U.S. Attorney nails NY State “3 men in a room” culture – with an indictment


Two of the “3 men in a room” — NY Governor Andrew Cuomo, State Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver

One day after charging one of New York’s leading lawmakers with exploiting his office to obtain millions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York delivered a stinging condemnation of the culture of corruption in Albany and said the system was set up to breed misdeeds.

The prosecutor, Preet Bharara, speaking at the New York Law School on Friday, castigated how deal-making has long been done in Albany — by “three men in a room” (the governor, the State Assembly speaker and the State Senate majority leader), who work in secret and without accountability to decide most vital issues.

For decades, state government has essentially been controlled by the three leaders. When they emerge from their private meetings, issues are usually settled, with no cause for public debate.

Mr. Bharara said this structure could lead to the kind of corruption outlined in the criminal complaint unveiled on Thursday against Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who has been the Assembly speaker for two decades.

If the charges are proved true, he said, then “at least one of the proverbial three men in a room is compromised.”

If that is the case, he said, “then how can we trust that anything that gets decided in Albany is on the level?”

By concentrating power in the hands of so few, he said, good people are discouraged from running for office because they know they will have little influence on important matters…

…Mr. Bharara compared the culture in Albany to Wall Street, where he has aggressively pursued insider trading prosecutions.

Rather than trying to work for a greater good, he said, many people focused on where the line is between legal and illegal, and then steered as close as possible to that border without crossing over.

Such a mentality, he said, is a recipe for trouble…

He urged voters to get angry, to demand change. “My hope is that in bringing the case,” he said, “there will be reform.”

“That almost happened with the Moreland Commission,” Mr. Bharara said, referring to the anticorruption panel established by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that was looking at lawmakers’ behavior when the governor shut it down…

And that governor, Andrew Cuomo was one of those “3 men in a room”. Which just may have provided his reason for shutting down the commission investigating New York State corruption.

I doubt he counted on Preet Bharara getting a court order requiring everything from the Moreland Commission to be turned over to the US Attorney — much less carrying the investigation through to the indictment of the man who has been State Assembly speaker for more than 20 years, Sheldon Silver.

Lowest-wage Aetna employees minimum wage now $16/hour + increased benefits

Bertolini, Keene, minimum wage

One CEO has taken a step that could help fend off Thomas Piketty’s nightmare vision of rising wealth inequality: He’s giving thousands of his workers a raise.

Aetna Chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini announced…that the health-insurance company will be raising wages for its lowest-paid employees. Starting in April, the minimum hourly base pay for Aetna’s American workers will be $16 an hour, according to a company press release.

The 5,700 workers affected by the change will see an average pay raise of about 11 percent. The lowest-paid workers, who currently make $12 an hour, will get a 33-percent raise.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Bertolini recently requested that Aetna executives read Capital In The Twenty-First Century, by the French economist Piketty. The book, which has been hailed as the “most important book of the twenty-first century,” warns that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is heading toward Gilded Age levels of inequality and calls on the world’s largest economies to fix the problem.

The U.S. government, which last raised the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour in 2009, has not exactly scrambled to respond. Aetna’s move is one way companies could help close the gap

Other factors may have influenced Aetna’s decision to boost pay. The Affordable Care Act is helping millions of Americans get insured, which means insurance companies have to beef up their consumer services to stay competitive.

“Health care decisions are increasingly consumer driven,” Bertolini said in a statement emailed to The Huffington Post. “We are making an investment in the future of health-care service.”

The job market is healing, as well, which should eventually push wages higher. Last month capped the best year for hiring since 1999, as the unemployment rate fell to 5.6 percent. That said, even though the job market has improved, wages have been slow to grow.

Still, some large employers, including Aetna, Starbucks and the Gap, have raised wages in the past year.

In the interview, Tom Keene makes the point that wages have been stagnant for years. Bertolini describes the segment that most influenced his decision were single moms who needed food stamps to get by in Connecticut’s capitol. Their kids often were on Medicaid because they couldn’t even afford the company’s healthcare plan.

60% of the increase dedicated to benefits. 40% of the budget increase went to the wages – raised to $16/hour minimum. Doing it this way produced the best possible increase in personal disposable income. Not that any of this means crap to Republicans and other tightwads pretending to be conservatives.

