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Missouri Judges Take Prison Costs Into Account in Sentencing

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This policy has all sorts of implications, both positive and negative. Will lesser sentences be meted out for deserving criminals because of their inherent costs? What about non-violent offenders?  Isn’t probation and counseling cheaper than incarceration?

Prairie Restoration in Progress

ST. LOUIS — When judges here sentence convicted criminals, a new and unusual variable is available for them to consider: what a given punishment will cost the State of Missouri. Enlarge This Image

If For someone convicted of endangering the welfare of a child, for instance, a judge might now learn that a three-year prison sentence would run more than $37,000 while probation would cost $6,770. A second-degree robber, a judge could be told, would carry a price tag of less than $9,000 for five years of intensive probation, but more than $50,000 for a comparable prison sentence and parole afterward. The bill for a murderer’s 30-year prison term: $504,690.

 

(click to continue reading Missouri Judges Take Prison Costs Into Account in Sentencing – NYTimes.com.)

Our nation’s jails are full beyond the point of exploding, yet we keep locking up folks as a first resort. Not mentioned in this article ((except in passing) is how many drug cases are adjudicated, and at what cost. How much do we spend locking up teenagers caught with a couple of grams of marijuana?

Reading between the lines in the article, seems as if many officials are uncomfortable with the implications of the policy, so instead of changing the system, they are just going to cease discussing costs. Ignore the big picture, instead maintain the status quo.

Still, money worries loom. This year, in an annual address, even the chief justice of Missouri’s Supreme Court, William Ray Price Jr., warned that the system would be threatened if budget cuts persisted.

“Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders and our mishandling of drug and alcohol offenders,” he said.

Mr. McCulloch, the prosecutor, said the state’s prisons were filled with anything but harmless people. “You show me the college kid with a perfect record and a dime bag of weed who has been sent to prison, and I’ll get him out,” he said. “Find me him.”

When Missouri lawmakers meet next year, Mr. McCulloch says that he expects he and others may push to abolish the sentencing commission.

Written by Seth Anderson

September 19th, 2010 at 9:16 am

Posted in government

Tagged with , ,

Ernest Withers, Civil Rights Photographer an FBI Informer

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Trust no-one. Especially when the FBI has your organization on its radar. On Sunday, the Memphis newspaper The Commercial Appeal published an explosive exposé on renowned Civil RIghts photojournalist, Ernest C. Withers.

art-gop-fascism-poster.jpg

At the top of the stairs he saw the blood, a large pool of it, splashed across the balcony like a grisly, abstract painting. Instinctively, Ernest Withers raised his camera. This wasn’t just a murder. This was history.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood here a few hours earlier chatting with aides when a sniper squeezed off a shot from a hunting rifle.

Now, as night set over Memphis, Withers was on the story.

Slipping past a police barricade, the enterprising Beale Street newsman made his way to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel — King’s room — and walked in. Ralph Abernathy and the others hardly blinked. After all, this was Ernest C. Withers. He’d marched with King, and sat in on some of the movement’s sensitive strategy meetings.

A veteran freelancer for America’s black press, Withers was known as “the original civil rights photographer,” an insider who’d covered it all, from the Emmett Till murder that jump-started the movement in 1955 to the Little Rock school crisis, the integration of Ole Miss and, now, the 1968 sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis and his death.

(click to continue reading Photographer Ernest Withers doubled as FBI informant to spy on civil rights movement » The Commercial Appeal.)

 

According to the article, Withers was instrumental in the FBI’s questionable war1 against every organization that challenged the status quo: the Black Panthers, religious groups, U.S. Civil Rights Commission, you name it. The program2 was called COINTELPRO, and it was worse, and more pervasive than you think. The links in the quoted section below go to scans of primary documents, hosted at the moment at The Commercial Appeal, so you can read them in their malicious banality yourself.

Much of his undercover work helped the FBI break up the Invaders, a Black Panther-styled militant group that became popular in disaffected black Memphis in the late 1960s and was feared by city leaders.

 

Yet, Withers focused on mainstream Memphians as well.

