Saturday, March 6, 2010

Future Attribute Screening Technology: The Machine That Reads Minds!

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The science and technology of air traffic control

The science and technology of air traffic control
By Arun Reddy

The typical image people have of air traffic control (ATC) is that of a group of people in an airport tower who coordinate aircraft activity by staring at radar screens that use points of light to represent aircraft. While not fundamentally incorrect, this isn't a fair representation of the extent of ATC operations. This article will flesh out that simplistic image and introduce you to the equipment, technologies, and procedures that go into keeping aircraft and air travelers safe in the air and on the ground. We'll look at the way air traffic control is organized, and explore the communication technologies that air traffic controllers use to keep in touch with air crew and ground personnel. We'll also look at the radar technologies used to keep track of aircraft, and we'll end with a brief look at some next-generation technologies.

Safety and wake turbulence

The primary mandate of air traffic control is to ensure the safe transport of people and cargo by keeping aircraft at a safe distance from each other and expediting the flow of traffic. Air traffic controllers have access to sophisticated radar systems that provide an overview of the airspace they control, and they have communication tools to coordinate flight paths with the air crew. Pilots lack the tools necessary to get an overview of the airspace, so they have to rely on air traffic controllers to guide the aircraft through congested airspace.

Since aircraft travel at significantly higher speeds compared to other common modes of transport, the time available for pilots to react to a dangerous situation can be quite short. Thus it's essential that flight paths are carefully planned and managed to minimize the risk of a collision. This is especially true around major airports where the density of aircraft in a given volume of airspace is higher than average.

Turbulence created by wingtip vortices and exhaust gases from jet engines can be significant when aircraft are in close proximity. This phenomenon, called "wake turbulence," can adversely affect trailing aircraft if the distance between them falls below a certain limit. This limit depends on the mass of the two aircraft. For instance, a light aircraft following a heavy aircraft is more susceptible to wake turbulence than a heavy aircraft in the same situation. Therefore, aircraft approaching an airfield have to be carefully sequenced in a manner that takes such factors into consideration. Additionally, weather conditions such as low cloud, heavy rain, or snow blizzards can mean that pilots can't see other aircraft in the vicinity and have to use their instruments and instructions from air traffic control to navigate.

Types of ATC

Air traffic controllers are organized into various groups, each of which is in charge of handling a distinct portion of the aircraft's flight. Each group has a designated airspace that it controls, and aircraft are handed off to the next group of controllers as it approaches the limits of the prior group's airspace. The airspace controlled by each group is further divided into sectors that are themselves handled by individual controllers. The way these groups are organized varies from country to country and depends on the extent of controlled airspace and number of aircraft handled.

The tower controllers are the most visible group. From their vantage point on the airport tower, they have a visual overview of all the important parts of the airport tarmac, such as runways and taxiways. Tower controllers monitor the airspace surrounding the airports and keep track of approaching and departing aircraft. At well-equipped airports, they may even have access to surface movement radar systems to monitor aircraft and support vehicles as they move on the ground.

Once the aircraft is in the air and clear of the airfield, tower control hands the aircraft off to a departure controller. These controllers are typically based at facilities a good distance from the airport. With the use of surveillance radars, they are able to monitor air traffic around the airport. These facilities are called Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities in the US. In an area like New York, where airports are close to one another, a TRACON facility can service multiple airports. The controllers here ensure that the planes approaching and departing the airspace they control are following designated flight paths and speeds. TRACON facilities also sequence the aircraft that are coming in to land, in order to ensure that they are adequately separated to minimize any wake turbulence effects. Departure controllers also need to take into account aircraft that may be flying through their airspace, and keep them separated from aircraft landing or taking-off.

As the aircraft exits the TRACON airspace, a facility known as an Area Control Center (ACC) takes over. These facilities monitor the aircraft's flight while in controlled airspace through remote radar stations. Each ACC will have a designated airspace that it supervises. An aircraft may fly through multiple ACC sectors as it flies to its destination, with each ACC handing off control of the aircraft to the next ACC as it exits the former's airspace. Once an aircraft gets closer to its destination airport, the ACC controllers hand off responsibility to the approach controllers at the local TRACON, who guide and sequence the aircraft to the active runway, and finally to the tower controllers.

ATC Radar Systems

Air traffic controllers use radar systems positioned at or near the ATC facility to get a real-time overview of the aircraft flying in the airspace they control. Radar technology for detecting aircraft first became popular during the wars in the first half of the last century and played a vital role in their outcome. First-generation radar systems served as early warning systems; these systems had relatively poor resolution, and their only purpose was to alert their operators to the presence of flying objects in the radar's field of view. These early radars operated by emitting a continuous radio signal and listening for any echos, but they weren't able to use these echos to gauge the size of the aircraft, calculate its ground speed or altitude, or determine if the aircraft belonged to an ally or the opposition.

After the war, radar technology was advanced with improved electronics and materials for antenna construction. This allowed for systems that were much more efficient and had higher resolution. The Air Traffic Controllers today are served by many types of radar equipment such as Primary Surveillance Radars (PSR), Secondary Surveillance Radars (SSR), and Mode S for monitoring traffic in the air, and Surface Movement Radars (SMR) for traffic on the ground.

Primary Surveillance Radar (PSR)

The Primary Surveillance Radar is the traditional form of radar that most people are familiar with. The radar sends a directed pulse into the atmosphere, and when that pulse encounters an object it gets reflected back to the radar station. By having precise knowledge of the orientation of the radar and the time between the sending and receiving of the radio pulse, the bearing of the object with respect to the radar station and its approximate distance can be calculated. The radar is typically enclosed in a dome to protect it from adverse weather. The PSR cannot determine the altitude or elevation of the aircraft relative to that of the radar station. For this to be possible, a second radar that sweeps the sky vertically would be required. However, such technology is typically only found in Precision Approach Radar installations at military facilities to assist pilots with landing aircraft.

The potential for an aircraft to be detectable by the PSR depends on its Radar Cross Section (RCS). The RCS depends on a number of factors, including the distance between the aircraft and the radar, and the size of the aircraft. A larger aircraft, for instance, would be visible at a greater distance than a smaller aircraft due to the larger surface area available for reflecting the radar waves. Other factors, such as reflectivity properties of the aircraft skin, the wavelength of the radar signal, and the angle at which the radar signal is incident on the aircraft (and thereby reflected), also play a part in how visible an aircraft is to the PSR.

Secondary Surveillance Radar (SSR)

The Secondary Surveillance Radar system—or Air Traffic Control Radar Beacon System (ATCRBS) as it is sometimes referred to—is comprised of the ATC radar installation and a transponder that rides onboard the aircraft being monitored. The origins of SSR lie in the "identify friend or foe" system used by the military to distinguish allied and enemy aircraft. While a Primary Surveillance Radar listens for reflected radio signals, the Secondary Surveillance Radar listens for messages from the aircraft's transponder. The radar rotates about the vertical axis similar to a PSR, but transmits a specific signal on 1030 MHz. This signal is subsequently received by the aircraft's onboard transponder, which responds with a reply on 1090 MHz. Much like the PSR, the bearing and distance of the aircraft with respect to the radar installation can be calculated with precise knowledge of the orientation of the radar when the signal was transmitted.

The SSR system has many advantages over PSR. Firstly, since it doesn't rely on radio waves being reflected back by the aircraft, the radar cross section of the aircraft does not form a part of the equation. All aircraft in range of the radar, regardless of size, composition, or distance from the radar, can be "heard" equally well. Secondly, since the signal received by the radar originates on the aircraft, the signal is subject to less attenuation compared to a PSR signal. This is because the reflected PSR signal has to travel twice as much as the SSR signal. This also implies that the signal transmission power for an SSR can be much lower than that of a PSR.

While SSR has many advantages, the prime disadvantage is that the system needs a properly functioning transponder on the aircraft for it to work. An aircraft without a transponder would effectively be invisible to the SSR. For this reason, PSRs are still used as a backup mechanism in most parts of the world. The Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) in the US (and similar regulations in most countries) require aircraft operating in air traffic controlled airspace to have an operational transponder.

SSR Modes

The signal transmitted by the SSR is termed the "interrogation signal." There are different modes of interrogation that compliant transponders respond to. Civil aircraft typically respond to interrogation modes A and C.

