SocraticGadfly: 4/20/08 - 4/27/08

April 26, 2008

ScienceDebate2008 appears dead

Why? Possibly because, Hillary Clinton’s call for a “Lincoln-Douglas debate” aside, it doesn’t fit the format of carefully scripted debates.

And, while Obama might eventually agree to an open-style debate about things like health care or Middle East foreign policy, neither candidate is going to openly discuss science policy in an unscripted debate. They wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole.

Why, in detail?

Well, it would be hard to pander to corn farmers about ethanol, for example. It would be hard to pander to Illinois or Wyoming coal miners about clean slightly less dirty coal-generated electric power.

And, yes, candidates can file position papers. And they do so safe and secure in the sense that John and Jane Voter will never read them.

India Day not so good this year

I don’t know if I got to the Dallas Arts District too late, or what. But, two years ago, they had live music inside the
to Crow Collection of Asian Art and this year they didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, the dancing was nice. But, that all is done to recorded music, as it was two years ago. (I wasn’t in Dallas last year.)

And, can anybody tell me how this particular Saturday first got chosen? Late April has no connection to modern Indian history that I am aware of.

On the coffee table — ‘Condoleezza Rice’

Basically, this Elisabeth Bumiller bio of Rice is a biography of an intellectual middleweight BY an intellectual middleweight

Where’s the analysis?

There’s not a lot new here about Condi Rice, especially for people involved enough with tracking politics to have formed a basic picture of her already.

That said, there is a fair amount of information from her childhood and pre-NSC adulthood to confirm what became apparent then was not new.

That includes:
1. A blinkered mindset, not just on things like Iraq issues, either;
2. A lack of original thought;
3. A lack of bureaucratic steel at times, especially when limited by blinkered or unoriginal thought.

The first point goes all the way back to segregated Birmingham, Ala., of Rice’s childhood. She maintains to this day that segregation wasn’t as bad as MLK and other civil rights leaders maintained, and, even more laughably, that more upper-crust black leaders there were making progress.

The lack of originality? The lack of relative depth in her PhD study. Her time as Stanford provost.

Tying some points together, that Bumiller doesn’t look at enough:
1. WHY the blinkered mindset held all the way back to childhood?
2. WAS Condi’s PhD that “derivative”?
3. DID she get tenure, not just appointment at Stanford, on minority grounds? Or female grounds? Or a combo?
4. DID she, per a book like Randall Kennedy’s “Sellout,” “pull the ladder up” after her at Stanford, both vis-à-vis other minorities and vis-à-vis other women?
5. HOW RESPONSIBLE is she for the federal lawsuit against Stanford for discrimination against women? How responsible is she for that having spread to racial discrimination, too?
6. PSYCHOLOGY of her attachment to older, “mentorish” men? Effects on her two stints in Washington?
7. HARD-CORE CONSERVATIVISM after her Bush I service in 1989-91? Everybody at Stanford remarked on the changes, but it doesn’t look like Bumiller asked Question No. 1 about this.

Through in the fact that Bumiller swallows the conservative/BushCo talking points about the pre-9/11 “firewall” between domestic and foreign intelligence, calls Wolfowitz a “conservative” and not a “neoconservative” and you see Bumiller in over her head as much as Rice was on Jan. 20, 2001.

How Bumiller got to be a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, or how Random House thought they would get a serious analytical bio (if it wanted one) from an author whose other publishings are all non-analytical women’s issues books, is beyond me. And, using that leave of absence from the New York Times to write this book and it STILL being this shallow? That is what got it knocked down from three to two stars.

As for alternatives? Judging by other reviewers, I think Kessler’s bio has to be better, and Mabry’s possibly worse than this.

And, let’s not forget this hugely insightful quote of hers, about her squish, nonaggressive coverage of the Iraq invasion:
“I think we were very deferential because ... it’s live, it’s very intense, it’s frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you’re standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country’s about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.”

Glenn Kessler’s bio of Rice, which I’ve not read, rates slightly higher at Amazon. That said, Bumiller at least is a voluminous enough steno to provide confirmation of just what Rice is about is not new to her personality.

Sheehan officially challenging Pelosi

Antiwar protestor Cindy Sheehan is officially starting the process tochallenge Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as an independent candidate for Congress this fall.

She’s going to need a little help, in the form of 10,198 friends and supporters, 3 percent of 2006 voters in Pelosi’s district who were registered for the 2006 general election.

That shouldn’t be too hard. Now, how well Sheehan, the mother of deceased soldier Casey Sheehan, does in the general election, is another thing.

I’m not expecting her to win, but I would LOVE for her to get at least 10 percent of the vote.

And, if she did surprise me, and everybody else, and pull off this upset, all the better.

Pelosi also has a primary challenge from San Francisco activist Shirley Golub.

And, not so fast on dissing Sheehan, Mr. Chronicle staff writer John Wildermuth. Yes, Democrats may outnumber Republicans 56-10 percent among registered voters, but that means 34 percent of registered voters in the district are unaffiliated, and I’m betting most of them ain’t libertarian types.

Beyond that, San Franciscans nearly elected a Green in the last mayoral election. If Sheehan is comfortable running on an official Green platform and the local Green Party is ready to pull the trigger, it could really be fun.

Natureblogging — pink ladies

Pink ladies are a lower Midwest/southern plains wildflower. They’re in bloom right now here in the Dallas area:

Pink ladies smiling
From the mid-April grasslands
Not shy, not blushing.

Soft mallow yellow
Inside a white-faded heart.
Pink ladies hello.

Atheist soldier sues Army

Thank doorknob, if not amen, to Spc. Jeremy Hall. The Iraq vet is suing the Army for violating his First Amendment rights:
When Specialist Jeremy Hall held a meeting last July for atheists and freethinkers at Camp Speicher in Iraq, he was excited, he said, to see an officer attending.

But minutes into the talk, the officer, Maj. Freddy J. Welborn, began to berate Specialist Hall and another soldier about atheism, Specialist Hall wrote in a sworn statement. “People like you are not holding up the Constitution and are going against what the founding fathers, who were Christians, wanted for America!” Major Welborn said, according to the statement.

Major Welborn told the soldiers he might bar them from re-enlistment and bring charges against them, according to the statement.

Indeed, Hall was sent home in November. So now, he is suing, with the help of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

Welborn, for his part, says, “I’d love to tell my side of the story because it’s such a false story.”

Right. As the story points out, this is part and parcel of military culture. Hey, Welborn, you want to be part of a religiously propagandizing military? I think Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army is recruiting.

The story notes that civilian courts have been reluctant to intervene in military affairs. That is ridiculous, and I hope this changes that.

For more on the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, visit its website.

T Rex tastes like chicken?

Well, maybe. Evolutionary biologists were able to scavenge enough DNA from a Tyrannasaurus rex fossil to determine chickens were among its closest biological relatives.
The research published this week in the journal Science marked “the first use of molecular data to place a non-avian dinosaur in a phylogenetic tree that traces the evolution of species,” the journal said.

“These results match predictions made from skeletal anatomy, providing the first molecular evidence for the evolutionary relationships of a non-avian dinosaur,” co-author Chris Organ, a postdoctoral researcher in organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University said.

“Though we only had six peptides — just 89 amino acids — from T. rex, we were able to establish these relationships with a relatively high degree of support,” he added.

“With more data, we’d likely see the T. rex branch on the phylogenetic tree between alligators and chickens and ostriches, though we can't resolve this position with currently available data,” he added.

This is big stuff on several counts.

First, the ability to use such slim remnants of DNA for this testing.

Second, it more clearly opens to debate the question about whether or not any dinosaurs were warm-blooded.

Third, in the face of the propaganda film “Crossroads” “Expelled,” this shows how science actually works. (For more about the movie, see Expelled.)

Oh, and it’s too bad the T. rex DNA came from a femur. If it had been a coprolite, I’d have a bonus issue of scatblogging coming up.

Turboprops make comeback on $110 oil

You may not like to fly prop jobs, because they are (allegedly) bumpy. Well, on a flight of 600 miles, a current-generation propper like the Bombardier Q400 can use as much as
Meet 70 percent less fuel than a regional jet.

As for turboprops’ smaller passenger capacity, the flip side is that quicker taxis and takeoffs mean you can get them in and out faster. Plus, it means that spoke-and-hub flying may need to rethink itself anyway, into something more along the lines of Southwest’s quasi-hub “focus city” model.

That, in turn would push for more smaller airports at the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, and open the door for more airlines, whether that’s good or bad in the long term.

In any case, the major airlines risk becoming as dinosaur-like as the Big Three of American automakers if they’re not prepared to adapt.

Their pilots and such will have to recognize it too, but the pilots still need to fight ridiculous compensation/bonus offers to airline execs.

