Monday, November 08, 2010


Ode | In Quezon City, a new approach to funding funerals is just one way the Inner City Development Cooperative is bringing fresh life to this impoverished neighborhood of Manila, the capital of the Philippines.

The Inner City Development Cooperative (ICDC) offers microcredit loans, training in business skills and financial literacy, health care support, emergency programs and other services to urban squatter communities like the one in Quezon City. ICDC’s membership is comprised of more than 3,000 “urban settlers” who live in scavenged metal shacks with dirt floors built with materials gathered from nearby garbage dumps.

Eufrecina De Jesus, ICDC’s founder and director, says the cooperative model—in which the employees are also the owners of a company—is the only solution for combining the power of business with the social goal of solidarity. And ICDC’s low-cost memorial service is one way the co-op has been making a big difference.

“Funerals are an important part of our culture, yet are very expensive for the urban poor,” says De Jesus. Before the ICDC program, “many members turned to loan sharks and went deeply in debt burying loved ones. Now, as members of a co-op, they can purchase funerals that cost dramatically less than other options.”

But ICDC services don’t stop there. The co-op is expanding its activities through strategic partnerships, including an alliance with the Global Initiative to Advance Entrepreneurship (GIVE) to establish a cooperative that will provide business mentoring, socially responsible outsourcing and affordable childcare to single-parent entrepreneurs. (Full disclosure: The author is the founder of GIVE.)

The economic meltdown and subsequent global recession have exposed crucial flaws in the way the economy operates, foremost among them the realization that economic growth alone isn’t enough; to be sustainable, growth must be harnessed to social goals. Co-ops have been tying the two together since the late 18th century, when the ventures started appearing as a way for city dwellers to secure affordable food during the Industrial Revolution.

Given the economic predicament, co-op advocates believe it’s once again time for the model to shine. “If you take a look at the cooperatives when they’ve really excelled, and when people have been drawn to cooperatives, it’s when there’s economic or social upheaval,” notes Paul Hazen, president and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA). Increasingly, co-ops are stepping in to address current economic and social upheaval, especially in sectors in which the market and governments are unable to meet human needs.

In the U.S., Benjamin Franklin established one of the earliest co-ops, in 1752. It survives to this day as The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire, the oldest fire insurance company and cooperative in the nation. Co-ops grew through the Great Depression and the New Deal, most notably in delivering electricity to rural areas.

Since the late 1960s, a wave of cooperatives have emerged as communities joined together to create businesses that stocked natural foods. But contrary to widespread belief, co-ops are not mere vestiges of the counterculture. They range in size and scope from small local storefront businesses to large Fortune 500 companies serving more than 750 million people worldwide.

In many countries, cooperatives are nationally respected brands, including the Danish butter Lurpak; Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte and the Crédit Agricole bank in France; Edeka, the largest supermarket corporation in Germany; the Dutch dairy producer and distributor Campina; and Jarlsberg Cheese in Norway. In the U.S., Land O’Lakes, Sunkist, Ocean Spray and Ace Hardware are all co-ops.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

shooting for the sun

The Atlantic | In March 2003, the independent inventor Lonnie Johnson faced a roomful of high-level military scientists at the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Virginia. Johnson had traveled there from his home in Atlanta, seeking research funding for an advanced heat engine he calls the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter, or JTEC (pronounced “jay-tek”). At the time, the JTEC was only a set of mathematical equations and the beginnings of a prototype, but Johnson had made the tantalizing claim that his device would be able to turn solar heat into electricity with twice the efficiency of a photovoltaic cell, and the Office of Naval Research wanted to hear more.

Projected onto the wall was a PowerPoint collage summing up some highlights of Johnson’s career: risk assessment he’d done for the space shuttle Atlantis; work on the nuclear power source for NASA’s Galileo spacecraft; engineering help on the tests that led to the first flight of the B-2 stealth bomber; the development of an energy-dense ceramic battery; and the invention of a remarkable, game-changing weapon that had made him millions of dollars—a weapon that at least one of the men in the room, the father of two small children, recognized immediately as the Super Soaker squirt gun.

Mild-mannered and bespectacled, Johnson opened his presentation by describing the idea behind the JTEC. The device, he explained, would split hydrogen atoms into protons and electrons, and in so doing would convert heat into electricity. Most radically, it would do so without the help of any moving parts. Johnson planned to tell his audience that the JTEC could produce electricity so efficiently that it might make solar power competitive with coal, and perhaps at last fulfill the promise of renewable solar energy. But before he reached that part of his presentation, Richard Carlin, then the head of the Office of Naval Research’s mechanics and energy conversion division, rose from his chair and dismissed Johnson’s brainchild outright. The whole premise for the device relied on a concept that had proven impractical, Carlin claimed, citing a 1981 report co-written by his mentor, the highly regarded electrochemist Robert Osteryoung. Go read the Osteryoung report, Carlin said, and you will see.

End of meeting.

Concerned about what he might have missed in the literature, Johnson returned home and read the inch-thick report, concluding that it addressed an approach quite different from his own. Carlin, it seems, had rejected the concept before fully comprehending it. (When I reached Carlin by phone recently, he said he did not remember the meeting, but he is familiar with the JTEC concept and now thinks that the “principles are fine.”) Nor was Carlin alone at the time. Wherever Johnson pitched the JTEC, the reaction seemed to be the same: no engine could convert heat to electricity at such high efficiency rates without the use of moving parts.

Johnson believed otherwise. He felt that what had doomed his presentation to the Office of Naval Research—and others as well—was a collective failure of imagination. It didn’t help that he was best known as a toy inventor, nor that he was working outside the usual channels of the scientific establishment. Johnson was stuck in a Catch-22: to prove his idea would work, he needed a more robust prototype, one able to withstand the extreme heat of concentrated sunlight. But he couldn’t build such a prototype without research funding. What he needed was a new pitch. Instead of presenting the JTEC as an engine, he would frame it as a high-temperature hydrogen fuel cell, a device that produces electricity chemically rather than mechanically, by stripping hydrogen atoms of their electrons. The description was only partially apt: though both devices use similar components, fuel cells require a constant supply of hydrogen; the JTEC, by contrast, contains a fixed amount of hydrogen sealed in a chamber, and needs only heat to operate. Still, in the fuel-cell context, the device’s lack of moving parts would no longer be a conceptual stumbling block.