In Mode A, the transponder responds with its squawk code, a unique identifier for the aircraft assigned by ATC comprising of four octal numbers. This code enables ATC to differentiate between the various aircraft being monitored, though it can also be used to discretely communicate the existence of an emergency situation onboard the aircraft. For instance, a squawk code of 7500 indicates that the aircraft has been hijacked, and a squawk code of 7600 indicates that the pilots are unable to communicate with ATC.

In Mode C, the transponder responds with the aircraft's pressure altitude, which is the altitude above sea level as calculated using the barometric reading at the aircraft's altitude. The altitudes reported are in 100-feet increments. This information is vital for ATC to ensure that aircraft flying in close proximity have adequate vertical separation.

A Garmin Mode S Transponder (Credit: Garmin)

Mode S is an improved secondary surveillance mode, and it operates over the same radio frequencies as SSR, making it backwards compatible. While Modes A and C in the legacy SSR system "broadcast" an interrogation message to all aircraft in the path of the radar beam, Mode S selectively interrogates individual aircraft using a 24 bit identifier that is assigned to the aircraft upon registration.

Mode S has a number of advantages over Modes A and C, the first of which is that its selective interrogation approach reduces the workload on the system, as it might be inundated with SSR replies in heavily congested airspace. Secondly, the legacy SSR system allowed for a transponder identification code of only four octal digits (12 bits) that yielded just 4096 codes (not including reserved codes) which were assigned by ATC. To complicate matters, this could be different for the same aircraft in different ATC sectors. As the number of aircraft increased over the past few decades, there was a scarcity in the number of available transponder codes, but move to a 24 bit addressing system alleviated the problem. Finally, the altitude reporting in Mode C was in increments of 100 feet, but this was improved to increments of 25 feet, allowing controllers to have a more accurate picture of aircraft positions.

Surface Movement Radar Display at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (Credit: Mark Brouwer)

Surface Movement Radar (SMR)

The airfield can be a busy place, with pushback tugs, tractors with baggage containers in tow, refuelling trucks, catering trucks, airport security vehicles, and (of course) aircraft. While the PSR and SSR provide controllers with an overview of aircraft in the air, the surface movement radar provides a real-time view of aircraft and support vehicles on the ground at airports. Most modern airports have Ground Control in charge of ensuring that critical patches of the airport tarmac such as active runways and taxiways are safe for moving aircraft.

Ground Control can observe all moving vehicles and aircraft on a radar screen overlaid on a map of the airport. As the objects being tracked by an SMR are relatively smaller than those tracked by a PSR or SSR, the radar uses a much shorter wavelength (and correspondingly higher frequency) with a narrow beam for a higher resolution result. Depending on the size of the airport, multiple installations of this sort may be required to cover all the critical parts of the airport. Enhancements to this basic system include having airport support vehicles installed with transponders that can be queried to ascertain location. Similarly, aircraft transponders can be queried to augment the radar display with call signs. Information from the tower radar can also be incorporated to display approaching aircraft. Newer systems can even aurally warn controllers of potential runway incursions and conflicts, so that action can be taken in time to avoid disaster. Such a system is generally called an Airport Movement Area Safety System.

Unfavorable weather conditions such as heavy rain and fog can lead to a reduction in visibility, making it difficult to monitor the tarmac. Runway incursions are a constant danger in such challenging conditions. A runway incursion is described by ICAO (International Civil Aviation Authority) as the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle, or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and take-off of aircraft. The Tenerife Airport Disaster, the deadliest accident in aviation history, was as a result of two aircraft colliding with each other on the runway. The incident occurred in heavy fog and at a time when the air traffic controller on duty could not see the two aircraft, nor could the two pilots see each other. A more recent incident that highlights the importance of the surface movement radar in emergency situations is the crash of British Airways flight 038 on the threshold of runway 27L at London Heathrow Airport. The video on this Wikileaks article shows the SMR display (update: link now appears to be down). Emergency vehicles can be seen rushing to the scene of the accidents moments after it occurs.

Air-Ground Voice Communication

In the early years of aviation, when there were fewer planes in the sky than we have today and there was not much need for pilots to communicate with ground personnel, signalling was often done using lights and flags. But with an increase in aircraft, a more efficient and unambiguous two-way communication system became necessary. At the same time, radio technology was progressing, and it became feasible for aircraft to have radio transceivers on board.

Aircraft communication in the early years was over the HF (High Frequency) range of the radio spectrum. In the US, each airline company had its own dedicated radio frequency over which company pilots communicated with their operators on the ground. But over time, with an increase in airliner companies and air traffic, this system soon led to a depletion in the available frequencies on the spectrum. The problem was resolved by setting up a common entity that provided air traffic coordination services. This allowed for a better use of the available radio spectrum, as pilots communicated with air traffic personnel over common frequencies. Over time, this system evolved to the air traffic control system we have today.

Modern civil aviation uses the HF (High Frequency) and VHF (Very High Frequency) parts of the spectrum for communication between aircraft and ATC. Military aviation in various countries are also known to operate in UHF (Ultra High Frequency). Early air to ground voice communication was over HF, but VHF started to get adopted in the 1930s and 1940s.

VHF communication

VHF is the predominant frequency range used by civil aviation in most parts of the world, and communication usually happens over the 118 MHz to 138 MHz frequency range via an amplitude modulated (AM) signal. (FM radio, in comparison, is over frequencies from 87 MHz to 108 MHz in most countries, and is of course, frequency modulated.) The frequency 121.5 MHz is reserved for emergencies in the VHF frequency range.

VHF transmissions rely heavily on a line-of-sight between the transmitter and receiver. This doesn't necessarily mean a visual line-of-sight, however, but a "radio line-of-sight" in the VHF part of the spectrum. Solid structures, such as buildings or the earth's surface, tend to attenuate the signal (or reduce its strength). Additionally, atmospheric layers do not refract or reflect VHF waves well. Due to these characteristics of VHF propagation, and due to the curvature of the earth, an aircraft below a VHF transmitter's radio horizon would typically fall outside its range. Thus the nature of the terrain and the height of the aircraft above the ground plays a part in determining whether it is in range of a given ground station operating over VHF frequencies.

For instance, the range would be severely curtailed for low-flying aircraft in hilly areas or urban areas with tall skyscrapers. In such cases, signal repeaters can be used to increase coverage. Theoretically, an aircraft at cruise altitude, flying in ideal weather conditions with a good quality transceiver can expect to communicate with a station unobstructed by hilly terrain about 200 nautical miles away (370 kilometers or 230 miles). In less than ideal real-world conditions however, this range can be significantly lower.

VHF operating frequencies are allocated to ATC stations in such a way that they do not interfere with each other, and since VHF relies on line-of-sight, frequencies can be reused by other distant stations. A typical activity for controllers is to pass on the frequency used by the next ATC sector to the pilot as the aircraft exits the ATC's airspace.

HF communication

When flying over large expanses of water, VHF communication, due to its line-of-sight nature becomes unusable. Additionally it would be impractical to construct, operate and maintain VHF relay stations in the middle of the ocean. So in these situations, HF can be used to communicate with an aircraft below the station's horizon and often many thousands of nautical miles away. In some cases, HF transmissions are known to have been successfully received on the other side of the planet. Thus pilots flying certain oceanic routes that are outside radar coverage use HF to periodically report their position to the oceanic control station for the sector they are flying in.

HF has some major drawbacks that make it impractical for more widespread applications. First, HF signal propagation is highly dependent on atmospheric conditions and solar activity, making HF communication comparatively noisy and unreliable. Due to this variability, ATC stations operating over HF have a number of alternative frequencies that they can operate over, and they switch to the frequency with the best signal propagation characteristics at the time.

It's also the case that HF signals have a longer wavelength than VHF signals, so the antennas used for transmitting and receiving are much larger, as well. And HF transmitters also operate at a higher power, since the receivers may potentially be hundreds of nautical miles away.

Next-generation Technologies

The aviation industry has been relatively conservative in its approach to adopting new technologies, so a number of the systems described so far are based on technology that has been around for at least a few decades. This conservatism is primarily attributable to the safety and reliability considerations that must be taken into account when making changes to existing equipment and procedures.

While tried-and-true systems do provide the required safety, this safety may at times come at the cost of efficiency. Critics of the current air traffic control systems claim that efficiency gains of many percentage points remain to be realized by more intelligent routing in controlled airspace that allows for lower separation distances between aircraft.

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US is studying the implementation of various next-generation technologies to improve the efficiency of the ATC system while retaining or improving the level of safety. NextGen will incorporate global positioning satellites, digital communication networks, data networking, and improved weather forecasting to improve efficiency. Of all the technologies being considered, Automatic Dependant Surveillance (ADS-B) is being billed as the the future of air traffic control and as the backbone of the NextGen system.

