30 Jun 2015

Giant Numbers That Are Really Hard to Compute (10 pics)

29 Jun 2015

New York state officially bans fracking

It's official: New York has banned fracking.
After more than seven years of study, the state Department of Environmental Conservation today issued the final document needed to ban the controversial drilling practice, known formally as high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

"Prohibiting high-volume hydraulic fracturing is the only reasonable alternative," said DEC Commissioner Joe Martens in a prepared statement. "High-volume hydraulic fracturing poses significant adverse impacts to land, air, water, natural resources and potential significant public health impacts that cannot be adequately mitigated. This decision is consistent with DEC's mission to conserve, improve and protect our state's natural resources, and to enhance the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state."
Today's finding statement has been in the works since December, when Martens said he would ban fracking because too little was known about the potential health impacts. Last month, the DEC released a 1,448-page report on fracking that began in 2009. Today's findings statement is based on that report.

The fracking ban is not permanent, and could be rescinded. Proponents and opponents of the ban both said they expect lawsuits to be filed.

Five companies publish more than 50 per cent of research papers, study finds: "The control that they now have over the scientific output of researchers I would say is way too high"

Think it's hard to make money in publishing in the digital age? Well, huge profits are still to be had – if you're a publisher of academic research journals.
While traditional book and magazine publishers struggle to stay afloat, research publishing houses have typical profit margins of nearly 40 per cent, says Vincent Larivière, a researcher at the University of Montreal's School of Library and Information Science. 
Researchers rely on journals to keep up with the developments in their field. Most of the time, they access the journals online through subscriptions purchased by university libraries. But universities are having a hard time affording the soaring subscriptions, which are bundled so that universities effectively must pay for hundreds of journals they don't want in order to get the ones they do.
Larivière says the cost of the University of Montreal's journal subscriptions is now more than $7 million a year  – ultimately paid for by the taxpayers and students who fund most of the university's budget. Unable to afford the annual increases, the university has started cutting subscriptions, angering researchers.
"The big problem is that libraries or institutions that produce knowledge don't have the budget anymore to pay for [access to] what they produce," Larivière said.
"They could have closed one library a year to continue to pay for the journals, but then in twenty-something years, we would have had no libraries anymore, and we would still be stuck with having to pay the annual increase in subscriptions."
Given the situation, he wanted to track what proportion of papers was being published by these large academic publishers compared to in the past (and how big a deal it would be to cut some of those subscriptions.)

'Oligarchy' of publishers

What he and his collaborators found was that the five largest, for-profit academic publishers now publish 53 per cent of scientific papers in the natural and medical sciences – up from 20 per cent in 1973. In the social sciences, the top five publishers publish 70 per cent of papers. 
Essentially, they've become an oligarchy, Larivière and co-authors Stefanie Haustein and Philippe Mongeon say in a paper published last week in the open access, non-profit journal PLOS ONE.  
"The control that they now have over the scientific output researchers I would say is way too high," he said. "So that's why they can come up with annual increases that are between five six , seven, even 10 per cent."
A look at a history of the journals showed how that happened. Traditionally, most journals were published by non-profit scientific societies. But when journals shifted from print to online digital formats, those societies couldn't afford the cost of the equipment needed to make the switch. Instead, they sold their journals to large, for-profit publishers, Larivière said.

Authors, reviewers unpaid

Aside from the costs of switching itself, the digital age has made publishing even cheaper for scientific journals, which already have a business model that sounds too good to be true. Unlike other authors, researchers don't get paid for the papers they write, and peer reviewers don't get paid either. 
"The quality control is free, the raw material is free, and then you charge very, very high amounts – of course you come up with very high profit margins."
This model originally existed because it was necessary for sharing research in the age of print. It's no longer a practical necessity in the digital age.
But it continues to exist because researchers' funding and career advancement are tied to the number of papers they publish in top journals.
"We need journals because of their prestige," Larivière said. "Journals give discoveries and researchers a hierarchy."
He said part of the problem is that university libraries and not researchers pay the subscription fees, so many researchers aren't even aware that access to the journals costs money.

