SocraticGadfly: 11/18/07 - 11/25/07

November 23, 2007

Does God do bloopers?

Or, at least, do people’s idea of God do bloopers? Find out at GodTube.

The one coal waste you haven’t heard much about yet

It’s not the carbon dioxide of global warming. Nor is it the sulfur dioxide of acid rain, nor the mercury of smokestack-area pollution. Instead, it’s coal combustion waste, the solid byproducts of burning coal. In fact, air pollution smokestack controls wind up producing more solid waste.

Beyond mercury or sulfates, coal combustion waste can contain lead, selenium and arsenic, among other things.

The problem? Most power plants do little to nothing to dispose of combustion waste in an environmentally friendly matter, and the Environmental Protection Agency does little to make them. That’s mainly because EPA doesn’t consider it a hazardous waste, despite all the heavy metal content.

If stored in basically open areas, dust off the waste can blow in the air, or the waste can run off into water supplies after rains.

Japanese saying ‘sayonara’ to the dollar

Japanese investors are pulling money from U.S.-based mutual funds and other investments, and moving it into emerging-world mutuals and other funds, especially in China and India.

That sound you hear is the dollar falling a little further.

Shouldn’t churches be rendering unto Caesar?

I look askance on churches entering the business world, even if their for-profit operations pay property, sales and other taxes.

The “success Gospel” obviously doesn’t give a damn whose image is on the denarius anyway.

Oh, and why should churches in their actual church operations get to avoid unemployment taxes as well as property taxes?

EU set to say no to GMO corn

First the past several, the E.U. has not granted any new planting applications for GMO products, but an outright ban on GMO corn would be the first such full rejection of a GMO crop.

They’re worried about effects on monarch butterflies and other things, the same worries when GMO corn was introduced to Mexico. The U.S. is trying to verbally browbeat the E.U. on this issue, but it ain’t gonna happen.

I’m glad that the E.U. will actually deny this issue. It may change its mind in the future, but the decision will force the U.S., and the Monsantos and ADMs of the U.S., to do scientific legwork themselves to try to beat the E.U. ban, because the E.U. stance will give protection to developing nations to adopt similar bans.

Richardson benefiting from Hillary sag in support

Big Bill’s support in New Hampshire has doubled (PDF) from 6 to 12 percent since September. Meanwhile, Biden trickles lower and lower every month.

Hey, Sen. MBNA, your NH support is now lower than Kucinich’s. Smell the coffee and get a clue.

Iraq semi-withdrawal bill ‘has more holes than Swiss cheese’

That’s our Democratic Congress! Is this the best it can do?
The Democrats; flagship proposal on Iraq is aimed at bringing most troops home. Yet if enacted, the law would still allow for tens of thousands of U.S. troops to stay deployed for years to come. … For those who want troops out, “you’ve got more holes in here than Swiss cheese,” said Tom Andrews, national director of the war protest group Win Without War and a former congressman from Maine.

Loophole No. 1, of course, is this:
The proposal also sets a goal of ending combat by Dec. 15, 2008.

After that, troops remaining in Iraq would be restricted to three missions: counterterrorism, training Iraqi security forces and protecting U.S. assets, including diplomats.

With all three exceptions, you have the “hot pursuit” issue, and what if it escalates? In the last month or so before the Battle of the Bulge, when more and more of limited U.S. supplies were shifted north to the U.S. First Army, or even to the British 21st Army Group, Gen. Patton would find ways of deliberately expanding extended reconnoiterings and limited counteroffenses into actual battles.

Proof positive that’s what could happen in Iraq?
Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero, deputy chief of staff for operations in Iraq, declined to estimate how many troops might be needed under the Democrats' plan but said it would be hard to accomplish any of those missions without a significant force.

“It’s a combination of all of our resources and capabilities to be able to execute these missions the way that we are,” Barbero said in a recent phone interview from Baghdad.

For example, Barbero said that “several thousand” troops are assigned to specialized anti-terrorism units focused on capturing high profile terrorist targets. But they often rely on the logistics, security and intelligence provided by conventional troops, he said.

“When a brigade is operating in a village, meeting with locals, asking questions, collecting human intelligence on these very same (terrorist) organizations, that intelligence comes back and is merged and fed into this counterterrorism unit,” Barbero said. “So are they doing counterterrorism operations?

