers like him who are keeping homeless people on the streets “because someone is feeding, clothing and, in effect, bathing them.” The answer, instead, is old-fashioned trickle-down economics:

My 16-year-old son volunteers with an organization that feeds the homeless and fills kits with personal-hygiene supplies for them. It’s a worthwhile project, and I tell him so—but he doesn’t like it when our conversation on the way to his minimum-wage job turns to why these homeless folks aren’t also working. Perhaps, I suggest, because someone is feeding, clothing and, in effect, bathing them? […]

Given the massive wealth created in the U.S. economy over the past 30-plus years, it’s understandable that the mantra of the guilty generation is sustainability and recycling. But obsessing over carbon footprints and LEED certifications and free-range strawberries and charging for plastic bags will not help the world nearly as much as good old-fashioned economic growth. Gen-G will wise up to the reality that the way to improve lives is to get to work. If Woodstockers figured this out, so will they—as soon as they get over their guilt.

It’s highly unlikely that Kessler, an extraordinarily wealthy man who managed a hedge fund for years, has ever known what it’s like to go hungry or sleep on the streets, where randomactsof violencearealltoocommon.

In reality, his claim that homeless shelters cause homelessness mixes up the direction of causality. People are not poor because of charity anymore than people get headaches because Tylenol exists. Indeed, the causes of homeless are vast. As the National Coalition for the Homeless explains, the rise in foreclosures, a lack of well-paying jobs and affordable housing, as well as the decline in public assistance are all factors that contribute to homelessness in the United States. Others can include domestic violence, medical emergencies, and mental illness. Not included as a cause of homelessness is because people volunteer at shelters.

Even if we consider his solution to homelessness — take the effort you spent volunteering and use it to line your own pockets instead — at face value, it completely falls apart when considering economic evidence over the past 40 years. Median household income has actually declined, even as CEO pay has shot up exponentially. Combine that with the fact that the cost of living has increased rapidly and the result is massive income inequality in the United States. Kessler may imagine a trickle-down world where unbridled economic growth is a salve that we can use to cure all our problems, but it bears no resemblance to the world we actually live in.

This is the outlook of the class that is assuming control of the US.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 9:27 am

Posted in Daily life

Wal-Mart doesn’t want its employees to have a living wage

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Wal-Mart is pretty much the epitome of the uncaring and greedy corporation—the kind of corporation that seems now to control the country. Arit John writes in the Atlantic Wire:

A Walmart manager took to the pages of the Washington Post opinion section today to defend his company’s right to not pay employees more than minimum wage.

In the op-ed Alex Barron, a regional manager for the company, called a piece of legislation to raise the minimum wage paid out by large companies “arbitrary[and] discriminatory.” The so-called “living wage” bill, the Larger Retailer Accountability Act, would require businesses that make at least $1 billion in revenue to pay their employees $12.50 an hour. (The bill only applies to stores that take up more than 75,000 square feet, thereby excluding such chains as Starbucks.) The current minimum wage for all D.C. employees is $8.25 an hour, one of the highest in the country.

Last month the D.C. Council voted 8-5 to give the bill their initial approval. The council will meet again on Wednesday to make their final vote and Walmart, is very, very unhappy with this turn of events. So unhappy, in fact, that the company hasy threatened to halt the development of three Walmart stores in the area. Barron writes:

Like any business, we have a responsibility to our customers, employees and shareholders to re-evaluate our options when it looks like local rules may significantly change. The LRAA would clearly inject unforeseen costs into the equation that will create an uneven playing field and challenge the fiscal health of our planned D.C. stores.

As a result, Wal-Mart will not pursue stores at Skyland, Capitol Gateway, and New York Avenue, if the LRAA is passed. What’s more, passage will also jeopardize the three stores already under construction as we will thoroughly review the financial and legal implications of the bill on those projects.

The new Walmart locations would have brought in an estimated 1,800 new jobs for the District, as well as $15 million in tax revenue. The company also wanted to point out that it has been trying to help the community in its own small, mega-corporate way. After listening to the community, which Barron said wanted “local hiring, competitive wages, an inclusive construction process, local products and support for community non-profits,” the company voluntarily entered into a Community Partnership Initiative with the city. In the initiative the company outlined plans to: . . .

Continue reading.

Paul Waldman also comments in The American Prospect:

There’s a power struggle going on in Washington right now, not between Republicans and Democrats but between Wal-Mart—which is supposed to open six stores in the District—and the city council, which has a bill pending to require big-box retailers to pay a living wage. As you surely know, Wal-Mart was built on keeping costs as low as possible, particularly labor costs. The model Wal-Mart recruit is someone who has no other employment options and will take whatever they can get. The retail colossus isn’t going to let some uppity city council tell it how much it can pay its employees:

The world’s largest retailer delivered an ultimatum to District lawmakers Tuesday, telling them less than 24 hours before a decisive vote that at least three planned Wal-Marts will not open in the city if a super-minimum-wage proposal becomes law.

