31 January 2013


Rico says he keeps getting this (for unknown reasons) when he tries to log into Rackspace to get his email, and it's pissing him off:

Hacking the hackers

If the CIA can't come up with a whole roomful of fifteen-year-olds ready to hack the crap out of the Chinese, they're not really trying, but The New York Times has an article about what the Chinese are doing to us:

For the last four months, Chinese hackers have persistently attacked The New York Times, infiltrating its computer systems and getting passwords for its reporters and other employees. After surreptitiously tracking the intruders to study their movements and help erect better defenses to block them, The Times and computer security experts have expelled the attackers and kept them from breaking back in.
The timing of the attacks coincided with the reporting for a Times investigation, published online on 25 October, that found that the relatives of Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, had accumulated a fortune worth several billion dollars through business dealings.
Security experts hired by The Times to detect and block the computer attacks gathered digital evidence that Chinese hackers, using methods that some consultants have associated with the Chinese military in the past, breached The Times’ network. They broke into the email accounts of its Shanghai bureau chief, David Barboza, who wrote the reports on Wen’s relatives, and Jim Yardley, The Times’ South Asia bureau chief in India, who previously worked as bureau chief in Beijing. “Computer security experts found no evidence that sensitive emails or files from the reporting of our articles about the Wen family were accessed, downloaded, or copied,” said Jill Abramson, executive editor of The Times.
The hackers tried to cloak the source of the attacks on The Times by first penetrating computers at United States universities and routing the attacks through them, said computer security experts at Mandiant, the company hired by The Times. This matches the subterfuge used in many other attacks that Mandiant has tracked to China.
The attackers first installed malware— malicious software— that enabled them to gain entry to any computer on The Times’ network. The malware was identified by computer security experts as a specific strain associated with computer attacks originating in China. More evidence of the source, experts said, is that the attacks started from the same university computers used by the Chinese military to attack United States military contractors in the past.
Security experts found evidence that the hackers stole the corporate passwords for every Times employee and used those to gain access to the personal computers of 53 employees, most of them outside The Times’ newsroom. Experts found no evidence that the intruders used the passwords to seek information that was not related to the reporting on the Wen family. No customer data was stolen from The Times, security experts said.
Asked about evidence that indicated the hacking originated in China, and possibly with the military, China’s Ministry of National Defense said: “Chinese laws prohibit any action including hacking that damages Internet security.” It added that “to accuse the Chinese military of launching cyberattacks without solid proof is unprofessional and baseless.”
The attacks appear to be part of a broader computer espionage campaign against American news media companies that have reported on Chinese leaders and corporations.
Last year, Bloomberg News was targeted by Chinese hackers, and some employees’ computers were infected, according to a person with knowledge of the company’s internal investigation, after Bloomberg published an article on 29 June about the wealth accumulated by relatives of Xi Jinping, China’s vice president at the time. Xi became general secretary of the Communist Party in November and is expected to become president in March. Ty Trippet, a spokesman for Bloomberg, confirmed that hackers had made attempts but said that “no computer systems or computers were compromised.”
Signs of a Campaign
The mounting number of attacks that have been traced back to China suggest that hackers there are behind a far-reaching spying campaign aimed at an expanding set of targets including corporations, government agencies, activist groups and media organizations inside the United States. The intelligence-gathering campaign, foreign policy experts and computer security researchers say, is as much about trying to control China’s public image, domestically and abroad, as it is about stealing trade secrets.
Security experts said that, beginning in 2008, Chinese hackers began targeting Western journalists as part of an effort to identify and intimidate their sources and contacts, and to anticipate stories that might damage the reputations of Chinese leaders.
In a December intelligence report for clients, Mandiant said that over the course of several investigations it found evidence that Chinese hackers had stolen emails, contacts and files from more than thirty journalists and executives at Western news organizations, and had maintained a “short list” of journalists whose accounts they repeatedly attack.
While computer security experts say China is most active and persistent, it is not alone in using computer attacks for a variety of national purposes, including corporate espionage. The United States, Israel, Russia, and Iran, among others, are suspected of developing and deploying cyberweapons.
The United States and Israel have never publicly acknowledged it, but evidence indicates they released a sophisticated computer worm, starting around 2008, that attacked and later caused damage at Iran’s main nuclear enrichment plant. Iran is believed to have responded with computer attacks on targets in the United States, including American banks and foreign oil companies.
Russia is suspected of having used computer attacks during its war with Georgia in 2008.
The following account of the attack on The Times— which is based on interviews with Times executives, reporters, and security experts— provides a glimpse into one such spy campaign. After The Times learned of warnings from Chinese government officials that its investigation of the wealth of Wen’s relatives would “have consequences”, executives on 24 October asked AT&T, which monitors The Times’ computer network, to watch for unusual activity. On 25 October, the day the article was published online, AT&T informed The Times that it had noticed behavior that was consistent with other attacks believed to have been perpetrated by the Chinese military. The Times notified and voluntarily briefed the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the attacks and then, not initially recognizing the extent of the infiltration of its computers, worked with AT&T to track the attackers even as it tried to eliminate them from its systems.
But, on 7 November, when it became clear that attackers were still inside its systems despite efforts to expel them, The Times hired Mandiant, which specializes in responding to security breaches. Since learning of the attacks, The Times— first with AT&T and then with Mandiant— has monitored attackers as they have moved around its systems.
Hacker teams regularly began work, for the most part, at 8 a.m. Beijing time. Usually they continued for a standard work day, but sometimes the hacking persisted until midnight. Occasionally, the attacks stopped for two-week periods, Mandiant said, though the reason was not clear.
Investigators still do not know how hackers initially broke into The Times’ systems. They suspect the hackers used a so-called spear-phishing attack, in which they send emails to employees that contain malicious links or attachments. All it takes is one click on the email by an employee for hackers to install “remote access tools”, or RATs. Those tools can siphon off oceans of data— passwords, keystrokes, screen images, documents, and, in some cases, recordings from computers’ microphones and web cameras— and send the information back to the attackers’ web servers.
Michael Higgins, chief security officer at The Times, said: “Attackers no longer go after our firewall. They go after individuals. They send a malicious piece of code to your email account and you’re opening it and letting them in.”
Once hackers get in, it can be hard to get them out. In the case of a 2011 breach at the United States Chamber of Commerce, for instance, the trade group worked closely with the FBI to seal its systems, according to chamber employees. But, months later, the Chamber discovered that Internet-connected devices— a thermostat in one of its corporate apartments and a printer in its offices— were still communicating with computers in China.
In part to prevent that from happening, The Times allowed hackers to spin a digital web for four months to identify every digital back door the hackers used. It then replaced every compromised computer, and set up new defenses in hopes of keeping hackers out.
“Attackers target companies for a reason; even if you kick them out, they will try to get back in,” said Nick Bennett, the security consultant who has managed Mandiant’s investigation. “We wanted to make sure we had full grasp of the extent of their access so that the next time they try to come in, we can respond quickly.”
Based on a forensic analysis going back months, it appears the hackers broke into The Times computers on 13 September, when the reporting for the Wen articles was nearing completion. They set up at least three back doors into users’ machines that they used as a digital base camp. From there they snooped around The Times’ systems for at least two weeks before they identified the domain controller that contains user names and hashed, or scrambled, passwords for every Times employee.
While hashes make hackers’ break-ins more difficult, hashed passwords can easily be cracked using so-called rainbow tables: readily available databases of hash values for nearly every alphanumeric character combination, up to a certain length. Some hacker web sites publish as many as fifty billion hash values.
Investigators found evidence that the attackers cracked the passwords and used them to gain access to a number of computers. They created custom software that allowed them to search for and grab Barboza’s and Yardley’s emails and documents from a Times email server.
Over the course of three months, attackers installed 45 pieces of custom malware. The Times— which uses antivirus products made by Symantec— found only one instance in which Symantec identified an attacker’s software as malicious and quarantined it, according to Mandiant. A Symantec spokesman said that, as a matter of policy, the company does not comment on its customers.
The attackers were particularly active in the period after the 25 October publication of The Times' article about Wen’s relatives, especially on the evening of the 6 November presidential election. That raised concerns, among Times senior editors who had been informed of the attacks, that the hackers might try to shut down the newspaper’s electronic or print publishing system. But the attackers’ movements suggested that the primary target remained Barboza’s email correspondence.
“They could have wreaked havoc on our systems,” said Marc Frons, the Times’ chief information officer. “But that was not what they were after.”
What they appeared to be looking for were the names of people who might have provided information to BarbozaBarboza’s research on the stories, as reported previously in The Times, was based on public records, including thousands of corporate documents through China’s State Administration for Industry and Commerce. Those documents— which are available to lawyers and consulting firms for a nominal fee— were used to trace the business interests of relatives of Wen.
Tracking the source of an attack to one group or country can be difficult because hackers usually try to cloak their identities and whereabouts. To run their Times spying campaign, the attackers used a number of compromised computer systems registered to universities in North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin, and New Mexico, as well as smaller companies and internet service providers across the United States, according to Mandiant’s investigators.
The hackers also continually switched from one IP address to another; an IP address, or Internet Protocol, is a unique number identifying each Internet-connected device from the billions around the globe, so that messages and other information sent by one device are correctly routed to the ones meant to get them.
Using university computers as proxies and switching IP addresses were simply efforts to hide the source of the attacks, which investigators say is China. The pattern that Mandiant’s experts detected closely matched the pattern of earlier attacks traced to China. After Google was attacked in 2010, and the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists were opened, for example, investigators were able to trace the source to two educational institutions in China, including one with ties to the Chinese military.
Security experts say that by routing attacks through servers in other countries and outsourcing attacks to skilled hackers, the Chinese military maintains plausible deniability.
“If you look at each attack in isolation, you can’t say, ‘This is the Chinese military,’” said Richard Bejtlich, Mandiant’s chief security officer. But when the techniques and patterns of the hackers are similar, it is a sign that the hackers are the same or affiliated. “When you see the same group steal data on Chinese dissidents and Tibetan activists, then attack an aerospace company, it starts to push you in the right direction,” he said.
Mandiant has been tracking about twenty groups that are spying on organizations inside the United States and around the globe. Its investigators said that based on the evidence— the malware used, the command and control centers compromised and the hackers’ techniques— The Times was attacked by a group of Chinese hackers that Mandiant refers to internally as APT Number Twelve.
APT stands for Advanced Persistent Threat, a term that computer security experts and government officials use to describe a targeted attack and that many say has become synonymous with attacks done by China. AT&T and the FBI have been tracking the same group, which they have also traced to China, but they use their own internal designations.
Mandiant said the group had been “very active” and had broken into hundreds of other Western organizations, including several American military contractors.
To get rid of the hackers, The Times blocked the compromised outside computers, removed every back door into its network, changed every employee password, and wrapped additional security around its systems. For now, that appears to have worked, but investigators and Times executives say they anticipate more efforts by hackers.
“This is not the end of the story,” said Bejtlich of Mandiant. “Once they take a liking to a victim, they tend to come back. It’s not like a digital crime case where the intruders steal stuff and then they’re gone. This requires an internal vigilance model.”

