Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Navel intelligence

The latest attempted plane bombing caught my interest because of the way perception seems to trump reality in our media-saturated age.

It wouldn't be surprising if holiday travel to the CNMI takes a hit. One incident on one of the thousands of daily flights can do that. Airline travel is ridiculously safe, particularly immediately after an incident like this, but who cares about statistics?

The system worked, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano reportedly said. With all due respect... no. (UPDATE: she agrees) Her unspoken assumption is that the system can work all of the time, every where. That's a very American assumption: if we throw billions of dollars at a problem it will go away.

It won't. We can, and have, added multiple layers of security. They work very well and they can undoubtedly work better. Not perfectly, though. Sorry.

Realistically, it's been eight years since Richard Reid the shoe bomber. Both men used very small amounts of a high explosive-- and failed. We've been very lucky. There are thousands of fanatics out there and they are going to keep trying.

Let the hand-wringing begin

'What went wrong?' the politicians are howling as they put on television make-up and schedule hearings, meaning 'who can we blame?'

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was on the lowest-level database, evidently because there was 'insufficient derogatory information' to classify him higher. Supposedly his father told the American Embassy his son had extremist views. That's it-- though maybe he followed up with emails that ended up in the spam folder with other Nigerian bankers.

Seriously, Abdulmutallab probably would have earned more suspicion if there had been other factoids about him. We simply don't have the resources to investigate more than 500,000 'suspicious' people. The reports I've read say that even now, authorities are still checking out his claim of a Yemeni connection, possibly to Al Qaeda.

Degrees of separation

That Yemeni link intrigues me: evidently the poor little rich kid's mother is from Yemen and he says he studied with a radical internet cleric there. The Detroit area is home to a large number of Yemenis (and Moslems) and there have just been two air strikes against radicals in that country.

One of the targets in the second strike was a former Guantanamo detainee who went through the highly-touted Saudi Arabian 're-education' program for radicals-- he is one of the few recidivists to-date. Since almost half of the remaining prisoners are from Yemen, that's a monkey wrench in plans to close Gitmo.

Honestly, I probably wouldn't have bothered reading the Washington Post and New York Times articles on the second bombing if their lead sentences hadn't pissed me off by referring to the "suspect in the Fort Hood shootings". Innocent until proven guilty, sure, but what a namby-pamby politically correct way of putting it.

Mostly, I'm concerned that we're drawing closer to a semi-free failing state that tortures its opposition, locks up its journalists and appears to survive because the majority of the population is in a self-medicated khat-chewing stupor.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Do I hear a Yemen?

If, like me, you are a little frustrated with the dribs and drabs of information about the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines plane, Politico has a pretty good story. They have also posted a copy of the criminal complaint against Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Oh, yeah. Politico linked to an ABC News report that the bomber came by way of Yemen.

Here we go again; yet another failing state with Al Qaeda moving in. I was going to make the inevitable reference to Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo, but Politico posted this while I was thinking about it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tuning out the medicine show

Quick, name five differences between the House and Senate versions of 'Health Care Reform'.

I couldn't, and I thought I was following along. Partly, it's because of distractions like this photo from TPM Muckraker. Mostly, the subject is just too complicated. Who has the time to pore over different versions of 1,000-plus page bills in a half-dozen committees?

My brother mentioned yesterday that he'd stopped paying attention to polls on the issue. Wisely, I agreed. What do the polls ask, and how? How many people think they know what's in the House and Senate bills, but are just miming talking points from one side or the other? Do they oppose it because it's another brick in the socialist wall, or because it doesn't include the public option?

How many people, like me, just don't want to hear the day-to-day bickering over arcana and see the latest politician or pundit to mount the soapbox. (I'll admit there are a lot of people with personal interests and political junkies out there, but they've got to be a minority.)

Not me, I'm like the guy in this cartoon by Ann Telnaes.

At this time of year I can't even get excited by this silly priest pushing shoplifting or the Pope trying to 'copyright' his name, image and symbols. Don't expect me to slog through the swamps of Washington.

Have another cookie. Maybe I'll tune in next year.

(Yes, folks, that's Agana's famous Roto-Pope.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Will Your CUC cost you $320,000,000?

I really hope I got this wrong.

The Environmental Protection Agency just linked me to a new toy based on Google Earth. It shows most EPA enforcement actions in the United States for 2009.

I dutifully went to the Mariana Islands-- the easiest way is to put New Guinea on the bottom of the map and the Philippines on the left side and slowly center us as you zoom in.

Once you find the islands, just click the type of enforcement action in the box on the left and little flags will pop up showing locations. Click the flag and you get a link to EPA's ECHO (Enforcement & Compliance History Online-- another toy I've been meaning to play with).

Saipan and Rota showed nothing I hadn't heard of, all of the violations except one were for the settlement (Stipulations one and two) CUC and EPA entered into March 11, 2009.

Nothing new at all, until I got to the "Enforcement Conclusion Dollar Amounts" in the ECHO search (Since it's a search, you may have to repeat the process; I can't guarantee the link will still work for very long), which lists the "Compliance Action Cost" at $320,000,000. I'm sure that doesn't include penalties for not meeting the deadlines in the stipulations.

Woa. That's the first estimate I've seen. Am I missing something? Someone please tell me I am.

