31 May 2013

Chicom hackers at work

Soldier of Fortune magazine has an article by Harold Hutchison about the Chinese, up to no good as usual:
ChiCom hackers may have compromised many of the weapons systems the United States will rely on in a possible war. Among the systems that these hackers have compromised are the F-35, V-22, and several missile defense programs.
According to a report by The Washington Post, the hacking has been very widespread as the ChiComs are seeking to modernize their military. Over the past decade, China has been not only developing its first aircraft carrier, but also flew a fifth-generation fighter almost a decade before it was predicted to by American intelligence.
The Obama Administration has not raised the issue publicly, although the Post reported the issue has been raised privately with ChiCom officials. The ChiComs have officially denied reports that they are carrying out cyber-espionage.
Rico says we really do need to figure out a way to spank them for this...

Dolphins fishing on land

Grindtv.com has an article by David Strege with amazing video:
In a unique wildlife spectacle known only to occur in the tidal marshes of Georgia, dolphins work in synchronization to create a wave that pushes fish onto shore, and then they beach themselves to feast on the easy pickings before flopping back into the water. Egrets and gulls enjoy the easy meals, too.
The incredible display occurs at low tide in the swamps located twenty miles from Savannah, Georgia. It was documented by the Discovery Channel’s North America series, and will be shown in the episode The Savage Edge. Watch the astonishing video:

“This amazing behavior is found nowhere else on Earth,” the narrator says. “Only dolphins that call this swamp their home can do this. Operating as a tactical unit, they corral the fish towards the bank, then in coordinated effort, they push full force into the shore, creating a bow wave that flushes the fish onto the banks.”
This unique feeding behavior is apparently seasonal, according to a 1971 report by the Journal of Mammalogy, one of the few online sources that document this phenomenon.
The report says it is limited to a short period in late spring and a longer period in the fall. The reason given is that the fish may not be as abundant during these times of the year, forcing the dolphins to use unconventional methods to feed. This occurs within thirty minutes before or after low tide, when the fish become more concentrated and the mud bank is adequately exposed, allowing the dolphins to slip back into the water.
But this unusual feeding behavior has also been witnessed in South Carolina, according to a few emails we have received. “I saw it live and up close in and around Folly Beach and Kiawah Island, South Carolina,” said one. One thing all agree on is that it is amazing to watch.

A heavy thing, only heavier

Michael Lemonick has a Time article about the Moon:
In 1968, just a year before the historic Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, NASA scientists discovered something that could have sent astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins plunging to their deaths: an unexpected gravitational force— one so strong it caused the unmanned Lunar Orbiter spacecraft to violently shake up and down as it orbited Earth’s neighbor.
The cause, NASA determined, was the presence of mascons, or mass concentrations of especially dense rock just below the surface of the Moon, with much stronger pulls than the rock that surrounds them. Scientists adjusted accordingly to land the Apollo. But for decades, a pressing question lingered: how could these mascons, not found anywhere on Earth, even exist in the first place?
Today, as published in Science, we finally have an answer. In short: blame the asteroids, and the make-up of the Moon itself.
Mascons are always found within impact basins, the huge, roughly circular depressions created when asteroids smashed into the Moon billions of years ago. Since the depressions are lower than the surrounding surface, and therefore hold less rock, you’d naturally expect less gravity in these locations. But there’s actually more.
That’s because the Moon is made like lemon-meringue pie. No, really. As Science paper co-author and planetary scientist Jay Melosh explains, the crustal rock on the surface has a relatively low density, like meringue. And the mantle underneath is like lemon filling— it’s denser than what’s on top, and warm enough to flow under pressure (even though it’s technically solid). When asteroids strike, they blast through the Moon meringue and drill deep into its lemon filling.
At that point, according to the basic principles of physics, the filling is supposed to rush into the hole, rising to the surface while it’s hot, then sinking back down as it cools—effectively restoring the normal density-gravity balance. But that doesn’t happen on the Moon. Why?
Because— and this is the big breakthrough— on the Moon, the top cools much more quickly than we thought. So when the extra-dense lemon filling (aka the mantle rock) wants to sink back into the hole, it can’t. Instead, says Melosh, it glues itself to the meringue (aka the crustal rock). And— presto!— a mascon is born.
Of course, Melosh, who’s been researching mascon origins since the 1970s, didn’t work alone. One of his biggest clues came in the 1990s from MIT’s Maria Zuber (a co-author of the Science paper), who used gravity measurements from the Lunar Prospector spacecraft to show that the mascons were sitting higher up in the lunar crust than they should be. “I didn’t really believe it at first,” Melosh recalls. “All of us were very uncertain.”
The crucial data came from last year’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) lunar mission, which allowed Melosh’s team to run two sets of computer code— one that simulated an asteroid impact, the other that modeled the far more drawn-out process of mantle flow and cooling— with enough authority to confirm their mascon theories.
But that information came at a cost. In order to get the best measurements of lunar gravity, controllers sent GRAIL down to perilously low altitudes. To compensate for the mascon pull, says Melosh, “they had to fire their thrusters three times a week. They didn’t want to crash before the mission was over.” Once the data was gathered, however, the thrusters went dry. And the mascons, which had been forced at last to expose the secrets of their origin, exacted their revenge.
Rico says ain't science fun?

Amelia Earhart

Erica Ho has a Time article about a long-lost object:
Grainy sonar images (photo) depicting a narrow, twenty-foot long object found some six hundred feet below sea level in the Pacific Ocean may show the remains of the Lockheed Electra plane flown by Amelia Earhart. The world-famous aviator and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared on 2 July 1937, somewhere near Nikumaroro Island in the western Pacific Ocean. Five years after successfully crossing the Atlantic on a solo flight at age 34, the airwoman was attempting to circumnavigate the globe along the equator.
First reported by Discovery News, the images were released by the organization best known for hunting down the truth behind Amelia Earhart’s last flight, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). Although the images were taken on 15 June 2012 in the waters off Nikumaroro Island (then known as Gardner Island), it was not until the group posted them to an online forum in March that someone noticed what could be the remains of the two-engine plane, according to ABC News. TIGHAR cannot definitively confirm that the wreckage is part of Earhart’s plane, although its shape and location suggest that it may well be.
Reviews of underwater footage captured last year “revealed a scattering of man-made objects on the reef slope off the west end of Nikumaroro” lying near the island, Richard Gillespie, the executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News. “What initially got our attention is that there is no other sonar return like it in the entire body of data collected.” He added that “it is truly an anomaly, and when you’re looking for man-made objects against a natural background, anomalies are good.” On the same trip, the search team found remnants of a possible anti-freckle cream jar popular in the early twentieth century on the remote island. Earhart was known for disliking freckles.
“She landed the plane safely on a reef off Nikumaroro Island,” Gillespie told ABC News. “The wreckage washed into the ocean with the high tide and broke up in the surf. There is archaeological evidence on that island that we believe indicates that Earhart was marooned there until her death several days later.”
Earhart became the first woman to pilot a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean on 20 May  1932. The trip from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, in Canada to Culmore in Northern Ireland took fourteen hours and fifty-six minutes.
Rico says they always forget to mention that poor Fred would've died, too...

How to hold your Penne

Rico says his friend Kelley forwards this, from Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library:
Writing is hard. And I don't just mean writing in the sense of the textual medium that makes use of a set of signs or symbols. I mean butt-in-the-chair, hands-on-the-desk writing: the physical activity.
For people who lived during the early modern era in England, people for whom quill-and-ink was, Internet-like, a new technology, putting pen to paper was a new challenge to take on. And it was a bit of a technological mystery, too. How do you hold a pen? How do you angle your elbow? How do you orient your paper?
So many questions. Thankfully, though, early modern England had its own versions of eHow. One of these was a book of writing advice, published in 1611 by Richard Field. The manual's title is commonly shorthanded to A new booke, containing all sorts of hands ... but its full title is the slightly less concise A Nevv Booke, containing all sorts of hands vsvally written at this day in Christendome, as the English and French Secretary, the Roman, Italian, French, Spanish, high and low Dutch, Court and Chancerie hands: with Examples of each of them in their proper tongue and Letter. Also an Example of the true and iust proportion of the Romane Capitals. Collected by the best approued writers in these languages.
A picture from that book specifies details (grip, nib angle, elbow orientation) that, to us ever-more-occasional pen-users, are second nature, but that, to the early practitioners of quill-writing, were probably just as confusing as Gmail is to your Grandma.
Fortunately for pen-writing's early adopters, English's early modern writing advice didn't end there. The picture in Wright's book, Jonathan Goldberg notes in Shakespeare's Hand, is, in fact, "preceded by a page of rules." These include "how to make ink", "how to write fair", and (my favorite) "how to sit".
So how do you sit? According to the (literal) writing coaches Jean de Beauchesne and Peter Bales:
Place not your elbowe too close to your bodie, nor too farre of from it, but in a comely and easie manner may both your armes before you, as it shall best be seeme you, and as it shall be most easie for you, the better to endure to.
But, wait: what manner is most easie, when it comes to sitting?
Place your body right forward, as it shall be most seemly and easie for you: and tourne not you head too much aside, nor bed it downe too lowe, for auoyding of wearines and paine: and for such as haue occasion to sit long, I would wish them to sit soft, for their better enduring to write ..."
And what about your ink? How should you deal with your ink? Here's Bales yet again:
Let not your pen be too full of inke, for feare of blotting: and when it writeth not cleane, or is ouer worne, either wipe it, or mend it: If you should write smaller, tourne your pen a little more a side, and write with the lower neb thereof.
And what about the core technology here, the pen? How should you hold it? Here's Bales on that:
Hold softlie your pen, leane lightlie thereon,/ Write softlie therewith, and pause thereupon.
In other words: hold your pen "very gently in the hand without gripping", because to fail to do this would mean that "command of hand" gets "vtterly lost"...

