Friday, December 21, 2007

Arnold's fiscal mess

Los Angeles Times:
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected next month to seek immediate major cuts in state services, including a plan to take back $1.4 billion budgeted for schools this year and a proposal to slash the prison population by releasing tens of thousands of inmates.

The two strategies are among broad spending reductions Schwarzenegger will outline to address a projected $14.5-billion state budget gap. On Friday, the governor announced that he would declare a fiscal emergency Jan. 10, when he unveils his next budget.

State officials with knowledge of the governor's plans said cuts may be so deep that they could pave the way politically for tax increases, which Schwarzenegger has previously disavowed.

The Solar System's birthday discovered. More or less.

Science Daily:
UC Davis researchers have dated the earliest step in the formation of the solar system -- when microscopic interstellar dust coalesced into mountain-sized chunks of rock -- to 4,568 million years ago, within a range of about 2,080,000 years.

UC Davis postdoctoral researcher Frederic Moynier, Qing-zhu Yin, assistant professor of geology, and graduate student Benjamin Jacobsen established the dates by analyzing a particular type of meteorite, called a carbonaceous chondrite, which represents the oldest material left over from the formation of the solar system.

The physics and timing of this first stage of planet formation are not well understood, Yin said. So, putting time constraints on the process should help guide the physical models that could be used to explain it.


Agence France-Presse:
Japan said Friday it was dropping plans to start hunting humpback whales for the first time in four decades after protests led by Australia seeking to spare the popular mammals.

It is the first time that Japan has backed down over one of its whaling expeditions, which have been a longstanding strain in its relations with its Western allies.

It also marks a coup for Australia's new left-leaning Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who has stepped up the pressure on Japan since taking office this month, including ordering a patrol ship and planes to track the whalers.

Lack of health insurance kills

Via Echidne, Medical News Today reports:
A new report by a major US cancer charity has found that uninsured Americans are less likely to survive cancer, less likely to be screened for it, and more likely to have an advanced stage of the disease once they are diagnosed, compared with Americans on health insurance.

The study, which examines the link between health insurance status and cancer treatment and survival, will appear in the January-February edition of the journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians and is the work of researchers from the American Cancer Society (ACS), led by Dr Elizabeth Ward, managing director, surveillance research at the ACS.

Other studies have already suggested that Medicaid and uninsured patients are more likely to be diagnosed with cancers that are more advanced, mostly because they can't afford to buy preventative services such as cancer screening.

This report from the ACS takes a closer look at the link between insurance status and cancer care, and takes into account a number of demographic, race, and socioeconomic factors.

The automobile finds religion

A spokesperson for Iranian company, Iran Khodro, says its "Islamic Car" should be readily available throughout the Middle East, parts of Asia, and Africa, in three years.

The car will have options including a compass to find Mecca and a compartment for a Koran. Priced between $8,700 and $12,000, the vehicle is meant to appeal to buyers who would like a car designed with Muslims in mind and produced by a company that acts in line with Muslim values.

Your White House Press Corps

Tucked into Dan Froomkin's Washington Post piece about Bush's press conference (during which he neither denied White House involvement in the destruction of the CIA tapes, nor even bothered to say it was wrong), came this little gem:
It's all highly reminiscent of Bush's no-comment strategy during the investigation of the White House role in the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent. Then, as now, Bush could have demanded that his aides tell him what they had done. But he obviously didn't want to hear it.

And now, as then, Bush can insist that he wants to wait for others to determine the facts, and then refuse to comment while an investigation is ongoing -- until the press corps loses interest in the matter.

Today, since former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby has dropped his appeal in the Plame case, the coast was clear for reporters to ask Bush any of the many important, unanswered questions about that case. But nobody did.
The Kewl Kidz have decided that the outing of an undercover CIA agent, who was working to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to Iran, doesn't matter. The judge threw out the lawsuit because breaking laws and undermining national security is just part of the Administration's job. Scooter Libby shouldn't have had to go to jail because he's just too good a guy to have to actually suffer consequences for breaking laws and undermining national security. And all those questions about breaking laws and undermining national security that the Scottys and Tonys and Danas told us would have to wait until the legal process had ended? Well, it's holiday season, and who wants to risk being thrown off Sally Quinn's guest list?

Taking on the oligarchs. Or something.

An unprecedented battle is taking place inside the Kremlin in advance of Vladimir Putin's departure from office, the Guardian has learned, with claims that the president presides over a secret multibillion-dollar fortune.

Rival clans inside the Kremlin are embroiled in a struggle for the control of assets as Putin prepares to transfer power to his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, in May, well-placed political observers and other sources have revealed.

At stake are billions of dollars in assets belonging to Russian state-run corporations. Additionally, details of Putin's own personal fortune, reportedly hidden in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, are being discussed for the first time.
The numbers:
Citing sources inside the president's administration, ("Russian political expert") Stanislav Belkovsky claims that after eight years in power Putin has secretly accumulated more than $40bn (£20bn). The sum would make him Russia's - and Europe's - richest man.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

For the record

House roll call on HR 1443:
BILL TITLE: Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith.


Science Daily:
Record-breaking amounts of ice-free water have deprived the Arctic of more of its natural "sunscreen" than ever in recent summers. The effect is so pronounced that sea surface temperatures rose to 5 C above average in one place this year, a high never before observed, says the oceanographer who has compiled the first-ever look at average sea surface temperatures for the region.

Such superwarming of surface waters can affect how thick ice grows back in the winter, as well as its ability to withstand melting the next summer, according to Michael Steele, an oceanographer with the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory. Indeed, since September, the end of summer in the Arctic, winter freeze-up in some areas is two months later than usual.

WWF: Global Warming Endangers Penguins

Science Daily:
The penguin population of Antarctica is under pressure from global warming, according to a WWF report.

The report, Antarctic Penguins and Climate Change, shows that the four populations of penguins that breed on the Antarctic continent — Adélie, Emperor, Chinstrap and Gentoo — are under escalating pressure. For some, global warming is taking away precious ground on which penguins raise their young. For others, food has become increasingly scarce because of warming in conjunction with overfishing.

"The Antarctic penguins already have a long march behind them," says Anna Reynolds, Deputy Director of WWF’s Global Climate Change Programme.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Hope it succeeds

Spiegel Online:
Optimism, in other words, is in no short supply in Belfast these days. And neither is ambition. Ultimately, promoters of the 3 billion pound ($6.17 billion), 15-year development hope the Titanic Quarter, located just northeast of the city center, will generate 3-4 billion pounds of investment and 25,000 new jobs for the city....

But it's the next stage that has organizers particularly excited. In addition to providing a home for 450,000 square feet of restaurants, cafes, bars and hotels, and a new campus for Belfast Metropolitan College, the finished product will host a museum dedicated to the area's ship-building past. Out the front door of the museum, a vast park will perfectly mirror the slips where the Titanic and its sister ship Olympic were built.

"The Titanic is a big draw, but it hasn't been fully exploited," says Kerrie Sweeney, project manager for the planned Titanic visitors' center. "There isn't really anything for visitors to see."

Strictly speaking, that's not entirely true. Tour operators at present offer two-hour boat trips along the mostly defunct River Lagan shipyards. In addition to a historical narrative about the building of the Titanic -- launched on May 31, 1911 -- tourists have the opportunity to buy T-shirts with the slogan "She was alright when she left here." Another catchphrase plays on the fact that Titanic Captain Edward John Smith hailed from England: "Built by Irishmen. Sunk by an Englishman." The trips are full even on wet and blustery days in autumn.

Oh, yeah- that

Washington Post:
With violence on the decline in Iraq but on the upswing in Afghanistan, President Bush is facing new pressure from the U.S. military to accelerate a troop drawdown in Iraq and bulk up force levels in Afghanistan, according to senior U.S. officials.

Administration officials said the White House could start to debate the future of the American military commitment in both Iraq and Afghanistan as early as next month. Some Pentagon officials are urging a further drawdown of forces in Iraq beyond that envisioned by the White House, which is set to reduce the number of combat brigades from 20 to 15 by the end of next summer. At the same time, commanders in Afghanistan are looking for several additional battalions, helicopters and other resources to confront a resurgent Taliban movement.

Bush's decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan could heavily influence his ability to pass on to his successor stable situations in both countries, an objective his advisers describe as one of the president's paramount goals for his final year in office. They say Bush will listen closely to his military commanders on the ground before making any decisions on troops but is unlikely to do anything he believes could jeopardize recent, hard-won security improvements in Iraq.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


McClatchy Newspapers:
The Christian archbishop of Basra on Tuesday canceled the celebration of Christmas in that southern city to protest the deaths of a brother and sister, both Christians, as bombings and mayhem struck at cities throughout Iraq.

