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Thursday News and Views

Good Morning Conflucians!!! As usual these days, there isn’t a whole lot of positive news out there.

After watching Anderson Cooper last night, I wondered if anything the President said was more than “just words.”

I learned that many in New Orleans still think Obama is completely out of touch with events on the ground. The clean-up effort is still completely disorganized and ineffective, and parish leaders are still calling for the President to cut the red tape. And this is day 58 of this crisis. Why doesn’t Obama see that it is, in fact, a national emergency?

I learned that Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser thinks Thad Allen should be removed as point man in charge of supervising BP’s efforts to stop the leak as well as the clean up effort. From an AP story at NOLA.com:

“He’s not the right man for the job,” said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. “If the president of the United States does not make some drastic changes it’s going to give him a bad rap that he doesn’t deserve.”

Nungesser’s comments came Wednesday after workers under his direction resorted to sucking up oil from delicate marshes with ordinary shop vacuums.

He was furious after he said the Coast Guard shut down oil-vacuum barges while paperwork was being processed.

“Not only is the leadership not there, they’re standing in our way. They’re crippling us,” Nungesser said.

I also learned that $20 billion probably is only a down-payment on what the true cost of the BP gusher will be. I saw BP CEO Tony Hayward smirking as he walked out of the WH with President Obama. And I saw Hayward and the other BP execs practically high-five-ing each other as they walked away from the question and answer session. They apparently think they rolled Obama pretty good. And to back up that conclusion, BP’s shares surged after the agreement was announced.

This morning, I decided to go to the horse’s mouth so to speak, and see what they are saying at NOLA.com. Here are the latest updates from ground zero. I’m sure Dakinikat will have more to add later on. It seems that the $100 million that Obama has said he’ll set aside to help oil workers who have lost their jobs is woefully inadequate. On that amount, the lead editorial says:

The $100 million fund is a drop in the bucket. The losses for laid-off rig workers alone could range from $150 million to $300 million a month.

More significantly, the president’s statement fails to acknowledge the moratorium’s wider damage. To be sure, rig workers are the first in line to lose their livelihoods while exploratory rigs shut down in compliance with Mr. Obama’s moratorium. But the devastation to the economies of Gulf Coast states will be broader than the loss of rig worker jobs. The boat operators, contractors, caterers and myriad others who service the drilling platforms will also lose out, with an estimated loss of 20,000 jobs in Louisiana alone. This narrowly targeted fund doesn’t begin to address the true impact of the drilling shutdown, which could result in idled rigs quitting the Gulf long term.

President Obama surely realizes that this money doesn’t solve the problem. Instead of pushing forward with a broad moratorium he should listen to those pressing for a more nuanced approach that addresses safety concerns without threatening a vital industry that affects the lives of so many people.

Another op-ed, by Stephanie Grace: “Another president, another set of promises,” compares the responses of George W. Bush and Barack Obama to Katrina and the BP gusher, respectively:

Here was Bush in September 2005, 17 days after Katrina: “Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.”

And here was Obama Tuesday night, 57 days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded: “We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.”

There’s one more similarity: In addition to offering hope to a besieged region, each president tried to use his speech to recast his own role in the tragedy — to hit the restart button, to get ahead of the story, to finally appear in control of the situation, not at its mercy.

Grace goes on to say that she is willing to give President Obama a chance to fulfill his promises, but cautions:

The problem is that the longer the oil gushes, the more gunk creeps into the marshes, the more loudly local officials vent their frustration over poorly deployed resources, the larger the gap between the Obama administration’s ambitions and reality grows.

When you raise expectations, it’s always harder to live up to them.

Both James Carville and Paul Begala are now praising Obama in the wake of the Best Oval Office Speech Evah!

Carville: Oil response critic concedes Obama’s getting it right

Obviously, I was not in the meeting that President Obama had with the BP officials. I suspect I’m even less welcome at the White House these days than Tony Hayward, given my heartfelt and vocal criticism of how Obama was handling the Gulf crisis.

But it looks as if President Obama applied a little old- school Chicago persuasion to the oil executives, because BP’s chairman not only agreed to the full $20 billion that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu asked for, he also pledged to suspend quarterly dividends immediately. Paying victims before shareholders — what a concept.

Look, we have a long way to go before this Cajun stops ragin’. But just as I hammered the White House when I thought they were too lackadaisical, honesty compels me to praise the president for his concrete, significant — and eloquent — action today.

Begala is more enthused than Carville: Nothing But Net

His high school teammates called the future president “Barry O’Bomber” for his proclivity for launching long-range jump shots, and tonight he took yet one more high-pressure shot from downtown. Nothing but net.

The timing of when you shoot a tre is important: the later they come in a game, the more they matter. Three-pointers are the dagger that can put the game away or bring a team back from the dead. Tonight’s speech was the latter.

If Marshall McLuhan was right, then for this presidential address the setting was the message. For the first time in his presidency, Barack Obama sat behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office and addressed his fellow Americans. From that room presidents have sent millions of Americans to war. They have sought to heal broken hearts, to remake our government and revive our economy. Barack Obama has, at turns, done all those things — but never from the Oval Office. Even before he opened his mouth he communicated the most important message: dealing with the Gulf oil disaster is, as Joe Biden would say, a BFD.

‘Scuse me, I think I’m going to be sick.

OK, Begala really laid it on thick there. Maybe he’s trying to encourage Obama with excessive flattery? I don’t quite know what was going on in Begala’s head when he wrote that column.

At CNN, a “language guru” claims that Obama’s speech bombed because it was “too professorial.”

President Obama’s speech on the gulf oil disaster may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday.

Tuesday night’s speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor. The Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.

Though the president used slightly less than four sentences per paragraph, his 19.8 words per sentence “added some difficulty for his target audience,” Payack said.

You know how slow-witted we “small people” are. We just can’t understand that when the President speaks in vague generalities, he really means something very specific–if only we were smart enough to read between the lines….or something.

I suppose everyone has already seen this “worst case scenario” that was posted at The Oil Drum, but it’s worth repeating. If this is true, we could be facing a much worse disaster than anyone thinks, and let’s hope the Villagers are aware of how bad it could really get. The gist is that there is probably damage down below the ocean floor which could cause the well structure to collapse and leave us with a great big hole gushing vast amounts of oil at a rapid rate…and it would be unstoppable.

Here is a summary with commentary at Mother Jones and another one at Science Blogs.


In other news,

Bill To Help Unemployed Fails In Senate

A beleaguered bill to extend benefits for the long term unemployed stalled on Capitol Hill Tuesday, when the Senate voted 45-52 to block the $140 billion catchall bill that also would delay a Medicare fee cut, extend a hodgepodge of expiring tax cuts, and other provisions that Democrats say will help stimulate job growth.

Although the bill also included tax increases on investment managers and oil companies to help offset the cost, it has run into opposition from Republicans as well as many Democrats who are worried about adding to the burgeoning budget deficit.

All this worry about the deficit is going to lead us into Great Depression 2.0.

Administering Fund, a Master Mediator

Kenneth R. Feinberg bristled when reporters dubbed him the compensation czar for his Treasury Department job monitoring executive pay at companies that received government bailouts. The term, he lamented to ABC News last year, “makes it sound like I’m going to issue some imperial decree.”

[....]

Mr. Feinberg, named Wednesday by President Obama as the independent administrator of a $20 billion fund set up by BP to compensate victims of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, may not have the powers of a king. But he does seem to specialize in Solomon-like decisions.

Over the course of his long career as a mediator, he has helped settle a variety of thorny disputes, including a class-action suit by Vietnam veterans protesting the use of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, and a determination of the fair market value of the Zapruder film of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

He also oversaw the compensation fund for survivors of 9/11 victims. Those victims who accepted payments had to sign away their rights to sue for damages later. I imagine that will also be the case for BP’s victims.

