June 2010 Archives

64% of U.S. scientists are atheists or agnostics; few believe in God without reservations

Interesting survey results:

Sociologist [Elaine Howard] Ecklund surveyed 1,700 scientists, and conducted personal interviews with 275 of them at elite American universities…

Ecklund found that 64 percent of scientists are either atheists (34%) or agnostic (30%) — about 10 times their number in the general U.S. population. Only nine percent of scientists say they have no doubt about God’s existence (vs. 63% of the general public), but a surprising 27 percent of scientists have some belief in God, ranging from having some doubts, but affirming belief (9%), believing in God “sometimes” (5%), or believing in a higher power that’s not God (8%).

64% seems pretty high, given the amount of religious indoctrination and religious social pressure in America. And the reservations expressed by most of the “believers” is astonishing too.

Posted by James on Jun 01, 2010

Are cutting-edge oil/gas technologies too dangerous?

We’re drilling deeper and deeper and more aggressively than ever before. I suspect that’s why the accidents seem to be more frequent and more severe.

Another accident — nearly catastrophic — just happened in Pennsylvania:

Natural gas and polluted drilling water from an out-of-control well shot 75 feet into the air in a remote area of Pennsylvania before crews were able to tame the flow of explosive gas more than half a day later, officials said Friday.

The well was brought under control just after noon Friday, about 16 hours after it started spewing gas and brine, said Elizabeth Ivers, a spokeswoman for driller EOG Resources Inc. She said she could not immediately respond to questions about how the accident happened.

The well never caught fire and no injuries were reported, but state officials had worried the gas might explode before the well could be controlled….

“The event at the well site could have been a catastrophic incident that endangered life and property,” Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger said in a statement. “This was not a minor accident, but a serious incident.”

…The crew had just finished a process called hydraulic fracturing – in which millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are blasted underground to shatter tightly compacted shale and release trapped natural gas – and were clearing out debris from the well when gas shot out of it, he said.

Posted by James on Jun 08, 2010

"Are you fucking happy? The rig's on fire! I told you this was gonna happen"

Mother Jones magazine reports:

Tony Buzbee, a lawyer representing 15 rig workers and dozens of shrimpers, seafood restaurants, and dock workers, says he has obtained a three-page signed statement from a crew member on the boat that rescued the burning rig’s workers. The sailor, who Buzbee refuses to name for fear of costing him his job, was on the ship’s bridge when Deepwater Horizon installation manager Jimmy Harrell, a top employee of rig owner Transocean, was speaking with someone in Houston via satellite phone. Buzbee told Mother Jones that, according to this witness account, Harrell was screaming, “Are you fucking happy? Are you fucking happy? The rig’s on fire! I told you this was gonna happen.”

Whoever was on the other end of the line was apparently trying to calm Harrell down. “I am fucking calm,” he went on, according to Buzbee. “You realize the rig is burning?”

…Buzbee told Mother Jones that the sailor’s version of Harrell’s phone conversation following the explosion was corroborated by a statement from a second crew member who says he also overheard the call.

Hardly iron-clad proof, but it fits the clear pattern of BP knowing about and willfully ignoring horrible dangers.

Posted by James on Jun 08, 2010

At least he didn't call us "peons," "riff-raff," "lackeys" or "vassals"

Oops! Another BP exec displays his contempt for all us silly little people:

“I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don’t care,” [BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg] said. “But that is not the case with BP. We care about the small people.”

Which “small people”? The (now dead) workers you ordered to proceed with insanely risky drilling without adequate precautions, against their professional judgment? Or the (now ill) boat captains you’ve got cleaning up (a tiny fraction of) your mess whom you’ve been spraying toxic Corexit on from helicopters and forced to sign documents not to sue BP? Or the meddlesome reporters you’ve hired rent-a-thugs to keep away from “your” (public) beaches and islands? Or the hundreds of millions of Americans desperate to know the truth whom you’ve repeatedly lied to and prevented journalists from sharing the full story with? Or the millions of Americans whose wealth and livelihoods rely completely on a healthy Gulf of Mexico whom you’ve suddenly impoverished?

I challenge you to name one “small person” you’ve shown any concern for!

You’re so incompetent and unempathetic you can’t even keep secret your honest feelings about us “small people”!

Posted by James on Jun 17, 2010

A woman in a hot air balloon is lost and late for an appointment...

…and shouts down to the ground for information about her whereabouts.

The man on the ground gives her detailed GPS coordinates plus her specific latitude, longitude and altitude.

And then

“She rolled her eyes and said, “You must be an Obama Democrat.”

“I am,” replied the man. “How did you know?”

“Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct. But I have no idea what to do with your information, and I’m still lost. Frankly, you’ve not been much help to me.”

The man smiled and responded, “You must be a Republican.”

“I am,” replied the balloonist. “How did you know?”

“Well,” said the man, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You’ve risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. You’re in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but somehow, now it’s my fault.”

Posted by James on Jun 18, 2010

Axis of imperialism?

“U.S. blocks Security Council criticism of Israeli raid”:

Israel faced heavy criticism in an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council on Monday in response to its deadly attack on an aid flotilla trying to breach the Gaza blockade, but attempts to issue a formal statement stalled after the United States rejected the strong condemnation sought by Turkey.

Turkey proposed a statement that would condemn Israel for violating international law, demand a U.N. investigation and demand that Israel prosecute those responsible for the raid and pay compensation to the victims. It also called for the end of the blockade.

The Obama administration refused to endorse a statement that singled out Israel…

Posted by James on Jun 01, 2010

BP CEO Tony Hayward responds to danger... by selling his shares

According to Bloomberg:

BP Plc was struggling to seal cracks in its Macondo well as far back as February…

It took 10 days to plug the first cracks, according to reports BP filed with the Minerals Management Service that were later delivered to congressional investigators. Cracks in the surrounding rock continued to complicate the drilling operation during the ensuing weeks. Left unsealed, they can allow explosive natural gas to rush up the shaft….

BP used three different substances to plug the holes before succeeding, the documents show….

In early March, BP told the minerals agency the company was having trouble maintaining control of surging natural gas, according to e-mails released May 30 by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating the spill.

While gas surges are common in oil drilling, companies have abandoned wells if they determine the risk is too high. When a Gulf well known as Blackbeard threatened to blow out in 2006, Exxon Mobil Corp. shut the project down….

On March 10, BP executive Scherie Douglas e-mailed Frank Patton, the mineral service’s drilling engineer for the New Orleans district, telling him: “We’re in the midst of a well control situation.”

The incident was a “showstopper,” said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has consulted with the Interior Department on offshore drilling safety. “They damn near blew up the rig.”

In the face of this grave threat, BP CEO Tony Hayward, of course, took decisive action. Hayward sold his shares:

Tony Hayward cashed in about a third of his holding in the company one month before a well on the Deepwater Horizon rig burst, causing an environmental disaster.

…he avoided losing more than £423,000 when BP’s share price plunged.

P.S. There’s no evidence Hayward sold his shares because of the dangerous well. But, as CEO, Hayward should at least have known when he sold his shares that BP had a very dangerous well on its hands.

Posted by James on Jun 22, 2010

BP gets what BP wants

From CorporateCrimeReporter.com:

Up until three months ago, when she retired, Jeanne Pascal was an attorney at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Her beat: debarment of BP.

For years, she worked on the BP case.

After all BP’s rap sheet was long and nasty – three convictions, an $84 million OSHA fine, and a deferred prosecution agreement.

Last year, Pascal was inclined to debar BP – strip it of its government contracts – because of its repeat violations.

But the Pentagon intervened… So, Pascal shifted to Plan B.

She was willing to enter into a compliance agreement – so that the government could audit BP’s operation to ensure that what happened on the North Slope – spills, slipshod safety – would be corrected.

She had cut a similar five year compliance agreement with BP after it was convicted of polluting on Endicott Island on the North Slope.

But that ended in 2005.

And now BP was in trouble again.

And Pascal offered BP another compliance agreement.

One problem – BP wanted no part of Pascal’s conditions….

In 2003, BP sought to end the first five year compliance agreement – which Pascal negotiated with BP outside counsel Carol Dinkins, a partner at Vinson & Elkins – end it early – at three to five years instead of five.

When BP workers on the North Slope caught wind that BP was in negotiations to end it early, they complained to Pascal and to BP’s probation officer – Mary Frances Barnes.

“Employees who came to me or to Stanley Sporkin with health safety and environmental complaints found themselves retaliated against,” Pascal said.

Posted by James on Jun 19, 2010

Brain trauma in youth may trigger chronic traumatic encephalopathy

26-year-old Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry looked 18. But after he died in a bizarre incident, Henry’s brain was found to have been suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, even though he had suffered no known concussions in college or the NFL, leading to speculation his brain troubles might stem from trauma suffered in his youth or high school.

This sad story suggests parents and youth sports leagues should be extra cautious about activities that may lead to brain trauma.

Read more about CTE, also called “dementia pugilistica”.

Posted by James on Jun 28, 2010

Breaking my final addiction

Until fifteen years ago, I was a soda addict. I liked the sugar and the caffeine. But my stomach eventually said “Enough!” and wouldn’t let me jog without feeling nauseous. My doctor told me to stop drinking soda, my problems vanished, and I haven’t had a soda since.

I’ve saved a ton of money. Let’s estimate $5/day * 365 days/year * 15 years = $27,375!!! Wow!

I’ve probably saved my teeth from great agony and dentist bills. As a child, I frequently got cavities and required fillings. I haven’t had another cavity or filling since quitting soda.

And my health is presumably much better because my blood vessels haven’t been swimming in sugar and acid for the past decade and a half. Perhaps I’d be a diabetic today if I hadn’t stopped. Who knows?

(My 3-year-old son is now telling me about his friends and teachers who drink soda and asking why we don’t. The school he’ll begin attending in September emphasizes healthy snacks, so I’m hoping he won’t be surrounded by soda drinkers there.)

Well, quitting soda eliminated the sugar and the acid. But I wasn’t ready to give up caffeine. So I switched to tea and coffee. I’ve read many optimistic reports about purported health benefits of both over the years. At worst, it seemed, drinking tea and coffee weren’t bad for you. And that still generally seems to be the consensus. They might even help protect against certain cancers.

Of course, coffee’s not free, and making a pot of coffee and cleaning out the coffee maker takes me about 15 minutes a day (because I’m too lazy to clean it out after I use it, so I have to manually dry all the pieces). But, I figured, it’s worth it because I enjoy coffee and it helps me focus on my work.

But then I read last week’s caffeine news, “Study Suggests the ‘Alert’ Feeling From Drinking Coffee May Not Be Real”:

The medium/high caffeine consumers who had the placebo caffeine reported a decrease in alertness and an increase in headache, neither of which were reported by those who received caffeine.

However, their post-caffeine levels of alertness were no higher than the non/low consumers who received a placebo, suggesting caffeine only brings coffee drinkers back up to “normal.”

…The study shows that frequent coffee drinkers develop a tolerance to both the anxiety-producing effects of caffeine that can put you on edge and the stimulating ones.

Heavy coffee drinkers may feel they are made alert by coffee, but the evidence suggests that this is just the reversal of the effects of acute caffeine withdrawal, which cause fatigue.

The researchers say that given the increased risk of anxiety and raised blood pressure brought on by caffeine, there is no net benefit to be gained.

Well, that changes my calculation! I’m not gaining any alertness benefit but am suffering withdrawal symptoms when I can’t find my coffee — like when I was in Paris and had to pay $5 for a thimble-full or when driving along the highway and don’t want to stop to feed my addiction. And it’s costing me money and time. It no longer seems worth it.

If I can free up the 15 minutes a day I spend making coffee, I’ll have an extra 91 hours a week to engage in more pleasant/productive activities. And when you’ve got two young kids who soak up all your formerly free time, 91 hours is huge!

So I began weaning myself from caffeine this week. I first switched from coffee to iced tea. And I’m trying to drink a bit less each day. So far, so good. Another benefit: My kids will no longer crave the “not for kids” forbidden fruit they see daddy drinking.

An update on my other recent lifestyle change: I’m not standing up constantly while working, but I do stand up quite a bit. It does feel better to spend part of my work day standing up and part sitting down. I do think it is a healthy change. In fact, I’m now intrigued by office treadmill desks. They sound crazy, but they’re the “obvious” next step from working while standing up.

I’ve long believed I best absorb Chinese flashcards and audio recordings while walking or running. Others who have tried these work treadmills seem to agree that working while exercising improves concentration:

To the uninitiated, work-walking sounds like a recipe for distraction. But devotees say the treadmill desks increase not only their activity but also their concentration.

“I thought it was ridiculous until I tried it,” said Ms. Krivosha, 49, a partner in the law firm of Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand.

Ms. Krivosha said it is tempting to become distracted during conference calls, but when she is exercising, she listens more intently.

Posted by James on Jun 09, 2010

Chris Hedges: Rage-fueled Christian fascist movement may destroy America

Chris Hedges writes:

Tens of millions of Americans, lumped into a diffuse and fractious movement known as the Christian right, have begun to dismantle the intellectual and scientific rigor of the Enlightenment. They are creating a theocratic state based on “biblical law,” and shutting out all those they define as the enemy. This movement, veering closer and closer to traditional fascism, seeks to force a recalcitrant world to submit before an imperial America. It champions the eradication of social deviants, beginning with homosexuals, and moving on to immigrants, secular humanists, feminists, Jews, Muslims and those they dismiss as “nominal Christians”—meaning Christians who do not embrace their perverted and heretical interpretation of the Bible. Those who defy the mass movement are condemned as posing a threat to the health and hygiene of the country and the family. All will be purged.

The followers of deviant faiths, from Judaism to Islam, must be converted or repressed. The deviant media, the deviant public schools, the deviant entertainment industry, the deviant secular humanist government and judiciary and the deviant churches will be reformed or closed. There will be a relentless promotion of Christian “values,” already under way on Christian radio and television and in Christian schools, as information and facts are replaced with overt forms of indoctrination. The march toward this terrifying dystopia has begun. It is taking place on the streets of Arizona, on cable news channels, at tea party rallies, in the Texas public schools, among militia members and within a Republican Party that is being hijacked by this lunatic fringe….

