Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Hillary, Gore Slam White House and Congress

17 January 2006, 3:06pm

Monday, Martin Luther King Day, saw a fury of political activity this year, with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Al Gore slamming President Bush and Congress, and both the White House and the Republican National Committee firing back. Clinton, who is considered highly likely to run for President, spoke to a crowd of Katrina victims Monday, saying that Congress "has been run like a plantation... in a way so that nboody with a contrary view has had a chance to present legislation, to make an argument, to be heard." She also called the Bush administration "one of the worst" the country will have seen.
Source. In an address to the American Constitutional Society, former Vice President Al Gore tore into the Bush administration's spy policy and the unjudiciated wire taps, calling them a "shameful exercise of power" and accusing the President of "breaking the law repeatedly and insistently." He, too, attacked Congress, urging that members "start acting like the independent and coequal branch of government you're supposed to be." Gore called for Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the intelligence-gathering program, saying that Gonzalez has an "obvious conflict of interest." Gore did not mention anything about his political future. Source.

Republicans shot back at Senator Clinton, through RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt rather than White House press secretary Scott McClellan, saying that "on a day when Americans are focused on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Hillary Clinton is focused on the legacy of Hillary Clinton." McClellan fielded the right's response to Gore today, calling him a hypocrite and a headline chaser, citing warrantless searches conducted under the Clinton-Gore administration that were defended by then-Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick in Congressional hearings. However, the laws then existed regarding intelligence searches but not physical ones, cites the AP, and those laws changed in 1995 to require physical searches to go through the courts.

The attacks on the House come in the midst of scandals regarding Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert roil and Congress considers tightening ethical policy, and the assaults on the White House come in the wake of political controversy over covert intelligence-gathering means and escalated controversy regarding the occupation of Iraq.

It certainly seems like the political season is heating up early. With Gore's cryptic absence of mention of his political ambitions, it's looking like the 2008 campaign--which will follow Senator Clinton's bid in 2007 for reelection to that post--it's beginning to look like potshots at the administration could be the vague starts of the coming year's political campaign. With Rice--who is reputed to be considering a campaign to run against Hillary--'s strong backing of the Bush administration, taking shots at Bush and his Congress makes Condy prone to "collateral damage," taking hits for her near-unwavering devotion to Bush's policies. It is as yet unclearwhether she will run, and if she is, whether this loyalty will help or hinder her campaign.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Russia May Run Out of "Wodka"

16 January 2006, 2:16pm

Officials fear that Russians may riots after vodka production ground to a halt earlier this month, Ananova reported Friday. A new law requiring distilleries to have computerized systems for measuring alcohol levels took the industry by surprise when President Putin signed the bill into law on January 1st. Supermarkets and stores are rapidly becoming empty of the stereotypical Russian drink, and civil unrest may erupt if the country goes "dry" for long. The sudden shift in policy may hurt Russia's economy as well, with the country reaping about £95m, $168m, or 4.75 billion rubles per day in alcohol taxes.
Source. Currency conversions courtesy of

See now, this is just bad planning on Putin's part. If you're going to mess with a major industry, common courtesy demands that you inform them first, and give them time to adapt. It's going to be a while before the industry can catch up, and even though there may still be vodka now--due to lags between production and shipping, andd other such things--that lag will still exist when you start production again. I guess this may actually shape customer loyalties in Russia, based on whose vodka is available first after the shortage. For that matter, there'll probably be huge amounts of embezzling and pricegouging, and a dent in the Russian economy where valuable tax rubles should have been--not to mention the serious possibility of riots. Why not give them 6 months to do it? The effect is the same, they'll all want to do it ahead of their competitors, and you avoid the surprise and silliness of blindsiding the manufacturers. Silly Putin, Trix are for screwing up your economy!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Clinton Foundation Makes AIDS Drug Deal

15 January 2006, 3:24pm

Ex-US President Bill Clinton has announced a deal between the Clinton Foundation and nine different drug companies to lower costs of HIV tests and antiretroviral drugs, CNN reported Thursday. The deal will cut the cost of rapid HIV tests from four manufacturers in half, and will reduce the cost of first- and second-line HIV drugs from fiveother manufacturers. The rapid tests will be available for 49 to 65 cents each, or half the usual cost.

"Too many people die simply because they can't afford, or don't have access to, the drugs. Too many people are being infected because most of the people who have the virus today have not been tested," Clinton told reporters on Thursday.
The items will be available in 50 of the world's poorest--and most AIDS-ridden--countries. Source.

I've always liked Bill Clinton. I don't care about the Lewinski scandal and I don't care that he lied. What I care about are his values and his politics. He's been on top of AIDS work, tsunami relief, and more since he left office--in fact, I saw an interview with him recently that had him giving advice to Tony Blair, saying he should make public good works his goal after leaving office.

I think an AIDS drug deal is long overdue. Drug companies may be able to keep their best medications expensive and trademarked--in fact, this is how they make most of their money--but in the case of a pandemic like HIV and AIDS, they shouldn't be allowed. People are dying globally from this, and we need to stop it.

It also occurs to me that if drug companies didn't spend billions of dollars on advertising--watch any primetime TV show and count the number of medication ads and you'll begin to see what I mean--maybe they put that money into R&D, or use it to decrease the cost of providing the medications they provide. Healthcare is a gigantic business, and it's far too expensive--and the system, at least in the US, is going to have to change soon.