Prop. 8 trial: Closing arguments end as judge presses both sides

Closing arguments concluded Wednesday afternoon in the Proposition 8 trial with more pointed questions from U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who is presiding over the landmark proceedings to determine the constitutionality of California’s ban on gay marriage.

More Than 90 Banks Miss TARP Payments

More than 90 U.S. banks and thrifts missed making a May 17 payment to the U.S. government under its main bank bailout program, signaling a rising number of lenders are struggling to meet their obligations….

The number of banks missing their TARP payments rose for the third straight quarter. In February, 74 banks deferred their payments; 55 deferred last November.

That’s all I’ve got. Please post your links in comments–good news would be greatly appreciated if you can find it. Have a terrific Thursday, everyone!!!

Lazy Saturday Oil News: BP Atlantis and Other Dangerous Gulf Oil Rigs

BP's Atlantis Platform in Gulf of Mexico

Good morning Conflucians!! This morning I’ve been trying to educate myself a little bit about oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.


BP ATLANTIS

Did you know that BP has another oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that is drilling even deeper than the Deepwater Horizon–more than 7,000 feet under water? It’s called Atlantis.

Considered one of BP’s most technically challenging projects ever, the Atlantis platform is currently the deepest moored floating dual oil and gas production facility in the world and weighing in at 58,700t, it is also one of the largest. BP is operator of Atlantis with 56% ownership with its partner in the venture, BHP Billiton, having a 44% working interest.

The platform is located 190 miles south of New Orleans in 7,070ft (2,150m) of water, the field itself occupying five blocks – Green Canyon 699, 700, 742, 743 and 744 – with water depths ranging between 4,400ft and 7,100ft (1,338m and 2,158m)….

Atlantis has a production capacity of 200,000 barrels of oil and 180 million cubic feet of gas a day, with the expectation that it will have reached plateau production by the end of 2008.

The field has an estimated life of 15 years and oil reserves of 635,000 million barrels of oil equivalent.

Like Deepwater Horizon, Atlantis was approved to drill “without critical safety documents,” according to Food and Water Watch (via Democracy Now) If there were an oil spill from Atlantis, it could be far worse than the accident at Deepwater Horizon.

Food and Water Watch has started a new website devoted to convincing the Obama administration to stop BP’s Atlantis operations until the rig is shown to be safe and reliable. Here is a video from the site:

Via Food and Water Watch, on May 16, 60 Minutes ran an interview with a whistleblower, Kenneth Abbott.

Mr. Abbott tried to warn BP executives about missing engineering documents that are critical to the safe operation of Atlantis. It is because of Kenneth Abbott that we have an opportunity to prevent another disaster that could be several times more destructive than the Horizon explosion and bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill in just two days. Atlantis poses an enormous safety risk, one that could seriously endanger its workers and the environment in and around the Gulf of Mexico, including the livelihoods and well being of residents in surrounding communities. BP management has noted that an accident resulting from “catastrophic Operator error” on Atlantis could occur.

You can watch the 60 Minutes segments here.


MORE UNSAFE OIL RIGS
IN THE GULF OF MEXICO

Via Democracy Now, the Center for Biological Diversity has filed a lawsuit to close down 49 more drilling sites in the gulf that were approved by MMS without any environmental review. From the press release:

Just like BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling plan, all 49 plans in today’s suit state that no environmental review is necessary because there is essentially no chance of a large oil spill, and if a spill were to occur, it would be quickly cleaned up with no lasting damage.

“Secretary Salazar continues to exercise extremely poor judgment in approving these plans without meaningful environmental review,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center. “He seems to have learned nothing from the oil pouring out into the Gulf of Mexico. Since Salazar is unwilling to shut down the use of environmental waivers that even the president has denounced, we are asking the courts to do so.”

President Obama has “suspended” new drilling projects, but has done nothing yet to make sure that these dangerous oil rigs already operating in the Gulf are reviewed to see if they have sufficient back up plans in case of a blowout.

As you can see, I’m still obsessed with the oil spill, but feel free to post links to any kind of news in the comments. And have a great Saturday and a relaxing Memorial Day weekend.

I’m soothing myself with this after my morning of oil research:

Wednesday Morning News

Good Morning Conflucians!!

What an interesting week we’re having so far. Mmm, love me some greed on wall street. And between the New Wall Street (don’t look at the man behind the curtain) Dem party and the Batshit Crazy (socialist, or now mexican, under every rock) Repub party, no one is noticing that our ship is headed straight for the iceberg. But never mind, we’ll fix that by bailing out the iceberg consortium. So let this be a bit of a distraction with some other news.

Laughter acts like exercise:

Dr. Lee S. Berk, a preventive care specialist and psychoneuroimmunology researcher at Loma Linda University’s Schools of Allied Health (SAHP) and Medicine, and director of the molecular research lab at SAHP, Loma Linda, CA, and Dr. Stanley Tan have picked up where Cousins left off. Since the 1980s, they have been studying the human body’s response to mirthful laughter and have found that laughter helps optimize many of the functions of various body systems. Berk and his colleagues were the first to establish that laughter helps optimize the hormones in the endocrine system, including decreasing the levels of cortisol and epinephrine, which lead to stress reduction. They have also shown that laughter has a positive effect on modulating components of the immune system, including increased production of antibodies and activation of the body’s protective cells, including T-cells and especially Natural Killer cells’ killing activity of tumor cells.

Their studies have shown that repetitious “mirthful laughter,” which they call Laughercise©, causes the body to respond in a way similar to moderate physical exercise. Laughercise© enhances your mood, decreases stress hormones, enhances immune activity, lowers bad cholesterol and systolic blood pressure, and raises good cholesterol (HDL).

As Berk explains, “We are finally starting to realize that our everyday behaviors and emotions are modulating our bodies in many ways.” His latest research expands the role of laughter even further.

A clown a day will keep the doctor away.

The fun part of social networks is when you’re engaged in the social hunt:

Kevin Wise, an assistant professor of strategic communication at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, studied people’s habits when they navigate Facebook. Wise says previous studies on social networking sites involved merely surveying study participants. Wise conducted his study differently.

“Rather than asking people to report their uses of Facebook, we wanted to see them in action,” Wise said. “We wanted to see if there is a way to categorize Facebook use, not based on what people say about it, but what they actually do when they are using it.”

Wise categorized participants’ actions into two different groups: social browsing and social searching. He defines social browsing as navigating the site without a targeted goal in mind. Wise says people use social browsing when they survey the general landscape, such as their newsfeed or wall, without looking for specific information. Wise defines social searching as searching the social networking site with the goal of finding certain information about a specific person, group, or event.

Wise found that participants tended to spend much more time on social searching than social browsing. Not only did participants spend more time on social searching, but they seemed to enjoy it more as well.

“We found a more positive response from participants during social searching, or when they had homed in on a particular target,” Wise said. “Ultimately, it appears that Facebook use is largely a series of transitions between browsing the environment, then focusing in on something interesting or relevant.”

So hunting your friends and acquaintances is what we like to do. Nothing like a good hunt to start off the morning.

Some progress in fuel cell research:

A new form of platinum that could be used to make cheaper, more efficient fuel cells has been created by researchers at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of Houston. The process, described in the April 25th issue of Nature Chemistry, could help enable broader use of the devices, which produce emissions-free energy using hydrogen.

“This is a significant advance,” said scientist Anders Nilsson, who conducts research at the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences, a joint institute between SLAC and Stanford University. “Fuel cells were invented more than 100 years ago. They haven’t made a leap over to being a big technology yet, in part because of this difficulty with platinum.”