Indeed, Johnson had begun trying out this new pitch two months before his naval presentation, in a written proposal he submitted to the Air Force Research Laboratory’s peer-review panel. The reaction, when it came that May, couldn’t have been more different. “Funded just like that,” he told me, snapping his fingers, “because they understood fuel cells—the technology, the references, the literature. The others couldn’t get past this new engine concept.” The Air Force gave Johnson $100,000 for membrane research, and in August 2003 sent a program manager to Johnson’s Atlanta laboratory. “We make a presentation about the JTEC, and he says”—here Johnson, who is black, puts on a Bill-Cosby-doing-a-white-guy voice—“‘Wow, this is exciting!’” A year later, after Johnson had proved he could make a ceramic membrane capable of withstanding temperatures above 400 degrees Celsius, the Air Force gave him an additional $750,000 in funding. Fist tap Dale.

the civil war's unteachable unreachable losers

WaPo | The North was bustling with new technologies and with what Isaiah Berlin would call a "new race of propagandists -- artists, poets, priests of a new secular religion, mobilizing men's emotions, without which the new industrial world could not be made to function."

Among those propagandists was Carl Schurz, a German revolutionary who would serve Lincoln as an ambassador and a general and who said to slaveholders in 1860: "You stand against a hopeful world, alone against a great century, fighting your hopeless fight . . . against the onward march of civilization."

Slavery, abolished in Mexico in 1829, throughout the British Empire beginning in 1833, and much of South America by the 1850s, stood athwart that onward march, that powerful, determining force of History.

The Southern argument
Against this idea, what could the South oppose? "Of 143 important inventions patented in the United States from 1790 to 1860, 93 percent came out of the free states," historian James McPherson wrote in "Battle Cry of Freedom." The South had less than a fifth of the country's industrial capacity, and despite periodic wake-up calls and exhortations to invest in infrastructure, it was greatly deficient in canals and railroads. Its "defensive-aggressive" temper in the 1850s, McPherson wrote, "stemmed in part from a sense of economic subordination to the North."

The South could appeal to the Constitution, which protected slavery. But Lincoln -- who had repeatedly said that although he abhorred slavery, he opposed only its extension -- had already assured them he wouldn't violate that protection. They could claim that slaves, as property, were better treated than Northern workers who were at the mercy of the market; but that meant that slaves were merely tools and less than human. They could appeal to Southern Honor, which seemed to mean the right to be left alone, but even that idea of honor was outdated. Southern Honor was hierarchical, almost feudal, and increasingly arcane in a world that, as Kwame Anthony Appiah demonstrates in his recent book, "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen," had come to base honor more on merit, esteem and shared human dignity.

The South did, however, have anger, and as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "angry parties went from bad to worse." Frequently in the writing of Lincoln, a lawyer, logician and the only president with a registered patent, one senses that he was arguing into the void. Shortly after the 1860 election, Lincoln's friend Joshua Speed, a Southern sympathizer (though ultimately loyal), wrote, "The eyes of the whole nation will be upon you, while unfortunately the ears of one half of it will be closed to any thing you might say." Lincoln, quoting the biblical book of Ezekiel, said the South "has eyes but does not see, and ears but does not hear." Before he even took office, the South had become "a whirlwind" of secession fever, and History was in motion.

revising history but still gettin that gubmint cheese...,

Video - Haley Barbour's new fake history of the south.

NYTimes | Traditional Southern Republicanism is socially conservative and assertively pro-business, characterized by an aversion to taxes, regulation, abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control.

But while its politicians have long held forth against the federal government, the South remains heavily dependent on federal largesse in the form of farm subsidies, defense contracts and aid for its large concentrations of poor people. More than a few Southern Republicans who railed against the federal stimulus package accepted the money anyway.

The Tea Party brand of conservatism is less tolerant of this wink-and-nod approach to government spending and places a lower priority on social issues.

It has some echoes of the small-government gospel that was preached by Mr. Yerger and other pioneers of the modern Republican Party in the South, who found few Southerners sympathetic to their condemnation of the New Deal. Many of them initially viewed social issues like segregation as tactical stands worth taking to draw disaffected Democrats to their free-market agenda, according to Joseph Crespino, a professor at Emory who has studied the rise of conservative politics in Mississippi.

How the small-government fundamentalists of the Tea Party fit into the mainstream Southern Republican Party remains to be seen.

“This could be a very fleeting experience for the Republican Party, if they ignore us,” said Kevin Desmond, a director of the Patriots of East Tennessee, a local Tea Party group. “When Lamar Alexander, the senator here in Tennessee, comes up for election in 2014, I think he’s going to have his hands full.”

There are other signs that the realignment might not be permanent. Growing Latino populations in Florida and Texas, and in Georgia and South Carolina, could rearrange the political map again before too long.

election nearly wipes out southern democrats

WaPo | The white Southern Democrat - endangered since the 1960s civil rights era - is sliding nearer to extinction.

After this week's elections, the Democratic Party barely holds a presence in the region outside of majority-black urban areas such as Atlanta and Memphis. The carnage for the party was particularly brutal in the Deep South, where just one white Democrat survived across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

The Republicans' effort to win over the South, rooted decades ago in a strategy to capitalize on white voters' resentment of desegregation, is all but complete.

"Right now in most of Dixie it is culturally unacceptable to be a Democrat. It's a damn shame, but that's the way it is," said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a campaign strategist for conservative Democrats such as Jim Webb of Virginia, one of the few remaining Southern Democratic senators.

The losses were particularly disappointing for the party after the baby steps it made in the South in 2006 and 2008, when it picked up a host of Republican-leaning House districts and won Senate seats in North Carolina and Virginia. Many thought the party had learned its lessons and had begun to reverse recent history by nominating conservative candidates who hit the right notes on divisive social issues such as abortion and smaller government.

The setback continues a four-decade decline for Democrats in the South, where they once dominated. The slide began after the civil rights movement, when Republicans under President Richard Nixon began employing a Southern strategy to retake the region by appealing to white anger over desegregation. The GOP later highlighted liberal Democratic positions on social and welfare issues. Fist tap Nana.

lost vegas redux

Last year it was 400, now it's estimated at 1000. The tunnel people of Las Vegas: How 1,000 live in flooded labyrinth under Sin City's shimmering strip. A year later, the subterranean city of Lost Vegas continues to grow.

Daily Mail | Steven was forced into the tunnels three years ago after his heroin addiction led to him losing his job.

He says he is now clean and the pair survive by ‘credit hustling’ in the casinos, donning second-hand clothes to check the slot machines for chips accidently left behind.

Astonishingly, Steven claims he once found $997 (£609) on one machine.

Further into the maze are Amy and Junior who married in the Shalimar Chapel – one of Vegas’s most popular venues - before returning to the tunnels for their honeymoon.

They lost their home when they became addicted to drugs after the death of their son Brady at four months old.