Personal and professional details of Church of God in Christ Bishop G.E. Patterson (then a pastor with a popular radio show), real estate agent O.W. Pickett, politician O. Z. Evers and others plumped FBI files as the bureau ran a secret war on militancy.

When community leader Jerry Fanion took cigarettes to jailed Invaders, agents took note. Agents wrote reports when Catholic Father Charles Mahoney befriended an Invader, when car dealer John T. Fisher offered jobs to militants, when Rev. James Lawson planned a trip to Czechoslovakia and when a schoolteacher loaned his car to a suspected radical.

Each report has a common thread — Withers.

As a so-called racial informant — one who monitored race-related politics and “hate” organizations — Withers fed agents a steady flow of information.

Records indicate he snapped and handed over photos of St. Patrick Catholic Church priests who supported the city’s striking sanitation workers; he monitored political candidates, jotted down auto tag numbers for agents, and once turned over a picture of an employee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission said to be “one who will give aid and comfort to the black power groups.” In an interview this year, that worker said she came within a hearing of losing her job.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Chicago Division

 

From the New York Times in follow up:

On Sunday, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis published the results of a two-year investigation that showed [Ernest C.] Withers, who died in 2007 at age 85, had collaborated closely with two F.B.I. agents in the 1960s to keep tabs on the civil rights movement. It was an astonishing revelation about a former police officer nicknamed the Original Civil Rights Photographer, whose previous claim to fame had been the trust he engendered among high-ranking civil rights leaders, including Dr. King.

 

“It is an amazing betrayal,” said Athan Theoharis, a historian at Marquette University who has written books about the F.B.I. “It really speaks to the degree that the F.B.I. was able to engage individuals within the civil rights movement. This man was so well trusted.”

From at least 1968 to 1970, Mr. Withers, who was black, provided photographs, biographical information and scheduling details to two F.B.I. agents in the bureau’s Memphis domestic surveillance program, Howell Lowe and William H. Lawrence, according to numerous reports summarizing their meetings. The reports were obtained by the newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act and posted on its Web site.

A clerical error appears to have allowed for Mr. Withers’s identity to be divulged: In most cases in the reports, references to Mr. Withers and his informer number, ME 338-R, have been blacked out. But in several locations, the F.B.I. appears to have forgotten to hide them.

(click to continue reading Civil Rights Photographer Unmasked as Informer – NYTimes.com.)

 

Presumedly, a diligent researcher researcher could now go through redacted FBI documents, and find everywhere else that Withers code name was used

A clerical error appears to have allowed for Mr. Withers’s identity to be divulged: In most cases in the reports, references to Mr. Withers and his informer number, ME 338-R, have been blacked out. But in several locations, the F.B.I. appears to have forgotten to hide them.

Wonder if there the FBI is conducting an updated version of COINTELPRO to investigate/infiltrate the Tea Party zealots? Probably not, for most of the history of the FBI, they have only been concerned with liberal dissent. Conservatives get a pass, even if they blow up buildings or kill innocents. A liberal group providing cigarettes to an incarcerated protester? That’s grounds for expanding the file.

 

Footnotes:
  1. the fact of the war is not in dispute, only its motive for existing in a supposedly free society []
  2. We’ve blogged about COINTELPRO many times []

Written by Seth Anderson

September 15th, 2010 at 8:01 am

Gale Norton Loves Her Some Sex, Meth and Oil

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Gale Norton, former Bush Pioneer,1 has no regrets about the shambles she left behind in her wake, before she joined Royal Dutch Shell.

I like to eat paste

Gale Norton, former President George W. Bush’s first Secretary of the Interior, ran the department during the time when its Minerals Management Service was guilty of some of its worst excesses—including holding cocaine and meth-fueled sex and oil parties. But that didn’t stop Norton from taking to Capitol Hill Tuesday to defend the “hardworking and professional men and women of the Minerals Management Service.”

Norton was one of two Bush-era Interior secretaries who testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Tuesday morning, the first time representatives from the previous administration have been put on the hot-seat about the regulatory miscues that may have led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Current Secretary Ken Salazar joined Norton (who served in the role from January 2001 to March 2006) and Dirk Kempthorne (June 2006 to January 2009) before the panel.