Rico says so far, they've just been a nuisance, but they need to be taught a lesson...

Airstrike in Syria

Isabel Kershner and Michael Gordon have an article in The New York Times about the Middle East conflict:
Rico says WHAT

Storm, as promised

Rico says that, for once, the weatherman got it right: it's pouring down rain outside.
Fortunately, it's not cold, so it's not snow...

30 January 2013

Gubs in Chicago

Monica Davey has an article in The New York Times about gubs in the Midwest:

Not a single gun shop can be found in Chicago because they are outlawed. Handguns were banned in Chicago for decades, too, until 2010, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that was going too far, leading city leaders to settle for restrictions some describe as the closest they could get legally to a ban without a ban. Despite a continuing legal fight, Illinois remains the only state in the nation with no provision to let private citizens carry guns in public.
And yet Chicago, a city with no civilian gun ranges and bans on both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, finds itself laboring to stem a flood of gun violence that contributed to more than five hundred homicides last year and at least forty killings already in 2013, including the recent fatal shooting of a fifteen-year-old girl.
To gun rights advocates, the city provides stark evidence that even some of the toughest restrictions fail to make places safer. “The gun laws in Chicago only restrict the law-abiding citizens and they’ve essentially made the citizens prey,” said Richard A. Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association. To gun control proponents, the struggles here underscore the opposite: a need for strict, uniform national gun laws to eliminate the current patchwork of state and local rules that allow guns to flow into this city from outside.
Chicago is like a house with two parents that may try to have good rules and do what they can, but it’s like you’ve got this single house sitting on a whole block where there’s anarchy,” said the Reverend Ira J. Acree, one among a group of pastors here who have marched and gathered signatures for an end to so much shooting. “Chicago is an argument for laws that are statewide or, better yet, national.”
Chicago’s experience reveals the complications inherent in carrying out local gun laws around the nation. Less restrictive laws in neighboring communities and states not only make guns easy to obtain nearby, but layers of differing laws— local and state— make it difficult to police violations. And though many describe the local and state gun laws here as relatively stringent, penalties for violating them— from jail time to fines— have not proven as severe as they are in some other places, reducing the incentive to comply.
Lately, the police say they are discovering far more guns on the streets of Chicago than in the nation’s two more populous cities, Los Angeles and New York City. They seized 7,400 guns here in crimes or unpermitted uses last year (compared with 3,285 in New York City), and have confiscated 574 guns just since 1 January— 124 of them last week alone.
More than a quarter of the firearms seized on the streets here by the Chicago Police Department over the past five years were bought just outside city limits in Cook County suburbs, according to an analysis by the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Others came from stores around Illinois and from other states, like Indiana, less than an hour’s drive away. Since 2008, more than thirteen hundred of the confiscated guns, the analysis showed, were bought from just one store, Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale, Illinois, within a few miles of Chicago’s city limits.
Efforts to compare the strictness of gun laws and the level of violence across major American cities are fraught with contradiction and complication, not least because of varying degrees of coordination between local and state laws and differing levels of enforcement. In New York City, where homicides and shootings have decreased, the gun laws are generally seen as at least as strict as Chicago’s, and the state laws in New York and many of its neighboring states are viewed as still tougher than those in and around Illinois. Philadelphia, like cities in many states, is limited in writing gun measures that go beyond those set by Pennsylvania law. Some city officials there have chafed under what they see as relatively lax state controls.
In Chicago, the rules for owning a handgun— rewritten after the outright ban was deemed too restrictive in 2010— sound arduous. Owners must seek a Chicago firearms permit, which requires firearms training, a background check, and a state-mandated firearm owner’s identification card, which requires a different background review for felonies and mental illness. To prevent straw buyers from selling or giving their weapons to people who would not meet the restrictions— girlfriends buying guns for gang members is a common problem, the police here say— the city requires permitted gun owners to report their weapons lost, sold, or stolen.
Still, for all the regulations, the reality here looks different. Some 7,640 people currently hold a firearms permit, but nearly that many illicit weapons were confiscated from the city’s streets during last year alone. Chicago officials say Illinois has no requirement, comparable to Chicago’s, that gun owners immediately report their lost or stolen weapons to deter straw buyers. Consequently those outside the city can, in the words of one city official, carry guns to gang members in the city with “zero accountability”.
A relatively common sentence in state court for gun possession for offenders without other felonies is one year in prison, which really may mean a penalty of six months, said Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state’s attorney, who said such punishments failed to serve as a significant enough deterrent for seasoned criminals who may see a modest prison stint as the price of doing business.
“The way the laws are structured facilitates the flow of those guns to hit our streets,” Garry F. McCarthy, the Chicago police superintendent, said in an interview, later adding: “Chicago may have comprehensive gun laws, but they are not strict because the sanctions don’t exist.”
In the weeks since the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board president, has introduced a countywide provision requiring gun owners beyond the city limits to report lost or stolen guns, though a first offense would result simply in a thousand dollar fine. In the city, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pressed for increased penalties for those who violate the city’s gun ordinance by failing to report their guns missing or possessing an assault weapon. “Our gun strategy is only as strong as it is comprehensive, and it is constantly being undermined by events and occurrences happening outside the city: gun shows in surrounding counties, weak gun laws in neighboring states like Indiana and the inability to track purchasing,” Emanuel said. “This must change.”
State lawmakers, too, are soon expected to weigh new state provisions like an assault weapons ban, as Chicago already has. But the fate of the proposals is uncertain in a state with wide-open farming and hunting territory downstate. “It’s going to be a fight,” said State Representative Jack D. Franks, a Democrat from Marengo, sixty miles outside Chicago. Complicating matters, an appellate court in December struck down the state’s ban on carrying guns in public, saying that a complete ban on concealed carry is unconstitutional. Illinois is seeking a review of the ruling, even as state lawmakers have been given a matter of months to contemplate conditions under which guns could be allowed in public.
Many here say that even the strictest, most punitive gun laws would not alone be an answer to this city’s violence. “Poverty, race, guns and drugs— you’ve got to deal with all these issues, but you’ve got to start somewhere” said the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, who was arrested in 2007 while protesting outside Chuck’s Gun Shop, the suburban store long known as a supplier of weapons that make their way to Chicago. At the store, a clerk said the business followed all pertinent federal, state, and local laws, then declined to be interviewed further. Among seized guns that had moved from purchase to the streets of Chicago in a year’s time or less, nearly twenty percent came from Chuck’s, the analysis found. Other guns arrived here that rapidly from gun shops in other parts of this state, as well as Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia, Iowa, and more.
Chicago is not an island,” said David Spielfogel, senior adviser to Emanuel. “We’re only as strong as the weakest gun law in surrounding states.”