Now’s the Time To End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions

The Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage makes it clearer than ever that the government shouldn't be subsidizing religion and non-profits

Two weeks ago, with a decision inObergefell v. Hodges on the way, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah introduced the First Amendment Defense Act, which ensures that religious institutions won’t lose their tax exemptions if they don’t support same-sex marriage. Liberals tend to think Sen. Lee’s fears are unwarranted, and they can even point to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Friday’s case, which promises “that religious organizations and persons [will be] given proper protection.”

But I don’t think Sen. Lee is crazy. In the 1983 Bob Jones University case, the court ruled that a school could lose tax-exempt status if its policies violated “fundamental national public policy.” So far, the Bob Jones reasoning hasn’t been extended to other kinds of discrimination, but someday it could be. I’m a gay-rights supporter who was elated by Friday’s Supreme Court decision — but I honor Sen. Lee’s fears.
I don’t, however, like his solution. And he’s not going to like mine. Rather than try to rescue tax-exempt status for organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality, we need to take a more radical step. It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses.
The federal revenue acts of 1909, 1913, and 1917 exempted nonprofits from the corporate excise and income taxes at the same time that they allowed people to deduct charitable contributions from their incomes. In other words, they gave tax-free status to the income of, and to the income donated to, nonprofits. Since then, state and local laws nearly everywhere have exempted nonprofits from all, or most, property tax and state income tax. This system of tax exemptions and deductions took shape partly during World War I, when it was feared that the new income tax, with top rates as high as 77%, might choke off charitable giving. But whatever its intentions, today it’s a mess, for several reasons.
First, the religious exemption has forced the IRS to decide what’s a religion, and thus has entangled church and state in the worst way. Since the world’s great religion scholars can’t agree on what a religion is, it’s absurd to ask a bunch of accountants, no matter how well-meaning. You can read part of the IRS’s guidelines for what’s a bona fide religion here; suffice it to say that it has an easier time saying what’s not a religion. The site gives the example of the rejection of an application from an “outgrowth of a supper club … whose primary activities were holding meetings before supper, sponsoring the supper club, and publishing a newsletter” but which professed a religious doctrine of “ethical egoism.”
On the other hand, the IRS famously caved and awarded the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status. Never mind that the Scientology is secretive, or that it charges for its courses; or that its leader, David Miscavige, lives like a pasha. Indeed, many clergy have mid-six-figure salaries — many university presidents, seven-figure salaries — and the IRS doesn’t trouble their tax-exempt status. And many churches and synagogues sit on exceedingly valuable tracts of land (walk up and down Fifth Avenue to see what I mean). The property taxes they aren’t paying have to be drawn from business owners and private citizens — in a real sense, you and I are subsidizing Mormon temples, Muslims mosques, Methodist churches.
We’re also subsidizing wealthy organizations sitting in the middle of poor towns. Yale University has an endowment of about $25 billion, yet it pays very little to the city of New Haven, which I (as a resident) can assure you needs the money. At the prep school I attended (current endowment: $175 million), faculty houses, owned by the school, were tax-exempt, on the theory that teachers sometimes had students over for dinner, where they talked about history or literature or swim practice.
Meanwhile, although nonprofits can’t endorse political candidates, they can be quite partisan and still thrive on the public dole, in the form of tax exemptions and deductions. Conservatives are footing the bill for taxes that Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit, doesn’t pay — while liberals are making up revenue lost from the National Rifle Association. I could go on. In short, the exemption-and-deduction regime has grown into a pointless, incoherent agglomeration of nonsensical loopholes, which can allow rich organizations to horde plentiful assets in the midst of poverty.
Defenders of tax exemptions and deductions argues that if we got rid of them charitable giving would drop. It surely would, although how much, we can’t say. But of course government revenue would go up, and that money could be used to, say, house the homeless and feed the hungry. We’d have fewer church soup kitchens — but countries that truly care about poverty don’t rely on churches to run soup kitchens.
Exemption advocates also point out that churches would be squeezed out of high-property-value areas. But if it’s important to the people of Fifth Avenue to have a synagogue like Emanu-El or an Episcopal church like St. Thomas in their midst, they should pay full freight for it. They can afford to, more than millions of poorer New Yorkers whose tax bills the synagogue and church exemptions are currently inflating.

