Archive for November, 2008

Unknown “Structures” Tugging at Universe, Study Says

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

– I love this stuff.   I love stories that point up how little we really know about this existence.  

This new story is a classic.

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Something may be out there. Way out there.

On the outskirts of creation, unknown, unseen “structures” are tugging on our universe like cosmic magnets, a controversial new study says.

The big riddleEverything in the known universe is said to be racing toward the massive clumps of matter at more than 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) an hour—a movement the researchers have dubbed dark flow.

The presence of the extra-universal matter suggests that our universe is part of something bigger—a multiverse—and that whatever is out there is very different from the universe we know, according to study leader Alexander Kashlinsky, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

The theory could rewrite the laws of physics. Current models say the known, or visible, universe—which extends as far as light could have traveled since the big bang—is essentially the same as the rest of space-time (the three dimensions of space plus time).

Picturing Dark Flow

Dark flow was named in a nod to dark energy and dark matter—two other unexplained astrophysical phenomena.

The newfound flow cannot be explained by, and is not directly related to, the expansion of the universe, though the researchers believe the two types of movement are happening at the same time.

In an attempt to simplify the mind-bending concept, Kashlinsky says to picture yourself floating in the middle of a vast ocean. As far as the eye can see, the ocean is smooth and the same in every direction, just as most astronomers believe the universe is. You would think that beyond the horizon, therefore, nothing is different.

“But then you discover a faint but coherent flow in your ocean,” Kashlinsky said. “You would deduce that the entire cosmos is not exactly like what you can see within your own horizon.”

There must be an out-of-sight mountain river or ravine pushing or pulling the water. Or in the cosmological case, Kashlinsky speculates that “this motion is caused by structures well beyond the current cosmological horizon, which is more than 14 billion light-years away.”


A Quiet Windfall For U.S. Banks

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

– The truth is, I don’t really know what this means in the big picture.   It sounds like some stuff was put through that would have never been allowed if this wasn’t a time of crisis.   Reminds me a bit of the time I was perusing the back pages of my news paper and found that a new ‘no knock’ law had quietly been passed in Washington D.C.    It makes you sit up and pay attention.

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With Attention on Bailout Debate, Treasury Made Change to Tax Policy

The financial world was fixated on Capitol Hill as Congress battled over the Bush administration’s request for a $700 billion bailout of the banking industry. In the midst of this late-September drama, the Treasury Department issued a five-sentence notice that attracted almost no public attention.

But corporate tax lawyers quickly realized the enormous implications of the document: Administration officials had just given American banks a windfall of as much as $140 billion.

The sweeping change to two decades of tax policy escaped the notice of lawmakers for several days, as they remained consumed with the controversial bailout bill. When they found out, some legislators were furious. Some congressional staff members have privately concluded that the notice was illegal. But they have worried that saying so publicly could unravel several recent bank mergers made possible by the change and send the economy into an even deeper tailspin.

“Did the Treasury Department have the authority to do this? I think almost every tax expert would agree that the answer is no,” said George K. Yin, the former chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the nonpartisan congressional authority on taxes. “They basically repealed a 22-year-old law that Congress passed as a backdoor way of providing aid to banks.”

The story of the obscure provision underscores what critics in Congress, academia and the legal profession warn are the dangers of the broad authority being exercised by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. in addressing the financial crisis. Lawmakers are now looking at whether the new notice was introduced to benefit specific banks, as well as whether it inappropriately accelerated bank takeovers.

The change to Section 382 of the tax code — a provision that limited a kind of tax shelter arising in corporate mergers — came after a two-decade effort by conservative economists and Republican administration officials to eliminate or overhaul the law, which is so little-known that even influential tax experts sometimes draw a blank at its mention. Until the financial meltdown, its opponents thought it would be nearly impossible to revamp the section because this would look like a corporate giveaway, according to lobbyists.

Andrew C. DeSouza, a Treasury spokesman, said the administration had the legal authority to issue the notice as part of its power to interpret the tax code and provide legal guidance to companies. He described the Sept. 30 notice, which allows some banks to keep more money by lowering their taxes, as a way to help financial institutions during a time of economic crisis. “This is part of our overall effort to provide relief,” he said.

The Treasury itself did not estimate how much the tax change would cost, DeSouza said.