Rico says they should try instituting Mexico's stringent gub laws; see how well they've worked there...

Apple for the day

Doug Aamoth has a Time article about the latest from Apple:
Starting on 5 February, Apple’s latest-generation full-size iPad will be available with 128 gigabytes of storage. Current models are available in 16-, 32- and 64-gigabyte versions, with prices beginning at $499, $599 and $699, respectively.
The 128-gigabyte version will start at $799 for the Wi-Fi-only model, while the model featuring either an AT&T or Verizon 4G LTE cellular connection will run $929.
As a refresher, Apple’s iPad pricing structure is as follows:
iPad with just Wi-Fi: $499, $599, $699 or $799 for 16, 32, 64 or 128 gigabytes, respectively.
iPad with Wi-Fi + Verizon/AT&T: $629, $729, $829 or $929 for 16, 32, 64 or 128 gigabytes, respectively.
As you can see, each model costs a hundred dollars more and doubles the storage of the one before it; models with cellular connections cost $130 more than the Wi-Fi-only models with comparable storage. Aside from increasing storage, however, there are no additional performance gains for spending an extra hundred dollars on the next-highest model.
Rico says it's a nice little break from all the gub problems and, if he could afford one, he'd buy it... (An iPad, not a gub.)

Gubs in New York

Thomas Kaplan has an article in The New York Times about Cuomo and gubs:

More than a hundred thousand people have signed online petitions denouncing New York’s recently enacted gun laws. Gun owners are contemplating civil disobedience, vowing to ignore a requirement to register firearms they own that are now classified as assault weapons. And some are even calling for the impeachment of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.
Gun rights advocates, stunned and stung by the swift passage of some of the toughest gun laws in the country, are trying to channel their anger into action. Fueled by social media, and encouraged by gun owners in more conservative states, they are pushing for the repeal of New York’s law. And they are preparing to go to court; the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association filed a notice that it planned to ask a judge to overturn the law on constitutional grounds. They face long odds in a state where the public and elected officials seem to have reached a consensus in favor of more restrictive gun laws. But just as Cuomo vowed that New York would provide a model for other states in response to the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut gun owners were promising to set an example in fighting back.
“The more people see about this, the angrier they are getting,” said Jacob J. Rieper, the vice president of legislative and political affairs for the Rifle and Pistol Association. He recounted sympathetic phone calls from as far away as Nebraska, where a man pledged to collect donations at his gun club to support a legal challenge to the law, and angry messages from New York gun owners who were eager to campaign against the legislators who voted for the measure. “The bottom line is none of these people thought this through, and it’s starting to stink,” Rieper said.
A petition circulated by State Senator Kathleen A. Marchione, a Republican from Saratoga County, that condemns the new gun laws has more than 118,000 signatures. Marchione, a member of the National Rifle Association, has proposed the repeal of many provisions in the bill, but her effort is mostly symbolic.
“The reality is that the Assembly would never pass it,” said Dean G. Skelos of Long Island, the Senate Republican leader, “the governor would never pass it, so I think we move on now to other issues.”
Thousands of gun owners gathered for a rally at the state capitol in Albany the weekend after the bill was enacted, on 15 January, while others assembled in Buffalo, where the Republican nominee for governor in 2010, Carl P. Paladino, denounced Cuomo and the “gutless, cowardly legislators” who supported his legislation.
And thousands of people have signed petitions seeking the impeachment of Cuomo; again, not a likely outcome, given that he enjoys broad legislative support.
Frank Riess, a real estate appraiser and firearms dealer from the Hudson Valley, was so upset that he bought the domain name ImpeachAndrewCuomo.com the morning after the state Senate approved the laws. Riess acknowledged that Cuomo had not done anything that would provide a legal rationale for impeachment, but said he still hoped the governor would take notice of his petition, which now has more than nineteen thousand signatures. “We were just trying to make a statement, to show other firearm enthusiasts that you’re not alone in your frustration,” he said.
Cuomo and his allies are not looking back. More than seven in ten voters across the state supported an expanded ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in a Siena College poll conducted after the governor proposed the measures.
“It’s very important not to mistake the noise that the other side is good at creating for expressing the sentiment of the people,” said Richard M. Aborn, the president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. “It does not. It does not even express the sentiment of gun owners. It’s noise based on fear, and I think the governor was quite right to say we’re going to do this. He got it done with lightning speed and crystal clarity, and now we move on.”
Still, Cuomo was concerned enough about the outcry that his office urged gun control groups to rally their supporters on his behalf. One group, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, started a counter-petition so residents could thank the governor and lawmakers for their action, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence emailed its supporters to praise the new law and also sent a letter of commendation to legislative leaders.
Many gun rights organizations believe their best chance at overturning all or part of the new law is through litigation.
“Much of what the governor has gotten in New York is liable to fall because of court challenges and the like because much of it’s unconstitutional,” the president of the NRA, David Keene, said in a recent interview on an Albany radio station.
James D. Tresmond, a lawyer in western New York who spends most of his time handling criminal defense cases, filed a lawsuit challenging the law on behalf of two local gun owners in the state Supreme Court in Buffalo. He said he hoped it would become a class-action lawsuit: with the publicity the suit has generated on Facebook, he said, he has been contacted by more than fourteen thousand potential plaintiffs in the past two weeks. “They want to contribute money,” Tresmond said. “They want to get rid of this governor. They want to get rid of the legislators that voted for it. I think this legislation,” he added, “just falls off the edge of the earth with regard to the constitutional rights of the people that are involved.”
Supporters of the gun law are also facing criticism from some law enforcement officials. While district attorneys and police chiefs have praised the measure, the New York State Sheriffs’ Association has criticized a number of provisions in the law, and also objected to what it described as the Legislature’s “steamroller approach to important legislation”.
In Schuyler County, the sheriff, William E. Yessman Jr., posted on Facebook to reassure residents that no one from his office “will be coming to take your firearms from you”. In Chemung County, the sheriff, Christopher J. Moss, who said his office had received hundreds of phone calls from worried gun owners, scheduled two information sessions this week about the new law. “I’m sure it will be a venting process as well, because people are very upset,” he said.
One issue that law enforcement officials are preparing to confront is possible civil disobedience. The gun control bill requires people who currently own assault weapons to register them with the state by 15 April 2014.
“I don’t think I’ve talked to a person yet who’s said they’re registering,” said George W. Rogero, a handgun safety instructor from Orange County who operates a website about gun rights. Rogero said he believed the registration provision for assault weapons would be followed by an effort by the state to confiscate guns. “They’re not going to stop until we don’t have any right to have a firearm, and just to heck with the Second Amendment,” Rogero said. “It doesn’t mean anything to them. They don’t like it, they don’t want it, and they just want to ignore it.”

Rico says that ignoring bad laws is something Americans have long been good at; see how well the laws against drugs have worked...

Still don't believe...