In her opening statement, Norton accused critics of the Interior Department of vilifying the Minerals Management Service (now renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement). “There has been a great deal of media attention to the ethics of MMS. It pains me to see the vilification of MMS and its employees. I want to speak in defense of the vast majority of hardworking and professional men and women of the Minerals Management Service,” said Norton in her prepared opening statement.

Now, it was under Norton’s watch that many of the porn, meth, and oil parties took place at the MMS’ Lake Charles, La. office. Oh, and the sex, oil, and cocaine parties at the Lakewood, Colorado office. And Norton, who went to work for Shell Oil shortly after leaving office, has been the subject of a Department of Justice criminal investigation into whether she illegally used her position at DOI to benefit the company that would hire her soon thereafter

(click to continue reading Bush Official on Sex, Meth and Oil: What’s the Big Deal? | Mother Jones.)

Jerkstore

Footnotes:
  1. well, probably, too lazy to look her up []

Written by Seth Anderson

July 21st, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Stop Making Pennies

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And change the composition of nickels right now! Tradition is one thing, but if the government makes these coins at a loss, why not do something about it!

Nickles Not Pickles

It costs the federal government up to nine cents to mint a nickel and almost two cents to make a penny

(click to continue reading Feds Likely to Face Uproar if They Overhaul Pocket Change – WSJ.com.)

But of course, nothing is ever simple to accomplish in Washington:

The president’s plan to save money by making coins from cheaper stuff seems simple on its face. But history shows it would rekindle an emotional debate among Americans who fear changing the composition of their currency will hurt its value.

On top of that, trade groups from the coin-laundry owners to the Zinc Association have lobbied for years to keep small change just the way it is.

Like many things produced in Washington, U.S. coins aren’t what they seem. A penny is a copper-coated token made mostly of zinc. The nickel contains more copper than it does actual nickel. And no coin contains silver anymore.

Market forces, not metal prices, determine the value of American currency. Yet Americans persist, on websites like coinflation.com, in tracking the value of the metal in their currency.

“People believe that we are still on some sort of precious-metal standard,” says Rod Gillis, educator at the American Numismatic Association.

As the White House looks to cut costs across government, “making coins from more cost-effective materials could save more than $100 million a year, which isn’t just pocket change,” says Dan Tangherlini, the Treasury Department’s chief financial officer.

Imperial Gold Buyer's (sic)

And there the nutjobs, Glenn Beck fans probably

Already, Mr. Gillis spends a chunk of his day at the coin-collectors association taking calls from Americans worried that the Obama administration will confiscate their gold coins to prop up the economy.

He often asks people what gives a paper dollar its value. “Eight in 10 people make some sort of reference to the gold in Fort Knox,” he says. But America has been off the gold standard since 1971, and gold currency stopped circulating in 1933.

We should listen to Frank Abagnale1

Convicted forger Frank Abagnale pooh-poohs that idea. “People would be more apt to counterfeit casino chips than American coins,” says Mr. Abagnale, who advises governments and companies on how to avoid fraud and forgery. “I’m one of these people who would be in favor of doing away with the penny. I’m always in airports, and people just leave them all over the place.”

Footnotes:
  1. you know, the guy that Leonardo DiCaprio played in Catch Me If You Can []

Written by Seth Anderson

May 10th, 2010 at 7:08 am

Posted in government

Tagged with ,

Leak from Exelon nuke hits major NJ aquifer

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Speaking of government regulation being half-hearted, notice how this spill occurred in 2009, but nobody seemed to care much at the time.

It Is a Bit of a Joke

Radioactive water that leaked from the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant has now reached a major underground aquifer that supplies drinking water to much of southern New Jersey, the state’s environmental chief said Friday. The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station to halt the spread of contaminated water underground, even as it said there was no imminent threat to drinking water supplies.

The department launched a new investigation Friday into the April 2009 spill and said the actions of plant owner Exelon Corp. have not been sufficient to contain water contaminated with tritium. Tritium is found naturally in tiny amounts and is a product of nuclear fission. It has been linked to cancer if ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin in large amounts.

