moldybluecheesecurds 2

Friday, June 29, 2007

Is spending on soft power counterproductive?

This article examines the use of the "$75 million," money appropriated in 2007 to promote democracy in Iran. Ironically, however, the poor relationship with Iran (and the Muslim world in general) means that many recipients of American aid are targeted by the Iranian government. Has the United States entered an era of spiraling soft power where attempts to rebuild are doomed to condemnation as tricks?

The hope for the $75 million was to increase fervor for democracy and to support civil groups working on such issues:
  • $36 million for radio and television beamed into Iran
  • $10 million for public diplomacy and exchange programs
  • $20 million for civil society groups such as NGOs and legal and human rights organizations
But the result has often been that the targets of support become targets of the Iranian government, suspicious of anyone receiving American aid:
For the Iranian government, the democracy fund is just one more element in an elaborate Bush administration regime-change stratagem. (“Is there even a perception that the American government has democracy in mind?” Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, asked me recently in New York. “Except among a few dreamers in Eastern Europe?”) In recent months, Tehran has upped the pressure on any citizens who might conceivably be linked to the democracy fund and, by extension, on civil society at large, making the mere prospect of American support counterproductive, even reckless...

It is particularly telling, perhaps, that some of the most outspoken critics of the Iranian government have been among the most outspoken critics of the democracy fund. Activists from the journalist Emadeddin Baghi to the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi to the former political prisoner Akbar Ganji have all said thanks but no thanks.
The suspicion isn't entirely unfounded. The democracy fund has a legacy of American meddling in Iran to overcome:
As Martin Indyk, an assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs during the Clinton administration, recently told me: “Don’t forget 1996, when Newt Gingrich proposed an $18 million program, a covert program to overthrow the regime. From then the Iranians were convinced we were coming for them.”
But there's also evidence that the Bush administration has an agenda that's more than promoting American values of democracy and rule of law. Almost half the fund's money was meant to support radio and television broadcasting into Iran, something that had been successfully modeled for years.

Every day at 8 p.m., hundreds of thousands of Iranians around the country tune into the Voice of America’s Persian service on their satellite televisions...Founded in 1996, the television service is based upon the V.O.A. template designed during World War II to target restive populations under Nazi occupation. It is perhaps best known for its work in broadcasting beyond the Iron Curtain during the cold war. By and large, V.O.A. Persian has earned a reputation as a balanced source of news, especially compared with an Iranian state television that has grown increasingly doctrinaire...The fundamental assumption of Voice of America is that the societies to which it is broadcasting are not free and that the best thing you can do to advance their freedom is to show them what fair reporting is like and, along the way, show them the good news about American values.

[With help from the democracy fund,] V.O.A.’s Persian television programming spiked from one to five hours a day.

But the democracy fund money to boost V.O.A. was not without strings attached.

The dedicated funds for Persian-language media increasingly look to many inside the V.O.A. like an opportunity lost, particularly as the money arrived with a bundle of expectations attached. “There was this idea that we had to serve the White House with this money,” one V.O.A. staff member recently told me. “And then there was Archin’s report.” Ladan Archin, a former student of Paul Wolfowitz’s currently serving in the Defense Department, had been asked to write an internal report on Persian-language programming for the N.S.C. and the now-dissolved Iran Steering Group in 2006. Her report, leaked in September 2006, was pithy and damning: she deemed the programming a waste of money. Archin chronicled instances of what she considered the V.O.A.’s giving a platform to “the Islamic Republic’s version of issues” and listed commentators who had gone on air criticizing American policy. Her report was echoed by Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, who has consistently pressed V.O.A. to be harder on the Islamic Republic...

The charged climate may have given free rein to a disturbing variety of political actors. On occasion, V.O.A. has lurched toward Reza Pahlavi, the shah’s son. The 40-something would-be monarch, who lives in Maryland, is often on the program and on occasion is invited to bestow New Year’s wishes on the Iranian people. And on April 1 of this year V.O.A. featured Abdolmalek Rigi, the head of Jondollah, a militant Sunni group that operates inside Iran’s southeastern border and claims to advance the interests of the Baluch minority. Jondollah is responsible for dozens of hostage takings and terrorist attacks. On this particular round-table program, Rigi was introduced as the leader of an armed national resistance group...The new administrators at V.O.A. “do not seem to be able to distinguish between journalism and propaganda,” Khalaji told me. “If you host the head of Jondollah and call him a freedom fighter or present a Voice of America run by monarchists, Iranians are going to stop listening.”

In other words, the Bush administration's efforts are fouling what has been a long-standing practice of promoting values without promoting regime change. Instead, with the waters muddied, many of the activists who in the past appreciated American aid are now suspicious of it, as is their government.

We might have more luck promoting democracy and rule of law if our president was a better model...

Things that make me pissed #5

Ignorant righteous indignation.

The commuters from a few south metropolitan exurbs (Lakeville and Farmington) of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area are up in arms about a new permit system at a closer-in suburban bus station. Area residents and commuters from Apple Valley and Burnsville pay a regional transit tax to supply bus service around the area and to the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. However, they've been frustrated by a lack of parking at one of the transit stations, caused by as many as 60% of the commuters being from areas outside the transit tax area. The city council recently passed an ordinance requiring permits for parking, available only to residents of the municipalities who pay the taxes supporting the transit.

The reaction from the freeloaders?
"If it's a public transit facility, it should be open and accessible to members of the public, and Farmington residents, last time I checked, were part of the public," said Farmington Mayor Kevan Soderberg, who said he's gotten calls from residents who said they would organize a boycott of Apple Valley businesses if the permit system goes into effect...

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, called the permit plan unfair and said if Apple Valley moves ahead, he'll consider introducing a bill next session to prohibit cities from requiring permits at transit stations.
Let's check the logic here. These exurban residents elected "no new taxes" Republicans to the state legislature (and probably local office) with over 60% of the vote in 2006. And yet, when denied access to a desired public service that they do not pay for, they raise holy hell.

I've got two words for you, transit freeloaders: pay up!

Note: the boycott threat is particularly amusing. Checking the Apple Valley Chamber of Commerce website shows seven listings for retail stores, all national chains. Oh no, don't boycott Wal-mart, they might go out of business!

