Friday, February 26, 2010

Don't Kill Tillikum!

More:  Tillikum is used as a stud to produce more orcas in captivity since their capture in the wild is now prohibited at least in the US. That makes him a very valuable dolphin. SeaWorld says he is worth about $2 million. So it is not surprising that the manager of the Orlando theme park says that Tillikum cannot be released back into the wild because he has been in captivity for too long. Scientists beg to differ, however. The orca Keiko made famous by the movie, Free Willy, was released to the wild and lived in a Norway fiord until his death from pneumonia at age 27 in 2003. He even swam 800 miles across the Atlantic with a pod catching his own fish. But he did not achieve permanent reintegration with his own kind. The cost of moving a 12,000 lb. orca for release to the Atlantic near Iceland where Tillikum was captured would be considerable and pose significant risks to his survival. Keeping him confined in tanks and performing repetitive routines at SeaWorld will only cause him to experience more depression and boredom according to experts.  One behaviorist says another fatal incident is almost certain to happen.  Tillikum was captured when he was only 2 or 3.  Large males can lead solitary lives in the ocean, but usually they stay with their mother's pod.  He would need to be re-educated and strengthened for life in the open sea before release. The rehabilitation of Keiko shows that with committed effort, reintroduction to the wild can work.  SeaWorld is not learning from its mistake of confining such a large, intelligent animal, however.  The park plans to resume orca performances this weekend including Tillikum.

{first post 2.25.10} He is not a serial killer; he is an orca and his behavior is consistent with being an Orcinus orca. The fact that he is confined in such small spaces which might make him act neurotically is not his fault, and that is a human concept anyway. The tragic death at SeaWorld Orlando proves one proposition and one alone. Animals as large and powerful as Tillikum should not be confined and exhibited for human spectacle. The Humane Society of the United States lobbies against such confinement because it is inhumane. Tillikum is an intelligent dolphin, but their culture is nothing like ours. To ascribe intentional homicidal tendencies to an orca is to totally ignore the significant biological differences between the two species. Tillikum is after all a predatory aquatic mammal not a dog or a precocious ape.  Behaviorists see the latest incident as an escalation of aggressive behavior that could be play, not predation.  He killed humans before reports indicate. In both cases humans fell or deliberately got into his tank where he was not accustomed to having human company. There will be demands on SeaWorld to "protect the public and its employees" by destroying Tillikum as if he where a dangerous dog. That will only compound the tragedy. SeaWorld, as the price of its exploitation of this male orca, should be required to spend the considerable money necessary to release him back into the wild. Tillikum, who is thirty years old, may be facing a solitary life and eventual death as a roving male if he cannot integrate into a pod.  But at least he can live as nature intended, unconfined by man.  People can help insure that similar deaths do not occur by refusing to gawk at magnificent creatures worthy of their respect conditioned to do tricks for their brief amusement.

'Toontime: NOT HARDLY!

This is one reason why:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Vermont Senate Wants Reactor Shut

The Vermont Senate voted 26-4 on Wednesday to close Vermont Yankee owned by Entergy Corp by 2012.  If the vote holds up, it will be the first power reactor to be shut down in 20 years. The older reactor began operations in 1972 and is the subject of controversy since radioactive tritium was discovered leaking into the groundwater near the plant.{2.18.10} Vermont is the only state with laws that allow the legislature to grant or deny nuclear reactor licenses. Entergy told Reuters that it intends to seek a twenty year license renewal despite the vote.  The development is a blow to the administration's efforts to rekindle nuclear power plant construction as a method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So far the NRC has received 28 new reactor permit applications since 2007. Tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found naturally in the environment in minute amounts. Authorities do not consider the leak at Yankee to be a threat to public health. Leaks of tritium have been a problem at other plants. The NRC has investigated leaks at Oyster Creek, New Jersey; Braidwood, Illinois; Indian Point and Fitz Patrick in New York.

One of the license applications pending approval and slated for loan guarantees is expansion of a two unit reactor at Calvert Cliffs, Maryland.  The plant recently experienced an automated shutdown, apparently caused by snow melting through a leaky roof and causing electrical shorts.  Even Forty-four admits that nuclear power suffers from "serious drawbacks". He could not have been pleased with the report from the University of Delaware's Center for Carbon-free Power Generation. The Center found that 67% of Maryland's power requirements could be provided by abundant offshore winds along the Atlantic coast. Wind power could provide as much as 179% as technology matures, allowing the state a valuable exportable resource. The report was sponsored by the Abell Foundation of Baltimore. Of course wind power does not produce greenhouse gases and does not produce hazardous waste. It does pose a problem for avian wildlife. An avian authority advised the researchers that any wind power projects in Maryland avoid an area within one mile of the coast which is the route of the Atlantic flyway. Because of possible objection to turbines spoiling sea views, the report recommends an eight mile exclusion zone for the entire coastline.

[photo courtesy:]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

'Toontime: One of the Three Monkeys

More:  No, not Majority Leader Harry Reid who now has on his game face. Forty-four is still attempting to appease the reactionaries prior to his "bipartisan" sideshow tomorrow.  He is telling the media he believes in "free markets".  That is just fine, but there are no free markets anywhere in the world including the United States.  Truly free markets set prices and distribute goods perfectly.  No unbiased economist worth his laptop, including those at the University of Chicago, would agree that the United States has perfect markets.  And because they are imperfect they need regulation: not regulation that is mere public relations, but regulation that corrects market imperfections.  The health insurance market in the US is broken. It is dominated by large companies that engage in anti-competitive practices, including oligopolistic price fixing usually termed "medical underwriting". Just last year alone insurance companies made $12.7 billion in profit while dropping 2.7 million Americans from insurance coverage.  Another layer of bureaucracy with no real authority to set prices will not solve the problem of escalating price increases for health insurance. The President's proposal will however, allow big business to capture yet another government authority and use it as an excuse to pass on 'increased costs due to regulation' to the customer (for an example, look at the regulation of credit cards). The best regulation is efficient and inexpensive to administer. Wall Street moans about the unfair competition of a government run system that pays below market rates to health care providers. Market prices that are unfairly high because of structural defects in the market are exactly the problem.  Plutocrats do not complain about their own grotesque taxpayer subsidies or antitrust law exemptions, however. Essentially, the problem leaves two choices to legislators: extend the current Medicare system to all (eliminate the market which is the least expensive solution) or allow Americans to choose the source of their insurance, either public or private, in exchanges. US Person says, at least let the best system win in the market place.

