Monthly Archives: April 2011

“Patina of Dusty” with Portable!3{2}Sanctuary

Repressive dictators invited to royal wedding (even if you weren’t)

The Royal Wedding is big news today.

Less noticed are the bizarre juxtapositions or painful ironies that typically accompany our attempts to hang on with nostalgia to good old feudalism and oligarchy, such as:

  • The dictatorial King Mswati III of Swaziland was there to celebrate the marriage of William and Kate, while his people continue to live under his repressive rule celebrating their high levels of extreme poverty and the lowest life expectancies and highest HIV rates in the world.
  • The Independent reports on the other dictators, or representative of dictators, invited to the Royal Wedding from Bahrain, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia.(more)




Human trafficking allegations test diplomatic immunity

Four women claim in a civil lawsuit that a high-ranking Qatari diplomat in the United States, and his family, forced them to work around the clock for little pay while enduring emotional abuse and — according to one woman — sexual assault.

The human trafficking lawsuit was filed March 25 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., against Essa Mohamed Al Mannai, Qatar’s second-highest ranking diplomat in the United States. The case has reopened debate over a problem that has vexed U.S. government agencies charged with making sure foreign officials, who enjoy the cover of diplomatic immunity, still obey U.S. laws and labor standards.

The lawsuit has also renewed criticism of the U.S. State Department, accused by human rights activists of not doing enough to address persistent complaints of abuse by visiting foreign officials.

Each year, about 3,500 visas are issued to domestic workers employed by diplomats and officials at international organizations like the World Bank. Between 2000 and 2008, 42 cases of alleged abuse of these laborers were discovered by the federal Government Accountability Office, which surveyed several agencies and non-governmental organizations.

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Insured profits: Health execs get richer as some Americans beg for help to pay bills

Owners of health insurance company stock have continued to get richer this week. On Tuesday, Humana Inc. announced that its first quarter earnings would be so much better than Wall Street expected that it was raising its full-year profit outlook and instituting a dividend. The company’s stock price jumped 5.5 percent after disclosing that fabulous news.

The good news, at least for shareholders, just keeps on coming. Yesterday, WellPoint Inc., which operates more than a dozen Blue Cross plans across the country, announced that it, too, had exceeded Wall Street’s expectations during the first quarter—by an astonishing 48 cents per share.

When I was handling financial communications at CIGNA, I knew investors would be pleased if the company exceeded their expectations by even a penny a share. During my nearly two decades in the industry, I never saw insurers blow past what they had been expected to earn by such wide margins. WellPoint’s shareholders must be pinching themselves today to make sure they’re not dreaming.

To make this kind of money, insurance companies have to spend far less paying their policyholders’ medical claims than anyone thought possible. 

They’ve been able to do that so far this year, despite the new health care reform law, by shifting many policyholders into plans that force them to spend more from their own pockets before coverage kicks in. Insurance firms also fatten their bottom lines by denying more claims.

What are the real-world consequences?

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Chief Offshore Drilling Regulator Criticizes Lack of Oversight for Contractors

The top regulator of offshore drilling said this week that his agency is exploring expanding its oversight to include thousands of contractors on offshore rigs. The majority of offshore oil workers in the Gulf of Mexico are contractors and the their central role in safety issues came into focus after last year’s Gulf oil spill. BP had leased the Deepwater Horizon rig from the contractor Transocean and relied on the contractor Halliburton to provide casing for the Macondo well.

The government currently regulates only operators of offshore drilling rigs, such as BP, and in turn holds them responsible for any contractors they hire. Experts say that by delegating the supervision of contractors the government is essentially taking the word of rig operators that facilities are safe and comply with regulation. 

As Reuters reported Monday, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Michael Bromwich, said he thinks his agency has the authority to oversee contractors and that he intends to do so. 

Brownwich expanded on his comments Tuesday at a recruiting event at Columbia University attended by a ProPublica reporter. “It makes absolutely no sense to me why we should not regulate contractors as well as operators,” said Bromwich. “Historically we have only gone against the operator. My question is: why?”

Overseeing contractors could drastically expand Bromwich’s mandate, and it’s not clear whether his agency has sufficient resources to do it.

In the Gulf of Mexico, almost all of the personnel involved in offshore oil exploration are contractors, said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at Berkeley who specializes in offshore drilling. For oil production, Bea said, the proportion of offshore workers employed by operators varies significantly depending upon the site and the operating company, ranging from 20 percent to 60 percent.

Bea said he was concerned that regulators lack the staff and technical knowledge to take on what would be the sweeping new responsibility. “You need to have greater experience, knowledge and expertise than the entity that is being regulated,” he said. The agency “has no such expertise.”

Others have stressed that any changes must be implemented carefully so as not to allow drill operators to evade any responsibility.

“It’s important to maintain the accountability, the responsibility, the authority of the primary leaseholder and permit holder and not allow that to be diffused,” Bob Simon, staff director for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said on an April 15 conference call. The current approach has a chain of command and accountability that leads directly to the operator, Simon said.

Melissa Schwartz, spokeswoman for the offshore drilling regulator, emphasized that Bromwich’s proposal “would in no way change the responsibility of operators.” But she said her agency was still reviewing critical aspects of how the new system would work, including whether federal inspectors would examine additional facilities themselves or simply obtain greater authority to hold contractors responsible for violations.

The agency is also beefing up its enforcement capacity and hiring more inspectors as well as personnel for a new environmental compliance unit. It plans to hire 33 staffers for the environmental enforcement unit by the end of the 2012 fiscal year, as well as 24 new inspectors as funding permits, Schwartz said.

