Italian police bust convent drug ring

Police in Italy say they have broken up a drug ring that used a convent outside Milan to smuggle cocaine.

They said the convent’s South American janitor organised religious trips in which smugglers posing as pilgrims hid cocaine in their prayer books.

The nuns were “completely unaware” of what he was up to, police said.

They have arrested 33 suspects and seized 30kg of cocaine. They say the mafia and Colombian cartels were allegedly behind the operation. Police said the operation, in the northern city of Piacenza, had been three years in the making.

The drugs were taken from the convent to a house near Bergamo, where the cocaine was refined, cut and sent off to major cities for distribution, the police said.

So, I’ll be a nice guy and say I accept the nuns didn’t know what was going on. Maybe.

Republicans would exempt car dealers from loan oversight. WTF?

President Barack Obama today warned that exempting auto dealers from a new consumer protection agency would hurt buyers and let dealers continue “deceptive practices.”

The nation’s 20,000 new-car dealers have blitzed Capitol Hill over the past two weeks seeking to be cut free from the agency that would oversee consumer lending, part of a package of financial reforms expected to move through the Senate over the next several days. They’re backing an amendment by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., that would exempt auto dealers’ lending from new oversight that would still apply to banks and finance companies like Ally Bank, the former GMAC.

In his statement, Obama said leaving dealers out of the bill would let them “inflate rates, insert hidden fees into the fine print of paperwork, and include expensive add-ons that catch purchasers by surprise.

This amendment guts provisions that empower consumers with clear information that allows them to make the financial decisions that work best for them and simply encourages misleading sales tactics that hurt American consumers,” Obama said…

Bailey Wood, a spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association, said the new rules would hurt loans to less-creditworthy customers, either forcing them to pay higher rates or not get financing at all…

The financial reform bill that passed the House last year excluded auto dealers after a similar lobbying push.

But a growing coalition of consumer advocates, community banks and the Defense Department has pushed back in recent days against the auto dealers’ efforts, saying dealers who craft loans for consumers should face the same kind of oversight that mortgage brokers, who make similar offers.

That these creeps muscled their way through the House last year speaks volumes about lobbying and corruption in Congress. Protection for consumers continues to take 2nd place – or lower – in the priorities of elected scumbags.

Car dealers already have the reputation of bottom-feeding parasites. Do you trust them to bring integrity to American business?

Preventable infectious diseases cause two-thirds of child deaths

Preventable infectious diseases cause two-thirds of child deaths, according to a new study published by The Lancet. Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF’s Child Health Epidemiology Reference Group (CHERG) assessed data from 193 countries to produce estimates by country, region and the world. While the number of deaths has declined globally over the last decade, the analysis reveals how millions of children under five die every year from preventable causes….

These findings have important implications for national programs,” said UNICEF Chief of Health, Dr. Mickey Chopra. “The persistence of diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria, all of which are easily preventable and curable but which nonetheless remain the leading single causes of death worldwide, should spur us to do more to control these diseases.”

The study’s country and regional estimates, however, underscore how global efforts must be targeted to have maximum impact. Malaria, for instance, is responsible for approximately 16 percent of deaths in Africa, but is a comparatively minor disease in the rest of the world. The study did reveal successes in fighting some infectious diseases, such as measles and tetanus—each now only accounts for 1 percent of child deaths worldwide.

Newborn deaths—those within the first month of life—increased as a proportion of all child deaths globally from 37 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2008. The two greatest single causes of death among neonates are pre-term birth complications and birth-related asphyxia. “These new data make the compelling case that for countries to get on track for Millennium Development Goal 4, they need to scale up low-cost, effective newborn health interventions,” said co-author Dr. Joy Lawn, director of Global Policy and Evidence for Save the Children’s Saving Newborn Lives program.

Overdue – as we all know.

I remain unimpressed with right-wing priorities assigning mythic proportions to militarism, corporate power and, so often, theocracy.

Those who manage to ignore children, their health as well as education and opportunities – deserve nothing but contempt.

Mom’s voice works as well as a hug to remove anxiety

“Reach out and touch someone” — good advertising slogan, or evolutionary imperative?

How about both?

What Madison Avenue knew decades ago has been observed in brain chemistry. A simple phone call from mom can calm frayed nerves by sparking the release of a powerful stress-quelling hormone, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Biological anthropologist Leslie Seltzer tested a group of seven- to 12-year-old girls with an impromptu speech and series of math problems in front of a panel of strangers, sending their hearts racing and levels of cortisol — a hormone associated with stress — soaring…

Once stressed, one-third of the girls were comforted in person by their mothers — specifically with hugs, an arm around the shoulders and the like. One-third were left watch an emotion-neutral 75-minute video. The rest were handed a telephone. It was mom on the line, and the effect was dramatic.