April 25, 2008

Jeremiah Wright on Bill Moyers – my analysis

Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s pastor and the focus of right-wing inflamed controversy smears, including death threats, was on Bill Moyers’ Journal tonight in what will surely be Moyers’ top-rated show for some time. (See the Moyers blog for more.)

Wright overall was pretty good, and especially with the “God Damn America” sermon, Moyers did a nice segue/setup.

That said, while Moyers was certainly a sympathetic, and knowledgeable, interviewer, he didn't give Wright a 100 percent pass on his relations with Farrakhan or what he noted Wright mentor Martin Marty called Wright's “rough edges” and “abrasiveness.”

Here are some other observations of mine.

First, I now know more about where Wright gets his “black Jesus” ideas from. Early in the show, a clip from Wright’s church showed him claiming almost all the Bible takes place in Africa.


The Fertile Crescent/Middle East are in Asia. Indeed, “erev” and “assu” or similar are old words in Hebrew and related Semitic languages, and are of course the roots of “Europe” and “Asia.” (The Greek myth of Zeus and Europa was lifted from the Fertile Crescent.)

Wright was right, in many ways, about the “prophetic voice.” I’ve heard preachers both white and black have a voice like that for this-world prophetic justice. Beyond that, as for the church’s slogan, “Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian,” Wright had the quote of embracing Christianity without abandoning Africanity. That said, the motto was adopted under the pastor before Wright.

“Bad,” and more seriously from my small American minority point of view, came back, though.

Wright, as with Arianna Huffington, whom I blogged about earlier this week, though not so explicitly, seemed to indicate religious belief was necessary to find meaning in and give meaning to life.


And, that’s not just a white atheist guy saying that.

Meet The Infidel Guy, Reginald Finley, arguably America’s top black atheist. I know he would have the same condemnation.

Anyway, Wright then spoke in more detail about the “God damn America” book. First, getting back to that prophetic voice, the voice of people like Amos and Hosea, or the blessings and curses (or conDE/AMNnations, if you will) of Deuteronomy, he said religious leaders are supposed to, per their tradition, challenge government.

Of course, politically and socially conservative white evangelical churches are clueless about that in the pews, in large part from preachers who refuse to engage in such condemnations, unless it’s the hot-button issue of abortion or gays.

But, Wright spelled out the results of that.
When you start confusing God and government … you’re in serious trouble. (It’s like), ‘My government, right or wrong.’

The sermon clip was complete enough to show Wright explaining how the Roman government of Jesus’ time and the British Empire of a century ago both failed, then making a segue to the failures of American foreign policy before coming to the “God damn America” line.

I have a linguistic hair to split, though. Wright would have been better saying “God damnS America” to make that point clear.

Moyers also had Wright talk through the sermon he gave the Sunday after 9/11, where he used Psalm 137 as his text, the famous “By the waters of Babylon” psalm, for those of a Judeo-Christian background. It is called that from its opening line, which sets the words of the psalm on the lips of Jewish exiles in the Babylonian captivity under its King Nebuchadrezzer (the actual name of the biblically misrendered “Nebuchadnezzar”).

Anyway, here’s the last line of that psalm, Wright’s sermonic cornerstone:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us —
he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against a rock.

Wright told Moyers he was speaking to the people of his church who, like many other Americans, wanted revenge after 9/11. He said the psalm showed they had biblical precedent for feeling that way, but that the Bible called people beyond that to growth.

But, one problem, not just of Wright, but of about any Christian minister or Jewish rabbi. The psalm itself ends with that as the last verse. Before a “bible,” or an Old Testament/Tanakh, or even a book called “Psalms,” or even one its five original separate books, was assembled, that psalm was read alone.

As a cry for vengeance.

Later on, Wright mentioned racism in all sorts of holy books, not just the Bible, but also places like the Babylonian Talmud and the Hindu Vedas. (And he’s right.) He also mentioned problematic passages, like the Levite of Judges 19 who has a concubine then abandons her to be gang-raped to death.

But, he ignored something like the holocaust Yahweh himself expressly commanded in I Samuel 15, in talking about Psalm 137.

No, Rev. Wright (and 99 percent of other preachers), your God was originally understood and embraced as a God who wanted vengeance. The author of that psalm understood that.

So, Wright did a pretty good job of selling his theology. And, by that, I mean Christian theology, not just black Christian theology. But, that “prophetic voice” has some devil’s tritone clarion calls.

On the coffee table – ‘Predictably Irrational’

Earlier this week, I blogged about how behavioral economics is the best refutation of libertarianism (I originally typed “liberalism,” sorry!).

In a nutshell, as opposed to the neoclassicism of Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Alan Greenspan, et al. (hell, Adam Smith and his deist philosophical basis for that matter), behavioral economics, which owes a lot to modern neuroscience, cognitive philosophy and evolutionary psychology, says we are often irrational, even hugely irrational, in our economic decision-making.

Behavioral economics also differs from neoclassicism in another way. Neoclassicist economics has been like Aristotelian “science” as practiced in the Middle Ages – rote dogma, without experimentation.

Behavioral economics, on the other hand, has been a leader in empirical, experimental research. Oh, sure, neoclassicism has started to do more research, but it hasn’t gotten into neuroscience tools like the use of fMRIs, etc.

What’s this all mean? Other than Alan Greenspan was bullshitting about the rationality of the markets all these years, of course.

Well, Dan Ariely spells it out in “Predictably Irrational,” an excellent intro to the field.

Common-sense psychology would tell us these are “no duh” statements, but two of Homo sapiens’ highest irrationality pushers? Money and sex.

Whether it’s abstinence pledges, the use of condoms, kinky sex or whatever, what people say they will and won’t do in moments of calmness changes a lot when they get hot and bothered. Obviously, this has fallout for abstinence-only teen sexuality programs.

Money? First way we are irrational is whenever the word “free” gets attached to something. Doesn’t matter how little we need something. Doesn’t even matter how little we LIKE something. Ariely shows that if it’s free, we’re taking more of it.

The second way money makes us irrational is much more serious – financial cheating. Ariely thinks that the Enrons and other situations of our world have increased precisely because more complex investment vehicles and other things separate us more from direct contact with money, thereby making it easier to rationalize cheating. His experiments have demonstrated this with things like test cheating. People will cheat more if their scores are based on getting a token, then exchanging that for money, rather than being directly paid in money. In fact, they’ll cheat at least twice as much.

Besides money and sex, social issues can cause irrational behavior. Here in individualistic America, people in groups/at tables will often order food and drinks they don’t like just not to be imitative. In some traditional societies elsewhere in the world, just the opposite is true.

And, that gets back to financial cheating. Ariely says other things, like ethics codes, more contract signatures, etc., can “prime” ethical behavior in people’s heads, even if they are several steps removed from actual cash.

This is a light 250-page read and a five-star book.

Hypocrisy alert – Hillary on Barack and the Weathermen

Hillary Clinton claims, after bashing Barack Obama for his alleged connections to Weather Underground former member Bill Ayers, and Obama calling her on the carpet for Bill’s end-of-administration pardon of Linda Evans and Susan Rosenberg, that she didn’t know anything about that.

Not true; the real story, via Newsday:
On October 19, 2000, as Hillary was hunting for Senate votes throughout New York, Rockland County's biggest paper, the Journal News, ran a front page story reporting that imprisoned radical Susan Rosenberg — linked to the 1981 Weather Underground Brinks robbery that left two Nyack cops dead — was seeking clemency from Bill Clinton.

And Sen. Chuck Schumer, who campaigned for Clinton at many of her stops, was a strenuous opponent of any Slickster pardon.

There’s no way she could not have known.

Friday scatblogging – Earth Week edition

Hah, I double-crossed you this week. No chicken scat, no human coprolites, no buffalo patties. Just that hybrid bus over on the right.

OK, I hope I’ve got your curiosity hooked now.

SCAT is the Sarasota County Area Transit, the mass transit agency for the Sarasota, Fla. area. And it has celebrated the one-year anniversary of adding hybrid-drive buses to its fleet.

With gas prices soaring so high, and, of course, the electric half of hybrid drives most effective and efficient in city driving, SCAT says the hybrid buses will allow it to keep rates flat.

It’s an extra investment, of $500,000 per bus vs. $300,000 for a conventional bus, but looking like it’s well worth it.

Let’s assume, that with maintenance time, etc., a bus drives 84,000 miles a year. (That’s 230 miles a day.)

Let’s also assume (I don’t know what the actuals are) that a straight diesel bus averages 10 mpg, while a diesel hybrid averages 14 mpg. (Note: There are also gas hybrids on the market.)

The actual cost savings aren’t that high. 1,400 gallons at $4 per is “just” $5,600 a year. Even if my mileage is low by a factor of 2.5, that’s “just” $14,000 per year.

