SocraticGadfly: 7/15/07 - 7/22/07

July 21, 2007

Think Intelligent Design’s ‘war’ on evolutionary science is wholly innocuous? Think again

Death threats against university science professors are not innocuous.

It’s despicable that at least one IDer, probably mentally supported by others, believes that since you can’t win this as an intellectual or legal battle, it’s time to actually make it a physical battle.

July 20, 2007

40-gig Internet speed

But, you won’t find it here, you have to go to Sweden:
Sigbritt will now be able to enjoy 1,500 high definition HDTV channels simultaneously. Or, if there is nothing worth watching there, she will be able to download a full high definition DVD in just two seconds.

Knowing the monopolistic tendencies of telecom/cable, we’ll get something like this in the U.S. in about, oh, 30 years, for about $99 a month in today’s prices.

November is the new September for Iraq surge analysis

MSNBC notes that November is now September for assessing the Iraq surge of additional troops:
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno told reporters after a Senate hearing Thursday that he would need beyond September to tell if improvements in Iraq represent long-term trends.

“In order to do a good assessment I need at least until November” said Odierno, a deputy to Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq.

Come November, January will be the next September, according to Odierno, Petraeus or Ryan Crocker, all singing from the Tom Friedman/Herbert Hoover hymnal that old neo-con standby, “Victory is Just Around the Corner.”

No, victory isn’t. But more bullshit is. So is more lying. More dysfunctionality. And more needless, senseless death. Remember, Petraeus has already made noise about a second surge next year.

More details on how KKR took Environmental Defense for a ride over its TXU purchase

Will ED fess up to being played like a cheap violin? It will if it wants any more of my green money for its green causes

The Dallas Morning News has an excellent three-part series documenting how TXU would have had the same cutback in building coal-fired power plants as KKR has proposed, how the bought-out TXU could be made the cornerstone of a national utility company, an area where thee is no federal regulation to speak of, plus potential to challenge existing state regulations; and will almost certainly lead to higher electric prices starting in 2009.
In short, any “green” intention of KKR was already in the works, for the sake of the green of higher profits, without an ED “greenwash.”

The bottom line comes from the first story, from a private report commissioned by the News:
Our conclusion is that the buyout of TXU provides no inherent benefits to the customer. All of the commitments being made by the buyers could be offered by TXU today — if it had the incentive to do so. …

The buyers are offering the customer what TXU may have been forced to offer by regulators due to concerns over market manipulation and global warming or compelled to offer by the business imperative of stemming customer attrition and repairing reputation. Therefore, there is no net gain for the customer as the deal is currently described. …

The buyer commitment to terminate eight of the 11 planned TXU coal-fired plants was the public relations angle used to launch the buyout. …

There is reason to believe that TXU's high retail customer electricity prices, alleged price manipulation, poor handling of its proposed coal projects, negative environmental positions, flagging reputation, retail customer attrition and apparent CEO excesses would have forced the company to offer most of the same 'concessions' as the buyers are touting.

The complete report is available here, by going to the “see the complete report” link under the DigitalEXTRA header, which will download it as a Word document. It goes on to fault Texas laws and the Texas Legislature:
With a legislature that seems to have stalled in creating the laws that would have tuned-up deregulation and provided further protection against global warming, against high rates and against market power abuses, Texas customers must now rely upon the good faith of the buyers, a belief in market forces, and the ability of the PUCT to monitor and enforce existing laws.

In the third story, on the rate issue, the report said to watch out for bait-and-switch tactics:
TXU has the opportunity in the near term to price low enough to win new customers or, at a minimum, stanch the bleeding of existing customers. Then, in December 2008, when TXU is no longer committed to keeping rates low, they can raise prices again.

And, if you live in North Texas and this deal goes through, you might have more power outages that take longer to be fixed:
Reliability might be affected by the new owner's reticence to make capital expenditures. Private equity funds' principal objectives of providing returns to their owners and investors can pose an inherent conflict with utilities' needs for long-term capital investment as well as innovation to ensure long term resource adequacy.

I have felt for some time that ED got snookered, and that perhaps deal-leader William Riley was trading a bit too much on his name and Bush 41 presidential connections. This confirms it.

Now, the $64,000 question: Will ED own up to being played for KKR’s PR, and repudiate its greenwashing of the deal? I’m not holding my breath, but I am holding future contributions to ED until it fesses up.

