Thursday, December 31, 2009

afghan bomber kills cia operatives

WaPo | A suicide bomber infiltrated a CIA base in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing at least eight Americans in what is believed to be the deadliest single attack on U.S. intelligence personnel in the eight-year-long war and one of the deadliest in the agency's history, U.S. officials said.

The attack represented an audacious blow to intelligence operatives at the vanguard of U.S. counterterrorism operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing officials whose job involves plotting strikes against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups that are active on the frontier between the two nations. The facility that was targeted -- Forward Operating Base Chapman -- is in the eastern Afghan province of Khost, which borders North Waziristan, the Pakistani tribal area that is believed to be al-Qaeda's home base.

U.S. sources confirmed that all the dead and injured were civilians and said they believed that most, if not all, were CIA employees or contractors. At least one Afghan civilian also was killed, the sources said.

It is unclear exactly how the assailant managed to gain access to the heavily guarded U.S.-run post, which serves as an operations and surveillance center for the CIA. The bomber struck in what one U.S. official described as the base's fitness center.

In addition to the dead, eight people were wounded, several of them seriously, U.S. government officials said.

While many details remained vague Wednesday, the attack appears to have killed more U.S. intelligence personnel than have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion began in late 2001. The CIA has previously acknowledged the deaths of four officers in fighting in Afghanistan in the past eight years.

energy crisis growing rapidly in pakistan

Tehran Times | It is widely believed in Pakistan that Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project should be completed at the earliest to overcome energy crisis which Pakistan is currently facing.

The unannounced gas loadshedding in the country has put the CNG-run transport in troubled waters as well as taking toll on industry and other business activities, not to mention the hardships faced by domestic users.

People say that Iran has surplus gas and the completion of gas pipeline project is the only way out for Pakistan to overcome gas shortage.

Pakistan’s energy crisis is feared to worsen next year with the gas shortfall likely to almost double to more than two billion cubic feet a day (BCFD).

Official figures suggested that the shortage, which stood at about one BCFD this winter, would go up to 2.1 BCFD by next year.

The demand and supply estimates presented by the Interstate Gas Company — a subsidiary of the petroleum ministry — suggested that the gas shortfalls would increase by more than 300 per cent to 6.5 BCFD by 2020.

According to official estimates, domestic gas demand would increase to 6.8 BCFD in 2011, about 7.1 BCFD in 2012 and to7.6 BCFD in 2015.

The gas shortage has forced a number of industrial units to close down while delay in fulfillment of export consignments has become a matter of routine due to less supply and low pressure of natural gas.

Moreover, it has been reported that in small cities and towns of the country, the commodity continues to disappear for hours without prior intimation, thus badly affecting the domestic users as well as the public and private transport running on CNG.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

small chinese firm gives goldman sachs the finger

Reuters | A small Chinese power generator on Tuesday rejected demands from a Goldman Sachs unit to pay for nearly $80 million lost on two oil hedging contracts, part of a long-running dispute over how China deals with derivatives losses.

Goldman Sachs (GS.N) was one of the foreign banks, along with Citigroup (C.N), Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley (MS.N), blamed by the state assets watchdog for providing "extremely complicated" and difficult to understand derivatives products.

Shenzhen Nanshan Power (000037.SZ) (200037.SZ) said in a statement that it received several notices from J. Aron & Company, a trading subsidiary of Goldman Sachs (GS.N), for at least $79.96 million as compensation for terminating oil option contracts.

"We will not accept the demand by J. Aron for all the losses and related interests," said Nanshan, in line with the stance it took last December.

"We will try our best to negotiate with J. Aron and resolve the dispute peacefully...but the possibility of using a lawsuit can not be ruled out when talks fail," it added.

"J. Aron told us in one notice that if we do not pay the money, they will reserve the right to launch a lawsuit and will not send us any further notice."

The State Assets Supervision and Administration Commission said in September that it would back state-owned companies in any legal action against the foreign banks that sold them oil derivatives, which resulted in losses when oil prices dived late last year.

A Beijing-based Goldman Sachs corporate communication official declined to comment.

the late kim peek...,

Scientific American | Kim Peek possessed one of the most extraordinary memories ever recorded. Until we can explain his abilities, we cannot pretend to understand human cognition

Editor's Note: The main text of this story, originally published in the December 2005 issue of Scientific American, is being made available in light of the recent death of Kim Peek.

When J. Langdon Down first described savant syndrome in 1887, coining its name and noting its association with astounding powers of memory, he cited a patient who could recite Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire verbatim. Since then, in almost all cases, savant memory has been linked to a specific domain, such as music, art or mathematics. But phenomenal memory is itself the skill in a 54-year-old man named Kim Peek. His friends call him “Kim-puter.”

He can, indeed, pull a fact from his mental library as fast as a search engine can mine the Internet. He read Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October in one hour and 25 minutes. Four months later, when asked, he gave the name of the Russian radio operator in the book, referring to the page describing the character and quoting several passages verbatim. Kim began memorizing books at the age of 18 months, as they were read to him. He has learned 9,000 books by heart so far. He reads a page in eight to 10 seconds and places the memorized book upside down on the shelf to signify that it is now on his mental “hard drive.”

Kim’s memory extends to at least 15 interests—among them, world and American history, sports, movies, geography, space programs, actors and actresses, the Bible, church history, literature, Shakespeare and classical music. He knows all the area codes and zip codes in the U.S., together with the television stations serving those locales. He learns the maps in the front of phone books and can provide Yahoo-like travel directions within any major U.S. city or between any pair of them. He can identify hundreds of classical compositions, tell when and where each was composed and first performed, give the name of the composer and many biographical details, and even discuss the formal and tonal components of the music. Most intriguing of all, he appears to be developing a new skill in middle life. Whereas before he could merely talk about music, for the past two years he has been learning to play it.

