Sunday, April 30, 2006

Breakthrough cephalopod design in power strips

The powersquid. (Seen in an advertisement in a recent in-flight magazine.)

Friday, April 28, 2006

Duke Cunningham bribery scandal may also become a lobbyist prostitution scandal

Tomorrow's Washington Post reports that:

Federal authorities are investigating allegations that a California defense contractor arranged for a Washington area limousine company to provide prostitutes to convicted former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and possibly other lawmakers, sources familiar with the probe said yesterday.

In recent weeks, investigators have focused on possible dealings between Christopher D. Baker, president of Shirlington Limousine and Transportation Inc., and Brent R. Wilkes, a San Diego businessman who is under investigation for bribing Cunningham in return for millions of dollars in federal contracts, said one source, who requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.


The Cunningham investigation's latest twist came after Mitchell J. Wade, a defense contractor who has admitted bribing the former congressman, told prosecutors that Wilkes had an arrangement with Shirlington Limousine, which in turn had an arrangement with at least one escort service, one source said. Wade said limos would pick up Cunningham and a prostitute and bring them to suites Wilkes maintained at the Watergate Hotel and the Westin Grand in Washington, the source said.

There's more info and speculation at the Daily Kos.

Mexico's Congress passes bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, and heroin for personal use

President Vicente Fox says he will sign it.

Looks like we'll get a chance to see how well decriminalization works a bit closer to home than the Netherlands. The laws will still be slightly more strict than the Netherlands in some regards (e.g., drug sales will not be decriminalized), less strict in others (the Netherlands is tougher on cocaine and heroin).

The bill says criminal charges will no longer be brought for possession of up to 25 milligrams of heroin, five grams of marijuana — about one-fifth of an ounce, or about four joints — and half a gram of cocaine — about half the standard street-size quantity, which is enough for several lines of the drug.

"No charges will be brought against ... addicts or consumers who are found in possession of any narcotic for personal use," the Senate bill reads. It also lays out allowable quantities for a large array of other drugs, including LSD, MDA, ecstasy — about two pills' worth — and amphetamines.

(Via Radley Balko at The Agitator.)

By contrast, the U.S. uses SWAT teams to go after nonviolent offenders and engages in significant abuses (see the numerous examples of abuse at Balko's blog, including the Lester Siler case and the Cory Maye case), and does things like this, which seems like a misapplication of law enforcement resources to me.

Torture and the drug war

Radley Balko reports on the torture of Lester Eugene Siler, an illiterate man, by five sheriff's deputies in Campbell County, Tennessee, trying to get him to consent to search warrant without telling him what it said. The deputies denied nearly beating him to death, hooking electrodes to his testicles and shocking him, and threatening to kill him and go after his family, but his wife was present and got it on audio tape, which is available online.

After the story was picked up by Andrew Sullivan, who wonders about whether this became possible as a result of the climate created by the Bush administration, which right wing bloggers have mocked by mischaracterizing his position, as described in a followup by Balko.


Here's a nifty little device that sits on your tongue and electrically stimulates it via 144 microelectrodes. Your brain figures out how to "see" patterns on the surface of this device, and:
In testing, blind people found doorways, noticed people walking in front of them and caught balls. A version of the device, expected to be commercially marketed soon, has restored balance to those whose vestibular systems in the inner ear were destroyed by antibiotics.

Tony Snow and creationism

Looks like there's some evidence that Bush's new press secretary, Tony Snow, is an advocate of intelligent design.

Intelligent Design Arguments from the Creationist Literature

Ed Brayton has written an excellent article describing how many major intelligent design arguments come directly from the creationist literature. A similar earlier article by Jason Rosenhouse may be found here.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

A serious Da Vinci Code plagiarism case

Author Lewis Perdue wrote a book titled The Da Vinci Legacy which was first published in 1983. That book really does seem to have some very close parallels to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Perdue has a couple of blogs where he has written about his legal case (that began when Random House sued him over his postings on the Internet about the similarities between Brown's book and his). He's pointed out a number of apparent misrepresentations by Brown about his life, as well as another case where a work of Brown's is unaccountably identical with the work of another author.

An overview of Perdue's case is here.

Unlike the Baigent and Leigh lawsuit over Holy Blood, Holy Grail (which purported to be a work of nonfiction), Perdue doesn't allege plagiarism of the general idea, but over a large number of very specific elements that are identical between the books.

Perdue says that anything he wins in court will be donated to charity, and so it's not about the money.

The oddest thing on Perdue's blog is talk about postings from somebody named Ahamedd Saaddoodeen, who Perdue says he's traced to Blythe Brown, Dan Brown's wife.

Talking Points Memo gets it completely wrong on COPE Act

Josh Marshall writes:
The grand ole daddy of special interest giveaways -- Congress to give away the Internet. This is serious. Find out more here.
Sounds like he's saying that Congress is transferring the authority the Department of Commerce currently has over ICANN somewhere, doesn't it? But he links to Art Brodsky on TPM's "Special Guests Blog," who writes:

Congress is going to hand the operation of the Internet over to AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. Democrats are helping. It's a shame.

Don’t look now, but the House Commerce Committee next Wednesday is likely to vote to turn control of the Internet over to AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner and what’s left of the telecommunications industry. It will be one of those stories the MSM writes about as “little noticed” because they haven’t covered it.

What's he talking about? He's talking about the COPE Act, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006, which just passed the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, and its failure to include provisions mandating "net neutrality."

This doesn't "give away the Internet"--we have no laws mandating "net neutrality" today. This bill doesn't change the ownership or regulation of the Internet. It does make changes to how cable companies operate (permitting national franchising in addition to local franchising), it mandates that VOIP providers must supply E911 service, and it guarantees the right of municipalities to offer wireless broadband access.

Brodsky and Marshall have grossly misrepresented the effect of this bill in claiming that it "gives away the Internet." What it does do with respect to the FCC's policy statement (PDF) on "net neutrality" is give the FCC the ability to enforce that policy statement with fines of up to $500,000, while denying the FCC the authority to "adopt or implement rules or regulations regarding enforcement of the broadband policy statement and the principles incorporated therein, with the sole exception of the authority to adopt procedures for the adjudication of complaints."

Common Cause, an advocate of codifying specific "net neutrality" rules, opposes the bill (see their reasons and analysis here). But the problem with Common Cause's position is that there are no well-defined notions for how "net neutrality" should operate that would ensure that the result isn't just to freeze the Internet in its current state and stifle new innovations and developments. (Common Cause apparently doesn't understand the Internet well enough to know that spam is bad.)