Putting detainees on ICE

It can't happen here, probably, but next month's The Nation has a disturbing story about detainees 'disappearing' into Immigration and Customs Enforcement subfield offices.

Author Jacqueline Stevens opens with this jaw-dropping quote from former ICE Office of State and Local Coordination executive director James Pendergraph: "If you don't have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he's illegal, we can make him disappear."

Stevens lists 186 unlisted and unmarked field offices where detainees are held, with anecdotal tales of family and attorneys trying to find people who were detained.

I could quote huge swaths of the article, but I really, strongly suggest you read the original. I think you'll be as appalled as I was. One more excerpt:
ICE refused a request for an interview, selectively responded to questions sent by e-mail and refused to identify the person authorizing the reply--another symptom of ICE thwarting transparency and hence accountability. The anonymous official provided no explanation for ICE not posting a list of subfield office locations and phone numbers or for its lack of a real-time locator database.
I'm making the assumption that it probably can't happen in the CNMI because we're so small. I wonder.

Take two steaks and call it morning

The Anti-Jet-Lag Diet was only a few links (degrees of separation) away from my morning emails. Since the places I'm likely to visit are many, many timezones away from Saipan, that's of more than passing interest.

There's some interesting information at the site, though I'm not yet ready to plunk down $10.95 ($16.95 round-trip) for a personal A-J-L plan. Then again, it's probably a good deal because you only have to ask once for each destination.

Evidently, the plan is a spinoff from studies of circadian rhythms by biologist Charles Ehret at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago.

In a nutshell, you eat high-protein breakfasts and lunches and high carbohydrate dinners to match your current time zone. Supposedly, this resets your body's internal clock. There's some feasting and fasting involved, too, but what have you got to lose?

No alcohol, but I knew that already and for other reasons. There are some interesting claims about caffeine tucked away in the page I linked. According to the site, the "methylated xanthines" found in coffee, tea and cocoa make it harder for most people to get to sleep at night if they are taken in the morning. Conversely, it is claimed, taking them at night tends to make most people get up earlier. I'd never read that before.

This may be just the ticket for you if you're traveling over the holidays (Around Christmas, for the people out there who enjoy raining on other people's parades).

Something completely different

Thinking like a Senator (not recommended) made me do it: some clever scientists found a way to make bacteria turn little tiny gears. Neat, I thought, but some curmudgeonly suit with seniority is probably going to mock this research. Why not browse through the Argonne Newsroom and find a practical application near and dear to their heart. Travel, for instance.

Not that the exercise was necessary. Somebody, sometime, somewhere is likely to remember this research and combine it with another idea or two to give us a new gadget. That's how technology lurches forward. It makes good video anyway:

Luckily, Scientific American has a better, albeit less popularized, version of the story. (I say luckily because I usually follow links to Scientific American articles and find they are charging for a sip from their font of wisdom, which then sadly remains a staid secret.)

As it turns out, I'd stumbled onto the interesting scientific problem of getting work out of random (Brownian) motion in a fluid. Or, as the magazine cleverly puts it, the research "presents a new spin on the concept of the so-called Brownian ratchet, in which arbitrary fluctuations generate directed motion to power tiny mechanical systems."

Fascinating possibilities, but as one scientist points out, it hasn't been tested against a load. Another mentions the lack of hamster-driven appliances.

So, no NASCAR In a Bottle yet, but I still think it's neat.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The worldwide Jack Webb

There are so many mistakes, misunderstandings and outright lies on the internet that fact-checking has become a growth industry. It always makes me think of Joe Friday's phrase 'Just the facts ma'am' from television's Dragnet.

I love this development, even though it often spirals wildly out of control: Media Matters loves to hammer Fox News, for instance, leading to a website critical of them from the opposite end of the political spectrum, and so on. The back-and-forth buzzing wears thin quickly unless you're committed to the subject.

Most of the attention focuses, rightly, on the major media, but no one is safe. If you write it on the internet, even one little twitty tweet, don't be surprised if it comes back to bite you. The term 'crowdsourcing' was coined to describe the sharks that will school if there is a little blood in the webby waters.

I got hooked on The St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact during the last presidential election, but I don't go there much any more. Like FactCheck.org and, to a lesser extent, the rumor debunkers at Snopes.com, they miss the lowlights that satisfy my perverse sense of humor.

Nah, give me the kind of errors Craig Silverman collects in his Regret the Error Columbia Journalism Review blog and like-named website: (Warning, close your eyes when you go over the next sentences if you are easily offended -- they're from Gawker -- 'nuff said.) "Earlier this week, we called congressman Jason Chaffetz a self-hating weirdo, an asshole, a probable closet case, and the son of Kitty Dukakis. He is not the son of Kitty Dukakis. We regret the error."

An extreme example, but I liked it. More representative is the Washington Post's Correction (Crunk) of the Year after they mistakenly claimed Public Enemy's song was saying 9/11 was a joke instead of the 911 emergency system. Here's the Post ombudsman writing about the fiasco, just because I like the headline: A spotty record on counter-errorism.

The local media's errors are usually so prosaic by comparison: the Saipan Tribune dropping $10 million in its headline and story Senate supports $6M ship disposal program or a couple of stories in the Marianas Variety where charges were stated as facts instead of alleged. A problem there: I could cite them, but even a lowly blogger has to be careful about what he 'publishes', particularly if he has cause to think it's untrue.