The rise of this Christian fascism, a rise we ignore at our peril, is being fueled by an ineffectual and bankrupt liberal class that has proved to be unable to roll back surging unemployment, protect us from speculators on Wall Street, or save our dispossessed working class from foreclosures, bankruptcies and misery. The liberal class has proved useless in combating the largest environmental disaster in our history, ending costly and futile imperial wars or stopping the corporate plundering of the nation. And the gutlessness of the liberal class has left it, and the values it represents, reviled and hated.

The Democrats have refused to repeal the gross violations of international and domestic law codified by the Bush administration. This means that Christian fascists who achieve power will have the “legal” tools to spy on, arrest, deny habeas corpus to, and torture or assassinate American citizens—as does the Obama administration.

Those who remain in a reality-based world often dismiss these malcontents as buffoons and simpletons. They do not take seriously those, like Beck, who pander to the primitive yearnings for vengeance, new glory and moral renewal. Critics of the movement continue to employ the tools of reason, research and fact to challenge the absurdities propagated by creationists who think they will float naked into the heavens when Jesus returns to Earth. The magical thinking, the flagrant distortion in interpreting the Bible, the contradictions that abound within the movement’s belief system and the laughable pseudoscience, however, are impervious to reason. We cannot convince those in the movement to wake up. It is we who are asleep.

Those who embrace this movement see life as an epic battle against forces of evil and Satanism. The world is black and white. They need to feel, even if they are not, that they are victims surrounded by dark and sinister groups bent on their destruction. They need to believe they know the will of God and can fulfill it, especially through violence. They need to sanctify their rage, a rage that lies at the core of the ideology. They seek total cultural and political domination. They are using the space within the open society to destroy it. These movements work within the confining rules of the secular state because they have no choice. The intolerance they promote is muted in the public assurances of their slickest operators. Given enough power, and they are working hard to get it, any such cooperation will vanish. The demand for total control and for a Christian nation and the refusal to permit any dissent are on display within their inner sanctums. These pastors have established within their churches tiny, despotic fiefdoms, and they seek to replicate these little tyrannies on a larger scale.

Many of the tens of millions within the Christian right live on the edge of poverty. The Bible, interpreted for them by pastors whose connection with God means they cannot be questioned, is their handbook for daily life. The rigidity and simplicity of their belief are potent weapons in the fight against their own demons and the struggle to keep their lives on track. The reality-based world, one where Satan, miracles, destiny, angels and magic did not exist, battered them like driftwood. It took their jobs and destroyed their future. It rotted their communities. It flooded their lives with alcohol, drugs, physical violence, deprivation and despair. And then they discovered that God has a plan for them. God will save them. God intervenes in their lives to promote and protect them. The emotional distance they have traveled from the real world to the world of Christian fantasy is immense. And the rational, secular forces, those that speak in the language of fact and evidence, are hated and ultimately feared, for they seek to pull believers back into “the culture of death” that nearly destroyed them.

There are wild contradictions within this belief system. Personal independence is celebrated alongside an abject subservience to leaders who claim to speak for God. The movement says it defends the sanctity of life and advocates the death penalty, militarism, war and righteous genocide. It speaks of love and promotes fear of damnation and hate. There is a terrifying cognitive dissonance in every word they utter.

The movement is, for many, an emotional life raft. It is all that holds them together. But the ideology, while it regiments and orders lives, is merciless. Those who deviate from the ideology, including “backsliders” who leave these church organizations, are branded as heretics and subjected to little inquisitions, which are the natural outgrowth of messianic movements. If the Christian right seizes the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, these little inquisitions will become big inquisitions.

The cult of masculinity pervades the movement. Feminism and homosexuality, believers are told, have rendered the American male physically and spiritually impotent. Jesus, for the Christian right, is a muscular man of action, casting out demons, battling the Antichrist, attacking hypocrites and castigating the corrupt. This cult of masculinity, with its glorification of violence, is deeply appealing to those who feel disempowered and humiliated. It vents the rage that drove many people into the arms of the movement. It encourages them to lash back at those who, they are told, seek to destroy them. The paranoia about the outside world is stoked through bizarre conspiracy theories, many championed in books such as Pat Robertson’s “The New World Order,” a xenophobic rant that includes attacks on liberals and democratic institutions….

It has fought successfully to have creationist books sold in national park bookstores at the Grand Canyon and taught in public schools in states such as Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. Creationism shapes the worldview of hundreds of thousands of students in Christian schools and colleges. This pseudoscience claims to have proved that all animal species, or at least their progenitors, fit on Noah’s ark. It challenges research in AIDS and pregnancy prevention. It corrupts and discredits the disciplines of biology, astronomy, geology, paleontology and physics.

Once creationists can argue on the same platform as geologists, asserting that the Grand Canyon was not created 6 billion years ago but 6,000 years ago by the great flood that lifted up Noah’s ark, we have lost. The acceptance of mythology as a legitimate alternative to reality is a body blow to the rational, secular state. The destruction of rational and empirically based belief systems is fundamental to the creation of all totalitarian ideologies. Certitude, for those who could not cope with the uncertainty of life, is one of the most powerful appeals of the movement. Dispassionate intellectual inquiry, with its constant readjustments and demand for evidence, threatens certitude. For this reason incertitude must be abolished.

…Let us openly defy the liberal establishment, which will not save us, to demand and fight for economic reparations for our working class. Let us reincorporate these dispossessed into our economy. Let us give them a reality-based hope for the future. Time is running out. If we do not act, American fascists, clutching Christian crosses, waving American flags and orchestrating mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, will use this rage to snuff us out.

Posted by James on Jun 08, 2010

Close the Gulf and call it "the new U.S. strategic petroleum reserve"?

Last week, I noted that some experts suspect that “the” leak gusher may be just “a” gusher and that a much larger quantity of oil is pouring out of one or more other holes.

Apparently, this rumor/fear has spread to the U.S. Senate:

Some have speculated that the inner integrity of the Deepwater well could be blown (not just the top) and that oil could be leaking out from the side, making it hard to imagine how you might go about plugging the thing.

On MSNBC today, Senator Bill Nelson said he’d heard such report, and is looking into such things.

For the record, Drill-Baby-Drillers, my title is not serious.

Posted by James on Jun 08, 2010

Congrats to the '08 Patriots and '10 Celtics

The Celtics lost a heart-breaking World Championship Game 7 to the Lakers last night. Both teams fought hard, especially on defense, where they made each other’s powerful offenses look weak. Either team could have won. The Celtics caught a bad break with about a minute left when the Lakers were given a basket after Pau Gasol jumped, landed on the floor and then shot and scored. He should have been called for traveling, and maybe the Celtics could have pulled out the game. But they lost a tight one.

In America, we seem to think of the vanquished as losers. But the 2010 Celtics are winners, not losers. They made the playoffs. They defeated the pretty good Miami Heat. They defeated LeBron James' top-ranked Caveliers. They defeated the mighty #2-ranked Orlando Magic, who played in last year’s NBA Finals. And they took last year’s world champions and this year’s #1-ranked Lakers to seven full games and nearly won.

The 2008 Patriots deserve even greater praise. They won their first 18 games!!! And they were leading in the Super Bowl and headed for a perfect 19-0 season until the final seconds and a miracle drive by the Giants that included some miracle plays and a very generous clock manager (one replay analysis shows the Giants got a full extra minute on that last drive). The Giants won. Congrats to them. But the Patriots' amazing season was still amazing.

Posted by James on Jun 18, 2010

Dell intentionally cheated millions of customers

I’m typing this on my Dell laptop (on which I installed Ubuntu Linux) that has served me well. But I wouldn’t have bought this had I known about how little Dell cares about its customers:

A study conducted by Dell found that OptiPlex computers affected by the bad capacitors were expected to cause problems up to 97 percent of the time over a three-year period, according to the lawsuit.

As complaints mounted, Dell hired a contractor to investigate the situation. According to a Dell filing in the lawsuit, the contractor found that 10 times more computers were at risk of failing than Dell had estimated. Making problems worse, Dell replaced faulty motherboards with other faulty motherboards, according to the contractor’s findings.

But Dell employees went out of their way to conceal these problems. In one e-mail exchange between Dell customer support employees concerning computers at the Simpson Thacher & Bartlett law firm, a Dell worker states, “We need to avoid all language indicating the boards were bad or had ‘issues’ per our discussion this morning.”

In other documents about how to handle questions around the faulty OptiPlex systems, Dell salespeople were told, “Don’t bring this to customer’s attention proactively” and “Emphasize uncertainty.”

“They were fixing bad computers with bad computers and were misleading customers at the same time,” said Ira Winkler, a former computer analyst for the National Security Agency and a technology consultant. “They knew millions of computers would be out there causing inevitable damage and were not giving people an opportunity to fix that damage.”

Posted by James on Jun 29, 2010

Depressing insights into bizarre North Korea

Wonderful article about a not-so-wonderful country:

  • “last November… the North Korean government… drastically devalue[d] the nation’s currency. The family’s life savings, about $1,560, had been reduced to about $30.”
  • “‘We always wait for the invasion,’ said one former primary school teacher. ‘My son says he wishes the war would come because life is too hard, and we will probably die anyway from starvation.’”
  • “Citing aerial photos of plumeless smokestacks, economists say roughly three of every four North Korean factories are idle.”
  • “When the Korean Peninsula was divided in 1945, South Korea was poorer than its neighbor. Now its average worker earns 15 times as much as an average North Korean”
  • “[Illegal] markets are the sole source of income for many North Koreans, but they flout the government’s credo of economic socialism. Theoretically, everyone except minors, the elderly and mothers with young children works for the state. But state enterprises have been withering for 30 years, and North Koreans do all they can to escape work in them. Farmers tend their own gardens as weeds overtake collective farms. Urban workers duck state assignments to peddle everything from metal scavenged from mothballed factories to televisions smuggled from China. “If you don’t trade, you die,” said the former teacher.”
  • “‘It is very hard to teach a starving child,’ she said. ‘Even sitting at a desk is difficult for them.’ Teachers were hungry, too. Her monthly salary scarcely bought two pounds of rice, she said.”
  • “After she and her partners collected 17 sacks of goods from a village, a guard at a checkpoint confiscated them all instead of taking a bribe to let them pass. She was left with $300 in debt.”
  • “Even a major enterprise like the city’s metal refinery has not paid salaries since 2007, she and others said, though workers there collect 10 days worth of food rations each month.”
  • “each family was required to deliver 17 bags of pebbles every month to its local party committee. The construction worker enlisted his elderly parents to scour creek beds and fields for rocks that the family smashed by hand into grape-size stones.”
  • “Thousands of people frantically tried to outbid one another to convert soon-to-be worthless money into something tangible. Some prices rose 10,000 percent, he said, before traders shut down, realizing that their profits soon would be worthless, too.”
  • “a 35-year-old neighbor spent six months in a labor camp last year after he was caught watching “Twin Dragons,” a farcical Hong Kong action film starring Jackie Chan.”

Posted by James on Jun 10, 2010

Destruction of Gulf drives charter boat captain to suicide

It’s unclear what exactly the Gulf Coast boats hired by BP are doing because BP has sworn workers to secrecy and federal and local governments have helped BP keep reporters from filming much, but whatever’s going on has driven one ship’s captain to suicide:

Dramatic ecological disasters have usually been followed by a significant increase in post-traumatic stress disorder among residents and workers in the affected area. In a June 21 Times article, gulf shrimper Adam Trahan was quoted as saying, “I look out there and see my life ruined. … I’m just walking around in a circle. … I’ve never been this confused in my life.”

The article goes on to note that after the tragic Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, Alaska saw an increase in “suicides, domestic violence, bankruptcies and alcoholism.”

Examples of this can already be seen in the aftermath of the gulf spill: A Times article Thursday reports that William Allen Kruse, a 55-year-old fishing boat captain, apparently committed suicide this week.

“How can you deal with watching the oil kill every damn thing you ever lived for in your whole life?” charter captain Ty Fleming said of Kruse’s death.

The loss is magnified because Kruse’s suicide will forever haunt his 13-year-old son:

“There’s not a doubt in my mind, the oil spill was the cause of this,” Tom Ard, who fished alongside Kruse for 25 years, told AOL News this morning. “It was just too much for him.”

In a phone interview, Ard, 39, the president of the Orange Beach Fishing Association, said Kruse was in his prime when he killed himself and had been enjoying taking his 13-year-old son out on his boat to teach him how to fish.

“He had everything going for him. He was at the top of his game,” Ard said. “He was the kind of guy that made everyone smile, and he was one heck of a fisherman.”

…Bell remembered Kruse as a kind man. “Even in the wintertime when things got tough, if you needed a little extra cash, he was always like, ‘Here, take it,’” he said.

What was Kruse doing for BP? Scooping up dead turtles and dolphins so they wouldn’t wash up on beaches to be photographed? Spraying toxic dispersants to hide the oil? Working to help cover up the crimes of the company that destroyed your entire way of life must be horrifying. I sadly expect more suicides.

Posted by James on Jun 25, 2010

Discipline children by playing with them!

Diana Whitney writes:

James Plunkett, a child psychologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan… advocates “floor time” as the key to discipline. He says he often surprises his clients with this advice: “The single best behavioral strategy for managing your child is to play with her – a lot.”

If a child feels pleasure in her parent’s attention, she’ll be invested in keeping that relationship going.

Of course, this great advice isn’t a complete solution. Sometimes, you must be firm and insist on certain behavior (“You must brush your teeth”), but parenting is indeed best done with love. If you love and respect your children, they’ll (generally) show you love and respect in return.

When you must punish, always be clear you still love your child but are disappointed with a particular behavior. And never withdraw your love as punishment. Only withdraw toys or activities or food your child enjoys.

Posted by James on Jun 25, 2010

Don't we need to fix the Fed?

I somehow missed this April op-ed piece in which hedge fund manager Michael Burry — who made a fortune betting against subprime mortgages and was even astute enough not to place his bets with Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers — asked “I Saw the Crisis Coming. Why Didn’t the Fed?”.

Burry claims he wasn’t reading tea leaves… he was blinded by gaudy neon signs flashing “DANGER, DANGER!”:

I had begun to worry about the housing market back in 2003, when lenders first resurrected interest-only mortgages, loosening their credit standards to generate a greater volume of loans. Throughout 2004, I had watched as these mortgages were offered to more and more subprime borrowers — those with the weakest credit. The lenders generally then sold these risky loans to Wall Street to be packaged into mortgage-backed securities, thus passing along most of the risk. Increasingly, lenders concerned themselves more with the quantity of mortgages they sold than with their quality.

