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Windmills Tilted, Scared Cows Butchered, Lies Skewered on the Lance of Reality ... or something to that effect.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Daily Drift

Oops, the truth about today and the reason we celebrate it comes out.

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Today in History

1282   The great massacre of the French in Sicily The Sicilian Vespers comes to an end.
1547   In France, Francis–king since 1515–dies and is succeeded by his son Henry II.
1776   Abigail Adams writes to husband John that women are "determined to foment a rebellion" if the new Declaration of Independence fails to guarantee their rights.
1779   Russia and Turkey sign a treaty by which they promise to take no military action in the Crimea.
1790   In Paris, France, Maximilien Robespierre is elected president of the Jacobin Club.
1836   The first monthly installment of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens is published in London.
1862   Skirmishing between Rebels and Union forces takes place at Island 10 on the Mississippi River.
1880   The first electric street lights ever installed by a municipality are turned on in Wabash, Indiana.
1889   The Eiffel Tower in Paris officially opens on the Left Bank as part of the Exhibition of 1889.
1916   General John Pershing and his army rout Pancho Villa's army in Mexico.
1917   The United States purchases the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million.
1918   Daylight Savings Time goes into effect throughout the United States for the first time.
1921   Great Britain declares a state of emergency because of the thousands of coal miners on strike.
1933   To relieve rampant unemployment, Congress authorizes the Civilian Conservation Corps .
1939   Britain and France agree to support Poland if Germany threatens to invade.
1940   La Guardia airport in New York officially opens to the public.
1941   Germany begins a counter offensive in North Africa.
1945   The United States and Britain bar a Soviet supported provisional regime in Warsaw from entering the U.N. meeting in San Francisco.
1948   The Soviet Union begins controlling the Western trains headed toward Berlin.
1949   Winston Churchill declares that the A-bomb was the only thing that kept the Soviet Union from taking over Europe.
1954   The siege of Dien Bien Phu, the last French outpost in Vietnam, begins after the Viet Minh realize it cannot be taken by direct assault.
1960   The South African government declares a state of emergency after demonstrations lead to the deaths of more than 50 Africans.
1966   An estimated 200,000 anti-war demonstrators march in New York City.
1967   President Lyndon Johnson signs the Consular Treaty, the first bi-lateral pact with the Soviet Union since the Bolshevik Revolution.
1970   U.S. forces in Vietnam down a MIG-21, the first since September 1968.
1980   President Jimmy Carter deregulates the banking industry.
1991   Albania offers a multi-party election for the first time in 50 years.

Non Sequitur


When and Why Did We Stop Crucifying People?

vIf crucifixion as a means of capital punishment hadn't died out in the ancient world, it would labeled cruel and unusual punishment, and would never fly in the civilized world. The common wisdom is that the practice ended with the reign of Constantine, the first christian emperor of Rome (306 to 337 CE). However, some accounts of crucifixion appear after he converted in 312.
Even if Constantine did, in fact, end the practice of crucifixion, it’s not clear that he did so out of respect for jesus’ alleged execution. Aurelius Victor, the earliest historian to claim that Constantine banned crucifixion, explained that the emperor was motivated by a sense of humanity rather than piety. Crucifixion is a pretty gruesome way to go—significantly worse than the New Testament makes it seem. Although jesus reportedly expired in a matter of hours, many crucifixion victims clung to life for days. Even in Roman times, it was considered an exceptionally cruel punishment, reserved mainly for those who challenged state authority, such as insurgents and enemy soldiers. (Joel Marcus of Duke described crucifixion as “parodic exaltation,” because it gave rebels the fame they sought, albeit in a grotesque form.) By some accounts, Constantine replaced crucifixion with hanging, a less painful execution method. Constantine’s supposed ban on crucifixion came as part of a package of reforms, further suggesting that he was merely exercising human mercy. Branding prisoners’ faces, for example, was also prohibited around the same time—a reform that had nothing to do with jesus’ alleged execution.
Read more about the history of crucifixion at Slate.

Zombie houses

There's 300K+ in America
A survey by RealtyTrac reports that America is home to 301,874 zombie houses -- houses that have been abandoned by their owners, but not foreclosed upon by the banks. They effectively have no owners, but their erstwhile owners are theoretically on the hook for maintenance and liability. Florida has the largest zombie infestation (90,556!), followed by Illinois and California. Zombie houses are considered a blight because they attract vandalism and crime. In a rational world, neighborhood associations would be able to take these places over and turn them into community centers or shelters or some similar social beneficial purpose. Instead, they're just the subject of unending litigation that will likely only finish when the houses are razed.
Reuters revealed the plight of people who walked away from their homes not realizing that their names remained on the deed and that they were financially liable for taxes and other bills related to the abandoned property.
In some cases, homeowners vacated after receiving a notice from the bank of a planned foreclosure sale, only to find out later the bank never followed through.
Zombie properties can be easy to spot as they deteriorate into neighborhood eyesores and havens for criminal activity.
While Florida leads in volume of zombie properties, Kentucky, with less than 1,000 zombie properties, leads in percentage; zombies represent 54 percent of its total foreclosure inventory, Blomquist said.


Did you know ...