Archbishop Imad al Banna said Christians in Basra should still pray to mark Christmas, but should forgo such celebratory trappings as trees, gift-swapping and family gatherings to protest the deaths of Maysoon Farid, a 30-year-old cashier at a local pharmacy, and her brother Osama, 33. The two were found dead Monday night, dumped in a neighborhood controlled by the Shiite Muslim Mahdi Army militia.

Meanwhile, two police officers in Baghdad were killed by a car bomb that struck near the homes of two prominent politicians, while south of Fallujah, in the west, family members mourned a 9-year-old girl who they said was killed by U.S. troops.


New York Times:
Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, acknowledged Wednesday that the C.I.A. had failed to keep members of Congress fully informed of the facts that the agency had videotaped the interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees and destroyed the tapes three years later.

General Hayden’s comments struck a different tone than a message he sent to C.I.A. employees last Thursday, when he said that Congressional leaders had been informed about the tapes and of the “agency’s intention to dispose of the material.”

Emerging from a closed-door session with members of the House Intelligence Committee, General Hayden said Wednesday that “particularly at the time of the destruction we could have done an awful lot better at keeping the committee alert and informed.”

After the nearly four-hour hearing, Representative Silvestre P. Reyes of Texas, the committee’s chairman, called parts of General Hayden’s testimony “stunning” and said lawmakers were just at the beginning of what would likely be a “long-term investigation.”

Bowing and Scraping

Washington Post:
House Democratic leaders yesterday agreed to meet President Bush's bottom-line spending limit on a sprawling, half-trillion-dollar domestic spending bill, dropping their demands for as much as $22 billion in additional spending but vowing to shift funds from the president's priorities to theirs.

The final legislation, still under negotiation, will be shorn of funding for the war in Iraq when it reaches the House floor, possibly on Friday. But Democratic leadership aides concede that the Senate will probably add those funds. A proposal to strip the bill of spending provisions for lawmakers' home districts was shelved after a bipartisan revolt, but Democrats say the number and size of those earmarks will be scaled back.

When defense spending is added to the total, discretionary spending for fiscal 2008 would reach a tentative total of $936.5 billion, $3.7 billion more than the president's request, said House Appropriations Committee staff members. All of the additional money would be spent on veterans affairs.

The agreement signaled that congressional Democrats are ready to give in to many of the White House's demands as they try to finish the session before they break for Christmas -- a political victory for the president, who has refused to compromise on the spending measures.


The Oregonian:
The federal judge pressing federal agencies to remedy the damage Columbia River hydroelectric dams wreak on protected salmon warned Wednesday of "very harsh" consequences if federal agencies do not find a legitimate solution.

U.S. District Judge James A. Redden did not specify what the consequences would be, but he has previously mentioned the possibilities of draining reservoirs and diverting extra water from other uses to help fish.

That could curtail cheap electricity generated by the dams and could limit irrigation supplies and barge traffic on the river.

During a hearing in his Portland courtroom Wednesday on the status of a landmark salmon lawsuit, his message for the federal government appeared to be that its draft plan to help salmon isn't good enough, and must do more for fish.


Spiegel Online:
It sounds good -- at first. The US says it wants to be part of a climate treaty and looks forward to a new chapter in climate policy. But a closer look reveals that Washington continues to torpedo any concrete agreement.

When it comes to climate change, America's image in the world is hardly the best. Wherever countries are trying to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, the US -- and especially the administration of President George W. Bush -- is seen as a dangerous spoil-sport, doing what it can to torpedo far-reaching climate agreements.

Brain hurts, makes too much sense

Gary Kamiya, of Salon:
Bush's disastrous legacy is now locked in place. The National Intelligence Estimate released last week, which stated that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003, is an explicit repudiation of the Bush doctrine and a preemptive strike against war with Iran. The professionals have struck back against the ideologues.

But in spite of the NIE findings, Bush and the wider U.S. establishment still share a view of Iran as evil and unapproachable. Until Washington realizes that it would be better off engaging with the Iranian regime than demonizing it, its Mideast policy will continue to flounder along the failed path of Bush's "war on terror." To avoid that outcome, it's going to have to be willing to question everything it thought it knew about Iran.

Congress and the media's so-what response to the Bush administration's outrageous attempt to cook the Iran intelligence does not inspire confidence. The Bush administration sat on the NIE for more than a year, trying to change the report to make it harsher on Iran, and all the while beating the drums for war. This fact has gone largely uncriticized, even though it's Iraq all over again. Bush has gotten a pass on his deception yet again for a simple reason: America views Iran as so innately dangerous, irrational and undeterrable that it doesn't care that Bush lied about what he knew and when he knew it.

In the eyes of the mainstream media, Congress and much of the public, Iran is the ultimate bad guy, a combination of al-Qaida and Adolf Hitler. This substratum of fear and hatred, some reasonable but much irrational, explains why leading Democrats, from Harry Reid to Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama, have reacted so tepidly to the NIE and Bush's obvious lies about it. More important, it explains why even a Democratic president could still pursue a self-destructive course of confrontation with Tehran.


What breakthrough would best advance the fight against climate change?

As delegates gather in Indonesia to seek a new deal, leading thinkers nominate the big boost needed in the face of a rapidly warming planet
Read the answers.


New York Times:
Anti-abortion Democrats in Congress this year joined abortion rights supporters to pass a foreign aid spending bill that they all said would reduce abortions in poor countries. It would allow the federal government to donate contraceptives to foreign groups that provide family planning services abroad, including those that offer abortions or favor making them legal.

But Democratic leaders in the House and Senate now have to decide whether to keep this provision in a major appropriations bill that includes popular programs to fight AIDS and malaria globally, knowing that President Bush is likely to veto it. Their decision is expected by Monday.

“People feel very strongly about the principle and that this president has ignored majorities in the House and Senate on this issue,” said Tim Rieser, the senior Democratic staff member on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign aid. “But we also know we don’t have the votes to override a veto.”

This is the latest skirmish over a policy to prohibit giving federal funds for family planning programs to foreign groups that perform abortions or promote abortion as a family planning method. Known as the Mexico City policy, because it was announced there at a United Nations conference in 1984, it remained in force during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. It was rescinded by President Clinton and reinstated by President Bush.

Always the pawn

New York Times:
Even by the skewed standards of a country where millions are homeless or in exile, the squalor of the Kirkuk soccer stadium is a startling sight.

On the outskirts of a city adjoining some of Iraq’s most lucrative oil reserves, a rivulet of urine flows past the entrance to the barren playing field.

There are no spectators, only 2,200 Kurdish squatters who have converted the dugouts, stands and parking lot into a refugee city of cinder-block hovels covered in Kurdish political graffiti, some for President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

These homeless Kurds are here not for soccer but for politics. They are reluctant players in a future referendum to decide whether oil-rich Tamim Province in the north and its capital, Kirkuk, will become part of the semiautonomous Kurdish regional government or remain under administration by Baghdad.

Under the Iraqi Constitution the referendum is due before Dec. 31. But in a nation with a famously slow political clock, one of the few things on which Kirkuk’s Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen communities agree is that yet another political deadline is about to be missed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


The Greenland ice sheet melted at a record rate this year, the largest ever since satellite measurements began in 1979, a top climate scientist reported on Monday.

"The amount of ice lost by Greenland over the last year is the equivalent of two times all the ice in the Alps, or a layer of water more than one-half mile deep covering Washington DC," said Konrad Steffen of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Using data from military and weather satellites to see where the ice is melting, Steffen and his colleagues were able to monitor the rapid thinning and acceleration of ice as it moved into the ocean at the edge of the big arctic island.

The extent of the melt area was 10 percent greater than the last record year, 2005, the scientists found.

A softer tone

He's not the real power, in Iran, but this is still a good thing. It undermines the ability of neocon warmongers to label him crazy.

Los Angeles Times:
In his first formal news conference since a U.S. intelligence report last week undercut claims that Iran was secretly developing nuclear weapons, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad struck an unusually mild tone Tuesday, calling for dialogue with Washington and forgoing his usual anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric.

He also denied that Iran had resumed a secret nuclear weapons program, a claim made by an Iranian exile group, the Mujahedin Khalq, which has been listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department and the European Union. The group cited unidentified sources in Iran as saying the Islamic Republic had restarted its program in 2004.

A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released last week concludes that Iran halted its weapons program in 2003. Tehran denies ever having such a program.