I was happy to see Gov. Benigno R. Fitial's transparency in saying Jenner & Block still on NMI payroll for $50,000 a month. (In an interesting contrast of editorial emphasis, the Tribune headlined that Fitial won't block 'green card').

At this late date, particularly since it was one of the issues in the election, I'm not interested in arguing the merits of the contract. I would, however be interested in a little fact-checking on the total cost to-date. I really don't have a clue with all of the figures that have been tossed around, and some of them are so outrageous they should be debunked.

Not real fact-checking, but I've been bemused by some of the articles about the ongoing employment controversy at Northern Marianas College. President Carmen Fernandez seems to be staying in the background as much as possible: "Fernandez’s office stated"... and "The office added,".

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What? Were they thinking?

It was business as usual at the CNMI Senate Thursday, with passage of a resolution 'supporting' a proposal to salvage ships. Wouldn't you think their time would be better spent in researching Worldwide Salvage and state and federal laws on shipbreaking?

It's a dirty, nasty, dangerous job. Just for starters, here's an Occupational Health and Safety Administration Fact Sheet. Asbestos, PCB's, lead: that's just the sort of imports we need.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration (MARAD) has only approved six shipyards for disposal of obsolete ships. Four are in Brownsville, Texas; there are none on the West Coast.

There is a reason for that. MARAD characterizes ship scrapping as a risky, highly speculative business, and says startup companies tend to be thinly capitalized. GlobalSecurity.org estimates that environmental health and safety requirements constitute as much as two-thirds of the cost of ship scrapping.

Shipbreaking is an international scandal, with the most toxic ships ending up in the Third World. Do a quick internet search and you'll find hundreds of references to the shipbreaking beaches of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Deep breath

Maybe this is a grand idea. How about checking the financial capacity of Worldwide Salvage to make sure we don't end up with a hulk rusting in the harbor? How about getting details of their plan, including typhoon preparations, before 'conditionally approving' it?

By contrast, the Commonwealth Ports Authority had a measured, reasonable response to the proposal. Maybe the Senate could let CPA do its job. They'd have more time to do theirs.

Back in the day, I used to regularly visit a CNMI Senate staffer for the inside skinny on budget bills. But that wasn't his most important job, judging by what occupied his time. He was an ace resolution writer.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Nauru's nightmare

I've always felt sorry for Nauruans. Exploited by colonial powers that turned much of their island into a moonscape, they became independent and completed the job. Income from their phosphate deposits went into a series of increasingly ill-advised investments and now they can't afford their socialist paradise.

And you thought we had it bad. The hare-brained schemes we sometimes get in the CNMI are nothing compared to Nauru. Harboring refugees for cash, money-laundering for the Russian mafia, just give them an idea.

For instance, what does Nauru have in common with Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela?

This week, it became the fourth country to recognize the breakaway Georgian enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"It has no potential, just to trade in independence," says Russian analyst Sergei Markedonov of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, "Independence is a commodity — people will trade it."

And trade they do. There are reports that Nauru is getting $50 million for the deal. In the past, they recognized the Republic of China, then shifted to the People's Republic for something like $130 million. Ah, but Air Nauru went broke, so they went back to Taiwan (Check the line on the bottom of the home page) to get its replacement, Our Airline, flying.

No criticism is meant here. If countries like Russia, the Chinas and Israel want to practice recognition by checkbook, why not join in.

Picture the island of Banaba in Kiribati. Got it? Pretty remote. Now go 300 kilometers west. There's nothing there but Nauru. No wonder so many birds 'dropped by', and no wonder they have to have their own airline.

Some 11,000 (or maybe 9,000) people ring the island in the fertile coastal area. Nauru sued Australia in 1989 and ended up with a settlement to recover the mined lands. I don't think the amount was made public, but that doesn't matter: it wasn't enough; the interior is a wasteland.

The coastal plains are threatened by rising sea levels, and Nauru estimates 40 percent of its marine biota are dead due to silting and runoff with high phosphate levels.

Did I mentioned unemployment estimated at 90 percent, with 95 percent of the employed working for the government? The highest diabetes rate in the world and one of the most obese populations; this country just can't catch a break.

The first photo is from Nauru's tourism website (Hey, they're really trying to develop), the second's less-flattering pinnacles are from the U.S. Department of Energy's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program-- they have a climate station on Nauru.

The minimum wage (and other one-liners)

Yes, I said the U.S. Department of Labor's first minimum wage report was a joke, but that's not what I'm talking about.

It's just that the next 50 cent bump in the CNMI's minimum wage has slipped four months to Sept. 30, 2010, according to this line in the Conference Committee Report, according to the Saipan Tribune: "The conference agreement includes a general provision proposed by the Senate that delays until September 30, 2010, and until September 30 of each year thereafter, scheduled minimum wage increases in American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands."

That's the one-line I'm talking about, and it makes sense to wait until DOL has had another chance to come up with a serious product based on real data. I reserve the right to scoff again, but for now I agree with the Governor's spin-doctor of jurisprudence that changes should be "based on objective and informed economic studies to properly guide federal wage policy on the islands."

I can't resist noting in passing that this provision seems to have been added quietly, with none of the warbling coming from the Senate when the minimum wage was raised originally.