July 19, 2007

Bush tells Congress ‘shove it’ on any idea of contempt charges

Will House Judiciary move beyond contempt charges against Bush staff to actually start looking at impeachment?

The president has officially folded, spindled, and mutilated executive privilege.
Bush administration officials unveiled a bold new assertion of executive authority yesterday in the dispute over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, saying that the Justice Department will never be allowed to pursue contempt charges initiated by Congress against White House officials once the president has invoked executive privilege. ....

Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University who has written a book on executive-privilege issues, called the administration's stance "astonishing."

“That’s a breathtakingly broad view of the president's role in this system of separation of powers,” Rozell said. “What this statement is saying is the president's claim of executive privilege trumps all.”

Impeachment is the only ultimate answer to this. And, it’s got clearer grounds, even, than anything war-related.

Car CO2 emissions problem solved?

A trio of Welshmen claim they have invented a carbon dioxide capture box that, when attached to a car’s tailpipe would capture 85-95 percent of its CO2 emissions.

Now, right now, it’s about the size of a barstool, but they claim they can get it small enough to be realistically used on a car.

That said, how’s it work? It uses algae; the group stumbled upon the idea while experimenting with using CO2 to boost algae growth for fish farming. The CO2 is contained in the box, which replaces a muffler. At each gasoline fill-up, the gases are exhausted out into an algae tank. The algae are eventually crushed and distilled into biodiesel.

The inventors believe they can also capture nitrogen oxides; they also believe that their invention can eventually be used for power plants.

And, they have talked to GM and Toyota, they say.

Now, a couple of questions.

• How long does it take to vent out this green box? If it takes 10-15 minutes, people aren’t going to want to do that while they’re getting gas.
• What’s the cost, even when it’s scaled into commercial production?
• How long does a unit last?
• If it replaces a muffler, what about noise issues in urban areas? Can it be further engineered to instead combine with a catalytic converter? Or would that cause back-pressure problems?
• And, I have the first three questions in spades about trying to ramp this up to a coal-fired electric power plant.

I don’t mean to be pooh-poohing it; I am legitimately curious, especially if they can meet their claim that they can install it in power plants, and do so economically.

Here's a diagram of the process:

Lancaster ISD four-day school week? This turkey won’t fly

I don’t blog much about my old stomping grounds and previous newspaper coverage of Lancaster, Texas, but the latest idea from Lancaster ISD Superintendent Larry Lewis, a four-day school week, was just too good to pass up.

First of all, especially since it’s a last-minute move in the face of a looming Sept. 1 budget deadline AND contravenes Texas Education Policy standards that say you need to request a waiver for a four-day week 90 days before the start of a school year, this looks like a rabbit being pulled out of a hat, or perhaps something else being pulled out of some bodily part.

Second, Lewis’ idea that he can sell the public on this through walking tours of Lancaster? Uhh, that didn’t work too well the last two bond elections, did it?

Oh, and Dr. Lewis, are you going to “request” that school teachers help out on walks this time, too? They’ll be about as likely to show enthusiasm for that as a Dell computer CD-ROM drive is likely to not be stolen from the new high school.

As for saving money on buses, I doubt Lewis has even talked to Dallas County Schools, the district’s busing contractor, yet. Utility savings? Well, you only get real savings if you have programmable thermostats. Given that the majority of school buildings there are too old to have been built with such things, unless they’ve been retrofitted, you have to trust maintenance crews or teachers to hand-adjust thermostats on Thursday nights.

And, how well will high schoolers stay awake through a school day almost 10 hours long?

Oh, and Carolyn was the only board member to oppose this? I see some things haven’t changed a lot.

Final thought: As my friend Chuck Bloom points out, when the Snooze (Dallas Morning News) writes something about Lancaster, it’s probably because it’s bad news.

Bush gives al Qaeda its boogeyman

I don’t think I could say it any better than Gary Kamiya:
Jihadists need their American boogeyman as much as Bush needs his Islamist boogeyman. By fighting them in the wrong way and on the wrong terrain, we have inadvertently allowed them to claim the heroic mantle of nationalism and anti-Americanism. When the U.S. occupiers leave, Osama bin Laden and his ilk will groan in despair. ...