‘I heard Las Vegas was a good place for jobs,’ Amy said. ‘But it was tough and we started living under the staircase outside the MGM casino.

‘Then we met a guy who lived in the tunnels. We’ve been down here ever since.’

Matthew O’Brien, a reporter who stumbled across the tunnel people when he was researching a murder case, has set up The Shine A Light foundation to help.

the american dream is over...,

Spiegel | Apple Blossom Drive, on the outskirts of Fort Myers, Florida, is a road to nowhere. The retirees, all the dreamers who wanted to claim their slice of the American dream in return for all the years they had worked in a Michigan factory or a New York City office, won't be coming. Not to Apple Blossom Drive and not to any of the other deserted streets which, with their pretty names and neat landscaping, were supposed to herald freedom and prosperity as the ultimate destination of the American journey, and now exude the same feeling of sadness as the industrial ruins of Detroit.

Florida was the finale of the American dream, a promise, a symbol, an American heaven on earth, because Florida held out the prospect of spending 10, perhaps 20 and hopefully 30 years living in one's own house. For decades, anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 people moved to the state each year. The population grew and grew -- and so too did real estate prices and the assets of those who were already there and wanted bigger houses and even bigger dreams. Florida was a seemingly never-ending boom machine.

Could the Dream Be Over?
Until it all ended. Now people are leaving the state. Florida's population decreased by 58,000 in 2009. Some members of the same American middle class who had once planned to spend their golden years lying under palm trees are now lined up in front of soup kitchens. In Lee County on Florida's southwest coast, 80,000 people need government food stamps to make ends meet -- four times as many as in 2006. Unemployment figures are sharply on the rise in the state, which has now come to symbolize the decline of the America Dream, or perhaps even its total failure, its naïveté. Could the dream, in fact, be over?

Americans have lived beyond their means for decades. It was a culture long defined by a mantra of entitlement, one that promised opportunities for all while ignoring the risks. Relentless and seemingly unstoppable upward mobility was the secular religion of the United States. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, established the so-called ownership society, while Congress and the White House helped free it of the constraints of laws and regulations.

The dream was the country's driving force. It made Florida, Hollywood and the riches of Goldman Sachs possible, and it attracted millions of immigrants. Now, however, Americans are discovering that there are many directions that life can take, and at least one of them points downward. The conviction that stocks have always made everyone richer has become as much of a chimera in the United States as the belief that everyone has the right to own his own home, and then a bigger home, a second car and maybe even a yacht. But at some point, everything comes to an end.

The United States is a confused and fearful country in 2010. American companies are still world-class, but today Apple and Coca-Cola, Google and Microsoft are investing in Asia, where labor is cheap and markets are growing, and hardly at all in the United States. Some 47 percent of Americans don't believe that the America Dream is still realistic.

Loud and Distressed
The Desperate States of America are loud and distressed. The country has always been a little paranoid, but now it's also despondent, hopeless and pessimistic. Americans have always believed in the country's capacity for regeneration, that a new awakening is possible at any time. Now, 63 percent of Americans don't believe that they will be able to maintain their current standard of living.

And if America is indeed on the downward slope, it will have consequences for the global economy and the political world order.

The fall of America doesn't have to be a complete collapse -- it is, after all, a country that has managed to reinvent itself many times before. But today it's no longer certain -- or even likely -- that everything will turn out fine in the end. The United States of 2010 is dysfunctional, but in new ways. The entire interplay of taxes and investments is out of joint because a 16,000-page tax code allows for far too many loopholes and because solidarity is no longer part of the way Americans think. The political system, plagued by lobbyism and stark hatred, is incapable of reaching consistent or even quick decisions.

The country is reacting strangely irrationally to the loss of its importance -- it is a reaction characterized primarily by rage. Significant portions of America simply want to return to a supposedly idyllic past. They devote almost no effort to reflection, and they condemn cleverness and intellect as elitist and un-American, as if people who hunt bears could seriously be expected to lead a world power. Demagogues stir up hatred and rage on television stations like Fox News. These parts of America, majorities in many states, ignorant of globalization and the international labor market, can do nothing but shout. They hate everything that is new and foreign to them.

But will the US wake up? Or is it already much too late?

the great american cleaving

NYTimes | We now stand in the twilight of American moderation.

We have retreated to our respective political corners and armed ourselves in an ideological standoff over the very meaning of America, having diametrically opposed interpretations of its past and visions for its future. Talking across the table has been reduced to yelling across the chasm.

Welcome to the Great American Cleaving.

According to exit polls, Tuesday’s vote continued a trend, reaching a record low percentage of self-described liberals who voted for Republican candidates for the House of Representatives, and a record low percentage of conservatives who voted for Democratic candidates. Ideology is slowly becoming rigidly prescriptive and political transcendence is becoming less and less possible or admirable.

Even the moderates, who tend to vote slightly more Democratic, set a record: the lowJustify Fullest percentage of moderates voting in House races. In fact, this is the first time in the history of exit polling that moderates were not the largest ideological voting block. They were trumped by conservatives.

Instead of moving toward the middle, we are drifting toward the extremes.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

sapolsky on toxoplasmosis

Google Video - Robert Sapolsky on Toxoplasmosis

It's been a minute since I touched on the issue of behavior and parasitism, in this case, human behavior and parasitism. But I saw something on the programmer's stone list last night that gave me occasion to take a quick excursion back down this rabbit hole.

Edge | TOXO [ROBERT SAPOLSKY:] In the endless sort of struggle that neurobiologists have — in terms of free will, determinism — my feeling has always been that there's not a whole lot of free will out there, and if there is, it's in the least interesting places and getting more sparse all the time. But there's a whole new realm of neuroscience which I've been thinking about, which I'm starting to do research on, that throws in another element of things going on below the surface affecting our behavior. And it's got to do with this utterly bizarre world of parasites manipulating our behavior. It turns out that this is not all that surprising. There are all sorts of parasites out there that get into some organism, and what they need to do is parasitize the organism and increase the likelihood that they, the parasite, will be fruitful and multiply, and in some cases they can manipulate the behavior of the host.

Some of these are pretty astounding. There's this barnacle that rides on the back of some crab and is able to inject estrogenic hormones into the crab if the crab is male, and at that point, the male's behavior becomes feminized. The male crab digs a hole in the sand for his eggs, except he has no eggs, but the barnacle sure does, and has just gotten this guy to build a nest for him. There are other ones where wasps parasitize caterpillars and get them to defend the wasp's nests for them. These are extraordinary examples.

