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 veryhotthread  Author  Topic: Stuff & Nonsense  (Read 91013 times)
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« Reply #1410 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 08:31am »

New York Times

October 4, 2010
Pioneer of In Vitro Fertilization Wins Nobel Prize
By NICHOLAS WADE

The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine has been awarded this year to Robert G. Edwards, an English biologist who, with a physician colleague, Patrick Steptoe, developed the in vitro fertilization procedure for treating human infertility.

Since the birth of the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978, some four million babies worldwide have been conceived by mixing eggs and sperm outside the body and returning the embryo to the womb to resume development. The procedure overcomes many previously untreatable causes of infertility.

Dr. Edwards, a physiologist who spent much of his career at Cambridge University in England, spent more than 20 years solving a series of problems in getting eggs and sperm to mature and successfully unite outside the body. His colleague, Dr. Steptoe, was a gynecologist and pioneer of laparoscopic surgery, the method used to extract eggs from the prospective mother.

Dr. Steptoe, who presumably would otherwise have shared the prize, died in 1988. Dr. Edwards, who born in 1925, has now retired as head of research from the Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge, which he and Dr. Steptoe founded as the world’s first center for in vitro fertilization.

Though in vitro fertilization is now widely accepted, the birth of the first test tube baby was greeted with intense concern that the moral order was subverted by unnatural intervention in the mysterious process of creating a human being. Dr. Edwards was well aware of the ethical issues raised by his research and took the lead in addressing them.

The objections gradually died away, except on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, as it became clear that the babies born by in vitro fertilization were healthy and that their parents were overjoyed to be able to start a family. Long-term follow-ups have confirmed the essential safety of the technique.

The deliberations of the prize-giving committee at the Karolinksa Institute in Sweden are confidential, and it is unclear why it took so long to acknowledge Dr. Edwards’s achievement. The committee routinely ignores the stipulation in Alfred Nobel’s will that the prize should be awarded for a discovery made the preceding year, because it takes longer than that to evaluate most scientific claims, but delays of 30 years or more are unusual. The Lasker Foundation in New York, whose jurors often anticipate the Nobel Prize committee, awarded Dr. Edwards its prize in 2001.

Dr. Edwards’s research proved too controversial for the Medical Research Council, a government financng agency that is the British equivalent of the National Institutes of Health. In 1971 the council rejected an application from Dr. Edwards and Dr. Steptoe to work on in vitro fertilization, but they were able to continue with private funds.

“In retrospect, it is amazing that Edwards not only was able to respond to the continued criticism of in vitro fertilization, but that he also remained so persistent and unperturbed in fulfilling his scientific vision,” Christer Höög, a member of the Nobel Prize committee, writes on the Nobel Foundation’s Web page.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/05/health/research/05nobel.html?_r=1&hp

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« Reply #1411 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 08:32am »

New York Times

October 3, 2010
Cheap Debt for Corporations Fails to Spur Economy
By GRAHAM BOWLEY

As many households and small businesses are being turned away by bank loan officers, large corporations are borrowing vast sums of money for next to nothing — simply because they can.

Companies like Microsoft are raising billions of dollars by issuing bonds at ultra-low interest rates, but few of them are actually spending the money on new factories, equipment or jobs. Instead, they are stockpiling the cash until the economy improves.

The development presents something of a chicken-and-egg situation: Corporations keep saving, waiting for the economy to perk up — but the economy is unlikely to perk up if corporations keep saving.

This situation underscores the limits of Washington policy makers’ power to stimulate the economy. The Federal Reserve has held official interest rates near zero for almost two years, which allows corporations to sell bonds with only slightly higher returns — even below 1 percent. But most companies are not doing what the easy monetary policy was intended to get them to do: invest and create jobs.

The Fed’s low rates have in fact hurt many Americans, especially retirees whose incomes from savings have fallen substantially. Big companies like Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo and I.B.M. seem to have been among the major beneficiaries.

“They are benefiting themselves by borrowing and keeping this cash, but it is not benefiting the economy yet,” said Dana Saporta, an economist at Credit Suisse in New York.

American corporations have been saving more money since the financial collapse of 2008. But a recent rush of blue-chip bond offerings — including a $4.75 billion deal last month by Microsoft, one of the richest companies in the world — has put even more money in their coffers.

Corporations now sit atop a combined $1.6 trillion of cash, a figure equal to slightly more than 6 percent of their total assets. In the first quarter of this year it was 6.2 percent of assets, the highest level since 1964, when it was 6.4 percent.

When will they start spending that money — in particular, by hiring?

That is part of what has become the great question of this long, jobless recovery: When will corporate America start to feel confident enough to put its cash to work, building factories and putting some of the nation’s 14.9 million unemployed to work?

Businesses are holding on to their protective cash cushions, worried perhaps that the economy could slip back into recession or at least grow too lethargically to make an investment worthwhile.

The nation’s corporations will be strong, well capitalized and ready to act aggressively when executives finally decide it is time to expand their businesses.

