Friday, May 22, 2009

Topanga Days

Are Wall Street speculators driving up gasoline prices?


Oil and gasoline prices are rising fast as Memorial Day weekend approaches, but not because supplies are tight or demand is high.

U.S. crude oil inventories are at their highest levels in almost two decades, and demand has fallen to a 10-year low, but crude oil prices have climbed more than 70 percent since mid-January to a six-month high of $62.04 on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, although refiners are operating at less than 85 percent of capacity, leaving them plenty of room to churn out more gasoline if demand rises during the summer driving season, the price of gasoline at the pump has climbed 28 cents a gallon from a month earlier to $2.33.

This time, Wall Street speculators - some of them recipients of billions of dollars in taxpayers' bailout money - may be to blame.

Big Wall Street banks such as Goldman Sachs & Co., Morgan Stanley and others are able to sidestep the regulations that limit investments in commodities such as oil, and they're investing on behalf of pension funds, endowments, hedge funds and other big institutional investors, in part as a hedge against rising inflation.

These investors now far outnumber big fuel consumers such as airlines and trucking companies, which try to protect themselves against price swings, and they're betting that the economy eventually will rebound, that the Obama administration's spending policies and Federal Reserve actions will trigger inflation - or both - and that oil prices will rise.

"They're buying because they think it will diversify their portfolio, and they think it will diversify their portfolio against inflation, and maybe they think the economy will turn around," said Michael Masters, a hedge-fund manager who testified before Congress last year about the consequences of what are called exchange-traded funds.

Oil contracts are traded mostly in U.S. dollars, and inflation would erode the value of oil earnings, stocks or any other asset denominated in U.S. currency. Many investors are pouring money into oil futures - contracts for future deliveries of oil at specified prices - in the belief that oil prices will rise as inflation erodes the dollar's value.

This turns oil futures contracts into a way for investors to hedge against inflation at the expense of American consumers, who have to pay more to fill their gas tanks as oil and gasoline prices rise.

'We have taken every measure we can think of to stop the desert moving closer and submerging our crops and villages'

Farmers end up as eco-refugees in a government relocation plan aimed at giving them a better life

When the desert winds tear up the sands outside his front door, Huang Cuikun, pictured below in a dried- up riverbed near his home, says he is choked by dust, visibility falls to a few metres and the crops are ruined.

Dust storms hit his village in Gansu province more often than in the past. The water table is falling. Temperatures rise year by year. Yet Huang says this is an improvement. Three years ago the government relocated him from an area where the river ran dry and the well became so salinated that people who drank from it fell sick.

"Life is easier now," he says, puffing on a cigarette in the new brick home that the authorities have given him. "When we lived in Donghuzhen, we had little water and the crops couldn't grow. Our income was tiny and we were very poor."

Huang is one of millions of Chinese eco-refugees who have been resettled because their home environments degraded to the point where they were no longer fit for human habitation. The government says more than 150 million people will have to be moved. Water shortages exacerbated by over-irrigation and climate change are the main cause.

The problem is most severe in the north-west, where desert sands are swallowing up farmland, homes and towns. Huang lives in Mingqin, a shrinking oasis area that government advisers privately describe as an "ecological disaster area".

The Yellow river is diverted more than 62 miles (100km) to replenish dried-up reservoirs and aquifers in Minqin, where the population has swollen from 860,000 to 2.3 million over the last 60 years, even as water supplies have declined.

It is not enough. The Tengger desert is encroaching from the south-east and the Badain Jaran desert from the north-west. Since 1950 the oasis has shrunk by 111 square miles (288 sq km), while the number of annual superdust storms has increased more than fourfold. In Liangzhou district, 240 of the 291 springs have dried up.

Green technology should be shared

Big business is gearing up to fight the use of green technology by developing countries seeking to reduce carbon emissions

The battle over intellectual property rights is likely to be one of the most important of this century. It has enormous economic, social and political implications in a wide range of areas, from medicine to the arts and culture – anything where the public interest in the widespread dissemination of knowledge runs up against those whose income derives from monopolising it.

