Saturday, May 22, 2010

Goth Talk

Do any of you remember this SNL skit which aired during the '97-'99 seasons. Similarly to Wayne's World, Goth Talk was a 'talk show' that aired on public access cable and was hosted by Azrael Abyss, Prince of Sorrows (Chris Kattan) and Circe Nightshade (Molly Shannon). It was hit or miss, but I usually giggled because I felt like Azrael and Circe were people I actually knew. Anyway, the wayback machine only goes back 13 or so years. Try not to have sex with yourself should your current self and past self cross paths...

Ep. I Special Guest: The Beholder (Rob Lowe)

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President Barack Obama responds to "Dick Riding Obama"

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John Cleese plans 'alimony tour' to pay his ex-wife

John Cleese plans 'alimony tour' to pay his ex-wife
By Kevin Rawlinson

John Cleese is to embark on his first-ever UK tour next year at the age of 71. The comedian, who recently agreed a divorce settlement believed to be in the region of £12m, has dubbed it the "Alimony Tour".

Cleese, who rose to fame with Monty Python, promised the show would be "an evening of well-honed anecdotes, psychoanalytical titbits, details of recent surgical procedures, and unprovoked attacks on former colleagues, especially Michael Palin".

His marriage to his third wife, Alyce Faye Eichelberger, broke down in 2008 and the divorce was settled in December of that year. It is not the first time Cleese has turned to the stage to pay his alimony. He previously took his A Ludicrous Evening with John Cleese ... or How to Finance Your Divorce tour to Scandinavia. He said at the time that he was unhappy at being forced to go back to work.

Cleese said: "I get angry that I have to pack my trunk just to make money. That I, at my age, would have to plan my life anew to pay her all the money she is to get for seven years - well it irritates me. I'd rather have been drinking coffee, reading books and writing. I can't afford that now. But if I really have to earn money, this is as pleasant a way of doing it as I can think of.

"The thing about being in the final stages of my career, is that I can be pretty sure that anyone who's bought a ticket doesn't hate me. So, when I walk on stage, I get a nice reception, and the nerves disappear."

The comedian let slip the size of the payout to his ex-wife, saying: "What I find so unfair is that if we both died today, her children would get much more than mine. At least I will know in future if I go out with a lady they will not be after me for my money."

Cleese also complained about the ongoing payments to his former wife, an American psychotherapist, author and talk radio host, saying: "I mean people are surprised when I say the figures. When Alyce Faye and I split up she got $13m [£9m] and I got to keep $8m. But over the next seven years I have to pay her $1m a year. She needs it."

Tickets for his 2011 tour went on sale yesterday, £36.25 each - or 0.0004 per cent of Cleese's alimony settlement. The run begins in Cambridge on 3 May, and visits Birmingham, Bath, Liverpool, Oxford, Leeds, Edinburgh and Glasgow before finishing in Bristol. "I'm nervous about Glasgow," he said. "Jimmy Jewell told me that if they liked you, they let you live."


The American Plutocracy

The American plutocracy By Milford Wriarson Howard

Holographic 3D Projections on Buildings--COOL!


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Genes that let you live to 100?

Found: genes that let you live to 100
Times Online

SCIENTISTS have discovered the “Methuselah” genes whose lucky carriers have a much improved chance of living to 100 even if they indulge in an unhealthy lifestyle.

The genes appear to protect people against the effects of smoking and bad diet and can also delay the onset of age-related illnesses such as cancer and heart disease by up to three decades.

No single gene is a guaranteed fountain of youth. Instead, the secret of longevity probably lies in having the right “suite” of genes, according to new studies of centenarians and their families. Such combinations are extremely rare — only one person in 10,000 reaches the age of 100.

The genes found so far each appear to give a little extra protection against the diseases of old age. Centenarians appear to have a high chance of having several such genes embedded in their DNA.

“Long-lived people do not have fewer disease genes or ageing genes,” said Eline Slagboom of Leiden University, who is leading a study into 3,500 Dutch nonagenarians. “Instead they have other genes that stop those disease genes from being switched on. Longevity is strongly genetic and inherited.”

Slagboom and her colleagues recently published studies showing how the physiology of people in long-lived families differs from normal people. Other studies, showing the genetic causes of those differences, are due for publication soon.

“People who live to a great age metabolise fats and glucose differently, their skin ages more slowly and they have lower prevalence of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension,” she said.

“These factors are all under strong genetic control, so we see the same features in the children of very old people.”

The so-called Methuselah genes — named after the biblical patriarch who lived to 969 — are thought to include ADIPOQ, which is found in about 10% of young people but in nearly 30% of people living past 100. The CETP gene and the ApoC3 gene are found in 10% of young people, but in about 20% of centenarians.

Some of those genes were discovered by a research group at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, led by Prof Nir Barzilai, following an analysis of the genes of over 500 centenarians and their offspring.

The studies show that tiny mutations in the make-up of particular genes can sharply increase a person’s lifespan. Nonetheless, environmental factors such as the decline in infectious diseases are an important factor in the steady rise in the number of centenarians. The human genome contains about 28,000 genes, but they are controlled by a tiny number of so-called regulator genes.

Dr Barzilai told a Royal Society conference that the discovery of such genes gave scientists clear targets for developing drugs that could prevent or delay the onset of age-related diseases, potentially lengthening people's lives and keeping them healthier for longer.

Dr David Gems, a longevity researcher at University College London, believes that treatments to slow ageing will become widespread.

“If we know which genes control longevity then we can find out what proteins they make and then target them with drugs. That makes it possible to slow down ageing. We need to reclassify it as a disease rather than as a benign, natural process,” he said.

“Much of the pain and suffering in the world are caused by ageing. If we can find a way to reduce that, then we are morally obliged to take it.”

An anti-ageing drug which might be taken by millions of people, perhaps from middle age onwards, could be the ultimate blockbuster for the pharmaceutical industry.

Michelle Mitchell of Age UK said: “Ageing is a natural part of life. The key is to ensure that we do not simply extend life but extend the years of healthy life so that people can enjoy, not endure, their later years.”

Conspiracy of Banks Rigging States Came With Crash

Conspiracy of Banks Rigging States Came With Crash
May 19th, 2010
I had always assumed the entire business of the markets to be a massive criminal enterprise that allowed public participation simply because it made a few people extremely wealthy.

Insider Crimes, Funny Money and Options Rackets
Via: Bloomberg:
A telephone call between a financial adviser in Beverly Hills and a trader in New York was all it took to fleece taxpayers on a water-and-sewer financing deal in West Virginia. The secret conversation was part of a conspiracy stretching across the U.S. by Wall Street banks in the $2.8 trillion municipal bond market.

The call came less than two hours before bids were due for contracts to manage $90 million raised with the sale of West Virginia bonds. On one end of the line was Steven Goldberg, a trader with Financial Security Assurance Holdings Ltd. On the other was Zevi Wolmark, of advisory firm CDR Financial Products Inc. Goldberg arranged to pay a kickback to CDR to land the deal, according to government records filed in connection with a U.S. Justice Department indictment of CDR and Wolmark.
West Virginia was just one stop in a nationwide conspiracy in which financial advisers to municipalities colluded with Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Wachovia Corp. and 11 other banks.
They rigged bids on auctions for so-called guaranteed investment contracts, known as GICs, according to a Justice Department list that was filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on March 24 and then put under seal. Those contracts hold tens of billions of taxpayer money.
California to Pennsylvania
The workings of the conspiracy — which stretched from California to Pennsylvania and included more than 200 deals involving about 160 state agencies, local governments and non- profits — can be pieced together from the Justice Department’s indictment of CDR, civil lawsuits by governments around the country, e-mails obtained by Bloomberg News and interviews with current and former bankers and public officials.

