27 April 2015

Land Rover for the day

The editors of Top Gear have an article via the BBC about a new Land Rover, the Flying Huntsman:
British tuner Kahn has done many things to many Land Rover products in the past, some tasteful, some rather less so. The company's latest: the Flying Huntsman 105 Pick Up (photo).
As you have correctly deduced, the definitely-not-hilariously-mispronounceable Huntsman started life as a Defender pick-up, but gets a lengthened nose.
That bonnet is 400 mm longer than the standard Land Rover, together with an increase in width of 150 mm. There are also wider, extended front and rear fenders with vents and apertures, new headlights, a new front bumper with lights, side vents, a "captivating" gold stripe, and matte black eighteen-inch wheels.
In fact, the whole thing is finished in matte black, too. Underneath, there's Land Rover's 2.2-litre diesel engine - the 105-horsepower version - and unspecified brake and suspension upgrades.
Kahn says it has upholstered many things inside the cabin - there's no image of the interior, perhaps thankfully - and fitted a 'Churchill' clock and rev counter fascia, machined aluminium pedals, a billet steering wheel and two ‘GTB' sports seats.
Prices start from about $89,000. A cruel thing to do to the venerable Defender? Or curiously appealing?
Rico says it is cute, but he can't afford (nor drive) one, alas...

26 April 2015

Cat for the day

Rico says that we should get our cat, Flora, her own Aqua account, as she insists on having a faucet running all day so that she can drink 'wild' water (that stuff in the bowl on the floor is so boring)...

Gubs for the day

Maria Panaritis has an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about a local anti-gub protest:
A national gun-control campaign aimed at "bad apple" firearms dealers took aim in South Philadelphia recently, as advocates staged a demonstration in front of a major gun wholesaler and retailer near Front Street and Tasker Avenue.
Several dozen protesters, led by the Washington, DC-based Brady Campaign and the Center to Prevent Gun Violence singled out Firing Line Inc. for having sold, over the years, dozens of guns that later were used in crimes or in some other way ended up in the possession of law enforcement authorities.
The Brady Center's "bad apple" campaign stop was the third since September, when the effort began in Chicago, Illinois. It seeks to pressure gun dealers to tighten buyer-screening measures beyond what is required by law.
Several dozen marchers carried signs or pictures of loved ones killed by guns, calling for Firing Line to adopt a "code of conduct" that would include photographing every person who buys a gun there. "We know that 86 percent of gun dealers do not sell crime guns," Brady Center attorney Rob Wilcox blared through a megaphone, while another group stood nearby with signs in support of Firing Line. "Who sells them?" Wilcox added. "The bad apples!"
The advocacy organization said that over sixty guns recovered in crimes between 1989 and 1997 were traced to Firing Line. More recently, on at least four other occasions, straw purchases have taken place. That is when a third-party purchases guns for someone who cannot pass criminal background checks.
"I've got a son and two daughters. I don't want them gunned down," said newly elected State Senator Arthur Haywood, whose district straddles Cheltenham Township and Northwest Philadelphia. Haywood recently introduced a one-gun-a-month bill that is not likely to move forward in the legislature.
Firing Line owner Gregory Isabella and his attorney, Dan Delcollo Jr., stood in front of the store, as his supporters traded chants with Brady protesters a short distance away.
"We have rejected numerous customers from coming and buying at the counter," Isabella said. His licensed business is in good standing with Federal, state, and local authorities, Isabella said, noting that he has volunteered information to investigators on occasion. The best way to curb gun trafficking, Isabella added, is through enforcement.
His lawyer said taking photographs at the counter would deter customers from doing business there. "We videotape for security," Delcollo said, "but we don't take a picture of every customer and put it in a file." Delcollo urged gun-control advocates to, instead, take their concerns to lawmakers.
White House press secretary Jim Brady was shot and partially paralyzed during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald ReaganBrady became a national gun-control advocate, and his work led President Bill Clinton in 1993 to sign the Brady Bill into law. It requires all gun buyers to undergo criminal background checks.
Longtime area gun-control activist Bryan Miller was among the activists gathered at Firing Line's front door. Miller said the latest push for a Gun Dealer Code of Conduct reflects an effort to supplement the push for tougher laws, which is notoriously difficult given the power of the nation's gun-rights lobby. Miller described legislative advocacy as "long and difficult. And while it's happening, people are dying."
Rico says that people should be required to put their thumbprint on purchase forms; no reason to help criminals get gubs... (Though they will anyway.)

Apple for the day

Jeff Sommer has an article in The New York Times about the future of Apple:
Apple can’t grow like this forever. No company can. In a few short years, Apple has become the biggest company on the planet by market value; so big that it dwarfs every other one on the stock market. It dominates the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index as no other company has in thirty years.
Apple’s market capitalization (the value of all of the shares of its stock) is more than $758 billion, greater than any other company’s. Yet the Wall Street consensus is that Apple is still having a growth spurt. In fact, if Apple’s watches, phones, laptops, and other gadgets and services keep generating favorable publicity, and if its quarterly earnings report on Monday is as strong as the market expects it to be, there’s a reasonable chance that Apple’s value will keep swelling. Not far down the road, it might even reach the one-trillion-dollar level that some hedge funds predict.
But even if Apple still has some room to run, there are some early warning signs. After all, the company has already crossed a significant threshold. In February of 2015, it grew to twice the size of the next biggest company in the S&P 500, a rare feat of financial dominance, and one that hasn’t happened since Ronald Reagan was president.
I checked the numbers with Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices. He found that the last market colossus to tower over its competitors by a two-to-one ratio was IBM, which did it in three successive years: 1983, 1984 and 1985. “That was when PCs were new,” he said, “and just about everyone thought IBM would rule the world.”
Now it’s Apple’s world. Apple is the most widely held stock in American mutual fund portfolios. IBM, the former undisputed heavyweight champion, isn’t even in the running anymore. It ranks 62nd, according to a Morningstar analysis performed at my request. IBM is still an important company, but it is struggling. Investors judge it to be worth less than one-quarter of Apple’s market value today. What happened to IBM, how it became this small, in comparison with Apple, is worth remembering.
I had forgotten how imposing IBM once was. By some measures, it was vastly more important than Apple is today. Measured by market cap, for example, IBM accounted for a staggering seven percent of the S&P 500 in 1985, IBM’s peak year, making it twice the size of the second-biggest company of its day, Exxon. Now Microsoft is the second biggest and Exxon Mobil is third, both roughly one-half the size of Apple. Exxon Mobil is followed in market cap by Google and Johnson & Johnson. (On this 45th anniversary year of Earth Day, the staying power of Exxon, from its Standard Oil days to the present, is also worth remembering.)
Apple has an outsize influence today: after the market close on Friday, its share of the S&P 500 was just over four percent, a formidable percentage and a huge increase from 31 December 2014, when it was just over three percent. But its weight in the market is nothing like IBM’s in the 1980s, when IBM finished seven calendar years with a market weight above four percent, a showing that Apple has not yet met. At IBM’s 1985 peak, its share of the S&P 500 was more than one and half times the size of Apple’s today.
IBM operated in a different league than Apple does now. A business machine company at its roots, IBM never aspired to pop-culture coolness, but its prestige was extraordinary. You can’t measure prestige easily with numbers, but consider that, in 1987, two IBM scientists based in Zurich, Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Physics for a breakthrough in superconductivity. It was the second consecutive year that IBM scientists won the prize; in 1986, two of them won it for inventing an instrument known as the scanning tunneling electron microscope. All of those scientists did deep, basic research of which IBM was justly proud. Apple’s research today is impressive, but it has generally been product-driven, not the kind of fundamental work that IBM did.
With hindsight, it’s clear that IBM’s Olympian status was part of its problem. In the 1980s, at the height of its powers, it continued to come up with scientific breakthroughs and ultrafast computers, but its focus on its own product lines and customer service flagged. IBM “naïvely” handed over crucial parts of the computer business to companies like Microsoft and Intel, while its own profit margins began to erode, D. Quinn Mills, a professor at the Harvard Business School, has written.
For the most part, investors minimized those problems, if they were even aware of them. In those days of hulking mainframes, IBM was the quintessential computer company and its hegemony in the stock market seemed unstoppable.
It’s no wonder that a young Steve Jobs, the co-founder of the upstart Apple Computer company, took direct aim at IBM in a speech in San Francisco, California in the fall of 1983, deriding IBM as arrogant and shortsighted and predicting that it would soon be humbled. At that meeting, he unveiled a remarkable ad (video, above) that would run on television during the 1984 Super Bowl. Created by the director of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, it showed a young hammer-wielding athlete running through a vast grim room populated by serfs. She hurled her hammer at a screen on which an Orwellian Big Brother was intoning propaganda and shattered it.
A man read the words on-screen: On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’ Apple didn’t mention IBM by name, but its target was clear. And soon after the Super Bowl, when Jobs actually introduced the first Macintosh to a rapt audience, the little personal computer continued the assault on IBM. In a cute synthesized voice, it spoke these words, which also appeared on its diminutive screen: Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I’d like share with you a maxim I thought of the first time I met an IBM mainframe: Never trust a computer you can't lift.
IBM did thrive for years afterward, but, just as Jobs had predicted, it turned out to be vulnerable to disruptive change, as all big companies are. For decades now, IBM has engaged in a sometimes painful transition and, as it revealed in its quarterly earnings report last week, it is still hurting: its revenues have declined and it has endured wrenching business shifts. My colleague Steve Lohr wrote last week that IBM has been getting out of slow-growing old businesses, like personal computers, disk drives, low-end server computers and chip manufacturing, but its new initiatives in fields like data analytics, cloud computing, and mobile apps for corporate customers haven’t entirely succeeded yet.
In a turnabout, IBM’s mobile app strategy relies on a partnership with the current giant, its old nemesis, Apple. IBM is leveraging its prowess with supercomputers and artificial intelligence with a new initiative, Watson Health, that includes Apple. That alliance could help both companies grow; in Apple’s case, by ensuring that its products work more seamlessly in corporate environments where IBM is deeply entrenched.
Rapid growth, after all, isn’t a sure thing, especially when you’re already the biggest company in the world. IBM has proved that. Sooner or later, Apple investors will have to take that lesson to heart.
Rico says the immortal (if apocryphal) words "Say it ain't so, Joe" seem to apply here...