Now it appears that international efforts to slow the pace of worldwide climate disruption could also run up against powerful interests who advocate a fundamentalist conception of intellectual property

According to Inside US Trade, the US chamber of commerce is gearing up for a fight to limit the access of developing countries to environmentally sound technologies (ESTs). They fear that international climate change negotiations, taking place under the auspices of the United Nations, will erode the position of corporations holding patents on existing and future technologies.

Developing countries such as Brazil, India and China have indicated that if – as expected in the next few years – they are going to have to make sacrifices to reduce carbon emissions, they should be able to license some of the most efficient available technologies for doing so.

Big business is worried about this, because they prefer that patent rights have absolute supremacy. They want to make sure that climate change talks don't erode the power that they have gained through the World Trade Organisation.

The WTO is widely misunderstood and misrepresented as an organisation designed to promote free trade. In fact, some of its most economically important rules promote the opposite: the costliest forms of protectionism in the world.

The WTO's rules on intellectual property (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property, or Trips) are the most glaring example. These are designed to extend and enforce US-style patent and copyright law throughout the world.

Patents are monopolies, a restriction on trade that creates inefficiency in exactly the same way that tariffs, quotas or other trade barriers do. The economic argument for relaxing patent rules is therefore the same as that for removing trade barriers, only times 50 or 100 or even 1,000 – since the average tariff on manufactured or agricultural goods is quite small compared to the amount by which patent monopolies raise the price of a pharmaceutical drug.

These restrictions cost US consumers an estimated $220bn a year compared to competitive pricing – many times the gains from trade liberalisation that we could even hope to get from a successful completion of the current Doha round of negotiations in the WTO that began in 2001 in Qatar.

7 Completely Unrealistic Movie Plots (That Came True)

article image

Sci-fi visionaries like Jules Verne and Gene Roddenberry get all sorts of credit for predicting the future via fiction. But you know who doesn't get credit? Weekend at Bernie's.

As it turns out, lots of movies turn out to be prophetic, seeing even the most ridiculous plot points turn into real headlines months or years later.

Office Space

The Film

While Idiocracy is often cited as the under-appreciated Mike Judge film that is most likely to come true, Office Space already has. After performing poorly at the box office, Office Space became a massive hit on DVD, inspiring many a wage-slave to rip their apron off and tell their boss to kindly go fuck himself.

The films protagonist, played by Ron Livingstone, takes office rebellion a little further than that and decides to rip off the company he works for. His scam involves stealing fractions of pennies from financial transactions that would usually automatically be rounded up to the nearest whole dollar. The idea is that the company would never miss such small amounts but that over a long period of time the pennies would add up.

The Real Life Event

Michael Largent, a 22-year-old who had presumably never seen the second half of Office Space where the scheme goes to shit, decided that this sounded like a pretty neat idea. In 2007, Largent used an automated script to open up 58,000 accounts with online brokerage firms. Once the account was opened, the firm would send micro deposits of a few cents to verify that it had opened properly. Soon Largent had gained $50,000 as well as the attention of the FBI.

Jennifer Aniston is only vaguely relevant to this story, but is also incredibly attractive.

Largent was bad at choosing source material. He stole the idea for his criminal conspiracy from a comedy about a failed crime, and opened his accounts under the names of cartoon characters including Hank Hill and Rusty Shackelford. He was eventually caught when the Patriot Act required the brokerage firms to take a closer look at the identity of their customers, and they presumably noticed one of them was named Spongebob.

Largent later said "that he needed the money to pay off debts" and stated that this was "one way to earn money," proving that he was unskilled at generating aliases and defining the word "earn". Instead of following the plot of a carefree comedy, Largent wound up spending his best years imitating the darker, more prison-rape themed scenes from Shawshank Redemption. Speaking of which...

Shawshank Redemption

The Film

Starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy Dufresne, an innocent man in jail who splits his time between filling out the guard's tax forms and getting gang raped; his only solace being that all the horror is narrated by the soothing disembodied voice of Morgan Freeman.

One night, a depressed Robbins retreats into his jail cell with a length of rope, leaving Morgan Freeman's voice to worry that Robbins is going to hang himself. The next day, the prison warden opens up the cell, finds it empty, smashes the place up and looks behind a poster of Raquel Welsh to find--SPOILER WARNING--Gwyneth Paltrow's severed head.