Automatic Dependant Surveillance—Broadcast (ADS-B)

ADS-B is a relatively new technique (compared to use of primary and secondary surveillance radar) to monitor aircraft. The technique uses the global positioning system (GPS) to provide an accurate report of an aircraft's position. As the name suggests, this is a broadcast technique where an aircraft equipped with an ADS-B transponder routinely broadcasts data. Using similar information from all aircraft, the air traffic controllers can build an accurate picture of aircraft positions. ADS-B is able to provide information not unlike an SSR, but without the requirement for a radar installation or transmissions from a ground station.

The aircraft typically transmits its identity, current position, speed, and direction of travel (among other parameters) over a digital link, twice every second. Due to the broadcast nature of the data, other aircraft in the region can also receive this information and provide their pilots with an overview of the traffic in the neighborhood as well. One of the advantages of the ADS-B system is that the receiver can be relatively simple and inexpensive. Another advantage is that ground vehicles at the airport can use the same system to report their location on the airport tarmac which can be incorporated into the Airport Movement Area Safety System described earlier.

One of the disadvantages of ADS-B is that the system relies on the GPS system for accurate reporting of position information. Loss or degradation of the GPS signal could potentially put lives in danger. This can be mitigated to an extent by alternative sources of positioning information such as the European Galileo project, the Russian GLONASS project or the Chinese Beidou project, when they become fully operational. The other disadvantage is that a malfunctioning or inoperative transponder could render the aircraft invisible, or worse, broadcast false information. This is one reason for the continued use of surveillance radars as backup. Given the relative simplicity and cost-effectiveness of building an ADS-B transponder (compared to surveillance radars) and the open nature of the system, critics fear it is also a security hazard as it would in theory be possible to spoof data to represent aircraft that don't actually exist.

Listening to ATC and Tracking Aircraft

ATC and pilots communicate over open, well-advertised frequencies. Since VHF communication takes place using frequencies between 118 MHz to 138 MHz, a frequency range not commonly available on general purpose radio receivers, a scanner that can tune into these frequencies is required. It isn't unusual for serious aviation enthusiasts to invest in a good quality scanner to listen to their local air traffic controllers and pilots. Sites such as Live ATC stream ATC broadcasts from various ATC facilities in the world. One must, however, exercise caution and check local laws first, as listening to ATC is illegal in certain jurisdictions. HF communications also occur over open, well-advertised frequencies and, unlike VHF, general purpose shortwave radios often have the frequency range to tune into oceanic ATC. Due to the nature of HF propagation, it may be possible to listen to controllers thousands of miles away, but the reception quality will vary.

The ADS-B system, as it operates currently, is an open system as well. It is possible to purchase an ADS-B receiver for as little as $600. A number of enthusiast sites such as (Scandinavian region), Zurich University of Applied Sciences' School of Engineering radar site (Switzerland) and Casper (Netherlands) provide an overview of aircraft in their region by listening to ADS-B transmissions.


Wow, so recognizing that corporations have so much power and sway over nearly all of our elected officials in the US government (not to mention the world), and sharing the news with others who were previously unaware--that means I'm crazy? *

For the past decade, if you didn't support the war, you were non-patriotic. If you criticize the president, you were treasonous. Then, we got a new president (for whom I voted) and if you criticize him, you are a racist. I've stated before, his inconsistency as president vs. his campaign platform is what upsets me about the president. His preference to favor corporations and banks over the people is hugely disappointing.

I'm not a birther, a truther, a tea partier, and definitely not a racist--why can't I criticize his heavily corporate/bank friendly policy without being called crazy or racist?

I voted for the man. I saw him becoming president after his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I thought he was just what we needed, but my god, his overcommitment to the myth of bipartisanship has rendered him ineffectual, his cabinet choices make him seem either clueless or crooked (Geithner? Summers? Come on!), his willingness to put the banks before the people, his insistence that the economy is recovering in spite so many indications it is getting worse (not to mention the two disasters looming on the horizon he hasn't addressed: the credit and commercial real estate crashes), and his commitment to a really awful health care deform bill all add up to a bad first year. A really bad first year.

But the absolute uselessness of the Democrats and the cluelessness of the Republicans has me (and many others like me) desperate for a 3rd party free from any corporate influence. The Democrats and Republicans need it, too, so they can see legislation get done without corruption or corporate influence.

* That means Sens. Dick Durbin and Russ feingold and Reps. Ron Paul and Alan Grayson are all crazy, too. Dick Durbin said point blank "The banks own congress." Russ Feingold wrote a brilliant essay responding to the SCOTUS "Citizens United" decision. Paul and Grayson are outspoken in their criticism of the Federal Reserve.
News Dots: The Day's Events as a Social Network
An interactive map of how every story in the news is related, updated daily.
By Chris Wilson

Like Kevin Bacon's co-stars, topics in the news are all connected by degrees of separation. To examine how every story fits together, News Dots visualizes the most recent topics in the news as a giant social network. Subjects—represented by the circles below—are connected to one another if they appear together in at least two stories, and the size of the dot is proportional to the total number of times the subject is mentioned.

To use this interactive tool, just click on a circle to see which stories mention that topic and which other topics it connects to in the network. Double click a dot to zoom in on it. From there, you can click on any connected dot to see which stories mention both subjects. To zoom out, just double click in white space or use the zoom out button in the upper left corner. The buttons in the upper right can toggle the emphasis between the importance of a subject and how recently it has appeared on the radar. A more detailed explanation of how News Dots works is available below the graphic.

This is a work in progress, so please send us your ideas for features you'd like to see or other ways we can improve it.
How News Dots works

Step 1: Behind the scenes, News Dots scans all articles from major publications—about 500 stories a day—and submits them to Calais, a service from Thompson Reuters that automatically "tags" content with all the important keywords: people, places, companies, topics, and so forth. Slate's tool registers any tag that appears at least twice in a story.

Step 2: Each time two tags appear in the same story, this tool tallies a connection between them. For example, a story about a planned troop increase in Afghanistan reform might return tags for President Obama, the White House, and Afghanistan. These topics are now connected:

Step 3: As this tool scans hundreds of stories, this network grows rapidly, and "communities" begin to form among the tags. Subjects that are highly connected—those that appear together in many stories—cluster together in the network. This occurs in the same way that a picture of the social network of your Facebook friends would reveal clusters of friends from high school, college, and work, with some unexpected connections between them when friends belong to multiple cliques.

Step 4: The news network that results is visualized using Slate's custom News Dots tool, which is built using an open-source Actionscript library called Flare. Tags are displayed if they appear in at least four stories, and connections are made if at least two stories link those two subjects. The visualization covers the previous three days of news and is updated daily.

U.S. Airports Get Body Scanners

11 More U.S. Airports Get Body Scanners

By David Kravets
March 5, 2010 |

Transportation officials announced Friday 11 more United States airports will begin receiving full-body imaging machines.

“By accelerating the deployment of this technology, we are enhancing our capability to detect and disrupt threats of terrorism across the nation,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement.

Despite concerns of privacy and their effectiveness, the 11 airports are to get the 150 machines beginning Monday at Boston’s Logan International Airport, and one at the O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. In all, 30 U.S. airports will employ the scanning devices.

Fliers declining to submit to the machines that create X-ray-like virtual images of the body may get intense pat-downs from Transportation Security Administration authorities. The combined 150 imaging machines are being bought, in part, by $1 billion the government set aside from its $787 billion federal bailout bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union has decried the scanners as “virtual strip searchs.” The Electronic Privacy Information Center, in a Freedom of Information Act request, said the machines are capable of storing and transmitting images of passengers despite the government’s claim to the contrary.

A test-image shown to reporters Friday at Logan International “showed the blurry outline of a female volunteer. None of her clothing was visible, nor were her genitals, but the broad contours of her chest and buttocks were. Her face also was blurred,” The Associated Press said. “The image included the shadow of a cellphone purposely left on her belt, as well as the metal buttons on her pants. But overall, it looked like the outline of a ghost.”

The Amsterdam airport where suspected underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a Detroit-bound Christmas flight had the scanning machines. But they were not used to check the Nigerian.

The machines also cannot detect so-called “booty bombs” in which an explosive is inserted into the body.

By summer, TSA expects the units, made by California-based Rapiscan, to be deployed at airports in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles and Oakland, California; Columbus, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Cincinnati; and Kansas City.