By conflating jihadists with militant, religiously oriented national liberation movements like Hamas, Bush has not only undercut the support we might otherwise have received from Arab populations for police operations against genuine jihadists, he has helped to create toxic new forms of anti-Western extremism. … The irony is that without our help, the jihadists would be struggling to survive. As Gilles Kepel, a French expert on radical Islam, argues in "The War for Muslim Minds," very few Muslims, no matter how radical, support al-Qaida. "Beyond the circle of Bin Laden and Zawahiri and their supporters and admirers ... the majority of Islamists and salafists, let alone most of the world's Muslims, no longer see the commando action carried out by 'the umma's blessed vanguard' against the twin towers and the Pentagon as fulfilling the promise of jihad," Kepel writes. "On the contrary, after the first few seconds of enthusiasm for this blow to America's 'arrogance,' most Muslims saw the massacre of innocents on Sept. 11 as opening the door to disorder and devastation within the house of Islam."

The suggestion that we now leave a bunch of fanatical mass murderers alone may strike most Americans as cowardly and morally contemptible. But what we want are results, not self-righteous campaigns that make matters worse. Bush's righteous war has failed. To leave jihadists alone is not to appease them. It is to plan their isolation and eventual extinction more precisely.

Kamiya goes on to worry about what could happen if al-Qaeda gets established in Gaza or Lebanon.

I’m not that worried about that. I suspect that Egypt would give tacit assent to Israel cracking down in Gaza and that Syria, where a majority is Druze or Alawite or otherwise non-Sunni, that Assad would do the same in Lebanon. (Another reason why it’s absurd for Bush to think AQI is getting support from Damascus.)

Michael Duffy: official idiot

First, Kevin Drum points out how he botches Reid-Levin and how his criticism of total withdrawal is wrong.

Here’s my take on why his call for partial withdrawal is also wrong:

Partial withdrawal basically means getting your ass shot at three or four times — first when you go through all the work of extricating part of your troops while moving others to consolidate them into fewer bases, etc.; second when you make yourself targeted by being in fewer bases, meaning insurgents’ attacks can be consolidated; third, by being more vulnerable to attacks when you do go on patrol, because you have fewer patrols from fewer bases, so street attacks against troops can also be consolidated — plus you have less firepower to disrupt this consolidation; then, fourth, when you finally do withdraw the rest of the troops, you get shot at again.

And, that’s not all. It means taxing military leaders to craft two sets of complex, complicated plans, one for the initial, partial withdrawal and another for the final withdrawal; it means extra expenditure of resources and probably means extra casualties.

Partial withdrawal is the stupidest thing.

Fragmented Iraqi resistance begins to unite

The Guardian has an excellent article about how non-AQI insurgency movements are beginning to coalesce. Here’s one member’s take on the growing movement:
“Resistance isn’t just about killing Americans without any aims or goals,” says Abd al-Rahman al-Zubeidy, the political spokesman of Ansar al-Sunna. [Note: The story changes the actual names of people. “Our people have come to hate al-Qaida, which gives the impression to the outside world that the resistance in Iraq are terrorists. Suicide bombing is not the best way to fight because it kills innocent civilians. We are against indiscriminate killing — fighting should be concentrated only on the enemy. They [al-Qaida] believe that all Shia are kuffar [unbelievers] - and most of the Sunnis as well.” They estimate that al-Qaida now carries out between a fifth and a third of all attacks in Iraq.

Zubeidy also says the group has no direct contact with the Syrian government, contra another BushCo claim that Damascus is responsible for much of the problem in Iraq. And, The Guardian notes that Ba’athists, as well as AQI, are not part of this coalition.

That said, Zubeidy and other Sunni insurgents are also now calling for an outreach to Shi’a insurgent groups.

Why is the real insurgency starting to speak out now? The Guardian says that it’s in anticipation of US/UK withdrawal.

And what’s next?
“Peaceful resistance will not end the occupation,” states Abu Ahmad. “The US has made clear that it intends to stay in Iraq for many decades. Now it is a common view in the resistance that they will start to withdraw within a year.” Right or wrong, that is one of the factors that has led to the decision to form the new front, which is planned to be called the Political Office for the Iraqi Resistance. As well as Iraqi Hamas, the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the new Ansar al-Sunna, it is to include the powerful Jaish (army) al-Islami, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Jama' and Jaish al-Rashideen. The plan is to hold a congress of the seven groups to announce the front's formation and then move towards the establishment of some form of public presence outside Iraq, though it is hard to see any state being prepared to risk the wrath of the US by hosting such an outfit. “It would need UN protection,” Zubeidy suggests.