“There is a problem here,” said environmental Commissioner Bob Martin. “I am worried about the continuing spread of the tritium into the groundwater and its gradual moving toward wells in the area. This is not something that can wait. That would be unacceptable.” The company did not immediately return messages seeking comment. The tritium leaked from underground pipes at the plant on April 9, 2009, and has been slowly spreading underground at 1 to 3 feet a day.

At the current rate, it would be 14 or 15 years before the tainted water reaches the nearest private or commercial drinking water wells. But the mere fact that the radioactive water — at concentrations 50 times higher than those allowed by law — has reached southern New Jersey’s main source of drinking water calls for urgent action, Martin said.

(click to continue reading Leak from Exelon nuke hits major NJ aquifer | Crain’s Chicago Business.)

Crazy fools, did they think the problem would just solve itself? If corporations want to be treated like people, then corporations that subvert the public interest should lose their corporate charter. Or worse.

Written by Seth Anderson

May 8th, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Federal Regulators Let Oil Regulate Itself

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Typical, actually, though still irritating. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a country where the government actually cared about enforcement of safety regulations of all sorts, and didn’t defer to the industries and their lobbyists? I know I would.

Displaced Truths - oil

“Federal regulators warned offshore rig operators more than a decade ago that they needed to install backup systems to control the giant undersea valves known as blowout preventers, used to cut off the flow of oil from a well in an emergency.

The warnings were repeated in 2004 and 2009. Yet the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency charged both with regulating the oil industry and collecting royalties from it, never took steps to address the issue comprehensively, relying instead on industry assurances that it was on top of the problem, a review of documents shows.

In the intervening years, numerous blowout preventers and their control systems have failed, though none as catastrophically as those on the well the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was preparing when it blew up on April 20, leaving tens of thousands of gallons of oil a day spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.

Agency records show that from 2001 to 2007, there were 1,443 serious drilling accidents in offshore operations, leading to 41 deaths, 302 injuries and 356 oil spills. Yet the federal agency continues to allow the industry largely to police itself, saying that the best technical experts work for industry, not for the government.

Critics say that, then and now, the minerals service has been crippled by this dependence on industry and by a climate of regulatory indulgence.”

(click to continue reading Federal Regulators’ Warnings on Safety Weren’t Acted On – NYTimes.com.)

Assholes.

Written by Seth Anderson

May 8th, 2010 at 10:19 am

FCC Wants to Regulate Broadband

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Not surprising, especially after the court ruling saying the FCC was over-stepping its authority.

Computer Consultants

F.C.C. Is Expected to Make Push to Regulate Broadband – NYTimes.com: ” The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission will try to regulate broadband Internet service despite a recent court ruling that the commission had limited powers to do so.

Two F.C.C. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Julius Genachowski, the F.C.C. chairman, will announce Thursday that the commission considers broadband service a sort of hybrid between an information service and a utility and that it has sufficient power to regulate Internet traffic under existing law.

The F.C.C. decision is likely to be seen as a victory for content companies like Amazon.com and Google, the owner of YouTube, which do not want Internet service providers to have the power to charge them for access to customers or for faster download speeds.

The phone and cable companies that provide Internet service have said they have no plans to do so, but that could change.

(click to continue reading F.C.C. Is Expected to Make Push to Regulate Broadband – NYTimes.com.)

I wouldn’t be surprised if a telecom corporation decided to step up their plans to charge Google or similar heavy consumers of bandwidth extra. Why not test it out before the FCC says they cannot do so? Plus once such a tiered setup exists, there would be some inertia against changing it.

On Thursday, Mr. Genachowski is expected to assert that the agency, under its powers to regulate phone service, is permitted to require broadband service providers to follow certain transmission guidelines, including safeguarding privacy, not discriminating against certain types of content providers, offering service to rural customers at the same rate as urban customers and providing access to people with disabilities.

His decision would appear to have the backing of some important lawmakers.

