28 February 2008

Slow float to England.

Cocaine galore! £7m of Colombia's finest washes up on Cornish beaches

A while back a shipment of rubber bath toys fell into the ocean and washed up all along the western coast of North America. It was an interesting story of modern shipping and sea currents. Another example has come to light, but the the objects washing up are not rubber ducks, turtles and beavers.

The origin does not take much detective work; some of the packages are marked "Colombia" in faded writing. But how they ended up in the sea remains a puzzle.

The age of the packages, and the presence of warm water-loving barnacles suggests they may be floating all the way across the Atlantic from the Caribbean. One theory is that smugglers dumped the cocaine overboard as they were pursued by American or British anti-drug patrols.

Huge bundles of uncut Columbian cocain are washing up on the shores of England and the English are a little worried about it. Firstly, because each bundle is a huge amount of cocaine and secondly because of its purity. Because it hasn't passed through the usuall layers of dealers, this stuff is dangerous.

Sure the, cocaine is dangerous and finding it on a beach would be an adventure, but the fact that it floated all the way from the Caribean on the Gulf Stream? Thats the really cool part.

27 February 2008

Oil companies and Clarence Thomas

Supreme Court Weighs Exxon Valdez Damages

The federal government indicted Exxon on five criminal charges, with potential penalties totaling $5 billion. The company soon agreed to plead guilty to three counts with a fine of $25 million, or less than 1 percent of the total potential criminal fine, plus $900 million in civil fines to be paid over a 10-year period. In addition, the company paid $2.1 billion in cleanup costs, and several hundred million dollars more to fishermen for their lost summer catch. In all, the company would pay $3.4 billion.

But the money that Exxon doesn't want to pay is the punitive damages. The punitive damages are the fines that the court assigns to the defendant in punish them for being stupid and breaking law. Its supposed to discourage the defendant and its peers from doing it again. You can't put a company in jail, but you can fine them lots of money.

And boy, they sure don't want to pay it. Exxon has taken this all the way to the Supreme Court.

But Exxon contends that because this accident occurred at sea and is governed by maritime law, which is the sole province of the federal courts, there should be no punitive damages at all.

Part of me wishes I could know more about the law here, but then I remember that I don't really want to be a lawyer and thats probably what it would take to really understand this.

But I do know one thing about what will happen at the Supreme Court today; Clarence Thomas wont be asking any questions.

26 February 2008

Bridges and Vetos

House and Senate override governor's veto

A $6.6 billion transportation bill is now law after both the Minnesota House and Senate voted for the first time to override a veto from Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The House voted 91-41 to override the governor's veto, and the Minnesota Senate followed shortly after by a vote of 47-20.

The Minnesota State House and Senate passed a ¢5 per gallon increase in the gas tax to pay for an increase in the transportation budget. But Pawlenty took a "No New Taxes" pledge before he was elected and, while he has increased "fees" on tobacco, he stood by his tax pledge and vetoed the bill. But everyone with any memory voted to over ride the veto, because we had an effin bridge fall into the river and people DIED!

If I seem a tad bit worked up over this, thats because I am.

I honestly don't understand why Pawlenty did this. The bridge collapsed, and he vetoed a bill to help pay for the replacement, upkeep and maintainence of other bridges in the state. Plus other road repairs and some public transit. For ¢5 more per gallon. ¢5.

He must really want to be the most anti-tax governor out there to veto this. I can't think of an analogy that fully conveys the stupidity of vetoing a small tax to pay for something with such emotional appeal. (And how often is there an emotional appeal to infrastructure?) He should just eat some puppies and get it over with.

Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, questioned some of the first-term Democrats on the floor about whether they campaigned for a tax increase last election.

"You folks, again did not campaign a couple summers ago on the mantra that you were going to raise taxes. That was Minnesotans' biggest fear about turning the reins of this government over to your party," said Emmer. "Same question to you, Rep. Madore. Are you going to vote to raise the taxes the hard-working families of your district in this family?"

Yes I am and I'm going to tell you why," responded Rep. Shelley Madore, DFL-Apple Valley. "The bridge went down on Aug. 1, and a gentlemen from my district died. He left four children and I went to his funeral. I stood there with his family and I looked at them in the face. And when you're asking me, 'Is his life worth a nickel a gallon?' I'm telling you it is"

The Republicans claim that the gas tax and the bridge are separate issues. They are separate issues in so much as we can never know if the bridge would have stayed up if the transportation budget had been increased earlier. But the gas tax is going to the transportation budget, and while that is not paying for the replacement 35W bridge, it is going to (at least try to) prevent another bridge from falling down.

24 February 2008

Lots of people voted this past week.