Now, I’m not sure how realistic of an idea this is, but the fact that it’s being broached indicates to me that the real insurgency is gaining steam.

Jim Jubak weighs in on Peak Oil

Jubak, a respected stock analyst and economist who writes for MSN, has this to say about Peak Oil:
You can debate whether the world is running out of oil all you want. It is certain, however, that the world has run out of cheap oil.

Without offering predictions, it seems Jubak’s analysis lies closer to early peakers rather than the Daniel Yergins of the world. He noted the rates of decline in recent years in some major producing countries and major fields.

He partially notes the whys of this, focusing on Cantarell and lack of investment by the Mexican government. True as far as it goes, as with Venezuela and possibly partially true for Kuwait’s Burgan field.

But, in places like the UK (10 percent decline) and Norway (7 percent decline) lack of investment in marginal recovery isn’t the problem. The fact is that, even with high investment in two Western companies with state-of-the-art technology, business transparency, etc., oil fields are facing a major fall-off.

July 18, 2007

Eat a steak, heat the planet

That’s the word from Japanese researchers, who say all the energy consumed in getting 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of beef on your plate, causes as much global warming as driving for three hours while leaving all your house lights on.
Producing a kilo (2.2 pounds) of beef causes the equivalent of 36.4 kilos (80.08 pounds) in carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas, Akifumi Ogino found.

Most of these greenhouse-gas emissions take the form of methane, released from the cow's digestive system.

That one kilo (2.2 pounds) of beef also requires energy equivalent to lighting a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days. The energy is needed to produce and transport the animals' feed.

A Swedish study in 2003 suggested that organic beef emits 40 percent less greenhouse gases and consumes 85 percent less energy because the animal is raised on grass rather than concentrated feed.

Now, I’m not a vegetarian. But, I already go light on meat, and it’s usually poultry I eat. But, even if I ate all red meat, normally it would be 10-14 days for me to eat that much.

Cheney energy task force: Why didn’t an enviro group just spill the beans?

OK, we now officially know who sat in on Vice President Cheney’s energy task force in spring 2001. It had everybody from the American Petroleum Institute to Defenders of Wildlife.

Here's what I don't get.

There were representatives from legitimate enviro groups that sat in on task force meetings.

I know the meetings were on different dates, but did Cheney never mention a thing about energy companies during meetings with environmental groups? Why didn't somebody just spill the beans and leak this? Even a minor leak?

What, the vice president who’s addicted to secrecy is going to sue you over leaking information, leading to even more of it coming out in court?

Or, if Cheney remained absolutely close-mouthed, why did environmental groups decide to participate in the process at all?

Frankly, it does raise the cynicism hackles a bit, making me wonder if some groups like to keep the confrontational pot boiling because it makes for better fundraising. By participating in the process, they got some talking points; by harping on the secrecy theme without doing something different about it, they got much bigger talking points.

David Halberstam’s last words on Bush

From Vanity Fair. Although this is not his lede, it certainly could be:
Those who know history best tend to be tempered by it. They rarely refer to it so sweepingly and with such complete confidence. They know that it is the most mischievous of mistresses.

It’s actually a quarter of the way through the article, which should whet your appetite for the beginning, as Halberstam, with his special style, demolishes President Bush in particular and this administration in general:
We are a long way from the glory days of Mission Accomplished, when the Iraq war was over before it was over — indeed before it really began — and the president could dress up like a fighter pilot and land on an aircraft carrier, and the nation, led by a pliable media, would applaud. Now, late in this sad, terribly diminished presidency, mired in an unwinnable war of their own making, and increasingly on the defensive about events which, to their surprise, they do not control, the president and his men have turned, with some degree of desperation, to history. In their view Iraq under Saddam was like Europe dominated by Hitler, and the Democrats and critics in the media are likened to the appeasers of the 1930s. The Iraqi people, shorn of their immensely complicated history, become either the people of Europe eager to be liberated from the Germans, or a little nation that great powerful nations ought to protect. Most recently in this history rummage sale—and perhaps most surprisingly—Bush has become Harry Truman.