Ahmadinejad initially gloated over the report as vindication for Iran, though it says his country continued to enrich uranium and that Iran easily could restart its weapons program. But at the two-hour news conference, Ahmadinejad described the report as "a positive and forward step" by the U.S. to ease tensions in the Middle East.

"We do hope there will be one or two steps forward so as to make a different atmosphere for finding solutions," he told reporters. "If further steps are taken, then our problems will be less complicated."


Los Angeles Times:
Scientists think they have discovered the energy source of the spectacular color displays seen in the northern lights.

New data from NASA's Themis mission, a quintet of satellites launched this winter, found the energy comes from a stream of charged particles from the sun flowing like a current through twisted bundles of magnetic fields connecting Earth's upper atmosphere to the sun.

The energy is then abruptly released in the form of a shimmering display of lights visible in the upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, said principal investigator Vassilis Angelopoulos of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Results were presented Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union meeting.

The Bush Administration somehow keeps losing evidence

Glenn Greenwald:
The New York Times' revelation that "the Central Intelligence Agency in 2005 destroyed at least two videotapes documenting the interrogation of two Al Qaeda operatives in the agency's custody" conclusively demonstrates obstruction of justice which, if Michael Mukasey has an ounce of integrity or independence, will be the subject of a serious and immediate criminal investigation. While the revelation is obviously significant, it is also is part of a long-standing pattern of such obstruction.

In April, I compiled a long list of the numerous court proceedings and other investigations which were impeded by extremely dubious claims from the Bush administration that key evidence was mysteriously "missing." Much of the "missing" evidence involved precisely the type of evidence that the CIA has now been forced here to admit it deliberately destroyed: namely, evidence showing the conduct of its agents during interrogation of detainees.
And here's his list.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Douglas Macgregor on Iraq

The author, retired Army colonel decorated Gulf War vet, Pentagon advisor until 2004, and writer for the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, interviewed in Harper's:
2. Has the “surge” in troop levels played an important role here as well?

Not really. Where once there was one country called Iraq, there are now three emerging states: one Kurdish, one Sunni, and one Shiite. More than two years of sectarian violence have left districts in and around Baghdad completely Sunni or completely Shiite, and that has significantly reduced violence in those districts and resulted in fewer bodies in the streets. This new strategic reality, combined with huge cash payments to the Sunni insurgent enemy, is what has given U.S. forces a respite from the chaos of the last four years. The introduction of a few thousand additional troops into Baghdad’s neighborhoods was never going to result in any kind of strategic sea change.

How to stop nuclear proliferation

Thomas Coll, in the New Yorker:
By now, more than sixty years into the atomic age, there is little mystery about why or how countries sometimes agree to give up work on nuclear weapons. Moral vision is not a decisive factor, the evidence suggests; the leaders who have repudiated bomb programs span the considerable range between Muammar Qaddafi and Nelson Mandela. Nor does the nature of a country’s political system seem to matter much. According to Richard Rhodes’s recent history “Arsenals of Folly,” the countries that, since the bombing of Nagasaki, have forsworn, under diplomatic pressure, either bomb arsenals or advanced-weapons experiments include, in addition to Libya and South Africa, Yugoslavia, Sweden, Australia, Norway, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey, Greece, Romania, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Switzerland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Nuclear bombs are expensive, dangerous, and not very useful in war, but they do bring prestige and scare off unruly neighbors. While each diplomatic case is as individual as a fingerprint, the formula for achieving voluntary nuclear disarmament is well established: a country’s anxieties about security are negotiated into quietude; its aspirations to political legitimacy and economic integration are rewarded; and, if the government in question is nonetheless recalcitrant, political and economic pressure are brought to bear. This method is not infallible, but the global scorecard since 1945 is not entirely discouraging: about two dozen successes; three failures (India, Pakistan, Israel); five problem arsenals born in the Cold War and complicated by Great Power competition (the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain); and two cases-in-progress, North Korea and Iran. In only one instance, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, has preëmptive military action, rather than diplomacy, figured significantly in an attempt to stop nuclear proliferation; as a test case of this approach, beginning with Israel’s raid on an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and culminating with the present war, it has proved less than persuasive. In an earlier era, the Cuban missile crisis was similarly uninspiring.


New York Times:
American intelligence agencies reversed their view about the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program after they obtained notes last summer from the deliberations of Iranian military officials involved in the weapons development program, senior intelligence and government officials said on Wednesday.

The notes included conversations and deliberations in which some of the military officials complained bitterly about what they termed a decision by their superiors in late 2003 to shut down a complex engineering effort to design nuclear weapons, including a warhead that could fit atop Iranian missiles.

The newly obtained notes contradicted public assertions by American intelligence officials that the nuclear weapons design effort was still active. But according to the intelligence and government officials, they give no hint of why Iran’s leadership decided to halt the covert effort.

Ultimately, the notes and deliberations were corroborated by other intelligence, the officials said, including intercepted conversations among Iranian officials, collected in recent months. It is not clear if those conversations involved the same officers and others whose deliberations were recounted in the notes, or if they included their superiors.

Of course

Los Angeles Times:
The U.S. military's internal debate over how fast to reduce its force in Iraq has intensified in recent weeks as commanders in Baghdad resist suggestions from Pentagon officials for a quicker drawdown.


Michael Kinsley, in the Los Angeles Times:
THE U.S. TAX CODEIS HIDEOUSLY and needlessly complex. People say they want something simpler. Now two Republican presidential candidates are probably committing political suicide by offering people what they say they want.

The central gimmick of Fred Thompson's recently announced tax plan is to offer people a choice. They can pay taxes under the current rules -- with some juicy new breaks added from the big- and small-businesses wish lists -- or they can pay a so-called flat tax, with lower rates and fewer deductions. So anyone who wants a simpler tax code could have one. But for people who get a lot of deductions now, the simpler tax would be a higher tax. How many people, do you suppose, would choose simplicity over complexity, even if simplicity would cost them more? My bet: approximately zero.

Like most flat-tax advocates over the years, Thompson puts a thumb on the scale by combining flatness with a large tax cut. The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation figures that Thompson's plan would fall a mere $2.5-trillion short of revenue over the next decade, compared with the current system. If you can borrow $2.5 trillion, it makes it easy to arrange for more people to see their taxes go down than up if they choose the flat-tax alternative.

But this has nothing to do with simplifying the system. If you don't care how much debt you run up, you can give everyone a tax cut without bothering about simplification. You can stop collecting tax at all! That would be nice and simple.


Associated Press:
A long-missing Michelangelo sketch for the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, possibly his last design before his death, has been found in the basilica's offices, the Vatican newspaper said Thursday.

The sketch, drawn in blood-red chalk for stonecutters who were working on the construction of the basilica, was done by the Renaissance master in 1563, in the year before his death, L'Osservatore Romano reported.

A nice little resource

View some of the documents that set off a new controversy over spending for security details for the mayor, his ex-wife and his affair.


San Francisco Chronicle:
Conservative radio talk show host Michael Savage sued an Islamic rights group today for rebroadcasting on its Web site several excerpts from his show in which he called the Quran a "book of hate" and said Muslims "need deportation."

Savage, in a suit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, said the Council on American-Islamic Relations had violated copyright law by using the excepts in a campaign to persuade advertisers to stop sponsoring his show.

In the excerpts, Savage calls the Quran a "hateful little book," says Muslims "breed bombers" and asserts that the religion of Islam seeks to "convert or kill" nonbelievers.


In April 2007, William Winkenwerder Jr. retired from his position as assistant secretary for health affairs at the Department of Defense, where he had been in charge of all military healthcare. On June 1, he went to work for a Wisconsin-based private contractor named Logistics Health Inc., which hired him to serve on its board of directors and "advise and counsel LHI on business development," according to a company press release. It was a hire that seems to have paid quick dividends.

On June 13, 2007, the Department of Defense began accepting bids for a contract to give soldiers medical and dental exams before they head off to war. Logistics Health was among the companies bidding on the contract, which was worth hundreds of millions of dollars over four years. Before he left the DOD, in addition to running military healthcare, Winkenwerder had also been in charge of the office that wrote the contract.

On Sept. 25, Logistics Health won the contract despite bidding $800 million, meaning it was not the low bidder. At least one other company bid $100 million less.

After objections by competing companies, the contract has now been "stayed," or put on hold, while the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, evaluates those complaints. At least one firm alleging unfair bidding practices has also asked congressional watchdog Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to investigate. But the contract may still be awarded to Logistics Health; the GAO will issue a decision by Jan. 14. The contract, which at one time was also going to benefit a second firm with its own revolving door to the federal government, exemplifies the culture of cronyism in privatized military healthcare. Military healthcare is a lucrative wartime bazaar for private contractors that is largely free of oversight -- and of Halliburton- or Blackwater-size headlines.