Common Cause overestimates the ability of the telcos to use their existing networks to control how the Internet will work, and is, I believe, mistaken in its fears of classes of service. The existing broadband policy statement is sufficient to prevent telcos from blocking Google, or (more realistically) blocking access to competing VOIP providers without getting FCC fines. Further, it doesn't make the slightest bit of business sense for a DSL or cable modem provider to block access to services like the most popular search engine in the world.

For more on the subject of net neutrality, the single best analysis to date is the Stifel/Nicolaus report, "Value Chain Tug of War" (PDF). Also see my previous posts on this blog here (for my thoughts), and here (for a good analysis by Martin Geddes of the Telepocalypse blog), along with Geddes' speech at Freedom to Connect here, and Paul Kouroupas of Global Crossing's posts here, here, and here. (Disclosure: Global Crossing is my employer; I manage its network security. Global Crossing would be at risk if the RBOCs and cable companies were able to use their control of last-mile networks within the U.S. in an anti-competitive manner, so my position on this issue isn't based on any loyalty or bias towards those companies--I'd like to see more competition in broadband, but I don't think giving the FCC greater regulatory power over the Internet would have any beneficial effects in that regard.)

Friday, April 21, 2006

Protect 21: Arizona astroturfing

I received a mailing today from the "Protect 21 Coalition" asking me to contact my legislators to tell them to oppose Senate Bill 1276, which it describes as "alcohol deregulation." The bill actually legalizes Internet-based sale of wine by Arizona wineries in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Granholm v. Heald (which was combined with two other cases, including the Institute for Justice's case from NY, Swedenburg v. Kelly), which held that state regulation of Internet-based wine sales must be the same for in-state and out-of-state wineries. A 1982 Arizona law permits only in-state wineries to ship wine to restaurants and retail stores, and so is unconstitutional under that decision.

The Protect 21 website argues for a three-tier model of alcohol distribution (manufacturers, distributors, and retail sales) on the grounds that it is somehow better able to protect communities and prevent underage drinking. Actually, this model is an anti-competitive model held in place by regulations which benefit the middleman, whose role would otherwise disappear.

Their main argument is that allowing wine sales over the Internet will lead to underage drinking, despite the fact that purchases require credit cards and deliveries require a signature and ID verification, same as a retail store purchase. (For more on this argument and discussion, see this Jacob Sullum post at Reason magazine's blog.)

And who would you guess is behind the Protect 21 Coalition?

The two people who testified against Senate Bill 1276 on February 15 were Howard Romm, the president of Republic Beverage Company, and Marcus Osborn, the "Manager of Governmental and Public Affairs" of the Protect 21 Coalition. Actually, Osborn's title is for his position at the Phoenix office of R&R Partners, a Las Vegas-based advertising and lobbying firm. Osborn is a busy lobbyist, who also testified on behalf of the "PACE Coalition" in favor of H.B. 2383, a bill for a "Program for All-inclusive Care for the Elderly" at taxpayer expense, on the same day. He's also lobbied the Arizona legislature for Jack-in-the-Box restaurants and YUM brands. You can see Osborn's lobbyist record with the state of Arizona here.

The domain was registered by R&R Partners, and the group's mailing address listed on its website is a commercial postal mailbox at a branch of The UPS Store in downtown Phoenix.

And who is a client of R&R Partners (though not listed on their website)?

Republic Beverage Company, of course.

If you're in Arizona, contact your legislators and let them know that you'd rather not have your tax money spent to funnel money into the pockets of middlemen through archaic regulations, especially not to middlemen who hire lobbying firms to create fake grassroots efforts to promote their positions to the legislature.

In 2004, expenditures by lobbyists had grown by 30% from 2003 to over $3 million, according to a study by the Center for Public Integrity.

Dirty Politician: The Katherine Harris campaign implosion

Apparently she had some staffers leave because she lied about whether Mitchell Wade (the briber in the Duke Cunningham scandal) had bought her a very expensive ($2,800) dinner at a fancy restaurant. She ended an interview last week when the subject came up, after saying that her campaign had "reimbursed" the restaurant (which makes no sense, since Wade paid the bill). Her spokesman called the reporter and asked that the subject not be published. The following day, her campaign released a statement saying that "I have donated to a local Florida charity $100 which will more than adequately compensate for the cost of my beverage and appetizer."

It turns out that the "local Florida charity" is Global Dominion Impact Ministries, a Charismatic Christian group run by Bishop Lewes and Pastor Sandra Jones. The group's website says:

"Pastor Sandra has an inspiring testimony of her deliverance from being sold to devils as an infant. She also shares her miraculous healing from her breast cancer as well as being raised from the dead."

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Another wannabe politician with a bogus photo

What is it with people running for office using bogus photos on their websites? First Howard Kaloogian, running for Duke Cunningham's seat, used a photo from Istanbul as a stand-in for Baghdad to support his claim that things are going well in Iraq. (He also lied about endorsements he had received--and came in fourth in the primary.)

Now Kimberly Williamson Butler, running for mayor of New Orleans, has a photo of herself in front of the French Quarter at Disneyland. When Disney's attorneys objected, her response was not to replace it with a photo of herself in the real New Orleans, but to modify the photo to remove the Disneyland garbage can.

U.S. counties by percentage of religious adherents

Arizona doesn't look so bad... (from Pharyngula).

Abu Ghraib whistleblower blacklisted from military contracts

Torin Nelson, who was working as an Army interrogator when he helped document abuses at Abu Ghraib in 2004, has been blacklisted from further work in that role, for fear that he might "cause an adverse circumstance at some point in the future." (More at TPM Muckraker.)

Two noncombatants held at Guantánamo Bay for their own good

Abu Bakker Qassim and Adel Abdu al-Hakim have been held at Guantánamo Bay for nearly a year since a military panel ruled that they were noncombatants, not terrorists, and no threat to the United States. They are being held because they are members of the Uighur minority from western China, a religious and ethnic group that has been the subject of abuses by the Chinese government. If they were to be sent home, they could be abused and tortured.

But they cannot be allowed to enter the United States, either, because that would set a bad legal precedent. A U.S. federal court judge "ruled that they were being held illegally, but he said he was powerless to order their release." The Supreme Court has declined to hear the detainees' appeal, but on May 8 an appeals court panel will determine whether federal judges have any power to intervene.

So they remain imprisoned indefinitely at Guantánamo Bay.

(More detail at Sheldon Richman's Free Association blog.)

Monday, April 17, 2006

Timeline of the earth

Here's a nice Flash-animated timeline of the earth's history, with sliders you can move back and forth to see continental drift and animals appear and disappear. (Via Pharyngula.)

Cheap parking may hurt light rail--the story behind the story

Today's Arizona Republic has a story reporting that the large supply of cheap parking downtown may hurt the light rail project, as people would prefer to drive their cars than use mass transit.

