Archive for May 14, 2008


Inflation pressures eased a bit in April despite the biggest jump in food prices in 18 years.

Raw Story/AP -The Labor Department reported Wednesday that consumer prices edged up 0.2 percent last month, compared to a 0.3 percent rise in March.

The lower inflation reflected a flat reading for energy, which helped offset a 0.9 percent jump in food costs as prices climbed for many basic items, from bread and milk to coffee and fresh fruits.

The unchanged reading for energy reflected a big 4.8 percent jump in natural gas prices, offset by a 2 percent decline in gasoline costs.

The reported drop in gasoline prices reflected the government’s accounting process, which discounts expected seasonal price changes.

Since gasoline prices normally rise significantly in April, the 5.6 percent rise in prices for the month turned into a 2 percent drop after the government adjusted for normal seasonal changes. That was little comfort for motorists now paying record prices at the pump, which are nearing $4 per gallon.

Core inflation, which excludes food and energy, showed prices well behaved in April, rising by just 0.1 percent, compared to a 0.2 percent gain in March.

The 0.2 percent reading for the overall Consumer Price Index was slightly lower than the 0.3 percent rise that economists had been expecting and the 0.1 percent rise in core inflation was below the 0.2 percent reading that had been expected.

Wall Street pushed higher Wednesday on the surprisingly good inflation readings, with the Dow Jones industrial average up more than 120 points in late-morning trading.

Those better-than-expected performances should ease concerns at the Federal Reserve that the sharp increase in food and energy prices this year would lead to broader inflation problems. However, economists cautioned that the recent surge in oil prices to record levels near $127 per barrel has yet to be felt at the consumer level.

Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said that the weak economy was starting to show up in lower prices in some areas. He noted that the price of hotel rooms dropped for a third straight month, falling by 1.9 percent in April, a reflection of cutbacks in business and vacation travel.

The Fed, fighting against a severe credit crunch and spreading economic weakness, has cut interest rates seven times since last September in an effort to keep the country from toppling into a recession.

However, last month it signaled that it might take a pause in the rate cuts, with some Fed officials expressing worries that further reductions in interest rates could trigger unwanted inflation. The central bank is expected to keep rates unchanged when officials next meet June 24-25.

So far this year, overall inflation is rising at an annual rate of 3 percent, down from a 4.1 percent increase for all of 2007. Core inflation, excluding energy and food, is up at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the first four months of this year, compared with a 2.4 percent increase for all of 2007.

Even with the slowdown in price increases so far this year, workers’ wages are not keeping up. A separate Labor Department report showed that average weekly earnings for nonsupervisory workers dropped by 1 percent in April compared with a year ago, after adjusting for inflation. It was the seventh straight month that inflation-adjusted wages were down compared to a year ago.

The combination of rising food and energy costs, weak wage gains and falling home prices have left households feeling squeezed, with consumer confidence readings plunging to recessionary levels.

While many economists believe the country is in a recession, other analysts contend that the country may be able to avoid a full-blown downturn, especially if consumers spend a sizable portion of the 130 million economic stimulus payments that the government is now sending out.

The overall surge in food prices of 0.9 percent was the largest one-month increase since food prices climbed 1.5 percent in January 1990.

Gasoline prices, even with the decline in April, were 20.9 percent higher than a year ago.

Clothing prices rose by 0.5 percent in April, even though discount stores reportedly engaged in heavy discounting in an effort to spur lagging sales.

New car prices fell by 0.2 percent last month, reflecting the trouble automakers are having with sagging demand in the face of a weak economy and soaring gasoline costs. Airline ticket prices, which had been surging because of more expensive jet fuel, fell by 0.5 percent last month but are still up significantly from a year ago.

 

Also see the article below for more opinion on factors relating to food price increases. 

US disputes IMF on food prices

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration is disputing the International Monetary Fund’s claim that increased production of biofuels is the biggest factor in rising food prices.