“The whole investment process was rigged across the board,” said Charlie Anderson, who retired in 2007 as head of field operations for the Internal Revenue Service’s tax-exempt bond division. “It was so commonplace that people talked about it on the phones of their employers and ignored the fact that they were being recorded.”
Anderson said he referred scores of cases to the Justice Department when he was with the IRS. He estimates that bid rigging cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Anderson said prosecutors are lining up conspirators to plead guilty and name names.

“This will go on for a long time and a lot of people will be indicted,” he said in a telephone interview.

Goldman Sachs Clients Lose Money in 7 of 9 Top Trades

Goldman Sachs Hands Clients Losses in Seven of Nine ‘Top Trades’ 
and Still Profits from Those Losses

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. racked up trading profits for itself every day last quarter. Clients who followed the firm’s investment advice fared far worse.

Seven of the investment bank’s nine “recommended top trades for 2010” have been money losers for investors who adopted the New York-based firm’s advice, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from a Goldman Sachs research note sent yesterday. Clients who used the tips lost 14 percent buying the Polish zloty versus the Japanese yen, 9.4 percent buying Chinese stocks in Hong Kong and 9.8 percent trading the British pound against the New Zealand dollar.

The struggles for analysts at Goldman Sachs, which is fighting a fraud lawsuit from U.S. regulators who accuse the company of misleading investors in a mortgage-linked security, show the difficulty of predicting market movements as widening budget deficits, a fragile global economic recovery and tighter financial regulations increase volatility. Stock and currency fluctuations rose to the highest in a year this month as Europe pledged about $1 trillion to stop a debt crisis in the region.

“This says that Goldman’s guys are only human,” said Axel Merk, who oversees $500 million as president and chief investment officer of Merk Investments LLC in Palo Alto, California. “No one is always right. There are a lot of cross currents in this market.”

Gia Moron, a spokeswoman for Goldman Sachs, declined to comment.

China’s Bear Market

Goldman Sachs’s trading profits come from capturing bid- offer spreads when its traders act as intermediaries for clients, Gary Cohn, the firm’s president and chief operating officer, said last week in New York. Proprietary trading isn’t a main driver of earnings, he said.

The trade advice for customers is distributed by Goldman Sachs’s global markets economic research group. It tracks the performance of the trades in a daily research note. The time period of the recommendations is 12 months.

The performance this year is a reversal from 2009, when nine of Goldman Sachs’s 11 trading recommendations made money. Investors saw a 22 percent return owning Chinese stocks and a 12 percent gain buying the British pound versus the dollar, according to a Goldman Sachs note on Dec. 1.

Goldman Sachs analysts made eight trade recommendations for this year in December, including telling clients to buy the British pound against the New Zealand dollar. On April 1, Goldman Sachs added a ninth “top” trade, telling clients to buy Chinese stocks listed in Hong Kong and predicting the Hang Seng China Enterprises Index would rise 19 percent to 15,000.

Tough Analysis

Since then, the gauge has slid 9.4 percent to 11,426.18. The Shanghai Composite index has entered a bear market, losing about 21 percent this year. That’s the third biggest decline in the world after Greece and Cyprus. The decline accelerated this month on concern Greece, Spain and Portugal will struggle to finance their budget deficits and dismantle the euro.

The Chinese stock recommendation was made by a group led by Dominic Wilson, a senior Goldman Sachs economist in New York. Wilson cited inexpensive valuations and “robust” economic growth. He also said investors have already factored in the risk of higher interest rates in China.

Wilson wasn’t available to comment because he was out of the office traveling, according to an e-mail.

Exit Calls

“Emerging markets appear superior to the developed world, but the market isn’t trading that relationship,” said Eric Fine, who manages Van Eck Associates Corp.’s G-175 Strategies emerging-market hedge fund. “It may be that some assets are mispriced, but if the market starts to discount the end point of the game, such as the collapse of the euro, it’s not that mispriced.”

Analysts at Goldman Sachs recommended investors exit two trades in February, one involving interest-rate swap rates in the U.K. and another advising clients to buy credit-default swaps in Spain and sell similar contracts in Ireland. The first trade had a potential loss of 24 basis points and the other had a return of 2.9 percent, according to figures issued in the appendix of the research note in February.

Owning currencies that are tied to growth is the only remaining trade that has increased in value this year, according to Goldman Sachs. The Goldman Sachs FX Growth Index has climbed 3.4 percent since the firm made the recommendation in December.

Betting on Markets

Goldman Sachs makes more money from trading than any other Wall Street firm. In the first quarter, the bank’s $7.39 billion in revenue from trading fixed-income, currencies and commodities dwarfed the $5.52 billion made by its closest rival, Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America Corp. In equities, Goldman Sachs’s $2.35 billion in revenue was about 50 percent higher than its nearest competitor.

Cohn told investors at a May 11 conference in New York that the firm lost money on only 11 days in the last 12 months. He said that uncanny streak of success refutes suspicions that the bank depends on proprietary bets with its own money.

“It is implausible that a proprietary-driven business model could be right 96 percent of the time,” Cohn said. Instead, he said the “simple answer” is that the firm makes money by capturing bid-offer spreads when acting as an intermediary for client trades.

Goldman Sachs executives have grappled before with questions about whether they’re better at making money for the firm than for their clients, according to an internal e-mail dated Sept. 26, 2007, that was released by a U.S. Senate subcommittee last month.

U.S. Lawsuit

The e-mail to Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein from Peter Kraus, who was then co-head of the company’s investment- management division, explains that individual investors, unlike institutional clients, occasionally make “comments like ur good at making money for urself but not us.”

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit against Goldman on April 16 accusing the company of misleading investors in a mortgage-linked asset. Goldman denies those allegations and said it will fight the charges.

Congress Urges FTC to Investigate Google

Congress Urges FTC to Investigate Google Following Revelation that "Street View" Scarfed Wi-Fi Data

Congressmen Joe Barton (R-TX) and Edward Markey (D-MA) wrote to FTC Chairman Liebowitz about Google's collection of consumer's private Wi-Fi transmissions. The House members asked the FTC Chairman to investigate whether Google's actions violate federal privacy laws or consumer protection laws. Google has admitted to collecting email and internet surfing data, but has not clarified the extent or nature of the data collection. The letter from Congress follows an investigation in Europe which revealed that Google's "Street View" vehicles in 30 countries collected not only digital images, but also data transmitted on private wireless networks. EPIC has several privacy complaints pending at the FTC, including one on Cloud Computing.

War Is Making You Poor

Grayson introduces ‘War Is Making You Poor Act’ to highlight cost of ongoing wars
Today, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) introduced bipartisan legislation called the War Is Making You Poor Act,” which aims to call attention to a) how much money is being spent to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and b) how budget gimmicks are used to pay for them. Grayson’s legislation would slash the $159 billion request for supplemental war funding and use that money to deliver a tax break for all Americans. Grayson demands the Pentagon use its currently existing $549 billion defense budget to fight the wars. Speaking on the House floor today, Grayson underscored that the point of his legislation is to highlight the costs of the wars:
GRAYSON: So I believe that the thing we need to do is to take that $159 billion that the President has set aside – we’re not saying he has to stop the war, we’re not giving a cut-off date for the war – we’re simply saying you need to fund that out of the base budget of $549 billion. And we take 90 percent of that and give it back to the American people. 
And I think most people would be surprised to learn that that is so much money that we’ve been spending on the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq that every single taxpayer in America will be get his first or her first $35,000 of income completely tax free.

Grayson’s bill, which is currently being co-sponsored by Reps. Ron Paul (R-TX), Walter Jones (R-NC), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) Barbara Lee (D-CA), John Conyers (D-MI), and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), would also cut the federal deficit by $15.9 billion. “There is no longer any need to go beyond the exorbitant base defense budget,” Grayson said. “It is not necessary. Enough is enough.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

In parallel worlds

So like our own, but slightly different. In one such world, a Supreme Court nomination hearing looms...

Craig Venter Creates Synthetic Life Form

Craig Venter and his team have built the genome of a bacterium from scratch and incorporated it into a cell to make what they call the world's first synthetic life form

by Ian Sample

Scientists have created the world's first synthetic life form in a landmark experiment that paves the way for designer organisms that are built rather than evolved.