History for the day

On 26 April 1986, the world's then-worst* nuclear accident occurred at the Chernobyl plant in the then-Soviet Union. An explosion and fire in the Number Four reactor (photo) sent radioactivity into the atmosphere; at least thirty people died immediately.

*Rico says the accident at Fukushima, Japan following the tsunami was worse.

25 April 2015

Nepal earthquake

The BBC has an article by Caroline Hawley  about a deadly earthquake in Nepal:
Nearly a thousand are known to have died in a powerful earthquake in Nepal (photo, top), with many more feared trapped under rubble, officials say. The 7.8 magnitude quake struck an area between the capital, Kathmandu, and the city of Pokhara, the US Geological Survey said.Tremors were felt across the region, with further loss of life in India, Bangladesh, Tibet, and on Mount EverestThe government has declared a state of emergency in the affected areas.A national police spokesman told the BBC that a thousand people had died in the quake, and that more than seventeen hundred had been injured. At least five hundred people were killed in the Kathmandu valley, he added.Nepali Information Minister Minendra Rijal said there had been "massive damage" at the epicenter, from where little information is emerging. "We need support from the various international agencies which are more knowledgeable and equipped to handle the kind of emergency we face now," he said.The US is sending a disaster response team to Nepal, and has released an initial million dollars to address immediate needs, US AID has said.Rescuers are digging through the rubble of collapsed buildings in the capital, trying to reach survivors, as thousands prepare to spend the night outside as darkness fell.A number of historic buildings have been destroyed. Among those wrecked was the landmark Dharahara tower (photo, bottom), with many feared trapped in its ruins.After the earthquake struck, frightened residents came out into the streets. Mobile phones and other communications have been disrupted. 
Analysis by Navin Singh Khadka, BBC News:
Major historic monuments in Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, have been destroyed in the powerful earthquake, eyewitnesses and officials have said. These include the nine-story Dharahara tower, temples, and some parts of what was once a royal palace, all listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.Pictures posted on social media show some of the monuments have been reduced to rubble. Eyewitnesses say several others now have cracks and could collapse.Officials have said some temples and monuments at other World Heritage sites near Kathmandu have also been damaged. These sites are Nepal's major tourist attractions. Nepal had lost several such monuments during a major earthquake in 1934.There are also reports of damage to Kathmandu airport, which could hamper relief operations. With little yet known about the damage around the earthquake's epicenter, there are fears the death toll could rise. Aftershocks continued to ripple through the region hours later.The quake triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest, killing at least eight people, and another five in Tibet, officials and reports say.
Rico says earthquakes are bad, but worse in poor countries...

Armenian genocide should never be forgotten

One of the Kardashian sisters, Kim (photo, right), has a column in Time about the Armenian genocide:
When we grew up, all my father did was talk about our heritage. It was such a big part of our life: we’d eat Armenian food, we would listen to stories; my dad was really outspoken about our history. We were told that when a lot of Armenians moved, they took the “ian” off their last names in fear that they would be killed. “Whatever you girls do, never change your last name: it’s Kardashian,” he would say. He was very vocal and wanted us to never to forget where we came from.
My great-great-grandparents came from Armenia to Los Angeles in 1914, right before the genocide happened. We have no existing family left in Armenia. Had they not escaped, we wouldn’t be here. There are so many people who lost their families, and the stories of how they were killed are so heartbreaking; they should never be forgotten. The whole point of remembering the genocide is to make sure it doesn’t happen again. A million-and-a-half people were brutally massacred, and a country can just pretend like it never happened? I don’t think that’s right.
My family wanted to go back to Armenia for the longest time. My dad would have loved to go. My grandparents would have loved to go. My great-grandparents would have loved to go. None of them were able to go.
My sister Khloé, my daughter North, and my husband Kanye West (photo, left) finally went to Armenia this month. So many people have come to me and said: “I had no idea there was a genocide.” There aren’t that many Armenians in this business. We have this spotlight to bring attention to it, so why would we just sit back?
Now is the time to speak out, and every little bit helps. I will continue to ask the questions and fight for the genocide to be recognized for what it was.
I would like President Obama to use the word “genocide”. It’s very disappointing he hasn’t used it as President. We thought it was going to happen this year. I feel like we’re close, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.
It’s time for Turkey to recognize it. It’s not the fault of the people who live there now; it was a hundred years ago on Friday. I think if they recognize it and acknowledge it, everyone can move on. I believe in moving on and looking toward a brighter future, but you can’t move on unless you acknowledge the past. To not do so is an act of disrespect.
There’s a purple centennial pin that everyone wears to commemorate the genocide. Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan gave me his when I met him. Purple is my daughter’s favorite color, so she wants to wear it every single day. When she gets older, I will explain to her the real meaning behind it. I’m half-Armenian, but I grew up with a such a strong sense of my Armenian identity, and I want my daughter to have the same. My great-great-grandparents were so brave to move their whole family. I’ll honor them by passing their memory down to my daughter.
Rico says she is of Armenian descent, so she knows...