The New Theocrats

Richard Cohen in the Washington Post:
What could be called "The Huckabee Moment" occurred Sunday morning when ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked the former Arkansas governor, suddenly and ominously the front-runner in Iowa's GOP contest, whether Mitt Romney is a Christian. Mike Huckabee knew precisely what was being asked of him, and he also knew, because he is a preacher, what the right -- not the clever, mind you -- answer should be. But Huckabee merely smiled that wonderful smile of his and punted. This, with apologies to George W. Bush, is the soft demagoguery of low expectations.

Until just recently, the expectations have indeed been low for Huckabee. He is more famous for losing more than 100 pounds than for any towering political accomplishment. But he is an ordained Baptist minister, and Romney is a Mormon -- a member of a church that some conservative Christians consider heretical. Huckabee has presented himself as the un-Mormon.

Pardon me for saying so, but that is the chief difference between the two. On about all the social issues you can name -- abortion, stem cells, gun control -- Huckabee and Romney are in sync. So their religious differences are not about morality. They are about belief -- religious belief, precisely the issue that is not supposed to matter in this country. Huckabee, though, clearly thinks it ought to.

Friends of Rudy

TPM Muckraker:
They're hard to keep straight, the various and sundry friends and business associates of Rudy Giuliani with legal problems. But here's one worth keeping an eye on: Hank Asher. ABC reports that Asher, a former drug-runner, as well as a business partner and "close friend" of Giuliani's, makes an appearance in the recent indictment of Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona on bribery charges.

Class warfare

Paul Waldman in The American Prospect:
These are not good times for American workers. Real wages are lower today than they were before the recession of 2001, and barely higher than they were thirty-five years ago. Health insurance is more expensive and harder to obtain than ever before. Manufacturing jobs continue to move overseas. The unions whose efforts might arrest these trends continue to struggle under a sustained assault that began when Ronald Reagan fired striking air-traffic controllers in 1981, in effect declaring war on the labor movement.

This is a story with which you are probably familiar. But these are in no small part symptoms of a larger transformation of the relationship between employers and employees, in which Americans increasingly sign away their humanity when they sign an employment contract.

Let’s take just one component of today’s work environment that most people have simply come to accept: drug testing. An article published last year on Time magazine's web site titled, "Whatever Happened to Drug Testing?" reported that in the last decade, the proportion of employers testing their employees for drug use has declined to 62 percent, after having exploded to over 80 percent in the 1990s.

That's right -- "only" 62 percent of employers make their employees pee into a cup (or fork over a lock of hair, the current state of the art). The recent decline notwithstanding, the fact remains that most Americans work at places where drug testing is standard practice.


Candace Allen, in the Guardian:
I am African-American. We are a sentimental people in the main and we tend to track our own. We are aware of others of colour who cross our spaces. We look around asking: "How did she/he come to be here/there? Is his/her story extraordinary, coincidental or totally banal?"

At 80 years old, my dentist father has been a desegregator all of his adult life, both professionally and domestically. Although raised in Richmond, Virginia, he chose to rear his family up north, first in Boston, then in a Connecticut suburb of New York. When I call him to ask how things are going during the first week of the US Open, he tells me that the Williams sisters are doing fine, as is James Blake, and there are a young boy and girl playing in their first Open who won't get too far this time but are looking mighty good. Unsaid, I know the nature of the report he's going to give; unsaid, he knows what I want to hear: stories about black people coming on to traditional white fields of play and not just holding their own but kicking ass and taking names. Smiles, pride, a fist in the air.

Article continues
So why the viscerally negative reaction, my gut literally roiling with distaste and disappointment, when I look at Condoleezza Rice, the first African-American female to be secretary of state of the world's one remaining superpower?

If it quacks like a duck

New York Times:
We’re having milder falls, later winters,” said Dave Erickson, chief of the wildlife division for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “What we don’t know is if the trend that affects migration and the hunters’ desire for a longer hunting season is a temporary fixture or a permanent fixture.”

Sure science is elusive. Scientists and state wildlife officials say there is not clear-cut data to support the reports of changes in duck behavior, but the patterns are familiar. They note that various other animal species, including songbirds, frogs and foxes, are developing different patterns for breeding and migration.

“We’re seeing northern range shifts of lots of birds and butterflies,” said Camille Parmesan, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Texas and a member of the United Nations panel that was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work documenting climate change.

Not fast enough

Los Angeles Times:
The pace of human evolution has been increasing at a stunning rate since our ancestors began spreading through Europe, Asia and Africa 40,000 years ago, quickening to 100 times historic levels after agriculture became widespread, according to a study published today.

By examining more than 3 million variants of DNA in 269 people, researchers identified about 1,800 genes that have been widely adopted in relatively recent times because they offer some evolutionary benefit.

Until recently, anthropologists believed that evolutionary pressures on humans eased after the transition to a more stable agrarian lifestyle. But in the last few years, they realized the opposite was true -- diseases swept through societies in which large groups lived in close quarters for a long period.

Altogether, the recent genetic changes account for 7% of the human genome, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

We don't care

Houston Chronicle:
More than 4.2 million Iraqis have been displaced since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But just 1,608 have been admitted to America in the government's fiscal year ending in September. Among other things, Department of Homeland Security officials are required to personally interview applicants.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Save the rainforests, save the world

Washington Post:
As 12,000 people gathered in Bali this week to begin framing a global response to Earth's warming climate, efforts to close a deal that would slow destruction of tropical forests appear to be the best prospect for a concrete achievement from the historic assemblage.

But the deforestation issue is also Exhibit A for the disputes that have made climate negotiations lengthy and divisive despite widening agreement that global warming is real and largely man-made. While scientific dispute over what causes global warming has ended, the debate over how to address it has just begun.

Deforestation is one of the biggest drivers of the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Each year, tropical forests covering an area at least equal to the size of New York state are destroyed; the carbon dioxide that those trees would have absorbed amounts to 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, about the same as total U.S. emissions.

The bargain is being championed by a dozen of the world's developing countries at the conference, whose ultimate goal is to map out a two-year path aimed at forging a global system for imposing and enforcing reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

But the hoped-for compromise -- which would give financial rewards to poor nations that slow or halt the destruction of their forests -- could still founder amid divisions over who bears how much responsibility for slowing climate change -- and who should pay for it.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The real debate about immigration

Michael Kinsley, in Time:
What you are supposed to say about immigration--what most of the presidential candidates say, what the radio talk jocks say--is that you are not against immigration. Not at all. You salute the hard work and noble aspirations of those who are lining up at American consulates around the world. But that is legal immigration. What you oppose is illegal immigration.

This formula is not very helpful. We all oppose breaking the law, or we ought to. Saying that you oppose illegal immigration is like saying you oppose illegal drug use or illegal speeding. Of course you do, or should. The question is whether you think the law draws the line in the right place. Should using marijuana be illegal? Should the speed limit be raised--or lowered? The fact that you believe in obeying the law reveals nothing about what you think the law ought to be, or why.

Another question: Why are you so upset about this particular form of lawbreaking? After all, there are lots of laws, not all of them enforced with vigor. The suspicion naturally arises that the illegality is not what bothers you. What bothers you is the immigration. There is an easy way to test this. Reducing illegal immigration is hard, but increasing legal immigration would be easy. If your view is that legal immigration is good and illegal immigration is bad, how about increasing legal immigration? How about doubling it? Any takers? So in the end, this is not really a debate about illegal immigration. This is a debate about immigration.

Senate blocks energy bill

New York Times:
Brushing aside a veto threat from the White House, the House passed a package of energy measures on Thursday that includes a 40 percent increase in fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks sold in the United States. But the measure stalled today in the Senate, as expected.

The bill’s supporters say it will reduce the nation’s dependence on imported oil, jump-start development of clean-energy technologies and sharply reduce the nation’s production of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide.

But the complex and costly bill faces the prospect of a radical rewrite in the Senate because of opposition there to two provisions: $21 billion in new taxes, mostly on the oil industry, and a mandate that electric utilities must generate 15 percent of their power from alternative sources, like wind or solar. The White House threatened to veto the bill if the final version contains those or several other provisions passed by the House.