{2.22.10}Update: Forty-four proved US Person correct--that he is engineering a cop out on behalf of the insurance oligopoly--by omitting a public option in his new "detailed plan" for health care reform. He proposes more regulation of price increases like the 39% increase proposed by Anthem Blue Cross of California as bipartisan bait. More regulatory incremetalism is not going to hack it. Either the insurance companies get a lower cost competitor that can influence the market price for health insurance or Americans will continued to be at the mercy of insurance companies. The President and his party will pay a price for their abject service of the Money Power at the polls in November. sponsored a poll in key states asking what would be more important to voters in electing Democrats: passing health care reform with the public option or passing a bill with bipartisan support. Every state polled large margins in favor of the public plan.
[credit: Gary Markstein]
Wackydoodle sez: "The other two will show up at the White House conference."

{first post 2.20.10}Forty-four wasted a lot of political capital last year attempting to garner bipartisan support for his health care reform plans. What he did not understand and the American people did, is the Repugnants are only interested in partisan advantage in a zero sum game.  They desperately want him to fail.  His wooing of cynical obstructionists like 'Zion Joe' only succeeded in alienating his political base.  By all accounts the President is a smart man. Perhaps there is a more ulterior motive which would explain his equivocating about establishing actual competition for the private health care sector.  To paraphrase the biblical proverb: "You can't serve the People and Mammon too."  If he wants a second term, time is running out for him to decide on which side he is playing, and use all the means necessary to pass a reform bill with a public option.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Civilians in Afghanistan Killed Again

NATO forces, largely made up of American troops, have botched three airstrikes in seven days making the total 'collateral damage' score in the neighborhood of 45 dead since "Operation Together" began.  The latest incident was in Uruzgan on Sunday night.  The strike killed 27 in a convoy of minibuses carrying 42 people, all civilians including women and children.  These "mistakes" are seriously undermining the stated goal of pacifying the areas under Taliban control by winning civilian support for western forces. But American forces have since Vietnam relied heavily on airpower to reduce enemy positions with fewer infantry casualties. General McCrystal has tightened the rules on the use of air sorties without apparent effect except for more prompt apologies to the Kabul regime. The carnage is also causing cracks in the united western front. The government of the Netherlands fell after twelve collation ministers from Labor resigned just a day before the strike over the deeply unpopular involvement of Dutch troops in the war effort. Twenty-one Dutch soldiers have died in Afghanistan.  US casualties have passed 1000 dead. The 1900 Dutch contingency operating in Uruzgan will be withdrawn at the end of the year.  The withdrawal may make other nervous allies--Canada, Germany and Australia--reconsider their participation. Clearing Helmand Province of Taliban fighters is taking longer than expected as western forces encounter determined pockets of resistance from fortified positions and numerous explosive devices.

Chart of the Week: Banking Not Out of Woods

One thing US Person learned while "standing in line for law review"* is that ratified treaties like the Geneva Conventions, and the Convention Against Torture are part of the supreme law of the United States. But hey, that principle didn't stop Justice Department attorney John Yoo from sucking up and giving the Charlatan the legal green light for torture.  But he was sincere about his extremist legal theories according to an executive review of the internal ethics investigation, so that makes all the difference--no disbarment for Yoo. Hitler was sincere about hating the Jews, and passed the Nürnburger Gesetze to facilitate the industrialized extermination of six million.

But it's difficult to drive a vehicle while only looking in the rear view mirror. Perhaps that is why so many people have difficulty parallel parking. Most economic charts are similar to looking in the rear view mirror: they can only tell us where we have been. This chart shows the trend in banking failures from last year:
The slope of the short red line for 2010 is not encouraging. So far there have been 20 bank failures the largest number in 17 years. Experts expect that 2010 will be the year in which hundreds of banks fail.  The problem of Main Street bank failures could be even larger than the crisis which beset Wall Street in '08. This chart courtesy of attempts to look through the front window to see what the magnitude of bank closures could be by positing a correlation between unemployment and the number of bank failures:
Bank failures peaked six years after unemployment peaked in 1983. Unemployment is now just above that level with no clear indications that it will turn down soon.
*an urban myth  

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Public Option Lives!

Update: Senate Majority Leader Henry Reid said through a spokesman Friday that he was willing to allow a majority vote on the public option. The use of the reconciliation process to blast through the Repugnant's stone wall is gaining momentum with ordinary Americans and Senators. By today 18 Senators had signed the letter circulated by Senator Bennett of Colorado. Senator Bennett was appointed to fill the vacancy created by Ken Salazar becoming Secretary of the Interior. He faces a strong primary challenge from a former state Speaker of the House. It is becoming increasingly clear that the public signaled its dissatisfaction with the industry's bill--which featured individual mandates to buy health insurance but no lower cost option--by voting a Republican into office in liberal Massachusetts. A CBS poll shows 6 out of 10 Americans support a public option. Well over 51 Democratic Senators support the idea of public competition for an oligarchic health insurance industry.  It only remains to convince a timid White House that reconciliation is the way to go{Prima Dona of the Senate; 8.25.09}.

{first post 2.17.10} So Evan Bayh (D-IN) decided to retire. Listening to the corporate media you would think it was the end of the Obama administration.  Frankly, US Person never had much use for the fence sitting Bayh. He certainly did not measure up to his father's Senate legacy.  Only the resignation or retirement of Joe 'Liar' Lieberman or Ben 'Bedrock' Nelson would be better news. Bayh got one thing right in his retirement announcement, the Congress is in lockdown because of Repugnant intransigence and outmoded rules like the filibuster. Their filibuster fetish began in 2006, but the rule's abuse has reached new highs. The minority has threatened to use the anti-democratic rule over a hundred times this session to block legislation they do not like without offering viable alternatives, or political accountability for their obstructionism. Their total opposition to the public option health plan is but one example.  Beside changing the filibuster rule itself, and there are several pending proposals to do that, there is a procedural way around this irresponsible and destructive refusal to cooperate in governing the country: budget reconciliation.  Using this process, Democrats need only 51 votes to pass a measure that is fiscally related.  Certainly the public option plan has a big impact on the budget as scoring by the Congressional Budget Office has shown.

