Big freight railroads miss safety deadline — Aw, shucks

Click to enlarge — Chatsworth collisionIngo Wagner/AFP

Three of the biggest freight railroads operating in the U.S. have told the government they won’t meet a 2018 deadline to start using safety technology intended to prevent accidents like the deadly derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia last May.

Canadian National Railway, CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern say they won’t be ready until 2020…Four commuter railroads — SunRail in Florida, Metra in Illinois, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and Trinity Railway Express in Texas — also say they’ll miss the deadline.

The technology, called positive train control or PTC, relies on GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train positions and automatically slow or stop trains that are in danger of colliding, derailing due to excessive speed or about to enter track where crews are working or that is otherwise off limits.

The other four other Class I freight railroads that operate in the U.S. — Union Pacific, BNSF, Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern — and more than a dozen commuter railroads have told the agency they will meet the 2018 deadline…

Amtrak, the nation’s only long-distance passenger carrier, began operating a version of the technology on all tracks that it owns in its Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston and in some other parts of the country in December. But most of Amtrak’s operations outside the Northeast take place on tracks belonging to freight railroads, making it dependent on them to install the technology. Many commuter railroads are in the same position.

After a 2008 collision between a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth, California, killed 25 people, Congress passed a law requiring railroads to start using the expensive technology on all tracks that carry passenger trains or that are used to haul liquids that emit toxic gas if spilled.

The deadline for the change was Dec. 31, 2015. But after it became clear nearly all railroads would miss the deadline, Congress passed another law in October extending it to Dec. 31, 2018. That law also permits the government to grant waivers through Dec. 31, 2020…

Anyone surprised?

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The oil Patch Boys have known about climate change since the 1980s

Just months after the New York attorney general launched an investigation into oil giant ExxonMobil over allegations that it misled investors about climate change, a newly surfaced report suggests the oil industry’s largest trade group may have had early, detailed knowledge of climate change as well.

In 1982, the American Petroleum Institute commissioned a report from scientists at Columbia University that predicted destructive global warming and linked it to fossil fuel use, according to the nonprofit InsideClimate News, which received a copy of the original report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

One year after the trade association received the report, API disbanded the task force it had set up to monitor climate change research, according to InsideClimate News. API then launched a multimillion-dollar campaign in the 1990s to persuade the public that the science around climate change was “uncertain…”

The Columbia researchers who prepared the report for API predicted global temperatures would rise by up to 4 degrees Celsius over the next hundred years. A 4-degree increase would likely have devastating effects on the planet, including widespread species loss, increased food insecurity, stronger storms and more severe coastal flooding, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Columbia report also said the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere “is expected to double some time in the [21st] century. Just when depends on the particular estimate of the level of increasing energy use per year and the mix of carbon based fuels…”

Instead of cleaning up its act, Exxon waged a $16 million campaign in the 1990s to block proposed regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and to persuade the public that climate science was unreliable…It became clear in December that several major oil companies affiliated with API had early knowledge of climate change. The newly surfaced report obtained by InsideClimate News shows that the information about global warming available to members of the trade group was detailed and clearly outlined the risks of emitting large volumes of CO2…

The campaign of political disinformation continues. Even if most of the educated world understands the sum of scientific investigation into climate change there are enough willing dodos committed to being foot soldiers for any conservative cause. Self-interest is limited to a pat on the head from the boss – just as it always has. Care and concern for the planet and life on it – doesn’t raise the least interest among the nutball lobby, some paid, some volunteers. The creeps who pick up the tab are the same corporate executives who have been at it for decades.

We’re just getting a clearer picture is all.

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Fox ate National Geographic

natgeo rupert

Over the last few years the National Geographic Society has been slowly vanishing into the Murdoch family’s Fox media empire like a gazelle being swallowed by a python in one of the former’s famous videos. This month the consummation will be complete and Fox will take full control of NatGeo’s major assets – its stake in the TV network, its flagship magazine, its TV studio – in a $725m deal.

The process has not been easy, or without controversy. In September, when the deal was announced, former staffers and others were incensed. “I told my wife I would rather see National Geographic [magazine] die an honorable death than be swept into something it’s not supposed to be,” said veteran NatGeo marine photographer Brian Skerry at the time. The Society will continue to exist as a separate entity…

❝“Even at the very beginning, the magazine subscription was dropping like a stone,” recalled a former executive. “The dirty secret is that NatGeo needed the money for their endowment. Nothing makes money. Nothing. The only thing holding them together is the channel now, spinning off money so they can be alive…”

In the beginning, the network was the dream of Tim Kelly, then the head of the company’s own television unit, which produced National Geographic Explorer for CBS, among others. The group won scores of Emmys; 138 when Kelly left in 2012. But it was also costly, more interested in prestige than in cash, and times changed dramatically. Kelly had had a death in the family and was not available for comment; he now runs an education technology startup called Planet3…