Fuel cells hold significant promise for clean energy because the cell’s only byproduct is water. But current fuel cell designs can require as much as 100 grams of platinum, pushing their price tags into the thousands of dollars. By tweaking platinum’s reactivity, the researchers were able to curtail the amount of platinum required by 80 percent, and hope to soon reduce it by another 10 percent, greatly trimming away at the overall cost.

“I think with a factor of ten, we’ll have a home run,” Nilsson added.

We launched a secret min shuttle the other day:

The X-37 has had a long and chequered development history. It was built by Boeing’s “Phantom Works” advanced-concepts shop, originally for NASA – though it had Air Force heritage from the beginning, drawing heavily on the USAF’s X-40 experiments.

NASA saw the craft as a potential “lifeboat” for the International Space Station, but that requirement wouldn’t really call for a winged re-entry vehicle: the ISS lifeboat is in fact a common-or-garden Soyuz capsule – perhaps now to be replaced at some point by an American Orion salvaged from the ruins of the Constellation moonbase programme. Neither has wings, or any real need for them.

So we no longer want much of a civilian manned space program, but a military one is just fine and good. Alrighty then.

So our lovely senators have noticed the recent changes from Facebook:

Last week, Facebook launched some major new products, including social plugins, its Like button for the web, and its Open Graph API. It also launched a product that has some serious privacy issues: ”Instant Personalization”, which automatically hands over some of your data to certain third-party sites as soon as you visit them, without any action required on your part. I’ve previously discussed at length why I think this could lead to a major backlash. And now four Democratic US Senators — Charles Schumer, Michael Bennet, Mark Begich and Al Franken — are calling on Facebook to change its policies.

This morning the senators sent a letter addressed to Mark Zuckerberg that details these issues (they’ve also separately reached out to the FTC, urging it to establish more rules around social networks). Here are the senators’ three main concerns, along with my own commentary:

1. Publicly available data. Facebook’s expansion of publicly available data to include a user’s current city, hometown, education, work, likes, interests, and friends has raised concerns for users who would like to have an opt-in option to share this profile information. Through the expanded use of “connections,” Facebook now obligates users to make publicly available certain parts of their profile that were previously private. If the user does not want to connect to a page with other users from their current town or university, the user will have that information deleted altogether from their profile. We appreciate that Facebook allows users to type this information into the “Bio” section of their profiles, and privatize it, but we believe that users should have more control over these very personal and very common data points. These personal details should remain private unless a user decides that he/she would like to make a connection and share this information with a community.

We all know how they’re all about protecting us from large powerful corporations. I believe Facebook and related organizations will recognize this for what it is, the Senators have noticed new players making big money, and they want their cut. Wonder how I’ve become so cynical.

The Arizona’s new “papers please” law may hurt H-1B workers:

H-1B workers in Arizona that can’t immediately prove they’re working in the U.S. legally may find themselves detained by police or even jailed under the state’s new immigration law.

Legal experts said that an H-1B worker questioned by a police officer that has “reasonable suspicion” about his or her immigration status could be arrested while doing nothing more than going to a restaurant, grocery shopping or even taking a walk around the block if they don’t have their H-1B papers at the ready.

Federal immigration law requires that all non-U.S. citizens, including H-1B workers, have documentation showing that they are in this country legally, but visa workers are rarely asked to produce their papers at any time or place, said legal experts.

Many visa holders aren’t likely to carry valuable and hard-to-replace paperwork on them at all times for practical reasons — they could be lost or stolen. Under the new Arizona law, though, every police officer becomes, in effect, an immigration enforcement agent that can demand the paperwork at any time.

The main documents that foreign workers would need to show if asked include their I-94 card, which shows their lawful status, and most likely their passport.

Immigration experts noted that there are a number of ways that an H-1B worker can be in this country legally, but not have the paperwork to prove it.

For example, a worker could be carrying an expired I-94 card while waiting for new paperwork from U.S. immigration authorities, a process that could take months. Under current laws that worker could be in the U.S. legally even though the paperwork doesn’t reflect it, said Gregory A. Wald, an attorney at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP. “Is a police officer in Arizona going to understand that?”

Here are a few stories related to the evils of Powerpoint. I can attest to this myself. First up, how the main enemy from the militaries point of view isn’t the terrorists, but in fact Powerpoint:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

The slide has since bounced around the Internet as an example of a military tool that has spun out of control. Like an insurgency, PowerPoint has crept into the daily lives of military commanders and reached the level of near obsession. The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Famous information designer Edward Tufte agrees:

In corporate and government bureaucracies, the standard method for making a presentation is to talk about a list of points organized onto slides projected up on the wall. For many years, overhead projectors lit up transparencies, and slide projectors showed high-resolution 35mm slides. Now “slideware” computer programs for presentations are nearly everywhere. Early in the 21st century, several hundred million copies of Microsoft PowerPoint were turning out trillions of slides each year.

Alas, slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis. What is the problem with PowerPoint? And how can we improve our presentations?

And finally here’s another article on how Powerpoint makes you dumb:

In August, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board at NASA released Volume 1 of its report on why the space shuttle crashed. As expected, the ship’s foam insulation was the main cause of the disaster. But the board also fingered another unusual culprit: PowerPoint, Microsoft’s well-known ”slideware” program.

NASA, the board argued, had become too reliant on presenting complex information via PowerPoint, instead of by means of traditional ink-and-paper technical reports. When NASA engineers assessed possible wing damage during the mission, they presented the findings in a confusing PowerPoint slide — so crammed with nested bullet points and irregular short forms that it was nearly impossible to untangle. ”It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the board sternly noted.

PowerPoint is the world’s most popular tool for presenting information. There are 400 million copies in circulation, and almost no corporate decision takes place without it. But what if PowerPoint is actually making us stupider?

This year, Edward Tufte — the famous theorist of information presentation — made precisely that argument in a blistering screed called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. In his slim 28-page pamphlet, Tufte claimed that Microsoft’s ubiquitous software forces people to mutilate data beyond comprehension. For example, the low resolution of a PowerPoint slide means that it usually contains only about 40 words, or barely eight seconds of reading. PowerPoint also encourages users to rely on bulleted lists, a ”faux analytical” technique, Tufte wrote, that dodges the speaker’s responsibility to tie his information together. And perhaps worst of all is how PowerPoint renders charts. Charts in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal contain up to 120 elements on average, allowing readers to compare large groupings of data. But, as Tufte found, PowerPoint users typically produce charts with only 12 elements. Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

The Supremes will tackle an interesting case about disclosure and transparency in a case about ballot measures:

In a high-profile legal challenge, the U.S. Supreme Court will today tackle questions about freedom of speech, the nature of signing petitions for ballot measures, the public’s right to know and the government’s interests in preserving the integrity of the election process.

Depending on the scope of the court’s ruling, ripples could be felt not only among the other 23 states that utilize ballot initiative and referenda (only one of which does not have public disclosure of information about petition signers), but potentially also in the arenas of campaign finance disclosure, public availability of voter registration lists and the open caucus systems used in some states to select party nominees.

“This case holds the potential to unravel decades of court precedent upholding the importance of meaningful disclosure in educating voters about how money is being spent to influence their votes on Election Day,” Paul Ryan, an attorney at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, told OpenSecrets Blog.

The Center for Responsive Politics, which filed an amicus brief with the court that supported neither party but implored justices not add any new impediments to campaign finance disclosure, will attend and cover today’s oral argument at the Supreme Court.

And finally, a bit more about the terrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico:

Rear Adm Mary Landry, who is in charge of the government clean-up effort, said work on sealing the leaks using several robotic submersibles could take months.

About 1,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) of oil a day are gushing into the sea.

An investigation has been ordered into the cause of the leak, which began when an oil rig exploded and sank last week.

The joint investigation, by the interior and homeland security departments, will have the power to compel witnesses to testify, and will look into possible violations by the operators of the rig, Transocean.