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet (D) is circulating a draft letter asking Majority Leader Harry Reid to use the procedure to get a vote on the public option plan, already approved by the House. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), John Kerry (D-MA), Al Franken (D-MN), Roland Burns (D-IL), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have joined in the effort. The public option is the quid pro quo for a mandate to Americans to buy health insurance. The idea of being told by their government to buy insurance rankles their sense of self-determination.  Being forced to buy expensive private health insurance is enough to make them revolt, as they did in the Massachusetts special election to fill Ted Kennedy's seat. They are willing to sacrifice for the good of the country, but not get ripped off by insurance companies in the process. If Washington is indeed broken as Vice President Biden says, then extraordinary measures to pass needed legislation are in order. Join 300,000 other Americans, and call your Democratic Senator and ask them to co-sign Senator Bennet's letter.  Because we need it more than ever.

Chart of the Week: Fed Fiddles Bond Market

Those who watch the US bond auctions say something is up in the US market.  This chart shows the increase in "direct bidders" who took 24% of the last auction (yellow moving average line).  Because of the lack of transparency at the Fed, it is not clear who the direct bidders are, but observers think it is a proxy for the Federal Reserve Bank itself, buying bonds so that it can keep a lid on rising 30 year yields. Rising yields would be a disaster for the US government since they would make the interest payments on our hugh debt even more burdensome. Indirect bidders (green moving average line) are the most important category since it indicates demand for US treasury bonds worldwide.  This category of bidders usually take 36-40% of bonds offered, but only purchased 28% in this auction.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

British Columbia Acts to Save Flathead Valley

One of the last wild free flowing rivers in North America was spared human exploitation for energy by the British Columbia government.  The valley unsettled by humans is an unspoiled refuge for wildflowers, lynx, wolverines, mountain lions, brown bears and rare trout.  The decision to protect the Flathead River Valley was announced last week.  The valley is adjacent to a cross border park and world heritage site, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the world's first, declared in 1932.  Environmental groups petitioned UNESCO to investigate proposed mining activities in the Flathead Valley that would have impacted the Park.  The UN delivered a report to the governments of Canada and the United States recommending a ban on mining and the development of a wildlife management plan. Until this decision the valley was a target for coal mining and natural gas recovery at the river's headwaters. The proposed wildlife management areas and new provincial park will connect Banff National Park in Canada with Glacier National Park in Montana.  Connected zones of wild country are considered the preferred option for protecting species and the ecosystems they inhabit.  Some things are more precious than gold, and it is good to see that fact is being recognized by both the United States and Candian governments.  Ah Yuh, GREEN KUDOS go to British Columbia.  Alberta are you watching?

[photo: Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society]

Obama's Nuclear Con

Update:  Forty-four announced the first federal loan guarantee for building a nuclear power plant this week. Incredibly the $8.3bn guarantee is for a reactor in Georgia that does not meet federal safety standards. Southern Company's Vogtle plant is a two unit project using Westinghouse AP 1000 reactors, a new design never built before. Two pressurized water reactors, Units 1 and 2, are already in operation at Vogtle [photo, courtesy NRC].  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected the plans for the new units as not meeting minimum engineering standards for the containment building.  The loan guarantee is contingent upon Westinghouse submitting designs that can be approved by regulators.  However, the lack of approved design plans puts the eventual cost of the project into question.  The most recent company estimate is $14bn, but Vogtle has a history of cost-overruns.  The first two units were estimated to cost $1bn each, but by the time they were built in the 1980s they cost $9bn each. That history is typical of the price escalation experienced by the industry as a whole. About 100 projects were abandoned during planning or construction in that era and there has been no new projects since then. If the plant owner defaults on the construction loans, the money will come out of the taxpayer's pocket.  Most utility construction financing comes from the little known Federal Financing Bank. The industry's poor track record did not stop the Georgia legislature from passing a law requiring rate payers to begin paying for the plants even thought they will not produce a watt of power until 2017 or later depending on construction delays. The administration in its push for more nuclear power has yet to explain why federal money is not better spent retrofitting existing coal plants, and promoting cleaner burning sources of energy such as abundant domestic natural gas. Critics point to the infamous case of the Shoreham Nuclear Plant which took 20 years to build, cost $6bn and never went into commercial operation.  Long Island rate payers are still paying for that plant's construction. $3.3bn in debt remains unpaid. The Fulton County Taxpayer's Foundation and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy are suing the Georgia PUC to challenge the constitutionality of the law which allows utilities to collect the costs of plant construction in advance.

{first post 2.8.10} More nuclear power is what Forty-four wants now that he is enjoying comfortable digs on Pennsylvania Avenue. Needless to say the policy does not square with what he was saying during his campaign. He may be the biggest pusher of the energy source once touted as "too cheap to meter" since Eisenhower. Tell that to the City of San Antonio. Its municipal utility contracted to build two nuclear plants at an estimated $5.8bn with partner NRG Energy in 2007. The project quickly became eligible for loans from Secretary Steven Chu's Energy Department. Dr. Chu, a physicist from the Livermore Lab at the University of California, Berkeley said recently that the administration is "aggressively pursuing nuclear energy."[1] The $18.5bn loan guarantee program is supposed to finance up to ten new plants. But the major reason new plant construction has flatlined in recent years is the burgeoning cost of new construction {12.31.07}. The chances of default on government insured loans is well above 50% according to the Congressional Budget Office. When the City of San Antonio discovered that an independent report from the Texas Office of Public Utility Council pegged the project's cost as high as $22bn, it backed out of the deal and is now suing NRG and Toshiba, claiming they misrepresented the true cost of the plants.  San Antonio is not experiencing sticker shock alone{6.17.09}.  The average cost of a new nuclear facility is currently estimated to exceed $12bn. Wall Street refuses to back new ventures without government loan guarantees.