That a tea party group is boycotting Faux News for being too liberal

About how the NRA secretly protects people who commit crimes with guns

Pat, You're Not Helping

North Carolina repugican Gov. Closes State Latino Offiice
Gov McCrory
What to do if you have a tense relationship with the Latino community and your party is trying to rebrand itself as not the party of haters? If you’re the repugican governor of North Carolina, you eliminate the Office of Hispanic/Latino affairs, which was created in 1998. Yes, that ought to make things better.
The Latino community is none too pleased with Gov. McCrory closing down the office, especially after Governor McCrory (reptile-NC) signed off on the “pink licenses” for immigrants.
Closing the Hispanic/Latino State Office is being seen as confirmation that the Latinos in North Carolina don’t matter. Jess George, executive director of Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, said, “The message from Raleigh is that Latinos in North Carolina don’t matter. To close the office of Hispanic affairs only goes to confirm what many people suspect in our state, which is that, despite movement with the repugican cabal at the national level towards more bipartisan solutions around comprehensive immigration reform, North Carolina wingnuts don’t seem to have gotten the same memo.”
The pink-striped license plan was so egregious that Jewish leaders wrote to the governor to ask him to reconsider. They wrote in part, “We write to you as Jewish leaders dismayed and disappointed that undocumented immigrants in North Carolina who qualify for the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program will be singled out by having to carry driver’s licenses marked with a pink design and distinct from other North Carolina licenses.”
The pink licenses were shut down at the last minute, but the Governor just defended them in a March 6th presser. McCrory tried to explain that they are not scarlet letters by using the ever-helpful those people, “Those people don’t think it ought to have any identification regarding legal status versus legal presence.. and there is a legal distinction between legal status and legal presence.”
The licenses now read in bold red ink: “LEGAL PRESENCE / NO LAWFUL STATUS” and “LIMITED TERM”. The ACLU has promised to keep their eye on the impact of “NO LEGAL STATUS.”
Apparently McCrory, who received a presidential appointment by the pretender the shrub to serve on the United States Homeland Security Advisory Council between 2002-2006, thinks this extra expense will keep all of those non-existent voter fraud cases from finally manifesting. We wouldn’t want those people to vote. Not to worry, North Carolina repugicans filed two bills to restrict early voting and same-day registration in the state.
Thomas Stith, the Governor’s chief of staff, tried to explain in a statement that eliminating the office doesn’t mean they don’t care, “We are committed to serving the needs of all of North Carolina’s citizens. We don’t segment our constituents by race or cultural background any more than we separate them by age or gender. In addition, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Hispanic/Latino Affairs is a valuable resource to help us address culturally sensitive issues.”
Still, they eliminated the Office of Latino affairs, after they tried to target immigrants with scarlet lettered licenses. They just can’t help themselves.

The repugicans Won’t Fund Roads or Schools But Funded Two Wars to Benefit the Rich

Credit is based on trust which allows one party to provide resources to another party where that second party does not reimburse the first party immediately, but arranges either to repay or return those resources at a later date. However, some resources cannot be returned in lieu of repayment and when a government spends borrowed money its citizens should see some benefit because they are responsible for repaying the debt the government incurs. Most Americans do not object to their tax dollars being used to pay debts when they receive something in return such as decent roads, schools, and infrastructure all citizens enjoy, but a great deal of America’s debt is for wars in which no-one benefits except the military industrial  complex. The repugicans refuse to fund, borrow, or spend one penny on projects or programs that benefit 99% of the population, but they have no problem creating debt that benefits the rich and their corporations and forcing the American people to pick up the tab.
On Friday, President Obama brought out a two-year old set of proposals and tax incentives worth $7 billion for a $21 billion infrastructure improvement program, but Speaker of the House John Boehner balked and said “It’s easy to go out there and be Santa Claus and talk about all the things you want to give away, but at some point somebody has to pay the bill.” Boehner is right, taxpayers will have to pay the bill, but in return they will get a fraction of America’s crumbling roads, rails, 67,000 bridges and ports repaired to bring the country closer to some developing nations’ infrastructure standards. As it is, America’s infrastructure now ranks 25th  overall for infrastructure quality below Spain and Chile that are considered among the worst in the world, but according to repugicans, America is exceptional and too broke to invest in infrastructure that will cost the nation over $3.1 trillion in economic growth within 5 years without immediate spending to bring the country up to standards rivaling the poorest European nations.
It is not just major world organizations citing that the richest country in the history of the world suffers a rapidly crumbling and decrepit infrastructure that needs immediate improvements. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently released a new report on America’s current infrastructure status that gave this exceptional nation a D grade, and that is after the President’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus) funded repairs for a fraction of America’s substandard roads and highways. The repugicans opposed the stimulus as sheer waste even though it created over 4 million jobs and saved the economy from repugicans’ 8 year deregulation and spending spree. According to the ASCE, unless America invests an additional $3.6 trillion in infrastructure between now and 2020, the U.S. will lose $1.1 trillion in trade, $3,100 per year drop in personal disposable income, $2.4 trillion in lost consumer spending, and a little over 3.1 million jobs. It is bad news for Americans and the economy, but it is good news for repugicans as they ramp up their four-year assault on the government, jobs, and the economy.
The ASCE reported that in all aspects of infrastructure; energy, aviation, dams, water, levees, roads, schools, and hazardous waste disposal, America is failing despite repugican claims the richest country on Earth is exceptional, but broke because of grave debt they never considered worthy of attention until an African American became President. In January of 2009, the deficit repugicans created in 8 years became unsustainable and the sole reason for killing jobs, eliminating domestic programs, and giving the rich and corporations greater tax cuts that persists to this day. Unfortunately for Americans, the repugicans succeeded infecting all of Washington, including President Obama, with a debt and deficit reduction frenzy that threatens Social Security, Medicare, and nearly every domestic program that helps all Americans.
During the shrub junta, repugicans regularly parroted their man-turned-god Ronald Reagan’s famous words that “deficits don’t matter” as they racked up debt for tax cuts for the rich, a prescription plan for the pharmaceutical industry, and two very expensive wars. In fact, Americans will be shouldering crushing debt for decades to repay an estimated $6 trillion for the two wars that provided nothing whatsoever to the American people except thousands of dead Americans and tens-of-thousands of wounded Veterans.  A recent report revealed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will be the most expensive in America’s history and according to the study’s author, “The legacy of decisions taken during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will dominate future federal budgets for decades to come,” and instead of charging the oil industry, weapons manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, and wealthiest Americans for the resources and money they received on credit, repugicans are forcing 99% of the population to pay with tax dollars and services for decades to come.
A great share of the debt for the two wars is $60.45 billion in Iraq and more than $100 billion in Afghanistan for infrastructure repairs after they were decimated as a result of the shrub’s invasion and subsequent wholesale destruction, and the spending went directly to repugican’s favorite corporations such as KBR and Halliburton. However, the single largest accrued liability of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the cost of providing medical care and disability benefits to war Veterans that historically comes due many decades later. For example, the report noted the peak year for compensating World War I veterans was 1969, and World War II veterans saw the largest payments from the government in the late 1980s. Vietnam and the first Gulf War Veterans’ payments are still rising and are not expected to peak for a couple of decades.
The repugicans have accrued quite a distinguished record for destroying economies and infrastructures, but unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, they oppose spending any money to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure.  At $21 billion, the President’s infrastructure improvement proposal is meager and insufficient, but Republicans will oppose it the same way they opposed spending $1 billion that was funded to help returning Veterans find jobs after serving in the shrub’s two wars Americans will be paying for over the next several decades.
Americans do not object to repaying debts they incurred, but they should see some benefit and they certainly do not expect to pay the debt for other countries’ infrastructure improvements when their roads, bridges, dams, schools, and ports are falling apart before their eyes. For eight years, repugican piled up enormous debt to pay the rich, pharmaceutical industry, and war machine the American people will have to repay, and for four years they have refused to spend one penny on America, its people, or the crumbling infrastructure because their war, tax cuts, and pharmaceutical industry’s debt and deficit are unsustainable. They must be rejoicing though, because by opposing even minimal infrastructure repairs, they will cost Americans over 3.1 million jobs, $1.1 trillion in trade, $3,100 per year drop in personal disposable income, and $2.4 trillion in lost consumer spending, and combined with $6 trillion for their unfunded wars, will keep America in debt for several decades and Americans will have nothing to show for it.