The real irony here is that it was deception by the City of Phoenix that allowed it to build a massive parking garage across the street from Bank One Ballpark (now Chase Stadium). By falsely claiming that the 3,000-space parking garage was necessary for the Arizona Science Center and the Civic Plaza, the city effectively gave a $40 million gift to Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo. The ballpark did not have sufficient parking for itself, but because it would require voter approval for any additional spending under Proposition 200, the city hired Kaku Associates to conduct a study to determine the need for spaces for the Arizona Science Center, and jiggered the assumptions of the study until they got the result they wanted for the ballpark. The February 1994 draft report from Kaku stated that "If the baseball stadium is not built, it would be difficult to justify a parking garage of any size within the study area in general." The City then told Kaku to change its assumptions, by disregarding existing parking spaces outside a two-block radius from the Science Center, assuming that crowds to the Civic Plaza convention center would double, and pretending that the city would also build a downtown aquarium. Adding these assumptions led to the conclusion in June 1995--in the seventh draft of the study--that there would be 1,300-1,600 space parking deficit, and therefore the city could go ahead and build a parking garage without voter approval.

Oh, but there was one more catch--the land where they wanted to build the garage was the site of the Greyhound bus terminal, on land owned by the Dial (now Viad) Corporation. The city condemned the Greyhound site and passed a zoning change to prevent Greyhound from relocating to another site downtown. In Greyhound's legal response, they pointed out the obvious fact that the city was cheating in its argument for the parking garage, stating "The city's arrogance in proceeding to do whatever it damn well pleases by pretending that the garage is for the Civic Plaza and not the baseball stadium ought to offend the sensibilities of any honest thinking individual." They further pointed out that the city's action was a violation of Proposition 200 whether the parking garage was for the ballpark or for the convention center--to which the city responded that the Civic Plaza and Convention Center is not actually a convention center, because only 5.8% of attendance at Civic Plaza events between 1988 and 1995 was related to conventions.

In the end, the city offered Greyhound a settlement that it accepted, and got its parking garage on the site, which loses an average of $283,000 a month, paid for by the city (and indirectly by its residents).

The city has continued to engage in deals which largely supply private benefits directly to Jerry Colangelo, most recently with a similar deal for the city to spend millions to build a hotel downtown--even though similar projects in other cities have lost money.

Phoenix City Manager Frank Fairbanks and former Deputy City Manager Sheryl Scully (now City Manager of San Antonio, Texas) are two of the main people to thank for these boondoggles.

(Most of the above is derived from the excellent reporting of John Dougherty of Phoenix's New Times weekly newspaper. For some reason, the Arizona Republic can almost never be counted on to dig up and provide such information.)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The library of airplanes

A proposal to build a library out of the discarded fuselages of Boeing 727 and 737s in Guadalajara, via BLDGBLOG.

A story about eggs suitable for Easter

Alonzo Fyfe has a parable on "The Meaning of Life" at the Atheist Ethicist. (Via the Carnival of the Godless #38.)

Virus DNA as evidence for common ancestry

Carl Zimmer writes about how retroviruses have inserted themselves into the human genome:
Scientists can identify viruses lurking in our genome (known as endogenous retroviruses) by their distinctive DNA. A fully-functioning retrovirus sequence contains three genes--one for copying DNA, one for a shell, and one for escaping and invading cells. These genes are flanked by a series of repeating DNA, which allow viruses to be inserted or snipped out of their host's genome. The human genome carries full-fledged retroviruses, as well as viruses in various state of decay. Scientists have identified 98,000 of these viruses, along with about 150,000 fragments of defunct viruses. All told, they make up 8 percent of the human genome. In many cases, the virus genes have disappeared altogether, leaving behind flanking repeats, which have been duplicated to millions of copies that take up about 40 percent of the genome. As a point of comparison, our "own" genes--in other words, those that encode proteins that make up our bodies and allow our bodies live--make up only about one percent of the genome.

Some of these endogenous retroviruses are only found in some people and not others. They must have invaded someone's genome and then spread to his or her descendants, but have not yet spread throug our entire species. Others appear to be ubiquitous--meaning that they are ancient passengers that had already spread throughout an ancestral population.
The viruses themselves can change over time, leading to different variants in different individuals that can be compared to reconstruct the lineage of the virus, and reconstruct the older versions of the virus (as was done with the 1918 influenza virus).

Unfortunately for creationists, this also works across species--and human beings share retroviruses in their genome with chimpanzees, macaques, and other primates. Zimmer again:
It turns out that most of the viruses we carry can also be found in these other species. Our retroviruses can be grouped into families. They carry the same families. Our retroviruses usually appear in the same position in the genome, no matter whose genome you look at. Many of theirs are in the same place. These are all the sorts of evidence you'd expect if retroviruses had been carried down from distant primate ancestors. A particular retrovirus is not identical from one host primate to the next, but you wouldn't expect that. Once each host lineage branched off, the viruses could acquire mutations. But the different versions of these retroviruses are still similar enough that scientists can reconstruct the DNA of original virus that infected some long-gone primate.
I recommend reading Zimmer's entire article, "The Sixty-Million-Year Virus," as well as Doug Theobald's "29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: the Scientific Case for Common Descent" FAQ at the website (the evidence of endogenous retroviruses is item #5 in Part 4 of the FAQ).

Anybody who denies common ancestry of life on this planet does so only by disregarding the evidence.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Misleading commentary on taxes from the Goldwater Institute

On April 3, the Goldwater Institute released a short opinion piece by former state senator Tom Patterson titled "Same Old Story," in which he claims that "A new report shatters the 'tax cuts for the wealthy' myth." But the figures he gives do not shatter any such myth, and the facts are that Bush's tax cuts have gone overwhelmingly to the top 1% of income earners.

Patterson writes:
According to the Congressional Budget Office, between 1979 and 2003 the share of income taxes paid by the highest earning 20 percent of Americans jumped from 65 percent to 85 percent. The top 10 percent of income earners in 2003 paid 70 percent of the income tax. The infamous top one percent shouldered 35 percent of total income taxes paid.
Meanwhile, the proportion of income tax paid by the lowest two quintiles has dropped to minus two percent. And, according to Office of Management and Budget figures, anti-poverty programs in 2004 consumed 16 percent of federal spending, an all-time high.
The first thing to notice about these figures is that the only comparison between two time periods for share of income taxes is for the top 20% of Americans (their share went from 65% to 85% between 1979 and 2003). All of the other figures are for 2003 (except for the 2004 OMB figures on federal spending, which I won't address--I'm just interested in the tax question here).