Now, if the much-reduced strain on the diesel engine extends driving life, saves mechanics’ costs, etc., then, the money starts adding up. But, on straight fuel savings, compared to hybrid vs. conventional cars, buying a hybrid bus is a mug’s game, at least right now.

And no, the Sarasota hybrids aren’t GM-made.

Snipes conviction could deter tax-rejection wingnuts

Movie star Wesley Snipes, not just a figurehead but an active player in the antitax movement, has been sentenced for tax nonpayment. His sentence, after a criminal trial in regular federal court rather civil tax court, is a three-year sentence, likely to be served on supervised release.

Snipes had a monetary surprise for the government at his sentencing (see below), but no philosophical remorse.

Snipes hadn’t submitted a tax return since 1998, and had engaged the services of codefendants Douglas P. Rosile and Eddie Ray Kahn.
Kahn was the founder of American Rights Litigators, and a successor group, Guiding Light of God Ministries, that purported to help members legally avoid paying taxes. Snipes was a dues-paying member of the organization, and Rosile, a de-licensed accountant, prepared Snipes' paperwork.

The actor maintained in a years-long battle with the IRS he did not have to pay taxes, using fringe arguments common to “tax protesters” who say the government has no legal right to collect. After joining Kahn's group, the government said, Snipes instructed his employees to stop paying their own taxes and sought $11 million in 1996 and 1997 taxes he legally paid.

Obvious proof of nutbarrery? Combining antitaxism with “God.”

The government claims Snipes owes at least $2.7 million in back taxes just from three years that were in question at the trial.

As for his attorney’s complaints about both the length of Snipes’ sentence and the selective prosecution of not going after any other Kahn clients, Judge William Terrell Hodges admitted as such on both counts. He said Snipes’ decade-long history was “serious” and that the selective prosecution was about “deterrence.”

Snipes had three checks totaling $5 mil ready to give the government at the Ocala, Fla., courthouse. But, even after his conviction, in a prepared statement, he refused to use the word “taxes.”

Hey, Wesley, way to prove Judge Hodges right after you’ve been convicted.

Snipes was acquitted on tax fraud and conspiracy charges, which some antitaxers are already hailing as a “victory.” (Wonder if Ron Paul visited Ocala recently?)

I can see beating the fraud charges, as, if you don’t submit any paperwork, there’s nothing to hang a fraud charge on. But the conspiracy charge, especially after telling his employees to not pay up? Beating that rap, I don’t get.

Seeding the atmosphere with particulates to reduce global warming could backfire

Here’s why.

It could damage the ozone layer.

The idea of artificially-induced “global cooling” has been derived from the natural global cooling of volcanic eruptions, where sulfur and sulfur compound particles do the cooling effect. Here in specific is how it could backfire:
Researchers studied what would happen if regular, large amounts of sulfate particles were artificially injected into the atmosphere with the aim of cooling the surface temperatures.

The team found that over the next few decades, such large amounts of sulfates would likely destroy between about 25 to 75 percent of the ozone layer above the Arctic.

This could have a devastating effect on the northern hemisphere, computer simulations showed. The expected recovery of the hole over the Antarctic would also be delayed by 30 to 70 years.

Researchers found that such large amounts of sulfates would enable chlorine gases found in the cold layers of the stratosphere above the two Poles to become active, triggering a chemical reaction harmful to ozone.

“This study highlights another connection between global warming and ozone depletion,” said co-author Ross Salawitch of the University of Maryland. “These traditionally had been thought of as separate problems but are now increasingly recognized to be coupled in subtle, yet profoundly important, manners.”

So, scratch one idea of “salvific technologism.”

France pushes for E.U. boycott of the Olympics opening

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already pledged to boycott the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies. French President Nicolas Sarkozy continues to make noises about the same. Now, Sarko wants the 27-member European Union collectively on board.

France will hold the rotating EU presidency during the time of the games in August, so this is a serious push Sarko is making. At the same time, he says he doesn’t want to marginalize China.

Unclear in all of this is how much Sarko should be flagged for a pander alert, since Paris was the site of the strongest anti-China protests during the international Olympic torch relay, forcing the torch to be extinguished and put on a bus.

Senate Ethics Committee kisses Domenci’s butt

Retiring New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici got the mildest of hand-slapes from the Senate Ethics Committee Thursday for calling U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, at Iglesias’ home, no less, and asking him about whether some Democratic corruption indictments were forthcoming, just weeks before the November 2006 general election. Iglesias was later fired for apparently political reasons by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Anyway, politically active people know the story. Here’s the hand-slap finger-tap from Ethics.

It criticized him in a letter. Ooh, bet Pete was just CRUSHED by that. Why the love tap?
”The committee finds no substantial evidence to determine that you attempted to improperly influence an ongoing investigation,” the committee letter said.

And the committee openly admitted it never looked into the case beyond the actual phone call.

Guess we will never see Dems push current AG Mike Mukasey on the Harriett Miers and John Bolton contempt of Congress citations, with éclair-like backbones like that.

April 24, 2008

Global warming roundup – Arctic and New Zealand ice melts; will China do more?

WWF says Arctic ice melt continues to speed up
World Wildlife Fund says Greenland and Arctic ice were 39 percent below 1979-80 levels last September, at the end of summer.
“Recently observed changes are happening at rates significantly faster than predicted” by the 2005 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) and last year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), WWF said. …

“When you look in detail at the science behind the recent Arctic changes it becomes painfully clear how our understanding of climate impacts lags behind the changes that we are already seeing in the Arctic,” said Martin Sommerkorn, one of the authors of the report.

WWF has upped its polar bear extinction worry as a result. Are you listening, Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne?
New Zealand glacier melts
New Zealand’s largest glacier is retreating at a rate of almost half a mile a year. It’s expected to disappear in not too many years.
U.N. claims China will do more on climate
U.N. officials claim self-interest in Beijing will kick in as Chinese leadership see how much damage global warming is doing to its own environment, and motivate it to do more on carbon emissions. Yvo de Boer says increased Tibetan-area glacial melting will first continue to increase floods on the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, which already are flooding at a rate seven times faster than in the 1950s. Then, as glaciers dry up even more, down go the rivers.

But de Boer cautioned developed nations (i.e., the United States) to not use this as an excuse to foot-drag.

What next on Texas Mormon compound case?

By now, most the country has heard about last week’s Texas raid on a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound in Eldorado, including the removal of more than 400 children.

Unless the state of Texas and Child Protective Services in particular get their acts together quickly, I predict the state is going to be in a bunch of trouble, including some lawsuits against it.

This USA Today column summarizes some points for national readers. After that, I’ll add local points cleaned from Texas newspapers and my own knowledge, and offer up why I think the way I do.
• Did Texas have any option short of taking the children from their families for weeks? This is the largest child custody case in Texas and U.S. history, and the seizure of so many children is both extreme and extraordinary. Authorities said they raided the compound — belonging to an isolationist group called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), which is known to practice polygamy — after a call to a domestic abuse hotline from a 16-year-old seeking help. The caller wasn’t found, but child welfare officials said they saw several teenage girls who were pregnant or with young children. That prompted them to remove all the children.

• Did the state infringe on the group's right to practice its religion? FLDS members have invited fear and suspicion by cutting themselves off from society. It is likely that the sect built its isolated West Texas compound in 2004 to avoid outside interference. In recent days, FLDS mothers have appeared on TV wearing prairie dresses and old-fashioned hairdos. Different, yes, but the Constitution protects religious freedom, as long as it's practiced legally.

• Did anyone inside the compound violate statutory rape, child molestation or other laws? Whatever the group’s beliefs, the age of consent in Texas is 17, and the age of marriage with parental consent is 16. On TV, at least one FLDS man said he did not know Texas law prohibited sex with adolescent girls. If the law has been violated, the girls should be protected and offenders prosecuted.

• What is in the best interest of each child? What's right for one child might not be right for all 437. Appropriately, a judge has ordered that the case of each child be heard by June 5. DNA tests are being conducted to sort out tangled families. In the meantime, the emotional toll on the parents is evident. How the children are faring can only be guessed. They are being transferred to temporary foster care after being held in a coliseum in the town of San Angelo.

Now, some Texas-level observations, some of which will provide further explanation to USA Today points.

First, we can go beyond “the caller wasn’t found.” Though nobody will say anything on the record by name, it’s pretty clear this was a prank call. Without excusing anything that may have happened at the Eldorado compound, parents know that rebellious teenagers, in some cases, will make prank calls against their parents to authorities.

The state’s failure to adequately investigate that possibility before the raid could be a matter of legal liability in any lawsuits the FLDS file.

And, things like a state district judge treating the children like cattle and not having individual hearings on their custody status will only add to that.