Support for nuclear power is consistent with Obama's previous public record.  As a freshman Senator from Illinois he authored a bill requiring nuclear plant operators to report leaks, even small ones (Nuclear Release Notice Act of 2006).  Illinois residents were upset that Exelon Corporation did not disclose tritium leaks at one of its plants[2]. But Obama was careful to keep the industry in the loop.  He weakened the bill's language considerably in response to Republican and industry criticisms.  The compromises got the bill out of committee, but it died on the Senate floor. Since 2003 employees of Exelon have contributed at least $227,000 to Forty-fours' campaigns for Senate and president. Two top company officials are among his largest fund raisers, and the company's chairman, John W. Rowe, is also the head of the nuclear power industry lobby group based in Washington.  Exelon's financial support of Obama exceeded its support for any other presidential candidate. Overall, the industry has poured money into lobbying efforts. Between 1999 and 2009 it spent $63 million on campaign contributions

Environmentalists who saw Forty-four as a friend of green energy, are experiencing an acute sense of betrayal.  The administration is hoping to sell nuclear power as a 'silver bullet' solution to global warming, perhaps to entice some conservatives into supporting global warming legislation. The centerpiece of the pending Senate climate bill is $100bn in loan guarantees with $38bn designated for nuclear projects.  But the administration is pushing nuclear power while ignoring the unsolved problems of permanent waste disposal and security. A spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists said the administration's nuclear power plans "are no longer coherent".  The only national waste depository, Yucca Mountain, Nevada is slated for shut down with no viable replacement.  Currently, high level wastes are being stored above ground at plant sites, a condition widely considered to be a security risk.
[1] the so-called 'nuclear renaissance' began in the early naughts when an MIT study drastically underestimated the cost of building nuclear power plants.{Too Expensive to Use, 7.24.09}; {Too Expensive to Meter, 10.29.08} The University of California was Obama's largest campaign contributor.
[2] the tritium leak at Braidwood, Illinois was so large that Exelon was required to by a new municipal water system for a nearby town. Embrittlement of building materials from intense radioactivity is a common problem for aging nuclear plants.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Colossus of Credit

The "Masters of the Universe" have been at it again.  This time, the banksters at Goldman Sachs are implicated in the financial failure of Greece. The investment firm brokered complex currency swaps with the Greek government that allowed it to push healthcare liabilities forward and thereby hide them from regulators in Frankfurt. In one deal according to The Independent Goldman provided $1bn in funding to the government in 2002, and earned a $300 million fee.  The international bank probably earned several times that taking short positions on Greek bonds.  It is widely considered that Greece cooked its national books in order to gain entrance into the European Union.  The Union imposes strict debt limits on member nations, and requires national deficits not to exceed 3% of GDP.  Greece never adhered to these rules even before the worldwide financial crisis, and concealed an estimated 13% deficit under the previous government. It owes an estimated $419bn.  The size and scale of the Goldman-Greece deals are not yet fully understood by the EU central bank and an audit is certain to follow.  It is clear Greece will need a massive bailout by solvent members if the country is to avoid default.  But Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkle has already expressed her unwillingness to pull Greece out of its financial crisis at the cost of taxpayers.  EU leaders promised Thursday of last week that Greece would be rescued without providing details of a plan.  Betting seems to be that a mechanism will be sorted out, since Black Rock funds, the world's largest money management company, increased its holdings of Greek bonds.  Speculation has been rampant that Greece would be the next of the debt ridden European PIIGS* to fail.  Apparently, the world crouches helpless at the feet of the financial colossus that cowers even Uncle Sam.  It is no wonder the CEO gets a $9 million dollar bonus for a single year's operation.

*Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain

Monday, February 15, 2010

ObamaCon: Ending the Cold War

When Forty-four visited Prague in April of last year he pledged to end "Cold War thinking" and "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy". But as we are finding out, the President is much better delivering inspiring rhetoric than decisive action. His vice president, Joe Biden, announced in January that the administration will budget $5bn in new spending to modernize the United State's nuclear arsenal.  VP Biden wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial that the spending was necessary to maintain nuclear deterrence while seeking new strategic arms agreements with the Russians.  Biden said that the new expenditures were not contradictory to his President's pledge to end the Cold War.  But supporters of disarmament consider statements such as Biden's to be more "doublethink" than sincere effort to reduce the threat to humanity of nuclear annihilation. The United States is still actively pursuing missile defense at home and abroad despite Russia's position that strategic missile defense is destabilizing.  Disagreements over the issue delayed the signing of START II agreement. {2.4.10}  The two presidents agreed in a memorandum of joint understanding that strategic missile defense was linked to strategic offensive missiles, and they would include a provision in the new treaty recognizing "the interrelationship".  Nevertheless the Americans have insisted on unlinking missile defense from offensive missile limitation in the START II negotiations.  Prime Minister Putin and Russian chief of general staff Nikolai Makarov both view the US effort to cover southern Europe with a missile shield a threat to the Russian Federation. While the US backed down from a Regime plan to put interceptors in Poland {Cold War Returns; 8.27.07}, it has reached agreement with Romania to base shorter range Standard 3 interceptor missiles intended to counter a medium range missile launch from Iran.  The defense system is intended to become operational in five years.  Romanian legislators will have to approve any final agreement to base the missiles on its territory.