Drought in southern Australia declared ‘worst on record’

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

If you want to know what the U.S. southwest faces in the coming decades if we don’t reverse greenhouse gas emissions trends quickly, just look to Australia:

David Jones, the head of climate analysis at the Bureau of Meteorology, said the drought affecting south-west Western Australia, south-east South Australia, Victoria and northern Tasmania “is now very severe and without historical precedent”.

Dr Jones said Victoria had had “the driest multi-year period on record, but also by far the hottest….”

He said temperatures were running at about one degree “above any previous comparable drought. That is substantially hotter, and that one degree is a global warming signal.”

He said the data suggests that for every one degree of warming, there is a 15 per cent decline in run-off, or river flow, in the Murray Darling Basin….

He said a similar drying pattern had been observed in Europe’s Mediterranean, and the south-west in the USA….

The highlighted point is key. Previously, droughts around the world were either cold-whether droughts or warm-weather droughts. In the future, virtually all droughts will be hot weather droughts, which are obviously the worst kind.

He said the current dry was at the extreme end of what the climate models had predicted.

Most of the major predicted climate impacts the planet is now experiencing are at the extreme end of what the models had predicted (see “Are Scientists Overestimating — or Underestimating — Climate Change, Part I“).


Obama’s Use of Complete Sentences Stirs Controversy

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

In the first two weeks since the election, President-elect Barack Obama has broken with a tradition established over the past eight years through his controversial use of complete sentences, political observers say.

Millions of Americans who watched Mr. Obama’s appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday witnessed the president-elect’s unorthodox verbal tick, which had Mr. Obama employing grammatically correct sentences virtually every time he opened his mouth.

But Mr. Obama’s decision to use complete sentences in his public pronouncements carries with it certain risks, since after the last eight years many Americans may find his odd speaking style jarring.

According to presidential historian Davis Logsdon of the University of Minnesota, some Americans might find it “alienating” to have a president who speaks English as if it were his first language.

“Every time Obama opens his mouth, his subjects and verbs are in agreement,” says Mr. Logsdon. “If he keeps it up, he is running the risk of sounding like an elitist.”

The historian said that if Mr. Obama insists on using complete sentences in his speeches, the public may find itself saying, “Okay, subject, predicate, subject predicate — we get it, stop showing off.”

The president-elect’s stubborn insistence on using complete sentences has already attracted a rebuke from one of his harshest critics, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

“Talking with complete sentences there and also too talking in a way that ordinary Americans like Joe the Plumber and Tito the Builder can’t really do there, I think needing to do that isn’t tapping into what Americans are needing also,” she said.

– To the original on The Huffington Post

– Research thanks to Van

Nice prawns, shame about the chemical cocktail

Friday, November 14th, 2008

– My wife and I have been growing increasing skeptical of some of the food offered up to us at our local supermarkets.  Shrimp is the one that comes to mind.  A story here and a story there about shrimp being grown in China in filthy ponds badly contaminated with human waste and then fed large quantities of antibiotics to keep them healthy enough to make it onto our supermarket shelves have turned me off.

– I remember asking pointedly at a Red Lobster restaurant a year or two back about just where their shrimp came from and, apparently, it wasn’t the first time they’d been asked.  I got a rather angry response back from our server saying that of course they buy them on the market at the best price they can get – they are, after all, a for-profit restaurant chain.  She never actually said, however, if they came from China or not.Shrimp, yes?

– I just went onto Red Lobster’s web site to see what they had to say about where they sourced their shrimp from and what kind of quality control they might have.   They have a nice page here that talks about all the good things they do -but there’s no mention of shrimp here which is, perhaps, a bit worrisome?

– More recently, when my wife and I were discussing this, she told me that she’d asked them at the Trader Joe’s where she shops.   They’d quite proudly told her that they were no longer getting their shrimp from China.   Now they were sourcing them out of Vietnam.

– And, most recently, in our local Albertson’s Market, I’d come across a little pamplet in the meat section extolling the virtues of Wild American Shrimp. I’d been fascinated and took one home and showed it to my wife.

– She’d asked if I thought these folks, the Wild AmericanShrimp people were fishing responsibly and renewable.  I had to say I didn’t know for sure.  I’d been to their web site and it said they were fishing in an environmentally conscious way – but how does one really know?

– I’ve got to tell you this, though.   After reading the article, below, about how the shrimp are grown in Asia, I’m going to eat Wild American Shrimp or their equivalents – or none at all.  Yuk!