These figures don't even attempt to refute the claim that the Bush tax cuts primarily went to the wealthiest Americans--this data in no way "shatters the myth." A look at the facts shows that this is no myth.

I sent the following email to Tom Patterson on April 3:

This data doesn't seem consistent with other reports of more recent CBO data, e.g.:

It also doesn't seem consistent with the data in David Cay Johnston's book, Perfectly Legal.

Does Riedl look at tax as a percentage of income, as well as just percentage of the tax burden?

My understanding is that tax as a percentage of income has increased on the middle class and bottom of the upper class, while it has significantly decreased for the richest of the rich.
I then included the text of my review of Johnston's book (which I've moved to the bottom of this post). I was mistaken that the facts "aren't consistent" with the other sources--those facts are indeed consistent, but conceals the point that the per-dollar burden on the top 20% has declined. The top 20% is paying a greater share of income tax because they are taking home a greater share of the total income, and being taxed less per dollar of income--and most of that is occurring within the top 10%.

As Johnston's book shows (p. 31), the top 10% of American taxpayers saw their average income rise 88.6% between 1970 to 2000, from $119,249 to $224,877 (inflation-adjusted); their percentage of the total U.S. income increased from 33% to 48%. The bottom 90% of American taxpayers saw their average income go from $27,060 in 1970 to $27,035 in 2000, and their percentage of total U.S. income dropped from 67% to 52%. Within the top 10%, those at the 90-95th percentile saw a 29.6% increase in income between 1970 and 2006, those from the 95th to 99th percentile saw a 54.2% increase in income during that period, those from the 99th to 99.5th percentile saw an 89.5% increase in income, and those in the 99.5th to 99.9th percentile saw a 144.8% increase in income (p. 34). Those in the 100th percentile saw a 558.3% increase in income from 1970 to 2000 (p. 36).

The result of Bush's 2001, 2002, and 2003 tax cuts by 2010 will be an increase in the share of taxes paid by the bottom 95% of taxpayers by 3.8%, and decrease the share of taxes paid by the top 5% by 3.8%. The top 1% will see a decrease in their share by 2.7% (p. 94).
Looking at it another way, the percentage of income paid as taxes by the top 20% of taxpayers in 2001 was 19%; the percentage of income paid as taxes by the bottom 20% of taxpayers was 18% (also p. 94). That's practically a flat tax today, yet the relative burden on the poorest is much greater than on the richest, since a smaller percentage of their income is discretionary.

Dr. Patterson kindly replied to my email:
Mr. Lippard, I appreciate your reply. You bring up a number of interesting considerations, but my column was only a rebuttal of the "Bush tax cuts for the rich hurt the poor" mantra. I think the numbers, while always debatable, are reasonably authoritative and on point, or at least on the point I was trying to make. Tom
If that was what he was rebutting, I didn't get that from the wording--the specific claim made is that the claim that Bush's tax cuts went primarily to the rich is a "myth," and that's just not so.

On April 5, the New York Times reported that:
* Among taxpayers with incomes greater than $10 million, the amount by which their investment tax bill was reduced averaged about $500,000 in 2003, and total tax savings, which included the two Bush tax cuts on compensation, nearly doubled, to slightly more than $1 million.

* These taxpayers, whose average income was $26 million, paid about the same share of their income in income taxes as those making $200,000 to $500,000 because of the lowered rates on investment income.


Because of the tax cuts, even the merely rich, making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, are falling behind the very wealthiest, particularly because another provision, the alternative minimum tax, now costs many of them thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars a year in lost deductions.
And on April 14, Paul Krugman pointed out how the Bush administration has tried to falsely imply that the poor and middle class gained the most from his tax cuts by not being forthright about the actual numbers:
The Treasury Department has put out an exercise in spin called the "Tax Relief Kit," which tries to create the impression that most of the tax cuts went to low- and middle-income families. Conspicuously missing from the document are any actual numbers about how the tax cuts were distributed among different income classes. Yet Treasury analysts have calculated those numbers, and there's enough information in the "kit" to figure out what they discovered.

An explanation of how to extract the administration's estimates of the distribution of tax cuts from the "Tax Relief Kit" is here. Here's the bottom line: about 32 percent of the tax cuts went to the richest 1 percent of Americans, people whose income this year will be at least $341,773. About 53 percent of the tax cuts went to the top 10 percent of the population. Remember, these are the administration's own numbers--numbers that it refuses to release to the public.
Now, it is a simple consequence of mathematics that a government that consumes the amount of tax revenue that the United States does has no choice but to generate most of those revenues from the non-poor, and conversely that the non-poor will get most of the benefits of any tax cuts since they pay the most in taxes. But what the above facts show (and what Johnston's book in particular shows in numerous outrageous details) is that the tax system has been set up in ways that allow the very richest of the rich to benefit even out of proportion to their income, and that the Bush administration has been deceptive about that.

It's high time for real tax reform that greatly simplifies the system, eliminates most deductions and loopholes, doesn't give special breaks for particular corporations owned by friends of people in government, and eliminates the Alternative Minimum Tax. Reducing taxes on dividends and eliminating the estate tax are changes that only benefit the extremely wealthy and don't produce benefits that are likely to create jobs or otherwise benefit most of the population. Reducing taxes on payroll and on small businesses (along with regulatory burdens on them) and eliminating corporate welfare would bring us closer to an actually free market that benefits everyone.

Here's my review of Johnston's book:
While I found much to dismay and horrify me within this book, I suspect I also often did not interpret things in the way the author intended. The author seems to hold a viewpoint in which if you avoid paying a tax--even legally--you have gained income, rather than merely avoided an expense. The author seems to hold the view there is a fixed amount of tax that is the right amount to [be] collected, and if one person or entity reduces its tax burden, it thereby increases the burden on everyone else, cheating them. This is a judgment without any regard to the other side of the coin, government spending. While I agree that at the extremes (many of which are portrayed in this book), there is clear-cut cheating and not paying a fair share by any reasonable standard, I would not agree that all or even most legal tax avoidance falls into that category. Those who favor limited government and balanced budgets are likely to have a similar reaction to much of what the author writes.

That said, however, he makes a very strong case that the U.S. tax system is unfair and corrupt, that the IRS is limited in its ability to go after tax cheats who are breaking the law, and that the net effect is to give tremendous benefits to the richest of the rich, while the burden on everyone else (regardless of whether those taxes are being collected for legitimate or frivolous purposes) has increased.

He has chapters on how the alternative minimum tax (AMT) is completely broken and is now impacting a growing number of the middle class, how tax-exempt insurance companies are being exploited as a mechanism for storing hundreds of millions of dollars in investments and avoiding taxes on the gains, on those who simply refuse to file or pay income taxes at all, on the effects of Reagan-era payroll tax increases, on tax-evading partnership schemes and the IRS's complete inability to devote any resources to detecting them, on American companies moving their headquarters to Bermuda to avoid taxes, and on the destruction of pensions at many large companies. All are fascinating reading.