Second, and unsurprisingly, Gov. Helmethair, aka Rick Perry, is AWOL on this issue. Why? For the same reason that folks like the Rutherford Institute are jumping in with both feet — Rick doesn’t want to alienate the Religious Right, especially now that he has announced he will run for re-election in 2010.

Third, it’s no crime to be a pregnant teen, or our jails would be even more bursting than they are now. (I think I first saw this in a Steve Chapman column.)

Fourth, as other FLDS-type cases have shown, unless this is tried very carefully (assuming criminal charges result), you run the risk of generating a Stockholm Syndrome situation where teen brides side with their non-caffeinated sugar daddies. My confidence Texas will try this, and a judge will hear it, with that level of skill? Right now, about 10 percent.

That’s especially true on statuatory rape charges. After this fiasco, good luck to the state of Texas on proving those charges.

I get e-mails – Exxon ready to indoctrinate young minds in Dallas

ExxonMobil is using the “techwash” of former astronaut Sally Ride to bring the Sally Ride Science Festival to Southern Methodist University April 26:
While girls participate in two separate workshops, parents and educators will also attend a longer workshop on ways to support girls’ interests in math and science. In addition, the festival will have a street fair with hands-on science activities.

Will those science activities include teaching people things like:
• How to spill oil?
• How to conduct experiments on how many animals an oil spill can kill?
• How to count carbon dioxide up to 420 parts per million?
• How to measure minute but steadily increasing atmospheric temperature changes?

I’m sure the Exxon Math and Science Academy will offer more in follow-up courses.

Hypocrisy alert – GM and hybrids

Oh, because of all of its foot-dragging, or knuckle-dragging, on hybrid autos, I’ll bet you didn’t know that GM has been building hybrid buses for several years. (Note the 2004-05 date on the banner of the webpage.)

In fact, a lot of people don’t know that about GM, even though a Google search for “GM” + “hybrid bus” yields 33,000 hits. Or that it has built more than 1,000 hybrid buses.

But, GM can’t won’t build a hybrid car. It will grudgingly build a hybrid-lite SUV, but that’s it.

However, GM is perfectly OK with using its semi-hybrid SUVs as greenwash.

Dallas steroid ring bust has apparent Clemens connection

An unnamed codefendent in a suburban Dallas alleged steroid distribution ring supposedly sold steroids to a Houston friend of Roger Clemens.
A co-defendant in the Plano steroids trafficking ring linked to a former Dallas Cowboys player has told investigators that he sold performance-enhancing drugs to Shaun Kelley, proprietor of the Houston weight loss clinic recently linked to baseball great Roger Clemens, according to the co-defendant.

Kelley, whom the New York Times reported last month is part of Congress’ investigation into possible steroid or human growth hormone acquisition by Clemens, denied the Plano claims.

Interestingly, the Plano codefendant says prosecutors specifically asked him about the Kelley connection.

So, did Clemens benefit more than Barry Bonds?

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

Vanity eyes droop with sagging economy

The latest sign were in a recession? A decline in Lasik eye surgery. Apparently, more people are deciding to hold on to their glasses longer.
“We’re forecasting a 17 percent drop for 2008,” said David Harmon, president of Market Scope, an eye surgery market research house.

Lasik can run from $800-$3,000 per eye.

Also on the vanity chopping block recently are things like breast implants and Botox injections.

Getting blue without Green e-mail

I’ve sent one Green Party and two green, environmental e-mails out, all in the first half of this week, and all unanswered.

First, the Green Party e-mail.

As politically active and knowledgeable Texans who aren’t Republicans or Democrats know, Texas has what may be the most two-party duopolistic ballot restriction laws of any state in the country.

In plain English, Repugs and Dims in the Lege conspired together to make it almost impossible for Greens, or Libertarians, or anybody else, to get on the ballot, leaving their candidates to write-in status.

The way you can try to get off write-in status is, starting shortly after the duopoly primaries, getting people to sign a ballot access petition for your third party to appear on the general election.

But, there’s a huge catch. In addition to signatories needing to be registered voters, they cannot have voted in either MSP (“mainstream” party, riffing on MSM) primary election. And, the petition requires about 45,000 signatures statewide.

I’m not a registered Green, but I am an independent left-liberal who voted Green in 2004.

So, I went to the website of Dallas County Greens and e-mailed county Green officials to ask where they might have volunteers out and about seeking petition signatures. Now, I recognize there may not be as many dollars or as much organization behind this as connected with California initiative drives, but, nonetheless, I would expect them to say something like, “We will have volunteers at the Northwest Highway location of Half Price Books from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 12-13.”

But they haven’t. In fact, I haven’t heard Word One yet.

Then, the Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ve seen my takedown of Sierra HQ over the Clorox branding sellout and Project Renewal in the last week. If you’re not a regular reader, then start!

Anyway, I received a solicitation mailing from the Lone Star Chapter a couple of days ago. I went to the chapter’s website and politely but straightforwardly said that, due to those two issues above, I likely would let my Sierra membership lapse and therefore could not in good conscience support the state chapter either.

No response there, either.

And, that’s not all. Neither the Lone Star Chapter’s latest newsletter, received earlier this month, nor the Dallas local’s newsletter, mentioned either one of these issues, nor have they mentioned them in the past.

Yeah, I know, in a state as big as Texas, “like a whole ’nuther country” (gag me with a spoon) a lot of members at the local/state level may not be interested in national issues anyway. But, if they are local level activists, Project Renewal is designed to squash them. And, activist or not, the Clorox deal gives an across-the-board black eye to Sierra.

But, I guess they don’t care. If that is the case, that’s another reason to not send any money to Austin.

And, in one more shot at the national level. Neither the Sierra Club official blog, Compass, nor Carl Pope’s blog, are stellar on these issues.

A search of Compass with the word “Clorox” doesn’t return a single hit, for doorknob’s sake. Pope’s blog is mainly greenwash. His blog just has board election responses for the only links about Project Renewal.

Finally, the Audubon Society

I’ve been mulling over becoming a basic-level member of Audubon for some time. And, obviously, I’ll have money freed from the Sierra Club to send somewhere else.

Well, same day as the Texas Sierra mailing, I got a membership solicitation from the National Audubon Society. Great.

I was even getting offered a free fleece for joining.

Not so great. WWF’s tchotchkes are regularly from China. When Sierrans questioned a backpack giveaway a couple of years ago, Sierra HQ said “trust us” on the country of origin.

So, I went to Audubon’s website, found the e-mail link for membership issues, and asked them, “Whence the blanket?”

So far, no response.

While I don’t dismiss people who are single-issue liberals, I can’t support environmental groups who don’t care about jobs, let alone foreign labor rights and human rights.

‘Expelled’ gets first copyright lawsuit

Yoko Ono is suing makers of the creationist propaganda film “Expelled” for using John Lennon’s signature song, “Imagine,” without permission. She also claims that “Expelled’s” producers made it look like she had authorized use. And, she’s worried about her image with fans around the world as custodian of Lennon’s legacy.
Ono’s lawsuit claims the producers did not ask for permission either because they knew they couldn’t get it or because they did not want to pay for the rights. It objects to the way “Imagine” is listed in the film's credits, saying it suggested to members of the news media and others that the song's use had been approved.

“Internet bloggers immediately began accusing Mrs. Lennon of ‘selling out’ by licensing the song to defendants,” says the complaint, filed this week.

The lawsuit calls “Imagine” Lennon’s signature song, saying it “has become closely associated with and is synonymous with John Lennon.”

“Expelled” producers are claiming their use of “Imagine” falls under fair use rights, and that they only used a small portion of the song.

Unfortunately, they’re likely on better legal ground than scientific ground with the movie itself.

And, as for her custodial legacy, well, that’s another blog for another time.

For more about the movie, see Expelled.

‘Expelled’ gets first copyright lawsuit

Yoko Ono is suing makers of the creationist propaganda film “Expelled” for using John Lennon’s signature song, “Imagine,” without permission. She also claims that “Expelled’s” producers made it look like she had authorized use. And, she’s worried about her image with fans around the world as custodian of Lennon’s legacy.
Ono’s lawsuit claims the producers did not ask for permission either because they knew they couldn’t get it or because they did not want to pay for the rights. It objects to the way “Imagine” is listed in the film's credits, saying it suggested to members of the news media and others that the song's use had been approved.

“Internet bloggers immediately began accusing Mrs. Lennon of ‘selling out’ by licensing the song to defendants,” says the complaint, filed this week.

The lawsuit calls “Imagine” Lennon’s signature song, saying it “has become closely associated with and is synonymous with John Lennon.”

“Expelled” producers are claiming their use of “Imagine” falls under fair use rights, and that they only used a small portion of the song.

Unfortunately, they’re likely on better legal ground than scientific ground with the movie itself.

And, as for her custodial legacy, well, that’s another blog for another time.

For more about the movie, see Expelled.