House passes $15 billion jobs bill

House passes $15 billion jobs bill
By Ben Pershing
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, March 5, 2010

After stalling briefly, the Democrats' jobs agenda regained momentum on Thursday as the House passed one measure designed to boost employment and the Senate pressed forward on a more ambitious bill that is expected to come to a vote next week.

The House voted 217 to 201 to approve a $15 billion measure that would give tax breaks to companies for hiring new employees. Six Republicans joined the vast majority of Democrats in supporting the bill, which also includes a one-year reauthorization of the law governing federal highway funding, as well as an expansion of the Build America Bonds program and a provision allowing companies to write off equipment purchases.

More than 30 Democrats voted against the measure. Liberals complained that it is too small and too focused on tax cuts rather than on spending.

The Senate passed the bill last week on a bipartisan vote. But because the House altered the measure, the Senate must approve the revised bill before President Obama can sign it into law. The Senate is expected to take it up again next week.

"This bill is a clear, focused effort at putting Americans back to work," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said. "It provides strong incentives for businesses to start hiring again."

But economic experts are divided on how effective the payroll tax break would be at spurring job creation, and some Republicans said they were skeptical.

Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, predicted that the bill would not make a significant dent in the unemployment rate. "Any company that can't afford to hire today still won't be able to hire if this bill becomes law," Price said. "Calling this a 'jobs' bill is pure fraud."

Before Thursday's vote, some moderate House Democrats, and many Republicans, expressed concern that the measure violates recently enacted "pay as you go" budget rules, because only a portion of its spending and tax credits is offset.

House Democrats altered the bill slightly to address those concerns, but some liberals remained critical of the bill's priorities.

The House approved a $154 billion jobs bill in December full of spending on infrastructure projects and initiatives to help the poor, and some House Democrats want the Senate to take that approach rather than moving their jobs agenda in bits and pieces.

"I wish it was combined," Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said of the Senate's strategy. "It would be easier to digest."

The Senate, meanwhile, considered amendments Thursday on a $150 billion jobs measure that includes one-year extensions of unemployment insurance and COBRA health benefits, plus renewals of a variety of expiring tax breaks supported by Republicans and K Street.

The measure also includes money to help states fund Medicaid, a "fix" to prevent a cut in payments to doctors seeing Medicare patients, and help for private pension funds that were crippled by the economic recession. A vote on final passage is expected to come early next week.


House Passes Senate Jobs Tax Credit

Jobs tax credit survives liberal defections. W. Post: "The House voted 217 to 201 to approve a $15 billion measure that would give tax breaks to companies for hiring new employees. Six Republicans joined the vast majority of Democrats in supporting the bill ... More than 30 Democrats voted against the measure. Liberals complained that it is too small and too focused on tax cuts ... "

House amendments mean measure ping-pongs back to the Senate. NYT: "They adjusted the bill to cover its costs more completely, to satisfy Democratic fiscal hawks. To attract liberal lawmakers who contended the measure was too meager, they added a provision to generate business for minority contractors. The revisions mean the measure will have to be reconsidered by the Senate, where it was unclear whether Republicans would seek to slow its progress."

Senate looks to finish long-term jobless aid, aid to states by Tuesday. CQ: "Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said ... the chamber would likely hold a cloture vote on the bill and finish it up on Tuesday ... Lively debate is expected on an amendment by Democrat Jim Webb of Virginia, that would impose a 'windfall tax' on bonuses paid in 2009 to [bailed out] executives..."

NYT's Paul Krugman was what the jobs debate has taught us about the two parties: "How can the parties agree on policy when they have utterly different visions of how the economy works, when one party feels for the unemployed, while the other weeps over affluent victims of the 'death tax'?"

Jobs by Sector Tell a Bleaker Story

Jobs by Sector Tell a Bleaker Story
By Armand Biroonak
March 5, 2010
The Department of Labor’s employment data released this morning indicates that we are continuing to lose jobs, 36,000 in February alone, although at a much slower pace than this time last year. The danger now is that with the leveling off of unemployment, policymakers and those in Congress will fixate on month-to-month job numbers rather than taking a holistic look at the entire health of the job market.

When looking at the numbers more closely by sector, the picture remains anemic, particularly for the construction and manufacturing industries.


Of the roughly 4.8 million jobs lost since January 2009, the construction and manufacturing sectors combined have shouldered half of all job losses. On the other hand, the retail and leisure/hospitality industries represent about 15 percent of total job losses.

Attention now has turned to the House passage of a $15 billion jobs bill yesterday. Unfortunately, this legislation is woefully inadequate to meet the magnitude of jobs that must be created across any sector, let alone to plug the entire gap of 8.5 million total job losses since the recession began in 2008. This is why a larger jobs bill is needed, and why the U.S. should take on measures such as Germany’s short-time working program that has successfully saved over one million jobs in the country.
These policies are not just good for the here and now though, they set a good foundation so our industries keep valuable, skilled workers as we look to rebuild our economy with greater investment and a strong industrial policy.

Top Treasury Official Leaves For Lobbying Firm

Top Treasury Official Leaves For Lobbying Firm
03- 1-10 04:04 PM

Just as Congress enters the final stretch of the financial regulatory reform effort, one of the Treasury Department's leading liaisons to the Hill, Damon Munchus, is bailing out to go work for a financial services lobbying and consulting firm.

Munchus was one of Treasury's chief negotiators with the House Financial Services Committee.

"This is not a mid-season trade in the NBA, where players just change jerseys and play the same way," said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), a member of the committee. "There should be at least some kind of cooling off period."

When he joined the Obama administration, Munchus -- like all other appointees -- signed an agreement not to lobby the administration for two years after leaving the government.

But the pledge says nothing about lobbying Congress, which is absolutely part of what Munchus will do for his new employer, The Cypress Group.

"Damon Munchus signed the Obama Administration's ethics pledge, and he is committed to fulfilling it," said Ben Dupuy, a partner at Cypress.

Cypress is a five-year-old firm that specializes in telling banks and other investors what Treasury is up to and how they can best use that information to cash in. At the same time, a Cypress division is registered as a lobbyist on bank issues -- a kind of dual role that leaves it simultaneously telling clients how to exploit Treasury regulations and market-interventions, while lobbying for or against those regulations and interventions. It also does its own investing.
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Munchus worked in the Office of Legislative Affairs, which deals directly with the Hill. His position as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Banking and Finance gave him intimate knowledge not just of the process but of key lawmakers -- what they privately support what they secretly need; what they detest; and what makes them tick.

That's invaluable information to investors. Munchus couldn't be reached for comment.

The ability of Wall Street to lure staffers into high-paying lobbying and consulting jobs has a corrosive effect on the legislative process, as staffers start doing the banks' bidding even before a payday, in the hopes of getting one someday. Moves like Munchus's only increase that incentive.

"You've got to wonder how much of a fight administration lobbyists are putting up against people they see as their future employers," Miller said.

The Cypress Group lobbies on behalf some of the very firms Munchus dealt with at Treasury, including Citigroup, which is partly owned by taxpayers; some of the regional Federal Home Loan Banks; Wells Fargo; U.S. Bank; taxpayer-owned Freddie Mac; the biggest bank in the country, Bank of America; credit card giant Capital One; and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, a trade group representing derivatives dealers and traders.

The firm has lobbied federal agencies and Congress on tax issues, bank regulation and taxpayers' bailout of Wall Street, among other topics. Its lobbying efforts have netted the firm nearly $5.5 million since 2005, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

With the acquisition of Munchus, Cypress can now boast to employ high-level officials from four straight Treasury Secretaries.

Cypress advises hedge funds, private equity firms, and venture capitalists. According to the firm's website, Cypress also has helped clients buy bank assets, a booming business given the nearly 200 banks that have failed over the past two years. "We facilitate meetings with key officials in Congress, federal agencies, and state governments, tailoring our message and tactics for each relationship and encounter," the firm says.


Advisors to Geithner, Paulson Join The Cypress Group; Open New York, Dallas Offices

(Washington, D.C) -- One of the first senior-level officials to leave the Obama Treasury Department is headed to The Cypress Group, a financial services lobbying and consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. Damon Munchus, who served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Banking and Finance in Treasury's Office of Legislative Affairs, will open the firm's New York office as a Managing Director. The Cypress Group will also open an office in Dallas headed by Managing Director Jeb Mason, who served as the as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Business Affairs under Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. With these additions, The Cypress Group now employs former senior-level advisors to the past three Secretaries of the Treasury as well as Secretary Geithner.

