Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hundreds of French workers take bosses hostage

PARIS, France (CNN) -- Hundreds of French workers, angry about proposed layoffs at a Caterpillar office, were holding executives of the company hostage Tuesday, a spokesman for the workers said.
Caterpillar's French staff say they are angry about a lack of negotiations over layoffs.
It is at least the third time this month that French workers threatened with cutbacks have blockaded managers in their offices to demand negotiations. Executives were released unharmed in both previous situations.
The latest incident started Tuesday morning at the office of the construction equipment company in the southeastern city of Grenoble.
The workers were angry that Caterpillar had proposed cutting more than 700 jobs and would not negotiate, said Nicolas Benoit, a spokesman for the workers' union.
They did not want to harm the Caterpillar executives, Benoit told CNN.
The workers were inside the Caterpillar building holding five employees, including the head of operations, captive in their offices, Benoit said.
About 500 employees were also outside the building protesting.
CNN could not immediately reach a representative at Caterpillar for comment.
Benoit said the workers were upset that the company did not show up to two earlier scheduled negotiating sessions.
The employees being held in their office were being allowed to get food, Benoit added.
Police arrived at the scene two hours after the incident began but it had not been settled.
Employees at a French 3M factory held a manager hostage for more than 24 hours Wednesday and Thursday of last week over a dispute about terms for laid-off staff.
Luc Rousselet, who was unharmed, was allowed to leave the plant in Pithiviers, central France, early on Thursday morning after talks between unions and officials from 3M France.
Earlier this month, the boss of Sony France was held overnight before workers freed him after he agreed to reopen talks on compensation when the factory closed.
France has been hit by nationwide strikes twice in the past two months.

Monday, March 30, 2009

'DNA bungle' haunts German police

BBC NEWS: "Police in Germany have admitted that a woman they have been hunting for more than 15 years never in fact existed.
Dubbed the "phantom of Heilbronn", the woman was described by police as the country's most dangerous woman.
Investigators had connected her to six murders and an unsolved death based on DNA traces found at the scene.
Police now acknowledge swabs used to collect DNA samples were contaminated by an innocent woman working in a factory in Bavaria"

We've Entered a New Epoch, the Anthropocene

Researchers Believe an Era of Overwhelming Human-Caused Change in Earth Needs New Name

No one can realistically argue that humans haven’t dramatically transformed the face of the planet. But now scientists propose that humankind has so altered the Earth that that we have brought about an end to one epoch and entered a new age. They suggest humans have so changed the Earth that it’s time the Holocene epoch was officially ended. The new epoch of Earth’s history is being called the Anthropocene, meaning “man-made”.

Geologists from the University of Leicester, Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, and their colleagues on the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London say that humankind has entered a phase where we are so rapidly transforming the planet that a new era has started. Duke University soil scientist Daniel Richter agrees. He says the dirt under our feet is being so changed by humans that it is now appropriate to call this epoch the Anthropocene Age.

“With more than half of all soils on Earth now being cultivated for food crops, grazed, or periodically logged for wood, how to sustain Earth’s soils is becoming a major scientific and policy issue,” Richter said.

Zalasiewicz and Williams research, which appears in the journal GSA, states that, “sufficient evidence has emerged of stratigraphically significant change (both elapsed and imminent) for recognition of the Anthropocene—currently a vivid yet informal metaphor of global environmental change—as a new geological epoch to be considered for formalization by international discussion.”

Their study specifically identified human impact through phenomena which includes:

• Transformed patterns of sediment erosion and deposition worldwide
• Major disturbances to the carbon cycle and global temperature
• Wholesale changes to the world’s plants and animals
• Ocean acidification

The geologists analyzed the proposal made by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen. In 2002 Crutzen suggested the Earth had left the Holocene and started the Anthropocene era due to the global environmental effects of increased human population and economic development.

The researchers show how the dominance of humans has so physically changed Earth that there is increasingly less justification for linking pre- and post-industrialized Earth within the same epoch, known as the Holocene.

Do-It-Yourself Magazines, Cheaply Slick

Philip Chavez binding a MagCloud magazine at Progressive Solutions, which prints about 50,000 pages a month for the service.
PALO ALTO, Calif. — For anyone who has dreamed of creating his own glossy color magazine dedicated to a hobby like photography or travel, the high cost and hassle of printing has loomed as a big barrier. Traditional printing companies charge thousands of dollars upfront to fire up a press and produce a few hundred copies of a bound magazine.

With a new Web service called MagCloud, Hewlett-Packard hopes to make it easier and cheaper to crank out a magazine than running photocopies at the local copy shop.

Charging 20 cents a page, paid only when a customer orders a copy, H.P. dreams of turning MagCloud into vanity publishing’s equivalent of YouTube. The company, a leading maker of computers and printers, envisions people using their PCs to develop quick magazines commemorating their daughter’s volleyball season or chronicling the intricacies of the Arizona cactus business.

“There are so many of the nichey, maybe weird-at-first communities, that can use this,” said Andrew Bolwell, head of the MagCloud effort at Hewlett-Packard. Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi who plans to use the technology in his classroom, said, “We’re not talking about replacing the Vanity Fairs of the world. But it’s a nifty idea for a vanity press that reminds me of the underground zines we had in the ’60s and ’70s.”

Should the service take off, Hewlett could expand its lucrative business of selling huge digital printers to companies that would print the magazine and then ship its profitable inks by the barrel instead of the ounce.

It is not clear how big a market there is for small runs of narrow-interest magazines when so much information is available free on the Internet. So far, users of the service, which is still in a testing phase, have produced close to 300 magazines, including publications on paintings by Mormon artists, the history of aerospace, food photography and improving your personal brand in a digital age.

Aspiring publishers must handle their own writing and design work, sending a PDF file of their creation over the Internet to the MagCloud repository. H.P. farms out the printing jobs to partners scattered around the globe and takes care of billing and shipping for people who order the magazine. While H.P. charges the magazine publishers 20 cents a page, they can charge whatever they like for the completed product.

Traditional printing presses are fast and can produce large quantities of publications for much less than 20 cents a page. But the business model and technology relies on replicating a single, fixed image in volume to achieve cost-effective scale.

With digital presses like those made by Hewlett’s Indigo unit, a company can print one copy of 10 magazines or 10 copies of one magazine for about the same price. It is simply a matter of turning on the press and hitting a button.

Doreen Bloch, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, who created and runs a fashion publication, said MagCloud had made it much easier to produce her magazine, Bare, on a tight budget.

Ms. Bloch used to send final versions of Bare to a print shop in Arizona. If the editors noticed a typo or wanted to make a last-minute change, they had to pay $60 a page. “If we needed to change the cover because it had the wrong date, they gave us so much trouble,” Ms. Bloch said. With MagCloud, the editors can fiddle all they want free.

MagCloud could also open up new opportunities for local print shops.