“The children who got to interact with their mothers had virtually the same hormonal response, whether they interacted in person or over the phone,” Seltzer says.

The girls’ levels of oxytocin, often called the “love hormone” and strongly associated with emotional bonding, rose significantly and the stress-marking cortisol washed away.

“It was understood that oxytocin release in the context of social bonding usually required physical contact,” Seltzer says. “But it’s clear from these results that a mother’s voice can have the same effect as a hug, even if they’re not standing there.”

The study revealed that the support, diminishing of worry and concern, was lasting.

Mom is as important as ever.

Is Twitter or Facebook a legitimate stand-in for opinion polls?

The next time you’re low on cash and need to get a quick read on the public’s feeling on politics or current events, consider sampling Twitter.

According to a new report out of Carnegie Mellon University’s computer science department, sentiments expressed via the millions of daily tweets strongly correlate with well-established public opinion polls, such as the Index of Consumer Sentiment (ICS) and Gallup polls. The data analysis methodology still needs some tweaking, but the researchers still believe that Twitter posts could act as a “cheap, rapid means of gauging public opinion.”

Assistant professor Noah Smith and his team collected 1 billion Twitter messages posted in 2008 and 2009 and analyzed them for topic (politics versus economy) and sentiment (positive or negative). They compared the consumer confidence tweets against ICS data from the same period as well as Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index. Tweets about President Obama were compared against Gallup’s daily tracking polls from that time period, and tweets about the election were compared against 46 polls created by Pollster…

Smith and the team acknowledged that natural language processing would have to be improved before Twitter could be used to predict things like elections, and a number of other considerations should be taken into account when using tweets for analysis. For example, should retweets or news headlines count in the data? Still, even with so much noise in the average Twitter stream, the researchers were pleased to have extracted some signal that apparently shows something useful.

One of the polling outfits with a superb track record – Harris Polls – is taking the report to heart.

I received an invitation, yesterday, to participate in a group that copies their posts on both Twitter and Facebook to a study group – recruiting its online panellists to a new ‘lifestreaming’ platform.

They’re even asking folks to note info about blogs and online forums they participate in.

Wall Street owns an army of Washington insiders

Wall Street banks and allied interest groups have spent $600 million and hired 243 political insiders to represent their interests before Congress and U.S. policymakers since early 2008…

The labor-backed study, which tracks the lobbying and campaign spending of major banks from the 2008 government-brokered buyout of Bear Stearns to the Senate’s current financial reform debate, said Wall Street’s lobbyists include former top aides to Senate Democrats Harry Reid, Christopher Dodd, Charles Schumer and Tim Johnson.

During the 2008 presidential race, securities and investment firms gave Democrat Barack Obama’s campaign nearly $14.9 million and Republican John McCain about $8.7 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Researchers found 28 former legislative directors and 33 former chiefs of staff among Wall Street’s army of lobbyists, as well as 54 former staffers to the House Financial Services Committee, the Senate Banking Committee or current members of those panels.

Former aides to Republican Senator Richard Shelby and former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt have also been working to represent Wall Street’s interests, the study said.

The list of lobbyists also includes former officials from the White House, Treasury Department and government agencies…

The six biggest Wall Street institutions — Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc., Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo — have accounted for a disproportionate share of the lobbying and campaign activity.

The study was paid for by “gigantic” left-wing sources like the Service Employees International Union. Their group is probably responsible for less than $10 million and damned few Congressional staffers.

Herschel finds a hole in space

The dark spot at 4 o’clock to the green cloud – is the hole

ESA’s Herschel infrared space telescope has made an unexpected discovery: a hole in space. The hole has provided astronomers with a surprising glimpse into the end of the star-forming process.

Stars are born in dense clouds of dust and gas that can now be studied in unprecedented detail with Herschel. Although jets and winds of gas have been seen coming from young stars in the past, it has always been a mystery exactly how a star uses these to blow away its surroundings and emerge from its birth cloud. Now, for the first time, Herschel may be seeing an unexpected step in this process.

A cloud of bright reflective gas known to astronomers as NGC 1999 sits next to a black patch of sky. For most of the 20th century, such black patches have been known to be dense clouds of dust and gas that block light from passing through.

When Herschel looked in its direction to study nearby young stars, the cloud continued to look black. But wait! That should not be the case. Herschel’s infrared eyes are designed to see into such clouds. Either the cloud was immensely dense or something was wrong.

Investigating further using ground-based telescopes, astronomers found the same story however they looked: this patch looks black not because it is a dense pocket of gas but because it is truly empty. Something has blown a hole right through the cloud. “No-one has ever seen a hole like this,” says Tom Megeath, of the University of Toledo, USA. “It’s as surprising as knowing you have worms tunnelling under your lawn, but finding one morning that they have created a huge, yawning pit.”

Rock on, Herschel!