How States Are Fighting to Keep Towns From Offering Their Own Broadband

Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission voted to ease the way for cities to become Internet service providers. So-called municipal broadband is already a reality in a few towns, often providing Internet access and faster service to rural communities that cable companies don’t serve.
The cable and telecommunications industry have long lobbied against city-run broadband, arguing that taxpayer money should not fund potential competitors to private companies.
The telecom companies have what may seem like an unlikely ally: states. Roughly 20 states have restrictions against municipal broadband.
And the attorneys general in North Carolina and Tennessee have recently filed lawsuits in an attempt to overrule the FCC and block towns in these states from expanding publicly funded Internet service.
North Carolina’s attorney general argued in a suit filed last month that the “FCC unlawfully inserted itself between the State and the State’s political subdivisions.” Tennessee’s attorney general filed a similar suit in March.
Tennessee has hired one of the country’s largest telecom lobbying and law firms, Wiley Rein, to represent the state in its suit. The firm, founded by a former FCC chairman, has represented AT&T, Verizon and Qwest, among others.
James Tierney, director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School, said it is not unusual for attorneys general to seek outside counsel for specialized cases that they view as a priority.
Asked about the suit, the Tennessee attorney general’s office told ProPublica, “This is a question of the state’s sovereign ability to define the role of its local governmental units.” North Carolina Attorney General’s office said in a statement that the “legal defense of state laws by the Attorney General’s office is a statutory requirement.”
As the New York Times detailed last year, state attorneys general have become a major target of corporate lobbyists and contributors including AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile.
North Carolina is no exception. The state’s Attorney General Roy Cooper receivedroughly $35,000 from the telecommunications industry in his 2012 run for office. Only the state’s retail industry gave more.
The donations are just a small part of contributions the industry has made in the states. In North Carolina’s 2014 elections, the telecommunications industry gave a combined $870,000 to candidates in both parties, which made it one of the top industries to contribute that year. Candidates in Tennessee received nearly $921,000 from AT&T and other industry players in 2014.
The FCC’s decision came after two towns – City of Wilson in North Carolina and Chattanooga in Tennessee – appealed to the agency to be able to expand their networks.
The vote has rattled some companies. In a government filing earlier this year, Comcast cited the FCC’s decision as a risk to the company’s business: “Any changes to the regulatory framework applicable to any of our services or businesses could have a negative impact on our businesses and results of operations.”
If the court upholds the FCC’s authority to preempt restrictions in North Carolina and Tennessee, it may embolden other cities to file petitions with the agency, according to lawyer Jim Baller, who represents Wilson and the Chattanooga Electric Power Board. “A victory by the FCC would be a very welcome result for many communities across America,” said Baller.
For some residents in and outside of Chattanooga, clearing the way to city-run broadband would mean the sort of faster Internet access that others might take for granted.
For 12 years, Eva VanHook, 39, of Georgetown, Tennessee, lived with a satellite broadband connection so slow that she’d read a book while waiting for a web page to load. In order for her son to access online materials for his school assignments, she’d drive him 12 miles to their church parking lot, where he could access faster WiFi.

Homophobe Gets Owned By Arnold Schwarzenegger On Facebook (3 pics)

A fan on Facebook got upset after Arnold Schwarzenegger changed his Facebook profile picture so Arnold dropped a classic Terminator quote on him.