April 23, 2008

Spygate talk time is FINALLY here

Former New England Patriots assistant coach/video flunky Matt Walsh is going to meet with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to perhaps, perhaps not, spill more beans on the Pats surreptitiously taping practices or game play signals of other NFL teams.

Circle May 13 on your sports calendars.

And Walsh looks like he has an ironclad immunity clause, although (see below) the Pats dispute that he has ever needed such a clause in the first place:
“Commissioner Goodell will meet with Mr. Walsh … on May 13, the earliest date that Mr. Walsh, who lives in Hawaii, will be available on the East Coast,” the NFL statement said. “The agreement also requires Mr. Walsh to return any tapes and other items in his possession that belong to the Patriots. In return, the NFL and the Patriots have promised not to sue Mr. Walsh. They also will indemnify him for any expenses, including legal fees that he incurs in connection with the interview.”

As NFL fans know, of course, the allegation is out there that the Pats videotaped a St. Louis Rams walk-through practice the day before the 2002 Super Bowl, which the Pats won, 20-17.

Meanwhile, the Pats’ office is throwing out the spinmeister line that Walsh never had any breach of confidentiality lawsuit to fear:
“It is important to note that there has never been a confidentiality agreement restricting Matt Walsh, and no legal protections were ever necessary for him to speak to the NFL, to media outlets or to anyone else regarding his employment with the Patriots,” the team’s statement said. “Walsh has been granted a significant number of privileges through this agreement, none of which the Patriots or the NFL were obligated to give.”

Methinks Bob Kraft and his minions doth protest too much.

Two other parts of the agreement are also noteworthy.

One, Walsh cannot speak to any third party between now and May 13. That means YOU, Sen. Arlen Specter.

And, the other, that will have conspiracy theorists salivating, is that Walsh must turn over to Goodell all materials in his possession by May 8. If I’m his attorney, Michael Levy, I’m making me a backup copy or two.

So, it’s time to again pull out my polls about Pats head coach Bill Belichick and 2002 Rams quarterback and Wheaties face Kurt Warner:

Free polls from
Is Bill Belichck, regardless of whether any legal action is ever actually pursued
Criminally guilty of "stealing a trade secret"? Civilly liable for depriving Kurt Warner of earnings? Neither   

And, if Belichick is guilty:

Free polls from
If Kurt Warner sues, he should get
Nothing $100,000 $500,000 $1 million $2-3 million $4-5 million more   

Hypocrisy alert – new EPA CAFÉ has massive Cali loophole

If you are aware of global warming issues, you of course know how the Environmental Protection Agency stiffed California’s request for a waiver on Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

You’re also aware that California, and coattail states, have sued the EPA.

Well, those allegedly strict new CAFÉ increments for 2012 that Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced yesterday?

There’s a big loophole directly related to California’s suit.
When the Bush administration announced proposed regulations Tuesday to raise fuel economy standards for cars and trucks to 31.6 miles per gallon by 2015, even some environmentalists applauded. But then they read the fine print.

Tucked deep into a 417-page "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" was language by the Transportation Department stating that more stringent limits on tailpipe emissions embraced by California and 17 other states are "an obstacle to the accomplishment" of the new federal standards and are "expressly and impliedly preempted" by federal law.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown called it a covert assault on California's rules. Environmentalists said the language will be used by automakers in their legal challenges to two recent federal court rulings that sided with the states.

Yes, count me as one who applauded. Well, I’ll not be burned by Mary Peters again.

And, some California senators aren’t going to be fooled again, either:
“It’s the belief of the department that by legislating national fuel economy standards that Congress wants national fuel economy standards,” said Brian Turmail, a Transportation Department spokesman.

But that view rankles California officials, who noted that during the debate last fall, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, won assurances that the bill would be neutral on whether California and other states could proceed with their own rules.

The document also had Transportation noting that an appeal to two federal district court rulings that California had the right to such waivers was being appealed by … hold on to your hats … the auto industry.
California officials said there’s a reason the industry opposes its efforts: While the new federal standards would raise fuel economy to 31.6 miles per gallon by 2015, California's rules would require the U.S. vehicle fleet to get 36 miles per gallon by 2015.

And, that’s not all. Transportation is ready to actively fight California:
The agency said it is considering adding language to its final rule stating that “any state regulation regulating tailpipe carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles is expressly preempted” under federal law.

Roland Hwang, the vehicles policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the document appeared to be an effort to bolster the legal case of the auto industry.

“We fully expect to see this rule being quoted by the automakers in their court cases in trying to overturn the Fresno and Vermont decisions,” Hwang said. “It’s the same argument we’re hearing from the automakers.”

So much, again, for the formerly Big Three being environmentally minded. As far as I care, all three can go bankrupt. But, take the ever-more weaselly Toyota with you.

How Toyota can make the Prius, and from a purely business POV, know this is a great way to increase auto sales share, and still side with the Big Three on this is just fucking unbelievable. And unacceptable.

Fat chance on Sunni Awakening being accepted in Baghdad

Odierno has had a series of lengthy and intense meetings with Iraqi officials to sell them on the idea and said last month that the two sides have agreed to a series of "very strict" requirements to temper Iraqi concerns.

Among them are restrictions on the citizens groups operating outside the control of the U.S. military or Iraqi government and a limitation on the number of group members who will be moved into the formal security forces.

Iraqi officials have raised concerns that citizens groups have been infiltrated by hard-core insurgents, a possibility U.S. officials have openly acknowledged.

"Are there people trying to infiltrate them? Yes," Odierno said. "But we can sort through that. The majority of them just want to be part of the government of Iraq. Before, there was no avenue for them to become part of the government of Iraq."

Roy Innis becomes a bigger tool on global warming

It’s pathetic that Roy Innis, leader of the basically-defunct and nepotistic Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), is so willing to become a a tool of global warming denialists. But, per an e-mail I got earlier today, that is exactly what he has done:
Roy Innis, long-time leader of one of America’s leading civil rights organizations, told a group of Utah business leaders today that Utah “will be a big loser” if climate change legislation pending in Congress is enacted into law.

“The price of gasoline in Utah could easily double from the climate change bill that they are now discussing in Washington, D.C.,” he told the Utah Business Coalition. “That will hurt every family, farm and business in this state. It will especially hurt those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, which is what concerns me most.”

“With oil prices now surpassing $120 a barrel, I am simply outraged that the congress, and politicians in Utah, are even considering proposals from the radical environmental groups that would further constrict energy supply like the climate bill now in Congress. That will only cause prices to skyrocket further,” Innis said.

“According to a recent study, some of the worst damage in the nation will be brought down upon the state of Utah,” he said. “This state could easily flip from one of America's most productive economies into one of America's most damaged economies if the Lieberman-Warner bill is passed.”

The study cited by Innis was recently done by the highly regarded Science Applications International Corporation. …

“Too many government leaders have bought into the predictions of environmental Armageddon that we hear from radical environmental groups,” said Innis. “Plans to stop global warming by limiting domestic energy development will devastate Utah’s economy and disproportionately hurt the poor and minorities in this state.”

Innis called on Utah business leaders to join him in “the next great civil rights battle,” which he said is to fight regressive environmental policies and increased energy costs.

”Our government leaders today need the same moral courage we had in the 1960s. We cannot allow environmental radicals to pass economic Jim Crow laws on their way to ending the American dream.”

OK, let’s unpack Innis’ shitload of vitriol and get to what’s true and not.

First, SAIC is NOT “highly respected,” but is rather an insider in the largely right-wing military-industrial establishment. And, it has a HUGE reputation as a global warming denialist and willing to shill for obscurantist research work on this subject. After all, it founded “The Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI), a man made climate change skeptic organization, formerly the Center for Science and Public Policy.”

Second, plenty of other studies have shown that a real attempt to address global warming will create all sorts of jobs.

Third, even more studies have demonstrated the health costs of global warming, and how THOSE will likely fall more on poorer people.

Fourth, to the degree we’re already seeing effects of global warming, food price increases fall more on poor people.

Which leads to the final question:

Roy, just how much is SAIC and/or the Utah Business Coalition paying you to be a shill?

And, we know you’re a conservative hack job for more than 30 years, but this is ridiculous.

Que sera la barrera

Looks like while the Department of Homeland Security’s “virtual fence” may work on a “virtual border,” it pretty much sucks in real life.
The government is scrapping a $20 million prototype of its highly touted “virtual fence” on the Arizona-Mexico border because the system is failing to adequately alert border patrol agents to illegal crossings, officials said.

The move comes just two months after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced his approval of the fence built by The Boeing Co. The fence consists of nine electronic surveillance towers along a 28-mile section of border southwest of Tucson.

And, I am SHOCKED, shocked, I say, that government-overbilling defense contractor Boeing would build a piece of crap.