24 April 2015

Slavery and capitalism

Rico's friend Kema (she of the Slavery Museum) forwards this article from The Daily Beast:
Perhaps the most durable myth about slavery is that it was utterly incompatible with capitalism. Well before historians in the twentieth century began legitimating the idea, abolitionists suggested the disconnect themselves. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe portrayed slave-traders as under-financed, disreputable fools; the furthest thing from competent, successful businessmen. Even Karl Marx, no friend of capitalism, believed that wage labor would destroy slavery. But in recent years, scholars have begun to demolish this myth, arguing not only that slavery was compatible with capitalism, but that the emergence of modern capitalism made slavery’s growth possible.
The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 establishes its author, Calvin Schermerhorn, as among the best practitioners within this new group of historians. While Walter Johnson, Seth Rockman, Edward Baptist, and Sven Beckert have recently made the same core argument, Schermerhorn exposes the links between capitalism and slavery with remarkable clarity, economy, and force. By focusing on the most successful firms involved in the domestic slave trade, Schermerhorn shows how the building blocks of modern capitalism— from innovations in marketing and technology to the development of sophisticated financial instruments— fueled slavery’s expansion throughout the South. The possibility of bloodless abstraction is saved by his emphasis on the devastating human cost.
The closing of the African slave trade in 1807 posed a major challenge to slavery’s expansion. Yet it wasn’t a challenge that creative entrepreneurs could not overcome. Schermerhorn shows how one slave trader, Austin Woolfolk, turned this setback into an opportunity, becoming extraordinarily rich in the process. Based in Baltimore, Maryland, Woolfolk saw that slaveholders in Maryland and bordering states were desperate to get rid of excess slaves. He also knew that would-be planters in the lower South— Louisiana, especially— were hungry for them. But sellers and buyers had no way of communicating with each other; there was then no Craigslist.
Woolfolk’s genius was to build such an exchange, using the newspaper advertisement business as his medium. Woolfolk’s particular gift was in creating eye-grabbing ads: by the 1820s, seemingly every newspaper in the South featured a clear, simple, all-caps ad written by Woolfolk: Cash for Negroes. Schermerhorn argues that the actual market for slave sales may have been far smaller than the ubiquity of Woolfolk’s ads suggests. Yet, in simply printing his ads over and over, Woolfolk conjured a market into being. In the wake of his advertisement scheme, everyone seemed to want a hand in the slave-owning business.
But the paper money needed to buy and sell slaves was in short supply in the early nineteenth century. Woolfolk’s slave-trading business might have ended with him, had not forward-thinking Southern bankers devised a way for potential slave owners to access credit markets. How Southern bankers devised new financial instruments that enabled would-be slave owners to access credit was recently described in Edward Baptist’s much-discussed book, The Half Has Never Been Told. But Schermerhorn brings this process to life through detailed portraits of a few men— “slavery’s bankers,” he calls them— who were instrumental in financing slavery’s expansion.
Despite capitalist proselytizers who insist that government only gets in the way of free enterprise— a refrain perhaps as common in the nineteenth century as it is today— slavery’s most successful entrepreneurs knew that government, when working in their favor, was their greatest ally.
In order for cotton and sugar production to expand, planters just starting out needed loans to buy slaves and land. To get planters credit, Louisiana bankers Hugues Lavergne and Edmond Jean Forstall allowed slaveholders to use what few slaves they had as collateral for loans. Lavergne and Forstall then repackaged these loans into financial instruments that their banks sold to creditors in New York City and Europe. Working with powerful bankers like the London-based firm Baring Brothers and Company, they pressured the Louisiana state government to “secure” these financial instruments with public money, in effect committing taxpayer dollars to pay off these loans in case slaveholders defaulted.
Once secured with public money, European financiers confidently bought these slave-based securities, which in turn pumped dependable European currency into America’s economy. Schermerhorn presents Lavergne and Forstall as financial innovators, their era’s equivalent of the recent bankers who sliced up sub-prime mortgages, repackaged them into complicated financial instruments, and made themselves phenomenally rich in the process.
But slavery’s bankers chose to ignore the effects their financial schemes were having on slaves. The story of Sam Watts illustrates them perfectly. The increased flow of capital enabled the slave-trading firm Franklin and Armfield to purchase the twenty-two year old Watts from his Virginia owner in the summer of 1831. The firm paid $450 for Watts using credit drawn from banks in New York City, and then resold him to Forstall in New Orleans for $950, a remarkable but fairly common profit of more than one hundred percent.
Before being sold to Forstall, however, Watts was jailed in Norfolk, Virginia for six weeks as Franklin and Armfield’s agents bought enough slaves to fill a ship headed for New Orleans. To cut costs, the firm needed to fill every last inch of the ships they used for transport. By October, agents collected the hundred-plus slaves needed, included Watts, to make the three-week journey to New Orleans profitable. Watts was then crammed into a space roughly “the dimensions of a coffin” and set out to sea.
After being shipped down the eastern seaboard and around the Florida isthmus, Watts landed in the port of New Orleans. There, James Franklin, a nephew employed by the firm’s owner, Isaac Franklin, jailed Watts for a few more days before selling him to Forstall for a handsome profit. In turn, Forstall used Watts as labor in the Louisiana Sugar Refinery he owned. At the same time, Forstall’s bank bundled the mortgage used to purchase Watts into a security, which it then sold to bankers in New York City and London. The extra profits Forstall made were reinvested into new steam technology that made his sugar refinery even more productive.
Everyone was getting rich off Watts’ body but Watts. The price he paid, Schermerhorn emphasizes, is best measured in the family he lost after he was sold out of Virginia; the months spent languishing in disease-infested jails and ships; and the life he spent being beaten, scorned, and whipped so that Forstall could profit from the sugar refined in his factory. Ultimately, we don’t know what happened to Watts, yet Schermerhorn tells us that “his mortgage probably outlasted his life”.
Schermerhorn is excellent on several other ways in which entrepreneurial creativity turned the slave trading business into a lucrative enterprise. Some are intended to show how modern business concepts like “vertical integration” and “start-up costs” existed at least as early as the slave trade. Firms like Franklin and Armfield saved money by gaining control of many aspects of the domestic slave trade: they not only owned the jail cells used to house slaves in transit, they also created an internal financial firm, akin to what General Motors had done a century later. Other traders cut start-up costs by cheating: John Craig Marsh, a struggling New York City dry goods merchant, entered the slave trading business in the 1820s by smuggling slaves from New Jersey to Louisiana, despite laws in New Jersey that made out-of-state slave sales illegal.
Another dominant theme in the new books on slavery and capitalism is the extent to which slavery’s capitalists depended on government aid. Despite capitalist proselytizers who insist that government only gets in the way of free enterprise— a refrain perhaps as common in the nineteenth century as it is today— slavery’s most successful entrepreneurs knew that government, when working in their favor, was their greatest ally.
Schermerhorn describes how exclusive government contracts catapulted the New York City-based steamship owner Charles Morgan beyond his competition. During the Mexican War of 1846-48, Morgan’s Gulf Coast steamship line won an exclusive contract to transport troops, supplies, and mail to the Texas frontier. The contract not only helped Morgan put his competitors out of business; the war itself opened new lands for cotton cultivation. Nearly a hundred thousand slaves were sold to Texas cotton planters in the 1850s, forty percent of them from out of state. Morgan’s ships became the dominant carrier for those slaves, his only competition coming from a rising young capitalist emerging on the scene: Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Yet Schermerhorn’s book raises a question that isn’t sufficiently answered. If capitalism was so entwined with slavery, why was slavery destroyed, yet capitalism continued to flourish? Schermerhorn sometimes gives the impression that capitalism depended on slavery, which would make that outcome seem unlikely. Schermerhorn gestures toward an answer in the last few pages of his book, suggesting that part of the reason slavery died, in the American context at least, has to do with the poor decisions made by the short-lived Confederate government: they tried to punish British officials for not recognizing their government by withholding cotton exports. Little did they know that the British had stockpiled cotton just before the Civil War, and could wait out the fighting. In addition, he argues that abolitionist writers won the ideological battle, turning slavery into a moral evil that most Northerners believed they could do without.
Yet if the Northern economy was so entwined with Southern slavery, wouldn’t Northern capitalists put up a stronger fight, perhaps financing a public campaign at least as strong as the one by the abolitionists? We can’t know the what-ifs. And it’s likely that most Northerners didn’t quite grasp how much their economy depended on slavery, as Schermerhorn suggests.
But I suspect that a more convincing answer requires that historians get the nature of relationship between slavery and capitalism right. Perhaps slavery needed capitalism to survive in a way that capitalism didn’t need slavery. After all, Charles Morgan’s steamship line, once so dependent on the slave shipping business, did just fine once the war was over. And, as Beckert has argued, cotton production continued to thrive long after slavery was abolished. British capitalists found a way to exploit peasant labor in new colonial lands like India, Asia, and the Middle East, without raising a similar public outrage. The marriage between capitalism and slavery, in short, doesn’t seem to have been an equal one. Capitalism found slave labor useful for a time, but could easily move on without looking back.
Rico says there are those who still insist that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery...

