May 12, 2007

Back to the drawing board again for Larry Lewis

All six Lancaster ISD bond propositions failed, all by at least a 60-40 margin.

And, with Nannette Vick losing, he’s going to have a new school board president.

I would laugh my head off, then cry for the school district, if Carolyn Morris were finally selected as president by the rest of the board.

Honestly, it's like the Bill Ward days. No more bonds will get passed as long as Lewis is there. If he had gotten the minimum, and most needed, Proposition 1 passed, it would have been different. But, losing even that is the kiss of death. Lewis will not get another bond passed.

(And yes, if I were there, I'd personally bet you an Andrew Jackson on it, Larry.)

Journalism is now being outsourced to India

No, this is NOT a joke.

The New York Times It is pretty freaking scary, though.

When is local journalism not really local? When it's about Pasadena and written by someone in India.

James Macpherson, editor and publisher of the Pasadena Now website, hired two reporters last weekend to cover the Pasadena City Council. One lives in Mumbai and will be paid $12,000 a year. The other will work in Bangalore for $7,200.

The council broadcasts its meetings on the Web. From nearly 9,000 miles away, the outsourced journalists plan to watch, then write their stories while their boss sleeps — India is 12.5 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time.

"A lot of the routine stuff we do can be done by really talented people in another time zone at much lower wages," said Macpherson, 51, who used to run a clothing business with manufacturing help from Vietnam and India.

So, on the Indian version of Craigslist, he posted an ad that said in part, “We do not believe that geographic distance between California and India will present unsurmountable problems, and that working together with you will result in your development of a keen working knowledge of this city's affairs.”

Dozens replied. One of the two chosen had attended the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Rob Gunnison, the director of school affairs there, is dismayed. “It just seems so fundamental to journalism to be there,” Gunnison said. “I still can’t quite believe it's not a hoax.”

The only consolation I can take from this at first glance is that this appears to be a Net-only “newspaper.”

Nonetheless, Prof. Gunnison is right. Even with something theoretically as mundane as a city council meeting, you can’t get emotional nuances from a webcast.

May 11, 2007

Toyota says profit per hybrids will equal gas-only cars

Yes, while the Big Three continue to fiddle in the face of relatively high gas prices, Toyota continues to burn them up.
Here’s the details:
Toyota expects to cut costs for hybrid cars enough to be able to make as much money on them as it does on conventional gasoline cars by around 2010, a top executive said on Thursday.

Japan's top carmaker has been keen to see the fuel-saving powertrain enter the mainstream since launching the Prius, the world's first hybrid car, in 1997, but sales have come at the expense of profitability given their high production costs.

But Masatami Takimoto, executive vice president in charge of powertrain development, said cost-cutting efforts on the system's motor, battery and inverter were bearing fruit, and the cost structure would improve drastically by the time Toyota reaches its sales goal of one million hybrids annually in 2010 or soon after.

“By then, we expect margins to be equal to gasoline cars,” he told Reuters in an interview at Toyota's headquarters in Toyota City, central Japan.

If it succeeds, Toyota, on its way to becoming the world's biggest carmaker, will be removing the main hurdle to cost-competitiveness for the hybrid — the expense of the powertrain, which twins a conventional engine with an electric motor. It will also likely widen its sales lead as more consumers seek better mileage amid rising fuel costs.

Can we say “sayonara,” GM, Ford, DaimlerChrysler?

Peak Coal on the horizon, too?

A small German research firm says “yes,” and that it could bein just 15 years.

Folks like the World Coal Institute and American mining companies have repeated ad nauseum the mantra that we have 200 years of coal left. But, what if they’re wrong?

Even if the Energy Watch Group is not totally right, either, what if, at today’s usage (not counting the idea of converting coal to diesel fuel, as the Germans did in World War II) the world has only 50-60 years left?

A larger European study, due out soon, bolsters some of the EWG findings:
Early in their paper the authors ask, “Will coal be a fuel of the future?” Their disturbing conclusion, many pages later, is that “The analysis in the preceding chapters indicates that coal might not be so abundant, widely available and reliable as an energy source in the future.”