On Wednesday Representative Henry A. Waxman and Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the chairmen of the House and Senate committees that oversee the F.C.C. wrote to him saying, “it is essential for the commission to have oversight over these aspects of broadband policy” and that they were prepared to consider legislation to provide it. The F.C.C. apparently will not seek to enforce the vast authority it has over telephone utilities in which it can regulate rates.

Consumer groups hailed the F.C.C.’s intentions after word of Mr. Genachowski’s planned announcement leaked Wednesday.

Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, which promotes open Internet policies, called it “a welcome announcement” that would help protect consumers and expand broadband access and adoption in the United States.

Even after the F.C.C. lays out its authority, there are still potential speed bumps in carrying out its policy. The five-member commission must vote on the approach, which will be put out for public comment and revision before final rules are set. The process could take months and may be subject to legal challenges.

Written by Seth Anderson

May 6th, 2010 at 9:19 am

Posted in government

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Judge Invalidates Human Gene Patent

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Good! Stupid that genes have ever been patented. Science may have discovered specific genes, but they didn’t create them from scratch. Why should evolutionary processes be privatized by large companies?

DNA Bricks

A federal judge on Monday struck down patents on two genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer. The decision, if upheld, could throw into doubt the patents covering thousands of human genes and reshape the law of intellectual property
Enlarge This Image

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York joined with individual patients and medical organizations to challenge the patents last May: they argued that genes, products of nature, fall outside of the realm of things that can be patented. The patents, they argued, stifle research and innovation and limit testing options.

Myriad Genetics, the company that holds the patents with the University of Utah Research Foundation, asked the court to dismiss the case, claiming that the work of isolating the DNA from the body transforms it and makes it patentable. Such patents, it said, have been granted for decades; the Supreme Court upheld patents on living organisms in 1980. In fact, many in the patent field had predicted the courts would throw out the suit.

Judge Sweet, however, ruled that the patents were “improperly granted” because they involved a “law of nature.” He said that many critics of gene patents considered the idea that isolating a gene made it patentable “a ‘lawyer’s trick’ that circumvents the prohibition on the direct patenting of the DNA in our bodies but which, in practice, reaches the same result.”

The case could have far-reaching implications. About 20 percent of human genes have been patented, and multibillion-dollar industries have been built atop the intellectual property rights that the patents grant.

[Click to continue reading Judge Invalidates Human Gene Patent – NYTimes.com]

Patents are well and good, in some instances, but not every step that science makes should be controlled by corporations, and exploited for profit.

Written by Seth Anderson

March 31st, 2010 at 8:25 am

Health Care Reform Will Affect Your Wallet

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Seems like a reasonably non-partisan analysis. The new, welcomed Health Care Reform might have a small effect on a few of our unreimbursed deductions it seems. For years, our business has paid for our health insurance out of our heretofore1 meager profits, and despite nobody actually using the insurance to pay for anything, our premiums have skyrocketed each and every year. Last year alone, our Blue Cross Blue Shield premiums went up over 30%. Yikes.

Calvary Cemetery

  • Couples earning more than $250,000 a year, and individuals earning more than $200,000 a year, will see an increase from 1.45% Medicare tax to 2.35% starting in 2013.
  • Those with the higher income listed above would also see a 2.8% tax on unearned income (interest and dividends).
  • Starting in 2018, a 40% excise tax would be imposed on the portion of employer-sponsored “Cadillac plans” that exceeds $10,200 a year for individuals and $27,500 for families.
  • The threshold for deducting medical expenses (unreimbursed) would be raised to 10% of income from 7.5%, so many will lose the current tax deductions they tax advantage of.
  • Starting this year, those who make use of indoor tanning facilities will pay a 10% tax.
  • Starting in 2013, your tax-advantaged flexible spending account contributions will be limited to $2,500 for medical expenses.

[Click to continue reading How Will Health Care Reform Affect Your Wallet?]

the only real change I see is the 2.5% reduction in deducting health care costs we pay ourselves, which doesn’t translate to much real money, at least in our case, but I’m still scouring the details to see if there is anything else to worry about.