...that it'll really work, but Henry Fountain has an article in The New York Times about what supposedly works:

A man in Wisconsin viewed it as a technical challenge. Another, in New Hampshire, was looking to save some money. In Texas, a third wanted to make a political point. The three may have had different motivations but their results were the same: each built a working gun that included a part made in plastic with a 3-D printer.
What they did was legal and, except for the technology and material used, not much different from what do-it-yourself gunsmiths have been doing for decades. But in the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and the intensified debate over gun control, their efforts, which began last summer, have stoked concerns that the inexpensive and increasingly popular printers and other digital fabrication tools might make access to weapons even easier.
“We now have 3-D printers that can manufacture firearms components in the basement,” said Representative Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York. “It’s just a matter of time before a 3-D printer will produce a weapon capable of firing bullets.”
A 3-D printer builds an object layer by layer in three dimensions, usually in plastic. To effectively outlaw weapons made with them, Israel wants to extend an existing law, set to expire this year, that makes weapons that are undetectable by security scanners— like a printed all-plastic gun— illegal.
But there are also major technical obstacles to creating an entire gun on a 3-D printer, not the least of which is that a plastic gun would probably melt or explode upon firing a single bullet, making it about as likely to kill the gunman as the target.
In the meantime, Michael Guslick in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chapman Baetzel in Dover, New Hampshire, and Cody Wilson in Austin, Texas did something much simpler and, for now, more effective. They printed the part of an AR-15 assault rifle called the lower receiver, the central piece that other parts are attached to. Then, using standard metal components, including the chamber and barrel— the parts that must be strong enough to withstand the intense pressure of a bullet firing— they assembled working guns.
In all, the three men, who have written about their efforts on the internet, have fired hundreds of rounds, although the plastic receivers eventually deform, crack or otherwise fail from heat and shock. But Wilson, for one, is working on a fourth-generation design that he says should be more durable.
A lower receiver is the only part of an AR-15 that, when bought, requires the filing of federal paperwork. But it is legal to make an AR-15— and many other guns — for personal use, as long as there is no intent to sell them. And if the lower receiver is homemade, no paperwork is required.
Amateur gunsmiths have made lower receivers for years, in metal, although the process requires a certain level of machining expertise. Inexpensive 3-D printers have grown in popularity— their rise has been compared with that of personal computers in the 1980s— in part because they are easy to use. It is not even necessary to know how to create the design files that instruct the device to print bit after bit of plastic to build the object, as there are files for tens of thousands of objects available on the Internet, created by other users and freely shared.
Still, some tinkering is usually required. Guslick, who works in information technology and describes himself as a hobbyist gunsmith, printed his receiver on a machine he bought online through Craigslist. He used a file and abrasive paper to make the piece fit properly, but over all the project was not much of a technical challenge. “Anybody could do this,” he said.
Baetzel, who made his receiver on a 3-D printer he built from a kit, said the part worked fine until he cracked it when bumping the gun while putting it in his car. He has since printed a replacement along with a modified grip and stock which, he said, has made the gun sturdier. For Baetzel, who works as a software tester, the motivation for printing gun parts was economic. “Shooting is an expensive sport,” he said. He figured he could save perhaps forty dollars by making the receiver rather than buying one.
Only Wilson, a law student who prints his receivers on friends’ machines, had overtly political motives, wanting to demonstrate what he called the absurdity of gun-control laws. He took his efforts even further, printing high-capacity magazines like those that would be banned under recommendations proposed by President Obama and successfully testing them this month on a firing range south of Austin. He has posted the drawing files at his website, defcad.org, so that others can print the magazine. “It’s unbannable,” he said. “The Internet has it now.” Wilson also has a project to develop a fully printable one-shot weapon, although he has not made much progress. He is seeking a firearms manufacturer’s license, which he would need to even make prototypes of a complete weapon. He gets advice and technical help from a network of about fifteen collaborators around the world, and has posted other printer files at his site, including Guslick’s file for a lower receiver.
Baetzel posted his files on his own blog, Ambulatory Armament Depot, after a printer file-sharing site, Thingiverse, forced him to remove them in December of 2012. A spokeswoman for MakerBot, a 3-D printer manufacturer that sponsors Thingiverse, pointed out that the site’s terms of service prohibit content that “contributes to the creation of weapons”. Guslick, who is currently machining a few metal lower receivers, said 3-D printers were far from the best tool for gun-making, an opinion shared by Neil Gershenfeld, a professor at MIT and director of the school’s Center for Bits and Atoms.
“A well-equipped machine shop has, for a long time, been able to make gun parts,” Gershenfeld said. “Three-D printers make not very good ones.”
The types of computer-controlled tools found in a machine shop— primarily laser cutters and milling machines— are expensive. But smaller and cheaper versions are now available to dedicated hobbyists, though they do not yet have quite the mass appeal of 3-D printers.
Yet the printers have other drawbacks besides the use of plastic. They are slow, often taking hours to build an object, and the results, while impressive to the eye, can be too crude for extremely close-fitting parts.
And as Guslick pointed out, anyone who is desperate for a weapon “has the ability to assemble a zip gun from parts bought in a hardware store for fifteen dollars”.
The National Rifle Association did not respond to messages requesting the group’s position on 3-D manufacturing. But, for gun-control advocates, the real worry regarding 3-D printers and other machines is what the future might bring in the way of technological advances. “Down the road it’s going to be a big concern,” said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “We don’t know how that’s going to come about and don’t know what technology.”
Baetzel, for one, said he did not worry about what other people might do with the technology. “I follow the laws,” he said. “I personally think everyone else should follow them.” He said he did not post his designs, hoping that someone would use them illegally. “It was more: ‘Look at this cool thing I did.’”

Rico says he's gonna wait for further proof, but he'll take his cowboy gubs in steel, like Samuel Colt intended...

Makin' bacon

Ben Paynter has an article in The New York Times about learning to cut meat:

For Alex Swanstrom, an auditor at a financial firm, cutting into the dead pig wasn’t hard. It was what happened next that made him rethink whether whole-animal butchery was something he was ready to dive into. Decked out in a black apron on a recent Sunday afternoon, Swanstrom, 27, slipped a six-inch boning knife into the carcass of a 275-pound Berkshire-Duroc hog that was splayed out in two large hemispheres on a table inside Local Pig, a butcher shop in Kansas City’s industrial East Bottoms area. He was supposed to carve off the front shank, which requires separating the flesh and tendons around the lower shoulder to remove the limb. But even after dislocating a joint— it popped with the shrill squeak of compressed air escaping— the shoulder still hung together fibrously, causing Swanstrom to have to pull it over the side of the table for better leverage.
“Don’t force it,” said Alex Pope, one of the shop’s owners. “If you are in a spot that feels like it’s not going well, just move the knife around a little bit.”
When the limb detached, Swanstrom handed it over and took a swig of his beer.
“That was tougher than I thought,” he said.
Hands-on classes in butchering meat, created to give diners carnal familiarity with their food, emerged as a fad in the late 2000s, one confined largely to the coasts. That has since changed, with shops in places like Chicago and Milwaukee inviting students.
Pope, who opened his shop smack dab in the middle of the heartland a year ago, decided to offer hands-on classes after hearing about another shop that charged customers just to watch a demonstration. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “If you are going to learn to break down a pig, you should be able to actually do it.”
Students at Local Pig pay a hundred dollars to trade cuts on a freshly killed pig and take home the spoils: at least ten pounds of fresh meat, plus recipes for using some of the lesser known vittles.
One of the most surprising things has been Pope’s clientele. Kansas City is a meat metropolis, both in terms of its famous barbecue and the proximity of ranchers and outdoorsmen more intimately familiar with its source. So rather than attracting just food tourism’s classic archetype, the hipster or yuppie in search of one-off adventure, he often caters to people interested in actually applying his art— everyone from deer hunters to nouveau back-to-the-landers with their own swine.
Swanstrom, for instance, helps run his family’s hundred-head cattle ranch in Iowa, and wanted to tackle a stand-in before culling a lame steer from his herd. Two other attendees that afternoon, Matt Simonitsch, 56, an analyst with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Gary Hoffman, 64, a lawyer at a life insurance company, are members of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, a nationally known group that judges barbecue events. The two men wanted to learn more about what cuts look like in their rawest form. “I look at it like continuing education,” Simonitsch said. “We know where certain cuts come from, but this is just to give you more depth.”
In a way, Pope, 29, offers the basic apprentice program he never had, the kind that was commonplace in the first half of the twentieth century. With the rise of packing houses in the 1960s, which shipped pre-boxed cuts of meat directly to supermarkets, the lone artisanal butcher went out of style in much the same way that cobblers did. Eventually whole-animal butchery all but disappeared at some culinary schools. Pope belongs to the generation of chefs who missed out; he attended culinary school, but honed his skills working backward from the finished cuts shown in a handbook of the North American Meat Processors. He has since found great joy teaching others the lost trade. One of his early disciples went on to become the head butcher at City Provisions, a deli in Chicago. Another took Pope’s first class at Local Pig, volunteered in the shop, and worked his way up to general manager. But his classes are a bit freewheeling, too, even social, to bring people in regardless of whether they will use the skills again. (While the combination of drinking and knife play might seem prickly, Pope said it helped “lubricate social interaction”.)
The hands-on experience that Pope cultivates in Kansas City is something that most New York City butchers have not embraced. Erik Hassert, an owner of Tiberio Custom Meats on the Lower East Side, does not offer such classes, and neither does Jake Dickson, the owner of Dickson’s Farmstand Meats at Chelsea Market. Both said their customers were unlikely to gain that much from one visceral experience. The liability of handing out knives, and the product waste that happens with slipped cuts, are also deterrents.
“I’ve been to culinary school and the first week we broke down lamb legs and just destroyed everything,” said Michelle Warner, who works for the Brooklyn Kitchen and coordinates classes there with the Meat Hook, a shop in the same building. “By the second week we’d have some usable parts, but even then it’s still not pretty.”
The Meat Hook does offer classes in breaking down a hog, but attendees must live vicariously through the butcher and cannot handle the knives. Unlike their Kansas City counterparts, Meat Hook pupils are probably never going to parcel out their own pig, Warner said. (The West Coast seems to be more progressive on this score, with DIY classes held at meat temples like Avedano’s and 4505 Meats in San Francisco.)
Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats, however, stands out among its East Coast siblings, going beyond even what Pope offers in Missouri. For $350, customers can attend the slaughter of an animal on a farm near the shop’s location in Kingston, New York, and help scald and dehair it before the demonstration. (Fleisher’s also has a Brooklyn location, but does not slaughter there.)
When it comes to the actual slicing, the price goes up. It’s $1,500 for a three-day class that comes with a Victorinox knife set, scabbard, and plenty of pig and lamb deconstruction, or $15,000 for a twelve-week apprenticeship that lets students work alongside the pros.
Like Pope, Fleisher’s has hired some of its best students, and has also trained such professionals as Tom Mylan of the Meat Hook, Ryan Fibiger of Saugatuck Craft Butchery in Connecticut, and Amelia Posada and Erika Nakamura of Lindy & Grundy in Los Angeles.
Learning butchery solo is easier now than when Pope started. For example, Ryan Farr, who runs 4505 Meats, recently released Whole Beast Butchery, a visual guide that shows the step-by-step evisceration of several barnyard animals in five hundred pictures. But there remains a place for programs in which students pick up the knife.
As the class at Local Pig was ending, Swanstrom realized he needed more practice before tackling his own steer, so he asked Pope if he could volunteer at the shop sometime. Pope, who recently leased space at a Department of Agriculture plant so he can sell cuts directly to local restaurants, agreed. He is readying a food truck, which he will leave parked beside his shop, for selling sandwiches. And he has created a line of shaving cream made out of rendered beef tallow. Someone with a little training could be useful, and Pope said he could use all the help he could get.

Rico says it's yet another job he's happy not to have; he readily eats meat that other people have converted from the source...

Scam for the day

From: ATM CARD <atmcard11@live.com>
Date: January 30, 2013, 14:48:11 EST
To: undisclosed-recipients: ;
Subject: fyi

Your ATM Card worth $850,000 ready for delivery. Get info:

Weather is weird again

Rico says it's 62 today, and snowing in two days. So much for global warming...

History for the day

30 January 1865
The House of Representatives deals a blow to the crumbling institution of slavery, passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, designed to abolish slavery throughout the United States. The amendment became the law of the land in December, when Georgia became the 27th state to ratify the amendment, giving it the necessary three-fourths majority it required from state legislatures under the Constitution. 

History for the day

On 30 January 1948, Indian political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu extremist.

Bought a new bike

Rico says his friend Dave sends this likely story:

No assault rifles, no ten-round magazines. I think I'm legal...

29 January 2013

Just say never

Rico says that Sean Connery's swan song, Never Say Never Again was, perhaps, one Bond too many.
With bits and pieces of several earlier films, especially Thunderball, even Kim Basinger half-naked couldn't save this one...

Submarine mystery

Rico's friend Kelley forwards this AP article by Bruce Smith on the Hunley:

Researchers say they may have the final clues needed to solve the mystery of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, which never resurfaced after it became the first sub in history to sink an enemy warship, the Housatonic, taking its eight-man crew to a watery grave.
Scientists said that the Hunley apparently was less than twenty feet away from the Housatonic when the crew ignited a torpedo that sank the Union blockade ship off South Carolina in 1864. That means it may have been close enough for the crew to be knocked unconscious by the explosion, long enough that they may have died before awakening.
For years, historians thought the Hunley was much farther away, and had speculated the crew ran out of air before they were able to return to shore.
The discovery was based on a recent examination of the spar— the iron pole in front of the hand-cranked sub that held the torpedo.
The Hunley, built in Mobile, Alabama and deployed off Charleston in an attempt to break the Union blockade during the Civil War, was finally found in 1995. It was raised five years later and brought to a lab in North Charleston, where it is being conserved.
Conservator Paul Mardikian had to remove material crusted onto one end of the spar after 150 years at the bottom of the ocean. Beneath the muck, he found evidence of a cooper sleeve. The sleeve is in keeping with a diagram of the purported design of a Hunley torpedo that a Union general acquired after the war and is in the National Archives in Washington. "The sleeve is an indication the torpedo was attached to the end of the spar," Mardikian said. He said the rest of the sixteen-foot spar shows deformities in keeping with it being bent during an explosion.
Now it may be that the crew, found at their seats when the sub was raised with no evidence of an attempt to abandon ship, may have been knocked out by the concussion of an explosion so close by, said Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell, a member of the South Carolina Hunley Commission. "I think the focus now goes down to the seconds and minutes around the attack on the Housatonic " he said. "Did the crew get knocked out? Did some of them get knocked out? Did it cause rivets to come loose and the water rush into the hull?" The final answers will come when scientists begin to remove encrustations from the outer hull, a process that will begin later this year. McConnell said scientists will also arrange to have a computer simulation of the attack created based on the new information. The simulation might be able to tell what effect the explosion would have on the nearby sub.
Maria Jacobsen, the senior archaeologist on the project, said small models might also be used to recreate the attack.
Ironically, the crucial information was literally at the feet of scientists for years.
The spar has long been on display to the public in a case at Clemson University's Warren Lasch Conservation Lab where the Hunley is being conserved. With other priorities on the sub itself, it wasn't until last fall that Mardikian began the slow work of removing encrustations from the spar.
Scientists X-rayed the spar early on and found the denser material that proved to be the cooper sleeve. But Jacobsen said it had long been thought it was some sort of device to release the torpedo itself. Finding evidence of the attached torpedo is "not only extremely unexpected, it's extremely critical," she said. "What we know now is the weapons system exploded at the end of the spar. That is very, very significant."

Rico says that, no matter what sank the Hunley and killed its crew, it was a brave and foolhardy act...

Probable scam for the day

From: Mr Renaud <de_renaud1@rocketmail.com>
Date: January 29, 2013, 12:55:11 EST
To: <de_renaud1@rocketmail.com>
Subject: reservations
Reply-To: de_renaud1@rocketmail.com

Dear sir,
l want to make fly ticket with your travel agency.
Do you accept payment by credit card at distance.