More Civil War for the day

Edward Colimore has an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about the new museum in Gettysburg:
When he wore that slouch hat and blue frock coat 150 years ago, Union Major General George Gordon Meade faced a crucial choice that could affect the outcome of the Civil War: fight or flee? Across an open field at Gettysburg, the Confederate army under its legendary commander, Robert E. Lee, was preparing a final all-out attack that would become known as Pickett's Charge.
Meade stayed put and won the battle on 3 July 1863, and now, his wool felt hat, with two bullet holes from earlier fighting at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and the coat with the major general's shoulder straps are part of an exhibit, Treasures of the Civil War, at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.
Set to open on 16 June, the exhibit offers a rare glimpse into the professional and personal sides of the war's greatest leaders, and most of the artifacts come from the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, which has been seeking a new home in the city.
The display comes as preparations are under way for two major reenactments of the epic battle that raged over July 1, 2, and 3 of 1863. The largest re-creation, from 4 July to 7 July, is expected to draw up to fifteen thousand reenactors and as many as eighty thousand spectators. The other, 27 June to 30 June, anticipates eight thousand reenactors and thousands of spectators.
Among the exhibit artifacts from Philadelphia are artist Leonard Wells Volk's plaster cast of President Abraham Lincoln's face, and the ornate Tiffany gold-and-silver sword and scabbard given by the men of the Army of Tennessee to General Ulysses S. Grant following the victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi in July of 1863.
"This is one of the more significant collections assembled," said Andrew Coldren, curatorial consultant for the Civil War Museum. The artifacts come "from the all-stars of the war; they're priceless, one-in-a-million materials that you'd rarely see in one place".
About eighty percent of the historic objects, not including documents, come from Philadelphia, which played a key role during the war as the arsenal of the Union.
"Our collection forms the core of the exhibit," said Sharon Smith, president of the Civil War Museum. Over time, she said, "it will be seen by millions in the context of this important battle and in recognition of the importance of the war."
For history buffs, the relics in the Gettysburg exhibit are the closest they'll ever come to military, political, and social leaders such as Meade, Lee, Lincoln, Grant, Jefferson Davis, John Reynolds, George Pickett, Alexander Webb, William Tecumseh Sherman, George Armstrong Custer, John Mosby, Frederick Douglass, and Clara Barton.
The exhibit "is an assemblage of artifacts associated with famous people who played a part in the social, political, and military efforts on both sides in the Civil War", said Greg Goodell, museum services supervisor for the National Park Service, who is overseeing the exhibit in cooperation with the Gettysburg Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization that operates the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center. "We want people to take away a sense of what leaders were feeling and thinking," he said, "and the process by which decisions were made."
The 94 exhibit items come from collections across the country, and many have never been shown at Gettysburg, said officials of the Gettysburg Foundation. About a third of the artifacts have some association with the battle.
"I hope people appreciate the importance of physical artifacts to history and that these survived and give us a connection to the past," said Coldren, who is also the historian and administrative curator of the Salem County, New Jersey Historical Society. "You'd have to work hard to see as much really incredible material as you will see in this exhibit."
Many of the items were donated by former Union officers who, in 1888, founded an institution now known as the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia. Some of the memorabilia was provided by their family members over the years until a house was bought in 1922 in the 1800 block of Pine Street to display the collection.
The founding veterans had hoped "for a bigger and better place, but were unable to get the funding," said Coldren, the Philadelphia museum's former curator. "We're carrying on the effort to find a permanent home in Philadelphia. "This is an obligation handed down by the officers themselves," he said. "The artifacts are the physical manifestation of their memory." Officials had hoped to have a new home some time during the Civil War's sesquicentennial, but nothing has been announced. The museum moved from Pine Street in 2008, intending to reopen at the historic First Bank of the United States building, near Independence Hall, in 2011. But from $8 million to $10 million in capital funding for the move was cut by Governor Ed Rendell's administration because of budget concerns. Museum officials sought funding from the legislature, but, with so many competing interests, their pleas didn't receive the needed support and the collection was moved to Gettysburg, where it has been maintained by the Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation. Some items also have been displayed at the African American Museum and the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
At the Gettysburg exhibit, the Grant presentation sword may draw stares with its silver grip decorated with the image of Athena, the goddess of war. Its base has "1776" engraved on one side and "1863" on the other.
The Lincoln face mask that will be displayed exists because the commander-in-chief was busy with the war and did not have time to pose for a more traditional sculpture.
Also from the Philadelphia museum: the saddle that Reynolds, a Union general, was sitting on when he was shot and killed at Gettysburg, as well as a wooden plaque veterans once used to mark the spot where the general fell; the guidon used by Custer, a Union general, at the battle; Grant's lieutenant general's shoulder straps and silver cigar case; the pen Lincoln used to sign Grant's commission; Sherman's gold sash; and Davis' ornate dressing gown.
From the Gettysburg National Military Park comes a distinctive spur from Pickett, a Confederate general who typically wore his long, perfumed ringlets and immaculate tailored uniforms with a double row of gold buttons, and the chasseur-style wool and leather kepi of Reynolds.
The exhibit will include a photograph of Lee and his horse, Traveller, as well as a lock of Lee's hair and the horse's mane. They're on loan from Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial overseen by the Park Service.
"You always want to communicate to visitors the significance and popularity, good or bad, that these leaders had at the time," said Goodell. "We look at movie stars, musicians, and popular people in the same way our ancestors in the nineteenth century looked at the political, social, and military leaders. We try to draw the connection between the past and present," he said, "and hope the stories we tell about these objects and interpretative texts will convey that idea."
The exhibit runs from 16 June through 2015 at the Gettysburg Military Park Museum and Visitor Center, 1195 Baltimore Pike in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The fee is included in the standard museum/film/Cyclorama painting admission, which is $12.50 for adults and $8.50 for youths ages 6 through 12.
A ticket for the exhibit only can be purchased for $8 for adults and $6 for youths.
Rico says he intends to visit the museum, which contains many objects formerly in the Civil War Library & Museum (which Rico was a member of and used to visit in Philadelphia) when he and his friends do the 150th reenactment in July...

Military technology for the day

The X-47B, the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D), landing on the USS George H.W. Bush:

Quote for the day

"Those who beat their swords into plowshares will plow for those who did not."
Thomas Jefferson

Movie review for the day

Rico says some movies are even stranger than you anticipate, and The Book of Eli was certainly one:
In a violent post-apocalyptic society, a drifter, Eli (played by Denzel Washington; photo above and below, at left), has been wandering westward across North America for the last thirty years. He finds solace in a unique book which he carries on his person and guards closely, whilst surviving by hunting small animals and seeking goods in destroyed houses and vehicles to trade in villages for water and supplies. When he reaches a village ruled by the powerful mobster, Carnegie (played by Gary Oldman), the man views Eli's impressive fighting skills and offers Eli a place within his gang. Carnegie presses his blind lover Claudia (played by Jennifer Beals) to send her daughter, Solara (played by Mila Kunis; photo below, at right), to at least convince Eli to spend the night by sleeping with him. However, Eli proves the better man when he gently declines her advances. The girl sees Eli's book and, when Carnegie finds out, he beats her mother until she reveals what she saw. Carnegie sends his gang into the wasteland to take the book from Eli...
Rico says that the book, of course, turns out to be the only surviving copy of the King James version of the Bible, and everyone is convinced that it's a good thing... (Ignoring the line in the movie that it, meaning religion, was the cause of the Big Flash that destroyed everything.)