Disarmament advocates in the United States are calling for a "transformational rather than incremental changes" in our nuclear weapon policies.  In a letter to Forty-four they urged changes in four key areas as part of the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review.  The signatories urge a declaration against first use and narrowing the use of nuclear weapons to deterring nuclear attacks only; deep reductions in nuclear stockpiles to the level of hundreds rather than thousands of warheads; reducing the risks of nuclear war by ending a rapid launch posture; and clearly committing to not developing new warhead designs or modifying existing designs for new purposes.  The US nuclear arsenal is not decaying away as reflexive hawks would have you believe. A 2002 National Academy of Science panel concluded the current stockpile management program provides the technical capability to maintain a safe and effective nuclear arsenal. A major effort to refurbish warheads and modernize weapons has been underway for some time even though weapons experts consider this effort technically unnecessary. With Biden's published remarks the current administration has reassured their supporting elites that it is still committed to nuclear hegemony. By continuing to research and develop new warhead designs it undermines efforts to finally stop nuclear proliferation.  If Forty-four wishes to back his disarmament rhetoric with action, he should take the first step by working with the Senate to reconsider and approve the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Creature Feature: Rare Owlet on First Video

One of the rarest birds in the world, the Long Whiskered Owlet (Xenoglaux loweryi) was videoed by Sachar Alterman, a volunteer with Neotropical Primate Conservation, in Peru's cloud forests.  It has not been seen since 2007. This video is thought to be the first ever of the tiny owl, known as "Lechusitas" to locals.  No 3D glasses required, but try viewing it in a dark silent room:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Gem of Siberia Threated

US Person visited Lake Baikal shortly after the demise of the Soviet Union. When he arrived after a long train trip across half of Siberia, he noticed two things immediately: the rusting hammer and sickle symbol hanging from the lampposts in the lakeside village, and the incredible clarity of the lake's water.  His boat captain told him he could drink the water it was so clean, and so he did with no ill effects. That was almost twenty years ago. The paper mill on the south shore at Baikalsk was operating. But the lake is so large that the enormous volume of water it contains could dilute tons of pollution with little effect on quality. The Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill was built in 1966, but it has been shut since 2008. The plant is owned by billionaire oligarch Oleg Deripaska who lobbied Prime Minister Valdimir Putin to reopen the plant. Deripaska relied heavily on the fact that the plant provides 15,000 residents in the town of Baikalsk with jobs. Reportedly Prime Minister Putin is very sensitive to economic arguments. Lake Baikal, besides being incredibly beautiful, for which it has a deserved UN World Heritage site designation, is reknowned for the unique flora and fauna that live there. The oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world, it contains about 20% of the planet's freshwater reserves.
Russian environmentalists are concerned that the plant's full capacity operation scheduled to start in March will pollute the relatively undamaged lake. The production of white cellulose uses toxic chlorine gas. Apparently the factory's closed water circulation system has not been put back into service. The high cost of the system led to the plant's closure in 2008. Critics of the mill say it is an obstacle to alternative green development of the region. Maybe they should just bottle the water-- in recyclable or biodegradable bottles, of course.

[photo credits: top, Baikal Trail Assn.; bottom, Boyd Norton]

British Government Releases Torture Details

Contrary to the wishes of the US government the UK has publicly released the redacted description of the ill-treatment of former detainee Binyam Mohamed {2.10.09}.  The British Court of Appeals ruled that since similar information was released in a US court case, the details of Binyam Mohamed's treatment in Afghanistan should also be released.  Mr. Mohamed is an Ethiopian granted refugee status in Britain in 1994. Upon release from detention, he returned to the UK, and sued the British government claiming MI5 was complicit in the torture by American agents; the released documents confirmed the claim. The contents of the seven redacted paragraphs can be read here.  Nothing about the torture is really new, consisting of so-called "torture lite" or psychological pressure, sleep deprivation, and shackling. The Court found the treatment to be "at the very least, cruel, inhuman and degrading by the United States authorities."  In a not so coincidental development, previously unreleased aerial photos of the falling twin towers have been released in the US pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act suit.  Touché!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Tragic and Painful Death

If you love animals this story is tough to take, but it has to be told so that more people will come to the aid of wildlife suffering from the onslaught of man's greed and ignorance. Snares left by poachers in the wild are a diabolic way to kill an animal because the death is invariable painful and slow. So was the case with baby mountain gorilla Nsekanabo. Nsekanabo got caught in a snare. Rangers think some of the baby's terrible injuries were sustained as the juvenile tried to free himself in panic. The photo shows the severe wounds to his jaw and face. A heroic ranger named Innocent found Nsekanabo on Friday and disentangled him from the wire. (Innocent wears a mask to prevent infecting the vulnerable gorillas from further infection).

Vets in the field performed emergency aid. They sedated the mother, Tumaini, and the juvenile. Then they sewed his badly damaged face and removed more wire from Nsekanabo's left ankle. Tumaini was still nursing the baby, believed to her first offspring. Despite the intervention, the story does not have a happy ending. Nsekanabo died. His mother is carrying her dead juvenile around and may do so for days, in grief, until she leaves Nsekanabo behind. The body will be recovered and a necropsy performed to determine the exact cause of death.  Support the efforts of rangers and officials at Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo to protect the mountain gorillas from such despicable abuse and senseless death.

[photos:, official website of Virunga National Park]

China Scores Energy Deal

China and Malaysia signed an energy master plan last month that involves the building of massive dams and surface coal mines in the Borneo Island province of Sarawak.  The plan was negotiated in secret and is likely to require the removal of some 608,000 indigenous people living in the rainforest interior.  The Malaysian government is eager to receive the projected $11 billion dollar Chinese investment in energy infrastructure. The plan, labeled SCORE for Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy, will exploit 41,000bn cubic feet of natural gas and $1.46bn worth of coal reserves.  The Bruno Manser Fund which funds legal representation for indigenous land claims says the project will benefit construction companies linked to Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud family interests. An opposition politician called the unfinished multi-billion dollar Bakun dam [photo] a "monument to corruption".