Willard's problems are of his own making

Andrew O'Hehir, in Salon:
As the most prominent Mormon presidential candidate since his father, George, 40 years ago, or since Smith himself ran on a platform of "Theodemocracy" in 1844, Romney must negotiate between two opposing forces. The theology and tangled history of Mormonism is at odds with the quasi-theocratic nature of the contemporary Republican Party, which seems to have decreed that only Bible-believing Christians or their close allies may run for high office. Neither of these two forces is of Romney's own making, but it was the candidate, and his decisions about how to run his campaign, who ensured that they would collide.

As Christopher Hitchens recently complained in Slate, political reporters have generally treated the details of Romney's faith as a no-go zone. If the question were simply whether his beliefs (or anyone else's) should qualify or disqualify him from public office, I would agree that there was nothing to discuss. Moreover, only Mitt Romney can know how much of Mormon doctrine he accepts without question and how much he takes with a grain of salt. Even in the most dogmatic of believers and the most dictatorial of denominations, faith is fundamentally a private process of negotiation.

But you don't have to descend to Hitchens' level of anti-Mormon vitriol to recognize that Romney's religion, and how he characterizes and explains it, has now become the central issue of his campaign. It may even be the issue that ends his candidacy -- and some of that is no one's fault but Mitt Romney's. In transforming himself from a moderate, pro-choice Republican into an avid pro-life conservative, and in pandering to the party's white Southern evangelical base -- essentially presenting himself as a Christian fellow traveler with a few eccentric updates -- Romney himself helped make an evangelical vetting of his faith inevitable.

Rudy and The Terrorists

A tease...

Joe Conason, in Salon:
The familiar herd instinct of the mainstream media is powerful, unswerving and often plain wrong. While editors and producers are supposed to make judgments based on a combination of news value and public interest, their choices often seem to be based on nothing more elevated than an allergy to complexity or an affinity for smut. And occasionally, as in the case of Rudolph Giuliani during this past week, the sudden appearance of not one but two juicy investigations overwhelms the system's capacity to absorb and regurgitate.

But when the nation's news executives decided which of two highly embarrassing Giuliani stories to feature, nearly all of them made the wrong choice. While they lavished enormous attention upon a Politico story dealing with adultery and bureaucracy, they should be devoting at least as much time to yet another in the long series of Wayne Barrett scoops in the Village Voice, because this one involves business and terrorism.
A taste...

Wayne Barrett, Village Voice:
Three weeks after 9/11, when the roar of fighter jets still haunted the city's skyline, the emir of gas-rich Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah al-Thani, toured Ground Zero. Although a member of the emir's own royal family had harbored the man who would later be identified as the mastermind of the attack—a man named Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, often referred to in intelligence circles by his initials, KSM—al-Thani rushed to New York in its aftermath, offering to make a $3 million donation, principally to the families of its victims. Rudy Giuliani, apparently unaware of what the FBI and CIA had long known about Qatari links to Al Qaeda, appeared on CNN with al-Thani that night and vouched for the emir when Larry King asked the mayor: "You are a friend of his, are you not?"

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Now or never

A world with 30 percent fewer species. Huge water shortages caused by disappearing glaciers affecting hundreds of millions of people. Tropical rain forests dying out as ground water disappears. An accelerating overall rise in world temperatures. All this and more could be the world's fate in just a few short decades.

That, at least, is the ominous tale told by the report released this spring by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This month, though, the IPCC said it had made a mistake. Our future is actually much bleaker. The original predictions had been based on current emissions of greenhouse gases. As it happens, such emissions are still climbing by 3 percent each year.

"Scientists are telling us we have a very small window of time in which to act," Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nation's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We have 10 or 15 years to turn global emissions from their current upward trend to an extreme downward trend."

That small window of time begins Monday on the Indonesian holiday island of Bali. Over 10,000 diplomats and scientists from around the globe will gather to begin the task of reaching an agreement that will perhaps lead the world away from the climate change brink. The challenge, though, is immense. The first such UNFCCC-brokered emissions agreement, widely known as the Kyoto Protocol, has done little to halt rising temperatures and a concurrent rise in apparently climate-related natural catastrophes. With Kyoto expiring in 2012, a sense of urgency surrounds the round of talks kicking off on Monday. And Europe is hoping to lead the charge.

Not something you usually see in the American media

Washington Post:
Muna el-Leboudy, a 22-year-old medical student, had a terrible secret: She wanted to be a filmmaker. The way she understood her Muslim faith, it was haram -- forbidden -- to dabble in movies, music or any art that might pique sexual desires.

Then one day in September, she flipped on her satellite TV and saw Moez Masoud.

A Muslim televangelist not much older than herself, in a stylish goatee and Western clothes, Masoud, 29, was preaching about Islam in youthful Arabic slang.

He said imams who outlawed art and music were misinterpreting their faith. He talked about love and relationships, the need to be compassionate toward homosexuals and tolerant of non-Muslims. Leboudy had never heard a Muslim preacher speak that way.

"Moez helps us understand everything about our religion -- not from 1,400 years ago, but the way we live now," said Leboudy, wearing a scarlet hijab over her hair.

She said she still plans a career in medicine, but she's also starting classes in film directing. "After I heard Moez," she said, "I decided to be the one who tries to change things."

Masoud is one of a growing number of young Muslim preachers who are using satellite television to promote an upbeat and tolerant brand of Islam.

Because we can

The man who devised the Bush administration's Iraq troop surge has urged the US to consider sending elite troops to Pakistan to seize its nuclear weapons if the country descends into chaos.

In a series of scenarios drawn up for Pakistan, Frederick Kagan, a former West Point military historian, has called for the White House to consider various options for an unstable Pakistan.

These include: sending elite British or US troops to secure nuclear weapons capable of being transported out of the country and take them to a secret storage depot in New Mexico or a "remote redoubt" inside Pakistan; sending US troops to Pakistan's north-western border to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida; and a US military occupation of the capital Islamabad, and the provinces of Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan if asked for assistance by a fractured Pakistan military, so that the US could shore up President Pervez Musharraf and General Ashfaq Kayani, who became army chief this week.

This could get very ugly

Baghdad is facing a 'catastrophe' with cases of cholera rising sharply in the past three weeks to more than 100, strengthening fears that poor sanitation and the imminent rainy season could create an epidemic.

The disease - spread by bacteria in contaminated water, which can result in rapid dehydration and death - threatens to blunt growing optimism in the Iraqi capital after a recent downturn in violence. Two boys in an orphanage have died and six other children were diagnosed with the disease, according to the Iraqi government. 'We have a catastrophe in Baghdad,' an official said.

The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) said 101 cases had been recorded in the city, making up 79 per cent of all new cases in Iraq. It added that no single source for the upsurge had been identified, but the main Shia enclave of Sadr City was among the areas hardest hit.

As Iraq's rainy season nears, its ageing water pipes and sewerage systems, many damaged or destroyed by more than four years of war, pose a new threat to a population weary of crisis. Claire Hajaj, a spokeswoman for Unicef, said: 'Iraq's water and sanitation networks are in a critical condition. Pollution of waterways by raw sewage is perhaps the greatest environmental and public health hazard facing Iraqis - particularly children. Waterborne diarrhoea diseases kill and sicken more Iraqi children than anything except pneumonia. We estimate that only one in three Iraqi children can rely on a safe water source - with Baghdad and southern cities most affected.'

A good summation

Salon's Gary Kamiya:
Annapolis will fail to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians because it was not intended to succeed. It was a charade. And in the Middle East, charades don't just leave things the way they are -- they make them much worse. The tragedy is that Olmert seems to realize the urgency of cutting a two-state deal. But there is a giant gap between seeing the goal and achieving it, and only the United States can fill it. Olmert can take the politically explosive yet necessary steps only if the United States clearly states in advance what needs to be done and then forces both sides to do it. Bush completely failed to do that. He called for the conference almost in passing. He never set an agenda. He refused to outline what the U.S. vision of peace is. Going forward, the only thing he offered the two beleaguered leaders, Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, was a promise to monitor the process -- which in these circumstances is like promising a dying man that if he calls you on your cellphone, you'll be sure to check the message.

The sad thing about this mess is that there's no mystery about what needs to happen. Both Israel and the Palestinians must give up some of their most cherished dreams. The 40-year-old Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands must end. East Jerusalem must become the capital of a contiguous Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Those will be bitter concessions for Israel, but the Palestinians must give up even more. They must accept a state that comprises only 22 percent of the historic Palestine. They probably must allow the largest settlements on the West Bank to become part of Israel. And most painfully of all, they must accept a compromise on Palestinian refugees that will resettle most of them outside their ancestral homes in what is now Israel.