After running up sharply every quarter since mid-2008, the ratio of cash holdings to assets by corporations fell slightly for the first time in the second quarter of this year.

Although investment in factories and plants still languishes, companies have spent some money on investment in new equipment and software. That spending grew at an annualized rate of more than 20 percent in the first two quarters of this year.

But economists say that such investment is still below its peak before the financial crisis.

In addition, many of the new machines and computers may be replacing older machines companies put off retiring in the recession. Businesses are playing catch-up, and little expansion is occurring.

“They may actually be using this new investment to be more efficient and cut jobs,” said Michael Gapen, an economist at Barclays Capital. “The mix of signals right now is still telling corporations to sit tight and wait.”

Mr. Gapen said those signals included the direction of the housing market, the outcome of midterm election, the effects on the economy as the fiscal stimulus wears off and any changes in tax policy.

They are deciding, “Why don’t we just wait until the first quarter of next year?” he said.

The cheap money may be having yet another effect unintended by policy makers eager to cut the nation’s 9.6 percent unemployment rate. Several of the corporations borrowing billions on bond markets are using the money to put their own financial house in order rather than to create jobs.

Microsoft said it was using some of its money to buy back shares, other companies are locking in longer-term borrowing, and some of the new borrowing is financing an increase in mergers and acquisitions.

All of this may enrich the corporations’ shareholders and cut company costs in the long run, but it does not necessarily lead to more jobs and it does not represent the big investments in growth that could fuel a sharp economic recovery for everyone.

“They are still holding on to more cash in the same way that Noah built the ark,” said David Rosenberg, chief economist at Gluskin Sheff & Associates in Toronto. “It is very telling.”

In the case of Microsoft’s bond offering, one factor might have been avoiding a big tax bill, said Richard J. Lane, who analyzes Microsoft for Moody’s. If Microsoft had needed cash, it could have pulled some from its operations abroad, but “borrowing new money on the debt markets is now cheaper than bringing its own money back from overseas,” Mr. Lane said.

Microsoft’s offering was only its second; its first was last year. The second offering included three-year debt at an interest rate of 0.875, among the lowest on record for that type of borrowing.

According to the financial data provider Dealogic, United States companies have borrowed $488 billion on the American high-yield and investment grade bond markets so far this year, 7 percent more than businesses borrowed during all of 2009, and on track to at least match the $589 billion borrowed in the boom year in 2007, which was the highest on record.

Smaller companies continue to have trouble borrowing, and most of the new financing is limited to bigger corporations.

Their borrowing spree is in contrast to America’s households, which continue to cut their debt and consumption. Perhaps unsure of the recovery, like the corporations hoarding cash, Americans are saving far more than they have in years, and some economists fear that consumers’ frugality will further hobble growth.

One of the biggest corporations to borrow recently, the DuPont Company, said it was using the cheaper money to lock in borrowing over a longer period.

“The current low interest rate environment provides DuPont a great opportunity to refinance our long-term debt at lower rates,” it said in a statement.

Conditions have become so good that some companies are borrowing money they will not have to repay until the next century. In August, the railroad Norfolk Southern Corporation borrowed $250 million in 100-year bonds at an annual rate of 5.95 percent.

Robin Chapman, a spokesman, said, “Opportunistic borrowing is a good way to characterize this.” He said that the company was seeing a “slow and steady pickup” in rail traffic but that any hiring the company was doing was to replace workers lost through attrition.

Other companies are borrowing to finance acquisitions. PepsiCo borrowed recently to help pay for the takeover of two bottling plants. Hertz borrowed $300 million for its bid to buy a rival car rental company, Dollar Thrifty.

Economists say it is rational for companies to seize the opportunity to borrow at low interest rates and to buy back shares. But Guy LeBas, a fixed income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott in Chicago, said, “It is not particularly beneficial for economic conditions.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/04/business/04borrow.html?hp

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« Reply #1412 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 08:36am »

Guardian

Court overturns US tycoon's will that left fortune to Panama's poor
Accusations fly after judges rule that Wilson Lucom's $50m to set up foundation for poor children should go to his family instead

Rory Carroll in Panama guardian.co.uk,
Sunday 3 October 2010 17.43 BST

It was going to be the largest single charitable donation in Panama's history: more than $50m (£32m) for poor children.

Wilson Lucom, a US tycoon, left most of his estate to a foundation to help the neediest people in the country where he lived until his death in 2006, aged 88.

Now, four years later, after a bitter legal battle, the fortune is going to one of Panama's most powerful dynasties – including the ambassador to Britain – and the children have been left without a cent.

Panama's supreme court declared Lucom's will void in August, it has emerged, giving the entire estate to his widow, Hilda, the ailing, octogenarian matriarch of the Arias family, which has extensive media, property and financial interests.

Her five children from a previous marriage – scions of a family which boasts former presidents as well as ministers and diplomats – are expected to inherit the money after she dies.

Critics have accused the tycoon's widow of greed and questioned the integrity of Panama's judicial system.