Gov. Benigno R. Fitial has a point when he says "This also brings some economic relief, especially considering the challenges of federalization and the economic downturn." Four months isn't much anyway, and the Commonwealth is going through some pretty big changes.

Also, if you read the Carbon Copy coming out of Copenhagen, it's clear that energy prices will keep going up. Food prices, shipping rates, gasoline, jet fuel and your CUC bill aren't back to last year's peak, but we've gotten used to the new levels.

People compartmentalize, and while they'll still fill their tank, and not many can afford to go 'off the grid', they're more than willing to resist when other businesses try to recover their costs. In short, while I still favor increasing the minimum wage, I'd like to see what effect it's had so far.

Arrested development

Even the burglars are suffering; they have to make more than one trip: Koblerville church burglarized, again. And, by gosh, we're going to do something about what Department of Public Safety Commissioner Santiago F. Tudela calls "barbaric and intolerable acts". Something like going back to 2002, evidently the last time there was a burglary task force.

Yes, DPS has a lot of officers in the Army Reserve and is undermanned when they are deployed. Still, I'd be less sarcastic if it appeared DPS had acted on its own. Tuesday, KSPN-2's Bob Coldeen reported on his own burglary and several others he had heard of, adding that DPS said they would provide more information Thursday. It's hard to believe they hadn't checked their own statistics before that.

Waiting for Thursday, I visited the DPS website. The TASC/Human Trafficking link didn't even work. It's obvious that, like most CNMI Government websites, it was created and then barely maintained. (Want to check the Sex Offender Registry?) I also stopped by the Criminal Justice Planning Agency, but they only had statistics for one year- 2004. In an email, I politely suggested that they might have forgotten to post other years, but haven't gotten a response yet.

That's history, at least TASC is back in business. In fact, we're told that Lt. Kevin Aldan of the Fire Division will be training 20 police cadets next year.

Uphill, a battle

Maybe we should call it the Northern Marianas College Board of Directed instead of Board of Regents. The Saipan Tribune's latest episode of the NMC soap opera included this choice tidbit from Regent Janet King: "I am presently ordered specifically by the president to 'cease' making comments to the media, because my comments 'undermine' the office of the president, the Board of Regents, and the college community."

Really, I've just been watching, and chatting with a few people who resigned. I don't know enough about the battle lines to chip in. Like many others, I admire the contributions of Sam McPhetres. I was puzzled that he will not have his contract renewed. But I was waiting for him to comment, and he speaks very eloquently for himself.

Really messy surgery

Good news from the Commonwealth Health Center: Public Health Secretary Kevin Joseph Villagomez says new doctors are on the way. "Most of the six physicians will come from the U.S. mainland, he said." (No word on what parts come from elsewhere.)

Maybe I'm being unfair, and either the Secretary or the reporter was having a bad day. For instance, later in the story we get the equally vague "DPH is the largest government agency in terms of hiring nonresident workers, now estimated at over 200. Most are either nurses or doctors."

A milk-curdling cry

Now that I've picked a few nits, it's time to say I don't think life as we know it will end because Gov. Benigno R. Fitial was re-elected. I disagree with some (a lot) of his policies. I think Rep. Heinz S. Hofschneider would probably have been a good Governor. So what?

Why are so many people crying over spoiled, spilled milk? Let's return to reality. The problems don't change because a different man is in office. Honestly, early in the Hofschneider campaign, I saw him standing with some (I said some) supporters and almost shuddered. 'These are the guys who got us to this point,' I thought. I can say the same thing about some Fitial supporters. Strange political bedfellows.

Former Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Villagomez is a prime example. Before I'd heard of Rydlyme, I thought he shouldn't be involved in CUC, simply because he had been so involved in getting it to its present state. Maybe the Aggreko generators would not have been necessary -- and I think they were -- if someone else had been in charge from the beginning of the Fitial Administration. We'll never know.

Many of my friends lost their jobs in 2006. Many other friends would have lost their jobs if Hofschneider had won. For those in political positions, that's life, in the CNMI or anywhere else.

Years ago, I learned that you can stop hyperventilating if you take a deep breath. That's my resolution for the New Year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Let the fines begin

The Environmental Protection Agency has dropped a $29,000 fine on the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation for not following the terms of a year-old Stipulated Order (pdf).

EPA warned in an Oct. 16 email (pdf) that "Our most urgent concern is for CUC to contain its oil spills, oil containers and spill response capabilities immediately before another typhoon threatens the company's facilities and operations." I guess they meant it.

According to the EPA letter, CUC had accumulated $404,000 in penalties under Stipulated Order One (pdf) as of Oct. 9 and $230,000 pursuant to Stipulated Order Two as of Oct. 16. At that time, the fine for failure to submit a Facility Response Plan was $10,000.

Different penalties accrue at different rates, so we can't assume that the $634,000 in stipulated penalties have almost tripled; we can assume they've grown. A lot.

We can look at all of that and say the glass is half-empty, but wait. Let's look at the fine as a shot across CUC's bow: EPA is signaling that it is very serious indeed about the Dec. 31 deadlines like the financial plan, and that it won't be put off like the Legislature. Still, I give the Administration and CUC a lot of credit for ending years of dithering and agreeing to the Stipulated Orders.