There are currently 60 inspectors charged with oversight for about 3,500 drilling rigs and pumping platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Bromwich told the Columbia graduate students who attended Tuesday’s recruiting meeting that he was making new hires to carry out his agency’s growing regulatory mandate.

“You’re looking for an interesting new job,” Bromwich told the students. “How would you like to be an environmental cop?”

Inform our investigations: Do you have information or expertise relevant to this story? Help us and journalists around the country by sharing your stories and experiences.

Link to article

Cliff Mass: Making fun of weathermen reaches new depths (and why he won’t buy a Subaru)

Weatherfolk are often the butt of jokes and I have experienced that many times myself. How many times have I heard snide remarks about weather forecasters predicting with dice, that “meteorologists can be wrong 50% of the time and still get paid” and similar comments. You get a thick skin eventually or leave the field.

But I have to admit that many of us in the weather community are not a little upset with the latest Subaru ad campaign: “The weather doesn’t matter if you have a Subaru.”

The main character of this campaign is “the world’s worst weatherman.”

INSULTING! And worst of all, especially for me, he says he is not good with numbers and that is why he became a weatherman. You know how I feel about that! Math is critical to being a good weatherman.

But it gets worse.



Latest Afghan Attacks Highlight Challenges of Training, Vetting Afghan Security Forces

The news out of Afghanistan seems to be almost all doom and gloom: 8 NATO soldiers and one

 were killed Wednesday by a veteran Afghan army pilot who reportedly turned on his trainers.

The Taliban has claimed credit for the shooting, playing into fears of Taliban sleeper agents infiltrating Afghan security forces. Those fears have been stirred by a series of recent attacks as well as the escape of nearly 500 Taliban fights from the largest prison in Afghanistan earlier this week. Reuters has a rundown of recent attacks by rogue Afghan soldiers, police and insurgents dressed in army uniforms.

As for the prison break, the Afghan government has called it a disaster and blamed it on NATO-trained Afghan security forces as well as the Canadian and U.S. security officials who have helped to oversee the jail, according to the Times:

Since the Taliban engineered a major break at the same prison in 2008 — freeing 1,200 prisoners — Canadian forces have mentored the Afghans who run the prison and NATO countries have spent several million dollars upgrading and training the prison administration, according to a Western official in Kabul.

The Afghan defense ministry announced last week that it would apply new scrutiny to Afghan army enrollment “in order to prevent enemies taking advantage,” Reuters reported. NATO has also been touting its efforts to stop the illegal sale of army uniforms and equipment.

News about the Afghan police force hasn’t been much better. This week the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan issued a report noting that recordkeeping by the Afghan interior ministry was so disorganized, the ministry “cannot accuratelydetermine the size” of the Afghan National Police force. [PDF]

As we’ve noted, the United States has spent billions on to train the dysfunctional police force, which has been riddled with high turnover and continued corruption. The report noted that while other countries also contribute to funding th police, the United States has been the single largest contributor, providing about a third of all contributions since 2002.

“The Afghan government has taken many steps to address [Afghan National Police] accountability, but significant risks of fraud, waste, and abuse of donors’ funds willcontinue unless controls are improved,” [PDF] the acting special inspector general, Herbert Richardson, told a wartime contracting panel this week.

Police and Community Discussion on “Use of Force” May 3, 5:30 – 8pm



CONTACT:  Kevin P. Henry, Cultural Diversity Program Coordinator, off: 425-452-7886; email:

Forum to Discuss “Use of Force by Police and the Influence of the Media”

BELLEVUE – As part of a “Conversations about Race and Culture Series”, a forum about the use of force by police and the influence of the media will be hosted on Tues., May 3, from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at Circle of Friends, 121 107th Ave. NE.  The series focuses on building positive community relations by bringing people together to share information and perspectives.

The event is free and open to everyone.  It will feature speakers Chief Linda Pillo, Bellevue Police Department, and John Hamer, President of the Washington News Council, followed by small group discussions. 

Discussion topics will include legal rights and responsibilities of police officers and citizens, and how use of force by police is administered.  The program will also explore how the media shapes society’s views about interaction between law enforcement and the public.  Several Bellevue Police Officers and Bellevue Police Diversity Focus Group members will be at hand to assist in discussions.

The forum is sponsored by the City of Bellevue Parks & Community Services Cultural Diversity Program.

Interested members of the general public, media, law enforcement and legal profession are especially encouraged to attend.  For more information and to RSVP (requested by noon on Mon., May 2) call 425-452-7886 or email


Dirt-charged cellphones and other wacky research ideas funded by Gates Foundation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Thursday announced the latest winners in one of its more interesting initiatives aimed at stimulating creative, novel solutions to problems in global health.

The project is known as Grand Challenges Exploration and today the philanthropy announced 88 winners of $100,000 grants aimed at supporting unorthodox approaches to health problems afflicting the poor.

“One bold idea is all it takes to catalyze new approaches to global health and development,” said Tachi Yamada, outgoing chief of the global health program at the Gates Foundation.

The Seattle philanthropy was this year especially interested in supporting new — Yamada likes to say “wacky” — ideas aimed at furthering the goal of polio eradication, exploiting the ubiquitous cell phones for use in low-resource communities and reducing the massive health problems caused by inadequate sanitation in poor countries.




Magic Monday with Nash Fung at El Gaucho