Conan Endorsement May Swing Election... But Not In US

15 January 2006, 1:36pm

Conan O'Brien may help swing an election in Finland of all places, the Associated Press reported last night. He has been running mock election ads for Finnish President and Presidential candidate Tarja Halonen, which began after similarities in their appearance were noted. "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," which airs 5 nights a week on Finnish cable, has been getting press in the Finnish tabloids for the mock support of the Finnish leader. Halonen, whose campaign is shown in recent polling data to be in a solid lead, may get a significant polling boost from the mock campaign, despite the humorous intent. Hits to her web site have quintupled, in part due to O'Brien's attentions, the AP reports, though the article did not mention how many of those hits came from outside Finland.

Is the world seriously fucked up enough that American late-night comedy TV can influence elections in a European country? This is insane. Granted, I doubt anyone is going to go out and vote for her just because Conan said so with some dead fish (literally), but it can't be denied that her image has a boost from the O'Brien publicity. Her opponents couldn't buy that kind of viewership for their ads, if I had to guess. Although a basis for the ads may be evident--when I first saw the thumbnail of Halonen, I thought it was a picture of Conan.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Study: Dogs Able to Sniff Out Breast & Lung Cancer

14 January 2006, 3:19pm

Dogs are capable of detecting early-stage lung and breast cancer by smelling their breast, Reuters reported Thursday. According to a cancer journal, Integrative Cancer Therapies, a double-blind study showed that intensively-trained dogs--three Labs and two Portuguese water dogs--are capable of distinguishing patients with early-stage breast or lung cancer from cancer-free patients roughly 90% of the time. Fift-five lung cancer patients, 31 breast cancer patients, and 83 healthy controls were exposed to the dogs, who were able to distinguish lung cancer patients even despite whether the patients smoked. The leader of the project, Michael McCullough, intends to continue research into exhalatory composition of cancer patient's breath and hopes to devise an electronic test to screen for lung and breast cancer. Source.

Sometimes an article really knocks you on your ass. The world is a truly amazing place. And the concept of developing what is basically a Breathalizer for lung cancer is phenomenal. It's been medically proven that petting an animal can reduce blood pressure and pulse rate, not to mention muscle tension. Now dogs can sniff out cancer? It's almost surreal. Don't go to the doctor or have your partner feel your breasts (though that's half the fun of screenining for cancer). Go breathe on the dog--he'll probably know before you do. Guess it's time to get me a puppy...

FCC To Sell Airwaves For Airline Broadband Connections

14 January 2006, 2:24pm

According to Reuters, the FCC will begin selling radio frequencies in mid May for the purpose of putting broadband lines in airplanes. The frequencies, which are currently being used for phone communications and are regularly ignored due to their high cost, will most likely be used by airlines for high-speed Internet connectivity. Carriers are expected to attempt to use the Internet option as a lure to boost floundering business. Boeing already offers satellite-based Internet service known as Connexion on airlines such as Lufthansa and El Al, writes Reuters, with costs ranging from $9.95/hr to $26.95 for 24 hours. The auction for the airwaves will happen May 10, with Verizon saying it would take them at least a year to introduce online broadband service if they were to win the bid. According to the same article, the FCC is also contemplating allowing passengers on airplanes to use cellular phones. Source.

With the extravagant plans for the Airbus A380, which include (in some models) lounge areas and in-flight casinos, it's no surprise that customers will want in-flight broadband internet. I'm surprised this hasn't happened sooner. I don't fly much, but if I could use my cell phone and get broadband in-flight, I might just be lured away from a carrier with slightly cheaper rates--especially on long flights. Or I may just opt for whoever has the best food. We'll see.

UK, Europe In Uproar Over US Secret Prisons

14 January 2006, 1:04pm.

According to the BBC, a Swiss newspaper has leaked an Egyptian government fax, obtained by Swiss intelligence satellites last November, that claims that Egypt has knowledge through its own secret CIA interrogation camps in Romaina, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Kosovo. The fax, which was intercepted between Cairo and the Egyptian embassy in London and immediately classified by the Swiss, was passed to senior Swiss intelligence officials and possibly to some government ministers. The source of the leak is under investigation as well as the journalists who published segments of it, writes the BBC.

A Swiss senator, in response to the leak, has lead an inquiry into the issue of US detention centers in Europe at the behest of the Council of Europe, a human rights group that oversees the European Court of Human Rights. He is due to give a preliminary report later in the month. He claims he has no doubts that CIA detention centers exist in Europe, and has slammed Washington for its policies, saying Washington "respects neither human rights nor the Geneva Conventions." He also criticized European governments for being passive and "complicit" in the torture of prisoners. It is believed that the US intelligence services use the camps for torture-based intelligence gathering. Washington has denied the use of torture but will not confirm or deny whether any camps exist in Europe, the BBC writes.

Following on the heels of this article, the UK has launched an investigation into their airspace and airports being used for what are being called "extraordinary rendition" flights, flights to torture centers that would have landed in England for refueling. Airports that are allegedly involved include Heathrow and several other London-area airports. According to the BBC,

The group's main job would be to collect information, [the leader of
the investigation] said, because the government was making it very
difficult to find out what was happening.

He accused the Foreign Office of producing "obfuscation and carefully
worded replies" to his questions.

The US has done a lot of policy shifting and wordplay in the last few months regarding torture policy, in the midst of worldwide criticism. Condoleeza Rice has backtracked over Alberto Gonzalez in the last two months. The Attorney General had claimed that the UN Convention Against Torture, or CAT, didn't apply to detainees held--and US intelligence officers working--abroad. Rice, under pressure from Congress, has said that it does. Now, with Chuck Schumer's bill on the table, the US is trying to improve regulations regarding treatment of prisoners.

