May 2010 Archives

4 billion barrels = 84 billion gallons

I reported hearsay supposedly from a BP insider that the oil field that BP drilled into before it exploded contained 1.8 billion gallons of oil.

It’s apparently much, MUCH worse. Here’s a New York Times article from last September:

BP announced on Wednesday the discovery of what it characterized as a giant oil field several miles under the Gulf of Mexico, but it may take years to assess how much crude can actually be recovered…

The discovery, called the Tiber well, is about 250 miles southeast of Houston at a depth of more than 35,000 feet — greater than the height of Mount Everest — and well below the gulf floor…

BP officials say the oil and gas in the field is extremely hot and under intense pressure, requiring advanced well heads with thick steel and heavy insulation.

BP declined to estimate the size of the new reserve, but a company executive said that it could be bigger than the three billion barrels of oil equivalent, combining oil and gas stocks, thought to be in the recently discovered Kaskida field nearby.

If this is the oil field BP just drilled into, it’s approximately 4 billion BARRELS, not 1.8 billion GALLONS. That’s a major problem because one barrel of oil equals 42 gallons of oil. (Interestingly, those 42 gallons of oil get processed into a variety of outputs, most notably 19.5 gallons of gasoline, 9.2 gallons of home heating oil and diesel fuel, and 4 gallons of jet fuel.)

4 billion barrels of oil = 82 billion gallons of oil! That’s the size of the monster threatening to kill the Gulf (and poison the Atlantic).

But don’t cry. The U.S. government capped BP’s liability at $75 million, so they’ll be fine. Given its liability protection, it’s no wonder BP didn’t waste $500,000 on a stupid acoustic switch that might have allowed BP to remotely shut off the well even after its rig exploded.

Posted by James on May 13, 2010

American culture is poisoning our kids

I was horrified by David Horowitz' June article in The Costco Connection:

Nearly one out of three teens are using mobile devices to obtain test answers. What’s more, according to a 2009 study by U.S. News and World Report, “Nearly one 1 in 4 students thinks that accessing notes on a cell phone, texting friends with answers, or using a phone to search the Internet for answers during a test isn’t cheating.”

YES, THAT’S CHEATING!!! It’s the very definition of “cheating”! How can kids possibly think cheating is not cheating?

Well, I became even more depressed reading about a meta-analysis of 72 studies conducted over the past 30 years. Its conclusion: kids today are 40% less empathetic than kids in my generation. A 40% drop! That’s abysmal!

“We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,” co-author Sara Konrath, a researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, said in a news release. “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.”…

“Many people see the current group of college students — sometimes called ‘Generation Me’ — as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history,” observed Konrath, who is also affiliated with the psychiatry department at the University of Rochester.

It’s terrible enough we’re churning out millions of kids with poor academic skills. It’s actually even worse that we’re — apparently — producing a generation of egotists. Egotists make lousy colleagues and horrible parents. Besides, a “me, me, me” life is intrinsically less interesting than a “we, we, we” life.

I blame America’s “I got mine, Jack!” culture of greed, fraud, materialism and hedonism. We don’t respect learning or ideas or facts. We don’t respect teachers or books. We don’t respect or care for those less fortunate than us. Many of us don’t even know our neighbors. We turn out in droves to vote down school spending proposals. We fight fiercely… not against our multiple wars or the erosion of civil liberties or America’s neo-fascism but to prevent the poor from accessing basic healthcare. We bail out bankrupt banks even as they foreclose on ordinary Americans who can’t pay their mortgage because they’ve lost their job, lost their breadwinning spouse, or gotten sick. We spend way beyond our means, both as families and as a nation, and will inevitably stick our kids and grand-kids with our massive debt. No wonder our kids — who have watched us for 20+ years — have adopted our self-centeredness. It’s the only thing we’ve taught them.

Posted by James on May 29, 2010

Anti-people populism

A quotation on my high school U.S. history class wall read, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” (Britannica believes the quotation is an abbreviation of H.L. Mencken’s actual statement, “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”)

Back in my innocent youth, I was offended by the statement. “Americans aren’t that dumb,” I thought, hopefully… and foolishly.

Well, 45 million Americans don’t wear seat belts. That’s 45 million stupid Americans right there.

But the real reason to embrace Mencken’s low opinion of ordinary Americans is how easily manipulated so many Americans are by right-wing scam artists who bamboozle with lies. The right today has no strong arguments to make (except to multi-millionaires, Wall Street and oil companies). So their Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys fall back on emotional rhetoric that panders to under-educated people who can’t grasp their own self-interest and make the correct binary choice about which major party better (or less poorly) represents their interests. Every few years, Republican operatives play a shell game in which they keep dumb Americans' eyes focused on the shell (“family values”) without the ball. After the election, they reveal the shell (corporate welfare and tax cuts for the richest 2%) where the ball really was.

Paul Krugman argues, correctly, that the way to beat these shysters is not by watering down legislation and begging Republicans to sing a bipartisan kumbaya but by denouncing and exposing their bogus claims and the real — and hugely unpopular — beneficiaries of Republican (and “centrist” conservative Democratic) policies:

[G]rass-roots anger is being channeled and exploited by corporate interests, which will be the big winners if the G.O.P. does well in November.

If this sounds familiar, it should: it’s the same formula the right has been using for a generation. Use identity politics to whip up the base; then, when the election is over, give priority to the concerns of your corporate donors. Run as the candidate of “real Americans,” not those soft-on-terror East coast liberals; then, once you’ve won, declare that you have a mandate to privatize Social Security….

But won’t the grass-roots rebel at being used? Don’t count on it. Last week Rand Paul, the Tea Party darling who is now the Republican nominee for senator from Kentucky, declared that the president’s criticism of BP over the disastrous oil spill in the gulf is “un-American,” that “sometimes accidents happen.” The mood on the right may be populist, but it’s a kind of populism that’s remarkably sympathetic to big corporations.

So where does that leave the president and his party? Mr. Obama wanted to transcend partisanship. Instead, however, he finds himself very much in the position Franklin Roosevelt described in a famous 1936 speech, struggling with “the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.”

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Roosevelt turned corporate opposition into a badge of honor: “I welcome their hatred,” he declared. It’s time for President Obama to find his inner F.D.R., and do the same.

Posted by James on May 24, 2010

Are you kidding me?!?!?

I expect companies to be greedy, but not this greedy:

BP knew of problems with an offshore well hours before it exploded last month, spilling millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, a House committee chairman said Wednesday.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the oil company told the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight privately that the well failed a key pressure test just hours before it exploded on April 20.

The test indicated pressure was building up in the well, which could indicate oil or gas was seeping in and could lead to an explosion, said Waxman.

“Yet it appears the companies did not suspend operations, and now 11 workers are dead and the Gulf faces an environmental catastrophe,” he said, asking why work wasn’t stopped on the well.

Whoever ordered this work to continue after this failed test needs to go straight to jail without collecting $200.

Posted by James on May 13, 2010

Baby morality

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has written an informative article, “Moral Life of Babies”, summarizing key findings of baby researchers — researchers who study babies, not babies who write grant applications, run laboratories, and supervise Ph.D. dissertations — regarding the cognitive and moral lives of babies.

These studies' major conclusions:

  1. Young babies understand the world around them far better than most people, even child psychologists, have long believed. Babies express surprise when objects appear to violate the principles of physics.
  2. Babies enter the world with an innate sense of right and wrong and a natural tendency to favor and want to be with nice people and to punish and shun mean people. Very young children even like those who punish bad people.
  3. Baby morality is hard-wired to apply more strongly to people and groups the baby knows, likes, spends time with, shares language, likes and other characteristics with, etc.

In short, humans are born into the world with (or very quickly acquire) a sense of how objects behave and a gut-sense morality that attracts us to nice people and leads us to dislike mean people. But human morality is inherently biased in favor of those who are like us. “‘Us’ vs. ‘them’” is part of our genetically endowed sense of morality. Culture can and has enabled many humans to extend their vision of “us” to include all humans, and even sentient non-humans. But universalistic morality is not inborn; it seems to require education and enculturation.

Posted by James on May 05, 2010

Bank of America trying to steal homes

Bank of America tried to foreclose on a house it hadn’t owned for about 15 years:

Nancy Willmes paid cash for her Tuolumne home in 2001. So she was quite surprised when Bank of America send her a notice of default on the property in February.

“I honestly felt like Bank of America was trying to steal my property,” Willmes said.

She contacted Bank of America to try to find out why the bank believed it could foreclose on property she had purchased outright.

Willmes has chain-of-ownership records, which show Bank of America had sold the property to Fannie Mae years earlier. Fannie Mae foreclosed on the previous owner, and Willmes purchased the property with cash from Fannie Mae.

But Willmes said Bank of America did not care about the documentation.

The bank proceeded with the foreclosure, placing ads in the local paper and nailing a foreclosure notice to her door.

“I called the title company, the title company called B of A, and they refused to rescind it,” Willmes said.

The woman was able to stop the foreclosure procedings only by contacting local media. And thank goodness she had all her paperwork!

Posted by James on May 27, 2010

BP execs must be imprisoned

Super story last night on 60 Minutes, centered around a gripping interview of Mike Williams, Deepwater Horizon’s chief electronics technician, who ran its computers and electrical systems.

The story provided a harrowing first-hand account of a brave, smart man’s escape from the clutches of death and his even more harrowing account of a series of accidents in the weeks preceding the disaster.

If Mike Williams is to be believed — and I see him as extremely credible — BP’s greed and recklessness exceeded even my wildest imagination. BP seemingly cared only about shaving every extra million dollars in cost, completely sacrificing safety while drilling its world-record-deep oil and gas well. BP took shortcuts that even an drilling ignoramus like me would never have taken, like drilling too fast, continuing work after the most critical safety device broke in multiple ways, and refusing to maintain downward pressure on the well just to save a little time. Even leaving aside safety, BP’s recklessness was economically stupid. By drilling too fast, they broke their first well and had to start over with a second well, wasting $25 million. And, of course, by continuing work after multiple failures in its primary safety device, BP destroyed an oil rig worth roughly half a billion dollars and caused incalculable damage to the Gulf of Mexico.

Even if you ignore the loss of human lives and the likely death of most/all sea life in the Gulf of Mexico, BP’s recklessness was still economically insane (penny wise, pound foolish). I said it before and I repeat myself now: BP managers and executives who pushed this project with utter disregard for safety must be locked up in prison!

Posted by James on May 17, 2010

BP gives EPA the finger

If corporations are citizens — as the Supreme Court absurdly ruled in granting companies unlimited “free speech” (i.e., the right to spend unlimited amounts buying the election of friendly politicians) — BP deserves life in prison without possibility of parole because it’s a serial killer.

Even worse, it’s unrepentant. BP just flashed its middle finger to police as it continued its killing spree:

[BP] continued spraying the chemical [Corexit] on Monday, despite the E.P.A.’s demand that it use a less toxic dispersant to break up the oil.

…Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the United States Senate [said] “People have been waiting 34 days for British Petroleum to cap this well and stop the damage that’s happening across the Gulf of Mexico.”

…The federal agency initially ordered BP on Wednesday night to propose one or more alternative dispersants to regulators within 24 hours. Then it gave the company 72 hours to stop using Corexit and make a switch. Officials and scientists from the E.P.A. and the oil company met Sunday night and were apparently unable to come up with a compromise before the deadline passed.

“We are continuing to use Corexit while we look at other alternatives,” Mark Salt, a spokesman for the oil company, said by telephone from Texas.

…BP has applied about 700,000 gallons of the dispersants on the gulf’s surface and in experimental undersea applications directly on the leaking well head. That is the largest quantity of dispersant ever deployed to date to break up an oil spill in United States waters.

…The Corexit dispersants were removed from a list of approved dispersants in Britain a decade ago because one type of test used in that country found them to be unduly dangerous to animals.

Posted by James on May 24, 2010

BP oil leak could have been controlled by $500,000 device

I just discovered this week-old story explaining how Brazil and Norway require each offshore rig have an “acoustic switch” that allows the well to be shut down by remote control even if the rig itself is destroyed.

U.S. regulators don’t mandate use of the remote-control device on offshore rigs, and the Deepwater Horizon, hired by oil giant BP PLC, didn’t have one.

…Norway has had acoustic triggers on almost every offshore rig since 1993.

The U.S. considered requiring a remote-controlled shut-off mechanism several years ago, but drilling companies questioned its cost and effectiveness, according to the agency overseeing offshore drilling. The agency, the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, says it decided the remote device wasn’t needed because rigs had other back-up plans to cut off a well.

…Inger Anda, a spokeswoman for Norway’s Petroleum Safety Authority, said the switches have a good track record in the North Sea. “It’s been seen as the most successful and effective option,” she said.

So, the $560 million rig lacked a safety device — that costs less than my house and might have prevented millions of barrels of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico and costing millions of dollars a day just to mitigate the damage — because it was too expensive.

$0.5 million is a rounding error compared to the $1,900 million a month ($1.9 billion) BP is currently earning!

Posted by James on May 05, 2010

BP "owns" even the airspace over the Gulf of Mexico!

Newsweek reports on the non-reporting of America’s worst environmental disaster:

Belle Chasse, La.-based Southern Seaplane Inc…. was scheduled to take a New Orleans Times-Picayune photographer for a flyover on Tuesday afternoon, and says it was denied permission once BP officials learned that a member of the press would be on board.

“We are not at liberty to fly media, journalists, photographers, or scientists,” the company said in a letter it sent on Tuesday to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). “We strongly feel that the reason for this massive [temporary flight restriction] is that BP wants to control their exposure to the press.”

…Since the flight restrictions were expanded on May 11, private aircraft must get permission from BP’s command center to fly over a huge portion of the Gulf of Mexico encompassing not just the growing slick in the Gulf, but the entire Louisiana coastline, where oil is washing ashore. If a request is denied, aircraft must stay 3,000 feet above the restricted area, where visibility is minimal.

Photographers who have traveled to the Gulf commonly say they believe that BP has exerted more control over coverage of the spill with the cooperation of the federal government and local law enforcement. “It’s a running joke among the journalists covering the story that the words ‘Coast Guard’ affixed to any vehicle, vessel, or plane should be prefixed with ‘BP,’ ” says Charlie Varley, a Louisiana-based photographer. “It would be funny if it were not so serious.”

…Herbert accompanied local officials from Plaquemines Parish in a police boat on a trip to Breton Island, a national wildlife refuge off the barrier islands of Louisiana. With them was Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques, who wanted to study the impact of the oil below the surface of the water. Upon approaching the island, a Coast Guard boat stopped them. “The first question was, ‘Is there any press with you?’ ” says Herbert. They answered yes, and the Coast Guard said they couldn’t be there….

Local fishermen and charter boat captains are also being pressured by BP not to work with the press. Left without a source of income, most have decided to work with BP.