Bertolini’s cogent point is that healthcare is a growing segment in our service economy. Workers who are well-paid always perform better than folks treated like serfs. As much as today’s conservatives prefer the latter. Something not noted in this article are the changes in workplace life, as well. More advanced sectors in the American economy – like the tech sector – long ago proved that a small portion of time away from necessary work reduces tedium, makes for increased acuity in all tasks. That should include physical changes, exercise – as well a bit of time to rest your brain.

Aetna now brings in a bit of yoga, a little meditation time to their workplace. Something else, fundamentalist curmudgeons will also hate.

Time-lapse video of volcanic explosion in Mexico

A mesmerizing time-lapse video shows a Mexican volcano’s explosive eruption — spewing ash high into the sky.

The Colima volcano exploded around 9:15 a.m. Wednesday and sent an ash column about 29,000 feet into the air.

More than five minutes of the vulcanian eruption, which ejects lava fragments and lots of volcanic ash, were condensed into 30 seconds for the clip…

Experts say Colima is one of Mexico’s most active volcanoes, with multiple eruptions in recent weeks alone.

Nicely done!

Converting Sunlight into Liquid Fuel” — this is what Obama was talking about

Barack Obama wants to convert sunlight into liquid fuel. It was a passing reference in the State of the Union address…If scientists can figure out how to do this, he said, it could “unleash new jobs.”

Currently there are three main ways to use solar power to propel cars and airplanes, but they all have problems:

Put solar panels on your vehicle. Given space limitations on a car, even very efficient solar panels would produce only two kilowatts of power…

Use solar panels to charge batteries or make hydrogen for fuel cells. Battery-powered cars are good for short trips and commuting, but batteries struggle to compete with gasoline, in terms of cost and weight, for longer driving…So far.

Use sunlight to grow plants and convert those plants into biofuels. Plants only convert 1 to 6 percent of the energy in sunlight into sugars and other biomass. So they require a lot of land, as well as tractors and fertilizer involving fossil fuels. The process of converting biomass to liquid fuels also consumes energy…

Obama is talking about using sunlight to produce energy-dense liquid fuels more directly. There are several ways to do this.

One is to engineer the microörganisms that make biofuels from sugar to get their energy from electricity instead…

Another option is to use solar panels to generate electricity, then use that electricity to perform electrochemistry. For example, you could split water to make hydrogen and break down carbon dioxide to get carbon, then combine the hydrogen and carbon to make hydrocarbon fuels much like gasoline or diesel.

A variation on this, known as artificial photosynthesis, would involve redesigning solar panels so that the electrons they produce do not generate an external electric current but drive electrochemical reactions inside the panel…

It all looks good on paper, but in reality there are big hurdles to making the technology work. Researchers have demonstrated parts of these processes, but never put them all together in an efficient, economic package.

Practically speaking, the only jobs these efforts will unleash in the near term involve doing the necessary research.

Which only means the research hasn’t traveled much further than proof-of-concept. Doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen within a reasonable period of time.

Truly ignorant folks will sit back and rely on gasoline staying under $2 a gallon forever. I remember when it was going to stay under 30¢ a gallon – forever.

Guys – are you a Stehpinkler or a Sitzpinkler?

choices, choices

A German judge ruled a tenant can’t be held responsible for floor damage resulting from urinating while in the standing position.

Dusseldorf Judge Stefan Hank sided with the tenant, whose lawsuit said the landlord refused to return $2,100 of his $3,300 deposit, alleging the resident’s urine had damaged the marble floor around the toilet.

Hank said the arguments from the landlord and a “technical expert” who confirmed urine was responsible for the marble tile damage were “credible and understandable,” but not enough to sway his opinion.

“Despite the increasing domestication of men in this regard, urinating while standing up is still widespread,” the judge wrote in his ruling.

Hank said the landlord should have warned the tenant of the floor’s “sensitivity” to urine droplets…

There has been a growing movement in Germany to convert “Stehpinkler,” men who stand while urinating, into tidier “Sitzpinkler,” men who sit to pee. Opponents of the movement sometimes use “Sitzpinkler” as a derogatory term to insult a man’s masculinity.

Har!

Quotes on climate change from Davos

Some key quotes from the session Tackling Climate, Development and Growth at Davos 2015:

Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, International Monetary Fund

“It’s a collective endeavour, it’s collective accountability and it may not be too late.”

“At this point in time, it’s macro critical, it’s people critical, it’s planet critical.”