“It’s all linked and simultaneous,” he added. “You can’t separate it cleanly like that.”

On the training issue, what if Iraqi soldiers and security units prove as unwilling to take to training over the next 2-3 years as they have the last 2-3? Are Congressional Democrats, PLUS, the next president, should he or she be a Democrat, going to just pound more sand down that rathole?

Oh, and don’t expect attitudes to greatly change after Jan. 20, 2009. Too many Democrats are invested in the Bipartisan Foreign Policy Consensus™.

Wonder if any American mortgage lenders did this?

Beleaguered British lender Northern Rock put two-thirds of its mortgage portfolio into a separate offshore company. (The Channel Islands serve the same purpose in the U.K. that Bermuda and the Bahamas do here.) Given the way offshore entities have proliferated here in the U.S., I’m actually surprised we haven’t heard about this yet in our mortgage lending industry.

If we do here about something like this year, the subprime market will surely take an even more massive cratering.

November 22, 2007

Iraq violence down, but shit spreads

Literally. Violence in Iraq is down; whether due to success of The Surge™ or else due to the success of ethnic cleansing or the scattering of millions of refugees is still an open question.

But, all that rebuilding of the country that Iraq’s oil money was supposed to finance still hasn’t happened. In fact, the situation there continues to get worse, something that neocons and their O’Hanlon fellow travelers of the pre-emptive war hawk world just don’t want to discuss.

One additional problem the Guardian story mentions is that most Iraqi sewer pipes are only shallowly buried, and so are “collateral damage” from IEDs. Another way in which our continuing occupation not only isn’t helping, but is actually part of making a situation worse.

That said, there’s corruption in sewer repair contracts, on both the American/Western and Iraqi sides, as there is in other reconstruction work.

But, the worse could get worse yet. Northern Iraq has already had a cholera outbreak; if it hits densely populated Baghdad, cholera could be devastating.

And, in good news/bad news, Baghdad says Iraqi refugees are starting to return home from Syria. Good news in that it’s a sign of trust and belief in their country’s future. Bad news because it will add even more to the strain of an overburdened, unreconstructed infrastructure. (And, the return is just from Syria, not Jordan.)

Afghanistan: Majority Taliban, and Kabul could fall next year

At least if you go by land area. The Guardian reports the Taliban now control more than half the country at an estimated 54 percent.

The Senlis Council, an independent British think tank, warns the country could be lost entirely, even as the Taliban front line creeps closer and closer to Kabul:
“It is a sad indictment of the current state of Afghanistan that the question now appears to be not if the Taliban will return to Kabul, but when ... and in what form. The oft-stated aim of reaching the city in 2008 appears more viable than ever and it is incumbent upon the international community to implement a new strategic paradigm before time runs out.”

Its 110-page report coincides with an equally severe warning from Oxfam. In a report for the House of Commons International Development Committee the humanitarian and aid agency warns that the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating significantly with the country's problems exacerbated by corruption in central and local government.

Senior British and US military commanders privately agree despite their public emphasis on short-term successes against Taliban fighters.

Senlis recommends urgent action, as does Oxfam, but nobody seems to listen or care:
It says that the NATO-led International Security Force of some 40,000 troops should be at least doubled and include forces from Muslim countries as well as Nato states which have refused to send troops to the country.

There is no sign of any move within NATO to send reinforcements to Afghanistan.

While western governments, like the Senlis Council and Oxfam, are increasingly concerned about the lack of effectiveness of President Hamid Karzai's government, there is no agreement about how to solve the problems.

Also interesting to note that “our boy” in Kabul is more and more perceived as less and less effective, kind of like the whole succession of “our boys” in Baghdad.

The domestic political fallout will be huge if the Taliban occupies Kabul in, say, mid-summer 2008, after primaries are over but before the party national conventions. That holds true in spades if Bush’s soul-gazed bosom buddy in Karachi, Pervez Musharraf, continues to dig in his heels about not taking serious action against the Taliban and allies in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands.

Ted Rall was right: If there was a country to invade six yeas ago, it was Pakistan. But, THAT most definitely would have required a military draft.