The genome of a Woolly Mammoth

Helen Regan has a Time article about a scientific breakthough:
An international team of scientists has sequenced the whole genome of the woolly mammoth, a breakthrough that could help our understanding of why these hairy cousins of the elephant went extinct. The last surviving population died out the Arctic island called Wrangel off the coast of Russia some four thousand years ago, six thousand years after their relatives disappeared from mainland Siberia, reports The Los Angeles Times.
The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Current Biology recently, compared the DNA from two woolly mammoths that had been frozen in permafrost: a juvenile male that lived in northeastern Siberia nearly fifty thousand years ago and a male from Wrangel Island that lived some four thousand years ago. “From a single individual you can get information about the entire population,” said co-author of the study, Eleftheria Palkopoulou.
Using the stem cells of a modern African elephant as the test, the team found that the population of woolly mammoths marooned on Wrangel Island was so small that the beasts had become inbred.
Though climate change and human intervention are often touted as factors, scientists aren’t entirely sure what caused the mammoth to die out, and researchers wanted to see whether genetic features could be responsible.
The genetic data also showed there were two major population declines, one some three hundred thousand years ago and another around twelve thousand years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age.
But scientists warn the lack of diversity in DNA from the Wrangel population does not necessarily mean genetics caused the mammoth to die out, and a closer examination of the data could help them understand how these creatures evolved and what sets mammoths apart from modern elephants.
Rico says let's hope no one decides to try making one now...

Centennial of genocide

Avet Demourian has a Time article about the Armenian genocide:
The presidents of Russia and France joined other leaders at ceremonies (photo) commemorating the massacre, a hundred years ago, of one and a half million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, an event which remains a diplomatic sore point for both sides.
The annual 24 April commemorations mark the day when some two hundred and fifty Armenian intellectuals were rounded up in what is regarded as the first step of the massacres. An estimated one and a half million died in the massacres, deportations, and forced marches that began in 1915, as Ottoman officials worried that the Christian Armenians would side with Russia, their enemy in World War One.
The event is widely viewed by historians as genocide, but modern Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman Empire, vehemently rejects the charge, saying that the toll has been inflated, and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest. On the eve of the centennial, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that his nation’s ancestors never committed genocide.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande, and other dignitaries assembled at the Tsitsernakaberd memorial complex in the capital, Yerevan.
Each leader walked along the memorial with a single yellow rose and put it into the center of a wreath resembling a forget-me-not, a flower that was made the symbol of the commemoration.
“We will never forget the tragedy that your people went through,” Hollande said.
France is home to a sizeable Armenian community. Among the French-Armenians at Yerevan was ninety-year old singer Charles Aznavour, who was born in Paris to a family of massacre survivors.
Russian President Vladimir Putin used his speech to warn of the dangers of nationalism as well as “Russophobia”, in a clear dig at the West-leaning government in the Ukraine.
Earlier this month, Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Vatican after Pope Francis described the killings as genocide. The European Parliament has also triggered Turkey’s ire by passing a non-binding resolution to commemorate “the centenary of the Armenian genocide”.
Armenian President Serge Sarkisian expressed hope that recent steps to recognize the massacre as genocide will help “dispel the darkness of a hundred years of denial.” Sarkisian also welcomed Armenians from Turkey who were preparing to gather in Istanbul’s Taksim Square to honor the dead, calling them “strong people who are doing an important thing for their motherland”.
Rico says that, just like the Germans, the Turks deny reality...

A legendary mailbox

The BBC has an article by Tawny Clark about a mailbox in an unusual place:
Making a stranger cry in a crowded cafe in Reykjavik, Iceland wasn't exactly what we had signed up for. But there we were, awkwardly clutching our steaming lattes as a young woman quietly wept in front of us. While we had never met her in person, we’d tracked her down using Facebook and arranged to meet while we were in town. The sole purpose of this encounter was to give her something that we had been carrying around the world with us for more than three years: a postcard.
This meeting had been a long time in the making. When my husband and I first started dating, he would regale me with tales of a three-hundred-year-old whisky-cask-turned-makeshift-post-office in the Galapagos Islands, a thousand kilometers off the coast of Ecuador. The empty cask had been placed on Floreana Island in 1793, when whalers and sailors frequented the remote archipelago to restock on fresh water and the meat of giant tortoises. Since the seamen could be on the water for years at a time, they had to devise a clever way to communicate with beloveds at home, a tradition that continues to this day.
Before departing the islands, the forlorn seamen would place letters in the cask, addressed to friends and family all over the world. In return, they would search the barrel for envelopes addressed to their future ports of call, taking those that matched their onward destinations. When they arrived in a city where a letter was addressed, they would hand-deliver the letter to the recipient.
I envisioned young men composing letters of love and passion to their distant sweethearts back home; or jotting down appeals of forgiveness to their parents, apologising for their indefinite absence while beguiling them with exotic tales from sea.
I was enamored by the fact that these men would have had little in common. Passing through the Galapagos, hailing from different nations and speaking different languages, their only bonds might have been a love of the sea and the admirable act of delivering the letters for their seafaring brethren.
Captivated by the history of the barrel, my husband and I decided we would venture to the Galapagos, scoop up a handful of letters addressed to all corners of the globe, and hand-deliver each and every one of them.
We set out for the islands in September of 2011. Getting there was a feat in and of itself, as we not only secured the last two seats on a flight out of Ecuador, but also navigated the murky process of finding a Galapagos cruise itinerary that included both the mandatory certified naturalist guide and a guaranteed stop on Floreana island. We decided on a small chartered boat with a dozen or so berths.
Our first three days in the Galapagos were spent exploring the islands of Isabela and Santa Cruz,  snorkeling with frisky sea lions, hopscotching over menacing-looking land iguanas, and spying on blue-footed boobies and red-chested frigate birds. And while we enjoyed being immersed in the archipelago’s unique flora and fauna, we often found ourselves distracted by our imminent arrival at Floreana.
In the heat of the afternoon on our fourth day, we motored into Post Office Bay in a tiny dingy, welcomed by the now-familiar, putrid stench of sunbathing sea lions. My sandal-clad feet sunk into the soft sand as we carefully disembarked from the inflatable raft. The majority of our companions were too occupied with a mother sea lion and her new pup to truly appreciate the hallowed grounds on which we were walking. All I could think about was opening the mailbox and finding piles of ancient letters, some hundreds of years old, still waiting to be delivered to those dearly beloveds across the globe.
We stumbled up the pathway that led to the barrel, anticipation gathering in my chest as we rounded the final rocky corner. Expecting to see a large whisky cask boldly welcoming us to our destiny, we instead found a tiny barrel that resembled more of a birdhouse than a mailbox. It was fastened out of driftwood and was held together with rusty nails and bumper stickers. My romanticized visions of weathered envelopes filled with confessions of love diminished when we opened the barrel to reveal an enormous pile of Galapagos-themed postcards (photo): giant tortoises, dancing albatrosses, and marine iguanas gracing the front of almost every one.
It also appeared that my husband and I were the only ones who'd known about the barrel legend before arriving. A few nights prior, I’d thoughtfully selected the lucky future recipients of my handwritten letters, taking time to prepare the dialogue within and carefully writing with the best penmanship I could muster. My fellow visitors weren't as prepared, hastily purchasing a few postcards from our guide and scribbling a quick note to whoever's address they had memorised by heart.
Not easily discouraged in our hunt for the magic and history of the post barrel, we began sorting through the piles of postcards. Amid the throngs of "wish you were heres" and inappropriate blue-footed booby jokes, we managed to find a handful of cards that appeared to hold messages of substance. A few were sent to loved ones that couldn’t make the trip, describing in intricate detail the exotic colours of marine iguanas and the paralyzing fear of spotting a hammerhead shark while snorkeling. Some were letters of admiration, wishing the recipients well and thanking them for being a presence in the writer’s lives. There were cards written in English, and some in languages we couldn’t decipher, but all were addressed to countries we either wanted to go to or knew we would be visiting in the future. We left the island with twenty-two postcards in all.
Fast forward three years and seventeen countries. Halfway through our stack of postcards, we found ourselves in Iceland. We had just revealed the missive when tears started forming in our new friend's eyes. My husband and I shared an uneasy glance, as we weren’t sure what her next reaction would be. Her tears quickly turned to stifled laughter. Half sobbing, half smiling, she explained that she had written the postcard to herself and our lack of comprehension of the Icelandic language resulted in us missing a key element scribbled on the top right-hand side of the postcard: that it should be left in the barrel until she could return to get it.
However, she then told us that her life had drastically changed from when she was there last, and the delivery of her postcard could not have come at a better time, since it was unlikely that she’d ever return to the Galapagos. Her self-written postcard reminded her of how far she’d come since her visit four years earlier, and of all of the positive changes that had occurred. We spent more than an hour in the tiny cafe, lingering over our lukewarm lattes as we bonded over our shared love of adventure, the story of the post barrel and the future.
Upon saying our goodbyes, our new friend joked that if we had delivered the postcard any sooner, it might not have had the same impact as it did on that day. And I realized that, when we’d started this adventure, the allure was the destinations. But what’s been truly been remarkable is the people and the stories that we’ve encountered along the way. We might not be the quickest form of mail delivery, but we somehow manage to arrive at just the right time.
Rico says it's still a great notion...