Progressive Solutions in Santa Clara, Calif., has bought five of H.P.’s Indigo presses, which range in price from $300,000 to $600,000 a machine, in the last five years. It produces custom documents for companies like Tiny Prints, a popular service that lets people design their own invitations, stationery and announcements.

According to Scott Feldman, the co-owner of Progressive, the company needs to run its presses eight hours a day to break even and 12 hours a day to make money. It has been printing about 50,000 pages for MagCloud a month, including Bare.

The creators of Bare and other publications warn that it takes a lot of work to produce each issue, and some of the early MagCloud customers have had little success selling their publications online.

H.P. has developed technology in its research labs that could smooth the publication process. It has software that relies on algorithms to automate part of the design process, arranging photos in a way that is pleasing to the eye and suits a page packed with text. Down the road, H.P. might add such applications to the MagCloud service.

H.P. is also using technology similar to MagCloud to help publishers make out-of-print books available. It scans old books, cleans up the images and sends them off to the digital presses.

“By using electronic processes rather than humans, we were able to get our costs down from $2,500 per title down to about $50 per title,” said Phil Zuckerman, the president of Applewood Books in Carlisle, Mass. He said he can now afford to print single copies of old titles.

For H.P., MagCloud is also a way to provide customized service at low risk. And if the niche does not thrive, the company will simply move on. “We are trying to experiment with these new types of business models,” Mr. Bolwell said.

Test your luck on these highways to hell

The Moki Dugway is a spectacular switchback stretch of State Highway 261 in southern Utah. Plunging off Cedar Mesa, the narrow gravel road drops 1,100 feet in just three miles as it snakes its way down into the Valley of the Gods.
By Joe Yogerst
There are several kinds of fear when it comes to road trips. Routes that are physically frightening, like those that run along cliffs or over high bridges, and roads that are more of a psychological thriller — like U.S. Highway 50 across Nevada’s super-desolate mid section.

It's “America’s Loneliest Highway” because there are such long stretches with no towns, services or anything else manmade. But U.S. 50 is also one of the country’s most terrifying roads — especially in the middle of winter, as one driver drove it, in a small car with a broken heater, trying to make his way from Park City to Lake Tahoe in a single day. He says he still gets nightmares about the skidding on black ice, the wheels spinning and having to leap out and push his car out of the path of oncoming traffic.

At the opposite end of America’s scary road spectrum are the “adrenaline drives” like California Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast. Built in the 1920s with convict labor and mule teams, the two-lane portion between Carmel and San Simeon snakes along precipitous cliffs, through deep ravines and across 33 bridges that often hang hundreds of feet in the air. Driving the route from north to south is much more daunting because you are constantly on the outside of the road — often nothing but a thin guardrail between you and a thousand-foot plunge.

If the twisty roadway isn’t enough of a challenge, those who dare to drive Highway 1 are also distracted by the drop-dead (sometimes literally) gorgeous views, and must be constantly on the lookout for motorists slowing down (or even stopped in the middle of the road) to admire the panorama and snap pictures. Another hazard is the constant threat of rocks or mud slides caused by small earthquakes, forest fires and just plain gravity.

Hawaii has several hair-raising roads, including the sinuous Hana Highway and the switchbacks to the top of Haleakala. But the one that takes the cake is Saddle Road on the Big Island, which threads a vast lava-rock desert between two of the most imposing volcanoes anywhere in the planet. Long-time Big Island resident Jessica Ferracane says the Saddle is especially daunting after dark because there are no facilities, no lights, no nothing. "And if it’s foggy, Saddle can be harsh.”

Add a pinch of vertigo by taking one of the narrow side roads that run off The Saddle to the top of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. The former is a whopper — a series of switchbacks and hairpins to the Onizuka Astronomy Center at 9,000 feet. You can keep driving up an increasingly steep (and treacherous) road to the cluster of silver-domed observatories on the 14,000-foot summit, but you’ll need four-wheel drive to make the top.

Fear also factors into several Alaska drives. The state’s Dalton Highway (State Route 11) is the only one in the U.S. that crosses the Arctic Circle and the longest stretch of road in America with no services. Built in the early 1970s as a support road for the Alaska Pipeline, the highway runs just over 400 miles between Livengood (near Fairbanks) and Prudhoe Bay. All there is out there (beside the giant pipe) is frozen tundra and wild animals, including a few species that will gladly kill and eat you.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The AP, Obama, & Referencing

Shepard Fairey
I'm sure a lot of people are wondering about my case with the AP over the Obama HOPE poster. I can't talk about every aspect of the case, but there are a few things I want to discuss and points I'd like to make.

Most importantly, I am fighting the AP to protect the rights of all artists, especially those with a desire to make art with social commentary. This is about artistic freedom and basic rights of free expression, which need to be available to all, whether they have money and lawyers or not. I created the Obama image as a grassroots tool solely to help Obama get elected president. The image worked due to many complex variables. If I could do it all over again, I would not change anything about the process, because that could change the outcome. I am glad to endure legal headaches if that is the trade-off for Obama being president.

No disrespect was intended to photographer Mannie Garcia, but I did not think (and do not think) I needed permission to make an art piece using a reference photo. From the beginning, I openly acknowledged that my illustration of Obama was based on a reference photograph. But the photograph is just a starting point. The illustration transforms it aesthetically in its stylization and idealization, and the poster has an altogether different purpose than the photograph does. The AP photo I used as a reference, which I found out much later was taken by Mannie Garcia, (which was actually this one, not the one being circulated in the press) was a news photo that showed George Clooney and Barack Obama attending a 2006 panel on the genocide in Darfur. My Obama poster variations of "HOPE" and "PROGRESS" were obviously not intended to report the news. I created them to generate support for Obama; the point was to capture and synthesize the qualities that made him a leader. The point of the poster is to convince and inspire. It's a political statement. My Obama poster does not compete with the intent of, or the market for the reference photo. In fact, the argument has been made that the reference photo would have faded into obscurity if it were not for my poster which became so culturally pervasive. The Garcia photo is now more famous and valuable than it ever would have been prior to the creation of my poster. With this factor in mind, it is not surprising, that a gallery in NYC is now selling the Garcia photo for $1,200 each. As I understand it, Garcia himself did not even realize the poster was created referencing his photo until it was pointed out to him a full year after the poster came into existence. Mannie Garcia has stated in the press that he is an Obama supporter pleased with the poster result.

I did not create the Obama poster for financial gain. The poster was created to promote Obama for president, and the revenue from poster sales was re-invested in more posters, flyers, stickers, etc.., and donated to charity, including the Obama campaign. A free download of the Obama image was available on my website, which should provide further evidence of the desire to disseminate the image, not to benefit financially.