Footnotes:
  1. we are still optimists – this year will the year we can set some aside for a rainy day. Yeah, this year []

Written by Seth Anderson

March 24th, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Insurance Companies Not Automatically Included in Exchange

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How badly do insurance companies have to be to their customers before they are banned from participation in the new insurance exchanges? General Electric bad? Monsanto bad? or Halliburton bad? Curious if the rules have been defined yet.

A second Hypnotic Mosiac - Garfield

A couple of hours after President Obama signed the health-care bill, an elated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with a group of columnists and commentators, issuing a warning to insurance companies…

Asked if insurance companies might raise their rates on health coverage and blame the increases on the new health-care bill, Pelosi said that the insurance companies should be aware that they’re not “automatically included” in the new health exchanges the bill creates.

“Unless they do the right thing, they’re not going in,” she said. “They will be relinquishing the possibility of having taxpayer-subsidized consumers in the exchange,” she said.

Under the new law, the health exchanges Pelosi referred to will be created in 2014. By pulling customers together, they will give individuals and companies a better chance of bargaining when they buy health insurance. Because the exchanges are expected to serve millions of new customers, insurance companies will want to be part of them.

[Click to continue reading PostPartisan – An ebullient Pelosi: watch out insurance companies, and Rahm is a ‘softie’ ]

Via Susie Madrak of Crooks and Liars.

Written by Seth Anderson

March 24th, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Health Reform Bill Instant Provisions

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From Nancy Pelosi’s blog:

Killing People Is Rude

Under the legislative package the House passed on Sunday (the Senate-passed health bill as amended by the reconciliation bill) many key provisions take effect this year – here are some of them:

IF YOU ARE A SMALL BUSINESSES OWNER:

SMALL BUSINESS TAX CREDITS—Offers tax credits to small businesses to make employee coverage more affordable. Tax credits of up to 35 percent of premiums will be immediately available. Effective beginning for calendar year 2010. (Beginning in 2014, small business tax credits will cover 50 percent of premiums.)

[Click to continue reading The Gavel » Blog Archive » What’s In The Health Reform Bill For You Right Away?]

A bunch more that don’t affect me, but might be of interest to you. Also an implementation timeline [PDF]

Written by Seth Anderson

March 24th, 2010 at 7:57 am

Posted in government

Tagged with , ,

High-fructose corn syrup is the Devil

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Well, you know what I mean.

corn_porn.jpg

A Princeton University research team has demonstrated that all sweeteners are not equal when it comes to weight gain: Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.

In addition to causing significant weight gain in lab animals, long-term consumption of high-fructose corn syrup also led to abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdomen, and a rise in circulating blood fats called triglycerides. The researchers say the work sheds light on the factors contributing to obesity trends in the United States.

“Some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity, but our results make it clear that this just isn’t true, at least under the conditions of our tests,” said psychology professor Bart Hoebel, who specializes in the neuroscience of appetite, weight and sugar addiction. “When rats are drinking high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they’re becoming obese — every single one, across the board. Even when rats are fed a high-fat diet, you don’t see this; they don’t all gain extra weight.”

[Click to continue reading Princeton University – A sweet problem: Princeton researchers find that high-fructose corn syrup prompts considerably more weight gain]

Curious as to why that is. Also, isn’t it nice that the federal government subsidizes high-fructose corn syrup, keeping its price artificially low? Low price means high fructose corn syrup is used as an ingredient more often than if was a specialty ingredient.

Corn

Written by Seth Anderson

March 23rd, 2010 at 8:56 am

Posted in government

Tagged with , , , ,

USDA Organic inspectors lame excuses

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Elections do matter, part the 8497th. Under the Bush administration, topics like food safety and compliance with organic regulations were deemed not important, and thus not enforced. Listen to some of these excuses the USDA made for why they couldn’t bother to do their jobs:

Peppers and Hues

Under normal circumstances, the program gives preliminary accreditation to certifying agents based on a review of paperwork they submit. That allows them to begin certifying and inspecting organic producers and processors. But the program is supposed to follow up with a site visit to inspect a certifier’s operations before making accreditation permanent.