Here's the text of EPA's press release (Too lazy to rewrite, I'll use bold to highlight):

EPA fines CUC for failing to submit facility oil spill response plan
$29,000 penalty follows missed deadline stipulated in the March 2009 order

HONOLULU – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today fined the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. $29,000 for failing to meet the requirements of a stipulated order seeking to reform and bring into compliance CUC’s five power plants and an oil transfer pipeline.

Specifically, the penalty is for failing to submit a satisfactory facility response plan as outlined in the order.

The order required CUC to submit a facility response plan for its Lower Base power plants by July 9, 2009. The plan was submitted by CUC. However, on September 17, 2009, the EPA disapproved the initial submitted plan and provided CUC with 20 days to correct and resubmit the plan. CUC did not resubmit a corrected plan to the EPA.

“U.S. EPA expects the CUC to immediately fulfill its obligations under the stipulated order to ensure that a facility response plan is in place at its main power plant,” said Daniel Meer, the EPA’s assistant Superfund director for the Pacific Southwest region. “The potential for oil releases from their facilities and harm to environment is significant and CUC must implement steps to prevent and prepare for such discharges or face additional penalty demands."

CUC owns five power plants on the islands of Saipan and Rota. The facilities and an oil transfer pipeline on Saipan have a history of releases of oil. The EPA has found that CUC has caused discharges of harmful quantities of oil into the nearshore waters and shorelines.

In addition to past oil releases and the ongoing threats of oil releases from these facilities, CUC has failed to prepare and implement oil spill prevention plans for each of its five power plants and a facility response plan at its main power plant in Saipan, which is near Tanapag Harbor.

A facility response plan is required by the EPA for facilities which store over 1 million gallons of oil and have potential to cause significant and substantial harm to the environment. The plans must document that a facility has the necessary resources and equipment to respond to a worst case discharge at the facility, such as those that can be caused by typhoons and earthquakes. The plan also requires the facility to conduct drills, exercises and training to ensure prompt and effective response to small, medium and large oil spills.

The stipulated order is one of two that was entered by the Court on March 11, 2009. The other order covers water and wastewater issues at the CUC drinking water and wastewater facilities.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dylan does Christmas

Yes, I laughed. First impressions are like that, and it just seemed so inappropriate.

A confession: I don't like Christmas albums anyway. The songs are fine, but if the album is sitting there I'm going to hear it over and over. I particularly don't like fill-in-the-blank does Christmas. The blank being Elvis, Perry Como... ah the list is endless. Billy Idol? Country Christmases, Blues Christmases, instrumental Christmases, I even heard a Polka Christmas album. That one was painful the first time; it's hard to describe the the suffering caused by repetition.

So. You would think the first video from Bob Dylan's Christmas from the Heart confirmed my worst fears.

A polka, though it is a catchy tune. I still wouldn't buy the album, but I've already explained that. The second video is Little Drummer Boy, one of my favorites when I was a sprout. (I have to link to the video, it's an Amazon exclusive). Nice animation, and the song suits his voice, though if I didn't know I'd think it was Leonard Cohen singing.

Not for me, but you might like this album. I'll even push it a bit because the profits go to feeding hungry people. It's very consistent with his recent work. Here's an interview.

I only found this because I'm still interested in Dylan, though only mildly in recent decades, and I put myself on an email list.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Sorry, I haven't been posting lately about Saipan. I've been studying logic.

"[I]f it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic." -- Lewis Carroll

Tomorrow, maybe.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Snuffing Copenhagen

"If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. -- Dick Cheney

I got hooked on Politico during the Presidential election. They tried, usually succeeding, to balance the rants and raves of political and polemical characters of all shades. Sometimes they tried too hard.

That seems to be the case with their Copenhagen Connection special, which tries to keep us up to snuff on the climate change conference. Their summary of Sarah Palin's Washington Post Op-Ed sounded so reasonable that I had to read the original:
“Copenhagen’s political science”: “[G]ood environmental policymaking is about weighing real-world costs and benefits -- not pursuing a political agenda. That's not to say I deny the reality of some changes in climate -- far from it. I saw the impact of changing weather patterns firsthand while serving as governor of our only Arctic state. … But … we can't say with assurance that man's activities cause weather changes. … What Obama really hopes to bring home from Copenhagen is more pressure to pass the Democrats' cap-and-tax proposal. This is a political move. … The president should boycott Copenhagen.”
Boy, was I wrong. Those Politicos should be editing Coming Attraction trailers: I felt like I was fooled into watching a very bad summer movie. The excerpts suggest some degree of thoughtfulness, not a demagogic lead paragraph that refers to "so-called climate change experts".

Downhill from there, Palin polemically claims that "I've always believed that policy should be based on sound science, not politics," and then proceeds to ignore science and wallow in the politics of the devout denier. I have never bought the story line that she is stupid, rather I think she is George Will-fully ignorant. Like that partisan political pissant, she stuffs a straw man full of distortions, adds some outright lies and proceeds to argue with her creation. They think that they can make words like "experts" and "consensus" lose their meaning just because they sarcastically put them in quotes.

Their concern about the East Anglian emails threatening the sanctity of science is refreshing. Maybe they're compensating for their silence when Environmental Protection Agency documents were altered for political purposes. Also, I'd expect Palin to be front-and-center in denouncing criminals who hack into email accounts.