Honestly, isn't it about time? We never should have had to do this, because we never should have been torturing prisoners in the first place. Abu Ghraib was not an isolated incident performed by a few bored and psychotic soldiers, as was first claimed. It's becoming more and more apparent that the US systematically tortures its prisoners. What we can't do at home we've been okay with doing in Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Constitution--230 years ago--laid down a specific, Constitutional prohibition on torture when we decided not to use "cruel or unusual punishment." That the Department of Defense and the intelligence services have deemed themselves above that document because their actions have taken place outside US boundaries is sickening. We have claimed to bring freedom and democracy to the rest of the world. What we've brought is torture and an occupying army that has created terrorists in a land where there were none. What kind of freedom is that?

IRS Sends 48,000 Copies of Incorrect Pamphlet to Family

14 January 2006, 11:26am.

The Lawson family of Chimacum, Washington got a surprise on Wednesday night. They had requested a single copy of the 2003 Form 1040 instructions from the IRS, the Associated Press reported yesterday. What they received instead was 24,000 copies--of the 2005 tax brochure. According to the article, the family was paying about $300 per month in back taxes due to a problem with their taxes for fiscal 2003 and were hoping to discover where they made their mistake. The booklets, which were mailed from Bloomington, Illinois, made it to Chimacum, WA even though they were addressed to Chimacum, D.C.

The booklets arrived by UPS Wednesday evening. Thursday afternoon the family received a phone call from UPS informing that they had another 24,000 booklets that were scheduled to be delivered. The family, according to AP, told them not to bother. Source.

...and the Lawsons were the one making a mistake? I wonder how many of their taxpayer dollars were spent on that particular little fuckup? Honestly, I'm surprised the federal government gets anything done at all...

Family Refused to Bury Woman For 2.5 Years

14 January 2006, 11:09am

The family of then-61 year old Johannas Pope did not bury her body or tell anyone outside of close family members that she was dead, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported last week. Pope, believing that she would come back to life after her death, asked not to be buried and instead asked to be propped up in her bedroom in front of a TV. The family followed her wishes, the report said, using an air conditioner to keep her cool year-round and taping the heat vents in winter. Friends and relatives were informed that Pope was in bed and sick, the article says, and sometimes shouted a "hello" up the stairs. The body was finally discovered when police received a phone call from Johannas' sister Deborah Gaston, who hadn't seen her sister in years and finally called the Cincinnati police. Police and prosecutors are still trying to determine if a crime was committed, and if so, if they will prosecute. Source.

The first image this article calls to mind is the scene in Psycho where we discover that "Mother" is dead and mummified. The second image is what that part of the house must have smelled like. Now, don't get me wrong, people have strange requests about what's to be done with their bodies--one of my relatives wants left in a garbage bag by the side of the road--but it's really hard to envision keeping that under wraps for two and a half years. The third image is that of A Rose For Emily, by William Faulkner (though the report says the coroner found no evidence of abuse or mistreatment of the body).

Eighty-Eight Year Old Woman Survives Six Days Trapped in Car

14 January 2006, 2:04am

Mary Lillian Anderson, an 88 year old woman on her way home from the grocery store, missed a turn on Interstate 5 in Washington on January 6 and tipped her car into a blackberry bush-filled ditch, the Associated Press reported Thursday. The 1997 Cadillac Seville was "hidden from view but within earshot of I-5," the article claims, where she was trapped for six days before being discovered by a delivery truck driver who noticed the car in the ditch. Since her groceries were trapped in the trunk where she could not access them, she survived by toweling off the condensation from the windows and sucking on the towels and passed the time by counting to 500 and back repeatedly. According to the report, she is listed in "satisfactory" condition at the Southwest Washington Medical Center. Source.

Kudos for toughness. To survive 6 days without food or water at 88 years old... that deserves a round of applause. I wonder how many people in the Washington area will now keep their groceries in the back seat though....

Friday, January 13, 2006

Majority of Brazilian Cars Run on Ethanol

13 January 2006, 10:33pm

The majority of cars sold in Brazil this past year were adapted to run on ethanol-gasoline mix rather than straight gasoline, the BBC reported Wednesday.

"Flex-fuel" cars, which run on any combination of ethanol and petrol, took 53.6% of the Brazilian market in 2005.

Brazil has made ethanol-driven cars for 25 years, but they have not outsold conventional ones since the late 1980s.

The Brazilian government offers tax incentives to purchase a flex-fuel car, taxing the more gas-efficient vehicles 14% rather than the typical 16%, the BBC wrote. The rise in gas-efficient vehicles can probably be blamed on the rise in gasoline costs, which hit over $3.00 per gallon in some parts of the US in 2005. Source.

I remember an article I saw a few months ago that I can't find for the life of me about drivers in Wales getting caught driving on a mix of gas and alcohol and getting fined. Data on emissions for flex-fuel cars are not readily available. Wikipedia claims, however, that almost any car made after 1980 has the capacity to run on roughly 10% ethanol.

FAA Draws Preliminary Space Tourism Regulations

13 January 2006, 7:48pm

The FAA has drawn up a preliminary report to propose regulations regarding commercial human space flight, the BBC reported Sunday. The guidelines would control whether certain individuals would be allowed to fly, and has reccommended security background checks. Companies are urged to check the US Homeland Security Department's global "no-fly" list before allowing passengers to go into space, the report said. The report also sugests that passenges should be given safety advice concerning the number of flights a specific vessel has had, and any problems those flights encountered. The FAA has proposed no health regulations on the flights, leaving the decision up to the passengers as to whether or not they are fit to handle the flight. Space tourists have already achieved low atmosphere as early as 2004, writes the BBC. The administration's full report should be ready before June. Source.