It is an amazing feat in light of his severe developmental problems— characteristics shared, in varying extents, by all savants. He walks with a sidelong gait, cannot button his clothes, cannot manage the chores of daily life and has great difficulties with abstraction. Against these disabilities, his talents— which would be extraordinary in any person—shine all the brighter.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

nigerian connection

Guardian | The failed plane bomb attack has also put the spotlight on northern Nigeria, a region US counter-terrorism officials have long eyed with concern. The overwhelmingly Muslim region is increasingly radicalised. A spate of anti-government attacks by an Islamic sect left hundreds dead earlier this year. Sharia law has largely replaced secular legal systems over the past decade. The Nigerian government claims to have uncovered al-Qaida cells and funding.

But the real concern has been less about recruitment by al-Qaida than of radicalised individuals able to exploit links to the west for terrorist attacks. Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab is apparently one such person.

His family encompasses the divide that has prompted an Islamist backlash against Nigeria's establishment. Abdulmuttallab's father was a minister in the corrupt, discredited western-backed governments of the past. A decade ago, Islamist politicians rode to power on a wave of anger at Nigeria's corrupt military leaders, most of whom were Muslim.

The way was led by Zamfara state where a fundamentalist governor, Ahmed Sani Yerima, was elected and made sharia law the dominant code. Abdulmuttallab's home state of Katsina has been at the centre of outcries over fundamentalism. In 2002, an Islamic court sentenced a mother to death by stoning for adultery for conceiving a child out of wedlock. The child's father was not convicted. A sharia court of appeal overturned the sentence. The same year, Katsina carried out Nigeria's first execution under sharia law.

The new radicalism spawned groups such as Boko Haram, which also called itself the Taliban. It was led by Mohammed Yusuf who was facing charges of receiving money from al-Qaida when Boko Haram launched attacks on police stations across northern Nigeria in July that left 700 people dead in four cities - mostly the militant attackers. Yusuf was shot dead by the police after they surrounded his house. Despite the claims of an al-Qaeda connection, Boko Haram's militancy was primarily directed against weak, long discredited Nigerian government. Millions of impoverished, devout, angry young Nigerian millions share that anger. The concern of western counter terrorism officials is that that anger moves beyond Nigeria's borders.

bombass fustercluckery....,

ABCNews | A singed pair of underwear with a packet of powder sewn into the crotch, seen in government photos obtained exclusively by ABC News, is all that remains of al Qaeda's attempt to down an American passenger plane over Detroit.

As seen in these photos, the alleged bomb consisted of a packet of powder sewn into the briefs of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian. Al Qaeda took credit Monday for the attempted bombing, boasted of its ability to overcome U.S. intelligence and airport security, and promised new attacks.

The first photo, to the left, shows the slightly charred and singed underpants with the bomb packet still in place. All photos include a ruler to provide scale.

In the second photo, the packet of actual explosive powder has been removed from the underpants and displayed separately.

It is a six-inch long packet of the high explosive chemical called PETN, less than a half cup in volume, weighing about 80 grams. A government test with 50 grams of PETN blew a hole in the side of an airliner. That was the amount in the bomb carried by the so-called shoe bomber Richard Reid over Christmas 2001.

The underpants bomb would have been one and a half times as powerful.

Monday, December 28, 2009

warsocialism in yemen

NYTimes | In the midst of two unfinished major wars, the United States has quietly opened a third, largely covert front against Al Qaeda in Yemen.

A year ago, the Central Intelligence Agency sent several of its top field operatives with counterterrorism experience to the country, according a former top agency official. At the same time, some of the most secretive Special Operations commandos have begun training Yemeni security forces in counterterrorism tactics, senior military officers said.

The Pentagon is spending more than $70 million over the next 18 months, and using teams of Special Forces, to train and equip Yemeni military, Interior Ministry and coast guard forces, more than doubling previous military aid levels.

As American investigators sought to corroborate the claims of a 23-year-old Nigerian man that Qaeda leaders in Yemen had trained and equipped him to blow up a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines jet on Christmas Day, the plot casts a spotlight on the Obama administration’s complicated relationship with Yemen.

The country has long been a refuge for jihadists, in part because Yemen’s government welcomed returning Islamist fighters who had fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The Yemen port of Aden was the site of the audacious bombing of the American destroyer Cole in October 2000 by Qaeda militants, which killed 17 sailors.

But Qaeda militants have made much more focused efforts to build a base in Yemen in recent years, drawing recruits from throughout the region and mounting attacks more frequently on foreign embassies and other targets. The White House is seeking to nurture enduring ties with the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and prod him to combat the local Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, even as his impoverished country grapples with seemingly intractable internal turmoil.

With fears also growing of a resurgent Islamist extremism in nearby Somalia and East Africa, administration officials and American lawmakers said Yemen could become Al Qaeda’s next operational and training hub, rivaling the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan where the organization’s top leaders operate.

what's wrong with climate science?

Holoscience | The unpleasant reality is that modern science is an inverted pyramid of hypotheses and beliefs teetering on a foundation of surprising ignorance and historical wrong turns. For example, the ideology of climate science is based on the story of the history of the solar system and the Earth. However, the usual story is a fable based on gravitational theory while gravity itself remains a mystery. Many-body gravitational systems are inherently chaotic, so that it would be a miracle if the order we see in the solar system today were long established, according to that model. But the climate change models take for granted an undisturbed Earth. The models also rely on steady radiant energy generated in the interior of the Sun. But what if that global-warming plasma ball in the sky is powered from the outside? Would not all the planets share in some of that energy? And if so, there is no climate model that accounts for it.

I wrote in February 2007, in Global Warming in a Climate of Ignorance, “Like Darwin's theory of evolution and Big Bang cosmology, global warming by greenhouse gas emissions has undergone that curious social process in which a scientific theory is promoted to a secular myth. When in fact, science is ignorant about the source of the heat — the Sun.”

Climatologists rely on astrophysicists for the basic assumptions they employ in their climate models. In particular, it is assumed that the Sun is a steady source of radiant energy and that the Earth and its atmosphere have been a closed, undisturbed system for longer than man has walked the Earth. However, the theory of how the Sun works is of Victorian vintage. It was formulated in the gaslight and horse and buggy era, long before the space age showed that space is not empty.