Eleven of the rig’s workers are still missing and presumed dead in the disaster off the Louisiana coast.

Workers on a nearby oil platform were evacuated by the US authorities on Monday after the oil slick came dangerously close.

The leaks – about 5,000ft (1,525m) under the surface – were found on Saturday, four days after the Deepwater Horizon platform, to which the pipe was attached, exploded and sank.

The resulting oil slick now has a circumference of about 600 miles (970km) and covers about 28,600 sq miles (74,100 sq km).

British oil company BP, one of the firms operating the rig, has not been able to activate a device known as a blow-out preventer, designed to stop oil flow in an emergency.

That’s a bit of the news today. Chime in with what you’re hearing. Tell some jokes. Post something silly. We need to laugh. Even more than usual.

Wednesday News

Good morning Conflucians!!

It’s hump day and I’m getting a slow start. Let’s throw out a few things going on to get the ball rolling.

A study finds that bureaucracy is linked to a nations growth. Yep, it’s a good thing:

“Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work,” said Albert Einstein, sharing a popular view about bureaucracy grinding progress to a halt.

But it now appears that the organizing functions of bureaucracy were essential to the progressive growth of the world’s first states, and may have helped them conquer surrounding areas much earlier than originally thought. New research conducted in the Valley of Oaxaca near Monte Albán, a large pre-Columbian archaeological site in southern Mexico, also implies that the first bureaucratic systems may have a lasting influence on today’s modern states.

The research by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through its Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate, is published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“The earliest evidence of state organization is contemporaneous with the earliest evidence of long-distance territorial expansion,” said lead researcher Charles Spencer, curator of Mexican and Central American Archaeology at the AMNH. “This pattern was consistent with the territorial-expansion model of primary state formation, which I have proposed in a number of publications over the years.”

Spencer’s territorial-expansion model argues that states arise through a mutual-causal process involving simultaneous territorial expansion and bureaucratization. Spencer’s model breaks with previous ideas that suggest states rise through a protracted, step-by-step process–first the state forms, then an organizing bureaucracy takes hold, and sometime later, the state begins to expand into other regions in an “imperialistic” fashion, thus giving birth to an empire.

The PNAS paper compares Spencer’s work in Mesoamerica with archaeological data from five other states most anthropologists recognize as the only other locations of true primary state formation in history: Peru, Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and China. Primary states are first-generation states that evolved without contact with other pre-existing states. In each case, Spencer’s territorial-expansion theory holds. But he says more research needs to be done at the other locales.

“This result may provide a cautionary lesson as we think about international relations in our contemporary world,” said Spencer. “Since the bureaucratic state as a political form originally evolved through a process of predatory expansion, we should not be surprised if states continue to have predatory tendencies, regardless of their particular ideologies.”

Spencer said his research results could be seen as reason to support development of international organizations such as the United Nations to serve as a check on the expansionistic tendencies of individual states. “But, the administration of those organizations is also likely to be bureaucratic, so we should be watchful for predatory behavior from them as well,” he said.

Paulson’s going on the defensive about Goldman Sachs:

John Paulson hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing. But the hedge-fund billionaire has gone on the offensive to reassure investors that his huge firm will emerge unscathed from a case that has drawn him into a political and legal vortex.

The steps, including a conference call with about 100 investors late Monday, come amid indications from some clients that they might withdraw money from his firm after a lawsuit brought by the government against Goldman Sachs Group Inc. related to an investment created at his firm’s request.

Investors have indicated they are concerned that scrutiny over the firm’s deals may spread, including to overseas regulators. They said they wanted to protect themselves in case new information emerges that could damage the hedge fund, they say. Another issue, they say: The legal case could simply prove a distraction for Mr. Paulson.

“Some of the callers asked pointed questions, almost like a court inquisition, but most people were supportive,” said Brad Alford, who runs Alpha Capital Management. “I felt reassured that he did nothing wrong.”

“It’s not a rush for the doors,” said another investor in Paulson & Co. who has communicated with larger Paulson investors since Friday, when the government unveiled its Goldman case.

Mr. Paulson sent a letter to investors Tuesday night saying that in 2007 his firm wasn’t seen as an experienced mortgage investor, and that “many of the most sophisticated investors in the world” were “more than willing to bet against us.”

And so it begins.

The supreme court naming game continues:

The Big Three. Most press attention has focused on three folks: Solicitor General Elena Kagan, federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland, and Chicago-based federal judge Diane Wood.

Obama looked at those three last year when he nominated Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and those were the names that surfaced right after Stevens announced his retirement on April 9.

The Expanded List. In the days since Stevens’ announcement, other possible candidates began popping up. Among them: Former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears; Montana-based federal judge Sidney Thomas; and former Yale law school dean Harold Koh.

The Politicians. Former President Bill Clinton and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy — who will be at today’s White House meeting — have urged Obama to consider someone with a political background. They said elected officials would have a better understanding of how court decisions can affect everyday Americans.

Potential political names include homeland security Janet Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona, and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Both were considered for the high court slot that opened last year.

What’s your guess?

The Anti-Counterfiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) has been released. Here’s some analysis:

Under ACTA, ISPs are protected from copyright lawsuits as long as they have no direct responsibility for infringement. If infringement merely happens over their networks, the infringers are responsible but the ISPs are not. This provision mirrors existing US and European law.

Two key points need to be made here, however. First, the entire ISP safe harbor is conditioned on the ISP “adopting and reasonably implementing a policy to address the unauthorized storage or transmission of materials protected by copyright.” (This is much like existing US law.)

An earlier footnote found in a leaked draft provided a single example of such a policy: “Providing for termination in appropriate circumstances of subscriptions and accounts in the service provider’s system or network of repeat infringers.” In other words, some variation of “three strikes.” That footnote is now gone from the text entirely.

New to this draft is an option, clearly targeting European law, that would explicitly allow Internet disconnections. Countries will be allowed to force ISPs to “terminate or prevent an infringement” and they can pass laws “governing the removal or disabling of access to information. So, basically, Internet disconnection and website blocking.

The option also allows rightsholders to “expeditiously obtain from that provider information on the identity of the relevant subscriber” and it encourages countries to “promote the development of mutually supportive relationships between online service providers and right holders.” This option has not been approved by all ACTA members.

The ACTA draft also makes clear that governments cannot mandate Internet filtering or affirmative action to seek out infringers.

Second, the ISP immunity is conditioned on the existence of “takedown” process. In the US, this is the (in)famous “DMCA takedown” dance that starts with a letter from a rightsholder. Once received, an ISP or Web storage site (think YouTube) must take down the content listed in order to maintain its immunity, but may repost it if the uploader responds with a “counter-notification” asserting that no infringement has taken place. After this, if the rightsholder wants to pursue the matter, it can take the uploader to court.

This will strongly affect countries like Canada, which have no such system.

While the ACTA draft adopts the best part of the DMCA (copyright “safe harbors”), it also adopts the worst: making it illegal to bypass DRM locks.

ACTA would ban “the unauthorized circumvention of an effective technological measure.” It also bans circumvention devices, even those with a “limited commercially significant purpose.” Countries can set limits to the ban, but only insofar as they do not “impair the adequacy of legal protection of those measures.” This is ambiguous, but allowing circumvention in cases where the final use is fair would appear to be outlawed.

Fortunately, a new option in this section would allow countries much greater freedom. The option says that countries “may provide for measures which would safeguard the benefit of certain exceptions and limitations to copyright and related rights, in accordance with its legislation.”

(Emphasis mine.)

There’s more analysis in the article, and more to come.