Meanwhile, home buyers, convinced by recent history that real estate prices would always rise, readily signed onto whatever mortgage would get them the biggest house. The incentive for fraud was great: the F.B.I. reported that its mortgage fraud caseload increased fivefold from 2001 to 2004.

At the same time, I also watched how ratings agencies vouched for subprime mortgage-backed securities. To me, these agencies seemed not to be paying much attention.

So he was shocked that the most powerful financial institution in America, and perhaps the world, was completely blindsided:

I have often wondered why nobody in Washington showed any interest in hearing exactly how I arrived at my conclusions that the housing bubble would burst when it did and that it could cripple the big financial institutions. A week ago I learned the answer when Al Hunt of Bloomberg Television, who had read Michael Lewis’s book, “The Big Short,” which includes the story of my predictions, asked Mr. Greenspan directly. The former Fed chairman responded that my insights had been a “statistical illusion.” Perhaps, he suggested, I was just a supremely lucky flipper of coins.

Mr. Greenspan said that he sat through innumerable meetings at the Fed with crack economists, and not one of them warned of the problems that were to come. By Mr. Greenspan’s logic, anyone who might have foreseen the housing bubble would have been invited into the ivory tower, so if all those who were there did not hear it, then no one could have said it.

Burry is incredulous that Greenspan in 2004 encouraged — and in 2005 praised — a move away from 30-year-fixed mortgages in which “lenders made interest-only adjustable-rate mortgages readily available to subprime borrowers. And within 18 months lenders offered subprime borrowers so-called pay-option adjustable-rate mortgages, which allowed borrowers to make partial monthly payments and have the remainder added to the loan balance.”

It’s a shocking indictment of the Federal Reserve, akin to — but far more consequential than — the SEC receiving repeated detailed explanations of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and failing to investigate.

I wonder whether the Fed’s problem is incompetence or industry capture. The Fed serves the interests of the largest U.S. banks. And bankers didn’t want their profit streams interfered with, even though the “profits” they were “earning” were illusory and would eventually produce massive losses (for taxpayers, since bankers succeeded in socializing their immense losses).

If Greenspan’s correct, the entire Fed failed to see the housing bubble. Has anything changed over the past few years to make us more confident in the Fed’s ability to protect us against, say, massive derivative contract losses?

Posted by James on Jun 09, 2010

Elena Kagan helped Karl Rove imprison the totally innocent Gov. Don Siegelman

In early May, I blogged about Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s inexcusable role in the horrifying political persecution of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman. Karl Rove and his Alabama cronies stole Gov. Siegelman’s re-election, and then pursued a relentless amoral campaign to get Siegelman imprisoned without justification, with the help of Mark Fuller, probably the most corrupt judge in American history.

In a separate post, I expressed anger over an apparent media conspiracy of silence over Kagan’s role in this outrageous travesty of justice:

I just fired up Google News and typed “Kagan Siegelman.” Instead of the hundreds of stories I expected, there’s only ONE! How often does Google News find just ONE story? It’s not like the subject is secret. Regular Google has 44,800 “hits” for “Kagan Siegelman.”

43 days later, I tried again. The good news: The number of Google News stories on “Kagan Siegelman” has doubled. The bad news: The number of stories jumped from one to two (and one of those mentions Siegelman only in the reader comments section). But this one is worth your time. It doesn’t break new ground but provides a short summary of this political witch-hunt and mentions the unprecedented widespread, bipartisan support for Gov. Siegelman from our nation’s top legal minds:

As Solicitor General of the United States, Kagan argued against an appeal to the Supreme Court by former Alabama Governor, Don Siegelman in November, 2009. The Siegelman prosecution is viewed by many as one of the gravest injustices of the modern era, a purely political prosecution initiated by the Gonzales Justice Department.

Forty four former state attorneys general were so concerned that they issued a public petition on Siegelman’s behalf in 2007. The petition to the United States House of Representatives urged prompt investigation of the many shady dealings in the Siegelman case, before, during and after his trial. They framed their petition in this simple sentence: “The U.S. justice system should be above reproach.” It wasn’t.

In 2009, ninety-one former state attorneys general filed a friend of the court brief supporting Siegelman’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

The article’s author, Michael Collins, shares my view that Kagan’s efforts to keep Gov. Siegelman unjustly imprisoned disqualify her from serving on the Court.

Why isn’t the media discussing this?

For more information, please visit DonSiegelman.org.

Posted by James on Jun 23, 2010

Fire all BP executives immediately

It’s now totally clear that cutting corners was standard operating procedure at BP. And anyone who objected was simply fired:

The morning the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, a BP executive and a Transocean official argued over how to proceed with the drilling, rig survivors told CNN’s Anderson Cooper…

The BP official wanted workers to replace heavy mud, used to keep the well’s pressure down, with lighter seawater to help speed a process that was costing an estimated $750,000 a day and was already running five weeks late, rig survivors told CNN.

BP won the argument, said Doug Brown, the rig’s chief mechanic. “He basically said, ‘Well, this is how it’s gonna be.’”

…Shortly after the exchange, chief driller Dewey Revette expressed concern and opposition too, the workers said, and on the drilling floor, they chatted among themselves.

“I don’t ever remember doing this,” they said, according to Barron.

“I think that’s why Dewey was so reluctant to try to do it,” Barron said, “because he didn’t feel it was the right way to have things done.”

Revette was among the 11 workers killed when the rig exploded that night.

In the CNN interviews, the workers described a corporate culture of cutting staff and ignoring warning signs ahead of the blast. They said BP routinely cut corners and pushed ahead despite concerns about safety.

The rig survivors also said it was always understood that you could get fired if you raised safety concerns that might delay drilling. Some co-workers had been fired for speaking out, they said.

Firing BP executives is only a first step. Those who ordered the Deepwater Horizon shortcuts must be dragged off in handcuffs for a long, long time. Otherwise, we’re condoning and encouraging more murder and more environmental destruction in the name of slightly shaving production costs.

Posted by James on Jun 09, 2010

Great idea: Gov't should publish free software for calculating taxes

Every few years, I search for a quality, free, open-source accounting program that runs on Linux. About five years ago, I started keeping my small publishing company books on SQL-Ledger, which has worked out OK. But after I started using SQL-Ledger, its creator basically reneged on the open source model. Jake Edge explains:

“SQL-Ledger is tightly controlled by its creator, Dieter Simader, and he has not encouraged a developer community to spring up around the system. This has caused some users to become frustrated with the pace of development; it doesn’t help that the suggested way to get features added more quickly is to pay Simader’s company to develop them. In addition, the documentation, user forums and wiki are only available to those who pay for them”

There’s still no obvious solution. GnuCash has improved but has many quirks and still isn’t really good enough for small businesses. While reading about GnuCash, I came across this great idea:

After reading many grumpy editor articles seeking replacements for QuickBooks (how many years has it been?) and why QB has a lock on the market, I have a possible, if not probable, solution. It seems to me that the big problem is that somebody needs to be paid, every year, to translate legalese like the 1099 form into code. And, for some strange reason, there aren’t a lot of hackers volunteering for that fun, fun project.

I think a neat solution which would end up saving everyone (except Intuit) money would be if there was a meta-law stating that

any law which can be implemented algorithmically, must provide a reference implementation in machine-readable source code

For example, much of the barely-English verbiage in the US tax code could be implemented as a spreadsheet. English is not a programming language and shouldn’t be abused with grotesqueries like, “If line 38 is over $109,475, or you provided housing to a person displaced by Hurricane Katrina, see page 37. Otherwise, multiply $3,200 by the total number of exemptions claimed on line 6d.”

There’d be a cost for the government to write the reference implementation, but that cost would be miniscule compared to what’s already being spent creating a new law.

Of course, companies making a fortune helping us do our accounting and taxes fight against such obviously beneficial ideas in D.C., and Congress listens to Intuit and H&R Block, not the hacker community. But a guy can dream about a government that actually governs in the people’s interests, can’t he? Companies could still publish software that improves the user experience on top of the free government-provided software algorithms. But the nuts-and-bolts algorithm should be free. This would probably save the government billions by closing all sorts of creative loopholes individuals and corporations take while interpreting/deciphering our absurdly complex (and sometimes blatantly contradictory) tax code.

Posted by James on Jun 19, 2010

Gulf oil disaster: Even worse than you think

I’ve posted rumors these past few weeks that “the” oil leak gusher is not the only place oil is pouring out of the seafloor. Some suggest “the” gusher is not even the main gusher.

Well, sadly, there’s now video evidence of oil flowing straight out of the seafloor, even though BP, of course, denies it.

Also, some are saying BP may not be able to stop the leak until Christmas. In fact, “The ultimate worst-case scenario is that the well is never successfully plugged, said Fred Aminzadeh, a research professor at the University of Southern California’s Center for Integrated Smart Oil Fields who previously worked for Unocal Corp. That would leave the well to flow for probably more than a decade, he said.”

Posted by James on Jun 14, 2010

"Hey [media], you do not work for the people you're covering!"

Matt Taibbi launches another truth rocket:

CBS News Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan slamm[ed Rolling Stone’s] Michael Hastings on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” program, agreeing that the Rolling Stone reporter violated an “unspoken agreement” that journalists are not supposed to “embarrass [the troops] by reporting insults and banter.”

Anyone who wants to know why network television news hasn’t mattered since the seventies just needs to check out this appearance by Logan. Here’s CBS’s chief foreign correspondent saying out loud on TV that when the man running a war that’s killing thousands of young men and women every year steps on his own dick in front of a journalist, that journalist is supposed to eat the story so as not to embarrass the flag.

…[T]he reason Lara Logan thinks this is because she’s like pretty much every other “reputable” journalist in this country, in that she suffers from a profound confusion about who she’s supposed to be working for. I know this from my years covering presidential campaigns, where the same dynamic applies. Hey, assholes: you do not work for the people you’re covering! Jesus, is this concept that fucking hard? On the campaign trail, I watch reporters nod solemnly as they hear about the hundreds of millions of dollars candidates X and Y and Z collect from the likes of Citigroup and Raytheon and Archer Daniels Midland, and it blows my mind that they never seem to connect the dots and grasp where all that money is going. The answer, you idiots, is that it’s buying advertising! People like George Bush, John McCain, Barack Obama, and General McChrystal for that matter, they can afford to buy their own P.R. — and they do, in ways both honest and dishonest, visible and invisible.

They don’t need your help, and you’re giving it to them anyway, because you just want to be part of the club so so badly. Disgustingly, that’s really what it comes down to. Most of these reporters just want to be inside the ropeline so badly, they want to be able to say they had that beer with Hillary Clinton in a bowling alley in Scranton or whatever, that it colors their whole worldview. God forbid some important person think you’re not playing for the right team!

Meanwhile, the people who don’t have the resources to find out the truth and get it out in front of the public’s eyes, your readers/viewers, you’re supposed to be working for them — and they’re not getting your help.

Posted by James on Jun 29, 2010

Homogeneity and civic engagement vs. diversity and creativity

I stumbled on this three-year old Boston Globe article:

a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America… [by] Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

“The extent of the effect is shocking,” says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.

…Putnam’s work adds to a growing body of research indicating that more diverse populations seem to extend themselves less on behalf of collective needs and goals….

Putnam claims the US has experienced a pronounced decline in “social capital,” a term he helped popularize. Social capital refers to the social networks — whether friendships or religious congregations or neighborhood associations — that he says are key indicators of civic well-being. When social capital is high, says Putnam, communities are better places to live. Neighborhoods are safer; people are healthier; and more citizens vote….

Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to “distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.”

“People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ — that is, to pull in like a turtle,” Putnam writes.

…[Harvard economist Edward] Glaeser and colleague Alberto Alesina demonstrated that roughly half the difference in social welfare spending between the US and Europe — Europe spends far more — can be attributed to the greater ethnic diversity of the US population. Glaeser says lower national social welfare spending in the US is a “macro” version of the decreased civic engagement Putnam found in more diverse communities within the country.

Though diversity suppresses civic engagement, it’s also true diversity has a strong, positive impact on creativity and innovation. More diverse companies and organizations benefit from the sometimes uncomfortable exchange of ideas among people with very distinct backgrounds. And the most productive, innovative places in the world, like Silicon Valley and Manhattan, almost all have quite diverse populations.

Clearly, diversity involves a trade-off. It’s comforting and enjoyable to live with those who think, look and behave as we do. But it’s intellectually stimulating to live with people who are different.

Posted by James on Jun 01, 2010

"How Soon Until the Free Market Stops the Oil Spill?"

The Huffington Post has some excellent coverage of the BP disaster. A few highlights:

Scientists have documented oil plumes deep under the surface far offshore even as BP’s CEO insists “the oil is on the surface” and “there aren’t any plumes”, statements the director of NOAA refused to contradict.

BP’s continued lies fit with its relentless efforts to cover up and lie about the severity of the damage. Most interestingly, scientists note that BP participated in a 2001 study that showed how oil and gas combine and stay under the surface, so BP is well aware that there must be lots of oil below that won’t come up. Since it’s hidden from cameras, BP’s CEO feels safe lying about it.

Despite BP and the Coast Guard’s “heroic” efforts to prevent the media from covering this story, The Huffington Post also offers a slideshow with hundreds of photos.

And I loved “How Soon Until the Free Market Stops the Oil Spill?”:

this latest solution isn’t a solution for stopping the flow of oil at all. The oil will continue to gush from the well, only now BP will be able to more effectively harvest some of the oil — a more reliable version of what they were doing with the riser insertion tube for the better part of last month….

I blame anyone who bought into the lines: “government is the problem” and “the era of big government is over.” It’s been systematic deregulation and the elevation of free market libertarian laissez-faire capitalism that have wrought this damage and allowed potentially destructive corporations to write their own rules and do as they please….

Exxon, as precedent, is now Exxon-Mobil and is doing just fine. It endlessly appealed the fines imposed as the result of Valdez oil spill and whittled the down the cost of the disaster to corporate pocket change, and whatever money they paid out was covered by insurance policies….

Forty years of corporate deregulation by conservative Republican Ayn Rand fetishists (and their Democratic enablers) have successfully poisoned the Gulf of Mexico. …they should just plug the oil leak with every single existing copy of Atlas Shrugged.

Posted by James on Jun 03, 2010

Human pollutants pushing whales to extinction?