The repugicans Try to Handle Future Gaffes By Sending Drones To Rape Boot Camp

The repugicans are sending campaign staffs to boot camp to teach them how to put out the fire after one of their candidates comes out in support of rape.
Buried in a Washington Post story about repugican plans to retake the Senate in 2014 was this little gem, “The nrsc is planning at least eight boot camps for staff in states with competitive races. Kevin McLaughlin, a veteran operative hired to work with campaign staff around the country, will run the communications schools with an eye toward preventing mishaps. He will also be in charge of a kind of campaign fire department, charged with quickly putting out blazes once mistakes are made.”
There are so many things wrong with this.
Instead of teaching their candidates and campaigns that rape is a bad thing, repugicans have decided that what they need is better damage control. The cabal is conceding that they are still going to nominate pro-rape whack jobs, but they are going to try to do a better job convincing the country that electing a pro-rape/rapist repugican to the United States Senate is no big deal.
The repugican cabal is still treating the symptoms instead of the disease. It is all part of the mindset that it is the message, not the party’s ideas, that is the problem. A much easier method of dealing with this would be to stop nominating candidates who believe that a raped woman can’t get pregnant, and in such things as legitimate rape. If the party would stop nominating socially conservative extremists, they wouldn’t need to worry about having a rapid response team in place to deal with the fallout when their candidates declare themselves pro-rape.
It isn’t that the repugican cabal has been slow to react to the comments. It is that these should have never been said in the first place. This isn’t a difficult concept. Rape is a crime. People who commit rape are criminals. A cabal should not be diminishing a heinous and violent crime, or supporting the perpetrators.
This isn’t hard repugicans. Voters will like you more if you stop supporting rape.
The repugican cabal remains absolutely, utterly, absurdly clueless as to why they keep losing elections.

Stop the NRA Lies

Mother arrested for slapping wrong child at school after mistaking him for her son

The mother of a middle school student in South Carolina who was being suspended is facing charges after deputies say she walked into the school office and slapped the wrong child. Fairforest Middle School Principal Ty Dawkins called deputies to the school on Wednesday morning. Dawkins said that 36-year-old Tyshekka Collier had gone to the school to pick up her son, who was being suspended.

Dawkins said when Collier walked into the office, she saw a boy sitting in the office with his head down, and she mistook him for her son and slapped him in the face. Dawkins said the boy was sick, and was sitting on a couch waiting for his mother to pick him up. Dawkins said once Collier realized she had slapped the wrong boy, she apologized, and then walked over to her son and began to slap him for getting in trouble. The arrest warrant said that Collier hit her son in the head and face, knocking him to the ground.

Collier was arrested and charged with disturbing school and two counts of assault and battery. Spartanburg County sheriff's Lt. Tony Ivey said, "She did apologize to the child she did hit, and we understand that, and that's a good thing there. But in speaking with the parents and all the interviews that were done - the two charges for the assaults and disturbing school, we felt were the most appropriate means to go with."

"I'd try to control your emotions a little bit when it comes to children and especially in public atmospheres here," he said. "Sometimes it's better to count to 10 or go off and cool off for a little bit, then go back with a level head before you start to discipline your children." Collier's three children have been put in protective custody.

There's an interview with the mother of the accidentally slapped child here.

Swedish pizzeria used rusty cement mixer to make salad dressing

A pizzeria in southern Sweden has come under fire after a screw turned up in a customer's food, with a follow-up inspection revealing an even more bizarre cooking technique. A patron of the restaurant started the ball rolling when he found a screw in his kebab meal in early March.

The customer returned the next day to complain, but was surprised to hear that it wasn't the first time a diner had found such an object in their food. "The screw was part of some tongs that we always use with the salad and it eventually came loose and fell in the kebab tray," the restaurant owner said. "The screw is black and the kebab is black - it isn't so easy to see it."

But the plot thickened when the customer alerted the local council's environmental office. Inspectors discovered that the restaurant owners were using a cement mixer that had been painted blue for making salad dressing and sauces. The owners were unable to explain what had happened with the pieces of paint that had flaked away and fallen off the machine.

"When I took over the restaurant, the previous owner told me that everything had been approved," the owner said, adding that he was new to the restaurant business and unaware of the rules. "When health inspectors pointed out that the cement mixer wasn't acceptable, I threw it out and bought a rust-free mixer the very same day."

Pothole Crew Suspended for Fixing Pothole

vThree County Cork road workers were returning from a job in Carrigaline, Ireland, when they saw a pothole. They stopped and repaired the pothole. A Health and Safety worker saw them, and the three men were consequently suspended from their jobs because they had not filed the proper paperwork for this particular pothole before repairing it.
Councillor John Mulvihill Snr, a former mayor of Cork, said health and safety was of vital importance.

He said that in recent times three road workers had died in accidents. The result was that the council was enforcing legislation rigorously.

"Health and safety is number one and you cannot put people's lives at risk," he said.

"The law says it was not safe. You need three or four people to fill in a pothole including two with 'Stop and Go' signs.
Mulvihill acknowledged that the three men had exemplary records and 90 years of experience between them, and suggested a warning could have been enough. The workers' union has gone to bat to protest the suspensions. More

US Border Patrol uses horses to secure Mexican border

"Immigration enforcement and drug smuggling continue to be top priorities for the Department of Homeland Security, and the Border Patrol's budget has swelled accordingly, increasing from just $262,647 in 1990 to over $3.5 million dollars in the 2012 fiscal year," reports photojournalist Erin Siegal of ABC/Univision, in Mexico.
"They've added more agents, more technology, and higher fences.
But they've also got horses. "Coyotes" (human-smugglers) and narcotraffickers have moved further into mountain and desert terrain, in response to law enforcement's more aggressive patrolling of urban areas. And in remote areas, horses help.

Celtic Women

Ancient Celtic women served as both warriors and rulers. Girls as well as boys could be trained to fight with swords and other weapons. One of the most prominent training schools in Gaelic mythology was run by Scathach (pronounced “sca-hah” or “skya”), a woman warrior from what is now Scotland. She trained the greatest hero of Irish legend, CĂșchulainn (pronounced “koo-hull-in” or “koo-khull-in”, with the “KH” as in Scottish loch). This most famous of her pupils went on to fight entire armies alone and perform other great deeds. Scathach’s female rival, Aife (or Aoife), was considered one of the fiercest warriors alive. Both of these women led armies.