Oh, wait, sorry. He discovers a hole in the wall through which Robbins has escaped. Robbins has in fact spent his decades in jail meticulously chiseling himself an escape route in preparation for one day becoming a heavy handed metaphor for the human spirit.

The Real Life Event

On December 15, 2007, the cells of Otis Blunt and Jose Espinosa were opened at New Jersey's Union County Jail and found to be curiously lacking in Otis Blunt and Jose Espinosa. What the cells did have were two posters of what the newspapers called "bikini clad woman".

The prison guards looked behind the posters and discovered a hole linking the cells to each other and another hole in the external wall, linking the cells to the outside world.

The two inmates had spent the previous weeks chiseling away at the wall with a length of wire. They then crawled into one cell, covered the holes with the posters and piled blankets under their bed sheets to make it look like they were sleeping, an idea so rudimentary, they had to steal it from a Baby Sitter's Club novel.

They then escaped through the hole, climbed a fence and parted ways, one of them going to Mexico City, as in every jail break film ever, the other going to hide in a nearby basement, as in being a fucking idiot.

Not that it mattered; the guy in the basement was caught a month later, the criminal in Mexico the day after that, presumably while sanding his boat on the beach.

They were brought before a judge and charged with third-degree escape, to which they hilariously pleaded not-guilty. We don't know if they were convicted or not, but we expect the prosecution's evidence was along the lines of: "Here is the defendant in Mexico City, here is an empty fucking jail cell. The prosecution rests."


A Brief History Of The Counter Culture

By Ned Hepburn


I'm glad this "hipster" thing is dying down, at least in its current incarnation, which is a total fucking joke. It used to mean counter-culture, and it has largely become anything but that this time around.

Don't worry. It will reappear anew in the first half of every decade as a reaction to the previous 5 years, as it has done since the 1950's. Hipsterdom in the early part of each decade becomes slightly corporate and marketed outward towards the latter half. I'm not too clear on the 60's and 70's but I'll write what i write. let me demonstrate a couple of things:

late 40s/early 50s

  • Beat poets convene in New York; later to San Francisco. 'Howl' and 'On The Road' are published.

late 50s

  • Beatniks become a in-joke, with caricatures of bongo slapping black turtlenecked coffee drinking thinkers appearing in numerous movies; such as Funny Face (1957), and Bell Book & Candle (1958), not to mention The Wild One (1953) which already preempts the classification of "hipster" / motorcycle / beatnik lingo.

early 60s

  • The Merry Pranksters were a group that lived communally in California. they experiment with LSD and acid far more than the beatniks of New York, who are far more into "uppers". This lends to large acid and LSD taking parties. furthermore, they travel across the country in a multicolored school bus to attend the World Fair in NYC in 1964, turning on many, many people along the way to LSD, acid, and marijuana.
  • Thanks to the ideals of soul searching that the beatniks presented, more and more people are conscious of the growing social trends of yoga and coffeehouse culture. With beatnik figureheads like Alan Ginsburg adopting these eastern philosophies often the two are mixed and what emerges is essentially the "hippie" in the classical sense.
  • Bob Dylan gives The Beatles marijuana and acid upon their first meeting on August 28th, 1964.


late 60s

  • Andy Warhol, while successful during this period, begins to focus less on making actual art and more on the concept of art. His celebrity begets creativity and he becomes more obsessed with the cult of personality than the cult of art. He stops directing any of his own films and leaves 99% of the work of the art making up to the employees of The Factory; his art house.
  • Hippies become caricatures, with movies, books, cereal and shaving cream marketed towards their needs, it becomes a commercial sector.
  • The Beatles turn their fans onto drugs, sparking a whole bunch of people to take drugs that can't exactly handle them.
  • The anti-war movement is mixed up with the drug culture. to make a generalized statement - if you were against the war, you were to take drugs and affect the counter culture mentality. Many, many people take drugs that ultimately shouldnt have, as it leads to - at the tail end of the 1960's - a large amount of people that can't deal with being on drugs going bat shit crazy.

early 70s

  • With hippieism effectively over, the art community after having experienced the eye opening late 60's turns to Hollywood and puts out a slew of great movies - such as Harold & Maude, The Godfather, and A Clockwork Orange. This is in part due to the 'hipster bombshell' of the late 60's, that audiences are ready for that and do not want to be mollycoddled into the focus-group mentality of the elder Hollywood hierarchy.
  • People in general start to want to experience new things, with the "cool crowd" gravitating towards the sounds of the Black and Hispanic and gay crowd - namely, disco. in 1970, David Mancuso, a New York DJ, opens the first disco club in his apartment which he calls The Loft. this leads to a heavy onset of dance culture.

