Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Don't stop me

Ridiculous America

I worked five shifts at the bar between Saturday and Saturday this week, and saw some things that really got me thinking about the nature of this nation. I knew this already, but my week on the sidewalk really brought it home: this is a truly ridiculous country, in every positive and negative sense of the word.

The week began with a swarm of union delegates arriving at the hotels down the street. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) was holding its 39th International Convention at the hall down the way. For those not in the know, AFSCME is part of the AFL-CIO, and is one of the largest unions in the country. It represents some 1.4 million workers through 3,600 locals in 46 states. On the table at their convention were a variety of resolutions, but none more significant than the election of a Secretary-Treasurer, an incredibly important position in any union. Two main candidates were in the running - Lee Saunders and Danny Donohue - and at the outset of the week, the conventional wisdom had Saunders winning in a walk.

Supporters of Donohue, however, had other ideas. The election was slated for Thursday morning, and starting on the Saturday before, Donohue's people turned my bar into a makeshift headquarters/decompression chamber while they plotted an insurgent campaign to get their man in. A great many of them smoked, so the sidewalk where I stand post became a very small, butt-littered public square, and I was able to gather exactly what was going on. By Tuesday, the excrement had hit the wind machine after a tense confrontation on the convention floor, and by Wednesday, all available data suggested the race was tied. Only a few of Dohonue's people came in Wednesday night; they all had to be sharp for the vote in the morning, but the few I did see told me there was absolutely no way to tell how the thing was going to shake out.

When I got to work Thursday afternoon, a clutch of my new regulars were gathered at the corner of the bar staring quietly into their beers. I asked what happened, and they shook their heads; Lee Saunders had defeated Danny Donohue 652,660 to 648,356, a margin of 4,304 votes. Some 3,900 blank ballots had been turned in, several more had been double-marked and were therefore invalid, and a third minor candidate named Mark Foley had pulled 1,489 votes for himself.

The margin was excruciating, but as the evening progressed, I watched those guys slowly but steadily shake it off. None of them had ever done anything like this, never organized a campaign of any kind, and certainly had never made a run at a well-entrenched and heavily-favored opponent. Coming within 4,000 votes of victory was, they realized, a tremendous accomplishment. Now they had an organization, willing volunteers, and a very viable candidate, and the next election for Secretary-Treasurer was only two years away. They would be ready next time, and I wouldn't bet against them. Later that night, one of them came back to the bar and gave me a little green pin representing his local. I've been wearing it ever since.


Dalai Lama: 75th Birthday Global Tribute

The Dalai Lama celebrates his 75th birthday on July 6th.

His message of peace and justice needs a big public jolt of support in these challenging times to demonstrate to those who oppose it that the world is united in hope for a peaceful and fair world.

Avaaz is organising a global tribute that will be delivered personally to the Dalai Lama -- signers and messages will be posted on a "wall of warm wishes" just outside the main Temple in Dharamsala, India and will be broadcast across the region.

More than one-quarter don’t know who US gained independence from



betsyrossflag More than one quarter dont know who US gained independence fromEvery Fourth of July, Americans gather to celebrate the country's declaration of independence from ... um, what country was that again?

If you answered the above question with the word "England" or "Britain," you would be obviously correct. But a new Marist poll finds that more than a quarter -- 26 percent -- of Americans polled couldn't bring to mind the name of the country from whom the original 13 colonies gained independence.

Results were especially poor among the young: Of respondents aged 18 to 29, only 60 percent correctly identified Great Britain. A full one-third were unsure.

Maybe history class was too long ago. Or maybe, as the New York Daily News would have it, Americans are "pretty dumb."


RSA Animate - Crises of Capitalism

Military plans hummingbird-sized spies

Nano Aerial Vehicle will help soldiers fighting in crowded urban areas

Image: Prototype Samurai NAV
A prototype of the Samurai, a remote-controlled, battery-powered Nano Aerial Vehicle with two flapping wings that weighs about as much as two nickels and is just slightly longer than three inches.
by Ned Smith

Soldiers fighting future battles in crowded urban areas will be able to launch hummingbird-sized unmanned nano aerial vehicles — or NAVs — capable of carrying sophisticated sensors and flying through open windows in buildings to report back on enemy positions.