Very scary report:

A report released Thursday noted high levels of cadmium, aluminum, chromium, lead, silver, mercury and titanium in tissue samples taken by dart gun from nearly 1,000 whales over five years. From polar areas to equatorial waters, the whales ingested pollutants that may have been produced by humans thousands of miles away, the researchers said.

“These contaminants, I think, are threatening the human food supply. They certainly are threatening the whales and the other animals that live in the ocean,” said biologist Roger Payne, founder and president of Ocean Alliance, the research and conservation group that produced the report.

The researchers found mercury as high as 16 parts per million in the whales. Fish high in mercury such as shark and swordfish — the types health experts warn children and pregnant women to avoid — typically have levels of about 1 part per million….

“The entire ocean life is just loaded with a series of contaminants, most of which have been released by human beings,” Payne said in an interview on the sidelines of the International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting.

Payne said sperm whales, which occupy the top of the food chain, absorb the contaminants and pass them on to the next generation when a female nurses her calf. “What she’s actually doing is dumping her lifetime accumulation of that fat-soluble stuff into her baby,” he said…

“The biggest surprise was chromium,” Payne said. “That’s an absolute shocker. Nobody was even looking for it.”

The corrosion-resistant metal is used in stainless steel, paints, dyes and the tanning of leather. It can cause lung cancer in people who work in industries where it is commonly used, and was the focus of the California environmental lawsuit that gained fame in the movie “Erin Brockovich.” …Wise found that the concentration of chromium found in whales was several times higher than the level required to kill healthy cells in a Petri dish, Payne said.

Posted by James on Jun 25, 2010

iAd + iPad + iPhone + Safari Reader = Hypocrisy + Wealth

According to this fascinating article, Apple appears to be simultaneously:

  1. Rolling out a proprietary content platform (iOS on the iPad and iPhone) whose users will be unable to escape Apple’s new ad system (iAd)
  2. Rolling out a new ad-blocking technology for regular websites, which could well boost Safari’s market share (hurting IE, Chrome and Firefox) and cut into Google’s ad revenue (which is about 99% of Google’s total revenue) and drive advertisers away from the open Internet toward Apple’s closed system where ads cannot be blocked

The article correctly notes Apple’s simultaneous hypocrisy and strategic brilliance.

I fear and shun closed/proprietary systems because the corporations that operate them generally, eventually seek to exploit their customer lock-in. That’s the major reason why I use Ubuntu and don’t own an Apple. I want to be free and unencumbered. Unfortunately, as more and more people drift from one proprietary system (Windows) to another proprietary system (Apple), we’re playing into the exploiters' game. The more people embrace Apple, the fewer apps will be written for Linux and other operating systems.

Ironically, just as the world is escaping the evil clutches of the Windows/I.E./Word/PowerPoint/Excel monopoly, we’re running straight toward the evil clutches of all things that start with the letter “i”. Great for Apple. Bad for society down the road.

Posted by James on Jun 09, 2010

I came within a minute of giving up on FIFA forever

For the second game in a row, FIFA stole a potential game-winning goal from the U.S. They disallowed the goal for offsides, but the U.S. was NOT offsides.

The U.S. dominated the game but only put the ball in the net that one time. Admittedly, we missed some great chances. Nevertheless, had this game ended in a tie, I was prepared to swear off FIFA soccer forever. Thank goodness for a victory-saving goal in stoppage time.

If FIFA keeps stealing goals from the U.S. they’re going to lose a huge potential market for their product. I’m not asking for favoritism. I’m asking for basic fairness. STOP STEALING LEGITIMATE U.S. GOALS!!! And START USING REPLAYS FOR KEY PLAYS!!!

Posted by James on Jun 23, 2010

I disallow your game-winning goal, but I won't tell you why

NY Daily News:

“I’m a little gutted to be honest,” [U.S. player Landon] Donovan said. “I don’t know how they stole that last goal from us. I’m not sure what the call was. He (the referee) wouldn’t tell us what the call was.”

“I still don’t know why the goal was disallowed,” [U.S. head coach] Bob Bradley said after the match.

Referee Koman Colibaly wouldn’t tell you a reason because there was no reason to disallow the goal. My brother says the offsides flag was down, so it wasn’t offsides. Everyone saw U.S. players getting fouled on the play, but no one saw a U.S. player committing a foul. Colibaly just didn’t want the U.S. to win.

Disallowing a goal for absolutely no reason is, literally, inexcusable. Colibaly should be shown a red card and thrown out of the World Cup. Especially disgraceful for an African judge to ruin a World Cup match held in Africa.

Posted by James on Jun 18, 2010

"I'm a Libertarian and the Market Will Save You"

Great title: “Reagan Was Wrong: The Nine Most Terrifying Words Are, ‘I’m a Libertarian and the Market Will Save You’”

Posted by James on Jun 29, 2010

Is warfare in our genes?

Over a decade ago, I became engrossed in Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, which said chimpanzee males form violent gangs who sneak into neighboring chimp territory to beat isolated males and babies to death and, over time, reduce the neighboring male population to the point that they can seize all their females and territory. It seemed compellingly analogous to human warfare. And the authors argued that modern chimps and modern humans share a genetic propensity for warfare we have inherited from our common ancestors who lived millions of years ago.

One huge caveat is that humans are also about equally related to bonobos, extremely peaceful animals who prefer to solve their differences through sex rather than violence. Also, human existence is not completely Hobbesian. The degree to which our genes predispose us to gang violence remains a hot scientific topic. (I recommend any book by Frans de Waal.)

The factual case for male chimp gang violence has been strengthened:

Every day, John Mitani or a colleague is up at sunrise to check on the action among the chimpanzees at Ngogo, in Uganda’s Kibale National Park. Most days the male chimps behave a lot like frat boys, making a lot of noise or beating each other up. But once every 10 to 14 days, they do something more adult and cooperative: they wage war.

A band of males, up to 20 or so, will assemble in single file and move to the edge of their territory. They fall into unusual silence as they penetrate deep into the area controlled by the neighboring group. They tensely scan the treetops and startle at every noise. “It’s quite clear that they are looking for individuals of the other community,” Dr. Mitani says.

When the enemy is encountered, the patrol’s reaction depends on its assessment of the opposing force. If they seem to be outnumbered, members of the patrol will break file and bolt back to home territory. But if a single chimp has wandered into their path, they will attack. Enemy males will be held down, then bitten and battered to death. Females are usually let go, but their babies will be eaten.

These killings have a purpose, but one that did not emerge until after Ngogo chimps’ patrols had been tracked and cataloged for 10 years. The Ngogo group has about 150 chimps and is particularly large, about three times the usual size. And its size makes it unusually aggressive. Its males directed most of their patrols against a chimp group that lived in a region to the northeast of their territory. Last year, the Ngogo chimps stopped patrolling the region and annexed it outright, increasing their home territory by 22 percent…

The objective of the 10-year campaign was clearly to capture territory, the researchers concluded. The Ngogo males could control more fruit trees, their females would have more to eat and so would reproduce faster, and the group would grow larger, stronger and more likely to survive. The chimps’ waging of war is thus “adaptive,” Dr. Mitani and his colleagues concluded, meaning that natural selection has wired the behavior into the chimps’ neural circuitry because it promotes their survival.

The article notes that many scientists remain sceptical about “group selection.” I’ve long been a big believer in group selection. I was fully persuaded after reading Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior in 1999. Most interestingly, group selection can explain both warfare and altruism (or, at least, apparently altruistic behavior). Group selection leads organisms to cooperate within their group and fight collectively against other groups for resources. Many human institutions seem to operate this way.

Posted by James on Jun 23, 2010

Lying BP executives... but I repeat myself

From Newsweek’s “What Not to Say When Your Company Is Ruining the World”:

On April 29, The New York Times reported that Hayward… turned to fellow executives in his London office and asked, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?“ (A possible answer might be the company’s 760 safety violations over the last three years. ExxonMobil, in contrast, has had just one.)

On May 14, Hayward attempted to persuade The Guardian that “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

Only a few days later, he told Sky News that “the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest.”

…On May 30, Hayward… told the Today show that “there’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”

…On May 31, he told the world that ecosystem-threatening underwater oil plumes… do not exist. He said simply, “There aren’t any plumes.”

On June 1, …When nine (cleanup) workers fell ill, according to Yahoo News, he told CNN that “food poisoning is clearly a big issue.”

Posted by James on Jun 03, 2010

Man killed in BP explosion feared BP's recklessness would kill him

“Killed Transocean oil worker was fiercely concerned about BP safety standards”:

Transocean toolpusher Jason Anderson told his wife, Shelly, that he was concerned about BP’s safety practices on the rig. Anderson was so worried about an accident that he spent his last trip home getting his affairs in order.

“Everything seemed to be pressing to Jason about getting things in order. In case something happened. Teaching me how to do certain things on the motor home so that I could go and do things with the kids, make sure that I knew how to do everything,” an emotional Shelly Anderson told NBC’s Lisa Myers.

Her husband drew up a will and talked about his hopes for their daughter and son.

The last few times Jason called her from the rig he was was clearly worried.

I previously said BP executives must go to jail for this. Everything I’ve since learned about BP’s pre-disaster shoddy safety shortcuts and post-disaster ass-covering and posturing (rather than solution-implementing) reinforces my conviction that the executives responsible deserve serious jail time.

Posted by James on Jun 04, 2010

Mistakes: Windows into your brain

One of the best ways neurologists learn about brain function is by observing brain dysfunction. When something goes wrong in a brain, neurologists can observe abnormal behavior and infer how normal brains operate.

Similarly, we can learn a lot about our brains through our mistakes. When our brains operate smoothly, it’s hard to know what’s going on inside. We often don’t know how we do what we do; we just do it. But when we slip up, we can sometimes infer something about brain function through our mistake.

This past weekend, I caught myself in a revealing mistake. My in-laws told me my cell phone was ringing, and I told them (in Chinese) that I knew it was my brother calling and that I’d call him on our house phone because my cell phone gets lousy reception. What’s interesting is that I used the wrong word for brother. The Chinese language is very specific about family relationships. There are different words, for example, for relations on your mother’s side and on your father’s side. In this case, I incorrectly used the word for “older brother” (哥哥, ge1ge1) rather than “younger brother” (弟弟, di4di4). As the word was coming out of my mouth, I already knew I was using the wrong word.

Part of my problem is that one English word maps into two Chinese words. One-to-many word mappings cause similar problems for Chinese people learning English. Many Chinese people confuse “he” and “she” (and “him” and “her”) — and continue confusing them many years after becoming otherwise excellent English speakers — because it’s all the same sound (ta1) in Chinese. (I believe it was the same written character too until relatively recently when they introduced sex-specific versions.)

The other part of my problem is that I’m constantly saying “ge1ge1” (哥哥) because my son is older than my daughter. Repetition strengthens brain connections.

So, my first problem was reaching for the word “brother,” rather than “younger brother,” because that’s how English trained my brain. And my second problem was thoughtlessly grabbing “older brother” (哥哥) because it’s so much stronger in my mind than “younger brother” (弟弟), due to repetition.

Posted by James on Jun 21, 2010

Moody's journey from fear of inaccurate ratings to fear of upsetting debt sellers

A former Moody’s Senior Vice President explains how $$$ destroyed Moody’s analytical culture:

Moody’s role in the financial crisis… begins sometime in the year 2000. This was the year that Dun & Bradstreet Corporation and Moody’s Corporation became separate independent publicly-traded companies, and, I might add, that Moody’s senior managers were first able to begin receiving compensation in the form of stock options and other stock compensation, interests directly in Moody’s Corporation…

When I joined Moody’s in late 1997, an analyst’s worst fear was that he would contribute to the assignment of a rating that was wrong, damage Moody’s reputation for getting the answer right and lose his job as a result.

When I left Moody’s, an analyst’s worst fear was that he would do something that would allow him to be singled out for jeopardizing Moody’s market share, for impairing Moody’s revenue or for damaging Moody’s relationships with its clients and lose his job as a result.

In both cases, there was certainly the fear of job loss. But in the former case it was theoretical and rare – you did not really know of anyone who had been fired for getting the answer wrong but it provoked a healthy anxiety that you had better be careful not to miss anything. Moody’s decades-old reputation for accuracy and integrity was in your hands. In the latter case, the fear was real, not rare and not at all healthy. You began to hear of analysts, even whole groups of analysts, at Moody’s who had lost their jobs because they were doing their jobs, identifying risks and describing them accurately.

The best example of this was described in a Wall Street Journal article about Moody’s Managing Director (MD), Brian Clarkson, published in April of 2008. As that article reports, Brian Clarkson quadrupled Moody’s market share in the residential mortgage back securities (RMBS) group by simply firing (or transferring) nearly all the analysts in the group and replacing them with analysts willing to apply a new rating methodology. This process, or at least the threat of this process, became the model for Moody’s new culture. As I am quoted saying about this new model in the Wall Street Journal article, ‘There was never an explicit directive to subordinate rating quality to market share. There was, rather, a palpable erosion of institutional support for any rating analysis that threatened market share’.

Thus, Moody’s senior managers… put in place a new culture that would not tolerate for long any answer that hurt Moody’s bottom line. Such an answer became, almost by definition, the wrong answer, whatever its analytical merit.

Posted by James on Jun 13, 2010

No juvenile delinquent left behind

Preventing problems is usually much cheaper than fixing them after the fact. (Just ask a sea turtle in the Gulf of Mexico… if you can find one still breathing.)

So why are we waiting till kids are totally screwed up before helping them?

California spends $216,000 annually on each inmate in the juvenile justice system. In contrast, it spends only $8,000 on each child attending the troubled Oakland public school system.

Posted by James on Jun 13, 2010

No more stolen elections! Smash the electronic voting machines!

This post is dead on:

Alvin Greene somehow “won” the election when he lost the absentee vote by 84 to 16. Absentee voting has a paper trail, while the electronic machines don’t. There is no logical way Greene legitimately won this election. This would be like the constitution party winning the presidency….

If we don’t have election reform, none of the other issues matter, because these machines can be manipulated to make any result the powers that be want.

An unemployed, penniless man who conducted no campaign and can barely speak in complete sentences somehow managed to pay over $10,000 to run for U.S. Senate and then actually won the primary?!?!