Best Car Review Ever

Honda Insight 1.3 IMA SE Hybrid


Anti-Starbucks filmmakers hijack the coffee company’s own Twitter marketing campaign

starbucks stopOn Monday, the New York Times published a story detailing a multi-million dollar ad campaign launched by Starbucks in which the company put up advertising posters in six major cities and attempted to "harness the power of online social networking sites by challenging people to hunt for the posters on Tuesday and be the first to post a photo of one using Twitter." Those who posted the pictures to the microblogging site were to use predetermined hashtags that were listed in the contest rules.

Unfortunately for Starbucks, liberal activist and filmmaker Robert Greenwald, founder of Brave New Films, came across that Times article early Tuesday morning. Greenwald, who has directed films for major studios and launched Brave New Films a few years ago, had been working for months on shooting an anti-Starbucks video that debuted on YouTube that very day. The mini-documentary features interviews with several former and current Starbucks employees and makes the argument that the company — despite popular perception that it treats its employees well — has unfair labor practices and has aggressively fought off union organizing.

"Tuesday morning was when we launched the video," Greenwald told me in a phone interview. "I'm a very early riser, I get up at 6 o'clock here, and I look at the New York Times and there's a story about this contest that Starbucks is having on Twitter. And I was like, 'ah, what timing!' So I sent an email around to several of my colleagues and we immediately jumped on it … When we saw that they had a contest, we immediately decided that we should enter the contest, which we did in very short order. And I don't know if it's connected or not, but a few hours later after we sent in pictures of people with suggestions for [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz to be more fair to his workers, I think the rules were changed and at least that phase of the contest was ended."

starbucks protesterOn a blog post published at the anti-Starbucks website Brave New Films created, people were encouraged to take pictures of themselves in front of Starbucks stores holding signs targeted at the company's "anti-labor practices." These users are then told to upload these photos onto Twitpic and tweet them out to their followers using the hashtags #top3percent and #starbucks. According to the post, these are the official hashtags that were designated by Starbucks itself for those who wanted to enter its contest. Within hours, several people had followed these guidelines and there were dozens of Twitpics in front of stores across the country.

Elisabeth "Right Wing Idiot" Hasselbeck PWNED by Jesse "The Body" Ventura on the issue of torture

Do I Love My Wife? An Investigative Report

x ray of the human head

One married man, a machine that can read his mind, and a head-to-head matchup between his wife... and Angelina Jolie. Sounds like no good can come of this. Unless, of course, he discovers the meaning of love.

By A.J. Jacobs

How do I love thee? I love thee with serotonin produced by my raphe Nuclei. I love thee with testosterone receptors deep in my hypothalamus. I love thee with dopamine that floods my primitive lizard brain.

Actually, I hope I love my wife with all my major brain parts — but who knows? The truth is, I don't know how I love her. That's the whole point of today's experiment. We'll see.

wife in dress

Right now, I'm stuck inside a whirring, clunking MRI machine at New York University. Six inches above my nose hovers an image of my smiling wife wearing a black spaghetti-strap dress. (Yes, that one.)

In the adjoining room, two respected scientists are clicking computer keys and watching streams of data flow out of my skull and into their terminals. I stare at Julie's smile. I think about the most romantic moments in our courtship: kissing in the rain on West Seventy-seventh Street in Manhattan. The first time I reached over to hold Julie's hand — it was during a twee Irish film called Waking Ned Divine — and the joy I felt when she squeezed it back. The gondola ride in Venice. (Really? Gondola? says one part of my brain. So clich├ęd. No, responds another, stay on task.) "Okay, the romance phase is done," says one of the scientists. "Are you ready for sex?"

I think I love my wife. At least most of the time. (Not counting when she makes me go see Henry Jaglom movies.) But what does that mean — I love my wife? And how does my love stack up against other husbands'? For the first time in the history of human mating, scientists may have found a way to pin down this most ethereal of emotions. We're on the verge of dissecting this butterfly.