Looks like the people behind that hitler movie that is used in so many fun parodies on youtube has ordered that all the parodies be taken down. Lots have. Here is EFF’s complaint about the takedowns:

One the most enduring (and consistently entertaining) Internet memes of the past few years has been remixes of the bunker scene from the German film, The Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich (aka Der Untergang). EFF Boardmember Brad Templeton even got in on it, creating a very funny remix with Hitler ranting about troubles with DRM and the failure of DMCA takedowns to prevent fair uses. (Ironically enough, that video resulted in the Apple Store rejecting an EFF newsfeed app.)

In a depressing twist, these remixes are reportedly disappearing from YouTube, thanks to Constantin Film (the movie’s producer and distributor) and YouTube’s censorship-friendly automated filtering system, Content I.D. Because the Content I.D. filter permits a copyright owner to disable any video that contains its copyrighted content — whether or not that video contains other elements that make the use a noninfringing fair use — a content owner can take down a broad swath of fair uses with the flick of a switch. It seems that’s exactly what Constantin Film has chosen to do.

This is hardly the first time that Content I.D., has led to overbroad takedowns of legal content. Copyright owners have used the system to take down (or silence) everything from home videos of a teenager singing Winter Wonderland and a toddler lip-syncing to Foreigner’s Juke Box Hero to (and we’re not making this up) a lecture by Prof. Larry Lessig on the cultural importance of remix creativity.

YouTube users do have options for response (read our “Guide to YouTube Removals” for details.) But YouTube’s procedures for “removing” videos have created considerable confusion among users, and it’s a fair bet that most YouTube users aren’t aware of their ability to “dispute” these removals. Others may be leery of exercising the dispute option. While the risks may be low, our broken copyright system leaves users facing the prospect of paying outrageous statutory damages and even attorneys’ fees if they stand up, fight back and, despite overwhelming odds in their favor, lose. It’s a gamble many people just aren’t willing to take, even when their works are clear fair uses.

If copyright owners want to block remix creativity, they should have to use a formal DMCA takedown notice (and be subject to legal punishment if they fail to consider fair use), rather than a coarse automated blocking tool. That is one reason we called on YouTube to fix the Content ID system so that it will not automatically remove videos unless there is a match between the video and audio tracks of a submitted fingerprint and nearly the entirety (e.g, 90% or more) of the challenged content is comprised of a single copyrighted work. That was over two years ago, and YouTube told us then that they were working on improving the tool. If YouTube is serious about protecting its users, it is long past time for YouTube to do that work.

That’s a few of the things going on today. Please chime in with other things you’re finding.

Wednesday Pre Tax News

Good morning Conflucians!!

Mmm, doing taxes. Nothing better. Oh wait, a stick in the eye would be better. OK, lots of things would be better. Let’s see what’s happening today.

Imagine a world in which the US no longer leads, or hardly even participates in space exploration. Imagine waking up to news of amazing discoveries of new aerospace technology and basic science figured out by the new exciting Chinese (or other countries) space program. Imagine waking up to new moon landing done by someone else. Imagine watching years of progress with a moon base, people getting to mars, brand new amazing technologies in air travel and space travel and other discovered technologies because of those efforts, all by people other than the US. Imagine sitting back and watching other countries lead the way with us only occasionally invited as a tacit acknowledgement that we used to do that. Good you say. We don’t need to spend money in those areas. We should take care of our people in need instead. I won’t argue that we don’t have high priorities and people suffering, but if a group doesn’t push the envelope in science research and in leading edge exploration, then that group is not helping humankind. Yea, that’s a big presumptuous thing to say I agree. But we’re on this little rock in a vast space. Either we explore and figure out what’s out there, and frankly get ourselves spread around a bit, or we’ll go the way of the dodo bird. Here are a few things on what Obama is doing to our space program:

Neil Armstrong had this to say the other day:

President Obama’s plans for NASA could be “devastating” to the U.S. space program and “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature,” three legendary astronauts said in a letter Tuesday.

Neil Armstrong, who rarely makes public comments, was the first human to set foot on the moon. Jim Lovell commanded the famous Apollo 13 flight, an aborted moon mission. And Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan remains the last human to have walked on the lunar surface.

In statements e-mailed to the Associated Press and NBC, Armstrong and other astronauts took exception with Obama’s plan to cancel NASA’s return-to-the-moon program, dubbed Project Constellation.

Armstrong, in an e-mail to the AP, said he had “substantial reservations.” More than two dozen Apollo-era veterans, including Lovell and Cernan, signed another letter Monday calling the plan a “misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future.”

The statements came days before Obama is to visit Kennedy Space Center on Thursday to explain his vision for NASA.

Not all former astronauts have come out against the plan. Armstrong’s crewmate Buzz Aldrin, the second man to stand on the moon, has endorsed Obama’s plan, which includes investing $6 billion to develop commercial space-taxi services for astronauts traveling to and from the International Space Station. Aldrin said the proposal will “allow us to again be pushing the boundaries to achieve new and challenging things beyond Earth.”

The plan would also extend the space station operations through 2020. It would cancel Project Constellation and the Ares rockets, which NASA has been developing for six years at a cost of more than $9 billion. Obama would retain the Constellation project’s Orion capsule. The capsule, which was to go to the moon, will instead be sent unoccupied to the International Space Station to stand by as an emergency vehicle to return astronauts home.

Administration officials told the AP that NASA will speed up development of a rocket that would have the power to blast crew and cargo far from Earth, although no destination has been chosen. The rocket would be ready to launch several years earlier than under the moon plan. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to not detract from the presidential announcement.

The former astronauts said, “It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus-billion investment in Constellation. … Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downward slide to mediocrity.”

I agree. Of course some of us remember that during the campaign Obama actually promised to cut NASA funding. Somehow the Obots and others who just coasted along with lots of assumptions about who he was, didn’t really noticed that. And so it goes.

Obama is heading over to NASA to explain his vision:

President Obama will seek to promote his vision for the nation’s human space flight program on Thursday, just two days after three storied Apollo astronauts — including Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon — called the new plans “devastating.”

In an announcement to be made at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the president will personally talk for the first time about the sweeping upheaval of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s human spaceflight program outlined in his 2011 budget request: canceling the current program that is to send astronauts back to the Moon, investing in commercial companies to provide transportation to orbit and developing new space technologies.

A senior administration official said Mr. Obama would describe a vision “that unlocks our ambitions and expands our frontiers in space, ultimately meaning the challenge of sending humans to Mars.” The official spoke with administration approval, but on the condition of anonymity so that the comments would not upstage the president’s remarks.

Mr. Obama’s budget request called for the cancellation of Orion crew capsule, which was to be used to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and then to the Moon, as well as other components of the current program known as Constellation.

The president will propose that a simpler version of the Orion be used as a lifeboat for the space station. Russian Soyuz capsules currently provide that function. Because the Orion lifeboat would not carry astronauts to the space station, it could be launched on existing rockets.

You know Mr. Obama, when you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. As we ride on Russian rockets to get to the space station, the negative symbolism and utter sadness of that will eventually be noticed. But then it will be too late. Our programs will be mothballed. Other grand ideas you’re pushing will not happen. Why? Because you aren’t really planning on them happening. It’s all theatre. The plan is to shut it all down.

Here’s a nice bit from EETimes:

Shifting plans for U.S. human space exploration and the proposed termination of the Constellation program clearly call for a strategic plan taking us forward. Space planning takes years, and for us to be ready for what follows the retirement of the International Space Station around 2020, we need to consider a path to the next human steps in space and, eventually, to Mars.

Having a mighty goal or a series of goals embedded in the strategy will serve to organize NASA’s work and congressional fiscal priorities, since there will always be defined programmatic objectives that need funding.