1 / Abidjan - Casablanca - Abidjan

l am waiting your confirmation.
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The unfriendly skies

Susan Stellin has an article in The New York Times about in-flight problems:
At a time of heightened security concerns, disgruntled airline employees, and frustrated passengers can be a combustible combination in a crowded aircraft, as travelers find themselves subject to lots of rules and little wiggle room to challenge them.
On a United Airlines flight from Zurich to Washington Dulles International Airport on 2 January, Bill Pollock asked a flight attendant about a sign telling passengers not to venture beyond the curtain separating economy class from the rest of the plane. Pollock, a book publisher from Burlingame, California, said he wanted to stretch his legs and visit his wife seated on the opposite aisle, using the passageway behind the galleys in the plane’s midsection. But when he questioned a flight attendant on the policy and began recording their conversation using his cellphone, the situation quickly escalated: the flight attendant grabbed his phone and nearby Federal air marshals intervened: “Two marshals held me up against the counter, they had my hands behind my back,” Pollock said. “I wasn’t violent, I didn’t use four-letter words. All I did was ask this guy about the sign on the curtain and they flipped out.”
The flight was met by United personnel and security agents, who, Pollock said, took his statement and then sent him on his way. But the incident left him with lingering questions about his rights— like whether there is a policy restricting economy-class passengers to their own cabin (not just their own bathrooms), whether travelers are prohibited from videotaping flight crew, and what recourse passengers have if airline or security personnel overreact.
It turns out, none of these questions has a clear answer. Les Dorr, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the agency did not have a rule limiting passenger movement on a plane, but federal regulations state: “No person may assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member’s duties aboard an aircraft.”
Rahsaan Johnson, a United spokesman, said flight attendants routinely made an announcement asking customers not to pass through the curtains separating cabins, adding that federal regulations require passengers to “comply with lighted signs, placards and crew member instructions.” Pollock conceded that he told the flight attendant he planned to ignore the sign, which other travelers had questioned in online travel forums.
On a United flight from Dulles airport to Zurich last January, David Snead said he saw a flight attendant pin a similar sign to the curtain in front of the economy cabin. To him, it appeared “handmade.” “She got in arguments with people who tried to pass through,” he said. “She was not a nice flight attendant.” He added that he sympathized with airline employees who must enforce a growing number of rules. “Flight attendants have a ridiculously hard job dealing with passengers unwilling to accept every rule the airline comes up with,” he said.
Rules that cause friction between flight attendants and travelers often involve electronic devices and carry-on bags. But, as carriers invest more money in amenities for higher-paying customers, stricter divisions between passenger classes contribute to the tension.
Veda Shook, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said she was not aware of a policy limiting where passengers could walk, especially if a cart was blocking an aisle or a family member was seated on the other side of the plane. “I think it’s generally understood that you hang out in the cabin that you’re in,” she said. “But I’ve never really encountered a situation where someone couldn’t move about the cabin to get from point A to B.” Given the potential consequences of a disruptive event, Shook said, flight attendants are trained to avoid any escalation of conflict, a “nip it in the bud” approach that may seem aggressive. “You have to be prepared to shut anything down immediately,” she said.
Airlines report to the FAA incidents involving “unruly passengers” who interfere with the duties of a crew member. The agency said there were 101 such incidents in 2012, well below the 140 to 176 reports in each of the previous three years. The statistics do not include security violations, which are handled by the Transportation Security Administration.
David Castelveter, a TSA spokesman, said the agency could not comment on the incident involving Pollock. But, in an email message, Castelveter explained: “Federal air marshals are trained to protect the safety and integrity of the aircrew, passengers, and aircraft. Due to the sensitive nature of their job, TSA cannot discuss specific tactics or training.”
The Federal Air Marshal Service operates largely out of public view, but the secrecy surrounding its operations can put travelers in a difficult position when interacting with agents whose role is not always clear. On a different flight, a passenger who had made several trips to the bathroom was questioned by an air marshal and detained by the police after the plane landed. “We have reached a point where you check in your civil liberties when you check in your bag,” the traveler said, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the situation. “It’s a little over the top what’s going on.”
Customer complaints about the airlines’ service and performance have risen. The Department of Transportation received 7,524 complaints about carriers in the United States in the first nine months of 2012, compared with 5,231 in the same period in 2011. Complaints about United topped the rankings, with 3,414 filed in the first three quarters, versus 1,132 for American Airlines, number two on the list.
No federal regulation restricts what passengers can photograph or videotape on a plane, but Johnson said United published in its in-flight magazine a rule against photographing or recording aircraft equipment and airline personnel.
So where does that leave Pollock? He said a United representative told him that their investigation indicated he refused to return to his seat, refused to stop taking pictures, and refused to move away from the curtain when asked; all untrue, Pollock said. “It’s just emblematic of what air travel has become,” he said. “If you ask a question on a plane, you’re going to be identified as a problem and you’re going to get whatever response they choose to take, and there’s no recourse.”
That feeling of “no recourse” has been heightened in the digital era, as customers are directed to web sites to submit complaints and find it difficult to get more than a form response.
Jeremy Cooperstock, an engineering professor in Montreal, created the website Untied.com to help passengers in that bind. Besides collecting complaints about United— the site received 4,500 last year— Cooperstock lists contact information for United customer service managers and advises passengers and airline employees on their legal options.
United is suing him, seeking an injunction against disclosure of its managers’ contact information. “Passengers are increasingly dissatisfied with the service and treatment they receive,” he said. “I feel the need to alert the public to their rights and help employees who have been victimized by their management.”

Rico says he doesn't fly much, but advises all passengers to sit down and shut up...

History, again, for the day

Grace Hale has an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times about soda:

The opposition by the New York State chapter of the NAACP to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s restrictions on sugary soda caught many Americans by surprise. But it shouldn’t: though the organization argues it is standing up for consumer choice and minority business owners, who it claims would be hurt, this is also a favor for a stalwart ally: Coca-Cola alone has given generously to support NAACP initiatives over the years.
This is more than a story of mutual back-scratching, though. It is the latest episode in the long and often fractious history of soft drinks, prohibition laws, and race.
While it is widely known that John Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist, invented Coke as a kind of patent medicine, it was in fact his second drink. His first, an 1884 invention called French Wine Coca, was a copy of a popular French wine that contained cocaine. But in November of 1885, just as the product began to sell, Atlanta outlawed alcohol sales.
Across the nation, support for prohibition was often tied to the desire by native whites to control European Catholics, American Indians, Asian-Americans, and, especially in the South, African-Americans. It gave police officers an excuse to arrest African-Americans on the pretext of intoxication.
Pemberton went to work on a “temperance drink” with the same “medicinal” effects, and he introduced Coca-Cola in 1886. At the time, the soda fountains of Atlanta pharmacies had become fashionable gathering places for middle-class whites as an alternative to bars. Mixed with soda water, the drink quickly caught on as an “intellectual beverage” among well-off whites. Eliminating alcohol granted only a temporary reprieve. Though Asa G. Candler, who had taken over the business, kept the formula secret, an Atlanta paper revealed in 1891 what many consumers, who called the soda “dope”, already knew: Coca-Cola contained cocaine.
Candler began marketing the drink as “refreshing” rather than medicinal, and managed to survive the controversy. But concerns exploded again after the company pioneered its distinctive glass bottles in 1899, which moved Coke out of the segregated spaces of the soda fountain. Anyone with a nickel, black or white, could now drink the cocaine-infused beverage. Middle-class whites worried that soft drinks were contributing to what they saw as exploding cocaine use among African-Americans. Southern newspapers reported that “negro cocaine fiends” were raping white women, the police powerless to stop them. By 1903, Candler had bowed to white fears (and a wave of anti-narcotics legislation), removing the cocaine and adding more sugar and caffeine.
Coke’s recipe wasn’t the only thing influenced by white supremacy: through the 1920s and ’30s, it studiously ignored the African-American market. Promotional material appeared in segregated locations that served both races, but rarely in those that catered to African-Americans alone.
Meanwhile Pepsi, the country’s second largest soft drink company, had tried to fight Coke by selling its sweeter product in a larger bottle for the same price. Still behind in 1940, Pepsi’s liberal chief executive, Walter S. Mack, tried a new approach: he hired a team of twelve African-American men to create a “negro markets” department.
By the late 1940s, black sales representatives worked the Southern Black Belt and Northern black urban areas, black fashion models appeared in Pepsi ads in black publications, and special point-of-purchase displays appeared in stores patronized by African-Americans. The company hired Duke Ellington as a spokesman. Some employees even circulated racist public statements by Robert W. Woodruff, Coke’s president.
The campaign was so successful that many Americans began using a racial epithet to describe Pepsi. By 1950, fearing a backlash by white consumers, Pepsi had killed the program, but the image of Coke and Pepsi as “white” and “black” drinks lingered.
Not long after, perhaps seeing the business error of its ways, Coke quietly began to market to African-Americans. Eventually, part of Coke’s strategy was to support African-American organizations, forming the basis of its relationship with the NAACP.
The historical weight of that relationship came to the surface after a 1999 discrimination case brought by black Coke employees, which created bad press for the company around the world. In 2000, Coke agreed to a settlement for $156 million and made a $50 million donation to the Coca-Cola Foundation to support community programs.
It took time, but the new tack worked: today the racial line between the soda companies, even in the South, is a dim memory, and the soft-drink industry is on good terms with one of its largest demographic markets: African-Americans.
Of course, the New York State NAACP may have a legitimate complaint against the soda restriction as a threat to minority business. And it may be fair to see the proposal, as some observers have intimated, as an instance of middle-class whites trying to control the behavior of working-class minorities— just as they did under Prohibition. But to understand the real story behind this unexpected alliance, we first have to understand its tangled history.

