SocraticGadfly: 2/24/08 - 3/2/08

March 01, 2008

Environmental news roundup — whale protection, Gore on warming, Southeastern states disagree on water

Appeals court upholds restrictions on Navy sonar

A three-judge appellate panelhas upheld a federal district court ruling that the Navy must take whale-protection precautions with its use of long-range sonar.

Per the ruling, the Navy must maintain a 12 nautical mile no-sonar buffer zone along the California coast, shut down sonar when marine mammals are seen within 2,200 yards, avoid whale habitats and undertake similar other precautions. The Navy has 30 days to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Gore: Global warming getting short shrift in presidential campaign

So, the Nobelist former vice president will turn up the heat himself. His Alliance for Climate Protection will launch a national campaign pressuring candidates to describe in more detail how they will fight global warming.

Southeastern states can’t agree on divvying up diminishing water pot

Even intensifying drought can’t make good neighbors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia. White House-brokered negotiations between the three over water sharing in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basins, which have been the occasion of 20 years of wrangling, means the Army Corps of Engineers will impose its own plan.

Georgia, upstream, wants to hold more water in reservoirs around Atlanta while Florida and Alabama argue the Peach State didn’t plan for growth well enough. Meanwhile, legal action between the three will stay on the front burner, and perhaps even have new elements added to it.

Critical-level drought in the area has exacerbated the ongoing water fight. Gore’s comments seem prescient.

And, I can’t wait for something similar to play out in the Colorado River basin between California (Los Angeles), Arizona (Phoenix) and Nevada (Las Vegas).

Clinton(s) — not so much to offer on civil liberties?

Jeffrey Rosenrightly notes that Hillary would wrongly be too much like Bill in not having a dedication to civil liberties.

Her? OK with criminalizing flag burning.

Him? Started the ball rolling toward what became the Patriot Act after the 1993 Oklahoma City bombing.

Now, she wouldn’t be Shrub, that’s for sure. She would be less committed than Obama, though.

Of course, Greens, and other third parties, from their voting rights being constricted by both Republicans AND Democrats by state-level ballot access laws, are the ones really committed to civil liberties.

U.S.: Even though we own China mega-billions, its military should listen to us

Yahoo had the “wrong” headline on this AP story that talks about U.S. worries about the rate of China’s military growth, including a call for more “transparency” from China’s military establishment.

Hmm…. This would be from the administration of the same Decider that can’t tell the truth about why it shot down a missile last month.

Australia to try to close Japanese whaling loophole

The Aussies plan to ask the International Whaling Commission to end “scientific” whaling, the loophole used by Japan to let its whalers haul a thousand or so cetaceans each year under the guise of “research.”

(Tokyo doesn’t talk about whether or not it does research on how to improve whale meat when used as dog food. So few younger Japanese eat whale meat that, indeed, not all the catch’s meat is eaten by humans.)

‘In the first place, God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made School Boards.’

That Mark Twain quote sums up why national control of education probably would be a pretty damned good thing, as compared to our current, mythologically hagiographied local control of local school districts.

We’re the No. 1 spender on education of any country in the world, and although that’s in fair part because of our outstanding university system, we’re still No. 2 in K-12 spending, and what do we get? Not nearly as much as we should.

As for local school boards? We’re about the only major country in the world that doesn’t have at least a quasi-national school system.

Miller is off on one thing, though, in my opinion — the alleged power of teachers’ unions. That may be true in blue states in particular, and more urban areas in split states, at least, but in the small towns and suburbs of the heartland, it’s a different story.

Anyway, with that caveat, it’s a good analysis of how effed up, in many ways, local control leaves our schools.

BushCo ‘War on Drugs’ BS, State Department division

The State Department’s list of major drug-producing countries has one huge omission.

No, it’s not Pakistan; State doesn’t try to placate Pervez Musharraf. It’s on the list. So if Afghanistan.

No, it’s not Mexico, trying to be nice to our NAFTA partner.

Give up?

Look around you. It’s called the United States of America.

We’re a huge producer of methamphetamines, and a major grower of marijuana.

February 29, 2008

Why you should support the ACLU

Funny, but serious , especially given Bush’s relationship with the telecoms.

McCaskill — right idea on McCain’s citizenship but a strong enough answer

Is John McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone, a “natural born citizen,” per the Constitution, or not? Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill thinks the issue needs more clarity and is trying to get a “sense of the Senate” type resolution to note that McCain meets the Constitution’s requirement.

What does “natural born citizen” mean, anyway? Given the small size of our country at start, compared to today, and other issues such as Washington warning against “entangling alliances” and large standing armies, an original intentist on the Supreme Court, such as Antonin Scalia, if he were consistent on this, might find that McCain is NOT a natural-born citizen.

My observation is that I don’t think a “sense of the Congress” legislation is an adequate fix. It’s a Constitutional issue that needs clarifying language, and for that clarifying language to stand up to full legal scrutiny, I think an amendment is needed.

It's not just the “natural born citizen,” either. What if McCain, or someone else, needed to claim time in the Canal Zone toward the “fourteen Years a Resident within the United States” requirement? Is the Canal Zone “within the United States”? I don’t think so. And I definitely think this is only addressable by amendment.

Banks and other home mortgage lenders get their comeuppance

More and more people are simply walking away from their mortgages. And why not? Let’s say you’ve got something like a zero-down 2/28 mortgage. You’ve just hit the two-year mark and have a massive reset. You may be upside down on the house. Why not walk away?

In fact, there’s even a company called You Walk Away that, for $955 claims it will take care of all her walk-away

On the other hand, there’s people who deliberately have “gamed” this system.

A couple of y ears ago, I overheard someone who had just such a zero-down, 2/28, who made it clear that he was renting a house for 2 years, then moving on. Since banks and other lenders didn’t ask hundreds of thousands of people like this to verify their income — or even, perhaps, verify their names — all this guy has to do is “lather, rinse, repeat” and hop into a new 2/28. As he was talking almost 2 years ago, he probably did just that. Of course, when his 2-year “rent” is done on his next home, he’ll probably hit a wall after that.

