White House pushes for rail and mass transit projects

One of the centerpieces of U.S. President Barack Obama’s transportation initiative is high-speed rail, officials said.

The Washington Post reported that the White House is pushing for a bevy of rail projects, including a high-speed line between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minn.

Funding high-speed rail projects comes from $8 billion in economic stimulus money and $5 billion more over the next five years in the administration’s proposed transportation budget, the newspaper reported…

“We’re trying to get everything moving as fast as possible with the understanding that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for funding,” said Steve Raukar, a commissioner in St. Louis County, Minn., chairman of the Northern Lights Passenger Rail Alliance, which is spearheading the drive for the $500 million Minnesota project.

The Times said nearly half of the $48 billion in stimulus money for transportation projects will go toward rail, buses and other non-highway projects.

“It sounds like a lot of money to Americans, but it’s really just a start,” James RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative, a non-profit rail advocacy group, was quoted by the newspaper as saying. “We’re not going to wake up in a year and see a bullet train. But we are going to see much faster service for relatively little money.”

I would have been one of the first skeptics in line – except for our experience here in New Mexico over the past couple of years. Because Governor Bill Richardson succeeded in squeezing the funds from the state [bloody amazing!] and the Feds for high-speed rail north and south of Albuquerque.

It has exceeded everything he said it would be. A convenience for commuters – was most of the premise, since state government is up here in Santa Fe; but, most of the employees live down around around Albuqeurque and Rio Rancho. Then, tourists, including the intra-state flavor, realized that training up from Albuquerque to Santa Fe for a day’s shopping was a piece of cake.

The system, has had to add more trains to the schedule – barely setting aside Sundays for offline maintenance. Even the stodgy rural voters who opposed the system from the gitgo now want the line extended to Taos so they can get in on the action. Convenience and comfort really work.

Over a million songbirds slaughtered for expensive snacks in Cyprus


More than 1.1 million songbirds prized as culinary delicacies were illegally slaughtered by trappers in Cyprus in the past year.

Cyprus lies on a key migratory route and bird trapping has been commonplace for years. Trappers use either fine mist nets or sticks dipped in sticky lime. “The figure is an unacceptable toll which ever way you look at it,” said Martin Hellicar, executive manager for Birdlife Cyprus.

Many of the birds are served up as expensive delicacies in local restaurants, even though trapping and consumption is strictly banned, the group said…

About 90 percent of the migratory birds which fly from Europe to warmer climates over Cyprus each year are protected, and also include threatened species…

The birds, known as “ampelopoulia” are served in restaurants for up to five euros apiece. They are normally fried, wrapped in vine leaves to conceal from other possibly disapproving patrons and consumed whole.

Pretty sleazy way to make a buck.

No doubt “tradition” and “skepticism” about endangered species are offered up as rationales by the greedy bastards profiting from the trade.

Russia now the world’s top heroin consumer

Russia says it has become the world’s biggest consumer of heroin…Mr Ivanov, a former KGB officer and senior Kremlin official, said the flood of the drug from Afghanistan posed a threat to Russia’s national security.

He painted a grim picture. He said the drug was partly to blame for rising crime and a fall in Russia’s population.

“In recent years Russia has not just become massively hooked on Afghan opiates, it has also become the world’s absolute leader in the opiate trade and the number one heroin consumer,” he said in a report made available to reporters.

“Drug trafficking has become a key negative factor for demography and a blow to our nation’s gene pool… [and] a challenge to Russia’s civilisation.”

The Russian health ministry says Russia has up to 2.5 million drug addicts out of a population of some 140 million, most of them aged between 18 and 39.

Junkies are about the lowest of the low – from inside their heads, their lives – and how they function in civil society.

That says nothing about causes and cures [if they exist]. Just a social and economic description.

Judge trades hall monitors for ankle monitors

Wise County, Texas. is going high-tech on truants.

To keep tabs on students who are habitually absent, Justice of the Peace Terri Johnson can now place a GPS ankle monitor on them for 30 days. “I’m not looking to convict students but to help them,” said Johnson, who presides over Precinct 2 in Decatur. “We want to help them go to school, and 30 days can do a lot to change up their behavior.”

No students have been sanctioned with the monitor yet, but doing so would allow Johnson to know where they are at all times.

The monitors, which are more commonly used to keep track of convicted felons on probation, are the latest move in stepped-up efforts across North Texas to curb truancy and help turn around climbing dropout rates…

Johnson said she saw about 320 truancy cases last year.

Oftentimes, students will correct their behavior if they are held more accountable, Johnson said. She said students who have already appeared before her court and are cited again for truancy could be candidates to use the new system.

Har! On one hand I hate the idea of tracking people electronically. OTOH, if their families aren’t doing anything to assure they attend school, maybe the state has to step in?

Apple’s touchscreen netbook is probably real – just not a netbook!

I think Apple’s new device will look more like a Kindle than a netbook

Some Asian news outlets are reporting rumors that suggest Apple is working on a touchscreen device. This larger format iPod touch has been rumored for a while, and it’s said to be a “netbook” type device. The question is: How likely is it that Apple will release a touchscreen, no-keyboard netbook? My best guess is that Apple is indeed working on a device similar to that being talked about in the blogs today.