In five cases, the inspector general found, officials failed to make the follow-up visits, allowing the certifiers to operate for as long as seven years with only preliminary accreditation.

Officials at the program said that in three cases, involving certifiers operating in Bolivia, Israel and Turkey, they did not send staff members to make the inspections because the State Department had issued travel warnings about potentially dangerous conditions in those countries.

In two other cases, involving certifying agents in Australia and Canada, officials said that scheduling problems blocked them from arranging visits — in one instance for as long as five years.

[Click to continue reading U.S. to Ensure Spot Tests of Organic Foods – NYTimes.com]

A joke, in other words.

Theoretically, the USDA is going to change its mission, and actually figure out how to make sure organic items in the grocery store are what they say they are, but since the USDA’s mission has been to support agribusinesses for most of its tenure, I’m skeptical until I see some actual results.

The Department of Agriculture said on Friday that it would begin enforcing rules requiring the spot testing of organically grown foods for traces of pesticides, after an auditor exposed major gaps in federal oversight of the organic food industry.

Spot testing is required by a 1990 law that established the basis for national organic standards, but in a report released on Thursday by the office of Phyllis K. Fong, the inspector general of agriculture, investigators wrote that regulators never made sure the testing was being carried out.

The report pointed to numerous shortcomings at the agriculture department’s National Organic Program, which regulates the industry, including poor oversight of some organic operations overseas and a lack of urgency in cracking down on marketers of bogus organic products.

Lemon Cucumbers

At least they are increasing the budget, a bit. In the federal budget, these still are afterthought numbers, less than the cost of one day in Iraq, but it is a step in the right direction at least. Perhaps the producers of organic products could contribute a fraction of their sales?

The organic program’s budget increased to $6.9 million for the current fiscal year, from $3.9 million the previous year, Mr. McEvoy said, while its staff is slated to nearly double, to 31 from 16. The Obama administration is seeking to increase the budget to $10 million in the next fiscal year and allow the program to expand to about 40 employees.

Sales of organic products reached $26 billion last year and, until the recession hit, had been growing by double-digit percentages each year.

$6,900,000 ÷ $26,000,000,000 = 0.02653846153846155%, give or take, and still seems like a pittance to me.

Written by Seth Anderson

March 20th, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Big Troubles in Little South Austin

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A South Austin neighborhood is being hammered with seemingly nitpicking and spurious code violations.

Romans Go Home

In October, the city’s 311 nonemergency number started getting a flood of calls complaining about homes in South Austin’s Fairview neighborhood. Over several days, the anonymous caller or callers gave the city 35 different tips about houses with possible code violations. After city inspectors followed up, they issued violation notices to 76 homeowners in the neighborhood, telling them they must apply for permits for improvements such as garage conversions and carports.

Those who fail to correct the problem could be criminally charged and fined up to $2,000 per day or have their utilities disconnected, according to recent letters sent to homeowners that gave them a March 26 deadline to comply.

The homeowners say they’re upset by the violation letters and want more time to figure out how to negotiate the city bureaucracy to get into compliance.

“I’m worried about the fines,” said John Anguiano, 77, who lives on Heartwood Drive, and got a violation notice for a garage conversion he did about 1975. “I’m old, retired and sick, and it’s a pain to deal with this.”

Anguiano said he’s tried to get a permit, but it’s been on hold since October; he’s being told he must get a variance from the Austin City Council because he lives in the flood plain. Williamson Creek is nearby, and many of the 76 homeowners can’t resolve their permit issues until they get a variance to do home improvements in a flood plain.

Dale Flatt, a 24-year city firefighter on medical leave, is one of the organizers trying to help his neighbors straighten out the mess.

“To code inspectors, all these people are just associated with an address,” he said. “But they have lived there up to 40 years, and now it’s turned into a nightmare.”

[Click to continue reading Code violation letters rain down on South Austin neighborhood]

The city’s Planning and Development Review Department is only open from 8 AM to 11 AM, Monday through Friday, not the most consumer friendly hours.