Barack Obama: Just another politician on NAFTA

Obama reportedly had a senior staffer call Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Wilson, before he started his latest ratcheting up of anti-NAFTA comments, and tell Wilson the diatribe was all political show and tell.
The staff member reassured Wilson that the criticisms would only be campaign rhetoric, and should not be taken at face value. …

Late Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Obama campaign said the staff member's warning to Wilson sounded implausible, but did not deny that contact had been made.

Since Obama’s main biographer has said that, in addition to any legitimate stance, Obama had a political angle for attending a Chicago antiwar rally in late 2002, the information above shouldn’t be surprising. For the Obamamania cultists who have had more than one glass of Kool-Aid, this probably won’t penetrate.

Clinton staff allegedly placed a similar call to Canadian officials, which should surprise nobody.

But, the onus is on Obama, with his claims to be a new type of politician.

Perhaps we’ll have the Schmuck Talk Express™ vs. Schmuck Talk Jr. this fall? Maybe that’s why they’re so antagonistic to each other?

Update: Joy Norton, PR officer at the embassy, says the Obama rumor isn’t true. Sure.

Second update: CTV is now not only standing by its original story but positively identifying the Obama staffer who contacted Canada’s Consulate General in Chicago as his senior economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee:
On Thursday night, CTV spoke with Goolsbee, but he refused to say whether he had such a conversation with the Canadian government office in Chicago. He also said he has been told to direct any questions to the campaign headquarters.

The latest out of Obama campaign central:
Earlier Thursday, the Obama campaign insisted that no conversations have taken place with any of its senior ranks and representatives of the Canadian government on the NAFTA issue. On Thursday night, CTV spoke with Goolsbee, but he refused to say whether he had such a conversation with the Canadian government office in Chicago. He also said he has been told to direct any questions to the campaign headquarters.

Repeat after me: Barack Obama is Just. Another. Politician.

Hypocrisy alert: Clinton-Obama NAFTA criticism

Canada and even Mexico have subscribed to more International Labor Organization conventions than the U.S. Per McClatchy, the scorecard is Mexico 70, Canada 28, U.S. 14:
Mexico was among the ILO members that adopted a declaration of principles and rights for workers in 1998. These include the right of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, the prohibition of forced or compulsory labor, the elimination of child labor and nondiscrimination in employment.

The most recent ILO report on infringement of collective-bargaining rights, issued in November, included charges against several Latin American governments but no complaints that Mexico has failed to protect workers' bargaining rights.

In its most recent survey of the Americas, in 2006, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions had a single line about Mexico: that garment workers at times had to organize without the knowledge of their employers. The confederation devoted an entire paragraph each to union-busting activities in the United States and Canada.

I’ll admit it’s news to me and an eye-opener, not on Canada, but on Mexico.

And, in part of why McClatchy stands head and shoulders above other newspaper chains, they called out both campaigns on this issue:
In interviews with McClatchy, representatives of the Clinton and Obama campaigns couldn't cite a single labor or environmental dispute in Mexico or Canada when they argued that the two countries have shirked NAFTA or ILO commitments.

Now, on the environmental side, that doesn’t address the issue of whether or not environmental standards associated with NAFTA are tough enough. They certainly aren’t with the WTO as it now stands.

Nonetheless, it puts NAFTA-bashing in a whole new light.

Japan: More whaling lack of ethics

Once again, Japan is making a bid to get developing nations to support its bid to open up whaling.

Gee, I thought we were getting to the point in world affairs where only countries like our own good old U.S.ofA. and China resorted to such blatant international bribery. And, thank doorknob outright whaling ban violators Norway and Iceland don’t have Japan’s clout, while mourning the fact that international sanctions for environmental violations don’t seem to be on anybody’s radar screens.

Why Clinton’s going to lose Texas

The Clinton campaign e-mails my newspaper office every day, more than Obama plus the two Republicans combined. Unfortunately, none of them has bought ad space in our group of suburban Dallas weeklies, but that’s another story.

Clinton’s office has had lists of endorsements in several of these e-mails. Problem is, most the people endorsing her are old white guys whom no Democratic voter under the age of 50 is going to recognize unless that voter has been a party activist.

Example? An e-mail two days ago listed 11 endorsements from former Texas politicians. Only one had severed in the state legislature, any time this century. Of the other 10, only four had served as late as 1990.

$3 TRILLION, not $60 billion, for Iraq

Let me see. That means our Preznit was wrong by a factor of 50, or 5,000 (five thousand) percent, on the cost of the Iraq war, according to Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz.

High oil prices? Iraq War.

Budget deficits? Iraq War.

Increased international borrowing? Iraq War.

Credit crunch? Iraq War.

Housing bubble? Iraq War.

Here’s some details from Stiglitz’ comment to a London think tank:
The former World Bank vice-president said the war had, so far, cost the US something like $3trillion compared with the $50-$60-billion predicted in 2003.

Professor Stiglitz told the Chatham House think tank in London that the Bush White House was currently estimating the cost of the war at about $500 billion, but that figure massively understated things such as the medical and welfare costs of US military servicemen.

The war was now the second-most expensive in US history after World War II and the second-longest after Vietnam, he said. …

Professor Stiglitz, an academic at the Columbia Business School and a former economic adviser to president Bill Clinton, said a further $US500 billion was going to be spent on the fighting in the next two years and that could have been used more effectively to improve the security and quality of life of Americans and the rest of the world. …

“When the Bush administration went to war in Iraq it obviously didn't focus very much on the cost. Larry Lindsey, the chief economic adviser, said the cost was going to be between $US100billion and $US200 billion - and for that slight moment of quasi-honesty he was fired.

“(Then defence secretary Donald) Rumsfeld responded and said ‘baloney,’ and the number the administration came up with was $US50 to $US60 billion. We have calculated that the cost was more like $US3 trillion.

“Three trillion is a very conservative number, the true costs are likely to be much larger than that.” …

Professor Stiglitz attributed to the Iraq war $US5-$US10 of the almost $US80-a-barrel increase in oil prices since the start of the war, adding that it would have been reasonable to attribute more than $US35 of that rise to the war.