The reason it doesn’t work probably is in part due to this:
Although the fence continues to operate, it hasn't come close to meeting the Border Patrol's goals, said Kelly Good, deputy director of the Secure Border Initiative program office in Washington. …

The Border Patrol had little input in designing the prototype but will have more say in the final version, officials said.

Of course, doesn’t that sound like a company that has years of government contract experience, especially on DoD items?

Murdoch wants Newsday next

Considering that any deal isn’t likely until near the election, I highly doubt Rupert Murdoch will clear the antitrust hurdles necessary to complete his proposed $580 million offer for Long Island daily Newsday.

Having three of the nation’s top 10 papers, plus three in the NYC market (the Sun and the Wall Street Journal as well) would probably draw close regulator scrutiny.

But, a dingy gray knight is prepared to do battle with Murdoch the black knight. Mortimer Zuckerman, owner of the Daily News, also wants Newsday and is crafting a counteroffer.

Mort wouldn’t be much better than Rupert.

Better yet, and more reflective of NYC political realities, would be a takeover by the Observer, which is reportedly partnering with Cablevision to prepare an offer.

All three would want joint ad deals and sales the combo could offer. At the same time, Newsday continues to sag in its performance.

Penisblogging on prostates and lynchings

Yes, you read me right
Masturbation fights prostate cancer
Australian researchers say masturbation can lower your prostate cancer risk.
It is believed that carcinogens may build up in the prostate if men do not ejaculate regularly, BBC News reported (last week) Wednesday.
There’s even a link to additional stories if you need.
Penis-snatching rumors in Congo
Meanwhile, Congolese men are worried about penis-snatching sorcerers. No truth to the rumors about penis-shrinking warlocks, though that would give a new twist to the old idea of head-shrinkers, eh?

It’s not a laughing matter among more traditionally-minded, or primitive, Africans. In Ghana, 12 men were killed in a lynch mob a decade ago, after being accused of being penis-stealing sorcerers.

The best refutation ever of libertarianism …

Is behavioral economics. Nothing throws a wrench in libertarian spokes better than being able to show, i.e., prove (or show professional proof) that people not only do not make rational economic decisions, they make clearly irrational ones.

I will soon be done with “Predictably Irrational,” a great new introductory book to this issue by a MIT behavioral economist, and posting a review.

No wonder Delta and Northwest want to merge

The two airlines lost a combined $10.5 billion in the first quarter.

That just reinforces my $10.5 billion on their merger, that they’ll be shutting down a couple of their hubs. It’s an easy way to save money.

Moody’s as financial manipulation enabler put in the dock

If there’s a person, creature or corporation more to blame for the subprime crunch, the credit-derivatives crunch, and everything else FUBAR about today’s finance situation, it’s Moody’s the not-so-humble bond-rating service.

Having branched beyond bonds into larger credit ratings, it’s quite arguable, as one person puts it in the story, a preview of a New York Times Magazine story for this coming Sunday, that Moody’s, along with Standard & Poor and Fitch’s, moved from “gatekeepers” to “gate openers.”
Arthur Levitt, the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, charges that “the credit-rating agencies suffer from a conflict of interest — perceived and apparent — that may have distorted their judgment, especially when it came to complex structured financial products.”

No shit. The next couple of webpages of the story read like the financial-world equivalent of politics’ infamous “sausage making” process of legislation.

Here’s stuff Moody’s ignored on one special-purpose vehicle, or SPV:
Moody’s learned that almost half of these borrowers — 43 percent — did not provide written verification of their incomes. The data also showed that 12 percent of the mortgages were for properties in Southern California, including a half-percent in a single ZIP code, in Riverside. That suggested a risky degree of concentration.

And more fun on this same bundle:
In the frenetic, deal-happy climate of 2006, the Moody’s analyst had only a single day to process the credit data from the bank. The analyst wasn’t evaluating the mortgages but, rather, the bonds issued by the investment vehicle created to house them. A so-called special-purpose vehicle — a ghost corporation with no people or furniture and no assets either until the deal was struck — would purchase the mortgages.

In other words, a single guy just spent a business day playing the equivalent of the lotto with a $430 million bundle of papers.

Ironically, if you will, increased federal regulation of things like pension and mutual funds gave Moody’s more things to rate, setting the stage for the dereg hothouse of the late 1990s and on.
Issuers thus were forced to seek credit ratings (or else their bonds would not be marketable). The agencies — realizing they had a hot product and, what’s more, a captive market — started charging the very organizations whose bonds they were rating. This was an efficient way to do business, but it put the agencies in a conflicted position. As (Frank Partnoy, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law), says, rather than selling opinions to investors, the rating agencies were now selling “licenses” to borrowers. Indeed, whether their opinions were accurate no longer mattered so much. Just as a police officer stopping a motorist will want to see his license but not inquire how well he did on his road test, it was the rating — not its accuracy — that mattered to Wall Street.

Problem is, even before the bubbles started bursting, CDOs were defaulting at a rate higher than traditional bonds, as page 5 notes. But, because a lot of these CDOs were coming from high-volume repeat customers, Moody’s kept the rubber stamp hot.

The Securities and Exchange Commission refused to look at the incestuous nature of the modern credit-rating agency after Enron blew up, despite a directive from Congress. And, of course, in both the House and Senate versions of housing bailout legislation, nobody in Congress is proposing a serious oversight reform bill, not just a nudge to the SEC.

More financial “sausage making” on page 6, from a subprime package called XYZ:
Moody’s monitors began to make inquiries with the lender and were shocked by what they heard. Some properties lacked sod or landscaping, and keys remained in the mailbox; the buyers had never moved in. The implication was that people had bought homes on spec: as the housing market turned, the buyers walked.

By the spring of 2007, 13 percent of Subprime XYZ was delinquent — and it was worsening by the month. XYZ was hardly atypical; the entire class of 2006 was performing terribly. (The class of 2007 would turn out to be even worse.)

But, although Moody’s started re-rating individual mortgage-based bonds by soon after this time, it still didn’t do anything about collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs. And, was using a different set of ratings analysts, and giving ratings without knowing what bonds a particular CDO would buy!
A CDO operates like a mutual fund; it can buy or sell mortgage bonds and frequently does so. Thus, the agencies rate pools with assets that are perpetually shifting. They base their ratings on an extensive set of guidelines or covenants that limit the CDO manager’s discretion.

One misrated CDO was estimated to have a loss potential of 2 percent at the time it was rated triple-A. Latest estimate? At 27 percent; a 16 percent slice of triple-A bonds downgraded all the way to single-B.

It’s clear that only major federal regulation can put this horse back in the barn and keep it there.

Ready for $300 per barrel oil?

That’s what Charles Maxwell says oil will be at by 2020. If 12 years out is too far ahead for you to think or worry, Maxwell says plan for $180/bbl oil by 2015. That’s actually less alarmist in the shorter term than Jim Jubak.

Enviro roundup – Europe goes black while Boeing and Airbus go green

Europe looks to burn more coal
Italy’s top electric producer is switching from oil to coal at a major electric plant. The country as a whole expects to move from 14 to 33 percent on coal-fired electricity in just five years. And it won’t be alone in that time frame:
European countries are expected to put into operation about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years.

European countries, just like our Preznit, are touting “clean coal.” But really, in terms of global warming, it’s just “mildly less dirty coal.”
“Building new coal-fired power plants is ill conceived,” said James E. Hansen, a leading climatologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “Given our knowledge about what needs to be done to stabilize climate, this plan is like barging into a war without having a plan for how it should be conducted, even though information is available. We need a moratorium on coal now, with phase-out of existing plants over the next two decades.”

Since most western European countries, with the highly visible exception of France, go nuclear about the idea of nuclear power, and renewables can’t address all the demand, it seems like it’s longer-lasting — and cheaper — but dirtier coal vs. oil or natural gas.

The European Union has pledged to build 12 carbon-capture coal plants, but given that infeasibilities, and not just energy-industry issues, led Bush to scrub the one pilot plant here, I seriously doubt that the EU will deliver the goods. The Enel plant referenced above says it will “experiment” with carbon capture by 2015, but that’s a ways off.

Give the plant credit for other environmental cred, though:
On many other fronts, the new Enel plant is a model of efficiency and recycling. The nitrous oxide is chemically altered to generate ammonia, which is then sold. The resulting coal ash and gypsum are sold to the cement industry.

An on-site desalination plant means that the operation generates its own water for cooling. Even the heated water that comes out of the plant is not wasted: it heats a fish farm, one of Italy’s largest.

Meanwhile, it appears Enel has nothing to learn from U.S. Big Coal:
(An environmental group) says that Enel has won approval for a dangerous new coal plant by buying machines for a local hospital and by carrying out a public relations campaign. Enel advertisements for the project show a young girl erasing a plant’s smokestack.