Rico says that he never liked Pepsi, and won't drink Coke since they changed the formula (no, the sugar, not the cocaine; he's not that old)...

Stats for the day

Rico says he likes these numbers, and appreciates all his readers:

End of airline fees?

Brad Tuttle has a Time article about the airlines:
For years, airlines have rolled out new fees to foist onto passengers like clockwork; American Airlines and Southwest Airlines as the two latest examples. There is somewhat of a silver lining, though: with every new fee added, it becomes harder for airlines to come up with new things to charge for.
Around the globe, airlines charged an estimated $36 billion in ancillary fees last year; “ancillary” being the industry term for anything above the base flight cost, including charges for baggage, meals, seat reservations, and so forth. The $36 billion figure represents an increase of eleven percent globally compared to the 2011 total. In North America, the fee total paid by passengers rose “just” around five percent. Compared to the fee increase from 2010 to 2011— roughly fifty percent globally— last year’s hike in fees almost comes as a relief. What’s more, there’s been sign that American flier are paying slightly fewer baggage fees as more passengers grow accustomed to packing less and flying only with carry-on luggage.
Of course, just because the overall pace at which fees are rising has decreased doesn’t mean that airlines are falling out of love with them. What it appears to mean, though, is that carriers are slowly but surely running out of ideas for new fees to pass along to their customers.
This seems to be the case for the nation’s most fee-crazed carrier, Spirit Airlines. By one estimate, the average Spirit passenger pays an extra $103 in fees for every round trip with the airline. And that estimate was announced in mid-2012, before (of course) Spirit bumped up the cost of a few of its fees. For every three dollars collected by Spirit, only two dollars comes as a result of payment for flights; the other one-third of total revenues comes from Spirit customers paying for fees including carry-on luggage, seat assignments, bottled water, and more.
But in an interview with American Public Media Marketplace, Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said that “we probably are almost at the limit of” adding new fees. “Our fares pretty much include the right to get on the plane and get off at the other end, to have a safe and on-time flight and that’s pretty much it. So there’s not really much else we can take out of that.” Baldanza, whose airline is the subject of a popular boycott campaign on Facebook due to its fee-happy ways, defended the company’s reputation as the “dollar store of the sky” by explaining “we do things a little bit differently”:
“What we do is we strip out all of the things that can be a decision point for the customer — like whether you take bags or not, or if you want to pick where you sit on the plane, or whether you’re going to eat on the plane or not.”
(MORE: Airline Already Collecting the Most Passenger Fees Wants $1 Billion More Annually)
At long last, it appears as if there’s little or nothing left to strip out. To which travelers might respond with a gigantic Wheewwwww! It’s about time.
Except we all know that this is probably not true. Creative ideas for new airlines fees will continue to be floated—charging to get off the plane first, for instance, or hiking airfares after purchase due to fuel cost increases—and if Spirit and other carriers think they can make money by passing such charges along to customers, you can bet they’ll do just that. You can also bet that the costs of checked luggage, seat reservations, and other services we pay for right now will only grow more expensive going forward. So even if there aren’t new fees, we’ll probably be paying more in fees.

Rico says remind him not to fly Spirit, and to bitch if Southwest adds bag fees. But Tuttle has a further article about what they're actually doing:

Et tu, Southwest? A relative absence of fees and an overall nonelitist, democratic approach to airline travel are among the reasons Southwest Airlines has been so successful. A new fee— forty dollars to be among the first on the plane— could cancel out some of the goodwill built up by the carrier over the years.
By now, flyers probably shouldn’t be surprised by any new airline fee. These fees hit a record high last year (after hitting a record high the year before that), and what with the regular release of new fees— excuse me, “enhancements,” to use American AirlinesBig Brother–like marketing lingo— it’s likely even more fees will be collected by carriers this year.
Even so, the perception has been that Southwest Airlines was different. While nearly every carrier has added fees for checked baggage (and sometimes for carry-on luggage as well), Southwest has pumped up its complimentary service with a ubiquitous Bags Fly Free ad campaign. The airline’s generous baggage policies have regularly helped put Southwest among the top customer-rated airlines in the US.
Southwest’s approach to seating has also set it apart from the crowd. Southwest doesn’t have reserved seating. Instead, passengers pick out seats when they board, according to a specified boarding order. Some flyers love the system; for others, it drives them batty with anxiety that they’ll be stuck in the worst seat on the plane. Love or hate the system, though, most found it to be (mostly) democratic and (mostly) fair— and at least more reasonable than the airlines adding fees for seat reservations.
Slowly, however, Southwest seems to be embracing the approach of other airlines, in that clearly better service goes to customers who pay for it. For years, Southwest has offered an Early Bird Check-in: for ten dollars each way, passengers were ensured they’d be in the first or second boarding group, meaning they would have a decent selection of empty seats to choose from. Now Southwest is adding another tier for boarding privileges. The airline once celebrated for selling flights for $40 (and sometimes less than that) just launched a $40 fee for passengers who want to be guaranteed they’ll be in the first boarding group. Customers can pay the fee 45 minutes before the flight, if the section isn’t already sold out.
Many frequent flyers aren’t happy with the new fee. At SmarterTravel, travel-rewards expert Tim Winship wrote:
There’s no benchmark against which the new fee can be measured and evaluated, but charging $40 just to get an earlier start in Southwest’s first-come-first-served boarding scrum seems cruelly unreasonable. That assessment will be reality-tested as travelers vote with their wallets.
On the one hand, the new fee should seem like no big deal. No one is forcing passengers to pay it. Anyone who doesn’t think it’s worth the cost can elect to skip it. On the other hand, what this and most airline fees essentially do is screw over travelers who don’t pay up. The introduction of fees for basic services and perks that used to be free obviously decreases the likelihood of travelers getting those basic services and perks for free anymore. Passengers who don’t pay can expect worse treatment, as simple services— like getting a fair shot at a decent seat on the plane— are now viewed as revenue streams, as perks saved for the elite.
Rico says that he gets on early anyway, what with his disability, so this, fortunately, doesn't apply to him... (And what's the big deal with getting on first anyway? It's not like it really matters.)

History for the day

On 29 January 1963, poet Robert Frost died in Boston.

28 January 2013

Scam for the day

From: Biblioteca Marcel Roche <biblioteca@ivic.gob.ve>
Date: January 28, 2013, 20:22:44 EST
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
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Not so obscure now