Stiglitz added that BushCo figures were off so much in large part due to its massive underestimating of long-term post-battle medical costs.

Texas — as polluting as California and Pennsylvania combined

Not on smog, soot or ozone, but on what our Preznit-elect said in 2000 was a pollutant: carbon dioxide. If it were its own nation, the idea of which many native Texans like to brag about and many other Americans sometimes fervently wish were actually the case, it would be the world’s eighth-largest global warming polluter. It’s actually slipped from its No. 7 spot of five years ago, but only because of Canada’s massive atmospheric destruction to extract oil sands.

Here’s a breakdown of why:
Considering its role in the U.S. economy, it's no surprise Texas ranks as it does. As the nation's leading producer of energy, and with more cattle and oil refineries than any other state, it is essentially America's power plant, gas pump and beef basket. Yes, all those cows play a part. While many environmentalists focus on the methane (another greenhouse gas) produced by cows, the raising of cattle also contributes to CO2 emissions (the burning of fuel to transport cattle and meat, etc.). A study released last summer by Japanese scientists showed that production of just 1 kilogram of beef results in more CO2 emissions than going for a three-hour drive while leaving all the lights on at home.

Simple answer: eat less beef. Another reason is, if you have to eat meat, it only takes 4-5 pounds of plant food to put a pound of weight on a chicken or hog. It takes 8 pounds of feed with a cow.

Here’s the real problem in urban Texas, though:
But it's not just industry and agriculture that give Texas such an outsize carbon footprint. Texans epitomize America's penchant for overconsumption, so much so that they've even coined their own phrase for superlarge portions: Texas-sized. The state's 23.5 million residents use nearly 3,000 more kilowatt-hours of electricity every year than the average American and a higher percentage of them drive large, gas-guzzling vehicles. Of the 20 million registered vehicles in Texas, one in four is a pickup truck. Of the 245 million vehicles registered in the United States, only 16 percent are pickups, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Last year light trucks made up 61 percent of all new vehicles (both personal and commercial) sold in Texas, compared to just over half of total vehicle sales in the country.

Nearly a third of Texas's carbon emissions come from transportation. With so much wide-open space, Texas hasn’t needed the kind of urban planning that promotes density. Rather, it is a state of far-flung towns and cities, connected by highways and with practically no mass transit. Air quality has suffered as a result; by some estimates more than half of all Texans live in areas where the air is unsafe to breathe, as defined by the EPA's Clean Air Act.

And, here’s the attitude that seeps from Gov. Helmethair (Rick Perry) on down:
Even in the reddest of Red States, one would think that such a health hazard would cause Texas to get serious about air pollution. But it is one of only 15 states without a climate action plan in place or even under consideration. This at a time when some of the most aggressive state plans have taken shape under Republican governors, according to national climate protection groups. In 2006, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger muscled through the most ambitious carbon cap-and-trade plan of any state in the country, aimed at reducing statewide CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Last summer Florida’s GOP Gov. Charlie Crist signed executive orders to slash the state's greenhouse-gas emissions to 20 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty last year signed a law requiring state utilities to generate a quarter of their power from renewable sources by 2025, and in Connecticut, Gov. Jodi Rell’s Energy Vision initiative calls for 20 percent of all energy used and sold in the state to come from clean or renewable sources by 2020.

Last year the Texas Association of Manufacturers and Houston-based Exxon Mobil successfully lobbied against a bill that would have provided incentives to homeowners and businesses to install solar panels. The Republican-held state legislature even voted down a bill that would have allowed cities to increase their sales tax in order to fund the construction of light rail systems, for fear of appearing to be seen as raising taxes. When a Democratic state senator from Austin proposed a bill that would have merely set up a task force to study climate change, it was defeated thanks to fierce opposition from the business community, including the Texas Oil and Gas Association and Texas Automobile Dealers Association.

Contrary to Perry’s feeble joke attempt that the biggest source of global warming is Al Gore’s mouth, it’s his own flapping trap that’s the problem.

Help may be on the horizon, though. The Peak Oil horizon. Oil prices staying over $100 a barrel will force more more Dallasite, Houstonian, and even Austinite Red State/neck driver, all of whom are such titty-babies they slow their pickups and SUVs down to half a mile per hour for speed bumps, to junk their gas guzzlers which will never see the likes of an unpaved road, and buy cars instead.

Afghanistan — close to failure

Our intelligence “czar” (scarequotes deserved), Mike McConnell, fesses up that Harmid Karzai’s government controls only 30 percent of Afghanistan. The only silver lining of sorts is that of the remaining 70 percent, 60 percent of the grand total is in tribal warlords’ hands and only 10 percent under the Taliban.

A new take on what Bach looked like

Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, head of Scotland’s first forensic art unit, set up at Dundee University in 2005, has used state-of-the-art technology to recreate the head of the musical master himself, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Here’s the result, with details of the process below:

February 28, 2008

You’re 1 in 100 …

If you’re an inmate in an American prison. In what is primarily a shameful legacy of the failed “War on Drugs,” 1 in 100 U.S. adults is now behind bars.

Plus, our incarceration rate is far worse than even authoritarian nations. The far more populous nation of China ranked second with 1.5 million behind bars. Since China has four times our population, but only two-thirds of our 2.3 million prisoners, that means our incarceration rate is six times that of China’s.

The War on Drugs is shameful not only in its own right, but also because it has given credence to the casual use of “War on —“ for all kinds of inanities, including the “War on Terror.”

Somebody in the BushCo financial team actually has a brain

I agree with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that a housing bailout would hurt more than help. Here’s why:
“I’m not interested in bailing out investors, lenders and speculators,” he said. “I’m focused on solutions targeted at struggling homeowners who want to keep their homes.”

And, any bailout plan now under discussion simply wouldn’t discriminate between the former and the latter.

Somebody in the BushCo financial team actually has a brain

I agree with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that a housing bailout would hurt more than help. Here’s why:
“I’m not interested in bailing out investors, lenders and speculators,” he said. “I’m focused on solutions targeted at struggling homeowners who want to keep their homes.”

And, any bailout plan now under discussion simply wouldn’t discriminate between the former and the latter.