Random Celebrity Photo

The World's Newest Radio Telescope Set To Reveal Secrets Of The Universe

High up on Chile's cold, dry Chajnantor Plateau, 66 giants stand under the starry night sky. They gaze upwards, moving with the celestial objects on which they have set their sights. These are the powerful antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array.

The setup has been operational since March 2013, and together the antennas make up the newest, largest, strongest and most expensive radio telescope currently operating on Earth. The images they produce have 10 times the clarity of those yielded by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Last Victorian Leviathan Steam Ship

The Great Eastern was an iron sailing steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built by J. Scott Russell & Co. at Millwall on the River Thames, London. She was by far the largest ship ever built at the time of her 1858 launch, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers around the world without refueling.

Brunel knew her affectionately as the 'Great Babe.' He died in 1859 shortly after her ill-fated maiden voyage, during which she was damaged by an explosion. After repairs, she plied for several years as a passenger liner between Britain and America before being converted to a cable-laying ship and laying the first lasting transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866. Finishing her life as a floating music hall and advertising hoarding in Liverpool, The Great Eastern was broken up in 1889.

When US money was nice to look at

US currency was beautiful, once upon a time, when it sported images of animals and symbolic statuary, rather than deifying its citizen-rulers by putting presidents on the money as though they were kings. This 1901 $10 note (available on Wikimedia Commons in a 33.34MB, 6,454 × 5,784 JPEG!) is a case in point.
United States $10 Banknote, Legal Tender, Series of 1901 (Fr. Ref#114), depicting Meriwether Lewis and William Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The central portrait is a depiction of an American bison. Part of the National Numismatic Collection, NMAH, Smithsonian Institution.

Magnetic Putty Eats a Cube

A lump of magnetic putty totally engulfs a rare-earth magnet in slow motion. The actual sequence is eight times longer than this video shows. The putty will not rest until the magnet is at the center of the glob. What is this "magnetic putty"? From the YouTube link:
The putty looks and feels like regular silly putty, but the difference lies in the fact that it has been infused with millions of micron-sized ferrous particles (most often iron oxide powder). The magnetic putty is not actually magnetic by itself, since the infused particles are made of iron powder.

The presence of the strong neodymium iron boron magnet (the silver cube in the video) magnetizes the ferromagnetic particles in the putty. When this happens, the ferrous particles align with each other and this alignment generates north and south magnetic poles, making the putty into a temporary magnet. Once magnetized, the putty will remain magnetized even after the rare-earth magnet has been removed from the putty. This effect persists for a few hours until thermal agitation shakes the particles and they lose their alignment.
Scott Lawson has other videos about magnetic putty at his YouTube channel.

Funny Pictures


UFO memo the FBI's most viewed

An unconfirmed report of a UFO over New Mexico is the most popular item in the FBI's online reading room, the agency reports. Russell Contreras with the AP:
Vaguely written, the memo describes a story told by an unnamed third party who claims an Air Force investigator reported that three flying saucers were recovered in New Mexico, though the memo doesn't say exactly where in the state. The FBI indexed the report for its files but did not investigate further; the name of an "informant" reporting some of the information is blacked out in the memo.

Astronomers discover new kind of supernova

Supernovae were always thought to occur in two main varieties. But a team of astronomers including Carnegie’s Wendy Freedman, Mark Phillips and Eric Persson is reporting the discovery of a new type of supernova called [...]

Random Photo

Controversial worm keeps its position as the progenitor of mankind

Researchers are arguing about whether or not the Xenoturbella bocki worm is the progenitor of mankind. But new studies indicate that this is actually the case. Swedish researchers from the University of Gothenburg and the [...]

Hunting Deer in a Walmart Parking Lot

vArcangelo Bianco Jr. of Blairsville, Pennsylvania, was arrested on charges of reckless endangerment, hunting without a license, and other charges after he shot at a deer in a Walmart parking lot. A representative of the Pennsylvania Game Commission explained the incident.
According to the commission, Bianco fired several rounds at a hapless white-tailed deer from within the Burrell Township store’s parking lot and bagged the animal on the other side of Old William Penn Highway (Old Route 22) one afternoon last November.

The most serious of the charges he faces is a misdemeanor count of reckless endangerment. He also was slapped with five summary offenses, all hunting law violations, including hunting without a license, shooting on or across highways and unlawful killing or taking of big game.

“Obviously, we can’t have someone running through a Walmart parking lot shooting at a deer,” said Jack Lucas, the wildlife conservation officer who investigated the incident.
The deer has was seized as evidence. Biano's actions were also recorded on the store's security camera. More

What Made Fairy Circles

What causes fairy circles, those circular barren patches of land found in the grasslands of Southern Africa? German scientist Norbert Juergens found the answer: termites.
These so-called fairy circles have variously been pinned on the presence of other, poisonous plants, on ants, and even toxic gases rising from below.
But Norbert Juergens says the one ever-present factor is sand termites.
The creatures have engineered the rings to maintain a supply of water in their environment, he tells Science magazine. [...] He reports how the invertebrates (Psammotermes allocerus) first clear a patch of ground by eating the roots of short-lived, annual grasses.
This bare, sandy earth then becomes an effective rain trap - with no vegetation, water cannot be lost through transpiration (the evaporation of water from plants).
Instead, it collects, oasis-like, just below the surface where it can sustain the termites and a supply of perennial grasses at the margins of the circles. These are available to eat even in the driest seasons.
Jonathan Amos of the BBC News' Science & Environment has the story: Here.

True Facts About The Naked Mole Rat

The more you know about the naked mole rat, the weirder this animal gets. They live a very long time, which almost seems like a punishment with the lifestyle that comes with living naked underground. This video is the latest in Ze Frank's True Facts series.

Terrifying Frog Breaks Its Own Bones to Produce Claws When Threatened

frogTrichobatrachus robustus is the Wolverine of the amphibian world. You'll know when you've crossed the line because he'll gladly break his own bones to produce weapons to break yours. New Scientist reports on the findings of zoologist David Blackburn and his colleagues:
Trichobatrachus robustus actively breaks its own bones to produce claws that puncture their way out of the frog's toe pads, probably when it is threatened. [...]
At rest, the claws of T. robustus, found on the hind feet only, are nestled inside a mass of connective tissue. A chunk of collagen forms a bond between the claw's sharp point and a small piece of bone at the tip of the frog's toe.
The other end of the claw is connected to a muscle. Blackburn and his colleagues believe that when the animal is attacked, it contracts this muscle, which pulls the claw downwards. The sharp point then breaks away from the bony tip and cuts through the toe pad, emerging on the underside.