Posted by James on May 28, 2010

BP's billions of reasons to lie about oil spill magnitude

The government and BP have consistently and grossly underestimated the amount of oil bursting from the underwater oil volcano BP created:

The amount of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico may be at least 10 times the size of official estimates, according to an exclusive analysis conducted for NPR.

At NPR’s request, experts examined video that BP released Wednesday. Their findings suggest the BP spill is already far larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska, which spilled at least 250,000 barrels of oil….

Steven Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, analyzed videotape of the seafloor gusher using a technique called particle image velocimetry.

A computer program simply tracks particles and calculates how fast they are moving. Wereley put the BP video of the gusher into his computer. He made a few simple calculations and came up with an astonishing value for the rate of the oil spill: 70,000 barrels a day — much higher than the official estimate of 5,000 barrels a day.

The method is accurate to a degree of plus or minus 20 percent.

Given that uncertainty, the amount of material spewing from the pipe could range from 56,000 barrels to 84,000 barrels a day.

… Timothy Crone, an associate research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, used another well-accepted method to calculate fluid flows. Crone arrived at a similar figure, but he said he’d like better video from BP before drawing a firm conclusion.

Eugene Chiang, a professor of astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, also got a similar answer, using just pencil and paper.

Without even having a sense of scale from the BP video, he correctly deduced that the diameter of the pipe was about 20 inches. And though his calculation is less precise than Wereley’s, it is in the same ballpark.

“I would peg it at around 20,000 to 100,000 barrels per day,” he said.

Why are BP and the government lying? Perhaps to save BP billions of dollars in Clean Water Act fines:

Following discharge of oil into a water body, the federal Clean Water Act allows for a civil penalty of up to $1,000 per barrel of oil spilled. This penalty can not be calculated to its fullest extent without knowing the total volume of oil…. Using the “official” number of 5,000 barrels per day, their current tally is $140 million (and counting). Using some of the higher estimates provided by visual analysis of the leaking pipe, BP’s current tally is in the billions (and counting).

Posted by James on May 21, 2010

BP's unquenchable greed and unwavering disregard for the environment

Just when I thought I couldn’t get any angrier at BP, those corporate pigs found new ways to infuriate me. First this:

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, [47%] owned by BP, shut down on Tuesday after spilling several thousand barrels of crude oil.

And then, amazingly, this:

Even as BP’s blown well a mile beneath the surface in the Gulf of Mexico continues to gush forth an estimated 70,000 barrels of oil a day into the sea, and the fragile wetlands along the Gulf begin to get coated with crude, which is also headed into the Gulf Stream for a trip past the Everglades and on up the East Coast, the company is demanding that Canada lift its tight rules for drilling in the icy Beaufort Sea portion of the Arctic Ocean.

In an incredible display of corporate arrogance, BP is claiming that a current safety requirement that undersea wells drilled during the newly ice-free summer must also include a side relief well, so as to have a preventive measure in place that could shut down a blown well, is “too expensive” and should be eliminated.

Yet clearly, if the US had had such a provision in place, the Deepwater Horizon blowout could have been shut down right almost immediately after it blew out, just by turning of a valve or two, and then sealing off the blown wellhead.

A relief well is ”too expensive”?

The current Gulf blowout has already cost BP over half a billion dollars, according to the company’s own information. That doesn’t count the cost of mobilizing the Coast Guard, the Navy, and untold state and county resources, and it sure doesn’t count the cost of the damage to the Gulf Coast economy, or the cost of restoration of damaged wetlands. We’re talking at least $10s of billions, and maybe eventually $100s of billions. Weigh that against the cost of drilling a relief well, which BP claims will run about $100 million. The cost of such a well in the Arctic, where the sea is much shallower, would likely be a good deal less.

Such is the calculus of corruption. BP has paid $1.8 billion for drilling rights in Canada’s sector of the Beaufort Sea, about 150 miles north of the Northwest Territories coastline, an area which global warming has freed of ice in summer months. and it wants to drill there as cheaply as possible. The problem is that a blowout like the one that struck the Deepwater Horizon, if it occurred near the middle or end of summer, would mean it would be impossible for the oil company to drill a relief well until the following summer, because the return of ice floes would make drilling impossible all winter. That would mean an undersea wild well would be left to spew its contents out under the ice for perhaps eight or nine months, where its ecological havoc would be incalculable.

Posted by James on May 26, 2010

Buy a radon detector!

When we bought our house six years ago, a radon mitigation device was installed in the basement. The unit seems to be working fine, but we’ve never tested for radon. I bought a mail-in kit years ago, but it proved too much trouble. You need to run the test without air circulation for a specific number of days and then mail the kit in. We never did.

I finally took action today after my wife pointed me to Nicholas Kristof’s article summarizing The President’s Cancer Panel’s new report, “REDUCING ENVIRONMENTAL CANCER RISK: What We Can Do Now”, which warns:

radon gas, which forms naturally from the breakdown of uranium mineral deposits, is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and the leading cause of lung cancer among people who have never smoked. Radon-induced lung cancer is responsible for an estimated average of 21,000 deaths annually…. scientists believe the range could be as wide as 8,000–45,000 radon deaths per year…. It is advisable to periodically check home radon levels. Home buyers should conduct a radon test in any home they are considering purchasing.

I just bought a Safety Siren Pro Series HS71512 3 Radon Gas Detector. $130 is a lot of money, but ask yourself how much you would pay to prevent a single family member from developing cancer? Radon is colorless and odorless. Unless you’re testing for it, it could be killing you right now.

Buying this detector costs about the same as running several radon tests by mail, but it’s much more convenient and should give you many years of protection. If you own — and you should — smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors, shouldn’t you also invest in a radon detector?

Posted by James on May 06, 2010

Championship drive

One essential success factor champions possess is an all-consuming passion to win.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was a violent sore loser as a child; I believe he even broke a TV after losing a video game.

Here’s Roger Federer as a child:

“He was a really bad loser,” remembered Madeleine Bärlocher, Federer’s first coach at the Old Boys Tennis Club in Basel. “After he’d lose a match he’d sit under the umpire’s chair and cry for half an hour sometimes. The other players would already be in the clubhouse eating sandwiches and he’d still be crying on the court.”

Posted by James on May 21, 2010

"Cleaning" oil-soaked birds merely prolongs their agony

Doctors spend gazillions of taxpayer, insurance company and patient dollars keeping terminally ill elderly patients alive — often in great pain — for a few extra days, weeks or months. Though the doctors and hospitals who extend terminally ill patients' lives get paid handsomely for doing so, their intervention in the dying process seldom benefits dying patients or their loved ones, who all suffer through an unnaturally elongated dying period.

Greed, fear of lawsuits, and a professional ethic of keeping terminally ill patients alive at all costs lead the medical system to, in effect, torture millions of elderly patients by delaying their deaths. So why should we expect any better of humans toward animals whom we have — through our actions — doomed to death?

Apparently, “cleaning” oil-soaked birds is like “clean coal”: a happy phrase that soothes our guilty consciences but represents absolutely nothing beneficial. I still recall the powerful images of workers scrubbing oil-soaked birds clean after the Exxon Valdez spill. I never knew till now it’s basically a marketing scam. Those birds were doomed to death the moment they became coated in oil. “Cleaning” them merely prolongs their painful death spiral:

“Kill, don’t clean,” is the recommendation of a German animal biologist, who this week said that massive efforts to clean oil-soaked birds in Gulf of Mexico won’t do much to stop a near certain and painful death for the creatures.

Despite the short-term success in cleaning the birds and releasing them back into the wild, few, if any, have a chance of surviving, says Silvia Gaus, a biologist at the Wattenmeer National Park along the North Sea in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein.

“According to serious studies, the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under 1 percent,” Gaus says. “We, therefore, oppose cleaning birds.”

…Catching and cleaning oil-soaked birds oftentimes leads to fatal amounts of stress for the animals, Gaus says. Furthermore, forcing the birds to ingest coal solutions — or Pepto Bismol, as animal-rescue workers are doing along the Gulf Coast — in an attempt to prevent the poisonous effects of the oil is ineffective, Gaus says. The birds will eventually perish anyway from kidney and liver damage.

Gaus speaks from 20 years of experience, and she worked on the environmental cleanup of the Pallas — a wood-carrying cargo ship that spilled 90 tons of oil in the North Sea after running aground in October of 1998. Around 13,000 birds drown, froze or expired due to stress as a result of the Pallas spill.

Once covered in oil, a bird will use its bill and tongue to remove the toxic substance from their feathers. Despite oil’s terrible taste and smell, a bird will still try and clean itself because it can’t live without fluffy feathers that repel water and regulate its body temperature. “Their instinct to clean is greater than their instinct to hunt, and as long as their feathers are dirty with oil, they won’t eat,” Gaus says.

…Gaus says… kill them “quickly and painlessly.”

…At the time of the 2002 Prestige oil spill off the coast of Spain, a spokesman from [the World Wildlife Fund] said: “Birds, those that have been covered in oil and can still be caught, can no longer be helped. … Therefore, the World Wildlife Fund is very reluctant to recommend cleaning.”

The Prestige spill killed 250,000 birds. Of the thousands that were cleaned, most died within a few days, and only 600 lived and were able to be released into the wild.

Cleaning birds is as effective in keeping them alive as Lady MacBeth’s continual hand-washing was at soothing her guilty conscience.

Sadly, washing oil-soaked birds is highly effective at soothing our guilty consciences by tricking us into believing oil companies fix the damage they cause.

Posted by James on May 10, 2010

Congress forcing expensive, unnecessary, unwanted weapons systems on Pentagon

You know military budgeting is totally out of control when Congress is forcing the Pentagon to take ridiculously expensive weapons systems even the generals and admirals say they don’t need or want.

Wired.com reports:

Then there’s money for 30 Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters: eight more than the Department of Defense requested. Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, who introduced the amendment, said the extra aircraft (like the one pictured here) would “help address a looming fighter shortfall for the Navy’s carrier fleet.”

So much for austerity in naval budgets. [Secretary of Defense] Gates, as readers will recall, has already suggested that the Navy needs to take a hard look at whether it is right-sized — and whether it needs to keep 11 carrier strike groups for the next three decades. House authorizers, however, said their $65 billion recommendation for Navy and Marine Corps procurement was aimed at “reversing the decline in the Navy battle force fleet.”

The bill approved last night included $5.1 billion to fund two Virginia‐class submarines — the first time the committee has ever authorized two of the boats in one year — plus another $1.7 billion for advance procurement of two additional hulls in FY 2012. Members also recommended $3 billion to fully fund two DDG 51 Arleigh Burke‐class destroyers and $1.5 billion to pay for two Littoral Combat Ships (which, it’s worth recalling, were originally supposed to cost around a quarter billion dollars apiece).

The panel also added $361.6 million above the budget request for ballistic missile defense.

Posted by James on May 21, 2010

Daycare's powerful effect on your child's brain

You are the cumulative effect of your life experiences on your brain. As your genetic endowment interacts constantly with the world around you, you’re constantly reshaping your brain in response to your experiences.

Childrens' brains are especially “plastic.” Unsurprisingly, children who attend daycare for years tend to think and behave differently from children who stayed at home during their early childhood. (Evidence below shows that remains true more than a decade later.)

One of the reasons we sent our son to daycare at age 2 is that he was rather shy and, we hoped, would become more outgoing by interacting regularly with teachers and kids his age. That certainly has worked well. He’s much less shy than he was when he began in September 2008. But he has picked up some bad habits from his classmates, several of whom love to shriek at the top of their lungs, for example. Daryl is far more restrained than them, but it’s sometimes clear his classmates are not always a positive influence. Don’t get me wrong. He’s still a great kid. He’ll complain to us that “None of my friends listens to the teacher.” But, on the margins, he has become less shy (good) and less restrained (sometimes good and sometimes bad). His classmates have shaped his brain development.

The effect of daycare on brain development varies with the quality of teachers, class size, and the children’s personalities. But, on average, there’s a clear effect:

At age 15, according to a study being published Friday in the journal Child Development, those who spent long hours in day care as preschoolers are more impulsive and more prone to take risks than are teens whose toddler years were spent largely at home.

…When answering questions that measured their impulsiveness, teens rated themselves about 16% more rash in their behavior for every additional 10 hours they spent per week in day care as a preschooler.

In terms of risk-taking, the link to time spent in day care was more marginal: Ten more hours a week in day care prompted the average teen to answer one out of 30 questions with an admission of more risky behavior.

…“You end up with contagion effects,” said Belsky, a professor of psychology at Birkbeck University of London.

In classrooms and peer groups populated by kids who may be just a little more impulsive or risk-taking, “these small effects end up being spread and bounce off each other,” said Belsky in an interview. “The dynamic becomes, ‘I dare you to take a risk, you dare me to take a risk.’”

Preschool daycare quality matters a lot:

For teens who had [high quality day] care, the study found strong advantages in academic performance, and some behavioral benefits too.

But kids reaping those benefits were clearly the exception. Among the 1,364 children enrolled in the study, 60% were considered to have gotten child care of low to moderately low quality, and only 16% got care that was rated highly.

And it’s not necessarily true that greater impulsiveness and risk-taking are bad things (esp. for an initially shy kid like my son):

“Risk-taking, thinking creatively, taking on a challenge, trying something new — all these aspects of impulsiveness and risk-taking can be a positive thing,” [Ellen Galinsky, author of “Mind in the Making”] said.

Posted by James on May 14, 2010

Deregulation fortress "allowed [bankers] to plunder the peasantry with no control or oversight"

I’m thrilled to tell you there’s a splendid movie about the financial on its way, called “Inside Job”:

Charles Ferguson is here to tell the world that the crisis that wiped out trillions of dollars in wealth, threw millions of people out of their homes and out of work, and further widened the gulf between rich and poor was no accident. It was a crime. Ferguson, a former software entrepreneur and policy-wonk scholar turned filmmaker, is definitely no left-wing bomb-thrower or closet Marxist. But he plays one in the movies, you might say. His new documentary, “Inside Job” — arguably the smash hit of Cannes so far — offers a lucid and devastating history of how the crash happened, who caused it and how they got away with it.

Furthermore, Ferguson argues, if we don’t stop those people — preferably by removing them from power, arresting them and sending them to prison — they will certainly do it again. “Inside Job” is as elegant, penetrating and well researched as Ferguson’s Iraq war film, “No End in Sight,” but it’s a hell of a lot angrier…

There was nothing reasonable or decent or redeemable about the world of high finance, in Ferguson’s judgment, by the time the 21st-century bubble reached its peak around 2006. As he illustrates with a damning parade of interviews, images and public testimony, the financial industry had ridden 20-plus years of manic free-market deregulation and neoliberal fiscal policy from one crisis to the next, surfing a rising tide of greed and corruption. (There are several people in this movie, prominent among them former George W. Bush advisor Glenn Hubbard and Harvard economics chairman John Y. Campbell, who will rue the day they agreed to talk to Ferguson.)