The controversial feat, which has occupied 20 scientists for more than 10 years at an estimated cost of $40m, was described by one researcher as "a defining moment in biology".

Craig Venter, the pioneering US geneticist behind the experiment, said the achievement heralds the dawn of a new era in which new life is made to benefit humanity, starting with bacteria that churn out biofuels, soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and even manufacture vaccines.

However critics, including some religious groups, condemned the work, with one organisation warning that artificial organisms could escape into the wild and cause environmental havoc or be turned into biological weapons. Others said Venter was playing God.

The new organism is based on an existing bacterium that causes mastitis in goats, but at its core is an entirely synthetic genome that was constructed from chemicals in the laboratory.

The single-celled organism has four "watermarks" written into its DNA to identify it as synthetic and help trace its descendants back to their creator, should they go astray.

"We were ecstatic when the cells booted up with all the watermarks in place," Dr Venter told the Guardian. "It's a living species now, part of our planet's inventory of life."

Dr Venter's team developed a new code based on the four letters of the genetic code, G, T, C and A, that allowed them to draw on the whole alphabet, numbers and punctuation marks to write the watermarks. Anyone who cracks the code is invited to email an address written into the DNA.

The research is reported online today in the journal Science.

"This is an important step both scientifically and philosophically," Dr Venter told the journal. "It has certainly changed my views of definitions of life and how life works."

The team now plans to use the synthetic organism to work out the minimum number of genes needed for life to exist. From this, new microorganisms could be made by bolting on additional genes to produce useful chemicals, break down pollutants, or produce proteins for use in vaccines.

Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at Oxford University, said: "Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is not merely copying life artificially ... or modifying it radically by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally."

This is "a defining moment in the history of biology and biotechnology", Mark Bedau, a philosopher at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, told Science.

Dr Venter became a controversial figure in the 1990s when he pitted his former company, Celera Genomics, against the publicly funded effort to sequence the human genome, the Human Genome Project. Venter had already applied for patents on more than 300 genes, raising concerns that the company might claim intellectual rights to the building blocks of life.

TBoE Forces Conservatism Down the Throats of US School children



Texas State Board of Education Approves New Curriculum Standards
by Terrence Stutz

AUSTIN - In a landmark vote that will shape the future education of millions of Texas schoolchildren, the State Board of Education on Friday approved new curriculum standards for U.S. history and other social studies courses that reflect a more conservative tone than in the past.

Split along party lines, the board voted 9-5 to adopt the new standards, which will dictate what is taught in all Texas schools and provide the basis for future textbooks and student achievement tests over the next decade.

Texas standards often wind up being taught in other states because national publishers typically tailor their materials to Texas, one of the biggest textbook purchasers in the country.

Approval came after the GOP-dominated board approved a new curriculum standard that would encourage high school students to question the legal doctrine of church-state separation - a sore point for social conservative groups who disagree with court decisions that have affirmed the doctrine, including the ban on school-sponsored prayer.

Before the final vote on the lengthy list of standards, the board's five Democrats criticized the Republican majority - primarily social conservatives - for injecting their political and religious views into the standards and giving short shrift to important minority figures in history.

Republicans called the standards a major step forward that will boost instruction in history, government and other social studies classes.

Regarding the complaint that Republicans and conservative ideology have been given more prominence, board member Don McLeroy, R-College Station, said the panel was trying to make up for the liberal-slanted curriculum now being used in schools.

"I think we've corrected the imbalance we've had in the past and now have our curriculum headed straight down the middle," said McLeroy, one of seven social conservatives on the board. "I'm very pleased with what we've accomplished.

Board Democrats accused the Republicans of a "cut-and-paste" job on the standards that included a flurry of late amendments undoing much of the work of teachers and academics who were appointed to review teams to draft the curriculum requirements last year.

"Here we are trying to approve standards for our children that will be used for years and we are being asked to approve all these last-minute cut-and-paste proposals," said Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi.

"I don't think any teacher would accept work like this," she said. "They would have thrown this paper in the trash. We've done an injustice to the children of this state."

Board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, called the proposal a "travesty."

"The board has made these standards political and had little academic discussion about what students need to learn," she said. "I am ashamed of what we have done to the students and teachers of this state."

Several Republicans left the board meeting room while Democrats laid out their objections to the document, but returned to defeat a Democratic effort to delay action on the proposal until July. One Republican, Bob Craig of Lubbock, supported the delay motion.

Board member Geraldine Miller, R-Dallas, was absent for both votes, on postponement and then final adoption.

Democratic lawmakers and other critics have suggested that when a new board of education takes office in January - after two social conservatives have been replaced by more moderate members - the board should reconsider the standards and make substantial changes.

Asked about that possibility, McLeroy said there is nothing to prohibit such a move, but he contended that "when people look at what we've done, they won't find much to change."

Most experts say it is unlikely that the board will revisit the social studies curriculum - unless Democrat Bill White wins the governor's race this fall. If that happened, White would appoint the education board chairman, who controls the panel's agenda and could put the issue back before the board next year.

Change would be unlikely if Gov. Rick Perry wins re-election. The last two board chairs appointed by Perry were part of the social conservative bloc - McLeroy and current Chairwoman Gail Lowe - who strongly support the new social studies requirements.

In addition, state Education Commissioner Robert Scott warned against further delays since the new standards are scheduled to be phased in to classroom instruction in the 2011-12 school year.

Board member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, another social conservative, opened Friday's board meeting with an invocation that referred to the U.S. and its history as a "Christian land governed by Christian principles."

"I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses," she said.

Before approving the standards on Friday, board members adopted scores of additional changes - including the restoration of Thomas Jefferson's name to a list of political philosophers that students will study in world history. Board members had come under criticism for removing Jefferson's name earlier this year though they pointed out that Jefferson would still be studied in other areas of the curriculum such as U.S. history and government.

Board members also adopted a standard that calls on high school students to "compare and contrast" the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment - barring establishment of a state religion - with the legal doctrine of church-state separation that emerged from U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

"We need to have students compare and contrast this current view of separation of church and state with the actual language in the First Amendment," said McLeroy, who like other social conservatives contends that separation of church and state was established in the law only by activist judges and not by the Constitution or Bill of Rights.

Knight led opposition to the proposal, saying it "implies there is no such thing as the legal doctrine of separation of church and state" despite numerous rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts that have firmly linked the requirement to the First Amendment.

The curriculum standards adopted by the GOP majority have a definite political and philosophical bent in many areas. For example, high school students will have to learn about leading conservative groups from the 1980s and 1990s in U.S. history - but not about liberal or minority rights groups that are identified as such.

Board members also gave a thumbs down to requiring history teachers and textbooks to provide coverage on the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy while the late President Ronald Reagan was elevated to more prominent coverage in the curriculum. In addition, the requirements place Sen. Joseph McCarthy in a more positive light in U.S. history despite the view of most historians who condemn the late Republican senator's tactics and his view that the U.S. government was infiltrated by Communists in the 1950s.

Review: A Short History of Medicine’s Beautiful Idea, and Our Difficulty Swallowing It

Medicine’s Beautiful Idea
by Harriet Hall

For most of human history, doctors have killed their patients more often than they have saved them. An excellent new book, Taking the Medicine: A Short History of Medicine’s Beautiful Idea, and Our Difficulty Swallowing It, by Druin Burch, MD, describes medicine’s bleak past, how better ways of thinking led to modern successes, and how failure to adopt those better ways of thinking continues to impede medical progress.
The moral is not that doctors once did foolish things. The moral is that even the best of people let themselves down when they rely on untested theories and that these failures kill people and stain history. Bleeding and mercury have gone out of fashion, untested certainties and overconfidence have not.
Burch’s conversation with his rowing coach epitomizes the problem:
“I want you to keep your heart rate at 85% of max for the next hour and a half.”
“Because it’s the best way to improve your fitness.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve done it before and it worked. Because that’s what the people who win the Olympics do. I know, I’ve trained some of them.”
“But has anyone actually done an experiment?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
This book is Burch’s answer to his coach’s question. Medicine’s “beautiful idea” is that we should test all hypotheses and beliefs using the kind of tests that are reliable for determining the truth. Instead of going by tradition, authority, theory, common sense, or personal experience, we now have effective tools to find out for sure whether a treatment really works.