I agree with the author that something should be done, and that something should include a complete overhaul and simplification of the U.S. tax code, to make it fair and enforceable. But I am not optimistic that anything will be done--I think the level of corruption in the federal government is so high, and that because the behavior of bureaucrats and legislators is more accurately described by public choice theory than by political science, that it is unlikely we'll see radical change in a positive direction.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

"Bioprinting": Inkjet printers that build tissue

From New Scientist:
Other tissue engineers have tried printing 3D structures, using modified ink-jet printers which spray cells suspended in liquid. Now Forgacs and a company called Sciperio have developed a device with printing heads that extrude clumps of cells mechanically so that they emerge one by one from a micropipette. This results in a higher density of cells in the final printed structure, meaning that an authentic tissue structure can be created faster.

Cells seem to survive the printing process well. When layers of chicken heart cells were printed they quickly begin behaving as they would in a real organ. "After 19 hours or so, the whole structure starts to beat in a synchronous manner," says Forgacs.

Most tissue engineers trying to build 3D structures start with a scaffold of the desired shape, which they seed with cells and grow for weeks in the lab. This is how Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University and his colleagues grew the bladders which he successfully implanted into seven people. But if tissue engineering goes mainstream, faster and cheaper methods will be a boon. "Bioprinting is the way to go," says Vladimir Mironov, a tissue engineer at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

(Via jwz's blog.)

Some of the real victims of phony Satanic ritual abuse claims are now seeking compensation

Some of the children who were browbeaten into making admissions of bogus Satanic ritual abuse claims, now adults, are seeking compensation from the government agencies which took them from their families. It's too bad they aren't also going after some of the fakes whose stories inspired the witchhunts (Mike Warnke, "Lauren Stratford," "Rebecca Brown") and their publishers and promoters (Jack Chick, Hal Lindsey, Johanna Michaelsen).

Bush's imperial powers

Scott McClellan maintains that when Bush presented discredited information about mobile bioweapons laboratories in Iraq, he had no choice because the discrediting data was classified and it would be inappropriate to make use of it to modify a set of talking points to make sure that it wasn't full of falsehoods and misrepresentations to present to the American public:
I think the CIA will tell you -- and I spoke to them earlier today -- that a finished product like this, a white paper like this, takes coordination, it takes debating, it takes vetting, and it's not something that they will tell you turns on a dime. It's a complex intelligence white paper and it's ... one derived from highly classified information takes a substantial amount of time to coordinate and to run through a declassification process. And they will tell you this. And the intelligence comes in many different forms -- human intelligence, signals intelligence, open source -- and it's not a trickle, it's a constant flood, is what they told me this morning. And weighing and assessing it is something that takes a lot of time and is a technology-intensive process. So you're making an assumption that something is immediately taken and assessed by your comments.
Yet at the same time, the Bush administration takes such a cavalier view of the declassification process (or rather, such a strong view of the power of the President to act upon the whims of the moment) that he can approve leaking the identity of an undercover CIA agent in order to get revenge on a U.S. Ambassador who is criticizing the administrations falsehoods about Iraq attempting to purchase uranium in Niger.

Meanwhile, Alberto Gonzales says that the President could legally intercept domestic communications without FISA Court approval as a result of the AUMF (authorization for the use of military force in Iraq), in addition to being able to unilaterally declare U.S. citizens to be enemy combatants and hold them indefinitely without trial and engage in torture.

It is growing more and more clear that the current administration thinks the President's powers are unlimited, and Bush's December 18, 2000 comment that "if this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier--so long as I'm the dictator" and his July 30, 2001 Business Week comment that "A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there's no question about it" weren't really jokes.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Brit accused of killing wife, baby pleads not guilty

The Arizona Republic reports on a tragic situation with a humorously ambiguous headline. This will likely show up in a future issue of Fortean Times.

New Hampshire election phone-jamming tied to White House and Republican Party

An Associated Press story:
Key figures in a phone-jamming scheme designed to keep New Hampshire Democrats from voting in 2002 had regular contact with the White House and Republican Party as the plan was unfolding, phone records introduced in criminal court show.

The records show that Bush campaign operative James Tobin, who recently was convicted in the case, made two dozen calls to the White House within a three-day period around Election Day 2002 as the phone jamming operation was finalized, carried out and then abruptly shut down.

The national Republican Party, which paid millions in legal bills to defend Tobin, says the contacts involved routine election business and that it was "preposterous" to suggest the calls involved phone jamming.

The scheme involved repeated hang-up calls from a telemarketing firm to the Democratic get-out-the-vote headquarters. The owner of the firm is under indictment for the scheme. Apart from Tobin, there have already been two other convictions in the case.

UPDATE: TPM Muckraker has more details on the calling records that show calls to the White House.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Details of AT&T cooperation with the NSA emerge

Details of AT&T's cooperation with the National Security Agency are beginning to emerge as a result of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit against AT&T, as described by Wired:

AT&T provided National Security Agency eavesdroppers with full access to its customers' phone calls, and shunted its customers' internet traffic to data-mining equipment installed in a secret room in its San Francisco switching center, according to a former AT&T worker cooperating in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit against the company.

Mark Klein, a retired AT&T communications technician, submitted an affidavit in support of the EFF's lawsuit this week. That class action lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco last January, alleges that AT&T violated federal and state laws by surreptitiously allowing the government to monitor phone and internet communications of AT&T customers without warrants.

On Wednesday, the EFF asked the court to issue an injunction prohibiting AT&T from continuing the alleged wiretapping, and filed a number of documents under seal, including three AT&T documents that purportedly explain how the wiretapping system works.

According to a statement released by Klein's attorney, an NSA agent showed up at the San Francisco switching center in 2002 to interview a management-level technician for a special job. In January 2003, Klein observed a new room being built adjacent to the room housing AT&T's #4ESS switching equipment, which is responsible for routing long distance and international calls.

The account says that AT&T's Internet peering traffic, as well as voice traffic, is being intercepted:

"While doing my job, I learned that fiber optic cables from the secret room were tapping into the Worldnet (AT&T's internet service) circuits by splitting off a portion of the light signal," Klein wrote.

The split circuits included traffic from peering links connecting to other internet backbone providers, meaning that AT&T was also diverting traffic routed from its network to or from other domestic and international providers, according to Klein's statement.

The secret room also included data-mining equipment called a Narus STA 6400, "known to be used particularly by government intelligence agencies because of its ability to sift through large amounts of data looking for preprogrammed targets," according to Klein's statement.