So, So, Sony, goodbye...

Hiroko Tabuchi has an article in The New York Times about Sony:

Sony is best known as a consumer electronics company, making PlayStation game consoles and televisions. And it loses money on almost every gadget it sells.
Sony has made money making Hollywood movies and selling music. That profitable part of the business is what Daniel S. Loeb, an American investor and manager of the hedge fund Third Point, wants Sony to spin off to raise cash to resuscitate its electronics business.
But, as Loeb pressures Sony executives to do more to revive the company’s ailing electronics arm, some analysts are asking: why bother?
Sony, it is suggested, might be better off just selling insurance. Or just making movies and music. But not electronics.
A new report from the investment banking firm Jefferies delivered a harsh assessment of Sony’s electronics business. “Electronics is its Achilles’ heel and, in our view, it is worth zero,” wrote Atul Goyal, consumer technology analyst for Jefferies, in the report, released this week. “In our view, it needs to exit most electronics markets.”
The maker of the Walkman and the Trinitron without electronics? What would it do?
Although Sony sells hundreds of products as varied as batteries and head-mounted 3-D displays, it so happens that Sony’s most successful business is selling insurance. While it doesn’t run this business in the United States or Europe, Sony makes a lot of money writing life, auto, and medical policies in Japan.
Its financial arm accounts for 63 percent of Sony’s total operating profit last year. Life insurance has been its biggest moneymaker over the last decade, earning the company 933 billion yen (nine billion dollars) in operating profit in the ten years that ended in March.
Sony’s film and music divisions, which produced hits like the Spider-Man movies and Zero Dark Thirty and recorded musicians like the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the electronic music duo Daft Punk, have contributed seven billion dollars to the company’s bottom line over the last decade. In that time, Sony’s electronics division has lost a cumulative eight-and-a-half billion dollars.
Hardly Sony’s crown jewels, experts say. “The problem is that the board is still absolutely focused on fixing electronics,” said Kouji Yamada, a visiting professor at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo and research director of Mission Value Partners, a Sonoma, California investment company.
Sony’s chief executive, Kazuo Hirai, said recently that its board would consider Third Point’s proposal, even as it emphasized that the discussions were preliminary and that it had not set a time for a response.
But, to a small band of analysts, Loeb’s prescriptions for Sony are shortsighted, merely milking the company’s profit-making content business for good money to throw after the bad. As proof of the untenable future facing Sony’s electronics, critics point to its televisions and smartphones. Competition is intense, and in cellphones Sony remains a bit player. Even where it is more successful, in digital cameras or game consoles, it is struggling to stay abreast of stronger companies.
Sheer lack of managerial attention could soon start to hurt Sony’s insurance and entertainment divisions, Yamada warned. Sony Financial Holdings, a publicly traded company, of which Sony owns sixty percent, has been underperforming its peers on the Tokyo stock exchange. Its share price has risen just four percent this year, compared to a 36 percent increase in shares of its rival, Dai-ichi Life Insurance.
And in the entertainment business, where alliances and tie-ups are starting to dominate strategy, Sony’s film and music units could be slowed by having to deal with a board that sits in Tokyo and does not have its hand on the pulse of a fast-moving industry, Yamada said. “Maneuvering three completely different industries, that’s too much,” Yamada said. “These should all be separate companies.”
Sony maintains that its varied units make up a coherent whole. But the history of how it acquired its hodgepodge of companies suggests otherwise. Sony’s co-founder, Akio Morita, first got the idea of buying a finance company on a trip to the United States in the 1950s to promote the company’s new transistor radio, according to an official recounting of its corporate history. On that trip, Morita was stunned by the sight of Chicago’s skyscrapers, especially the Prudential Building that dominated the Chicago skyline.
“Why would a life insurance company have such an enormous building?” Morita marveled. “One day, we will also establish our own bank or financial institution and build a building like that.” Morita’s wish was finally granted in 1981, when Sony started a life insurance venture in Japan with Prudential, the large American insurance company. Perhaps disappointingly, Sony Financial Holdings has its headquarters on the fourth floor of a nondescript midrise building in Tokyo.
Sony’s acquisitions of Columbia Pictures and CBS Records in the late 1980s got a lot more attention. Morita, a co-founder of Sony, and another executive, Norio Ohga, had long contended that content was crucial in promoting Sony’s expanding electronics universe, first wading into music with a venture with CBS Records in 1968.
But infighting between hardware and movies hindered that objective from the start, as did misaligned incentives that led Sony to wrestle with how to build devices that let consumers download and copy content without undermining sales at its music labels or film studios.
Sony has tried to make this strategy work for a long time,” said Gerhard Fasol, president of the Tokyo technology consulting firm Eurotechnology Japan, “but it’s never really worked. Each part would be better competing on its own.”
Insurance never had that conflict. Sony’s four thousand Lifeplanners would visit homes and offices to offer advice and make sales. Sony also runs a web-only bank, Sony Bank, which accepts deposits and offers mortgage products, investment trusts and foreign-exchange margin trading.
Hirai defended the company’s continued focus on electronics. “Electronics has a future. And it is in Sony’s DNA,” he said at a corporate presentation. “It is my mission to revive it.”
There are some glimmers that Sony is finding its way again, even as Apple and Samsung widen their lead. Sony’s sleek new XPeria Z smartphone has received generally rave reviews. Photography buffs have called its high-end, full-frame RX1 camera the most advanced compact camera.
“Not so long ago, we had despaired at Sony’s ability to ever again produce stellar products (especially when faced with duds like the Dash alarm clock and the Rolly music player),” Damian Thong, Tokyo-based technology analyst at Macquarie Securities, said in a recent report. “Yet we now have had a consistent run of beautifully designed, technologically advanced, class-leading products,” Thong said. “We think these products hark back to Sony’s glory days.”
Last quarter, Sony was back in the black, but its electronics division continued to lose money.

Rico says that one of his first-purchased electronics products was a Sony cassette player, now long gone technologically, and replaced by an iPod...

Idiot child for the day

Morgan Zalot has an article at Philly.com about gubs and stupidity:

A fifteen-year-old boy was arrested in Kensington after police say he accidentally shot his eighteen-year-old cousin while playing with a gun.
Cops were called to a house on Birch Street near Frankford Avenue and found the eighteen-year-old man suffering from a gunshot wound to the stomach in the living room, Chief Inspector Scott Small said. He was taken to Temple University Hospital and listed in critical but stable condition
Upon investigation, Small said, cops learned that the eighteen-year-old's fifteen-year-old cousin had been playing with a .38-caliber revolver, which accidentally went off, wounding the older teen. After the gun went off, the younger cousin took off with the revolver in a bag, fleeing to a house on the next block of Birch Street, near Emerald, according to Small.
Police found the fifteen-year-old in the other house shortly thereafter. He admitted to shooting his cousin by accident, Small said. When adults in the house gave cops permission to search, they found the bag containing the gun and heroin, investigators said. The teen was arrested on the spot for the shooting and drug possession.

Rico says whoever owns the gub, and let it fall into the hands of this idiot, should go to jail as well...

30 May 2013

Civil War for the day

More Tesla for the day

Will Oremus has a Slate article about Tesla:
Scott Woolley has a provocative piece elsewhere in Slate today, arguing that Tesla is worse than the bankrupt solar-power startup Solyndra— not as a company, of course, but as an investment by the federal government.
That sounds backwards, since Solyndra defaulted on its $528 million Department of Energy loan, while Tesla just paid off all its loans nine years early. Woolley’s counterintuitive argument is that the government actually left more money on the table in the Tesla deal, by failing to demand better terms. As he points out, Tesla was in tough straits in 2009, trying to raise capital for a car factory in the midst of a credit crisis. Woolley would have had the government play on Tesla’s desperation to demand a share of the company in return for a guaranteed loan. A modest eleven-percent share, he notes, would have been worth $1.4 billion to taxpayers today.
The interesting nugget here is that the government actually did negotiate some stock options, but Tesla had the option to void those by repaying the money early. That might help explain Musk’s eagerness to get the loans off Tesla’s books so quickly, a move I had interpreted as sheer bravado.
But in his disappointment about the Department of Energy’s performance as a venture-capital firm, Woolley neglects one detail: the Department of Energy is not a venture-capital firm. Its goal in subsidizing renewable-energy technology was not to come away with stock options and turn a profit. The goal was to jumpstart a sector of the economy that holds promise both as a jobs engine and as a way out of the fossil-fuel dependence that threatens our security and our environment. You could argue that a carbon tax would have been a more powerful and efficient way to achieve those ends, but that was politically impossible.
Besides, in 2009 the government was looking to spend money, not make money. Generous loans to promising green-energy startups seemed like a better idea than paying people to dig holes in the ground. And it was. Thanks in part to the subsidies, the United States is now home to the most promising car company on the planet, one whose technology could help the transportation sector kick its oil addiction at last.
The real problem is that Tesla’s cars today aren’t as green as you might think, because so much of the electricity they use comes from coal. Fixing that will require more clean-energy investments, not less. Let’s let the Department of Energy focus on solving our energy problems; a hard enough task without demanding that it come away with windfall profits and stock options to boot.
Rico says eventually they're gonna get it that solar power to recharge the car batteries is the only solution...