Animal Pictures

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Daily Drift


Bird Chief, 1870s
Bird Chief, 1870s
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Spring run off abated ...

Today is The Grass Is Always Browner On The Other Side Of The Fence Day

And Pencil Day
Don't forget to visit our sister blog!

Today in History

1492   King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sign a decree expelling all Jews from Spain.
1840   "Beau" Brummell, the English dandy and former favorite of the prince regent, dies in a French lunatic asylum for paupers.
1858   Hyman L. Lipman of Philadelphia patents the pencil with an eraser attached on one end.
1867   Russian Baron Stoeckl and U.S. Secretary of State Seward completed the draft of a treaty ceding Alaska to the United States. The treaty is signed the following day.
1870   The 15th amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race, passes.
1870   President U.S. Grant signs bill readmitting Texas to the Union, the last Confederate state readmitted.
1885   In Afghanistan, Russian troops inflict a crushing defeat on Afghan forces Ak Teppe despite orders not to fight.
1909   The Queensboro Bridge in New York opens. It is the first double decker bridge and links Manhattan and Queens.
1916   Mexican bandit Pancho Villa kills 172 at the Guerrero garrison in Mexico.
1936   Britain announces a naval construction program of 38 warships. This is the largest construction program in 15 years.
1941   The German Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel begins its first offensive against British forces in Libya.
1943   Rodgers and Hammerstein's first collaboration, Oklahoma, opens on Broadway.
1944   The U.S. fleet attacks Palau, near the Philippines.
1945   The Red Army advances into Austria.
1946   The Allies seize 1,000 Nazis attempting to revive the Nazi party in Frankfurt.
1950   President Harry S Truman denounces Senator Joe McCarthy as a saboteur of U.S. foreign policy.
1957   Tunisia and Morocco sign a friendship treaty in Rabat.
1972   Hanoi launches its heaviest attack in four years, crossing the DMZ.
1975   As the North Vietnamese forces move toward Saigon, desperate South Vietnamese soldiers mob rescue jets.
1981   President Ronald Reagan is shot and wounded in Washington, D.C. by John W. Hinkley Jr.
1987   Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers is bought for $39.85 million.

Non Sequitur


Chess is mandatory for students in Armenia

In Armenia, learning to play the grand game of strategy in school is mandatory for children - the only country in the world that makes chess compulsory - and the initiative has paid dividends. Armenia, a Caucasus country with a population of just three million, is a chess powerhouse...

In 2011, Armenia made chess compulsory for second, third and fourth-graders. That's why Susie and her classmates have two hours of chess every week in school...

"Chess is having a good influence on their performance in other subjects too. The kids are learning how to think, it's making them more confident," said teacher Rosanna Putanyan, watching her pupils play from the periphery...

"Chess develops various skills - leadership capacities, decision-making, strategic planning, logical thinking and responsibility," Ashotyan said. "We are building these traits in our youngsters. The future of the world depends on such creative leaders who have the capacity to make the right decisions, as well as the character to take responsibility for wrong decisions."

More than $3m has been spent on the project so far to supply chess equipment and learning aids in all Armenian schools, Ashotyan added. The majority of the budget was allocated to train chess players to become good teachers. In coming years, spending on chess is expected to rise, he said.
Kudos to Armenia.  Further details: Here.

Did you know ...

That a NYC cop says he was told to target Hispanics and Blacks on 'stop and frisk'

That Iraqi birth defects worse than Hiroshima

About inside the heads of the 1%

Five Ugly Extremes of Inequality in America

By Paul Buchheit

 The Contrasts Will Drop Your Chin to the Floor

Any of the ten richest Americans could pay a year's rent for all of America's homeless with their 2012 income.
The first step is to learn the facts, and then to get angry and to ask ourselves, as progressives and caring human beings, what we can do about the relentless transfer of wealth to a small group of well-positioned Americans.
1. $2.13 per hour vs. $3,000,000.00 per hour
Each of the Koch brothers saw his investments grow by  $6 billion in one year, which is three million dollars per hour based on a 40-hour 'work' week. They used some of the money to try to  kill renewable energystandards around the country.
Their income portrays them, in a society measured by economic status, as a million times more valuable than the  restaurant server who cheers up our lunch hours while hoping to make enough in tips to pay the bills.
A comparison of top and bottom salaries within large corporations is much less severe, but a lot more common. For CEOs and minimum-wage workers, the  difference is $5,000.00 per hour vs. $7.25 per hour.
2. A single top income could buy housing for every homeless person in the U.S.
On a winter day in 2012  over 633,000 people were homeless in the United States. Based on an annual single room occupancy  (SRO) cost of $558 per month, any ONE of the  ten richest Americans would have enough with his 2012 income to pay for a room for every homeless person in the U.S.  for the entire year. These ten rich men together made more than our entire  housing budget.
For anyone still believing "they earned it," it should be noted that  most of the Forbes 400 earnings came from  minimally-taxed, non-job-creating capital gains.
3. The poorest 47% of Americans have no wealth
In 1983 the poorest  47% of America had $15,000 per family,  2.5 percent of the nation's wealth.
In 2009 the poorest  47% of America owned  ZERO PERCENT of the nation's wealth (their debt exceeded their assets).
At the other extreme, the  400 wealthiest Americans own as much wealth as 80 million families --  62% of America. The reason, once again, is the stock market. Since 1980 the American GDP has approximately doubled. Inflation-adjusted wages  have gone down. But the stock market has increased by  over ten times, and the richest quintile of Americans  owns 93% of it.
4. The U.S. is nearly the most wealth-unequal country in the entire world
Out of 141 countries, the U.S. has the 4th-highest degree of  wealth inequality in the world, trailing only Russia, Ukraine, and Lebanon.
Yet the financial industry keeps creating new wealth for its millionaires. According to the authors of the Global Wealth Report, the world's wealth has doubled in ten years, from $113 trillion to $223 trillion, and is expected to reach $330 trillion by 2017.
5. A can of soup for a black or Hispanic woman, a mansion and yacht for the businessman
That's literally true. For every one dollar of assets owned by a  single black or Hispanic woman, a member of the Forbes 400 has over  forty million dollars.
Minority families once had substantial equity in their homes, but after Wall Street caused the housing crash,  median wealth fell 66% for Hispanic households and 53% for black households. Now the average single black or Hispanic woman has about  $100 in net worth.
What to do?
End the  capital gains giveaway, which benefits the wealthy almost exclusively.
Institute a  Financial Speculation Tax, both to raise needed funds from a currently untaxed subsidy on stock purchases, and to reduce the risk of the irresponsible trading that nearly brought down the economy.
Perhaps above all, we progressives have to choose one strategy and pursue it in a cohesive, unrelenting attack on greed. Only this will heal the ugly gash of inequality that has split our country in two.