November 20, 2007

Ahh, those were the days… sort of

I taught a year as a part-time non-tenure track adjunct at a college in Michigan which had multiple campuses. This story from the New York Times brought back memories. Adjunct at small colleges and community colleges usually have a bit more time for students in smaller classes than adjuncts at universities; on the other hand, the pay is even lower.

Instead of Iraq, let’s spend more money on science

Cutting to the bone the budget for the world’s largest radio telescope, at Arecibo, is not just stupid, or even asinine. It’s potentially deadly.

We still have no idea how many near-earth asteroids there are.

November 19, 2007

Cal regulators step in where BushCo leaves federal hole

California AG Jerry Brown is suing 20 companies over lead levels in children’s toys. The suit includes both defendants like Mattel and retailers like Wal-Mart.

But, he’s willing to settle out of court.

IF the defendants agree to increased inspections, among other things.

I’m sure BushCo is so out to lunch that the U.S. DOJ won’t even file an amicus brief on behalf of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Between this, and suits over CAFÉ standards and carbon dioxide emissions by cars, it’s almost as if there’s a parallel United States government in Sacramento at times.

No, Ahhnold himself is far from perfect. But, the California statehouse is more than Der Governator.

You think U.S. environmental enforcement is lax at times? BC sucks up to BP

Try living in British Columbia, where the provincial government is set to sign off on a coal-mining and natural gas exploration project next to both U.S. Glacier National Park and Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park.
Together, they comprise the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which is listed by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of its world heritage site.

Both the Canadian and US parks also have been declared by UNESCO to be Biosphere Reserves. World heritage sites are said to have outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of all humankind.

Critics also say the mining project runs the risk of spoiling the pristine waters and fragile ecosystem of parks on both the Canadian and US sides of the Rocky Mountains, which have come to symbolize peace and friendship between the two countries.

Chief among environmentalists' concerns are the impact on the area's abundant wildlife, including lynx, wolves and especially grizzly bears, whose mating habits could be adversely impacted by the noisy and intrusive mining equipment.

The company involved? British Beyond Petroleum; obviously moving so greenly beyond petroleum into dirty coal mining.

The natural gas will come from the same coal-bed methane that has dirtied up Wyoming’s Powder River country.

Despite the provincial government’s claims that neither national park has anything to worry about, an international commission recommended against a similar project back in 1988.

Another kick in the pants for CDOs — mortgage note-holders told ‘no’ on foreclosures

Mortgage investors may not have a legal right to foreclose on property.
Judge Christopher A. Boyko of Federal District Court in Cleveland dismissed 14 foreclosure cases brought on behalf of mortgage investors, ruling that they had failed to prove that they owned the properties they were trying to seize.

You think CDOs are crap now? If lending institutions assume this ruling will be upheld on appeal, they’re going to go right in the toilet.

Writer Gretchen Morgenson notes this has been a common practice for years, letting holders of mortgage security notes foreclose, but it had never been legally challenged.

The increased slicing-and-dicing of CDOs was making mortgage securities-based foreclosures more difficult anyway.

Here’s how the judge’s decision came down:
On Oct. 10, Judge Boyko, 53, ordered the lenders’ representative to file copies of loan assignments showing that the lender was indeed the owner of the note and mortgage on each property when the foreclosure was filed. But lawyers for Deutsche Bank supplied documents showing only an intent to convey the rights in the mortgages rather than proof of ownership as of the foreclosure date.

Saying that Deutsche Bank’s arguments of legal standing fell woefully short, the judge wrote: “The institutions seem to adopt the attitude that since they have been doing this for so long, unchallenged, this practice equates with legal compliance. Finally put to the test, their weak legal arguments compel the court to stop them at the gate.”

A spokesman for Deutsche Bank declined to comment on the ruling. But the inability of Deutsche Bank, as trustee for the pools, to produce proof of ownership at the time of the foreclosures will fuel borrowers’ concerns that they are being forced out of their homes by entities that may not even hold the underlying loans.

Here’s how the mortgage security process starts, without including the part of different slices, or tranches, being mixed together into CDOs, which would make the picture below even more complicated:
The process of putting together a mortgage pool begins when a home loan is originated by a bank or mortgage lender. That loan is typically sold to a Wall Street firm that pools it with thousands of others. Once a pool is packaged, it is sold to investors in different slices, based on risk. A trustee bank oversees the pool’s operations, ensuring that payments made by borrowers go to the appropriate investors.