If astronomers have bestowed an invalid theory for the Sun, the source of our warmth and weather on Earth, then climate science is adrift from reality. We can forget the portentous climate models. Climate scientists are unaware of a principal driver of weather systems on Earth and all the planets. The strongest winds are on the most distant planet from the Sun and even the Sun has been found to have weather. Like computer generated doomsday movies, computer climate models can be programmed to give the same illusion of apocalypse.

Insulated from dissent by peer review and strict disciplinary boundaries, much theoretical science has become as useful as medieval clerics calculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Only now there are supercomputers to reify and count the imaginary seraphim. The result is far-reaching inertia in the market of ideas. The tales our grandparents handed down tend to remain the basis of our ideology in the 21st century.

The ideology that underpins the climate change debate is that which assumes billions of years of undisturbed clockwork motion of the planets: “Once upon a time, long, long ago, all of the planets were formed from a dusty disk about the newborn Sun.” Like any good fiction it introduces a crisis. For reasons only guessed at, disaster strikes our “twin” planet, Venus. It suffers a “runaway greenhouse” catastrophe in its carbon dioxide atmosphere and the surface becomes as hot as a furnace. Forget the fact that the “science” has been made up to fit the story.

the palin schwarzenegger smackdown

DailyBeast | Republicans have been stymied about what to do about Sarah Palin—until Arnold Schwarzenegger took a swing at her. Joe Mathews on how the Governator’s strategy could pave the way to GOP victory.

For the Republican Party, Sarah Palin has been a problem with no solution. She is a divisive figure, a culture warrior whose celebrity and command of media attention has allowed her to eclipse or bully party leaders with more appeal to independents. No one within the party has been able to put her in her place.

Until late last week, when Palin got into a media fight with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Their clash—an exchange over climate change—was brief but telling. In both style and substance, Arnold vs. Sarah offered a preview of the coming debate within the party over how the GOP might govern as it bids to return to power next year. And for mainstream Republicans who often seemed cowed by tea-party rejectionists, the contest revealed a method for neutralizing the party’s Palinists.

What made the contest compelling were the similarities of the contestants. Palin is a skilled media manipulator who cleverly trades on personality, physical appearance, and a knack for sharp one-liners. So is Schwarzenegger, who had the crucial advantage of having played this game for 30 years. In taking on the governor of California, Palin foolishly launched a rivalry with a smarter, savvier version of herself.

Palin prompted the exchange by launching an extended attack against climate science (she claims there’s no evidence that humans are responsible for changes) and against efforts to fight global warming (too costly, she maintains). She even called on President Obama to boycott the talks in Copenhagen.

In so doing, she stepped right into the path of Schwarzenegger, who has championed climate legislation and attended the Copenhagen talks. Some response was inevitable, and predictably, a Financial Times reporter asked the California governor about Palin’s comments.

How would Schwarzenegger answer Palin?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

peak oil and the psychology of work

OilDrum | This is a preliminary attempt to explore the relationship between the current predicament facing humanity arising out of an exploding population facing planetary resource limitations, in other words known as overshoot, and the psychology of work inherent in the human species. One reason to explore this connection is that the question of overshoot is normally framed in standard Darwinian terms. In the Darwinian framework overshoot begins with the availability of abundant resources that allows the population of a species to increase exponentially. This exploding population eventually depletes irreversibly the very resources that sustain the population and this leads to a large scale die-off and a precipitous fall in the species population sometimes leading to extinction. In this rise and fall, the behavior of the individuals of the species is often typical of any organism seeking to maximize its chances of survival and procreation.

While the role of ecological resources in these signal revolutions is fairly well understood, the role of human mental faculties in their myriad manifestations is either unclear or the subject of severe controversies. But there can also be little doubt that human mental faculties – through innate predisposition and learnt skills and behavioral responses – must have played a fundamental role in these changes as well. My interest lies in understanding how our mental faculties contributed to these fundamental transformations, with the hope that this understanding will enable us as individuals and collectives to be better prepared for the inevitable turmoil that results from the decline in the availability of concentrated energy resources. In particular in this essay I want to explore how the human mind views and deals with the concept of work – both as an idea in the mind and as a felt necessity of human existence.

local fluff...,

NASA | The solar system is passing through an interstellar cloud that physics says should not exist. In the Dec. 24th issue of Nature, a team of scientists reveal how NASA's Voyager spacecraft have solved the mystery.

see caption"Using data from Voyager, we have discovered a strong magnetic field just outside the solar system," explains lead author Merav Opher, a NASA Heliophysics Guest Investigator from George Mason University. "This magnetic field holds the interstellar cloud together and solves the long-standing puzzle of how it can exist at all."

The discovery has implications for the future when the solar system will eventually bump into other, similar clouds in our arm of the Milky Way galaxy.

Astronomers call the cloud we're running into now the Local Interstellar Cloud or "Local Fluff" for short. It's about 30 light years wide and contains a wispy mixture of hydrogen and helium atoms at a temperature of 6000 C. The existential mystery of the Fluff has to do with its surroundings. About 10 million years ago, a cluster of supernovas exploded nearby, creating a giant bubble of million-degree gas. The Fluff is completely surrounded by this high-pressure supernova exhaust and should be crushed or dispersed by it.

"The observed temperature and density of the local cloud do not provide enough pressure to resist the 'crushing action' of the hot gas around it," says Opher.

So how does the Fluff survive? The Voyagers have found an answer.

"Voyager data show that the Fluff is much more strongly magnetized than anyone had previously suspected—between 4 and 5 microgauss*," says Opher. "This magnetic field can provide the extra pressure required to resist destruction."

neuronal code

Physorg | How does the brain store detailed information from sensory stimuli? How much can researchers read from the activity of certain regions of the brain? Current findings confirm a new theory. Up to now, scientists had assumed that the early stages of information processing in the brain took place gradually, that is that one stimulus was processed after another in a conveyor-belt-like sequence. This idea must now be revised. As Danko Nikolić from the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and his Austrian colleagues Wolfgang Maass and Stefan Häusler have shown, the activity in early brain areas depends on stimuli that arose some time ago. "The brain functions like a jug of water into which stones are thrown and, as a result, generate waves," explains Nikolić. "The waves overlap but the information as to how many stones were thrown into the jug and when they were thrown in is retained in the resulting complex activity patterns of the fluid."