Lush Dimbulb's Deranged Mind Turns Twitter Into a Democratic Conspiracy

Lush Dimbulb claimed that 50% of the news on Twitter is being posted by people getting paid by the Democratic Party.
Audio via Media Matters:
Transcript via Lush Dimbulb
LUSH: Markus Prior, Princeton University. Essentially when you read his abstract here, he’s saying that it is easier than ever to become a low-information voter. It’s easier than ever. No question about it. I just checked something. There is a Twitter feed that anybody can subscribe to called Breaking News, and that’s what it is. But who posts it? Who knows? It has about six million followers, which means that everything on that Twitter feed is automatically sent to those people.
They don’t have to go get it. It shows up. They have to go to Twitter to see it. They still have to fire it up and use it, but it’s sent to them. Now, CNN has an audience of maybe 800,000 people, if you get my drift here. Just one Twitter feed has almost six million. Now, who is it that’s putting information on Twitter? Well, half the people on Twitter, at least, folks (don’t doubt me on this) who are posting political news are political hacks paid by Democrats and their front groups.
They know exactly what they’re doing.
The left, the Democrat Party has made themselves present everywhere. I mean, the dominant media culture in entertainment, books, movies, television shows, sports networks, is leftism/liberalism. So even the people who don’t care about politics, who couldn’t care less about it are exposed to it, while thinking that they are avoiding it. Mr. Prior here makes the point that it is often the low-information people who end up being the most partisan, and it’s rooted in what they think they know that isn’t so.
If Democrats are paying people to post the news on Twitter, the Democratic Party has a whole lot of money. This latest conspiracy is all about Lush Dimbulb returning to his tried and true well of wingnut paranoia among his audience. Dimbulb has to keep his listeners scared and paranoid, or they may not keep tuning in. Half of the news on Twitter is all part of a Democratic conspiracy to misinform the American people with things that they like to call facts.
The old wingnut paranoia tank is definitely getting low when Dimbulb has to resort to Twitter to get the dittoheads revved up. The Democrats aren’t paying people to post on Twitter. This is just another baseless and zany Dimbulb statement designed to keep his audience away from things that might actually teach them something.
The only person being paid to fill the air with false information is Lush Dimbulb.

After Steubenville, A Community Under Fire Takes Aim at the Rape Culture

No More Rape Culture
In Torrington, Connecticut, school administrators and residents are planning a community meeting to address cyberbullying after four football players (two of whom were 18-years-old) were charged in the statutory rape case of two 13-year-old girls. The rape and assault allegations resulted in cyberbullying of the victims.
In an online Middletown Press chat on cyberbullying today, reporter Jessica Glenza from the Register Citizen (who deserves big kudos for her coverage of this case) wrote, “The board of education chair has told us that he’s interested in setting up a forum of sorts between the mayor, police chief and local religious leaders to discuss issues of cyber bullying and statutory rape.”
Unlike Steubenville, the adult community in Torrington is not showing support for the football “heroes” by attacking the victims. The community appears to be at least partially working to educate students about rape, statutory rape, cyberbullying, and the important fact that it doesn’t matter if they like the victims or not, or if the victims hung out with the alleged perpetrators or wore the wrong clothes. In other words, they are taking aim at some of the tenets of our rape culture.
It may be that 13-year-old girls engender more sympathy than a 16-year-old, but it also may be that they learned something from Stuebenville — like how not to be a national embarrassment of rape apologists: Don’t tick off Anonymous by lying and covering things up, don’t blame the victims, and if there is a reporter after your town for being rape apologists, you best straighten things out ASAP (Alexandria Goddard, a blogger at Prinniefied, brought national attention to Stuebenville and reporter Jessica Glenza did the same for the Torrington case).
Naturally, the two 13-year-old victims were bullied in this case (that’s part and parcel of the rape culture – intimidate/shame/harass the victim). The Register reported:
Following news of their arrests, a large number of students (30-plus according to The Register Citizen’s analysis of social media accounts) went on Twitter and posted or sent messages blaming the girls for “ruining the lives” of Gonzalez and Toribio. They called the girls “whore” and “snitch,” blamed them for hanging out with 18-year-olds in the first place, and more.
At first, school officials tried to duck under no comment dodges. But Torrington High School Principal Joanne Creedon called out the online bullying in a message to students, “We must stand up for what is right, and speak up against wrong…. (The) principles of safety, respect, and responsibility must guide your use of social media.” Parents were notified that bullying could result in discipline, including suspension. One female Torrington High School student was already suspended for bullying one of the victims.
And Anonymous kept watch, ready to spring into action as they did in Stuebenville. But after determining that Torrington was being handled differently, Anonymous threw their weight behind a fundraising drive for the Susan B. Anthony Project in order to raise awareness of the rape culture in America. The SBA Project is a sexual and domestic violence advocacy center.
Anonymous made their mission clear in a statement, “We want this case to be noticed because frankly we’re disgusted by the rape culture in America. People need to understand that there are new consequences for committing depraved acts of brutality against our sisters and daughters.”
Speaking of rape advocacy, Kenneth Traub, chairman of the board of education at Torrington Public Schools, told ABC that the community discussion will be led by Torrington Public Schools faculty and trained professionals from the Susan B. Anthony Project.
This case echoes some of the familiar patriarchal strains of Steubenville and Penn State (I’d add the Catholic Church, but then the list of institutions blindly defending patriarchy might never end) — in fact, one of the accused football players was charged with felony robbery and assault a year ago, and the coach not only let him play, but he was named MVP. But there are major differences as well, not the least of which is we are not privy to evidence prior to the trial in this case as we were in Steubenville.
The broader issue is how we as a culture deal with rape victims. Torrington is taking good first steps to educate their community about rape and consent, and they have plans to address cyberbullying (but a not so hot record thus far). The ACLU is keeping an eye on the students’ free speech rights, as these are fine lines to walk.
The community meeting will take place sometime in the first weeks of April.
The truth is, the rape and bullying of victims could and does happen everywhere in America. The only way we’re going to change that is by changing the way we discuss it and deal with it.
Torrington is obviously far from perfect, but they are taking courageous, important steps forward out of the rape culture, thanks in part to the fortitude of one female reporter and the watchful eyes of the mostly-male Anonymous.

