2009 - %3, April

Scamming (and Spamming) the Geezer

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 11:42 AM PDT

An article in the Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Leader this week reported on the latest scam directed against older Americans–-this one with a recession-era twist. According to the paper:

State officials are warning senior citizens and those who collect government pensions to be wary of phone calls asking for personal information in order to get one-time stimulus money.

Under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, those who collect Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Veterans Affairs and Railroad Retirement Board will receive a one-time payment of $250 added to their retirement checks. The money — set to be distributed by late May — will be automatically added to a pensioner’s account. No additional information will be needed to get the one-time money.

AARP’s “Scam Alert” was already issuing warnings a month ago about stimulus-related cons against old folks, which it dubbed “stimu-lies.” These include “websites, e-mails and online advertisements promising an inside track to get your piece of that $787 billion pie—via government grants”:

Some touted smiling people holding five-figure U.S. Treasury checks, with compelling testimonials of financial struggles … that ended after “I got my stimulus check in the mail in less than seven days.” Others had prominent photos of President Obama to suggest their legitimacy. Less obvious is their real purpose: to steal your money or grab personal information to conduct identity theft.

How come so many of these grifter schemes seem to target old folks? The FBI devotes a whole section of its web site to the subject, titled ”Fraud Target: Senior Citizens.” It offers a number of explanations, including the following:

Individuals who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Two very important and positive personality traits, except when it comes to dealing with a con-man. The con-man will exploit these traits knowing that it is difficult or impossible for these individuals to say “no” or just hang up the phone.

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Friday Cocktail: The Firewall: Afghan’s 1st Line of Defense; New Orleans Indefensible; Urgent Threats Fund Powers Up

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 10:12 AM PDT

As Frank Zappa said: You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.

Round 1: Best Earth Day event of the week? Afghanistan announced the establishment of its first national park. Band-e-Amir—Afghanistan's Grand Canyon—protects 230 square miles of arid landscape punctuated by deep blue lakes. It’s in the heart of a relatively stable part of the country that’s been eyed for protection since the 1960s.

Phil McKenna of New Scientist’s Short Sharp Science blog wondered how you go about getting a park put together in the middle of a war. He asked Peter Zahler of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who’s long been at work in Afghanistan trying to protect snow leopards. WCS helped plan the US government-backed park and will work locally to train park rangers and help villagers benefit from an increase in tourism to the region. Someday. Locals around Band-e-Amir currently farm and graze in unsustainable ways. A local economy tied to protecting the region's natural resources will be better. 

For the skeptics: Arguably the most significant single piece of international environmental lawmaking of the 20th century—the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916—was signed in the bloody midst of World War I. So, cheers, Band-e-Amir. Here’s to the visionaries.

Round 2: No matter how large or sturdy, levees and floodwalls surrounding New Orleans can’t provide absolute protection from extreme hurricanes or storm surges. This according to a new report by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council.  So what should be done? The report suggests voluntary relocation of people and neighborhoods from vulnerable areas. If that fails, raise the first floors of buildings to at least the 100-year flood level. 

The investigators point out that levees and floodwalls only reduce risk from hurricanes and storm surges, they don’t eliminate it. The hurricane defense system in place in New Orleans promoted a false sense of security that people were absolutely safe. Seems metaphorical to me. We're in a world of weak levees.

Round 3: Epidemiologist Larry Brilliant helped eradicate smallpox through his work as head of Google.org. Now he’s leaving that job to lead the Urgent Threats Fund created by Jeffrey Skoll, founder of eBay. Declan Butler of Nature News interviewed Brilliant who described how he and Skoll brainstormed about the five threats facing humanity and the planet: climate change, water scarcity, pandemics, nuclear proliferation and conflict in the Middle East.

Skoll said these problems need fresh money, the community of social entrepreneurs and organizations already working on them, media campaigns “the likes of which nobody has ever seen,” and the expertise of Hollywood. (Huh?) The Urgent Threats Funds is planning to combat, mitigate, and prevent those five threats. They’re starting with $100 million. Maybe an Urgent Threats beer brand—all proceeds go to the fund?
 

Polluters Disregarded Own Scientists' Finding that Global Warming Is Man-Made

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 8:43 AM PDT

Bastards! NYT:

For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.

"The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood," the coalition said in a scientific "backgrounder" provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that "scientists differ" on the issue.

But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.

"The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied," the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995...

Environmentalists have long maintained that industry knew early on that the scientific evidence supported a human influence on rising temperatures, but that the evidence was ignored for the sake of companies’ fight against curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. Some environmentalists have compared the tactic to that once used by tobacco companies, which for decades insisted that the science linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer was uncertain.

Let's say global warming has widespread health effects, requires massive spending to preempt its worst consequences, and causes damages that require significant expenditures to repair. Can these polluters, who will have brought all of those things upon the public in order to make piles and piles of cash, be sued the way the tobacco companies were sued?

Video: Why Fighting Climate Change Is So God-Dang Hard

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 7:50 AM PDT

I'm watching a House of Representatives hearing on climate change legislation on c-span.org -- it is the most recent in a long string of such hearings that has incorporated the entire week. Former vice president Al Gore and former senator John Warner, a Republican who urges action on climate change, have just delivered extraordinary statements. Gore listed study after study that are already finding real, concrete effects of climate change. He supplied the assembled lawmakers with as much science as they could possibly want. The much older Warner spoke of growing up during the Great Depression and WWII, and the courage and inspiration that were required to meet the challenges of that time. He argued that fighting back climate change requires the same qualities today. Listening to these two men makes it's hard not to think a cultural shift has occurred and we're finally on our way to a real solution.