Someone you should know

A column by Jim Wallis, who writes on social justice from a religious and spiritual perspective, about the new British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. It puts America's frightful leadership in stark relief.

Someone You Should Know

I want to introduce you to someone. His name is Gordon Brown, and he just became Britain's new Prime Minister. You have probably been hearing and reading the news about the transition from Tony Blair to Brown.

Among other things, Brown is a voracious reader, and reads many American books about politics, including those that focus on moral values and politics. That's how I first met Gordon Brown: I was speaking in Britain and got a call from the office of the Chancellor of the Exchequer (his former position) saying that Brown wanted to get together that evening, if I was available. So I went over to his office at the Treasury, and he told me that he had read my books and had many questions for me. So we put our feet up and began talking, and have been doing so now for a number of years.

I've done several interviews recently with British newspapers and television networks about what kind of man Gordon Brown is. One asked me the word I would use to best describe him, and I said "passion." That's in sharp contrast to some of the British press, who refer to the new Prime Minister as "dour," as one Guardian columnist did this morning on National Public Radio. But that is simply not the man that I have come to know, and whose friendship I deeply value. I have taken American heads of churches and development agencies to visit with Brown, and they have been universally and amazingly impressed with his deep understanding of the issues of globalization and his personal commitment to tackling the moral challenge of inequality. I believe that Gordon Brown has more passion (and knowledge) about the issues of global poverty and social justice than any other Western leader today. And I believe his leadership could make a great difference. He is somebody you should know and follow closely.

Gordon Brown is the son of a Church of Scotland pastor and grew up in a manse where the biblical vision of justice seems to have found its place in his heart. Quotes from Isaiah and Jeremiah pepper his speeches about the kind of global economy we must be working for, and as I said in God's Politics, Brown's words often remind me of the prophet Micah, who knew that true security requires that "all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid."

Let me share a few of his words from his speech this week on his transition to the new post of Labor Party Leader and Prime Minister.

First on his values and moral compass:

All I believe and all I try to do comes from the values that I grew up with: duty, honesty, hard work, family, and respect for others.

And this is what my parents taught me and will never leave me: that each and every one of us has a talent, each and every one of us should have the chance to develop their talent, and that each of us should use whatever talents we have to enable people least able to help themselves.

And so I say honestly: I am a conviction politician. My conviction that everyone deserves a fair chance in life. My conviction that each of us has a responsibility to each other. And my conviction that when the strong help the weak, it makes us all stronger. Call it 'the driving power of social conscience,' call it 'the better angels of our nature,' call it 'our moral sense,' call it a belief in 'civic duty.'

I joined this party as a teenager because I believed in these values. They guide my work, they are my moral compass. This is who I am. And because these are the values of our party, too, the party I lead must have more than a set of policies – we must have a soul.

On children in poverty:

... let me say also that in the fourth richest country in the world it is simply wrong – wrong that any child should grow up in poverty. To address this poverty of income and to address also the poverty of aspirations by better parenting, better schools, and more one-to-one support, I want to bring together all the forces of compassion – charities, voluntary sector, local councils, so that at the heart of building a better Britain is the cause of ending child poverty.

On foreign policy:

Our foreign policy in years ahead will reflect the truth that to isolate and defeat terrorist extremism now involves more than military force – it is also a struggle of ideas and ideals that in the coming years will be waged and won for hearts and minds here at home and round the world. And an essential contribution to this will be what becomes daily more urgent – a Middle East settlement upholding a two state solution, that protects the security of Israel and the legitimate enduring desire for a Palestinian state.

Because we all want to address the roots of injustice, I can tell you today that we will strengthen and enhance the work of the department of international development and align aid, debt relief and trade policies to wage an unremitting battle against the poverty, illiteracy, disease and environmental degradation that it has fallen to our generation to eradicate.

Gordon Brown is a new kind of political leader, one who seeks to practice moral politics. He has already worked very closely with the community of faith and seeks a vital partnership. He knows that even politicians like him need to be challenged and held accountable by social movements with spiritual foundations. He once told me that without Jubilee 2000, the church-based movement to cancel Third World debt, the Labor government would have never done so. He encouraged me to keep building such movements because the world of politics needs them.

So pay attention to what Gordon Brown does now and please pray for him. I believe he could become the kind of international leader who really helps to change things. I watched his remarks on the BBC, just before he and his wife walked through the door of 10 Downing Street to spend his first night as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. I'm glad he is there.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Redistricting Game (pictorial)

Last Tuesday I noted the release of the Redistricting Game, which allows players to see how current laws governing redistricting allow for some tortuously complicated Congressional districts. I played the game a bit, and here's my successful redistricting of the mythical state of Adams, which will now have 3 Democratic representatives to 1 Republican one. Eat your heart out, Tom DeLay!

Before jff (4 seats, 2 R and 2D):

After jff (3 D and 1 R; note that Arnie not only has more Democrats, he doesn't live in his district anymore...):

Fun fact (via Wikipedia): the definition of "gerrymander"
The word "gerrymander" is named for the Governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry (July 17, 1744November 23, 1814), and is a blend of his name with the word "salamander," which was used to describe the appearance of a tortuous electoral district pressed through the Massachusetts legislature in 1812 by Jeffersonian democrats, in order to disadvantage their electoral opponents in the upcoming senatorial election, and reluctantly signed into law by Gerry.

Iran: how many rationing riots? Check your sources

I blogged about Iran's energy policy a while back, and noted that their fuel subsidy was likely to run into a wall of government deficits sometime soon. That happened this week, when the government announced gasoline rationing (note: a market price also rations things, by making people pay what the item is actually worth). The BBC has a nice Q&A on the rationing policy and rationale. The interesting part isn't the rationing, or even the widespread protests. It's more in the fact that the news stories vary A LOT in their selection of the number of gas stations that protesters supposedly burned.

Yesterday, it wasn't uncommon to see a news source cite 50 or 100 gas stations. This figure seems to originate with at least one Iranian resistance group, whose website cites "at least 50 stations burned." The Seattle Times still says "more than a dozen, while the venerable New York Times cites "at least two" gas stations. CNN confirms exactly two.

Why the discrepancy?