Flight into space... I guess the sky is no longer technically the limit. I'm all for private, commercial space-flight, and I'm all for regulation of it. I wonder whether we'll have metal detectors at spaceports now. In all honesty, this seems almost like something out of a science fiction book. Paid flight around the Earth. Now with terrorist screenings.

US Population to Hit 300 Million In October

13 January 2006, 5:06pm

The US Census Bureau believes that the US population should hit 300 million with a baby conceived sometime in this month and born in October, the New York Times reported today. As of Thursday the Census Bureau estimates the population to be 297,900,000, and with an average of one new American every 14 seconds (1 birth/8secs, 1 immigrant/31 seconds, and 1 death/12 seconds), the number is expected to top the big 3-0-0 in late October, with a WASP or Hispanic baby conceived this January.

The Census Bureau maintains both a US and worldwide population clock with up-to-the-minute estimates of both US and worldwide populations, available
here. As of this writing, estimated US population is 297,901,354, and worldwide population is 6,491,213,699. The US clock is based on Census 2000 data and national population estimates, and worldwide data is calculated based on the Bureau's International Programs Center's analysis of global births and mortality rates. Both clocks are updated every 5 minutes.

This is truly amazing. As the population increases, so does population density; what in 1900 showed a little over 20 people per square mile is now up to 80, and a population that was roughly 75 million is now expected to top 300 million.

Coming from a major city myself (New York), I'm inclined to wonder where we're going to put all these people. With a
population that in 2000 was over 8 million, it seems that we're going to have to keep expanding major cities to accommodate the population boom (New York City has grown from 7.3 million in 1900 to 8 million in 2000, an 8.5% population growth over a 100 year period--well below the national growth). Part of the reason New York may have lagged behind the country is twofold--one, we don't have the room for that many more people (there are drawbacks to existing primarily on islands), and two, if I had to guess, the growth is centered more in rural or suburban areas (e.g. Nassau county or Westchester) than in actual urban centers.

What we need, then, are either more cities--certainly we have many more cities in the US than we did in 1900, and many with better expansion opportunities than New York have grown substantially--or else a reduction in population.

Another problem the US faces is aging. Any sociologist will tell you that the US is becoming a top-heavy society, with the younger generations having to work more and more to provide for the needs of the elderly--Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security and Welfare (yes, Medicaid and Welfare are for the impoverished, not the elderly; however, many who cannot work due to ageism or medical inabilities due to aging and who have limited retirement funds are unable to secure financial stability without these programs).

So what do we do? Cut the aid? Cut Medicare/Medicaid? Obviously not, since Medicare was recently expanded to cover some prescription medications. Cut Social Security? Make private accounts? The proportions of the problem grow with the population, not just overall, but of the baby boomers who are demanding healthcare.

Another aspect in this equation is that the elderly vote--and they lobby. The AARP is one of the strongest lobbying groups around, funding candidates and ensuring that the voice of older Americans are heard loud and clear. When Social Security was devised with payouts at 65, the average life expectancy was 62. That has changed significantly, and with rising medical costs and a rising elderly population, it's getting to dire straits as to how we'll handle the problem.

Holy Finance Charges, Batman!

13 January 2006, 3:44pm

The BBC reported today that one in five consumers were slapped with punitive finance charges equal to greater than £100 last year, or $177.15 as of 13 January. According to financial groups Defaqto and MoneyExpert, 7.8 million people paid out £553 million (or $ 979 M US) in penalties, mostly for late credit card payments. Experts blame the near-billion-dollar charges on time-pressured consumers. "It's therefore difficult for many time-pressured people to make the most of their money, research financial products and ensure they don't fall foul of a minefield of costs and charges levied by providers," the BBC quotes the CEO of MoneyExpert as saying. The article leaves it unclear as to whether the figures are worldwide, or for the UK alone. Source.

While it's not surprising that most people don't really have time to look after their finances, it's appalling exactly how much that averages out to. What's even worse is that 20% of the surveyed populace paid over $175 in penalties--an incredible punishment for late fees.

It's a wonder that, with online banking and automatic electronic payments becoming closer and closer to being the norm, more and more people seem to be paying penalties. Part of it may have to do with stricter bank payment requirements, and part of it may have to do with harder financial pressures. The more one is in debt, the harder it might be to pay it off on time, and the more penalties (and debt) one incurs.

Still, I for one am going to watch my payment due dates very carefully.

Most Ashkenazi Jews Very Closely Related

13 January 2006, 12:25pm

The Associated Press reported yesterday that roughly 3.5 million Ashkenazi Jews are direct descendents of 4 women. Dr. Doron Behar and Karl Skorecki, both professors in Israel, did genetic testing that confirms that 4 women who were alive somewhere in the last 2000 years and apparently from Europe are the ancestors of nearly 40% of the Ashkenazi population. It is impossible to tell, they say, exactly where or when these women were alive.

According to
WebMD, the Ashkenazi population is home to some of the sickest genetic disorders, including Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis, and familial dysautonomia, among others. Honestly, this is what you can expect from a society that only wants you to marry those with similar beliefs as you--a closed system. If 40% of your dating population has the same genetic flaws--and strengths--as you do, you're only going to make them worse. So go on. Keep dating your relatives. It's not like it's closeminded or bad for your children or anything.