And then you stumble on something like the video below, and you realize why a solution has been and will continue to be so immensely difficult. Below is a man who does not care about Gore's science or Warner's call to duty. Below is a man who has found text in the Old Testament that says God, not man, will determine the end of the world, and because that text is infallible in his view all this business about global warming is a bunch of hokum.

That's Rep. John Shimkus. And in case it's not clear how he feels about global warming from the video, he said earlier this week, "I think [climate change legislation] is the largest assault on democracy and freedom in this country that I've ever experienced. I've lived through some tough times in Congress -- impeachment, two wars, terrorist attacks. I fear this more than all of the above activities that have happened." That's not just kind of nutty. It's dangerous.

Friday Cat Blogging - 24 April 2009

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 7:00 AM PDT

With any luck, I'll be on a plane to Georgia by the time you read this.  I'm attending a conference this weekend with fellow members of the VLWC on — let's see, what does it say here?  Ah, yes: "Attendees will discuss major themes such as the restructuring of the financial industries, the development of regulatory systems, transparency in stimulus contracting, and the impacts of the stimulus on jobs and housing in local communities."  Exciting!

But you didn't think I'd let you all face the weekend without Friday Catblogging, did you?  Of course not.  Today is portrait day, and they're trying to look serious and businesslike.  Did it work?

And hey — as long as I've got a captive audience here, a question: can anyone recommend a cheap and simple keystroke logger for Windows?  I'm tired of losing posts, so I'd like to keep a continuous keystroke logger running so that I have at least a fighting chance of recovering stuff that disappears into the ether.  Any help much appreciated.

Stress Test Update

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 10:06 PM PDT

The Treasury plans to release the broad results of its stress tests on Friday.  The New York Times reports:

Analysts are already betting that the stress tests will show that banks need to raise significant amounts of new capital, as profits made in the first three months of the year give way to more losses, tied to credit card, commercial real estate and corporate loans. An assessment by [Keefe, Bruyette & Woods], which calculated its own stress test for the industry, concluded Thursday that United States banks might need as much as an additional $1 trillion in capital.

As part of their exam, regulators have been poring over bank balance sheets to spot financial problems that may not surface for months. Officials are assessing the financial condition of the banks based on their potential losses and earnings over the next two years. That is why some banks that recently announced blockbuster earnings may still need to raise sizable amounts of fresh money.

As the dust settles from the shakeout on Wall Street, the 19 banks subject to stress tests are starting to divide into three groups: the strong that can weather the storm; the weak that will need new, perhaps significant, support; and the ones on the verge, whose fate will be decided by regulators.

I'm still shaking my head trying to figure out how this is going to work out.  If KBW is right — and their estimate certainly seems to be in the right ballpark — and a substantial fraction of that capital turns out to be needed by half a dozen of the biggest banks, where is it going to come from?  The Times report is very antiseptic, but it's a fantasy to think that any bank "on the verge" will be able to raise private capital, and the Treasury's TARP money is nearly exhausted.  So then what?

The next couple of weeks are going to be very interesting.  If this report is even roughly accurate, I really have no idea how Tim Geithner is going to tap dance his way around the N-word much longer.

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Contrafactual of the Day

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 5:58 PM PDT

James Surowiecki sez:

The Great Depression [] wouldn’t have become the Great Depression had the Federal Reserve and the Hoover Administration acted in 1930 the way the Federal Reserve and the Obama Administration are acting today.

Is this true?  Discuss.

Quote of the Day - 4.23.09

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 2:47 PM PDT

From Barclays analyst Craig Huber in a research note:

"We view the 17.75 percent stake in the Boston Red Sox as having among the very best long-term asset appreciation potential at the company."

Unfortunately, he's talking about the New York Times.  (Via Ryan Avent.)

Joe Biden Gets Auto-Tuned

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 2:36 PM PDT

Via Boing Boing comes this goofy video that answers the question, "What would happen if we took T-Pain's favorite studio toy, the Auto-Tune, and ran the news through it?" Haven't you ever wondered that? Well, I have, but I've always found the robotic warble that the Antares software produces via its forcing of any sound to its nearest pitch in a pre-defined scale to be a legitimate mode of artistic expression, but then again, I'm just generally pro-robot. This video, by Michael and Andrew Gregory, features some politicians and sports figures having their blabbering turned into robotic song, with varying success: who knew Joe Biden was a natural pop music talent? Get that guy on American Idol!! The work is apparently part of an ongoing project to pitch-correct all broadcasts, perhaps ultimately aiming for the pitch-correction of all sound, everywhere, all the time, into some sort of National Key. I vote for Am7!

Is Michelle Obama Taking Her Own Press Too Seriously?

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 2:20 PM PDT

Ashamed as I am to admit it, I actually clicked on a piece about the First Puppy. Seems he's all hyper and stuff, chewing tootsies and waking folks up in the middle of the night. But here's the line that activated my pomposity meter: "The president and I came out and we thought somebody was out there."

"The President"? Not Barack or Barry or my husband? The President?

Michelle: Back away from the Kool-Aid. I'll cover you.