Clearly, some folks just head to the internet, and have no idea if their source is legitimate. But there's also not a lot of Americans who get foreign news from someone actually in a foreign locale. The Christian Science Monitor noted in February that the number of foreign correspondents by both television and newspaper news outlets has been dropping steadily, even as foreign affairs has become more important since 9/11. The original paper, from the Harvard Shorenstein Center, goes into more detail about the dearth of foreign news (pdf).

If we want good international news, we need good journalists overseas.

Business School Dean discusses a carbon tax

Data reuse endangers privacy

That data you give the Census bureau is private, right? It'll just be used in the aggregate to help assign congressional districts and distribute federal funds?

That's the theory, but electronic security columnist Bruce Schneier examines how data reuse (or repurposing) has led to significant violations of privacy.

The Census Bureau normally is prohibited by law from revealing data that could be linked to specific individuals; the law exists to encourage people to answer census questions accurately and without fear. And while the Second War Powers Act of 1942 temporarily suspended that protection in order to locate Japanese-Americans, the Census Bureau had maintained that it only provided general information about neighborhoods.

New research proves they were lying.

The article notes that this is not just the past and how our data-hungry society can leave a lot of information available for unscrupulous use.

There are two bothersome issues about data reuse. First, we lose control of our data. In all of the examples [Amazon recommending books based on browsing habits, airlines saving your seat preferences], there is an implied agreement between the data collector and me: It gets the data in order to provide me with some sort of service. Once the data collector sells it to a broker, though, it's out of my hands. It might show up on some telemarketer's screen...This, of course, affects our willingness to give up personal data in the first place. The reason U.S. census data was declared off-limits for other uses was to placate Americans' fears and assure them that they could answer questions truthfully.

The second issue about data reuse is error rates. All data has errors, and different uses can tolerate different amounts of error...That's OK; if the database of ultra-affluent Americans of a particular ethnicity you just bought has a 10 percent error rate, you can factor that cost into your marketing campaign. But that same database, with that same error rate, might be useless for law enforcement purposes.

...An even more egregious example of error-rate problems occurred in 2000, when the Florida Division of Elections contracted with Database Technologies (since merged with ChoicePoint) to remove convicted felons from the voting rolls. The databases used were filled with errors and the matching procedures were sloppy, which resulted in thousands of disenfranchised voters -- mostly black -- and almost certainly changed a presidential election result.

Of course, not examples of data reuse are bad. Medical records in the aggregate provide valuable research material for doctors and medical scientists, allowing connections to be drawn between treatments, behaviors, and outcomes. But it's important that the laws around data secure it and that data collection systems don't retain information forever (e.g. Google's recent promise to expunge search records after 18 months).

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dick Cheney - greasing the skids for corporate America

The Washington Post is spending a significant amount of time investigating Dick Cheney's role as Vice President. Their latest story looks at his activity in navigating and bending the bureaucracy to the will of the President, riding roughshod over environmental regulations and other popularly supported legal measures.
It was Cheney's insistence on easing air pollution controls, not the personal reasons she cited at the time, that led Christine Todd Whitman to resign as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, she said in an interview that provides the most detailed account so far of her departure...It was Cheney's insistence on easing air pollution controls, not the personal reasons she cited at the time, that led Christine Todd Whitman to resign as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, she said in an interview that provides the most detailed account so far of her departure.
Of course, this is nothing compared to his latest attempt to avoid government disclosure rules by arguing that the Vice President is not part of the executive branch.

Not everyone is accepting Cheney's latter statement sitting down. Congressman Rahm Emanuel promptly introduced an amendment to a funding bill to strip executive branch funds for Cheney's office. He also released the following chart and statement illustrating Cheney's understanding of the branches of government:

"Today, we discovered that everything we learned in U.S. government class was wrong. Evidently, the Vice President does not consider himself a part of the executive branch, and therefore believes he can obstruct meaningful oversight and avoid being held accountable. If the Vice President truly believes he is not a part of the executive branch, he should return the salary the American taxpayers have been paying him since January 2001, and move out of the home for which they are footing the bill."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Things that make me pissed #4

4. Legislation that guts environmental protection in the name of convenience. Illinois and other states are considering legislation to cease emissions tests on vehicles before the 1996 model year. On these older vehicles, testing must be done via the tailpipe, instead of the computer-driven test that can be done on newer models.
About 70% of the 238 million cars and trucks in use nationwide are 1996 or later models [and can be tested via computer], the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says.
The big loser? Common sense.
Environment Canada estimates that pre-1988 vehicles and poorly maintained vehicles are responsible for about 35 percent of on-road emissions in Canada.
A review of Connecticut's vehicle emissions testing program found similar results:
Current year cars fail at a rate of less than 0.1 percent, two-year-old cars at less than 0.4 percent and three-year-old cars at less than 0.7 percent while eight-year-old cars fail nearly 6.5 percent of the time. (emphasis mine)
Instead of soothing irate vehicle owners by eliminating emissions tests, how about following Colorado's lead and screening for high emitting vehicles? After all, it's the small portion of badly polluting vehicles that are responsible for a disproportionate amount of emissions.

Things that make me pissed #3

3. U.S. courts that further the legal fiction that corporations and other "entities" are people with rights. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the attempt by Congress to eliminate corporate and union-funded "issue ads" was unconstitutional.
The chief justice said these ads involve "core political speech", which is protected by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution.

"We give the benefit of the doubt to speech, not censorship," Roberts said. He was joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Anthony M. Kennedy. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed, although they would have gone further and struck down entirely the broadcast ban set in the McCain-Feingold Act.
Some justices disagreed:
Reading the dissent in open court, Justice David H. Souter...noted that 100 years ago, Congress prohibited corporations from funding candidates and that the broadcast ban was a means of preventing corporate money from influencing elections.
Do you have enough money to outspend Exxon Mobil in 2008?

Things that make me pissed #2

2. Lawsuits run amok. When a man's dry cleaner misplaced a pair of pants out for alteration, he took one look at the "satisfaction guaranteed" sign in the window and sued. For $54 million. Even though they found his pants. What kind of idiot has this little respect for the judicial system? An administrative law judge.

