Friday, April 29, 2011


Eats: Unexpected fungus decimates Australia's pistachio crop.

Karaoke Kills: Karaoke killer gets 54 years to life.

Karaoke Kills: Neighborhood pulls together to reject restaurant's request for karaoke license.

Awesome: Scott Pilgrim finally comes to Japan.

Supreme Court rules to let corporations bar class action suits.

From Huffington Post:
On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court sided with AT&T in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion -- a decision with devastating consequences for consumer protection and civil rights. In essence, AT&T asked the court to allow it to use the fine print of contracts to eliminate class actions, a practice that flouts the laws of 20 states. In a 5-4 decision, the court granted AT&T's request.

The case's potential impact is breathtaking. Corporations can now prevent consumers and small business owners from exercising what is often their only real option for challenging companies that defraud them by millions or even billions of dollars: banding together to file class action lawsuits. The case could be equally devastating to millions of non-union employees, who need class actions to challenge systemic discrimination by their employers. The Supreme Court has given major corporations the green light to engage in nearly limitless wrongdoing against others, so long as they do it in relatively small dollar amounts, which ensures that no one can afford to challenge the misconduct without a class action.

A sudden demise of class actions will shock the markets and the legal system. It will dramatically increase the market power of major corporations over ordinary Americans and small business owners, who are already outmatched. Innumerable laws that protect the public will become irrelevant because few people can enforce them.

Yet for all these far-reaching implications, AT&T's achievement is remarkably ordinary. The company has secured a state of lawlessness similar to the one that allowed banks to foreclose on millions of homeowners without showing evidence that they had the right to do so. It has achieved a deregulatory regime similar to those that tanked the economy and destroyed millions of jobs, devastated the Gulf of Mexico with oil, allow thousands of preventable workplace deaths every year and threaten untold upheaval through climate change. Like the big banks, the oil and coal companies and the mine operators, AT&T simply wants to write its own rules. It's doing just that, through a practice that has become so ordinary we hardly notice the absurdity and injustice anymore: writing one-sided contracts and imposing them on others.

Why corporations are permitted to do anything important through standard-form contracts is somewhat of a mystery. Companies hire armies of lawyers to draft and redraft these contracts, claiming every new advantage they can wring out of legal developments. They secure "consent" by holding our credit cards or cell phones for ransom, saying we must submit to the new terms or immediately stop using them. Some companies even do this with people's jobs, telling employees they must sign new contracts or be fired (never mind that contract law is supposed to be based on mutual consent).

The average American is deluged with hundreds of thousands of fine-print words each year that no one reads and no one understands -- but that everyone is bound by. Avoiding these contracts is impossible unless one eschews most consumer products and services. Courts uphold adhesion contracts with a breeziness that is astonishing, especially since judges themselves don't read the fine print (John Roberts, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, has said he doesn't read it). The effect is nothing short of privatization of the law, with major corporations writing the rules and imposing them on the rest of us.

If recent crises have taught us anything, it's that disaster follows quickly when companies have too little oversight. AT&T is pushing the outer limits of deregulation, seeking a world in which companies can use one-sided contracts to grant themselves immunity from accountability for a vast range of wrongdoing. Concepcion represents a giant leap toward a dystopian legal system that the Supreme Court should have rejected out of hand -- lawlessness for major corporations and corporate-made law for the rest of us.

But the Court rubber-stamped AT&T's scheme, so we need the Congress and administrative agencies to protect us. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act gives the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) the authority to eliminate abuses like AT&T's within their jurisdictions. The CFPB and SEC should get to work quickly. To solve the problem in every industry, not just financial services, Congress should pass the Arbitration Fairness Act, which Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) plan to introduce next week.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Millions in malaria drugs stolen.

From the Seattle Times:
A global health fund believes millions of dollars worth of its donated malaria drugs have been stolen in recent years, vastly exceeding the levels of theft previously suspected, according to confidential documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The internal investigation by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria comes two months into a new anti-corruption program that the fund launched after an AP report detailing fraud in their grants attracted intense scrutiny from donors.

In internal documents detailing drug thefts, officials identified 13 countries, mostly in Africa, where millions of dollars worth of malaria drugs have gone missing. According to the reports, drug theft in which donated drugs are sold on the black market "appears to be on the rise and (is) becoming increasingly sophisticated."

The reports were provided to the AP by an official with a different health organization, who did so on condition of anonymity because he was granted confidential access to the documents by a Global Fund staffer.

Global Fund spokesman Jon Liden confirmed the fund suspects $2.5 million worth of malaria drugs were stolen from Togo, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Swaziland and Cambodia, dating mainly from 2009 to 2011, but with some cases going further back. He said investigations are under way to determine how much more was stolen elsewhere.

"We take this very seriously and we will do what it takes to protect our investment," he said.

An AP report in January exposed high rates of misappropriated money in some Global Fund grants and bruised the reputation of the multibillion-dollar fund, backed by big names including Bono and Bill Gates and hailed as an alternative to the bureaucracy of the United Nations.

But the fact that these revelations have come to light at all may be due to stricter self-policing and greater transparency at the Global Fund, compared with other aid organizations.

Update on the global catastrophic amphibian decline.

From Science Daily:
Amphibian declines around the world have forced many species to the brink of extinction, are much more complex than realized and have multiple causes that are still not fully understood, researchers conclude in a new report.