Planning this strategy should involve NASA, Defense, NOAA and the intelligence community. There should be input from the administration’s National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. This coordination is vital because decisions made by one agency can have a significant impact on investments by the aerospace industry, and may result in the loss of capabilities that other government agencies rely on. Recent decisions at NASA, for example, will result in loss and disruption of thousands of space jobs.

What might such a strategy look like? We believe it should set out long range goals for at least a generation so long term investments can be made. A strategy must address the industrial base, our current and future workforce and space’s role as critical infrastructure. And of course, the strategy must be backed with appropriate financial resources.

Despite the financial troubles that lapped at his feet, President Kennedy stepped up to the challenge and urged us forward, with a goal and a vision and a plan. This is what we need ‘ a roadmap for the future and milestones along the way. And this is what we require ‘ leadership on an issue that has helped define our nation and proclaims in clear terms that this is who we are as Americans.

Emphasis mine. It would be nice if a bold plan happened, and was implemented. Don’t hold your breath for this president to do that. It’s hard work. And as we all know, president’n is just too hard for this one.

OK, that stuff is clearly personal for me. This former NASA scientist has a few biases in that regard. So give me a little leeway on that. Your mileage may vary.

Oh brother, people are dumpster diving for Palin papers again:

Students at Cal State Stanislaus discovered evidence that documents related to an upcoming speaking engagement by Sarah Palin were shredded and dumped after the university claimed that no public documents existed, a state senator said on Tuesday.

The students appeared at a Sacramento news conference with state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, Tuesday morning and said they found the documents on Friday in a trash bin outside the university’s administration building in Turlock.

On Tuesday afternoon, Attorney General Jerry Brown said he was launching a “broad investigation” into the alleged dumping of documents and to examine finances of the CSU Stanislaus Foundation, which is hosting the June 25 event featuring the former governor of Alaska and vice presidential candidate.

“This is not about Sarah Palin,” Brown said in a statement. “She has every right to speak at a university event…. The issues are public disclosure and financial accountability in organizations embedded in state-run universities.”

The CSU Stanislaus Foundation is a private, nonprofit entity that raises money to supplement state funding to the campus and has offices in the university’s administration building.

Among the documents found by the students outside the building were five intact pages of a contract for a “speaker” who will be traveling from Anchorage. Although the speaker is not identified by name, Yee said it is clearly Palin’s contract despite the university’s denial last week that it had any documents related to Palin’s engagement.

“I never thought I would have to relive Watergate again, but to some extent this is our little Watergate in the state of California,” said Yee, who said it was a “dark day” for the CSU system and especially CSU Stanislaus.

OK, step away from the drugs. She’s only going around giving light, fluffy speeches. She’s not in government any more. And likely won’t be again. You’re not actually going to discover any secret plans of any import. Just leave it alone.

Man oh man, we’ve been having lots of earthquake and volcano activity lately. Is it me, or does it feel like the end is nye? You’ll all be sorry we can’t just leave the planet in a space ship… OK, enough on that old chestnut already. Anyway, another earthquake, in China this time:

BEIJING — A series of strong earthquakes killed hundreds of people in western China on Wednesday, badly damaging at least two schools, shattering homes and spreading fire through a remote town high on the Tibetan plateau.

The early morning quakes hit China’s Qinghai Province, an impoverished region 1,200 miles southwest of Beijing that is inhabited mainly by ethnic Tibetans. The province borders Sichuan, where a catastrophic earthquake in 2008 killed some 80,000 people.

“I heard dogs barking and the huge rumbling sound of houses collapsing,” said Li Hailong, a local finance official in Jiegu Town, a Qinghai settlement hit hard by today’s disaster. Houses made of earth and wood, he said, “collapsed the moment the earthquake struck.”

Authorities said at least 400 people had been killed and that many more remained buried in the rubble, including some 50 people entombed in a collapsed vocational school. Thousands are reported to have been injured. Chinese television newscasters said 20 people had been pulled from the school but only three of those victims survived.

China’s Earthquake Network Center put the magnitude of the strongest quake on Wednesday at 7.1, but the U.S. Geographical Survey estimated it at 6.9. Chinese authorities reported six quakes and aftershocks during a four-hour period that started with a relatively minor quake at 5:39 a.m. (5:39 p.m. on Tuesday in Washington). The most devastating tremors came at 7:49 a.m.

Here’s another article about earthquakes:

First Haiti, then Chile, and now Mexico. Why all of a sudden do there seem to be so many earthquakes?

Actually, there are no more earthquakes happening than usual; it’s just that these three quakes happened to strike areas where a lot of people live, so we heard about them.

According to Walter Mooney, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (he’s a physicist who studies earthquakes), most earthquakes occur in remote parts of the world. “There are 14 to 17 magnitude-7 earthquakes on Earth every year,” Mooney said. “Only a few are near population centers.”

A magnitude-7 quake is big enough to do a lot of damage. But how much damage an earthquake does depends on the buildings in the area. In many earthquake-prone regions, governments require especially strong construction standards so that buildings can withstand a lot of shaking. The earthquake in Mexico earlier this month, which was also felt in Southern California, was measured at 7.2, but it did relatively little damage because of strict building standards. In Haiti, though, where few structures were well built, the magnitude-7.3 quake in January destroyed huge parts of the capital city and killed more than 200,000 people.

What’s frustrating to scientists is that they have no way to tell where an earthquake will strike next; they can only make educated guesses. “As we go for longer and longer periods of time, then the probability slowly increases” that an earthquake will happen soon in a given region, Mooney said. “But the Earth is very complicated, and we are unable to do better than giving a probability.”

OK, that’s not so much news. But hey, I’m working on my taxes. Please chime in with news your finding. What’s happening in your neck of the woods.

Wednesday Morning News

It’s hump day already. Let’s have a look at a bit of the news.

Though it’s hump day, you may not necessarily want to take that literally. Apparently Gonorrhea may become a superbug:

Catherine Ison, a specialist on gonorrhea from Britain’s Health Protection Agency said a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting in Manila next week would be vital to efforts to try to stop the bug repeatedly adapting to and overcoming drugs.

“This is a very clever bacteria. If this problem isn’t addressed, there is a real possibility that gonorrhea will become a very difficult infection to treat,” she said in a telephone interview.

Gonorrhea is a common bacterial sexually-transmitted infection and if left untreated can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy and infertility in women.

Globally, the WHO estimates that there are at least 340 million new cases of curable sexually transmitted infections — including syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis — every year among people aged 15 to 49.

Ison said the highest incidences of gonorrhea were in south and southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, but as yet the WHO has no breakdown by individual infection type.

Yikes. But let’s continue to have abstinence only sex ed in some quarters because, you know, what could possibly go wrong.

The guy that came up with the Gaia Hypothesis, James Lovelock, says we should dump democracy in order to save ourselves from a climate change catastrophe:

Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change from radically impacting on our lives over the coming decades. This is the stark conclusion of James Lovelock, the globally respected environmental thinker and independent scientist who developed the Gaia theory.

It follows a tumultuous few months in which public opinion on efforts to tackle climate change has been undermined by events such as the climate scientists’ emails leaked from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit.

“I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change,” said Lovelock in his first in-depth interview since the theft of the UEA emails last November. “The inertia of humans is so huge that you can’t really do anything meaningful.”

One of the main obstructions to meaningful action is “modern democracy”, he added. “Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”

Lovelock, 90, believes the world’s best hope is to invest in adaptation measures, such as building sea defences around the cities that are most vulnerable to sea-level rises. He thinks only a catastrophic event would now persuade humanity to take the threat of climate change seriously enough, such as the collapse of a giant glacier in Antarctica, such as the Pine Island glacier, which would immediately push up sea level.

