Saturday, January 25, 2014

What caused a 10-year winter starting in 536?

Source: New Scientist via io9

Each year, Earth passes through two meteor showers produced by dusty fragments of Halley's comet. Throughout the 530s and into the 540s, these meteor showers may have been unusually heavy, and continued to top-up Earth's atmosphere with cooling dust – and perhaps more.

There are other surprising clues in the ice. Cores from around the beginning of 536 contain the frozen remains of microorganisms normally found in shallow tropical seas, while samples from 538 also contain fossils of much more ancient marine microorganisms. Abbott thinks there is only one way these microorganisms could have ended up in Greenland ice.

Halley's comet might have shed a few especially large fragments during its journey through the inner solar system in 530. In the following years, perhaps including 536 and 538, these fragments slammed into Earth's oceans. When they did, dust and debris – containing living marine microbes in the water and fossils in the rocks that were struck – were thrown high into the atmosphere and global temperatures plummeted.

Abbot's team may have even found where one of these collisions occurred. Gravity anomalies and metallic spherules in a sediment layer suggest a large object struck Australia's Gulf of Carpentaria sometime in the first millennium AD, she says.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

How the Drug War Makes Drugs Less Safe

Source: Ludwig von Mises Institute

The common arguments for heroin prohibition, on the other hand, involve little more than reference to a list of symptoms which occur with reckless or prolonged use: it kills people, it destroys families, it squanders money, it makes addicts act, often violently, with desperation, etc. But it is precisely for these very reasons that it ought to be completely legalized.

Unlike users of prescription drugs, users of illegal drugs such as heroin are necessarily ignorant of where it has been produced, the extent of its purity — such as whether or not the drug is heroin, krokodil, or a combination — and of its potency and health risks. On the other hand, the consumer benefits of drug legitimacy are enormous. When drugs are legal on the open market there is recourse to a court of law should the drugs prove to be unsafe. In a legal drug environment, there is no fear of the law turning against anyone for admitting prior use of illegal drugs. Such legitimacy is lacking when purchasing illegal drugs on the black market, where there are no paper trails, no guarantees, no refunds, and no manuals, not to mention no doctors involved.

U.S. judge asks: Why haven't the financial executives been prosecuted?

Source: Los Angeles Times

An essay by U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff of New York has been published  in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. In his essay Rakoff takes particular aim at the government's habit of prosecuting corporations, but not their executives.

He's a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan, where he handled business and securities fraud. A Clinton appointee, he's been on the bench for more than 17 years. 

In 2009, he tossed a $33-million SEC settlement of a white-collar case with Bank of America, calling it "a contrivance designed to provide the S.E.C. with the facade of enforcement and the management of the Bank with a quick resolution of an embarrassing inquiry." The parties later agreed to a higher fine and stricter terms. And in 2011 he rejected a $285-million consent decree Citigroup entered with the SEC. That rejection is still being pondered by a federal appeals court.

"Companies do not commit crimes," Rakoff observes; "only their agents do...So why not prosecute the agent who actually committed the crime?" He's witheringly skeptical of prosecutions of corporations, which usually yield some nominal fines and an agreement that the company set up an internal "compliance" department. "The future deterrent value of successfully prosecuting individuals far outweighs the prophylactic benefits of imposing internal compliance measures that are often little more than window-dressing." 

He notes ... in the 1980s, the government convicted more than 800 individuals, including top executives, in the savings-and-loan scandal, and a decade later successfully prosecuted the top executives of Enron and WorldCom.

He dismisses the Department of Justice rationale that proving "intent" to defraud in the financial crisis cases is difficult: There's plenty of evidence in the public record that banking executives knew the mortgage securities they were hawking as AAA were junk.

Rakoff posits that there are several reasons for the lack of prosecutions. One is that the FBI and SEC are both understaffed because of budget cuts, and in the FBI's case with the diversion of much of its workforce to anti-terrorism efforts after 9/11. And he speculates that the government may feel abashed at its own complicity in the crisis, arising from the easing of financial and mortgage regulations over the years. 

What's been lacking, Rakoff finds, is the political will and government resources to bring individuals before the bar of justice. Although millions of Americans are still suffering the financial consequences of the crisis, Rakoff suggests that the failure of the justice system may do even more lasting damage to the fabric of American society. His warning should be heeded, before it's too late.

Isaac Asimov's 50 year old prediction for 2014 is viral and all wrong

Source: Vice Motherboard

Isaac Asimov thought we'd have a colony on the moon, be living under a global population control regime, eating at multi-flavored algae bars, and letting machines prepare us personalized meals. Most divergent of all, he believed that increasing automatization of labor would spawn not inequality or joblessness, but spiritual malaise.