The Sailing Stones of Racetrack Playa

Slate has an article about a bizarre phenomenon:

Scattered about the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, California are large rocks with mysterious zig-zagging trails behind them (photo). The trails are evidence that these rocks have moved, as much as 820 feet in a single winter, leaving zig-zag trails across the ground. There are over 150 such animate rocks. And, as of yet, no one has ever seen them move.
In 1972 a team of scientists set out to unravel the mystery. They named a group of stones and did surveys of the area over a seven-year period. A seven hundred-pound block dubbed Karen, which didn't move at all while under study, was entirely missing when they returned years later. A sighting of the seven-hundred-pound Karen was later made over half a mile from the survey site.
Teams have continued to study the phenomenon and believe that winter ice and strong winds, which can reach upwards of ninety miles per hour, are responsible for the stones' movement. 

Rico says sounds like an opportunity for a little GoPro camera set on really slow recording...

Tesla for the day

Matthew Yglesias has a Slate article about Tesla:
My key theme in writing about Tesla has been network effects. The more people who own a Tesla, the broader the network of superchargers Tesla can support. And the more superchargers there are, the more valuable a Tesla car can become. And the company's leadership seems to be very much aware of this dynamic. They followed up their first-ever profit by getting out of hock to the federal government and launching a secondary stock offering to raise more money. Now they're going to put that money to use on a dramatic expansion of their supercharger network.
Now it's basically just California with some nominal functionality in the northeast corridor. Over the summer they'll have enough stations to allow for intercity travel between most of America's major city-pairs. But here's what they're promising by the end of the year:
At that point you can do real road-tripping along either coast and throughout most of the midwest. This gets you the vast majority of the potential market for such an expensive car. Then they say it'll take another full year to have the country essentially fully covered by superchargers, and then they plan to spend 2015 filling in the network.
It's a very ambitious program, but given the network effects involved it's an appropriately ambitious program. For the foreseeable future, a Tesla is simply going to cost much too much money for the typical family to consider buying one. But the luxury car business is a perfectly legitimate business that lots of firms play in. And what Telsa has here is a roadmap for becoming a full-fledged player in that space. By almost all accounts, the Model S is a pleasure to drive and if the refueling issue can really be addressed this aggressively then they're prepared to go head-to-head against Mercedes and BMW and the rest. Meanwhile, using these luxury cars to build out the charging network means that down the road if more affordable EVs come to market they won't face the same acute chicken-and-egg problem.

Rico says his father will be buying the SUV version, just in time to be able to drive it across country and show it off...

FBI 'walks back' official story

Josh Voorhees has a Slate article about the Boston Marathon bombers:
So now we've gone from "had a knife" to "maybe had a knife" to "nope, no knife." The Washington Post has the latest information out of Florida, where the FBI has still not gone on the record about exactly what caused an agent to shoot and kill Ibragim Todashev while he was being interviewed about his connection to Tamerlan Tsarnaev:
A Chechen man who was fatally shot by an FBI agent last week during an interview about one of the Boston bombing suspects was unarmed, law enforcement officials said.
Initial reports citing anonymous law-enforcement individuals provided conflicting accounts of what happened. Some law enforcement officials said Todashev wielded a knife, and others suggested that he attempted to grab the FBI agent’s gun.
One law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, said that Todashev lunged at the agent and overturned a table. But the official said Todashev did not have a gun or a knife. A second official also said Todashev was unarmed. An official said that according to one account of the shooting, the other law enforcement officials had just stepped out of the room, leaving the FBI agent alone with Todashev, when the confrontation occurred.
Unnamed law enforcement sources (maybe the same ones; maybe not) tell a similar story to Orlando's WESH, although they add the detail that: "Sources said Todashev might have been lunging toward a sword, but he was not in possession of it." That, obviously, would change the story signficantly— although it would still come up well short of the original version of events that had Todashev, knife in hand, lunging at an officer.
The FBI has so far provided only the very broad outline of what happened in Todashev's apartment the night he was killed, saying that the shooting occurred "when a violent confrontation was initiated by the subject." The Bureau says that the full investigation could take months. Until then, the law enforcement officials being allowed to talk off the record are free to continue to change their story with little if any repercussions. (While it won't make the FBI look good, it provides the officials at the top plenty of cover to hide behind.)
For posterity's sake: the knife detail was originally reported by The Associated Press, NBC News, and ABC News, among others. (The New York Times, meanwhile, had it as "a knife or a pipe" or something).
Rico says hide and watch on this one...