Um, what democracy? If there is a place where they actually count your votes for these election thingys, I’d like to know. He’s got a point about people not making changes very easily. But then I’d say having leaders, and by that of course I mean corporations, who’s own self interest precludes such things, whether you have a pretend democracy or a dictatorship, the results will be the same since the very same oligarchy would be in charge either way. A large disaster like he says is the only thing that will do it. I personally think it’s too late, so who cares. Go out and party like it’s 2012!

USDOT is bringing in NASA scientists to help with the Toyota acceleration investigation:

The US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today said it was doing just by bringing in NASA engineers with expertise in areas such as computer controlled electronic systems, electromagnetic interference and software integrity to help tackle the issue of unintended vehicle acceleration in Toyotas.  The NHTSA review of the electronic throttle control systems in Toyotas is to be completed by late summer.

The DOT said engineers from the National Academy of Sciences – an independent body of scientific experts – will also look into the overarching subject of unintended acceleration and electronic vehicle controls across the entire automotive industry.

For NASA, the space agency’s engineers will focus on technology such as electromagnetic compatibility as part of a shorter-term review of the systems used in Toyota vehicles to determine whether they contain any possible flaws that would warrant a defect investigation, the DOT stated.

NASA’s expertise in electronics, hardware, software, hazard analysis and complex problem solving ensures this review will be comprehensive.  Currently there are nine experts from NASA assisting NHTSA, and additional personnel will join the team if needed, the DOT stated.

“We are determined to get to the bottom of unintended acceleration,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement.  “For the safety of the American driving public, we must do everything possible to understand what is happening. And that is why we are tapping the best minds around.”

It’s not unusual for NASA to get involved in such investigations.  Previous technology examinations involved electronic stability control and airbags.

And here we have it, it’s all the fault of magnets. I knew it wasn’t me. Apparently magnets can mess with your sense of morality according to a recent study:

Magnets can alter a person’s sense of morality, according to a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Using a powerful magnetic field, scientists from MIT, Harvard University and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center are able to scramble the moral center of the brain, making it more difficult for people to separate innocent intentions from harmful outcomes. The research could have big implications for not only neuroscientists, but also for judges and juries.

“It’s one thing to ‘know’ that we’ll find morality in the brain,” said Liane Young, a scientist at MIT and co-author of the article. “It’s another to ‘knock out’ that brain area and change people’s moral judgments.”

Of course that can only mean one thing. Soon in court cases around the country, we’ll be seeing… the “magnet defense.”

While we’re looking at Discovery, here’s a nice find. A written language has been discovered of ancient Scotland:

The ancestors of modern Scottish people left behind mysterious, carved stones that new research has just determined contain the written language of the Picts, an Iron Age society that existed in Scotland from 300 to 843.

The highly stylized rock engravings, found on what are known as the Pictish Stones, had once been thought to be rock art or tied to heraldry. The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, instead concludes that the engravings represent the long lost language of the Picts, a confederation of Celtic tribes that lived in modern-day eastern and northern Scotland.

“We know that the Picts had a spoken language to complement the writing of the symbols, as Bede (a monk and historian who died in 735) writes that there are four languages in Britain in this time: British, Pictish, Scottish and English,” lead author Rob Lee told Discovery News.

Although Lee and his team have not yet deciphered the Pictish language, some of the symbols provide intriguing clues. One symbol looks like a dog’s head, for example, while others look like horses, trumpets, mirrors, combs, stags, weapons and crosses.

The later Pictish Stones also contain images, like Celtic knots, similar to those found in the Book of Kells and other early works from nearby regions. These more decorative looking images frame what Lee and his team believe is the written Pictish language.

“It is unclear at the moment whether the imagery, such as the knots, form any part of the communication,” Lee said. He believes the stones also contain semasiographic symbols, such as a picture of riders and horn blowers next to hunting dogs on what is called the Hilton of Cadboll stone. Yet another stone shows what appears to be a battle scene.

Drill baby drill!! Obama’s going to push for more drilling for oil in Alaska among other places:

President Barack Obama today will announce a compromise to broadly open new areas off the U.S. coast to oil and natural gas drilling while protecting specific swaths, including Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

The plan, to be announced at a late morning energy security event at Andrews Air Force Base may help Obama court bipartisan support for contentious climate change legislation but also could chafe environmental activists in states affected by expanded drilling.

A White House aide describing the details ahead of the announcement said that an upcoming Interior Department lease sale 50 miles off the Virginia coast would mark the first new offshore oil and gas sale in the Atlantic in more than two decades.

Drilling off the coast from the mid-Atlantic to the Southeast could be broadly expanded, pending further study. Drilling off the Florida coast would be subject to a minimum 125 mile distance. A previously scheduled lease sale in Alaska‚s Cook Inlet could go ahead, but Bristol Bay and pending lease sales in the Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas, in North Alaska, will be canceled. No West Coast exploration is being announced.

“To set America on a path to energy independence, the President believes we must leverage our diverse domestic resources by pursuing a comprehensive energy strategy,” said the aide who was not authorized to speak on the record ahead of the president’s announcement.

Bill Clinton to co-chair committee overseeing funds to Haiti:

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton will co-chair a committee overseeing at least $3.8 billion in post-quake aid to Haiti, the ravaged country’s prime minister said.

The announcement was made ahead of a critical donors conference Wednesday at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Haitian officials will ask representatives from more than 130 countries for reconstruction help at the meeting chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former president’s wife, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

A senior U.S. official said the Obama administration would pledge $1.15 billion over the next two years to rebuilding Haiti. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hillary Clinton would announce the pledge at the conference later Wednesday.

Some serious rumbling is happening in the gene business world after a ruling throwing out a gene patent:

Many biotechnology stocks fell on Tuesday as investors struggled to understand the impact of a ruling that threw out parts of two gene patents and called into question thousands more.

Stock market losses were muted, with two major indexes that track the shares of the industry falling by less than 1 percent each. In part, that was because biotechnology executives hastened to reassure their investors that the ruling would not necessarily undermine their businesses, at least in the short run.

But the executives themselves were struggling on Tuesday to figure out what the long-term impact would be. Biotech companies spend billions every year trying to develop new tests and treatments based partly on genes they have isolated and patented.

Those are a few things rattling around in the news today. Chime in with anything you’re finding to day. Or just whatever is on your mind.

Monday Midday: Zombietime News and Views

This is how I feel this morning

Hello Conflucians!! I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I’ve been sitting here staring off into space like a zombie since I woke up at 7AM Eastern time. The only time I’ve gotten up was to make a cup of tea and go to the bathroom. I guess it’s the end-of-the-semester syndrome–nearly compete emotional, physical, and spiritual burnout.

Here are a few interesting stories for you to discuss when you finish reacting to myiq’s post–maybe seeing that headline about Obama’s grade for his first year that bumped me into zombieland. B+?! What is that guy on? We’re in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, real unemployment is around 20%, the banksters are being bolstered by Obama’s free hand with the U.S. Treasury, health care reform is dead for at least another decade, and Congress is pushing for cuts in Social Security and Medicare. In my gradebook, that would be grounds for an F.

Anyway…where was I? Oh yeah. Headlines…..


Developing nations walked out of the Copenhagen climate talks this morning:

A little more here

THE Copenhagen climate summit is in chaos after poor countries walked out of negotiations en masse today.

The G77, a group which represents 130 developing countries, walked out because it is concerned the existing Kyoto protocol will be abandoned.

Australia’s Climate Change Minister Penny Wong confirmed that organisers were trying to fix the problem and coax back the developing world.

Many countries at the UN climate summit want a brand new treaty to tackle climate change, but the developing world wants the Kyoto protocol to continue as well.

The protocol forces rich countries to reduce or limit their greenhouse gas emissions.

Senator Wong said the walkout was “most unfortunate”.

“It is regrettable that we appear to have reached a gridlock on process,” she said.