The scientific method developed slowly and there were a lot of hiccups on the way. Researchers frequently misunderstood what constituted evidence.

In an early Chinese experiment, two people were asked to run together. One was given ginseng; the other, who didn’t get ginseng, developed shortness of breath. They thought that was sufficient evidence to prove that ginseng prevented shortness of breath.

Galen gave one of his potions to a lot of patients: some recovered, some died. He thought that was evidence that the potion worked, because
All who drink of this treatment recover in a short time, except those whom it does not help, who all die. It is obvious, therefore, that it fails only in incurable cases.
Galen’s fallacious reasoning is easy to spot, but a 20th century doctor committed a similar error. He gave all his patients aspirin and asserted it was 100% effective in preventing heart attacks. Some of them did have heart attacks, but he didn’t count them because on close questioning he found that they had omitted doses or otherwise didn’t strictly follow the aspirin protocol (which was probably equally true of all his patients).

Even after the importance of randomization was recognized, there were errors in applying the principle. In early trials, randomization was by alternate allocation, where the first subject to enroll is put in group A, the second in group B, the third in group A, etc. But doctors tended to bend the rules to put certain patients in the treatment group. True randomization had to be forced on doctors who thought they knew what was best for their patients and who didn’t even realize they were cheating.

Humility is required of those who have theories rather than evidence. If they design experiments simply to confirm their prejudices, they are in danger of designing bad ones or misinterpreting results. The more researchers want to prove that the results were due to their favored treatment, the more exhaustive should be their search for alternative and equally reasonable explanations.

Burch’s book is a history of medicine with many intriguing stories about people, personalities, penicillin, opium, thalidomide, and the other usual subjects of medical history; but it is also an explanation of the scientific method and a commentary on modern medicine’s failure to rigorously and consistently apply that method.

Despite our increasing acceptance of the scientific method, the term evidence-based medicine (EBM) didn’t appear in the medical literature until 1991. Critics of scientific medicine have unfairly claimed that less than 10% of treatments are EBM. Burch points out that evidence doesn’t just consist of randomized controlled trials (RCTs), and that we have good evidence that parachutes save lives without having to do an RCT on parachutes. The 10% figure is way too low: a recent study estimated that 80% of current treatments are based on evidence.

Testing and experiment have failed to protect us from deluded cures and poisonous remedies. They can’t be relied upon unless they are carried out with method and rigor. Understanding previous mistakes helps us to avoid them.

Burch has some harsh things to say about current medical research and the processes of drug approval. Many treatments accepted as EBM are actually based on poor quality studies. 62% of studies change the definition of what they are studying between ethical approval and publication. Some studies are stopped prematurely because of apparently clear benefits or risks to patients: this is usually a mistake that diminishes the quality of data. It might be better to finish the study as planned and harm a few patients today than to harm thousands of patients later because of a false conclusion.

People worry about withholding new drugs from needy patients while they undergo testing. They worry about the ethics of offering placebos to patients when a new drug offers an apparently effective treatment. But history has shown that the new drugs in these trials are just as likely to harm as to help.
A drug’s effects, even if they are moderately large, can almost never be reliably figured out on the basis of personal experience.
Doctors are still reluctant to trust science when it goes against their prejudices. He tells how cardiologists strongly supported the first Coronary Care Units (CCUs). A study was done comparing CCU treatment to home treatment for heart attacks. The researchers told the cardiologists that there were fewer deaths in the CCU but that the difference didn’t reach statistical significance. The cardiologists all thought this trend was a strong enough reason to insist on CCUs. Then the researchers admitted they had lied: the numbers were correct but reversed. The trend had actually favored home care. Based on the same quality of evidence, the cardiologists now did not consider the data a strong enough reason to insist on home care!

Medicine is becoming more scientific and more evidence-based every day, but we can and should do better.
What is needed is a culture, regulatory and intellectual, where every attempt is made to ensure new medical interventions are used solely in randomized trials. Only when their effects have been determined should they become available for use outside a trial setting. Until then there is a moral obligation on doctors to use unknown drugs and treatments only in such a way as to come to an understanding of them, and a moral obligation on patients to demand treatments that are either supported by sound evidence or only given as part of a trial which will uncover some.
This is good advice for mainstream medicine, and it is even more important for alternative medicine, which Burch doesn’t address. Since by definition “alternative” medicine is medicine that has not been proven effective, following these guidelines would eliminate any use of alternative medicine outside of a clinical trial. I know, the money isn’t there and it would be difficult to implement, but the principle is irrefutably sound. (That’s assuming that we want to avoid using placebos and find out what really works; but I don’t think the general public wants that. I suspect they would resist and prefer to cling to untested beliefs.)

Here’s a sampling of some of Burch’s quotable words of wisdom:
There is a bitter joke in modern medicine: the violence with which someone makes an argument is inversely proportional to the amount of evidence they have backing it up.
Trials can be full of statistics; difficult to understand and laborious to undertake. They have a loveliness to them all the same, and it comes from their power to uncover parts of the reality we live in.
[It is] our nature to prefer credulity to doubt, confidence to skepticism. We share a tendency to simplify and confuse things, to slip into mental habits that let us down.
The idea that even the most reasonable-sounding theories should be subjected to tests probably has more potential to make the world a better place than all the drugs that doctors possess. Economics, politics, social care and education are full of policies that are based on beliefs held as a matter of principle rather than because they are supported by objective tests. Humility, even more than pills, is the healthiest thing that doctors have to offer.
This book is well-written, entertaining, and provides much food for thought. It’s a great way to learn about fascinating incidents in the history of medicine and a great way to learn what constitutes truly science-based medicine and how to avoid the errors of the past, the errors in thinking that we flawed humans are all susceptible to.

Jobless claims rise by largest amount in 3 months

Remember, the REAL unemployment rate is around 18-20%, not 10%.


Jobless claims rise by largest amount in 3 months

Thu May 20, 2010

WASHINGTON – The number of people filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week by the largest amount in three months. The surge is evidence of how volatile the job market remains, even as the economy grows.

Applications for unemployment benefits rose to 471,000 last week, up by 25,000 from the previous week, the Labor Department said Thursday. It was the first increase in five weeks and the biggest jump since a gain of 40,000 in February.

The total was the highest since new claims reached 480,000 on April 10. It also pushed the average for the last four weeks to 453,500.

"Although no one expects this volatile series to go in one direction every single week, this is clearly a disappointment," said Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

Stocks slid as investors' already bleak view of the world economy worsened with another drop in the euro and the disappointing U.S. employment news. The Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 250 points in early afternoon trading.
In a separate report, a private research group said its index of leading economic indicators dipped slightly in April. It was the first decline in more than a year. Six of the 10 components on the Conference Board's index deteriorated. Among them: U.S. residents filed fewer applications to build homes; vendors were slower in delivering supplies to companies; the unemployed filed more claims for jobless aid; and consumers' confidence dropped.

Lawmakers responded Thursday to the persistently high jobless rate by announcing a deal to extend expanded unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed through the end of the year. Laid off workers would also continue to get subsidies to buy health insurance through the COBRA program. House leaders plan to vote on the bill Friday, with the Senate voting next week.

Employers are hiring again, but not at levels needed to make a dent in the unemployment rate, which increased in April to 9.9 percent. An improving economy has lured those who had given up looking for work back into the labor market. The jump in the unemployment rate came even though payrolls rose last month by 290,000 jobs, the biggest gain in four years.