But neither Bush nor Condoleezza Rice have ever been interested in brokering a fair and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. After all, this is the president who announced at his first National Security Council meeting that he was going to let Ariel Sharon have a free hand to smash the Palestinians because "sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things." This is the Secretary of State who prevented the U.N. from imposing a cease-fire on Israel in the last weeks of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war and infamously defended the carnage as the "birth pangs of a new Middle East."

Green is good for business

Remember the old canard about environmental responsiblity being bad for business and jobs? Well, as CNN reports:
Venture investment in energy technology firms reached new highs this year, more than tripling the investment recorded for 2005, according to data released Wednesday by Thomson Financial and the National Venture Capital Association.

In the first three quarters of 2007, nearly $1.7 billion, or 7.4% of U.S. venture capital investments, was put into American companies developing technologies that conserve energy and resources, protect the environment, or eliminate harmful waste. The majority of this year's clean technology investment was made in companies based in California, Massachusetts, and Texas, with the solar energy and biofuel industries receiving the bulk of the investment dollars.

"This is a remarkable share of the venture capital pool when you consider that less than five years ago clean technologies represented less than 1%," says Rodrigo Prudencio, a partner with Nth Power, a California-based venture capital firm that backs early stage energy technology companies.

Annual venture investments in clean-technology companies went from $469.7 million in 2005 to $1.4 billion in 2006, and this year's total through September has already seen a 21% increase over last year. The number of investments made has also increased, with 149 deals made in the first nine months of this year, as compared to 129 deals at the end of 2006.

"Long term, this is an area that is going to be as important to the venture capital community as biotech and IT have been in the last twenty years," says Mark Heesen, NVCA president.

Our pals

Associated Press:
Saudi Arabia is bristling at international criticism over the sentencing of a rape victim to prison and 200 lashes, insisting the West should stay out of its legal system. But the case could empower voices for change in the kingdom's Islamic courts.
What did she do?
In the case of the Girl of Qatif, the woman — a member of the kingdom's Shiite minority — was attacked in 2006 when she met a high school friend in his car to retrieve a picture of herself from him, since she had recently married. Two men got into the vehicle and drove them to a secluded area where five others waited, and then the woman — 19 at the time — and her companion were both raped, she has said.

In October last year, she was sentenced to prison and 90 lashes for being alone with a man not related to her — a violation of the kingdom's strict segregation of the sexes. The seven rapists were also convicted.

When her lawyer, Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem, appealed the sentence and made public comments about it, he was removed from the case, his license suspended, and the court increased the woman's penalty to six months in prison and 200 lashes.

How to make friends and influence people

Times of England:
AMERICA has told Britain that it can “kidnap” British citizens if they are wanted for crimes in the United States.

A senior lawyer for the American government has told the Court of Appeal in London that kidnapping foreign citizens is permissible under American law because the US Supreme Court has sanctioned it.

The admission will alarm the British business community after the case of the so-called NatWest Three, bankers who were extradited to America on fraud charges. More than a dozen other British executives, including senior managers at British Airways and BAE Systems, are under investigation by the US authorities and could face criminal charges in America.

Until now it was commonly assumed that US law permitted kidnapping only in the “extraordinary rendition” of terrorist suspects.
Now, we can have ordinary renditions, too!


An ancient Roman wood and ivory throne has been unearthed at a dig in Herculaneum, Italian archaeologists said on Tuesday, hailing it as the most significant piece of wooden furniture ever discovered there.

The throne was found during an excavation in the Villa of the Papyri, the private house formerly belonging to Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, built on the slope of Mount Vesuvius.

The name of the villa derives from the impressive library containing thousands of scrolls of papyrus discovered buried under meters (yards) of volcanic ash after the Vesuvius erupted on 24 August 79.

Restoration of the throne is still ongoing with restorers painstakingly trying to piece back together parts of the ceremonial chair.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Democracy in Russia is dead

The Kremlin is planning to rig the results of Russia's parliamentary elections on Sunday by forcing millions of public sector workers across the country to vote, the Guardian has learned.

Local administration officials have called in thousands of staff on their day off in an attempt to engineer a massive and inflated victory for President Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party. Voters are being pressured to vote for United Russia or risk losing their jobs, their accommodation or bonuses, the Guardian has been told in numerous interviews with byudzhetniki (public sector workers), students and ordinary citizens.

Article continues
Doctors, teachers, university deans, students and even workers at psychiatric clinics have been warned they have to vote. Failure to do so will entail serious consequences, they have been told.

Analysts say the pressure is designed to ensure a resounding win for the United Russia party and for Putin, who heads its party list. The victory would give him a public mandate to maintain ultimate power in the country as "National Leader" despite being unable to stand for a third term as president in March.


Science Daily:
Scientists analysing data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft have confirmed the presence of heavy negative ions in the upper regions of Titan's atmosphere. These particles may act as organic building blocks for even more complicated molecules and their discovery was completely unexpected because of the chemical composition of the atmosphere (which lacks oxygen and mainly consists of nitrogen and methane). The observation has now been verified on 16 different encounters.

Professor Andrew Coates, researcher at UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory and lead author of a new paper*, says: "Cassini's electron spectrometer has enabled us to detect negative ions which have 10,000 times the mass of hydrogen. Additional rings of carbon can build up on these ions, forming molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which may act as a basis for the earliest forms of life.

"Their existence poses questions about the processes involved in atmospheric chemistry and aerosol formation and we now think it most likely that these negative ions form in the upper atmosphere before moving closer to the surface, where they probably form the mist which shrouds the planet and which has hidden its secrets from us in the past. It was this mist which stopped the Voyager mission from examining Titan more closely in 1980 and was one of the reasons that Cassini was launched."

Here Comes The Sun

Proponents of CSP say you don't need to use up much of the desert space to make CSP effective. A solar farm taking up 92 by 92 miles of desert could power the entire U.S., for example, according to Green Wombat, referring to a calculation made by the chairman of solar company Ausra, David Mills.

Over in Europe, however, a group of scientists, politicians and renewable energy experts who call themselves The Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC) have made claims on a much bigger scale and with far bigger ramifications.

TREC is backing an ambitious project straddling Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (EU-MENA), which is based on the calculation that an area less than 0.3% of the Sahara Desert filled with CSP plants could power the entire region -- and could slash the EU's electricity-generated greenhouse gas emissions by 70% in the process.

The CSP-generated electricity would be transmitted around the region via a "supergrid" of high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines. The CSP plants, TREC says, would "generate enough electricity and desalinated seawater to supply current demands in EU-MENA, and anticipated increases in those demands in the future."


Science Now:
Paris Hilton: Actress, author, ... analgesic? Neuroscientists have found that a cardboard cutout of the ubiquitous Hilton Hotel heiress has a painkilling effect on mice. But don't expect clinical trials to begin anytime soon: Paris works only for males, and it may be only because she stresses them out.

The idea for the unconventional experiment arose when Jeffrey Mogil of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and his colleagues noticed that male mice spent less time licking the site of a painful injection--indicating that they had less pain--when a scientist was present. To investigate whether it was the sight or smell of a human that caused the effect, the researchers acquired a promotional cardboard cutout of Hilton from her television show The Simple Life ("A special order," says Mogil's collaborator Leigh MacIntyre).

As in humans, Paris's effect appears to be gender-specific. Male mice spent less time licking their wounds when fake Paris was in sight, but females showed no such effect, the researchers reported here Saturday at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. When the team put up a screen to block the rodents' view, the effect went away. Following a Paris Hilton encounter, male mice--but not females--also had lower-than-usual expression of a gene called c-fos in a part of the spinal cord that transmits pain signals to the brain, suggesting reduced neural activity in this pain pathway.


A recent Scientific American article (1) describes how even deidentified data can be used to reidentify individuals, specifically when bits of information exist in public databases. The article recounts the work of Lantanya Sweeney, who runs the Data Privacy Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research found that reidentifying personal information is simpler than one might have imagined. In one case, a banker cross-referenced information in publicly available hospital discharge records against his client list to determine whether any of his clients had cancer. If they did, he called in their loans. In another case, Sweeney found a way to reidentify patients with Huntington disease even after all information about the patients had been deleted from their records. She combined known sequencing data indicating the presence of the disease with hospital discharge records, which included patients'ages, and succeeded in accurately linking 90% of the Huntington disease patients with DNA records on file.

Lake Inferior

This fall, the water level of Lake Superior, the world's largest freshwater lake, dipped below the record it set in the Dust Bowl days of 1926. In September, the 1540-square-kilometer lake on the Canadian border was at its lowest since record-keeping began in 1860--with an average depth of 183 meters. October's level went up after several weeks of rain but was still 30 cm below the long-term average. Boats are resting on mud, docks are poking nothing but air, and fishermen and lakeside rice growers are watching their livelihoods dry up.