Al made me do it

Al Gore will tell you he's no scientist: just ask him. He's still too certain for my taste. Yes, probability is on his side, enough so that I believe action is necessary, but it's tough for me to travel down that fellow's road.

So, I was willing to read Palin, even that twit Will, because coal and oil aren't going away soon and because I profoundly distrust Gore's pet Cap and Trade (S)shell game. I should have known better. Evidently they don't think we need solutions, or at most the 'Just Say No' policy former President George Bush smirkingly proposed at earlier climate conferences.

What are the answers? The U.S. still has tremendous oil reserves, huge gas and coal deposits. Our dependence on those energy sources is unavoidable in the short term. Many poorer countries are even more dependent on dirty fuels. This Danish probably won't be very filling.

I expect carbon credit trading to win out and be increased, and it will end up in the greedy maw of the people who brought you last year's Wall Street meltdown. Keep saying they've learned their lesson when you see carbon credit futures and carbon credit hedges. If we're lucky, there can be a carbon credit bubble complete with carbon credit derivatives.

Banking on disaster

An example: Deutsche Bank has just put up a carbon (actually 24 assorted greenhouse gases) counter up in New York City. A fine thing, and I was happy to track down a widget I could put up on this site showing the same figures. The license is free but the terms include this ominous sentence: "You will treat the existence of the terms of this Agreement as confidential, and you agree that any information relating to the Application Tool is confidential to Deutsche Bank and/or its licensors and that you will refrain from disclosing such information to any third party." My first reaction was 'how Germanic', in the old pejorative sense of the word. My second was 'bugger off', why can't I even tell someone that there is an agreement? Of course, I could use it and tell you anyway, but I'm generally an honorable sort of guy.

Yes, the widget seems to be a good thing. Gore is probably quoting scientists when he claims we're pumping 90 million tons of Carbon into the atmosphere every day. The atmosphere, like the ocean, is huge, but neither can be our dumping ground forever. What can I say? I climbed on my high-horse when I read the terms and I'm still there.

The article that pointed me to the widget helpfully tells us that Deutsche Bank is managing about $6 billion in climate change investments. That appears to be less than one percent of the total assets they manage, but it seems to be a good thing. I just don't trust them. Why should I?

The snuff picture

In other news, the Marlboro Man has seen the writing on the wall -- it says No Smoking -- and is going green, in a way. Marlboro has been test marketing smokeless tobacco and snus (!?).

Not very well, according to analysts. Altria, the parent company of Marlboro and Philip Morris, is hedging its bets by buying Copenhagen and Skoal maker UST.

Yes, it's a stretch to include this. Hey, I got in a mention of Copenhagen and more than a billion smokers lighting up is nothing to sneeze at.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The ozone hole isn't old news

Sigh. I thought the Antarctic 'ozone hole' was history, and I really wanted to leave global warming alone for awhile.

I'm warm and fuzzy about the subject, it's a ray of hope in our struggle to understand the planet and to survive on it. Back in the eighties, after about 10 years of studies and dithering, we all got together to come up with the Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals because they were threatening us with too much exposure to ultraviolet light.

They agreements have been wildly successful, so much so that I was only mildly interested when NASA's Earth Observatory sent me yet another story back in September. (I'm hopelessly addicted to maps, so I got stuck looking at its fluctuations over 30 years-- the illustration here is from 2009). There were no great surprises: the decline in ozone appears to have stopped, and experts expect full recovery around 2050. The chemicals all have different 'lives' in the atmosphere, but the biggest villains last about 40-50 years.

Then, yesterday, I read that Seas could rise 1.4m, warns Antarctic climate review. Again, I was interested-- not wildly, but mildly. I seem to run across new temperature or sea level predictions every week or so. "Throw it into the hopper," say I, "let the scientists argue it out. They can try to convince me when they've reached a consensus."

That was before this simple statement rattled my cage:
For the past 30 years, the hole in the atmosphere's ozone layer above Antarctica has protected the bulk of the continent from the effects of climate change by generating fierce winds. In that time, sea ice around the continent has increased by 10 per cent.
We can't just quip 'be careful what you ask for' and start destroying ozone again; there was a reason for banning those chemicals. The UV levels would have fried our skin, our brains and toasted our DNA.

It sure wiped the smile off of my face.

No Presidents allowed

Presidents Barack Obama, George Bush and William Clinton couldn't get a visa if they were aliens trying to visit the United States.

I hadn't thought of that.

They all admitted to smoking pot. "Yet," says Immigration Attorney Carl Shusterman, "U.S. immigration laws do not provide for forgiveness for would be immigrants who have admitted to smoking marijuana, even in the distant past."

It only comes up in the press when some rock star or other celebrity near the top of the fame food chain is denied a tourist visa.

How many people do silly things when they are young? They trespass, they vandalize, they drink to excess (sometimes leading to other silly things) and they vote for candidates I really, really don't like.

I wouldn't blame the immigration folks. They're probably handcuffed by a statute defining 'moral turpitude' to include substances which are illegal because they are listed in Schedule such-and-such of another law.

Shusterman brought this up to discuss a person whose green card was denied because they told a doctor at St. Lukes in the Philippines that they'd had a toke or two. That was overturned on appeal because the nature of the crime hadn't been explained (check the link for details).

