Pic of the day

A young grizzly bear hitches a ride on his mum’s back in a bid to prevent his paws getting cold as his mum hunts for food in the freezing snow. Steve Hinch photographed the pair from a safe distance in the Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

A Ponzi scheme goes to trial, resolution over religion and the law

Sugarcreek, Ohio – This village is as sweet as its name. Main Street climbs gently from a tidy railroad crossing, past a few gift shops to the simple brick First Mennonite Church…

This postcard from a gentler and simpler America is about as unlikely a place imaginable for the news that broke in September: one of Sugarcreek’s own, a prominent member of what some people here call the Plain Community, was under arrest, accused by federal prosecutors of running a Ponzi scheme that betrayed his neighbors’ trust and wiped out more than $16 million of their savings.

The news media made the obvious comparisons…

But the most intriguing aspect of Monroe Beachy’s story is how different it seems from Bernie Madoff’s — and from almost every other story with a “Ponzi scheme” headline over the years.

While victims of Mr. Madoff’s fraud, like most Ponzi victims, condemned their accused betrayer in court as a monster, many of Monroe Beachy’s investors have said in court that it is more important to forgive him than to recover their money.

While the Madoff case and others like it have inevitably created conflict between longtime investors fighting to keep their fictional profits and more recent investors trying to recover lost principal, some Beachy investors urged that their own share of his estate should be given to those in greater need.

And while Mr. Madoff’s wife and sons instantly became social pariahs in Manhattan, Mr. Beachy’s wife and children remain at his farmstead here, living peacefully with their neighbors…

It became the forum for a rare bankruptcy court battle over religious freedom, with Mr. Beachy’s Amish and Mennonite creditors insisting that the court’s way of dealing with his downfall could not be squared with their faith or with his…They formed their own committee to resolve the crime. There were two confounding contradictions: [1] all the creditors were not members of their faith and bound by the same methods or conclusions; [2] we still live in a constitutional republic where civil law takes precedence over religious rote.

Last March, Federal Bankruptcy Judge Russ Kendig in Canton, in the federal courthouse closest to Sugarcreek, ruled that “delegating insolvency proceedings to a religious body” would be unconstitutional…

No part of this story contrasts as sharply with the real Bernie Madoff case as what happened next…

We are agreed among ourselves to accept your ruling as the will of Almighty God in this matter,” they wrote, after thanking him for considering their point of view so carefully. “If there is anything which we can do as members of the Amish-Mennonite community to facilitate the bankruptcy process and help bring it to a speedy conclusion please do not hesitate to contact any member” of the committee.

Unlike most American flavors of fundamentalist religion, these folks recognize and respect the law of the land over their religious beliefs. They call it God’s Will. An interesting way around the contradictions of their belief system; but, it leaves our constitution intact and doesn’t waste months and years trying to wear down the court system.

RTFA. It is a long and convoluted tale. One not without illustrations of every human frailty – even for folks who assay that frailty results from the supernatural.

U.S. spy agencies see no move by Iran to build a nuclear bomb

Even as the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog said in a new report Friday that Iran had accelerated its uranium enrichment program, American intelligence analysts continue to believe that there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb.

Recent assessments by American spy agencies are broadly consistent with a 2007 intelligence finding that concluded that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program years earlier, according to current and former American officials. The officials said that assessment was largely reaffirmed in a 2010 National Intelligence Estimate, and that it remains the consensus view of America’s 16 intelligence agencies.

…There is no dispute among American, Israeli and European intelligence officials that Iran has been enriching nuclear fuel and developing some necessary infrastructure to become a nuclear power. But the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies believe that Iran has yet to decide whether to resume a parallel program to design a nuclear warhead — a program they believe was essentially halted in 2003 and which would be necessary for Iran to build a nuclear bomb. Iranian officials maintain that their nuclear program is for civilian purposes…

Not that fact has the slightest effect on the ideology of American chickenhawks.

Continue reading

Judge awards $850 to iPhone user in AT&T throttling case

When AT&T started slowing down the data service for his iPhone, Matt Spaccarelli, an unemployed truck driver and student, took the country’s largest telecommunications company to small claims court. And won.

His award: $850.

Pro-tem Judge Russell Nadel found in favor of Spaccarelli in Ventura Superior Court in Simi Valley on Friday, saying it wasn’t fair for the company to purposely slow down his iPhone, when it had sold him an “unlimited data” plan.

Spaccarelli could have many imitators. AT&T has some 17 million customers with “unlimited data” plans who can be subject to throttling. That’s nearly half of its smartphone users. AT&T forbids them from consolidating their claims into a class action or taking them to a jury trial. That leaves small claims actions and arbitration.

