Read All About It In the Sunday Papers-Aug. 23 Edition

Filed in International, National by on August 23, 2009

LEAD STORY-Miami Herald: How Cyberthief Committed ‘Heist of the Century’

Nobody does crime reporting like the Miami Herald does crime reporting. Albert Gonzalez stole to his heart’s content, while on the Secret Service payroll.  What happens when snitches go terriblyterribly wrong:

On May 7, 2008, federal agents swept through Miami-Dade looking for evidence that one of their best informants was also one of the world’s biggest cyberthiefs.

 Searching three homes and a luxury hotel room in South Beach, they found 14 computers, $400,000 in cash, six firearms, expensive jewelry — and even stumbled on a marijuana grow house.

 What they missed was the most compelling evidence in Albert Gonzalez’s life of crime: a three-foot drum buried in his parents’ backyard stuffed with $1.1 million wrapped in plastic bags. The money — like so many other pieces of evidence — wasn’t unearthed until this year by federal agents still unraveling a case that continues to confound even the most seasoned cyberspace investigators.

 Federal agents announced after last year’s raids that Gonzalez had orchestrated the largest credit-card heist in the nation’s history — 41 million cards stolen from Americans. But last week, they came back with even more evidence to show Gonzalez had masterminded a fraud three times as large.

 You won’t believe just how ingenious this guy was. And the true crime writing style perfected by the Miami Herald team makes this a perfect summertime read.

LATimes: Junk Food Tax Way to Trim Waistlines and Deficits?

 Excellent article by Karen Kaplan weighing all the pros and cons of such an idea.

 With increasing vigor, public health experts and think tanks are calling for extra taxes on foods and drinks that are heavy in calories and light on nutrition. New York Gov. David Paterson proposed an 18% soda tax last year as a budget-balancing measure, only to abandon it three months later in the face of stiff public opposition. Lawmakers in at least five other states have gone on the record in support of the idea.

 However, for many reasons, some in the ‘unanticipated consequences’ category, this is far from a slam dunk.

 Which makes this a perfect article to read and to comment upon here.

 Houston Chronicle: Galveston Bay, One Year After Hurricane Ike

 Why the storm was worse than previous storms, and why it wasn’t even worse:

 “The bay is definitely resilient,” said Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, an advocacy group. “For years and years, we’ve had hurricanes come through the system, and the bay has recovered. But the more human-made pressure we put on the system can make it more difficult for the bay to rebound.”

The recent development boom along the upper Texas coast could impede the recovery because dams and jetties are stealing much of the sediment that used to naturally rebuild marshes and barrier beaches.

“We’re still very much in an erosional state,”  (coastal geologist James) Gibeaut said. “It’s not something that will turn around. We won’t have natural beach growth.”

Some scientists said it will take months and even years to fully understand how Ike affected the bay’s complex ecosystem, which is home to an astonishing array of life.

Consider that the storm washed countless household cleaners, pesticides and other chemicals into the bay. Those containers will decompose and foul the water with toxic compounds.

Of all the impacts from Ike and earlier storms, man-made pollution “is the only thing that the critters haven’t adapted to,” said Jim Lester, vice president of the Houston Advanced Research Center and a Galveston Bay expert.

Nevertheless, Ike could have wreaked far worse havoc:

Galveston Bay was spared in part because the storm’s late eastward drift over Galveston Island at landfall pushed the brunt of the surge over the Bolivar Peninsula and a bit farther up the Texas coast. The worst of the storm missed Harris County and the heavily industrialized Ship Channel.

But future storms there could be catastrophic b/c:

What’s different is the larger human footprint on the Galveston Bay system.

These days, the three-county region that surrounds the bay is home to more than 4 million people, a major port and several refineries and chemical plants. More than 60 percent of Texas’ wastewater flows into the bay.

By some estimates, Ike caused $15 billion in damage just to the three counties — Galveston, Harris and Chambers — along the bay.

Galveston County, for one, has seen booming growth in recent years. Its population is projected at nearly 300,000 by 2030, up from about 200,000 in 1980.

“If there wasn’t a human element here, a hurricane would be a non-issue,” said Stokes, the bay foundation president.