Just a word of warning to my friends looking for any sort of U.S. visa. Don't admit the slightest drug use, even casual.

Oh, don't lie about it either. Bill Clinton could tell you about the problems that could cause.

BTW: What kind of doctor asks about marijuana use in a medical examination?

Tiger's birdie

Tiger Woods has/had a girlfriend?

His private life is none of my business. Next subject?

"All of the details on this are tawdry, but we are tracking them anyway."-- Jonathon Mann on CNN

Beach bummer: when giving is taking

It sounds like a vaudeville joke:

We're going to dump some sand and widen your beach. -- That's good.
You don't have beachfront property anymore. -- That's bad.

It's also one for the Supreme Court: Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

That's it in a nutshell; the state wants to turn ocean front property into ocean view property and six landowners don't like that one bit. Is ocean frontage a property right?

The Kelo case was easy for me, I didn't like taking those people's houses for redevelopment.

This one is a tougher call, but then I've always lived in places where, theoretically, you had access to beachfronts even if they were private property. Theoretically, because it's not always easy to find a way to the beach through private land.

Evidently Justice John Paul Stevens has disqualified himself because of an apartment he owns in Florida. No word on Justice Antonin Scalia. Oh, yeah, it's Florida; he'd just tell us to get over it.

I'm interested, but not too concerned. We're more civilized about such things on Saipan. Here, the owners would just start landscaping, and maybe slip in a pavilion or tennis court.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

See scientist, see scientist squirm

MoveOn.org doctored this photograph*, which makes it the perfect illustration for this piece. It's hilarious, too, which didn't hurt. After we stop climate change, maybe we can stop time.

Climate is a murky subject. Do we really need True Believers roiling the water even more? What do they mean by climate anyway? Not weather; that can change for a year-- or two or three. Pick your time scale: it's some sort of average, a composite of what the weather usually is like.

The climate in any place will change over time. Somebody just over the hill might have a different climate than yours, and theirs might change in a different way.

All right, they're talking about global climate, especially temperatures. I knew that. Supposedly, the figures everyone is arguing about are based on 517 temperature-monitoring stations. There are a lot more weather stations, ships at sea and satellites to supplement that data. Still, in any given year, one place may be warmer and another cooler. How do you sum up all this information?

Climatologists have made some pretty sophisticated models using that data. They make predictions based on those models and then refine them when they miss the mark. Basically, with my limited knowledge, I trust them-- the models anyway.

Starting in the 70's, "global temperatures" started a slow, steady rise. Carbon dioxide was identified as the major culprit. I was convinced. I still am.

A funny thing happened on the way to the millenium

Why, then, did "global warming" stop at about the time we looked away to obsess about Y2K? And why did some scientists start talking about fudging their data like a butcher with his thumb on the scale?

Somebody hacked the Hadley Climatic Research Unit's emails and found that there had at least been talk of fiddling with the facts. Bad scientists. Expect funding cuts, ridicule and humiliation. Global warming skeptics are having a field day. (I balance True Believers like the Yes Men with TB's on the Net Right. Sorry, NASA and the NSF trump them both.)

What's going on here? Did these people have so much of their egos invested in their work that they wanted to make the data fit? Or, had Global Warming become a religion so the facts had to be changed to conform to the dogma?

Most of their peers seem to have coughed politely and looked the other way. Others, like Professor Peter Kelemen were openly dismayed. (Yeah, it's Popular Mechanics, but that's probably one of the audiences a Columbia University professor should be reaching) His article is actually a pretty good summary, from my point of view, if you've got the time to read it. I particularly agree with his conclusion:
We're in an unprecedented situation, with regard to the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and the rate at which it is rising. Because this is unprecedented, we are not sure what is going to happen. But global warming is very likely, and reasonably probable outcomes could be fatal. Ignoring it would be like Russian roulette. Want to play? I do not.
Speaking of inconvenient truths

It's time to Gore Al a bit, because the earth stopped cooperating at just about the time he started popularizing the idea of global warming. Not that he's necessarily wrong, but he's too wide-eyed, gosh-darned certain for my taste. Besides, you'd almost think he was some sort of mainstream politician with all of this gobbledygook about carbon offsets. Yeah, Al. So can I pee in your reservoir if I build a treatment plant somewhere else?

Professor Keleman pointed me to the very good Der Spiegel story, Climatologists Baffled by Global Warming Time-Out. I'd recommend any article that quotes Mojib Latif, who is quickly becoming my favorite climatologist.

Maybe it's the sunspot cycle, says one scientist. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation is Latif's choice. (The PDO gives me a headache when I try to wade through some of the papers describing it, but that hasn't stopped me yet. It's like El Nino and La Nina, only different.) Their disagreements don't bother me a bit; in fact they're healthy. That's what science is supposed to be. Try a hypothesis; try another if that doesn't fit the data.

Whatever the cause of the current plateau, there seems to be a lot of agreement that it is indeed just a pause in the warming trend.

I've lost the link, but a scientist (Latif, I think) pointed out that there has already been substantial warming, and its effects are still working their way around a very complex planet. The oceans are warmer, mixing has changed somewhat; frankly we don't know how all of these systems interact and what changes are already irreversible.