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No longer a luxury item, king prawns have become a staple on our supermarket fish counters – but at what price? Alex Renton reports from Vietnam where impoverished producers have adopted some alarming intensive farming practices

There’s no lack of building materials around the prawn ponds of the Mekong Delta. Walls are constructed of the empty plastic sacks of pesticides and prawn feed. It’s cheap, but sweaty. Southern Vietnam is hot and sticky at any time and the humid air inside the Huong family’s one-room hut, perched on a prawn-pond dyke, is rank with chemicals: we cough and sneeze when we enter. There’s an acrid dust all over the mud floor, which makes you worry for little Huong Thi Mai, who is seven, a patient little girl sitting on the low bed near the door watching her parents work. I glance at her bare shins for signs of the skin infections that are common among prawn-farm workers, but she looks OK.

Mr Huong is proud: ‘This is a very modern prawn-farming business,’ he says. And, with luck and four months’ hard labour, it is going to make him and his family quite rich. After they’ve paid their debts, the Huongs hope to buy a moped and their first fridge. Thi Mai might go to a new school. ‘We can have a better life,’ says Mrs Huong. But until the tiger prawns are ready for harvest, and shipped off to Europe or America, the family must live here, keeping a 24-hour watch beside the sour-smelling pond. They’ve borrowed £4,000, a huge sum, to invest in prawn larvae, feed and medicines – and they need to keep alert in case anyone steals the growing crustaceans.

Modernity, for Mr Huong, appears to be chiefly measured in chemicals. I count 13 different pots, jars and sacks of these in the hut, and he eagerly talks me through them. He’s particularly keen on a compound called ‘Super Star’ – the Vietnamese print on the label says it ‘intensifies the metabolism to help prawns grow fat’. He learnt about this additive on a government-run course at the local fishery training centre. ‘We’re not allowed to use much – only 10 bottles per crop,’ he says.

There are other glossy labels – most of them for products made in Thailand, the centre of the world’s prawn farming industry. Mr Huong mixes up a feed in a big white basin while we talk. The basic feed, he says, is soya, broken rice and fish and prawn parts. But in it goes a large dose of ‘Amino-Pro’. ‘It will help the shrimp taste better,’ he says. The label has familiar words from stock- cube packets: aspartic acid, glutamic acid and taurine, which is the key element of the energy drink Red Bull. Then there is Vitamix, ‘to make prawns grow faster’, Calphorax ‘to help the shell thicken and give better colour’ and Vin Superclear ‘to kill pest, virus and smell’. And on top is a seasoning of antibiotic.

Prawn farming is an ancient activity in tropical countries. Coastal peoples in Indonesia and Vietnam have trapped young marine prawns in brackish ponds for at least 500 years, feeding them up with fish scraps and household waste to eat or sell. The prawns, properly farmed, are sweet and juicy: it’s a lucrative business. The larvae can reach marketable size, as long as your hand, in as little as four months. But the trade has changed utterly since black tiger prawns (known as ‘shrimp’ in most countries) and bamboo prawns became a routine luxury in the rich world in the 1990s. The ancient cottage industry was swiftly industrialised. Around the tropical belt, from Ecuador to Indonesia, coastal farmers punched holes in the sea defences and let salt water into their paddy fields for the gold rush.


Chinese Factory Worker Can’t Believe The Shit He Makes For Americans

Friday, November 14th, 2008

FENGHUA, CHINA—Chen Hsien, an employee of Fenghua Ningbo Plastic Works Ltd., a plastics factory that manufactures lightweight household items for Western markets, expressed his disbelief Monday over the “sheer amount of shit Americans will buy.”

“Often, when we’re assigned a new order for, say, ‘salad shooters,’ I will say to myself, ‘There’s no way that anyone will ever buy these,'” Chen said during his lunch break in an open-air courtyard. “One month later, we will receive an order for the same product, but three times the quantity. How can anyone have a need for such useless shit?”

Chen, 23, who has worked as an injection-mold operator at the factory since it opened in 1996, said he frequently asks himself these questions during his workweek, which exceeds 60 hours and earns him the equivalent of $21.

“I hear that Americans can buy anything they want, and I believe it, judging from the things I’ve made for them,” Chen said. “And I also hear that, when they no longer want an item, they simply throw it away. So wasteful and contemptible.”