"That money could have helped a lot of children. If that family keeps it God will not forgive them," said Hector Avila, head of a children's charity. "In this country political and economic forces weigh more than justice."

The ruling was a triumph for the widow and her family after a bitter fight involving more than 20 legal firms, Interpol alerts and criminal charges against the lawyer representing the would-be charitable foundation. Both sides have continued trading accusations of corruption, smears and dirty tricks.

Lucom was an unlikely champion of poor children. The son of a Pennsylvania gas station attendant, he was a diplomat before marrying an automobile heiress in 1954. They settled in Florida, where he backed conservative causes and helped found the group Accuracy in Media.

In 1982, a year after his wife's death, Lucom married Hilda Piza de Arias, the former wife of Gilberto Arias, a Panamanian politician, and in the 1990s they moved to Panama. Lucom, who never had children of his own, continued propagating radical beliefs, such as nuclear strikes to deter terrorism.

His in-laws were Creole aristocrats with a colourful lineage. One member, Roberto Arias, was ambassador to Britain in the 1950s and married the British ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. In the 1990s the Arias family sold a 7,000-acre hacienda, Santa Monica, to Lucom.

Lucom, who was not especially close to his adult step-children, sprang a surprise upon his death. His will granted his wife a monthly stipend of $20,000 and gave her children one-off payments ranging from $50,000 to $200,000. But the big prize – the hacienda, whose value had soared to more than $50m – was to be sold off and the proceeds given to a newly created foundation for poor children.

His widow – whose son Gilberto is Panama's current ambassador to Britain – protested. She hired a prominent lawyer, Héctor Infante, who challenged the validity of the will and claimed the tycoon had been manipulated by advisers.

The widow launched a legal battle against Richard Lehman, Lucom's longtime lawyer and trustee of the would-be foundation. Lehman was charged with 15 criminal charges including negligent homicide in Lucom's death, forgery, extortion and perfidy. He and a colleague were placed on an Interpol list. Lehman said it was a smear campaign, who is based in Florida. "It's amazing what they did to me."

All charges were eventually dismissed but Lehman's conduct was criticised by a US court. An administrator appointed by a Florida court found irregularities in his handling of one Lucom bank account, and criticised him for not disclosing that he owed Lucom $500,000 at the time of his death.

Several lower courts upheld the will as reflecting Lucom's last wishes but Panama's supreme court declared it void last month, arguing that Lucom's reference to his "beloved wife" showed he really wanted her to inherit the estate, not poor children. Critics – including a former US ambassador – have in the past accused Panama's justice system of favouring the rich and powerful.

"It's a joke. They stole that money, it's that simple," said Lehman. "I'm sad and disgusted. Kids are starving and a few individuals have walked away with everything."

Infante declined a telephone interview request. Gilberto Arias, the ambassador, did not respond to interview requests.


http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/03/wilson-lucom-panama-court-ruling

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« Reply #1413 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 08:40am »

LA Times

$69 million in California welfare money drawn out of state
Las Vegas tops the list with $11.8 million spent at casinos or taken from ATMs, but transactions in Hawaii, Miami, Guam and elsewhere also raise questions. Officials say budget cuts hinder investigations.
By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times

October 4, 2010

Reporting from Sacramento

More than $69 million in California welfare money, meant to help the needy pay their rent and clothe their children, has been spent or withdrawn outside the state in recent years, including millions in Las Vegas, hundreds of thousands in Hawaii and thousands on cruise ships sailing from Miami.

State-issued aid cards have been used at hotels, shops, restaurants, ATMs and other places in 49 other states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam, according to data obtained by The Times from the California Department of Social Services. Las Vegas drew $11.8 million of the cash benefits, far more than any other destination. The money was accessed from January 2007 through May 2010.

Welfare recipients must prove they can't afford life's necessities without government aid: A single parent with two children generally must earn less than $14,436 a year to qualify for the cash assistance and becomes ineligible once his or her income exceeds about $20,000, said Lizelda Lopez, spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services.

Round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Honolulu on Orbitz.com Sunday started at $419 — more than 80% of the average monthly cash benefit for a single parent of two on CalWorks, the state's main aid program.

"How they can go somewhere like Hawaii and be legit on aid … they can't," said Robert Hollenbeck, a fraud investigator for the Fresno County district attorney's office. "This is money for basic subsistence needs."

The $387,908 accessed in Hawaii includes transactions at more than a thousand big-box stores, grocery stores, convenience shops and ATMs on all the major islands. At least $234,000 was accessed on Oahu, $70,626 on Maui, $39,883 on Hawaii and $22,170 on Kauai.

The list includes $12,433 spent at the upscale Ala Moana shopping center, $3,030 spent at a group of gift shops next to Jimmy Buffett's Beachcomber restaurant on Waikiki Beach and $2,146 withdrawn from ATMs on the island of Lanai, home to a pair of Four Seasons resorts and little else.

"If it's on Lanai, that should trigger an investigation," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. "California taxpayers, who are struggling to keep their own jobs, are subsidizing other people's vacations. That's absurd."