Man Wins Lawsuit After Neighbor Shotgunned His Drone

Comments section tough guys and fictional sitcom characters like Ron Swanson have popularized the idea that it's completely acceptable to shoot a drone out of the sky. As one man in California recently learned, it's not: A judge just awarded a drone pilot $850 in a lawsuit related to the shotgunning of his custom-built drone.
Way back in November, I was contacted by a man who said his drone had just been shot while flying over his parents' farm. Before talking on the record to the press, he wanted to get the case settled either with his neighbor or with the legal system. In late May, his case was finally finished—the first lawsuit relating to the destruction of a drone to become public.
"It didn't occur to me to set a precedent," Eric Joe, the pilot, told me. "I didn't want to go down this route, I wanted to get it resolved civilly, but that didn't work out."
Legal experts say that shooting down a drone with a gun should technically be a federal felony offense. Because the Federal Aviation Administration has decided to consider drones "aircraft" (and has fought for that distinction in court) and has not yet created specific rules about their use, shooting at one should be a violation of federal code 18 §32, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
"If drones are aircraft, and subject to all of the same restrictions relating to aircraft, then they should also be afforded the exact same protection the law provides all aircraft," Peter Sachs, a Connecticut-based attorney specializing in drone issues told me.
Thus far, the FAA has not charged anyone who has shot down a drone with violating that law, though the FAA has made it explicit that shooting at a drone is illegal.
Nonetheless, there have been a handful of drones shot down over the last couple years.
"I was flying over my parents' walnut farm in Modesto, California, a really rural area. I was up in the air for maybe five minutes before I heard a shot," Joe said. "According to my flight data, it wasn't going very fast or anything, but it just flipped upside down and crashed."
Joe says he approached his neighbor, identified in the lawsuit as Brett McBay, whose son was holding a shotgun.
"I yelled over to them and said, 'Did you shoot that drone?' and they said 'Did we get it?'" Joe said. Joe said that McBay originally agreed to pay for the drone, which started an email chain between the two.
"It was nice to meet you and your son. I wish it could have been under different circumstances, but I have to give credit to the McBay school of marksmanship," Joe wrote in an email sent in November. "Still, I'm pretty bummed that I just built this hexacopter only to have it shot down. Also, it was a little disconcerting to know that the spread of the birdshot/buckshot was in my direction."
Joe asked for $700 to replace the broken parts—the entire rest of the email chain is worth reading:
Joe decided to pursue the case in Stanislaus County Superior Court, where a judge quickly ruled that McBay was at fault.
"The judge said it was more or less an open-and-shut case, thanks to his admission in the email chain. His first question was just 'Why did you shoot the drone?' [McBay] said he wanted peace and quiet in his neighborhood," Joe told me.
McBay did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment. An FAA spokesperson told me that it has not yet pursued any enforcement actions against people who have shot drones.
A criminal case is still pending. In the end, the judge decided that "McBay acted unreasonably in having his son shoot the drone down regardless of whether it was over his property or not." Though it’s not necessarily precedent-setting, it’s still an important case, according to Brendan Schulman, an attorney at Kramer Levin who has more experience in drone law than anyone else in the country.
"Even though it’s from small claims court, it supports the proposition that destruction of someone’s property is not an appropriate way to respond to the presence of a drone," Schulman told me. "Even if a drone is causing a nuisance, potentially invading privacy, creating a hazard, or violating some other law, the appropriate way to respond is to call the authorities, not to take self-help measures involving firearms. Notably, the verdict states that the discharge of the firearm was unreasonable regardless of whether the drone was being flown over the shooter’s property. I think this case is more about the response to the drone operation than it is an indication of what laws apply to the operation of the drone itself."