Irony alert: Bush to lecture China about human rights at Olympics

Need I say more? Can I even say more?
Bush was asked about reports that a laid-off Chinese factory worker faces subversion charges for saying human rights are more important than the Olympics.

“I am not the least bit shy of bringing up the concerns expressed by this factory worker, and I believe that I’ll have an opportunity to do so with the president and, at the same time, enjoy a great sporting event,” Bush said.

Yes, we do have human rights that the Chinese don’t have, but The Decider decides who actually gets to have all of them.

Irony alert: It takes a bigot to know one, McCain endorsements division

Catholic League President Bill Donohue objects to John McCain accepting the endorsement from Texas evangelical John Hagee because Hagee’s a bigot?
Donohue said in a statement today that Hagee has written extensively in negative ways about the Catholic Church, “calling it ‘The Great Whore,’ an ‘apostate church,’ the ‘anti-Christ,’ and a ‘false cult system.’”

“Senator Obama has repudiated the endorsement of Louis Farrakhan, another bigot. McCain should follow suit and retract his embrace of Hagee,” Donohue said.

In exchange for your own bigoted endorsement?

Another day and Ben Bernanke smokes more crack

Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke today told Congress the nation isn’t “anywhere near” the dangerous stagflation situation of the 1970s.:
“I don’t anticipate stagflation,” Bernanke told the Senate Banking Committee. “I don’t think we're anywhere near the situation that prevailed in the 1970s.”

Oh, really? Well, Big Ben, let me help you read the tea leaves.

Some people are worried the credit crunch that has followed upon the collapse of the housing bubble, and related credit alphabet soup “instruments,” could also affect commercial real estate.

Oil futures closed today at $102/bbl.

The dollar hit another new low against the euro, which broke the $1.53 mark.

So, credit is continuing to tighten up while inflation is continuing to loosen up. And, you’re not worried about stagflation.

Time to trademark your nickname: Worst Fed Head Since Greenspan™, because you’ll keep it after somebody else replaces you, unless that person is really clueless.

Real ‘Planet X’ out there?

Using computer modeling of the origins and development of the Solar System, Japanese astronomers say a planet as weighty as 70 percent of Earth’s mass may exist 4-5 times further from the Sun than dwarf planet Pluto.

Even with the greater luminosity of a larger size than Pluto and possibly a higher-albedo mix of different ices, I don’t see how any optical telescope today could discover it. And, gravitational perturbations? Perhaps barely noticeable on Pluto, which still doesn’t have its orbit perfectly calculated anyway.

Irony alert: Smithsonian magazine

Its “The Last Page” column for March is entitled “Electrocybertronics,” and is about how prefixes or suffixes like “cyber” are used for false marketing spin. In fact, the subtitles says: “Marketing through pseudoscience.”

Apparently, the editorial and advertising departments at Smithsonian talk even less than at the typical newspaper.

The last few pages before the column include:
• A double-page spread for some alleged breakthrough book in “null physics,” priced to move at $60 and apparently self-published;
• An full page ad on an “amazing new medical device” to reverse, not just reduce, stress;
• A full page for a New Thought publisher talking about “creation’s law of absolute right.”

February 27, 2008

Ted Rall tells Nader and third-party dissers to STFU

Now, I’ve already indicated I’ll vote for the official Green Party candidate; if that’s not Nader, he needs to drop the independent run. Nonetheless, Ted Rall’s total smackdown on Democratic-Republican conventional media and punditry is 110 percent on the mark:
Is Ralph really a spoiler? To answer "yes," you have to buy three assumptions:

First, that the two-party system is written in stone. But it’s not. There's nothing in the Constitution about two parties, or about parties at all. (The Founding Fathers were dismayed when parties emerged around 1800.) Besides, the Democratic-Republican stranglehold ill serves a diverse population of 300 million. Because parliamentary democracies offer voters a wide selection of parties representing almost every conceivable ideology, voter turnout in Europe typically exceeds 80 percent. In the U.S., most registered voters stay home.

Assumption two: voters ought to vote strategically, i.e., for the lesser of two evils. Even for those who accept this curiously alienating concept, however, evil often comes in pairs. Most citizens think the U.S. has lost more than it has gained under NAFTA; neither Obama nor McCain want to repeal it. Most people want the U.S. out of Iraq; both men have repeatedly voted to prolong the war. How shall anti-NAFTA, antiwar voters divine which will prove least anathematic as president? Should they resort to a ouija board?

The third leg of the Nader=Spoiler tripod relies on a belief that opinions espoused by a small minority of a population are inherently worthless. But, as anyone who has successfully gambled on a business can attest, today’s fringe thinking becomes tomorrow’s conventional wisdom. After 9/11, nine percent of Americans thought George W. Bush was a lousy president. Seventy-two percent feel that way now. America's greatest political achievements — emancipation, women's suffrage, the 40-hour work week — were first espoused by tiny voting blocs led by figures on the political fringe.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. And, that’s why I espouse a parliamentary government.

Officially – Clemens in deep shit

Congress has officially called for a Justice Department investigation of Roger Clemens’ steroid use testimony before Congress earlier this week.

I’m wondering if the New York Daily News claim to have a pic of Clemens at Jose Canseco’s 1998 house party, after he totally lied about that, it would seem, was the tipping point?

That means its time to repost our Clemens vs. Bonds poll:

Free polls from
Which MLB player benefited more from juicing?
Roger Clemens Barry Bonds   

Microsoft gets a billion-dollar slapdown

That’s courtesy of the European Union, which fined Microsoft a record $1.3 billion for charging software developers what the EU said was unreasonable prices for Windows information to help them make Windows-compatible products.

Add to this the verbal smackdown:
Microsoft immediately said the issues for which it was fined have been resolved and the company was making its products more open.

The fine comes less that a week after Microsoft said it would share more information about its products and technology in an effort to make it work better with rivals’ software and meet the demands of antitrust regulators in Europe.

But EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes remained skeptical and said Microsoft was under investigation in two additional cases.

“Talk is cheap,” Kroes said. “Flouting the rules is expensive.”


We’ll have a Democratic presidential candidate actually talk about stiffening U.S. business regulations this much in about, say, 50 years.