Third-Party Amazon Seller Played the Grinch

13 January 2006, 12:08pm

Mygreatchoice, a third-party retailer, swindled Amazon and over 3500 customers into buying Christmas DVDs that never shipped. Customers and Amazon have expressed outrage at the seller, who was pulled from Amazon's site in December. The seller's feedback, which had been quite positive, has turned to 97% negative since the Christmas season began. Generally, a seller's feedback rating is a very good way to judge their reliability. Amazon is refunding the customers' money.

According to the Seattle Times, in 2004 Internet auctions were the #2 complaint for the Federal Trade Commission, topped only by identity theft. Source.

I happen to work part-time for a third-party Amazon retailer, and I can't help but wonder if this will hurt her business. Granted, she does not deal in DVDs, but I wonder how much this is going to taint the reputation of Amazon itself, as well as online shopping. Either way, I can tell you that most Amazon retailers are hardworking, good people. People like this give the rest of Amazon an undeserved bad rep--and I wouldn't be surprised if there was an economic fallout for other sellers.

I want to point out that this is an isolated incident. Yes, it's a huge thing--a megaseller on Amazon taking customer's money and running--but it's one seller. Overarchingly, Amazons (pardon the phrase) are good people and are generally just trying to get by. We shouldn't let one bad apple ruin the barrel.

Personally, I buy things on eBay, Amazon, and other online sources, generally without fear. The only time I got something that was in a condition I didn't like was a camera bought on eBay, and I and the seller worked independently to make us both happy. Which meant I got things done a lot cheaper than I thought I would, and a $375 item became a $200 item with $50 in repairs, so actually it was quite nice for me. But the point is that overall, the Internet is a trustworthy marketplace, if you're careful who you buy from. So watch that number up by the seller's name.

Strippers Protest Smoking Ban

13 January 2006, 10:55am

About 20 strippers joined a protest on the New Jersey Statehouse Thursday to protest a statewide ban on smoking in bars. The protest, which was lauded and covered by two New Jersey shockjocks and featured music ranging from the Star Spangled Banner to "You Can Leave Your Hat On," comes in the wake of Washington D.C.'s municipal debates on smoking in bars and restaurants and is in respone to a State Senate bill that Governor Richard Codey will sign into law Sunday. The strippers are afraid that the ban will hurt business, saying that "A lot of people want to get off of work, have a drink and a smoke and watch some pretty girls. There's nothing wrong with that."

And there's certainly nothing wrong with wanting it. But if there's one personal issue that really pisses me off--that really gets under my skin--it's smoking. I for one am a hell of a lot more likely to go into a restaurant or a bar if I know I don't have to deal with having to breathe secondhand smoke. And if I do go, I'm going to have a better time. Yes, I could choose to go to places where smoking is prohibited--or I could have before New York City passed its municipal ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. But the flip side is, I'm also a lot more likely to want to work in one as a waitress if I know I won't have to breathe secondhand smoke all shift.

I'm not a smoking nazi. I don't care what people do in their homes, on the streets, anyplace with open air above them. I just don't want it around me in a situation where I have to keep rebreathing carcinogens. Is that so much to ask?

Firefighter Takes Exam 12 Hours After Giving Birth

13 January 2006, 10:43am

Beda Kent, a Houston firefighter, took a promotion exam not 12 hours after giving birth to healthy little Brina Sue Kent.

The birth was at 9pm on Tuesday, and the exam was scheduled for 9am on Wednesday. On two and a half hours of sleep and a large amount of pain, Beda reportedly managed to rank 15th in a class of over 350, with a score of 104 out of 110. The results are not yet official. She took the test so soon after giving birth because these types of exams come along very infrequently, and there are no exemptions for medical conflicts. Reuters is saying a firefighter injured on the job would have had to make the same choice. Source.

Okay... I'm SERIOUSLY impressed. I want to find out this woman's email address and send her a letter of support. I can barely contemplate taking a test on two and a half hours of sleep, much less after having to go through labor. And the fact that she took the test and did so well is a great credit to her toughness and mental abilities to perform under duress. If I were to be the one deciding who gets the promotion, I would give it to her based purely on dedication. Good job Beda!

Vampire to Run For Governor

13 Januay 2006 10:31am

A self-proclaimed vampire is running for the Governor's chair in the same state that elected pro wrestler Jesse Ventura eight years ago. Johnathan "The Impaler" Sharkey is running on the ticket of the Vampyres, Witches and Pagans Party. The ex-wrestler claims he is literally a blood-sucking vampire, sinking his teeth into his donor's neck and drinking her blood (his donor is his wife Julie). Sharkey is also a Satanist, but a tolerant one, saying that he "just hates God the Father" and not Jesus. If elected, he says he intends to post "everything from the Ten Commandments to the Wicca Reed" in official buildings.

Hey... kudos to this guy for getting this kind of press. He has good timing, today being Friday the 13th. You gotta hand it to the guy, he's gutsy. Though I wonder whether he intends to hold any of his press conferences (or office hours) during the day.

I say let him run. Hell, if I lived there I'd probably vote for him on gutsiness alone. I love the fact that a God-hating Satanist and self-proclaimed vamp(i? y?)re can run for Governor and can actually get press for his campaign. We might not agree with his politics--in fact, we don't really know what his politics are yet--but he can get on the ballot, and that's impressive. Yay pluralism.

Friday the 13th: Glowing Pigs?