David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York, said he believed the unemployment rate would hold at 9.9 percent in May while payroll jobs could increase as much as 250,000. He said that figure would include an expected 150,000 temporary government workers hired to conduct the census.

After peaking at 651,000 in March 2009, weekly jobless claims fell rapidly through much of last year. But this year the improvements have leveled out.

Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said one reason the improvements have stalled is that small businesses are having trouble getting loans. They create half of the new jobs in the country.

The Labor Department said the number of people receiving jobless benefits fell by 40,000 to 4.63 million for the week ending May 8.

However, that figure does not include unemployed workers who have exhausted their regular 26 weeks of benefits. An additional 5.3 million workers are receiving extended benefits paid for by the federal government for the week ending May 1.

The extended benefits have added as many as 73 weeks of unemployment on top of the 26 weeks customarily provided by the states. But jobs have been scarce for so long that many of those out of work will soon run out of the extended benefits.

For the week ending May 8, 35 states and territories saw increases in applications for new jobless benefits and 18 saw declines.

IMF seeks a new role with broader authority, In wake of financial crises

In wake of financial crises, IMF seeks a new role with broader authority

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010

After failing to foresee the biggest financial crisis of its existence, the International Monetary Fund wants more power to probe individual companies to see if they pose the type of broad risks that crippled the world economy in 2008.

The new authority being advocated by IMF staff would represent an important shift from the agency's traditional role of analyzing and aiding national economies to serving as a sort of global overseer, particularly when it comes to companies considered so connected around the world that their failure could undermine the economy. The events of the last two years -- in which problems in the U.S. housing market triggered the deepest economic contraction since the Great Depression -- have convinced IMF staff that their ability to monitor such institutions has fallen behind.

"We need to learn more about that, and to learn about it, we need more data, including from a rather small number of the large financially systemic institutions," IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said in an interview this week. "The mandate of the fund is to have surveillance of countries, but today you have institutions as big, maybe bigger, than many countries. How can we have global surveillance without having data on what happens with those large financial institutions?"

The idea is part of an evolving discussion over the IMF's post-crisis role, a debate that has already led to a historic expansion of the agency's available funds, a discussion of ways to provide troubled countries quicker access to help, and renewed attention to the agency's role in early warning.

Agency staff now monitor fever charts assembled for countries around the world, for example, to try to flag those tipping toward a "red" zone, as Greece did recently.

But the proposed expansion of the fund's surveillance role may prove controversial, with financial industry representatives saying they worry about data breaches and over-regulation, even as economists and others say that closer attention to "systemic risk" is among the most important steps needed in the wake of the crisis. Recent IMF staff papers on the issue have not listed the sorts of companies the fund wants to monitor more closely. But major banks like Citibank, mortgage institutions like Fannie Mae, and large insurance companies like AIG have been cited as organizations that are "too big to fail" -- a concept IMF staffers like to render as "too interconnected to fail."

"We would have some real serious problems with it," said Wayne Abernathy, executive vice president for financial institutions policy at the American Bankers Association. "From time to time the IMF has sought to get itself beyond its responsibility of dealing with specific country to country economic issues, and generally they have not gotten far because it is not in their charter or their competence."

In this case, the suggestion stems from some soul searching on the part of an agency that failed to warn of the most severe economic meltdown since its World War II-era founding. Agency staff flagged many of the dynamics that contributed to the crisis, including the rise in default rates among holders of subprime home mortgages, and the complications that could follow. But the risks were put in mute terms.

"Weakness has been contained to certain portions of the subprime market . . . and is not likely to pose a serious systemic threat," the agency concluded in its April 2007, Global Financial Stability Report.

"We were not vocal enough," in announcing the risks, Strauss-Kahn said, arguing that an expansion of the fund's authority to give it more company information would let officials understand better how firms are connected and where broader risks are developing.

"If you are serious about surveillance we need to have the tools to adapt to the fact that the globalized world of today is not the world of Bretton Woods in 1944," Strauss-Kahn said, referring to the agreement that founded the IMF.

The IMF receives economic data and information on governmental finances from different nations, and is given other information as part of its Financial Sector Assessment Program, a voluntary effort to help countries monitor the health of their financial institutions. But under current IMF rules, "members are under no obligation to provide information 'in such detail that the affairs of individuals or corporations are disclosed,' " said a recent IMF staff paper outlining the idea of more intensive disclosure.

Such a change would have to be approved by the IMF's executive board, made up of countries that fund the organization and participate in its programs. A Treasury spokesperson said the United States had no comment on the idea.

The thrust of the proposal, however, is in line with one of the chief lesson of the crisis -- namely that a company's connections and its web of investments can be as important as what can be seen on its balance sheet or presented to a regulator. It may take a global agency like the IMF to grapple with the implications, said Liliana Rojas-Suarez, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and former deputy chief of the IMF's capital markets division.

"If we are accepting the fact that interconnections between the large companies is worldwide, then who is there to actually have an understanding of the global impact?" she said. At this point, "no one is the answer."

Problem' Banks at 775 according to FDIC

FDIC: 'Problem' Banks at 775

WASHINGTON—A total of 775 banks, or one-tenth of all U.S. banks, were on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s list of "problem" institutions in the first quarter, as bad loans in the commercial real-estate market weighed on bank balance sheets.

Poor loan performance in other sectors also continued to hurt banks, with the total number of loans at least three months past due climbing for the 16th consecutive quarter, FDIC officials said in a briefing on Thursday.

"The banking system still has many problems to work through, and we cannot ignore the possibility of more financial market volatility," FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair said.

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There were 702 on the FDIC's "problem" bank list at the end of 2009 and 252 at the end of 2008.

FDIC officials said they expected the number of failed banks to peak this year after climbing steadily over the past three years. Regulators have shut 72 banks so far this year, more than double the number closed by this time last year. Ms. Bair said regulators were preparing for a steady pace of additional closures through the end of the year. A total of 237 banks have failed since the beginning of 2008.

The failures continue to strain the FDIC's fund to protect consumer deposits, although officials signaled they were confident they had enough cash on hand to deal with the expected spate of failures, without having to assess new fees on the banking industry. The agency's deposit insurance fund stood at negative-$20.7 billion at the end of the first quarter, a slight improvement from the end of 2009.

"We have the necessary industry-funded resources to complete the cleanup," Ms. Bair said, in a reference to the fees that the agency assesses on banks for insuring their deposits.

Banks, squeezed by problem loans and the continued recession, responded by reducing their lending. The industry's total loan balances grew by 3% during the quarter, but the increase was due to accounting changes that required banks to bring securitized assets back onto their balance sheets. Without taking into account these accounting changes, lending would have declined for the seventh straight quarter, as banks cut back across most major lending categories.

"There is a lot of credit distress still in the mortgage-portfolio area," FDIC Chief Economist Richard Brown said at the FDIC briefing.

FDIC officials said they saw some signs for optimism. The total $18 billion, first-quarter profit reported by U.S. banks and thrifts was the highest since the first three months of 2008 and more than triple the profit recorded in the first quarter of last year. More than half of insured banks reported growth in net income during the quarter—the highest level in more than three years—and firms set aside less money to reserve for future losses.

The FDIC data suggested that the largest U.S. banks were faring better than their smaller rivals. The former enjoyed the largest year-over-year increase in earnings and saw the biggest reduction in loan-loss reserves, or the money they must set aside to account for future, expected losses on loans. Ms. Bair said the rate of decline in lending by larger banks also slowed in each of the past two quarters.

TD Ameritrade clients unable to log in, trade

TD Ameritrade clients unable to log in, trade
Thu May 20, 2:04 pm ET

NEW YORK – Some clients of online brokerage T.D. Ameritrade Holding Corp. were unable to log into their accounts during Thursday's market slide.

With the Dow Jones industrial average and other major indexes exceeding 3 percent declines, the company posted the following message on the site: "We are having technical difficulties that may result in limited access to your account. We are working to correct this problem as quickly as possible. We apologize for any inconvenience."