[The idiot] Pearson sought $1,500 for every day that Custom Cleaners displayed the 'Satisfaction Guaranteed' sign during a four-year period, multiplied by the three defendants. He also sought $15,000 to rent a car to take his clothes to another cleaner for 10 years.

Pearson said during the trial he would keep $2.5 million for himself and use the remainder of the award to encourage others to file similar lawsuits.

The good news? Justice was served and the the judge lost his case.

Things that make me pissed #1

1. All the scare stories about Americans having to buy smaller cars because of new fuel economy regulations. No, I don't disagree that cars will likely have to be smaller to meet the 35 mpg standard. What makes me angry is the assumption that Americans should continue to be able to buy the biggest, heaviest, most powerful car they f***ing want:
In the U.S. today, about 70% of car and truck sales sport six- or eight-cylinder engines. In Europe, 89% of vehicles sold have a four-cylinder or smaller engine.
I'm generous, so here's a choice of ways you can contribute to covering the cost of your rampant fuel use. Suck it up and buy a car that helps meet a lower fuel economy standard (the easy way out) or hit up the ATM to cover a $1/gallon gas tax.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Cheney reclassifies self to avoid disclosure

Vice President Dick Cheney has made a career of avoiding public scrutiny in his time in the Bush Administration. His privacy-seeking has ranged from hiding his person in "undisclosed locations" after September 11 to hiding the list of executives involved in energy policy discussions in 2002 to scrapping any efforts by the Secret Service to keep visitor records to his private residence.

Now the Vice President is claiming that he's not subject to rules governing the safeguarding of national security information because "he's not part of the executive branch." Arguing that his only constitutional role is the President of the Senate, Cheney claims that his office is exempt from the executive order requiring all executive agencies and offices to comply.

The irony is that Cheney's got an impressive history of scurrying from public scrutiny and record-keeping, all justified under the guise of "executive privilege." Here's some samples from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:
Exempting the Office of the Vice President from the Executive Order on Classified National Security Information. Over the objections of the National Archives, Vice President Cheney exempted his office from Executive Order 12958, which establishes a uniform, government-wide system for safeguarding classified information. In response to the protests of the National Archives, the staff of the Vice President proposed abolishing the office within the Archives that is in charge of implementing the executive order.

Blocking GAO Oversight. In 2001, Vice President Cheney headed a task force to develop a national energy policy. After GAO sought to learn the identity of the energy industry officials with whom the Vice President’s task force met, Vice President Cheney sued the Comptroller General to prevent GAO from conducting oversight of his office.

Concealing Privately-Funded Travel. Vice President Cheney has refused to comply with an executive branch ethics law requiring him and his employees to disclose travel paid for by special interests.3

Withholding Information about Vice Presidential Staff. Every four years, Congress prints the “Plum Book,” listing the names and titles of all federal political appointees. In 2004, the Office of the Vice President, for the first time, refused to provide any information for inclusion in the book.

Concealing Information about Visitors to the Vice President’s Residence. The Vice President has asserted “exclusive control” over any documents created by the United States Secret Service regarding visitors to the Vice President’s residence.5 This has the effect of preventing information about who is meeting with the Vice President from being disclosed to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

Allowing Former Vice Presidents to Assert Privilege Over Documents. An Executive Order issued by President Bush in November 2001 provided the Vice President with the authority to conceal his activities long after he leaves office. Executive Order 13233 took the unprecedented step of authorizing former Vice Presidents to assert privilege over their own vice presidential records, preventing them from being released publicly.
And as the latest scandal involving use of Republican National Committee email addresses for official business unfolds, it's clear that the safest thing for America is to impeach Cheney.

Oil prices have nowhere but up to go

The U.S. Senate might have just passed increased fuel economy standards (35mpg by 2020), but with world oil demand increasing at twice the rate of 2006, it's going to take a lot more than more Honda Civics on the road.

This one's for AR - "dating librarians"

For a larger version, please click through to the artist's homepage.

Would a larger army make us safer?

Many of the Democratic candidates for president are arguing for increases in the size of the standing army. Barack Obama has a specific figure - 92,000 troops - and Mitt Romney and other Republicans are advocating for "at least 100,000." But what will a larger army buy us in an age of terrorism?
This bipartisan consensus -- which even includes Bush, who recently unveiled his own five-year plan to enlarge the Army and Marine Corps -- illustrates the inability or refusal of the political class to grasp the true nature of our post-9/11 foreign-policy crisis. Any politician who thinks that the chief lesson to be drawn from the last five years is that we need more Americans toting rifles and carrying rucksacks has learned nothing...

[The] second consensus consists of two elements. According to the first element, the only way to win the so-called global war on terrorism, thereby precluding another 9/11, is to "fix" whatever ails the Islamic world. According to the second element, the United States possesses the wherewithal to effect just such a transformation. In essence, by employing American power, beginning with military power, to ameliorate the ills afflicting Islam, we will ensure our own safety.
As the author says, "this is sheer twaddle."

The failure to protect ourselves on 9/11 was an intelligence failure, not a military one. Investing in more troops with limited resources simply means a smaller focus on what items actually protect us.

Second, we have proven rather effectively that a military solution to the threat of terrorism (or Islamic extremism) is a failure.

To those arguments against the strategies in the war on terror, I'd add that we're less likely to have our volunteer men and women deployed to foreign wars by swashbuckling presidents if there are fewer of them to go around. A bigger standing army is no way to reign in an extralegal president.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The correlation between royal edict and illegal behavior

In a small sample of laws that President Bush has issued signing statements regarding, the Government Accountability Office has found that in 6 of 19 cases, the federal agencies responsible for following the law have coincidentally decided to ignore it. This extra-legal action, done via "signing statements," happens when the President essentially tells federal agencies and departments that his executive authority allows him to void certain parts of Congressional acts. The president has issued more than 1100 such directives to federal agencies during his term, more than all prior presidents combined.

I previously blogged on the intellectual grounding of this philosophy, essentially that Mr Bush is a uniquely princely president who is simply taking up the previously unwielded - yet legitimate - executive power.

The GAO study doesn't reveal the full extent of the signing statements, because the study could only cover unclassified rulings:

In his signing statement of Oct. 18, 2005, Bush instructed the border patrol to view the "relocation provision as advisory rather than mandatory" on the assertion that only the president has the constitutional authority to decide how to deploy law enforcement officers.