This information goes well beyond what had already been determined about AT&T's gigantic call detail record (CDR) database, Daytona, that preserves a record of decades of telephone calls. That database included only the phone numbers and dates and times, not the actual content of the calls. This new information, by contrast, suggests the ability to actually intercept the content of voice calls and Internet data transmission.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Direct Revenue exposed

The NY AG's lawsuit against Direct Revenue has produced a bunch of interesting internal documents. The documents include complaints, internal emails, a listing of company names used by Direct Revenue, information about Direct Revenue hiring a private investigator to track down an anti-spyware researcher, payments received from Yahoo ($600,000 between April-June 2005), and revenue numbers (the adware business is extremely profitable). Ben Edelman has them up at his site.

Tiktaalik roseae and the Discovery Institute

The Discovery Institute wants to argue that Tiktaalik roseae is not a transitional fossil (images here). Nick Matzke dissects the DI's claims at The Panda's Thumb.

What European city do you belong in?

You Belong in Amsterdam

A little old fashioned, a little modern - you're the best of both worlds. And so is Amsterdam.
Whether you want to be a squatter graffiti artist or a great novelist, Amsterdam has all that you want in Europe (in one small city).

Al Franken Debates Ann Coulter

Al Franken had a debate with Ann Coulter at the University of Judaism; Franken's initial presentation is here, and is quite good. There's a bit more background here--has anyone seen Coulter's response transcribed?

At one point, Franken says:

You can’t have good government without the truth. During the crafting and passage of the Medicare prescription drug bill, the chief actuary of Medicare was told to withhold from Congress the true cost of the bill. He’d be fired if he told the truth.

The bill costs so much, in large part, because the bill prohibits Medicare from negotiating with the pharmaceutical companies on the price of drugs. As a result, seniors now pay on average 44% more than veterans getting the same drugs through the VA which is allowed to use its size to negotiate with the drug companies. To get the bill passed, the vote was held open for three hours. Tom DeLay was later admonished by Republicans on the ethics committee for attempting to bribe, and then extort, Republican Nick Smith of Michigan to get him to change his vote. The chairman of the Commerce Committee Billy Tauzin who ushered the legislation through, soon left Congress for a two million dollar a year job as the chief lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. Obviously, a complete coincidence.

This is a series of events that shouldn't be forgotten; the details are spelled out in James Bovard's The Bush Betrayal (2004, Palgrave Macmillan) in the chapter "Spending as Caring," pp. 121-128. Some highlights:
Bush constantly portrayed the issue of new handouts in the loftiest moral terms. In a Florida speech on November 13, 2003, Bush declared, "The Medicare program is a basic trust that must be upheld throughout the generations." And because it was an issue of trust, the Bush team was entitled to use deceit and any means necessary to ram the law through Congress.
The Republican leadership thought they could score victory in the House when the bill was brought to the floor on the evening of November 2, 2003. However, when the initial vote occurred at 3 a.m., the Bush proposal lost by two votes. The Republican leadership violated House rules, which limit votes to a half hour or less, and proceeded to carry out the longest floor vote in House history--dragging out the tally until 6 a.m., when two Republicans switched their "nays" to "yeas" and the bill passed.
Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.), a veteran congressman in his final term, caught intense heat for opposing the bill. Efforts to sway Smith's vote focused on his son, who was running for the congressional seat his father held. Columnist Robert Novak reported: "On the House floor, Nick Smith was told business interests would give his son $100,000 in return for his father's vote. When he still declined, fellow Republican House members told him they would make sure Brad Smith never came to Congress. After Nick Smith voted no and the bill passed Duke Cunningham of California and other Republicans taunted him that his son was dead meat." Smith complained widely about the threats and bribes in the days after the vote. The House Ethics Committee eventually grudgingly launched a bribery investigation.
Barely a month after Bush signed the bill, Bush's budget director, Josh Bolton, informed Congress that the estimated cost had jumped to $540 billion for the first decade, instead of the advertised $400 billion ticket price. The revision infuriated conservative Republican congressmen, but the congressional leadership tried to brush it off as a non-issue. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) declared, "In truth, nobody has any idea what the real figure will be at the end of the day, because we don't know what those assumptions should be as we go further." If Frist actually believed no one had any idea of what the legislation would cost, then he and other supporters were grossly negligent or deceptive in the claims they made to the American people when Congress considered the bill. ...
The Bush administration intentionally deceived Congress over the estimated cost of the bill. Thirteen conservative House members had vowed to vote against any bill costing more than $400 billion. Richard S. Foster, the top actuary at the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, privately estimated in June 2003--5 months before the final vote--that the bill would actually cost $550 billion. Foster was contacted by Democratic stafers seeking estimates on the cost of the Bush proposal. By law, Foster was obliged to provide them the information. Thomas Scully, the chief Medicare administrator, reportedly threatened to fire Foster if he provided the information. Foster later commented that "there was a pattern of withholding information for what I perceived to be political purposes." The much higher estimate of the cost of the Medicare bill was apparently known by top officials at the White House. Eighteen Democratic senators requested the GAO to investigate the potential violation of a law prohibiting the use of federal funds to pay the salary of any official who "prohibits or prevents, or threatens to prohibit or prevent" another employee from communicating with Congress. On April 1, House Republicans blocked an effort by Democrats to summon Scully and White House aide Doug Badget to testify before a congressional committee.
On May 3, the Congressional Research service released a legal analysis which concluded that "such 'gag orders' have been expressly prohibited by federal law since 1912." The Supreme Court, in a 1927 ruling on the 1912 law, declared that a "legislative body cannot legislate wisely or effectively in the absence of information regarding conditions which the legislation is intended to affect or change." But the Bush administration was too astute to fall for such radical notions.
Bovard's account goes on to describe how the Medicare prescription plan gives the bulk of its benefits to non-needy seniors--75% of recipients already have prescription drug coverage through insurance, and the National Center for Policy Analysis "estimated that only 6 to 7 percent of the expenditures in the Medicare reform bill will pay for additional drugs for the elderly." The beneficiaries are non-needy elderly, insurance companies, corporations ("the Congressional Budget Office forecast that 'at least one-third of all private companies will dump their retirees into the Medicare system as a result of the new bill'"), and, of course, the pharmaceutical companies, since there is no price negotiation under the bill.

Jerry Falwell's cat-killing story

This story got some coverage a little over a year ago when Ian Frazier quoted this passage from Jerry Falwell's autobiography in a humor piece in The New Yorker and Jonathan Schwarz covered it in his blog. I found it so twisted that I had to validate its reality by purchasing a used copy of Falwell's book on Marketplace (for about $0.50). I think it's worth bringing up again now that Sen. John McCain has agreed to give a commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University ("crazy base world"), since it shows Falwell's lack of empathy--I think the attribute "bordered on" here is not cruelty but sociopathy.