The network officially launched on 1 January 2001, with Laureen Ong as president and Wilk as head of programming. National Geographic had torn down its museum to build a studio on M Street and 17th in Washington DC to build a TV studio; everyone at National Geographic was excited about the new network’s news show…

By 2007 Ong was out, and David Lyle, fresh off the shuttered Fox Reality channel, was in. With president Howard Owens and Lyle as CEO, Lyle was quick to make changes. Memories of the companies’ history together divide along predictable lines: National Geographic loyalists insist that the company’s valuable brand had been sullied by the barbarians at Fox. The Fox crew contend that National Geographic lived in a fairyland of high-minded ideals funded – eventually exclusively – by Fox. When you’re starving to death in a gingerbread house, you choose between food and shelter…

Last year, both Lyle and Owens left the company, Owens first. “As a senior TV executive, I am supposed to say everybody is replaceable, but in Howard’s case I say without a shadow of a doubt, we couldn’t have done it without him,” wrote Lyle in a memo when Howard’s exit was announced, just a few months before he moved on himself. Courteney Monroe, head of marketing, took over and remains in charge.

This year has seen the “TV guys” finally take over for good: the acquisition of nearly all National Geographic’s assets was announced in September. Fox, for years the dominant partner in the supposedly equal relationship, would no longer be subject to the Society’s eccentric board. National Geographic Television still exists, though people interviewed here speculate that it won’t for much longer.

Funny. Murdoch’s crew still hasn’t learned how to do the Web after wasting 10 figures on MySpace. The NatGeo folks never learned how to do TV. Something that has only been codified in How-To books for a half-century. So much of our media/communications culture – always described as dynamic – can’t get out of its own way.

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Some of the crap Obama’s budget would eliminate — if Congress showed up for work

Though Republicans like to think of themselves as the party that cuts waste, fraud, and abuse, Democrats, too, propose putting the ax to programs that they’d like to see go away.

Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget proposal is no exception. Though it generally offers higher levels of government spending than Republicans favor, that doesn’t mean Obama loves every program the government runs. In fact, he’s proposing to entirely eliminate dozens of initiatives — often small grant programs — that his team has identified as superfluous or unnecessary.

Starting with the most unproductive program on the books:

The one that’s likely to get the most political attention is eliminating a $10 million-a-year grant program for abstinence-only education run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The biggest proposed elimination is the Department of Justice’s $210 million State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which reimburses state and local law enforcement agencies for costs incurred detaining immigrants.

The cut most likely to provoke backlash from liberals is probably the proposed elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency’s $13 million grant program for water quality research, which sounds pretty useful in light of the situation in Flint, Michigan.

Click the link above for the complete list.

Don’t get too focused on what these are called. We just avoided a portion of a bill in the New Mexico State legislature supposedly about a “Fair Work Week” that not only would have let reactionary city and town governments avoid the state minimum wage law – it would have reversed any raises previously granted by the minimum wage requirement.

Gotta love today’s Republican version of Class warfare.

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Best Super Bowl commercial

First time Colgate offered a commercial for the Super Bowl. Not a bad start IMHO.


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Cartoon of the day


It’s only a small hypocrisy. As a loyal Toffees supporter.

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Rescue robots need to imitate cockroaches

It’s possible that if you were trapped under a pancaked skyscraper after an earthquake, or in a mine that had just collapsed, you’d be totally fine with getting rescued by a giant robot cockroach. What are you going to do? Say, “No, thanks, I’m good, send something cute”?

Even if you did request something more charismatic, odds are it couldn’t reach you. The American cockroach, says a paper out today, is perfectly adapted for getting into tiny spaces a human-shaped rescuer might not, thanks to a collapsible exoskeleton and really creepy mode of locomotion. The cockroach, it turns out, is a good model for a rescue robot. The researchers even built a prototype. It skitters.

Yes, it had to be cockroaches. “We are not entomologists. We also think they’re disgusting,” says Robert Full, who works on biomechanics and animal locomotion at UC Berkeley and is lead author on the article, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “But they can teach us bigger principles.” As is typical for insects, cockroaches have an exoskeleton—overlapping plates of a tough material called chitin held together with a flexible membrane. In the wild, that flexibility lets American cockroaches run about 5 feet per second, more than 3 mph…

Don’t blame the cockroaches for their extraordinary adaptability to that space between your floorboard and your wall. That’s not what their skill set evolved for. It actually keeps them safe. “Cockroaches like to be against walls, against surfaces, and the more surfaces they can contact, the more comfortable they are,” says Coby Schal, an entomologist at North Carolina State University. It’s called “thigmotaxis,” and the roaches feel most OK when they perceive a slow, light brushing against bristles that grow from their bodies…

That collapsible exoskeleton is yet another physiological marvel. Not only does it flex and expand—allowing for developing insects to grow and molt, and bloodsucking insects like bedbugs to accommodate the meal they have made out of your precious life essence—it also shunts their mass around. “In a cockroach the blood flows in an open cavity called a hemocoel,” Schal says, “so it can deform its body by moving blood from one part to another.” It’s like a disgusting, insectile, armored balloon…