Another problem — most of the easily-mined coal now being removed is higher-quality, “harder” coal. Between this and rising production costs, researchers expect the gap between coal and oil prices to narrow in coming years.

May 10, 2007

Business-world Orwell-speak — Temps are ‘contingent workers’

And, you’re about to be 10 percent of the U.S. workforce.

This is ridiculous. Is it any wonder that more and more solidly middle-class Americans are following the lower middle class into giving up hopes for even tattered remnants of “the American dream”?

That said, the American dream always was fantasy to some degree. And now, a trifecta of things not involving corporate plutocracy are tattering it more.

That’s the trio, oft-blogged here, of:
• Peak Oil
• Global warming
• The real estate crisis

The suburban sprawl of post-World War II America simply will not be sustainable once world oil supply peaks. I expect that in no more than a decade from now.

Especially since our one reliable export, agricultural products, no longer is so (the U.S. became a net food importer in 2005), to the degree global warming hits marginal U.S. agriculture hard (the irrigated High Plains and desert Southwest) our trade deficit will worsen.

And, the troubles of the real estate market and its bursting bubble mean less spending in a hyper-consumerist economy; given that real-estate driving hyper-consumerism rescued us from the previous, dot.com bubble, a recession is going to hit. Ignore the Dow at 13,000; the spending is irrational, including financial analysts touting subprime mortgage brokers up to the day of their crash and burn.

More on why oil prices are high — Nigerian civil war

Most of Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger River delta is under the control of rebels.

Foreigners are kidnapped in broad daylight. Even in the regional capital, the national government appears powerless and inert.

Shell has cut back its operations by 50 percent; other major oil companies have also cut back. And, even U.S. intervention, with old Coast Guard cutters, has made little difference.

Here’s the background to the Mend rebellion:
Mend's campaign [is] built on a foundation of anger, bitterness and, above all, a burning sense of injustice at decades of exploitation by western oil interests and Nigeria's self-enriching politicians and military leaders.

In 1995, the Nigerian army dragged the writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa to the gallows in the dank execution chamber of Port Harcourt prison, then threw his body into a pit of lime to deny him a proper grave. The military declared that the deaths of Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders had saved Nigeria from civil war and break up. Saro-Wiwa’s sometimes violent campaign for a fair deal for the marginalised Ogoni people had threatened the financial interests of the Shell oil company and Nigeria's military rulers. It also raised the old spectre of secession, a taboo since Biafra's failed bid for independence claimed more than a million lives in the late 1960s.

National lines are about as artificial in sub-Saharan Africa as they were in the creation of Iraq.

The problem, beyond recognizing a lack of loyalty to the central government, is recognizing that such governments in oil-rich nations have grafted money on a huge scale and not sent anything significant to provinces and cities in the oil areas.

So, in one sense, who can blame rebels for trying to deal with Big Oil companies directly, even if the use of force is the only way? The flip side is that, if Big Oil would accept this fact, the level of violence —at least against foreigners — would dramatically decline, in all likelihood.

Well, here’s part of why — such deals didn’t always bring stability:
Hostage taking and sabotage have been a by-product of oil in the delta for years. Often the abductions were carried out by young men demanding jobs. The oil companies paid them off and found themselves caught in a cycle of kidnappings and blackmail.

But, the Mend insurrection is better organized and has a more coherent strategy. It also has a more organized military operation than do small-scale rebels, giving it power to pull off more effective attacks on oil installations Here’s how that plays out, beyond weaponry:
The voice of Mend — and possibly its leader — is a mysterious being who goes by the name of Jomo Gbomo. He is contactable only by email, and acknowledges that Gbomo is not his real name. It is not even certain that Gbomo is one person, but the Mend fighters under General I Am acknowledge him as their leader.

“Our aim is to force the oil companies out of the Niger delta [or] otherwise compel the Nigerian government to cede its control over the resources of the Niger delta to its indigenes,” said Gbomo in reply to emailed questions from the Guardian. “We intend to achieve this solely through armed struggle and perhaps, at some stage, negotiations based upon the rights of the people of the Niger delta as agreed in the pre-independence constitution.”