Lastly, I m very saddened to see many people try to demean my Obama poster as being "stolen" or that because I used a photo I "cheated". As far as the idea of the image being "stolen", I would love to have the clout to command portrait sittings from world leaders, but for me and most artists out there, that is not an option. For lots of artists, even licensing an image is out of the question financially. Should artistic commentary featuring world leaders be stifled because of copyright of the reference images even when the final artistic product has new intent and meaning? Reference is critical to communication, and in my opinion, reference as a part of social commentary should not be stifled.

A writer asked me why I "didn't just draw Obama from my imagination". My response was that I needed to make my image look like Obama, who is not an imaginary character. I know few people who could capture a convincing likeness of close friends or even their own family members from their imagination or memory. I use my own family members as models, taking my own photos of them to illustrate from - VIVI LA REVOLUCION and COMMANDA. Were Obama a member of my family I would have employed this technique.

Another suggestion someone made was "why not splice two or three photos together and illustrate from that?" Well, though a direct match would have been harder to find, with an image as popular as the HOPE poster, internet sleuths would probably have found the references and maybe I'd be facing two or three lawsuits. This leads to the next question: is illustrating from a photograph "cheating"? I studied art, illustration specifically, at one of the most prestigious art schools, The Rhode Island School of Design. At RISD I was taught to draw from life, to draw from photo references, and to appropriate and re-contextualize imagery. All of these techniques had historical precedents which I learned about. Here are some great examples of famous painters working from photo references, and not always their own photos. -

I have respect for, and have frequently collaborated with, photographers, but I do not think permission, or a collaboration is warranted in every case where an artist works from a photo reference. I collaborate with photographers because I WANT to, not because I believe I HAVE to. Usually, when I work directly with a photographer as a collaboration, I do so because I am building upon, rather than transforming their original intent. Of course, as with everything, the definition of transformation and fair use is somewhat subjective. I'm an artist, not a lawyer, so I'd prefer to see more latitude for creativity even though I do respect intellectual property.

This case has raised many issues, including the use of references in art. Some of my earlier works have been attacked by some as "plagiarism". I think reference is an important part of communication and it has been common practice in the art world. When I flipped through the Christie's auction house catalog from November 2008 I found many pieces that are based on reference or appropriation. Most are selling for over $100,000. Some are more clever than others, but these are all works that are at auction being taken very seriously. Take a look.

If the AP wins their case, every Obama art (or any other politician) that was based on a photo reference that was not licensed would be rendered illegal. Here are just a few that were an important part of the political discourse during this election cycle. I also think art that is critical of leaders that neither the subject or the photographer approve of need to be a legal form of expression. I think this Bush image is a perfect example.

This is a blog post that speaks more to the legal issues in the case. Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Star’s Vow to Win or Pay Stirs Women’s Basketball

NYTimes.com: "IOWA CITY — Early this month, Courtney Paris, an all-American center at the University of Oklahoma, made a promise that was rare and provocative: if the Sooners did not win the national basketball championship, she would repay the cost of her scholarship.
Her pledge became a primary story line of the women’s N.C.A.A. tournament and elicited strong reactions in support and in criticism of Paris, a senior. The vow has raised questions about personal responsibility in sports, the emphasis placed on winning and an athlete’s obligations in fulfilling a scholarship contract.
What made Paris’s assurance even bolder was that Oklahoma was considered unlikely to win the national championship. Connecticut is undefeated and heavily favored to take its sixth N.C.A.A. women’s title. In November, the Huskies defeated the Sooners, 106-78.
Oklahoma (29-4) won its opening tournament game here Sunday against Prairie View A&M and will face Georgia Tech on Tuesday. The Sooners did not advance past the Round of 16 in Paris’s three previous seasons. Paris said that her scholarship guarantee, made to home fans during a Senior Day ceremony, was meant simply to show her belief in her teammates — which include her twin, Ashley — and to thank those who had supported her.
While Paris has completed her course work toward a degree in journalism and entered the N.C.A.A. tournament attempting to become the first player, male or female, to collect 2,500 career points and 2,000 rebounds, she said her ambitions would be fulfilled only by winning a championship.
David L. Boren, the president of Oklahoma, said Paris was apparently so serious about her vow that she checked beforehand with university officials to make sure that repaying her scholarship would not be a violation of N.C.A.A. rules. Since then, Paris has repeated her promise to follow through, presumably using money she will make playing professionally in the United States and perhaps overseas, and from endorsements.
“This program and university have given me so much support,” said Paris, who is from Piedmont, Calif. “I feel like I want to give them something back that’s really special. If I can’t do that with a national championship, I want to give back my scholarship because I don’t feel like I’ve earned it.”"

Gay rights battle puts strain on parties

Chicago Tribune: "They've become a familiar sight in gay bars: women holding bachelorette parties.
The bride-to-be is often easily identifiable. She's the one wearing either a veil or tiara or feather boa or phallic-shaped blow-up hat, and is surrounded by women who begin the night somewhat reserved but metamorphose into pelvis-thrusting vamps as their blood-alcohol levels rise.
The women come to celebrate without having to worry about straight men pawing them. The gay men are there because, well, they don't want to be around a lot of women.
For years, some bar owners have tried to accommodate both groups, but that's becoming increasingly difficult. With California's vote last November in favor of the gay-marriage ban known as Proposition 8, some gays are saying that bachelorette parties at their bars are becoming more than a minor nuisance. They're a constant reminder that gays don't have equal marriage rights.
"The women are a hoot, and some can be just delightful," said Geno Zaharakis, the owner of Cocktail, a gay bar on North Halsted Street. "But because not everybody can get married, watching them celebrate, it's such a slap in the face. Prop 8 just reopened the wound."
Zaharakis told me that Cocktail stopped hosting bachelorette parties a couple of years ago when he noticed his gay patrons weren't just complaining about the women being minor irritants but about them "flaunting" their right to marry. So Zaharakis hung a sign on the front door of his establishment that says, "Bachelorette Parties Are Not Allowed."
If that message isn't resonant enough, he offers a written statement: "Until same-sex marriage is legal everywhere and same-sex couples are allowed the rights as every heterosexual couple worldwide, we simply do not think it's fair or just for a female bride-to-be to celebrate her upcoming nuptials here at Cocktail. We are entitled to an opinion, this is ours.""

