Making Unique Observations in a Very Cluttered World

Monday, 2 July 2012

Entertain Your Pets With Gadgets While You're Out -

Entertain Your Pets With Gadgets While You're Out - 

It's an issue that's plagued humans since the first wolf was domesticated back in Palaeolithic times: How do you keep your pet(s) entertained while you're away at work? Granted that back then, they would have been along for the hunt, but since some workplaces aren't as welcoming to furry/feathered friends as others, we've come up with some tips to keep your pets content while you slave away during the day.
According to the APPA (American Pet Products Association), Americans spent nearly $51 billion on their pets in 2011. Clearly, we care about these animals. At the same time, our homes have become a lot more sterile (fewer critters to chase around), more of us are working in dual-income scenarios (no-one home to spend time with Fido during the day), we have a lot more stuff that they could get into and potentially damage, and not all of us have the ability to bring our pet into the office with us. Paying someone $20 a day to check in on Fido and take him for a quick walk may be out of reach for some budgets and it still only splits the day up, leaving hours of boredom. Bored animals can quickly become expensive animals. I once replaced an entire living room suite when our pair of dogs — both sizeable German Shepherd mixes — decided to redecorate and happily greeted me at the door after work with splinters from the totalled couch still hanging out of their mouths. There has to be a better way.
Enter technology. We now have more options than ever to keep our pets entertained in our absence, reducing the likelihood that they'll choose inappropriate activity to while away the time or fall into a pet depression. Even better, we can now observe what they're up to — in real time! Not only that, but thanks to that smartphone you take everywhere, you can even reach out from afar to tell your pet to drop that shoe he's cleverly retrieved from the closet.

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Cat owners more likely to have mental health problems - more likely to commit suicide - from parasite found in litter -

Cat owners more likely to have mental health problems - more likely to commit suicide - from parasite found in litter - 

Women who own cats are more likely to have mental health problems and commit suicide because they can be infected by a common parasite that can be caught from cat litter, a study has found.

Researchers found women infected with the Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) parasite, which is spread through contact with cat faeces or eating undercooked meat or unwashed vegetables, are at increased risk of attempting suicide.
The study involved more than 45,000 women in Denmark. About a third of the world’s population is infected with the parasite, which hides in cells in the brain and muscles, often without producing symptoms.
The infection, which is called toxoplasmosis, has been linked to mental illness, such as schizophrenia, and changes in behaviour.
The study’s senior author Doctor Teodor Postolache, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the United States, said: “We can’t say with certainty that T. gondii caused the women to try to kill themselves, but we did find a predictive association between the infection and suicide attempts later in life that warrants additional studies.
“We plan to continue our research into this possible connection.”

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U.S. police behind most requests for Twitter information -

U.S. police behind most requests for Twitter information - 

Law enforcement agencies in the United States are behind the overwhelming majority of requests for Twitter users' private information, the social media company revealed Monday in its first ever public report on the subject.
Of the 849 total government requests for user information during the period spanning January 1 to June 30 this year, 679 -- or 80 percent -- took place in the United States, typically for use in criminal investigations, Twitter said.
Japan was in second place after the United States with 98 requests filed by police, followed by 11 requests from law enforcement agencies in the United Kingdom and the same number from agencies in Canada.
Twitter, which was credited last year for fueling social unrest, from revolutions in the Middle East to Occupy protests in U.S. cities, has increasingly been pulled into criminal prosecutions as it gains popularity as an often-anonymous broadcast network.
On Monday, a New York judge ruled that the company must hand over tweets published by Malcolm Harris, an Occupy Wall Street protestor arrested during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge in October. Twitter had fought to dismiss a request from prosecutors seeking the tweets as evidence, arguing that they belonged to Harris under the company's terms of service.
The company, which published the data in a blog post on Monday, also revealed it had received a total of six governments requests over the past half-year to remove tweets that violated court injunctions or local laws, such as anti-defamation statutes.

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80% of 10-year-old girls have dieted... -

80% of 10-year-old girls have dieted... - 

Data released recently by the Keep It Real campaign – a joint effort between Miss Representation, the SPARK Movement, Love Social, Endangered Bodies and I Am That Girl – states that 80 percent of all 10-year-old girls have, at some point in their lives, gone on at least one diet.

The campaign was created as an effort intended to get everyone from major magazines and media outlets to mothers and fathers around the world to think more about how their words and actions regarding perceived beauty affect a child’s view of themselves and others.

More specifically, the campaign is asking a slew of well-known beauty magazines to publish at least one unaltered photo per month in the effort to reshape what they feel is an unrealistic representation of women.