As an example, I read one obscure paper that tried to quantify how much swarms of jellyfish contributed to mixing of warm and cold water. You see, warmer water generally means more jellyfish, but if they then cause more mixing....

* If you follow the link and watch the slide show, you will see that her poster actually reads "stop global warming". I checked-- don't know why, really. Maybe because she didn't seem that dumb.

Stuck in the middle

I'm not talking about 'federalization' of minimum wage and immigration control. To me at least, that's been inevitable for a long, long time. All of this noise about whether it 'should' happen is just a distraction (That's still not the best word, but it's better than demagoguery). In the end, like a small animal chasing its tail, you end up in the same place.

No. It's here, and where do we go from here?

Oversimplifying (my specialty), I've read and seen that there are too many 'guest workers'. There likely won't be enough when the CW* workers are phased out in five years.

Boonie Workers

The idea of CNMI-only H-2 workers has been floated. What would that accomplish? The CNMI, and Guam, are not subject to the quota: we can hire as many H-2 workers as we need. There's the rub; the H-2 classification is for skilled workers, while the Commonwealth will probably be short of semi-skilled workers. That proposal sounds like misdirection; an attempt to squeeze CW skills into the H-2 rules. Better we use something like, say, BW (boonie worker).

Any system that attempts to fill permanent positions with an underclass of temporary workers will be abused, and it doesn't matter whether it is administered locally or federally.

The shining path

Guest workers and their advocates argue that the solution is residency and a pathway to citizenship. They also say it is only fair to people who have worked and lived here for 10, 20 or more years.

Some opponents argue that they will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of aliens, losing control. That's already happened, except politically, but we'll set that aside.

Others like the BW system. "What if these people get status and then run to Guam?" they ask.

So here I am, stuck in the middle. Yes, citizenship, out of fairness and equity (though, despite the urban legends, you knew the rules). Yes, don't dilute the culture (but where were you 20 years ago?). Yes, there might not be enough workers when the transition ends (why, after all of these years, aren't our wages closer to Guam's?).

Just the facts, ma'am

Jack Webb got it right, but there aren't many facts to go by. That's another chase-your-own-tail blame game. The economy will change during the transition. How much, and in what ways is anybody's guess.

So far, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services people have been asking for help in getting from here to there. Some see that as a failing on their part. I don't. Rather it's something refreshing, coming as it does from the federal government.

Of course, the Secretary of the Interior is supposed to come out with a report by May 8, 2010 including "the number of aliens in the CNMI, their legal status, the length of the aliens’ stays in the CNMI, the CNMI economy’s need for foreign workers, and recommendations, if deemed appropriate, whether or not legal foreign workers in the CNMI on May 8, 2008, should be able to apply for long-term status under United States law."

Not so fast, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Nikolao I. Pula testified in May. He asked for another year, arguing that there wasn't enough time to see the trends with DHS delaying its takeover for 180 days.

Here we go again.

* The CW, or unskilled CNMI-only, category is on hold until Immigration goes back and issues its regulations following the Administrative Procedures Act.

Up in the air

I'd tip my hat, if I wore one, to Saipan Tribune reporter Moneth Deposa for yesterday's Air Saipan owner denies allegations of 'fake' deals.

The CNMI has seen enough fly-by-night airlines* to justify a little caution. I even had the unworthy suspicion that, like the Air Saipan proposal before the last election, it would never get off of the ground.

The Tribune ran across the site http://deanmillsconman.com, or were contacted by someone connected with the site, since it references their articles. It is chock-full of anecdotal aspersions on Mr. Mills character. They asked Mr. Mills about them-- standard practice I know, but often more honored in the breach than the observance here.

Reasonably enough, in his email response, Mills asked "Is there any evidence of these reports such as proof of warrants and other comments?"

Domainsbyproxy.com in Scottsdale, Arizona registered the domain name with GoDaddy.com. That, and the website IP, tell you exactly nothing. We don't know who is making these accusations.

Mills signals he might, with the comments "Many of these rumors were sent by people who don't understand that business sometimes doesn't work despite the best efforts of those concerned. Sometimes it is better to close a business.than to run at a deficit."

Sounds like his ex-partners in Air Andaman to me. There's little else on the internet, and I pecked about a bit using the countries mentioned as key words.

Cautionary tale or sour grapes? I wouldn't know. But, "The threat level in the airline sector is High or Orange," says the Department of Homeland Security-- one up from the level for other sectors.

* Though I suppose the planes they abandon are useful to fire rescue for training.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Feeding the fish

Feeding the fish

The link said lawsuit over fish pedicure. "You must be kidding," I thought.

Nope. What do you get for someone who has everything?

According to the Phoenix East Valley Tribune, the Arizona Board of Cosmetology ordered salon owner Cindy Vong to lay off her fish, forcing her to also lay off three employees.

Ah, but this is Goldwater country, and the institute bearing his name has stepped in.

"The board's action is more about protecting cosmetologists from competition than it is about protecting consumers against anything except wet feet and smooth skin," says director of litigation Clint Bolick.

Grooming instruments need to be sterilized, says the board. That seems like it would be a one-time deal for a fish.

I'm having fun with this, but Vong says she's out $50,000 to $60,000. I'd hate to see her have to eat that investment.

Disclaimer: My feet are incredibly ticklish, so I'm probably not a proper advocate.