At the Treasury Department, Mr. Munchus'[s] responsibilities included acting as principal liaison between the U.S. Congress and Treasury regarding financial institutions and capital markets, counseling senior Treasury officials on all pending financial matters, and creating and directing legislative strategy in order to achieve the Administration's goals before Congress. Prior to his Treasury Department position, Mr. Munchus served as a member of President Obama's FDIC Review Transition Team, a Vice President within the Investment Banking Division of Jefferies and Co., and a senior financial analyst for credit portfolio strategies at Fannie Mae.

Mr. Mason, who served as Policy Advisor to Secretary Paulson, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by the Secretary for his contributions during the financial crisis. Prior to joining Treasury, Mr. Mason served the White House as Associate Director for Strategic Initiatives, advising senior White House staff and Cabinet officials on a myriad of issues including tax, budget, economic, and international issues.


The ability of Wall Street to lure staffers into high-paying lobbying and consulting jobs has a corrosive effect on the legislative process, as staffers start doing the banks' bidding even before a payday, in the hopes of getting one someday. Moves like Munchus's only increase that incentive.

"You've got to wonder how much of a fight administration lobbyists are putting up against people they see as their future employers," Miller said.

With the acquisition of Munchus, Cypress can now boast to employ high-level officials from four straight Treasury Secretaries.

States May Ban Credit Checks For Job Applicants

Any sort of non-criminal &/or civil history should be excluded from background checks for non-money handling jobs

States May Ban Credit Checks For Job Applicants
By Susie Madrak Friday Mar 05, 2010 4:00pm

Doing credit checks for jobs that don't give applicants access to money is not only a stupid thing, it's de facto discrimination based on class. The people who crashed the economy still have great credit records, while the people whose lives were ruined are the ones to bear yet another burden as a result. People shouldn't have to wait for state legislation - this should be a national law that flat out forbids the practice:

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – It's hard enough to find a job in this economy, and now some people are facing another hurdle: Potential employers are holding their credit histories against them.

Sixty percent of employers recently surveyed by the Society for Human Resources Management said they run credit checks on at least some job applicants, compared with 42 percent in a somewhat similar survey in 2006.

Employers say such checks give them valuable information about an applicant's honesty and sense of responsibility. But lawmakers in at least 16 states from South Carolina to Oregon have proposed outlawing most credit checks, saying the practice traps people in debt because their past financial problems prevent them from finding work.

[...] "If somebody is trying to get a job as a truck driver or a trainer in a gym, what does your credit history have to do with your ability to do that job?" Hixson said. He said he knows of no research that shows a person with a bad credit history is going to perform poorly.

Under federal law, prospective employers must get written permission from applicants to run a credit check on them. But consumer advocates say most job applicants do not feel they are in a position to say no.

Now Wall St. is After Your Social Security

Wall Street Took Your House and Your Retirement, Now They're After Your Social Security
By Ellen Hodgson Brown,
March 6, 2010
In addition to mandatory private health insurance premiums, we may soon be hit with a "mandatory savings" tax and other belt-tightening measures urged by the president's new budget task force. These radical austerity measures are not only unnecessary, but will actually make matters worse. The push for "fiscal responsibility" is based on bad economics.

When billionaires pledge a billion dollars to educate people to the evils of something, it is always good to peer closely at what they are up to. Hedge fund magnate Peter G. Peterson was formerly chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations and head of the New York Federal Reserve. He is now senior chairman of Blackstone Group, which is in charge of dispersing government funds in the controversial AIG bailout, widely criticized as a government giveaway to banks. Peterson is also founder of the Peter Peterson Foundation, which has adopted the cause of imposing "fiscal responsibility" on Congress. He hired David M. Walker, former head of the Government Accounting Office, to spearhead a massive campaign to reduce the runaway federal debt, which the Peterson/Walker team blames on reckless government and consumer spending. The Foundation funded the movie "I.O.USA." to amass popular support for their cause, which largely revolves around dismantling Social Security and Medicare benefits as a way to cut costs and return to "fiscal responsibility."

The Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform has pushed heavily for action to stem the federal debt.
Bills for a budget task force were sponsored in both houses of Congress. The Senate bill was narrowly defeated, and the House bill was tabled; but that was not the end of it. In Obama's State of the Union speech on January 27, he said he would be creating a presidential budget task force by executive order to address the federal government's deficit and debt crisis, and that the task force would be modeled on the bills Congress had failed to pass. If Congress would not impose "fiscal responsibility" on the nation, the president would. "It keeps me awake at night, looking at all that red ink," he said. The executive order was signed on February 17.

What the president seems to have missed is that all of our money except coins now comes into the world as "red ink," or debt. It is all created on the books of private banks and lent into the economy. If there is no debt, there is no money; and private debt has collapsed. This year to date, US lending has been contracting at the fastest rate in recorded history. A credit freeze has struck globally; and when credit shrinks, the money supply shrinks with it. That means there is insufficient money to buy goods, so workers get laid off and factories get shut down, perpetuating a vicious spiral of economic collapse and depression. To reverse that cycle, credit needs to be restored; and when the banks can't do it, the government needs to step in and start "monetizing" debt itself, or turning debt into dollars.

Although lending remains far below earlier levels, banks say they are making as many loans as they are allowed to make under existing banking rules. The real bottleneck is with the "shadow lenders" - those investors who, until late 2007, bought massive amounts of bank loans bundled up as "securities," taking those loans off the banks' books, making room for yet more loans to be originated out of the banks' capital and deposit bases. Because of the surging defaults on subprime mortgages, investors have now shied away from buying the loans, forcing banks and Wall Street firms to hold them on their books and take the losses. In the boom years, the shadow lending market was estimated at $10 trillion. That market has now collapsed, leaving a massive crater in the money supply. That hole needs to be filled and only the government is in a position to do it. Paying down the federal debt when money is already scarce just makes matters worse. When the deficit has been reduced historically, the money supply has been reduced along with it, throwing the economy into recession.

Another Look at the Budget Reform Agenda

That raises the question: are the advocates of "fiscal responsibility" merely misguided? Or are they up to something more devious? The president's executive order is vague about the sorts of budget decisions being entertained, but we can get a sense of what is on the table by looking at the earlier agenda of Peterson's Commission on Budget Reform. The Peterson/Walker plan would have slashed social security entitlements at a time when Wall Street has destroyed the home equity and private retirement accounts of potential retirees. 

Worse, it would have increased the Social Security tax, disguised as a "mandatory savings tax." This added tax would be automatically withdrawn from your paycheck and deposited to a "Guaranteed Retirement Account" managed by the Social Security Administration. Since the savings would be "mandatory," you could not withdraw your money without stiff penalties; and rather than enjoying an earlier retirement paid out of your increased savings, a later retirement date was being called for. In the meantime, your "mandatory savings" would just be fattening the investment pool of the Wall Street bankers managing the funds.

And that may be what really underlies the big push to educate the public to the dangers of the federal debt. Political analyst Jim Capo discusses a slide show presentation given by Walker after the "I.O.USA." premier, in which a mandatory savings plan was proposed that would be modeled on the Federal Thrift Savings Plan (FSP). Capo comments:
"The FSP, available for federal employees like congressional staff workers, has over $200 billion of assets (on paper anyway). About half these assets are in special non-negotiable US Treasury notes issued especially for the FSP scheme. The other half are invested in stocks, bonds and other securities.... The nearly $100 billion in [this] half of the plan is managed by Blackrock Financial. And, yes, shock, Blackrock Financial is a creation of Mr. Peterson's Blackstone Group. In fact, the FSP and Blackstone were birthed almost as a matched set. It's tough to fail when you form an investment management company at the same time you can gain the contract that directs a percentage of the Federal government payroll into your hands."
What "Fiscal Responsibility" Really Means

All of this puts "fiscal responsibility" in a different light. Rather than saving the future for our grandchildren, as the president himself seems to think it means, it appears to be a code word for delivering public monies into private hands and raising taxes on the already-squeezed middle class. In the parlance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), these are called "austerity measures," and they are the sorts of things that people are taking to the streets in Greece, Iceland and Latvia to protest. Americans are not taking to the streets only because nobody has told us that is what is being planned.