We have lately been getting so many history lessons from the White House that I have come to think of Bush, Cheney, Rice, and the late, unlamented Rumsfeld as the History Boys. They are people groping for rationales for their failed policy, and as the criticism becomes ever harsher, they cling to the idea that a true judgment will come only in the future, and history will save them.

Ironically, it is the president himself, a man notoriously careless about, indeed almost indifferent to, the intellectual underpinnings of his actions, who has come to trumpet loudest his close scrutiny of the lessons of the past. …

I am deeply suspicious of these (claims). We have, after all, come to know George Bush fairly well by now, and many of us have come to feel—not only because of what he says, but also because of the sheer cockiness in how he says it—that he has a tendency to decide what he wants to do first, and only then leaves it to his staff to look for intellectual justification.

Halberstam goes on to note he finds it easy to shoot down Bush’s Truman-self comparison, in part because he has a book about the Korean War, “The Coldest Winter,” due out in September. From there, he looks at the Iraq-Vietnam analogy and much more.

It’s as to be expected, a Halberstam tour de force. The last graf I quoted indicates Bush has an almost-childlike stubbornness about the need to get his own way.

July 17, 2007

The Yugo-Forders, otherwise known as “Al Qaeda in Iraq”

“Huhhh?” you may be saying at this moment. Let me explain.

As Blue Girl posted at Proctoring Congress, mainstream media groups such as The New York Times seem too willing to conflate Al Qaeda in Iraq with a whole panoply of groups and splinter movements of Sunni and nominally Sunni terrorists and insurgents in Iraq, running from basically secular unreconstructed Baathists to and through various Falafists, whether called AQI or not.

In a political e-mail group on Yahoo, in response to one of Bush’s “there has to be a pony here somewhere” true believers, I started calling AQI “Yugo-Forders.”

I said, “You can slap a Ford badge on a Yugo; that doesn’t make it a Ford.”

I’m surprised he hasn’t come back with the “franchisee” counterargument, i.e., saying that a franchise 7-11 is just like a corporately owned store. I’ll shoot it down if he does, because the Yugo-Forders simply declared themselves to be “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” and that’s not the way 7-11 works. It would have nothing to gain by adopting every convenience store that calls itself 7-11 as being an actual 7-11.

If my metaphor sounds a bit clunky, try another one. But, we need to counter the incredulity, gullibility and BushCo stenography of the MSM with an alternative.

Too bad House and Senate ethics committees don’t operate like the House of Commons

The Commons’ ethical standards watchdog is recommending MP George Galloway be suspended without pay for 18 working days. And, it would not be the first time such a suspension happened.

Our Congress will adopt such standards in about 200 years or so.

July 16, 2007

Why hasn’t Wall Street reacted to the subprime crisis the way it “should”?

Because the Street has a lot to protect. Note the words “contained,” “suppressed” and “protected” in the Bill Fleckenstein analysis quoted below:

The problems have taken a long time to play out, largely because of what we've recently come to discover but probably could or should have known all along: that the building blocks of the housing ATM — more accurately referred to as structured credit — were created in such a way that these securities were rarely marked to market. Rather, they were allowed to be marked to a model, based on a variety of assumptions. Essentially, therefore, one's assets were impaired only when the ratings companies downgraded them. ...

Fast-forward to last February and March, which saw the implosion of a couple of dozen subprime lenders. Wall Street reacted by proclaiming the problem “contained.” Though I essentially laughed at that sanguine response, now I understand what it meant: Those in the know understood that nothing was going to be marked to market, so the subprime-loan-originator implosion didn't matter.

Next, we saw the blowup of Bear Stearns’ High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Leverage Fund. That happened, in part, because manager Ralph Cioffi had tried to hedge some of its weaker credits with an ABX index that did get marked to market. Thus the fund lost money and was hit with redemptions.

At the time, I said that redemptions were going to force price discovery into the market — although, as Jim Grant so eloquently put it in a recent issue of Grant's Interest Rate Observer — Bear Stearns had a totally different opinion: “Price discovery could wait until the return of blue skies and normal pulse rates. The first order of business was price suppression.”

This price suppression was the outcome folks had hoped for. After all, according to a July 11 article in Bloomberg, Wall Street took in about $27 billion in revenue from underwriting and trading asset-backed securities last year alone. It’s a mighty profitable business that they are protecting.

In other words, until the Street gets as “rational” about sunk costs as classical economists believe people are supposed to be, it’s not going to own up to the size of this problem.