Inflation problems look HUGE; will Big Ben pay attention?

Wholesale prices jumped 7.4 percent last year, the worst showing since 1981. The euro has now cracked the $1.50 mark and oil briefly crested over $102/bbl. Gas could hit $4/gallon on the coasts this spring. A number of oil analysts are talking oil around $140/bbl by 2015; frankly, those estimates are probably still too conservative.
“An oil crisis is coming in the next 10 years,” John B. Hess, the chairman of the Hess Corporation, said at a recent conference held by Cambridge Energy Research Associates. “It’s not a matter of demand. It’s not a matter of supplies. It’s both.”

And, in the face of all this?

Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke insists the Fed has to keep an eye on inflation. All he is doing is telling the titty babies of Wall Street they’ll only get a quarter-point rate cut instead of a half-point cut in March.

A couple more thoughts on the PLoS antidepressants study

I add these observations based on quotes the Public Library of Science report on antidepressants and their alleged minimum effectiveness on milder depressions.

First, per a comment on a blog, two of the studied drugs are SNRIs, not SSRIs. The PLoS study doesn't even list SNRIs as a type of antidepressant. I quote:
Antidepressants include “tricyclics,” “monoamine oxidases,” and “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors” (SSRIs).

Second, would you describe improvement of more than halfway from the baseline to “significant” as “marginal”? Again, I quote:
A previously published meta-analysis of the published and unpublished trials on SSRIs submitted to the FDA during licensing has indicated that these drugs have only a marginal clinical benefit. On average, the SSRIs improved the HRSD score of patients by 1.8 points more than the placebo, whereas NICE has defined a significant clinical benefit for antidepressants as a drug–placebo difference in the improvement of the HRSD score of 3 points.

(The word "marginal" is used more than once throughout the study.)

“Moderate” or even “modest” would be acceptable words. “Marginal” overstates the case.

Next, given what I’ve already said about p values, I'm not sure how much weight I would put on a total of 5,100 people in the 35 trials umbrellaed in the meta-analysis. I'm not sure how much significance I would find in one medical study that had that many people, especially if studied over a short time period.

That said, given the “lag” anti-Ds can have, the FDA is also remiss on some of their study criteria, I don’t doubt. Is two weeks too soon to allow a drug switch? In cases of severe depression, you may feel you have to try something else, which you do for the patient's sake, of course, but that should perhaps "ding" the study in some way.

That said, given that we still know little about brain chemistry, even if anti-Ds are shown to be of little effect some day, I'm not even sure that we can, today, say they are either effective or ineffective, with any degree of confidence.

The ever-shrinking reach of U.S. Iraqi policy

First, the Iraqi presidential council rejects setting up provincial elections. Next, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tries to browbeat Turkey into leaving Kurdistan before it is good and ready. Here’s Gates:
“It’s very important that the Turks make this operation as short as possible and then leave,” Gates said before departing India. “They have to be mindful of Iraqi sovereignty. I measure quick in terms of days, a week or two, something like that, not months.”

And here’s Ankara:
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the operation would only end “once its goal has been reached.”

Well, that’s pretty clear.

More signs of a larger impotence of U.S. foreign policy? Gates was in India to try to persuade its parliament to sign off on the nuclear power and fuel deal with the U.S. Regardless of the merits of the pact, I believe this would normally be the Secretary of State’s territory. The brilliant Condoleezza Rice is just not up to this one, I guess.

Big Ben to listen to Wall Street titty babies again

Ignoring the signs of inflation, such as the euro hitting a buck-fifty, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has indicated he plans yet another interest rate cut. At this rate, he could go down as the worst Fed chairman since Alan Greenspan.

The PLoS antidepressants study, the ‘looseness’ of medical research statistics and ‘faith’ in meta-analysis

Way too loose of p-values for false positives in studies, in medicine (and social sciences) compared to natural sciences, is one reason to not read too much into any individual study that claims antidepressants are ineffective, like the Public Library of Science meta-analysis of individual studies did.

P-values of the same looseness as in medicine/social sciences have been used to claim intercessory prayer actually works on sick people (halfway down the linked page), for example, or here (two-third down the linked page):
Targ's paper is not the only questionable study on the efficacy of prayer that has been published by medical journals. The editors and referees of these journals have done a great disservice to both science and society by allowing such highly flawed papers to be published. I have previously commented about the low statistical significance threshold of these journals (p-value of 0.05) and how it is inappropriate for extraordinary claims (Skeptical Briefs, March 2001). This policy has given a false scientific credibility to the assertion that prayer or other spiritual techniques work miracles, and several best selling books have appeared that exploit that theme. Telling people what they want to hear, these authors have made millions.

Also, per a blogger, I came across a good statement on how many people misunderstand p-values in general:
First, the p value is often misinterpreted to mean the “probability for the result being due to chance”. In reality, the p-value makes no statement that a reported observation is real. “It only makes a statement about the expected frequency that the effect would result from chance when the effect is not real”.

In short, as I’ve tried to explain to people over at Kevin Drum’s blog, p values in medicine are simply too loose.

But, as the study’s authors claim, doesn’t meta-analysis take care of all those p-value problems? No.

Meta-analysis, no matter how much it’s defended, can’t totally cover that up.

I’m not saying that the results of a meta-analysis are no stronger than the weakest study in its umbrella. I am saying that, with p values as loose as they are in health/medicine (and social sciences), is that no massive amount of individual research studies being included under one meta-analysis will make the meta-analysis’ results anything more than a little bit stronger than the best individual study.

In other words, in medicine, and in social sciences, meta-analysis adds a very modest bump, nothing more. The problem is, most people believe it does much more than that when it doesn’t.

Or, to put it another way, meta-analysis is no better than the material it’s analyzing.

So, what’s needed is medical studies to continue with the p of 0.05, because we don’t want to risk screening out potentially life-saving study, but, to re-crunch research studies at the same time. I’m not saying we need to do that with a p of 0.0001, or 1/100 of 1 percent, like the natural sciences, especially physics, normally do. But to re-crunch with a p of 0.01, or 1 percent instead of 5 percent? Absolutely.