Lawyers who represent troubled borrowers complain that trustees overseeing home loan pools often do not produce proof, usually in the form of a mortgage note, that their investors own a foreclosed property. And a recent study of 1,733 foreclosures by Katherine M. Porter, an associate professor of law at the University of Iowa, found that 40 percent of the creditors foreclosing on borrowers did not show proof of ownership.

About 40 percent? Do you hear the wheels of the foreclosure machine grinding to a halt?

And here’s why the situation exists:
When a loan goes into a securitization, the mortgage note is not sent to the trust. Instead it shows up as a data transfer with the physical note being kept at a separate document repository company. Such practices keep the process fast and cheap.

In other words, another corner gets cut. And when securities holders bitched, Boyko told them where to get off:
e plaintiff’s argument that “‘Judge, you just don’t understand how things work,’” the judge wrote, “reveals a condescending mindset and quasi-monopolistic system where financial institutions have traditionally controlled, and still control, the foreclosure process.”

The article goes on to say that the cases can be refiled in state court, whether or not a federal appeal is being pursued. But, I’m betting attornies for debtors block that, depending on where either the putative note-holders, or the actual note-holder is, on interstate commerce grounds.

I’m surprised that word of this ruling hasn’t spread more, and thus become even more of a downer on mortgage brokerages and other financial institutions.

Depleted uranium IS a health hazard — is its military use a war crime?

An upstate New York town that was the location of an old uranium plant demonstrates just how hazardous it is.
The US federal government and the firm that ran the factory, National Lead (NL) Industries, have been assuring former workers and residents around the 18-acre site for decades that, although it is true that the plant used to produce unacceptable levels of radioactive pollution, it was not a serious health hazard.

Now, in a development with potentially devastating implications not only for Colonie but also for the future use of some of the West's most powerful weapon systems, that claim is being challenged. In a paper to be published in the next issue of the scientific journal Science of the Total Environment, a team led by Professor Randall Parrish of Leicester University reports the results of a three-year study of Colonie, funded by Britain's Ministry of Defence.

Parrish's team has found that DU contamination, which remains radioactive for millions of years, is in effect impossible to eradicate, not only from the environment but also from the bodies of humans. Twenty-three years after production ceased they tested the urine of five former workers. All are still contaminated with DU. So were 20 per cent of people tested who had spent at least 10 years living near the factory when it was still working.

Of course, the U.S. and U.K. defense establishments have denied repeatedly that DU-enhanced tank shells and other ordinance fired during the Gulf War was the cause of soaring Iraqi cancer rates, or Gulf War Syndrome among their own troops.
When DU “penetrators” — armour-piercing shells that form the standard armament of some of Britain's and America's most commonly deployed military aircraft and vehicles — strike their targets, 10 per cent or more of the heavy DU metal burns at high temperatures, producing oxide particles very similar to those at Colonie.

TV footage shot in Baghdad in 2003 shows children playing in the remains of tanks coated with thick, black DU oxide, while there have long been claims that the DU shells that destroyed Saddam Hussein's tanks in the 1991 Gulf war were responsible for high rates of cancer in places such as Basra.

Parrish's team includes David Carpenter, an environmental health expert from Albany University. “DU burns, it releases particulates that can be breathed in, and it doesn't go away,” he says. “The issue does not concern military personnel as much as civilian populations in theatres where they are used. Now we know that we can still find measurable levels of DU among the people of Colonie, we need a much bigger study to establish whether they have suffered disproportionate ill-effects such as cancers as a consequence. If they have, it would raise a serious ethical challenge to the use of these weapons. Arguably it could constitute a war crime.”

Nice lie by the governments. Would they like to try again? Or just add one more war crime to the list of W and his British lapdog?
Depleted uranium (DU) is the residue left in massive quantities when bomb-grade uranium is refined to make reactor fuel and nuclear weapons.

The densest naturally occurring metal, it is used to make armour-penetrating shells, standard armament for some of the West’s most widely deployed military aircraft and vehicles, such as Bradley armoured cars, Abrams tanks, and Jaguar A10 fighter planes.