None of the laws the GAO investigated included the president's most controversial claims involving national security, such as his assertion that he can set aside a torture ban and new oversight provisions in the USA Patriot Act because he is the commander in chief. Such material is classified.

In other words, it's still unclear as to whether rule of law or rule of Bush is governing the War on Terror. And sadly, the success rate of the latter is a lot lower.

A more sensible drug policy

A tip of the hat to GMoney for the reference. This video is a nice tongue-in-cheek look at the "drug war" and the role of politics in overcoming research and common sense in drug policy.

The video is distributed by the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization focused on numerous non-incarceration strategies for fighting drug abuse and distribution.

On marijuana, they support legalization for prescription medicinal purposes and the decriminalization of "consumption-related offenses." In other words, make marijuana legal for cancer patients and only charge those who distribute the drug illegally. They have an extensive page on myths and facts about marijuana, and while they certainly have their biases, it seems fairly honest.

I find the issue of impaired cognitive ability interesting:
The cognitive process most clearly affected by marijuana is short-term memory. In laboratory studies, subjects under the influence of marijuana have no trouble remembering things they learned previously. However, they display diminished capacity to learn and recall new information. This diminishment only lasts for the duration of the intoxication. There is no convincing evidence that heavy long-term marijuana use permanently impairs memory or other cognitive functions.
Their conclusion is that marijuana is fairly harmless to cognitive ability. However, since youth in particular have a lot of learning to do (in school and outside of it), I'd say that using marijuana at any time is probably harmful to their cognitive development. To be fair, I have no studies to cite today.

The DPA has a page devoted to a drug-by-drug analysis of American drug policy. Their overview notes that the DPA would like drug policy to reflect the relative harm of a drug. In their view, a low harm drug such as marijuana should be regulated (and criminalized) much less than ecstasy or heroin.

At any rate, it's clear that a policy more reflective of science and common sense could do better than the politically-driven one we enjoy today and the DPA video is a clever way to point that out.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Saving us from terrorism - tasering an airport bicyclist

In world of global warming, you'd think public policy and officials would support bike riding. But then, you might be underestimating the ego of one airport police officer when he's confronted with a reasonable argument against his unfounded edict.

This bike rider tried to leave the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport by bicycle last September (alongside the road, as is legal) and was stopped by an airport police officer. Even though there are no prohibitions to riding a bicycle on airport property (as long as state statutes regarding bike riding are followed - they were), the officer ordered the rider to get off the road and either walk the bike or take public transit.

After a several minute discussion where the bicyclist pointed out the lack of prohibition, the bicyclist turned to leave and was summarily knocked down, cuffed, and tasered. As he points out in the description, he's not charged with fleeing an officer, so he was legitimately allowed to depart.
What are the police claiming?
That I "struggled" while tased, that I "forcefully shrugged my shoulders", that I was 'resistent', that I prevented a "take-down maneuver" by a trained officer. For the record, I weigh less than 140 pounds.
Translation: the officer needed to chastise someone after getting owned in the legal discussion

For more on the truly outrageous incident, including links to police evidence and the case file, click here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Redistrict your heart out with Redistricting: The Game!

Is redistricting Congressional seats fun enough to be a game? If you're at the Annenberg Center, it is. And surprisingly, even if you are just political enough to wonder how redistricting affects political fairness, this game is a fun exercise.

Redistricting is the process by which congressional seats are allocated based on the decennial census. In other words, each of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives is supposed to represent approximately the same number of people. Every 10 years the number of reps assigned to each state is adjusted based on population changes and the districts represented have to be modified to keep population nearly equal across districts.

As with most things related to political power, political parties have found ways to game this system to secure disproportionate representation. For example, has analysis of all 50 states, highlighting some of the crazily-shaped districts (see Texas #6) around the country. Texas, of course, if famous for the redistricting that took place in 2003 by the Republican-controlled legislature for the express purpose of increasing Republican control of Congressional seats.

The Annenberg Center studies a slew of issues related to communication in the digital age, and has done other work on the role of the press in presidential elections. This online game is an excellent learning tool for redistricting and from my this-lunch-break-was-over-15-minutes-ago experience, it's worth a few minutes of your time.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Network TV doesn't believe in evolution

Trojan, the condom company, has created a new advertisement- "Evolve" - that it's trying to get on TV. It's been accepted all over the cable-sphere, but all four major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox) have balked at the commercial, which basically implies that people are sexier if they have a condom. The message is delivered by cellphone-toting pigs in a bar, who evolve into comely young men once they purchase a condom from the bathroom vending machine (see the ad here).

So why does this "use protection" message not pass the network censor?
A 2001 report about condom advertising by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that, “Some networks draw a strong line between messages about disease prevention — which may be allowed — and those about pregnancy prevention, which may be considered controversial for religious and moral reasons...”

In a written response to Trojan, though, Fox said that it had rejected the spot because, “Contraceptive advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy.”
An interesting position to take from the network that brings us Desperate Housewives and other high-brow entertainment. And of course, FOX isn't alone:
Both the proportion of shows that contain sexual content and the number of sexual scenes within those shows have increased. All told, there are nearly twice as many scenes with sex today as there were seven years ago in the same sample of television programming. One in every nine shows across the TV landscape – excluding daily news- casts, sports events and children’s shows – includes scenes of sexual intercourse either depicted or strongly implied. (Kaiser Family Foundation study, 2005; emphasis mine)
I'd sum up this two-faced behavior, but the NY Times quotes someone who nails it:
“It’s so hypocritical for any network in this culture to go all puritanical on the subject of condom use when their programming is so salacious,” said Mark Crispin Miller, a media critic who teaches at New York University. “I mean, let’s get real here. Fox and CBS and all of them are in the business of nonstop soft porn, but God forbid we should use a condom in the pursuit of sexual pleasure.” (emphasis mine)

"To boldly go..." - not any time soon

I came across an interesting essay on the technological (and other) limitations to human space travel and colonization of other worlds (via Slashdot).
Here's a handy metaphor: let's approximate one astronomical unit — the distance between the Earth and the sun, roughly 150 million kilometres, or 600 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon — to one centimetre. Got that? 1AU = 1cm...