Research that made the 5 percent cutoff but not the 1 percent cutoff would be categorized as “worthy of further study but without any immediate conclusions from it being acceptable.”

A sidebar benefit would be that a lot of alt-medicine research would get a less than full imprimatur.

A robotic weapons race is gathering steam

We very well could be entering the next military arms race, says British computer scientist Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield.

People familiar with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan know about our Predator drone planes. But that’s just the tip of a growing iceberg.
Several nations are developing robot weapons, with the United States in the lead, Sharkey said. He cited a U.S. Defense Department report last December stating the country plans to spend some $4 billion by 2010 on the innocuously-termed “unmanned systems.”

Over 4,000 robots are currently deployed on the ground in Iraq and by October 2006 unmanned aircraft had flown 400,000 flight hours, added Sharkey. Today there’s always a human involved to decide on use of lethal force, he added, but he predicted this will change as there’s a growing emphasis on “autonomous weapons” that decide where, when and whom to kill.

That’s the scary part, especially if there’s a computer malfunction. But, we’re not alone. There’s an arms race on here:
Canada, South Korea, South Africa, Singapore, Israel, China, some European countries, Russia and India are also getting in on the robot-weapons act, Sharkey added, with these last two developing unmanned aerial combat vehicles.

And, it could have fallout:
Military technology expert James … Canton acknowledged concerns that robots could make the United States “trigger happy” because the nation will not be risking lives. “That’s a disturbing scenario,” he told the magazine, but he added that robot armies are costly and and some soldiers would still be at risk.

Imagine Preznit Bush 20 years from now waging pre-emptive war after war with these weapons, but the other side retaliating with a cruder, but biologically armed, counterversion.

‘Emotional’ computers improve performance

Computers that show something like “regret” can improve their performance, Italian scientists say, and so help model human behavior for research:
Davide Marchiori of the University of Trento and Massimo Warglien of Ca’ Foscari University in Venice built mathematical models based on biological neural networks. These use simulated networks of “brain cells” to arrive at decisions and learn by trial and error.

Introducing an approximation of regret allowed the models to predict human behavior more precisely than conventional economic learning theories, the researchers said. Their findings appear in the Feb. 22 issue of the research journal Science.

Will we someday remove the scare quotes from “regret”?

Obama as well as Clinton schwaffle on ‘fair trade’

Obama has said he wants to look at environmental and labor standards in the Doha round of WTO, but given his background, how much does that really mean?
Obama acknowledged in the debate that in his 2004 Illinois Senate campaign, he said — as he put it now — "NAFTA and other trade deals can be beneficial to the United States." His comments, as reported in 2004, were that NAFTA had brought enormous benefits to his state, but that trade deals needed to be made better for workers. …

In his 2004 Senate campaign, he said the U.S. should pursue more deals such as NAFTA, and argued more broadly that his opponent's call for tariffs would spark a trade war. AP reported then that Obama had spoken of enormous benefits having accrued to his state from NAFTA, while adding that he also called for more aggressive trade protections for U.S. workers.

Well, there you go. Don’t expect anything beyond incremental change.

February 26, 2008

More inflation problems — Euro soars

Oil closes back over $100/bbl and euro approaches $1.50. The latter news is the biggie; the euro’s close is a full three cents above its previous record. Fed head Ben Bernanke can only support another rate cut if he’s stupid, willful, or already bribed by the Street.

Meanwhile, housing prices in the last quarter of 2007 dropped almost 9 percent from a year ago. Standard & Poor’s says it’s the worst performance in his 20-year history of rating home sales. Meanwhile, the government said housing posted its first full-year year-over-year decline in 16 years.

Your weekly housing bad news

Foreclosures are up 57 percent over a year ago, showing the government’s loan modification program is having little impact. Whether this will increase Congressional support for a more full-fledged housing bailout that won’t discriminate between buyers targeted by predatory lenders and people seeking to flip houses as investments remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, housing prices in the last quarter of 2007 dropped almost 9 percent from a year ago. Standard & Poor’s says it’s the worst performance in his 20-year history of rating home sales. Meanwhile, the government said housing posted its first full-year year-over-year decline in 16 years.

Congress to ask Justice to probe Roger Clemens?

House staffers from Rep. Henry Waxman’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform are writing a draft letter to that end. Waxman himself has no further comment at this time.

Ace pitcher Clemens appeared before the committee earlier this month and, in the view of many observers, appeared to perjure himself as well as describe something that could be witness tampering, with a former Clemens family nanny.

And you think U.S. courts are stupid

Italy — and the European Commission — had filed suit against Germany on grounds that the German legal system wasn’t enforcing EU rules that “Parmesan” could only be used as an appellation for cheese made in the Parma region of Italy. Well, the European Court of Justice says such a legal crackdown inside Germany isn’t Germany’s responsibility:
While the ECJ ruled that only cheeses bearing the EU’s protected designation of origin, or PDO, of “Parmigiano Reggiano” could be sold under the name “Parmesan,” it said the responsibility of monitoring compliance was not down to Germany.

“Since the Commission has not established that the German legal system does not sufficiently protect the PDO ‘Parmigiano Reggiano,’ the infringement proceedings against Germany are dismissed,” the ECJ said in a statement.

I guess the ruling means that Italy and the EU, if they haven’t done already, can sue the German government in the German federal court system. That said, the EU’s appellation system is touchy, anyway. Czechoslovakia, and the town of Pilsen, could file beaucoup lawsuits.

UN climate head calls BushCo bluff

Yvo de Boer says the Bush Administration still isn’t being real about wanting to take part in climate change. The latest Bush proposal commits to binding targets, but only if still-developing countries like China, Brazil and India are similarly bound. De Boer said that question was asked and answered at Kyoto, to not do that, specifically to let these countries lift more of their large populations out of poverty. A BushCo proposal that doesn’t accept that is one that de Boer clearly sees as just one more stalling tactic, combined with new PR spin.

UN: we need more help to feed the poor

Skyrocketing food prices, including from food being diverted to biofuel, is leaving the UN’s World Food Programme in a hell of a bind. The U.S. has already said it will cut back assistance. Food riots are hitting more countries. Pakistan has instituted rationing.