January 13, 2006 12:18am

Scientists in Taiwan claim to have genetically developed three glow-in-the-dark green pigs. The transgenic pigs were created by injecting genetic material from luminescent fish into the pig stem cells. The gene then replicated with the pig, causing the entire animal--inside and out--to be a pleasantly disturbing neon green.

There have been animals that have previously been genetically endowed with the glowing gene. Of note especially was a rabbit produced and raised by artist and professor Eduardo Kac at least 5 years ago. Alba, as the rabbit was named, lived with him and his family. The three glowing pigs will be used for scientific study. Source.

This is like a mad scientist's pet project from a bad sci-fi horror flick. In all seriousness, why make a pig with a green heart-lung block? Can you imagine if that were transplanted into a human? Actually, I wouldn't mind glowing in the dark--at least the EMS workers could find me when I couldn't take not being able to be truly in the dark at night anymore.

In all seriousness, this is actually a really useful tool. We get to see what these transgenic pigs turn out to be like. Although I suspect eventually we will wind up with Frankenpiggies, to be used with Heinz's green ketchup (it occurs to me that that may have been discontinued). Both seem to have been created just because green things sound cool. I wonder if the pigs will have more purpose...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Idaho To Have Inmates Sleep In Shifts?

12 January 2006, 11:43pm

Idaho State Senator Robert Geddes has proposed a new, militaristic way to solve the problem of overcrowding and expense in state penitentiaries. He has called for inmates to share bunks and sleep in shifts, a tactic that, he claims, will help ease the "tremendous" costs of the current prison model.

The plan has actually drawn some support from families of inmates who have been shipped to other states because Idaho cannot house its 7,000 prisoners, according to Reuters. The number of prisoners in Idaho rose 7% last year and is expected to rise further. According to an expert quoted by Reuters, It's not how many times you rotate that bed, it's how much living space you provide." Source.

I for one am definitely not in favor of this. In all honesty, it violates my personal beliefs. As a nation, we need to decide if prison is for punishment or for rehabilitation; currently we seem to see it as more of a time-out than anything else. If we decide our prisons are for rehabilitation--and they should be--then we need to fix living conditions in our prisons, not make them worse by doubling the number of inmates in a single living space. No, they don't need HBO. They don't need Cinemax (especially not after midnight). What they need is air, sunshine, a chance to learn to trust people. They need social workers, not leash handlers.

Imagine a prison sleeping in two shifts. The first spends their 8 hours sleeping at night. The other is forced to sleep during the day, probably at a facility that does not permit them adequate outdoor exercise or else limits their time available in the sun. Sunlight is an important thing, both physiologically for Circadian rhythms and psychologically, for well-being. What then? Change sleep cycles? Force them every, say, six weeks, to go from a day-centric sleep schedule to a night-based one? It's cruel, and inhumane.

I know this sounds wishy-washy. There are some people I would personally lock in a room with no windows and no doors for the rest of eternity. But as a whole prisoners need help getting into society--not a punitive darkness. The more we can help these inmates adjust themselves and their lives, so that when their time is done they can go out and be productive members of the workforce, the better off we'll be as a society.

Maybe people need punished too. But maybe more people would come out of prison as good people if the hand they saw were reaching to help them up instead of a fist.

Forensic Evidence Clears Donner Family, Only 160 Years Later

12 January 2006, 11:18pm

The Donner family name, of Donner Party Fame, has been cleared by forensic scientists in Nevada who were apparently investigating the 1846 incident. According to an AP report, the Donner families themselves were trapped several miles away from the actual site where cannibalism occurred. The Donner families' meals did, however, include Uno, the pet dog. The other segment of the party, those trapped in the Sierra Nevadas, did resort to cannibalism. Source.

I guess this goes to show that you can't really trust legends. American myth destroyed by science--or at least, the family itself got a bad rep from the party name. Next we will learn that the Hatfields and McCoys were best friends, and Sarah Goodman burned her bra rather than burning at the stake. Will wonders never cease?

Army "Investigation" of Detainee Abuse Ended Prematurely

12 January 2006, 8:38pm

The Associated Press ran an article not an hour ago saying that a US Army investigation of reported detainee abuse that found "no reason to believe" the detainee's claims--without questioning a single American allegedly involved. The ACLU leaked the records after requesting them under the Freedom of Information Act. This is one of 23 ciminal cases that the Army was unable to fully investigate because the units or names of the soldiers were classified. Army troops have in some cases been authorized to use fake names when capturing suspects.

The prisoner in question filed a complaint of having been punched in the spine and stomach, being stripped naked, being placed in front of an air conditioner, and having water poured over his head. His full name was blacked out from the records to protect his privacy.

This seems to go nicely with the article about Major General Miller refusing to testify about his role in inhumane treatment of detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, doesn't it?

Iraq Prisoner Abuse Extends to 2-Star General, Maybe Higher

12 January 2006, 7:13pm

The Washington Post reported today that Major General Geoffrey Miller is taking the military equivalent of the Fifth Amendment to refuse to testify at the court-martial of two dog handlers who claimed they were given orders to use working dogs to intimidate prisoners. According to the Post,

Miller's decision came shortly after Col. Thomas M. Pappas, the commanding officer at Abu Ghraib, accepted immunity from prosecution this week and was ordered to testify at upcoming courts-martial. Pappas, a military intelligence officer, could be asked to detail high-level policies relating to the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib.