From Strength for the Journey: An Autobiography by Jerry Falwell (1987, Simon and Schuster), pp. 49-50:
There were times that Dad's pranks bordered on cruelty. One of his oil company workers, a one-legged man he nicknamed "Crip" Smith, complained about everything. Dad and Crip's co-workers got tired of the old man's bellyaching and decided to take revenge. One morning Crip called in sick and Dad volunteered to send by lunch to his grateful but suspicious employee. Dad and his chums caught Crip's old black tomcat, killed it, skinned it, and cooked it in the kitchen of one of Dad's little restaurants. They called it squirrel meat and delivered it to Crip on a linen-covered tray. When Crip returned to work the next morning, Dad and his co-conspirators asked him how he liked his meal. They knew he would complain even about a free home-cooked lunch, and when Crip called it "the toughest squirrel meat" he had ever eaten, they were glad to tell him why.
This story immediately follows another story in which Falwell invites his young friend William from the neighborhood, who is afraid of his father, into the house for milk and cookies, after telling his father that William is afraid (p. 49):
William hesitated at the door. He knew my father carried a gun, and there were too many stories circulating about that gun to leave William feeling easy about entering our home. Quickly I pushed my friend inside and closed the door behind us. Dad was sitting at the kitchen table reading a newspaper. Suddenly he looked directly at us and shouted.
"Both of you, stop!" William froze in his tracks, and I leaned forward eagerly to see what Dad was up to. William's eyes opened wide as Dad drew his gun and pointed it at the floor just in front of my friend's trembling legs.
"Don't move," he said quietly. Then he took careful aim and pulled the trigger. The shot from the .38 Remington pistol blew a fairly impressive hole in the kitchen floor. Calmly, Dad blew smoke from the barrel and placed the pistol back on the table.
"I've been trying to get that fly all day," he said, looking back down at his paper. "And finally I got it."
There was a moment of silence. Then, with a gasp, William bolted out the door. I never got him back inside our house again, and the legend about my father continued to spread throughout the neighborhood. Later Dad and I laughed ourselves hoarse just remembering William's startled look and sudden exit.
For additional context, Falwell reports that his father killed his own brother with a shotgun (in self-defense, pp. 22-24), and attributes part of his father's problem to the fact that "After all, Dad grew up in the home of an atheist" (p. 17), even though he had a Christian mother. His book says that his father had a deathbed conversion to Christianity (p. 83).

Friday, April 07, 2006

Verified Voting Bill in the House (HR 550)

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has teamed up with Verified Voting to try to get members of the U.S. House of Representatives to sign up as co-sponsors of HR 550, the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2005, which was re-introduced in the House in February. This bill would require that electronic voting include a paper receipt and the capacity for manual recounts, ensure that disabled and those who don't speak English as their native tongue are capable of voting, and enhances security requirements for electronic voting systems. The latter requirements include disclosure and certification of source code, prohibition of the use of wireless connections, and a number of other provisions which appear to me to be reasonable requirements for security. The bill authorizes expenditure of $150M for fiscal year 2006 to enable states to meet these requirements.

Arizona Reps. Grijalva and Pastor have already signed on as co-sponsors. Hayworth, Flake, Kolbe, Renzi, Shadegg, and Franks have not.

To send a request to your Representative to support his bill, you can use the EFF's support site.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

How Plan B works

Pharyngula has a nice, simple explanation of how Plan B emergency contraception works, and how it can't remotely be construed as a form of abortion (unlike the use of RU-486, which is an abortifacient). The use of Plan B prevents ovulation--it doesn't do anything to an already fertilized egg. It thereby prevents the need for abortions when it's used effectively. Yet this timeline of events shows how the Republicans have been preventing it from being made available as an over-the-counter medicine.

Libby says Bush gave him permission to out Plame

At the New York Sun:
A former White House aide under indictment for obstructing a leak probe, I. Lewis Libby, testified to a grand jury that he gave information from a closely-guarded "National Intelligence Estimate" on Iraq to a New York Times reporter in 2003 with the specific permission of President Bush, according to a new court filing from the special prosecutor in the case. The court papers from the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, do not suggest that Mr. Bush violated any law or rule. However, the new disclosure could be awkward for the president because it places him, for the first time, directly in a chain of events that led to a meeting where prosecutors contend the identity of a CIA employee, Valerie Plame, was provided to a reporter.
Via Talking Points Memo.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Literal offshoring

From BLDGBLOG--I would have thought I'd see this first somewhere like Catallarchy--is a report of a San Diego-based company called SeaCode. The company has the idea of mooring a cruise ship in international waters off the coast of L.A. to host offshore computer programmers from Russia and India, paying them about $1,800 a month in take-home pay, with a four-months-on, two-months-off work cycle. That compares to $500 a month for a programmer in India.

The idea's been condemned by right ("an outrageous affront to U.S. labor laws") and left (calling it an idea for "sweat ships"), which is a sign of either a really good or really bad idea--I think it could be a good one. Since this was reported originally back in April of 2005, it doesn't look like it's gotten anywhere.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

DI continues to lie about the Dover case

Now the Discovery Institute is claiming (via Michael Francisco, on the DI's EvolutionNews blog, reporting on an American Enterprise Institute article co-authored by former DI policy analyst, attorney Seth Cooper) that the newly elected Dover Area School Board intentionally cost the school district $1 million in legal fees by refusing to rescind the illegal policy in December, after the trial was over and before Judge Jones had issued his ruling. This is at odds with the fact that their rescinding the policy would not have changed the outcome of the trial or the awarding of legal fees, which is why they didn't do it until after the ruling came.

What's worse, they have attributed malice and conflict of interest (now retracted, to the original source's partial credit) to one of the new board members who was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit regarding this decision, even though he was not yet on the board at the time of the December discussion (there was no vote) on changing the policy due to a runoff election.

And further worse--on William Dembski's blog, someone who pointed out the facts had their comment deleted.

There's nowhere to place the blame for the $1 million in legal fees except on the original board who put the policy in place over the warnings and objections at the time that their action was unconstitutional--and perhaps to some extent on the Discovery Institute advisor who they initially spoke with about what policy to adopt, Seth Cooper.

UPDATE (April 5, 2006): Michael Francisco has revised the wording of his blog post, probably to make it less actionable under defamation laws. Ed Brayton points out the specifics of his revisions.

Bitfall: using dripping water to display images

This is really cool, I hope the Quicktime videos come back soon. (Via BLDGBLOG.)