“As I said two years ago, we are at risk of being grilled, fried and toasted.”

Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever

“Tackling climate change is closely linked to poverty alleviation and economic development; I would call them different sides of the same coin…”

“The first thing we need from the business community, and the business leaders themselves, is commitment. If you’re not committed, you’re more destructive at the table than if you’re really committed and you want to solve it…”

Michael Spence, William R. Berkley Professor in Economics and Business, NYU Stern School of Business, Italy

“…We have a choice: between a energy-efficient low carbon path and an energy-intensive high carbon path, which at an unknown point of time ends catastrophically. This doesn’t seem like a very hard choice.”

“We have to go very quickly… we have a window of a very small number of years… after which we cannot win the battle to mitigate fast enough to meet the safety goals… if this year goes badly it would be a massive missed opportunity.”

“This is the chance to do something we’ve never done before, to come together in a process of top down agreement, and bottom up energy, creativity and commitment. It will be a moral victory.”

I don’t think the Koch Bros. went to Davos. Their profits roll out from the fiefdom of the United States. What foreign holdings they rely on – are obedient.

I don’t think Jim Imhofe or Mike Huckabee were invited. I doubt anyone who is a serious player in the world of modern industrial, technology-driven capitalism would extend an invite to John Boehner or Mitch McConnell — or Mary Landrieu.

If you’re bright enough to be a world-class player in international commerce – including the governments actively trying to grow their national economies – you had better have modern science as part of your core skill set. Along with an understanding of political economy over the past seventy years.

No matter if your personal bent is conservative or liberal, denial of reality sufficient to get you elected to Congress from Kansas or Texas doesn’t aid global logistics or long-range marketing.

If you care to view the full session Tackling Climate, Development and Growth at Davos 2015, it’s available to watch.

Hard to fool a detainee with a fake letter from mom – when he knows she can’t write


Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Guantánamo prison camp authorities tried to trick inmate Mohamedou Ould Slahi by forging a letter purportedly from his mother whom he had been unable to see for years, his brother Yahdih has said.

The ploy, which was intended to persuade him to cooperate with his interrogators, failed not only because they misspelt Slahi’s name but also because his mother could not write.

This week Slahi became the first inmate to publish a memoir while still incarcerated when Guantánamo Diary was published in 20 countries and serialised in the Guardian.

Speaking on Tuesday at an event organised by the Guardian in partnership with Canongate, the publisher of Guantánamo Diary, and PEN, the writers’ association, Yahdih Ould Slahi said his brother had not been able to see his mother before she died at their home in Mauritania in 2013…

The 44-year-old engineer was first detained in 2001 in Mauritania at the request of the US government, then rendered to Jordan and Afghanistan and tortured, and then flown to Guantánamo.

He is one of two inmates whose “additional interrogation techniques” were personally approved by Donald Rumsfeld, then US defence secretary, according to a US Senate inquiry. Slahi was dressed in a burqa, deprived of sleep, subjected to strobe lights, doused in water, threatened with dogs, sexually assaulted by female interrogators and forced to bark and perform dog tricks.

He wrote his memoir by hand after learning English, his fourth language, from his Guantánamo guards and interrogators, and it was published this week after his lawyer, Nancy Hollander, battled for six years to have the document declassified.

Hollander told the event that Slahi’s descriptions of the abuse that he had suffered at Guantánamo had already been confirmed by both the Senate inquiry and a separate investigation by the FBI…

Hollander said her client had been in a form of legal limbo since the US government lodged an appeal after a US district court judge ordered his release…

The American Civil Liberties Union has launched an online petition demanding Slahi’s release.

One more case where Obama’s Administration matches the incompetence of his neo-con predecessor. Incompetence, that is, at differentiating liberal foreign policy from the conservative flavor. There may be some small difference in the total number of civilians killed. But, the destruction of civil liberties, civil rights, human rights guaranteed by international treaty seem to be consistent between both flavors of imperial arrogance.

The largest vessel the world has ever seen – is a factory

The Prelude
Click to enlarge

Climbing onto the largest vessel the world has ever seen brings you into a realm where everything is on a bewilderingly vast scale and ambition knows no bounds.

Prelude is a staggering 488 meters long and the best way to grasp what this means is by comparison with something more familiar.