The 2000 and 2004 presidential elections were stolen. Countless Senate and House races have likely been stolen. By adopting unauditable, paperless electronic voting machines whose proprietary code is completely controlled by private voting machine companies (most owned by unabashed Republicans) rather than election officials, America has become a democracy in name only. No one outside of those voting machine companies can have any assurance that votes are being counted, rather than manipulated by secret software code.

Many people stopped worrying about electronic voting machines after Obama won, but Obama’s election means nothing. First, Obama has been extremely generous to big business and refused to investigate or prosecute Bush Administration criminals. Obama has been a huge disappointment for liberals and progressives, so the powerful people who control America’s vote “counting” had little to fear from him. And, second, given the tidal wave of Democratic support following eight years of George W. Bush, those who control the electronic voting machines couldn’t have stolen 2008 for McCain-Palin without blatantly stealing so many votes that Americans took to the streets to demand justice.

Liberal/progressive views have strong support, esp. in “Blue America,” but we’ll elect few truly representative representatives until we clean up our elections. And that means returning to PAPER BALLOTS!

Posted by James on Jun 13, 2010

No shooting police (with video cameras)!

The frequency with which policemen are Tasering grandmothers and moms with kids for trivial reasons (or none at all) is a horrible sign of out-of-control authoritarianism in America.

Another is that citizens who videotape police misbehavior (even as they’re being beaten up) are being thrown in jail for the “crime” of videotaping a police officer!

In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer….

The legal justification for arresting the “shooter” rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws, with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where “no expectation of privacy exists” (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized.

Massachusetts attorney June Jensen represented Simon Glik who was arrested for such a recording….

A few weeks ago, an Illinois judge rejected a motion to dismiss an eavesdropping charge against Christopher Drew, who recorded his own arrest for selling one-dollar artwork on the streets of Chicago. Although the misdemeanor charges of not having a peddler’s license and peddling in a prohibited area were dropped, Drew is being prosecuted for illegal recording, a Class I felony punishable by 4 to 15 years in prison.

In 2001, when Michael Hyde was arrested for criminally violating the state’s electronic surveillance law – aka recording a police encounter – the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld his conviction 4-2. In dissent, Chief Justice Margaret Marshall stated, “Citizens have a particularly important role to play when the official conduct at issue is that of the police. Their role cannot be performed if citizens must fear criminal reprisals….” (Note: In some states it is the audio alone that makes the recording illegal.)

…Glik captured a police action on his cellphone to document what he considered to be excessive force. He was not only arrested, his phone was also seized….

Hyde used his recording to file a harassment complaint against the police. After doing so, he was criminally charged.

…On March 5, 24-year-old Anthony John Graber III’s motorcycle was pulled over for speeding. He is currently facing criminal charges [in Maryland] for a video he recorded on his helmet-mounted camera during the traffic stop.

One citizen is so outraged that he has created a website, “Photography Is Not a Crime”.

Posted by James on Jun 04, 2010

Obama as atrocious on the environment as Bush was

Rolling Stone does it again with this super (depressing) article on how the Bush and Obama administrations allowed BP to destroy the Gulf of Mexico. Most depressing is how completely seamless the Bush-to-Obama transition went. Absolutely nothing changed in terms of protecting the environment.

A few highlowlights:

“Employees describe being in [The Department of the] Interior – not just MMS, but the other agencies – as the third Bush term,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents federal whistle-blowers. “They’re working for the same managers who are implementing the same policies. Why would you expect a different result?”

The tale of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is, at its core, the tale of two blowout preventers: one mechanical, one regulatory. The regulatory blowout preventer failed long before BP ever started to drill – precisely because Salazar kept in place the crooked environmental guidelines the Bush administration implemented to favor the oil industry.

Scientists like Steiner had urgently tried to alert Obama to the depth of the rot at MMS. “I talked to the transition team,” Steiner says. “I told them that MMS was a disaster and needed to be seriously reformed.” A top-to-bottom restructuring of MMS didn’t require anything more than Ken Salazar’s will: The agency only exists by order of the Interior secretary.

Salazar did not even ensure that MMS had a written manual – required under Interior’s own rules – for complying with environmental laws.

On April 6th of last year, less than a month after BP submitted its application, MMS gave the oil giant the go-ahead to drill in the Gulf without a comprehensive environmental review. The one-page approval put no restrictions on BP, issuing only a mild suggestion that would prove prescient: “Exercise caution while drilling due to indications of shallow gas.” BP is the last oil company on Earth that Salazar and MMS should have allowed to regulate itself. The firm is implicated in each of the worst oil disasters in American history, dating back to the Exxon Valdez in 1989. …In March 2006, BP was responsible for an Alaska pipeline rupture that spilled more than 250,000 gallons of crude into Prudhoe Bay… In 2005, 15 workers were killed and 170 injured after a tower filled with gasoline exploded at a BP refinery in Texas. Investigators found that the company had flouted its own safety procedures and illegally shut off a warning system before the blast.

Posted by James on Jun 11, 2010

Obama ignores Bush Admin crimes but punishes Bush Admin whistleblowers

Daniel Ellsberg points out an incredible Obama hypocrisy:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why exactly are you accusing the president of violating civil liberties?

Ellsberg: For instance, the Obama administration is criminalizing and prosecuting whistleblowers to punish them for uncovering scandals within the federal government…

SPIEGEL ONLINE: …Such as the arrest, confirmed this week, of an Army intelligence analyst for leaking the “Collateral Murder” video of a deadly US helicopter attack in Iraq, which was later posted online at WikiLeaks.

Ellsberg: Also, the recent US indictment of Thomas Drake.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Drake was a former senior official with the National Security Agency (NSA) who provided reporters with information about failures at the NSA.

Ellsberg: For Obama to indict and prosecute Drake now, for acts undertaken and investigated during the Bush administration, is to do precisely what Obama said he did not mean to do — “look backward.” Of all the blatantly criminal acts committed under Bush, warrantless wiretapping by the NSA, aggression, torture, Obama now prosecutes only the revelation of massive waste by the NSA, a socially useful act which the Bush administration itself investigated but did not choose to indict or prosecute!

Bush brought no indictments against whistleblowers, though he suspended Drake’s clearance. Obama, in this and other matters relating to secrecy and whistleblowing, is doing worse than Bush. His violation of civil liberties and the White House’s excessive use of the executive secrecy privilege is inexcusable.

Posted by James on Jun 11, 2010

On behalf of millions of dead birds (and dolphins and turtles and crabs): FU, BP!

Oil-soaked bird who will soon die an agonizing death

Another oil-soaked bird dying an agonizing death

(As I wrote in early May, even if people clean these birds most thoroughly, they’re still 99% likely to die anyhow. They’re doomed the minute they’re covered with oil.)

Posted by James on Jun 16, 2010

Our sedentary culture is -- quite literally -- killing us

Immediately after blogging about the health consequences of sitting down all day, I stumbled across two articles illustrating my point.

First, “Texas hold ‘em stud dies on flight to World Series of Poker”:

A morbidly obese Long Island man flying to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas died on board the flight of an apparent heart attack, The Post has learned.

Paul “Smalls” Kitsos, 55 — who owned a successful women’s apparel company — was aboard United Airlines flight 863 that left JFK Airport at 5:25 p.m. Monday, bound for San Francisco, where Kitsos was planning to catch a connecting flight to Las Vegas.

About 20 minutes after takeoff, the 5-foot-11, 350-pound Kitsos, of Manhasset, pressed the overhead “help,” button and complained about being ill, according to a Port Authority source.

When flight attendant Ken Pace approached him, Kitsos was “sweating profusely and breathing heavily,” and Pace soon afterwards was unable to detect a pulse, the source said….

Kitsos was carrying more than $11,000 in cash, as well as prescription heart and ulcer medications, the sources said. Kitsos had earned $387,764 on the World Poker Tour since he began playing professionally five years ago and had cashed in 18 different events.

And, second, “Computer gamers ‘have reactions of pilots but bodies of chain smokers’”:

Dr Dominic Micklewright, from the University of Essex, put several ‘'elite cyber-sportsmen’‘ through their paces to see how they compared to professional athletes.

The head of Sport, Performance, and Fatigue Research Unit also wanted to determine whether video gaming should be classed as a sport.

The cyber-sportsmen had mental sharpness and psychological traits comparable to ‘real’ athletes, and reacted to visual stimuli almost as fast as fighter jet pilots.

But their fitness levels were shockingly low and comparable to people either much younger or much older than their actual age.

One leading gamer in his twenties appeared to be slim and healthy with a physique similar to an endurance athlete.

But tests revealed he in fact had the lung function and aerobic fitness of a heavy smoker in his sixties.

Dr Micklewright blamed the gaming lifestyle of spending 10 hours a day in front a computer screen and warned youngsters against such a sedentary lifestyle.

Posted by James on Jun 09, 2010

Pat Tillman's family: Gen. McChrystal "a liar"

I’m happy to see Gen. McChrystal’s arrogance has landed him in trouble:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, was ordered back to Washington on Tuesday after a magazine article portrayed him and his staff as openly contemptuous of some senior members of the Obama administration, the United States ambassador to Afghanistan and senior European officials….

The article shows General McChrystal or his aides talking in sharply derisive terms about Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Ambassador Karl Eikenberry; Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan; and an unnamed minister in the French government. One of General McChrystal’s aides is quoted as referring to the national security adviser, James L. Jones, as a “clown.”

I utterly distrust Gen. McChrystal because he masterminded the cover-up of Army Ranger Pat Tillman’s murder by a fellow Ranger. I say “murder” rather than “manslaughter” because that’s what the evidence strongly suggests it was. When you stand up in your uniform, wave your arms, and repeatedly scream your name at the top of your lungs to fellow Rangers before they put THREE bullets in your skull, that’s murder, as Tillman’s dad slowly grew to suspect.

Patrick K. Tillman stood outside his law office here, staring intently at a yellow house across the street, just over 70 yards away. That, he recalled, is how far away his eldest son, Pat, who gave up a successful N.F.L. career to become an Army Ranger, was standing from his fellow Rangers when they shot him dead in Afghanistan almost two years ago.

“I could hit that house with a rock,” Mr. Tillman said. “You can see every last detail on that place, everything, and you’re telling me they couldn’t see Pat?”

…“All I asked for is what happened to my son, and it has been lie after lie after lie,” said Mr. Tillman…

All of it, [Tillman’s dad] said, has even left him suspicious of the military’s central finding in their son’s case so far: that the killing was a terrible but unintentional accident.

“There is so much nonstandard conduct, both before and after Pat was killed, that you have to start to wonder,” Mr. Tillman said. “How much effort would you put into hiding an accident? Why do you need to hide an accident?”

An examination by The New York Times of more than 2,000 pages of documents from three previous Army administrative reviews reveals shifting testimony, the destruction of obvious evidence in the case and a series of contradictions about the distances, the lighting conditions and other details surrounding the shooting.

The former NFL star who threw away millions of dollars a year to defend his country had woken up to the scandal that the Iraq war/occupation was completely unnecessary and illegal and that we weren’t really going after Osama bin Laden. Tillman would soon be leaving Afghanistan and had scheduled a meeting with Noam Chomsky upon his return and reportedly planned to campaign for John Kerry. Tillman hated President Bush and told friends the war in Iraq was “so f—-ing illegal”.

Even after murdering Tillman, U.S. Army special forces — then commanded by Gen. McChrystal — proceeded to commit further crimes against their fellow soldier:

One day after his death someone burned his body armor. Two days later someone burned his uniform. At some point his journal, which he religiously wrote in, went missing. With that journal disappeared Tillman’s voice.

McChrystal was the cover-up puppet master:

On April 29, Major General Stanley McChrystal — commander of the task force that the Rangers served in Afghanistan, and head of the most secretive joint-service force in the US military — sent a memo to John Abizaid, telling him to warn everyone all the way to Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush, an investigation “will find that it is highly possible Cpl. Tillman was killed by friendly fire… I felt that it was essential that you received this information as soon as we detected it in order to preclude any unknowing statements by our country’s leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Cpl. Tillman’s death become public.”

Despite knowing Tillman’s fellow troops killed him, McChrystal tried to cover up the murder by making up a completely false story about Tillman leading a fight against insurgents before they shot him:

The Army issued Tillman a postmortem Silver Star for bravery, explaining in the process how, “through the firing Tillman’s voice was heard issuing fire commands to take the fight to the enemy on the dominating hill ground.” And this is the story the media reported to the world. …Two weeks after his death the Army’s official casualty report stated that he was killed by enemy forces.

According to his father, “The administration clearly was using this case for its own political reasons. This cover-up started within minutes of Pat’s death, and it started at high levels.”

Tillman’s parents hold McChrystal responsible and opposed his nomination to head U.S. forces in Afghanistan:

Pat Tillman Sr. accused Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal of covering up the circumstances of [his son’s] 2004 slaying.

“I do believe that guy participated in a falsified homicide investigation,” Tillman Sr. said.

Despite great political pressure generated by the Tillman family’s relentless search for the truth about their famous son, the U.S. military has steadfastly blocked a real investigation and refused to release its evidence:

The latest report failed to identify the shooter who pulled the trigger on the gun that killed Tillman. According to Patrick Tillman Sr., “They said it is not important. On top of that, they misidentified even the caliber of bullet that killed him.”

The family, Tillman’s father said, has also been frustrated in its attempts to gain access to a report written by Capt. Richard Scott in the days immediately following the firefight. That report, the family says, raised the possibility that those who fired on Tillman might have been criminally negligent and also recommended the Army’s criminal unit be brought in to investigate.

Just last year, McChrystal was still lying about Tillman’s case, says Tillman’s mother, who remains furious the military and the Bush Administration used her family as props in a nationally televised Silver Star ceremony and funeral for her son that military leaders, including McChrystal, and Bush Administration officials knew was a fraud:

Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he helped expedite the Silver Star award for Tillman before confirming that the Army corporal was killed by friendly fire in 2004.

Tillman’s family has long complained that the memorial service, which included the Silver Star presentation, deliberately avoided mention of fratricide.

McChrystal acknowledged the problem Tuesday, calling it a mistake. He said the Silver Star citation was “not well-written” but denied any intent to mislead….

Mary Tillman said McChrystal knew at the memorial service that her son died from friendly fire.

“McChrystal was lying,” she said of his comments Tuesday. “He said he didn’t know for certain Pat was killed by fratricide. That isn’t true in and of itself, but the fact is, it doesn’t matter whether he knew it for certain.”