UPDATE (September 18, 2007): Julius Popp's website (the first link) appears to be undergoing renovations... the BLDGBLOG link still has Bitfall pictures and description.

South Florida police expose personal information of reporter who criticized them

A hidden-camera investigation earlier this year that showed South Florida police departments engaging in aggressive tactics to prevent people from filing complaints against police officers has resulted in retaliation by the grossly misnamed Broward County Police Benevolent Association. WFOR CBS-4 investigative reporter Mike Kirsch's personal information--his address, birthdate, and driver's license number--was posted by Broward County PBA president Dick Brickman on the police union's website as a "BOLO"--"be on the lookout." Also posted was information about Gregory Slate of The Police Complaint Center, which assisted with Kirsch's report. Alan Rosenthal, attorney for CBS-4, demanded that the union remove the "BOLO" as a violation of laws prohibiting disclosure of "personal identifying information contained in motor vehicle records." (Via Declan McCullagh's Politech mailing list.)

Kirsch's address and date of birth was apparently removed from the BCPBA website on March 17, but Slate's address, cell phone, and date of birth are still there.

The "BOLO" focuses not on the complaint report investigation, but a related racial profiling investigation, where either a white man (Kirsch or Slate) or a black man (identified on the "BOLO" as Dorian Gibson, age 21) would be driving a red Mustang convertible (its information is also given in the document). In the investigation results, the white driver was never pulled over but the black driver was. According the BCPBA description, the white driver would first drive around, then the black driver in the same car. For a proper study, they should reverse the ordering so that the issue isn't that the police first see one driver, then a completely different driver for the same car, which could produce an inference of a stolen vehicle regardless of the race of the respective drivers.

NY AG sues Direct Revenue for spyware

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has filed a suit against Direct Revenue for secretly installing spyware on users' computers, seeking a restraining order to prevent it.

Direct Revenue was recently chastised by researcher Ben Edelman, who pointed out many large or well-known companies that have been paying them for their services--companies like Citibank, Netflix, Sprint, United Airlines, Blockbuster, Chase, Travelocity, and more.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Coyote Carnival #2

Coyote Carnival #2, devoted to Arizona blogs, is up. Apparently my submission got lost.

Tom DeLay's out!

Tom DeLay has announced that he will not be seeking re-election and in fact will be resigning in the near future. As Talking Points Memo points out, he needs to spend his time trying to make sure he doesn't spend the rest of his life in prison, as the corruption scandal around him takes down his former staff one by one, most recently with a guilty plea from his former Deputy Chief of Staff turned Jack Abramoff co-worker Tony Rudy.

And the Abramoff scandal all got exposed thanks to Michael Scanlon's jilted fiancee...

The ARM ticking time bomb

The last few years have seen a lot of creative financing to purchase homes as prices rose out of control, with a huge increase in the percentage of adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) used by first-time home buyers in order to stretch the limits of what they could afford to buy. About 25% of all current mortgages in the U.S. are ARMs. Unfortunately, many of those who got them did not understand what they were signing up for, and one in five subprime ARM homeowners in West Virginia, Alabama, Michigan, Missouri, and Tennessee was more than 30 days late with a payment at the end of last year. The peak of ARM interest-rate resets will occur in 2007-2008, which leads one researcher to predict that up to 1 million of 7.7 million homeowners who took out ARMs in the last two years will end up losing their homes to foreclosure in the next five years, with banking losses of up to $100 billion--painful, but less than the S&L crisis.

The last time interest-only ARMs were popular was in the 1920's, when the fall of home prices caused many of those who had them to lose their homes. In the last few years, they've been pushed hard by sleazy mortgage lenders with things like illegal telemarketing calls and deceptive direct mail pieces that look like they're something important from your current lender, a refund check, or something else highly desirable or urgent in order to get you to open it.

More at Ben Jones' Housing Bubble Blog.

Different rules for children of state legislators in Arizona

Clifton Bennett, 18, son of Arizona Senate President Ken Bennett (one of the many Mormons that exercise control over the Arizona Republican Party) and Kyle Wheeler, 19, were counselors at a Student Council camp last summer in Prescott. At the camp, Bennett and Wheeler assaulted more than a dozen boys--Wheeler by choking them to the point of unconsciousness, and both by pushing broom handles, flashlights, or canes against the camper's clothed bodies until the objects penetrated them anally. (The clothing in at least a couple cases was only underwear or gym shorts.) Although Bennett and Wheeler were arrested in January, it now appears that Bennett will get no jail time under a plea agreement that drops all but one assault charge.

After all, what's a dozen cases of anal rape for a legislator's son? Practice for a future career as a legislator? Or maybe as an interrogator in Iraq or Gitmo?

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Carnival of the Godless #37

Carnival of the Godless #37 is up at the Neural Gourmet.

Most generous countries

The March 4-10, 2006 issue of The Economist gives a table of private donations to poor countries by country, as a percentage of GDP (for 2003). The data comes from the OECD, which tracks 22 countries' aid (but only 21 of which are listed). The graph supplied shows the percentage of the giving attributed to tax breaks, which appears to be close to half for the top 14 countries. The top percentage of GDP is 0.20%, for Norway, where somewhere between a fourth and a third is attributed to tax breaks.

The 21 countries, from most to least generous:

1. Norway (0.20%)
2. Ireland
3. Switzerland (just under 0.10%)
4. Netherlands
5. Canada
6. Australia
7. United States (just over 0.05%)
8. Belgium (about 0.05%)
9. Germany
10. Austria
11. Britain (just under 0.025%)
12. Spain
13. France
14. New Zealand
15. Denmark
16. Sweden
17. Finland
18. Japan
19. Portugal (no visible bar on the graph)
20. Greece
21. Italy

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Scalia's obscene gesture

After services at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Sunday, March 26, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was asked by a reporter for the Boston Herald, Laurel J. Sweet, how he responds to critics who might question his impartiality based on his worship. His response was to say, "To my critics, I say 'Vaffanculo,'" and made a gesture flicking his hand from under his chin. This gesture was caught by photographer Peter Smith, an assistant professor of photojournalism at Boston University.

The translation of "Vaffanculo" and the Sicilian gesture is loosely "fuck you," but more specifically the language suggests that the recipient of the gesture "take it up the ass."

The photographer released the photo for publication and was promptly fired from his ten-year position as a freelancer for The Pilot, a weekly Catholic newspaper.

The verbal response was apparently not heard by Sweet, only by Smith. Scalia's initial response was to say that he had not made an obscene gesture, and a spokesperson for the Judge released a letter saying that he explained the gesture to Sweet (which Sweet and Smith deny), describing a rather different gesture meaning "I couldn't care less."

(Via Donna Woodka's "Changing Places" blog.)