This could get globally ugly.

Academia weighs in on Bush Library surrender by SMU

I mean, what else can you call Southern Methodist’s agreement to host “My Pet Goat” the George W. Bush Presidential Library than a surrender? Well, Inside Higher Ed agrees.

Specific problems the journal cites include
• Lack of direct university control and oversight;
• The library expressly being built as a shrine to Bush as well as a library;
• The Bush executive order giving presidents more control over their papers guts academic freedom at the library.
Some experts — at SMU and beyond — think the university has agreed to terms that undercut the ideal of presidential library centers as places to promote scholarship. Benjamin Hufbauer, an associate professor of art history at the University of Louisville and author of Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory (University Press of Kansas), said that the model agreed to at SMU was “totally different” from the approaches at other universities with presidential libraries. The institute that is part of the complex “has a partisan agenda — that’s very significant,” he said.

“Academics everywhere should be concerned about this. Clearly this goes against the idea of dispassionate inquiry, of looking at things on the basis of fact and merit. If it’s ideological, that’s opposed to the mission of a university,” Hufbauer said.

SMU has significant ties to the Bush administration. Laura Bush is an alumna and trustee. Richard B. Cheney was a trustee before being elected vice president. And the president plans to move to Dallas when his term expires next year.

Whether protesting faculty can do anything more is unlikely. But at least some of them aren’t close to throwing in the towel.

A major problem is that this isn’t just a presidential library. The “shrine to Bush” part is actually an institute that will be totally outside of university control. BushCo told SMU, and other university suitors, that the library and institute had to be taken as a package.

SMU was too bedazzled to say “Eff off.” That said, a number of presidential libraries, beyond the disgraced Nixon’s, aren’t associated with particular universities. Truman’s and Reagan’s come immediately to mind.

Prozac: No better than placebo?

A major new meta-analysis, as reported in The Guardian, makes exactly that claim. The full study, published in the Public Library of Science, is here. And, it’s not just Prozac; another major selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressant, Paxil, get the same critical nyet, as do two serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor antidepressant:
The review breaks new ground because Kirsch and his colleagues have obtained for the first time what they believe is a full set of trial data for four antidepressants.

They requested the full data under freedom of information rules from the Food and Drug Administration, which licenses medicines in the US and requires all data when it makes a decision.

The pattern they saw from the trial results of fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Seroxat) [Paxil in the U.S.], venlafaxine (Effexor) and nefazodone (Serzone) was consistent.

“Using complete data sets (including unpublished data) and a substantially larger data set of this type than has been previously reported, we find the overall effect of new-generation antidepressant medication is below recommended criteria for clinical significance,” they write.

I think the conclusion is somewhat overstated, and meta-analysis research in general is sometimes overhyped; nonetheless, is this anywhere near bogus? I think the research probably is pretty solid.

In any case, Big Pharma is HUGELY worried and wasted no time to attack.
In adults, however, the depression-beating benefits were thought to outweigh the risks. Since its launch in the US in 1988, some 40 million people have taken Prozac, earning tens of billions of dollars for the manufacturer, Eli Lilly. Although the patent lapsed in 2001, fluoxetine continues to make the company money — it is now the active ingredient in Sarafem, a pill sold by Lilly for premenstrual syndrome.

Eli Lilly was defiant last night. “Extensive scientific and medical experience has demonstrated that fluoxetine is an effective antidepressant,” it said in a statement. “Since its discovery in 1972, fluoxetine has become one of the world's most-studied medicines. Lilly is proud of the difference fluoxetine has made to millions of people living with depression.”

A spokesman for GlaxoSmithKline, which makes Seroxat, said the authors had failed to acknowledge the “very positive” benefits of the treatment and their conclusions were “at odds with what has been seen in actual clinical practice.”

Hey, if you can remarket an antidepressant as another drug, as Lilly did by rebranding Prozac as a pre-menstrual issues drug after its patent expired, you’re going to be dollar-sensitive.

That said, as someone currently on citalopram (generic Celexa), and having run through comments on a post on this on Political Animal, I have a few thoughts.

First, if antidepressants did work BECAUSE they were placebos, why wouldn’t the placebo effect work with the first antidepressant? Why do so many people, unfortunately, try three or four before finding the right one for them?

Second, claiming a “spontaneous remission” for depression, saying that means we can and should go back to pre-drug days, is not just naïve but dangerous. Like a physical illness such as MS that goes into “remission” but then flares up again, depression can do the same.

Finally, we know too little, still, about brain chemistry to know exactly how antidepressants work. Therefore, claiming we know they don’t work is premature, even if that does prove to be the case 20-30 years from now.

February 25, 2008

Missing from Democratic presidential campaigns, Feb. 25 version

1. A call to allow carbon tariffs as part of WTO reform. (This is only a partial miss on Obama’s side. He has said he wants to reform WTO at the Doha round to get some environmental standards in there, but I doubt that he wants to go that far.

2. A national office of insurance regulation. If a national healthcare system is run through private insurers, a federal regulatory office is vital. Both Clinton and Obama have been silent on this.

Such an office would ideally regulate home and auto insurance, too, since state regulatory agencies are toothless. (Life insurance, as an investment product, already has some federal regulation.)

100 years’ = ‘soon’ = Another McCain lie on Iraq

Schmuck Talk Express™ (and invented by this very blogger) is now claiming the war in Iraq will be over soon. This new line of BS, different from previous such lines, is far away from the “100 years of war” comments of previous weeks:
“My friends, the war will be over soon...” McCain told the crowd. “The insurgency will go on for years and years and years. But it will be handled by the Iraqis, not by us.”

“And then we decide what kind of security arrangement we want to have with the Iraqis.”

This, McCain has indicated, was what he was referring to in January when he said that troops could be in Iraq for 100 years.

“In Korea we've had, as you know, ever since the Korean War, we’ve had a military presence in South Korea. So my Democrat friends like to distort that comment.”

Let’s count all the different lies or distortions. Let’s start at the bottom.

South Korea didn’t have an ongoing insurgency since the end of the Korean War.