In a captivating conversation with former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (who looks here like a knight in shining armor, believe it or not) Ferguson suggests that the financial industry has become a criminal class insulated from society, where profit justifies everything and morality and ethics, not to mention basic human decency, are totally irrelevant. Gaining remarkable access to a wide range of financial insiders, experts and academics, he builds a persuasive case that by conquering Washington with piles of campaign money and conquering the economics discipline with free-market ideology (and more piles of money), the financial industry built a fortress of deregulation that allowed it to plunder the peasantry with no control or oversight.

The article also includes a good interview with the movie’s director.

Posted by James on May 22, 2010

Eliminate the nuclear power plant liability cap

If you think the $75 million liability cap on oil drilling disasters is bad, consider the disgusting and scary Price-Anderson Act, which almost completely indemnifies all nuclear power plants in America if they melt down.

Nuclear plants are heavily subsidized by the federal government because their disaster liability is capped at an extremely low level. This saves nuclear power plant owners a tremendous amount on insurance costs. A Chernobyl-like nuclear accident in America would cost about $600 billion. But each American nuclear power plant is required to purchase only $300 million in liability insurance! That’s one-half of one-tenth of one percent of the likely damage! A $600,000,000,000 disaster minus $300,000,000 in compensation = a $599,700,000,000 “externality.”

If an accident occurs, each of America’s 103 nuclear power plants would be required to pay less than $100 million. Some would simply go bankrupt rather than pay. But, even if all paid, the total industry liability would be capped at $10 billion. $600,000,000,000 – $10,000,000,000 = $590,000,000,000 in unpaid damages.

Who would pay this $590 billion? You and I. If there’s a serious nuclear disaster in America, you and I will be on the hook for roughly $600 billion in compensation and clean-up costs.

Posted by James on May 17, 2010

Even right-wingers increasingly fearful of Dominionist movement

When economies and cultures fail, people often turn to religion, cults and authoritarian leaders. When people are angry and confused, charismatic leaders raging against scapegoats and promising quick fixes can rapidly acquire tremendous power, as Hitler did in 1930s Germany.

The Tea Party movement has such potential. But a far scarier movement is dominionism. RightWingWatch.org is expressing alarm over right-wingers' alarm over the dominionists' growing power and influence:

I have been writing a lot about the creeping dominionism of the Religious Right here lately, but that is because I think it is an important development that has the potential to fundamentally change the movement from an effort by conservative Christians to engage in and shape the political process to an effort to create create a borderline theocracy in which every aspect of America life is dedicated to honoring God in order to bring about the return of Christ.

And we are not the only ones alarmed by this development. As we noted earlier this week, VCY America had decided to drop Janet Porter’s Faith 2 Action radio program due to her increasing ties to dominion theology…

On Monday, Schlueter dedicated her program to analyzing the rise of dominion theology and the New Apostolic Reformation within the Religious Right. Her guest was Sarah Leslie, an author, researcher, and member of the board of directors of Discernment Ministries, which has been voicing alarm at the rise of dominion theology within the movement on their blog

The program is an hour long and I strongly encourage you to listen to it because it is quite informative. And keep in mind that this discussion is taking place between two people who consider themselves a part of the Religious Right – Leslie was actually the head of Iowa Right to Life in the 1980s – so these are not religion-hating liberals voicing alarm about the radical views of dominionists, but very conservative activists who are warning that this movement is, in essence, a cult built on intolerance and coercion that is intent on creating an army of believers who will take complete control over our society and ultimately the world.

When extremely conservative Christian activists start issuing warnings about the radical turn the movement appears to be taking, it is probably a good idea to pay them heed.

This frightening movement has been growing and growing for decades out of view of The New York Times and the “liberal elite.” A great website for more information is TheocracyWatch.org, though it hasn’t been updated since 2008.

If you think the Dominionist movement can’t really take over American government, please realize that Sarah Palin is a dominionist.

Posted by James on May 07, 2010

Family spending: Whores and beer vs. education and entrepreneurship

For years, my dad loved telling people about a guy who had just hit the lottery for millions. Asked what he planned to do, the guy said something like, “I’m going to spend half on women and booze. The other half, I’ll do something frivilous with.”

According to Nicholas Kristof, this is an accurate analysis of how men around the world actually spend their family’s money:

I would interview families that had just lost a child to malaria, and I would ask why they didn’t have bed nets. They would say that they were very poor, and they would be right. But then it would turn out that the husband goes three times a week to a bar, spending $2 a session — as much each week as the cost of a bed net. And it always strikes me that in remote villages you can often find Coke or cigarettes or beers in the market, but often not bed nets or deworming medicine….

In our book, Half the Sky, we estimate that the poorest families spend about 20 percent of incomes — 10 times as much as on education — on a combination of alcohol, tobacco, prostitution, sugary drinks and candy, and extravagant festivals. And the evidence is very strong, across a range of cultures, that this is largely because the purse strings are controlled by men. When women control the purse strings, money seems more likely to be spent on educating kids and starting businesses.

Posted by James on May 24, 2010

Google surveillance exceeds Big Brother

Big Brother Google is watching you, even if you don’t Google:

Imagine being followed in a shopping mall by a marketer who watches what you browse and buy and then recommends products. You might find this useful at times, but some consumers might never want to be followed.

Ubiquitous consumer tracking is the reality in the online world. Your browsing is being followed on almost all Web sites by a single company: Google. In a study published last year, my colleagues found Google trackers on over 88 percent of 393,000 unique Web sites. Only governments have the ability to monitor individuals this expansively.

Yet, you have no way to ask Google to stop this tracking. Instead, you can merely opt-out of the targeted advertising – the product recommendations. Exercising your privacy options creates a worst-case-scenario outcome: If you opt out, you are still tracked, but you do not receive the putative benefit of targeted ads.

An illusory opt-out system is just one of the increasingly sophisticated sleights of hand in the privacy world….

Google used to tout its search engine advertising as privacy friendly, because it focused upon users' interests per-transaction, rather than through an analysis of past searches and browsing. But in 2007, Google quietly began behavioral profiling, tracking searches, and, with the acquisition of DoubleClick, nearly all browsing behavior.

P.S. My blog is proudly Google-free.

Posted by James on May 26, 2010

Government to underwater-oil-discovering scientists: "Silence!"

Another disgusting chapter in BP/government’s catastrophic response to the appalling recklessness that produced an environmental catastrophe:

Over the weekend, a research crew from the University of Southern Mississippi found evidence that there are 3 to 5 [underwater oil] plumes… About 5 miles wide, 10 miles long and 3 hundred feet in depth.

But after giving that information to the press, the lead researcher now says he has been asked by the federal government… Which funds his research… To quit giving interviews until further testing is done.

It sure seems the government is doing everything it can to help the oil industry whitewash this disaster. They won’t share data. They won’t let reporters into the oil crisis management center. They won’t let reporters visit beaches. They won’t let scientists do research. And they have repeatedly parroted BP’s absurdly low estimates of the flow of oil.

Maybe this is Obama’s Katrina.

Posted by James on May 19, 2010

Growing suspicions government is helping BP whitewash damage to the Gulf Coast

Around the Gulf of Mexico, people are collecting samples of water, soil and dead animals and sending them for testing. The results could cost BP billions of dollars.

An honest analysis would ensure that samples are sent to: 1) a variety of laboratories, so no one lab could manipulate the results; and, 2) laboratories with no strong ties to and economic dependence on the oil industry.

Instead, the government is requiring all samples to be sent to a single company with strong ties to the oil industry:

the laboratory that officials have chosen to process virtually all of the samples is part of an oil and gas services company in Texas that counts oil firms, including BP, among its biggest clients.

Some people are questioning the independence of the Texas lab. Taylor Kirschenfeld, an environmental official for Escambia County, Fla., rebuffed instructions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to send water samples to the lab, which is based at TDI-Brooks International in College Station, Tex. He opted instead to get a waiver so he could send his county’s samples to a local laboratory that is licensed to do the same tests.

Mr. Kirschenfeld said he was also troubled by another rule. Local animal rescue workers have volunteered to help treat birds affected by the slick and to collect data that would also be used to help calculate penalties for the spill. But federal officials have told the volunteers that the work must be done by a company hired by BP.

“Everywhere you look, if you look, you start seeing these conflicts of interest in how this disaster is getting handled,” Mr. Kirschenfeld said. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but there is just too much overlap between these people.”

…In deciding where to send their water, sediment and tissue samples, state environmental officials in Florida and Louisiana said NOAA instructed them to send them to BB Laboratories, which is run by TDI-Brooks.

Though Florida has its own state laboratory that is certified to analyze the same data, Amy Graham, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection there, said the state was sending samples to B & B “in an effort to ensure consistency and quality assurance.”

Scott Smullen, a spokesman for NOAA, said that two other labs, Alpha Analytics and Columbia Analytical Services, had also been contracted, but officials at those labs said B & B was taking the lead role and receiving virtually all of the samples.

…TDI-Brooks is also described by one industry partner on its Web site as being “widely acknowledged as the world leader in offshore oil and gas field exploration services.”

The Web site says that since 1996, it has “collected nearly 10,000 deep-water piston core sediment samples and heat flow stations for every major oil company.”

Posted by James on May 21, 2010

Helen & Margaret

Margaret & Helen are “best friends for sixty years and counting.” I’ve been a fan of their blog for two years. The liberal Helen has a wonderful sense of both politics and humor. A few clips from her latest post:

Have you listened to Rush Limbaugh recently? And if you have, please tell me why. We know he never graduated from College. We know his mother said he flunked everything. We know that much of his career was spent high on hillbilly heroin. And we know for damn sure he lies. There is actually an entire organization dedicated to exposing his lies from each and every broadcast. So how in God’s name can you repeat his garbage in your emails and comments to me and not expect me to immediately discount you for a fool?

…How many guns do you need before you cross the line from hunter to paranoid militia member?

How much oil has to wash ashore in the Gulf Coast before we seriously consider solar, wind and other alternative fuel sources?

How many skeletons and fossils do we have to dig up before evolution seems more plausible than the story of God sleeping in after six days of hard work?

How many wars do we have to start before we realize that, in war, there are no winners except Dick Cheney and Halliburton?

How long before Tea Party members stop misspelling signs and just start burning crosses?

Does that law in Arizona really do anything to fix immigration or is it just a new way of saying you don’t want a Mexican buying the house next door?

And just how stupid does Sarah Palin have to be before you reconsider giving her the codes to the nukes?

Posted by James on May 16, 2010

Hilarious TV: Lewis Black exposes Glenn Beck's "Nazi Tourette's"

The Daily Show’s Lewis Black created a montage of Glenn Beck clips in which Beck compared virtually everything — even global warming and the Peace Corps — to Nazi Germany. And Black’s commentary was spot on. The funniest thing I’ve watched in a long time. Comic genius.

MSNBC’s Countdown rebroadcast the entire segment. Do yourself a favor and watch it now.

Posted by James on May 14, 2010

How our military builds monsters (and our duty as parents to protect our kids)

Former U.S. Army soldier Josh Stieber served in Iraq but was horrified by the violence the U.S. military was carrying out in Iraq. He videotaped an interview in which he describes how the U.S. military systematically breaks down soldiers' inhibitions against killing Iraqis.

Raw Story reports on the interview: “Stieber said he was alarmed in basic training when the chants ‘even joked about killing women and children.’ …The common mindset was that Iraqis were always referred to as "Hajis” in a pattern he said dehumanized people, making it more difficult for soldiers to empathize with civilians."

STIEBER: One that stands out in my mind is—it goes, “I went down to the market where all the women shop/I pulled out my machete and I begin to chop/I went down to the park where all the children play/I pulled out my machine gun and I begin to spray.”

JAY: That’s as you’re marching.

STIEBER: Right.

JAY: So this is, like, an authorized chant, you could say.

STIEBER: Yeah. I mean, the training, they focus on the physical aspect, or, you know, they say that’s the challenging part, but then they slip all these psychological things in along with it.

One comment on the article claims:

When I was in the US Army we sang some cadences that contained the following partial lyrics: “Three little boys playing with some jacks / .556 rounds going through their backs…” … “The cutest thing I ever saw / was a little puppy with a broken paw / (repeated) / I lured him him with a piece of meat / and then I broke his other feet…”

Coincidentally, earlier this week, I received an email from a friend:

One of the sickest aspects I’ve read about is kiosks and stores at malls where recruiters set up video games and simulators. I guess they get teenagers to come in and play games that look very realistic. So you get this arcade game feel, like the classic game where you shoot ducks with a pellet gun. Except it looks like you’re walking around some Iraqi city shooting likeness of Saddam Hussein who pops up from the ruins like clockwork. So kids get to think it’s fun (I guess).

To which I replied:

I’m guessing you saw the “Frontline” that recently covered the video game arcade military recruiting centers? Powerful, depressing show.

The military was also very aggressive in using our tax dollars to create very sophisticated games that portray military life in a glamorous way and giving them away for free.

My friend then told me:

There’s a game called Call of Duty or Call to Duty or something like that. My teen nephew has it on his XBox and I played it over the holidays… on his big screen with these fancy wireless feedback controls and stuff while we were visiting. I have to admit I even had fun playing it. The realism is amazing. Scenes look just like what you see in Iraq and Central Asia. I read a bit about the creation and they even digitized various ruins (what the US has laid to ruin) to the inch for realism. But of course it’s sanitary. You just kill “terrorists” and hit replay when you run out of ammo or whatever. Gunshot wounds are realistic according to the type of arms. For instance the high powered rifles make heads explode with a proper head hit. And the blood spray stays on the wall. The realism goes on and on.

I just think if I got caught up playing it, despite my disgust for the real war effort in total, how it must influence so many young people starved for entertainment. What a shame.

I replied with my thinking about the proper and improper use of video games, a subject I hope every parent today is thinking carefully about:

1) Frighteningly, we all apparently have the capacity to become monsters (see: Stanford Prison Experiment, and Milgram’s obedience experiments. We can learn to resist this tendency through knowledge, culture, self-awareness, etc.

2) External influences can push us toward being monsters. Frequent playing of realistic war video game simulations may encourage the development of such a mindset. (I don’t think the military would spend so much producing such games unless they were an effective recruiting tool.) Clearly, the military has mastered the psychology of breaking down soldiers' individualism and moral constraints and strengthening group-think and “‘us’ vs. ‘them’” thinking (even to the point of de-humanizing “them”). It’s appalling to hear how soldiers through the ages have referred to the indigenous people living in the whatever nation they’re currently occupying.

3) Teens are especially susceptible to the influence of such games because teen brains are in such flux. Younger kids too because kids are establishing brain patterns that tend to harden over time.

4) As long as a kid is doing well in school, has friends, plays some sports, etc., I doubt video games will warp their mind too much. I played plenty of video games as a teen on my old Atari, and it didn’t affect my school. But the games were quite unrealistic back then and not at all about killing people. And they were quite social. I played computer football for hours with my brother and dad. That was a bonding experience equivalent to playing ping-pong with them. But the kids who play the games obsessively, to the point that they lose interest in the rest of life, are seriously troubled and likely to wind up in the military. Enjoying single-person shooter games could well encourage that.