We have been deluded into thinking that "fiscal responsibility" (read "austerity") is something for our benefit, something we actually need in order to save the country from bankruptcy. In the massive campaign to educate us to the perils of the federal debt, we have been repeatedly warned that the debt is disastrously large; that when foreign lenders decide to pull the plug on it, the US will have to declare bankruptcy; and that all this is the fault of the citizenry for borrowing and spending too much. We are admonished to tighten our belts and save more; and since we can't seem to impose that discipline on ourselves, the government will have to do it for us with a "mandatory savings" plan. The American people, who are already suffering massive unemployment and cutbacks in government services, will have to sacrifice more and pay the piper more, just as in those debt-strapped countries forced into austerity measures by the IMF.

Fortunately for us, however, there is a major difference between our debt and the debts of Greece, Latvia and Iceland. Our debt is owed in our own currency - US dollars. Our government has the power to fix its solvency problems itself, by simply issuing the money it needs to pay off or refinance its debt. That time-tested solution goes back to the colonial scrip of the American colonists and the "Greenbacks" issued by Abraham Lincoln to avoid paying 24-36 percent interest rates.

Economic Fear Mongering

What invariably kills any discussion of this sensible solution is another myth long perpetrated by the financial elite - that allowing the government to increase the money supply would lead to hyperinflation. Rather than exercising its sovereign right to create the liquidity the nation needs, the government is told that it must borrow from private lenders. And where does their money come from? Ultimately from banks, which create it on their books just as the government would have done. The difference is that when bankers create it, it comes with a hefty fee attached in the form of interest.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve has been trying to increase the money supply; and rather than producing hyperinflation, we continue to suffer from deflation. Frantically pushing money at the banks has not gotten money into the real economy. Rather than lending it to businesses and individuals, the larger banks have been speculating with it or buying up smaller banks, land, farms and productive capacity, while the credit freeze continues on Main Street. Only the government can reverse this vicious syndrome, by spending money directly on projects that will create jobs, provide services and stimulate productivity. Increasing the money supply is not inflationary if the money is used to increase goods and services. Inflation results when "demand" (money) exceeds "supply" (goods and services). When supply and demand increase together, prices remain stable.

The notion that the federal debt is too large to be repaid and that we are imposing that monster burden on our grandchildren is another red herring. The federal debt has not been paid off since the days of Andrew Jackson and it does not need to be paid off. It is just rolled over from year to year, providing the "full faith and credit" that alone backs the money supply of the nation. The only real danger posed by a growing federal debt is an exponentially growing interest burden; but so far, that danger has not materialized either. Interest on the federal debt has actually gone down since 2006 - from $406 billion to $383 billion - because interest rates have been lowered by the Fed to very low levels.

They can't be lowered much further, however, so the interest burden will increase if the federal debt continues to grow. But there is a solution to that too. The government can just mandate that the Federal Reserve buy the government's debt and that the Fed not sell the bonds to private lenders. The Federal Reserve states on its web site that it rebates its profits to the government after deducting its costs, making the money nearly interest-free.

All the fear mongering about the economy collapsing when the Chinese and other investors stop buying our debt is yet another red herring. The Fed can buy the debt itself - as it has been stealthily doing. That is actually a better alternative than selling the debt to foreigners, since it means we really will owe the debt only to ourselves, as Roosevelt was assured by his advisers when he agreed to the deficit approach in the 1930s; and this debt-turned-into-dollars will be nearly interest-free.

Better yet would be to either nationalize or abolish the Fed and fund the government directly with Greenbacks as President Lincoln did. What the Fed does the Treasury Department can do, for the cost of administration. There would be no shareholders or bondholders to siphon earnings, which could be recycled into public accounts to fund national, state and local budgets at zero or near-zero interest rates. Eliminating debt service payments would allow state and federal income taxes to be slashed; and the public managers of this money, rather than hiding behind a veil of secrecy, would be opening their books for all to see.

A final red herring is the threatened bankruptcy of Social Security. Social Security cannot actually go bankrupt, because it is a pay-as-you-go system. Today's social security taxes pay today's recipients; and if necessary, the tax can be raised. As Washington economist Dean Baker wrote when President Bush unleashed the campaign to privatize Social Security in 2005:
"The most recent projections show that the program, with no changes whatsoever, can pay all benefits through the year 2042. Even after 2042, Social Security would always be able to pay a higher benefit (adjusted for inflation) than what current retirees receive, although the payment would only be about 73 percent of scheduled benefits."
Today, incomes over $97,000 escape the tax, disproportionately imposing it on lower income brackets. Projections over the next 75 years show that just removing that cap could eliminate the forecasted deficit. When the Democratic presidential candidates were debating in the fall of 2007, Barack Obama and Joe Biden were the only candidates willing to seriously consider this reasonable alternative. President Obama just needs to follow through with the solutions he espoused when campaigning.

The Mass Education Campaign We Really Need

What is really going on behind the scenes may have been revealed by Prof. Carroll Quigley, Bill Clinton's mentor at Georgetown University. An insider groomed by the international bankers, Dr. Quigley wrote in Tragedy and Hope in 1966:
"[T]he powers of financial capitalism had another far-reaching aim, nothing less than to create a world system of financial control in private hands able to dominate the political system of each country and the economy of the world as a whole. This system was to be controlled in a feudalist fashion by the central banks of the world acting in concert, by secret agreements arrived at in frequent private meetings and conferences."
If that is indeed the plan, it is virtually complete. Unless we wake up to what is going on and take action, the "powers of financial capitalism" will have their way. Rather than taking to the streets, we need to take to the courts, bring voter initiatives and wake up our legislators to the urgent need to take the power to create money back from the private banking elite that has hijacked it from the American people. And that includes waking up the president, who has been losing sleep over the wrong threat.

Why Sex Addiction Is Total B.S.

Too Much Sex? No Such Thing -- Why Sex Addiction Is Total B.S.
By Raymond J. Lawrence, CounterPunch
March 6, 2010

American befuddlement over matters of sex is on the increase, in spite of the fact that one can hardly imagine the subject becoming more befuddling to the people of this country than it already is.

Sex addiction is the latest star in America’s sexual burlesque. Sex addiction has of course been a malaprop from its first usage. Addiction was originally and properly defined as a physiological dependence on a substance to which the body had grown accustomed, such as alcohol, nicotine, heroin and various other drugs. The cure was to end the dependency and abstain from further use of the substance in order to avoid a recurrence of the physiological dependency. These treatments do work and many people have been cured of their addictions and never returned to the addictive substance.

Applying such a metaphor to sexual pleasure creates a misleading and ominous innuendo. Sex is not an addictive substance. It’s a human interaction on which the survival of the species is dependent. It is also possibly the most pleasurable and sought after activity known to humankind, and arguably an experience no one should be deprived of. Most normal people consider more rather than less sexual pleasure to be a major objective in life.

Following the substance abuse mode implies that the only cure for an addiction to sexual pleasure would be a celibate or monastic life, a complete renunciation of the alleged addictive sexual pleasure.

The very idea of sexual pleasure as a harmful addiction plays precisely into the hands of one of the most perverse aspects of Western religious history, namely the teaching that sex is a work of the devil redeemed only by the act of procreation itself. Reliance on the notion of sex addiction in counseling and psychiatric treatment is ominous.

Christianity as a world religion has much to commend it on balance. Nevertheless, its posture toward sexual pleasure has been abysmal. In that respect it should be noted that Christianity, of all the major world religions, is the only one to cast sexual pleasure in such a negative light. Never mind that Christianity’s distaff side - Protestants and others - challenged such negativity toward sexual pleasure. They were eventually and unfortunately drowned out in the debate. It is no coincidence that currently the most Christian of nations, the U.S., is also the most negative toward sexual pleasure. (And at the same time the most confused sexually.) Europe as gone blessedly post-Christian.

We must suspect that the sex addiction proponents unconsciously wish to rebuild something like the medieval Christian social order where virtually every cultured and literate person was bereft of sexual pleasure for life, save for sexual pleasure in the service of procreation

Some psychiatrists are now getting into the fray, offering treatment for sex addiction. However, the Bible of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), is currently being prepared for its 5th edition, and is wisely declining to introduce sex addiction to its manual. It does, however, come close by introducing the category of hypersexuality as a mental disorder. This neologism is the editors’ own special, and arguably less troublesome, substitute for sex addiction. But as the saying goes, it walks like the proverbial sex addiction duck.

The pundits are now weighing in on the new DSM 5. Allan Frances in The Los Angeles Times is worried that philanderers and rapists will now be able to claim mental illness as a defense of their anti-social behavior and thereby escape punishment. George Will in The Washington Post astutely raises the problem of medicalizing the assessment of character, which he unaccountably blames on liberals. I thought I was a liberal, but I’m as concerned as Will about defining character or the lack thereof as a burden of psychiatric diagnosticians. And by extension, character as an expected outcome of proper medication.

