Coppers trying to track down iPlank scammers

In a new variation on the “brick in a box” scam, a South Carolina woman who thought she purchased an iPad from two men in a McDonald’s parking lot discovered yesterday that the purported tablet was actually “a piece of wood painted black with an Apple logo.”

According to a Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office report, Ashley McDowell, 22, told deputies that she was approached by two black males who claimed to have purchased iPads in bulk and were selling them for $300 apiece. After McDowell explained that she only had $180, the duo agreed to sell her the device at a cut rate.

But when McDowell drove home and opened the FedEx box containing the iPad, she instead discovered the wood with the Apple logo. The “screen”–which was framed with black tape–included replicas of iPad icons for Safari, mail, photos, and an iPod. It also had what cops described as a “Best Buy sales ticket…”

Deputies have dusted the phony iPad for fingerprints. McDowell told probers that the swindlers were driving “a white Impala with no rims and no tint.” One of the men, she noted, “had a gold tooth.”


Here’s a link to the original police report. How did they keep a straight face?

India measures itself against a China that couldn’t care less

It seems to be a national obsession in India: measuring the country’s economic development against China’s yardstick.

At a recent panel discussion to commemorate the 20th anniversary of India’s dismantling parts of its socialist economy, a government minister told business leaders to keep their eye on the big prize: growing faster than China. “That’s not impossible,” said the minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, who oversees national security and previously was finance minister. “People are beginning to talk about outpacing China.”

Indians, in fact, seem to talk endlessly about all things China, a neighbor with whom they have long had a prickly relationship, but which is also one of the few other economies that has had 8 percent or more annual growth in recent years…

“Indians are obsessed with China, but the Chinese are paying too little attention to India,” said Minxin Pei, an economist who was born in China and who writes a monthly column for The Indian Express, a national daily newspaper…

It might be only natural that the Chinese would look up the development ladder to the United States, now that it is the only nation in the world with a larger economy, rather than over their shoulders at India, which ranks ninth. And while China is India’s largest trading partner, the greatest portion of China’s exports go to the United States. China’s largest trading partner is the EU – even if it doesn’t fit the NYT editorial template.

Evidence of the Indo-Sino interest disparity can be seen in the two countries’ leading newspapers. The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s house organ, had only 24 articles mentioning India on its English-language Web site in the first seven months of this year, according to the Factiva database. By contrast, The Times of India, the country’s largest circulation English-language newspaper, had 57 articles mentioning China — in July alone.

There are other big gaps. Indian cities, large and small, are filled with Chinese restaurants that serve a distinctly ultraspicy, Indian version of that cuisine. But there are few Indian restaurants in Beijing or Shanghai, let alone in smaller Chinese cities.

RTFA. It rolls on through a chunk of anecdotal information. Useful as far as it goes. And it only goes as far as the NY TIMES habit of continuing the Cold War with China – even though it finally seems to have relented a little over Russia.

Completely lacking from the analysis is where both nations started out. There are many parallels and economics were certainly similar at the end of the 1940’s as both countries stepped out into liberation from a foreign yoke in the case of India and a comprador class intertwined with warlords and bandits in China.

Frankly, the significant historic difference lies in handicaps which India retains. Much of the caste system is unrelenting regardless of lip service and law. China’s bureaucratic corruption siphons off a lot less opportunity and value. India’s cachet of wealth and power held by historically “important” families is closer to Japan’s Zaibatsu than anything in China. Ongoing commitments to religion in India – whether as a cultural anchor or dedicated political parties – hinders the growth of the economy as much as you would expect from theocratic ideologues in government.

Protester allowed to proceed with lawsuit against TSA detention

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed most of the constitutional claims raised by a Charlottesville man who was arrested after stripping down to his running shorts during an airport checkpoint protest…

False imprisonment and malicious prosecution claims against three Richmond International Airport police officers were not included in the motions for dismissal.