The startling statistic came from a study, “Eating Disorders Today – Not Just A Girl Thing” by Kimberly Hepworth, which cited an earlier article published on the topic by Lori Henry at Suite101.com.

And it’s just one of many pieces of information the campaign is releasing in order to raise awareness.

“[A total of] 53 percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies,” another blurb reads. “That number increases to 78 percent by age 17.”

Research conducted by the National Eating Disorders Association lines up with what the Keep It Real campaign is saying. According to them, between 40 and 60 percent of children ages 6 to 12 are concerned about their weight or becoming too fat, and 70 percent would prefer to be thinner.

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US Navy is steaming ahead with “green fuel” - costs nearly seven times more than conventional fuel - $26 a gallon -

US Navy is steaming ahead with “green fuel” - costs nearly seven times more than conventional fuel - $26 a gallon - 

The Navy is steaming ahead with an initiative to power ships with biofuel, despite criticism the so-called “green fuel” costs nearly seven times more than conventional fuel.
This month marks the first time the Navy is using biofuel in an operational setting -- sending five ships to a multi-nation exercise off the coast of Hawaii.
A Navy official told FoxNews.com on Monday that sailing the so-called “Great Green Fleet” this month on the 50-50 blend of alternative and conventional fuel is part of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ plan to have half the Navy fleet on alternative fuel by 2020.
The spokesman also confirmed the fuel -- which does not require engine modifications -- costs $26 a gallon compared to $3.60 a gallon for conventional fuel.
However, he pointed out the cost was for a one-day supply and that prices will drop when the Pentagon, among the country’s biggest fuel users, buys more.
Capitol Hill Republicans have been among the biggest critics of the plan -- questioning the fuel's cost and President Obama's alternative-energy initiatives as either not ready or too expensive for the marketplace.
They point to the government-funded Solyndra solar panel company going bankrupt as a cautionary tale.
"I don't believe it's the job of the Navy to be involved in building ... new technologies. I don't believe we can afford it," said Arizona Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to Reuters.
McCain’s office did not return a request for comment Monday afternoon.
Rep. Randy Forbes, a Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, is another critic. He argues that studies show biofuel will always be more expensive and accuses Mabus of failing to provide Congress with a full cost analysis, according to Reuters.
The Navy official said, “Investments in biofuel will produce a competitively priced -- and domestically produced -- alternative to conventional fuel. Such investments help the Navy and the nation become less dependent on foreign oil and thus less subject to volatility in oil prices that directly affect our readiness.”  

Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/07/02/gop-in-congress-critical-navy-great-green-fleet/

Workers on Federal 'Disability' Exceed Population of New York City - 8,733,461 workers -

Workers on Federal 'Disability' Exceed Population of New York City - 8,733,461 workers - 

A record of 8,733,461 workers took federal disability insurance payments in June 2012, according to the Social Security Administration. That was up from 8,707,185 in May.

It also exceeds the entire population of New York City, which according to the Census Bureau's latest estimate hit 8,244,910 in July 2011.

There has been a dramatic shrinkage in the United States over the past 20 years in the number of workers actually employed and earning paychecks per worker who is not employed and is taking federal disability insurance payments.

In June 1992, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 118,419,000 people employed in the United States, and, according to the Social Security Administration, there were 3,334,333 workers taking federal disability payments. That equaled about 1 person taking disability payments for each 35.5 people actually working.

When President Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, there were 142,187,000 people employed and 7,442,377 workers taking federal disability payments. That equaled about 1 person taking disability payments for each 19.1 people actually working.

In May of this year, there were 142,287,000 people employed, and 8,707,185 workers taking federal disability payments. That equaled 1 worker taking disability payments for each 16.3 people working.

The federal disability payments made to the record 8,733,461 workers in June averaged $1,111.42.

Only 11 states--California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas—have populations in excess of the 8,733,461 workers who took disability payments in June.

New Jersey’s 2010 Census population of 8,807,501 approximates the 8,733,461 workers who collected federal disability insurance in June.

In addition to the 8,733,461 workers taking federal disability payments in June, there were also 165,469 spouses of disabled workers getting federal disability payments and 1,899,756 children of disabled workers getting benefits. That brought the total number of beneficiaries receiving disability insurance payment in June to 10,798,686.