The IMF estimates that the shift of crops out of the food supply to produce biofuels accounts for almost half of the recent increases in the global food prices. Rising food prices have made hunger problems in developing countries even more critical of late.

But the administration’s chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Edward Lazear, says that biofuel production has played a small part.

The United States has mandated increased production of ethanol from corn to reduce oil consumption.

Lazear told a congressional hearing Wednesday that ethanol production accounts for only about 1.2 percent of increases in food prices over the last year.

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A much anticipated (long over due) hearing in scheduled to examine issues, that have not yet officially been addressed concerning the  National Bio Agro Defense Facility and its intended research purposes; to relocate (FMD) Foot and Mouth Disease on to the U.S. mainland.  The hearing entitled; Germs, Viruses, and Secrets:  Government Plans to Move Exotic Disease Research to the Mainland United States is scheduled for 10:00AM on May 22nd and can be viewed online here.

The recent push for passage of the Farm Bill has caused many to question safety issues surrounding the NBAF. Some opponents argue many within the consortia and politicians trying to lure the NBAF to their respective states have chosen to ignore safety concerns and have not truthfully addressed the risk and cost of the facility within the affected communities.

According to a recent AP article by Larry Margasak, the Senate’s version of the bill could have serious future consequences and seemly ties the hands of the next administration powers over the regulation and control of the FMD disease.  

The House version of the same legislation would leave in place the agriculture secretary’s discretion.

The Senate proposal was jointly requested by the departments of Agriculture and Homeland Security, said Erin Hamm, spokeswoman for Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. The Senate plan would prevent the agriculture secretary under the next presidential administration from easily interfering with the lab’s relocation to the mainland.

In a  recent letter  to the Committee on Agriculture,  the Subcommittee on Oversights and Investigations raised the following issues for examination as part of the hearing. 

  • Has DHS given adequate consideration to the hazards of shutting down Plum Island and transferring foot and mouth disease to the mainland?
  • Can foot and mouth disease and other exotic animal diseases research be carried out safety in bio-containment facilities on the mainland?
  • What are the views of the livestock industry about the plan to transfer foot and mouth disease research to the mainland?
  • Have the direst and indirect costs of shutting down Plum Island and building the NBAF on the U.S. mainland been fully considered?
  • Is there an agricultural need for a BSL-4 Lab at the NBAF?
  • Is the NBAF site-selection process being conducted fairly?
  • Does DHS have adequate experience and expertise to lead Federal research on dangerous animal diseases, or should that responsibility more properly reside with the USDA?

Without a doubt this hearing is welcomed by the opponents of the NBAF and critics of the rapid  proliferation of BSL- 3/BSL- 4  bio-containment facilities brought forth from the Bush Administration’s knee jerk reactions following  Sept. 11. Hopefully, the Dual Use research issue should be examined next.

You can read additional letters from the committee concerning  Biosafety Level (BSL) III & IV Laboratories here.

Time

If you were a terrorist looking for weapons-grade nuclear material in America, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory might be a good place to start. At the core of the nuclear-weapons research facility about an hour’s drive from San Francisco stands the “Superblock,” a collection of buildings surrounded by multi-story steel-mesh fencing, a no-man’s-land, electronic security gear, armed guards and cables to prevent a helicopter landing on the roof. These defenses are in place largely to protect Building 332, a repository for roughly 2,000 pounds of deadly plutonium and volatile, weapons-grade uranium — enough fissile material to build at least 300 nuclear weapons. But a recent simulated terror attack tested those defenses, and sources tell TIME that the results were not reassuring.

One night several weeks ago, according to TIME’s sources, a commando team posing as terrorists attacked and penetrated the lab, quickly overpowering its defenses to reach its “objective” — a mock payload of fissile material. The exercise highlighted a number of serious security shortcomings at Livermore, sources say, including the failure of a hydraulic system essential to operating an extremely lethal Gatling gun that protects the facility. Experts contacted by TIME — including congressional staff from both parties informed of the episode, and experts personally familiar with safeguards at Livermore — all said that the test amounts to an embarrassment to those responsible for securing the nation’s nuclear facilities, and that it required immediate steps to correct what some called the most dangerous security weaknesses ever found at the lab.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman was quickly informed of the episode, along with other senior officials in the U.S. nuclear and national security apparatus. “People who know about this are very concerned; they are not happy,” said one senior congressional aide.