Aaron Tobey, 21, was detained at an airport security checkpoint on Dec. 30 after partially disrobing to display part of the text of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment handwritten on his chest. Tobey says he was protesting security measures, including enhanced pat-downs and the use of whole-body imaging scanners that he believes violate the Constitution’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

…Judge Henry E. Hudson also rejected the equal protection and search-and-seizure claims against the TSA screening officers who summoned police, but said it was premature to dismiss the free-speech claim…

“The question, then, is whether the TSOs in fact radioed for assistance because of the message Plaintiff sought to convey, as opposed to Plaintiff’s admittedly bizarre behavior or because of some other reasonable restriction on First Amendment activity in the security screening area,” Hudson wrote.

The president of The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based civil liberties group that filed the lawsuit on Tobey’s behalf, said the answer to that question is clear.

Aaron Tobey was arrested for exercising his right to free speech, which is clearly protected under the First Amendment,” John W. Whitehead said after Hudson issued his ruling.

Tobey, a University of Cincinnati student at the time of the arrest, staged the protest as he prepared to board a flight to Wisconsin to attend his grandfather’s funeral. Disorderly conduct charges were later dropped by the Henrico County prosecutor.

You can’t always fight City Hall. I recommend against trying it alone. But, I applaud those who use their Constitutional rights to free speech to do so. The TSA – like most Homeland Insecurity mutants – stinks on ice for limiting our freedom to travel while achieving next to nothing at providing safety and security for air travelers.

FEMA does best job in a decade – so, Republicans want to cut funds

Prince Eric of Richmond
Daylife/Reuters Pictures used by permission

As rescuers raced Tuesday to free people trapped by floodwaters caused by Hurricane Irene, Washington politicians bickered over how to pay for it.

The same budget arguments that nearly brought the first government default in history earlier this month now raise questions about whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency will have enough money to deal with Irene’s aftermath…

With conservative House Republicans calling for spending cuts to offset any increase in emergency funds — a condition opposed by many Democrats — the ability of Congress to act quickly on the issue remains uncertain.

The notion that we would hold this up until Republicans can prompt another budget fight and figure out what they want to cut, what they want to offset in the budget, and to pit one section of the country against the other and to delay this and create this uncertainty, it’s just the latest chapter and I think one of the most unsavory ones of our budget wars,” said Rep. David Price, D-North Carolina.

Irene first made landfall on the U.S. mainland in North Carolina, devastating some coastal areas. Price said GOP efforts led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of neighboring Virginia to offset additional emergency funds amount to “an untenable position and one that simply is unresponsive and insensitive to the kind of situation we face…”

Even the White House got involved in the fracas, with Press Secretary Jay Carney telling reporters Tuesday that he wished Cantor and other conservative Republicans had the same commitment to spending offsets “when they ran up unprecedented bills and never paid for them” during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Cantor and his fellow royal Republicans never address the question of need when confronted. They only answer questions with one question, the only one that counts to Republican elitists: cost and budget?

The hypocrisy of Democrats who blather about Congressional Republicans during the Bush years of fiasco ignores how many of that spineless lot rolled over and stuck all four feet in the air any time Bush ordered more funds for his wars. You know which wars. The two that Obama has continued to staff with American troops.

But, the essential question remains – where are your priorities? FEMA proved the result of the reforms brought to that incompetent organization comes from having solutions in place before the disaster starts to kill and destroy. FEMA’s readiness easily eclipsed Bush’s fiddling style of sending a questionnaire round to be filled out after death and destruction – guaranteeing days and weeks before aid reached the people who needed it.

Cantor’s loyalty to corporate accountants assures him a place in infamy. That’s truly saying something in the history of Congressional scum.

Robert Shone explores the Gouffre Berger Cave in France

Once thought to be the deepest cave in the world, the Gouffre Berger cave system in France is still one of the most popular destinations for cavers who want to test their skills hundreds of metres beneath the earth’s surface. Pioneered by French cavers in the 1950s, the Gouffre Berger – named after Joseph Berger who was one of the men to uncover it – was the first cave to be explored at depth of more than 1000 metres.