Next on our tour is Proxima Centauri, our nearest star...[But that's not habitable, so to get one of those we look to] Gliese 581c, the first such to be detected (and it looks like a pretty weird one, at that). [This closest habitable planet] is roughly 20.4 light years away, or using our metaphor, about ten miles.
So to just reach the nearest habitable planet, we'd need to travel over 600,000 times further than we've ever sent a human being. To give a human being somewhere to stay whilst traveling over 20 light-years, he envisions a space capsule with all sorts of automated systems including near-magical technologies like an artificial uterus (since this is a solo mission and we'll need more colonists).
It's going to be pretty boring in there, but I think we can conceive of our minimal manned interstellar mission as being about the size and mass of a Mercury capsule. And I'm going to nail a target to the barn door and call it 2000kg in total.
So how much energy do we need to hit the nearest planet - 4.22 light years - despite its inhospitable atmosphere?

We're sending them on a one-way trip, so a 42 year flight time isn't unreasonable. ..This means they need to achieve a mean cruise speed of 10% of the speed of light...So we need to accelerate our astronaut to 30,000,000 metres per second, and decelerate them at the other end. Cheating and using Newton's laws of motion, the kinetic energy acquired by acceleration is 9 x 1017 Joules, so we can call it 2 x 1018 Joules in round numbers for the entire trip. NB: This assumes that the propulsion system in use is 100% efficient at converting energy into momentum, that there are no losses from friction with the interstellar medium, and that the propulsion source is external ...So this is a lower bound on the energy cost...

To put this figure in perspective, the total conversion of one kilogram of mass into energy yields 9 x 1016 Joules. (Which one of my sources informs me, is about equivalent to 21.6 megatons in thermonuclear explosive yield). So we require the equivalent energy output to 400 megatons of nuclear armageddon in order to move a capsule of about the gross weight of a fully loaded Volvo V70 automobile to Proxima Centauri in less than a human lifetime...

For a less explosive reference point, our entire planetary economy runs on roughly 4 terawatts of electricity (4 x 1012 watts). So it would take our total planetary electricity production for a period of half a million seconds — roughly 5 days — to supply the necessary va-va-voom.

He goes on to discuss the energy costs of an entire colony of humans, which are vastly higher. And then he points out that this idea of a colony is kind of silly anyway:
As Bruce Sterling has puts it: "I'll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach"...In other words, going there to explore is fine and dandy — our robots are all over it already. But as a desirable residential neighbourhood it has some shortcomings, starting with the slight lack of breathable air and the sub-Antarctic nighttime temperatures and the Mach 0.5 dust storms, and working down from there.
So we can keep dreaming (and watching Star Trek), but human space colonies are a long way off.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Comments on CAFE standard

Thanks to the two folks who wrote in about the CAFE standards. Both had interesting perspectives I'd like to share.

E noted that carbon demand (fossil fuel use) is very inelastic (doesn't change easily despite price fluctuations) and that a carbon cap operates like a quota. In other words, it will drive prices up almost immediately.
I'm confident that my family's farming business would end very quickly, as diesel fuel is -needed- for it to function, and our profit margins are slim to begin with.
Otto also shared his perspective on CAFE, although it was more to promote his support for weaker CAFE standards than anything else. From the Auto Alliance, he supports Pryor-Bond-Levin, which would scale back the fuel economy increases in the current legislation.

To Otto: I appreciate your support for lower CAFE standards on the basis of allowing Americans to continue to indulge their desire for large SUVs and light trucks. But I'm not only disagreeing that it's environmentally feasible to cop out on CAFE, but arguing that CAFE standards fall completely short in the long run, as fuel economy increases simply reduce demand and lower prices for fossil fuels.

To E: I'm not sure exactly how to deal with the externalities of a carbon cap, and I agree they may not be desirable. The problem is that a carbon cap/tax/etc is improving the market by internalizing the cost of carbon emission. So while government might need to help level the inequity of a carbon tax (for low income, perhaps family farmers), there's no option for stopping global warming other than lowering carbon emissions and we can't do that by farming/driving/or burning diesel fuel at the rate we've been doing it.

The good news is that stabilizing climate change at 2 degrees Celsius can be done primarily with efficiency improvements, costing less than $52/ton of carbon. This poster illustrates another way to look at it: holding carbon emissions to twice pre-industrial levels (pdf). The 15 "wedges" of 1 gigaton discussed are all eminently do-able, and only 7 are needed.

House bill would create an election paper trail

The U.S. House already has 216 co-sponsors on a measure to improve electoral accountability in an era of electronic voting machines.
This legislation would create a much-discussed and increasingly demanded paper trail for elections. The bill would also require a manual audit of every federal election, and it would require the disclosure of voting system source code in limited circumstances.
So why now? The advent of electronic voting - particularly on machines that leave no paper trail and have proprietary source code - means there's no longer a method to verify vote counts. Unlike paper voting (and those infamous hanging chads) or even optical scanning of paper ballot, all-electronic machines can simply lose votes or can be hacked with no evidence of the intrusion. And since the software is considered propriety, no one outside the voting machine company can take a peek inside to see how secure it is.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation - kind of an ACLU for the internet - has a more detailed summary of the legislation and how it could help:
  • The bill would not preclude states from enacting more stringent accountability measures (say, by banning all electronic voting machines or requiring electronic machine source code to be made public).
  • The bill would require a voter-verified paper ballot.
  • The bill would require manual, random audits of election systems in every state.
  • The bill would allow, in limited circumstances, access to voting machine source code.
After the idiocy of Florida in 2000 and the shenanigans in Ohio in 2004, this law is a Very Good Start.

Are CAFE standards the right path?