“It is essential to prevent terrorists from accessing nuclear materials at Livermore,” said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, an independent nonprofit that recently issued a study of the lab’s security. “Suicidal terrorists would not need to steal the fissile material, they could simply detonate it as part of an improvised nuclear device right on the spot.” Some 7 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the laboratory — a fact that has prompted at least one panel of experts to recommend moving its nuclear-weapons material elsewhere.

According to a former senior officer familiar with the details of security at Livermore, simulated attacks are staged approximately every 12 months. The attack team’s objective is usually to penetrate the “Superblock,” after which the attackers are timed to determine whether they can hold their ground long enough to construct a crude “dirty bomb” that could, in theory, be detonated immediately, or can buy themselves enough time to fabricate a rudimentary nuclear device, approximating the destructive power of the low-yield weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. A third option in the simulation is for the attackers to abscond with the nuclear material into the heavily populated San Francisco Bay area.

The security flaws exposed in the recent test could exacerbate public opposition to nuclear weapons material being stored at Livermore, which is located near a major highway interchange, atop a vital agricultural irrigation canal and within a mile of two elementary schools, a preschool, a middle school and a senior center. In 2005 the Energy Department approved the doubling of the amount of plutonium stored at Livermore, less than five months after a scientific panel recommended, for security reasons, that nearly all of it be moved to a safer, more remote site.

“The fissile material simply cannot be made safe and secure,” says Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CARES, a Livermore nuclear weapons watchdog group. “We in the community, which has 81,000 people, want to get rid of the plutonium and highly enriched uranium as soon as possible.”

The alleged failure of Livermore’s truck-mounted Gatling guns could also draw heavy criticism. Those weapons have long been controversial because they can fire 4000 rounds a minute and kill a person more than a mile away, raising fears among local residents about what might happen if the guns were ever discharged. The weapons are also supposed to be tested on a regular basis, and the reason for their reported failure remains unclear.

Many critics have also argued that the entire process of conducting “force-on-force” simulations at Livermore is flawed because the exercise does not adequately approximate conditions that would pertain during a real attack. The defenders are always given advance notice of the simulations, which usually occur at night or on weekends, when few of the facility’s thousands of staff are present. As a result, there is no simulation of the hostage-taking that might occur if the lab were attacked during business hours. The absence of most regular employees also means that defenders do not have to worry about directing their fire to avoid innocent victims, many of whom might be present during an actual attack.

Finally, nothing in the “force-on-force” exercises simulates the danger posed by Livermore being situated beneath the flight path to several nearby airports. “If a plane ever tried to fly into the lab,” says Tri-Valley CARE’S Kelley, “no one has ever explained how it would be stopped.”

As for the Department of Energy, in a press release issued last Friday referring to the recent force-on-force exercise at Livermore, it claimed that an inspection team sent to the site after the simulation had noted both “several very positive areas” and “other areas requiring corrective action.”

“We do not believe the [nuclear] materials at Livermore are at risk, and we do believe that security is strong,” a DOE spokesperson told TIME. “But we’re also interested in examining any deficiencies, which is the purpose of these routine exercises.”

A recent paper available online at  Science Today suggest that “microbes may have the capacity to learn”. Here is an excerpt from the post:

Researchers have long assumed that microbes respond to changes in their environment in a simple, straightforward manner. If the osmolarity in your gut suddenly rises, for example, microbes populating it will tweak their own osmolarity intracellularly to match. But Tavazoie suspected that homeostasis wasn’t the whole story, since microbial responses sometimes don’t directly relate to a stimulus. For example, after experiencing a raise in temperature, bacteria often scale down oxygen metabolism — a seemingly unrelated move.

Read full story here.

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