Less intensely radioactive than bomb-grade uranium, DU emits alpha particles, known to cause cancers.

DU weapons that strike their targets produce clouds of tiny uranium oxide particles, which lodge in the lungs and other soft tissues such as the brain and bone marrow.

DU shells were widely used in the 1991 Gulf war; in Bosnia and Kosovo; and are being used now in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assuming we can get an international convention to ban DU, this then affects the nuclear power industry. Without being able to dump off DU remains from U-235 production onto the military, that’s more toxic waste the nuclear industry has to get rid of.

November 18, 2007

Latest sign of pending recession?

Three top auto-industry investors, including Kirk Kerkorian, are predicting a 15-year low in U.S. auto sales next year. The most optimistic of the three said sales might “only” slump to 1998 levels rather than 1993.

If oil stays anywhere above $80/bbl, let alone $90, I’m guessing almost all the bleeding would come from the trio of companies once known as the “Big Three,” rather than Japanese companies.

Iraq and even Iran aren’t enough? Well, let’s invade Pakistan!

Michael O’Hanlon continues to prove that he and Brookings aren’t anything close to liberal, as O’Hanlon teams with Fred Kagan to call for military action to “stabilize” Pakistan. Among the options they support is, though they say it much more politely, U.S. troops moving in to back up a military coup. I would guess they’re scrolling through the ranks of Pakistani generals as we speak to find the Punjabi Augusto Pinochet.

Just when you think neocons and their “fellow travelers” (yes, that’s you, O’Hanlon; can’t Brookings can his ass?) can’t get any more nutbar, they pull some new surprise rabbit out of their collective asses.

And Trinity toll road backers are trusting the Corps of Engineers WHY?

Turns out the Army Corps of Engineers’ post-Katrina upgrades to New Orleans levees only provide about 6 inches of additional flood relief rather than the 5.5 feet initially claimed. The ACE buried the 6-inch figure in an appendix in its voluminous report on levee upgrades. That led to this assessment by an outside engineering expert:
Ivor van Heerden, a hurricane and levee expert with Louisiana State University, said the mistakes are the latest example of sloppiness and a lack of scientific peer review in Corps’ work

“It’s peoples lives we’re playing with and all we’re getting is fuzzy science,” van Heerden said.

Isn’t fuzzy science how a four-lane parkway expanded to a four- six-lane toll road in the first place?

John McCain, master of irony on Armageddon

McCain says, in talking about Twelver Shi’ites, that he doesn’t get their beliefs:
“I don’t claim to be an expert on the Muslim religion ... but everyone I know that is an expert on the Muslim faith says the president of Iran’s theory is one that is not shared by the overwhelming majority of people of that faith, that there has to be an Armageddon and the 12th or 13th — I thought it was the 13th — Imam comes to power," McCain said. "I'd find that very disturbing if that view was shared by a lot people.”

Yet, he has no problem cozying up to Christian fundamentalists who believe that a pure red heifer has to be born, and sacrificed in Israel, so that a new Jewish temple of Soloman can be built, so that Jesus can return, not caring whether or not that the necessary destruction of the Dome of the Rock would bring about the equivalent of Armageddon, no metaphysical deities needed.

But, that first statement wasn’t enough. We also have this:
“It is dangerous to have a leader of a nation who believes and desires and promotes Armageddon to advance a particular religious outcome.”

Our current “crusader” president notwithstanding?

That’s our Schmuck Talk Express™ — the master of unwitting irony!

And, I don’t know what “experts” in Islam McCain is talking to, but Twelver Shi’ites are 80 percent of all Shi’ites, and not just Iranian President Ahmadinejad. The percentage of Twelvers among total Shi’ites is higher in Iran, in fact. And, while they all believe the now-hidden Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, will eventually be revealed to restore the world to justice, this doesn’t necessarily involve “Armageddon.”

And, what if it does? McCain’s would-be fundie buddies all expect a literal Armageddon, no, they lust for it.

Hell, the Schmuck Talk Express™ has enough to worry about with Christian Armageddon theology from his church-hopping.

So, Big John, how about a nice, steaming cup of STAFGU — Shut the ArmaFuckingGeddon Up?