Penguins Respond to Protection

A colony of African Penguins living on South Africa's east coast were headed toward extinction as a result of human fishing for anchovies and sardines. Between 2001 and 2009 the population of Spheniscus demersus declined by 60%. A 20 kilometer no fishing zone was established in January 2009 in hopes of saving the penguins. A comparative study shows that human respect for their survival has had a quick positive effect.  Now 70% of the birds fish within the safe zone compared to 75% that had to swim beyond 20 kilometers (12 miles) to find food.  The birds can now invest their 40% energy savings in reproduction activity. Penguins living at another island off the coast in unprotected waters are still swimming long distances to find food. Scientists want to study the birds in the protected zone over the long term to see if their prediction of a population increase is correct.  The study by France's National Centre for Scientific Research and published in Britain's Royal Society Biology Letters demonstrates how quickly a species can rebound if given a little help to survive.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Chart of the Week: 2012 Revisited

[Cue scary music.]The Mayans were excellent astronomers. Their mythology centered on the cosmic dance in the night sky. So they built stone observatories that marked significant cosmic events.  Their written charts of Venus, an important god, rival modern position calculations.  As you know by now--unless you have had been hiding under the covers--the solstice of December 21, 2012 is the end of an age on the Mayan long count calendar {4.6.09; The Maya Did the Math}. [End scary music.] Some television producers and assorted seers have interpreted this fact as a prediction of imminent doom, citing the contents of the Popol Vol, a post-conquest codex, as evidence.  But the Mayan predictions could also mean that 2012 will be the beginning of a paradigm shift, not the end of human civilization.  The first chart below suggests how this paradigm shift in the way Homo sapiens lives on Earth could come about.
It is a chart of peak oil, and it shows that we are living at the top of the exponential curve in terms of oil available for consumption.  Cleaner fuel sources will have to be developed and discovered, if our species is not to revert to a hunter-gathering existence or worse, go extinct as the result of an anthropogenic environmental catastrophe.  We are beginning to see the first stumbling efforts to begin the shift from fossil fuel burning.  The next chart concerns what the predominant economic system has wrought.
The S&P 500 is one generally accepted measure for the performance of the US economy, still the world's largest.  Earnings per share used to be strongly correlated to stock price, but not any more.  The decline in annual earnings per share is the largest on record, yet the apparent paradox is the stock market has not crashed. That is because the stock market has become a casino where price fluctuations mean more than absolute value.  Finance capitalism is a late--Marx would say decadent--stage of capitalism that is not concerned with producing things, but in manipulating money to produce more money.  Thus, earnings per share, a measure of value is not necessarily determinative of the value of a company, whereas transitory demand for its intangible share is.  Neither is finance capitalism concerned with the welfare of non-capitalists.  This chart shows the conditions of the current labor market.

In comparison to previous recessions the labor market is in the worst slump since the Great Depression. Clearly the social dislocations caused by such severe wage contraction will generate demands in a democratic society for rebalancing of the economy in favor of non-capitalists. The wealthy elites will counter the demands for social equity by claiming that diverting money to social programs and taxing accumulated wealth will hamper a nation's ability to compete in a highly complex global economy. The last chart suggests this is a false dichotomy. The five countries with the fastest broadband speeds are all social welfare democracies.
Perhaps 2012 will see a change to the better for a greater number of Earth's inhabitants, and not the beginning of a new dark age. Stayed tune. 

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Forty-four Is Burning!

So the 'Obamanon' is not after all. Yes, that right folks; he more or less admitted that himself. At a time when he should be rallying his majorities in both chambers to pass health care reform, he listens to Rahm Emanuel whisper poll results in his ear. Forty-four put the onus on Congress to pass reform legislation at a Thursday night fundraiser saying that, "If Congress decides we're not going to do it...then the American people can make a judgment as to whether this Congress has done the right thing for them or not." The special election defeat in Masschusetts obviously has him rattled. But interpreting that election as a definitive referendum against health care reform is ludicrous. There were several factors at play in that election, including the superficial. Scott Brown, former nude model, is a lot better looking than Ms. Coakley.  He knows his Red Soxs from his yellow dogs, and he drives a manly pickup truck as well. It must be very disconcerting to find out the "agent of change" that was larger than life is really a timid, calculating Washington politician after all. One of the chief reasons Obama was elected is to accomplish the task that has eluded Democratic presidents since FDR: establish universal health care. He convinced the American people he could do it. Now, he is failing to exert the unequivocal, muscular leadership necessary to guide a bill pass the ciphers of corporate dictate. Forty-four knows there is a way to pass health care legislation, now.  He simply does not have the hutzpah to use every legislative means at the majority's disposal. There is nothing representative about a minority party that refuses to engage on the issue, and is willing to abuse the anti-democratic filibuster to oppose reforms the majority of Americans clearly want.  From "yes, we can" to "no, we can't" in a year!  That has got to be some kind of record even for the swamp of special interests that is Washington, DC.  The Senate bill is no doubt the insurance industry's preferred outcome, but no legislation at all is just as good, maybe better.

Fortunately, the state of California is not willing to let health care reform die. Last week the state Senate passed a bill approving single payer health insurance for all Californians. Only one Democrat voted against SB810, and only one Republican voted in favor.  A study shows that state senators voting against the bill received twice as much campaign cash from insurance companies.   The single Democratic senator voting against the bill, Lou Correa, received 2.5 times as much insurance money as the average Senate Democrat.  The bill's author knows that Governor Schwarzenegger will veto the bill if it reaches his desk as he has done twice before, but Senator Mark Leno wants the issue put to a referendum which Californians will support. He thinks that could happen as early as 2012. California has 6.6 million uninsured residents (20%), and a majority of voters there understand that a single payer system will save money by removing the private insurance middleman. Health care spending rose to an estimated $8,047 per person in 2009, the fastest rate in more than a half century, and it is projected to double by 2019. Single-payer health care works both in the United States and abroad. It is not socialized medicine, regardless of what the delusional 'Tea Bag' rabble claim.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Sacred Cow: Pentagon's Budget