Pretty slick.
Boeing, Airbus look to cooperate
The world’s top two aircraft builders signed a cooperation deal to reduce air travel’s environmental impact.

And, by working for global interoperability in air traffic management, it may just declutter the runways at London Heathrow, JFK, LAX, etc. Beyond that, the two companies are looking at other areas of environmental cooperation.

Battle of the banks looms over ‘throw weights’

As the Euro broke the $1.60 mark, the European Central Bank issued warnings about inflation and said it will look at RAISING interest rates.

Yes, raising, not lowering, as Ben Bernanke, The Worst Fed Head Since Greenspan™, has done. At the least, the ECB will NOT be lowering rates, unlike the Fed, the Bank of England and Bank of Canada.

Ultimately, we’re going to get to see which bank has a better interpretation of today’s global economy, and behind that, to use a Cold War term …

Which bank has a bigger throw weight?

Given that the EU economy officially became larger than the US economy earlier this year, and that dissident OPEC members continue to push for Euro-denominated oil, this is:
A. Going to be a hell of a fight and
B. Probably, if not disastrous, troubling for the US economy.

And, no, I don’t think Bernanke and the Fed will “win” this one. But, in a totally dispassionate sense, it could be fun to watch.

April 22, 2008

Arianna Huffington disses secularists

While the Divine Ms. A has done a lot of good in supporting the growth of the liberal blogosphere, it comes as no surprise, knowing her NewAgeish tendencies in some areas, to know that she totally misses the boat with her higher-power babble . (Yes, the post is seven years old, but I’ve never heard the Huffmaedchen withdraw her general tenet.)

That, in turn is part of a larger and sadder blank-check support for “faith-based initiatives” in general. (Oh, BTW, what would the Bush Administration, or the Greek Goddess (snark again) do, if a Wiccan or Satanist applied for a faith-based grant?)

Here’s the nutbarrery of her nut grafs, though:
In the same way that astronomy wasn’t able to move forward until Copernicus posited that it was the Earth that revolved around the sun — also an unpopular view at the time — our society will not be able to reclaim its proliferating human casualties until it comes to terms with the fact that healing revolves around the acceptance of a higher power.

Of course, there will always be people who believe there is no God, just as there continue to be flat-earthers, convinced that Copernicus had it all wrong.

So, we’re as stupid and contrary as flat-earthers.

First, possibly the most horrific war in history, in terms of total civilian suffering, was an inter-Christian religious war, the Thirty Years War. Even today, and not just among or by Muslims, or Jews, or Christians, wars are fought in the name of religion.

The Tamil Tiger separatists are Sri Lanka, for example, are mainland-India oriented Hindu “religious nationalists.” (Given the nature of Hinduism, and a comment about to follow, that’s the best handle I can devise.)

Speaking of that, India has its Hindu Nationalist Party. Oh, Goddess, you remember it, don’t you? The party that won Indian parliamentary elections in 1998 on a promise to start nuclear bomb testing? And then doing so.

Or, let’s not forget the Japanese militarists of World War II praying at Shinto shrines, or the kamikazes thinking their missions were divinely supported.

I then got to thinking, I could have updated Arianna’s column myself and fictitiously bylined it under an even bigger rectal irritant’s name. All I had to do was go to Washington Monthly, crib a few quotes from some of Amy Sullivan’s more insipid posts, insert them at the right points in the Divine Miss A.’s original column slap Amy’s byline on it, and, voila!

Oh, and welcome any readers of Kevin Drum’s “liberal, godless blog.” Not.

American Airlines execs bail on company

In what is arguably the latest example that American’s corporate ship is rapidly setting into the sun, top execs of parent company AMR bailed off that ship today like rats afraid of drowning.
AMR Corp.’s top five executives sold nearly 400,000 shares of company stock Thursday – most of about 550,000 shares they had just received that day as part of an executive compensation program from the parent of American Airlines.

CEO Gerard Arpey was a big seller:
Big sellers included AMR chairman Gerard Arpey, who sold 81,520 shares for $695,317. He had received 187,600 shares in the program that rewards executives based on how well AMR stock performs relative to that of competing airlines.

But not the biggest:
Two of Arpey’s top lieutenants surpassed his sales total. Executive vice presidents Dan Garton for marketing and Tom Horton for finance each sold their entire allotment of 103,984 shares, bringing in $886,932 apiece. (Horton is also the company's chief financial officer.)

I want to go back to that second pull quote, and specifically:

The program rewards executives based on how well AMR stock performs relative to that of competing airlines.
Squeeze me?

First, ALL airlines pretty much such on the P-and-L bottom line right now. Shouldn’t every airline exec with a stock-option bonus have to forfeit it on those grounds alone?

Second, Arpey was the CEO who neither flew back to Dallas nor held an impromptu press conference in Los Angeles the day the Federal Aviation Administration announced it was grounding American’s MD-80s. And Garton, not the company’s top safety officer, was the guy who actually got tapped to do the presser tap dance back here in DFW.

Certainly, American’s pilots and their union, which have been so unhappy about the idea of executive bonuses as to make vague strike noises, weren’t mollified by the sell-off, nor were flight attendants:
The airline’s unions, which accepted deep cuts in pay, benefits and working conditions as the airline struggled in 2003, have complained about the stock awards to executives.

Monday, union officials said the quick sales by executives make it appear the top people don’t believe in their own company.

“It just gave me a sick feeling,” said Jim Little, Transport Workers Union international president. “It's almost ‘take the money and run.’”

“The question is, how much should the investors feel the executives are committed to this company?” said pilots’ union spokesman Karl Schricker.

He said (the) company’s board should have taken into account the airline’s dismal record on customer service and other areas when it decided on the stock awards.

“If you judge our management team on their performance, there should have been no bonuses this year of any kind,” said Mr. Schricker, an American pilot.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants has said the top five executives should resign because they took the shares.

That’s all right.

Surely, Arpey et al will earn those stock-option bonuses by meeting an FAA May 30 deadline to complete 19 overdue inspections:
The inspectors will be looking at American's manuals and programs to make sure they comply with federal regulations, not doing hands-on inspections of aircraft.

American claims it’s not worried:
The inspections, which are unrelated to the earlier maintenance problems, “have a very low probability of impact as far as operations go,” said Tim Wagner, an American spokesman. “We understand they’ll complete them by the end of May.”

Yeah, sure.

Meanwhile, cross-Metroplex rival Southwest Airlines supposedly still hasn’t completed four similar inspections itself, according to Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III.

I have blogged more than once about taking that summer vacation early. If American has planes stuck in the hangar at the start of Memorial Day weekend, you’re going to wish you had considered that!

Murdoch lie about ‘hands off WSJ’ exposed

Marcus W. Brauchli is resigning as managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.


Reportedly, frustration over some of the changes Murdoch has made since acquiring the Journal, plus losing some control since the takeover.

And, (shock me), because Murdoch wants a quick payback on his purchase by lopping heads:
Journal newsroom employees say that Mr. Murdoch and the publisher he installed, Robert J. Thomson, have made it clear that they think the paper has too many editors, and have instructed Mr. Brauchli to thin the ranks, potentially making room in the headcount for more reporters. Two people briefed on Mr. Brauchli’s thinking said that had become a major point of contention.

Supposedly, he also doesn’t like Thompson looking over his shoulder as a “supereditor.” Well, since Thomson came from the Murdoch-decimated Times (of London), that’s probably not unexpected either.

Jubak says $180 a barrel oil is coming

Jubak, my personal No. 1 financial analyst with MSN, expects oil prices to keep climbing for two more years. And yes, we would have $180/bbl oil at the end of that.

Besides any Peak Oil issues, he notes cold, hard cash — or the lack thereof in Mexico, Nigeria and Russia — is part of the problem. Russia is the kingpin of oil-supply scenarios, as I blogged last week. Jubak says that makes its decline more worrisome:
Any decline would mark a huge turnaround. Russian production has grown steadily over the past 10 years, and in its supply-and-demand projections the International Energy Agency has been counting on growth in Russian production of 5 percent by 2012 to offset big declines in older fields in the North Sea and Mexico.

The money problem is different everywhere.

In Russia, it’s windfall profits taxes that hit a “windfall” level of 80 percent at just $27/bbl. It’s no wonder Lukoil, et al, want relief.

In Nigeria, it’s the government failing to put money into joint ventures with private companies. The situation is similar in Mexico. Mexico could be a net importer in a decade or so unless it can gin up production. Here’s the problem there:
About 40 percent of total government revenue in Mexico comes from Pemex. And as a symbol of the country's economic independence from the United States, Pemex is prohibited from signing joint-production agreements that would let the company trade oil for the technology and investment it needs.