Of the nearly $12 million accessed in Las Vegas, more than $1 million was spent or withdrawn at shops and casino hotels on, or within a few blocks of, the 4.5-mile strip. The list includes $8,968 at the Tropicana, $7,995 at the Venetian and its Grand Canal Shoppes, and $1,332 at Tix 4 Tonight, seller of discount admission for such acts as Cirque du Soleil.

Although many Las Vegas casinos block the use of welfare cards in ATMs on gambling floors, more than $34,700 has been spent or withdrawn from the ATM at a 7-Eleven in the shadow of Steve Wynn's new Encore casino and a couple of blocks south of Circus Circus.

The store's owner, Rupee Chima, knows the California welfare cards well. He said the people using them don't look like high rollers. "They're not coming in with Rolexes," he said.

And it's possible, he noted, to pack a bunch of people in a car, drive four hours from Los Angeles and share a room at a down-market casino hotel for a relatively frugal vacation.

Californian Omar Mikhail, dining at Encore, said his parents paid their rent with welfare aid when they immigrated to the Bay Area from Afghanistan in the early 1980s. They would never have dreamed of driving to Las Vegas with their monthly check, he said.

"When I hear something like that, it's so disheartening," he said.

The data show addresses of stores and ATM locations where the cards have been used and the amounts of the transactions by year. They do not reveal the identities of the welfare recipients or show how many users visited a given retailer.

Of the $1.5 million accessed in Florida, $13,109 was spent or withdrawn in South Beach, most of that at bars and restaurants along trendy Lincoln Road. More than $7,000 was withdrawn from ATMs a few hours north, at Walt Disney World.

The data also show $16,010 withdrawn from 14 cruise ships sailing from ports around the world — Long Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Beijing. Eight sail primarily from Miami.

The out-of-state spending accounts for less than 1% of the $10.8 billion spent by welfare recipients during the period covered, and advocates note that there are legitimate reasons to spend aid money outside of California. From the data provided, it cannot be determined whether any of the expenditures resulted from fraud.

"I think when somebody hears it's in a fancy hotel in Hawaii or Vegas, it's too easy to assume the [welfare recipient] is visiting that place and it wasn't somebody who stole their card," said Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

There is no rule preventing welfare recipients from leaving California, as long as they get clearance from their county case worker to be absent from the program's 32-hour-a-week job training requirement. County investigators, who state authorities say are responsible for rooting out fraud and abuse, typically don't question a recipient's whereabouts until transactions on a welfare card show that he or she has been gone for more than 30 days.

"If it's a one-time thing in Miami, we would never check that out," said John Haley, commander of the financial crimes division of the San Diego County district attorney's office, who said 24% of all new welfare applications in his jurisdiction contain some form of fraud. "We look for patterns of abuse."

In Los Angeles County, investigators hadn't been checking until a recipient was gone for three months, said Department of Public Social Services Director Philip Browning. The inability to do more was "really just a resource issue," he said.

Following questions from The Times, Browning said investigators would start inquiring once the data show that a recipient has been gone for more than 30 days.

Many recipients travel to other states in an emergency such as a death in the family, investigators say. But with government resources scarce, it's difficult to sort those cases from incidents of abuse.

An anti-fraud unit in Orange County, which won praise from state officials last year for saving the state millions, has since had to slash its budget and lay off 15 investigators, said Paul Bartlett, commander of the county district attorney's Bureau of Investigation.

Those cuts saved $900,000 in operating expenses but allowed "an estimated $9.6 million in suspected fraud payments out the door," according to an Orange County Grand Jury report released in May.

A state audit last year found that none of California's 58 counties was adequately following up on information that could help root out fraud, including monthly computer matches that list clients who are receiving duplicate aid from other states, those who are ineligible because they're in prison and others who have died.

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-welfare-20101004,0,5787669.story

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« Reply #1414 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 08:43am »

LA Times

Funeral protests could upend common view of free speech
As the Supreme Court starts a new term, justices will decided whether hurtful words aimed at the grieving families of dead U.S. troops are protected by the 1st Amendment.
By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau

October 4, 2010

Reporting from Williamsburg, Va.

More than 500 mourners walked quietly through rows of flags and into a white chapel on a recent Saturday afternoon to honor a dead soldier.

Army Lt. Todd Weaver was remembered as a scholar, athlete and born leader. He served in Iraq after high school, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the College of William and Mary two years ago and was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan on Sept. 9. He left behind a wife and a 1-year-old daughter.

But before entering the church parking lot, the mourners drove past an unusual demonstration. Scores of flag-waving bikers and students stood near the corner, surrounding three women holding brightly colored signs. They read: "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God Hates Fags" and "You're Going to Hell."

Shirley Phelps-Roper and her two daughters are determined to go where they are not wanted and to spread their message that U.S. soldiers are fighting to promote tolerance of homosexuality. Their funeral pickets have prompted new laws across the nation to keep them away from grieving families.