Among the items that Chen has helped create are plastic-bag dispensers, microwave omelet cookers, glow-in-the-dark page magnifiers, Christmas-themed file baskets, animal-shaped contact-lens cases, and adhesive-backed wall hooks.

“Sometimes, an item the factory produces resembles nothing I’ve ever seen,” Chen said. “One time, we made something that looked like a ladle, but it had holes in its cup and a handle that bent down 90 degrees. The foreman told us that it was a soda-can holder for an automobile. If you are lucky enough to own a car, sit back and enjoy the journey. Save the soda beverage for later.”

Chen added: “A cup holder is not a necessary thing to own.”

Chen expressed similar confusion over the tens of thousands of pineapple corers, plastic eyeshades, toothpick dispensers, and dog pull-toys that he has helped manufacture.

“Why the demand for so many kitchen gadgets?” Chen said. “I can understand having a good wok, a rice cooker, a tea kettle, a hot plate, some utensils, good china, a teapot with a strainer, and maybe a thermos. But all these extra things—where do the Americans put them? How many times will you use a taco-shell holder? ‘Oh, I really need this silverware-drawer sorter or I will have fits.’ Shut up, stupid American.”

Chen added that many of the items break after only a few uses.

“None are built to last very long,” Chen said. “That is probably so the Americans can return to buy more. Not even the badly translated assembly instructions deter them. If I bought a kitchen item that came with such poor Mandarin instructions, I would return the item immediately.”

May Gao of the Hong Kong-based labor-advocacy group China Labour Bulletin said complaints like Chen’s are common among workers in China’s bustling industrial cities.

“Last week, I took testimony from several young female workers from Shenzhen who said they were locked in a work room for 18 straight hours making inflatable Frisbees,” Gao said. “Finally, the girls joined hands on the factory floor and began to chant, ‘No more insane flying toys for Western pigs!’ They quickly lost their jobs and were ostracized by their families, but the incident was a testament to China’s growing disillusionment with producing needless crap for fat-ass foreigners.”


Half the Sky: How China’s Gender Imbalance Threatens Its Future

Friday, November 14th, 2008

– Just read an excellent article written by Mara Hvistendahl for The Virginia Quarterly Review.  

– It is all about the gender imbalance that is currently so endemic in China and many of the Asian countries.   In some places, the gender ratio has gotten to 153 males to 100 females and the consequences down the road of such imbalances are serious.   I highly recommend this article.

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When Wu Pingzhang took his wife to Nanjing so she might give him a boy, things were looking up. Development had finally trickled down to Suining, his forgotten corner of China. Landlocked and four hours from the nearest major city, in the hardscrabble Huai Valley, Suining was once the second poorest county in Jiangsu province. Now, farmers were finding work in Shanghai and the wealthy cities around it—constructing skyscrapers, laboring in China’s overnight factories, changing the diapers of nouveau riche babies. They were sending back money en masse, thousands of wire transfers all directed to Suining’s Agricultural Bank, and returning home with bags of cash. Once back, they bought apartments in new buildings and furnished them with appliances they had little experience operating. As an air conditioner repairman with two cell phones he kept on day and night, Wu Pingzhang was among the first to profit.

Liu Mei, his wife, was renowned for her cooking, and as his wallet swelled so did their bellies. By the time her belly grew for a different reason, Wu Pingzhang had enough money to rent a spacious room in town, away from his ancestral village, in a cluster of slapdash cement-block buildings, above a portrait studio called Flying on the Wind. To brighten the room, the studio lent him an airbrushed canvas backdrop—a floor-to-ceiling vista of clean white windows opening onto a glittering blue sky—and he arranged his own appliances, bought from customers secondhand, in front of the backdrop like a set in a play: a Wanbao refrigerator, a Midea microwave, a PANDA color television. The centerpiece was an upright air conditioner that stretched from the cement floor to near the ceiling. Wu even had enough to afford a frivolous indulgence, a collection of Cultural Revolution-era Mao pins he kept sheathed in a red velour case. He felt entitled to an heir.


– Hat tip to CFR.Org for alerting me to this article

Lawyers Broadside Mideast Bloggers, Media With ‘Hisba’ Lawsuits

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

– We in the U.S. say we are the beacon of freedom in the world.   And perhaps we are the freest country but I seriously question how we go about trying to spread the wealth of freedom.   We give a large amount of money every year to Egypt (Egypt and Israel are our two largest aid targets).