So now according to the working version of the new DSM-5, psychiatrists will be able to assess whether one is having too much sex, or even whether one simply wants too much sex. Or too little. They will presumably have some kind of measuring rod to determine what is too much or too little.

This new project, of assessing who might be wanting or getting too much sexual pleasure, or too little, should create many more jobs for psychiatrists. We’ve been needing something to improve the job market. Maybe this will do it. Perhaps psychiatry will now join hands with the worst elements of Christianity and recreate the medieval Christian dream, a world where the only sexual pleasure allowable is that accidentally associated with the desire to procreate.

Corn Farmers Say "Waaaaa! Food Inc. Shouldn't Win Oscar"

Sounds like the knife of truth cut a little deep in the quick, eh?

Corn Farmers Say Food Inc. Shouldn't Win Oscar

by Mary Clare Jalonick

WASHINGTON - The corn industry is lashing out at an Oscar-nominated documentary that has grossed out grocery shoppers, saying the film is unfair to many of the nation's farmers and shouldn't win.

[The corn industry is lashing out at an Oscar-nominated documentary that has grossed out grocery shoppers, saying the film is unfair to many of the nation's farmers and shouldn't win. (photo by flickr user iowa_spirit_walker)]The corn industry is lashing out at an Oscar-nominated documentary that has grossed out grocery shoppers, saying the film is unfair to many of the nation's farmers and shouldn't win. (photo by flickr user iowa_spirit_walker)
"Food Inc.," which was nominated for best documentary, has captured audiences with its behind-the-scenes look at the food industry, bringing cameras into feedlots, slaughterhouses and chicken farms used by corporate agriculture, describing stomach-turning practices in an effort to encourage consumers to buy locally grown and organic foods that aren't mass produced.

The corn industry, one of several food industries attacked in the film, is fighting back. Though the official voting for Sunday's Academy Awards is over, the National Corn Growers Association, the industry's largest trade group, is encouraging corn farmers to get the word out in the media and on social networking sites like Facebook to rebut the documentary in the final days before the Oscars.

"If we don't shoot down their arguments with credible and truthful information, our reputation as America's farmers will suffer significantly," reads an alert sent to member farmers this week.

The movie taps into a growing social movement critical of the nation's industrial food system. The film features Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation." Both books are credited with galvanizing opposition to industrial agriculture.

Darrin Ihnen, a corn grower from Hurley, S.D., and president of the corn group, says the movie makes him mad because it ignores many of the good things about America's larger farms, including the environmentally friendly practices some use, as well as efforts to feed the world's hungry.

"Because we have an abundant supply, America has the world's most affordable food, and that's due in large part to the practices attacked in this film," he said.

The documentary looks at the chemicals used to fatten up chickens and cattle, criticizes genetically engineered crops and links practices at livestock operations to deaths from E. coli poisoning. The widespread use of corn also is blamed for the country's obesity epidemic and high rates of diabetes.

But the movie isn't all negative, chronicling the increase in production of organic foods and the willingness of companies such as Wal-Mart to sell them.

The film's producer and director, Robert Kenner, says he tried to get the farming industry involved when he was making the film, but most declined to talk. He says he has been surprised at the response to it and the debate it has created - he says said the food industry at first ignored the film, but companies have protested more loudly as the film has gained attention.

"They are realizing their consumers are concerned," he said. "These are complicated issues and we don't mean to offer the solutions to these problems, totally, but we do mean to create a conversation about them."

James McWilliams, a professor at Texas State University and author of "Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly," says he thinks the film is justified in attacking the corn industry and highlighting the overabundance of corn-based products in the American diet. Nevertheless, he says it may not give farmers a fair shake.

"Millions of conventional farmers who care about the environment and work to lessen their carbon footprint have good reason to feel threatened by the film's aggressive message that all industrial agriculture is inherently evil," he said.

Dan Glickman, former secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton and current chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, says the film is a welcome addition to the debate over so-called production agriculture, but called it "a piece of advocacy work" that is not always objective.

"I think production agriculture, the corn growers, have a good story to tell, and a lot of times I don't think they have engaged in the debate," he said. "The more they protest, the more people will want to go see the movie."

"Justify High Rates"

Justify High Rates, Health Secretary Tells Health Insurance Execs

by Diana Carlton

WASHINGTON - Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told insurance executives Thursday that their companies should be more transparent when they seek higher premiums amid what she called "jaw-dropping rate increases" from California to the East Coast.

"The top five largest for-profit insurance companies filed earnings of $12.2 billion last year while dropping coverage for 2.7 million Americans," Sebelius said. "It just doesn't make a lot of sense to people across America frightened that they're being priced out of the market."

The CEOs of UnitedHealth Group Inc., WellPoint Inc., Aetna Inc., Health Care Service Corp. and Cigna Corp. attended the meeting with Sebelius at the White House, along with officials from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Sebelius later said the meeting "focused on what is happening with the kind of jaw-dropping rate increases that people are seeing."

President Obama dropped into the meeting briefly to hand the insurance executives a letter from Natoma Canfield, a cancer survivor of Medina, Ohio, whose health premium increased over 40 percent this year, according to Sebelius.

With comprehensive health care legislation struggling on Capitol Hill, the White House is trying to focus public attention on the record-setting insurance premium increases being announced from Connecticut to California.

Sebelius said she asked the companies to file their rate requests online, along with actuarial data that supports those requests, to give transparency and justification for raising the rates.

"Put it on a Web site, tell us what your loss trends are," she said. "Tell us what you're paying out. Tell us what you're spending in overhead and CEO salaries and advertising."

WellPoint executives have blamed their rate increases in California, which average about 39 percent for individuals, on rising medical costs and a pool of customers that is gradually becoming older and sicker as younger, healthier people drop their coverage.


"Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people." ~ John Adams

"My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular." ~ Adlai Stevenson

"There has been no organized effort to keep government down since Jefferson's day. Ever since then the American people have been bolstering up its powers and giving it more and more jurisdiction over their affairs. They pay for that folly in increased taxes and diminished liberties." ~ H.L. Mencken

"Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats." ~ H.L. Mencken

"There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action." ~ Bertrand Russell

"The time not to become a father is eighteen years before a war." ~ E.B. White

"The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don't have to waste your time voting." ~Charles Bukowski

"When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion." ~ C.P. Snow

"Nothing says 'Obey me!' like a bloody head on a fencepost."
--Stewie Griffin

"Sunday — A day given over by Americans to wishing that they themselves were dead and in Heaven, and that their neighbors were dead and in Hell." ~ H.L. Mencken

"Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage." ~ H.L. Mencken

"Through their state legislatures and without regard to the federal government, the people demand a convention to propose amendments that can and will reverse any trends they see as fatal to true representative government." --Dwight Eisenhower

"Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself..."

"This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it. I can not be ignorant of the fact that many worthy and patriotic citizens are desirous to have the National Constitution amended. While I make no recommendation of amendments, I fully recognize the rightful authority of the people over the whole subject, to be exercised in either of the modes prescribed in the instrument itself; and I should, under existing circumstances, favor rather than oppose a fair opportunity being afforded the people to act upon it. I will venture to add that to me the convention mode seems preferable, in that it allows amendments to originate with the people themselves, instead of only permitting them to take or reject propositions originated by others, not especially chosen for the purpose, and which might not be precisely such as they would wish to either accept of refuse." -- Abraham Lincoln

"Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power." --Benito Mussolini

Knowing the mind of God: Seven theories of everything

Knowing the mind of God: Seven theories of everything
04 March 2010 by Michael Marshall

The "theory of everything" is one of the most cherished dreams of science. If it is ever discovered, it will describe the workings of the universe at the most fundamental level and thus encompass our entire understanding of nature. It would also answer such enduring puzzles as what dark matter is, the reason time flows in only one direction and how gravity works. Small wonder that Stephen Hawking famously said that such a theory would be "the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God".

But theologians needn't lose too much sleep just yet. Despite decades of effort, progress has been slow. Rather than one or two rival theories whose merits can be judged against the evidence, there is a profusion of candidates and precious few clues as to which (if any) might turn out to be correct.

Here's a brief guide to some of the front runners.

String theory

This is probably the best known theory of everything, and the most heavily studied. It suggests that the fundamental particles we observe are not actually particles at all, but tiny strings that only "look" like particles to scientific instruments because they are so small.