5) I’ve most intentionally refrained from buying a video game machine or putting games on my computers because I know it’s a huge time black hole. Doing so requires placing long-term interests above short-term interests. And that’s hard for many people. I focus my mind on personal growth. If an activity doesn’t involve becoming a better programmer or Mandarin reader (or helping others, esp. my kids, do the same), I lose interest. But many focus on entertainment.

6) There are games out there that are social or develop talents in music, knowledge of history, etc. I’m not opposed to video games per se. We’re at the beginning of a huge convergence between video games and education. It’s about the content of the game. There are good books and bad books. There’s good music and bad music. There are good video games and bad. If you exercise your authority as a parent to set limits, choose games, and cajole your kids into valuing more productive pursuits, a video game machine could possibly be a useful tool. I actually just yesterday installed two collections of free educational games for young kids on my (Linux) laptop. I’m starting to investigate them, and some seem like fun, educational games Daryl would enjoy. He already enjoys TuxPaint, which I consider a good creative outlet. I’ve seen some cool educational programs for the iPad that let kids learn how to spell. Strategy games can stretch a mind in positive directions. I wouldn’t buy an attack helicopter game or an ultimate fighting game. But video games will play a large role in our kids' learning. In a video game, you can simulate mixing dangerous chemicals you could never mix in a lab, for example. Or build games that immerse kids in how our bodies work at the cellular and molecular levels.

My nephew is really into video games. My approach with him has been to basically ignore him when he’s playing video games. I’ll ask whether he wants to read a book or throw a football or go to the park. If he were playing some kind of multi-player football game or soccer game or educational game, I’d join in. But I don’t want to even try the shooting games, and I don’t want to implicitly condone/encourage him by playing them myself. There are plenty of fun things to do in life. I choose not to play games whose objective is to kill other people.

Yingmei and I did, YEARS ago, play that game where you drive around a city and cause all kind of mayhem, stealing cars, etc. Grand Theft Auto. That’s it. Anyhow, it was innocent fun. None of us was about to run out of the building and grab someone’s car. My impression is that the games have become increasingly gory and violent since then. And I fear that the kids who are growing up playing lots of games involving sex and violence will be affected in negative ways. So I try to discourage it. And I’ll certainly control it with my kids, but not to the point of making it into forbidden fruit. I’ll probably talk through my concerns with them when they’re old enough to understand. But, in moderation, I don’t think these games do serious damage. But these simulations are increasingly powerful and immersive, so I suspect kids who play a lot have increasing difficulty differentiating between reality and fantasy and/or let their fantasy lives leak over into destructive real-world behaviors.

Posted by James on May 14, 2010

Humanity: Excessive ingenuity, insufficient wisdom

The pace of technological and societal change (“progress”) accelerated dramatically in the 20th Century. Misuse of new technologies caused horrible events, like the nuclear annihilation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But, overall, humanity benefited greatly from 20th Century technologies.

Unfortunately, the pace and breadth of technological change has now grown out of control. No one can possibly understand all the technological advances, their possible ramifications, and how various new technologies may interact with one another.

So I’ve long feared and expected that — in addition to many obvious possible threats, like nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants, chemical and biological weapons, environmental degradation, etc. — technological acceleration would produce an acceleration in the pace of emergent threats we hadn’t even contemplated as threats.

The Gulf of Mexico oil “volcano” is exactly the sort of surprise I’ve been expecting. As our drilling technology improved, we’ve drilled in places deeper and more remote than ever before. And that has — obviously — led to an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The housing bubble & collapse is another example. In “the old days” (just a generation or two back), a local savings & loan association would lend money to local home owners. They knew what they were lending out and to whom. Over the past decade, financial innovation created sophisticated “investment vehicles” so complicated that ratings agencies could rate collections of subprime junk mortgages full of liar loans as “AAA” safe and professional investors half way around the world scarfed them up for their pension funds. This worked only because the world is so large and complicated that investors didn’t have time to investigate what they were buying and instead relied completely on the “AAA” ratings, even though those ratings were completely tainted because the sellers of junk mortgages were paying the ratings agencies for those ratings. As complexity increases, understanding decreases and danger increases.

Another example is the Large Hadron Collider:

protons… were whipped to more than 99 percent of the speed of light and to record-high energy levels of 3.5 trillion electron volts apiece raced around a 17-mile underground magnetic track outside Geneva

Safe or unsafe? Who’s to know? We don’t have a complete unified theory of physics, so we’re smashing together particles at faster and faster speeds to see what happens. Could we create a tiny black hole that grows larger and larger, eventually swallowing up our planet? Even the experts don’t know for sure. We do, however, know enough not to trust “experts” to tell us it’s completely safe:

the first attempt to start the collider ended with an explosion that left part of its tunnel enveloped in frigid helium gas and soot when an electrical connection between two of the powerful magnets that steer the protons vaporized.

A subsequent investigation revealed that the collider was riddled with thousands of such joints, a result of what Lucio Rossi, head of magnets at CERN, said was a “lack of adequate risk analysis,” in a recent report in the online journal Superconductor Science and Technology. As a result, the collider, which was designed to accelerate protons to seven trillion electron volts, then smash them together to reveal particles and forces that reigned during the first trillionth of a second of time as we know it, can only be safely run for now at half power.

Darwinian evolution usually unfolds through a series of small, incremental changes. Many random mutations prove harmful and die out. Some random mutations prove beneficial and slowly spread throughout the gene pool. But large-scale mutations almost always prove harmful and lead to rapid death or, at least, rapid extinction from the gene pool.

The same is true with ecosystems. Ecosystems can adapt to small changes in climate but struggle with large changes, like a volcanic eruption that destroys all life for miles in every direction. Slow changes in temperature lead plants and animals to slowly migrate north/south or up/down. You can even see treelines on mountains above which trees find it impossible to survive. Global warming is slowly moving treelines higher and moving animals and plants northward (and the northern-most animals, like polar bears, are finding survival increasingly difficult).

Though adaptation responds well to slow changes, the faster the pace of change, the harder adaptation becomes.

And that’s a scary thought because humanity seems hell-bent on discovering everything it can and on instantly using everything it knows to exploit every resource on this planet for maximal profit.

If you think things are bad now, just wait. As our ingenuity drives an ever-quickening knowledge-and-technology explosion, we will use our newfound knowledge and technology in increasingly dangerous ways, often with no comprehension of how dangerous our actions are. If we don’t slow down, we’ll likely do ourselves in through a “known unknown” or an “unknown unknown.”

Posted by James on May 11, 2010

Humanity's report card: 0 for 21

NPR reported on the U.N. Global Biodiversity Outlook:

Researchers say that about one-third of the world’s species are now threatened with extinction. Nearly half of all bird and amphibian populations are declining, wildlife habitats are being overrun, and the march of invasive species is increasing on all continents in all kinds of ecosystems….

The saddest part, though, might not be all the data about dwindling species. It might be the data about us, homo sapiens. A decade ago, world leaders set 21 goals to meet by 2010 to protect the world’s biological diversity, and here’s how well we’ve done: None of the 21 goals, not even one, has been met on a global scale.

The U.N. calls the situation “dire”:

“The projections are dire,” Delfin Ganapin, Global Manager of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme, said…

He went on to say that the [U.N. Global Biodiversity] Outlook, based on more than 110 national reports submitted by Governments to the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and compiled in close cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), warned of “massive” biodiversity loss with consequences that were much worse than previously thought….

The GEF aimed to promote human development and sustainable livelihoods and was very concerned about the report’s findings, especially the revelation that not a single Government could claim to have definitively met the targets agreed in 2002 to achieve a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

“This report is saying that we are reaching what’s called ‘tipping points,’ where irreversible damage is going to be done to the planet unless we act now,” he continued, stressing that extinction rates for some animal and plant species, especially amphibians, were reaching historic highs — up to 1,000 times those seen before — affecting not just tropical species, but biodiversity that was “closer to home”, such food crops and livestock.

The report is available here.

The U.N. reports that every nation failed to achieve its commitments and the overall situation is still worsening:

GBO-3 uses multiple lines of evidence to demonstrate that the target set by world governments in 2002, “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level,” has not been met. Based on a special analysis of biodiversity indicators carried out by a panel of scientists, as well as peer-reviewed scientific literature and reports from national governments to the CBD, key findings include:

None of the twenty-one subsidiary targets accompanying the overall 2010 biodiversity target can be said definitively to have been achieved globally, although some have been partially or locally achieved….

No government claims to have completely met the 2010 biodiversity target at the national level, and around one-fifth state explicitly that it has not been met.

Species that have been assessed for extinction risk are on average moving closer to extinction, with amphibians facing the greatest risk and coral species deteriorating most rapidly.

The abundance of vertebrate species, based on assessed populations, fell by nearly one-third on average between 1970 and 2006, and continues to fall globally, with especially severe declines in the tropics and among freshwater species.

Natural habitats in most parts of the world continue to decline in extent and integrity, notably freshwater wetlands, sea-ice habitats, salt marshes, coral reefs, seagrass beds and shellfish reefs; although there has been significant progress in slowing the rate of loss of tropical forests and mangroves, in some regions.

Crop and livestock genetic diversity continues to decline in agricultural systems. For example, more than sixty breeds of livestock are reported to have become extinct since 2000.

The five principal pressures directly driving biodiversity loss (habitat change, over-exploitation, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change) are either constant or increasing in intensity.

Posted by James on May 17, 2010

If you think speaking Chinese is hard... try writing it!

For an English-speaker, learning to speak Chinese is harder than learning to speak Spanish because there are (virtually) no similar words.

But speaking Chinese isn’t THAT much harder than speaking Spanish. Quite a few foreigners have become decent Chinese speakers just by living in China and absorbing the language though osmosis. However, many of those foreigners living in China can’t read a local newspaper.

What makes Chinese REALLY difficult is its written language. If you learn to speak Spanish, French, Italian, German, etc., you pretty much learn to read and write it with no extra effort because the written and spoken languages correspond so closely.

With Chinese, learning to speak doesn’t enable you to read or write. In fact, learning to speak Chinese is less than half the battle because learning to read/write Chinese is even harder than learning to speak it. A Chinese word may have one or two sounds, but each of those sounds represents a character, which may be composed of 20+ strokes. To be good at Chinese, you must memorize 10,000+ characters.

Here’s proof written Chinese is HARD: Even Chinese people quickly forget how to write it:

[M]ore and more Chinese citizens feel they are losing the ability to write by hand…

Because so many people use computers in their work and hardly ever pick up a pen, their written literacy skills are in decline…

When typing Chinese characters rather than writing them by hand, a person types the sound of the character (a bit like spelling a word out) then the computer suggests possible characters for that sound from which they choose the appropriate one…

The Shanghai Language Commission conducted a survey among university students, which found that while many know what the characters should look like, they are unable to handwrite them.

I spend many spare moments (in the men’s room, checkout line, etc.) tracing Chinese characters in my head. Refreshing my memory is essential or I would forget the characters.

And I know many Chinese whose ability to write has deteriorated while living in America.

But it amazes me that even Chinese college students are forgetting how to write characters. To get into college, Chinese high school students must pass a grueling written exam. If they’re forgetting how to write characters after just a few years in college, that’s testimony to the difficulty of learning (and remembering) written Chinese.

Posted by James on May 19, 2010

Is Chinese government running up the Jolly Roger?

China’s not winning friends outside its borders with its unyielding stand against Google, its large-scale, highly sophisticated and continuing hacking into corporations and political activists' email accounts, and its newest effort to force technology companies to hand over their software and encryption codes if they want to sell anything to the Chinese government.

Heavy-handed Chinese government interference and intervention is starting to bite China in its pocket book:

Worried about reports of Chinese hackers and spying, the Indian government has effectively barred local mobile phone operators from making deals with Chinese telecommunications manufacturers, according to the head of India’s main cellular industry trade group….

The government had told operators in December that it was worried that a foreign company could install spying software, and asked local operators to examine foreign manufacturers carefully, Mr. Mathews said. But in recent months, the Indian government has lifted the restriction on most foreign manufacturers; those that are not cleared are “principally Chinese,” he said….

Mr. Mathews said the government had decided to “lock down all the barnyard doors,” because of concerns about Chinese hackers.

According to a report released last month by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, a gang of computer hackers based in China conducted an extensive spying operation in India that began last year, obtaining sensitive information, including documents from the Ministry of Defense.

Even China’s response to India’s response to Chinese hacking demonstrates Beijing’s hard-line attitude. Instead of acknowledging worldwide concern about Chinese hackers and vowing to bring the hacking under control, Beijing is trying to threaten India into buying Chinese routers and communication equipment:

The Indian government’s behavior would violate World Trade Organization “principles of ‘national treatment’ if they only ban importing equipment from China but continue importing from the United States and Europe,” said Zhang Huiling, a spokeswoman for the China Chamber of Commerce of Import and Export of Machinery and Electronic Projects.

And now many suspect the Chinese government of trying to enable faster copying of Western technology by forcing firms to hand over their crown jewels to do business with Chinese local, state or national governments:

China is expected to issue regulations on Saturday requiring technology companies to disclose proprietary information like data-encryption keys and underlying software code to sell a range of security-related digital technology products to government agencies, American industry officials said on Friday…

One concern is that the rules will allow the leak of crucial foreign technologies to Chinese competitors who are seeking to build a technology industry on a par with the West….

To be certified, companies apparently would have to give government-connected testing laboratories encryption algorithms, software source code and design specifications that, for many of the products, are regarded as sensitive trade secrets.

In interviews, American industry officials argued that the rules not only sought details well beyond what was needed to certify the products, but that there were few safeguards to protect the proprietary information from outsiders.

Even scarier, China originally wanted to force all technology firms doing business in China to hand over their crown jewels:

Nkenge Harmon, a spokeswoman for the United States trade representative in Washington, noted in a statement that the Chinese first planned to apply the rules to all technology purchases, but later scaled them back to apply only to purchases by local, provincial and national governments.

The Chinese government seems to be saying China’s becoming so big and important that they can use any trick or law to accomplish their domestic goals with little fear of repercussions. Chinese leaders are so used to getting their way that they doubt companies or governments will stand up to them, but I suspect Chinese hacking, domestic favoritism, etc. have angered or scared so many that China’s leaders will be surprised by the pushback.

Posted by James on May 01, 2010

Is your sunscreen giving you cancer?

Another example of the world becoming so complex that we’re bound to get hurt by our technology. Even worse, the FDA research that identified a key component of many sunscreens as cancer-promoting occurred a decade ago!

Almost half of the 500 most popular sunscreen products may actually increase the speed at which malignant cells develop and spread skin cancer because they contain vitamin A or its derivatives, according to an evaluation of those products released today.

AOL News also has learned through documents and interviews that the Food and Drug Administration has known of the potential danger for as long as a decade without alerting the public, which the FDA denies.

…only 39 of the 500 products [Environmental Working Group] examined were considered safe and effective to use.