23 April 2015

Curd it is

When Rico is wrong, he (if reluctantly) admits it:
Rico says he loathes shoddy work, and bad proofreading is high on his list.
Having been rewatching (and thoroughly enjoying) Smiley's People (with the inestimal Alec Guinness as George Smiley), he has been repeatedly irritated by the spelling of one of the (well-known, too) actor's names.
It is not Curd Jergens, but Curt.
Stupid and unforgivable...

Rico's friend Kelley quickly squared him away:
Calm yourself, Rico. "Curd" is his birth name. It was changed when he made films for an English-speaking audience:
"Curd Jürgens (photo), commonly billed as Curt Jurgens in anglophone countries, was one of the most successful European film actors of the Twentieth Century. He was born Curd Gustav Andreas Gottlieb Franz Jürgens on 13 December 1915, in Solln, Bavaria, then in Hohenzollern Imperial Germany, a subject of Kaiser Wilhelm II."
Rico says okay, but it's still a stupid name...

FBI oops for the day

Rico's friend Kelley forwards this article by Dahlia Lithwick, who writes about the courts and the law for Slate, with the note that "here's something for Rico to really growl about":
The Washington Post published a story so horrifying this weekend that it would stop your breath: “The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.”
What went wrong? The Post continues: “Of 28 examiners with the FBI laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far.” The shameful, horrifying errors were uncovered in a massive, three-year review by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project. Following revelations published in recent years, the two groups are helping the government with the country’s largest ever post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.
Chillingly, as the Post continues, “the cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death.” Of these defendants, fourteen have already been executed or died in prison.
The massive review raises questions about the veracity of not just expert hair testimony, but also the bite-mark and other forensic testimony offered as objective, scientific evidence to jurors who, not unreasonably, believed that scientists in white coats knew what they were talking about. As Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, put it: “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.”
This study was launched after the Post reported that flawed forensic hair matches might have led to possibly hundreds of wrongful convictions for rape, murder, and other violent crimes, dating back at least to the 1970s. In ninety percent of the cases reviewed so far, forensic examiners evidently made statements beyond the bounds of proper science. There were no scientifically accepted standards for forensic testing, yet FBI experts routinely and almost unvaryingly testified, according to the Post, “to the near-certainty of ‘matches’ of crime-scene hairs to defendants, backing their claims by citing incomplete or misleading statistics drawn from their case work.”
NACDL executive director Norman Reimer said in an interview that the flaws in the system had been known for years. “What we were finding was that the examiners … wouldn’t just simply say that there was a microscopic similarity between the two hairs, but they would go beyond that, and say it was a hundred percent match, essentially misleading the jury into concluding that the evidence had a certain value that it didn’t actually have,” Reimer said.
This problem doesn’t stop with the FBI labs or Federal prosecutions. The review focuses on the first few hundred cases, involving FBI examiners, but the same mistakes and faulty testimony were likely presented in any state prosecutions that relied on the between five hundred and a thousand local or state examiners trained by the FBI. Some states will automatically conduct reviews. Others may not. Much of the evidence is now lost. Systemic change, in other words, is being left to the discretion of the system itself.
Of all the maddening stories of wrongful convictions, Michael McAlister’s may be one of the worst. For starters, he has been in prison for thirty years for an attempted rape he almost certainly did not commit.
Paradoxically, Justice Antonin Scalia has emerged as a vocal early skeptic about the risk of taint in the work of crime labs, even though he contended in 2006 that “it should be noted at the outset that the dissent does not discuss a single case— not one— in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.” It is clearer now than ever that crime labs and prosecutors’ officers do make mistakes, shameful, devastating mistakes, and that they don’t usually distinguish between capital and noncapital cases when they do so.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, and Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, the ranking Democrats on the Senate Judiciary and House Science committees, respectively, are looking for forensic-science reforms to hold examiners to meaningful standards. But this hardly helps the folks who are in cells for crimes they didn’t commit, based on evidence that, according to scientific experts, is all but worthless.
This whole judicial-disaster-on-wheels is not a problem that has gone unreported. As Conor Friedersdorf notes, state and national publications have been exposing the inadvertent errors and deliberate manipulations of forensic crime labs across the country for years now. We have covered these issues at Slate. But as long as crime labs answer to prosecutors, and indeed, according to Business Insider, in some cases they are compensated for each conviction, the incentives for reform are hopelessly upside-down. The problem, in short, isn’t that we can’t identify the problem.
There is no lack of good ideas for reform. Journalist Radley Balko and Roger Koppl, then director of the Institute for Forensic Science Administration at Fairleigh Dickinson University, offered up a laundry list of fixes in Slate almost seven years ago. These solutions are not all that expensive or complicated. Among them: giving defendants their own forensic experts, untethering crime labs from the prosecutors and cops to which they now answer, verification, and standards. But no matter how many times we may reiterate that the status quo is intolerable and that simple corrections would yield significantly better data, no real energy for reform exists.
University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrett, who has been studying DNA exonerations and wrongful convictions for years now, had this to say in an email: “When I looked at forensics in DNA exoneree trials, I found, more often than not, that the testimony was unscientific and flawed. We know that whenever we look at old criminal cases, we see flawed forensics wherever we look. And yet hardly any crime labs have bothered to conduct audits. Nor is the problem limited to bad hair cases; much the same type of eyeballed comparison is done on bite marks, ballistics, fibers, and even fingerprints.”
Horror stories abound. George Perrot (profiled by Ed Pilkington of the Guardian) may have spent thirty years in prison based on erroneous forensic hair testimony. Mississippi bite-mark expert Michael West, about whom Balko has written extensively, was shown in a recent film jamming the suspect’s dental mold into the body of a young victim. Santae Tribble served 28 years for a murder, based on FBI testimony about a single strand of hair. He was exonerated in 2012. It was later revealed that one of the hairs presented at trial came from a dog.
And the reign of pseudoscience in the witness box hardly stops at hair and bite marks. It sweeps in the testimony of forensic psychiatrists like James Grigson, nicknamed Dr. Death for his willingness to testify against capital defendants, and flawed arson analysis that may have contributed to the execution of Texas’ Cameron Todd Willingham. Jurors grass-fed on CSI-Someplace and Law and Order believe uncritically in experts who throw around words like “cuticle” and “cortex,” and why shouldn’t they? These folks are supposed to be analysts who answer to the rules of science, not performance artists trotted out for the benefit of the prosecution.
In anticipation of big decisions on marriage equality and Obamacare, many are talking about the balance of political power on the Supreme Court. Is that fair?
Since prison-crowding and justice reform are widely touted as issues that unite the Left and the Right in this country, going back and retesting the evidence of those who may well have been wrongly imprisoned should be a national priority. So far it isn’t, perhaps because the scope of the enterprise is so daunting. Or perhaps because nobody really cares all that much about people who’ve been sitting in jail for years and years. Says Garrett: “These victims may remain unrecognized and in prison— if they still live— and the same unscientific testimony continues to be delivered without limitation. But, hey, these are just criminal cases right?”
Rico is growling...