Click the link and follow your way through this cave.

NASA refutes declines in plant productivity, global food security

A new, comprehensive study by an international team of scientists…has been published in the current issue of Science refuting earlier alarmist claims that drought has induced a decline in global plant productivity during the past decade and posed a threat to global food security.

Those earlier findings published by Zhao and Running in the August 2010 issue of Science also warned of potentially serious consequences for biofuel production and the global carbon cycle…

Zhao and Running’s predictions of trends and year-to-year variability were largely based on simulated changes in the productivity of tropical forests, especially the Amazonian rainforests. However, according to the new study, their model failed miserably when tested against comparable ground measurements collected in these forests.

“The large (28%) disagreement between the model’s predictions and ground truth imbues very little confidence in Zhao and Running’s results,” said Marcos Costa, coauthor…

This new study also found that the model actually predicted increased productivity during droughts, compared to field measurements, and decreased productivity in non-drought years 2006 and 2007 in the Amazon, in contradiction to the main finding of the previous report.

“Such erratic behavior is typical of their poorly formulated model, which lacks explicit soil moisture dynamics,” said Edson Nunes…

None of their reported productivity trends are statistically significant,” said Liang Xu, coauthor…

In any case, the trends in plant productivity reported by Zhao and Running are miniscule-a 0.34% reduction in the Southern Hemisphere offset by a 0.24% gain in the Northern Hemisphere for a net decline of 0.1% over a ten-year period from 2000 to 2009.

“This is the proverbial needle in a haystack,” said Simone Vieira, coauthor…”There is no model accurate enough to predict such minute changes over such short time intervals, even at hemispheric scales…”

Their analysis of satellite data is flawed because they included poor quality data and do not bother to test trends for statistically significance. Our analyses of four different higher-quality MODIS satellite vegetation products that have been carefully filtered for data corruption show no statistically significant trends over 85% of the global vegetated lands.”

I realize most folks only notice studies like these when they show up in the popular press. Those articles bear their own special circumstances and problems. Veracity isn’t often a required quality.

I couldn’t stop my smile when I bumped into this – because what we’re witnessing is the peer-reviewed scientific equivalent of a barroom brawl. You don’t get to hear the shouting and bottles breaking. But, believe me, emotions are running just as high.

The ten safest airlines in the world

Daylife/Getty Images used by permission

British Airways is one of the world’s ten safest commercial airlines, a new study has claimed.

Two other European airlines, Air France-KLM and Lufthansa, featured in the report, which was published by the Geneva-based Air Transport Rating Agency (ATRA).

Six of the ten safest airlines – Continental Airlines, Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, American Airlines and US Airways – are based in the United States. Japan Airlines was also named among the top ten.

In its “Holistic Safety Rating” report ATRA compared publicly available data on 100 of the world’s largest airlines.

It took into account 15 different criteria, including the age of the each airline’s fleet, their pilot training facilities and the number of accidents they have been involved in during the last ten years.

Though I refuse to fly anymore – with the advent of TSA and their Homeland Insecurity nanny – the topic is still important to many of you.

I suppose there could be sufficient emergency or motivation to get me back on an airplane. I used to fly with some frequency. But, I refuse to cave into the fear mantra that rules our society and politics nowadays. That includes refusing the ritual “approval” to fly.

Photo of Minister carrying Afghan memo bidding farewell to Karzai

A senior minister has accidentally revealed a UK government briefing document “welcoming” the departure of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell was photographed clutching the note as he left No 10. It said the UK should “publicly and privately” approve Mr Karzai’s decision not to seek a third term in 2014.

In response, Foreign Secretary William Hague said the memo was “pretty low level”, adding “these things happen”.

These things happen – like clicking a link in a phishing email or giving your credit card info to someone who just rang you up from Nigeria.