When the Supreme Court opens its new term this week, the justices will be confronted with a potentially momentous question. Are vile and hurtful words always protected as free speech, even when the target is a private person, not a public figure?

The case of Snyder vs. Phelps, in which a jury in Maryland awarded the father of a dead Marine almost $11 million in damages against the Phelps family after a funeral incident in 2006, is one of two major 1st Amendment issues to be heard this fall.

The justices also will decide whether California and other states can limit the sale of violent video games to minors. So far, such laws have been struck down on free-speech grounds.

And the court will rule on other major issues, including whether employees can be forced to reveal their private lives in order to work on government jobs and whether states can punish employers who hire illegal immigrants.

The ruling on the funeral protesters could upset the common view that the Constitution protects wide-open free speech on the streets and on the Internet. In the past, the high court's great pronouncements on the 1st Amendment have protected protesters and publishers who clash with the government or with public officials.

The Phelps case poses a different issue. They have not gone just to the Pentagon or the White House to protest the sending of soldiers to war. Instead, they have picketed grieving families and derided the parents for having raised their young men to "serve the devil."

"We are saying you must obey God," Phelps-Roper said amid the counter-protesters last week. "He is punishing you for disobeying."

Her elderly father, Fred Phelps, founded the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., and in recent years, his daughters and granddaughters have traveled the country to spread his "fire and brimstone" message.

Albert Snyder, the father of the dead Marine, admitted he did not see the protesters or their signs on the day of his son's funeral, except in the television coverage. A few weeks later, however, he read a screed posted by Phelps-Roper on her website that denounced "satanic Catholicism" — the Snyders are Catholics — and accused Snyder and his wife of raising their son Matt to "defy his creator."

Snyder sued and alleged an intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial judge upheld the jury's verdict, but reduced the $10.9 million damages to $5 million.

Last year, however, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the entire verdict and said the Phelpses' signs and messages were "constitutionally protected" speech.

To the surprise and dismay of 1st Amendment champions, the Supreme Court voted to hear the father's appeal and to decide whether a private figure can sue if he is the "target of hateful speech."

"It would be a sweeping change" if the court were to uphold Snyder's lawsuit, said Robert Corn-Revere, a 1st Amendment lawyer in Washington. "Where do you draw the line between public and private?" he asked, if protesters on a public street can be sued because their message is hurtful.

A ruling in favor of the Marine's father also could have a big effect on the Internet, because bloggers often attack non-public figures with mean and hurtful comments.

Nonetheless, Stanford University law professor Michael McConnell thinks the court will say the Constitution does not shield the Phelps family. Snyder "is not a public figure. He is a private person" who was the target of a hateful protest, McConnell said.

Stephen McAllister, former dean of the University of Kansas School of Law, says he too thinks the high court will lean in favor of upholding the lawsuit. "This is not just about punishing an offensive message. It is about their methods and tactics. They chose a private funeral and a grieving family to publicize their message," he said. "It is targeted to cause severe emotional distress."

The case will be heard Wednesday.

Taylor Reveley, president of the College of William and Mary, spoke at the funeral for Weaver. He described the protest as troubling but best left ignored. "They had no impact. They were kept well away from the church," he said.

He compared the protesters to the Florida minister who gained worldwide attention for threatening to burn the Koran. "If these people didn't get any publicity, they would go away. But we are much better off as a society if we let people protest, even if their views are abhorrent," he said.


http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-court-new-term-20101004,0,2050119.story

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« Reply #1415 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 08:50am »

Wired Danger Room


Mystery Merc Group Is Blackwater’s 34th Front Company
By Spencer Ackerman October 4, 2010 | 12:01 am | Categories: Mercs

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This tasteful, quaint red-brick house on a tree-lined street in northwest Washington doesn’t appear to be the headquarters for a private security company that stands to make millions in a war zone. But the online trail for a mysterious firm, partially owned by Blackwater, leads here. And that company not only just won part of security contract with the State Department worth up to $10 billion last week. It’s also the latest in a series of cutouts used by the notorious mercenary firm to hide its work from public scrutiny. The business that’s listed at this house? Blackwater’s 34th front company, if you’re counting.

Maybe I wouldn’t have driven over to the wealthy Tenleytown neighborhood in D.C. had International Development Solutions LLC answered its listed number, but it was out of service on Friday. Had my calls been returned by the two security companies that make up the “joint venture,” Virginia-based Kaseman and Blackwater arm U.S. Training Center, I would perhaps have gotten some clarity on whether this was definitely the right “International Development Solutions.” But not only did no one return my calls, but the joint venture’s generic name is as Google-resistant as they come, so when I found a business listing for International Development Systems in Washington D.C., I drove on out.

Two rings of a doorbell and ten minutes of waiting didn’t yield a response from anyone who might have been inside what was clearly someone’s three-story residence. No one was around to explain how a company supposedly located here ended up with a chunk of a five-year State Department contract. Blackwater has pulled this sort of thing before, setting up dozens of front groups to get government cash while concealing its tainted brand. More of a mystery is why the State Department let the company get away with it. Again.