Late last year, AT&T started slowing down data service for the top 5 percent of its smartphone subscribers with “unlimited” plans. It had warned that it would start doing so, but many subscribers have been surprised by how little data use it takes for throttling to kick in —often less than AT&T provides to those on limited or “tiered” plans.

Spaccarelli said his phone is being throttled after he’s used 1.5 gigabytes to 2 gigabytes of data within a new billing cycle. Meanwhile, AT&T provides 3 gigabytes of data to subscribers on a tiered plan that costs the same — $30 per month.

When slowed down, the phone can still be used for calls and text messaging, but Web browsing is painfully slow, and video streaming doesn’t work at all…

Companies with as many potentially aggrieved customers as AT&T usually brace themselves for a class-action lawsuit. But last year, the Supreme Court upheld a clause in the Dallas-based company’s subscriber contract that prohibits customers from taking their complaints to class actions or jury trials.

Just in case you thought the sleazy array of Republicans added to the Supremes in the last couple of decades would never come up with decisions that affect your daily life. Add a moneygrubber corporation decision like this – to the Citizens United crap decision which says a corporation is just another person when it comes to bankrolling politicians.

Greedy bastards like AT&T can stand on one foot for a couple centuries while individuals try to take their cases through small claims court one at a time. A couple hundred bucks means a lot more to ordinary working folks than beancounters shuffling lawyers on retainer through local courts on a platoon system designed to screw us all.

Three of the Republican tax plans would balloon the national debt — Ron Paul would just take us all back into the 19th Century

The U.S. national debt will swell further under tax-cut plans floated by three of the top four Republican presidential candidates, according to an independent analysis of their fiscal policy proposals released on Thursday.

Plans put forth by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum would pile up the largest increases in debt, while Mitt Romney’s initial plan, since revised with bigger proposed tax cuts, would increase it by a smaller amount over the next decade.

Only Ron Paul’s plan to drastically shrink government and cut taxes would produce a reduction in debt levels through 2021…He just destroys federal agencies.

Romney’s new tax plan, which matches the 28 percent top rate proposed by Santorum, promises to be revenue neutral, but does not offer any specifics on how to make up for lost revenues…

“Are they making proposals that risk making the debt problem worse?” said Alice Rivlin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office and Federal Reserve vice chairman who now serves on the group’s board. “On that score, all of these candidates fail. They all reduce the revenue that is available to the government over time…”

The group said the middle path for Gingrich would add $7 trillion to the national debt by 2021 versus the baseline, largely because he has proposed deep tax cuts for individuals and corporations, including an alternative 15 percent “flat tax.”

This would boost debt as a share of the overall economy to 114 percent in 2021 from the current level of about 70 percent, compared with an anticipated 2021 baseline level of 85 percent.

The middle scenario for Santorum’s plan would add $4.5 trillion to the debt, also due to tax cuts…The debt-to-gross domestic product ratio would rise to 104 percent under Santorum’s plan…

The middle scenario for Paul was the only one to reduce debt below the baseline – by $2.2 trillion – largely due to spending cuts on healthcare programs and Social Security and elimination of five federal departments and many State Department programs. This would cut debt to 76 percent of GDP by 2021. And Ron Paul doesn’t need Social Security or healthcare or foreign policy to live in his accustomed style.

In other words – besides being liars – the Republican candidates don’t know diddly-squat about economics. And hope you never learn.

Buckyball solids found in space

After finding gaseous clouds of buckyballs in space last year, astronomers have now discovered the carbon balls in a solid form, around a pair of stars some 6,500 light-years from Earth.

Buckyballs are microscopic spheres, where 60 carbon atoms are arranged — with alternating patterns of hexagons and pentagons — into a football-like pattern. The unusual structure makes them incredibly strong, and ideal candidates for things like superconducting materials, medicines, water purification and armor. They got their name because of their resemblance to the geodesic domes of the architect Buckminster Fuller.

So far, they’ve only been found in gas form in space. In 2010, astronomers using the Spitzer space telescope found the balls in a planetary nebula called Tc 1.

But with this latest discovery, again using data from NASA’s Spitzer space telescope, astronomers found particles consisting of stacked buckyballs. They had stacked together like oranges in a crate to form a solid shape.

“The particles we detected are minuscule, far smaller than the width of a hair, but each one would contain stacks of millions of buckyballs,” said the paper’s lead author Nye Evans of Keele University in England.

The research team was able to identify the solid form of buckyballs in the Spitzer data because they emit light in a unique way that differs from the gaseous form. In all, the team detected enough solid buckyballs to fill the equivalent in volume to 10,000 Mount Everests.

Buckyballs may be more widely distributed in space than anyone thought. They may be common enough to be an essential form of carbon as building blocks for organic substances, organic life.