A representative of T.D. Ameritrade did not immediately return a phone call from The Associated Press. But customers expressed frustration with the problem, posting numerous messages on social networking websites.

Nick Jackson, a customer from the Phoenix area, said in an interview he couldn't get on for about 30 minutes. When he called the company's customer service line, he was given an access code to another site.

"By the time I could get somebody on the phone, I was already down about $2,000," Jackson said.
Morningstar analyst Michael Wong said all of the online brokers had similar problems during the sudden market plunge on May 6.

Wong said for casual customers, the issue might not be a problem. But "they might stand the chance of losing customers who are semi-professional traders or day traders," he said. "This is their livelihood."

If customers feel they can't rely on their brokerage, they are likely to look elsewhere for a more reliable platform, Wong said.

TD Ameritrade shares fell 68 cents, or 3.7 percent, to $17.73 in afternoon trading. The stock has changed hands between $16.45 and $21.30 in the past 52 weeks.

Goldman Sachs' ties to Corexit dispersant

Media ignores Goldman Sachs' ties to Corexit dispersant

In a recent New York Times’ article “Less Toxic Dispersants Lose Out in BP Oil Spill Cleanup”, journalist Paula Quinlan questions why BP is using the 100 % toxic, 54 percent effective dispersant Corexit to clean up the oil when twelve other dispersants proved more effective in EPA testing.
BP spokesman Jon Pack defended the use of Corexit, which he said was decided in consultation with EPA. He called Corexit "pretty effective" and said the product had been "rigorously tested."  
"I'm not sure about the others," Pack said. "This has been used by a number of major companies as an effective, low-toxicity dispersant."  

BP is not considering or testing other dispersants because the company's attention is focused on plugging the leak and otherwise containing the spill, Pack said.    "That has to be our primary focus right now," he said.  
Nalco spokesman Charlie Pajor said the decision on what to use was out of his company's hands. He also declined to comment on EPA comparison tests, saying only that lab conditions cannot necessarily replicate those in the field. "The decision about what's used is made by others -- not by us," he said.
Quinlan only looks at part of the picture.  She associates BP’s investment in Nalco and oil industry representation on the board as the main reasons that Corexit was used instead of Dispirsit, which EPA testing shows to be twice as effective and a third less toxic.  Yes, BP is hedging its losses with the profit it will make with its investment in Nalco, but who else benefits?  
Follow the money...and the money goes to Goldman Sachs and friends.  Instead, Quinlan (or her editor) goes after Exxon.  
Critics say Nalco, which formed a joint venture company with Exxon Chemical in 1994, boasts oil-industry insiders on its board of directors and among its executives, including an 11-year board member at BP and a top Exxon executive who spent 43 years with the oil giant.
"It's a chemical that the oil industry makes to sell to itself, basically," said Richard Charter, a senior policy adviser for Defenders of Wildlife.
In defense of the oil industry, it makes financial sense that Exxon and BP were the initial investors in this type of dispersant.  It’s not surprising that oil executives sit on the board.  I am not defending the toxicity of their product, the integrity of their board members or the likely Halliburton-stye billing process that will kick in when BP decides it is no longer responsible for  the impact of the “very, very modest” oil blowout that is already twice as large as Exxon-Valdez and is far more devastating economically and let the bankrupt US Treasury cover the bills.  (To be fair, BP has accepted full responsibility and within days of the accident and without a court order, BP gave the states of Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi each $25 million to help with the immediate damage.)  
But BP’s investment in Nalco is the token diversion.  The real players are Goldman Sachs and their fellow Sexually Inadequate Masters of the Universe, the Blackstone Group and Apollo Management.
USFilter and Ondeo Nalco enter into a strategic partnership providing equipment, chemicals and service to industrial customers.

The Blackstone Group, Apollo Management L. P. and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners buy Ondeo Nalco.

Nalco Company, a recognized symbol of strength around the world, unveils new logo.
Never mind item three, the logo change executives consider one of the three most important events in Nalco’s 2003 history, hence its prominence on the Nalco corporate history webpage.  Look at item number two.
If for no other reason that Goldman Sachs is newsworthy, I think that their $4.3 billion purchase of Nalco in 2003 would be worth mentioning, especially in light of their short trade on TransOcean.  The shorts are another missing item in the business section of The Times, as is any information on Goldman’s role in the 9-11 put options on American and United for that matter.  “All the lies that are fit to print...” on their banner would be more apropos. Seems someone is treating the demon children at GS with kid gloves.
While the article has some weaknesses, the publicity should help ebb the use of the more toxic dispersants as BP succumbs to more public pressure as more and more people become informed as to the dangers of dispersants.
`Bruce Gebhardt, president of the company that manufactures Dispersit, U.S. Polychemical Corp., said BP asked for samples of his company's product two weeks ago. Later, he said, BP officials told him that EPA had wanted to ensure they had "crossed all their T's and dotted all their I's" before moving forward.
Gebhardt says he could make 60,000 gallons a day of Dispersit to meet the needs of spill-containment efforts. Dispersit was formulated to outperform Corexit and got EPA approval 10 years ago, he said, but the dispersant has failed to grab market share from its larger rival.
"When we came out with a safer product, we thought people would jump on board," he said. "That's not the case. We were never able to move anyone of any size off the Corexit product."
He added, "We're just up against a giant."
My guess is that within days of the New York Times article appearing in print, BP will order Dispirsit from U.S. Polychemical Corp., if only to limit further negative publicity on the use of dispersants.  Possibly the information on the health risks associated with dispersants will cause employees at the contamination site to demand a safer alternative.
As for Goldman Sachs, I find it interesting that they have such a large stake in Nalco.  It might be just another coincidence, like their short on TransOcean.  I also question why the article singles out Exxon, which helped found the company that was bought out by Goldman Sachs, Apollo and the Blackstone Group.  Why are the profits that Goldman Sachs is receiving from the sale of these toxic dispersants not part of the article?  How much will GS lose if BP stops using Corexit?  Is this not more relevant than Exxon?

Good for Wall Street AND K Street

K Street cashes in on bill
By: M.B. Pell - Center for Public Integrity and Joe Eaton
May 21, 2010

The Democrats’ regulatory reform bill may not be a hit with Wall Street, but it’s been very, very good to K Street.

According to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, 850 businesses, trade groups and other corporate interests have hired more than 3,000 lobbyists to shape the bill — roughly five lobbyists for each member of Congress.

And if their efforts haven’t paid off, it’s not for a lack of trying.

Lobbying disclosure data for all of 2009 and the first quarter of 2010 show that all the big players in American business lobbying were active as regulatory reform proposals worked their way through Congress.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce deployed 85 lobbyists, including 49 hired from outside lobbying firms. The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association employed 54 lobbyists, including 37 from outside firms.

The American Bankers Association deployed 53 lobbyists; the Business Roundtable, 42; and the Mortgage Bankers Association, 29, according to CPI data.

In the financial services industry, some 175 companies and groups — ranging from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to CME Group Inc. to the Private Equity Council — hired lobbyists to try to weaken or eliminate reform proposals aimed at banks and the capital markets. A distant second was the energy and utilities sector, with 91 companies and organizations, followed by manufacturing, with 66 firms.

The companies and groups that lobbied on financial reform spent a total of $1.3 billion in 2009 and the first quarter of 2010 on their overall lobbying efforts, the data show. The exact dollar amount they devoted to financial regulation reform remains unclear because lobbyists are not required to itemize how much money in a given contract is spent on a specific issue. But if only 10 percent of that spending was targeted at financial regulation bills, lobbyists would have received $133 million.

In this debate, however, public perception of big U.S. banks as freewheeling gamblers relying on taxpayer-funded safety nets trumped Wall Street’s lobbying, some experts said.

Anger over bailouts, lavish bonus payments to top executives and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s fraud lawsuit against Goldman galvanized public opinion against Wall Street.