Gubs for the day

Mike McIntyre and Michael Luo have an article in The New York Times about the gub industry:
The Glock executive testified that he would keep doing business with a gun dealer who had been indicted on a charge of violating firearms laws because “this is still America” and “you’re still innocent until proven guilty.”
The president of Sturm, Ruger was not interested in knowing how often the police traced guns back to the company’s distributors, saying it “wouldn’t show us anything.”
And a top executive for Taurus International said his company made no attempt to learn if dealers who sell its products were involved in gun trafficking on the black market. “I don’t even know what a gun trafficker is,” he said.
The world’s firearms manufacturers have been largely silent in the debate over gun violence. But their voices emerge from thousands of pages of depositions in a series of liability lawsuits a decade ago, before Congress passed a law shielding them from such suits in 2005, and the only time many of them were forced to answer such questions.
Much of the testimony was marked confidential, and transcripts were packed away in archives at law firms and courthouses around the country. But a review of the documents, which were obtained by The New York Times, shows the industry’s leaders arguing, often with detachment and defiance, that their companies bear little responsibility, beyond what the law requires, for monitoring the distributors and dealers who sell their guns to the public.
The executives claimed not to know if their guns had ever been used in a crime. They eschewed voluntary measures to lessen the risk of them falling into the wrong hands. And they denied that common danger signs— like a single person buying many guns at once or numerous “crime guns” that are traced to the same dealer— necessarily meant anything at all.
Charles Brown’s company, MKS Supply, is the sole distributor of an inexpensive brand of gun that frequently turned up in criminal investigations. He said he never examined the trace requests that MKS received from Federal agents to learn which of his dealers sold the most crime guns. This lack of interest was echoed by Charles Guevremont, the president of the gun manufacturer Browning, who testified that his company would have no reason to review the practices of a dealer who was the subject of numerous trace requests.
“That’s not for us to enforce the law,” Guevremont said.
A discordant note was sounded by one executive: Ugo Gussalli Beretta, a scion of the family of Italian firearms makers. His testimony indicated that he did not understand how easy it was to buy multiple guns in the United States, compared with his home country. Questioned by a lawyer for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, he said he believed— incorrectly— that Beretta USA had a policy requiring its dealers to first determine if there was “a legitimate need” for someone to buy so many guns.
Asked why he thought that, Beretta replied: “Common sense.” Because the testimony came in the context of high-stakes litigation, it is difficult to tell how much of it reflected a studied attempt to avoid liability or a fundamentally laissez-faire attitude toward the firearms trade.
Even so, many of those who testified are still with the same companies, and the issues they were asked about have not gone away. In the wake of the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut and other recent high-profile shootings, the gun industry’s response— that existing laws should be better enforced rather than new restrictions imposed— largely mirrors its stance from a decade ago.
Because of lobbying by gun-rights groups, there are more restrictions on the government’s use of trace data than when the lawsuits began. And the industry continues to oppose limits on multiple gun sales to a single buyer, a major theme of the lawsuits; it is in court fighting a new requirement that dealers report such rifle sales under certain circumstances.
Regarding Beretta’s testimony in 2002 about multiple sales, the general counsel of Beretta USA, Jeffrey Reh, said last week that it was possible he had not understood the questions being asked because of the language barrier. “That being said,” Reh said, “I can advise you that Beretta USA’s position is and has always been that the purchase by an individual of multiple firearms is not, in and of itself, evidence of improper or suspicious behavior.”
In all, more than thirty cities, counties, or states filed suit against gun makers beginning in the late 1990s. The theory behind the litigation— that the industry was negligent, or willfully blind, in its sales practices— was similar to the one employed in the successful suits against tobacco companies that same decade.
Jonathan Lowy, the legal director for the Brady Center, which was involved in most of the suits, said firearms makers “should have a code of basic, reasonable business practices that dealers and distributors who sell their guns are required to follow.” He said Beretta’s testimony showed that the American gun industry was out of touch.
For their part, the manufacturers argued that the lawsuits were a frivolous abuse of the courts to grind them down financially. They also pointed to voluntary measures, like the industry trade association’s distribution of safety locks to gun owners, as evidence of their concern about reducing accidents.
The Times reached out to a half-dozen gun makers for comment. Most did not respond or declined. But Timothy A. Bumann, a lawyer for Taurus International Manufacturing, reiterated some of the arguments made by gun executives in their depositions, saying Taurus is not a law enforcement agency and has no legal duty to do more to police its dealers and distributors. Nevertheless, he said, the company is “proactive in all the things it reasonably can do vis-à-vis the safe and lawful use of its product”.
Lawrence G. Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry’s trade association, said in an e-mail that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives “does not want manufacturers to play Junior G-man.” He also highlighted a number of ways the association had worked with the BATFE— including an education program to prevent people from illegally buying guns and transferring them to people barred from doing so that was more than a decade old— as evidence of the industry’s commitment.
The lawsuits were bolstered, however, by testimony from several former industry insiders. The most prominent was Robert Ricker, a former lawyer for the National Rifle Association and executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council, the main gun industry trade association before it was disbanded. “Leaders in the industry have consistently resisted taking constructive voluntary action to prevent firearms from ending up in the illegal gun market and have sought to silence others within the industry who have advocated reform,” Ricker wrote in a 2003 affidavit on behalf of the City of San DiegoRicker detailed the backlash from the NRA and trade groups against anyone who pressed for changes to industry practices. Because of his calls for reform, Ricker, who died of cancer in 2009, said he was forced to resign as the head of the trade group.
Another insider, Robert Hass, a former Smith & Wesson executive, testified that “the nature of the product demands that its distribution be handled in such a way as to minimize illegal and unintended use”. And yet, he said in an affidavit, “the industry’s position has consistently been to take no independent action to ensure responsible distribution practices.” When Smith & Wesson voluntarily adopted a set of safeguards, including requirements that its dealers limit multiple sales of firearms, it was ostracized and boycotted, forcing it to abandon the changes.
Hass and Ricker were in the minority among industry professionals in insisting that firearms makers could do more to police themselves. More typical was a combative deposition given in 2001 by Robert Morrison, who retired two years ago as president of Taurus, in which he refused to acknowledge that guns in the wrong hands posed a risk to the public. “I don’t believe that we know that,” he said. “I think we believe that the guns don’t pose any risk at all. It’s the people that are using them that pose the risk.” And he challenged a plaintiff’s lawyer, telling him that if he knew of someone behaving irresponsibly with a gun, he should “go to the authorities and get them prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law instead of bringing it up in a goddamn room like this.” Morrison added that he expected the dealers who sell Taurus guns to abide by the law. But he said it was not his company’s role as a manufacturer to enforce responsible behavior. “It isn’t up to me to judge the legality of the sale,” he testified. “It’s up to the authorities.”
The executives were reluctant to concede that guns that were the subject of trace requests by the BATFE were necessarily tied to a crime, pointing to an BATFE disclaimer that “not all firearms used in crime are traced and not all firearms traced are used in crime”.
When the police wish to trace the ownership of a gun found at a crime scene, the bureau contacts the manufacturer with the serial number to try to learn where it was first sold.
Morrison cast doubt on the definition of “crime gun,” saying: “I wonder if they found them in the bushes or under a car, or maybe they didn’t find them at all, maybe they just showed up at the police department.”
When Larry Nelson, a vice president of Browning, was asked if he agreed that trace requests relate to criminal investigations, he said that the requests make “some kind of statement at the top of the form that suggests that. But,” he said, “I think in reality it can be simply a gun that is not necessarily associated with crime.”
Glock’s chief operating officer at the time, Paul Jannuzzo, was particularly aggressive in defending his company’s policies. Asked whether Glock ever considered declining to sell high-capacity magazines for its guns, he replied, “Not for one half a second, no, sir.” And he belittled a 1994 law that temporarily banned such magazines, calling it “ridiculous” and a “feel good” measure. He said he did not see how his company could require dealers to properly secure the Glock guns they sold in their stores, and he derided a suggestion that children should be denied access to the section of stores where Glock guns were sold. “Why? There’s nothing intrinsically evil about these things,” Jannuzzo said. “They don’t impart bad vibes or keep you up all night long if they’re separated from the ammunition and they’re in a counter or locked up or on a chain or a cord. I can’t imagine why anybody would even propose such a thing.” Jannuzzo, a former prosecutor, was later convicted of embezzling money from Glock and is serving a seven-year prison sentence.
As quickly as the suits were filed, they began to run aground. Most were dismissed by judges or withdrawn. In some states, legislatures passed their own laws shielding gun makers from liability, leading to dismissals, and most of the suits that survived were eventually stymied by the federal immunity legislation passed in 2005.
In at least one case, a federal judge concluded that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that the industry could do more to reduce gun violence, but he dismissed the suit, brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, because he said the group lacked standing to claim damages. In his 2003 decision, the judge, Jack B. Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York, criticized the gun makers for turning a blind eye to gun violence. “A responsible and consistent program of monitoring their own sales practices, enforcing good practices by contract, and the entirely practicable supervision of sales of their products by the companies to which they sell could keep thousands of handguns from diversion into criminal use,” Judge Weinstein wrote.
Only one major company, Smith & Wesson, the nation’s largest handgun manufacturer, broke ranks. In 2000, it agreed to settle the litigation, and it adopted a number of far-reaching changes, including promising to design a handgun that could not be operated by children and forbidding its dealers and distributors from selling at gun shows unless background checks were conducted on all sales. Smith & Wesson’s sales quickly plummeted amid an industry backlash. Documents produced through the discovery process in the municipal suits show other gun makers seeking to isolate the company. A letter from Dwight Van Brunt, an executive at Kimber America, a gun maker, to top officials at a firearms industry trade group urged them to confer with the NRA and “boycott Smith now and forever. Run them out of the country. You guys need to make sure that no one else is going to join the surrender,” Van Brunt wrote.
None did. When a new company bought Smith & Wesson in 2001, executives distanced themselves from the arrangement, which had never been enforced. The company resumed its place in trade groups like the shooting sports foundation. “It was important that we be an active part of the industry again,” Robert Scott, the new chief executive of Smith & Wesson, said in a 2002 deposition.
Last year, Smith & Wesson was inducted by the NRA into its Golden Ring of Freedom circle of donors, reserved for patrons who have given a million dollars or more to the group, another milestone in the company’s long journey back.

Rico says that he'll take all this a lot more seriously when the NAACP hooks up with MADD to sue the car companies about selling cars to stupid young people and drunks...


Martha White has a Time article about nickel-&-diming by AT&T:

AT&T wireless customers will have to dig a little deeper into their pockets starting this month after the carrier implemented a sixty-one-cent “administrative fee.” It’s literally pocket change, so this change is unlikely to break the bank for customers, but it’s the latest manifestation of an annoying trend: wireless carriers are taking a page from the airlines’ playbook when it comes to tacking on extra fees and surcharges. The monthly fee they quote stays the same, so they can still compete on price, but customers wind up paying more.
“The monthly fee of sixty-one cents per line will help cover certain expenses, such as interconnection and cell site rents and maintenance,” AT&T said in a statement. It defended its action with the “everybody else is doing it” excuse, saying, “For some time some of our competitors have been assessing this type of charge… Until now, AT&T has not charged such a fee, but it will help defray a small portion of certain expenses and we are using a name for the fee that has become common in the industry.”
The sixty-one cents comes on top of a “regulatory cost recovery charge” of about fifty cents, according to The Wall Street Journal. Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile also charge monthly regulatory fees ranging from 16 cents to $1.61. At $1.61, T-Mobile’s is the most expensive, but it doesn’t charge an administrative fee. Verizon and Sprint charge 90 cents and $1.50, respectively, for their administrative fees.
But wait, there’s more. You’re probably also paying a “federal universal service” fee, and, depending on where you live and your carrier, you may also be stuck paying a “gross receipts” charge. These are both charges the government imposes on companies that they, in turn, pass onto customers.
These so-called “below the line” charges aren’t bundled into the base rate of your plan, and since they’re all lumped in with the regular sales tax you pay and given confusing, vague names, carriers hope you won’t really notice them, or will assume that they’re all taxes that go to government coffers, not their bottom line.
These fees are generally assessed per line as opposed to per plan, so somebody with a multi-device family plan could find themselves paying all these fees multiple times over. Before you know it, you’ve added another five or ten dollars to your monthly bill.
This nickel-and-diming adds up in a big way for cell phone companies. The Journal says AT&T's new fee could earn it $350 million this year and $518 million next year. “We really feel good about our wireless position. Revenues continue to grow with expanding margins,” AT&T CFO John Stephens told investors on the company’s conference call last month. (This, keep in mind, coming from the same company that says it needs customers to contribute to costs like renting and maintaining its cell towers.)
Unsurprisingly, consumer advocates blast these fees. “Cell companies, like airlines, are unbundling the price of the services you are purchasing,” says Edgar Dworksy, founder of ConsumerWorld.org. “It is out and out unfair and deceptive to promote a particular monthly rate that does not included all mandatory payments, exclusive of taxes. You basically think you are going to pay one price, but wind up paying much more.”
“We certainly think this new fee is a way for them to stealthily increase their prices without admitting they’re raising their prices,” says Matt Wood, policy director at advocacy group Free Press.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about this if you’re a subscriber. A popular rumor floating around on Twitter is that this new fee gives you the right to cancel your contract, based on AT&T’s legal verbiage, which says: “If we increase the price of any of the services to which you subscribe, beyond the limits set forth in your customer service summary… you may terminate this agreement without paying an early termination fee.”
AT&T, though, says the addition of this new fee doesn’t count. “We have not increased the price of one of our services,” a spokesman said via email.
Paul Bland, a senior attorney at Public Justice, calls this claim “phony”. “The price is how much it costs to get the service,” he says. “AT&T’s position that they can add a fee but the fee is not part of their price is completely contrary to how consumers, and, I think, courts would understand the idea of price.”
Unfortunately, if you want to make this argument, you’re going to have to go to court or arbitration. Both can be long, stressful and potentially expensive processes. AT&T banned class-action suits, a move that infuriated consumer advocates but was upheld by the courts, so a consumer’s only option is small claims court or arbitration. One AT&T customer, Matthew Spaccarelli, did win a small claims suit against AT&T last year, but the company is probably assuming— correctly— that most customers won’t get mad enough over sixty-one cents a month to try to get out of their contracts and duke it out with the telecom giant in court.

Rico says if AT&T ever wonders why he wants to change carriers, it's bullshit like this...

A mega-mosque

Ryan Mauro, the National Security Analyst at ClarionProject.org and a fellow with the Clarion Project, who is frequently interviewed on Fox News, has a column about yet another invasion:

The government of Turkey is building a fifteen-acre, hundred-million-dollar mega-mosque in Lanham, Maryland. Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan visited the site on 15 May as part of his official visit to the Us. The state of Maryland was officially represented at the event by its Secretary of State John McDonough. The event was also attended by the leaders of two US Muslim Brotherhood entities.
The mega-mosque is called the Turkish American Culture and Civilization Center and, according to the Muslim Link,  it “will likely become the largest and most striking examples of Islamic architecture in the western hemisphere” when it is finished in 2014. The Muslim Link explicitly says it is “a project of the government of Turkey”.
On 15 May, Prime Minister Erdogan spoke to hundreds of people at the construction site and said he’d come back for the opening ceremony next year. He warned the audience that there are groups promoting “Islamophobia”, branding potential critics as paranoid bigots. Erdogan recently said that Islamophobia and Zionism are equivalent to fascism and anti-Semitism, saying they are a “crime against humanity”.
On this trip to the US, Erdogan brought the father of one of the Islamists killed while on a Turkish flotilla which was trying to break Israel’s weapons blockade on Gaza. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, which is a designated terrorist organization by the State Department. Erdogan reportedly wanted to him to meet President Obama. (In the end, the father met with Secretary of State John Kerry.)
The leaders of two Muslim Brotherhood entities in attendance included Naeem Baig, the president of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). A 1991 Muslim Brotherhood memo lists ICNA as one of “our organizations and the organizations of our friends”. The memo says its “work in America is "a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within.” The memo even refers to meetings with ICNA where there was talk about a merger.
ICNA is also linked to the Pakistani Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami and its conferences feature radical speakers. A former ICNA president was recently indicted for horrific war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 succession from Pakistan, including the torture and murder or eighteen political opponents.
The second official from a US Muslim Brotherhood entity that attended the event was Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). ISNA and several of its components are listed as US Muslim Brotherhood fronts in the same 1991 Brotherhood memo. ISNA was also an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case, dubbed the largest Islamic terror-funding trial in the history of the US.  Federal prosecutors in the case also listed ISNA as a US Muslim Brotherhood entity.
The Turkish government has been quietly spreading its influence in the US, but Erdogan's public invovlement in the building of this center takes Turkey's "outreach" in America out of the realm of the subtle.
The Clarion Project recently reported on the growing ties between the Turkish government and Native American tribes. With Congress' help, thousands of Turkish contractors and their families may be flooding into America's heartland and settling in semi-autonomous zones of the Native Americans, well out of the reach of American authorities.
The Clarion Project also reported on the Turkish Fethullah Gulen school network in America, which is currently under FBI investigation. The network is the largest charter school network in America.  It is the same network that has been a critical component in Turkey’s on-going transformation from a secular democracy into an Islamic state.
Erdogan and his Islamist government calls Hamas a “resistance” group, despite the fact that Hamas specifically targets Israeli civilians with suicide bombings and rocket attacks. Not surprisingly, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal is a big admirer of Erdogan.
Since taking office in 2003, Erdogan has been implementing his Islamist agenda, slowly but steadily changing Turkey from a secular democracy to an Islamist state: college admissions have been changed to favor religious students, the military has been gutted of its secular generals (with one in five generals currently in prison on dubious charges) and women have been routed out of top government jobs. Honor killings in Turkey increased fourteen hundred percent between 2002 and 2009. Persecution of artists and journalists has become commonplace as opponents are charged with "crimes" like “denigrating Islam” and “denigrading the state.”
According to the Muslim Link, the new center will have five buildings, including a mosque “constructed using sixteenth century Ottoman architecture that can hold 750 worshipers”.
The Turkish American Culture and Civilization Center will be the largest Islamic site in the Western Hemisphere. The fact that it is being built by the government of Turkey represents the next step in Erdogan's desire to increase the Islamist influence in America.

Rico says no, a 'crime against humanity' was 9/11 or any of the slaughters since then; disliking Islamic extremists is merely self-defense... (And if you want to charge someone with denigrating Islam, start with Rico; actually, he doesn't denigrate Islam any more than any other stupid religion, of which there are many...)

Don't yell ‘Poop' or 'Fire' in a crowded cruise ship

Brad Tuttle has a Time article about the problematic cruise ship industry:

Cruise ships tend to make appearances in the mainstream media for only one reason: when something goes terribly wrong. So, considering that cruises have been a mainstay of cable news for the past few months, you might assume that ships are riddled with problems, and that the industry as a whole is sinking. Neither is true.
Lately, Carnival, the world’s largest cruise company, has been stuck struggling with the fallout of the “poop cruise,” the unfortunate nickname given to the Triumph, which stranded passengers at sea without working toilets for five days earlier this year. And Royal Caribbean, the world’s second-largest cruise company, had to evacuate 2,224 passengers from the Grandeur of the Seas in the Bahamas after a fire broke out on the ship earlier this week.
Clearly, Carnival Cruise Lines is experiencing a rough spell in the months after the Triumph mess, and understandably so. The company has recently been forced to cut earnings forecasts, as well as drop cruise prices in order to fill ships.
But even after this string of high-profile fiascos— which stretches back to the Costa Concordia disaster in early 2012, and includes periodic outbreaks of norovirus on ships— the cruise business is not collapsing. Just the opposite is true, in fact: cruising as a whole appears to be, well, cruising along. The industry has been positively booming for more than a decade, and forecasts call for strong growth in the years ahead as South America, Asia, and Australia emerge as popular cruising destination. The number of Asian cruisers had tripled in the past decade. And even in the US, where the industry’s growth looks to be hitting a plateau, low prices and cruising’s perception as a great value are for the most part keeping ship cabins filled.
That consistency is to some extent a function of demographics: The US population of retirees grows every day. “Cruising is the kind of vacation that caters to this group,” said Jaime Katz, an analyst at Morningstar. “You don’t have to be the most active person to enjoy the experience.” But cruise companies have also been able to entice younger travelers and families out to sea, in part by engaging in an arms race in terms of larger and larger ships and the newest, most exciting activities and restaurants.
These amenities not only attract customers who might not otherwise be interested in cruises, however; they also help boost revenues. Cruising is pushed as a terrific, one-stop-shopping value, in which a single price covers lodging, food, and entertainment. But the big reason that Carnival and its competitors can charge remarkably cheap up-front rates is that the majority of passengers will wind up gambling, drinking, shopping, taking excursions and spa treatments, dining at “premium” restaurants that cost extra, and otherwise dropping loads of dough after the ship leaves port.
Cruise ships have always tried to get passengers to spend more on board, of course, but lately the strategy has been kicked into a higher gear. Royal Caribbean’s 4,180-passenger Quantum of the Seas, due to launch next year, will include everything from a skydiving simulator to bumper cars to a mechanical arm that offers passengers a bird’s eye view from a glass capsule far above the top deck. Meanwhile, the Norwegian Breakaway, a new ship that began sailing out of New York City in early May of 2013, is generating loads of attention with its smorgasbord of specialty restaurants, shops, bars, and entertainment venues. And of course virtually all of these attractions cost extra.
So how can travelers choose the right ship, and also avoid breaking the budget? Here are a few tips, rounded up with the help of Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com:
Forget about predicting the next problem. At first glance, it may seem like there’s some pattern to the recent cruise glitches. Carnival’s Triumph and Sunshine, as well as Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas, are all slightly older ships, christened in the mid- to late-1990s. But the theory that older ships are more prone to mishaps is quickly busted when you factor in that the Carnival Dream, which experienced a backup generator malfunction in March of 2013, has only been sailing since 2009. And no one can say that the age of the Costa Concordia (christened in 2006) had anything to do with the captain running the ship into the ground off the coast of Italy last year. The consensus is that all of these episodes are rare freak occurrences, and therefore it’s pointless to try to predict the next cruise debacle. “You’re not going to avoid problems by just going with newer ships,” said Brown.
Find a brand that’s a good fit. Every cruise brand has its own personality; some have reputations as low-brow party ships, others are sophisticated and genteel, and many others are somewhere in the middle. Read cruise forums, and pick the brains of friends who have been on multiple cruises to find an appropriate match. If you have kids, find a travel agent that’s a parent and ask for recommendations. Another differentiator among brands is what’s included (or not) in base rates. Nearly all ships charge extra for things like alcohol and excursions, but some high-end brands, such as Regent, include these and many other “extras” at no additional charge.
Don’t defer to the cheapest option. By picking a cruise base strictly on price, you run the risk of being stuck on a ship where you hate the people and the atmosphere. Another way to ensure misery is by selecting the cheapest cabin, which is likely to be an interior location with no view. That could be fine if you’re using the cabin solely as a place to sleep. But most travelers like the idea of chilling out in their rooms from time to time, and without a window, fresh air, or a view of any sort, claustrophobia is likely to set in.
Book early or book late. Cruise companies like to fill cabins far in advance, and often offer “early bird” specials to travelers who book six months or more ahead. The other strategy for snagging a deal is to wait until the last minute, when ships are desperate to pack in as many passengers as possible at almost any price, with the idea that hopefully they’ll spend more once aboard. Departures during the off-peak “shoulder” seasons of spring and fall are when the best prices tend to pop up. Use a travel agent to book; agents have access to perks such as on-board credits and free airfare, and because they get commissions from the cruise companies, there’s generally no fee passed onto customers.
Limit on-board spending. Before heading aboard any ship, research what’s included in the base rate and what activities and restaurants cost extra. Set aside some cash for the extras you truly want, and then try to maintain discipline on board. If parents choose, children can have cards for charging things like soda and souvenirs, but it’s probably wise to set a per-day or total limit with the ship bursar. The bar tab is what can truly hit some cruise passengers hard. It could be worth considering the all-you-can-drink option offered by some lines: Royal Caribbean charges $45 per day for unlimited beer and house wine. Another option is to follow the lead of cruise ship employees, who head ashore at port stops and pay $1 at local bars for the same Coronas that cost $6 or $7 on the ship.
Sail from a port you can drive to. Baltimore, Seattle, Boston, Fort Lauderdale, San Diego, and Bayonne, New Jersey are among the many ports hosting cruise departures. By driving to the port, you save the cost of airfare. If you must fly to a cruise departure, look into booking your own airfare— travel agents and cruise companies don’t always offer the cheapest flights— or use miles if you have them.
Don’t forget about tips. It’s standard practice for ships to add gratuities of eleven or twelve per person, per day, onto your final bill. This is another way that a cruise winds up being a lot more expensive than it may initially seem.

Rico says he's happy that his first (and probably last) cruise experience will be on a relatively tiny boat (run by Viking River Cruises) this fall...

29 May 2013

Fixer-Upper. Ozark Views. Vassals Welcome.

Bret Schulte has an article in The New York Times about a less-than-ancient castle with a problem:
It was supposed to be a fairy tale come to life, but the hard truth can be read on the signs along Highway 14. One trumpets: “A castle in the making” and “They’re building it. Come see it!” The other sign, more recent, is a lament: “Closed for the season.”
That was two seasons ago.
The Ozark Medieval Fortress, an attraction founded in 2010 but built with thirteenth-century methods for tourists, is now a ruin, at least financially. And its investors face a challenge perhaps even greater than building a castle by hand: trying to sell it.
The castle opened as an exotic idea imported from France. Tourists paid to step back in time, mingle with laborers in tunics, and observe medieval tools and techniques. At stations surrounding the work site, they tried carving stone, making rope, and forging iron. A human-scale hamster wheel powered a crane for heavy lifting. Artisans baked medieval bread, mead not provided.
“Lots of people know about the medieval but never see a castle,” said Jean-Marc Mirat, 73, one of the founders. “To build one here, I think the idea is pretty good.”
Situated on a mountainside, the castle was to rise 45 feet, complete with a drawbridge and a working farm, by the end of its twenty-year construction schedule. But in January of 2012, besieged by market forces, the Ozark Medieval Fortress succumbed.
Today, the limestone walls stand unfinished, ranging from two to fifteen feet high. A rope flutters from a slumping catapult. Rodents are using the toolbox in the stone-carving station as a throne, so to speak.
“We have many ideas, but no money,” Mirat said. “This is hard to do.” The investors, fifteen French citizens including Mirat and his wife, Solange, sank $1.7 million into the project. Their asking price: $400,000. Still, potential buyers are not storming the walls. In fact, no one knows how to even find any.
“If I seem baffled, I suppose I am,” said Mirat’s real estate agent, Roger Turner of Re/Max. He listed the site on his company’s website and a few others, but “I don’t think the individual interested in this type of property is looking on remax.com,” he admitted.
The initial investment is not the main obstacle, Turner said. “You have to have a broad enough vision of what you would do with it,” he said.
The original vision came from Michel Guyot, the Frenchman behind just such a castle in the Burgundy region of France. That castle-in-the-making, Guédelon, has drawn tourists from around the world, including the Mirats, who make annual trips back to France from their home in Arkansas. The couple retired here more than two decades ago to be near their daughter, Flavie, who lives outside Branson, Missouri with her American husband and children.
Seeing Guédelon in 2008 inspired Mirat to create a New World version of the castle on his land. Revenue would come from some of the eight million annual visitors to Branson, which is thirty miles north of the Mirats’ thousand acres of nearly pristine Ozark mountainside and valley.
He enlisted Guyot, who helped create a limited liability corporation of French investors who contributed an initial $1.5 million— money that was nearly gone by the time the land was cleared and a parking lot and a welcome center were created. Nevertheless, after its debut in May of 2010, the castle garnered national headlines and a visit by Larry the Cable Guy for his show Only in America.
Investors expected 150,000 paying tourists that first year. Just twelve thousand showed up. In 2011, the castle slashed its payroll and increased the admission fee to $18 from $12 per adult. Tourism dropped still lower, and visitors complained of insufficient personnel. The castle offered neither food nor beverages to weary travelers, and the nearest restaurant was twelve miles away. Meanwhile, the site manager returned to France for personal matters. She was not replaced.
Many investors never visited, and the languishing project closed before the 2012 season. Jean Revault d’Allonnes, an investor who still believes in the castle’s viability, said in an email that it “was underfunded from the beginning”, particularly its advertising budget.
Many of the investors “are not familiar with American culture and language”, he wrote, “and they tried to impose decisions from France without hearing American advice”.
Mirat said that, despite living next to the fortress, he was powerless to take control. “I was just the observer looking at the site going down, down, down,” he said. “This is heartbreaking for us.”
While Guyot and many other investors have written off the project, Mirat, d’Allonnes, and a few others hope to find a buyer who will invest in their vision. d’Allonnes has drafted business plans. One would require $1.3 million to finance a restaurant, an RV park, a hotel, and medieval attractions like apothecaries and the on-site fabrication of leather, soap, fabric, and more.
Turner has taken a handful of calls about the property; no one has the financing. He has spoken to developers in Branson; “they have a long-term game plan, and this isn’t it,” he said. Still, he has taken some interested parties to the site. They see the half-built towers, the smithy with a bellows large enough to blow over a child, the kiln, and shattered pottery. They see the eerie human hamster wheel. And they might see someone tilting at windmills. Turner said some were “interested in the dream, but it’s a little overwhelming. They don’t know what to do.”
Rico says this sounds like a perfect project for the Society for Creative Anachronism, or the RGA...