Oops for the day



Sent from my new iPad

Google’s wireless service

Victor Luckerson has a Time article about Google's new service:
Google recently unveiled a new cell phone service dubbed Project Fi, which offers the same basic functionality as traditional wireless carriers, such as voice, text, and Internet access, at a lower price than many common plans.
Project Fi is cheaper and more flexible than most wireless plans. Google is already an Internet Service Provider and a pay-television operator. Now it’s expanding to become a wireless carrier as well. 
Here’s a primer on everything you need to know about Google’s Project Fi
What exactly does Project Fi offer?
Project Fi offers a basic cell phone plan that includes unlimited domestic talk and text and unlimited international texts for twenty dollars per month. International calls will cost twenty cents per minute. Subscribers can add a monthly allotment of a gig of data for ten dollars a month, and increase the allotment by ten dollars per gigabyte.
One thing that makes Fi different from many mainstream carriers is that any data a customer does not use shows up as a credit on their next bill; each 100MB is worth a dollar. There are also no overage penalties, as extra data use is charged at the same rate as data that is part of the plan. And, in a nice plus for international travelers, mobile data costs the same ten dollars per gigabyte in more than a hundred countries. 
 How will Project Fi differ from what traditional wireless carriers offer?Google’s service will switch between different high-speed wireless networks operated by Sprint and T-Mobile, depending on which is stronger in a given area. In addition to regular cellular coverage, phones on Project Fi will switch to Wi-Fi networks when available to place calls and access the Internet without using up customers’ data plans. Using Wi-Fi for voice service is becoming an increasingly popular strategy in the telco industry — Cablevision recently unveiled a cell phone service that is entirely reliant on Wi-Fi connections and costs $30 per month.
What do I need to get Project Fi?
Right now, you can only use Project Fi with a Nexus 6, Google’s flagship Android phone. The Nexus 6 costs $649 for the 32GB version. Unlike traditional carriers, Google isn’t offering a subsidy on the phone in exchange for a two-year contract commitment, as Project Fi is contract-free.
However, customers can pay for the device over the course of two years if they pass a credit check. And if you already own a Nexus 6, it’ll work on Project Fi
How is Google able to build the infrastructure to offer cell phone service?
Google is not building its own cell phone towers for Project Fi. Instead, it operates on networks already operated by Sprint and T-Mobile. The big wireless carriers already make lots of money by effectively renting access to their networks to smaller carriers, who then resell that service to consumers using different branding.
Google, of course, could be a much bigger long-term threat to the wireless industry than the typical small-scale operator. But Sprint has reserved the right to renegotiate its deal with Google if the search giant gains a large number of subscribers, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Rico says that, until they let him use his iPhone, no deal... (Too bad; that's cheap.)

Millions of phone calls unanswered

Stephen Ohlemacher has an Associated Press article about the IRS:
The IRS' overloaded phone system hung up on more than eight million taxpayers this filing season as the agency, which had already seen its budget reduced, cut millions of dollars from taxpayer services to help pay to enforce President Obama's health law.
For those who weren't disconnected, only forty percent actually got through to a person. And many of those people had to wait on hold for more than thirty minutes, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said recently.
The number of disconnected callers spiked just as taxpayers were being hit with new requirements under the health law. Last year, the phone system dropped over three hundred thousand calls, Koskinen said.
For the first time, taxpayers had to report whether they had health insurance last year on their tax returns. Those who received government subsidies had to respond whether they received the correct amount. People without insurance faced fines, collected by the IRS, if they did not qualify for an exemption.
A new staff report by Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee criticized the agency's spending priorities. The report said the IRS diverted over a hundred million dollars in user fees that had been spent on customer service last year to other areas this year.
"It looks to me like you're purposely harming taxpayers," Representative Kristi Noem (a Republican from South Dakota) told Koskinen at a recent hearing.
Koskinen said the user fees were spent on computer upgrades to implement the health law as well as a new law requiring foreign banks to report information about US account holders. He said budget cuts approved by Congress left him no choice. The agency's budget has been cut by over a billion dollars since 2010. It now stands at eleven billion dollars.
"Customer service, both on the phone and in person, has been far worse than anyone would want," Koskinen told the Ways and Means oversight subcommittee. "It's simply a matter of not having enough people to answer the phones and provide service at our walk-in sites as a result of cuts to our budget."
Republicans in Congress adamantly oppose Obama's health law, so some have been working to starve the IRS of funds just as its role in implementing the law ramps up.
It won't work, Koskinen said. The IRS is required by law to help implement the health program and the foreign reporting law, leaving the agency with few other places to cut. He said the agency requested a total of six hundred million over the last two years for computer upgrades to deal with the new laws. "In both years, Congress gave us zero dollars, so we had no choice but to look elsewhere," Koskinen said. "We funded the statute that we are required to implement."
The IRS has spent more than a billion dollars implementing the health law. This year, the agency is scheduled to spend an additional half billion, the Ways and Means report said.
Each year, millions of Americans call the IRS with questions about filling out their tax returns. Last year, forty million people called.
When too many people call at once, the IRS system hangs up on callers at the beginning of their calls, rather than have them wait on hold for an hour or more. The agency refers to these hang-ups as "courtesy disconnects", according to the Ways and Means report.
Koskinen warned at the beginning of the year that phone service would suffer this year because of budget cuts. He said the agency, which has about ninety thousand employees, is down thirteen thousand workers since 2010.
Republicans in Congress have also been at odds with the IRS since 2013, when agency officials acknowledged that agents had inappropriately singled out conservative political groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status. The controversy has sparked investigations by the Justice Department and several committees in Congress.
"As a result of the IRS' blatant misconduct, Congress significantly reduced the agency's budget," said the report by Ways and Means Republicans.
But Representative Peter Roskam (a Republican from Illinois) said Congress did not cut funding for taxpayer services. He said that decision was made by the agency. "The amount of money Congress appropriated to the IRS for taxpayer assistance was the same this year as last year, but the level of service has decreased drastically," said Roskam, who chairs the oversight subcommittee. "So what happened? The IRS made the decision to move money away from taxpayer assistance."
Roskam and other Republicans complained that the IRS spent sixty million dollars on employee bonuses last year while it was cutting customer service. The IRS also allows employees to spend nearly a half-million hours a year working on union activities while being paid by the agency, he said.
Rico says what did you expect, it's the fucking IRS...