The problem isn’t so much that the bay area has grown, but where it has grown. The rise of resorts, trophy houses and subdivisions along the shoreline have caused the loss of coastal habitat that absorbs a storm’s energy.

There’s lots more interesting data for scientists, demographers and just plain curious readers to glean from this excellent story. Highly-recommended for those who want to be a little more knowledgeable today than they were yesterday.

The (UK) Independent: How Augusto Pinochet Hid His Millions

Nixon and Kissinger’s favorite mass murderer and Chilean dictator didn’t have to play by the same rules. Not when he had friends in high places and money-laundering banks to do his bidding:

Though the Pinochet family protects the details of its wealth with the help of bankers and advisers from Britain and other countries, the pile of assets in cash, gold, government bonds and shares controlled by the family of the late dictator is now believed to amount to as much as £1bn.

The report by Brilac, the Chilean police task force, says that the freeze on the dictator’s funds issued in 1998 by the Spanish investigating magistrate Baltasar Garzon, who was seeking the ex-dictator’s extradition to Spain on charges of torture and murder, was in effect ignored by the financial sector in Britain, despite the fact that Britain was under an obligation to enforce it.

Lest the nationalists amongst us feel left out:

The Brilac report shows that Riggs, the Washington bank that did much of Pinochet’s business, ran a London branch near St James’s Palace, which – asset freeze or no asset freeze – was used as a moneybox by the detained ex-dictator. Riggs was taken over by a bank in Pittsburgh in 2005 after its activities for the world’s tyrants and tax-dodgers were denounced by the US Senate. The Brilac report says that when Pinochet closed his account at the branch (held under the name of Althorp Investments, one of his BVI companies) in May 2002 it contained $219,285.74.

General Pinochet overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973 with plenty of US involvement. For the best account of ‘foreign policy’ during the Nixon/Kissinger years, the Bibliophile Who Ruminates suggests Seymour Hersh’s “The Price of Power”, which should be on any DL Reading List. Here’s a helpful review.

And, here’s how, in part, Pinochet amassed his huge fortune with the enthusiastic involvement of the American government:

Much of General Pinochet’s fortune was generated by his drugs and arms dealing and from privatisations encouraged by the International Monetary Fund and right-wing economists after he seized power in 1973. 

Pinochet decreed these privatisations before any regulation was put in place over the new private monopolies. Consequently they were wildly profitable. In chemicals and iodine the state-owned Soquimich company, with annual profits of $67m, was made over to Julio Ponce, then Pinochet’s son-in-law. The state insurance agency, ISE, was handed to Jorge Aravena, another son-in-law. Paper mills, telephone companies and energy concerns were also given out to family members and hangers-on.

People ask El Somnambulo all the time why he seems so angry. ‘Bulo replies that he knows no other way to respond to stuff like this.

Financial (UK) Times: Loser Claims Afghan Election Rigged

Seriously, did anybody expect that this wouldn’t happen?:

A bitter dispute over the results would be a blow to the credibility of elections that the US and its allies hope will help boost local and international support for their mission in Afghanistan in spite of the growing strength of the Taliban insurgency.

International observers said on Saturday a low turnout in the south of the country, where Nato forces have sought to push back Taliban insurgents in recent months, reflected the success of attacks by militants on polling day and threats to maim voters.

With all of the controversy over health care, climate change and everything else the Rethugs are trying to tie up in knots, Afghanistan is where the Obama Administration is likely to meet its Waterloo. This has ‘quagmire’ written all over it. At least the Asia Times has a more optimistic spin over prospective negotiations.  ‘Bulo hopes they’re right.

Dallas News: Attend the Tale of Icky Twerp

The hearbreaking story of a beloved children’s show star in Texas.   Anybody of a certain (read ‘bulo’s) age likely can recall Sally Starr, Chief Halftown, Sawdust Sam, and the like.  Icky Twerp was Ft. Worth’s version, and he engaged in the kind of slapstick that was the perfect lead-in to the  Popeye cartoons and Three Stooges shorts he featured:

In the manic world of Icky Twerp, somebody was always getting conked on the noggin or falling off a ladder or knocking over a painstakingly assembled grocery display.

The action was relentless. Stuffy bosses bawled out hapless underlings. Sidekicks in gorilla masks skidded onstage and off, played banjos, beaned each other with umbrellas.