A handful of researchers, armed with MRIs, have begun to sift out the chemical mix that makes up love. "Until recently, we regarded love as supernatural," says Helen Fisher, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers who is one of the world's leading researchers on brain chemistry and sexual relationships and half of the team of scientists poking through my cranium. "We were willing to study the brain chemistry of fear and depression and anger but not love."

It's a controversial notion, that love can be reduced to a chemical cocktail. It gives conniptions to the Foucault types who see love as socially constructed.

Just think of the implications: If love is simply chemicals, doesn't that change its meaning? And how soon before we create a scientifically valid love potion? (Already under study, by the way.) What about a love vaccine to help us from falling for the wrong person? And if you have to rely on chemical enhancements, do you get an asterisk next to your name in the book of love, like Barry Bonds?

I've volunteered to be a guinea pig for two of the field's pioneers. In the past five years, Fisher and her research partner, neuroscientist Lucy Brown of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, have put forty-nine crazy-in-love people into MRI machines to study their brains. I'm number fifty. But I'm the first not to be in the crazy-in-love, head-over-heels phase. I'm the first average married Joe they've ever studied.

When I told friends and family I was trying to scientifically assess my love for Julie, they all had the same response: "No good can come of this."

A System For Handling 'Impostor' Complaints

Posted by ScuttleMonkey on Monday May 18, @10:01AM
from the just-let-everyone-fight-to-the-death dept.

Frequent Slashdot contributor Bennett Haselton writes "A woman sued Yahoo because they wouldn't remove a page created by her ex-boyfriend pretending to be her and soliciting strangers for sex. What would be an effective system for large companies like Yahoo to handle 'impostor' complaints, without getting bogged down by phony complaints and unrelated disputes? This is a harder problem than it seems because of the several possible cases that have to be considered. One possible solution is given here." Read on for Bennett's analysis.

Then I thought more about the consequences of the rule that I was implicitly advocating by making that argument. Obviously, if an ISP has a policy of removing a user's page if some third party merely complains that the page is impersonating them, then one of your enemies could get your page removed by filing a complaint saying that they were really "you", and that your page was impersonating them. But if the ISP has a policy of not acting on such complaints, then someone could create a user account pretending to be you, and you wouldn't be able to get it removed.

In both cases, there are two problems. One is the fact that the ISP has to have a way to figure out who is telling the truth. The second is that the solution has to scale well, even for a company like Yahoo that probably gets so many complaints about user conduct every day that it would be impossible to read them all. It should be possible for genuine complaints about impostors, to reach the attention of the right people and get an account closed, without accounts being shut down because of (a) people who file complaints about 'rude behavior' that get unintentionally mixed in with 'impostor' complaints by someone who is too overworked to read them all very carefully; or (b) people who file outright false complaints that a given account is an 'impostor', just to get it shut down; or (c) people who are really sneaky, and file complaints about things like rude behavior, but who craft the complaints in a way that is deliberately designed to get them mixed in with the 'impostor' reports, in order to get the account shut down (this way, if the complainer ever sued or otherwise confronted about the complaint that they filed, they can say that they "didn't lie"!).

It's hard to think of a solution that covers all of these bases. For example, John Morris of the Center for Democracy and Technology explained how many ISPs use faxed driver's licenses to decide impersonation complaints:

In many cases involving real people, the challenged site (whether it is a legit site or a bogus site) contains one or more photographs of the person involved. What service providers do in this case is to get the person to submit a copy of their driver's license, and the provider decides whether the person submitting the license is the same person depicted in the photos. And if so, that person is the one who can control whether the site stays up or not. This works in lots of cases (because pictures are often, but certainly not always, involved).