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Beer kegs help keep zoo animals happy

Enrichment programs part of a recent change in zoo philosophy
BOSTON - A lion rips open a paper bag stuffed with hay and meat. Giraffes chew up old Christmas trees. Asian black bears claw on empty beer kegs.
It's been a busy winter for zoo animals — and their schedules promise to be just as packed this spring. But this is not for show: Zoo keepers say games and other activities are essential to keeping animals physically and mentally healthy when they are out of their natural environments.
The so-called "animal enrichment" programs are part of a general change in zoo philosophy in the past several years.
Not long ago, zoos thought keeping animals alive and healthy meant serving food in bowls and giving them limited physical activities out of fear of injury. During the cold weather, animals were kept off exhibit in warm buildings with little to do.
"But in an effort to keep them healthy, we almost made them unhealthy," says Tim French, deputy director for animal programming at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I. "Zoo animals tended to be overweight, pretty much across the board. Behavioral issues were a much bigger problem because they were idle both physically and mentally."
Now all the zoos in the U.S. have enrichment programs of some kind, some even mandated by the federal government.
The programs often are designed around temperatures and the elements. At zoos in New England, for example, zebras run around snowmen in cold weather, tigers jump through old tires next to heated rocks and monkeys tear up streamers for fun and for stimulation inside temperature-controlled exhibits.
"In the old days, some people viewed what we now call animal enrichment as an unnecessary pain," said John Linehan, president and CEO of Zoo New England, which oversees Boston's Franklin Park Zoo and nearby Stone Zoo. "But now we know a lot more since we've become more sensitive to animals' needs."
During a recent cold morning at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo, for example, zookeepers fed their pack of western lowland gorillas by tossing food from the ceiling of the gorillas' enclosed indoor space. The food fell throughout the tropical forest exhibit, forcing Gigi and the other gorillas to search for the food as they would in the wild.
Around the corner, zookeepers gave Priscilla the warthog a box packed with sweet potatoes and carrots. Priscilla spent a few minutes tearing up the box to get to the goodies. "It's like opening a Christmas gift," said Jeannine Jackle, assistant curator of the tropical forest exhibit. "It makes it fun."
At the Roger Williams Park Zoo, handlers keep George and Grace, a pair of Asian black bears, busy by placing an empty beer keg in their exhibit. The keg's beer smell gets the bears going, as does the deer scent keepers place on the keg. The bears claw and lick the keg for exercise, and heat can be seen from their breaths.
"They love it," said Al D'Ercole, a Roger Williams Park keeper.
But animal enrichment does not simply consist of fun and games. Sometimes, it means distracting them with a toy to administer medical care instead of sedating them.
That's how zoo officials at the Franklin Park Zoo handle their 15-year-old "King of the Jungle," Christopher. Charlotte Speakman, a senior keeper, said officials will place a log scented with perfume close enough to the door of the lion's den so that his dangling tail will stick out. Keepers can then inject the lion's tail with medicine or any needed vaccines. After receiving the vaccines, the lion could either stay in his warm indoor room or venture safely outside to rest on his heated rock.
Since the field of animal enrichment is so new, zoo officials are still learning and occasionally make mistakes, Linehan said. For example, a few years ago, keepers placed a set of jeans in an exhibit with a snow leopard. The animal loved playing with the jeans so much that it ate them. In the end, the snow leopard was fine save for a few short-term digestive problems.
"It is supposed to be fun," Linehan said. "Not a stomachache."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

AIG bonus outrage has employees living in fear

'People are very, very nervous for their security,' says one wary executive
FAIRFIELD, Connecticut - Pillars of the community are now pariahs fearing for their safety in a ritzy area of Connecticut home to many executives at American International Group Inc., hit with a backlash over bonuses it paid to top brass even as it accepted federal bailout money.
The payouts to executives appear to have helped put a face on the economic struggles the country faces, and the anger targeting AIG is palpable. Death threats have been pouring in since the brouhaha broke, the company said, and its workers are taking no chances.
"It's scary," one executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution. "People are very, very nervous for their security."
The financial products division is in Wilton in Fairfield County, and many of the company's leaders live in large homes on the "Gold Coast," an area known more for golf courses and sweeping views of Long Island Sound than for the police cars that now regularly patrol the well-kept streets.
Corporate officials advised employees in a memo posted on Gawker.com to avoid wearing the company logo, in an effort to keep from drawing attention. Workers were also urged to travel in pairs at night and park in well-lit areas.
And typifying the preoccupation with the AIG payouts, a busload of activists plans to drive by executives' houses Saturday in an attempt to deliver letters highlighting the strife of ordinary families in the recession and seeking solutions for economic recovery.
AIG said Friday that at least three executives who received bonuses planned to return the money, including James Haas and Doug Poling, both residents of Fairfield County.
"However someone may feel about the appropriateness of the retention payments, there is nothing appropriate about the threats that people have made to and about employees," company spokesman Mark Herr said in a statement. Haas and Poling have not responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
The Polings help out charities including a homeless shelter, theaters and a school, according to The Connecticut Post. At the house, a large white Colonial on a cul-de-sac with all the trappings of suburban prosperity — green shutters, a wood-shingled roof and an invisible fence for dogs — a police car pulled up Friday afternoon and talked to a security guard.
Officer Joe Kalson said that he drives by two or three times a day as of late and that other officers patrol the area, as well.
Organizers of the bus protest noted that there are no plans to trespass and that only a small group planned to get off the bus at each stop.
The protest is an attempt to let people suffering from loss of jobs or homes tell their stories directly to AIG executives, said organizer Jon Green, director of Connecticut Working Families, a coalition of labor unions and other groups.
"There is a human cost to the economic meltdown that we're experiencing," Green said.
Security companies in New York say the financial crisis has created brisk business in everything from bomb-sniffing dogs to bodyguards for executives. The firms didn't want to identify the companies for security reasons.
Pat Timlin, president of the Michael Stapleton Associates, which provides dog teams, said some companies are reacting to the negative atmosphere surrounding Wall Street firms.
"These are people used to living private lives, and are now faced with publicity and attention, often negative attention, and they're worried and responding to that," Timlin said.
Tim Horner, the managing director at Kroll Inc. security company, said the financial industry is taking any perceived risk much more seriously. He has seen an increase on the human resources side of security from companies concerned about hostile laid-off employees.
He has also seen more companies reacting to the very public criticism of once very private companies like AIG.
"There are corporations that have been spotlighted as those responsible or whatever, where they weren't before, and it's a concern," he said. "What's going on here is the stress that individuals and corporations are facing, given a downturn economy. The problems are highlighted more during this time."
Horner said AIG seems to be responding prudently to a corporate security risk.
"I'm sure there is not only a perceived risk, but there are probably threatening or harassing e-mails and blog entries all over the place. They're right to cover themselves," he said.