The brain is clearly able to render this information usable and, for example, to superimpose images seen in succession. The duration and intensity of the continuing effect of images that have just been seen corresponds to a very detailed visual memory also known as iconic memory. If you see an image and close your eyes immediately afterwards it remains visible for a short while. It may be located in the primary visual cortex.

Researchers 'read' brain activity
The scientists showed letters to cats while electrodes recorded the activity of up to 100 cells in the animals’ primary visual cortex. The team from Graz created computer-simulated neurons for the interpretation of these signals. Based on the activity of the neurons, the scientists were able to conclude which letter the cat had just seen. Following a brief training period, the simulated cells were able to provide very reliable indications of the visual stimuli processed. The researchers then changed the letters, altered the duration of their presentation or that of the pauses between them. They then tried to predict again which letters the cats were shown and the letters they had seen shortly before. The results obtained support the "wave" theory: apart from information about the image just seen, the neurons also transmitted information about the previously viewed images.

Having established this much, the researchers wanted to identify the aspects of brain activity that involve most information. In the same way as tone, cadence or a word itself carries meaning in different languages, the language of the brain could be based, for example, on the intensity or precise timing of the response. To establish this, the scientists blurred the temporal precision and observed how the predictive power of the simulated cells changed. Without the temporal information, there was a sustained diminution of this power. Hence, the brain clearly codes the information about a stimulus in terms of both the intensity and the precise temporal structure of the neuronal responses.

self-observation, self-remembering..,

NYTimes | Psychologists have many ways to get inside our heads: they can give us questionnaires, track our eyes, time how long we take to respond to cues and measure the blood flow to our brains. But how close can these methods get to the texture of our inner lives?

Russell T. Hurlburt, a psychologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has spent decades refining another way to study the mind. Dr. Hurlburt, a former aeronautical engineer, took up the study of psychology while playing trumpet at military funerals during the Vietnam War. Frustrated by the lack of attention to everyday experiences in the field of psychology, he arrived at the university in 1976 with an unconventional plan to investigate the mental lives of his subjects: ask them for descriptions.

In “Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic” (M.I.T. Press, 2007), Dr. Hurlburt, 64, presents the case of Melanie, a young woman who was fitted with a beeper that randomly prompted her to record everything in her awareness several times a day. In later interviews, she reconstructed these moments, often under rigorous cross-examination.

The resulting mental freeze-frames are remarkably diverse.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

a presidential operations management moment...,

Truthout | For those of you who may have forgotten, Dec. 22 was the 46th anniversary of the most important op-ed of all the 381,659 written about the CIA since its founding. Do not feel bad if you missed it; the op-ed garnered little attention — either at the time or subsequently.

The draft came from Independence, Missouri, and was published in the Washington Post early edition on Dec. 22, 1963.

The first and the last two sentences of Harry Truman’s unusual contribution bear repeating:

“I think it has become necessary to take another look at the purpose and operations of our Central Intelligence Agency….

“We have grown up as a nation, respected for our free institutions and for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.”

Truman began by describing what he saw as CIA’s raison d’être, emphasizing that a President needs “the most accurate and up-to-the-minute information on what is going on everywhere in the world, and particularly of the trends and developments in all the danger spots.”

He stressed that he wanted to create a “special kind of an intelligence facility” charged with the collection of “all intelligence reports from every available source, and to have these reports reach me as President without “treatment or interpretations” by departments that have their own agendas.

A Warning
The “most important thing,” he said, “was to guard against the chance of intelligence being used to influence or to lead the President into unwise decisions.”

Fist tap my man Rembom.

one minute till midnight...,

NYTimes | Incentives and sanctions will not work, but air strikes could degrade and deter Iran’s bomb program at relatively little cost or risk, and therefore are worth a try. They should be precision attacks, aimed only at nuclear facilities, to remind Iran of the many other valuable sites that could be bombed if it were foolish enough to retaliate.

The final question is, who should launch the air strikes? Israel has shown an eagerness to do so if Iran does not stop enriching uranium, and some hawks in Washington favor letting Israel do the dirty work to avoid fueling anti-Americanism in the Islamic world.

But there are three compelling reasons that the United States itself should carry out the bombings. First, the Pentagon’s weapons are better than Israel’s at destroying buried facilities. Second, unlike Israel’s relatively small air force, the United States military can discourage Iranian retaliation by threatening to expand the bombing campaign. (Yes, Israel could implicitly threaten nuclear counter-retaliation, but Iran might not perceive that as credible.) Finally, because the American military has global reach, air strikes against Iran would be a strong warning to other would-be proliferators.

Negotiation to prevent nuclear proliferation is always preferable to military action. But in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement. We have reached the point where air strikes are the only plausible option with any prospect of preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Postponing military action merely provides Iran a window to expand, disperse and harden its nuclear facilities against attack. The sooner the United States takes action, the better.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

stay put!

Guardian | Hypermobility is now the opium of the people, an obsession that wrecks communities and planet. There are no free trips.

My solution to winter travel chaos? Don't travel. Stay indoors. Build a fire. Live and shop within walking distance of civilisation. Associate with neighbours. See distant relatives some other time of the year. Above all, do not complain if you insist on laying siege to motorways, stations and airports and the weather or the labour force let you down, as they do every year. It is not their fault, it is yours for being there.

Of all human activities that bring out the selfish in mankind, nothing compares with travel. The externalities of travel economics should be on every school curriculum. We see mobility through our own eyes alone, with no view of the similar demands of others. I am a free and independent spirit innocently enjoying the right to roam; you are a travel-mad lemming who thinks he has a God-given right to tarmac, train or plane just when I am there. Get out of my way.