A new project partly funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency ( DARPA) called the Nano Aerial Vehicle (NAV) program aims to develop an extremely small, ultra-lightweight aerial vehicle for urban military missions that can fly both indoors and outdoors and that is capable of climbing and descending vertically as well as flying sideways left and right.

DARPA says the NAV program pushes the limits of aerodynamic and power conversion efficiency, endurance and maneuverability for very small air vehicle systems.

The design the agency green lighted for further development actually will look and fly much like a hummingbird. The winning concept, developed by AeroVironment, is called Nano Scout (Nano Sensor Covert Observer in Urban Terrain). It is a remote-controlled, battery powered NAV with two flapping wings that weighs about two grams (about as heavy as two nickels) and is just slightly longer than three inches.


How Bank Accounts of the Future Will Cost You

by Terry Savage

Once upon a time, the banks wanted your business so badly they actually gave you a free toaster as an incentive to make a deposit. That's a time few remember — a tale told by elders to amuse the younger generation.

It's one thing to stop giving incentives; it's quite another to start charging you for the privilege of depositing your money. Yet that's just what's around the corner — the end of free checking, free cashier's checks and the pittance of interest you might be getting if you leave a balance in your checking account.

In its place, you could find yourself paying fees for everything from "inactivity" to debit transactions. You'll have to consider a complex series of tradeoffs in order to stash your money safely and conveniently in a checking account.

For example, you could be required to keep a significant balance in your checking account to avoid a $15 monthly fee. That means "hiding" your true balance from yourself with an extra $500 or more sitting in an account that doesn't earn interest.

Or you might have to have your paycheck or Social Security check direct-deposited to avoid a monthly fee. Or consolidate your bills by paying your utilities using your credit card — so you only have one or two large checks to write every month — in order to avoid fees for excess checks. Depending on your bank, direct debit of mortgage payments or car loan payments could keep you under the fee-paying transaction limit.

The point is that you'll have to pay attention and be creative to save money on something you used to take for granted.

The banks are just getting even for the recent laws that limit overdraft and late fees on checking and credit cards. It's been estimated that it costs from $250 to $300 a year for a banking institution to maintain your account. And if the spendthrifts aren't going to pay the extra costs they incur, then the charges will be spread to those who scrupulously avoid overdrafts, use debit cards and always pay their credit card bills on time — and even in full.

Credit-card issuers are seeing charge-offs in the double-digit range — and someone has to make up for the billions that are written off amidst soaring consumer bankruptcies. Now those substantial costs are being passed along to all of us.

The end of "free checking" is only the first step. The next step is to do away with paper completely — or pay a fee. I've long suspected that once they got all of us paying bills online, they'd start charging for that service, too! We're saving them money if they don't have to process paper checks, so we should actually be rewarded.

But this is not about reason — it's about recouping the costs of doing business.

Hakone – Japan’s Amazing Open Air Museum


Close to both Tokyo and Mount Fuji the small town of Hakone holds something of a revelation.  However, unless you are from Japan, you may well not have heard of it.  The town plays host to a large open air museum where the works of many famous artists are held - outdoors.  It is an attempt (and a successful one) to balance art and nature in harmony.  The artworks, combined with the beautiful views of the surrounding mountains give the visitor an unforgettable experience.

There are surprises around every corner at this unique museum, sights which will provoke thought and sometimes even laughter.  This head on its side looks like some vast relic of a long vanished civilisation.

Perhaps before you start to explore the massive grounds you should visit the extravagant stained glass tower which in the light of summer is like something from a fairy tale.  You can climb to the top and check out the rest of the museum from here, so you can plan which pieces to visit next (but the choice can be bewildering).

From the top of the staircase you can take a look at what else is on offer - below is just one of the angles to be surveyed from its dizzy heights. The breathtaking beauty of the surrounding countryside is a marvellous environment for these fluid sculptures.  A far cry from a stuffy museum.

The Japanese have a unique and sometimes impenetrable sense of humour (from the perspective of a Westerner).  However, they do have a sense of fun which is easy to understand, even when it comes to art.  The above is Shaun of the Dead, based on the famous zombie movie and created by its writer and star Simon Pegg and its director, Edgar Wright.  The movie has cult status in Japan probably everywhere to tell the truth).

Among the more thought provoking pieces is Man and Pagasus by Carl Milles. Milles was perhaps better known for his fountains but the Swedish sculptor excelled himself with this hugely powerful piece showing man's desire to tame nature.