He also could shed light on how abusive tactics emerged, who ordered their use and their possible connection to officials in Washington, according to lawyers and human rights advocates who have closely followed the case. Pappas has never spoken publicly. Crawford said Miller was unaware of Pappas's grant of immunity. "This could be a big break if Pappas testifies as to why those dogs were used and who ordered the dogs to be used," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

His lawyers have claimed that he refused to answer the questions because, basically, he had been asked them many times before and was getting sick of them. This new development, however, is an indication that Miller is covering his ass and running for the hills. Source.

It is altogether possible that the torture was known about all the way up to Pennsylvania Avenue. It's deplorable that the government is just now coming around to writing true antitorture legislation and going after the higher-ups who authorized the horrific treatment of Iraqi detainees. It's not horrible enough that we have held many of these people without trial, some for almost 3 years, but the fact that we torture them for information is outrageous. The country that is supposed to pride itself on humanity and decency and democracy at home doesn't seem to want to commit to treating the opposition better than they would treat us.

It's time for the US to be not only the military leader in the world, but the moral leader as well. We are the only superpower in the world, and yet we still are backwards enough to execute our prisoners on a regular basis. The country that touts its protection of its people from government shouldn't be the country that secretly spies on its civilians, on Executive orders. And we certainly shouldn't be setting aside human rights in favor of torture in any situation, even in a war. The spirit of the Geneva Convention applies to all prisoners, even if the letters don't.

Kerry Supports US-India Nuclear Handshake "On principle"

Senator John Kerry, a ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relation Committee's Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, tentatively backed a deal with New Delhi to provide nuclear secrets to India. The agreement would allow US companies to construct nuclear power plants in India. Since India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, this would require both change in American law and in the Atomic Energy Advisory Board, as well as approval by the Nuclear Supplier's Group. Kerry, ever the politician, supported the deal "in principle" rather than backing it outright, and warned that the overall actions of Congress would be dependent on "the four corners of the agreement" wind up being.

It is interesting to note that the tone of the BBC article, available
here, is very different from the tone of the Rediff article, available here. Rediff, an Indian paper, makes the comments much more pro-India, where the BBC emphasizes the tentativeness of Kerry's comments. Hardly surprising, but what is surprising is an article linked from the same, discussing Senator Leonard Weiss' derisive words of warning on the subject. Weiss calls the proposal "radical," saying that India would again violate any peaceful use requirement. According to the article, which cites the Dallas Morning News, India's 1974 test nuclear bomb came from Canadian supplies and American heavy water. Source.

Should the US really be selling India nuclear technology? Similar talks ended in 1998 under the Clinton administration when India ran several nuclear tests, when the US "imposed curbs on nuclear technology transfers" to that country (BBC). Would we sell the same thing to Pakistan? Would we sell the same thing to Israel? Would we--will we--sell the same to Iraq, in the decade or so to come? Maybe we should wait a bit. It's only been a few years.

Crash Test Dummies, Now in 10 Flavors...

12 January 2006, 2:31 pm

To quote a t-shirt, "There are 10 kinds of people in this world: those who understand binary, and those who don't."

Reuters ran a very short article today about test dummy makers in Sweden developing the world's first female crash test dummy, saying that whiplash neck injuries in women are much higher than those in men (Source).

Honestly, when were people going to catch on to the fact that men's bodies and women's bodies behave differently? For one thing, women tend to be lighter in mass, and lighter in skeletal weight and stability. For another, different proportions--particularly in the hips and rib cage or thoracic spine--can mean different physical characteristics, especially in a high-energy crash.

Levi's To Introduce I-Jeans

12 January 2006, 2:03pm

Levi's will start to offer a new line of jeans which offfer iPod connectivity, a joystick in the watch pocket for control, and retractable headphones. The jeans, called Levi's RedWireDLX Jeans, will be available for men and women and will be available come fall.

“Designed for both men and women, the jeans seamlessly integrate iPod plug and play technology giving music enthusiasts the most innovative and fashionable way to enjoy music on the go,” says Levi’s. “The new Levi’s RedWire DLX jeans havebeen developed to be practical and leading-edge in their aesthetic. A crisp white leather patch and joystick, bluffed back pockets with hidden stitching, and clean minimalist buttons and rivets allude to the iPod’s famously pure design.”


Levi's are not the only ones to get into the iPod craze,with jacket manufacturers Kenpo and Burton Snowboards already offering jackets with built-in controls. (

Now all we need are ipod-ready socks...

Kinko's - The Government Choice

12 January 2006, 1:45 pm

The Government Printing Office is outsourcing much of its small printing jobs to none other than Kinko's, the Washington Post reported today. The company landed a $100M contract, renewable annually, to print small jobs for the government at 1300 locations nationwide. The GPO, to pay for individual job, will issue credit cards for federal employee use. Documents can also be transmitted electronically and printed across the country, so that a federal handout made in Washington can be printed in New York, Los Angeles, and anywhere in between. Five agencies began using the program in December, and the program will be universal by February.

So, the government is apparently like the rest of us--they want someone else to do their office busywork...

Dig a Hole to China... or San Diego...

12 January 2006, 12:31 pm.

According to the BBC, two tunnels were found this week, dug under the US-Mexico border. One emerged into Arizona and was discovered when the police received a tip about drug smuggling. Two men were arrested with 135 kilos of marijuana. A second tunnel, ending just outside of San Deigo, was found after it collapsed, thankfully with no one in it.

Along similar lines, the US turned back a bunch of Cuban refugees on Monday because they did not make it to solid, dry land. The group apparently made it to a disused bridge in the Florida Keys but were not granted asylum because parts of the bridge connecting that section with mainland Florida had collapsed.