Four football pitches placed end-to-end would not quite match this vessel’s length – and if you could lay the 301 meters of the Eiffel Tower alongside it, or the 443 meters of the Empire State Building, they wouldn’t do so either.

In terms of sheer volume, Prelude is mind-boggling too: if you took six of the world’s largest aircraft carriers, and measured the total amount of water they displaced, that would just about be the same as with this one gigantic vessel.

Under construction for the energy giant Shell, the dimensions of the platform are striking in their own right – but also as evidence of the sheer determination of the oil and gas industry to open up new sources of fuel…

Prelude…pioneers a new way of getting gas from beneath the ocean floor to the consumers willing to pay for it.

Until now, gas collected from offshore wells has had to be piped to land to be processed and then liquefied ready for export…Usually, this means building a huge facility onshore which can purify the gas and then chill it so that it becomes a liquid – what’s known as liquefied natural gas or LNG – making it 600 times smaller in volume and therefore far easier to transport by ship.

And LNG is in hot demand – especially in Asia, with China and Japan among the energy-hungry markets.

To exploit the Prelude gas field more than 100 miles off the northwest coast of Australia, Shell has opted to bypass the step of bringing the gas ashore, instead developing a system which will do the job of liquefaction at sea.

Hence Prelude will become the world’s first floating LNG plant – or FLNG in the terminology of the industry.

RTFA for the economics behind the decision – because, push comes to shove, there is no other primary reason for the construction of this behemoth. Optimizing profit is the name of the only game Shell plays.

Surprising complexity, insights into global effects of wood fuel burning

The harvesting of wood to meet the heating and cooking demands for billions of people worldwide has less of an impact on global forest loss and carbon dioxide emissions than previously believed, according to a new Yale-led study.

Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, a team of researchers, including Prof. Robert Bailis of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, concludes that only about 27 to 34 percent of wood fuel harvested worldwide would be considered “unsustainable.” According to the assessment, “sustainability” is based on whether or not annual harvesting exceeds incremental re-growth…

According to the authors, the findings point to the need for more nuanced, local-specific policies that address forest loss, climate change, and public health. They also suggest that existing carbon offset methodologies used to reduce carbon emissions likely overstate the CO2 emission reductions that can be achieved through the promotion of more efficient cookstove technologies.

The study identifies a set of “hotspots” where the majority of wood extraction exceeds sustainable yields. These hotspot regions — located mainly in South Asia and East Africa — support about 275 million people who are reliant on wood fuel.

However, in other regions, the authors say, much of the wood used for this traditional heating and cooking is actually the byproduct of deforestation driven by other factors, such as demand for agricultural land, which would have occurred anyway…

The results stand in contrast to a long-held assumption that the harvesting of wood fuels — which accounts for more than half of the wood harvested worldwide — is a major driver of deforestation and climate change…

Emissions from wood fuels account for about 1.9 to 2.3 percent of global emissions, the study says. The deployment of 100 million improved cookstoves could reduce this by 11 to 17 percent, said Bailis, who also studies the factors that influence the adoption of cleaner cookstoves in developing nations…

“We need to be able to understand where these different components of non-renewability are coming from in order to get a better sense of the positive impacts of putting stoves into peoples’ homes or promoting transitions to cooking with gas or electricity,” he said.

Economics rules. IMHO The first reason to choose wood-burning for fuel is cost. There is none. Yes, there is the cost of labor-time; but, the discussion covers a majority of rural families who are self-sustaining farmers…with little or no cash income.

Cost factors of electricity, natural gas, butagaz, etc. aren’t part of the equation. These folks generally can’t budget to buy fuel. Income-generation from local/regional small-scale manufacturing or more efficient, more productive methods of agriculture offering surplus to sell can remedy that core problem.

A really big poll about Progressive Proposals

After 1,000,000 votes were cast in the Big Ideas Project, the Progressive Change Institute ran a national poll to see whether these ideas are popular with voters.

The short answer? Yes, they are!


Click to enlarge [really big .pdf]

583 (38.9%) of those interviewed identified themselves as Democrats, 382 (25.5%) as Independents, and 507 (33.8%) as Republicans.

Voters were asked to rate proposals on a scale of zero to ten where zero means they strongly oppose the idea and ten means strong support for the idea and a desire to see it become law. Zero to four represents opposition for a proposal. Five is neutral. Six to ten is supportive.

I love that the reality of modern communications snuck in and 25% of interviews were conducted via cell phoned.