Friday, March 20, 2009

World's Deadliest Spider Found In Whole Foods In Tulsa

HuffPo: "TULSA, Okla. — One of the most deadly spiders in the world has been found in the produce section of a Tulsa grocery store. An employee of Whole Foods Market found the Brazilian Wandering Spider Sunday in bananas from Honduras and managed to catch it in a container.
The spider was given to University of Tulsa Animal Facilities director Terry Childs who said this type of spider kills more people than any other.
Childs said a bite will kill a person in about 25 minutes and while there is an antidote he doesn't know of any in the Tulsa area.
Spiders often are found in imported produce, and a manager at Whole Foods says the store regularly checks its goods and that's how the spider was found."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In One Ear and Out the Other

Basics - NYTimes.com: "By all accounts, my grandfather Nathan had the comic ambitions of a Jack Benny but the comic gifts of a John Kerry. Undeterred, he always kept a few blank index cards in his pocket, so that if he happened to hear a good joke, he’d have someplace to write it down.
How I wish I knew where Nathan stashed that deck.
Like many people, I can never remember a joke. I hear or read something hilarious, I laugh loudly enough to embarrass everybody else in the library, and then I instantly forget everything about it — everything except the fact, always popular around the dinner table, that “I heard a great joke today, but now I can’t remember what it was.”
For researchers who study memory, the ease with which people forget jokes is one of those quirks, those little skids on the neuronal banana peel, that end up revealing a surprising amount about the underlying architecture of memory.
And there are plenty of other similarly illuminating examples of memory’s whimsy and bad taste — like why you may forget your spouse’s birthday but will go to your deathbed remembering every word of the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song. And why you must chop a string of data like a phone number into manageable and predictable chunks to remember it and will fall to pieces if you are in Britain and hear a number read out as “double-four, double-three.” And why your efforts to fill in a sudden memory lapse by asking your companions, “Hey, what was the name of that actor who starred in the movie we saw on Friday?” may well fail, because (what useless friends!) now they’ve all forgotten, too.
Welcome to the human brain, your three-pound throne of wisdom with the whoopee cushion on the seat."

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Gay-Marriage Solution: End Marriage?

TIME: "When a Jewish boy turns 13, he heads to a temple for a deeply meaningful rite of passage, his bar mitzvah. When a Catholic girl reaches about the same age, she stands in front of the local bishop, who touches her forehead with holy oil as she is confirmed into a 2,000-year-old faith tradition. But missing in each of those cases — and in countless others of equal religious importance — is any role for government. There is no baptism certificate issued by the local courthouse and no federal tax benefit attached to the confessional booth, the into-the-water-and-out born-again ceremony or any of the other sacraments that believers hold sacred.
Only marriage gets that treatment, and it's a tradition that some legal scholars have been arguing should be abandoned. In a paper published March 2 in the San Francisco Chronicle, two law professors from Pepperdine University issued a call to re-examine the role the government plays in marriage. The authors — one of whom voted for and one against Proposition 8, which ended gay marriage in California — say the best way out of the intractable legal wars over gay marriage is to take marriage out of the hands of the government altogether. (See pictures of the busiest wedding day in history.)
Instead, give gay and straight couples alike the same license, a certificate confirming them as a family, and call it a civil union — anything, really, other than marriage. For people who feel the word marriage is important, the next stop after the courthouse could be the church, where they could bless their union with all the religious ceremony they wanted. Religions would lose nothing of their role in sanctioning the kinds of unions that they find in keeping with their tenets. And for nonbelievers and those who find the word marriage less important, the civil-union license issued by the state would be all they needed to unlock the benefits reserved in most states and in federal law for married couples."

The last movie rental stores left standing

CNN Money: "NEW YORK -- The news this week that Blockbuster Video has hired advisors to explore "restructuring" options, which analysts say could include a bankruptcy filing, is bittersweet to the movie rental business's remaining indie stores.
They're likely to outlive the corporate Goliath that once crushed scores of smaller retailers beneath its blue-and-yellow onslaught of identical chain stores. But the same forces that seem to have doomed Blockbuster (BBI, Fortune 500) - mail-order DVDs and streaming online video - may kill off the entire industry.
John Koch, the founder of Cinema Revolution in Minneapolis, is fighting on all fronts to keep his business going. Sales started softening in the middle of last year, when high gas prices kept people from making the drive out to his store. To compensate, he moved to a new location in Minneapolis, with a higher rent but also a more diverse and artistic community. Koch hopes his new neighbors will better appreciate his selection of foreign and cult films; he also provides a haven for local filmmakers who need a venue to screen their movies.
"The move preempted some of the decline we started to feel in the summer when gas prices were high," says Koch. Still, sales are down 30% since January, a drop he attributes to the economy - and the Internet.
Seattle's Scarecrow Video is also battling a sales drop. "We got hit in triplicate, with the recession, Netflix and online streaming, and snow - the storm on the last two weeks of December killed our Christmas season," says Mark Steiner, a buyer for the store. "And what are we doing? You can throw a million ideas out there, and you won't get folks out of their homes. They're hibernating."
Like many of the video stores left standing, Scarecrow stocks its 100,000-title inventory with offbeat offerings not available through mass-market rivals. Steiner's staff tracks down obscure filmmakers who don't sell to distributors to negotiate a sales channel through his shop. If more Blockbuster outlets in Seattle close, Scarecrow may pick up foot traffic, but Steiner isn't looking forward to it."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dance party protest

A University of Chicago frat's reaction to Westboro Baptist Church protesting homosexuality and the university across the street from their frat house.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Chuck Norris claims thousands of right wing cell groups exist and will rebel against U.S. government

The call by some right wing leaders for rebellion and for the military to refuse the commander in chief’s orders is joined by Chuck Norris who claims that thousands of right wing cell groups have organized and are ready for a second American Revolution. During an appearance on the Glen Beck radio show he promised that if things get any worse from his point of view he may “run for president of Texas.” The martial artist/actor/activist claims that Texas was never formally a part of the United States in the first place and that if rebellion is to come through secession Texas would lead the way.

Today in his syndicated column on WorldNetDaily Norris reiterates the point: “That need may be a reality sooner than we think. If not me, someone someday may again be running for president of the Lone Star state, if the state of the union continues to turn into the enemy of the state.”

He continues; calling on a second American Revolution; “…we've bastardized the First Amendment, reinterpreted America's religious history and secularized our society until we ooze skepticism and circumvent religion on every level of public and private life.

How much more will Americans take? When will enough be enough? And, when that time comes, will our leaders finally listen or will history need to record a second American Revolution? We the people have the authority according to America's Declaration of Independence, which states: That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…”

Norris claims that; “Thousands of cell groups will be united around the country in solidarity over the concerns for our nation.” The right wing cells will meet during a live telecast, "We Surround Them," on Friday March 13 at 5 p.m.

He closes with the words of Sam Houston followed by a plug for his next martial arts event.

“We view ourselves on the eve of battle."

(Note: Speaking of showdowns, Chuck is also inviting anyone near the Houston area this weekend to see a good example of the raw Texas fighting spirit by joining him and others for the national martial arts event, "Showdown in H-Town.")“

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

They Tried to Outsmart Wall Street


Emanuel Derman expected to feel a letdown when he left particle physics for a job on Wall Street in 1985.

After all, for almost 20 years, as a graduate student at Columbia and a postdoctoral fellow at institutions like Oxford and the University of Colorado, he had been a spear carrier in the quest to unify the forces of nature and establish the elusive and Einsteinian “theory of everything,” hobnobbing with Nobel laureates and other distinguished thinkers. How could managing money compare?