"Remote administration tools" explained

The woman is visible from thousands of miles away on a hacker's computer. The hacker has infected her machine with a remote administration tool (RAT) that gives him access to the woman's screen, to her webcam, to her files, to her microphone. He watches her and the baby through a small control window open on his Windows PC, then he decides to have a little fun. He enters a series of shock and pornographic websites and watches them appear on the woman's computer.

The woman is startled. "Did it scare you?" she asks someone off camera. A young man steps into the webcam frame. "Yes," he says. Both stare at the computer in horrified fascination. A picture of old naked men appears in their Web browser, then vanishes as a McAfee security product blocks a "dangerous site."...

"Man I feel dirty looking at these pics," wrote one forum poster at Hack Forums, one of the top "aboveground" hacking discussion sites on the Internet (it now has more than 23 million total posts). The poster was referencing a 134+ page thread filled with the images of female "slaves" surreptitiously snapped by hackers using the women's own webcams. "Poor people think they are alone in their private homes, but have no idea they are the laughing stock on HackForums," he continued. "It would be funny if one of these slaves venture into learning how to hack and comes across this thread."

Whether this would in fact be "funny" is unlikely. RAT operators have nearly complete control over the computers they infect; they can (and do) browse people's private pictures in search of erotic images to share with each other online. They even have strategies for watching where women store the photos most likely to be compromising...

Welcome to the weird world of the ratters. They operate quite openly online, sharing the best techniques for picking up new female slaves (and avoiding that most unwanted of creatures, "old perverted men") in public forums. Even when their activities trip a victim's webcam light and the unsettled victim reaches forward to put a piece of tape over the webcam, the basic attitude is humorous—Ha! You got us! On to the next slave!..

Today, a cottage industry exists to build sophisticated RAT tools with names like DarkComet and BlackShades and to install and administer them on dozens or even hundreds of remote computers. When anti-malware vendors began to detect and clean these programs from infected computers, the RAT community built "crypters" to disguise the target code further. Today, serious ratters seek software that is currently "FUD"—fully undetectable...
Additional grim details are available at Ars Technica,

Indiana blast suspect charged in plot to kill witness

FILE - This combination of file photos provided by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department shows, from left, Mark Leonard, his girlfriend Monserrate Shirley, and his brother, Bob Leonard, all of Indianapolis, who were arrested on Dec. 21, 2012 and charged with murder, arson and other counts in a Nov. 10 gas explosion that killed two people. Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry announced Thursday, March 28, 2013 that Mark Leonard has been charged with plotting to have a witness in the case killed. The Nov. 10 blast killed a young couple and damaged 33 homes so badly that they had to be demolished. (AP Photo/Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, File)  
An Indianapolis man facing trial in a house explosion that killed two people and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes was charged Thursday with plotting to have a witness in the case killed.
Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry announced Mark Leonard had been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit murder during a news conference in downtown Indianapolis.
Curry said Leonard tried to arrange to have the witness killed for a payment of $15,000. Curry said Leonard also offered a $5,000 bonus if the killing was made to look like a suicide and if the killer could force the witness to first call 911 and recant statements about the explosion.
Leonard, girlfriend Monserrate Shirley and brother Bob Leonard are awaiting trial in the Nov. 10 blast that killed a teacher and her husband, and left 33 homes in the Richmond Hill subdivision so damaged that they had to be demolished.
Investigators say the trio intentionally created a gas explosion in Shirley's home in hopes of collecting insurance money. A microwave set to start on a timer sparked the explosion in Shirley's gas-filled home after a gas fireplace valve and a gas line regulator in the house were removed.
John and Jennifer Longworth died after the explosion ignited another explosion and resulting fire at their house.
All three defendants face murder, arson and conspiracy charges. Shirley also is charged with insurance fraud.
Curry said in February he would see life without parole for Shirley and the Leonards because a jury was unlikely to choose the death penalty.

Man arrested after trying to kill woman with poisoned shoes

Man arrested after trying to kill woman with poisoned shoes

A  Japanese man who allegedly tried to kill a woman he was stalking by putting poison in her shoes was arrested on Thursday.

The woman, a colleague, did not die, but developed gangrene in part of her left foot, they said. It was not known to what extent she was injured or if she had to have any amputations.

Tatsujiro Fukasawa, 40, allegedly put hydrofluoric acid, a highly caustic chemical, in her shoes in December last year. He is believed to have obtained the chemical, which is used in oil refining or to dissolve rock, at his workplace.

Fukusawa has denied the allegation. Hydrofluoric acid can be absorbed through the skin into the blood, and can led to systemic failure, including heart attacks.

TSA screener finds pepper spray on the floor, gasses five other screeners because he thought it was a laser-pointer

A TSA screener at JFK pepper-sprayed five of his colleagues at Terminal 2 on Tuesday, according to the New York Post. The screener, Chris Yves Dabel, found a pepper-spray cannister on the floor and believed it was a laser-pointer, so (for some reason), he aimed it at five other screeners and pressed the trigger. The six were sent to Jamaica Hospital.
The screener sprayed five other TSA agents around him, sending all six to Jamaica Hospital and halting security checks at Kennedy for at least 15 minutes, police said.
No passengers reported injuries. Dabel refused medical attention.
TSA officials scrambled to keep the embarrassing incident under wraps yesterday — until The Post began inquiring about it, a source said.