The parasite my lab is beginning to focus on is one in the world of mammals, where parasites are changing mammalian behavior. It's got to do with this parasite, this protozoan called Toxoplasma. If you're ever pregnant, if you're ever around anyone who's pregnant, you know you immediately get skittish about cat feces, cat bedding, cat everything, because it could carry Toxo. And you do not want to get Toxoplasma into a fetal nervous system. It's a disaster.

sapolsky on religion

Video - Part 1 of Dr. Robert Sapolsky's fascinating assessment of western irrationality.

Video - Part 2 of Dr. Robert Sapolsky's lecture on western irrationality.

Other important points made by Professor Sapolsky on the fact that religion is an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Obviously it must be installed in the human mind, since not only religion is an OCD, but an addiction for many other people. Notice how many people are on drugs, alcohol, and they come clean thanks to religion, why? Because they substituted one addiction, for another.
Interesting also the point he makes, the top four religious prescriptions are the same as the top 4 OCDs:

1.cleansing of the body preparation
3.entering and leaving religious places

It would be interesting also to study human beings with hippocampus damage, to see if they are more superstitious, and consequently more easily enslaved by the lies invented by religions. Lets hope Christians never read neurology books, otherwise it could be the start of the next inquisition!

Friday, November 05, 2010

wikileaks the smear and the denial

medialens | “Journalists don't like WikiLeaks”, Hugo Rifkind notes in The Times, but “the people who comment online under articles do... Maybe you've noticed, and been wondering why. I certainly have.” (Hugo Rifkind Notebook, ‘Remind me. It's the red one I mustn't press, right?,’ The Times, October 26, 2010)

Rifkind is right. The internet has revealed a chasm separating the corporate media from readers and viewers. Previously, the divide was hidden by the simple fact that Rifkind’s journalists - described accurately by Peter Wilby as the “unskilled middle class” - monopolised the means of mass communication. Dissent was restricted to a few lonely lines on the letter’s page, if that. Readers were free to vote with their notes and coins, of course. But in reality, when it comes to the mainstream media, the public has always been free to choose any colour it likes, so long as it’s corporate ‘black’. The internet is beginning to offer some brighter colours.

If Rifkind is confused, answers can be found between the lines of his own analysis:

“With WikiLeaks, with the internet at large, power is democratised, but responsibility remains the preserve of professionals.”

This echoes Lord Castlereagh’s insistence that "persons exercising the power of the press" should be "men of some respectability and property". (Quoted, James Curran and Jean Seaton, Power Without Responsibility - The Press And Broadcasting in Britain, Routledge, 1991, p.13)

And it is with exactly this version of “responsibility” that non-corporate commentators are utterly fed up. We are, for example, tired of the way even the most courageous individuals challenging even the most appalling crimes of state are smeared as “irresponsible”.

Thus, Rifkind describes WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as “a frighteningly amoral figure”. In truth, journalists find Assange a frighteningly +moral+ figure. Someone willing to make an enemy of the world’s leading rogue state in order to expose the truth about the horrors it has inflicted on Afghanistan and Iraq is frightening to the compromised, semi-autonomous employees of corporate power. Assange’s courage is the antidote to their poison.

A separate Times editorial comments:
“Nowhere in WikiLeaks's self-serving self publicity is there a judgment of what the organisation is achieving for the Iraqi nation, and what it hopes to achieve... Its personnel are partisans intervening in the security affairs of Western democracies and their allies, with a culpable heedlessness of human life.” (Leader, ‘Exercise in Sanctimony; The release of military files by WikiLeaks is partisan and irresponsible,’ The Times, October 25, 2010)

Again, the truth is reversed - it is The Times, together with virtually the entire mass media, that is notable for its “heedlessness of human life”, for its endorsement of the West’s perennial policy: attack, bomb, invade, torture, kill based on any crass pretext that can be got past the public. As WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson politely told the WSWS website this week:

“The media is getting much too close to the military industry. They are not following the changing moods of the general public who are increasingly opposed to the wars.”

u.s. quantitative easing is fracturing the global economy

globalresearch | One-third of U.S. real estate is now reported to be in negative equity, as market prices have fallen behind mortgage debts. This is bad news not only for homeowners but also for their bankers, as the collateral for their mortgage loans does not cover the principal. Homeowners are walking away from their homes, and the real estate market is so thoroughly plagued with a decade of deception and outright criminal fraud that property titles themselves are losing security. And despite FBI findings that financial fraud is found in over three-quarters of the packaged mortgages they have examined, the Obama Justice Department has not sent a single bankster to jail.
Instead, the financial crooks have been placed in charge– and they are using their power over government to promote their own predatory gains, having disabled U.S. public regulatory agencies and the criminal justice system to create a new kind of centrally planned economy in the hands of banks. As Joseph Stiglitz recently observed:

In the years prior to the breaking of the bubble, the financial industry was engaged in predatory lending practices, deceptive practices. They were optimizing not in producing mortgages that were good for the American families but in maximizing fees and exploiting and predatory lending. Going and targeting the least educated, the Americans that were most easy to prey on.

We’ve had this well documented. And there was the tip of the iceberg that even in those years the FBI was identifying fraud. When they see fraud, it’s really fraud. But beneath that surface, there were practices that really should have been outlawed if they weren’t illegal.

… the banks used their political power to make sure they could get away with this [and] … that they could continue engaging in these kinds of predatory behaviors. … there's no principle. It’s money. It’s campaign contributions, lobbying, revolving door, all of those kinds of things.

… it’s like theft … A good example of that might be [former Countrywide CEO] Angelo Mozillo, who recently paid tens of millions of dollars in fines, a small fraction of what he actually earned, because he earned hundreds of millions.
The system is designed to actually encourage that kind of thing, even with the fines. … we fine them, and what is the big lesson? Behave badly, and the government might take 5% or 10% of what you got in your ill-gotten gains, but you’re still sitting home pretty with your several hundred million dollars that you have left over after paying fines that look very large by ordinary standards but look small compared to the amount that you've been able to cash in.

The fine is just a cost of doing business. It’s like a parking fine. Sometimes you make a decision to park knowing that you might get a fine because going around the corner to the parking lot takes you too much time.

I think we ought to go do what we did in the S&L [crisis] and actually put many of these guys in prison. Absolutely. These are not just white-collar crimes or little accidents. There were victims. That’s the point. There were victims all over the world. … the financial sector really brought down the global economy and if you include all of that collateral damage, it’s really already in the trillions of dollars.