28 May 2013

Don't mention marijuana

Josh Voorhees has a Slate article about the Zimmerman trial:

We're still about two weeks out from the expected start of George Zimmerman's murder trial, but the legal battle is already well underway in Sanford, Connecticut, where a judge this morning handed the prosecution a string of pre-trial victories in regards to what will and won't be allowed to come up in the courtroom. CNN has the details:
Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson ruled that the two sides cannot bring up evidence of Martin's familiarity with guns, previous marijuana use, and previous fighting incidents. She left the door open on one issue involving marijuana. Defense attorneys say toxicology tests show Martin had enough THC— the key active ingredient in marijuana— to indicate he may have smoked the drug a couple of hours before the shooting. Nelson barred any mention of this from opening statements, but said she will rule later on whether it will be admissible after she hears defense experts' testimony about the marijuana use. The attorneys also cannot bring up Martin's text messages.
Those rulings will likely make things more difficult for Zimmerman's defense team, which is expected to argue that Martin was the aggressor in the incident that ended in his own death. "If they had suggested that Trayvon is nonviolent and that George is the aggressor, I think that makes evidence of the fighting he has been involved with in the past relevant," defense lawyer Mark O'Mara told The Associated Press last week, after releasing texts from Martin's cellphone that discussed fighting, smoking pot, and being forced to move out of his mom's house.
The Orlando Sentinel has more on today's pre-trial action, which is set to continue for much of the rest of the day. The trial itself is set to begin on 10 June.

Rico says is it just him, or does Zimmerman looks like he should be Chris Christie's son? (But, lessee, Zimmerman had been drinking, and Martin doing marijuana; who's more likely to be the aggressor?)

Personalization will hurt public spaces

Evgeny Morozov has a Slate article about Google's Maps:
In February of 2013, in an interview with the technology blog TechCrunch, a senior Google executive expressed a rather philosophical— even postmodernist— view of the future of maps. “If you look at a map and if I look at a map, should it always be the same for you and me? I’m not sure about that, because I go to different places than you do,” said Daniel Graf, director of Google Maps for mobile.
By mid-May, as Google announced the upcoming release of the new version of its flagship map service, it became clear that Graf wasn't joking. In the near future (Google says it will “be rolling it out to more people in the coming days and weeks”), the maps we see will be dynamically generated and highly personalized, giving preferential treatment to the places frequented by our social networking friends, the places we mention in our emails, the sites we look up on the search engine. Conversely, the places that we haven't encountered— or, at least, haven't yet expressed any interest in encountering— will be harder to find.
This might seem liberating and empowering— that, at any rate, is how Google wants us to see this new development. “In the past,” reads the company's announcement, “a map was just a map, and you got the same one for New York City, whether you were searching for the Empire State Building or the coffee shop down the street. What if, instead, you had a map that’s unique to you, always adapting to the task you want to perform right this minute?”
From an advertising perspective, this is an ingenious move. Suppose that Google knows which of its users have previously mentioned a certain local restaurant in their email correspondence. Wouldn't it make sense for Google to approach that restaurant’s proprietor and offer to reach all those users while they are using Google Maps— while hinting that other restaurants, the ones that those users haven't yet expressed much interest in, would be harder to find? The legality of this might be murky, but if it happens, it's inevitable that those places that attract the least buzz would be condemned to information obscurity. And once maps become fully personalized, even successful establishments can no longer assume they would actually be found. All of a sudden, pre-emptive advertising would look like a most sensible option to any business owner— much to Google's delight.
There's something profoundly conservative about Google's logic. As long as advertising is the mainstay of its business, the company is not really interested in systematically introducing radical novelty into our lives. To succeed with advertisers, it needs to convince them that its view of us customers is accurate and that it can generate predictions about where we are likely to go (or, for that matter, what we are likely to click). The best way to do that is to actually turn us into highly predictable creatures by artificially limiting our choices. Another way is to nudge us to go to places frequented by other people like us— like our Google Plus friends. In short, Google prefers a world where we consistently go to three restaurants to a world where our choices are impossible to predict.
At first, it might seem that what Google is doing to maps is not very different from what it has done to search results. Those too have moved from universal— i.e., everyone saw the same search results— to highly personalized— i.e., what we see when we click the search button reflects our previous search history. But customization was easier to defend in the context of search: If you type “pizza” into your search field, it makes sense for Google to show you results from the local restaurants rather than from across the globe. But the personalization of maps takes this logic to the ugly extreme: Now when you type in “pizza,” you would see those restaurants that, according to Google, you are likely to approve of—and not pizzerias that haven't yet crossed your radar.
Judging by the changes it seeks to make to maps, Google's foray into the public space more broadly could have drastic implications. After all, it's not just maps: Google’s self-driving cars and smart glasses will profoundly affect how we experience the world outside. Granted they will do it in different ways, and there is no need to fear the mediation of our urban experience just because it involves latest technology. But there are few signs that Google actually recognizes its likely future impact on public space, treating it much the same way it treats books or weather forecasts. Space, for Google, is just one more type of information that ought to be organized so that the company can move closer to accomplishing its bold mission of “organizing all of the world's information.” As one of its mapping engineers put it last year, “anything that you see in the real world needs to be in our database.” Unsurprisingly, enriching the database— rather than our urban experience— is the company's primary objective.
The problem with Google's vision is that it doesn't acknowledge the vital role that disorder, chaos, and novelty play in shaping the urban experience. Back in 1970, cultural critic Richard Sennett wrote a wonderful little book, The Users of Disorder, that all Google engineers should read. In it, Sennett made a strong case for “dense, disorderly, overwhelming cities”, where strangers from very different socio-economic backgrounds still rub shoulders. Sennett's ideal city is not just an agglomeration of ghettos and gated communities whose residents never talk to one another; rather, it's the mutual entanglement between the two— and the occasionally mess that such entanglements introduce into our daily life— that makes it an interesting place to live in and allows its inhabitants to turn into mature and complex human beings.
Google's urbanism, on the other hand, is that of someone who is trying to get to a shopping mall in their self-driving car. It's profoundly utilitarian, even selfish in character, with little to no concern for how public space is experienced. In Google's world, public space is just something that stands between your house and the well-reviewed restaurant that you are dying to get to. Since no one formally reviews public space or mentions it in their emails, it might as well disappear from Google's highly personalized maps. And if the promotional videos for Google Glass are anything to judge by, we might not even notice it's gone: For all we know, we might be walking through an urban desert, but Google Glass will still make it look exciting, masking the blighted reality.
The main reason to celebrate maps that aren't personalized has nothing to do with technophobia or nostalgia about the pre-Google days. It's quite simple, really: when you and I look at the same map, there's a good chance that we might strike a conversation about how to enrich the space that the map represents— perhaps plant more trees or build a sidewalk or install some benches. That our experience of what used to be public space is getting increasingly privatized— first with smartphones, then with Google Glass and self-driving cars. True, cars are already something of a private space but, if the driver essentially becomes a passenger, she will pay even less attention to the outside environment. You can’t watch. That all of this is done in the name of “organizing the world's information” should worry anyone concerned with the future of urbanism.
If Google has its way, our public space might soon look like the Californian suburbia that the company calls home: nice but isolated, sunny but relying on decrepit infrastructure, orderly but segregated by income. What Richard Sennett said of suburbanites in Uses of Disorder— that they are “people who are afraid to live in a world they cannot control”— is equally true of Google's optimizers. But the lack of control is simply the price we have to pay for living in complex, diverse, and cosmopolitan environments that we call “cities”. Alas, for all its impact on impact on urbanism, there's yet no sign that Google understands what it is— and what it is for. 

Rico says change is a bitch. (And do recall the 'wonders' of city life as described by Dickens, and that Samuel Johnson said that 'when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford...)

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