I need not dwell on the miseries of Copenhagen, except to suggest that it illustrates the problem rather than the solution. The craving to move and to congregate – not least by those who bore all and sundry on the glories of the internet – has been the greatest contributor to CO2 emissions over the past half century, above all from the internal combustion of carbon. Total greenhouse gas emissions from homes (24% of England's total) are now equalled by road transport emissions. Travelling does as much damage to the earth's atmosphere as all other domestic activities put together. Yet powered movement is a craving no government is willing to curb. Hypermobility is the totem of personal liberty. New Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown has been very indulgent of mobility. Under Blair the cost of private motoring fell to the lowest for a quarter of a century. Sir Rod Eddington's 2006 report calculating that vehicle congestion charges could raise £24bn was rejected. So, too, was his conclusion that better management of the railway could handle demand with no need for new lines. Rail subsidies (which burn carbon too) have quadrupled. Air travel remains largely duty free. Airport construction continues apace, despite some 90% of air travel being discretionary or leisure.

Meanwhile the government pursues a policy of closing such local institutions as primary schools, cottage hospitals and post offices and encouraging out of town shopping and rural housing estates. All lead to an increase in the need for motor travel. If a hospital visit requires a drive of 50 rather than five miles, the NHS does not pay but someone does; indeed everyone does.

no perk too small...,

NYTimes | United States airlines have cut back on all but the most basic services in recent years — for most passengers.

But for their very best customers, some airlines are providing extra perks and creating new tiers of status to make them feel special. Continental Airlines, for example, created a new top category this month, Presidential Platinum, for customers flying at least 125,000 miles and spending $30,000 a year on plane tickets. Delta Air Lines established the new Diamond level this summer for customers who earn a minimum of 125,000 miles each year.

Members at these levels, in addition to getting bragging rights, might be offered free access to airport clubs and automatic check-in, might get fees for extra bags waived, and might be allowed to go to the front of any line — and sit in the front of the cabin — even when other travelers paid more for their tickets.

Once inside those airline clubs, these elite fliers can get free cocktails and buffet meals, perhaps a shower, and in the case of some Delta clubs, practice time on putting greens.

Airlines are also studying how to create a greater sense of personalized service on board — perhaps allowing passengers to preorder a favorite wine for an international flight or a special treat for an anniversary, or letting them designate a favorite seat on various kinds of aircraft so they sit in the same place on every flight.

Giving special perks to the biggest spenders is an old trick used by casinos, who pamper the “whales” so they feel appreciated more than all the “minnows” that populate lower-stakes poker tables.

oil, economics, and politics...,

ASPO | If peak oil were our only problem, we could mobilize our nation on an emergency basis to deal with the problem in a straightforward way. In our real world, there is a complex interaction between oil supply, economics and politics. Our economic system is constantly interacting with the politics that makes the rules that govern our economic system. Politics is anything but an efficient way to achieve rational change. The geology is the easy part, but it is the complexity of the social response that makes peak oil difficult to study. The following link provides my expanded explanation in several essays, along with more documentation. Some of the main points are collected below.

Energy analyst Tom Whipple recently pointed out that our global economic options seem to be increasingly narrowed to the choice between continuing global economic stagnation versus a short start at recovery followed by a relapse into economic contraction and global stagnation. Assuming this is true, use of stimulus spending or any other political and economic policies can’t get us back onto the previous path of prosperity for very long, no matter how wise and skillful these methods may be.

With global liquid fuel production probably maxed-out below 90 million barrels a day, and global petroleum reserve capacity thought to be less than 6 million barrels a day, a 5% or more annual average depletion rate implies that the world will use up all our reserve cushion within a year or two. The return of another tight global oil market will be accompanied by the return of the crippling oil price increases we saw in mid-2008, but this time imposed on a weaker economy.

The economic crisis is resulting in a huge gap between the global growth predicted by the banking and finance system versus the disappointing performance of the global economy. This shortfall is strongly reflected as political discontent. Centuries of economic expansion have taught us to regard continuous growth as normal. The economic system seems to be broken when this is not the case, and people expect politicians to fix things. Nobody can predict even the economic outcome very well, because it is so largely based on consumer psychology.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

documenting misdeeds

NYTimes | It was a simple idea: use the power and elusiveness of the Internet to publish secret documents that someone, somewhere thought should be made public. And dare the government, any government, to shut you down.

Since its founding in late 2006, the Web site has pursued that idea to the heights of commercial and political power — exposing internal memos about the dumping of toxic material off the African coast, the membership rolls of a racist British party, and most recently more than half a million pager messages from around the time of the 9/11 attacks, including some from government officials.

But the time has come for WikiLeaks, which calls itself “the first intelligence agency of the people,” to think locally, says Daniel Schmitt, a German computer engineer who is a full-time unpaid spokesman for the Web site. “We are trying to bring WikiLeaks more directly to communities,” he said in a telephone interview.

The organization has applied for a $532,000 two-year grant from the Knight Foundation to expand the use of its secure, anonymous submission system by local newspapers. The foundation’s News Challenge will give as much as $5 million this year to projects that use digital technology to transform community news.

WikiLeaks proposes using the grant to encourage local newspapers to include a link to WikiLeaks’ secure, anonymous servers so that readers can submit documents on local issues or scandals. The newspapers would have first crack at the material, and after a period of time — perhaps two weeks, Mr. Schmitt said — the documents would be made public on the main WikiLeaks page.

For an organization that publicizes hidden documents, WikiLeaks is adamant about protecting the anonymity of the document donors. “We maintain our servers at undisclosed locations, pass communication through protective jurisdictions, keep no traffic logs, and use military-grade encryption to protect sources and other confidential information,” the proposal reads in part. So unlike other online applicants, however, WikiLeaks cannot refer to a spike in Internet traffic in its pitch for itself.

“We are not really in a position to do that,” Mr. Schmitt said. “We have strong stands on anonymity and don’t have log files on users.”

the love of lust

Open | The so-called sexual revolution has created a generation of braggarts who love to flaunt their sexual prowess. Flip the coin, and what you see is a society of men and women anxious not to be seen as sexual have-nots.