…the most alarming disclosure in this year’s report is the finding that vitamin A and its derivatives, retinol and retinyl palmitate, may speed up the cancer that sunscreen is used to prevent.

…EWG researchers found the initial findings of an FDA study of vitamin A’s photocarcinogenic properties, meaning the possibility that it results in cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight.

“In that yearlong study, tumors and lesions developed up to 21 percent faster in lab animals coated in a vitamin A-laced cream than animals treated with a vitamin-free cream,” the report said….

Based on the strength of the findings by FDA’s own scientists, many in the public health community say they can’t believe nor understand why the agency hasn’t already notified the public of the possible danger.

“There was enough evidence 10 years ago for FDA to caution consumers against the use of vitamin A in sunscreens,” Jane Houlihan, EWG’s senior vice president for research, told AOL News.

“FDA launched this one-year study, completed their research and now 10 years later, they say nothing about it, just silence.”

Another major finding is that most sunscreens provide far less protection than they claim, and many fail to protect against both UVA and UVB.

You can look up your current sunscreen and find a new, high-quality sunscreen.

Posted by James on May 27, 2010

L.A. County batting .889. Is it cheating?

L.A. County wins almost all its court cases — 8 out of 9 in the past two years — “according to Steven Estabrook, the county’s litigation cost manager”.

L.A. County also pays its judges much more than anyone else.

Coincidence?

A lawyer crusading against what he considers judge bribery has been locked up by L.A. County judges for 14 months without being charged with any crime:

Once a dapper Beverly Hills attorney known for his bow tie, Richard Fine has been held in solitary confinement at Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail for 14 months, even though he’s never been charged with a crime.

Fine, a 70-year- old taxpayer’s advocate who once worked for the Department of Justice, is being held for contempt of court.

Superior Court Judge David Yaffe found Fine in contempt after he refused to turn over financial documents and answer questions when ordered to pay an opposing party’s attorney’s fees, according to court documents.

Fine says his contempt order masks the real reason why he’s in jail. He claims he’s a political prisoner.

“I ended up here because I did the one thing no other lawyer in California is willing to do. I took on the corruption of the courts,” Fine said in a jailhouse interview with CNN.

For the last decade, Fine has filed appeal after appeal against Los Angeles County’s Superior Court judges. He says the judges each accept what he calls yearly “bribes” from the county worth $57,000. That’s on top of a $178,789 annual salary, paid by the state….

Judges in Los Angeles County not only have the highest state salaries in the nation, they also get tens of thousands of dollars in county benefits. These payments, Fine says, mean judges are unlikely to rule against the county when it is involved in a lawsuit.

Posted by James on May 24, 2010

New book: "Operation Hollywood"

It’s no accident the U.S. military looks so good in so many movies.

Experienced journalist David Robb has written a book titled “Operation Hollywood.” Mother Jones interviewed Robb about his book:

To keep the Pentagon happy, some Hollywood producers have been known to turn villains into heroes, remove central characters, change politically sensitive settings, or add military rescues to movies that require none. There are no bad guys in the military. No fraternization between officers and enlisted troops. No drinking or drugs. No struggles against bigotry…

…the producers of films like “Top Gun,” “Stripes” and “The Great Santini” have altered their scripts to accommodate Pentagon requests. In exchange, they get inexpensive access to the military locations, vehicles, troops and gear they need to make their movies.

During his years as a journalist for Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, Robb heard about a quid-pro-quo agreement between the Pentagon and Hollywood studios, and decided to investigate. He combed through thousands of Pentagon documents, and interviewed dozens of screenwriters, producers and military officials.

…David Robb: The current approval process was established right after World War II. Before that, the Pentagon used to help producers, but it wasn’t very formalized, like it is now. They helped producers going back to at least 1927. The very first movie that won an Oscar, “Wings,” — even that got military assistance.

…[Y]ou have to send five copies of the script to the Pentagon, and they give it to the affected service branches — Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard. Then you wait and see if they like your script or not. If they like it, they’ll help you; if they don’t, they won’t. Almost always, they’ll make you make changes to the military depictions. And you have to make the changes that they ask for, or negotiate some kind of compromise, or you don’t get the stuff.

So then you finally get the approval, after you change your script to mollify the military, put some stuff in about how great it is to be in the military. Then when you go to shoot the film, you have to have what I call a “military minder” — but what they call a “technical advisor” — someone from the military on the set to make sure you shoot the film the way you agreed to. Normally in the filmmaking process, script changes are made all the time; if something isn’t working, they look at the rushes, and say, “let’s change this.” Well, if you want to change something that has to do with the military depictions, you’ve got to negotiate with them again. And they can say, “No, you can’t change it, this is the deal you agreed to.”

…After the film is completed, you have to prescreen the film for the Pentagon brass. So before it’s shown to the public, you have to show your movie to the generals and admirals, which I think any American should find objectionable — that their movies are being prescreened by the military.

Posted by James on May 13, 2010

Obama's Chief of Corporate Cronyism

I feared presidential candidate Obama was a faux populist. He seemed too slick, too careful with his words, and too eager to cozy up with corporations.

In June 2008, Obama confirmed my worst fears by voting to grant telecoms retroactive immunity for illegally spying on Americans in America. Obama would be — at best — another excellent Republican president, like Bill Clinton before him.

My heart sank even further when Obama chose Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff. Rahm epitomizes the right wing of the Democratic Party which gleefully sells out traditional Democratic interests in exchange for corporate campaign contributions and serving wealthy corporations. These “Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)” praise themselves as “centrists” but are really corporatists. And corporations love handing them money whenever they need a vacation from Washington:

In his two-and-a-half-year stint as a banker, Mr. Emanuel… made $16.2 million, according to Congressional disclosures.

…The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign finance trends, notes that in the 2008 election cycle, he was the House’s No. 1 recipient of contributions from hedge funds, private equity firms and the broader securities and investment industry.

Yesterday’s news brings (yet another) example of why Rahm Emanuel is such a destructive Chief of Staff:

The White House, Federal Reserve and Wall Street lobbyists are kicking up their opposition to an amendment to audit the Fed as a Senate vote approaches, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the lead sponsor of the measure, said on Monday….

In the spring of 2009, Sanders brought a similar amendment to the Senate floor and won 59 votes. Eight senators who voted against it then are now cosponsors of his current measure.

“I think momentum is with us. But I’ve gotta tell you, that on this amendment, you’re taking on all of Wall Street, you’re taking on the Fed, obviously, and unfortunately you seem to be taking on the White House, as well. And that’s a tough group to beat,” said Sanders.

He’s been trading calls, he said, with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.

Auditing the Fed — which has spent trillions of our dollars with zero transparency — is a no-brainer. I understand Wall Street opposing this, because they’ll be ashamed when Americans see how massively they were bailed out. But a Democratic White House fighting against transparency in how trillions of dollars were spent?!?! And a Democratic White House won in part by promising to bring transparency back to Washington?!?!

The Democratic administration of Barack Obama, who denounced his predecessor, George W. Bush, as the most secretive in history, is now denying more Freedom of Information Act requests than the Republican did…

An Associated Press examination of 17 major agencies' handling of FOIA requests found denials 466,872 times, an increase of nearly 50% from the 2008 fiscal year under Bush….

On March 16 to mark annual Sunshine Week, designed to promote openness in government, Obama applauded himself by issuing a statement:

“As Sunshine Week begins, I want to applaud everyone who has worked to increase transparency in government and recommit my administration to be the most open and transparent ever.”

Keeping Americans in the dark about how the Fed spent trillions of dollars to prop up failed banks seems to be SOP for this White House. That’s no surprise, given that Obama handed power to men like Emanuel, Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner and — seemingly — fifty former top executives at Goldman Sachs.

Posted by James on May 04, 2010

Oil cleanup expert rants

This video offers yet MORE proof BP cares only about LOOKING like it cares about the Gulf of Mexico.

This lady’s rant explains (warning: in the rather foul language of oil workers) how “booming” — using floatation devices to re-direct oil in water to where it can be siphoned off safely — is supposed to work and then shows example after example of how the current booming operation in the Gulf of Mexico is totally wrong and ineffectual.

The proper technique is incredibly basic, yet the morons BP hired to do the work are apparently clueless.

Posted by James on May 22, 2010

Open access to academic journals!

I wanted to read “Do Effects of Early Child Care Extend to Age 15 Years? Results From the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development”, but it’s behind a pay wall.

Millions of educators and parents could benefit from this research, but a one-year subscription costs $609 ($670 if you want print AND online access)! This is outrageous and a waste of extremely valuable research conducted by professors (many with government grants), not Wiley, which merely collects the research and prints it out.

Before the Internet, academic journals charging heavily for subscriptions made some sense. And university libraries paid those heavy subscriptions because they had no choice.

But the Internet has driven the cost of publishing academic journal articles to zero. A journal’s referees are usually professors who receive no extra pay to referee articles in their specialized field. And putting a PDF online for millions to download costs virtually nothing.

So why are so many academic articles still behind very steep pay walls?

Publishing in high-priced journals limits an article’s potential audience. That should be unattractive to professors (and grad students) whose career prospects and influence depend on how many people read their research.

Prestigious journals can still charge a lot because they’re prestigious.

The arrival of The Public Library of Science and similar free, open-source journals is exciting, but it hasn’t yet forced the prestigious, expensive journals to charge less exorbitant prices for putting other people’s words in ink-on-paper format (or even electronic format). Publishers of these journals are, effectively, adding no value. They’re simply receiving what economists term “rents” because their journals have become prestigious… even though their prestige is due entirely to the articles' authors and referees, not the publisher’s actions.

Apparently, academia can’t solve this chicken-and-egg “lock-in” problem.

So, I’m glad to see a movement to pass “The Federal Research Public Access Act”:

Every year, the federal government funds tens of billions of dollars in basic and applied research. Most of this funding is concentrated within 11 departments/agencies (e.g., National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy). The research results typically are reported in articles published in a wide variety of academic journals. From NIH funding alone, it is estimated that about 65,000 papers are published each year. The Federal Research Public Access Act proposes to make manuscripts reporting on federally funded research publicly available within six months of publication in a journal.

Even though this would apply only to government-funded research, it would rapidly change the playing field by shifting many high-quality articles to free journals, quickly boosting those journals' prestige while lowering the traditional journals' prestige… which is why, I’m sure, academic publishers are lobbying Washington so hard to maintain their monopoly power.

Free, open access to academic journals could have a profound impact in countless fields. In education alone, it could make a huge, positive difference, given the great advances being made today in understanding how children learn best (so different from how most American schools currently operate) and how best to use technology to boost student learning.

Posted by James on May 17, 2010

"Party, drink, date" vs. "Study, study, study"

This fascinating article about Chinese teachers in America illustrates some reasons why China is rising and America is declining:

Zheng Yue, a young woman from China who is teaching her native language to students in this town on the Oklahoma grasslands, was explaining a vocabulary quiz on a recent morning. Then a student interrupted.

“Sorry, I was zoning out,” said the girl, a junior wearing black eye makeup. “What are we supposed to be doing?”

Ms. Zheng seemed taken aback but patiently repeated the instructions.

“In China,” she said after class, “if you teach the students and they don’t get it, that’s their problem. Here if they don’t get it, you teach it again.”

…“My life in high school was torture, just studying, nothing else,” said Ms. Zheng (pronounced djung). “Here students lead more interesting lives,” partly because they are more involved in athletics, choir and other activities.

“They party, they drink, they date,” she added. “In China, we study and study and study.”

…Ms. Zheng said she believed that teachers got little respect in America.

“This country doesn’t value teachers, and that upsets me,” she said. “Teachers don’t earn much, and this country worships making money. In China, teachers don’t earn a lot either, but it’s a very honorable career.”

…Ms. Zheng has described to her classes the high-pressure schools she attended in the city of Pingdingshan, where students study six days a week from 8 a.m. through a mandatory evening study hall ending at 10 p.m.

Posted by James on May 10, 2010

Pesticides in our food

Pesticides are designed to kill bugs, often by destroying their nervous systems. So you wouldn’t sit down and eat a bowl of pesticide, would you?

But most Americans eat pesticides every day. (Eating organic is wonderful but expensive and not always feasible.)

And there’s increasing evidence that the pesticide residue we’re consuming is harming us, esp. our children. Here are some stories about a recent study conducted by the University of Montreal and Harvard University.

“Study links ADHD and pesticides”:

According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, kids with higher-than-average levels of pesticides in their urine were almost two times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. Maryse F. Bouchard, a researcher at the University of Montreal in Quebec and lead author of the study, called the link “fairly significant,” and suggested that parents should “buy as much organic as possible,” and wash produce thoroughly.

“Pesticides and ADHD”:

A new study in the journal Pediatrics associates ingestion of pesticides commonly found on conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables with ADHD in children. In the U.S. 4.5 million children ages 5 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

…Many of the chemicals we use on our foods were developed during WWII as nerve toxins to be used in warfare.

Unfortunately many of the fruits and vegetables that children enjoy are on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list. Foods such as strawberries, celery, potatoes, blueberries, apples, peaches and spinach rank high in pesticide contamination.

“ADHD, children’s brains and pesticides”:

According to lead author of the a recent study connecting pesticides and children’s' brains, Maryse Bouchard, PhD, organophosphates are “designed” to have toxic effects on the nervous system because, “That’s how they kill pests.“ Organophosphates are the basis of nerve gas, plastic solvents and pesticides. The pesticides act on a set of brain chemicals closely related to those involved in ADHD, Bouchard explains, “so it seems plausible that exposure to organophosphates could be associated with ADHD-like symptoms.”

“I am very confident in the correlation in this study, because we controlled for quite a few things that we thought could play a role,” says Bouchard. “Adjusting for those things did not change the results very much. Which indicates that there is very little potential for confounding in this association between pesticides and ADHD.”

…In this study over 1,000 children, ages 8-15 from all over the US had the levels of pesticides tested. Those with above average exposure had double the odds of an ADHD diagnosis.

“ADHD In Children: PESTICIDES May Be Missing Link”:

“I would take it quite seriously,” said Virginia Rauh of Columbia University, who has studied prenatal exposure to pesticides and wasn’t involved in the new study….

In the body, pesticides break down into compounds that can be measured in urine. Almost universally, the study found detectable levels: The compounds turned up in the urine of 94 percent of the children.

The kids with higher levels had increased chances of having ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, a common problem that causes students to have trouble in school….

A 2008 Emory University study found that in children who switched to organically grown fruits and vegetables, urine levels of pesticide compounds dropped to undetectable or close to undetectable levels….

“This is a well conducted study,” said Dr. Lynn Goldman of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former EPA administrator.

What can a concerned parent (or eater) do? US News & World Report suggests:

  1. Buy organic versions of foods that, when not grown organically, are most likely to be grown using pesticides. These include celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, and blueberries. Corn, peas, and asparagus are usually low in pesticide residue, even when grown conventionally. The Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy group, has compiled a list of pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables
  2. Detoxify your lawn and garden.