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Heavenly Eye Aims to Save Earth From Doomsday Hit - Sentinel space telescope hopes to launch in 2017 or 2018 -

Heavenly Eye Aims to Save Earth From Doomsday Hit - Sentinel space telescope hopes to launch in 2017 or 2018 - 

A newly announced private space telescope mission aims to reduce Earth's vulnerability to catastrophic asteroid strikes, which the instrument's builders regard as unacceptably high.
The Sentinel space telescope, which the nonprofit B612 Foundation hopes to launch in 2017 or 2018, may identify 500,000 near-Earth asteroids in less than six years of operation — quite a feat, considering that just 10,000 such space rocks have been catalogued to date.
This asteroid-mapping work is vitally important, B612 officials say, because some big and dangerous space rocks undoubtedly have Earth's name on them.
"They have hit the Earth in the past and will do so in the future, unless we do something about it," former astronaut Ed Lu, B612's chairman and CEO, told reporters Thursday (June 28). [Photos: The Sentinel Space Telescope]
The risk
So how vulnerable are we right now to a devastating impact? It varies, depending on the size of the asteroid.
Fortunately, we're probably not going to get smacked any time soon by a potential civilization-killer (anything at least 0.6 miles, or 1 kilometer, wide). Scientists think about 980 of these mountain-size asteroids are zipping through Earth's neighborhood. We've already found nearly 95 percent of them, and none pose a threat to Earth in the near future, researchers say.
But the outlook isn't so rosy for smaller objects. For example, observations by NASA's WISE space telescope suggest that about 4,700 asteroids at least 330 feet (100 meters) wide come uncomfortably close to our planet at some point in their orbits.
So far, researchers have spotted less than 30 percent of these space rocks, which could obliterate an area the size of a state if they slammed into Earth.
And we've found just 1 percent of the near-Earth asteroids that measure at least 130 feet (40 m) across, B612 officials said. Such space rocks could do considerable damage on a local scale, as the so-called "Tunguska event" illustrates.
In 1908, an object thought to be 130 feet wide — or perhaps even smaller — exploded above the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in Siberia, flattening roughly 770 square miles (2,000 square km) of forest.
Such monster impacts are a fact of life on our planet. Asteroids big enough to cause major disruptions to the global economy and society (were they to strike a populated area today) have hit Earth every 200 or 300 years on average, Apollo 9 astronaut and B612 chairman emeritus Rusty Schweickart has said.

Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2012/07/02/sizing-up-earth-vulnerability-to-asteroid-strikes/

California bill would allow a child to have MORE than Two parents -

California bill would allow a child to have MORE than Two parents - 

Beaver had June and Ward.

Ricky had Ozzie and Harriet.

Mom and Dad, same-sex couples or blended families, California law is clear: No more than two legal parents per child.

When adults fight over parenthood, a judge must decide which two have that right and responsibility – but that could end soon.

State Sen. Mark Leno is pushing legislation to allow a child to have multiple parents.

"The bill brings California into the 21st century, recognizing that there are more than Ozzie and Harriet families today," the San Francisco Democrat said.

Surrogate births, same-sex parenthood and assisted reproduction are changing society by creating new possibilities for nontraditional households and relationships.

Benjamin Lopez, legislative analyst for the Traditional Values Coalition, blasted Leno's bill as a new attempt to "revamp, redefine and muddy the waters" of family structure by a leader in the drive to legalize gay marriage.

"It comes as no surprise that he would try to say that a child has more than two parents – that's absurd," said Lopez, whose group calls itself a leading voice for Bible-based values.

Under Leno's bill, if three or more people who acted as parents could not agree on custody, visitation and child support, a judge could split those things up among them.

SB 1476 is not meant to expand the definition of who can qualify as a parent, only to eliminate the limit of two per child.

Under current law, a parent can be a man who signs a voluntary declaration of paternity, for example. It also can be a man who was married and living with a child's mother, or who took a baby into his home and represented the infant as his own.

Leno's bill, which has passed the Senate and is now in the Assembly, would apply equally to men or women, and to straight or gay couples.

Examples of three-parent relationships that could be affected by SB 1476 include:

• A family in which a man began dating a woman while she was pregnant, then raised that child with her for seven years. The youth also had a parental relationship with the biological father.

• A same-sex couple who asked a close male friend to help them conceive, then decided that all three would raise the child.

• A divorce in which a woman and her second husband were the legal parents of a child, but the biological father maintained close ties as well.

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/07/02/4604048/california-bill-would-allow-a.html

Six Ways the Big Banks Are Getting Back-Door Bailouts -

Six Ways the Big Banks Are Getting Back-Door Bailouts - 

The country's biggest banks are happy to make their money from the same governments about which they love to whine.

Bankers love to rail against government interference in the “free market.” Jamie Dimon, grilled this week in front of Congress over JP Morgan Chase's massive recent losses, famously complained last year that some regulations are “anti-American.” And Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, warned ominously that increased regulations might make the bank seek out another location to do its business: “Operations can be moved globally and capital can be accessed globally,” he said.