Gbomo accuses the oil companies and successive Nigerian governments, civilian and military, of a cynical conspiracy against the people of the delta. “Successive governments have deliberately resisted developing the delta. For natural growth, certain basic infrastructures must be put in place as has been done in other parts of Nigeria. We have no roads, electricity or drinking water. The refusal of the central government to provide these basics contributed immensely to stunting the growth of the delta,” he wrote.

“The oil companies, on the other hand, have refused to act responsibly. Pipes are never replaced, leading to massive spillages for which they refuse to compensate villagers. Farmland and rivers are totally destroyed ... ”

The Mend have gotten some results, but want more:
At present, the government transfers 13 percent of the oil revenues back to the delta states that generate them. Until recently, it was just 3 percent. Mend wants 50 percent of the money to come back to the state government, to match what used to happen when cocoa was the main export.

And here’s what they want from oil companies:
Even if the government were to bow to its demand for half of the oil revenues to be returned to the delta states, that would not guarantee the money would be spent to develop the creeks. So the group wants the oil companies to lead the way by getting into the construction business.

If oil continues to grow more expensive, and even places like Saudi Arabia start putting out sour crude, Shell will discover it knows very well how to build roads, electric generation stations, and even individual houses and apartments.

Why the Army shouldn’t censor military blogs

Slate magazine makes a good case for this being the best way for non-coms and lower-ranking officers to hold top brass accountable for tactical and strategic mistakes:

It’s by circumventing organizational filters that blogs and soldiers’ writings allow unconventional and controversial views to percolate up to senior leaders and the public. An important article in the Armed Forces Journal by Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling illustrates the point. For years, the Army’s general officer corps congratulated itself for its stewardship of the Army during America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yingling, who is one of the Army's “jedi knights” trained at its elite School of Advanced Military Studies, wrote that today's generals in Iraq failed to commit sufficient resources, failed to understand the dynamic situation on the ground after April 2003, failed to adapt to these changed circumstances, and then failed to tell their civilian political leaders about the risks of these choices. The article should have provoked self-examination among the Army's generals. (Though friends in the Pentagon tell me it has been met by deafening silence.)

The new Army regulations would likely squelch dissents like Yingling's, along with the many other journal articles and professional exchanges about the war that have contributed much to public knowledge. Such discussions and Web sites are now increasingly restricted to Army personnel only. This policy constricts the Army’s marketplace of ideas by preventing civilians from participating in professional discussions about strategy and tactics. Such rules are particularly myopic for an interagency effort like counterinsurgency, where the best ideas may come from academics, contractors, or State Department employees.

Of course, these two paragraphs explain exactly what, far beyond the “aiding al Qaeda” cover story, IS the Army’s real reason for reining in blogs.

Brass hats never like having their intelligence questioned, doubly so in public.

May 09, 2007

Wrong answer on gas prices, Texas Lege

Suspending state gas taxes for the rest of the summer is not the right answer to high gas prices, despite this claim:
Relief from soaring gas prices may soon be on the way.

The Texas House tentatively adopted a measure Tuesday that would suspend the state's 20-cent gas tax through the summer.

That would mean an immediate 20-cent drop in the price per gallon.

"The more cars you have, the more relief you get," said Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who added the proposal to an omnibus tax collection bill.

That’s in part due to the idea that this would cut state road funding enough to have Gov. Rick Perry bring up his pet toll road projects one more time. But, that’s the lesser reason. The primary reason is it doesn’t deal with the issue in the right way.

What is the right answer, then?

It has several parts. One is letting people feel the pain until they look for more fuel-efficient cars. Two is related to that, getting them to feel the pain until they push Congress to increase fuel-efficiency standards. Third is getting them to realize that this isn’t going away.

New car mileage standards bill is weak tea

Yes, Congress is talking about raising car fuel economy 10 miles per gallon. But, the bill would let the Department of Transportation lower those standards if they cost more than they good they’re going to do.

Well, that’s a loophole big enough for a 10mpg Hummer to be driven through.

Why is buying health insurance like buying a BMW?

It sure sounds that way, with all the numbers and letters for insurance options, doesn’t it?