Some factors that explain the mess: The surface temperature of the lake has mysteriously risen 4.5°C since 1978--twice as fast as the temperature of the surrounding air. Ice, which blocks evaporation, has become rare on Superior, and precipitation has dropped 15 cm a year from the annual average of 77 cm.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Associated Press:
An outbreak in Europe of an obscure disease from Africa is raising concerns that globalization and climate change are combining to pose a health threat to the West.

Nearly 300 cases of chikungunya fever, a virus that previously has been common only in Africa and Asia, were reported in Italy — where only isolated cases of the disease had been seen in the past.

"We were quite surprised," said Stefania Salmaso, director of Italy's Center for Epidemiology at the National Health Institute. "Nobody was expecting that such an unusual event was going to happen."

While the outbreak was largely the result of stronger trade and travel ties, some experts believe it is a sign of how global warming is creating new breeding grounds for diseases long confined to subtropical climates.

Monday, November 26, 2007

As the world burns

A group of rich countries including Britain has broken a promise to pay more than a billion dollars to help the developing world cope with the effects of climate change. The group agreed in 2001 to pay $1.2bn (£600m) to help poor and vulnerable countries predict and plan for the effects of global warming, as well as fund flood defences, conservation and thousands of other projects. But new figures show less than £90m of the promised money has been delivered. Britain has so far paid just £10m.

The disclosure comes after Gordon Brown said this week that industrialised countries must do more to help the developing world adapt to a changed climate, and two weeks before countries meet in Bali to begin negotiations on a new global deal to regulate emissions which is expected to stress the need for all countries to adapt.

Andrew Pendleton, climate change policy analyst at Christian Aid, said: "This represents a broken promise on a massive scale and on quite a cynical scale as well. Promising funds for adaptation is exactly the kind of incentive the rich countries will offer at Bali to bring the developing world on board a new climate deal. This is the signal we are seeing on all fronts, that the developed countries are unwilling to fulfil their moral and legal commitments."

It's Worse

Been behind updating this site, so this is now a little old, but needs be stored.

New York Times:
In its final and most powerful report, a United Nations panel of scientists meeting here describes the mounting risks of climate change in language that is both more specific and forceful than its previous assessments, according to scientists here.

Synthesizing reams of data from its three previous reports, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the first time specifically points out important risks if governments fail to respond: melting ice sheets that could lead to a rapid rise in sea levels and the extinction of large numbers of species brought about by even moderate amounts of warming, on the order of 1 to 3 degrees.

The report carries heightened significance because it is the last word from the influential global climate panel before world leaders meet in Bali, Indonesia, next month to begin to discuss a global climate change treaty that will replace the Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012. It is also the first report from the panel since it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October — an honor that many scientists here said emboldened them to stand more forcefully behind their positions.

As a sign of the deepening urgency surrounding the climate change issue, the report, which was being printed Friday night, will be officially released by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday.


Los Angeles Times:
Kivalina is disappearing, the victim of a warming world and a steady natural erosion that probably began long before the Eskimos settled here 100 years ago.

"You see the white water out there?" Swan said, pointing to some ripples a couple hundred feet offshore. "That's where the beach used to be."

When he was growing up here in the 1970s, the ocean would freeze each fall into a slush the thickness of mashed potatoes. Waves from the storms would crash into the ice, not the shore.

Lately, the autumn ocean has been a vast, iceless expanse that leaves the beach vulnerable to waves. The island is now a sliver of sand and permafrost less than 600 feet across at its widest point. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will be 10 to 15 years before the ground beneath the clump of clapboard houses washes away.

Interesting that this hasn't yet been muzzled

US corruption investigators have gone behind the back of Downing Street to fly a British witness to Washington to testify about Saudi arms deals with the UK arms firm BAE Systems, the Guardian can disclose. In a hitherto secret move, Swiss federal prosecutors have also agreed to hand over to Washington financial records linked to the Saudi royal family.

The US is seeking - but has so far been refused - more than a million pages of documents seized from BAE, its bankers, Lloyds TSB, and the Ministry of Defence during an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.

Prince Bandar, the former Saudi ambassador to the US, who says there was no impropriety about a £1bn payment he received for brokering arms deals with BAE, has hired a former head of the FBI and a retired British high court judge to defend his position. The British government has been attempting to block all investigations into payments from BAE to members of the Saudi regime.


TPM Muckraker:
Another year has almost passed under the Bush Administration, and so it's time to review how much less we know.

Last year, we launched the insanely ambitious project of recording every significant instance of this administration stifling government information. As we said then, "they've discontinued annual reports, classified normally public data, de-funded studies, quieted underlings, and generally done whatever was necessary to keep bad information under wraps." To be sure, the list will continue to grow through January, 2008.
Go read.


Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on Friday hailed a United Nations committee vote calling for a moratorium on the death penalty - a cause for which Italy has long lobbied.

''The UN a great success for Italy and the cause of peace,'' Napolitano said after Thursday night's human rights committee vote.

''Now all that's missing is the final seal of the General Assembly,'' the president said.

The resolution, which calls for ''a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty,'' is expected to go to the 192-member Assembly in mid-December.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

After five and a half years

McClatchy Newspapers:
Despite the fact that Iraq and U.S. officials have made water projects among their top priorities, the percentage of Iraqis without access to decent water supplies has risen from 50 percent to 70 percent since the start of the U.S.-led war, according to an analysis by Oxfam International last summer. The portion of Iraqis lacking decent sanitation was even worse -- 80 percent.

Friday, November 16, 2007

What's wrong with this picture?

New York Times:
In its final and most powerful report, a United Nations panel of scientists meeting here describes the mounting risks of climate change in language that is both more specific and forceful than its previous assessments, according to scientists here.

Synthesizing reams of data from its three previous reports, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the first time specifically points out important risks if governments fail to respond: melting ice sheets that could lead to a rapid rise in sea levels and the extinction of large numbers of species brought about by even moderate amounts of warming, on the order of 1 to 3 degrees.

The report carries heightened significance because it is the last word from the influential global climate panel before world leaders meet in Bali, Indonesia, next month to begin to discuss a global climate change treaty that will replace the Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012. It is also the first report from the panel since it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October — an honor that many scientists here said emboldened them to stand more forcefully behind their positions.

As a sign of the deepening urgency surrounding the climate change issue, the report, which was being printed Friday night, will be officially released by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday.
The government department spearheading the fight against climate change is planning an emergency package of at least £300m of cuts covering key environmental services, the Guardian has learned.

Frontline agencies tackling recycling, nature protection, energy saving, carbon emissions and safeguarding the environment are all being targeted in the package which is being drawn up by Helen Ghosh, the top civil servant at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Details of the cuts have emerged just as the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is due to publish its latest report. The study, to be made public today ahead of a UN climate meeting in Bali, will warn that all forms of carbon pollution from flights to inefficient light bulbs must become more expensive if the world is to avert catastrophic effects of warming.

The disclosure of the Defra cuts plan will embarrass Gordon Brown, who is expected next week to give a major speech on climate change, recommitting Britain to supplying a fifth of its energy requirements from renewables by 2020. Previously government officials had said Britain would struggle to meet the target and lobbied to be allowed to use different statistics.

Bush: destroying our military

Associated Press:
Soldiers strained by six years at war are deserting their posts at the highest rate since 1980, with the number of Army deserters this year showing an 80 percent increase since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

While the totals are still far lower than they were during the Vietnam war, when the draft was in effect, they show a steady increase over the past four years and a 42 percent jump since last year.

According to the Army, about nine in every 1,000 soldiers deserted in fiscal year 2007, which ended Sept. 30, compared to nearly seven per 1,000 a year earlier. Overall, 4,698 soldiers deserted this year, compared to 3,301 last year.

The War on Whistleblowers

Every year, hundreds of federal workers sound the alarm about corruption, fraud or dangers to public safety that are caused or overlooked -- or even covered up -- by U.S. government agencies. These whistle-blowers are supposed to be guaranteed protection by law from retaliation for speaking out in the public's interest.

But a six-month investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting, in collaboration with Salon, has found that federal whistle-blowers almost never receive legal protection after they take action. Instead, they often face agency managers and White House appointees intent upon silencing them rather than addressing the problems they raise. They are left fighting for their jobs in a special administrative court system, little known to the American public, that is mired in bureaucracy and vulnerable to partisan politics. The CIR/Salon investigation reveals that the whistle-blower system -- first created by Congress decades ago and proclaimed as a cornerstone of government transparency and accountability -- has in reality enabled the punishment of employees who speak out. It has had a chilling effect, dissuading others from coming forward. The investigation examined nearly 3,600 whistle-blower cases since 1994, and included dozens of interviews and a review of confidential court documents. Whistle-blowers lose their cases, the investigation shows, nearly 97 percent of the time. Most limp away from the experience with their careers, reputations and finances in tatters.