I was getting excited, but the developing nations have already walked back in:

Developing nations return to Copenhagen climate talks

Talks at the UN climate summit resumed on Monday afternoon after protests from developing nations forced a suspension.

But talks have been limited to informal consultations on procedural issues, notably developing countries’ demands for more time on the Kyoto Protocol.

The G77-China bloc, speaking for developing countries, said the Danish hosts had violated democratic process.

Some delegates talked forlornly of the vast amount of negotiating left to be done before the summit concludes.

The countries that suspended co-operation were those which make up the G77-China bloc of 130 nations. These range from wealthy countries such as South Korea, to some of the poorest states in the world.

Italy’s Berlusconi to stay in hospital after attack (with video)

Italian Prime Minister is in the hospital after having a statue thrown at his face.

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi will stay in hospital at least until Tuesday after having his nose broken by an attacker, doctors say.

A medical bulletin reported in the Italian media said Mr Berlusconi was able to eat, but only with difficulty.

Mr Berlusconi, 73, suffered a broken nose, two broken teeth and a cut lip after being hit with a model of Milan cathedral after a rally in the city.

A 42-year-old man was arrested and has been charged with aggravated assault.

The suspect, Massimo Tartaglia, was said by police to have had a history of mental illness, receiving treatment over a 10-year period.

Excuse me, I started laughing inappropriately and had to take a short break. {wiping tears away}


The Horrible Health Care Destruction Nightmare Continues unabated. Will it ever end?

Health Care Progress Report: December 14

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — one of the Democratic caucus members the plan was intended to appease — dropped a bombshell Sunday on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” when he said he would not vote for a bill that expands Medicare.

“From what I hear, I certainly would have a hard time voting for it because it has some of the same infirmities that the public option did,” he said about the Medicare buy-in.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), another conservative who may or may not vote for the health care bill, said on “Face the Nation” that the Medicare buy-in is “the forerunner of single-payer, the ultimate single-payer plan, maybe even more directly than the public option.”

WTF are Lieberman and Nelson doing in the Democratic party anyway?


Is Reid Cursed by the Lucky Number 60?

Sixty is the number of senators in the Democratic caucus, and the precise number needed to overcome Republican filibusters. It is the magic number of votes that Mr. Reid needs to pull together to advance major health care legislation.

In many ways, 60 is also a mirage – falsely raising Democratic hopes, particularly those of more liberal senators, that they have the muscle to push the health care bill without making painful concessions to centrists in both parties.

To be sure, controlling 60 votes has generally been advantageous to the Democrats. They have repeatedly cleared procedural obstacles that Republicans set in their path, even on routine bills that ultimately are approved by overwhelming majorities.

But on the health care bill, in particular, the notion of nominally controlling 60 votes has emboldened many Democrats, especially liberals, to make demands that they might otherwise have regarded as unreasonable if their party held even one less seat.

WTF?!! Wanting Americans to have reasonably priced health care like the civilized countries do is “unreasonable?” Maybe it’s reading assinine stories like this every day that is making me feel like a zombie.

ProPublica.org is running a series of stories on police misconduct after Hurricate Katrina–highly recommended.

<a href=”After Katrina, police shot first and asked few questions.“>After Katrina, NO police shot first and asked few questions

Matt McDonald left his native Connecticut and headed to New Orleans in the summer of 2005, shortly before Hurricane Katrina struck and floodwaters engulfed the city. McDonald was a troubled soul, a heavy drinker who had lived on the streets, but he kept in touch with his family, calling from time to time.

After the storm, his brother John, an auto-body technician who lives in Norwich, Conn., began working the phones, reaching out to anyone in Louisiana he thought might know something. “I heard so many different things,” John McDonald recalled.

John McDonald’s wife, Kerry, spent the next month making one phone call after another. “It was such a big runaround,” said Kerry McDonald, who recalled speaking to FEMA officials, American Red Cross staffers, New Orleans police officers and numerous others. “One person would say he was shot to death; the next would say he was found floating.”

Eventually, despite the conflicting stories, one thing became clear: Matt was dead at 41. His body was identified by several distinctive tattoos, including the name of his daughter, Crystal, and a pair of black bat wings.

His girlfriend, Martha Dziadul, paid to cremate the body.

Four years later, a reporter looking at the conduct of the Police Department in the aftermath of the hurricane called Dziadul to ask whether she had ever seen the official report on McDonald’s death. The document said a police officer armed with an AR-15 assault rifle had shot him to death on Sept. 3, 2005.

She was staggered. “They never, ever told me the police shot him. They told me it was a homicide,” she said. “They said: We don’t even know what day it happened because we weren’t there.”

Shot or Not, Dead or Alive? Two Men’s Fate Lost in Chaos

A motionless body lay on the pavement. Perhaps 20 riled-up police officers milled around. On the shoulder of the road, an RTA bus was parked at a crazy angle, like a dislocated elbow. Nearby was a long white limousine, crashed into a pole.

What had we stumbled upon?

Then there were guns aimed at us, and my face was pushed against a wall. I heard lots of shouting and cursing.

It was three days after the levees broke: Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005 — in my limited view, the day things completely fell apart in New Orleans.

The desperation was mounting. The cavalry wasn’t coming, it seemed. We were in it alone.

The heat was brutal, punishing. Supplies were minimal, and shrinking.

Can any country that permits this kind of abuse and neglect of its people survive? I honestly don’t think so.

There are a couple of terrific opinion pieces at Truthdig today:

Scott Ritter on Afghanistan: Our Murderers in the Sky

The true test of a society and its leaders is the extent to which every effort is made to both properly define a problem as one worthy of military intervention and then exhaust every option other than the use of force. It is true that President Barack Obama inherited the war in Afghanistan from his predecessor and therefore cannot be held accountable for that which transpired beyond his ability to influence. But the president’s recent decision to “surge” 30,000 additional U.S. military troops into Afghanistan transfers ownership of the Afghan conflict to him and him alone. It is in this light that his decision must be ultimately judged.

In many ways, Obama’s presentation before the Long Gray Line at West Point, in which he explained his decision to conduct the Afghanistan surge, represented an insult to the collective intelligence of the American people. The most egregious contradiction in his speech was the notion that the people of Afghanistan, who, throughout their history, have resisted central authority whether emanating from Kabul or imposed by outside invaders, would somehow be compelled to embrace this new American plan.

Chris Hedges: Gravel’s Lament: Fighting Another Dumb War

I have spent enough time inside the American military to have tasted its dark brutality, frequent incompetence and profligate ability to waste human lives and taxpayer dollars. The deviousness and stupidity of generals, the absurdity of most war plans and the pathological addiction to violence—which is the only language most who command our armed forces are able to understand—make the American military the gravest threat to our anemic democracy, especially as we head toward economic collapse.

Barack Obama, who is as mesmerized by the red, white and blue bunting draped around our vast killing machine as the press, the two main political parties and our entertainment industry, will not halt our doomed imperial projects or renege on the $1 trillion in defense-related spending that is hollowing out the country from the inside. A plague of unchecked militarism has seeped outward from the Pentagon since the end of World War II and is now sucking our marrow dry. It is a familiar disease in imperial empires. We are in the terminal stage. We spend more on our military—half of all discretionary spending—than all of the other countries on Earth combined, although we face no explicit threat.

Mike Gravel, the former two-term senator from Alaska and 2008 presidential candidate, sat Saturday on a park bench in Lafayette Park facing the White House. Gravel and I were in the park, along with Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney and other anti-war activists, to denounce the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at a sparsely attended rally. Few voices in American politics have been as consistent, as reasoned and as moral as his, which is why Gravel, on a chilly December morning, is in front of the White House, not inside it.

Hedges is one powerful writer!

Please add more links in the comments. I’m sure I missed something big….

HAVE A MARVELOUS MONDAY!!!!!!!!!

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