Related to that, South Korea faced North Korea, a separate country, across a clearly defined border.

Second, if Iraqis are supposed to handle an insurgency after “date X,” why do they need our troops there?

Third, McCain put no such context on his “100 years” statement when he uttered it. It’s clear he’s trying to backtrack.

Want a HELOC? Grab a chair, sit down, and wait

Your local bank is tightening the spigot on home equity lines of credit and similar loan mechanisms. Countrywide alone sent a mass mailing to 122,000 homeowners telling them their credit lines had been frozen.

Well, THAT ought to help continue the plunge into recession.

Existing home sales hit nine-year low

The National Association of Realtors (not headed by Herbert Hoover), may continue to insist a housing rebound is just around the corner, but this report indicates otherwise.

U.S. says it favors binding greenhouse gas goals — we’ll see

The pudding that will have, or dispel, the proof on this claim will be brought out for dessert in April.

Even if Daniel Price is serious (by the way, note his title — assistant to the president for international economic affairs, and nothing environmental), specific targets mean nothing if they’re too weak. I can be a police chief, and talk about reducing crime all I want, but if my specific target is a 1 percent reduction from this year, 10 years from now, then I’m all talk.

Religious numbnuts strike Kansas high school athletics

St. Mary's Academy, west of Lawrence, Kan., recently refused to let a woman ref one of its basketball games. Why? The other ref for the game claims school officials said would be putting a woman in a “position of authority” over men, a definite no-no to those who give literalist credence to the Pauline imposter who wrote 1 Timothy.

Actually, not, according to a school press release. It said the school educates boys and girls separately, for a variety of reasons. Here, it said it didn’t want one of its male athletes running into a woman.

Oh, these religious numbnuts weren’t evangelicals or fundamentalists, either. They were conservative Catholics, as one might guess from the name of “St. Mary's Academy.” (That said, it teaches pre-Vatican II beliefs, so you know it’s the Roman Catholic equivalent of Protestant fundies.)

So, either the school is afraid of bossy women, or it’s afraid of menstruating women breathing contamination.

No matter. It’s still sexist.

If you’re going to be in a plane crash, or have a mid-air heart attack, be sure not to fly American

The big AA now has a public-relations nightmare on its hands, as well as a likely lawsuit. On a flight from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a passenger complained about feeling unwell. Twice, the passenger asked a flight attendant for oxygen and both times was told no.

Finally, the flight attendant checked with the cabin, and they said it was OK to use a portable oxygen tank.

One problem — it was empty. So, too, was a second tank. By this time, the passenger-cum-patient had collapsed. So, the plane’s defibrillator was apparently hauled out.

You guessed it. Didn’t work. The passenger died before the plane could make an emergency landing.

Why I won’t vote for Obama now indeed

I know Barack Obama’s comment I’m going to reference below was directed specifically at Ralph Nader, but I’m going to assume he would direct the sentiment — that Nader doesn’t deserve even one vote — to the eventual legitimate third party candidate as well.

Well, Obama, I know one less vote you deserve.

February 24, 2008

Washington Monthly ‘weakest post of the week’ Feb. 17-23

This may become a semi-regular thing, depending on how often Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum can come through in the clutch to deliver an especially squishy post. This week, I was at first looking at one or more of his McCain-Iserman posts, but Saturday, Kevin gave us a clear winner.

With this comment: “It’s worth saying this over and over: insurance companies don’t discriminate because they're evil. They do it because it’s what insurance companies do. It’s a core part of their business, and if they don't do it they'll go belly up,” it’s a no-brainer.

Why have they been getting worse and worse at it, Kevin? Why have they themselves not been admitting the system, as it now stands, is broken for many people not on the money-making end?

Because insurance companies, as currently constituted, are evil, Kevin.

What a squish.

Josh Marshall spills Nader bullshit at TPM

The Talking Points Memo headline entitled Bush's Chief Enabler Signs On says it all. Here’s what I wrote to TPM about its bullshit headline:
1. I will not vote for him, on the assumption, which none of the news stories made clear, that he is running as an indy and NOT seeking the Green nomination. (I do plan, as of this time, to give full consideration to voting Green, though.)

2. I did vote Green, and not Nader, in 2004. The Green Party had an official candidate not named Ralph Nader, as it chose David Cobb as official standard-bearer.

3. That said, the “chief enabler” headline is bullshit and you know it. Yes, I would have preferred he only run in “uncontested” states in 2000. That said, the Florida butterfly ballot and its creator, Al Gore's campaign, and Al Gore's failure to fully contest Florida afterward and to encourage enthusiasm for others to do so, are all "Bush's chief enablers," not Ralph Nader.

4. Ohio 2004? John Kerry, if anybody, the chief enabler, if you want to look for one. The Green Party shelled out money for an Ohio vote recount. Kerry personally, and the Democratic Party officially? Nothing.

It’s bullshit like this which is part of what keeps me and other independent progressives, left-liberals, etc., from signing on the Democratic Party dotted line. So, if you're looking for 2008 “enablers,” look in the mirror while you're at it, Josh or whomever wrote this headline.

I warned you not to do it, Ralph

Determined to become the Harold Stassen of our age, Ralph Nader has announced another run for president. Given the fact that the Green Party was nowhere mentioned in this or several other versions of the story, I assume that means he’s going to run as an independent no matter what, whether or not he even tries to get the Green nomination first. His website talks about getting Nader on the ballot in 50 states, another indication he’s not going to run as a Green.

Ralph, if you were to become the Greens’ official candidate, I’d vote for you. Otherwise? No way in hell. You’re on an ego trip, and you’re splitting the left-alternative vote.

That said, Obama is right that Nader can come off as a “my way or the highway” type:
In many ways, he is a heroic figure, and I don’t mean to diminish him. But I do think there’s a sense now that, you know, if, if somebody’s not hewing to the Ralph Nader agenda, then you, you must be lacking in some way.

On the other hand, on issues like becoming more pro-Israeli, even pro-Israeli hardliner, etc., Nader lands some shots back.

Oh, and if the age issue is legitimate? You’re more than two years older than McCain.