Just as it redefined the MP3 player experience (with iPod) and reinvented the smartphone (with iPhone), Apple is going to pursue the netbook opportunity. But it won’t be with anything like the cheap, anorexic laptops being sold as netbooks today.

When Apple COO Time Cook was asked about netbooks during his conference call with analysts in February 2009, he said that the company was “watching the space,” but he dismissed the idea of offering a device that had “smaller screens, cramped keyboard.” In other words, if Apple does make a device that sits between an iPod touch/iPhone and a laptop, then it would mostly likely be a touchscreen device.

Some other clues that point toward the development of this device are found in the user interface on the recently released Safari 4.0 Beta. Charles Ying, who develops for WebKit, notes on his blog the similarities between Safari 4.0 and the iPhone Safari browser.

“I’m guessing that multi-touch user interactions are more positionally accurate due to direct user manipulation. That might explain some of the slight inconveniences Apple is making to pursue a unified multi-touch but full computing interface. I don’t know if Apple’s Netbook will run full Mac OS X, but I’m pretty sure that Safari 4’s user interface will at least be consistent.”

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Bomber kills 33 at Iraq reconciliation conference

Sunni tribal leaders greeted by Shiite leader as they arrived for the conference
Daylife/AP Photo

At least 33 people were killed and 20 wounded in a suicide car bombing targeting a national reconciliation conference in Baghdad.

The attack — which occurred outside the municipal building of Abu Ghraib in western Baghdad — also wounded 46 others. An Interior Ministry official told CNN the attack occurred when people gathered outside as the conference in the building ended.

Tribal leaders from the Abu Ghraib area were attending the meeting, the latest such conference between officials from the Shiite-led government and Sunni Arab tribal leaders…

The violence came after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Saturday rallied sheikhs of the nation’s tribes to participate in Iraq’s government. It was the latest official effort to further reconciliation among Sunnis, Shiites and tribes of different sects and bring some former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party into the political fold.

The targets of the enemies of democracy, of liberation, speaks volumes of who and what Islamist reactionaries fear.

Growing the breadth of participation in social and governmental life intimidates reactionaries of every stripe. Probably why the Bush-Cheney mafia kept the Iraq reconstruction government as narrow as possible after the U.S. invasion. Certainly, why the al Qaeda types don’t wish to see Shiites, Sunnis, Baathists and Kurd meeting together to design a better nation.

President Obama speaks about education

President Obama spoke to the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce this morning on the topic of education, vowing to “finally make No Child Left Behind live up to its name.”

In a wide-ranging speech, he called for more time in the classroom, “whether during the summer or through expanded-day programs for children who need it.”

“…we will end what has become a race to the bottom in our schools and instead, spur a race to the top by encouraging better standards and assessments,” he said. “This is an area where we are being outpaced by other nations. It’s not that their kids are any smarter than ours – it’s that they are being smarter about how to educate their kids.”

“They are spending less time teaching things that don’t matter, and more time teaching things that do,” the president continued. “They are preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career. We are not. Our curriculum for eighth graders is two full years behind top performing countries. That is a prescription for economic decline. I refuse to accept that America’s children cannot rise to this challenge. They can, they must, and they will meet higher standards in our time.”

President Obama’s full remarks, as prepared for delivery, are linked here.

Little concerns me as much as education. I grew up in a New England factory town, downhill from a pair of coal-burning behemoths that were 2 of the 3 largest employers in town.

The elementary school I attended was what you would expect in the 1940’s: an brick industrial-looking building staffed by underpaid teachers. In 8 years of schooling, passing through almost 600 students, we had 3 dropouts. They also were our only juvenile delinquents.

My parents loved education and what it could bring to us. Not unusual among 1st-generation Americans who lived through the Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal. My mom taught me to read when I was 4 years old.

Why can’t we accomplish this in a society hundreds of times wealthier?

World Bank says planet’s economy to ‘shrink’ in 2009

Wholesaler stacking crates of apples in Nanjing
Daylife/Reuters Pictures

The global economy will shrink this year for the first time since World War II, the World Bank has said. The bank’s forecast is gloomier than other estimates, which still foresee some growth.

By the middle of 2009, industrial output could be as much as 15% lower than 2008, while trade may record the biggest decline in 80 years, it said. Developing countries face a financing shortfall of up to $700bn (£497bn) this year, the bank added. The sharpest trade losses will be in East Asia, it said, where there are many large exporters…

The crisis will make poor countries more reliant on development assistance because, as richer countries borrow more, it will become more difficult for poorer countries to raise debt, it said. Only one quarter of the most vulnerable countries have the ability to finance measures to ease the impact of the downturn, said the World Bank, and its president Robert Zoellick called for investments to create jobs and “avoid social and political unrest”.

“Channelling infrastructure investment to the developing world, where it can release bottlenecks to growth and quickly restore demand, can have an even bigger bang for the buck and should be a key element to recovery, ” he added.

Phew! No kidding this is gloomy!

I think they’re too negative about the overall situation in the Far East. Internal, domestic consumption especially in China is stable and still on the increase to some extent. Characterizing these economies as exclusively export-based isn’t accurate in a world-wide recession.

The Chinese government has recognized this and [1] is working to support increased domestic demand – which hardly needs a nudge – and [2] Keynesian reforms which already fit upgrading infrastructure and quality of life support already in progress.