But the letdown never happened. Instead he fell in love with a corner of finance that dealt with stock options.

“Options theory is kind of deep in some way. It was very elegant; it had the quality of physics,” Dr. Derman explained recently with a tinge of wistfulness, sitting in his office at Columbia, where he is now a professor of finance and a risk management consultant with Prisma Capital Partners.

Dr. Derman, who spent 17 years at Goldman Sachs and became managing director, was a forerunner of the many physicists and other scientists who have flooded Wall Street in recent years, moving from a world in which a discrepancy of a few percentage points in a measurement can mean a Nobel Prize or unending mockery to a world in which a few percent one way can land you in jail and a few percent the other way can win you your own private Caribbean island.

They are known as “quants” because they do quantitative finance. Seduced by a vision of mathematical elegance underlying some of the messiest of human activities, they apply skills they once hoped to use to untangle string theory or the nervous system to making money.

This flood seems to be continuing, unabated by the ongoing economic collapse in this country and abroad. Last fall students filled a giant classroom at M.I.T. to overflowing for an evening workshop called “So You Want to Be a Quant.” Some quants analyze the stock market. Others churn out the computer models that analyze otherwise unmeasurable risks and profits of arcane deals, or run their own hedge funds and sift through vast universes of data for the slight disparities that can give them an edge.

Still others have opened an academic front, using complexity theory or artificial intelligence to better understand the behavior of humans in markets. In December the physics Web site arXiv.org, where physicists post their papers, added a section for papers on finance. Submissions on subjects like “the superstatistics of labor productivity” and “stochastic volatility models” have been streaming in.

Quants occupy a revealing niche in modern capitalism. They make a lot of money but not as much as the traders who tease them and treat them like geeks. Until recently they rarely made partner at places like Goldman Sachs. In some quarters they get blamed for the current breakdown — “All I can say is, beware of geeks bearing formulas,” Warren Buffett said on “The Charlie Rose Show” last fall. Even the quants tend to agree that what they do is not quite science.

As Dr. Derman put it in his book “My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance,” “In physics there may one day be a Theory of Everything; in finance and the social sciences, you’re lucky if there is a useable theory of anything.”

Asked to compare her work to physics, one quant, who requested anonymity because her company had not given her permission to talk to reporters, termed the market “a wild beast” that cannot be controlled, and then added: “It’s not like building a bridge. If you’re right more than half the time you’re winning the game.” There are a thousand physicists on Wall Street, she estimated, and many, she said, talk nostalgically about science. “They sold their souls to the devil,” she said, adding, “I haven’t met many quants who said they were in finance because they were in love with finance.”

Monday, March 09, 2009

Why Dreams Are So Difficult To Remember: Precise Communication Discovered Across Brain Areas During Sleep

ScienceDaily: "ScienceDaily (Mar. 9, 2009) — By listening in on the chatter between neurons in various parts of the brain, researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have taken steps toward fully understanding just how memories are formed, transferred, and ultimately stored in the brain--and how that process varies throughout the various stages of sleep.
Their findings may someday even help scientists understand why dreams are so difficult to remember.
Scientists have long known that memories are formed in the brain's hippocampus, but are stored elsewhere--most likely in the neocortex, the outer layer of the brain. Transferring memories from one part of the brain to the other requires changing the strength of the connections between neurons and is thought to depend on the precise timing of the firing of brain cells.
"We know that if neuron A in the hippocampus fires consistently right before neuron B in the neocortex, and if there is a connection from A to B, then that connection will be strengthened," explains Casimir Wierzynski, a Caltech graduate student in computation and neural systems, and first author on the Neuron paper. "And so we wanted to understand the timing relationships between neurons in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which is the front portion of the neocortex."
The research team--led by Athanassios Siapas, a Bren Scholar in the Caltech Division of Biology and an associate professor of computation and neural systems--used high-tech recording and computational techniques to listen in on the firing of neurons in the brains of rats. These techniques helped them pinpoint a number of neuron pairs that had precisely the kind of synchronous relationship they were looking for--one in which a hippocampal neuron's firing was followed within milliseconds by the firing of a neuron in the prefrontal cortex.
"This is exactly the kind of relationship that would be needed for the hippocampus to effect changes in the neocortex--such as the consolidation, or laying down, of memories," adds Wierzynski."

The Atlas Shrugged Index

Freakonomics blog: "From recession-culture trends we’ve written about on this blog lately, a recession icon of sorts emerges, wrapped in a Snuggie, puffing on a pipe — and now with a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on his lap.
The Economist reports that the book’s sales rank on Amazon is far above what it’s been in previous years (and briefly topped Obama’s The Audacity of Hope).
Furthermore, says The Economist, data from TitleZ.com show recent sales spikes of the book coinciding with major political events, such as the passing of the stimulus plan.
The spikes, The Economist surmises, happen when people (including a handful of bloggers, politicians, and economists) notice the eerie similarities between real-life events — like the recent spate of sea pirate attacks — and the scenarios Rand described in her book.
As long as the halls of Congress don’t start ringing with the question “Who is John Galt?” let’s hope it’s just a case of life imitating art."

Science Day at the White House

After eight years during which science took a back seat to politics, today is Science Day at the White House.

President Obama not only announced that he is lifting restrictions on funding for human embryonic stem cell research, he promised to restore scientific integrity to government decision-making processes in general.

"Today, with the Executive Order I am about to sign," he said, "we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers; doctors and innovators; patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research. We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield....

"[I]n recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent....

"The majority of Americans – from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs – have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research. That the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided."

Obama said that promoting science "is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient – especially when it's inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.

"By doing this, we will ensure America's continued global leadership in scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs. That is essential not only for our economic prosperity, but for the progress of all humanity.

"That is why today, I am also signing a Presidential Memorandum directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making. To ensure that in this new Administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science; that we appoint scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions."

And later in the day, Obama meets in the Oval Office with the super-bright high school seniors who have been named finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Science of time: What makes our internal clock tick

Los Angeles Times: "In warp-speed modern America, time has become one of our most precious resources. We manage it, and we expend it carefully.
Ironic, then, that a resource as precious as seconds, minutes and hours is so poorly understood and so routinely misestimated by modern humans -- by 15% to 25% in either direction, depending on the individual and the acuity of his or her time perception. But understanding our ability to perceive time -- and to use time to make sense of our world -- is one of the newest and most sweeping frontiers of neuroscience.
Says UCLA neuroscientist Dean Buonomano: "In order to understand the nature of the human mind, we must unravel the mystery of how the brain tells time, in both normal and pathological states."
Against that backdrop, the temporally challenged have become more scientifically relevant than ever. Neuroscientists have come to recognize that patients with devastating brain disorders such as Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases greatly underestimate the passage of time. Poor timing is a hallmark in several psychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, autism and attention deficit disorder. Many of about 5,500 soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injury will find that faulty timing is one of the invisible wounds that follow them into civilian life. And researchers have confirmed that as we reach senior status, our internal clock grows increasingly unreliable.
But to treat these disorders and to understand how we sense time's passage, researchers say they must stand back and see the brain as a complex network of circuits, some interlocking, some whirring away independently.
This "network" approach to brain science "is a much more complicated problem" than asking what tasks are performed in individual regions of the brain, says Catalin Buhusi, a computer scientist-turned-brain scientist who now researches time perception at the Medical University of South Carolina."