The thought was provoked by my passing the 90-day mark at my new job, as I wrote about in more depth in my op-ed column last week. (Time soooo flies when you’re not having so much fun.) Some selected thoughts:
First, if I’ve just been in a new locale, and not just a new job, for only 90 days, and haven’t been sick, how am I supposed to know enough about doctors to make a choice as a primary care physician?

And, don’t you almost need a translator to wade through the jargon? First, the combination of letters and numbers to describe different insurance packages make me feel like I'm buying a Mercedes or BMW. Either that, or with phrases like “high option” and “low option,” maybe I'm buying pork bellies futures at the Chicago Board of Trade.

And, there’s the question of whether insurance really does that much good, anyway.

I read a news analysis article of the state of health care in American and how much national health insurance would help. …

Anyway, the author of this analysis said that you ultimately get little better coverage quality if you’re privately insured, on Medicare or having to crash emergency rooms as unemployed. And, the more specialists in your area, the more likely that was to be true.

Theoretically, though, having health insurance is supposed to offer some sort of peace of mind. But, having some sort of national health care coverage, whether a British-Canadian single payer system, a German voucher system or some hybrid, would offer that same peace of mind to people between jobs, stay-at-home moms who have just been divorced and many others.

And, if we were all on the same page, we might have less paperwork, too.

Until we can do a better job of taking care of people’s health — and mental health — needs in today’s high-paced, high-stress world, can we truly claim to be such a shining light to other countries?

May 08, 2007

Comparing 500-homer, 100-RBI seasons of past and today is apples and oranges

I have to disagree with ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian that today’s players are as good as or better than top stars of the past, based just on stat lines.

He cites as an example Jim, Thome, who:
Is a lifetime .282 hitter with a .410 on-base, a .566 slugging, as many 100-RBI seasons (nine) as McCovey and Willie Stargell combined, and as many 40-homer seasons (six) as Willie Mays.

Batting average is an average, but even it’s been affected by one change since the time of McCovey and the prime of Stargell — the designated hitter in the American League, where Thome has played the majority of his career.

And, that has certainly helped RBI totals, with another batsman getting on base more often than the typical pitcher.

There’s another factor which changed in the early 1960s expansion from eight to 10 teams in each league: the move from 154 games to 162. That’s a 5 percent increase. How many old sluggers had 38-homer or 96-RBI years under the old schedule? They’d be 40/100 hitters now.

Ballpark size? Sure, the Polo Grounds had that cozy right field, but offset that with Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Shibe Park in Philly and other caverns.

Throw in maple bats, leaning over the plate with protective equipment and other items.

Thome may still be a Hall of Famer, but, let’s not gush quite so much, shall we?

Now, by the end of his column, Kurk says many of the sluggers who break the 500-homer mark in the next decade may have to wait years before getting an invite to the Hall. Some may never make it, he says.

But, other than the idea that some of them may not be as all-around as players from the past, he doesn’t say why.

And, I just did. Steroids or no steroids, there’s several reasons today’s best may not be directly comparable to those of the past.

Add up everything I mentioned outside of the schedule length change, and I think today’s NL batters have a 6 percent “premium” and those in the AL 10 percent or so. And we haven’t even gotten into a debate about whether or not there really is a dearth of pitching, especially starters, today.

May 07, 2007

Remind me to stop pledging allegiance to the Texas flag, too

When the phrase “under God” is inserted as per HB 1034, and the bill’s author, Debbie Riddle, admits by refusing an amendment that she isn’t trying to parallel the U.S. flag pledge, but evidently just wants to insert the words “under God,” it’s getting ridiculous.

So, will this stop somebody from selling strawberry meth on a school playground? Doubtful.

Update: A waggish letter-writer to The Eagle of Bryan-College Station suggests using “under Oklahoma” instead, which would at least be geographically correct!

May 06, 2007

Warren Chisum likes kids breathing diesel fumes from dirty buses

The wingnut Texas state representative sees no need to spend moneyto pay to clean up school bus exhaust.

And, Mr. “bible as literature in state classrooms” says this: “The problem is, their science is not very good.”

What a laugh!