Even while some of them occasionally have the grace to admit that they wouldn't still be around without the massive taxpayer bailouts of 2008 (and continued access to ultra-cheap loans from the Federal Reserve), they still like to claim that they're free-market entities, subject to the whims of the invisible hand, and that the government's meddling can only be destructive.

Yet those same banks are happy to make their money from the same governments about which they love to whine. Most of us know about the big, official bailouts. But the banks get much more than that from federal and state governments. Those lobbying dollars and campaign donations aren't just to keep regulators away; they lead to lucrative contracts where banks are paid to administer government services, and are put in position to skim fees off the very same taxpayers who pay for those services.

The big banks have their tentacles in every aspect of government—despite right-wing hand-wringing about government bureaucracy, the big banks are often actually the ones coming between you and your money. So who's really getting rich off “welfare”? JP Morgan and Bank of America.

Below are six ways the big banks rake in cash every day from services that are supposed to help working Americans.

1. Big Contracts for Food Stamps

Suzanne Merkelson at Republic Reports points out that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits—the program formerly known as food stamps, which provides food aid to families—increased to $72 billion last year (from $30 billion in 2007).

And as the lousy economy keeps people relying on benefits to feed their families, big banks keep benefiting from the program too. A new paper [PDF] from Michele Simon finds that SNAP “represents the largest, most overlooked corporate subsidy in the farm bill.” Merkelson writes:

While SNAP is a federal program, USDA and the states work together to administer the program. States contract with banks, who authorize payments (Electronic Bank Transfers or EBTs) from the Federal Reserve to retailers. J.P. Morgan Chase has contracts in half the states “indicating a lack of competition and significant market power,” according to Simon. How much are these deals worth? In New York, one seven-year deal originally gave the bank $112 million for its services, but was recently amended to add another $14.3 million.
JP Morgan spends a bunch of money lobbying the Department of Agriculture on this program, making sure they get what they want—a big paycheck from state taxpayers.

And the best part? When you have a problem with your JP Morgan SNAP benefits card? You call a JP Morgan call center for help—and that call center just might be in India.

So to recap: big bank makes money off a program that helps people who are unemployed—and creates jobs in India with that money, rather than creating them here in the US.

2. Making Money Off the Unemployed

The banks get paid directly by the state to handle the SNAP program, but that's far from the only program designed to help the victims of the lousy economy that has turned into a cash cow for the banks that created the crisis in the first place.

Unemployment benefits in 41 states are provided through Wall Street giants like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan Chase. In South Carolina, for instance, customers get a prepaid debit card from Bank of America to access their unemployment benefits—which is, of course, fee-free at a Bank of America ATM. But for rural South Carolinians, the nearest Bank of America ATM might be 50 miles away. Shawana Busby, a South Carolina user of the program, tells the Huffington Post that she's probably spent $350 in fees to access her benefits—which are $264 a week. Another user of the cards, Sandra Gortman, tells the Huffington Post that she was pressured to adopt the prepaid card, and then when she used it to put gas in her car, the gas station put a hold on her card for $75, which didn't come off for three days. When she called to check on the hold, she was charged a customer service fee. (The bank has now eliminated such fees.)

The bank also collects a 3-cent fee from the state each time it “facilitates” a transfer on a prepaid card. It also gets those fees for direct-depositing unemployment benefits into someone's bank account.

3. Sweet Campus Deals to Prey on Students While Distributing Federal Student Aid Money

A recent report from USPIRG, “The Campus Debit Card Trap,” dug into the deals that universities, both public and private, make with banks to produce student ID cards and more significantly, actually handle and disburse student financial aid. In other words, young people who've already signed up for a lifetime of student debt are being preyed on further by banks that can charge them fees just to access their money. (And, remember, those same big banks are already making big bucks on student aid.)

USPIRG found that 32 of the 50 largest public 4-year universities and 26 of the largest 50 community colleges—the schools in part supported by taxpayers—had deals with banks to provide debit or prepaid cards for students. The campuses often get money from the banks for the privilege of access to students, and the banks then make their money back in fees—and possibly other ways, too. Mela Heestand, writing for AlterNet about the protests at the University of California Davis that drove US Bank to close its campus bank branch, pointed out that “university contracts with banks encourage tuition hikes, because banks stand to profit directly from rising tuition, while the administration comes to rely on funding from bank contracts.” US Bank has agreements at 52 campuses around the country.

(After the protests that shuttered the US Bank branch, twelve activists were arrested and face up to 11 years in prison and $1 million in fines.)