“Political backlash overwhelmed lobbying,” said Arthur Wilmarth Jr., a banking law expert at The George Washington University.

“When you see the tsunami of money flowing into Capitol Hill from these big financial players and their customers, it’s hard to imagine that the broader public interest will be taken into account,” Wilmarth said. “Earlier this year, there was a sense that we’ve gotten past the worst of it, so let’s not overreact. Now, the fact that all of these [European] governments have taken on all this debt — I think people now realize the crisis isn’t over yet and don’t really want the financial industry going back to taking risks.”

Banks and the financial industry spared little expense in lobbying. Citigroup Inc. deployed 38 lobbyists; Moody’s Corp., 13; and Bank of America, 11 — all dedicated to the financial reform legislation, according to disclosure documents.

Although the bill seems to be on the road to passage, corporate interests have had their victories along the way.

Peter Garuccio, a spokesman for the American Bankers Association, said the industry’s accomplishments, at least up to now, include preserving the Federal Reserve’s oversight of state member banks and eliminating a proposal for a $50 billion fund to help pay for dismantling large banks considered too big to fail.

“Some of the concerns we’ve raised have been addressed, others have not, and others have been partially addressed,” Garuccio said. “It’s still an ongoing process.”

No lawmaker wants to support a provision that could be responsible for the next financial crisis, said Bill Himpler, executive vice president of the American Financial Services Association.

The challenge for lobbyists that represent banking and finance organizations — which generally support some form of reform, Himpler said — is to demonstrate how various popular provisions do more harm than good for consumers and the financial industry. “I think we’ve got our work cut out for us,” he said.

Reform advocates have their own victories to point to in the legislation’s current form. They include the creation of a federal consumer financial protection agency, fee limits on debit card transactions and a one-time audit of the Federal Reserve’s role in the financial bailout.

What happens as the House and Senate reconcile separate versions of reform legislation remains to be seen, but Amaya Tune, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, which supports reform measures, feels confident that consumers, not Wall Street, will come out on top.

“I think the chances of this staying a strong bill and not getting watered down are pretty good,” Tune said. “That being said, we’ll cross our fingers.”

Israel is Becoming North Korea

Democracy According to Reichman

In the end, we will only be left with Prof. Uriel Reichman. After we sent Prof. Noam Chomsky away, and there was no sharp rebuke by Israeli academics (who in their silence support a boycott of Bir Zeit University ), we will be left with a narrow and frightening intellectual world. It will be the kind of intellectual world shaped by the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya - an institution of army officers and the rich, headed by its president, Reichman.

A law professor, certainly enlightened in his own eyes, a former candidate to become education minister, Reichman says he doesn't support the human rights group B'Tselem. That's his right, of course; our right is to state that at the head of an important Israeli college stands a man who doesn't understand a thing about democracy.

After all, what does B'Tselem do? It gathers reliable testimonies on the sins of the Israel Defense Forces, very few of which, if any, have been proved wrong. Reichman doesn't support this? In the world according to Reichman, we are left only with statements by the IDF Spokesman's Office. We will believe that no white phosphorus was used in Gaza, that the "neighbor procedure" is something that tenants' committees do, and that if they call a family and give them five minutes to leave before their home is bombed, that's an action by the most ethical army in the world.

Students at the Interdisciplinary Center say they heard their president declare that B'Tselem is "a fifth column" and that it's "shameful" this group received a place at the school's Democracy Day. Reichman denies this, and we respect his word. In any case, the spokeswoman for the college said: "B'Tselem's modus operandi is not acceptable to Reichman." What, then, is acceptable to Reichman? A society without self-criticism. This then, is Israel's intellectual elite; these are our intellectuals - without B'Tselem.

A college president and law professor who preaches changing the electoral system and favors an Israeli constitution - one who doesn't explain to his students the importance of human rights groups - is no more enlightened than the yeshiva heads who don't teach the core subjects. He is even more dangerous.

But the man of intellect from Herzliya did rally against the yeshiva heads. "All the statistics show we're on the brink of a catastrophe and on our way to becoming a third-world country if there's no change in the Haredi community," Reichman said in backing a petition on teaching core subjects. But the heart of the matter must be the lessons of democracy, well before mathematics and English.

And these things, it turns out, they do not teach at Reichman's yeshiva, where even Democracy Day is a day of silencing others. If math is not taught at yeshivas, we will lose little. Without genuine civics lessons at the Interdisciplinary Center, which purports to raise the next generation of our leaders, we will receive a generation ignorant of democracy - in the spirit of Reichman. This is the real catastrophe on our doorstep.

Universities around the world serve as a power source for democracy, and lecturers, not only renowned ones like Chomsky, are often prime examples of liberalism for their students. It's not by chance that at "Reichman's College," as it is called, the voice of political involvement has never been heard. Now it's possible to know why. The school may claim to be interdisciplinary, but one field is missing there. If Reichman takes a look at his history books, he can read about people and movements that fought for human rights. B'Tselem's founders will certainly be on that list. Maybe someday this will also be taught at the Interdisciplinary Center, after Reichman's time.

When Otniel Schneller proposes that an intellectual giant like Chomsky "try one of the tunnels connecting Gaza and Egypt," we can only chuckle. No one expects Schneller to know who or what this is about. But the prime minister, as opposed to Schneller, knows very well who the admired lecturer from MIT is - where he studied. He knows that the crux of Chomsky's criticism is directed at the United States, not Israel.

When the prime minister doesn't immediately apologize and invite Chomsky back to the country, we can be sad. When Israel closes its gates to anyone who doesn't fall in line with our official positions, we are quickly becoming similar to North Korea. When right-wing parties increase their number of anti-democratic bills, and from all sides there are calls to make certain groups illegal, we must worry, of course. But when all this is engulfed in silence, and when even academia is increasingly falling in line with dangerous and dark views like those of Reichman, the situation is apparently far beyond desperate.

Big Soda Wants to Keep America Fat

Personally, I'm not for taxing sodas, but something should be done to make soda manufacturers be more truthful about the health effects of the contents of their products.


How to Fight Back
By Daniela Perdomo, AlterNet
May 21, 2010

Scouring lobbyist filings is akin to looking into a public-policy crystal ball. What Big Business is spending on lobbying today will give you a good idea of what the next big policy fight will hinge upon.

Here's an example. In the first quarter of this year, a trade group representing the interests of non-alcoholic drink-makers called the American Beverage Association upped its lobbying expenditures by a whopping 3,785 percent over the last quarter of 2009. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the ABA went from spending a paltry $140,000 to shelling out $5.4 million.

What are non-alcoholic beverage producers so afraid of? Two words: soda taxes.

Last year, Congress seriously discussed including a tax on sodas and other calorie-laden beverages like energy and sports drinks (diet sodas were to be exempted) in the forthcoming health care overhaul in order to help cover costs for what was then supposed to be a universal health care plan. At the time, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the proposed nationwide 3-cent tax on sodas would generate $24 billion over four years.

The ABA and affiliated moneyed interests successfully flexed their lobbying muscles and produced a $10 million nationwide ad campaign in order to extinguish talk of a federal soda tax. Such language never made it into the bill Congress eventually passed.

But the $110 billion-a-year sugary drink industry knows their fight isn't up yet. They surely have been spooked by President Obama saying that soda taxes are an "idea that we should be exploring." And the hawkers of sugary drinks are also aware that although they managed to derail a national tax -- for now -- local and state governments are taking up the battle Congress dropped.

The fight for our waistlines and purse strings is just heating up.

The American soda problem

It's hard to know where to begin discussion of how bad sodas are for you, given the myriad reasons and statistics, but Marion Nestle, a public health nutritionist and professor at New York University, has been writing about this public health nuisance for so long she does a pretty good job of it.

"They have no redeeming nutritional value and just add unnecessary calories to diets that already have too many," she told AlterNet.

