Saturday, July 29, 2006

Another Scandalicious Soakfest

Yet more Iraq-related lies and cover-ups, the details of which are conveniently released late Friday? What a surprise:

BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 29 — The State Department agency in charge of $1.4 billion in reconstruction money in Iraq used an accounting shell game to hide ballooning cost overruns on its projects there and knowingly withheld information on schedule delays from Congress, a federal audit released late Friday has found.

The agency hid construction overruns by listing them as overhead or administrative costs, according to the audit, written by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an independent office that reports to Congress and the Pentagon.

Called the United States Agency for International Development, or A.I.D., the agency administers foreign aid projects around the world. It has been working in Iraq on reconstruction since shortly after the 2003 invasion.

The report by the inspector general’s office does not give a full accounting of all projects financed by the agency’s $1.4 billion budget, but cites several examples.

The findings appeared in an audit of a children’s hospital in Basra, but they referred to the wider reconstruction activities of the development agency in Iraq. American and Iraqi officials reported this week that the State Department planned to drop Bechtel, its contractor on that project, as signs of budget and scheduling problems began to surface.

The United States Embassy in Baghdad referred questions to the State Department in Washington, which declined to comment immediately.

The Bechtel Group is an enormous multinational building, engineering, and project management conglomerate. According to The Center for Public Integrity:

In April 2003, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that Bechtel won a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract worth up to $680 million to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure such as schools, roads and sewers, as well as perform "institutional capacity building" to maintain the improvements and create "roadmaps for future longer term needs and investments." The contract had been awarded after Bechtel and five other companies, including Fluor, Louis Berger Group, Parsons and Halliburton's Kellogg, Brown & Root, were privately selected by the agency to bid. The contract also allows indemnification of the company against chemical or biological weapons, mines and other perils, according to the contract, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity through the Freedom of Information Act. In September 2003, USAID announced that, due to the poor infrastructure and deteriorating stability in Iraq, Bechtel would receive an additional $350 million on the contract, raising the contract's potential ceiling to $1.03 billion.

USAID was heavily criticized for conducting the contracting process outside of public view. USAID spokesmen said the agency used an exemption from federal contract procurement regulations that allowed it to limit competition for contracts in cases where open bidding would impair foreign aid by slowing down operations.

$1.03 billion of our taxes to fund Bechtel's Iraq contract alone, and things aren't finished yet--not by a long shot. Hmmm...I wonder how those rebuilding efforts in New Orleans are going?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Deconstructing the Blastocyst

In the past couple of weeks, we've seen and heard a great deal of hand-wringing and emotionally charged rhetoric with regard to the issue of embryonic stem cell research.

Opponents, including President Bush, the Catholic Church, and Fundamentalist Christians, maintain that the human blastocyst--a hollow cluster of about 120 cells at the 5-7 day stage--is a human life, thus the separation and cultivation of these cells for other purposes, even the development of potentially lifesaving stem cell lines, is murder (although in the President's case, it depends on who speaks for him), issues of said blastocysts remaining in cryogenic limbo or simply defrosted and discarded at the IVF clinics' discretion notwithstanding.

Supporters of this important research point to the many potentials of embryonic stem cells, namely, the cultivation of healthy, organ-specific tissue for therapeutic use in all manner of life-threatening illnesses, including diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease.

Missing from most of the media reports is a simple, factual description of that which we are debating: the process of creating stem cells, and the blastocyst itself. To that end, I offer this, from the National Institute of Health's stem cell information page (bolds mine):

Embryonic stem cells, as their name suggests, are derived from embryos. Specifically, embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro—in an in vitro fertilization clinic—and then donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donors. They are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman's body.

Bearing in mind that an actual blastocyst is about the size of a pinhead, look at the following enlarged photograph, from the Advanced Fertility Center of Chicago site.

The developing fetus itself is the area marked as "ICM" (inner cell mass). The blastocoel cavity in the center is marked as "C". The trophectoderm cells that will form the placenta surround the cavity - one is marked with a "T".

Notice that this cluster of cells is not entirely made up of the very early stages of a baby; rather, some cells are designated for the formation of the placenta, an amazing and temporary, task-specific, unique-to-female-mammals organ, the functions of which--should successful implantation occur--include receiving nutrients and oxygen from the mother's blood and passing out waste and carbon dioxide. Further, there is no nervous system, no brain, and no heart--only multipurpose cells that might, at some point in the future, differentiate and become the beginnings of these organs and systems.