A months-long investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year found that the Army and Raytheon awarded a multi-million dollar sub-contract to a firm called Paravant for the training of Afghan troops. Paravant claimed to have “years” of experience performing such work. As it turned out, Paravant didn’t really exist. “Paravant had never performed any services and was simply a shell company established to avoid what one former Blackwater executive called the ‘baggage’ associated with the Blackwater name as the company pursued government business,” committee chairman Carl Levin said in March.

If you like Paravant, you’ll love International Development Solutions. Very few people seem to be familiar with it. Hill sources didn’t know what it was. Both critics of and advocates for the private-security industry were just as baffled. “I’ve never heard of IDS,” confesses Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations for the Project on Government Oversight, in a typical comment.

All of a sudden, though, International Development Solutions is a major player in the private-security field. Last week, Danger Room broke the story of the State Department including it in an eight-company consortium of merc firms, including industry giants like DynCorp, that will hold its elite contract for protecting diplomats and embassies: the Worldwide Protective Services contract. The official announcement of the award gives absolutely no indication that International Development Solutions is tied to Blackwater; State only disclosed that fact after Danger Room pressed it.

Diligent work by the Senate Armed Services Committee determined a web of names under which Blackwater — renamed Xe last year — did business to avoid such baggage. Among them (deep breath): Total Intelligence Solutions; Technical Defense Inc.; Apex Management Solutions LLC; Aviation Worldwide Services LLC; Air Quest Inc.; Presidential Airways Inc.; EP Aviation LLC; Backup Training LLC; Terrorism Research Center, Inc. All in all, the committee found 33 aliases. International Development Solutions appears to be number 34.

Those other spinoffs are generally up front about the services they offer. Aviation Worldwide Services, for instance, is now part of AAR Corp., which provides cargo services and “specialized aircraft modifications” to the military. Total Intelligence Solutions does threat analysis for corporate clients doing business in dicey parts of the world. Its subsidiary, Terrorism Research Center Inc., offers clients classes in DIY counterterrorism and threat prevention. (A forthcoming module: “How to Identify a Terrorist Cell in Your Jurisdiction.”) By contrast, International Development Solutions doesn’t have much of an online profile.

The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein provided a clue as to how the newcomer might have gotten a foot into the door for the Worldwide Protective Services contract. The board of Kaseman, Blackwater’s partner on the venture, is filled with former State Department, CIA and military notables: State’s one-time anti-terrorism chief Henry Crumpton; former CIA Director Michael Hayden; and retired General Anthony Zinni, to name a few. (The CIA and Blackwater have a looooong history.)

Blackwater has a lot it might reasonably wish to obscure. To wit: High-profile shootings of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan; murder trials; allegations of steroid and cocaine abuse; improper removal of weapons from U.S. weapons depots using the name of a South Park character.

The big question is why the State Department is continuing to do business with this oh-so-classy-group. In the past, government contracting officials have explained that they can’t stop any company that hasn’t been de-certified from federal bidding from seeking contracts. Blackwater, despite everything, somehow has retained its certification.

But that doesn’t explain why State awarded the contract to the Blackwater-tied company. State has always taken notice of the fact that Blackwater has never lost a single diplomat it’s protected. But that sends the implicit message that State considers foreign lives less valuable than American ones — a problematic one for a diplomatic entity to send. The new Worldwide Protective Services contract was, among other things, an opportunity for State to break from the company that caused an international debacle when its guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007. State stood by Blackwater — or at least a company that didn’t want the public to know it was Blackwater.

For years, numerous internal reviews and external watchdogs have criticized State for weak oversight over its security contractors — or worse. In March, the New York Times reported that the department’s oversight officials “sought to block any serious investigation” of Nisour Square. After discovering that State failed to correct years’ worth of security violations from the company hired to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the Project on Government Oversight’s executive director, Danielle Brian, testified last year that the department is “incapable of properly handling a contract.” A former State security official told Mother Jones that a “bigtime revolving door” between the department and the contractors accounts for State’s blase attitude.

“The State Department has supported the Department of Justice investigation and prosecution of this case every step of the way,” reads an official answer the State Department provided when Danger Room asked why it did. “We fully respect the independence and integrity of the U.S. judicial system, and we support holding legally accountable any contractor personnel who have committed crimes.”

But that’s not a substantive answer. What experience does International Development Solutions have with providing security for diplomats in war zones? What makes this unknown company more qualified than at least four other established firms that didn’t win part of Worldwide Protective Services? What sort of due diligence did State perform to ensure that International Development Solutions isn’t another Paravant?

State has yet to address any of those questions. And no answers are forthcoming in the red-brick house near a Whole Foods that supposedly houses Blackwater’s latest alias.

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/10/blackwaters-34th-front-company-wins-big-diplo-jackpot/

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« Reply #1416 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 09:00am »

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The upgraded Daleks that made their debut in Doctor Who's fifth series episode "Victory of the Daleks" and appeared again in the final two episodes are not replacing the more classic-looking Daleks that appeared in the previous seasons, according to Doctor Who TV in a piece about Doctor Who: The Brilliant Book. A quote from showrunner Steven Moffat suggests that there will be kind of a Dalek hierarchy.