Army protocol at the time required families to be told of possible fratricide, whether or not it had been confirmed, she said….

“If the Army chain of command didn’t know what happened to Pat, why did it present us with a false story” at the memorial service? Tillman asked. “That is not an error; that is not a misstep; that is deliberate deception. McCain was at Pat’s service. He was read a false narrative like the rest of us. Where is his outrage? Did he know all along?”

Investigations by the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division and the Defense Department’s inspector general concluded that officers in Tillman’s chain of command knew almost immediately that he had been killed by fire from his own platoon. That information, however, was withheld from his family for more than a month, in violation of Army regulations.

Posted by James on Jun 22, 2010

Pat Tillman: The movie

The military presented Americans a pack of lies about Pat Tillman. I hope millions watch an upcoming movie that will present something much closer to the truth.

You can now watch a preview of the movie I can’t wait to see.

But I’m worried because the director says “we had to skip over some very important chapters”:

Q: Did you have to cut moments or story threads that it hurt to lose?

A: I could talk your ear off. I mean, that’s another reason we were editing for a year…. In order to get as quickly as we could to the end, we had to skip over some very important chapters in the story. [Tillman’s parents] forced several investigations to take place — you see three, and we kind of conflate them a little bit.

Q: Which was the one in the film’s climax, with Rep. Waxman ineffectually presiding?

A: That was, like, the seventh. The sixth was the one you see that was borne out of the “go f—k yourself” letter [sent by Tillman’s father to the Army]. The third was the one that prompted the video you see [that investigates the area where Tillman was murdered], and that guy who went off to Afghanistan to film it was offered to the Tillmans to rectify the problems from their earlier investigations. In fact, Dannie Tillman presented John McCain with 30 questions that she wanted answered, so this guy went off for about a year to answer them. What’s missing from the film is this horrible moment where they’re going through the transcripts, and they realize that he’s part of the conspiracy. It’s, like, right out of a 70’s movie like China Syndrome or something. You see him stopping the transcript and the investigation when things get too close to the truth, and then they take a 15-minute break and come back and the guy changes his story. It would have been amazing in the film, but emotionally, once Pat Tillman dies, you can’t go there.

Posted by James on Jun 25, 2010

Plenty more reasons to hate FIFA

After reading this article, I wonder why someone doesn’t start an alternative World Cup tournament in 2012, 2016, etc. FIFA is atrocious and needs some competition to keep it honest:

[FIFA president Sepp] Blatter, a Swiss moneyman who draws corruption allegations like a Chicago pol, oversaw several boneheaded decisions in the run-up to the tournament [including] …a sweetheart ticketing and accommodation-booking contract [that has] frustrated both fans and local South Africans and potentially cost the host country millions that would have been spent in foreign cash.

The deal in question was with a company called MATCH Services AG, which is co-owned by the company where Blatter’s nephew Philippe is CEO. MATCH reserved almost two million nights’ worth of rooms in hotels and guesthouses across South Africa in anticipation of 500,000 wealthy foreign visitors. But the company also tacked on high surcharges that helped drive up prices….

[F]oreigners, who were already paying $1,500 or more in airfare to visit South Africa, simply decided not to make the trip. Lots of people. Numbers are impossible to truly gauge because Blatter runs FIFA like one of those banks down the street from his offices in Zurich, but the best guess of Danny Jordaan, the head of the local organizing committee, is that more than half of the foreign visitors projected to show up at the tournament will instead be watching it from their sofas at home.

…What’s worse, some international fans had already bought pricey game tickets ranging from $80 to $160. But now they couldn’t afford to use them. They directed their wrath at Blatter. On the forums of BigSoccer.com, angry fans inveighed against FIFA and its president. One commenter described FIFA as “unorganized organized criminals.” There was even chatter about a class-action lawsuit. FIFA has tight security controls on transferring ownership of tickets and an impossibly opaque system for reselling them.

…The World Cup is never the economic boon for host countries that many think it is, and FIFA, a tax-exempt organization that will bring in $2.7 billion off television rights for the tournament, has hardly been charitable. Last week, security guards at several stadiums went on strike over pay. FIFA, they claim, promised them $65 for a 12-hour shift. Instead, they received $25 from their employer, Stallion Security Consortium. Around 3,000 locals took to the streets in Durban on Wednesday chanting, “Get out, FIFA mafia!”

Posted by James on Jun 28, 2010

Police assault sick, naked man for breathing while Black

Policemen abusing their power is a daily occurrence, but this story demands attention because police beat up a sick, naked Black man in his own home! Police could have simply looked at the man’s photos to determine he was no burglar. They instead chose violent force:

According to the one-paragraph [police] statement, Hartford police found an “unknown male subject on the third floor” of a Stony Creek townhome who was taken into “temporary custody” before paramedics treated him for a known medical condition….

The unknown male subject found in the home? He was actually the 34-year-old African-American who owns the home and has lived there for four years.

And the part about taking him into temporary custody?

Hartford [Vermont] police neglected to say that in the process he was: blasted with pepper spray; struck with a nightstick; handcuffed, wrapped in a blanket and hauled — naked — out of his home, according to a neighbor and what the man says police later told him. When the neighbor tried to tell cops that the handcuffed man on the pavement was the homeowner — not a burglar — he said he was threatened with arrest for interfering in police business.

Police actually refused to listen to the retired cop who lived next door who tried to share critical information (that the “burglar” lived there and that the “burglar” was suffering from a glucose-related illness):

McKaig, 71, spent 30 years as a police officer, heading the narcotics investigation division of the Montclair, N.J., police department…

“I know the man who lives there,” McKaig recalled telling [the police officer]. “He’s a black man with a medical problem who was recently taken by ambulance to the hospital.”

…While talking with the officer stationed at Burwell’s front door, McKaig said he heard a “hell of a commotion” from inside. Minutes later, police brought Burwell outside, McKaig told me, “They dragged the poor guy down the stairs.”

…“We were trying to get them to understand that Wayne has a medical condition, but they didn’t listen to us,” said Betsy McKaig, who had joined her husband outside to observe the commotion.

Bob McKaig said he tried telling the female officer that he was a former cop who could vouch that the man in custody was the homeowner. “Sometimes (other cops) will extend the courtesy of listening to you when you tell them that you’re a retired officer. Not this one. She jumped all over me and said I was interfering with police work.

“If you don’t leave, ‘I’ll lock you up right now,‘ ” he recalled the officer saying.

Everyone understands that cops have dangerous jobs and always a need to be careful in the line of duty, McKaig said. “But you also have to take your time to assess the situation. They didn’t do that.

“Think about it, realistically,” he went on. “A naked burglar?”

Posted by James on Jun 07, 2010

Remembering May 35th

May 35th is a special day in Chinese history that we remember today, even if the Chinese government does not.

You thought it was June already? Nicholas Kristof can explain:

When the [Chinese] government blocks references to “June 4,” the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Netizens evade the restriction by typing in “May 35.”

The Chinese government fiercely represses coverage of its brutal repression. Last year, China-based journalist James Fallows wrote:

to point a camera in any direction not shown in these shots [of Tiananmen Square] is to ask for immediate trouble. In particular if security forces… are in the field of view. I say this with first-hand certainty, based on experiences I will describe later when I am living someplace else…

As reported yesterday, CNN is still blacked out whenever words like “In China today….” or “Twenty years ago in Bei….” come across the airwaves.

Actual news about the massacre came out today. Ironically, it has been suppressed for years, even though it comes straight from perhaps the most repressive Chinese ruler — Li Peng — who pressed for the June 4 crackdown-massacre and later wanted to share his thinking publicly:

Mr. Li wrote in a foreword dated December 6, 2003, that he felt bound to record what happened “to serve as the most important historical testimony” about Tiananmen.

The newspaper said he wrote that the protesters threatened to send China into a new era of political upheaval akin to the chaos into which Mao periodically plunged the nation during his rule.

“From the beginning of the turmoil, I have prepared for the worst. I would rather sacrifice my own life and that of my family to prevent China from going through a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution,” the newspaper wrote, quoting a May 2, 1989 diary entry.

That view — that the protesters sought to upend Communist rule — was in stark contrast to Mr. Zhao, who argued that the students wanted reform, not revolution.

…according to a prologue by Wu Guoguang, a University of Victoria, British Columbia scholar, the memoir makes clear that Mr. Deng, not Mr. Li, led the drive to crush the demonstrations and oust Mr. Zhao from power.

“This book has clearly revealed that Deng was the proposer and decision maker of enacting martial law in parts of Beijing in 1989,” Mr. Wu wrote, “And he gave the final approval to “ground clearing” operation in Tiananmen Square on June 3.”

The Chinese government absolutely should have made real concessions and reforms. Authoritarian rule is bad, but it’s less bad the more responsive it is to ordinary citizens' needs.

But there is an “on the other hand.” The Cultural Revolution was truly horrible, so I can understand how memories of that would so frighten Chinese leaders that they would react to organized protests with deadly violence. Also, Chinese history — as taught in China today, anyhow — emphasizes the fragility of the state and the horrors of factionalism. Regardless of whether that reflects revisionist propaganda or fact, the widespread belief impacts how Chinese people view their nation.

I remain horrified by the deadly crackdown — esp. since China’s political freedoms have scarcely increased since 1989, suggesting repression has served the Party’s interests but not the people’s — but Li Peng’s comments help me better understand the Chinese government mindset, which remains even today.

Posted by James on Jun 04, 2010

Schlumberger rumor update

A month ago, I reported a rumor about Schlumberger employees being on the rig to run a Cement Bond Log (CBL) test:

SLB gets out to the Deepwater Horizon to run the CBL, and they find the well still kicking heavily, which it should not be that late in the operation. SLB orders the “company man” (BP’s man on the scene that runs the operation) to dump kill fluid down the well and shut-in the well. The company man refuses. SLB in the very next sentence asks for a helo to take all SLB personel back to shore. The company man says there are no more helo’s scheduled for the rest of the week (translation: you’re here to do a job, now do it). SLB gets on the horn to shore, calls SLB’s corporate HQ, and gets a helo flown out there at SLB’s expense and takes all SLB personel to shore.

6 hours later, the platform explodes.

The story sounded so crazy that I thought it might be true, given BP’s obvious recklessness and Schlumberger’s reputation for professionalism.

Well, there’s at least some truth to the story, according to this U.S. House Subcomittee on Oversight and Investigations letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward:

BP’s mid-April plan review predicted cement failure, stating “Cement simulations indicate it is unlikely to be a successful cement job due to formation breakdown.” Despite this warning and Halliburton’s prediction of severe gas flow problems, BP did not run a 9- to 12-hour procedure called a cement bond log to assess the integrity of the cement seal. BP had a crew from Schlumberger on the rig on the morning of April 20 for the purpose of running a cement bond log, but they departed after BP told them their services were not needed. An independent expert consulted by the Committee called this decision “horribly negligent.”

…On April 18, BP flew a crew from Schlumberger to the rig. As described in a Schlumberger timeline, “BP contracted with Schlumberger to be available to perform a cement bond log … should BP request those services.” But at about 7:00 a.m. on the morning of April 20, BP told the Schlumberger crew that their services would not be required for a cement bond log test. As a result, the Schlumberger crew departed the Deepwater Horizon at approximately 11:15 a.m. on a regularly scheduled BP helicopter flight. The Schlumberger crew was scheduled for departure before pressure testing of the well had been completed, indicating that the results of those tests were not a factor in BP’s decision to send the crew away without conducting a cement bond log….

The Committee staff asked an independent engineer with expertise in the analysis of well failure about BP’s decision not to conduct a cement bond log. The engineer, Gordon Aaker, Jr., P.E., a Failure Analysis Consultant with the firm Engineering Services, LLP, said that it was “unheard of” not to perform a cement bond log on a well using a single casing approach, and he described BP’s decision not to conduct a cement bond log as “horribly negligent.” Another independent expert consulted by the Committee, John Martinez, P.E., told the committee that “cement bond or cement evaluation logs should always be used on the production string.”

So, the Schlumberger team was on board to run the test, the test was not run, and the Schlumberger employees who might have died had they remained that day instead returned to safety before the explosion.

Perhaps the rest of the rumor is fake. But given how much of the rumor has already been corroborated, I suspect the rest holds at least a kernel of truth. Why were Schlumberger employees on board to run a critical test that didn’t get run? And why would BP skip a test that one expert says “should always be used” and another expert says skipping was “unheard of” and “horribly negligent”? As unprofessional as BP’s reckless behavior has been, it seems more likely, from all we’ve heard about the already-known problems on the rig — like chunks of the blowout preventer having been found in the drilling fluid — that the Schlumberger employees were so scared by what they witnessed and heard on that rig that they insisted it be shut down and demanded immediate evacuation when BP refused.

If the rumor is true, it would prove BP to be utterly and recklessly negligent… guilty of manslaughter and of willfully causing the greatest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. BP would have every interest in keeping the story secret. And, given the U.S. government’s strong support of BP’s efforts to “bury the body” by keeping as much oil as possible below the surface — even at the cost of dumping massive quantities of highly toxic Corexit into the critical biodiversity hotspot — and using the Coast Guard to keep reporters from visiting the coast or even flying low over the affected regions of the Gulf, the Obama Administration might (perhaps unwittingly) be helping BP keep a lid on the truth. Even Schlumberger may be keeping silent because BP is a very, very significant customer.

But, whether BP decided to skip the essential test or refused to shut down the well after Schlumberger demanded it be shut, BP’s lethal negligence is beyond doubt. If corporations are entitled to free speech (which they obviously should not), then should they not also be thrown in jail when they kill people and destroy giant ecosystems?

UPDATE: This Times-Picayune report corroborates how critical that test is and adds two new pieces of information: 1) The Schlumberger team seemed to be in a hurry to get off the rig because they left their valuable testing equipment behind; and, 2) BP is refusing to answer questions about the CBL. I also note that none of the reports is contradicting the rumor that Schlumberger confronted BP. The reports simply state that BP sent the Schlumberger team home without requesting the test. They don’t explain how/why that happened.

[Top Halliburton executive Tim] Probert told a Senate committee last week that the cement bond log is “the only test that can really determine the actual effectiveness of the bond between the cement sheets, the formation and the casing itself.”

Gregory McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas, called the cement bond log the “gold standard” of cement tests. It records detailed, 360-degree representations of the well and can show where the cement isn’t adhering fully to the casing and where there may be paths for gas or oil to get into the hole.