Wisconsin Primary results
Obama 646,007
Clinton 452,795
Others 12,483
Total 465,278

McCain 224,226
Huckabee 151,201
Others 31,832
Total 407,259

Whats interesting is that the combined total for McCain and Huckabee is less than Clinton alone got. While the Republicans had only about 58 thousand less people, they had more people voting for someone other than the top two candidates. This has been a running trend, when both parties have their primaries on the same day the Democrats have a larger turnout than the Republicans. There could be many reasons for this. Maybe the Democratic race is inspiring more people to come out, but the Republican race is just as tight. I think its pretty clear that the middle of the political spectrum is not happy with the way the country has been run for the past seven years. And the result is more people showing up for the primaries in general and the Democratic primaries in specific.

But this was hardly the most exciting election that took place in the past week. Pakistan had an election and Musharraf's ruling party was soundly defeated. I can't find a reference right now, but I saw in the paper that the party received about 15% of the vote. Whats amazing to me is that the party has admitted defeat. But as I told my mother the other day, I'll really believe democracy has come to when someone else comes to power. Thats not to downplay what has finally happened in Pakistan, but rather to say that I don't trust Musharraf to not act like so many dictators that have come before and make some bid to hold on to power. I am cautiously optimistic about the democracy in Pakistan.

23 February 2008

NYT as a classroom with McCain as the example

The McCain Article
Not precisely DC drama, but rather a discussion about a story about DC drama.

The article included reporting on Mr. McCain’s relationship with a female lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee led by Mr. McCain. Since publication of the article, The Times has received more than 2,000 comments, many of them criticizing the handling of the article. More than 4,000 questions were sent via e-mail to The Times on Thursday night and Friday. Editors and reporters who worked on the article answered some of the questions on Friday.

The journalists who worked on the article go on to tackle some of the questions that people raised. As they do that, they talk a bit about how a news paper is run and how journalists report on a story. When asked about the irony of the editorial page endorsing McCain while the news side was working on this story, their reply was this.

A. The short answer is that the news department of The Times and the editorial page are totally separate operations that do not consult or coordinate when it comes to news coverage and endorsements or other expressions of editorial opinion. We in the newsroom did not speak to anyone at the editorial page about the story we were working on about Senator McCain. They did not consult us about their deliberations over endorsements of the presidential candidates. I’m the political editor, and the first I knew of the McCain endorsement (and of the endorsement of Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side) was when I read them in the newspaper. In all of our internal discussions about the news story subsequent to the endorsement, I do not recall anyone bringing it up.

The fact that I already knew this isn't the interesting part. What interests me is that the paper took the time to sit down and explain this to the public. It felt like I was reading a journalism instructor patiently explaining things to a class. Answering these questions fully and carefully makes me respect the paper more than I already did.

On the internet, any wanker can pound out a bitchy letter about whatever is getting their panties in a twist. And more often than not, that bitchy letter is full of mistakes, in both logic and often grammar, and a fundamental misunderstanding of whatever it is thats pissing them off. Going through and addressing each problem is usually an exercise in futility, because even if you convince one person that they're wrong, there are hundreds more to take their place. So for the NYT to do this, and do it so well and so thoroughly is really classy. Sometimes I feel kind of bad for using the NYT for so many of the stories I comment on, but then they go and do something like this. This is why I read the NYT and this is why I don't feel bad about it.

Tomorrow I'll put up summaries of all the things I wanted to write about this week, but was too tired and busy to sit down and write. There were elections in Wisconsin and Pakistan, and how often do those things coincide?

18 February 2008

A bus full of secrets and hydrazine.

Missile Defense Future May Turn on Success of Mission to Destroy Satellite

I know this satellite thats coming down on our heads has been blogged about a lot but thats because it so darn interesting. I mean its the size of a bus, its full of secret spy stuff and deadly gas, and it might fall on our heads unless the military can blast it out of the sky. Life rarely sounds this much like a movie.

Often compared to hitting a bullet with a bullet, the shooting down of ballistic missiles with an interceptor rocket is difficult, as an adversary’s warheads would be launched unexpectedly on relatively short arcs — and most likely more than one at a time.

So it should be easier for the Standard Missile 3, a Navy weapon launched from an Aegis cruiser in the northern Pacific, to find and strike a satellite almost the size of a school bus making orbits almost as regular as bus routes around the globe, 16 times a day.

Even if they manage to hit this one, its not exactly something they can point to and say "Look we can do it, we need 80 gazillion dollars to make us safe from the terrorists with ballistic missiles!" But watch, they'll try. And they probably will get the money. We don't seem to be able to say no to the military and its demands for money.

But what really interests me in all this is the fuel, hydrazine, that if it were to break only upon landing and not before, would be really bad. Hydrazine is N2H4 and its corrosive and noxious as a liquid. If it crashed much of it would vaporize and that would lead to a cloud of hydrazine gas. CNN reports Gen. James Cartwright saying that the cloud would be the size of two football fields.