Gross, sure, but it also makes a great model for robot mobility…That’s why you might not mind if a robot bug comes to rescue you. A Terminator wouldn’t be able to get there at all. “It’s not like the Darpa robotics challenges where you go down a hall, down stairs, skip over some rubble. No, no, no,” Murphy says. “You’re going into spaces too small for a human or a dog to get into. Or maybe they’re on fire…”

If you still can’t handle the idea of someday being carried to safety by a swarm of chittering, exoskeleton-wearing robot bugs, Full has you covered. He’s also working on a giant crab.

Something, anything, saving my butt is welcome. I don’t even care if it looks like Ted Cruz.

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Pentagon chooses science over Know-Nothing politics on climate change

Click to enlarge — Republican conference on climate change in 2100

A bit over a year after identifying climate change as a “significant challenge” for the US military, the US Department of Defense has given its top officials orders for handling the hazards posed by a warming world.

The boring-but-important 12-page document issued in January tells the armed service chiefs and top civilian officials to identify how climate change will affect their missions, figure out how to manage any risks it poses, and factor those into their planning. It gives specific tasks to various Defense Department offices and regional commands, from determining how higher sea levels or longer droughts affect US bases to what new gear might be needed to work in a thawing Arctic.

❝”Although this looks very bureaucratic in nature, I would actually give the department full credit for it,” said David Titley, a retired rear admiral who served as the Navy’s top oceanographer. “I think this is one of the more significant steps they’ve done, because they’ve linked that high-level strategy down to a daily to-do list.”

Titley said the new order means the Pentagon “is now thinking seriously” about whether American soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines “have the right tools, the right equipment, the right training, and the right risks for a changing environment…”

The Navy is already trying to figure out how to protect its Atlantic fleet headquarters at Norfolk, Virginia — the world’s largest naval installation — from the two-pronged threat of rising seas and a sinking shore. Norfolk is already seeing periodic coastal flooding from a rising ocean, and Titley said 2012’s Hurricane Sandy showed how badly a big storm could hit vital urban systems like the New York subways that few had thought of as vulnerable…

But Holland said Pentagon officials are still struggling to figure out how other expected changes — to food, water, and energy supplies, increases in extreme weather, and an increase in refugees — will affect operations overseas…

The new directive is aimed at shifting that mindset…

Titley appeared at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing that attacked climate scientists. The hearing was called by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the GOP presidential candidate who insists that no global warming has occurred since 1998 — an assertion contradicted by the findings of US and international science agencies.

“Senator Cruz was asking me which is more important, climate or ISIS?” Titley said. “And what I told Senator Cruz at the hearing back in December was we don’t get to pick and choose. We’re a big country, and we have to deal with both … Mature superpowers have to deal with more than one thing at a time.”

Mature politicians should do the same. Unfortunately, Cruz, the ignoranus electorate he represents, the rightwing political clot he leads not only ignores science, history and maturity – they prefer the politics of fear and ignorance as their best bet to gain power in the United States.

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Billionaire surprised that American voters are unhappy — this is news?

As income inequality and healthcare costs rise in the United States and as an economic slowdown may be on the horizon, one of the world’s richest men expressed surprise that U.S. voters seem so angry in advance of the 2016 presidential election. Speaking at a gathering of corporate and government leaders in Switzerland, Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman told Bloomberg Television that he is bewildered about why Americans seem so discontented.

I find the whole thing astonishing and what’s remarkable is the amount of anger whether it’s on the Republican side or the Democratic side,” the Wall Street mogul said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Bernie Sanders, to me, is almost more stunning than some of what’s going on in the Republican side. How is that happening, why is that happening?”

On the eve of the conference, the nonprofit group Oxfam released a report showing that the richest 62 people on the planet now own more wealth than half the world’s population. In the United States, recent data from Pew Research shows the average American’s median household worth has stagnated, as the median household worth of upper-class Americans increased 7 percent. Schwarzman, though, expressed surprise that people are enraged…

Schwarzman’s private equity firm, Blackstone, manages — and makes fees from — billions of dollars of pensioners’ assets, and was recently fined by federal regulators for not properly disclosing fee terms to its investors. The investors harmed by Blackstone’s conduct included public retirement systems in California, Florida and New Jersey.

Schwarzman has donated $100,000 to a super PAC supporting Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and reportedly organized a meet-and-greet session between John Kasich and Wall Street executives, but Schwarzman said on Wednesday that he would ultimately support Donald Trump should his fellow Republican billionaire win the GOP nomination for president. In recent years, Schwarzman has made national headlines likening tax increases on the wealthy to the Nazi invasion of Poland.

Same as it ever was.

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Social media in one easy chart


Hat tip, Ian Bremmer

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