– But it is hard to see where any of this has been conditioned on advancements in Egyptian human rights and freedoms.   Apparently, we prop up their bullshit because they’ll support ours – hardly an active strategy for improving the world.  I would prefer to see us ‘walk our talk’.   Some might argue that in the short-term it might frustrate some of our geopolitical aims but I would assert that in the long-term it would gain us the genuine respect that wears better over time.

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CAIRO – Lawyers across the region have taken to filing ‘hisba’ lawsuits against bloggers, journalists and intellectuals in an effort to stem the flow of what they deem heretical Islamic ideas. In Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4 blogger Roshdi Algadir was arrested for a poem he posted on his blog to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Algadir was beaten and forced to sign an agreement to never again publish work on the Internet.

Hisba was established in early Islamic jurisprudence to enable individuals to publically discuss matters of religion. Leading Islamic scholar, Gamal al-Banna said that in the past it was “a construct used to promote the good and criticize the bad. Every individual in an Islamic society is responsible for the actions of the society.”

In more recent times, since the ascension of increasing radical notions of Islamic thinking in the region, hisba lawsuits – which are cases filed by private people in the name of protecting state interests – have been used to stifle rather than promote public discourse on Islam. Essentially, in modern times, hisba has been used as a means of accusing commentators of apostasy, a claim with far reaching consequences in Muslim societies.


Burma blogger jailed for 20 years

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

A Burmese blogger has been sentenced to 20 years in jail for posting a cartoon of the military leader Than Shwe.

Nay Phone Latt, 28, was sentenced by a court in Rangoon’s Insein prison, said his mother, Aye Than.

Nay Phone Latt’s colleague Thin July Kyaw was sentenced to two years imprisonment, Aye Than reported.

Another dissident, Saw Wai, was sentenced to two years in jail for publishing a poem mocking Than Shwe in the weekly Love Journal.

The first words of each line of the Burmese language poem spelled out the message “Senior General Than Shwe is foolish with power”.

Nay Phone Latt was arrested in January; the sentence delivered on Monday included 15 years for offences under the Electronics Act, two years for “creating public alarm” and three and a half years for offences under the Video Act, his mother said.

One of his offences was apparently the possession of a banned video.

His blogs during the September 2007 uprising provided invaluable information about events within the locked-down country.

Aye Than said she was not allowed to attend the trial and Nay Phone Latt was not represented by his defence lawyer, Aung Thein, who began serving a four-month prison sentence for contempt of court last Friday.

“My son is a computer expert and he has not violated any criminal law. It is very unfair that he was given 15 years’ imprisonment under the Electronics Law for a crime he did not commit,” said Aye Than.

A spokesman for the opposition National League for Democracy party, Nyan Win, described Nay Phone Latt, a former party member, as “a young and intelligent blogger and computer expert.”


– Just so no one forgets:   The junta came to power in 1988 after crushing a nationwide pro-democracy uprising, killing as many as 3,000 people. It organised multiparty elections in 1990 but refused to honour the results after Suu Kyi’s party won overwhelmingly.

Harsh sentences for Burma rebels

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Fourteen “88 Generation” activists in Burma have been given jail sentences of up to 65 years over their role in anti-government rallies last year.

Another 20 leaders from the group are still being tried on numerous charges which could result in sentences of up to 150 years each.

The military authorities have arrested hundreds of dissidents this year.

Since July they have been put dozens on trial under tightly restricted conditions.


No-one is under any illusions over how harshly Burma’s military government is willing to treat its opponents.

Even so, the sentences handed down on 14 activists on Tuesday are breathtakingly severe.

They were convicted of four counts of illegally using electronic media and given 15 years on each charge, plus five years for forming an illegal organisation – 65 years in total.

The defendants include Nilar Thein and her husband Ko Jimmy.

He was arrested along with other 88 Generation leaders after the first small protests against a dramatic fuel price rise in August last year, but Nilar Thein went into hiding – leaving their infant daughter with her parents – and was only caught two months ago.


– Just so no one forgets:   The junta came to power in 1988 after crushing a nationwide pro-democracy uprising, killing as many as 3,000 people. It organised multiparty elections in 1990 but refused to honour the results after Suu Kyi’s party won overwhelmingly.