It is the perennial magnum opus of Washington: politicians bemoan social spending and escalating federal deficits, score easy political points with talk of budget cutting, and when the limelight is focused elsewhere vote for more defense spending. That is why the White House's objections to more C-17 cargo aircraft [photo courtesy Boeing Inc.] is an exhilarating aria midst Congress' somnambulant debate of the record size defense budget. More C-17s and its alternate engine program will cost $7 billion.  The Pentagon does not even want the additional 10 jet cargo aircraft.  Repugnants do not want to spend one more dime on national health care, but eagerly justify unwanted weapon programs costing billions. Senator McCain (R-AZ) said the 2010 budget contains $4 billion worth of earmarks not requested by Pentagon officials.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is another project drawing attention from both sides. It is the single most expensive weapon program at the Pentagon, and is over budget and behind schedule ($298.8bn versus a projected cost of about $200bn). Secretary of Defense Gates took the unusual step of replacing the program's manager. He also withheld $614 million of performance incentives due to delays and cost overruns. Typically advanced aircraft like the F-35 rely  exclusively on computerized controls--so called fly by wire technology--which require a tremendous amount of complex computer software and hardware to operate. The Lightening II is especially complicated because it is intended to be produced in several versions including a STOL variant for use by the Marines. Regardless of the development problems the Pentagon told Lockheed Martin to start building production models of the fighter with only 2% of the test programs complete. The STOL variant performed its first flight Tuesday [photo courtesy Lockheed-Martin]. It was only the fifth F-35 to begin operation. After the first prototype was completed, the jet was completely redesigned which added to development delays. The Pentagon plans to purchase 2,456 units and sell hundreds more to allies. Gates has recommended the cancellation of an alternate engine for the aircraft, drawing criticism from Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) chairman of the Armed Services Committee among others. Senator McCain said he was encouraged by the administration's recent efforts to reign in wasteful military spending, but added weapon programs are politically difficult to cut. An example of how difficult is Senator Saxbe Chambliss (R-GA) efforts to revive his pet project, the F-22 Raptor. Production of this yet more expensive fighter aircraft ($350m versus $122m each) was terminated last year. Health care reform in comparison could generate as much as $683bn in savings over 2010-19 based on independent projections. But your federal government's priorities are clear: you can go die in an emergency room waiting to be treated while squadrons of gold plated F-35s fly overhead protecting your right do so.

'Toontime: The Blindness of Arrogance

[credit: Jeff Danziger]
Wackydoodle sez: Forgive 'em Lord even if they know what they doin'!

The thirty-three Haitian children were taken from a mountain village by  American missionaries who promised their desperate relatives assembled on the village green "a better life".  Previously, the missionaries claimed the children were homeless or already orphans without shelter.  Ten American Baptists have been charged with child abduction by Haitian authorities.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Rocket Science Holds Up START II

Latest:The United States and Russia have reportedly reached agreement on a new strategic arms reduction treaty on Tuesday.  Officials are in Geneva to finalize the agreement in formal language after an agreement in principle was reached during a telephone conversation between the two presidents last week. The process could take as long as two months. The treaty is the first to establish strict limits on warheads with verification measures in place.

Update:  Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put an upbeat spin on the status of the stalled START II treaty negotiations on Friday.  Minister Lavrov said the talks between Russia and the United States will resume in early February and will soon result in a significant treaty further reducing each county's nuclear arsenal. National Security Advisor James Jones and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen were in Moscow this week to further progress.  Both sides would like to have an accomplishment to boast about at the upcoming Global Nuclear Security Summit in April and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Review Conference in May.  Presidents Medvedev and Obama agreed during their Kremlin meeting in July that the treaty should reduce nuclear warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675 for each country and reduce the number of delivery vehicles to between 500 and 1100.  These levels are about 30% reductions in the size of the arsenals.  A finished treaty would greatly enhance bilateral relations between the leading nuclear powers which reached a nadir after Russia's brief border war with Georgia. It would also lay the foundation for even further reductions which President Obama desires to perhaps as low as 100 strategic nuclear systems each.

{First post 1.14.09}The START II negotiations between the US and Russia are still stalled. The sticking point apparently is, well, rocket science--telemetry to be exact. The previous strategic weapons agreement which expired in December contained language that allowed the other side access to real time data about missile tests. According to US sources, the Russians are balking at including similar language in START II. Technically most of the same information is now available through advance tracking and verification technology, but the lack of such telemetry access language could set off the hardliners in Congress thereby making ratification more difficult. The Russians abhor anything that smacks of American intrusiveness or overreaching. They want to link telemetry access to defensive missiles as well; a goal pushed by the man in charge, Mr. Putin.   The administration wants to complete a treaty by the time of the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference which begins in May.  The State Department has attempted to downplay the impasse in press conference, but has also implied that the US would not give up defensive missile telemetry by saying that the agreement on the table is about strategic offensive systems, not defensive systems.  It seems to this writer that both sides should spend the extra dime to achieve mutual security and peace to replace mutual destruction.

Desparate Tiger Numbers In The Greater Mekong

The Greater Mekong River drainage covering five South Asian countries--Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam--contains fewer tigers than ever. In the last year of the Tiger, 1998, the regional tiger population was estimated at 1200. It is now down to about 350. Asian ministers from countries in the tiger's range recently met in Thailand to discuss what can be done to save the wild tiger. If decisive action is not taken, Panthera tigris will be extinct in the Mekong region by 2022 according to WWF. Sufficient forested habitat about the size of France still exists to support a healthy tiger population, but the demand for tiger parts used in Chinese folk medicine and unsustainable regional development is driving the decline. There are no more than 30 tigers each in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The remaining Asian tigers are found in the mountainous boarder between Thailand and Myanmar. In fact there are more tigers in captivity in China (estimated at 5,000) than are still living in the wild.  These majestic cats are doomed to a life of suffering in inhumane conditions while destined to be chopped into parts [photo] for the bizarre potions trade.  The ministerial meeting is part of a worldwide process to galvanize political support to save the tiger in the wild. These efforts will culminate in a "Tiger Summit" in Vladivostok hosted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this September.


Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Good Luck With That

Members of Congress Donna Edwards (D-MD) and John Conyers (D-MI) have proposed a constitutional amendment to counter the anti-democratic implications (ask yourself who has the deepest pockets) of the recent decision by the Supreme Court overturning restrictions on political spending by corporations:

‘‘SECTION 1. The sovereign right of the people to govern being essential to a free democracy, Congress and the States may regulate the expenditure of funds for political speech by any corporation, limited liability company, or other corporate entity.
‘‘SECTION 2. Nothing contained in this Article shall be construed to abridge the freedom of the press.’’.

An amendment is the only legislation that can possibly undue 112 years of legal precedent establishing the free speech rights of juridical persons. Giving business entities, which already enjoy legal privileges not according humans, the same political rights as citizens is a fundamental flaw in our system of governance. But the amendment will not be the first good idea to go nowhere because the procedure for approving a constitutional amendment is so difficult and tedious that is unlikely to ever be made law.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Pants Still on Fire!