Students are the ones bearing the costs of access to money they're already paying interest on, and USPIRG points out that the fees are “steep and frequent,” including per-swipe fees, inactivity fees (yes, you read that right), overdraft fees and fees to reload their prepaid cards. And financial aid that is paid to students through a debit card is subject, just like any other card, to ATM fees if students use an ATM not owned by the bank that currently has their money. The Department of Education has rules on this practice, banning banks from charging fees if they provide “convenient” ATMs for the students' use, but their definition of “convenient” is vague—leaving students at the mercy of a single ATM on campus, which produces long lines and leaves no alternative if it breaks or runs out of cash.

4. Cashing in on Tax Returns

It's not only your unemployment, financial aid, or SNAP benefits that the big banks control these days—they also might come between you and your tax return.

Once again, South Carolina takes the lead, claiming to save the taxpayer money by cutting a deal with Bank of America, this time to send out tax returns in the form of—you guessed it—prepaid debit cards from Bank of America. And just like with unemployment benefits and financial aid (or your regular, consumer bank card), the bank is making its money collecting fees from people trying to access their own money.

“They’re not even nickel and diming people, they’re five-dollaring and 10-dollaring people,” Sue Berkowitz, Director of the Appleseed Legal Justice Center, says.

Oh, and the bank got this deal through a no-bid contract—the Department of Revenue calls them “the best fit” for the program. The program isn't mandatory but, the Palmetto Public Record notes, it's opt-out, not opt-in. Which means that unless you request otherwise, your money will be given to you through Bank of America—which in addition to sticking you with ATM fees and other charges, is going to make interest on your money while it's sitting in their account.

5. Refinancing Homes Means Big Bucks for Banks

Getting the big banks to refinance mortgages and help people facing foreclosure stay in their homes has been a huge fight, with activists around the country putting their bodies on the line, physically occupying homes to keep residents in them.

Now the program that's supposed to help those struggling homeowners looks instead to be a big fat handout to the same banks that were preying on borrowers to begin with. According to the Wall Street Journal, banks that service mortgages could make as much as $12 billion by refinancing under the newest version of the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP 2.0). And the borrowers? Oh, they'll save money, too—somewhere around $2.5 billion, maybe $5 billion tops.

The program is supposed to let underwater borrowers who've made all their payments in good faith refinance their mortgages at current market value. But, Bonnie Kavoussi at the Huffington Post notes, instead those banks are able to charge steep fees and above-market interest rates.

Shaun Donovan, the current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development calls it “a monopoly on refinancing,” saying at a Senate hearing, "Whoever holds their current loan, whoever is the servicer, they can charge [borrowers]—and we're seeing this—very high fees."

6. Profiting Off The Very Idea of Another Big Bailout

In case all this profit enabled by the government wasn't enough for you, perhaps the most disturbing recent bank-related news is a report by the “wild socialists” at Bloomberg that, “JPMorgan receives a government subsidy worth about $14 billion a year, according to research published by the International Monetary Fund and our own analysis of bank balance sheets.”

They explain:

In recent decades, governments and central banks around the world have developed a consistent pattern of behavior when trouble strikes banks that are large or interconnected enough to threaten the broader economy: They step in to ensure that all the bank’s creditors, not just depositors, are paid in full. Although typically necessary to prevent permanent economic damage, such bailouts encourage a reckless confidence among creditors. They assume the government will always make them whole, so they become willing to lend at lower rates, particularly to systemically important banks.
In other words, because we bailed them out once, the expectation that we'll do it again is actually making the banks money. Other lenders are willing to lend money to the “systemically important banks” (read: banks that got bailed out by the US government because they were “too big to fail”) at lower interest rates because they presume that they'll always get their money back since the government will make sure the banks don't go belly up. So the biggest banks are paying less in interest than medium-size and small banks--and that adds up to billions. 

So they're profiting just from being too big to fail. And each time there's a crisis, the expectation of government support actually grows—as of 2009, Bloomberg notes, they're saving about 0.8 percent every time they borrow. The total benefit to the big banks just of the expectation that there will be another bailout? About $76 billion a year—which Bloomberg points out is equal to their total profit from the past twelve months, and is more than the federal government spends each year on education.

Brad Sherman, a Representative from California, asked Jamie Dimon this week, before Congress, “[H]ow can medium size banks compete against you when your cost of capital is reduced by 80 basis points, 0.8 percent, because of a belief that if they go under we'll let 'em go under, but if you go under we'll bail out your creditors?”

Dimon, of course, claimed that it wasn't true, and that he borrowed in the marketplace, “with the smartest people in the world.” But it looks like the smartest people in the world are getting a whole lot of help—and making a whole lot of money—off of college students and taxpayers, off the working poor and unemployed in the U.S.

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