Iran declares war on mullets, ponytails for men; approves of hair gel and Elvis 'dos

Iran's ministry of culture has released a catalog of government-approved hair styles, in an effort to eliminate the menace of "decadent Western cuts." According to the Islamic Republic News Agency, forbidden 'dos include ponytails, mullets and spiky hair. But styles resembling those of Elvis Presley, Simon Cowell, or eighties-era floppy fringes are totally fine. Also, hair gel in moderation is acceptable. With the exception of goatees, facial hair is frowned upon.

Remember now, just months ago an Iranian cleric decreed: "Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes." Wonder what disasters the verboten hairdos for men cause?

More: France 24, Reuters (image: Reuters)


Bill Keller's self-defense on "torture"

Glenn Greenwald

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said the newspaper has written so much about the issue of water-boarding that "I think this Kennedy School study -- by focusing on whether we have embraced the politically correct term of art in our news stories -- is somewhat misleading and tendentious."

Whether an interrogation technique constitutes "torture" is what determines whether it is prohibited by long-standing international treaties, subject to mandatory prosecution, criminalized under American law, and scorned by all civilized people as one of the few remaining absolute taboos.  But to The New York Times' Executive Editor, the demand that torture be so described, and the complaint that the NYT ceased using the term the minute the Bush administration commanded it to, is just tendentious political correctness:  nothing more than trivial semantic fixations on a "term of art" by effete leftists.  Rather obviously, it is the NYT itself which is guilty of extreme "political correctness" by referring to torture not as "torture" but with cleansing, normalizing, obfuscating euphemisms such as "the harsh techniques used since the 2001 terrorist attacks" and "intense interrogations."  Intense.  As Rosen puts it:  "So, Bill Keller, 'the harsh techniques used since the 2001 terrorist attacks' is plainspeak and 'torture' is PC?  Got it."

Worse, to justify his paper's conduct, Keller adds "that defenders of the practice of water-boarding, 'including senior officials of the Bush administration,' insisted that it did not constitute torture."  Kudos to Keller for admitting who dictates what his newspaper says and does not say (redolent of how Bush's summoning of NYT officials to the Oval Office caused the paper to refrain from reporting his illegal NSA program for a full year until after Bush was safely re-elected). 


A High-Risk Egg Race To Save The Sea Turtles

A sea turtle hatches.

As the oil spill coats Gulf Coast beaches, rescuers are hatching a daring plan to save as many as 70,000 sea turtle eggs from the disaster.

Each year, thousands of newly hatched sea turtles scramble from their nests in the Florida Panhandle's sandy beaches and Alabama coasts into the water. With those waters fouled by oil and chemical dispersant, a whole generation of sea turtles could be harmed or even destroyed.

Hundreds of turtles and birds have already died in the oil spill, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is determined that this year's hatchlings won't be among the casualties. Biologists plan to relocate all the nests from the Gulf Coast to Florida's eastern coast, agency spokesman Chuck Underwood tells NPR's Scott Simon.

"They'll be allowed to complete their incubation, and hopefully the turtles will emerge," Underwood says. Then "we can collect them and release them to the ocean."

In a couple of weeks, he says, the rescue team will dig up an estimated 700 to 800 nests, place them in foam containers and ship them overland to Florida's far side.

They don't make car seats for baby turtles, but it turns out some companies do specialize in transporting wildlife — like FedEx, which will be delivering the eggs. Another big name is offering luxury accommodations for the eggs when they reach their destination: the Kennedy Space Center.

"The space center's provided the opportunity for us to utilize one of their large, climate-controlled warehouses," Underwood says. It even has a wildlife contractor on staff.

"We have a lot of partners involved that normally would not all necessarily agree on something," Underwood says. "But the general consensus is this is at least an opportunity to try to do something in a situation that has been less than ideal for wildlife."

But playing with Mother Nature has its risks. There are some things the rescuers just don't know. "Once we get them there and they emerge, there's a lot of questions: Are they going to be put on the beach and released into the surf? And are they going to go into the ocean like they would normally do? Or are they going to do circles? We just honestly don't know."

Even if the little guys make it to the water, we won't know if they're OK for another 35 years.

"This is a very slow-maturing species," Underwood says. "Thirty-five years from now, they will reach their sexual maturity and begin coming back to the beaches." Only then might we find out whether the rescued turtles went back to the Gulf or not. Or if they even survived.


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