Mr Mitchell was photographed leaving Downing Street following a meeting of the National Security Council – in which ministers discussed Libya, Afghanistan and a range of other issues.

The document says: “Note that Karzai has publicly stated his intention to step down at the end of his second term as per the constitution. This is very important. It improves Afghanistan’s political prospects very significantly. We should welcome Karzai’s announcement in private and in public…”

It goes on to say: “Afghan perceptions of violence are very important for their confidence in their future, and for their readiness to work for the Afghan government.

Have we got the strategic communications on levels of violence right?…”

“They would have had a national security level marking of ‘restricted’ or ‘confidential’ if they contained anything of significant sensitivity,” a spokesman said.

Not that the Brits have the market cornered on incompetent security. Still, they should add another level of secure classification. In addition to Top Secret, Restricted or Confidential, they might consider Don’t Do Anything Stupid!

German hookers get their own parking meters

Prostitutes working the streets of the old West German capital now have to buy tickets from converted roadside vending machines that once dispensed tickets to the city’s drivers. A night’s ticket will set a prostitute back £5.30, irrespective of the number of clients they have.

Like parking metres, the machines also tell users the times of day when a ticket is necessary: in this case between the hours of 8:15pm and 6am, Monday to Sunday.

Monika Frombgen, a spokeswoman for Bonn city council, said the ticket machines would bring street prostitutes into fiscal line with their peers in registered sex establishments.

This is an act of tax fairness,” she said. “Prostitutes in fixed establishments such as brothels and sauna clubs already pay tax.” She added that with many street prostitutes foreign born previous attempts to tax them had floundered on a widespread inability to comprehend a German income tax form. The machines, Bonn hopes, will provide an easy-to-understand system of taxation…

The ticket machines come as the latest step in Bonn’s drive to increase tax revenue from prostitution as it wrestles with financial problems. Earlier this year the city introduced a “sex tax”, and it expects the levy to raise annual revenue of £265,000 for the city’s coffers…

The city has banned prostitution from areas of the city, and allocated six closed-off parking places for the use of prostitutes and their clients.

Aside from the chuckles, this is a useful exercise in thoughtful fiscal policy from a sophisticated, well-educated nation. Imagine trying to sort something like this out in the United States?

But, then, much of Western Europe also has [somewhat more] sensible policies about drugs, speeding, unemployment.

US gave away Billion$ above and beyond value of war contracts

Rumsfeld at meal run by Bush’s favorite concierge – KBR

The US government has wasted more than $30bn on private contractors and grants in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade – more than 15% of the total spend – according to a bipartisan group charged with examining the issue.

The figure, described as “sobering but conservative”, illustrated the need for significant law and policy changes to avoid such waste in the future, the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan said.

The body, set up by a Senate vote in 2007 to mimic the work of a post-second world war commission that investigated waste, will submit its report to Congress on Wednesday. Submitted to the same people who approved the expenditures in the first place…

At least another $30bn could be wasted if the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan are unable to keep US-run projects running after the US withdraws or simply choose not to do so, Christopher Shays, an ex-Republican congressman, and Michael Thibault, a former deputy director of the Defence Contract Audit Agency, wrote.

Tens of billions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted through poor planning, vague and shifting requirements, inadequate competition, substandard contract management and oversight, lax accountability, weak inter-agency co-ordination, and subpar performance or outright misconduct by some contractors and federal employees. Both government and contractors need to do better,” they said…

In a separate report, released on Monday, the independent Centre for Public Integrity thinktank said $140bn in defence contracts were awarded without competitive tendering last year – almost triple the sum in 2001…

The report will include 15 recommendations…most of which will be useless crap if Congress maintains business as usual – rubber stamping anything that has the words Homeland Security, Pentagon or Military in the title.

Why should the young men and women of America be required to risk life and limb, take a general pay cut, to go off and fight useless wars – while America’s corporations are guaranteed not only profits but super-profits for supplying the matériel to support the physical structure of those wars, create fresh death and destruction?