Posted by James on May 21, 2010

Plug oil gusher with BP executives

Andy Borowitz proposes a great way to plug the oil volcano:

“We’ve tried containment domes, rubber tires, and even golf balls,” said William Cathermeyer of the National Oil Leakage Institute, a leading consultancy in the field of oil leaks. “Now it’s time to shove some BP executives down there and hope for the best.”

Submerging the oil company executives thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface could be a “win-win” situation, Mr. Cathermeyer said.

“Best-case scenario, they plug the leak,” he said. “And at the very least, they’ll shut the fuck up.”

But even as the oil leak experts proposed their unorthodox solution, environmental expert Marilyn Sufranski warned of the possible negative consequences of plugging the oil leak with BP executives.

“The Gulf of Mexico is slimy enough already,” she said.

Posted by James on May 26, 2010

Poetic despair: "The great majority of Americans no longer matter"

Bob Herbert’s beautiful words on two truly revolting realities:

BP counts its profits in the billions, and, therefore, it’s important. The 11 men working on the rig were no more important in the current American scheme of things than the oystermen losing their livelihoods along the gulf, or the wildlife doomed to die in an environment fouled by BP’s oil, or the waters that will be left unfit for ordinary families to swim and boat in.

This is the bitter reality of the American present, a period in which big business has cemented an unholy alliance with big government against the interests of ordinary Americans, who, of course, are the great majority of Americans. The great majority of Americans no longer matter.

No one knows how much of BP’s runaway oil will contaminate the gulf coast’s marshes and lakes and bayous and canals, destroying wildlife and fauna — and ruining the hopes and dreams of countless human families. What is known is that whatever oil gets in will be next to impossible to get out. It gets into the soil and the water and the plant life and can’t be scraped off the way you might be able to scrape the oil off of a beach.

It permeates and undermines the ecosystem in much the same way that big corporations have permeated and undermined our political system, with similarly devastating results.

Posted by James on May 23, 2010

Recklessness vs. professionalism

I read the following rumor this weekend but did not post because it had not been corroborated and I found it too shocking to believe. But after watching 60 Minutes‘ expose in which the rig’s former computer and electronics chief alleged several equally unbelievable safety violations, I’m more inclined to believe this rumor, which also fits with facts alleged by the rig disaster survivor concerning multiple failures in the blowout preventer. The broken blowout preventer would have rendered a Cement Bond Log test unreliable, and BP’s decision to save time by not filling the well with pressure-suppressing mud could indeed have caused the well to be “kicking heavily.”

Again, this is only a rumor, and it comes from an anonymous poster. But rumors have proven far more reliable than official information about this disaster to date.

BP contracted Schlumberger (SLB) to run the Cement Bond Log (CBL) test that was the final test on the plug that was skipped. The people testifying have been very coy about mentioning this, and you’ll see why.

SLB is an extremely highly regarded (and incredibly expensive) service company. They place a high standard on safety and train their workers to shut down unsafe operations.

SLB gets out to the Deepwater Horizon to run the CBL, and they find the well still kicking heavily, which it should not be that late in the operation. SLB orders the “company man” (BP’s man on the scene that runs the operation) to dump kill fluid down the well and shut-in the well. The company man refuses. SLB in the very next sentence asks for a helo to take all SLB personel back to shore. The company man says there are no more helo’s scheduled for the rest of the week (translation: you’re here to do a job, now do it). SLB gets on the horn to shore, calls SLB’s corporate HQ, and gets a helo flown out there at SLB’s expense and takes all SLB personel to shore.

6 hours later, the platform explodes.

Pick your jaw up off the floor now. No CBL was run after the pressure tests because the contractor high-tailed it out of there. If this story is true, the company man (who survived) should go to jail for 11 counts of negligent homicide.

If true, this is an astonishing example of professionalism (Schlumberger) vs. recklessness (BP) and the astonishing arrogance with which some can dismiss professional advice. It would also be a tremendous example of the critical importance of corporate culture. BP and Schlumberger are in the same industry, yet BP is obsessed with cost-cutting while Schlumberger emphasizes safety.

Posted by James on May 17, 2010

Relentless greed-fueled risk-taking underlying major disasters must be punished

Disasters are seldom the result of one or two mistakes/failures. Disasters usually follow a long string of mistakes and failures which — in combination — transform the unthinkable into reality.

It is already clear that the BP-caused disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a disgustingly classic many-horrible-decisions-and-bad-mistakes disaster:

These many terrible decisions and mistakes — producing such horrific consequences — necessitate serious prison time. This applies equally to the recent financial collapse. If we allow key decisionmakers who cause such disasters to go unpunished (or even, in the case of bankers, rewarded with bailouts), we’ll never compel giant corporations to make decisions based on anything other than short-term profit maximization.

Posted by James on May 27, 2010

Rep. Alan Grayson still asking "Who Got Our $1,000,000,000,000?"

Rep. Alan Grayson, one of the few Congressmen I admire, writes:

Last year, I asked the Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board who received $1 trillion in funds that the Fed handed out to domestic banks and financial institutions. He said, essentially, “I’m not going to tell you.”

More recently, I asked the Chairman of the Fed who received the half trillion dollars – that’s $500,000,000,000 – that the Fed handed over to foreign central banks. He said he didn’t know. Half a trillion dollars, and he doesn’t know!

As depressing as this is, Rep. Grayson’s figure of “only” $1,000,000,000,000 is far too low.

Reuters calls it “a $2 trillion bailout.”

And The Center for Media and Democracy estimates the cost of the bailout at $4.6 trillion:

$4.6 trillion of taxpayer funds have been disbursed in the form of direct loans to Wall Street companies and banks, purchases of toxic assets, and support for the mortgage and mortgage-backed securities markets through federal housing agencies. This is an astonishing 32% of our GDP (2008) 130% of the federal budget (FY 2009).

As hard as it is to figure out how massive the massive financial bailout has been, it’s basically impossible to find out which fat cat bankers the Federal Reserve gave trillions of our dollars to because the Fed continues to fight against disclosure.

Heaven forbid riff-raff like you and I learn how many hundreds of billions dollars the Fed showered Goldman Sachs with after it drove America’s economy into a ditch by betting against America rather than sounding an alarm. We might get angry and actually get up from our sofas and keyboards and force Congress to do something.

Posted by James on May 04, 2010

Sex, drugs, and industry capture

“Industry capture” refers to the frequent phenomenon in which a government agency — usually a regulatory agency — is “captured” by the very companies it is designed to regulate. It is an astonishingly normal phenomenon in American government. Presidents often appoint industry insiders to top roles within the very agencies that regulate their former (and future) employers. Even when tough laws exist, bureaucracies run by industry insiders fail to enforce those laws.

The Minerals Management Service in the U.S. Dept. of the Interior could be a poster child for “industry capture.” In 2008, The New York Times reported:

“A culture of ethical failure” pervades the agency, [the department’s inspector general Earl E.] Devaney wrote in a cover memo.

The reports portray a dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behavior and a free-for-all atmosphere for much of the Bush administration’s watch.

Two other [inspector general] reports focus on “a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity” …Its employees are subject to government ethics rules, such as restrictions on taking gifts from people and companies with whom they conduct official business.

One of the reports says that the officials viewed themselves as exempt from those limits, indulging themselves in the expense-account-fueled world of oil and gas executives.

…The investigation also concluded that several of the officials “frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.”

The investigation separately found that the program’s manager mixed official and personal business. In sometimes lurid detail, the report also accuses him of having intimate relations with two subordinates, one of whom regularly sold him cocaine…

Some 19 officials — a third of the staff — took gifts from oil and gas executives, some with “prodigious frequency,” it said.

On one occasion in 2002, the report said, two of the officials who marketed taxpayers’ oil got so drunk at a daytime golfing event sponsored by Shell that they could not drive to their hotels and were put up in Shell-provided lodging. Two female employees “engaged in brief sexual relationships with industry contacts,” the reports’ cover memo said.

If ever there were a time for the Minerals Management Service to be on its best behavior, it’s in the wake of BP’s oil volcano, which threatens to destroy most life in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

But the MMS continues issuing waivers even after President Obama ordered a moratorium!

In the days since President Obama announced a moratorium on permits for drilling new offshore oil wells and a halt to a controversial type of environmental waiver that was given to the Deepwater Horizon rig, at least seven new permits for various types of drilling and five environmental waivers have been granted, according to records.

The records also indicate that since the April 20 explosion on the rig, federal regulators have granted at least 19 environmental waivers for gulf drilling projects and at least 17 drilling permits, most of which were for types of work like that on the Deepwater Horizon shortly before it exploded, pouring a ceaseless current of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Asked about the permits and waivers, officials at the Department of the Interior and the Minerals Management Service, which regulates drilling, pointed to public statements by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, reiterating that the agency had no intention of stopping all new oil and gas production in the gulf…

Mr. Obama announced on May 14 a moratorium on drilling new wells and the granting of environmental waivers.

“It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies,” Mr. Obama said. “That cannot and will not happen anymore.”

“We’re also closing the loophole that has allowed some oil companies to bypass some critical environmental reviews,” he added in reference to the environmental waivers.

…these waivers have been especially troublesome to environmentalists because they were granted through a special legal provision that is supposed to be limited to projects that present minimal or no risk to the environment.

At least six of the drilling projects that have been given waivers in the past four weeks are for waters that are deeper — and therefore more difficult and dangerous — than where Deepwater Horizon was operating. While that rig, which was drilling at a depth just shy of 5,000 feet, was classified as a deep-water operation, many of the wells in the six projects are classified as “ultra” deep water, including four new wells at over 9,100 feet.

Posted by James on May 24, 2010

Smart people trust themselves... after listening to others

I like people who are smart enough to know they don’t have all the answers:

[U.S. Soccer coach Bob] Bradley must winnow his [World Cup] roster, first to 30 players by May 11, and then, by June 1, to the final 23 he will take to South Africa. He said he would probably invite 26 to 28 players to the team’s training camp next month in Princeton, N.J.

He keeps track of all the names in the mix on a white board that hangs in his office…

To shape the roster, Bradley and his coaching staff evaluate players in Major League Soccer and abroad weekly. Bradley spent more than a month in Europe earlier this year to watch American players and scout opponents. Bradley even opened up the process to outsiders, inviting four confidants unaffiliated with U.S. Soccer to give him their lists of 23 players.

“Did it change our thinking? Honestly, no,” Bradley said. “Did it bring up a couple of discussions we hadn’t had before? Yes.”

Posted by James on May 04, 2010

Thanks again, BP

I wrote that BP chose to use a less effective and highly toxic chemical dispersant rather than spend a bit more for a much safer and more effective dispersant. Well, already many fishermen working to clean up the oil are getting sick:

One fisherman said he felt like he was going to die over the weekend.

“I’ve been coughing up stuff,” Gary Burris said. “Your lungs fill up.”

Burris, a longtime fisherman who has worked across the Gulf Coast, said he woke up Sunday night feeling drugged and disoriented.

“It was like sniffing gasoline or something, and my ears are still popping,” Burris said. “I’m coughing up stuff. I feel real weak, tingling feelings.”

Marine toxicologist Riki Ott said the chemicals used by BP can wreak havoc on a person’s body and even lead to death.

“The volatile, organic carbons, they act like a narcotic on the brain,” Ott said. “At high concentrations, what we learned in Exxon Valdez from carcasses of harbor seals and sea otters, it actually fried the brain, (and there were) brain lesions.”

…Burris said that when he went to a doctor after feeling ill on Sunday, the doctor told him his lungs looked like those of a three-pack-a-day smoker, and Burris said he has never smoked.

Posted by James on May 20, 2010

The Gulf is doomed. Now we're defending the Atlantic coast

It’s looking more and more likely that “the” riser BP’s showing us is not the big gusher. These industry experts suspect there’s a much bigger blowout. And, without a doubt, the Gulf is filling up fast with huge quantities of oil:

A day after scientists reported finding a huge “plume” of oil extending miles east of the leaking BP well, on Friday a Louisiana scientist said his crew had located another vast plume of oily globs, miles in the opposite direction.

James H. Cowan Jr., a professor at Louisiana State University, said his crew on Wednesday found a plume of oil in a section of the gulf 75 miles northwest of the source of the leak.

Cowan said that his crew sent a remotely controlled submarine into the water, and found it full of oily globules, from the size of a thumbnail to the size of a golf ball. Unlike the plume found east of the leak — in which the oil was so dissolved that contaminated water appeared clear — Cowan said the oil at this site was so thick that it covered the lights on the submarine.

“It almost looks like big wet snowflakes, but they’re brown and black and oily,” Cowan said. The submarine returned to the surface entirely black, he said.

Cowan said that the submarine traveled about 400 feet down, close to the sea floor, and found oil all the way down. Trying to find the edges of the plume, he said the submarine traveled miles from side to side.

“We really never found either end of it,” he said.

Posted by James on May 29, 2010

The hottest March and hottest April ever recorded

Unhappy news for those of us who love Planet Earth and aren’t eagerly anticipating The Rapture:

It was the hottest April on record in the NASA dataset. More significantly, following fast on the heels of the hottest March and hottest Jan-Feb-March on record, it’s also the hottest Jan-Feb-March-April on record.

The record temperatures we’re seeing now are especially impressive because we’ve been in “the deepest solar minimum in nearly a century.” It now appears to be over.

Posted by James on May 18, 2010

"The PR department at BP prefers dead fish to dead birds and turtles"

BP’s still dumping toxic Corexit — defying orders from the EPA to stop — two weeks after this great rant by a blogger at Greenpeace:

Now that BP’s jury-rigged contraption to contain its massive Gulf of Mexico oil spew has failed, the company’s only resort is to continue pumping massive amounts of dispersant into the water near the wellhead, in an attempt to — what exactly?

The dispersant goes by the trade name “Corexit.” It’s supposed to be a pun on the words “corrects it.” Marine conservationist and oil spill expert Rick Steiner says “Corexit” is called “Hidez-It” by insiders because its purpose is not to correct but deceive….

One active ingredient in Corexit is 2-butoxyethanol, which in laboratory tests has been shown to reduce fertility, increase embryo deaths and increase birth defects in animals. Animals are the primary marine inhabitants of the Gulf of Mexico.

Another ingredient is propylene glycol, which you may know as anti-freeze or airplane de-icer. It has high biological oxygen demand, or BOD. This means that as it degrades in the water, it removes oxygen via biological processes. The more propylene glycol in the water, the less oxygen for plankton and fish.

In all, Corexit acts like a surfactant, the same thing that’s in your dish or laundry soap. The oil is more attracted to the surfactant than to the water it’s floating in. The oil forms globules and sinks to the bottom. This is a boon for BP, because it creates less of a photogenic oil slick on the surface of the gulf to be filmed by television news crews.

As we’ve seen in Prince William Sound in the two decades since the Exxon Valdez spill, oil that sinks to the bottom tends to be re-suspended in the water column by storms and with the frequency of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, we’ll see BP’s oil belched back up — with damage to the environment — for generations to come.