The problem is that even this could be abused when used against a company like Yahoo that handles an extremely high volume of complaints. Suppose that Yahoo publishes a standard procedure for submitting complaints about impersonation, that includes the requirement of a faxed driver's license. Abusers of the system would figure this out, and they could start filing "complaints" against users and websites by faxing in complaint letters along with a copy of their driver's license, where the letters were not complaints about impersonation at all, but just bogus complaints about other things like "This guy was mean to me". Because the driver's license accompanying the letter is real and the statements in the letter are true (or at least a matter of opinion), the complainer can't be accused of lying or forging government documents. And if anyone ever challenged them and asked, "Why did you send your driver's license with the complaint letter? Weren't you trying to trick the ISP into thinking that this was an impersonation complaint so they would take it seriously?", the complainer could play dumb and say, "Well, I heard that if you file a complaint against someone, you're supposed to fax your driver's license with it." But if Yahoo is still getting too many messages to sort through them carefully, some of these crank complaints could still get users' accounts shut down.

Frank Lloyd Wright LEGO: The Guggenheim and Falling Water


Brickstructures has added two more models to their series of architectural LEGO microscale models, both designed by Frank Lloyd Wright: The Guggenheim Museum and Falling Water. The Gugg is $55, shipped, within the U.S.; it doesn't actually appear that Falling Water is on sale yet. [via Prairie Mod]


Senate Committee to Review Bonuses Paid to KBR

The U.S. Senate Democratic Policy Committee (DPC) will hold an oversight hearing at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 20, to examine millions of dollars in bonuses paid to KBR, Houston, for electrical wiring work on U.S. Army bases in Iraq that has been linked to the electrocution deaths of at least two, and perhaps as many as five, U.S. soldiers and contractors in Iraq.

Witnesses will include a master electrician hired by the Army to review KBR's work in Iraq; a master electrician who worked for KBR in Iraq; and the former Army official who managed the contract under which KBR performed electrical work in Iraq.

March of the terminators

Robot warriors are no longer sci-fi but reality. So what happens when they turn their guns on us?

By Gavin Knight

They can fly, they can swim, they can spit out 550 high-explosive shells a minute. And most terrifyingly of all, they'll soon be able to think for themselves.

A few minutes before nine in the morning, and the young soldiers have no idea of the horror that is about to strike them. They are taking part in a massive military training exercise, involving 5,000 troops, and are about to showcase the latest in robotic weapons technology.

The MK5 anti-aircraft system, with two huge 35mm cannons, is essentially a vast robotic weapon, controlled by a computer.

Killing machine: The SWORD is mounted with either an M240 machine-gun, a grenade or rocket launcher
Killing machine: The SWORD is mounted with either an M240 machine-gun, a grenade or rocket launcher

But while it's one thing when your laptop freezes up, it's quite another when it is controlling an auto-loading magazine containing 500 high-explosive rounds.

As the display begins, the South African troops sense quickly that something is terribly wrong. The system appears to jam - but what happens next is truly chilling.

'There was nowhere to hide,' one witness stated in a report. 'The rogue gun began firing wildly, spraying high explosive shells at a rate of 550 a minute, swinging around through 360 degrees like a high-pressure hose.'

One young female officer rushes forward to try to shut down the robotic gun - but it is too late.

'She couldn't, because the computer gremlin had taken over,' the witness later said.

The rounds from the automated gun rip into her and she collapses to the ground. By the time the robot has emptied its magazine, nine soldiers lie dead (including the woman officer).

Another 14 are seriously injured. The report will later blame the bloodbath on a 'software glitch'.

It sounds like a blood-spattered scene from the new blockbuster Terminator Salvation, in which a military computer takes over the world using an army of robot soldiers.

But this bloodbath actually happened. And concern is mounting that it may happen again and again, as a growing number of military robots flood the battlefield.

Saving lives: The Talon is used primarily for bomb disposal
Saving lives: The Talon is used primarily for bomb disposal

Indeed, Pentagon insider Peter Singer believes that we are witnessing the dawn of the robot warrior age.

'Just look at the numbers,' he says. 'We went into Iraq in 2003 with zero robots. Now we have 12,000 on the ground. They come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny machines to robots bigger than an 18-wheeler truck.

There are ones that fit on my little finger and ones with the wingspan of a football field.'

The U.S. military is the biggest investor in robot soldiers. Its robot programme, dubbed Future Combat Systems, is budgeted to spend $240 billion over the next 20 years.

But Singer is worried that in the rush to bring out ever more advanced systems, many lethal robots will be rolled out before they are ready.

It is a terrifying prospect. 'Imagine a laptop armed with an M16 machine-gun,' one expert said.


Crime Does Not Pay