This victimization of the international financial system is a consequence of the U.S. Government’s attempt to bail out the banks by re-inflating U.S. real estate, stock and bond markets at least to their former Bubble Economy levels. This is what U.S. economic policy and even its foreign policy is now all about, including de-criminalizing financial fraud. As Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner tried to defend this policy: “Americans were rightfully angry that the same firms that helped create the economic crisis got taxpayer support to keep their doors open. But the program was essential to averting a second Great Depression, stabilizing a collapsing financial system, protecting the savings of Americans [or more to the point, he means, their indebtedness] and restoring the flow of credit that is the oxygen of the economy.”

Other economists might find a more fitting analogy to be carbon dioxide and debt pollution. “Restoring the flow of credit” is simply a euphemism for keeping the existing, historically high debt levels in place rather than writing them down – and indeed, adding yet more debt (“credit”) to enable home buyers, stock market investors and others to use yet more debt leverage to bid asset prices back up to rescue the banking system from the negative equity into which it has fallen. That is what Mr. Geithner means by “stabilizing a collapsing financial system” – bailing banks out of their bad loans and making all the counterparties of AIG’s fatal financial gambles whole at 100 cents on the dollar.

The Fed theorizes that if it provides nearly free liquidity in unlimited amounts, banks will lend it out at a markup to “reflate” the economy. The “recovery” that is envisioned is one of new debt creation. This would rescue the biggest and most risk-taking banks from their negative equity, by pulling homeowners out of theirs. Housing prices could begin to soar again.

But the hoped-for new borrowing is not occurring. Instead of lending more – at least, lending at home – banks have been tightening their loan standards rather than lending more to U.S. homeowners, consumers and businesses since 2007. This has obliged debtors to start paying off the debts they earlier ran up. The U.S. saving rate has risen from zero three years ago to 3% today – mainly in the form of amortization to pay down credit-card debt, mortgage debt and other bank loans.

Instead of lending domestically, banks are sending the Fed’s tsunami of credit abroad, flooding world currency markets with cheap U.S. “keyboard credit.” The Fed’s plan is like that of the Bank of Japan after its bubble burst in 1990: The hope is that lending to speculators will enable banks to earn their way out of debt. So U.S. banks are engaging in interest-rate arbitrage (the carry trade), currency speculation, commodity speculation (driving up food and mineral prices sharply this year), and buying into companies in Asia and raw materials exporters.

By forcing up targeted currencies against the dollar, this U.S. outflow into foreign exchange speculation and asset buy-outs is financial aggression. And to add insult to injury, Mr. Geithner is accusing China of “competitive non-appreciation.” This is a euphemistic term of invective for economies seeking to maintain currency stability. It makes about as much sense as to say “aggressive self-defense.” China’s interest, of course, is to avoid taking a loss on its dollar holdings and export contracts denominated in dollars (as valued in its own domestic renminbi).

Countries on the receiving end of this U.S. financial conquest (“restoring stability” is how U.S. officials characterize it) understandably are seeking to protect themselves. Ultimately, the only serious way to do this is to erect a wall of capital controls to block foreign speculators from deranging currency and financial markets.

Changing the international financial system is by no means easy. How much of alternative do countries have, Martin Wolf recently asked. “To put it crudely,” he wrote:

the US wants to inflate the rest of the world, while the latter is trying to deflate the US. The US must win, since it has infinite ammunition: there is no limit to the dollars the Federal Reserve can create. What needs to be discussed is the terms of the world’s surrender: the needed changes in nominal exchange rates and domestic policies around the world.

stocks soar after fed prints up $600 billion

Video - Eric B. and Rakim Paid in Full.

WaPo | The Federal Reserve's aggressive action this week to boost the economy sent stocks soaring Thursday to their highest level in two years as investors expressed renewed confidence that someone in Washington was finally giving the sluggish recovery a lift.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up nearly 2 percent, erasing the last of the breathtaking losses that followed the failure of the investment bank Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and the resulting panic over a possible collapse of the global financial system. Other major U.S. stock indexes were also up sharply.

The Fed's decision to pump $600 billion into the economy through a massive program of Treasury bond purchases was a dramatic move at a time when the White House and Congress have been unable to muster a coherent policy for fueling the recovery and reducing a stubbornly high jobless rate.

Although voters in national elections Tuesday told pollsters that the economy was their biggest worry, the outcome of those contests left Congress less likely to adopt temporary tax breaks or spending increases to energize economic growth. With Republicans taking control of the House and Democrats retaining a slim majority in the Senate, a legislative stalemate over fiscal policy looms.

Republican leaders object to a round of stimulus spending and instead have vowed to slash more than $100 billion a year from the federal budget. That leaves the Fed and its chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, on their own in trying to jolt the economy and possibly puts them at odds with Republicans who have already accused the central bank of overreaching.

The Fed's task, which it plans to pursue with bond purchases over the next eight months, already carries significant risks for the economy, including the possibility of significantly greater inflation. Bernanke's job could become even more difficult - and unemployment even more intractable - if Congress tightens the national purse strings while the economy is still weak.

The Fed's action in effect grants Congress carte blanche to cut taxes or raise spending significantly without worrying about the impact of higher budget deficits on the economy. Deficit spending requires the government to borrow heavily, which in turn puts pressure on a broad range of interest rates. The central bank's bond purchases are designed specifically to lower interest rates, giving lawmakers the leeway they would need for fiscal stimulus.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

x faculties in search of application

Video - Eidetic memory with accurate graphical reproductive recall.

The eldest of the old nerd contingent - and designer builder of the failsafe mechanism - has this faculty and is fully cognizant of how it distinguishes him from his peers. He's a mechanical engineer. Back in the days when blueprints and schematics were rendered by hand - such capabilities were exceedingly highly valued. Nowadays, not so much. Fist tap Bro. Makheru.

the ants of gaia

Video - Time lapse ant farm in gel.

JoeBageant | As a small boy, I once transferred most of an anthill population from its natural digs in our front yard to a gallon jar of fresh dirt, sprinkled it with a little sugar (in the cartoons, ants are always freaks for sugar, right?) and then left the ants on their own. Of course the day came when all I had was a jar full of dry earth, ant shit and the desolation of their parched little carcasses. I'd guess that it was the lack of water that finally got 'em.

But the most interesting thing in retrospect -- if a jar of dead bugs can be called interesting -- is this: Up until the very end they seemed to be happily and obliviously busy. They constructed an ant society with all of its ant facilities, made more baby ants and did all those things ants do that the proverbial grasshopper is famous for not doing. Obviously Christian predestinationists to the last ant, they met the grasshopper's grim fate by another route, and did not look at all surprised in death.