Why would anyone in their right mind pour chemicals that poison and suffocate fish into an oil spill that already threatens their lives? I think BP executives — in their long and sorry string of explosions, spills and mishaps — have demonstrated clearly that they are not in their right minds.

I’ll hazard a guess, though. The fewer dispersants you use, the more dead, oily birds and turtles you’ll have washing up on shore. The more dispersants you use, the more dead fish you’ll have — some of which will wash up on shore, many of which will sink to the bottom of the gulf and never be seen again. I imagine the PR department at BP prefers dead fish to dead birds and turtles.

Posted by James on May 25, 2010

The science of talent

“Brain plasticity” is a fascinating subject with tremendous implications for human potential, learning and achievement. I loved and recommend The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, written compellingly for non-experts by a scientist who knows the field.

There’s a growing genre that takes brain plasticity one step closer toward self-help and pop science. These books tend to be written by journalists rather than scientists. They’re quite repetitive because they cover the same topic using many of the same research findings and examples as the other books. But they’re informative and fun to read. And the subject truly is important, especially if you’re seeking parenting wisdom.

If you haven’t read one or two of the following, I’d suggest you head to your local library:

Posted by James on May 21, 2010

The subprime student crisis

More than five years ago, 60 Minutes covered the scandal of for-profit colleges, many of which have “earned” tremendous profit providing mediocre education to people who cannot afford the outrageous cost (some charging $80,000 or more) but instead borrow the money from the U.S. government:

“I don’t believe [CEC] would [have become] a $1 billion company in 10 years, if it weren’t for the federal government loan programs,” says Tami Hanson, who was once the national manager in charge of student placement for all of Career Education Corporation’s campuses…

“[It was] All about the numbers, all about the numbers,” says Hanson. “Getting students enrolled, getting students in the seats. Keeping students in the seats, getting them passed enough to graduate, and then trying to get them any job we could.”

But getting students any job they could did not necessarily mean getting them jobs they were trained for. And she says a job placement could mean just about almost anything.

“It may be that, you know, they end up placing them folding T-shirts at the Gap as a fashion grad — which is fine, but not what they were promised in the beginning,” says Hanson.

“And a job they could’ve gotten without paying $15,000 or $30,000,” says Kroft.

Actually, it is more like $30,000, $60,000 and $80,000 depending on the program, says Hanson.

Recently, Frontline aired a jaw-dropping story on this continuing — and now even larger — scandal:

MARTIN SMITH: He invests in failing universities and injects them with large amounts of capital. When they go public, he can make a bundle of money in the process…. One of his schools was involved in a major 2008 IPO on Wall Street, Grand Canyon University. You may never have heard of it, but today it’s valued at $1.2 billion…. A former musician who never attended college, Michael Clifford is an unlikely player in the rarefied world of academia.

MICHAEL CLIFFORD: I was doing a lot of cocaine, drinking a lot, smoking a lot of pot from the music business, then the club scene. Somebody introduced me to Jesus Christ by reading me the Bible, and it changed my life. I became a born-again Christian. And then my spiritual mentor, a guy named Bill Bright from Campus Crusade for Christ International, sat me down one day and said “You need to get into post-secondary education.” And I said, “Bill, I’ve never gone to college. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

When I came home and told a couple of my friends that I was going to buy a university, they all said, “Are you back on crack or something?” I mean, no one buys a college. And I said, “No, no. I think it can be done.”

MARTIN SMITH: Today, Clifford is part of a movement that is transforming the way we think about higher education in America. He and his investors have turned around a half dozen colleges that now enroll close to 40,000 students.

[on camera] There are people who would say, “Look, this guy, Michael Clifford, he never went to college. He was a musician. He sort of drifted around. He had a born-again experience.” Do you have the credibility, do you have the bona fides to be determining the future of colleges around the country?

MICHAEL CLIFFORD: No, I don’t. But I’m doing it. And I think that’s the great thing. Only in America. I mean, my new book is called How to Run a College by a Guy That Never Went to One.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Clifford doesn’t act alone. He attracts some of America’s biggest investors, like former GE chairman Jack Welch. According to The Wall Street Journal, Welch invested $2 million in one of Clifford’s schools.

JACK WELCH, CEO, General Electric, 1981-01: I invest in bonds and other things, invest in all these widgets I invest in, private equity, or invest in a school. It’s education- for profit. I like this investment more than any one I got.

Michael Lewis' “The Big Short” profiles investor Steve Eisman and his highly profitable bet against subprime mortgages. Eisman is now shorting the for-profit education industry because, he says, it’s another subprime mortgage fiasco:

Eisman blasted the for-profit education industry, likening these companies to the seamy mortgage brokers who peddled explosive subprime loans over the past two decades. “Until recently, I thought that there would never again be an opportunity to be involved with an industry as socially destructive and morally bankrupt as the subprime mortgage industry. I was wrong.” …

The for-profit education sector has soared over the past decade, making companies like ITT and Apollo Group into heavyweights. Driving much of the growth, Eisman explained, was the sector’s easy access to federally guaranteed debt through Title IV student loans. In 2009, he said, for-profit educators raked in almost one-quarter of the $89 billion in available Title IV loans and grants, despite having only 10 percent of the nation’s postsecondary students.

Eisman attributes the industry’s success to a Bush administration that stripped away regulations and increased the private sector’s access to public funds. “The government, the students, and the taxpayer bear all the risk and the for-profit industry reaps all the rewards,” Eisman said. “This is similar to the subprime mortgage sector in that the subprime originators bore far less risk than the investors in their mortgage paper.”

…Another similarity between subprime lending and for-profit education is this, Eisman said: Both push low-income Americans into something they can’t afford—in the schools' case, pricey programs that leave the students heavily in debt; what’s more, the degrees they get mean little in the real world: “With billboards lining the poorest neighborhoods in America and recruiters trolling casinos and homeless shelters—and I mean that literally—the for-profits have become increasingly adept at pitching the dream of a better life and higher earnings to the most vulnerable.”

Eisman went on to cite the industry’s dropout rates of 50-plus percent as another sign of poor quality; the numbers are likely understated, he added, given that the industry reports them voluntarily. “How good could the product be if dropout rates are so stratospheric?” he asked. “Default rates are already starting to skyrocket. It’s just like subprime—which grew at any cost and kept weakening its underwriting standards to grow.”

Who’s on the hook? Not the colleges. If the college provided a crappy education and a worthless diploma that can’t pay the bills, that’s the student’s problem… and yours and mine:

MARTIN SMITH: In 1994, Anne Cobb was a 35-year-old single mother making less than $8,000 a year and living on food stamps when an enrollment adviser from the University of Phoenix helped her get a student loan.

ANNE COBB: It was just such an incredibly simple process. I mean, it was, “Sign a few places here,” and you know, “We’ll let you know, and I’m sure you’ll be approved.” And I said, “Well, I’m not sure. I have a lot of bills. Is it still going to be OK?” “Oh, yeah. No problem. No problem at all. Don’t worry about it. Just sign here.”

MARTIN SMITH: Cobb graduated in 1999 with over $30,000 in debt. Over the course of a decade, with deferments, consolidations and penalties and an interest rate that has gone as high as 14 percent, the amount now due has ballooned to over $60,000.

ANNE COBB: You never hear these stories. You hear the happy stories with the double-car garage and the great house and everything else. You don’t hear these horror stories.

MARTIN SMITH: Cobb is not the only person with large student debt. There are many like her, and this has some people worried.

DAN GOLDEN: The concern is that they’re bringing in students who can’t succeed or graduate, loading them with debt. And the for-profit college is not the one that is on the hook, it’s you and me. It’s the taxpayer. It’s the federal government.

In other words, expect another massive taxpayer bailout. Privatize the profit. Socialize the losses. It’s the (new) American way.

Posted by James on May 28, 2010

The two differences between big banks and the mob: Scale and government bailouts?

Megabanks have long charged retail customers outrageous fees (for overdrafts, “late” payments, etc.).

Megabanks sliced, diced, and then re-packaged trillions of dollars of toxic crap into “AAA”-rated securities that they passed along to unsuspecting rubes (pension funds, municipalities, etc.) all over the world. They knowingly bought the totally undeserved “AAA” ratings from ratings agencies and then hid the risk under layer upon layer of dense prose and complex mathematics, causing a global housing bubble-and-burst.

Megabanks turned from borrowing-and-lending to borrowing-and-gambling. A deregulated Wall Street became a massive gambling parlor, and firms awarded their gamblers traders and executives tens of billions each year… until they lost a fortune and demanded taxpayer and Federal Reserve bailouts.

Goldman Sachs has made a fortune betting against its customers and trading on its inside information about its clients:

As the housing crisis mounted in early 2007, Goldman Sachs was busy selling risky, mortgage-related securities issued by its longtime client, Washington Mutual, a major bank based in Seattle.

Although Goldman had decided months earlier that the mortgage market was headed for a fall, it continued to sell the WaMu securities to investors. While Goldman put its imprimatur on that offering, traders in the same Goldman unit were not so sanguine about WaMu’s prospects: they were betting that the value of WaMu’s stock and other securities would decline…

With the housing crisis gathering steam in March 2007, Goldman created and sold to clients a $1 billion package of mortgage-related securities called Timberwolf. Within months, investors lost 80 percent of their money as Timberwolf plummeted.

Bear bought a $300 million slice of Timberwolf through some of its funds, and the investment was disastrous. The funds collapsed under the weight of Timberwolf and other errant investments, beginning a downward spiral for Bear itself that ended a year later with the firm forced into the arms of JPMorgan Chase to prevent a bankruptcy.

Goldman, however, benefited from the problems its securities helped to create, Congressional documents show. Around the same time that Bear was investing in Timberwolf, Goldman was placing a bet that Bear’s shares would fall. Goldman’s short position in Bear was large enough that it would have generated as much as $33 million in profits if Bear collapsed, according to the documents.

Goldman’s success doesn’t seem to be based on anticipating the future:

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. racked up trading profits for itself every day last quarter. Clients who followed the firm’s investment advice fared far worse.

Seven of the investment bank’s nine “recommended top trades for 2010” have been money losers for investors who adopted the New York-based firm’s advice, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from a Goldman Sachs research note sent yesterday. Clients who used the tips lost 14 percent buying the Polish zloty versus the Japanese yen, 9.4 percent buying Chinese stocks in Hong Kong and 9.8 percent trading the British pound against the New Zealand dollar.

And now we learn of multiple industry-wide scams that ripped off local and state governments to the tune of billions of dollars:

West Virginia was just one stop in a nationwide conspiracy in which financial advisers to municipalities colluded with Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Wachovia Corp. and 11 other banks.

They rigged bids on auctions for so-called guaranteed investment contracts, known as GICs, [which] hold tens of billions of taxpayer money….

“The whole investment process was rigged across the board,” said Charlie Anderson, who retired in 2007 as head of field operations for the Internal Revenue Service’s tax-exempt bond division. “It was so commonplace that people talked about it on the phones of their employers and ignored the fact that they were being recorded.”

Anderson said he referred scores of cases to the Justice Department when he was with the IRS. He estimates that bid rigging cost taxpayers billions of dollars….

Banks that conspired in the bid rigging for GICs paid kickbacks to CDR ranging from $4,500 to $475,000 per deal…

A GIC is similar to a certificate of deposit, but its rates aren’t advertised publicly. Instead, towns rely on advisory firms such as CDR to solicit competing offers.

In the bid-rigging deals, CDR gave false information to municipalities and fed information to bankers allowing them to win with lower interest rates than they were otherwise willing to pay…

Banks and advising firms illegally siphoned money from taxpayers by paying artificially low interest rates in the GICs, the CDR indictment says. The money was intended to build schools, hospitals, roads and sewers and refinance higher-cost debt….

CDR signed off on interest-rate swaps to municipalities, as banks took hidden fees sometimes 10 times as much as they charged on fixed-rate bond deals…

“They were gouging the municipalities,” said retired IRS investigator Anderson, 59. “Beside the excessive fees, some of the swap deals just didn’t work. It was just awful. The same people were involved in the GIC end of the market.”

…This isn’t the first time Wall Street has faced accusations of reaping excessive fees on investment deals with public officials. Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Lehman Brothers, which filed for bankruptcy in 2008, Merrill Lynch & Co. and other securities firms agreed by 2000 to pay more than $170 million to settle SEC charges that they had sold overpriced Treasury bonds to municipalities.

The so-called yield burning drove down the returns that local governments earned and trimmed required payments to the IRS. The firms neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing.

Even as the banks were settling with regulators, they devised another way to burn yield, this time by skimming money from GICs.

Posted by James on May 20, 2010

The War is Making You Poor Act

Yes, Virginia, there is a good man in Congress!

Actually, several of the 535 members of Congress are not corporate whores… most certainly including the wonderful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

One of the best young (relatively speaking) faces in Congress represents — yeah, I don’t believe it either — Florida! Rep. Alan Grayson has forcefully and effectively advocated many good programs. Here’s his latest:

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) introduced bipartisan legislation called the “War Is Making You Poor Act,” which aims to call attention to a) how much money is being spent to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and b) how budget gimmicks are used to pay for them. Grayson’s legislation would slash the $159 billion request for supplemental war funding and use that money to deliver a tax break for all Americans. Grayson demands the Pentagon use its currently existing $549 billion defense budget to fight the wars.

Posted by James on May 25, 2010

They're still lying about the oil spill

Sunday, I posted information supposedly coming from an unnamed insider at BP:

“According to my source, …the well is spewing a “volcano” of oil, at what some experts estimate, based on oil slick size reported by NOAA, the leak is “throwing off 25-26,000 barrels a day.” That’s over a million gallons a day, far more than the 200,000 most media organizations are reporting.”.

I broke my rule against posting unsourced information because it sounded plausible and because the U.S. government and BP have consistently understated the severity of this gushing oil problem.

Well, today’s news brings vindication of my decision to trust a Web journalist over the official story:

The amount of oil gushing from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster is five times more than what the oil company and the U.S. Coast Guard are currently estimating, said a Florida State University oceanography professor on Saturday.

At an oil spill environmental forum at the Hilton Pensacola Beach Gulf Front, Ian MacDonald said the blowout is gushing 25,000 barrels a day.

The Coast Guard and BP estimate 5,000 barrels a day of crude is spewing into the Gulf.

MacDonald said his estimate is based on satellite images and government maps forecasting the slick’s trajectory.

MacDonald also told a crowd of about 100 gathered for the discussion that he’s been frustrated by the lack of data from federal responders and BP.

Let’s hope the rest of the unsourced article proves false. The BP insider supposedly said the oil field holds 1.8 billion gallons of oil and “It could very well be that the entire Gulf and the East coast of Florida could become dead zones, with no aquatic life at all.”

Posted by James on May 11, 2010

THIS is fascism: U.S. letting corporate mass murderer clean up crime scene in secret

The most pleasant part of this short CBS News report is images of people bagging dead sea turtles whose little heads were hanging down limp.