So shooting it down is probably a good idea. I wonder if we'll be able to see an explosion? The hydrazine is on there as fuel and while the reaction isn't an oxidation reaction its still highly exothermic. Its also taking place while in orbit and outside of the atmosphere so that probably would effect any exothermic reactions that would take place. I don't know enough about explosions to speculate more than that. I hope we get to hear more about the physics of it.

14 February 2008

Illegality of ideas

Appeal judges clear Muslims of terror charges

Britain's overzealous terror laws have been in the news again. Unlike last time people are getting out of jail rather than being put in.

Five young Muslim men yesterday had their terrorism convictions quashed after judges concluded that reading Islamist material was not illegal unless there was "direct" proof it was to be used to inspire violent extremism.
They were prosecuted under section 57 of the Terrorism act 2000, which makes it an offence to have books or items useful for a terrorist. Striking down the convictions, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips said: "[Section 57] must be interpreted in a way that requires a direct connection between the object possessed and the act of terrorism."

This position is closer to what I was talking about when I discussed the case of Samina Malik. The ideas, the information, is not what should be illegal; it is the action that should be illegal. What is strange is what one of the defendant's lawyers said.

Malik's solicitor, Saghir Hussein, said: "The judgment means there must be a direct connection between possession [of material] and acts of terrorism. A book about how to make bombs would come under section 57, not a book that contains ideological material. It's just like reading Mein Kampf does not make you a Nazi."

A book with bomb directions would be illegal? A bomb isn't hard, its all about making pressure in a confined space that breaks when the pressure reaches a certain point. The concept isn't hard, but successful construction without premature explosion or arrest is the hard part. Making it is the hard part, as it should be.

Maybe there is something in British culture that I'm missing. There is probably something about there experience with terrorism as practiced by the IRA that is coloring this. There may be a larger percentage of the population that could be described as radical Islamicist. I'm not sure, but I know that I don't like the idea that possesion of knowledge is a punishable offence.

06 February 2008

Polar Bears and Caucuses

A Cool Dip for a Warming Planet

This is my alma mater and last year I took part in the first polar bear splash. That time it was a cold rainy February day and we never got a fire started. Looks like the weather was a bit better this year. I still know many of the people in the slide show.

In other news, my precinct had a turn out of 178 people where it usually has between 12 and 25. The presidential break down was 98 Obama, 74 Clinton, and 6 others. The school we met at had three other precincts as well and the line to find out which room to go to was out the door. So I grabbed a one of the maps someone had printed out and helped.

Everyone I've talked to said that the turn out at their caucus was amazing too. Even the one person I know who went to the Republican caucus said that they had twice as many people as they had been expecting. An interesting night to say the least. Back to the regular schedule tomorrow.

05 February 2008

Forget Mardi Gras, It's Super Tuesday!

Today is Super Tuesday. Here in Minnesota, we democrats are part of the DFL, the Democratic Farmer Labor party. (I've been told that in alley cat races it stands for dead fucking last, but I assure you, the DFL here is not dfl.) And the DFL has a caucus system that has been explained to me a number of times and that I've been part of only once before. I'm pretty excited about the whole thing and I figured nows as good a time as any to editorialize a little more directly.

I'm caucusing for Hillary. Come November I'll vote for the Democrat. I'm caucusing for Hillary not because I don't like Obama, or because I like the way she dresses. In reality, both candidates are equally far from my actual position. I'm much further left than most of the elected Democrats. So on the issues, each candidates strengths and weaknesses pretty much even out. And choosing between potentially the first woman president or the first black president seems to me like trying to choose between cake or ice cream, homemade pancakes or homemade French toast, a nice long soak in a tub or a full massage. You get the point.

So then why Hillary, and not Obama who appeals to a more hopeful view? My peers seem to like him, at least according to Facebook. But my more conservative peers on Facebook seem to think Ron Paul is a great guy.

So I'm taking that with a grain or two of salt.

I'm caucusing for Hillary because I want to see a woman in the White House really running things. This country needs to get back on track, and all the great talk about where were going means shit if the train is still off the rails. I've been talking this over with my mother and with a close friend. My friend and I came to the conclusion that we like how Hillary handled all the Monica shit. She decided to stay, and we think its because she saw more in the relationship than just a promise of monogamy. We think that that shows an ability to see the complexity and depth of a relationship.

Plus Hillary has come out in support of reinstating the Office of Technology Assessment, which is like turning to all the scientists out there and giving them a big thumbs up.

04 February 2008

WaPo picks up PIN

Inhaling Pig Brains May Be Cause of New Illness

Fittingly, the first person to detect a faint signal in all the noise was the interpreter.