Sexuality was glorified in the 20th century as a tool for transforming the world, which was supposed to establish mankind in a state of quasi-perfection. And along the lines of the economic model, the ambiguous expression of ‘sexual deprivation’ was coined, implying a scale of libidinal prosperity. Hence, there would be the rich and the poor, pleasure- seekers and survivors, those who celebrated the body magnificently and those reduced to the strict minimum. Today, no one wants to be a sexual ‘have-not’— everyone flaunts an honourable service record, even in the dullest of marriages. Like one’s profession, salary or physical appearance, sex too has become an external sign of wealth that individuals add to their social paraphernalia. A new human species has emerged—that of hedonist ascetics who expend a great deal of energy to stir their senses and achieve a state of bliss. They work hard at their pleasure and are really tormented souls—enduring insecurity is the other side of the coin in their unceasing quest for pleasure. Such as, for instance, the young therapist, who never had an orgasm (in the Canadian film Shortbus, released in 2006) and spent her time masturbating frantically, seeking ‘The Big O’ like everyone else—the Great Orgasm that is not debauchery, but Grace, the Holy Grail, the passport to humanity redeemed.

However, there is a world of difference between what this society says about itself and the life it lives in reality. For the past half-a-century, all surveys on the sex lives of the French, Americans, Germans or Spanish have revealed that we are prey to the same obsessions, the same difficulties: male erectile disorders and difficult or impossible orgasms for women. The Kinsey Report, drafted in the aftermath of the 1948 war, threw light on sexual practices among Americans that were not really in line with moral standards. Our current investigations point to us being wiser than we think. We were considered shameless in the past, but today, we’re seen as braggarts. Our parents used to lie about their morality, but we lie about our immorality. In both cases, there is a disparity between what we say and what we do. Unlike in Freud’s time, the cultural malaise no longer stems from instincts being crushed by the moral order—it is born from their very liberation. At a time when the ideal of self-fulfilment reigns triumphant everywhere, everyone compares themselves to the norm and struggles to live up to it. That means an end to guilt and the birth of anxiety. However, sexuality is generally still considered something that should remain undisclosed. But people either boast too much to be credible, or hide it for fear of appearing gauche at a time when one’s private life has become a sport of ostentation.

counterpoint on the web...,

This video exposes the eco-socialist Gaia conspiracy to portray people as a plague on the Earth and tax them into the poorhouse to fund nature trails and coffee cups for liberal bookstores. Combined with the Global Warming and Peak Oil hoaxes, this will bring our economy to a halt by 2022.

The only species that can be called overpopulated are the ones on the Endangered Species List, because their population should be zero since they couldn't cut it in this competitive world.

an actual course at the university of texas? | Why are humans in such a state of total denial ("temporal blindness") about what we are doing to this planet?

People are becoming aware of some of the many consequences of overpopulation, but most still refuse to recognize the underlying causes: an economic system based on perpetual growth, and too many people. Just as the pharmaceutical industry targets symptomatic relief for man-made ailments rather than addressing underlying root causes, widespread attention to the many spin offs from growthmania and overpopulation diverts attention away from the real problems.

Monday, December 21, 2009

can obama stop america's gas-guzzling ways?

Spiegel | Never before has a US government been as serious in its warnings against the dangers of climate change as the Obama administration. But Americans are divided: Half of them regard climate protection policies as socialist, and half want to save the world. Can Obama make America go green?

There are two Americas that don't talk to each other. In fact, these two Americas -- Las Vegas on the one side, Berkeley on the other -- despise and ridicule each other.

"We have always been a sprawling country full of contradictions, but nowadays an issue like climate change has turned into something of a sport," says Kiser. "The one team is for climate protection and the other team is for industry. The fans root for their respective teams and hate the others."

In other words, when one side says that the Earth is getting warmer, the other side disagrees, purely out of principle. The same dynamic applies to all major issues in the United States. If one side seeks to promote healthcare reform and legislation to protect the climate, the other side equates both goals with socialism and characterizes a president who advocates both as a new Hitler. America has become a country paralyzed by self-loathing. The United States is now a republic of bloggers and talk radio, a country of shouting citizens and an eternal presidential election campaign, full of paranoid, spoiled and self-righteous people. They tend to become entrenched in their issues because the legislative branch is so complicated, with its two houses of Congress, in which it takes clear majorities to pass any legislation -- majorities that rarely materialize. Deep divisions within society have led to an American sluggishness in the last decade and are increasingly limiting the country's ability to act.

The question is: How can this be changed? Assuming that one side is indeed right this time -- not just because the existence of climate change has been proven without a doubt, but also because it is abundantly clear that the United States has played a bigger role in bringing about climate change than any other country -- how can politics and the way American society thinks and acts be changed? And how quickly?

Anyone in the country who pays attention to the issues surrounding climate change is familiar with the data. The average North American is responsible for more than 19 tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year, more than twice as much as the average European and four times as much as the average Chinese. If the global community intends to limit the warming of the planet to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the year 2050, "America must lead," says President Barack Obama. "If we do nothing, the efforts of the rest of the world will never be sufficient," says environmental activist and former US Vice President Al Gore.

why are virtually all climate "sceptics" men?

BBCNews | The question first came to mind on the plane to Copenhagen last week while scanning The Guardian's feature on movers and shakers in the "sceptical" field.

Bjorn LomborgSo we go down their list... Bjorn Lomborg, Viscount Monckton, former TV presenter David Bellamy, British National Party leader Nick Griffin, Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Lord Lawson, social anthropologist Benny Peiser, geologist Ian Plimer, US Senator James Inhofe, Czech President Vaclav Klaus... all men.

It's a marked contrast to the world of mainstream climate science, which boasts a number of eminent female practitioners including IPCC lead authors Susan Solomon and Cynthia Rosenzweig; and to the world of UN climate talks, where many delegations include, and are led by, women, including the UK's negotiating team.

The renowned environmental commentator Charles Clover noted the trend recently in The Times, writing of "... the born-again climate sceptic, the kind of man (always a man, almost invariably wearing a tweed jacket) who now materialises beside me at parties and confides that he has been having second thoughts about climate change".

So what's going on? Why is this issue such a gender-divider?

You might think it's a trite question; but I would argue it's not, for the following reason.

There are two distinct views of why climate scepticism exists in the way it does today.