“You can kill someone in Kentucky and be eligible for parole in 12 years, but we have people in jail for marijuana sales for 55 years, life, 20 years, 25 years"

Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul said Thursday that Bill and Hillary Clinton are “proud” to have presided “over the incarceration of a whole generation of young black men” in comments singling out mass incarceration as “the new Jim Crow.”
The senator from Kentucky is an advocate for making changes to the criminal justice system and has co-sponsored legislation with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker to help keep nonviolent criminal offenders out of prison.
“Bill Clinton presided over the incarceration of a whole generation of young black men,” Paul said on The Wilkow Majority. “We are putting young black men in jail at a rate never before seen in history and it’s because of this war on drugs.”
Paul said Hillary and Bill Clinton were “proud to do this.”
Hillary Clinton spoke earlier this year of ending “the era of mass incarceration.” Clinton’s remarks rejected the “tough-on-crime” mantra and legislation advocated by her and her husband during his time as president which included signing the 1994 crime bill.
“And so Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, they were all proud to do this,” said Paul. “But now that I’ve been speaking out and saying that mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow, now all of a sudden the Clintons are saying, ‘oh wait a minute, we are going to be back on the other side of this issue right now.’”
Paul said Democrats saw him as “a threat to Hillary Clinton” because he goes to communities like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland and says “what have the Democrats done for you?”
“And I hate to tell you this, but someone from the Democrat National Committee is listening to our radio interview right now and they are looking for ways to attack me, because they see me as a threat to Hillary Clinton, because I’m going to the south side of Chicago, I’m going to the inner city of Philadelphia, I’m going to Baltimore, I’m going to Ferguson, and I’m saying, what have the Democrats done for you? What have they done to alleviate poverty? What have they done for crime? What have they done for the young men in your community and you know why? It’s starting to gain traction, and that is why we lead her in several states that Obama won.”
Paul said he that understands marijuana isn’t good for people, but the law needs to be fair and not incarcerate one race more than another.
“I think that the law needs to be fair and that we shouldn’t incarcerate one race more than another and I think the law should be fair in the sense that the penalties should be proportionate to the crime,” said Paul.

28 Jun 2015

Gigantic Food Concoctions That Take Food Porn to New Heights (14 pics)

27 Jun 2015

US Troops Forced To Obey Islamic Restrictions During Ramadan

Here’s a story you really have to read to believe…
A top commander in southwest Asia reminded U.S military personnel stationed in Muslim countries in the Middle East of the restrictions placed on them during Ramadan. According to a report by the U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs, Brig. Gen. John Quintas, 380th Air Expeditionary Wing commander in Southwest Asia, said that the U.S. is “committed to the concepts of tolerance, freedom and diversity.” But he added that soldiers should “become more informed and appreciative of the traditions and history of the people in this region of the world… [R]emember we are guests here and that the host nation is our shoulder-to-shoulder, brothers and sisters in arms, risking their lives for our common cause to defeat terrorism.”

During the 30-day religious celebration of Ramadan, even non-Muslims are expected to obey local laws regarding eating, drinking, and using tobacco in public. Violators can be fined up to $685 or receive two months in jail. A spokesperson for United States Central Command [CENTCOM] said that “we are not aware of any specific instances of anyone being arrested” for such violations.
“For military personnel outside of U.S.-controlled areas, the only exceptions for the rules are for those “performing strenuous labor.” Such personnel are “authorized to drink and consume as much food as they need to maintain proper hydration and energy.” It is unclear what constitutes “strenuous labor” or whether additional exceptions might be made during a heatwave affecting some areas of the region that has taken hundreds of lives.

When asked if the restrictions were new or simply a continuation of past policy, a CENTCOM spokesperson replied:
There has been no change in policy… [W]hile the US does not have a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the UAE, it is common practice to ensure all Soldiers, Sailors, Airman, and Marines deployed to Muslim countries are culturally aware that during the month of Ramadan, practicing Muslims do not consume anything from sunrise to sunset as a pillar of their faith. Commanders throughout the AOR create policies to ensure their subordinates respect the laws and culture of our hosts at all times.