And that is why scientists consider the blastocyst's cells to be truly Jack-of-all-trades in nature. Given the right circumstances and time, they can become brain cells, pancreas cells, placental cells, and so on.

Here is another fact that is, more often than not, conveniently left out of all those mainstream media stem cell sound-bites to which we're treated: when a blastocyst develops within a woman's body, there is an approximately 40% chance that it will not successfully implant itself into the uterine wall--at the same 5-7 day point when its petri dish counterpart would be utilized for stem cell cultivation--and will therefore not develop into a fetus, but rather, will simply be expelled and a normal menstrual period will follow a couple of weeks thereafter.

According to the President's logic, then, as many as 40% of all sexually-active menstruating women could be party to murder every month.

After weighing the President's statements and drawing upon my own logical processes, I came up with this:

Utilizing a 5-day-old American blastocyst for stem cell lines = murder

Killing a 5-year-old Iraqi child while waging an illegal and immoral war = collateral damage

At this point, would it be stating the obvious to assert that the inhabitant of America's highest office is being utterly ridiculous?

Finally, I will submit this Put Your Own DNA Where Your Mouth Is hypothetical: supposing a loved one of mine were suffering from a disease that could be helped or cured by tissue resulting from embroynic stem cells; would my husband and I donate our own sperm and eggs for in vitro creation of blastocysts to be used for stem cell cultivation?

In a New York minute or a London heartbeat. Whichever is fastest.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Senate Approves Renewal of Voting Rights Act

The U.S. Senate voted unanimously today to renew the Voting Rights Act:

WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the Senate’s swift reauthorization today of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights law first passed in 1965 to prevent voting discrimination. The legislation passed unanimously without any damaging or weakening amendments on a vote of 98 to 0. The measure now heads to the president for his signature.

“Today’s vote is a victory for all Americans,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The original Voting Rights Act was a promise our government made, and that promise was reaffirmed today. We must look ahead to make sure the promise is as true and strong as it was in 1965. Malicious attempts by lawmakers to derail reauthorization show the continuing need for this law and its enforcement. President Bush needs to sign this legislation as soon as possible.”

98 to 0. Numbers that virtually anyone can, ah, understand. May the Groper-in-Chief sign this into law without hesitation.

Friday, July 14, 2006

House Passes Voting Rights Act Renewal

Need some good news on this unrelentingly steamy-hot Friday? The subhed of this piece--Southern conservative efforts on amendments fail--sets the happy tone:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The House voted Thursday to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act, rejecting efforts by Southern conservatives to relax federal oversight of their states in a debate haunted by the ghosts of the civil rights movement.

The 390-33 vote sends the measure to the Senate. The act bans discrimination in voting, including through poll taxes and literacy tests, and requires some states, mostly in the South, to clear proposed changes in voting procedures with the Justice Department.

Southern conservatives had complained that the act punishes their states for racist voting histories they say they've overcome.

"By passing this rewrite of the Voting Rights Act, Congress is declaring from on high that states with voting problems 40 years ago can simply never be forgiven," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican and one of several lawmakers pressing for changes to the law to ease its requirements on Southern states.

The House overwhelmingly rejected amendments that would have shortened the renewal period from 25 years to a decade and would have struck its requirement that ballots in some states be printed in several languages.

Supporters of the law as written called the amendments "poison pills" designed to kill the renewal because if any were adopted by the full House, the underlying renewal might have failed.

Supporters used stark images and emotional language to make clear that the pain of racial struggle -- and racist voting practices -- still stings.

Please take a few moments to call and/or write to your Senators and let them know you're counting on their support for the renewal of this vital legislation.

UPDATE: You can check out how your Congresspersons voted here. Were they among those 33 who, incredibly, said NAY to The Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act? It's worth a click to find out.
(Hat-tip to David)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

On Heading Off Life's Stressful Moments

When it comes to anger management, Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

(Consider this fairly work-safe, unless of course one is an employee of Chanel, Air France, or Moët et Chandon.)

Sunday, July 09, 2006


An amazingly tight match, a nailbiting shoot-out, and in the end it's Italy.

Won, won.