One - promulgated by many sceptics themselves - speaks to a rigorous, analytical deconstruction of a deeply-flawed scientific edifice that is maintained by a self-interested cabal of tax-hungry politicians and careerist scientists.

The other is that climate scepticism has psychological roots; that it stems from a deep-seated inability or unwillingness to accept the overwhelming evidence that humanity has built with coal and lubricated with oil its own handcart whose destination board reads "climate hell".

As one ex-scientist and now climate action advocate put it to me rather caustically a while back: "I've been debating the science with them for years, but recently I realised we shouldn't be talking about the science but about something unpleasant that happened in their childhood".

Perhaps an answer to the gender issue will help illuminate this much bigger and politically significant question.

global warming's six americas

AmericanProgress | There are six unique segments of the American public that each engage with the issue of global warming in their own distinct way. Just over half of American adults (51 percent) are either Alarmed or Concerned about global warming, and these individuals are poised to vote on the issue with their pocket books and at the ballot box.

The Alarmed (18 percent of the U.S. adult population) are the segment most engaged in the issue of global warming. They are very convinced it is happening, human-caused, and a serious and urgent threat. The Alarmed are already making changes in their own lives and support an aggressive national response (see graphs below).

The Concerned (33 percent) are also convinced that global warming is a serious problem and support a vigorous national response. Members of this group have signaled their intention to at least engage in consumer action on global warming in the near term, but they are less personally involved in the issue and have taken fewer actions than the Alarmed.

The Cautious (19 percent) also believe that global warming is a problem, although they are less certain that it is happening than the Alarmed or the Concerned. They do not view it as a personal threat, and do not feel a sense of urgency to deal with it.

The Disengaged (12 percent) do not know and have not thought much about the issue at all and say that they could easily change their minds about global warming.

The Doubtful (11 percent) are evenly split among those who think global warming is happening, those who think it isn’t, and those who do not know. Many within this group believe that if global warming is happening, it is caused by natural changes in the environment. They believe that it won’t harm people for many decades, if at all, and they say that America is already doing enough to respond to the threat.

The Dismissive (7 percent), like the Alarmed, are actively engaged in the issue, but are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Most members of this group believe that global warming is not happening, is not a threat to either people or non-human nature, and strongly believe that it does not warrant a national response.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

are we recipients of our DNA, or caretakers of it?

WaPo | Two mice. One weighs 20 grams and has brown fur. The other is a hefty 60 grams with yellow fur and is prone to diabetes and cancer. They're identical twins, with identical DNA.

So what accounts for the differences?

It turns out that their varying traits are controlled by a mediator between nature and nurture known as epigenetics. A group of molecules that sit atop our DNA, the epigenome (which means "above the genome") tells genes when to turn on and off. Duke University's Randy Jirtle made one of the mice brown and one yellow by altering their epigenetics in utero through diet. The mother of the brown, thin mouse was given a dietary supplement of folic acid, vitamin B12 and other nutrients while pregnant, and the mother of the obese mouse was not. (Though the mice had different mothers, they're genetically identical as a result of inbreeding.) The supplement "turned off" the agouti gene, which gives mice yellow coats and insatiable appetites.

"If you look at these animals and realize they're genetically identical but at 100 days old some of them are yellow, obese and have diabetes and you don't appreciate the importance of epigenetics in disease, there's frankly no hope for you," Jirtle says.

He offers this analogy: The genome is a computer's hardware, and the epigenome is the software that tells it what to do.

Epigenomes vary greatly among species, Jirtle explains, so we cannot assume that obesity in humans is preventable with prenatal vitamins. But his experiment is part of a growing body of research that has some scientists rethinking humans' genetic destinies. Is our hereditary fate -- bipolar disorder or cancer at age 70, for example -- sealed upon the formation of our double helices, or are there things we can do to change it? Are we recipients of our DNA, or caretakers of it?

beliefs are structures in the brain...,

Salon | I was called to see an intensive care patient who believed his food was being poisoned. Say what you want about hospital food, but I don’t believe anyone is actually putting poison in it. Patients say goofy things in the ICU. Most of the time the nurses are fairly tolerant of it, but when a patient starts getting physically aggressive, I often get called.

What most upset the family, however, was that this was completely new behavior for this individual. Until recently, he had been a healthy, “normal” guy, with no history of psychiatric illness which might explain his paranoid thoughts. But his ordinary life recently had been interrupted when he fell from a ladder and struck the side of his head on concrete. Initially he refused medical attention. Who wouldn’t have a headache after knocking their noggin on the driveway? But when the headaches got worse, he agreed to be seen in the ER. A CT scan of the brain suggested blood was collecting between the lining of his skull, the dura, and his brain. With alarming rapidity, the patient slipped into unconsciousness. A neurosurgeon was quickly consulted.

In the operating room, a burr hole revealed a dark thundercloud of black blood building on the patient’s brain. But neurosurgeons are a cool-headed lot; the blood was quickly evacuated, and the patient just as quickly woke up. A short ICU stay and complete recovery were predicted. Then the problems with the food started.

Blood, like any other fluid, is incompressible, and the soufflé-like tissue of the brain is no match for it when it is unleashed inside the skull. As the blood pooled, the patient’s right temporal lobe was pushed inward. Unfortunately, deep inside the skull the thick and tough dura forms a scimitar edge called the tentorium. This pushed against the patient’s compressed temporal lobe like a knife held against his throat, distorting his reality circuits, so to speak, and leading to his newly paranoid interpretation of reality.

Complex animals, if they hope to thrive, must possess the ability to extract reality from the deluge of sensory and memory information flooding their brains at any moment. Deep within the mammalian brain are large islands of neurons interconnected by bundles of nerve fibers, great reiterative loops which are responsible both for determining reality and then motivating some sort of behavior to act on that reality. No rational cortex is needed to make the immediate, essentially visceral decisions at life’s critical moments: is something safe or dangerous? Is that something I want and need, or something that I am better off to avoid?