Schlumberger’s Harris said the contractor was ready to do any such wireline tests, but was never directed to do so. The team had finished doing tests on the subsea layers of earth being drilled five days earlier and hadn’t done any work since, Harris said.

In fact, Harris said there was no time to get the company’s wireline testing equipment off the rig before it exploded….

BP spokesmen did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the decision to send Schlumberger home without conducting a cement bond log.

Posted by James on Jun 15, 2010

Soda = Obesity + Diabetes + Heart Disease

Giving up soda fifteen years ago was one of the smartest things I ever did.

I hope you’ll do the same after you read Blisstree.com’s description of what happens to those who drink a soda a day:

You’ll Be Fatter: According to research in the Nurse’s Health Study, which monitored the health of 90,000 women for eight years, drinking a single soda every day of the week added 10 pounds over a four-year period.

You’ll Probably Have Diabetes: In the Nurses’ Health Study, women who said they drank one or more servings a day of a sugar-sweetened soft drink or fruit punch were twice as likely to have developed type 2 diabetes during the study than those who rarely consumed these beverages.

You’re Much More Likely to Develop Heart Disease: According to a study published in 2007 in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, subjects who drank a soda every day over a four-year period had a 25% [greater?] chance of developing high blood sugar levels and a 32% greater chance of developing lower “good” cholesterol levels. The Nurses’ Health Study found that women who drank more than two sugary beverages per day had a 40% higher risk of heart attacks or death from heart disease than women who rarely drank sugary beverages.

Posted by James on Jun 24, 2010

Successful businesses are fun, caring businesses

For years, my wife has been a very happy customer of Zappos.com. If the shoes she ordered don’t fit, she sends them right back at no extra charge.

I introduced her to Zappos after reading an article praising their corporate culture and customer satisfaction, which illustrates the power of running your business to please customers and employees. Zappos barely runs any ads; it has grown incredibly fast through word-of-mouth.

I love this video showing life in Zappos' headquarters. It sure seems like a fun place to work, and I’m totally impressed that they care so much about customer service that they’ll walk customers through placing an order on a competitor’s site if they don’t have the customer’s desired shoe in stock.

Posted by James on Jun 07, 2010

"Team Jesus"

From Foreign Policy magazine:

For the past four years, the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has been doing battle with a Christian subculture that, he believes, is trying to Christianize the U.S. armed forces with the help of a complicit Pentagon brass. [Mikey Weinstein] calls it the “fundamentalist Christian parachurch-military-corporate-proselytizing complex,” a mouthful by which he means holy warriors in contempt of the constitutional barrier between church and state.

“The scary thing about all this,” Weinstein says, “is it’s going on not with the blind eye of the Pentagon but with its full and totally enthusiastic support. And those who are not directly involved are passive about it. As the Talmud says, ‘silence is consent.’”

…Weinstein — a former Air Force judge advocate general — has the air of a born fighter. This battle is personal for him: Nearly 30 years ago, as a Jewish cadet at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, he was twice beaten unconscious in anti-Semitic attacks. (There wouldn’t have been much of a choice of targets — only 0.3 percent of the members of the U.S. military identify themselves as Jewish. Ninety-four percent are Christian.) Visiting his son, Curtis, on the eve of his own second year at the academy in the summer of 2004, Weinstein was stunned to learn little had changed; over lunch at McDonald’s, Curtis told his father that he had been verbally abused eight or nine times by officers and fellow cadets on account of his religion. Weinstein filed a complaint, in response to which the Air Force launched an investigation that revealed a top-down, invasive evangelicalism in the academy. Among other things, it revealed that the commandant of cadets taught the entire incoming class a “J for Jesus” hand signal, that the football coach had draped a “Team Jesus” banner across the academy locker room, and that more than 250 faculty members and senior officers signed a campus newspaper advertisement that proclaimed: “We believe that Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world.”

…[A]ll but a fraction of Weinstein’s clients are practicing Catholics and Protestants of mainline denominations who claim to be targeted by proselytizing evangelical superiors. The root of the problem, Weinstein believes, is a cluster of well-funded groups dedicated to Christianizing the military and proselytizing abroad. They include the Navigators, which, according to their website, command “thousands of courageous men and women passionately following Christ, representing Him in advancing the Gospel through relationships where they live, work, train for war, and deploy.” There is Campus Crusade for Christ’s Military Ministry, which has a permanent staff presence at U.S. military academies and whose directors have referred publicly to U.S. soldiers and Marines as “government-paid missionaries.” Such groups, Weinstein argues, “are the flip side of the Taliban. They’re like Islamic officers exercising Quranic leadership to raise a jihadi army.”

Posted by James on Jun 01, 2010

Thank you, John Wooden!

I own and love several John Wooden books. The 10-time NCAA basketball champion was a wise, wise, wise man and a marvelous teacher.

I’m grateful he never stopped preaching his brilliant philosophy of basketball life after retiring from coaching because we all can benefit from his wisdom. I certainly have.

I highly recommend these two to anyone who values excellence:

(The L.A. Times has published a long obituary I’m now beginning to read.)

Posted by James on Jun 05, 2010

The $22 billion mistake

Quiz time! Fill in the blank:

Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and _____________

Give up? Of course you do.

The answer: Ron Wayne, Apple’s third co-founder and Apple’s version of the Beatles' Pete Best.

Wayne was twenty years older than Jobs and Woz, who frequently butted heads. Wayne received 10% of Apple’s stock to arbitrate the two Steves' (each of whom owned 45%) disputes.

But Wayne quickly quit Apple and surrendered his shares for $800. He has never used an Apple computer and has little wealth or income these days. But he has wisely avoided torturing himself over his $22 billion mistake:

“What can I say? You make a decision based on your understanding of the circumstances, and you live with it,” he said….

Wayne said he doesn’t let himself wonder how things could have been different if he had chosen to stay with Apple.

Missing out on $22 billion could drive a person crazy. But what matters is not events per se but how we respond to events. It’s unhealthy to dwell on past disappointments.

I especially admire Ron Wayne because my wife and I occasionally dwell on the fact that we bought $5,000 worth of Apple stock that would be worth six figures now had we not sold it because we wanted to close the investment account it was in. Wayne lost 220,000 times what we did, but he’s taken it in stride. Good for him!

Posted by James on Jun 25, 2010

"Those jobs are goin', boys, and they ain't comin' back"

Saw this sad note this morning:

Next week, I am moving with a wing, a prayer, and a month’s paycheck to find a job in Buffalo. I’ve moved a lot, New Orleans, San Francisco, San Diego, Richmond, Philadelphia, but never without a job lined up ahead of time. I’m 41 and one month away from being homeless with a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences.

I lost everything to Katrina 5 years ago, started to get secure in Philly, and the economy is now kicking my ass.

And then this article:

Guo and an estimated million others like him represent an unprecedented and troublesome development in China: a fast-growing white-collar underclass. Since the ’90s, Chinese universities have doubled their admissions, far outpacing the job market for college grads. This year China’s universities and tech institutes churned out roughly 6.3 million graduates. Many grew up in impoverished rural towns and villages and attended second- or third-tier schools in the provinces, trusting that studying hard would bring them better lives than their parents had. But when they move on and apply for jobs in Beijing or Shanghai or any of China’s other booming metropolises, they get a nasty shock.

They may be smart and energetic, but some are starting to ask if the promise of a better life was a lie. They’re known as “ants,” for their willingness to work, their dirt-poor living conditions, and the seeming futility of their efforts. “These ants have high ambitions but virtually no practical skills,” says Prof. Zhou Xiaozheng, a leading sociologist at the People’s University of China.

…[W]hite-collar pay is shrinking, thanks to a massive glut of university graduates. And salary cuts aren’t their only complaint. Official Chinese labor statistics (which tend to be unrealistically rosy) claim that 87 percent of college grads find work of some sort sooner or later. In other words, even the government admits that at least one in eight is permanently unemployed. And those who get jobs don’t always find work in their chosen fields. Nearly a third of Beijing’s ants are employed in “sales in private business.” For tech engineers, that often means peddling low-end electronic gear for the city’s computer wholesalers.

As computerization and robotics enable fewer and fewer people to produce more and more output, demand for medium-skilled workers is drying up around the world. The best educated, most experienced, most creative workers will always find work, but automation is eliminating hundreds of millions of medium-skill jobs. What happened long ago to textile mill workers and a few decades ago to bank tellers (when ATMs took over) is now happening to lawyers, mechanics, programmers, accountants, call center workers, etc. Why pay a lawyer thousands of dollars to handle routine legal documents when you can buy them from LegalZoom.com (or one of its many competitors) and file them yourself? Why pay an accountant when you can do-it-yourself with QuickBooks? Why hire an expensive experienced mechanic when you can hire a cheap one and let the automated system tell him how to service each car?

Your job may have been outsourced to China, but the worker doing “your” job is making 10% of what you made. Even so, the job may soon be handed over to a robot. Rapid advances in computer voice recognition/automation alone could eliminate tens of millions of more jobs. And one sector little impacted by technology to date — education — is poised for a revolution that could improve results even as it eliminates many jobs.

We’re all “ants” now.

Real ants take care of one another, but the U.S. still worships at the altar of market competition, even after massive taxpayer bailouts of bankrupt mega-banks and a profit-crazed corporation’s destruction of the Gulf of Mexico.

As labor markets continue drying up, will we consider “survival of the fittest” a just, moral outcome? Or will society insist on redistributing a share of the immense wealth that centuries of steady technological advances have enabled a relative few people to accumulate by replacing human labor with machines?

Posted by James on Jun 24, 2010

"Three lefts make a right"

From an article on the dearth of boys in New York City’s gifted children programs:

For some of the boys, “their social and emotional development is not at the same level as their intellectual development,” said Donna Taylor, the principal of the Brooklyn School of Inquiry. She estimated that she spent about half her day helping her kindergarten and first-grade boys as they ran into trouble with issues like collaboration, self-control and sharing.

The difference could be observed one day last week in the lunchroom, where a cluster of boys sat at one end of a table, fooling around until one of them spilled a carton of chocolate milk. The girls sat calmly at the other end, eating meatballs without a stain on their sundresses….

During recess on Wednesday, Sidney, a kindergartner, got angry when Benjamin, a first grader, grabbed away a ball he was playing with. When Ms. Taylor got the boys together to talk over their feelings, Sidney tried to grab the ball back.

“Have you heard the expression, two wrongs don’t make a right?” she asked Sidney.

“Three lefts make a right,” he replied.

Posted by James on Jun 01, 2010

Tom Tomorrow

Tom Tomorrow is my favorite cartoonist. He’s absolutely brilliant at capturing the essence of today’s news in a short comic. Here’s his latest:

Invisible Hand of the Market Man

Here’s another recent one:

Minor errors thoroughly discredit global warming

Posted by James on Jun 16, 2010

Uruguayan refs help Germany win; German refs help Uruguay win

Most of the soccer football world has been screaming for instant replay, at least for determining whether balls went into the goal.

FIFA’s refusal to use goal-line cameras or additional goal-line referees is inexcusable, and horrible calls have already unfairly impacted many games in the current World Cup. Just look at this non-goal by England:

England loses goal to crooked goal line

All major U.S. sports use technology to ensure the correctness of key plays. Hockey has long had an automated system for distinguishing goals from non-goals. Major League Baseball now uses instant replay on borderline home runs and potential fan interference. The NFL has a special referee in the booth with access to video from many angles. Coaches are granted several challenges per half, and the replay referee reviews plays coaches request reviews of plus controversial plays late in the game. The NBA also uses replay to get calls correct, esp. late in games:

Referees consulted the replay monitor three times in the final 89 seconds of Game 3 between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics — each time to determine possession after a ball went out of bounds. Two calls were changed. The third call was upheld.

The head of FIFA has steadfastly refused to use technology, despite a rising tide of anger. Given the frequency of refereeing mistakes and the pattern of which teams benefit and which teams are harmed, it’s hard not to suspect the FIFA chief supports the status quo because someone is benefitting from the ability of refs on the field to impact the final score.

For example, the U.S. had legitimate goals — potential game-winning goals — stolen from it in two of its three first-round matches. And this is but a continuation of a pattern in U.S. soccer’s recent World Cup history.

After World Cup defeat, U.S. coach Bob Bradley seemed to imply the U.S. team expects a raw deal from FIFA refs and isn’t surprised when bad rulings go against them:

“We’re all accustomed to the fact that, if it is an NFL playoff game and there is a call of some question, there will be a statement by the league from the referees,” he said. “But FIFA operates differently. Soccer is a different game. … There are some aspects of it that are not made 100 percent clear that seem to add to the discussion about the games. On our end, we get used to that.”

“We all have friends and family who asked us the same questions most of you [in the media] asked us. You end up saying that that’s just how it is sometimes and then you move on and you get ready for the next game.”

Do calls go against us because refs are — consciously or subconsciously — anti-American? Do calls go against us because refs look down on U.S. soccer and give more established teams the benefit of the doubt? Or does anti-Americanism in FIFA — which pays, judges and disciplines refs — encourage refs to steal a goal from us here or there? Who knows?

What we do know is that the system is completely broken and that technology could very easily eliminate the worst, most impactful referee decisions: goals vs. non-goals. We also know the head of FIFA has fought and fought and fought to prevent the use of technology.

Further, the FIFA system seems to further encourage bad refereeing and doesn’t even try to avoid the appearance of impropriety. For example, in the Round 2 match between Uruguay and South Korea, the referee and his two assistants were all Germans. The following day, when Germany faced England, all four refs were Uruguayan. Uruguay won the match refereed by Germans, and Germany won the match refereed by Uruguayan refs. Coincidence? Who knows? But the stench of potential impropriety is overwhelming, esp. after Uruguayan refs decided a clear game-tying goal by England was not a goal. In the previous day’s match, according to one observer, “Even more obvious, however, was the BLATANTLY one-sided reffing. Many petty fouls were called against Korea, while more conspicuous fouls committed by Uruguay were completely disregarded. Wolfgang Stark has a history of bad reffing including the notoriously controversial Chile-Argentina semi-final game during the 2007 U-20 World Cup.”

P.S. If referee decisions are in any way influenced by reciprocity (e.g., German refs being nice to Uruguay while Uruguayan refs are nice to Germany), the U.S. can only be hurt because FIFA doesn’t allow even a single U.S. referee to work a World Cup match.