A post by my favorite oil-and-gas-price analyst Robert Rapier got me thinking about CAFE standards amidst the challenges of oil dependency, carbon emissions, and energy security. He's a skeptic of CAFE not because he opposes fuel efficiency, but because it shifts responsibility:
The problem I see is that this attempts to address the issue in the same way that windfall profits' proposals attempt to address the issue of high gas prices. There are plenty of high fuel efficiency cars on the market now. The problem is, people aren't demanding them. They want their SUVs and big trucks. What people are really after here is a free lunch. They think increasing CAFE standards will make everyone else drive a fuel-efficient vehicle...Increasing CAFE standards is not going to increase the public's desire to drive fuel efficient cars, nor is it going to result in a 35 mpg Ford Expedition. (emphasis original)
Solving oil dependency, global warming, et al, requires that we act to use fuel more efficiently. While a fuel mandate does work (fuel efficiency doubled from 1978 to 1985), it worked in the context of supply shortages and high prices. In other words, though the standard worked, it got its political strength from a high price environment (and a time when fewer people drove SUVs).

The last time CAFE standards were increased dramatically, average vehicle weight shrank by 1000 pounds (almost 25%) in five years as cars dumped steel, used lighter components, and shrank in size. This time around, the heavy cars still use lighter components, they're just big. In other words, cars will likely get smaller. The car companies know this, so they've started a big ad campaign against CAFE standards (and a plug for hydrogen technology which will a) never happen and b) is pointless because it uses fossil fuels).

The problem is, we're in a lose-lose. CAFE standards themselves will help, but they are a halfway solution because increases in fuel economy decrease fuel demand and lower prices (which then has the opposite effect). Without CAFE standards, however, we're not likely to make a significant dent in carbon emissions.

Other solutions?
  1. Gas tax increase - price up, demand down. People can see right on the car sticker (XX mpg) how much this car will cost them and the additional revenue can be used to give income tax rebates to low-income folks. Disadvantages - doesn't deal with carbon emissions from other sources; Americans are surprisingly willing to adjust to higher prices.
  2. Carbon tax - price up, demand down. This would catch all the carbon emissions (on-road and off-road) and provide revenue for income tax rebates to the poor, but it still runs the risk of allowing people to buy their way into higher emissions. Americans have a lot of money - they'll probably give up the third TV, second home, and eating out before the give up driving solo to work.
  3. Moving carbon cap with auctioned carbon credits - price up, demand down, supply constrained. Lowers carbon emissions by fiat, but allows the market to allocate carbon to the highest bidder. Provides revenue to offset impact on the poor, invest in new technology, and provide alternative transportation. And best of all, it guarantees that carbon emissions will actually decrease.
The amazing thing is how easy a carbon cap would be. There are essentially three major sources of carbon in the economy: oil, natural gas, and coal. Everyone who retrieves it domestically or imports it has to buy the credits (you could even charge slightly more for imports to promote energy independence). The consumer simply sees the final price - with carbon factored in.

That's a great idea.

Note: I didn't address carbon "cap and trade" in my solutions. Here's why.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Science helps revise the 5-second rule

According to a research project frLinkom Connecticut College, the 5-second rule is actually more like 30 seconds. That gives you a little more time to grope around on the floor for that fallen snack.

Of course, if you drop your food on hairy rug, no amount of time will help remove the visible detritus. I don't need a study for that.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Eventually the homophobes will die out, too

Skemono has a nice look at the similarities between anti-miscegenation and anti-gay perspectives and laws. He looks back at polls on interracial dating and finds that it wasn't until 1991 that a plurality of Americans supported the idea, despite 25 years having passed since many of the major civil rights laws were enacted. For a stunning look at how education affects views on differences, check out the 1991 poll breakdown by education.

The latest Pew poll finds that 83% of Americans approve of interracial dating, up 35 percentage points since 1991. The summary has a nice chart showing how each generation has become more accepting, although older generations start out much less tolerant than younger ones and are also slower to adapt.

On gay marriage, opinions are also shifting. Only 39% approved in 2006, but that's up from 29% in August 2004 (ironically, the early 2004 Massachusetts Supreme Court position legalizing gay marriage ignited a higher level of opposition). And as usual, younger folks are much more supportive. Interestingly, the difference in opinion from education is more pronounced among older folks. Those who haven't graduated from college among 20-somethings are almost as likely to support gay marriage as those who have not.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The evolution of CAPTCHA - those little word things you have to type to log in

This is an interesting look at the CAPTCHA, the small image with mixed up letters and lines that you frequently have to decipher to register or read a web page. Designed as a basic Turing test to differentiate a computer from a human, the CAPTCHA allows web administrators to block out "spam bots."

However, as computers get smarter, CAPTCHAs have gotten more complex, to the point that even humans have trouble deciphering them. The story covers two divergent solutions. One group uses the standard CAPTCHA, but uses it to help digitize old text: every time you solve a reCAPTCHA, you help translate an old book into digital form. The other solution is an image CAPTCHA, asking you to do something like "pick out the vegetable" or "select the gorilla."

His and hers battery chargers?

An interesting story on how consumer electronics companies are essentially developing a his and hers version of the same devices. The example of the battery charger is interesting:

Energizer, the battery maker, went so far as to create a charger for each sex. The Dock & Go, at $33, is aimed at men. Black and gray with shiny trim, the two pods hold up to four batteries each (AA or AAA). A light glows red when it is charging, yellow when it is charged.

The second device, the $20 Easy Charger, is aimed at women, who usually end up managing the household’s batteries. This charger is flat, round and sold with interchangeable faceplates in silver, black and eggshell that help it blend in with kitchen appliances. Large light-emitting-diode readouts spell out what the countertop charger is doing at every phase of the charging cycle. Focus-group testing indicated that men were turned off by the Easy Charger, especially in how its readouts appeared to tell them what they thought they already knew, said Mandy Iswarienko, the brand manger for rechargeable products.

Sometimes I think we men enjoy the challenge of having to know a device in order to use it. Thus the fascination with video games that require mashing up to 10 buttons. And why the Wii - with intuitive pointing remotes - has been played a fair amount by both female and male visitors to our house.

Toss the meat thermometer - use your thumb!

A nifty primer on using your thumb to measure steak doneness. Grill on!

Are refiners holding out?