Friday, March 06, 2009

Mass. Catholics occupying imperiled churches 24-7

EVERETT, Mass. -- The thermometer inside St. Therese Church reads a toe-numbing 36 degrees. A pail of water used for hand-washing has frozen under a sink that, like the heating system, hasn't worked in months. In the sanctuary, four women in coats, hats and gloves huddle as they pray the rosary, their breath visible in the cold.

"We don't have faith in the archdiocese. I think we have faith in God," said Sheila O'Brien, 63.

She and the others have been occupying St. Therese as part of a string of sit-ins going on round-the-clock for more than four years at five Roman Catholic churches closed by the Boston Archdiocese. The protesters are hoping to force the archdiocese - or the Vatican - to reopen the churches.

The archdiocese has said it won't remove any of the protesters by force. It has not cut off the electricity in any of the churches and has kept the heat and water on in all of them except St. Therese, where the archdiocese is refusing to pay $50,000 to fix a boiler.

The archdiocese has given no sign it will reopen any of the churches, but the parishioners are resolute.

"We must be a thorn in their side," said 71-year-old Lee Pratto, who sleeps on a cot in the chapel at St. Therese.

The archdiocese announced the closings nearly five years ago, citing falling attendance, a priest shortage and money problems. Amid bitter protests, the number of parishes has been reduced from 357 to 292 in a process so agonizing that Cardinal Sean O'Malley said at one point: "At times I ask God to call me home and let someone else finish this job."

Many of those taking part in the occupation suspect their churches are being sold off to pay the archdiocese's $85 million settlement in the priest sex scandal. The archdiocese denies it, saying the settlement was covered by insurance and the sale of other church property.

The vigils started in August 2004 at a Weymouth church where parishioners refused to leave after what was supposed to be the final Mass. Nine churches in all have been occupied; four of them were eventually reopened after the archdiocese relented.

Similar vigils have taken place elsewhere in the U.S. - including New York City, Kansas and Ohio - but not every diocese has tolerated the dissent. In New Orleans in January, church leaders called in police after two months, and they broke down a door and arrested two protesters as they cleared out two churches.

Sister Marian Batho, an archdiocesan liaison to the Boston area's occupied churches, said O'Malley wouldn't consider that approach: "Cardinal Sean is a man of peace."

O'Malley wants to wait until all the appeals are played out, possibly this spring, and only then approach those refusing to leave, Batho said. "We would hope we could resolve this in a respectful way," she said.

The vigils are billed as 24 hour-a-day affairs, but some parishioners acknowledge there have been short gaps when no one was occupying a building. The archdiocese does not have the buildings under surveillance, and had no one there to reclaim the churches.

The archdiocese said it is keeping the electricity and heat on to maintain the buildings and run the security systems that keep the properties safe.

In Everett, a blue-collar community just outside Boston, 35 parishioners keep an eye on St. Therese, praying, chatting and keeping moving to stay warm. Five take turns spending the evening. Staving off the cold requires layers of clothing, hand and feet warmers, and a thick sleeping bag, Pratto said.

Jon Rogers, who has taken part in the occupation of St. Frances X. Cabrini church in the town of Scituate, said: "We own this place. They don't, and we're keeping it."

Rogers said he believes the archdiocese targeted his church for closing because of its valuable 30 acres of coastal real estate south of Boston.

"It's your church until they basically decide they need to liquidate the assets to pay off the sins of their past, not ours," he said.

At the occupied churches - which also include Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston, St. Jeremiah in Framingham and St. James the Great in Wellesley - the protests long ago settled into a routine. Parishioners pass time paying bills, doing puzzles and praying, sometimes holding services in which they use Communion wafers blessed by sympathetic priests.

In Scituate, a sign-up sheet in the lobby keeps the shifts organized and staffed by a rotating group of about 100. Across the lobby, a recliner is propped in front of a TV. Two sleeping areas are set up on either side of the sanctuary. One has bunk beds for when families stay, as well as a wireless Internet connection. A smaller room that was once a confessional has a TV and full-size bed.

The occupation "is a necessity in our lives," Rogers said. "Because without your faith, what do you have?"

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Custom-made babies delivered: Fertility clinic doctor's design-a-kid offer creates uproar

A fertility clinic's promise to deliver the ultimate in designer babies - letting parents choose eye, hair and even skin color - is sparking a worldwide uproar.
Dr. Jeff Steinberg has already let thousands decide their kids' gender. Now he says that within the next six months, the Manhattan and L.A. offices of his Fertility Institutes will let would-be moms and dads pick whether junior has blue or brown eyes or black or blond hair.
"In the process of doing gender selection ... we've also uncovered the technology [to] characterize things like eye and hair color," said Steinberg, 54.
The idea of a Build-A-Bear style baby was slammed Monday by bioethicists and right-to-life groups - and Pope Benedict has warned against it for years.
The Pope railed against the "obsessive search for the perfect child" just two weekends ago. "A new mentality is creeping in that tends to justify a different consideration of life and personal dignity," he said.
Steinberg countered that reproductive technologies aren't about to go away.
"Genetic health is the wave of the future," he said. "It's already happening and it's not going to go away. It's going to expand. So if they've got major problems with it, they need to sit down and really examine their own consciences because there's nothing that's going to stop it."
Custom-made kids will be achieved through preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, the procedure used to weed out problem embryos and to allow parents to choose a gender.
In letting parents decide what traits their kids have, doctors will examine the genetic makeup of embryos created in the lab and implant the ones that have the best chance of giving mom and dad what they want.
Some doctors question Steinberg's ability to give parents their pick of traits.
"He's the only one offering this because you can't yet do it," said Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Technology. "Nobody can do this right now."
Dr. William Kearns, head of the Shady Grove Center for Preimplantation Genetics in Rockville, Md., disagrees. His research has identified genes relating to northern European skin, hair and eye pigmentation, but he won't use it to let parents design their kids.
Steinberg, one of the doctors who helped produce the first test-tube baby, admits the technology isn't 100% - and says for now the best results are with couples of Scandinavian heritage, whose gene pools are the least diluted.
"Say you made seven embryos, and one of them has got the highest chance of green eyes, and that chance is 80%. It's not perfect science because eye and hair color are not perfect genetics," said Steinberg, who opened an office on E. 40th St. two months ago.
There are no laws in New York that address how PGD testing can be used. Opponents say there should be.
Lori Kehoe, executive director of the New York State Right to Life Committee, is upset that the embryos deemed undesirable will be destroyed.
She said it is "sickening to flush a member of the human family down the drain" because they are not considered perfect.
Prof. Alexander Capron, bioethicist and professor of law and medicine at the University of Southern California, called Steinberg's procedure problematic. "The notion of unconditional love and support - which is assumed to be what parents owe their children - is totally undermined here," he said.
"You're saying I want to order up just what I want and that's what I'll love."
One New York doctor even likened it to the pursuit of a master race.
"We're crossing the line into eugenics, the theory of trying to give people enhanced characteristics - genetic engineering to make sort of the superman or superwoman," said Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, director of ethics at New York Medical College and St. Vincent's Hospital.