“The fact is, we’re not going to lose the old Daleks. We’re keeping them. They’re coming back. We’ll just use them all at once, and have different ranks. All I’ve done is give the Daleks an officer class.”

That's a relief and a bit of a surprise, since the first act of the new Daleks was to destroy the Daleks that paved the way for their creation.

Moffat had previously said that although the Daleks might take a break until there is a really good story for them, when they do return there will be "different kinds". The new ones (that some have begun referring to as iDaleks because they do kind of look like Apple designed them) seem to have ranks that are designated by color: Drone (red), Scientist (orange), Eternal (yellow), Strategist (blue), and Supreme (white).

While I wasn't entirely opposed to the new designs, I wasn't quite ready to let go of the classic versions that the Russell T. Davies era Daleks more closely resembled. I like how the flamboyant colors of the upgraded versions remind me of the Peter Cushing Dalek movies, and I'm sure the idea of having more Dalek action figures to peddle to Whovian collectors had something to do with their creation. I am glad Moffat is keeping both versions active.

http://geektyrant.com/news/2010/10/4/old-daleks-will-return-to-doctor-who.html

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xx Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #1417 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 12:00pm »

io9.com

The tables have turned, America! No longer are we stealing creepy girl ghost stories from Japan. Now, Japan's remaking our supernatural cinema. Here's the trailer for Japan's gender-swapped remake of the Patrick Swayze flick Ghost, complete with sexy pottery.

Video after the jump

http://io9.com/5654497/ghost-goes-to-japan-and-a-short-film-for-scott-pilgrim-fans

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xx Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #1418 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 1:17pm »

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« Reply #1419 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 2:25pm »

Gorgeous! Thanks Phil.
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« Reply #1420 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 2:26pm »




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« Reply #1421 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 2:39pm »

Mother Jones. I know, hold your nose and read it anyway. grin

Who Owns Congress? A Campaign Cash Seating Chart
What if members of Congress were seated not by party but according to their major business sponsors? We gave it a try.

— By Dave Gilson


charts and more after the jump
http://motherjones.com/politics/2010/09/congress-corporate-sponsors

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« Reply #1422 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 3:55pm »

on Oct 4th, 2010, 2:26pm, WingsofCrystal wrote:


Crystal


Now WTH is that?! A lightshow?

Interesting vid.
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« Reply #1423 on: Oct 4th, 2010, 7:18pm »

Hey Phil!

Beats the heck outa me. I could hear one guy saying something about satellite debris? So your guess is as good as mine. Fun video though.
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« Reply #1424 on: Oct 5th, 2010, 07:27am »

New York Times

October 4, 2010
Aiming to Learn as We Do, a Machine Teaches Itself
By STEVE LOHR

Give a computer a task that can be crisply defined — win at chess, predict the weather — and the machine bests humans nearly every time. Yet when problems are nuanced or ambiguous, or require combining varied sources of information, computers are no match for human intelligence.

Few challenges in computing loom larger than unraveling semantics, understanding the meaning of language. One reason is that the meaning of words and phrases hinges not only on their context, but also on background knowledge that humans learn over years, day after day.

Since the start of the year, a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University — supported by grants from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Google, and tapping into a research supercomputing cluster provided by Yahoo — has been fine-tuning a computer system that is trying to master semantics by learning more like a human. Its beating hardware heart is a sleek, silver-gray computer — calculating 24 hours a day, seven days a week — that resides in a basement computer center at the university, in Pittsburgh. The computer was primed by the researchers with some basic knowledge in various categories and set loose on the Web with a mission to teach itself.

“For all the advances in computer science, we still don’t have a computer that can learn as humans do, cumulatively, over the long term,” said the team’s leader, Tom M. Mitchell, a computer scientist and chairman of the machine learning department.

The Never-Ending Language Learning system, or NELL, has made an impressive showing so far. NELL scans hundreds of millions of Web pages for text patterns that it uses to learn facts, 390,000 to date, with an estimated accuracy of 87 percent. These facts are grouped into semantic categories — cities, companies, sports teams, actors, universities, plants and 274 others. The category facts are things like “San Francisco is a city” and “sunflower is a plant.”

NELL also learns facts that are relations between members of two categories. For example, Peyton Manning is a football player (category). The Indianapolis Colts is a football team (category). By scanning text patterns, NELL can infer with a high probability that Peyton Manning plays for the Indianapolis Colts — even if it has never read that Mr. Manning plays for the Colts. “Plays for” is a relation, and there are 280 kinds of relations. The number of categories and relations has more than doubled since earlier this year, and will steadily expand.

The learned facts are continuously added to NELL’s growing database, which the researchers call a “knowledge base.” A larger pool of facts, Dr. Mitchell says, will help refine NELL’s learning algorithms so that it finds facts on the Web more accurately and more efficiently over time.