Well, the Mexican government, if it doesn’t want rebellious, welfare-deprived peasants storming Mexico City, is going to have to force Pemex to bite the joint- production bullet, as I’ve blogged long ago.

Oh, and those new oil finds in Brazil? Even if they pan out, they won’t hit the market for a decade.

‘Aggressive’ CAFÉ standard is not

Only under the aegis of the Bush Administration could an increase in fuel economy standards that has no legal teeth for seven years be called “aggressive.”
The nation’s fleet of new cars and trucks will be required to achieve 31.6 miles per gallon by 2015, the Bush administration said Tuesday.

Transportation Department Secretary Mary Peters outlined the plan on Earth Day, setting a schedule that was more aggressive than initially expected by industry officials.

Peters said the proposal was “an aggressive but achievable standard. I think we’ve got something that is going to significantly save fuel and help clean our air.”

Let me do the math for you that Mary Peters didn’t.

The current CAFÉ standard is 27.5 mpg. So, we have an increase of 4.1 mpg over 7 years. That’s a whopping 0.6 mpg per year.

Meanwhile, assuming that the formerly Big Three are wrong in betting on biofuels rather than hybrids, they’re in trouble, ranking last in hybrids. And, the continued lethargy in Detroit could become an ever-bigger self-inflicted wound:
"I think the car companies that decide to do the minimum to comply with the CAFÉ (fuel economy standards) won't be in business by the time that the CAFÉ schedule is over," says Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp.

Dinosaurs, indeed. I mean, how many more employees can the Big Three cut? I don’t care how many new execs Ford brings in to promote car quality, if it ain’t doing car efficiency, it won’t get much traction.

Obama and McCain on autism-vaccine pseudoscience

Both candidates talk about an autism-vaccine link. Schmuck Talk Express™ John McCain is far, far worse, indicating that a link is proven (it’s not) and that this link is the thimerosal preservative (disproven more than once, with links within the Post link above).

Obama isn’t nearly as bad, but he too says the science is inconclusive and is either ignorant or is schwaffling.

Kevin Drum has a hot and pretty solid discussion of this, which is getting a lot of comments.

For more of my earlier blogging on how this is a combination of a rediagnosis of schizoid disorder of childhood as Asperger’s syndrome, with a rising overdiagnosis of Asperger’s as full-spectrum autism (which is, IMO given the amount of hysteria about autism, a reasonable assumption), see here.

Over at Huffington Post, David Kirby has an excellent overview of a March conference call that was, as he says, held “between vaccine safety officials at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, several leading experts in vaccine safety research, and executives from America's Health Insurance Plans, (the HMO trade association) to discuss childhood mitochondrial dysfunction and its potential link to autism and vaccines.”

Now, while not endorsing quackery, he does show how much quackery is out there on this issue:
They say that corn oil and syrup are inflammatory.

Really? Then why didn’t Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors find a continent full of autistic American Indians?

As for “childhood mitochondrial dysfunction,” that’s a new enough subject matter that Wikipedia doesn’t even have an entry for it, and even Google only has 721 hits.

As for what may cause “childhood mitochondrial dysfunction,” this blog lists:
mercury, aluminum, pollution, pesticides, medicines
and prenatal alcohol exposure have all been shown to damage mitochondria.

So, why don’t we ask moms if they were spraying chemicals on the lawn or garden while they were pregnant, or had a toddler in tow?

Or, why don’t we ask how much they drank while they were pregnant?

And, this blogger has no link(s) as to where this is “shown,” sorry.

House sales and prices drop again

And the price drop on existing homes was kind of steep. A 7.7 percent falloff says to me that potential buyers are going to hold out for a while, “two-tracking” potential home buys by watching how much further new home prices drop, and how much further that depresses existing home prices.

The decline in sales volume wasn’t as big, at 2 percent. That, to me, says that more homeowners are either accepting lower prices. Whether that fuels even further drops, or puts a bottom on the floor, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the local scene was interesting. Here in Dallas-Fort Worth, prices only dropped 1 percent, but sales dropped more than 25 percent. As DFW isn’t a pricey market anyway, prices on existing homes really don’t have far to fall. But, the sales drop makes me wonder if the housing crunch is going to gather steam here.

Language can shape our perception of the world

This has been a back-and-forth in both philosophy and psychology ever since Benjamin Whorf mythically claimed the Eskimos had 100 different words for snow. (He didn’t, actually.) For a long time, in relatively recent years, well, ever since the discovery of DNA and the crumbling of Skinnerian behavioralism, Whorf’s ideas were cast by the wayside.

But now, a Cornell researcher has partially resurrected them.

At least with color discrimination, Gary Lupyan says a specific language background does make a difference:
Language helps us learn novel categories, and it licenses our unusual ability to operate on an abstract plane, Lupyan said. The problem is that after a category has been learned, it can distort the memory of specific objects, getting between us and the rest of the nonabstract world.

This fits well with the general idea of “man the category-making creature.”

But, not everybody is ready to buy into even a limited version of Whorfian linguistics redivivus.

On the contrary side? Evolutionary Psychologist (yes, with the double capital letters, see my tages) Steve Pinker. (That, of course, means there’s a good chance the theorizing is right and he’s wrong.)
This separation of language and thought is emphasized in a recent book by Steven Pinker, at Harvard University, a skeptic of “neo-whorfianism.” In “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature,” Pinker explores the complicated ways that language and thought relate to each other. He cautions against confusing the “many ways in which language connects to thought.” “Language surely affects thought,” he writes, but he argues that there is little evidence for the claims that language can force people to have particular thoughts or make it impossible for them to think in certain ways. With numbers, the importance of language evidence is much clearer. It appears that the ability to count is necessary to deal with large, specific numbers. And the only way to count past a certain point is with language.

He’s overstating the case. Lupyan didn’t say anything about forcing. Rather, as with human genes, we might say that in certain categories of reasoning, one language may create a predisposition (and perhaps no more than a mild one) toward reasoning in one way rather than another.

Clinton – we can ‘totally obliterate Iran’

Man, is Hillary Clinton on drugs or something? Every week, she seems almost perversely determined to sound more hawkish than ever.

Of course, it’s all related to pandering for Jewish votes in Pennsylvania.

Hawking still clueless about the problems with manned space travel

I’ve blogged about this before, but since Hawking continues to bring up the idea of trans-lunar manned space travel, it needs to get shot down again.

Recent research has indicated that current-level spacecraft are FAR from adequate to protecting humans from cosmic rays on a trip as long as going to Mars and back. And, already in earth orbit for six months, long-term astronauts have shown a tendency toward psychological problems rearing up in close, yet isolated, quarters.

It’s a year round-trip to Mars, and that’s if you just spend a couple of days actually on the planet. If you opt to have astronauts stay there until the next return-favorable alignment of Mars and Earth, you’re six months or so past that.

Hawking claims that, in terms of global dollars, this wouldn’t cost that much. Well, let’s address arresting global warming, and dealing with the non-arrestible effects, first.

Then, let’s take note of designing a spacecraft to be safe enough to go to Mars, and what we have to do to address psychological issues, whether through crew size, a psychiatrist crew member or whatever, and let’s retotal the bill.

Yes, Hawkins is a nuclear/particle physicist, and a cosmologist of some sort, too. But he is NOT an astronaut, a planetary astronomer/physicist, nor an astronautics engineer. People who believe that he knows what he’s talking about on this issue, take note that this is a good example of the fallacy of false appeal to authority.

I don’t blame Indonesia on this

Indonesia and the U.S. were still unable to renew an agreement over allowing a U.S. Navy medical lab to operate in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

The hang-up? U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt says Jakarta won’t give the lab H5N1, or bird flu, virus samples, or to give them to the rest of the world. (Yes, for once, this is not an anti-U.S. thing!)

But, the holdup isn’t as simple as Leavitt puts it. As the story notes:
Indonesia fears pharmaceutical company may use samples of Indonesian virus to make a highly profitable vaccine that might not even be available to Indonesians.

Bayu Krisnamurthi, head of a national commission dealing with avian flu, said in March that Indonesia would only send virus samples on a case-by-case basis until a new virus-sharing mechanism currently being drawn up by the World Health Organization took effect.

Hey, that fear in the first paragraph is no idle one. Developing nations have seen Big Pharma practice “nature piracy” for decades. If the U.S. Navy won’t provide the Indonesian government with ironclad-enough assurances against that, well, then it will just have to wait.

And, Leavitt admits that is a holdup:
“(Indonesian health minister Siti Fadillah Supari’s) main point is that what she wants should not be considered ‘royalties’ or ‘compensation,’” Leavitt said. “What she says she wants is for the contributing countries to be eligible for some share of the value commercial companies create out of the influenza samples they provide.”

And, the shame here isn’t just on the U.S. on the other side of the table, either. After all, a number of members of Big Pharma are headquartered in European Union countries.