Friday, July 07, 2006

It's Friday: Let There Be Pussies

Unwed teenage mother Maisy is blissed out as her babies--with Marley in the middle--nurse for the tenth time that morning (from July '05)

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Casa Azzuri: Everything but the Blues

You can take the footballer out of Italy, but you'll never, ever be able to separate the Italian from his beloved cuisine and culture:

DUISBURG, Germany - They packed all the important stuff when they traveled to the World Cup: pasta, prosciutto and parmesan.

Italy might be hungry for its first World Cup title in 24 years, but the Azzurri aren’t lacking the comfort food they’re familiar with. As they prepare to face France on Sunday, they have everything they’re used to — drama, delirium and distraction.


MSV Arena, the home of MSV Duisburg, has been renamed Casa Azzurri. There are red, white and green banners everywhere, with a gold star in each color — where will they put the fourth star if they win their fourth title?

The salamis hanging are Italian. So is the coffee. Even the beer.

Nearby is the team hotel, Landhaus Milser. It’s co-run by a native of Calabria, and many of the employees are Italian. Apparently to minimize distractions, female waitresses were sent on vacation.

Female waitresses were sent on vacation? Surely the boys in blue are far too focused on winning the World Cup to notice a few pretty girls. And besides, aren't most of them engaged or married?

(Hat-tip to Lisa in Baltimore)

And Now, Fencegate

What a tangled mess of second-rate barbed wire the whole Minutemen Project / Build it And They Will Turn Back border fence endeavor is turning into. John Amato of Crooks and Liars lays out the story:

Glenn Spencer (head of Tanton’s American Patrol) turns on Chris Simcox.

And from the above-linked website:

Chris Simcox is collecting massive amounts of money and not routing it out to the Minuteman Projects. Our only question is why are folks that mean well and want to contribute STILL sending money (lots of money!) to Chris Simcox when there have been many indications in the past of improper distribution of donations submitted to MCDC. Improper as in they get as far as Chris Simcox and promptly vanish.

Apparently, Mr. Simcox solicited donations from passionate devotees of North American isolationism (a.k.a. border-state Republicans) by promoting his plan as an Israeli-style fence when it's actually just a five-strand barbed wire livestock fence--hardly a deterrent to the desperate, hungry, and jobless people who for years have taken far greater risks to enter the United States.

And all those donations? Well, you know what they say: foolish, minute men and their money will soon be parted.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Italy, Finally

From the afternoon fireworks on the field in Dortmund, Germany, a few thousand miles away, to the spectacular nighttime ones that lit up the dark and humid skies over downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, the Fourth of July was an explosively exciting day indeed.

When the thrilling Italy vs. Germany World Cup semi-final went into overtime, we bit our lips and crossed our fingers, knowing all too well that a tight game can literally be kicked out from under you, as it was on Saturday when England lost to Portugal in a heartbreaking shoot-out. Neither England nor Portugal had scored a goal after an entire match, plus two fifteen-minute overtime periods, and the teams had to face off in a dreaded roulette-like finale that ultimately left Britons drained and depressed. A weeping Beckham would resign from his post as captain the following day.

We didn't want to see another shoot-out like that. So when yesterday's first overtime period began, we held our breath and willed the Forza Azzuri to get that bloody ball into the net. And I think we might have shouted, too. Just a little.

Fabio Grosso heard us just in time, scoring a spectacular and twisty goal thanks to a clever assist by teammate Andrea Pirlo. At the 119 minute mark. Then Alessandro Del Piero scored again, as if to show the world that this was no fluke, that Italy was the champion team here.

Point final.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Marley and His Siblings

Clockwise, from top left: Marley, Helena, Lance, Michael, Shaniqua (hiding under Michael's paws) and White Socks

Last fall, my hard drive crashed (probably due to my Powerbook's battery overheating, which was recalled shortly thereafter). With it went a lot of precious photographs, to my endless horror, many of which I was able to recover from Roberto's computer. Not the above shot, though. This morning, my friend Lisa in Baltimore reminded me that she still had the kitties-on-the-condo picture in her email files, and she was kind enough to send it. I thought readers might enjoy seeing Marley and his brothers and sisters as babies.

We have two cats at the nursery/farm (Ally and Giulia) as well as Maisy here in St. Pete, plus several big dogs; it wasn't possible to keep all six kittens indefinitely. Still, it was very, very hard to part with these beauties. Today, they're all healthy and happy--renamed and well-loved--and they're getting the personal attention that cats so adore.

Bon Weekend!