NELL is one project in a widening field of research and investment aimed at enabling computers to better understand the meaning of language. Many of these efforts tap the Web as a rich trove of text to assemble structured ontologies — formal descriptions of concepts and relationships — to help computers mimic human understanding. The ideal has been discussed for years, and more than a decade ago Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the underlying software for the World Wide Web, sketched his vision of a “semantic Web.”

Today, ever-faster computers, an explosion of Web data and improved software techniques are opening the door to rapid progress. Scientists at universities, government labs, Google, Microsoft, I.B.M. and elsewhere are pursuing breakthroughs, along somewhat different paths.

For example, I.B.M.’s “question answering” machine, Watson, shows remarkable semantic understanding in fields like history, literature and sports as it plays the quiz show “Jeopardy!” Google Squared, a research project at the Internet search giant, demonstrates ample grasp of semantic categories as it finds and presents information from around the Web on search topics like “U.S. presidents” and “cheeses.”

Still, artificial intelligence experts agree that the Carnegie Mellon approach is innovative. Many semantic learning systems, they note, are more passive learners, largely hand-crafted by human programmers, while NELL is highly automated. “What’s exciting and significant about it is the continuous learning, as if NELL is exercising curiosity on its own, with little human help,” said Oren Etzioni, a computer scientist at the University of Washington, who leads a project called TextRunner, which reads the Web to extract facts.

Computers that understand language, experts say, promise a big payoff someday. The potential applications range from smarter search (supplying natural-language answers to search queries, not just links to Web pages) to virtual personal assistants that can reply to questions in specific disciplines or activities like health, education, travel and shopping.

“The technology is really maturing, and will increasingly be used to gain understanding,” said Alfred Spector, vice president of research for Google. “We’re on the verge now in this semantic world.”

With NELL, the researchers built a base of knowledge, seeding each kind of category or relation with 10 to 15 examples that are true. In the category for emotions, for example: “Anger is an emotion.” “Bliss is an emotion.” And about a dozen more.

Then NELL gets to work. Its tools include programs that extract and classify text phrases from the Web, programs that look for patterns and correlations, and programs that learn rules. For example, when the computer system reads the phrase “Pikes Peak,” it studies the structure — two words, each beginning with a capital letter, and the last word is Peak. That structure alone might make it probable that Pikes Peak is a mountain. But NELL also reads in several ways. It will mine for text phrases that surround Pikes Peak and similar noun phrases repeatedly. For example, “I climbed XXX.”

NELL, Dr. Mitchell explains, is designed to be able to grapple with words in different contexts, by deploying a hierarchy of rules to resolve ambiguity. This kind of nuanced judgment tends to flummox computers. “But as it turns out, a system like this works much better if you force it to learn many things, hundreds at once,” he said.

For example, the text-phrase structure “I climbed XXX” very often occurs with a mountain. But when NELL reads, “I climbed stairs,” it has previously learned with great certainty that “stairs” belongs to the category “building part.” “It self-corrects when it has more information, as it learns more,” Dr. Mitchell explained.

NELL, he says, is just getting under way, and its growing knowledge base of facts and relations is intended as a foundation for improving machine intelligence. Dr. Mitchell offers an example of the kind of knowledge NELL cannot manage today, but may someday. Take two similar sentences, he said. “The girl caught the butterfly with the spots.” And, “The girl caught the butterfly with the net.”

A human reader, he noted, inherently understands that girls hold nets, and girls are not usually spotted. So, in the first sentence, “spots” is associated with “butterfly,” and in the second, “net” with “girl.”

“That’s obvious to a person, but it’s not obvious to a computer,” Dr. Mitchell said. “So much of human language is background knowledge, knowledge accumulated over time. That’s where NELL is headed, and the challenge is how to get that knowledge.”

A helping hand from humans, occasionally, will be part of the answer. For the first six months, NELL ran unassisted. But the research team noticed that while it did well with most categories and relations, its accuracy on about one-fourth of them trailed well behind. Starting in June, the researchers began scanning each category and relation for about five minutes every two weeks. When they find blatant errors, they label and correct them, putting NELL’s learning engine back on track.

When Dr. Mitchell scanned the “baked goods” category recently, he noticed a clear pattern. NELL was at first quite accurate, easily identifying all kinds of pies, breads, cakes and cookies as baked goods. But things went awry after NELL’s noun-phrase classifier decided “Internet cookies” was a baked good. (Its database related to baked goods or the Internet apparently lacked the knowledge to correct the mistake.)

NELL had read the sentence “I deleted my Internet cookies.” So when it read “I deleted my files,” it decided “files” was probably a baked good, too. “It started this whole avalanche of mistakes,” Dr. Mitchell said. He corrected the Internet cookies error and restarted NELL’s bakery education.

His ideal, Dr. Mitchell said, was a computer system that could learn continuously with no need for human assistance. “We’re not there yet,” he said. “But you and I don’t learn in isolation either.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/05/science/05compute.html?ref=science

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