A team of Wal-Mart officials and lobbyists, including a high-level executive from the mega-retailer’s Arkansas headquarters, walked the halls of the John A. Wilson Building on Tuesday afternoon, delivering the news to D.C. Council members.

The company’s hardball tactics come out of a well-worn playbook that involves successfully using Wal-Mart’s leverage in the form of jobs and low-priced goods to fend off legislation and regulation that could cut into its profits and set precedent in other potential markets. In the Wilson Building, elected officials have found their reliable liberal, pro-union political sentiments in conflict with their desire to bring amenities to underserved neighborhoods.

For Wal-Mart, this isn’t just about these particular stores. They can make money even if they pay a higher wage at these stores, and with over 10,000 stores around the world, the D.C. locations are a drop in their enormous bucket anyway. It’s about their relationship both to the people they employ and to the communities they locate in. It’s about power, and as far as they’re concerned, power has to reside with Wal-Mart. Their employees do what they’re told and get paid what they’re told, and if they don’t like it they can go find another job. By the same token, the city council gives Wal-Mart what it wants, and if it doesn’t they can try to find somebody else to open a store there.

My guess is that in the end . . .

Continue reading.

FWIW, I don’t buy stuff at Wal-Mart.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 9:17 am

“Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.”

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Here is California we are facing a hunger strike in our prisons because the state has systematically tortured inmates by keeping them in solitary confinement beyond 15 days, at which time the UN recognizes that mere solitary confinement has become torture. Some of the prisons have been kept in solitary for years and even decades. This is incredibly ugly, and it’s difficult to find any explanation other than the naked exercise of power by a government that cares nothing for people.

Abby Ohlheiser explains in the Atlantic Wire:

Over 30,000 California prisoners started refusing meals on Monday morning in what might become the biggest hunger strike in California prison history, according to California’s corrections department.

So far, corrections officials have acknowledged that prisoners in two-thirds of the 33 prisons across the state, along with all of the out-of-state private prisons in the system, have missed at least breakfast and lunch on Monday. Corrections officials don’t start calling such a protest a hunger strike until prisoners have missed nine consecutive meals. 2,300 prisoners also refused to go to work or to their classes, they added.

While the California prison system has a less than stellar reputation on a handful of issues — many of which trace back to its astonishing overcrowding — the striking prisoners are focusing their message on improving conditions for those locked in solitary confinement. Last October, Mother Jonespublished a must-read on solitary in California, written by Shane Bauer, one of the three hikers kept in an Iranian solitary confinement cell for 26 months. Spoiler: Bauer thought California’s conditions were worse.

Here’s the message from the organizers of the protest, comprised of a group of inmates at the Pelican Bay State Prison:

California holds nearly 12,000 people in extreme isolation – over 3,000 for life – at a cost of over $60 million per year. The cells have no windows, no access to fresh air or sunlight. The United Nations condemns the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days as torture.

They’ve outlined five main demands, which organizers claim would bring the California system up to par with the standards at American Supermax prisons in other states:

1) End group punishment & administrative abuse.
2) Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.[California inmates who are connected to a prison gang can be held in isolation indefinitely].
3) Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement. 
4) Provide adequate and nutritious food 
5) Create and expand constructive programming.

The unofficial tally of this week’s protest is already larger than the last hunger strike in the California corrections system. In 2011, over 11,600 inmates refused meals some meals, according to the LA Times. The department officially counted about 6,000 prisoners maximum who refused 9 consecutive meals. That 2011 protest make very similar demands to the current one. The length of time some California prisoners spend in solitary is also the subject of a current lawsuit.

In Mother Jones last December Shane Bauer compared his solitary confinement in Iran with the solitary confinement the US uses for its prisoners:

IT’S BEEN SEVEN MONTHS since I’ve been inside a prison cell. Now I’m back, sort of. The experience is eerily like my dreams, where I am a prisoner in another man’s cell. Like the cell I go back to in my sleep, this one is built for solitary confinement. I’m taking intermittent, heaving breaths, like I can’t get enough air. This still happens to me from time to time, especially in tight spaces. At a little over 11 by 7 feet, this cell is smaller than any I’ve ever inhabited. You can’t pace in it.

Like in my dreams, I case the space for the means of staying sane. Is there a TV to watch, a book to read, a round object to toss? The pathetic artifacts of this inmate’s life remind me of objects that were once everything to me: a stack of books, a handmade chessboard, a few scattered pieces of artwork taped to the concrete, a family photo, large manila envelopes full of letters. I know that these things are his world.”So when you’re in Iran and in solitary confinement,” asks my guide, Lieutenant Chris Acosta, “was it different?” His tone makes clear that he believes an Iranian prison to be a bad place.