Indeed, drinks like Coke, Gatorade, and curiously named drinks like Vitamin Water are essentially part sugar and part water, leading sweetened beverages to account for half of all sugar intake in the average contemporary American's diet. Sugar-infused drinks have long been a stalwart of U.S. culture -- Coca-Cola was born in 1886 -- but Americans drink them much more than ever before. And it's not hard to see there is a definite correlation between the obesity epidemic -- which costs us $147 billion a year -- and the explosion in soft drink consumption.

While the soda problem is apparent among Americans of all ages, youth are the most affected. After all, they've grown up on campaigns extolling "the Pepsi Generation." Studies show that beverages now account for 10 to 15 percent of all calories consumed by children and teens -- and for each extra can or glass of sugared beverage consumed per day, the chances of a child's becoming obese increases by a staggering 60 percent. The average 18-year-old today is less than an inch taller than the average 18-year-old back then, but is 15 pounds heavier.

Yet the immense marketing budgets behind Coca-Cola and PepsiCo aren't the only reason more and more people are drinking more of this stuff. The biggest problem is that soda has become outrageously affordable. A staggering analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the price of carbonated drinks has fallen 34 percent since the late 1970s, while healthy foods like fruits and vegetables cost over 30 percent more than they did before.

Lest you think you don't have a "soda problem," Gail Woodward-Lopez of the Center for Weight and Health at Berkeley has news for you. She says we shouldn't drink more than one -- yes, one -- sweetened beverage per week.

The damage these drinks do to your system is leading people to compare the beverage business to the tobacco industry. Of course the ABA is loathe to accept such analogies. In a recent NPR interview, the person in charge of the group's science policy said sweetened drinks are completely unlike cigarettes.

"Smoking kills people. There is no safe level of consumption. And soft drinks are an enjoyable, safe product that people have been enjoying for generations," Maureen Storey said, before blaming American obesity on our failure to exercise.

To be fair, soda didn't make us fat all on its own -- and we do need to exercise a lot more. But given how much we drink these beverages, and how much of the nutritionally void sugar we ingest is derived from them, soda has become a problem we're only now in hindsight realizing has damaged the health of an entire generation. Kind of like cigarettes.

How to tax it

The average state tax on a pack of cigarettes sold in the United States is $1.42; there is also a $1.01 federal tax. These extra costs have led to a decrease in cigarette consumption, particularly by price-sensitive demographics like young people, and brought millions in revenue to every state. Given the success of these measures, it's little wonder that a sin tax on sodas is so appealing to health advocates.

A New England Journal of Medicine study from last year, which made the public-policy case for soda taxes, opened with a quote from Adam Smith's 1776 Wealth of Nations: "Sugar, rum, and tobacco are commodities which are nowhere necessaries of life, which are [sic] become objects of almost universal consumption, and which are therefore extremely proper subjects of taxation."

So to say the least, the idea of taxing sodas isn't really new. Currently, 33 states have a sales tax on soft drinks sold at grocery stores and in vending machines, with rates ranging from 1.3 percent in Montana to 7 percent in Rhode Island and Mississippi. Six other states have a sales tax on those sold in vending machines only. And finally, six states have instituted an excise tax in addition to the sales tax. Examples would be Rhode Island, which charges 4 cents per each case of beverage, and Arkansas, which taxes 21 cents per gallon and $2 per gallon of syrup.

The problem here, according to soda tax supporters like Julie Greenstein of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is that the sales and excise taxes out there are too small to affect consumption rates -- and the revenues coming in from these taxes are not being directed to programs that would help prevent and treat obesity. (Half of the money we spend on obesity is paid for by taxpayers via Medicaid and Medicare.)

Greenstein's organization is pushing for a tax of 7 cents per 12-ounce can of soda, which is estimated to bring in $10 billion per year. An April study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine says that if the price of sweetened beverages increased by 18 percent, people would consume an average of 56 fewer calories a day and lose about five pounds a year.

But some want to go even further, levying a tax of 1 cent per ounce. If this was done nationally, the revenue would be $14.9 billion in the first year alone.

There is a measure on the table in Washington, D.C. that would charge a penny per ounce, raising the price of a typical 12-pack of cans by 30 percent. The revenue would be used to pay for the newly passed Health Schools Act, which would improve the quality of lunches in the area's public schools. The D.C. city council will vote on this on May 25, but observers aren't sure it will pass.

Current and past efforts

In addition to the foiled federal tax last year, the industry has been aggressive in pushing back efforts elsewhere. The governor of New York proposed an 18 percent tax on sugar-rich drinks, and was beat down by the state legislature last year, but on Thursday announced a new -- and less stringent -- proposal to raise $815 million in annual soda taxes. The industry was also successful in influencing a vote in Philadelphia, although debate continues. A measure has been introduced in the California state senate, but prospects look slim there, too. Unfortunately, absolutely no moves are being made on the federal level right now.

"The industry is spending millions and millions of dollars. Every time you turn on the radio, there's a Big Soda ad against these proposals," Greenstein says. "They're lobbying hard. They're outspending us."

Perhaps you remember a striking ad by Americans Against Food Taxes last year -- at the height of the federal soda tax debate -- which showed a mother unloading groceries from her car. Proponents "say it's only pennies. Well, those pennies ad up when you're trying to feed a family," we're told. Of course, the visceral ad doesn't ask whether poor people who are struggling to feed their families should really be spending money on incredibly unhealthy food that will rack up medical bills, but then again why would it? Americans Against Food Taxes is a front group funded by the beverage industry.

More recently, as the New York City Health Department has unfurled a graphic campaign against sodas taglined "Don't Drink Yourself Fat," the Center for Consumer Freedom -- front group number-two -- has plastered the city with ads that ask: "Big Apple or Big Brother?"

While Greenstein would have to hope against hope that any of the current efforts to pass effective soda taxes will be successful, she is actually buoyed by the industry's response. "The fact that they're spending so much is proof that if these proposals passed, they would be effective," she says. "They wouldn't be out here lobbying so hard against them otherwise. We'll keep pushing and if it's not this year then we'll be back again the next."

The fight will be framed (and reframed)

To be sure, the tremendous spike in dollars being spent by the beverage industry in order to counteract the bad press and to de-legitimize the arguments for soda taxes is proof-positive that the makers of these unhealthy drinks know these measures would be quite effective in reducing consumption and changing habits.

Last year, Coca-Cola trotted out its chief executive, Muhtar Kent, to pen an editorial for the Wall Street Journal defensively titled "Coke Didn't Make America Fat," in which he argued that exercise was the solution to our fat problems. This argument is easily trumped by pointing to seatbelt legislation. Not wearing a seatbelt doesn't solve all the risks related to driving in a car, but it can greatly diminish them. In the same way, cutting a nutritionally void drink out of our lives will aid us in the general path of a healthy life -- along with increased exercise.

The ABA constantly trumpets the idea that soda taxes are regressive, because they would disproportionately affect poor people. But this is handily disputed. Sugar-sweetened drinks have no nutritional value and healthy alternatives like, say, water are free or much cheaper. So a tax that shifted consumption from soda and other sugary beverages to water would not only improve health and lower costs for cash-strapped families, it would also raise revenue for programs that promote healthy eating, obesity prevention and health care for those most in need.

The industry will also keep on saying that these taxes won't actually affect consumption, they'd simply be ineffective from the get-go. But this is true, as a recently released RAND study shows, only when the taxes are small -- and Big Soda knows it. A trade publication, Beverage Digest, ran a report in 2008 showing that if soft drink prices rose 6.8 percent, sales dropped 7.8 percent; and more specifically: if Coca-Cola prices increased by 12 percent, sales would drop by 14.6 percent.

While money and power may be on the sugar-pushing beverage industry's side for now, the momentum is ultimately with the proponents of soda taxes. Support for food taxes continues to rise -- especially when people are told revenues would go to obesity prevention -- and growing public awareness about nutrition and health is fueling the attempts to pass truly effective soda taxes throughout the country.

In the meantime, get off the Internet, reach for a glass of water and go for a run.