Evolution is economical; once a solution evolves for a problem, there is little need for a completely separate solution to evolve in succeeding generations to solve the same problem. Humans possess a mammalian brain, one that solves problems in the same way as in other mammals. Our capacity for rational, imaginative thought is superimposed on our mammalian brain, but does not replace it. In other words, our capacity to determine reality and to make survival decisions is a product of that mammalian brain, and not of our uniquely human neocortex. Paul MacLean, the neuroscientist who pioneered our understanding of the emotion-generating structures of the brain, wrote that these structures are responsible for “a sense of self, of reality, and the memory of ongoing experience...” They alone are responsible for creating “a conviction as to what is true or false.”

Saturday, December 19, 2009

the "narcoterrorism" narrative

NYTimes | Federal prosecutors on Friday charged three West Africans with plotting to transport tons of cocaine across Africa in concert with Al Qaeda, using for the first time against that group a 2006 law aimed at drug trafficking that aids terrorism.

Federal officials say the case promises to peel back what they contend are increasing ties between drug traffickers and Al Qaeda as the terrorist group seeks to finance its operations in Africa and elsewhere. The case focused on a criminal organization in Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa that investigators believe worked with Al Qaeda, moving drugs to North Africa and on to Europe.

The case was based in some measure on the work of two informants, paid by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, who posed as representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a Colombian rebel group that has taken advantage of lax enforcement and corruption to use Africa as a significant transshipment route to Europe. As part of the investigation, one of the informants approached the defendants, according to the complaint, saying he was seeking help in setting up a network to smuggle cocaine across the continent.

Over the course of the four-month investigation, federal drug agents secretly recorded and videotaped the three West African men, who said they were associated with Al Qaeda and had transported drugs and provided support to the group in the past. Federal law enforcement officials, however, said the inquiry had uncovered no independent evidence that corroborated their statements.

The three men believed that they were helping the informants set up the trafficking network to move what they thought was FARC’s cocaine from Ghana to the deserts of North Africa to Spain, the drugs’ ultimate destination, according to the complaint.

“Today’s allegations reflect the emergence of a worrisome alliance between Al Qaeda and transnational narcotics traffickers,” Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said in a statement announcing the arrests. “As terrorists diversify into drugs, however, they provide us with more opportunities to incapacitate them and cut off the funding for future acts of terror.”

The three defendants, all from Mali and believed to be in their 30s, were taken into custody in Ghana on Wednesday and flown to the United States on Thursday night, officials said.

Identified as Oumar Issa, Harouna Touré and Idriss Abelrahman, they were charged with conspiracy to commit narcoterrorism and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorist groups: Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the FARC.

teabagger high-command..,

Boston | IN EARLY November, thousands of protesters descended on Capitol Hill to hear Representative Michele Bachmann decry House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “takeover’’ of health care. As they disembarked from their buses, they were greeted with doughnuts and coffee, and handed protest signs and talking points about socialized medicine. Few of the protesters were aware that a right-wing billionaire had paid for the meals, buses, or salaries of the helpful guides. On the same day, this rich proprietor was toasted by Manhattan’s fashionable socialites during the City Opera’s opening night, where he was lauded for his support.

David Koch, an oil and gas billionaire who is the ninth-richest person in the United States, according to Forbes magazine, was simultaneously responsible for a $100 million refurbished opera house and a protest that featured signs comparing health reform to the Holocaust. The two sides to Koch’s activism aren’t unique - they harken to a long tradition of conservative tycoons who were great philanthropists with one hand and ruthless powerbrokers with the other. But Koch’s hidden presence in the health care debate illustrates the extent to which the Old Right is creating - and then hiding behind - the grassroots fervor of middle-class opponents of health reform.

Across the New York social circuit, Koch is hailed for his donations to reputable causes, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But for years, Koch has also been funneling tens of millions of dollars to more subterranean efforts that reflect his conservative politics. His flagship group, Americans for Prosperity, sponsored Bachmann’s rally against health care reform. Although the Lincoln Center’s State Theater is now called the David H. Koch Theater, none of Koch’s right-wing fronts bear his name.

Americans for Prosperity is leading the way in channeling recession-era distress into anger at President Obama. This “grassroots’’ group has orchestrated many of the tea party protests, as well as steering activists into disrupting town hall meetings of Democratic members of Congress. Americans for Prosperity’s tactics are not new. Just as Koch inherited his oil business from his father, Americans for Prosperity borrows from the ultra-right group also founded in part by his dad, the John Birch Society.

Conceived by Robert Welch and a small group of conservative industrialists, including Fred Koch - David’s father and the namesake of the family firm of Koch Industries - the John Birch Society cloaked its pro-business, anti-civil rights agenda in the rhetoric of the Cold War.

The Birch Society battled communism by labeling President Kennedy a traitor who had to be impeached, denounced taxes as a creeping red menace, and attacked the forces of racial integration as being directed by the Kremlin.

Cushioned with large donations from Koch and others, the Birch Society helped propel Barry Goldwater to the Republican nomination in 1964 and helped Republicans make gains in the congressional midterms of 1966.

Like Americans for Prosperity, the John Birch Society rarely acknowledged its funding from the very rich. Instead, it depicted itself as a citizens group merely interested in American ideals of freedom. Rather than argue the policy nuances of entitlement programs or new regulations, the Birch Society marshaled opposition by depicting progressive reform as capitulation to the Soviet Union. In that polarized environment, the interests of millionaires suddenly became aligned with patriotic families who wanted to do their part against the communist threat.

Shortly after the Birch Society faded, David Koch founded Americans for Prosperity in 1984 (then known as Citizens for a Sound Economy). Americans for Prosperity still portrays itself as a defender of freedom and the average Joe. On the Americans for Prosperity website, financial regulations, health reform, net neutrality, and the estate tax are all assailed as forms of socialism.

While David Koch is celebrated as a patron of New York opera, his Americans for Prosperity donations have gone largely unsung. With his millions, he will not only have saved this year’s performance of the “Nutcracker,’’ but also contributed greatly to the obstruction of universal health care, the denial of climate change, and the derailment of much of President Obama’s domestic agenda.

His dad would be pleased.

Do What I Do - ENJOY THE CHASE - And Stay Amused....,

  "Many years ago I was convinced the Heisenberg uncertainty principle was incomplete, and people shouldn't just believe it becaus...