He’s right about that. After being apprehended on the Iran-Iraq border, Sarah ShourdJosh Fattal, and I were held in Evin Prison‘s isolation ward for political prisoners. Sarah remained there for 13 months, Josh and I for 26 months. We were held incommunicado. We never knew when, or if, we would get out. We didn’t go to trial for two years. When we did we had no way to speak to a lawyer and no means of contesting the charges against us, which included espionage. The alleged evidence the court held was “confidential.”

What I want to tell Acosta is that no part of my experience—not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners—was worse than the four months I spent in solitary confinement. What would he say if I told him I needed human contact so badly that I woke every morning hoping to be interrogated? Would he believe that I once yearned to be sat down in a padded, soundproof room, blindfolded, and questioned, just so I could talk to somebody?

I want to answer his question—of course my experience was different from those of the men at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison—but I’m not sure how to do it. How do you compare, when the difference between one person’s stability and another’s insanity is found in tiny details? Do I point out that I had a mattress, and they have thin pieces of foam; that the concrete open-air cell I exercised in was twice the size of the “dog run” at Pelican Bay, which is about 16 by 25 feet; that I got 15 minutes of phone calls in 26 months, and they get none; that I couldn’t write letters, but they can; that we could only talk to nearby prisoners in secret, but they can shout to each other without being punished; that unlike where I was imprisoned, whoever lives here has to shit at the front of his cell, in view of the guards?

“There was a window,” I say. I don’t quite know how to tell him what I mean by that answer. “Just having that light come in, seeing the light move across the cell, seeing what time of day it was—” Without those windows, I wouldn’t have had the sound of ravens, the rare breezes, or the drops of rain that I let wash over my face some nights. My world would have been utterly restricted to my concrete box, to watching the miniature ocean waves I made by sloshing water back and forth in a bottle; to marveling at ants; to calculating the mean, median, and mode of the tick marks on the wall; to talking to myself without realizing it. For hours, days, I fixated on the patch of sunlight cast against my wall through those barred and grated windows. When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back. Its slow creeping against the wall reminded me that the world did in fact turn and that time was something other than the stagnant pool my life was draining into.

When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back.

Here, there are no windows.

Acosta, Pelican Bay’s public information officer, is giving me a tour of the Security Housing Unit. Inmates deemed a threat to the security of any of California’s 33 prisons are shipped to one of the state’s five SHUs (pronounced “shoes”), which hold nearly 4,000 people in long-term isolation. In the Pelican Bay SHU, 94 percent of prisoners are celled alone; overcrowding has forced the prison to double up the rest. Statewide, about 32 percent of SHU cells—hardly large enough for one person—are crammed with two inmates.

The cell I am standing in is one of eight in a “pod,” a large concrete room with cells along one side and only one exit, which leads to the guards’ control room. A guard watches over us, rifle in hand, through a set of bars in the wall. He can easily shoot into any one of six pods around him. He communicates with prisoners through speakers and opens their steel grated cell doors via remote. That is how they are let out to the dog run, where they exercise for an hour a day, alone. They don’t leave the cell to eat. If they ever leave the pod, they have to strip naked, pass their hands through a food slot to be handcuffed, then wait for the door to open and be bellycuffed. . .

Continue reading. For more:

And, of course, the US is Prison Nation: we imprison a much higher proportion of our citizens than any other nation on earth. Five years ago, the US, with 5% of the world’s population, had 25% of the world’s prisoners—and that’s counting only the prisons we know about. Thanks to “black prisons”—secret prisons run by the military and the CIA—the number of people imprisoned by the US could be much higher. Perhaps that’s why we’re starting to need paramilitary troops breaking into citizens’ homes.

Here are some fun facts about solitary confinement from the Mother Jones link:

42 Years of Solitude
By Ryan Jacobs

81,622 Number of prisoners in solitary confinement across the United States in 2005, the last year for which the federal government released data

11,730 Number of inmates held in isolation in California prisons today

7 Percentage of California inmates who are in isolation

39 Percentage of inmate suicides that happen in isolation units

78 Percentage of Security Housing Unit (SHU) inmates not classified as gang “leaders” or “members”

$12,317 Extra annual cost to taxpayers for each prisoner in the Pelican Bay shu

11’7″ x 7’7″ Dimensions of a SHU cell at Pelican Bay

6′ x 8′ Dimensions of the average American home’s walk-in closet

51 Percentage of Pelican Bay SHU inmates who have spent at least five years in isolation

89 Number who have been in solitary for at least 20 years

1 Number who have been there for 42 years

ThinkProgress also has a note on the hunger strike which includes this:

The strike is one of several layers of controversy plaguing the state’s prison system. Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, California officials continue to battle federal judges over implementation of court-mandated population reduction. And just this week, news broke that California allegedly sterilized 150 female inmates without approval.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2013 at 9:01 am

Posted in Government, Law

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