Safe, clean, nuclear energy? Obama's pre-conditions expressed in this campaign appearence--safety, storage and no subsidies--for supporting nuclear power have not been met. He needs to be reminded.

Global Warming E-Mail Leak Could be Espionage

Update:  Former chief scientist for the British Government, Sir David King said the theft of a thousand e-mails and two thousand documents that caused a wave of skepticism to flood the Copenhagen climate summit was the sophisticated work of a foreign intelligence agency.  In an interview with the Independent newspaper the scientist dismissed the idea that the leaks were run of the mill hacking.  He also considers the timing of the leaks not mere coincident.  Sir David said, "The e-mails date to 1996, so someone was collecting the data over many years."  Dr. Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies foiled the hackers who had penetrated the RealClimate website on November 17th and attempted to load the e-mails onto the site.  Later the stolen information appeared on the TomCity server in Tomsk, Russia.  Dr. Schmidt agrees that the hack was sophisticated and required considerable skill and knowledge not usually possessed by a casual hacker.

{first post 12.7.09}The leaked e-mails of senior climate scientists discussing how to manipulate and hide unhelpful data has caused a sensation among right-wing bloggers. But The Independent reports an even more sensational allegation has surfaced. A member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the computer hack gaining access to 13 years of data was not an amateur job. The leaked e-mails originally appeared on a server at the firm Tomcity located in the Siberian city of Tomsk [photo: The Independent]. The firm has a history of issuing statements praising hackers for efforts to disrupt perceived anti-Russian statements on the Web. The FSB also has a record of paying friendly hackers, as well as running coordinated cyber attacks against websites it considers unfriendly. Of course suspicious coincidence does not make a case, but as the head of the Climate Change Panel said, the hacks will fuel more skepticism about global warming and make agreement on action even more difficult. Russia has an ambivalent attitude towards making reductions in carbon levels for good reasons. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor to its GDP. Putting the immense Siberian natural resources off limits to development will cost the country billions as would modernizing its creaking industrial infrastructure to meet tougher emission standards. On the other side of the balance is the catastrophic potential of melting the vast northern permafrost on which railroads and entire cities like Yakutsk are built. If that is not bad enough, the permafrost caps huge deposits of methane gas which, if released into the atmosphere by melting, would drastically increase global temperatures perhaps to the level of another extinction event*.

*there have been at least five extinction events in geologic time. The two most well known are the Permian (largest in terms of genera lost) and the Cretaceous extinctions (Earth's most successful terrestrial animal order--dinosaurs--killed off). Climate change is thought to have played a significant role in both, although there is disagreement over the triggering event. The EPA has, bless its heart, declared greenhouse gas emissions hazardous to human health which will allow CO2 levels to be regulated as an air pollutant in the United States.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Badges?; We Doin' Need Stinkin' Badges

Update:  Baltazar Garzon, the Spanish judge who prosecuted Argentina's dictator, Augusto Pinochet, will begin an investigation of torture at Guantanamo Bay according to Spanish media on Saturday.  Garzon is operating under the concept of universal jurisdiction recently amended by new legislation restricting court jurisdiction to cases were torture is committed against Spaniards or where the perpetrators are in Spain.  A Spanish citizen Ahmed Abderraman Hamed and three others with significant connections to Spain were among the detainees at Guantanamo.  A Spanish court convicted Ahmed of associating with Al Qaeda and sentenced him to six years in prison in 2005.

Garzon also requested the investigation of the Regime lawyers responsible for the "torture memos" including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo and David Addington, but the case was reassigned to another judge a month after the request was made.  Yoo and John Bybee were recently cleared by an internal investigation at the US Department of Justice of professional misconduct.  Yoo is a tenured law professor at University of California, Berkeley and Bybee is a federal appeals court judge.  A finding of misconduct would probably have resulted in disbarment proceedings against Yoo, and impeachment proceedings against Bybee.

{first post 1.28.10}US Person was tempted to file this one in the "oldie but goodie" folder, but he wants you to know his opinions are backed by experts.  The Iraq invasion was  Charlatan & the Neocons' pet project fulfilling his desire to be a "war president", and which he hoped would accomplish two objectives: removing former ally Sadam Hussein while securing the oil fields under the boot heel of the US military.  He got the excuse he needed to act when the jihadists struck in the United States.  Aggression against Iraq, which was technically at peace with the United States despite years of deadly embargo, was clearly a violation of the UN Charter and international law.  The former chief legal advisor for the British Foreign Office told the Iraq Inquiry Committee (Chilcot Inquiry) that he advised the invasion was illegal.  The fundamental rule of international law said Michael Wood in his memorandum to the Tony Blair government is, "...governments must refrain from using force or threat of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state".  The invasion did not qualify as self or collective defense.  A threat to security must be imminent as there are no concepts of "preventive attack" or "regime change" in international law. These are concepts used by neo-conservative policy wonks to justify an aggressive war--a crime lodged against the Nazis at Nuremberg and Japan's militarists at Tokyo.  Then Attorney-General Peter Goldsmith told the British Defense Minister essentially the same thing: the invasion of Iraq was illegal under accepted principles of international law.  Needless to say, the good legal advice was ignored.

Chart of the Week: House Market Still Down

These charts from Calculated Risk gives us a good idea of the state of the housing market in the United States. The twenty cities in the widely followed Schiller Price Index show price drops from the peak. Only five cities show improvement over last year.
The stock market may be up and business slowly recovering, but the real estate market is not responding nearly as fast, and it is where the bulk of consumer wealth is concentrated, and the equity in the mortgage backed securities plaguing bank balance sheets.  Nine banks have gone under in the first month of this year. The second chart shows the cliff that new home prices went over in 2007.  The small blip at the right shows the only 4% improvement over the bottom in January.
The lack of jobs is also showing up in the increasing number of delinquencies shown in the last chart.  According to real estate market experts, about 95% of the new home loans are being underwritten by the US government. That is another huge government expenditure that cannot go on forever.