Ore. arsonist targets 1990s green Ford Escorts

MEDFORD, Ore. - An arsonist is apparently on the prowl for green Ford Escorts from the 1990s. Three of them have been burned in recent weeks, a series of acts that Medford police Sgt. Mike Budreau described as "pretty bizarre."

A 1995 green Ford Escort was destroyed by flames early Sunday morning after someone broke a window and poured flammable liquid into it. A similar fire was set in a 1993 green Ford Escort parked in a driveway on Feb. 22.

Investigators have also uncovered a Feb. 2 case of a 1992 green Ford Escort damaged by a plastic container filled with flammable liquid placed next to a tire that burned without setting the car afire.

Budreau told the Mail Tribune newspaper in Medford, "I think this person really doesn't like Ford Escorts."

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

For Debt Collectors, the Dead Are a Healthy Bet

NYTimes.com: "MINNEAPOLIS — The banks need another bailout and countless homeowners cannot handle their mortgage payments, but one group is paying its bills: the dead.
Dozens of specially trained agents work on the third floor of DCM Services here, calling up the dear departed’s next of kin and kindly asking if they want to settle the balance on a credit card or bank loan, or perhaps make that final utility bill or cellphone payment.
The people on the other end of the line often have no legal obligation to assume the debt of a spouse, sibling or parent. But they take responsibility for it anyway.
“I am out of work now, to be honest with you, and money is very tight for us,” one man declared on a recent phone call after he was apprised of his late mother-in-law’s $280 credit card bill. He promised to pay $15 a month.
Dead people are the newest frontier in debt collecting, and one of the healthiest parts of the industry. Those who dun the living say that people are so scared and so broke it is difficult to get them to cough up even token payments.
Collecting from the dead, however, is expanding. Improved database technology is making it easier to discover when estates are opened in the country’s 3,000 probate courts, giving collectors an opportunity to file timely claims. But if there is no formal estate and thus nothing to file against, the human touch comes into play.
New hires at DCM train for three weeks in what the company calls “empathic active listening,” which mixes the comforting air of a funeral director with the nonjudgmental tones of a friend. The new employees learn to use such anger-deflecting phrases as “If I hear you correctly, you’d like...”"

Evan Williams explains Twitter on Charlie Rose (or tries to)

Twitter co-founder and chief executive Evan Williams appeared on Charlie Rose last week to talk about the service’s steep ascent. The video has now been posted online (and embedded below).

After acknowledging that not even he can really explain the success Twitter has seen, Williams explained micro-blogging to Rose, and the two talked about some of the key aspects of the service as it evolves into a mainstream utility. Here are some interesting quotes and notes:

“It looks a lot like a social network, but it’s actually fundamentally different in how the relationship structures work.” Williams notes that Twitter is about asynchronous relationships
Williams calls Facebook the “classic example” of a social network. Remember, Facebook nearly acquired Twitter back in November, and the two sides are still said to be talking (though not too seriously at this time).
In noting that Twitter is “constrained,” Williams brings up not only the 140 character limit, but also notes how it doesn’t have pictures in your stream. So perhaps you shouldn’t expect that to be added anytime soon — though earlier remarks by former chief executive Jack Dorsey suggested that embedded elements could be coming.
There are at least 2,000 different programs that can send Twitter updates, Williams notes.
The reasoning behind the 140 character limit is because Twitter wanted to support SMS (text messages). SMS messages are limited to 160 characters, but there also needed to be room for the Twitter usernames.
While Williams neither invented the idea behind Twitter (Dorsey did) or the idea behind Blogger (his other startup which he eventually sold to Google), he saw the opportunity in both after experiencing what they could do first hand.
Twitter notes that blogging is “morphing” and that makes Rose laugh for some odd reason.
Williams notes that he feels the Internet has “more efficiently tapped the most basic human desires,” and notes that the desire to connect with people socially is one of the big ones.
Williams says that while it’s hard to know where technology will be in 5 years, he thinks that online social services like Twitter should seem normal to people by then.
Only about half of Twitter’s users are in the US.
“Japan is really big for us,” Williams says. Twitter has a version of its website specifically built for the Japanese (and it even features ads!).
Williams notes that “The UK has exploded recently” (in terms of usage), and should be the 2nd biggest international country to use the service (after Japan). He says that Germany, Canada and Brazil are creeping up there as well.
“We had a terrible first year and a half, actually,” Williams notes when Rose asked about the site downtime issues last year. “That almost killed us, I think,” he admits.
“We talked to Facebook, yeah,” Williams says when asked about the acquisition topic. “I never felt like it was the best thing for Twitter. It just seems way too early,” Williams goes on.
“There’s tons of risk … but the potential is so great, that to stop now, even at a big win financially, would just feel like a loss,” Williams continues on the acquisition topic.
Williams says that he definitely thinks Twitter can be used as a form of journalism, and notes that it is already to some extent, but thinks that the “collective intelligence” can be an even more interesting use (hello, Twitter Search).
Williams goes on to note that Twitter Search becomes really useful via “algorithmic or crowd-sourced editing,” so that interesting stuff can bubble up.
Williams calls suggesting users for others to follow “the hardest part,” but Rose cuts him off before he can elaborate. It seems as if that will definitely be a bigger part of the service going forward.
When Rose asks “How do you monetize this?,” Williams responds, “We don’t know for sure, but we have some ideas.” He then laughs and notes that like the product itself, that aspect will evolve over time.
Williams notes that in a post (web 1.0) bubble, “If something is popular, it probably won’t disappear because it can’t make money. That doesn’t really happen anymore.”
Williams mentions charging users for more/new features, the high commercial usage the service sees and the possibility of advertising as three potential ways to make money. “If we do it intelligently, it can be a win for users, and make money for companies,” Williams says.
Williams says that social communications are really hard to monetize, but information-seeking activities are much easier to monetize, with Google being the prime example. Williams notes that Twitter is somewhere in between those.