Now you'd think that the lesson of the ants would be obvious as hell to any non-intoxicated individual with a grade school education. Never mind that many people since Malthus, as my sainted daddy would have put it, "Done drove the point in the ground and broke it clean off." Never mind that Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb was a best seller and remains a classic. Never mind that James Lovelock, the nerdish forward thinking Englishman who 99% of Americans never heard of, delivered unto us yet one more time the worst truth in human history, the Gaia Hypothesis. Which is a fancy way of saying we cannot continue to devour our planet forever because it amounts to self-cannibalism.

Lovelock also convincingly argued that, due to the side effects of this species expiration, now acknowledged as global warming, the equator will look like Mars at some point relatively soon, with the surviving 20% of humans now alive, or perhaps in the next generation, living near the North and South Poles.

As to be expected, the few very comfortable elite folks on this earth said of Lovelock: "This guy is full of shit, a nutcase being adored by a bunch of naked tattooed pagans and gloomy intellectual types," both of which number among my favorite kinds of people.

Those pagans who allowed themselves to feel and not just intellectualize about the earth's condition, and those scientists who did not require computer modeling to do simple subtraction, recognized that these are the most challenging of times in human history, "challenging" being a polite term for the fact that that humanity is gonna die off big time, if not sooner, then later. Call it the secular version of The End Times.

But not much later, in light of the brief span Homo sapiens hath shat, frolicked, killed and exceeded their MasterCard limits upon the earth, which is less than a second in geological time. Already we are on the way out because we did not have the common sense of lizards, which lasted tens of millions of years longer without so much as a calculator, much less computerized eco models.

ophidian parthenogenesis

Video - Legend of the Serpent.

BBCNews | A female boa constrictor snake has given birth to two litters of extraordinary offspring.

Evidence suggests the mother snake has had multiple virgin births, producing 22 baby snakes that have no father.

More than that, the genetic make-up of the baby snakes is unlike any previously recorded among vertebrates, the group which includes almost all animals with a backbone.

Our finding up-ends decades of scientific theory on reptile reproduction
Biologist Dr Warren Booth

Virgin births do occur among animals.

Many invertebrates, such as insects, can produce offspring asexually, without ever having mated. They usually do this by cloning themselves, producing genetically identical offspring.

But among vertebrate animals, it remains a novelty, having been documented among less than 0.1% of vertebrate species.

In 2006, scientists discovered that two komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis), the world's largest lizard species, had produced eggs that developed without being fertilised by sperm - a process called parthenogenesis.

Then in 2007, other scientists found that captive female hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna tiburo) could also reproduce without having sex.

But vertebrates generally reproduce sexually.

Not including genetic material from the father - essentially having just a single biological parent - reduces genetic diversity and makes it more difficult for organisms to adapt to, for example, changed environmental conditions or the emergence of a new disease. Fist tap Dale.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

different poop, same gut

The Scientist | For physicians and researchers alike, fecal transplants present an opportunity to gain insight into disease.

Most people might find the idea of having another person's feces injected into their intestine hard to stomach, but for those with intractable gastrointestinal problems, another person's bodily waste is all that's standing between a lifetime of severe illness and a full recovery.
Image: siteflight via stock.xchng

This therapy -- known as fecal transplants, bacteriotherapy, or human probiotic infusions -- has taken to the limelight in recent years, not only because its gross factor makes for great headlines, but in great part because of the growing epidemic of a particularly toxic strain of Clostridium difficile that has been plaguing hospitals across the U.S. for the past decade and affecting more than a quarter of a million Americans per year.

By producing sturdy spores that can linger in the intestinal tract even after repeated antibiotic treatment, C. difficile can continually give rise to new toxin-producing colonies that wreak havoc on the colon. But these colonies prove no match for fecal transplants, which boast a cure rate of up to 95 percent.

At the heart of these transplants are the trillions of microbes that inhabit the gut and have a profound impact on the host's biology -- for better or worse. As Australian gastroenterologist, Thomas Borody, jokingly puts it, "we are 10 percent human, 90 percent poo."

gut bugs affect mating

The Scientist | Differences in diet alter the composition of microbiota in Drosophila, which appears to in turn influence mate preferences -- and drive speciation. Drosophila seem to prefer to mate with other Drosophila raised on the same diet as a result of the bacteria that live in their guts, according to a study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

These apparent mate preferences, which arose after just one generation, suggest that an organism's microbiota can facilitate rapid evolution and speciation.

"It's an interesting paper," said Patty Gowaty of the University of California, Los Angeles, who did not participate in the study. "The thought that these gut bacteria could be associated with the reproductive outcomes for individuals is fascinating."

"There's a lot of emerging research these days about the physiological effects of microbiota, and changes in microbiota in response to environmental conditions," added evolutionary geneticist Paul Hohenlohe of Oregon State University, who was also not involved in the research. "This study ties that into mating preference, too."

Twenty years ago, Diane Dodd of Yale University raised Drosophila melanogaster on different media for more than 25 generations and found that those raised on starch media were more likely to mate with other starch-raised flies, while those raised on maltose were more likely to mate with maltose-raised flies.

"Nobody understood the mechanism for this, but they understood it was important because mating preference is an early stage of sexual isolation and speciation," said microbiologist Eugene Rosenberg, a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University in Israel and coauthor of the PNAS paper. "And nothing is more fundamental to evolution than the origin of species."

genetic engineering of space travelers

Video - Twilight Zone Episode Third From the Sun

LiveScience | NASA's human spaceflight program might take some giant leaps forward if the agency embraces genetic engineering techniques more fully, according to genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter.

The biologist, who established the J. Craig Venter Institute that created the world's first synthetic organism earlier this year, told a crowd here Saturday (Oct. 30) that human space exploration could benefit from more genetic screening and genetic engineering. Such efforts could help better identify individuals most suited for long space missions, as well as make space travel safer and more efficient, he said.

"I think this could change the shape of what NASA does, if you make the commitment to do it," said Venter, who led a team that decoded the human genome a decade ago. Venter spoke to a group of scientists and engineers who gathered at NASA's Ames Research Center for two different meetings: a synthetic biology workshop put on by NASA, and Space Manufacturing 14: Critical Technologies for Space Settlement, organized by the nonprofit Space Studies Institute.

Astronauts with the right (genetic) stuff

Genetics techniques could come in extremely handy during NASA's astronaut selection process, Venter said. The space agency could screen candidates for certain genes that help make good spaceflyers — once those genes are identified, he added.

Genes that encode robust bone regeneration, for example, would be a plus, helping astronauts on long spaceflights battle the bone loss that is typically a major side effect of living in microgravity. Also a plus for any prospective astronaut: genes that code for rapid repair of DNA, which can be damaged by the high radiation levels in space.

Genetic screening would be a natural extension of what NASA already does — it would just add a level of precision, according to Venter.