Now, granted, there is a huge difference in American foreign policy with the two stories. Surely it's okay to arrest those smuggling illegal substances--in incredibly large quantities--into the country, but the American policy of turning back Cubans who haven't made it to dry land is disgusting. The same government that espouses a policy of imposing American-style "freedom" on nations halfway around the world denies it to their neighbors not 100 miles from their coasts.

This double standard is simple, and operates on the NIMBY principle--Not In My Back Yard. We want the poor countries of the world to have American freedom and democracy, certainly--we just don't want them to have them here. The US is considering tightening the border with Mexico--the bill has already passed the House. We certainly accept Cubans--but not if we catch them in the water. The rule seems to be, once you hit mainland Florida, you call olly-olly oxen-free, and you get to stay. If they catch you on a boat--which is probably more like a raft made out of a plank of wood--then you stay on a boat, straight back to Cuba.

The solution, then, is to be consistent with our policies. If we are pro-Cuban immigration, then let's extend our "dry foot" policy to include US territorial waters, or 12 miles from the mainland, and give the refugees help getting to shore. Let's welcome our repressed neighbors to the south. Let's encourage Cuban citizens to come to the US. Or, if we are anti-Cuban, we should remove every Cuban refugee we find, on water or land, and ship them back to Castro. Either way, we need to have a consistent policy, one that we can explain to the rest of the world--and ourselves--without sounding ridiculous.

It seems hypocritical for the administration that seems to want to spread Democracy around the world--and spend American tax dollars and other people's lives to do it--to deny those living under a communist dictatorship asylum in the United States. If we want Iraqis to be free from a dictatorial government with strong anti-American policy, we should perhaps consider being nicer to--and consistent about--those seeking American liberties from our neighboring countries.

Nikon to Leave Film Cameras, World-Class Tradition Behind

12 Jan. 2006, 11:28 am.

According to The Washington Post, Nikon has announced that it will immediately halt production on all but it's highest-end and lowest-end film cameras, the F6 and the FM10, and on most manual-focus lenses available for their film-camera line. The company is instead opting to sell primarily digital cameras and equipment, as well as lenses designed specifically for their digital cameras. Source.

So what does this mean for your average, day-to-day camera users? Probably very little. Most people use digital cameras these days, either for personal use or professional applications such as advertising or news photography. This announcement should not be surprising, and in fact probably makes very good business sense.

The thing that is perhaps the most disturbing is not the cessation of production of the cameras themselves--that has been coming for some time--but the decision to stop making manual-focus lenses. Older cameras will not make use of newer lenses; G series lenses, developed for AF cameras, will not work with manual focus bodies, and the DX series will not function at all with a 35mm camera--the rear aperture is smaller than the diameter required for a 35mm frame, leaving film camera users staring at a circle of light in the middle of their viewfinders. Nikon still sells brand-new on their website at least two 35mm manual-focus cameras, the FM3a and the FM10. The F3 was still available until recently, the last in the F series to be solely manual focus, and a camera that had been being sold since the early 1980s. And while any autofocus lens can be manually focused, they are renowned for being a pain to focus by hand.

Nikon has led the world with their film cameras for decades. There still exists in our household a camera designed in 1948, that still works--and if I had to take a photo expedition around the world, the rugged Nikon F would probably come with me, over the D70, F3s, Nikkormat, or FM. It's not that the others aren't fine cameras--they are--but the F has a weight and durability I would trade for exactly nothing.

Nikon may be moving the way of the future, and it may be a popular route, but it leaves a lot of photographers behind--or at least some of their most loyal.

You and Me and the Fetus Still Only Count as Two...

12 Jan. 2006, 10:48 am.

Phoenix Municipal Judge Dennis Freeman ruled that fetuses do not count for use of HOV or carpool lanes, according to the AP. Local Candace Dickinson had attempted to get out of having a passenger while using a carpool by claiming that her fetus counted as an additional passenger. She was fined $367. Source.

What interests me comes more from the origin of the judge's ruling than it does from the decision itself. According to the article,

Municipal Judge Dennis Freeman rejected Dickinson's argument Tuesday, applying a "common sense" definition in which an individual is someone who occupies a "separate and distinct" space in a vehicle.

"The law is meant to fill empty space in a vehicle," the judge said.

So, in essence, the reason the fetus does not count as a passenger is not because it's not yet a person (as would be the case if the ruling came under the jurisdiction of abortion law, which in most states have a specified time at which they define a fetus as a person), but because the fetus did not occupy its own space in the vehicle.

To extrapolate on this ruling, does a baby (in a child seat) count as a second person? Would a baby doll in the same safety seat count the same way? What about a dog, if using one of those doggy seat belts sold on Animal Planet commercials? Could I put a mannequin in the passenger seat with a t-shirt and a seat belt and say I was using the carpool lane for good use? What about my spare tire?

Nominally, the purpose of HOV lanes is to reward those driving their friends to and from work or school by providing better service--namely, a lane of their own, presumably immune to the traffic boondoggles that confront solo drivers. The benefit to the government is lower emissions levels than if everybody drove to work or school on their own. If this is true, then perhaps we should make clearer what the regulations on carpooling are, as the wording of this particular ruling leaves more wiggle room than we should be comfortable with.

UPDATE (12 January 2006, 2:24 pm)

An old MSNBC article has answered my (rhetorical) question about mannequins. A San Rafael, CA motorist was fined $351 for driving with a dummy in the passenger seat, wearing a Dolphins jersey and cap. And the sad part is, I wasn't even researching this article when I found it...