Scooter ads face scrutiny from government, doctors

This undated screenshot shows a frame grab from a Hoveround commercial. Members of Congress say the ads by The Scooter Store and Hoveround have lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary spending by Medicare, which is only supposed to pay for scooters when seniors are unable to use a cane, walker or regular wheelchair. Government inspectors say up to 80 percent of the scooters and power wheelchairs Medicare buys go to people who don't meet the requirements. And doctors say more than money is at stake: Seniors who use scooters unnecessarily can become sedentary, which can exacerbate obesity and other disorders.(AP Photo/Hoveround)  
TV ads show smiling seniors enjoying an "active" lifestyle on a motorized scooter, taking in the sights at the Grand Canyon, fishing on a pier and high-fiving their grandchildren at a baseball game.
The commercials, which promise freedom and independence to people with limited mobility, have driven the nearly $1 billion U.S. market for power wheelchairs and scooters. But the spots by the industry's two leading companies, The Scooter Store and Hoveround, also have drawn scrutiny from doctors and lawmakers, who say they create the false impression that scooters are a convenient means of transportation rather than a medical necessity.
Members of Congress say the ads lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary spending by Medicare, which is only supposed to pay for scooters when seniors are unable to use a cane, walker or regular wheelchair. Government inspectors say up to 80 percent of the scooters and power wheelchairs Medicare buys go to people who don't meet the requirements. And doctors say more than money is at stake: Seniors who use scooters unnecessarily can become sedentary, which can exacerbate obesity and other disorders.
"Patients have been brainwashed by The Scooter Store," says Dr. Barbara Messinger-Rapport, director of geriatric medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. "What they're implying is that you can use these scooters to leave the house, to socialize, to get to bingo."
The scooter controversy, which has escalated with a government raid on The Scooter's Store's New Braunfels, Texas, headquarters last month, underscores the influence TV ads can have on medical decisions. Like their peers in the drug industry, scooter companies say direct-to-consumer advertising educates patients about their medical options. But critics argue that the scooter spots are little more than sales pitches that cause patients to pressure doctors to prescribe unnecessary equipment.
The Scooter Store and Hoveround, both privately held companies that together make up about 70 percent of the U.S. market for scooters, spent more than $180 million on TV, radio and print advertising in 2011, up 20 percent since 2008, according to advertising tracker Kantar Media. Their ads often include language that the scooters can be paid for by Medicare or other insurance: "Nine out of ten people got them for little or no cost," states one Hoveround ad.
Hoveround did not respond to a half-dozen requests for comment. The Scooter Store, the nation's biggest seller of scooters, said that most people who contact the company after seeing the ads do not ultimately receive a scooter.
"The fact that 87 percent of the persons who seek power mobility products from The Scooter Store under their Medicare benefits are disqualified by the company's screening process is powerful evidence of the company's commitment to ensuring that only legitimate claims are submitted to Medicare," the company said in a statement. The Scooter Store has been operating with a streamlined staff in recent days, following massive layoffs in the wake of the raid by federal agents.
Insurance executives say doctors who don't understand when Medicare is supposed to pay for scooters are partly to blame for unnecessary purchases.
Scooters — which are larger than power wheelchairs and often include a handlebar for steering — are covered by Medicare if they are prescribed by a doctor who has completed an evaluation showing that their patient is unable to function at home without a device.
The doctor fills out a lengthy prescription form and sends it to a scooter supplier that delivers the device to the patient and then submits the paperwork to Medicare for payment. Medicare pays about 80 percent of that cost, which can range from $1,500 to $3,500. The remainder is often picked up by supplemental insurance or the government-funded Medicaid program for low-income and disabled Americans.
The process can help immobile seniors get equipment that improves their lives. Ernest Tornabell of Boynton Beach, Fla., received a scooter from Pride, a smaller manufacturer, through Medicare about six years ago. The 73-year-old suffers from obesity, diabetes and lung disease and says he used to never leave his house. Now, using the scooter he can walk his dog, go to the grocery store and run other errands.
"I couldn't really get out and do anything before. Now I have a lot more mobility," said Tornabell, whose doctor recommended that he get the device.
But Dr. Stephen Peake, medical director for the insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield in Tennessee, says doctors can often be as uninformed about the appropriate role of scooters as patients.
"I talk to a lot of physicians about this subject ... and after our discussions, they don't understand that you can't get a power mobility device so mom can go to the park with the family," Peake said in testimony before the Senate Committee on Aging last year.
One reason for the confusion? Doctors say scooter companies are just as aggressive with health professionals as they are in marketing to their patients.
Dr. Jerome Epplin of Litchfield, Ill., who also testified before the Senate, estimates that only about one out of every 10 patients who ask him for a scooter actually needs one. But he said that sales representatives from some scooter companies put pressure on him by accompanying patients to his office. The effect is coercive, he says.
"It can be intimidating," Epplin says. "I see it as an inappropriate attempt to influence my clinical judgment when I'm evaluating a patient."
Allegations of Medicare fraud within the industry go back nearly a decade.
In 2005 the U.S. Justice Department sued The Scooter Store, alleging that its advertising enticed seniors to obtain power scooters paid for by Medicare, and then sold patients more expensive scooters that they did not want or need. The Scooter Store settled that case in 2007 for $4 million.
As part of the settlement, The Scooter Store was operating under an agreement that made the company subject to periodic government reviews between 2007 and last year. In 2011, the latest review available, government auditors estimated that The Scooter Store received between $47 million and $88 million in improper payments for scooters.
The Scooter Store took no action to repay the money until February 2012, when the Health and Human Services' inspector general threatened to bar the company from doing business with Medicare, which accounts for about 75 percent of its income, according to its congressional testimony.
The company said the government's estimate was flawed and that it was willing to repay $19.5 million in overpayments. The company has paid about $5.7 million, with the rest scheduled for repayment over a 5-year period to be completed in 2017.
Medicare said in a January letter that it accepted the fee based on The Scooter Store's own assessment of what it owed, but that the agreement "does not absolve The Scooter Store from any further liability."
In recent months Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. and other members of the Senate Aging Committee have pushed Medicare to recover the millions of dollars spent on unnecessary scooters each year. Those purchases totaled about $500 million in 2011, the latest year available, according to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general.
Medicare, which says that it does not have control over how companies market chairs, launched a pilot program designed to reduce wasteful spending on scooters.
Under the program, government contractors in seven states review patients' medical documentation to make sure they need a wheelchair or scooter before approving payments for a device. The program is being tested in a small number of states — including Florida, California and New York — because the government must pay contractors extra to review additional paperwork.
The program has been criticized by The Scooter Store's executives, who say that contractors are too strict in their reviews, rejecting payments for power chairs that are genuinely needed.
The reduced payments are taking a toll on the company, which was founded in 1991. The Scooter Store has spent nearly $1 million lobbying Congress over the last two years, almost exclusively focused on the Medicare review program. And the company laid off about 370 employees in the past year, blaming the reduced payments it's been getting from Medicare.
Then, last week, The Scooter Store notified most of its remaining 1,800 employees that their jobs were being eliminated. The company said in a statement to the Associated Press that it is operating with a workforce of 300 employees — down from the 2,500 workforce it had at its peak — while trying to restructure its operations.
The mass layoffs followed a raid in February by about 150 agents from the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Texas attorney general's Medicaid fraud unit at the company's headquarters.
Federal authorities have declined to speak about the raid, but scooter industry critics in Congress praised the action.
"This raid is a welcome step toward cracking down on waste and fraud in Medicare," said Blumenthal, the Connecticut senator. "I have urged action to stop abusive overpayments for such devices — costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and preying on seniors with deceptive sales pitches."