Beatdown on subway platform

Regina Medina has an article in The Philadelphia Daily News about thugs in the subway:
SEPTA police are investigating a vicious attack on two Benjamin Franklin High School students caught on video (above) on a subway platform in the Spring Garden station, officials said recently.
Nobody involved in the beating, including the victims, reported the brutal crime to SEPTA police, Philadelphia police, or school district officials, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III said.
In the video, time-stamped just after 3:15 p.m., about a dozen teens, all believed to be students, according to officials, appear to be participating in the attack or egging it on. At one point, one of the assailants, wearing a light gray sweatshirt with the hood covering his head, fell onto the tracks. He quickly pulled himself back onto the platform and joined the fray once again. A girl is seen trying to videotape the pummeling of a male victim, and one assailant also stomped on the victim's head.
The attack lasted just over a minute, SEPTA officials said.
"It's an outrageous event. This is so dangerous, it's not even funny," Nestel told reporters at a news conference. "We have operating trains down there. There are passengers waiting for the train. It's horrendous."
School district spokesman Fernando Gallard said the students involved may face suspension, expulsion or alternative school as discipline. "What we have seen is a brutal violent attack that could that could have ended with a loss of life," Gallard said.
SEPTA detectives have had preliminary discussions with the two boys who were victims in the attack, Nestel said. They expect to meet with each student again, this time with a parent present, he added. SEPTA police officers were at the station at the time of the fight, Nestel said. They responded and are seen in the video rushing to the platform just seconds after the brawl ended and the students were gone. The teens, including the victims, fled onto a train that arrived shortly before the police. Initial reports say that the fight may have started because of a female student, he said, but the girl's involvement was unclear yesterday. The victims were followed down to the platform from the street, "and someone signals who they are," according to a preliminary investigation, he added.
The school district is working to help identify the perpetrators, along with SEPTA.
"We've identified some potential aggressors. There is a criminal investigation with the school district," Nestel said. "The message that we're trying to get out is, if you act up on SEPTA, we're going to have a picture of your face and we're sharing it with the school district. Between the two of us, we're going to address it so that no one gets hurt."
As a result of the attack, SEPTA has stationed more police officers at the Spring Garden station. They are also adding more officers to nine other stations identified as "hot spots" due to high student usage, Nestel said. The others are 15th Street, Olney Transportation Center, Frankford Transportation Center, City Hall, Girard (Broad Street Line), Erie, Berks, Allegheny, and 8th Street.
Rico says just another nice bunch of kids...

Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier

War History Online has an article about a guy who kept fighting World War Two, for twenty-nine years:
Hiroo Onoda (photos) was an brave and an amazing survivor. However, he was surviving and fighting for a war that has long since ended. He was fighting for his country, in what he believed was still World War Two, because he did not know he was fighting for it 29 years too long.
Onoda was a Japanese citizen who worked for a Chinese trading company when World War Two broke out. When he turned twenty, naturally, his country required him to sign up for war, and he did. He immediately quit his job,and headed off for Japan to train. Here, he was chosen to be part of a specialized military intelligence training at Nakano School, and he became an Imperial Army intelligence officer.
As part of a special unit, he was highly skilled in the methods of intelligence gathering, as well as in conducting guerrilla warfare. He was trained to go straight behind enemy lines and left there, along with a small unit of Japanese troops, to make the lives of Japan’s enemies in that area miserable and, at the same time, be able to gather intelligence that might prove vital in the country’s campaign against the Allies in the Pacific Theater.
Onoda was sent to Lubang, an island in the Philippines, on 26 December 1944 with these simple orders from one of his commanding officers, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi:
“You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that’s the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you to give up voluntarily.”
Shortly after landing in his assigned area, Onoda made the necessary connections to fellow Japanese soldiers working in the area. However, not too long after that, the island was lambasted by the Allied forces; the other Japanese officers who had arrived first in the island refused to take orders from the newcomer, and were unable to aid him in his plan to destroy the harbor and airfield, among other things. Because of this shortcoming on the Japanese part, the Allies were able to take over the island easily on 28 February 1945 and the surviving Japanese soldiers regrouped themselves into three- or four-member bands and headed off into the surrounding jungles of Lubang.
Soon, most of the small groups were killed. Nevertheless, Onoda’s group , which consisted of himself and three other Japanese soldiers, Yuichi Akatsu, Siochi Shimada, and Kinshichi Kozuka, remained strong in fighting against the enemy.
They applied every guerrilla tactic they knew to badger the Allies, all the while strictly rationing supplies like food, ammo, and basically everything else among themselves, just to keep alive. They also supplemented their nourishment with bananas and coconuts, which grew richly in the area, as well as raiding local farms from time to time.
It was in October of 1945, in an occasion when another cell had gotten a cow in a raid, when they chanced upon a leaflet made by the local islanders for them stating:
“The war ended on 15 August. Come down from the mountains!”
The few surviving cells discussed the leaflet but, in the end, decided that it was just an Allied ploy to get them to surrender. They thought it was a tad to early for the Japanese to surrender, given their deployment time. Besides, earlier that week a cell had been fired upon and they believed that shouldn’t have happened if the war had really ended.
Unknown to them, Japan had really surrendered – it was after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed.
Ultimately, at the end of that same year, the islanders got fed up with all the raiding and the shooting and asked a Boeing B-17 to drop leaflets stating the end of the war throughout the jungle. These leaflets now had General Yamashita’s order to surrender printed on them. Once again, the remaining Japanese cells discussed the authenticity of the of the said bans and decided that something was not well with the wording – it looked like Japan had lost the war, a news which they did not believe and greatly hindered their willingness to surrender. For them, Japan losing the war was a blurry reality so they finally decided it was just an Allies’ propaganda as the enemy had become tired of their winning guerrilla tactics.
More leaflets were dropped after that first dropping. These consisted of Japanese newspapers, photos and letters from their families telling them the war had really ended and there even came a time when there were Japanese delegates who came into the island, went into the jungle and begged the soldiers to give themselves up over loudspeakers.  Throughout these pleas, the surviving cells always found a suspicious element that made them decide all were careful hoaxes done by the Allied troops to get them.

Finally, after surviving five years in the jungle, one Japanese soldier in Onoda’s group, Akatsu, decided to surrender but kept it secret from the others. So he quietly slipped away one day in 1949 and after six months of wandering through the jungle alone, he yielded to what he thought was an Allied troop. Because of Akatsu’s escape, Onoda’s cell became more guarded  going deeper into hiding as they feared the former was captured and had given away their location.
Five years from that event, one of the three remaining soldiers, Shimada, got killed in a skirmish on one of the beaches of Gontin leaving Onoda and Kozuka. For the coming seventeen years, both of them survived the jungles of Lubang, still carrying on their belief that WWII was still ongoing. They continued to gather intelligence reports and attacked “enemy troops” when they had the chance. They were convinced that Japan would send in more troops and they would be the one to train these new arrivals in guerrilla warfare and then move on to re-take the island. They adhered to their commander’s orders to stay put and do everything they could never to get captured by the enemy until they (the officers) would come and get them.
In October 1972 – year count: 27 years in hiding – Kozuka got killed when he got into a fight with a Filipino patrol. The Japanese were amazed when they saw his body as they believed he had long been dead, killed in the jungle.