What's more, the mathematics of string theory also rely on extra spatial dimensions, which humans could not experience directly.

These are radical suggestions, but many theorists find the string approach elegant and have proposed numerous variations on the basic theme that seem to solve assorted cosmological conundrums. However, they have two major challenges to overcome if they are to persuade the rest of the scientific community that string theory is the best candidate for a ToE.

First, string theorists have so far struggled to make new predictions that can be tested. So string theory remains just that: a theory.

Secondly, there are just too many variants of the theory, any one of which could be correct – and little to choose between them. To resolve this, some physicists have proposed a more general framework called M-theory, which unifies many string theories.

But this has its own problems. Depending how you set it up, M-theory can describe any of 10500 universes. Some physicists argue that this is evidence that there are multiple universes, but others think it just means the theory is untestable.

Loop quantum gravity

Although it hasn't had the same media exposure, loop quantum gravity is so far the only real rival to string theory.

The basic idea is that space is not continuous, as we usually think, but is instead broken up into tiny chunks 10-35 metres across. These are then connected by links to make the space we experience. When these links are tangled up into braids and knots, they produce elementary particles.

Loop quantum gravity has produced some tentative predictions of real-world effects, and has also shed some light on the birth of the universe. But its proponents have so far struggled to incorporate gravity into their theories. And as with string theory, a true experimental test is still some way off.


Causal dynamical triangulations looks pretty similar to loop quantum gravity at first glance. Just as loop quantum gravity breaks up space into tiny "building blocks", CDT assumes that space-time is split into tiny building blocks – this time, four-dimensional chunks called pentachorons.

The pentachorons can then be glued together to produce a large-scale universe – which turns out to have three space dimensions and one time dimension, just as the real one does. So far, so good, but there's a major drawback: CDT as it currently stands cannot explain the existence of matter.

Quantum Einstein gravity

This idea, proposed by Martin Reuter of the University of Mainz, Germany, takes a rather different tack.

Part of the problem with unifying gravity and quantum mechanics is what happens to gravity at small scales. The closer two objects are to each other, the stronger the gravitational attraction between them; but gravity also acts on itself, and as a result, at very small distances a feedback loop starts. According to conventional theories the force should then become ridiculously strong – which means there's something wrong with the conventional theories.

However, Reuter has come up with a way to generate a "fixed point": a distance below which gravity stops getting stronger. This could help solve the problem, and lead to a quantum theory of gravity.

Quantum graphity

All the theories above assume that space and time exist, and then try to build up the rest of the universe. Quantum graphity – the brainchild of Fotini Markopoulou of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and colleagues – tries to do away with them.

When the universe formed in the big bang, Markopoulou says, there was no such thing as space as we know it. Instead, there was an abstract network of "nodes" of space, in which each node was connected to every other. Very soon afterwards, this network collapsed and some of the nodes broke away from each other, forming the large universe we see today.

Internal relativity

Developed by Olaf Dreyer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, internal relativity sets out to explain how general relativity could arise in a quantum world.

Every particle in the universe has a property called "spin", which can be loosely thought of as what happens to the particle when it is rotated. Dreyer's model imagines a system of spins existing independently of matter and arranged randomly. When the system reaches a critical temperature, the spins align, forming an ordered pattern.

Anyone actually living in the system of spins will not see them. All they see are their effects, which Dreyer has shown will include space-time and matter. He has also managed to derive Newtonian gravity from the model: however, general relativity has not yet emerged.


In 2007 the physicist (and sometime surfer) Garrett Lisi made headlines with a possible theory of everythingMovie Camera.

The fuss was triggered by a paper discussing E8, a complex eight-dimensional mathematical pattern with 248 points. Lisi showed that the various fundamental particles and forces known to physics could be placed on the points of the E8 pattern, and that many of their interactions then emerged naturally.

Some physicists heavily criticised the paper, while others gave it a cautious welcome. In late 2008, Lisi was given a grant to continue his studies of E8.

Transcript reveals anger of AIG employees toward politicians, public

Awwwwwww! Stabby stabby stab stab!

Transcript reveals anger of AIG employees toward politicians, public
By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010; A16

During the national furor that erupted last year after American International Group paid more than $165 million in bonuses, the voices of those vilified for receiving the payments remained silent, at least in public.

But behind closed doors, employees at AIG's Financial Products division -- the very unit whose trading had hastened the insurance giant's collapse -- were defiant, saying they were merely getting what they were due, recoiling at public accusations that they were behind their capitalizing on the company's massive taxpayer bailout.

"I will stand behind every action I have taken in this company from Day One," one employee said, according to a newly obtained transcript of a conference call the division's head held last March with some of his staff.

But when another employee asked whether the staff would be getting a second round of bonuses promised for March 2010, his colleagues burst into laughter, apparently considering this a preposterous notion amid the public outrage.

Yet they did see that money, at least most of it. Last month, under a deal in which employees agreed to take a cut in their upcoming retention bonuses in return for an accelerated payment, AIG paid out about $100 million to employees at the firm. AIG is scheduled to pay the last of the bonuses this month.

Even so, neither time nor money has softened the employees' feelings of wrongful persecution and their anger over becoming the subjects of scorn and ridicule. Seldom was that sense of victimhood more clear or more visceral than in the conference call of March 23, 2009.

Gerry Pasciucco, who had been hired to wind down Financial Products after the AIG bailout, was in Wilton, Conn., broadcasting his image and his voice to shaken, frustrated and furious employees in London, Paris and Hong Kong. Pasciucco quickly encountered a buzz saw of complaints over demands that they forgo the bonuses they were due. Emotions were running especially high in the London boardroom, where scores of staffers had gathered around a large table.

"I think it violates everything I believe in, and it's un-American," one employee said that day, according to the transcript of the call.

"This country is supposed to stand on due process," said another. The names of the staff members were redacted from the transcript obtained by The Washington Post.

'Missing the point'

The employees said that the corporate leaders who had driven the firm into the ground were already gone from the company. Those who had remained behind to help clean up the mess and repay the taxpayer bailout were due their compensation, they told Pasciucco.

"You made a commitment to us, and we made a commitment to you. And for anybody to look beyond that, as the politics and the media are at the moment, is missing the point," said an employee. "You can't expect us to just roll over and ignore that commitment because there is a bunch of immoral bigots that intend us to do something different. It's not going to happen."

Another was even more irate, lashing out at the public for scapegoating AIG employees. "To be honest with you, I really hope it blows up. I think the U.S. taxpayer deserves to lose a trillion dollars over this thing for the way they have behaved."

And then he turned on politicians who had joined the anti-AIG posse. "They only care about the next election, just like we only care about the next bonus. Well, none of them cares about the country, none of us cares about the institution," he said, adding: "They really don't care, and I really don't care. And frankly, if a trillion dollars gets lost, fine."

The AIG retention bonuses have rankled many in the public because the company has received a federal rescue package of about $180 billion in loans, stock investments and other commitments from the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department. Closing down AIG Financial Products' trading portfolio has been vital to stemming further losses and repaying the public money.

As the employees were confronting Pasciucco last spring, lawmakers in Washington were contemplating a 90 percent tax on the bonus payments. AIG's chief executive, Edward M. Liddy, had been berated on Capitol Hill. Employees had received anonymous threats, some violent.

'Is this blackmail?'

Pasciucco wanted to assuage their angst that day. But he also had another goal: persuading them to return 50 percent of the bonus money in hopes that New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo would not make their names public, as he was threatening. Employees fumed, accusing Cuomo of "blackmail" and "extortion." They complained that they were being forced to pay "protection money."

"Is this blackmail? To a certain extent, it is," Pasciucco told employees that morning. "If the only reason you would give money back is because you are afraid for your family and you are afraid for your safety, then it is."

He agreed that the manner in which some Washington officials had responded to the furor was despicable. "I think it's distasteful. It's unfair. It's unjust. I agree with you, it's not American. It is McCarthy-ite. . . . It will be viewed as a horribly dark period."

Still, he tried to offer a dose of realism. The retention payments might have been guaranteed by contract, he said, but Financial Products had made bad bets that cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Although the decision to return part of their money was voluntary, he said, such a pledge might help employees defuse some of the public anger.

"I am not laying this out that it's the right, moral thing to do, but I am telling you that you are naive if you think that you can ignore the political reality around this as you make your decision," he said, adding: "I am just going to caution you that if you are not lionized and . . . garlands of roses are not put around your shoulders, you shouldn't be surprised."