The show’s unforgettable star was created and played by a prolific local TV wunderkind named Bill Camfield. North Texas kids – the sort who fell down laughing when somebody got a pie in the face – could not get enough of Icky Twerp.

But almost none of them knew the private Bill Camfield. The lunatic merriment never betrayed a clue that, even at the peak of his productivity and popularity, the man behind Icky Twerp led a life of almost unbearable sadness: After a poverty-scarred childhood, he was battered by illness, alcoholism and the deaths of the people he loved best.

El Somnambulo is not sure why he’s drawn to stories like these. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t think people like Bill Camfield should be forgotten. Or his childhood heroes–Sally Starr, Chief Halftown, and Sawdust Sam.

Please excuse the Beast Who Channel Surfs as he goes off in search of a Three Stooges marathon. 

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  1. Art Downs says:

    A ‘confidential informant’ is often a crook working off his time by being a snitch. Some of these cannot help but go back to the old ways. It is a far different job than a cop going undercover and far less can be expected of this type. Quite often, such ‘informants’ are engaged in some rather underhanded modes of entrapment.

    Cybercrimes deserve very serious punishment.

  2. Art Downs says:

    Have we not had enough of the ‘do gooders’ and neo-puritans who want to control every aspect of our lives? Did we not learn a lesson from Prohibition? Was ‘Reefer Madness’ really a documentary?

    Will we let militant vegetarians determine what we eat? Will we allow other busybodies determine what we drive, where we live?

    Screw the neo-puritans!

    Big Nanny is really Big Brother in Drag (With no offense intended to the transvestite community)

  3. anon2 says:

    New York Times today: Tom Daschle met with Obama on Friday, yep that tax cheat corrupt piglet is still involved in health care. Daschle never supported single payer or the public option. He receives millions from big pharma and the insurance industry. When single payer doctors requested/demanded single payer be scored so the american people could “see” the real numbers, Daschle was opposed to it. Gotta keep your insurance company friends and big pharma happy, huh Tom., a national bus tour will begin the first of September in major cities and end up in DC the end of September. A huge rally is planned with national council of churches, unions, community groups creating a “civil rights” movement. Lets see how the Daschles, Carpers, Baccus, Conrad and the blue dogs react to that.

  4. Yes, Art. I’m sick of the circus that the Republicans did with Terri Schiavo and now they’re trying to do with living wills.

  5. Geezer says:

    As a longtime advocate of a “fat tax,” the LA Times article was interesting and welcome. Thanks for the link.

    A couple of thoughts: While tax policy can be used to influence public behavior, that’s hardly the only reason for such a tax. In fact, the No. 1 reason for taxing these products (soda and chips would be my targets, not all foods with certain kinds of calories or salt content) is to raise revenue to offset the public costs associated with consuming empty calories. I reject the idea that, because such taxes (and I think 5% is plenty; I don’t approve of 20%) wouldn’t do much to cut consumption they therefore are failures.

    We do not measure the efficacy of cigarette taxes by how much they cut consumption; indeed, the last several rounds of taxes haven’t made much of a dent in the adult smoking rate, which persistently hovers at around 25%. That hardly means we’re going to scrap the cigarette tax. The article’s main flaw is that it doesn’t even talk about how much money such a tax would raise — in fact, it doesn’t even talk about sales volume of such products, which would allow the reader to do his own calculations.

    Second, to Art’s complaint: Adam Smith himself pointed out that luxury items are exactly the goods that should be taxed, because they are not necessities for anyone. Soft drinks are entirely empty calories, most snack chips nearly so. Both products are taxpayer-subsidized already, in the form of costly federal price supports for corn and other crops (obviously this doesn’t apply to potato chips); those price supports are why drinks use high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar (see Michael Pollan’s writings for details).

    Third, those computer studies of how consumers would react to price increases on various items should be taken with — wait for it — a grain of salt.

  6. anon says:

    Another bitter old crank against health care reform.

  7. I’m for helping people do what we want them to do, rather than punishing them for doing what we don’t want them to do. Right now we are rewarding behavior we don’t want – by subsidizing farmers to overproduce corn and therefore overproduce HFCS. Fat-shaming doesn’t work either – I don’t think shame is a very effective way to do business either. I wish we would subsidize people to buy fresh fruit and vegetables – offer tax breaks or something. Also it would be nice to give people subsidized gym memberships or big breaks in insurance rates if you have a gym membership and use it.