"NASA's been doing genetic selection for a long time," he said. "You just don't call it that."

Last summer, the agency chose just nine astronaut candidates — out of a pool of 3,500 — for its rigorous astronaut training program based on a series of established spaceflight requirements and in-depth interviews.

A new microbiome
At some point down the road, NASA could also take advantage of genetic engineering techniques to make long space journeys more efficient and easier on astronauts, Venter said.

As an example, he cited the human microbiome, the teeming mass of microbes that live on and inside every one of us. Every human body hosts about 100 trillion microbes — meaning the bugs outnumber our own cells by a factor of at least 10 to one.

While humans only have about 20,000 genes, our microbiome boasts a collective 10 million or so, Venter said. These microbes provide a lot of services, from helping us digest our food to keeping our immune system's inflammation response from going overboard.

With some tailoring, the microbiome could help us out even more, according to Venter.

"Why not come up with a synthetic microbiome?" he asked.

Theoretically, scientists could engineer gut microbes that help astronauts take up nutrients more efficiently. A synthetic microbiome could also eliminate some pathogens, such as certain bacteria that can cause dental disease. Other tweaks could improve astronauts' living conditions, and perhaps their ability to get along with each other in close quarters.

Body odor is primarily caused by microbes, Venter said. A synthetic microbiome could get rid of the offenders, as well as many gut microbes responsible for excessive sulfur or methane production. Fist tap Nana.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

democracy's death spiral

Video - ants entered into a terminal circling death spiral.

oftwominds | Democracy's Death Spiral is a positive feedback loop between ever-greater concentrations of wealth and the ever-higher costs of retaining political power.

Positive feedback loops lead to "death spirals" in which destructive forces reinforce each other until the dynamic implodes. One example is an "arms race" in which ever more costly and complex weapons systems must be matched lest one nation in the race fall behind.

Since the number of weapons and their cost are essentially unlimited, then the race continues until one contestant is bankrupted.

Though many would claim it is a simplification, this dynamic was at the root of the Soviet Union's collapse: as the U.S. embarked on a massive expansion of its military and technological power, the Soviet Union exhausted its much smaller resources attempting to keep up.

Though statistics from the Soviet era are not entirely reliable, various scholars have estimated that fully 40% of the Soviet GDP was being expended on its military and military-industrial complex.

The U.S. was spending between 4% and 6% of its GDP on direct military expenditures, even during the height of the Reagan buildup. If you include the Security State (CIA, NSA, et al.), the Veterans Administration and other military-related programs (DARPA, etc.) then the cost was still far less than 10% of GDP.

The greater freedom to exchange information between government-funded research labs, private firms and government-funded universities enabled the U.S. to outdistance the Soviets technologically. Once again a positive feedback loop can be discerned in the way that increased spending on military-related R&D in the U.S. led to increasingly networked nodes of technological advancement which led to greater advances and more spending to develop those technologies.

The U.S. emerged victorious as the sole superpower, but a more closely matched rivalry might have ended with the collapse of both competitors: a Death Spiral of the sort Jared Diamond describes on Easter Island in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

In the U.S., the ever-greater concentrations of wealth gathered by an ascendant Financial Power Elite has entered a positive feedback loop with the costs of gaining or retaining political power. The costs of winning an election have skyrocketed to the point that fundraising is the key function of any politico who is not independently extremely wealthy.

This quantum leap up in the costs of gaining or retaining power has forced politicos to curry the favors of those few Elite groups which can give them millions of dollars.

Just as in an arms race, the amounts of money which can be spent on campaigns is essentially unlimited. The explosion of media now requires multi-million dollar campaigns on multiple fronts: broadcast TV, cable TV, mailed flyers, radio spots, promotion campaigns to influence the mainstream media coverage, adverts on the Web and social media campaigns--the list grows longer every year.

Here is the positive feedback loop. Candidate A gains the backing of a Power Elite group (a political action committee or other front) and collects $5 million. As a result of a media blitz, he/she wins.

Between elections, he/she amasses a "war chest" of $5 million from the same donors, guaranteeing that the final cost of the next election will be $10 million.

Potential rivals understand that victory against this well-funded incumbent, no matter how incompetent, will require $15 million. The only sources of that amount of cash are other Financial Power Elites and State-funded fiefdoms like teachers unions, and so each candidate sells their soul to the few "special interests" with deep enough pockets to harvest and contribute millions of dollars.

Now repeat that election cycle a few times and see how quickly the cost rises. The truly pernicious aspect of this positive feedback is this: if wealth wasn't becoming ever more concentrated in the razor-thin slice at the top of the U.S. economy, then politicos couldn't gather huge sums of money from such small groups. They would have to seek a broader base to raise money, and that would dampen the influence of the top donors.

Instead, the cycle grows stronger with each election cycle: to raise the gargantuan sums needed to keep political power, politicos become ever more reliant on a tiny pool of super-wealthy Elites and State-funded fiefdoms.

(In Survival+, I describe the desperate plowing of millions of dollars by public unions and other State-dependent fiefdoms into election campaigns as full spectrum defense of the status quo. When two such fiefdoms are competing for dwindling State resources, I term that Internecine Conflict Between Protected Fiefdoms.)

In other words, the more elections cost, the greater the dependence of politicos on a wealthy Elite. And thus the influence of those Elites over the politicos grows as well. This is how the political machinery of deomocracy gets "captured" by a tiny Financial Power Elite.

corporatist pacs gearing up for 2012

NYTimes | The midterm election campaign will end Tuesday, but one of its most marked developments — the emergence of outside groups, often backed by anonymous donations, that can direct waves of advertising into political battles — is just getting started.

Buoyed by the impact their blistering, anti-Democratic campaigns have had this year, two of the largest new conservative groups helping Republicans are planning to keep pushing their agenda in the lame-duck session of Congress that will begin in two weeks and are already laying the groundwork for a more aggressive campaign in the 2012 presidential race.

That development is causing Democrats to reassess their early financial plans for President Obama’s re-election campaign while forcing them to balance the administration’s demands for more transparency in campaign finance against the pressure for liberal groups to do more to counteract the strength of their conservative counterparts.

Officials with the two conservative groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS — which are on track to spend well over $50 million combined this year, a sizable part of it from undisclosed donors — said they would continue advertising against Democrats as Congress returns, when decisions loom on the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts and immigration.

Robert M. Duncan, the chairman of American Crossroads, which, like Crossroads GPS, was started with help from the Republican strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, said he also informed major donors late last week that “research and development” was under way to make the groups even more effective in the next election, part of a pitch for continued investment toward a larger goal.