Legal experts and lawmakers say the system is badly in need of reform. In fact, new legislation to strengthen whistle-blower protections has been moving through Congress this year, with strong bipartisan support, and is expected to come before the Senate this session. But in the latest setback to the system, the Bush White House has vowed to veto the legislation, citing among its criticisms a risk to national security.

We're never leaving! Ever!

Wall Street Journal:
he U.S. Navy is building a military installation atop this petroleum-export platform as the U.S. establishes a more lasting military mission in the oil-rich north Persian Gulf.

While presidential candidates debate whether to start bringing ground troops home from Iraq, the new construction suggests that one footprint of U.S. military power in Iraq isn't shrinking anytime soon: American officials are girding for an open-ended commitment to protect the country's oil industry.

That is a sea change for the U.S., which has patrolled these waters for decades. In the past, American warships and their allies flexed the West's military might in the Persian Gulf to demonstrate a broad commitment to protect the region, which produces almost a third of the world's oil. President Jimmy Carter codified the doctrine in 1980 in response to a perceived Soviet threat.


ABC News:
Sometimes the music was American rap, sometimes Arab folk songs. In the CIA prison in Afghanistan, it came blaring through the speakers 24 hours a day. Prisoners held alone inside barbed-wire cages could only speak to each other and exchange their news when the music stopped: if the tape was changed or the generators broke down.

In one such six-foot-by-10-foot cell in February 2004, equipped with a low mattress and a bucket as a toilet, sat a man in shackles named Ibn al Sheikh al Libi, the former al Qaeda camp commander described by former CIA director George Tenet in his autobiography last year as "the highest ranking al-Qa'ida member in U.S. custody" just after 9/11.

In this secret facility known to prisoners as "The Hangar" and believed to be at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, al Libi told fellow "ghost prisoners," one recalled to me for a PBS "Frontline" to be broadcast tonight, an incredible story of his treatment over the previous two years: of how questioned at first by Americans, by the FBI and then CIA, of how he was threatened with torture. And then how he was rendered to a jail cell in Egypt where the threats became a reality.

Junk food makes you stupid and crazy

Science Daily:
Research has shown convincing evidence that dietary patterns practiced during adulthood are important contributors to age-related cognitive decline and dementia risk. An article published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences highlights information on the benefits of diets high in fruit, vegetables, cereals and fish and low in saturated fats in reducing dementia risk.

Adults with diabetes are especially sensitive to the foods they eat with respect to cognitive function. Specifically, an adult with diabetes will experience a decline in memory function after a meal, especially if simple carbohydrate foods are consumed. While the precise physiological mechanisms underlying these dietary influences are not completely understood, the modulation of brain insulin levels likely contributes.

This deficit can be prevented through healthful food choices at meals. The findings suggest that weight maintenance reduces the risk of developing obesity-associated disorders, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and is an important component of preserving cognitive health.

Keeping the corporate media corporate!

Washington Post:
The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission yesterday proposed relaxing an agency rule to allow big-city newspapers to buy the smaller television stations in their markets, a move designed as a compromise in the ongoing issue of corporate control of the airwaves.

The proposal put forward by Chairman Kevin J. Martin appeared to please almost no one -- the newspaper industry said it stopped short of helping the ailing print media and anti-consolidation groups said it went too far, with one calling it "yet another massive giveaway to big media."

Under Martin's plan, set for a commission vote Dec. 18, newspapers in the nation's 20-largest media markets could buy one radio or television station in their cities, if certain conditions apply. The station could not be among the four most-watched in the market, essentially preventing newspapers from buying popular stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox.

The proposal would partially lift a 35-year-old ban on the "cross-ownership" of newspapers and broadcast stations. Although Martin's plan would not automatically ban cross-ownership in the nation's smaller 190 media markets, it is unlikely such purchases would be approved by the FCC, he said.

Because neither is a fan of democracy

Robert Scheer, in The Nation:
"The war on terror" made me do it. That's the excuse that works for George W. Bush to rationalize his assaults on the rule of law, from arbitrary arrest to torture. So why not try some war-on-terror obfuscation to bail out his president-dictator buddy over in Pakistan?

That's the card Bush played at his Saturday press conference when he once again celebrated Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as a strong ally in the war on terrorism: "If you're the chief operating officer of Al-Qaida, you haven't had a good experience. There has been four or five Number 3s that have been brought to justice one way or the other, and many of those folks thought they had found safe haven in Pakistan. And that would not have happened without President Musharraf honoring his word."

Of course Bush's statement was utter nonsense. Al-Qaida has been having a very good experience with its CEO Osama bin Laden--whom Bush had promised to get "dead or alive"--being still very much alive and apparently moving with his minions quite easily across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. So too his Taliban sponsors, who seem to get stronger each month; Afghanistan is no closer to stability than Iraq, that other war-on-terrorism battleground where Bush once claimed triumph.

But now, even Pakistan is a war zone in which the terrorists seem to be thriving, and that is more troubling than the chaos in that other country we invaded to seize its imaginary nuclear bombs. Pakistan has real ones, upward of eighty, as well as the aircraft and missiles to deliver them if some of the religious extremists in the military ever get in charge. Some highly placed folks in the Pakistan military supplied the transport planes used by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the "Islamic bomb," to transfer key nuclear weapons technology out of Pakistan and into North Korea, Libya and Iran. If Musharraf is such a determined warrior against terrorism, why has he pardoned Khan, the man who did so much to help those rogue nations that Bush warned us against, while preventing US intelligence agents from interviewing him?

Smithsonian exhibit denied science, downplayed global warming

Washington Post:
Some government scientists have complained that officials at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History took steps to downplay global warming in a 2006 exhibit on the Arctic to avoid a political backlash, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The museum's director, Cristián Samper, ordered last-minute changes to the exhibit's script to add "scientific uncertainty" about climate change, according to internal documents and correspondence.

Scientists at other agencies collaborating on the project expressed in e-mails their belief that Smithsonian officials acted to avoid criticism from congressional appropriators and global-warming skeptics in the Bush administration. But Samper said in an interview last week that "there was no political pressure -- not from me, not from anyone."

Samper put the project on hold for six months in the fall of 2005 and ordered that the exhibition undergo further review by higher-level officials in other government agencies. Samper also asked for changes in the script and the sequence of the exhibit's panels to move the discussion of recent climate change further back in the presentation, records also show. The exhibit opened in April 2006 and closed in November of that year.

Katrina damaged carbon sink

Science Daily:
With the help of NASA satellite data, a research team has estimated that Hurricane Katrina killed or severely damaged 320 million large trees in Gulf Coast forests, which weakened the role the forests play in storing carbon from the atmosphere. The damage has led to these forests releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Iran not arming Iraqi insurgents!

McClatchy Newspapers:
Iran appears to have stopped shipping the deadliest type of weapons used against U.S. troops in Iraq after a European government confronted Tehran with proof that the weapons came from Iranian factories and Iraqi officials warned their neighbor that instability in Iraq affects the entire region, U.S., Western and Iraqi officials said.

A senior U.S. general in Iraq said Thursday that Iran is upholding informal commitments it's made in the last several months and no new weapons caches have been found recently. "We believe the commitments that the Iranians have made appear to be holding up," said Maj. Gen. James Simmons, a deputy corps commander in charge of studying explosive attacks, during a press briefing.

That's a striking departure from repeated U.S. condemnations of Iranian meddling in Iraq and from the argument by allies of Vice President Dick Cheney that there's little point in negotiating with Iran because its leaders can't be trusted to deal in good faith.

Monday, November 12, 2007


Spiegel Online:
When the Taliban destroyed two Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in the spring of 2001, there was an international outcry. But similar incidents are now occurring in northwest Pakistan, where radical Islamists recently blew up a sculpture of Buddha in broad daylight.

The phenomenon is new and disconcerting. Even the Pakistani government describes it as "Talibanization:" Parts of the country are now in almost exactly the same situation as neighboring Afghanistan was when the Taliban were still in power there.

This is especially the case in the formerly peaceful Swat region, where a militant Islamist leader has even proclaimed an "emirate." And just as in Afghanistan, the Islamists' hatred is directed, in part, against the traces left by the ancient Buddhist civilization in the region.