The 33-year-old woman who worked for eight years working with Spanish-speaking patients at a medical clinic in southern Minnesota noticed something familiar as she translated the story of a young meatpacker last September.

Earlier last summer, she had heard a version of it from two other workers at the same slaughterhouse, and had told it to their doctors, who were different from her current patient's. When the consultation was over, she pointed this out.

Nothing new in this Washington Post write up on PIN, but its nice to see a bigger paper pick this story up.

02 February 2008

Pig Brain Mist and PIN

There are two write ups on this one; the secondary source is "Austin pork plant investigation zeroes in on pig brains" and the primary source is "Investigation of Progressive Inflammatory Neuropathy Among Swine Slaughterhouse Workers".

The Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control have given an update on the disease down in Austin, Minnesota. The Star Tribune nails down the idea that has been floating in my head since I first heard about this.

Pigs and humans are such biologically similar mammals that researchers are trying to find ways to use pig organs to replace diseased human organs. So it's not surprising that if the immune system creates cells to attack proteins from pig neural tissue, those immune cells might also attack human neural tissue as well, experts said.

If the body is attacking an influx of nervous tissue from pig brains, it isn't much of a leap for that same attack to be wrongly redirected to the body's own nervous tissue. Our bodies are very good at attacking invading infections, but unfortunately when that system turns back on the body things go badly. See lupus, MS and Chrohn's.

I don't think that we evolved to be able to deal with liquefied and aerosolized brains. Touch them, eat them yes; inhale them, no. So it doesn't surprise me that things might go wrong. I wonder who came up with the idea of using air to remove the brain anyhow? Bet they feel pretty bad right now.

The experts have decided upon a name for the cluster of symptoms, progressive inflammatory neuropathy or PIN for short. They looked at other large slaughter plants in the US and found two more that were using pressurized air to blow the brains out.

To date, no cases of PIN have been identified in association with workers at the Nebraska plant. However, several workers at the Indiana plant have been preliminarily identified with neurologic illnesses and similar histories of exposure to head-processing activities at that slaughterhouse. Further assessments of these patients, and additional measures to identify other workers with illness, are being conducted in Indiana. As a result of this investigation, all three plants have stopped using compressed air to extract brain material.

The health officials are also looking to talk to anyone who has worked at the Austin plant since the air pressure system was installed a decade ago. The problem is that the job has a high turn over rate, with many of the workers being immigrants. In December of 2006 a different meat packing plant in another small Minnesota town was raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and took away hundreds of workers. So finding everyone that worked at the Austin plant over the past decade is impossible from the start. Which means there is a chance that there is someone out there who might never figure out why their limbs stop working and go weak.

Revere over at Effect Measure has a post about this too. Revere is a public health scientist and credits the medical specialist who was seeing several of the patients. A very good post from a blogger I really like.

01 February 2008

When things go wrong in the drug trade

Tainted Drugs Linked to Maker of Abortion Pill

For all the crap I've given our FDA, its still doing a better job than the Chinese version. There are two things going on here; the cancer drug that is tainted and the mifepristone (RU-486) made by the same company in a different factory that is exported to the US.

The story started with a number of cancer patients becoming paralyzed, some still can't walk.

In September, health and drug officials announced that they had found that the two drugs were contaminated with vincristine sulfate, a third cancer drug, during production. After issuing a nationwide alert, the government announced a wider recall, and Shanghai’s drug agency sealed manufacturing units at the plant.

Its unclear how many people are suffering from this, the Chinese government isn't known for its transparency. But that doesn't mean the don't take drastic measures when the time comes. Just last summer, the former head of the Chinese FDA was executed after being found guilt of taking bribes. It seems to me that they are trying, in there own way, to clean up their act. But it seems to be for the sake of export more than the safety of the Chinese people. I am, however, very much on the outside of this one, maybe it is about the Chinese people, and I only hear the stories when they have to do with how they might directly effect me.

I say that because the article doesn't start with the back story about the paralysis of cancer patients in Beijing. Rather it mentions the bare bones of the problem and the third paragraph starts in about how the company is the only supplier of mifepristone to the US. The article then tells us that this isn't the first time the company has had a run in with one or the other FDA.

On at least two occasions in 2002, Shanghai Hualian had shipments of drugs stopped at the United States border, F.D.A. records show. One shipment was an unapproved antibiotic and the other a diuretic that had “false or misleading labeling.” Records also show that another unit of Shanghai Pharmaceutical Group has filed papers declaring its intention to sell at least five active pharmaceutical ingredients to manufacturers for sale in the United States.

We might see the Chinese crack down on some of the issues we've been seeing in the news; the tainted food, drugs, toothpaste, toys. But I don't think that the results will be for the Chinese people, but rather for the export market. China is very worried about its image right now, more than its worried about doing right by its people.