Upon seeing his remains, Onoda crossed their minds and they began to think that perhaps, like Kozuka, Onoda had survived the war and was in the jungle (he was long considered dead).
They sent a search party to look for the missing soldier but in vain. Onoda became too good at hiding he could not just be found.
Lost and Found
In 1974, a Japanese college student by the name of Nario Suzuki made a bucket list for himself; one thing he wanted to do was find “Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman”. So, he went on his journey, stopping in the island of Lubang and trekked through its jungle with high hopes of finding the WWII soldier. Amazingly, he did! He was able to locate Onoda’s hiding place and even had the privilege to talk with the man himself – a feat which eluded countless of others for 29 years.
Suzuki tried to convince the man to come out of his hiding and come home with him but Onoda refused. His commander had told him to stay put until he comes so he stated he would not go home unless its that same officer who would tell him to. At this point, too, he simply could not go home had he come out from hiding. He would be required to surrender. Throughout the 30-year duration of his stay in the jungle of Lubang, he had become quite an expert in guerrilla tactics killing 30 Filipinos and injuring over a 100 others. Added to those crimes are various crops’ destruction and the like.
Image taken when Hiroo Onoda surrendered in 1975.
Image taken when Hiroo Onoda surrendered in 1975.
Raising the White Flag
So, Suzuki returned to Japan and reported that he found Onoda. After telling his story, major Taniguchi, who was at that time retired at working at a bookstore, was then sent back to the island to break to him the news – Japan had really lost the war and he was to surrender to the Filipinos and lay down his arms.
As expected, Onoda was crushed upon realizing all the 29 years he spent in the jungle believing he was doing great service for his country was in vain.
“We really lost the war! How could they have been so sloppy?
Suddenly everything went black. A storm raged inside me. I felt like a fool for having been so tense and cautious on the way here. Worse than that, what had I been doing for all these years?
Gradually the storm subsided, and for the first time I really understood: my thirty years as a guerrilla fighter for the Japanese army were abruptly finished. This was the end.
I pulled back the bolt on my rifle and unloaded the bullets. . . .
I eased off the pack that I always carried with me and laid the gun on top of it. Would I really have no more use for this rifle that I had polished and cared for like a baby all these years? Or Kozuka’s rifle, which I had hidden in a crevice in the rocks? Had the war really ended thirty years ago? If it had, what had Shimada and Kozuka died for? If what was happening was true, wouldn’t it have been better if I had died with them?” he had reportedly said at that time.
march 10, 1975, the now 52-year-old Onoda, in his full uniform which he was able to keep immaculate even after all those years in the jungle, marched out of the jungle and formally laid down his sword to President Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos, in turn, gave Onoda pardon for the crimes he had committed in his years of hiding as they were done out of pure ignorance over real events.
What Do You Think?
Some might see Onoda as an ignorant fool and worse, others may view him as a murderer killing a number of innocent people.
At the end of it all, he actually is both of those.
However, it is also for a fact that he was a great survivor and a soldier, ignorant at that, but still courageous enough to stand his ground – an immense trust and loyalty much needed in our society nowadays.
If things had turned out different, he could have emerged as a war hero.
Despite everything, Onoda was a man who showed extreme dedication to his own country and exerted much bravery in times of difficulties and in the end did something remarkable…albeit for the wrong reason.
WWII soldier Hiroo Onoda was one of the last Japanese soldiers to surrender, he died peacefully on January 16th, 2014.
Rico says some people tale bushido a little too seriously...

22 April 2015

Supermodel Number One

The BBC has an article by Lindsay Baker about Evelyn Nesbit:
What makes a supermodel? A preternatural beauty, of course, but there is more: a certain charisma, an unerring fashion instinct, a steely resilience, sex appeal. And a mere model becomes a ‘super’ when she becomes, not only stratospherically famous, but also when she somehow encapsulates her era. The supermodel provides a snapshot of a moment in time because she is always at the epicentre of the fashionable cultural life of her time, and at its vanguard. Every decade has their supers, from impish, mini-skirted, swinging-‘60s icons Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy to quirky Cara Delevingne today.
But the phenomenon goes back further than Twiggy, to the very start of the Twentieth Century, when the world’s first ever supermodel rose to fame. Evelyn Nesbit (photo), a willowy, copper-haired beauty from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was the most sought-after artists’ and fashion model in America’s Gilded Age. Her life was turbulent and eventful, and her fame peaked when she became embroiled in a murder, followed by what was then dubbed ‘the trial of the century’.
Nesbit embodied her era in more ways than one. The late Nineteenth Century was a glamorous period of rapid economic growth in the US, but it was also an era of considerable poverty, as many poor European immigrants poured in. Nesbit in her lifetime saw both sides. She came from a modest Scots-Irish background in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, and after her father died leaving debts, her mother struggled to support the family. It was also an age with one foot still in the starchy Victorian era and one just about to step into the permissive Roaring Twenties. The young Evelyn was from a ‘respectable’ family, and modeled (fully dressed) for artists from the age of fourteen, as a way out of poverty for the whole family. When she came to New York City in 1900, her rise was meteoric. But she was also stepping into a new and different world.
James Carroll Beckwith, whose main patron was John Jacob Astor, took her under his wing, introduced her to artists and illustrators, and Nesbit was soon the most in-demand model in New York City. She was the inspiration for numerous art works, including sculptor George Grey Barnard’s famous piece Innocence (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Charles Dana Gibson’s Women: The Eternal Question in 1905. She was a popular face on the illustrated covers of many journals and magazines, among them Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, The Delineator, and Ladies’ Home Journal, and her likeness was also to be found advertising everything from face creams to toothpastes.
Nesbit’s soft-featured, youthful face soon became ubiquitous, seen on postcards, tobacco cards, calendars and chromolithographs. She often posed for illustrators in costume, as a wood nymph, a gypsy, a Grecian goddess, or a geisha girl, but she was always clothed and the resulting images were not overtly sexual, though there was a pin-up suggestiveness about them that no doubt contributed to their popularity and Nesbit’s celebrity.
Nesbit’s celebrity was uniquely suited for the mass media age, and her face graced all manner of products, including novelty cards. Fashion photography was just emerging, and when Nesbit ventured into this new medium as a ‘live model’ posing for early pioneer Joel Federe, she was an instant hit. As photographs gained popularity and started to take over from print illustrations, Nesbit was soon generating massive newspaper sales and becoming instantly recognizable to the public. In 1901 she was signed up to the chorus line at the hugely successful Broadway play Florodora. Nesbit was the toast of the town, and was soon appearing regularly in the gossip columns and theatrical periodicals of the day. It was not long before she left the chorus line and took on a speaking role in a Broadway play, The Wild Rose.
Like her supermodel successors, Nesbit had become an icon of her era, and she perfectly embodied the paradoxes of that age, too. As Paula Uruburu, author of a biography of Nesbit, titled American Eve, puts it: “For that first heady decade of the Twentieth Century, Evelyn Nesbit was the American Dream Girl whose ‘face was her fortune’ and whose life reflected the era’s intoxicating, accelerated and daring mood… she embodied all the contradictory impulses of the Gilded Age; at times she seemed a picture of Victorian sentimentality, but her bewitching… smile promised something forbidden.”
During her time as a ‘Florodora Girl’, Nesbit met the architect and New York City socialite Stanford White, whose firm’s projects included some iconic buildings, among them the second Madison Square Garden, Tiffany’s, the Washington Square Arch, and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s mansion. White was at first an avuncular figure in the young Nesbit’s life, but soon became her lover and benefactor, providing her and her family with extravagant gifts and an elegant apartment. It was after their year-long relationship ended, and Nesbit was newly married to millionaire Harry K. Thaw that events began to unravel dramatically. Demented with jealousy and, he claimed, defending his young wife’s honor, Thaw approached her ex-lover White one evening at a performance at Madison Square Garden and shot him dead at close range.
Nesbit ended up running a speakeasy in the 1920s and donating money to anarchist Emma Goldman before spending her elderly years teaching art in California.
Nesbit was the star witness in a trial so full of shocking details about her relationships with the two men (both of whom, it was alleged, had been abusive to her) that a church group attempted to ban reporting of the gory details. Evelyn’s mother was accused of prostituting her daughter to White. Evelyn was cast in the press as ‘the girl in the red velvet swing’ in reference to a swing that White had installed in his luxurious, multi-story apartment. Because of the huge amount of publicity the case attracted, the jury was sequestered; the first time ever in American legal history that such a restriction had been deemed necessary. Thaw was sentenced to life incarceration in a hospital for the criminally insane. As Uruburu says: “Tragically, almost as quickly as her star rose, America’s first supermodel, sex goddess, and bona-fide celebrity fell victim to the very culture that created and consumed her.”
Yet, like any self-respecting super, Nesbit showed resilience and made a life for herself after these traumatic events as a mother, a silent-screen actress, a vaudeville performer, and the writer of two memoirs. Along with the art works and photographs that survive of Nesbit, there have been poems and plays about her, the 1955 film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing and the novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, which features a subplot about the murder, and was adapted to a film and a musical. Even as recently as 2010, her influence was still being felt; in the HBO television series Boardwalk Empire, the character Gillian is loosely based on Nesbit. Evelyn Nesbit’s legacy lives on, and will probably continue to do so – who knows, maybe for even longer than that of the supermodels who followed in her footsteps.
Rico says that Evelyn was way too plump to get a job as a model these days...

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