  8. Dave M. says:

    I was actually on the Sally Starr show once. She will be missed.

  9. While Geezer is one of ‘bulo’s favorite commenters, his position on the ‘junk food tax’ places him in diametric opposition to one of ‘bulo’s favorite musicians. El Somnambulo posts, YOU decide:

  10. Geezer says:

    ES: Thanks for the laugh.

    UI: Again, I’m not in favor of a fat tax to reduce people’s consumption of such substances. If that happens, it’s just a positive byproduct. I’m for taxing those substances to raise the money to care for the health problems caused by those substances.

  11. OK, ‘bulo…I can’t view that clip where I am. Give it up. Is it Richard Thompson’s “Fast Food?”

  12. No, FAR more profound than that. Root Boy Slim’s “Dare to Be Fat”. ‘Havin’ a BALL with cholesterOL’.

    Which reminds ‘bulo…best entrance he’s ever seen was Root Boy at the West Chester Cabaret back in 1980. They brought him out on a hand truck and dumped him onstage.

  13. cassandra_m says:

    I’d like to see the corn and soybean and other federal tax subsidies go away completely. Ridding the system of these price supports will massively change much of the food system — from what gets grown all the way to how beef and chicken are raised for slaughter. We keep paying the price for a massive overproduction of corn and that price includes finding ways to use it and more of it that aren’t especially healthy. If there are to be farm subsidies, I’d prefer that they be of local veggie farms. Those farms are family owned, ADM won’t get the biggest cut and a few more local veggies in the grocery can’t be a bad thing.

    Eliminating the subsidy would provide quite abit of funds that could be used in dealing with the health consequences of diets bathed in corn.

  14. Agreed, Cassandra. Bill Maher has been making this point excellently for years re: corn subsidies and the overabundance of corn in the diets of not just Americans, but the animals we Americans consume.

    Sure, corn provides richer, more marbled, tasty beef, but what are we getting for it health-wise? Cows naturally are supposed to eat diets in which they graze on greens. The calorie-laden corn is doing neither them nor us any good nutritionally.

  15. anon2 says:

    More concern is with the price of sugar. Some deal was made that sugar producers overseas couldnt export their sugar to the US, to protect the US sugar farmers. Now we are about to have a huge sugar shortage and prices are going to skyrocket. I guess it means more hate on Cuba refusing to let them export to us. Candy makers, bakers and others are concerned there is not enough sugar to make all those sweets so the “free market” gets to force prices higher.

    We should be more concerned with the anti biotics in our beef than sugar from corn.

  16. Art Downs says:

    Should we forbid activity that causes a very expensive disease?

    Look at the foot-stamping that was caused when Mr. Horowitz (still in his ‘progressive’ stage) wondered openly if the ‘bath houses’ that were the venue of serial and anonymous buggery were more responsible for the spread of HIV than any action of the Reagan Administration.

    Live and let love, but let’s not be puritanical hypocrites.

  17. nemski says:

    Why do I always wince when Art says buggery?

  18. cassandra_m says:

    Because Art says it with such authoritative, self-loathing knowledge — and that is just TMI.

  19. Art Downs says:

    My use of the term is inspired by Voltaire’s clever and oblique slur on Frederick the Great in Candide when he implied that he was King of the Buggers.

    The term is much used by the Brits and is in a jocular and even self deprecating form, often in a pseudo-formal manner such as embuggered.

    Words can be the source of fun.

    Never forget Faulkner’s blast at Hemingway…

  20. Geezer says:

    “We should be more concerned with the antibiotics in our beef than sugar from corn.”

    Probably true, A2, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about both.

    Mike: Don’t know if you’ve read Michael Pollan; that’s where Maher is getting his info, and good for him for bringing it to a wider audience.

    Cass: Ditto dat.

  21. liberalgeek says:

    Actually, they are all related. The cows eat the corn. They get sick because they are supposed to be eating grass. The farmer gives them antibiotics to fix the infection. We eat the hamburger. Yum.