“It’s a bigger prize in 2012, and that’s changing the White House,” Mr. Duncan said. “We’ve planted the flag for permanence, and we believe that we will play a major role for 2012.”

can we save america's crumbling water system?

Infrastructurist | Water infrastructure may not be a sexy topic, but it’s becoming an important one. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave America’s drinking-water systems a grade of D-minus. Roughly 10 billion gallons of sewage seep into these crumbling pipes each year. The Obama administration has secured $6 billion for improvements, but the Environmental Protection Agency puts the true cost of fixing water infrastructure at roughly $335 billion. That figure seems staggering until we consider that parts of the country’s water system were built circa the Civil War.

It doesn’t take Abraham Lincoln to see the problem: people have never paid enough for their water, as this public service announcement points out, and they aren’t ready to start now. Attempts to raise utility rates for water systems in several cities across the country have been met with outrage. And because water pipes are out of sight, “no one really understands how bad things have become,” a member of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council told the New York Times in March:

“We’re relying on water systems built by our great-grandparents, and no one wants to pay for the decades we’ve spent ignoring them.”

A recent Newsweek cover story about the world’s water crisis (yes there’s still a Newsweek, for now) reports that some U.S. cities have been forced to privatize their water supplies. The shift enables officials to offload huge maintenance costs while promising jobs. But the colossal nature of water infrastructure lends itself to monopolization, and because water systems are underground they’re difficult for governments to monitor. In fact, Newsweek reports, some cities have grown so dismayed with privatized water that they’ve engaged in costly litigation to cancel the contracts.

The public may finally be ready to shoulder some of the burden. The results of a new survey, released earlier this week by ITT Corporation, suggest that people are willing to pay a little more—just a little—to keep the country’s water pipes from crumbling. (It should be noted that ITT deals in water infrastructure.) While 69 percent of survey respondents agreed that they take their access to clean water for granted, about two-thirds said they would be willing to pay $6.20 more per month to improve their water systems. If applied to all households across the country, such an increase comes to $5.4 billion, ITT notes.

It’s a modest start. Still, any solution requires public officials to confront the problem. So far that hasn’t happened. After all, writes columnist Bob Herbert, fixing America’s water system will take a “maturity and vision and effort and sacrifice” that many public officials seem to lack at the present time when it comes to infrastructure. Point in case, says Herbert:
We can’t even build a railroad tunnel beneath the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York.
Well played, Bob.

Monday, November 01, 2010

james schlesinger - the peak oil debate is over

Dr. James Schlesinger "The Peak Oil Debate is Over" from ASPO-USA on Vimeo.

the spice must flow...,

Video - The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline will be an energy bridge between Central and South Asia.

AsiaTimes | In the Orient, offspring don't rebuke parents, even if the latter are at fault - especially in the post-Soviet space where Marxian formalism continues to prevail as political culture. The sort of stern public rebuke bordering on short shrift that Ashgabat administered to Moscow is extraordinary.

But then, Moscow tested Turkmen patience by trying to create confusion about Ashgabat's policy of positive "neutrality" - building energy bridges to the West alongside its thriving cooperation with Russia and China.

On Thursday, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry bluntly rejected any role for Russia in the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project, commonly known as TAPI. Ashgabat alleged that Moscow is spreading calumnies and expressed the hope that "future statements by Russian officials will be guided by a sense of responsibility and reality".

The reference was to a friendly and seemingly helpful statement by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin (who accompanied President Dmitry Medvedev to the Turkmen capital last weekend) that Russian participation in the TAPI figured in the latest Russian-Turkmen summit talks and "Gazprom may participate in this project in any capacity - builder, designer, participant, etc ... If Gazprom becomes a participant, then we will study possibilities of working in gas sales."

The Turkmen Foreign Ministry said, "Turkmenistan views such statements as an attempt to hamper the normal course of our country's cooperation in the energy sector and call into question its obligations to its partners." It added that there was "no agreement whatsoever" regarding Russian participation in the TAPI.

The TAPI presents a knot of paradoxes and the Russians who hold the pulse of the Central Asian energy scene would have sensed by now that Uncle Sam is close to untying the knot, finally, after a decade-and-a-half of sheer perseverance. The TAPI falls within the first circle of the Caspian great game. When it appears that Russia all but checkmated the United States and the European Union's plans to advance trans-Caspian energy projects bypassing Russia, a thrust appears from the south and east opening up stunning possibilities for the West.

Russia promptly began slouching toward the TAPI - which, incidentally, was originally a Soviet idea but was appropriated by the United States no sooner than the USSR disintegrated - against the backdrop of renewed interest in the project recently among regional powers amid the growing possibility that Afghan peace talks might reconcile the Taliban and that despite the Kashmir problem, Pakistan and India wouldn't mind tangoing.

The TAPI pipeline runs on a roughly 1,600-kilometer route along the ancient Silk Road from Turkmenistan's fabulous Dauletabad gas fields on the Afghan border to Herat in western Afghanistan, then onto Helmand and Kandahar, entering Pakistan's Quetta and turning east toward Multan, and ending up in Fazilka on the Indian side of Pakistan's eastern border. An updated Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimate of 2008 put the project cost for the pipeline with an output of 33 bcm annually at $7.6 billion.

The signals from Ashgabat, Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi in recent weeks uniformly underscored that the TAPI is in the final stage of take-off. India unambiguously signed up in August. On Wednesday, the Pakistan government gave approval to the project at a cabinet meeting in Islamabad. The ADB is open to financing the project and is expected to be the project's "secretariat".

As things stand, there could be a meeting of the political leaderships of the four participating countries in December to formally kick-start the TAPI.

U.S. Says Genes Should Not Be Eligible for Patents

NYTimes | Reversing a longstanding policy, the federal government said on Friday that human and other genes should not be eligible for patents because they are part of nature. The new position could have a huge impact on medicine and on the biotechnology industry.

The new position was declared in a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Department of Justice late Friday in a case involving two human genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer.

“We acknowledge that this conclusion is contrary to the longstanding practice of the Patent and Trademark Office, as well as the practice of the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies that have in the past sought and obtained patents for isolated genomic DNA,” the brief said.

It is not clear if the position in the legal brief, which appears to have been the result of discussions among various government agencies, will be put into effect by the Patent Office.

If it were, it is likely to draw protests from some biotechnology companies that say such patents are vital to the development of diagnostic tests, drugs and the emerging field of personalized medicine, in which drugs are tailored for individual patients based on their genes.

“It’s major when the United States, in a filing, reverses decades of policies on an issue that everyone has been focused on for so long,” said Edward Reines, a patent attorney who represents biotechnology companies.