The search for a single causative factor is often missing the larger picture, they said, and approaches to address the crisis may fail if they don't consider the totality of causes -- or could even make things worse.

No one issue can explain all of the population declines that are occurring at an unprecedented rate, and much faster in amphibians than most other animals, the scientists conclude in a study just published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

The amphibian declines are linked to natural forces such as competition, predation, reproduction and disease, as well as human-induced stresses such as habitat destruction, environmental contamination, invasive species and climate change, researchers said.

"An enormous rate of change has occurred in the last 100 years, and amphibians are not evolving fast enough to keep up with it," said Andrew Blaustein, a professor of zoology at Oregon State University and an international leader in the study of amphibian declines.

"We're now realizing that it's not just one thing, it's a whole range of things," Blaustein said.

"With a permeable skin and exposure to both aquatic and terrestrial problems, amphibians face a double whammy," he said. "Because of this, mammals, fish and birds have not experienced population impacts as severely as amphibians -- at least, not yet."

The totality of these changes leads these researchers to believe that Earth is now in a major extinction episode similar to five other mass extinction events in the planet's history. And amphibians are leading the field -- one estimate indicates they are disappearing at more than 200 times that of the average extinction rate.

Efforts to understand these events, especially in the study of amphibians, have often focused on one cause or another, such as fungal diseases, invasive species, an increase in ultraviolet radiation due to ozone depletion, pollution, global warming, and others. All of these and more play a role in the amphibian declines, but the scope of the crisis can only be understood from the perspective of many causes, often overlapping. And efforts that address only one cause risk failure or even compounding the problems, the researchers said.

"Given that many stressors are acting simultaneously on amphibians, we suggest that single-factor explanations for amphibian population declines are likely the exception rather than the rule," the researchers wrote in their report. "Studies focused on single causes may miss complex interrelationships involving multiple factors and indirect effects."

King crabs invade Antarctica.

From Science Daily:
It's like a scene out of a sci-fi movie -- thousands, possibly millions, of king crabs are marching through icy, deep-sea waters and up the Antarctic slope.

"They are coming from the deep, somewhere between 6,000 to 9,000 feet down," said James McClintock, Ph.D., University of Alabama at Birmingham Endowed Professor of Polar and Marine Biology.

Shell-crushing crabs haven't been in Antarctica, Earth's southernmost continent, for hundreds or thousands, if not millions, of years, McClintock said. "They have trouble regulating magnesium ions in their body fluids and get kind of drunk at low temperatures."

But something has changed, and these crustaceans are poised to move by the droves up the slope and onto the shelf that surrounds Antarctica. McClintock and other marine researchers interested in the continent are sounding alarms because the vulnerable ecosystem could be wiped out, he said.

Antarctic clams, snails and brittle stars, because of adaptation to their environment, have soft shells and have never had to fight shell-crushing predators. "You can take an Antarctic clam and crush it with your hands," McClintock said. They could be the main prey for these crabs, he said.

Loss of unique mollusks could jeopardize organisms with disease-fighting compounds, McClintock said. Sea squirts, for example, produce an agent that fights skin cancer. If the crabs eat them, it could bring McClintock's research with that organism to a halt.

McClintock's chemical ecology program has published more than 100 papers on species researchers have discovered, including the compound that combats skin cancer and one to treat flu, that are being explored by drug companies.

"I am very concerned that species could disappear, and we could lose a cure to a disease," he said.

Playstation hacked: 77 million users' personal and credit card info in jeopardy.

Grand Theft Identity. From Daily Mail:
The credit card details of 77million PlayStation users could have been stolen during one of the largest Internet thefts in history, Sony admitted today.

The Japanese firm suffered a massive breach in its online video game network last week that allowed the names and addresses of the users to be stolen in a hacking attack that could cost the company billions.

Access to the PlayStation network was suspended last Wednesday, but the company only revealed the true extent of the data breach today.

A post on a Sony blog said hackers obtained user names, passwords, logins, security questions and, potentially, credit card numbers.

The online network that allows PlayStation owners to play video games against one another was shut immediately after the hacking was discovered on April 19.

A spokesman said it took 'several days of forensic investigation' after learning of the breach before the company knew consumers' data had been compromised.

Sony announced the details of the breach hours after the glitzy launch of a new tablet PC yesterday - and users reacted furiously after Sony made its hacking announcement in a low-key manner on a company blog.

One said: 'If you have compromised my credit information, you will never receive it again. The fact that you've waited this long to divulge this information to your customers is deplorable. Shame on you.'

Pittsburgh is having a ninja problem.

From Gawker:
The greater Pittsburgh area has been contending with a very annoying ninja infestation lately. If you've ever had a ninja problem yourself, you know that they're really hard to get rid of, and if you see one, you can be sure there's hundreds more where he came from.

The most recent outbreak occurred when a sword-wielding ninja was spotted breaking into eleven cars by a man named Santino Guzzo. When Guzzo confronted him, the ninja "tried to stab him." Guzzo was packing heat, however, and drew his gun. That sent the ninja running off into the cover of darkness, yet he still somehow managed to "break the rear window of Guzzo's car as he ran off."

[...] Less than two weeks prior, Ross Hurst, a resident of Scottdale (less than hour south of Pittsburgh), had left his four-year-old son sleeping alone at home — when police picked him up at 1:30 am allegedly "pretending to be a ninja."