The BBC has an article by Thomas Fessy about the French in Timbuktu:
French-led troops in Mali have entered the historic city of Timbuktu, encountering little resistance, French and Malian military sources say. But there are reports of thousands of ancient manuscripts being destroyed, with video footage of the library showing charred books and empty boxes.
French President Francois Hollande declared that the joint forces were "winning this battle". They have been pushing north in their offensive against Islamist rebels. They seized Gao, northern Mali's biggest city, on Saturday. Islamists seized the north of the country last year, but have been losing ground since French forces launched an operation earlier this month.
Most militants appear to have moved out to desert hideouts, says the BBC's Thomas Fessy in the capital, Bamako. The advance came as African Union (AU) leaders met for a summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the key issue at which was Mali.
The AU decided to contribute fifty million dollars to the multinational force, in what the BBC's James Copnall says is an attempt to start the ball rolling for what promises to be a costly operation.
A French military spokesman said troops had moved into Timbuktu. They were met by cheering crowds as they entered, waving French and Malian flags and shouting: Mali, Mali, Mali! "We are proud of France and proud of Mali. We thank you a thousand times," one resident said.
French troops seem to have been very successful in retaking the major towns that had been occupied by Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda for months. But this rapid advance has mainly been made possible by the fact that most rebel fighters had left their positions in the few days preceding the French-led operations. Islamist combatants melted away with all their vehicles and weapons into desert hideouts. Hunting them down in this vast region they know better than any army will be much harder.
The French are hoping for a quick deployment of thousands more African forces but, without the experience of the terrain and the equipment, these troops will achieve nothing.
This second phase is likely to last months and the French may well be on the frontline longer than they have said in public. "We are independent again! We were held hostage for ten months, but it seemed like ten years," AFP news agency quoted resident Hama Cisse as saying. Meanwhile, a Malian army colonel told the agency: "The Malian army and the French army are in complete control of the city of Timbuktu."
But reports have emerged that militants had destroyed a library of ancient manuscripts, some dating back to the thirteenth century. Sky News correspondent Alex Crawford, who is with the joint forces, showed some charred documents and piles of empty boxes at the library said to have contained the manuscripts, and said vaults beneath the building had been emptied.
The library, the Ahmed Baba institute, held about thirty thousand manuscripts, and includes documents about centuries of life in the city, Mali and neighbouring countries.
French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard told the BBC earlier that "substantial airpower" had been used to support about a thousand French and two hundred Malian forces in their offensive against militants in Timbuktu. He said French forces had taken access points to the city during the night.
Once Timbuktu is secured, the French-led troops are expected to focus on the last rebel stronghold, Kidal, near the border with Algeria. But reports from the city, which is the home of the head of Ansar Dine, the main militant group in northern Mali, suggest that the group may have lost control there as well. The secular Tuareg rebel group, MNLA, said it had taken charge. AFP quoted a spokesman of an Ansar Dine breakaway faction as saying that it was jointly "ensuring security" with the MNLA.
Once Kidal is taken, the first phase of the French operation will be over; the second phase will be to track down the militants to their desert hideouts, which could prove a much more difficult task, he adds. Fabius warned that the militants had adopted a "strategy of evasion and some of them could return in the north".
President Hollande later outlined plans for the operation, saying African troops would take over once French forces had retaken key towns. The French would then return to their bases, and from then on their sole task would be to support and train Malian forces, he added. "Just as we went into action rapidly, we will draw back to the starting points," he said.
French officials said they now had 2,900 troops in Mali, backed by 2,700 African forces in Mali and neighbouring Chad. The African contingent is expected to be bolstered to 7,900, including 2,200 troops promised by Chad, The AP news agency quotes a Nigerian military official, Colonel Shehu Usman Abdulkadir, as saying.
Rico says that Timbuktu used to be considered the end of the world, but it's front and center now...

Queen out, King in; it's traditional

The BBC has an article by Anna Holligan about Holland:
Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands has announced she is abdicating in favour of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander.
In a pre-recorded address broadcast on Dutch television, she said she would formally stand down on 30 April. The queen, who is approaching her 75th birthday, said she had been thinking about this moment for several years and that now was "the moment to lay down my crown". Queen Beatrix has been head of state since 1980, when her mother abdicated.
In the short televised statement, the queen said it was time for the throne to be held by "a new generation", adding that her son was ready to be king.
Prince Willem-Alexander, 45, is married to Maxima Zorreguieta, a former investment banker from Argentina, and has three young children. He is a trained pilot and an expert in water management. He will become the Netherlands' first king since Willem III, who died in 1890.
Speaking on television immediately after the abdication announcement, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte paid tribute to the queen.
Queen Beatrix is seen by many in the Netherlands as a surrogate grandmother. Most office buildings and universities proudly display her glamorous portrait, decorated in a range of suitably colourful costumes. She enjoys high approval ratings, and is one of the most popular ruling monarchs in Europe. Under Dutch law, it is still illegal to insult the queen.
Her abdication is bound to raise interest in the UK, where Queen Elizabeth II is 86 and recently celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. But the situation is different in the Netherlands, where the Queen is following recent tradition by abdicating, as her mother and grandmother did before her.
Prince Willem-Alexander's wife, Maxima, is arguably the most attention-generating member of the Dutch royal family. She is expected to be given the unofficial title Queen Maxima. The Queen will hand over to her son on Queen's Day on 30 April, already one of the biggest and most raucous celebrations on the Dutch calendar.
Queen Beatrix is the sixth monarch from the House of Orange-Nassau, which has ruled the Netherlands since the early nineteenth Century.
Correspondents say she is extremely popular with most Dutch people, but her abdication was widely expected, and will not provoke a constitutional crisis. Under Dutch law, the monarch has few powers and the role is considered ceremonial. In recent decades it has become the tradition for the monarch to abdicate.
Queen Beatrix' mother Juliana resigned the throne in 1980 on her seventieth birthday, and her grandmother Wilhelmina abdicated in 1948 at the age of 68. Queen Beatrix will be 75 on Thursday. She has remained active in recent years, but her reign has also seen traumatic events. In 2009 a would-be attacker killed eight people when he drove his car into crowds watching the queen and other members of the royal family in a national holiday parade. In March of 2012, her second son, Prince Friso, was struck by an avalanche in Austria and remains in a coma.
Rico says that by the time he and his ladyfriend get there in September, there'll be a King in Amsterdam...

Boy Scouts ready to drop ban on gays

Pete Williams, justice correspondent for NBC News, has a story about the Boy Scouts:
The Boy Scouts of America, one of the nation’s largest private youth organizations, is actively considering an end to its decades-long policy of banning gay scouts or scout leaders, according to scouting officials and outsiders familiar with internal discussions.
If adopted by the organization’s board of directors, it would represent a profound change on an issue that has been highly controversial, one that even went to the Supreme Court. The new policy, now under discussion, would eliminate the ban from the national organization’s rules, leaving local sponsoring organizations free to decide for themselves whether to admit gay scouts. “The chartered organizations that oversee and deliver scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with their organization’s mission, principles or religious beliefs,” according to Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts’ national organization. Individual sponsors and parents “would be able to choose a local unit which best meets the needs of their families,” Smith said.
The discussion of a potential change in policy is nearing its final stages, according to outside scouting supporters. If approved, the change could be announced as early as next week, after the BSA's national board holds a regularly scheduled meeting.
Only seven months ago, the Boy Scouts affirmed a policy of banning gay members, after a nearly two-year examination of the issue by a committee of volunteers convened by national leaders of the Boy Scouts of America.
In a statement last July affirming the ban, its national executive board called it “the best policy for the organization.” But, since then, a scouting official said, local chapters have been urging a reconsideration. "We're a grassroots organization. This is a response to what's happening at the local level," the official said.
Two corporate CEOs on BSA’s national board, Randall Stephenson of AT&T and James Turley of Ernst & Young, have also said they would work to end the ban. Stephenson is next in line to be the BSA’s national chairman. During the 2012 presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney said the BSA should admit gay scouts and scout leaders.
About fifty local United Way groups and several corporations and charities have concluded that the ban violated their non-discrimination requirements, and have ceased providing financial aid to the Boy Scouts. An official of The Human Rights Campaign, an advocate for gay rights, said HRC planned to downgrade its non-discrimination ratings for corporations that continue to give the BSA financial support.
“It’s an extremely complex issue,” said one Boy Scouts of America official, who explained that other organizations have threatened to withdraw their financial support if the BSA drops the ban. While the national scouting organization sets broad policies, more than 290 local councils nationwide govern the day-to-day conduct of the more than 116,000 local organizations. Individual scouting troops are sponsored by religious and civic organizations that represent a diversity of views on the issue of allowing gay scouts and leaders. “The beliefs of the sponsoring organizations are highly diverse,” the official said.
The policy change now under discussion “would allow the religious, civic or educational organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting to determine how to address this issue,” said the BSA's Smith. “The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents. Under this proposed policy, the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs,” he said.
In 2000, the Supreme Court concluded that the Boy Scouts had a First Amendment right of free expression when it came to the organization’s belief that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with values stated in the scout oath, requiring scouts to be “morally straight”.
The Scouts have won similar legal battles, with courts finding that the BSA’s right of free association permits it, as a private organization, to reject those it believes do not conform to is values.
Rico says that, as ever, money talks and bullshit walks. (But what's gonna happen to all the pedophiles?)

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