Posted by James on Jun 28, 2010

U.S. wins 3-2... except we don't! Soccer needs a replay official for game-changing plays

When the player of the match is the referee, something has gone badly wrong. And that’s the case with today’s U.S.-Slovenia World Cup match.

I don’t know whether ref Koman Coulibaly is crooked or incompetent or both. But he stole two points from the U.S.. Several U.S. players were taken down inside the box today and awarded no penalty kicks. One U.S. player was given a yellow card for supposedly touching the ball when he was merely struck in the head with the ball. And the ref somehow managed to “see” something on the U.S.‘ game-winning third goal, on which several U.S. players near the net were being bear-hugged by Slovenian defenders, that no one else outside Slovenia saw. He disallowed the winning goal for no apparent reason.

Soccer is a very low-scoring game, and that gives refs tremendous power. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are constant rumors about refs on the take. (And the U.S. has been victimized by soccer refs for many years, perhaps because the rest of the world doesn’t like us. We were robbed of victory against Italy in the 2006 World Cup. And we were robbed of a penalty kick against Germany in the 2002 World Cup when a German player seemingly knocked the ball out of his goal with his arm.)

Given a ref’s ability to alter the outcome of games, there absolutely should be instant replay for key moments, like a disallowed goal or a goal that might not have gone in or a penalty that results in a player being ejected from a game.

With so many cameras recording the game, can’t we take a few minutes to ensure that the key calls in a game are correct? Shouldn’t soccer football use the U.S. football challenge system in which coaches can challenge a few critical plays. Challenged plays are decided not by referees on the field but by referees in the replay booth. Referee decisions stand unless the replay official finds conclusive evidence to overrule the on-field decision.

This would ensure that all camera angles are studied on game-changing plays. It would also greatly reduce the power of crooked and incompetent refs from determining the outcome of a game.

Today’s inexcusable decision to disallow the third U.S. goal could end up booting the U.S. from the World Cup. And 99% of people watching the game would agree the decision was atrocious. It’s insane to use a system that allows one referee dictatorial, unquestioned power to make such horrible calls.

Posted by James on Jun 18, 2010

Violence and oppression is not a formula for security, Israel

A few days ago, someone asked my opinion of the latest Israel mess, a subject I hate discussing because it’s so depressing. (It’s depressing not because the situation is insoluble but because reactionary politics lets radicals on both sides repeatedly kill efforts toward peace.) Israel’s security situation would improve much faster if it would stop antagonizing Palestinians and blockading Gaza and instead cultivate soft power and the moral high ground by helping develop Palestinian economies and shutting some of the new settlements deep in Palestinian territory. So I replied:

I’m sick of Israeli right wingers. And I think they’re hurting their own cause through their embrace of violence and finger-in-your-eye settlements and oppressive subjugation of the occupied territories. I’m angry.

They have the wealth and the power. They need to make the first concessions toward a serious solution. Instead, they keep infuriating the rest of the world.

As long as Americans are knee-jerk supporters of Israel, right or wrong, the situation seems hopeless.

About five years ago, I ate at the home of Jewish friends who lived across the street from me as a boy. They’re great people, and we had a nice time talking. But when I suggested I didn’t like the new settlements, the conversation got strained. And when I told my dad a year or two ago that Israel’s attacks on Palestinians bothered me, he got angry. And when I worked for Ned Lamont, in the days before the election, I canvassed a neighborhood and met quite a few Jewish people who should have been supporting Ned but were supporting Lieberman because of Israel (even though Ned had taken a very strong “pro-Israel” stand). And, of course, AIPAC owns Congress. I’ve heard it said American Jews are more pro-Israel than Israeli Jews.

When I was a teen, “US News & World Report” published a letter to the editor I sent saying Israel ought to be negotiating with Arafat because he spoke for the Palestinians. A quarter century later, Israel seems no closer to seeking a win-win solution than it did in those days it was refusing to even talk with Arafat.

Nicholas Kristof shares similar sentiments in his piece today:

Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems locked in a self- defeating dynamic in which it feels misunderstood and gives up on international opinion. It lashes out with force in ways that undermine its own interests. It is on a path that could eventually be catastrophic….

Israel could freeze all settlements and take other steps that would make a deal more likely. We already know what the final deal would look like — a two-state solution and terms resembling the “Clinton parameters” that Bill Clinton proposed in 2000.

Israel could also cultivate Turkey, a central player in the effort to press Iran. Instead, Israel’s storming of a Turkish-flagged vessel in international waters was a huge setback to efforts to win new sanctions on Iran. One big winner in this week’s fiasco was the Iranian regime….

When you visit Gaza, you see that the siege has accomplished nothing — except to devastate the lives of 1.5 million ordinary Gazans. Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization, has compiled a list of goods that Israel typically blocks from Gaza: notebooks, blank paper, writing utensils, coriander, chocolate, fishing rods, and countless more. That’s not security; that’s a travesty.

Posted by James on Jun 03, 2010

Why America cannot tolerate domestic spying: Exhibit A

Many Americans say widespread, intrusive domestic spying is fine “because if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.”

We all deserve to live our private lives free from government employees or government contractors watching us. But the most compelling argument against domestic spying is that it empowers bureaucrats who control America’s massive spy apparatus and immense spy databases to manipulate, blackmail, and control politicians.

JFK was likely murdered because the men who really control America knew that Kennedy ordered a withdrawal from Vietnam fifty days before his assassination. RFK was likely murdered by that same powerful shadow government just as his ascension to the presidency seemed likely. The murderers must have similarly feared JFK and RFK’s brother, Senator Ted Kennedy. And, indeed, we have just learned that the FBI spied extensively on Teddy:

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy lived with constant threats on his life after the assassinations of his brothers and was monitored by the FBI for his possible ties to Communist radicals in Latin America, according to a trove of FBI files on the late senator released Monday….

Longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is a regular presence in the documents, which touch on some of the controversies involving Kennedy and his family — and Hoover’s own troubled legacy of spying on Americans. The FBI, for example, closely monitored Kennedy’s fact-finding trip to Mexico, Central America and South America in 1961, and one document shows that Hoover received a file from an FBI employee in Mexico City that said the senator “is interested in meeting with ‘leftists’ to talk with them and determine why they think as they do.‘’

The document added that “the Kennedy party” was meeting with a university official in Mexico “on whom this office and bureau has information indicating communist sympathies.‘’

In a statement accompanying the document release, the FBI said that “given the Bureau’s long interest in the influence of Central American revolutionaries and communists on American radicals, the Bureau took an interest in Kennedy’s travels.” During the trip, the documents show, the FBI recovered a notebook kept by Kennedy documenting his travels that was accidentally left on his airplane.

The U.S. government has no right to spy on U.S. politicians! When entrenched bureaucrats spy on America’s elected officials, the knowledge they acquire can be used to manipulate and control those politicians. The American people lose, and bureaucrats representing non-democratic forces win.

Most frighteningly, knowledge of what powerful people know and are planning to do can be used to murder them before they go public with that knowledge. One list of potential political murders in America lists over 200 names. (And that list is quite incomplete. The first two names I looked up, Athan Gibbs and Andrew Veal, aren’t listed.) Of course, not all of those were actually murdered. But the number of political murders in recent American history could well be over 100! Many of those were powerful politicians — like House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, who had sat on The Warren Commission and expressed great doubts about it, and Sen. Paul Wellstone, the most progressive man in Congress and a powerful, persuasive politician — who might have changed the course of U.S. history.

The mere possibility that domestic spying is enabling a secret elite to manipulate U.S. politics demands that we allow only selected, targeted, judicially-approved domestic spying.

Posted by James on Jun 14, 2010

Why are our fake presidents so much better than our real ones?

“Fake” news — thank you Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert!!! — is much more informative and entertaining than real news.

And fake presidents are so much more likeable and effective (in positive ways) than our real ones.

I loved The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett! I watched only a few episodes of “24” but understand that its “president,” David Palmer, was a pretty good guy too.

And now Fake President Rachel Maddow gives a wonderful Fake Presidential Address on the BP Gulf oil catastrophe:

I wish I could tell you that the first development is that BP has capped the well, stopped the leak. They haven’t. They can’t. They don’t know how…

Never again, will any company, anyone, be allowed to drill in a location where they are incapable of dealing with the potential consequences of that drilling.

When the benefits of drilling accrue to a private company, but the risks of that drilling accrue to we the American people, whose waters and shoreline are savaged when things go wrong, I as Fake President stand on the side of the American people, and say to the industry: From this day forward, if you cannot handle the risk, you no longer will take chances with our fate, to reap your rewards….

When I announced in March, that my administration’s energy policy would include expanded offshore drilling, that policy change was premised on our acceptance of the oil industry’s assurances that they knew how to do such drilling safely. They were lying. It cannot be done safely — not when no technology exists to cap a blowout on the sea floor. Offshore drilling will not be expanded in American waters…

The industry, has long assured us that they were capable of handling spilled oil. In BP’s own disaster response plan for the Gulf of Mexico, they claimed they were perfectly capable of containing, and cleaning-up, up to 250,000 barrels of oil a day. That no significant amount of an oil spill of even that size would get to shore, foul beaches, kill wildlife, or destroy wetlands. They were lying.

And the industry is lying when it says it takes seriously its responsibilities to contain and clean-up disasters they cause. The same low-tech, inffective equipment and techniques are being used to respond to this oil disaster today, as were used in the 1960s and ‘70s to respond to spills back then. That’s because the industry hasn’t invested in any new containment and cleanup technology in all of these decades….

I am hereby directing BP to fund booming-and-skimming crash academies for all available oil industry personnel, anywhere in the world, to radically overhaul what has been a haphazard, half-hearted, totally unacceptable protection effort. Starting immediately. No expense will be spared and no excuses will be brooked. Even if the oil leak is capped today, the oil in the water will continue to surge toward shore for weeks if not months. As Fake President, I will personally issue a public update on cleanup and containment efforts every single day until this disaster is under control….

Now that we have, at the hands of the oil industry, experienced the worst environmental disaster in American history, the time for talk is over…. We will get off oil and here’s how: The United States Senate will pass an energy bill. This year. The Senate version of the bill will not expand offshore drilling. The earlier targets in that bill for energy efficiency and for renewable energy-sources will be doubled or tripled.

Thank you, Fake President Maddow!

Posted by James on Jun 18, 2010

Why I haven't read your email... Thunderbird ate it!

A reader of this blog — yes, there is one… I’m as shocked as you are — sent me two emails over the weekend that I haven’t been able to read. I saw the headers, but Thunderbird, my former email client, chose to shrink my email box down to size 0, deleting all my emails in that box!

This is the second time Thunderbird has destroyed my email Inbox! The first time was last summer. And I’ve had enough.

When this happened last year, I decided to avoid ever again losing months worth of email by: 1) telling my email server to save my emails for a while, even after I’ve downloaded them; and, 2) making regular data backups.

Stupidly, however, laziness overwhelmed my sense of loss. My hard drive is so large (500GB) that full backups take about 13 hours, so I went months between backups. Also, since most of my code and databases are also saved on my servers, I wasn’t sufficiently concerned about losing data.

This time, I’ve already told my server not to delete my emails for 90 days. I’ve also completely backed up my hard drive.

But, most importantly, I’ve decided that Thunderbird is fatally flawed by its use of the “Mbox” email storage format. Mbox is very popular and works well for people with low email usage. But for people like me who store gigabytes of email, mbox is a disaster waiting to happen. Why? Because mbox stores ALL your emails (at least, all the emails for each email account) in a single file. When your email client is constantly adding to and deleting from a multi-gigabyte file, corruption will eventually occur. In my case, Thunderbird apparently choked on the size of the file. Instead of warning me (e.g., “Your email file is very large. Please save a copy and then I will attempt to shrink it down”), Thunderbird somehow decided to shrink it to size 0 and start all over again without warning… for the SECOND time in twelve months!

So I’m moving on. I’m going to use a MailDir-based or MH-based email client (possibly Claws) that stores each message in a separate file.

P.S. When a multi-gigabyte file vanishes from your Linux hard drive, shut down your computer immediately, boot up again from a LiveCD (I used Ubuntu Rescue Remix), clone the hard drive (with GNU’s ddrescue, packaged as “gddrescue”… don’t use package “ddrescue”), and then use a program such as PhotoRec to search through deleted files. I knew this was the proper procedure, but my email disaster struck just as our family was heading out the door. I panicked and installed a program I hoped might fix my problem quickly. I may well have overwritten part of my email file. (I’ll find out tonight when I try to recover the email file from my hard drive clone.)

Posted by James on Jun 07, 2010

Why the U.S. can go far in this World Cup (if refs stop stealing our goals)

The U.S. won their group, ahead of England, despite refs stealing two potential game-winning goals. The U.S. deserved to win by several goals today. The refs stole one goal, and players mishit several empty nets (once because two U.S. players hit the ball simultaneously). And the U.S. deserved a win over Slovenia, which was stolen by the refs when they disallowed a legitimate U.S. goal.

In short, we deserved victories over Slovenia and Algeria and a tie against England. That sounds like a top-10 team to me. Not a Brazil or Argentina or Spain, but a legitimate second-tier team that could defeat one of those teams on a good day.

Posted by James on Jun 23, 2010

Wonderful video on how to motivate (and de-motivate) knowledge workers

Years ago, I had an interview for a faculty position at Harvard Business School. I bombed. Horrible interview. I tried so hard to impress and attempted to explain so many different research projects that I tripped over my words and failed to explain much of anything. I’m surprised I didn’t hear them burst into laughter as I walked out.

Anyhow, during that interview, I argued that the best motivators are intrinsic and that smart companies focus on establishing cultures that enable achievement-focused people to work collaboratively with other achievement-focused people. One of the professors — whose work I knew revolved around the purported power of stock options to motivate effort — kept pressing me to say how I would motivate a CEO who’s slacking off. I knew he wanted me to say “give them more stock options,” but I insisted that any CEO who’s not working hard because her/his pay is too low should be fired.

Monetary rewards work well for motivating effort at mechanical tasks, but money can backfire as a motivator of creative work, as this marvelous video explains. It shows that what motivates good workers — beyond fair pay — is “autonomy, mastery and purpose.” Employees obsessed with money — rather than doing their jobs creatively and productively — are employees you don’t want.

Posted by James on Jun 01, 2010