My dad lives in this area, and has received one of the letters. He emailed:

I got a violation notice for replacing my doors with a window and a door. They think that I’ve creating “living space” in the garage. I could beat that by demonstrating that it is not living space but is still a workshop and storage.

… So I must go for the Flood Plain variance from city council to get a permit and get that work inspected. Bullshit, fer sure.

I’ve been in this garage, and other than his oil paints and easel, no building inspector in their right mind would think that area could be classified as living space. There are mostly construction tools and various related items, car parts for the vintage Porsche that’s getting modified to run with an electric motor, and similar things. Stuff that belongs in a garage, in other words.

CIA and the art of brussel sprout earings

My brother, pictured above with brussels sprout earrings, who happens to live next door, also got a code violation letter, and adds:

We have been cited by the city for illegal conversion of garage into living space without a permit. In addition, we are located inside the 100 year floodplain, so the city will not issue permits to us because of increased liability for flood damage. What the residents have to do is apply for a permit, get rejected, then bring it to the city council and ask for a variance. If accepted, then file again for a permit, get inspected, pay the fees etc. If the city council will not issue the variance, then either destroy the construction or sue, I guess….

So crazy. The majority of these houses1 were built in the 1960s and 1970s, why has the 100 year flood plain only suddenly become an issue? Curious as to how this will play out now that the story has been made public. Also wonder why this particular area has been singled out. Maybe a disgruntled former resident (someone’s ex-husband or similar)? A disgruntled building inspector? A disgruntled contractor? Who knows, but if a building inspector wanted to look closely, they could discover violations in nearly every house and building on every block in every city2.

Footnotes:
  1. an educated guess, I could be off by a few years []
  2. yes, including where I live currently []

Written by Seth Anderson

March 11th, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Posted in government

Tagged with , ,

USPS Saturday mail delivery

without comments

Would it really be the end of the American dream if we didn’t receive mail on Saturday? Would all of our precious bodily fluids be sapped?

Mail Acceptance

Facing a projected $238 billion loss over the next decade, due in part to the rise of the Internet, the U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday proposed a 10-year plan to bring it into financial health, including putting an end to Saturday mail delivery.

The Postal Service, which is regulated by Congress and the administration but operates without federal assistance, faces “a severe income gap that we absolutely have to close,” said Postmaster General John Potter.

Such cost-cutting measures have been proposed, and largely ignored, in the past. Last year, post office representatives pushed multiple times at hearings on Capitol Hill for the authority to end Saturday delivery, change the way the service pays out retiree health benefits and raise prices, all actions that require congressional approval.

The Postal Service predicted that first-class mail volume will drop 37 percent by 2020. Bob Bernstock, the agency’s president of mailing and shipping services, said that “creates an urgency that was not there before.” The post office generates about half its revenue from first-class mail.

The service has identified measures within its authority to close the shortfall by about $123 billion over 10 years. It cannot eliminate the remaining $115 billion without being granted the authority to implement additional measures, including ending Saturday delivery, estimated to save $40 billion, Bernstock said.

Other savings would come from personnel changes and price hikes, though the price for a first-class stamp will remain at 44 cents through 2010. Post offices would remain open on Saturdays.

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., a member of the subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service in the House, said that the proposal was “heading in the right direction,” but that it is by no means a done deal.

[Click to continue reading Mail service: U.S. Postal Service may end Saturday mail delivery – chicagotribune.com]

We Deliver - Just not Saturdays

I wouldn’t begrudge not getting mail on Saturday, if mail delivery became more reliable on the other days of the week. From my small sample size, I get misdelivered mail every week, sometimes several pieces at a time1. If I get mail that isn’t addressed to me, then how much of my mail is delivered somewhere else?

Contrary view, USPS mail is dirt cheap, compared to sending a FedEx or UPS envelope. Last time I sent an envelope via FedEx (a signed contract, wanted to be able to track its progress), it cost me over $20. A USPS stamp is only $.44, what other business good or service do you use for less than a dollar?

Footnotes:
  1. magazines, envelopes, direct mail, etc. []

Written by Seth Anderson

March 2nd, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Posted in government

Tagged with ,