What could be worse? How about U.S. Coast Guard personnel riding on a BP ship and threatening CBS News with arrest under “BP rules” for the “crime” of trying to visit oil-soaked Gulf Coast beaches?!?!

Kelly Cobiella reports that a CBS News team was threatened with arrest by Coast Guard officials in the Gulf of Mexico who said they were acting under the authority of British Petroleum.

Since when does the U.S. government — created and paid for by you and me — issue threats to journalists in the name of an evil global megacorporation?

So much for “freedom of the press.”

And when did BP buy up all of America’s beaches and put up “No Trespassing” signs?

Imagine the reaction if police caught a mass murderer but — instead of arresting him and collecting evidence — cordoned off the crime scene from public view, kept everyone away under threat of arrest, and let the murderer dispose of all the dead bodies and other incriminating evidence before anyone could identify them.

Posted by James on May 19, 2010

U.S. has been slapping BP's wrist for years

A former top EPA investigator explains how the U.S. government “taught BP that it can do whatever it wants and will not be held accountable”:

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about BP, we’re joined by a former top investigator at the Environmental Protection Agency. Up until his retirement in 2008, Scott West was a special agent in charge for the Criminal Investigation Division at the EPA.

In 2006, Scott West led an investigation of BP following a major oil pipeline leak in Alaska’s North Slope that spilled 250,000 gallons of oil on the Alaskan tundra. Before West finished his investigation, the Bush Justice Department reached a settlement with BP, and the oil company agreed to pay $20 million. At the same time, BP managed to avoid prosecution for the Texas City refinery explosion that killed fifteen workers by paying a $50 million settlement….

SCOTT WEST: …high-level management within BP, not only in the United States, but across the ocean and into London, were aware of the [BP] policies on the North Slope to forgo maintenance in exchange for saving money and that there was awareness at very high levels that this particular transit line was in jeopardy.

AMY GOODMAN: So you have the EPA considering penalties of upwards of… $672 million, possibly felony charges against BP executives, and they end up settling for $20 million?

SCOTT WEST: Yes, they ended up settling for $20 million…. When the Bush administration took over at the Department of Justice, and the US attorney came in, it was—became a bottom-of-the-barrel case and was ultimately settled out for a very low amount of money. And I have been talking with one of the investigators on that case, and he said the amount of money that was determined as the fine in that matched what the insurance companies were willing to pay. So Olympic Pipe Line essentially did not have to actually pay the fine, but it was covered by their insurance company. Now, that Olympic Pipe Line settlement became the benchmark, within the Bush Department of Justice, for environmental crime.

So then we had the Texas City explosion by BP that resulted in a number of deaths and injuries caused by failure to maintain the same sort of corporate practices that I saw in Alaska. And that case got wrapped up at the same time that mine did, and the settlement there, based upon the Olympic Pipe Line precedent, was set at $50 million. So they said, well, then, my spill case in Alaska could not get anywhere near that amount, because that had fatalities, and so they settled it for $20 million.

Now, for BP, $20 million is a rounding error, when you look at the amount of profits they make on a daily basis. It made no impact into changing their practices. The only thing that could really change the practices had been if we had been able to pursue and hold individuals accountable for their decisions. As you well know, the corporations do not make decisions; the individuals within them do. And so, to hold those individuals accountable would have been the proper conclusion to the investigation.

Now, now we’re seeing the same sort of thing in the Gulf, in this catastrophe. And information is coming to light that corners were cut and that employees’ concerns were being ignored. It’s the exact same pattern that we saw with BP in Alaska and with BP in Texas City….

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think if BP executives were brought up on charges that we would see what we’re seeing in the Gulf of Mexico today?

SCOTT WEST: Well, I doubt we would be having this discussion and we’d be dealing with a catastrophe like this in the Gulf. What the government has done over the past several years is taught BP that it can do whatever it wants and will not be held accountable.

Posted by James on May 21, 2010

Why GDP is the most over-hyped statistic in economics (except perhaps the DJIA)

I hate “Gross Domestic Product” (GDP). Always have. Always will. It’s a terrible metric, and our society’s fixation on it drives society in terrible directions.

I’m not posting to rehash the many reasons to hate GDP but to point you to this NYT article, “The Rise and Fall of the G.D.P.” which lays out some of the reasons.

Posted by James on May 18, 2010

Why I oppose Kagan

I don’t think I’ve ever followed a court case more closely than I followed that of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman. The man had his governorship stolen from him, and then he was imprisoned for no reason by a gang of bad Republicans, led by Karl Rove.

The Bush government even paid $300 million to the company controlled by and largely owned by the corrupt judge who presided over the case!!!

The Alabama federal judge who presided over the 2006 corruption trial of the state’s former governor holds a grudge against the defendant for helping to expose the judge’s own alleged corruption six years ago. Former Gov. Don Siegelman therefore deserves a new trial with an unbiased judge ─ not one whose privately owned company, Doss Aviation, has been enriched by the Bush administration’s award of $300 million in contracts since 2006, making the judge millions in non-judicial income.

These are the opinions of Missouri attorney Paul B. Weeks, who is speaking out publicly for the first time since his effort in 2003 to obtain the impeachment of U.S. District Judge Mark E. Fuller of Montgomery on Doss Aviation-related allegations.

Here’s another perspective on the judge from a man who grew up in the same town:

Mark Fuller is dirty. I personally know he is dirty. Moreover, I know the whole damn bunch associated with him.

The gist is that both our fathers used their respectable fronts to hide involvement in massive drug smuggling from Columbia by working with outlaws from the Dixie Mafia who had direct ties to major city Mafiosi as well as to the very top smugglers in Colombia.

The racket, which was nicknamed The Enterprise, enjoyed semi-protected status, especially during the Iran-Contra era, which was when Lt. Col. Oliver North and his colleagues used to visit with my father, with me and with others in town.

Control of Doss Aviation, one of the early companies involved in the smuggling, was passed along from my father and his group to Mark’s father and his cronies, and then ultimately in 1989 to Mark, who that year became Doss Aviation chairman and chief executive officer.

The company won dozens of CIA and Air Force contracts with the help of the region’s longtime Republican representative, Terry Everett, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. I used to work for Everett on the local newspapers and broadcasting properties that he owned.

Fast forward: As a George W. Bush-nominated federal judge appointed in 2002, Fuller retains a controlling interest in Doss Aviation, ensuring that as a judge he will have a fabulous amount of non-judicial income.

The proceeds include some $300 million in Bush administration awards to Doss Aviation since 2006, the year the Siegelman trial began. All of this has been amply documented in on-the-record materials by courageous whistleblowing legal figures Paul Weeks, Jill Simpson and Tamarah Grimes, and several very thorough investigative reporters whose exposés have fallen on deaf ears, exposing the degree of corruption at the Justice Department and the indifference, if not complicity, of elected representatives to these big-dollar scandals.

The case stinks to high heaven. There’s no way this judge could preside honestly over this case, given his personal hatred of Gov. Siegelman and the massive windfall the Bush Administration was handing him. (More info at DonSiegelman.org Also, Harper’s journalist Scott Horton provided excellent coverage).

So I was shocked to learn that President Obama’s new Supreme Court nominee argued just months ago that Don Siegelman does not deserve a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court!!!

A bipartisan group of 91 former state attorneys general from more than 40 states formed an unprecedented coalition to file a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court arguing it should hear Siegelman’s case because his actions did not constitute a crime.

But Kagan, now widely reported as a leading candidate to ascend from her post as Justice Department solicitor general to become her friend Obama’s nominee for a Supreme Court vacancy, urged the high court in November to deny Siegelman a hearing. Kagan used technical legal arguments devised with the assistance of DOJ’s trial prosecutors.

Since the 2006 convictions DoJ has withstood complaints that include: political prosecution orchestrated by Rove, judge-shopping, jury tampering, lying about Canary’s recusal, firing a DoJ whistleblower, and suppressing evidence that DoJ tried to blackmail its central witness.

Kagan’s stance already has created strong skeptics in progressive circles in Alabama, and is certain to irritate Siegelman supporters around the country if she is nominated to the Supreme Court. DOJ has requested that Fuller resentence Siegelman, now 64, to an additional 20 years in prison.

Unless I’m completely and totally wrong about the Siegelman case — and I’m not — Kagan’s active effort to prevent the Supreme Court from hearing this man’s case utterly disqualifies her from serving on the Supreme Court. Political thugs savaged Don Siegelman, and Kagan defended their abuse of our justice system.

I suspect Obama and Kagan cooperated with Republicans to cover up the Siegelman travesty to boost Kagan’s Supreme Court chances. But that’s a deal with the devil. You can’t compromise on justice. And letting Mark Fuller and Karl Rove and their many accomplices escape justice while Gov. Siegelman rots in jail is beyond comprehension!

Posted by James on May 11, 2010

Why is media ignoring Kagan's role in Don Siegelman's false imprisonment?

After learning last night that Elena Kagan argued loudly that the Supreme Court should not hear the case of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman, I was eager to read more.

Last night, I was disappointed that the New York Times article titled “Nomination of Kagan Leaves Some Longing on the Left” ignored Kagan’s strong support of Karl Rove and his gang of fellow Republican bandits who stole Gov. Siegelman’s re-election and then imprisoned him on trumped-up charges.

I just fired up Google News and typed “Kagan Siegelman.” Instead of the hundreds of stories I expected, there’s only ONE! How often does Google News find just ONE story? It’s not like the subject is secret. Regular Google has 44,800 “hits” for “Kagan Siegelman.”

Is the press censoring Kagan’s shameful role in this continuing miscarriage of justice because our nation’s power brokers have already agreed on Kagan? Has the press just not yet gotten around to doing its job? Or do reporters just think that false imprisonment of a former governor is no big deal?

Posted by James on May 11, 2010

Will Gulf of Mexico and Florida's east coast become massive dead zone?

I almost never post unsourced news, but the official news about the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster has been consistently wrong (happy talk), so I’m going to pass along information coming, supposedly, from a BP insider. This could be bogus but sounds horrifyingly plausible:

A BP insider, providing information to OpEdNEws.com, reports that scientists and engineers, fearing the worst, have envisioned a worst case scenario, “It could very well be that the entire Gulf and the East coast of Florida could become dead zones, with no aquatic life at all.”

…According to my source, the Macondo oil field, owned/leased by BP— the one where the well is spewing a “volcano” of oil, at what some experts estimate, based on oil slick size reported by NOAA, the leak is “throwing off 25-26,000 barrels a day.” That’s over a million gallons a day, far more than the 200,000 most media organizations are reporting. Reportedly, when the oil was pumping out of the well, at the surface, it was coming out at a rate of 8,000 barrels a day. That means that, without pumping, just from the pressure within the well, after rising through 5,000 feet of ocean water, there was still 8,000 barrels a day of pressure. This suggests that the release at sea-floor level would be far greater. My source reports that the pressure in the well was reported to be 135-165,000 PSi. That’s massive.

In addition, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sunk with 770,000 gallons of diesel fuel on board. That may also be leaking.

The real danger, my source reports, is that the pipe and incomplete well-head will deteriorate as the highly pressurized mix of oil, dirt and rock that is spewing out of the wellhead abrades the ten inch pipe, then the 24 inch wellhead. If that happens things will get much worse. There are an estimated 44 million barrels of oil reserve in the Macondo oil field— about 1.8 billion gallons.

According to my source, the leaking Macondo field oil well is one of about a dozen mile deep wells BP has drilled. None of them have backup remote activation acoustic blow-out preventers.

Posted by James on May 09, 2010

You can count on BP... to always screw the environment to save a buck

BP’s response to its unprovoked attack on all sea life in the Gulf of Mexico seems focused on six things:

  1. Figuring out how to capture and sell oil exploding out of its oil gusher (rather than plugging the hole)
  2. Lying about BP’s culpability
  3. Lying about the magnitude of the “leak”
  4. Blocking experts from learning or acquiring data about the “leak”
  5. Using chemical dispersants to sink the oil down deep where people can’t see it
  6. Taking highly visible actions — esp. washing oil-soaked birds — that make the company appear to care, even though bird-cleaning has been proven almost completely ineffective at saving oil-soaked birds' lives

A clear pattern emerges: Caring about style (public perception) over substance (saving the Gulf of Mexico).

As if you needed it, here’s more proof.

First, BP not only isn’t using a proven method of sucking oil out of the water but even threatened to sue experts who had done this in Saudi Arabia for suggesting the idea:

As The Politics Blog reported on Tuesday in an interview with former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister, the untapped solution involves using empty supertankers to suck the spill off the surface, treat and discharge the contaminated water, and either salvage or destroy the slick.

Hofmeister had been briefed on the strategy by a Houston-based environmental disaster expert named Nick Pozzi, who has used the same solution on several large spills during almost two decades of experience in the Middle East — who says that it could be deployed easily and should be, immediately, to protect the Gulf Coast. That it hasn’t even been considered yet is, Pozzi thinks, owing to cost considerations, or because there’s no clear chain of authority by which to get valuable ideas in the right hands….

The suck-and-salvage technique was developed in desperation across the Arabian Gulf following a spill of mammoth proportions — 700 million gallons — that has until now gone unreported, as Saudi Arabia is a closed society, and its oil company, Saudi Aramco, remains owned by the House of Saud. But in 1993 and into ‘94, with four leaking tankers and two gushing wells, the royal family had an environmental disaster nearly sixty-five times the size of Exxon Valdez on its hands…

JON KING: Well, we went down to the BP headquarters in Houma, Louisiana, and we didn’t have an appointment so they wouldn’t let us in. Then I called the president of BP and I talked to his secretary and she put me in touch with somebody, but the somebody she put me in touch with didn’t know who we should talk to. Nick contacted a gentleman that he used to work with at BP, and he threatened to sue Nick for not going through channels. And I said, “Great. I’d love BP to sue us for trying to help them. That would be wonderful.”

And, second, apparently to save money, BP is using a chemical dispersant that is less effective and much more toxic than available alternatives:

So far, BP has told federal agencies that it has applied more than 400,000 gallons of a dispersant sold under the trade name Corexit and manufactured by Nalco Co., whose current leadership includes executives from BP and Exxon. And another 805,000 gallons of Corexit are on order, the company said, with the possibility that hundreds of thousands of more gallons may be needed if the well continues spewing oil for weeks or months.

But according to EPA data, Corexit ranks far above dispersants made by competitors in toxicity and far below them in effectiveness in handling southern Louisiana crude.

Of 18 dispersants whose use EPA has approved, 12 were found to be more effective on southern Louisiana crude than Corexit, EPA data show. Two of the 12 were found to be 100 percent effective on Gulf of Mexico crude, while the two Corexit products rated 56 percent and 63 percent effective, respectively. The toxicity of the 12 was shown to be either comparable to the Corexit line or, in some cases, 10 or 20 times less, according to EPA.

Posted by James on May 18, 2010