Robert Rapier does gas prices, this time investigating the long-term price pressures. His analysis of the theory that refineries are holding back gas to hold up prices provides a thorough debunking (and explains why OPEC countries often exceed their quotas).
Say that you operate a 200,000 barrel a day refinery. Margins are quite good right now - let's say in your area they are $20 a barrel. So, when the refinery is running normally, you are grossing $4 million a day. Would it make good business sense to cut your capacity in half - to 100,000 barrels a day? While such action would probably cause the overall price of gasoline to rise, it is going to have a disproportionate effect on your refinery. If margins go up to $30 a barrel (although there is no way taking 100,000 barrels off the market would impact margins to that degree), you are still $1 million a day worse of than you were. You have given up $365 million a year in order to reduce your capacity. You would have made an incredibly stupid business decision. In fact, you would be much better off if you could boost capacity by 100,000 barrels a day. Sure, prices might slightly drop, but your overall profits will be higher, especially in such a tight market.

Furthermore, you don't know if Shell down the street might be able to make up the production shortfall, pocketing the money that would have been made by your refinery. (Contrary to popular opinion, oil companies do not consult each other on such issues). You also don't know if exporters from Europe will respond. If they respond by boosting exports to the U.S., now they are pocketing the money that your refinery is losing. In summary, this is not a rational way to conduct business - unless your margins are negative. You would be making a decision that will certainly cut the returns at your refinery, while not knowing how your competitors will respond to the supply shortfall.
If we'd had the political will to increase gas taxes when prices were low, we'd be in a lot better shape right now, as gasoline demand would have been restrained by higher prices. Not to mention, we'd have more money for transit and highway maintenance.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Looking back: what to recall if you return to teaching

A lovely "letter to self" that illustrates why teaching is more than a full time job, can be filled with joys, and packed with stress. And in case you've forgotten, here's why teachers make a lot more than their salary.

The countdown

For my wife, who will shortly take the leap from one career into the unknown (but with some good prospects on the horizon), in celebration of an illustrious 8 years in teaching, and with the relief of pending summer vacation...


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

What to do about grade inflation?

Friend crystalghetto brings up an interesting essay and his personal experience with grade inflation. His post got me interested in the topic, and it turns out there's quite a bit of information out there on the subject.
  • This Washington Post contributor, a professor, notes that grades like D and F "went by the wayside in the Vietnam era, when flunking out meant becoming eligible for the draft."
  • His interest in grade inflation motivated him to collect data (sample size 22) on average grades at several postsecondary institutions, showing that average grades have risen as much as 0.20 on the 4-point GPA scale.
  • On the same site, note that the average GPA at a private college is three-tenths of a point higher at private colleges. Do you pay for better grades by going private? Or are private college students that much brighter, on average?
Going back to 2001, there's a truly excellent essay on grade inflation by Harvard government professor Harvey C. Mansfield. In the essay, he addresses many of the excuses for grade inflation, from meeting student expectations, to lower faculty morale, to the theory of a smarter student.
[Grade inflation] signifies that professors care less about their teaching. Anyone who cares a lot about something -- for example, a baseball fan -- is very critical in making judgments about it. Far from the opposite of caring, being critical is the very consequence of caring.
The problem, Mansfield says, is that grade inflation makes it difficult to distinguish truly excellent work.
In a healthy university, it would not be necessary to say what is wrong with grade inflation. But once the evil becomes routine, people can no longer see it for what it is...Grade inflation compresses all grades at the top, making it difficult to discriminate the best from the very good, the very good from the good, the good from the mediocre. (emphasis mine)
In addition, grade inflation represents a fear of challenging brighter students to reach even greater achievement:
Some say Harvard students are better these days and deserve higher grades. But if they are in some measures better, the proper response is to raise our standards and demand more of our students. Cars are better-made now than they used to be. So when buying a car, would you be satisfied with one that was as good as they used to be? (emphasis mine)

...When bright students take a step up and find themselves with other bright students, they should face a new, higher standard of excellence.
It also seems that grade inflation is more evident in courses that depend on less objective measures of achievement.
Grades in humanities courses are notably higher than those in the social sciences, and both are higher than grades in the natural sciences.
Ultimately, Mansfield has no solution, but he does finger one particular cause: a culture of self-esteem that puts a priority on self-confidence over honest assessment. He also says that the passion of professors for affirmative action in the late 1960s led to grade inflation for minority students that eventually spread across all ethnic groups. And once in this cycle of up-grading, it's hard to go back.

In fact, Mansfield himself continues to give higher grades than he used to, although his attempt to be honest is to offer students two grades: one for the registrar (inflated) and one given in private. The latter is almost always lower and is intended to more readily reflect the level of achievement.

Clearly, grade inflation creates problems. But does anyone have a good way to solve it?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Think Bonds cheated? You're a racist

At least that's what this guy has to say. Amidst some thoughtful reflection on the state of segregation and discrimination in sports, he clearly feels that whites who dislike Bonds - and feels he does not deserve the home run record - are racists. Recent polls show that whites are three times as likely as blacks to want Bonds to fail to get the record - a damning indictment of someone, but is it quite so simple?
Bonds has complicated his approach to the record by his likely use of steroids in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and then probably lying about it to a grand jury, which could result in a perjury indictment sometime this year.
Of course, you could also look at the part of the survey that asks if fans believe that Bonds should be recognized as the career home run leader if he breaks the record. In that case, 53% of whites and 78% of blacks agree that's okay. Still a racial gap, but not quite so drastic.

Here's another tidbit. 85% of blacks feel Bonds deserves to get into the Hall of Fame, along with 53% of whites. That means that half the blacks who think Bonds doped think he deserves the Hall, same as for whites. (15% of blacks think he doesn't deserve the hall, whereas 37% think he doped. Thus, at least 22% of blacks think Bonds doped and deserves the hall. For whites, 76% think Bonds doped but only 53% say he deserved the hall, meaning at least 29% of whites think a doper deserves entry.)

In other words, a sad quarter of whites and blacks thinks a doper deserves the honor the Hall of Fame.

But why look at those numbers. I, a white dude, sit on my couch and feel that Bonds is probably guilty. I therefore feel that he doesn't deserve the recognition of various baseball records accrued with the assistance of performance-enhancing drugs. I, therefore, am a racist.

Bush's climate hypocrisy

Let's examine this turn of events:
  1. In 2001, the President was entirely skeptical about the human role in climate change: "we do not know how much effect natural fluctuations in climate may have had on warming. We do not know how much our climate could, or will change in the future. We do not know how fast change will occur, or even how some of our actions could impact it."
  2. As late as last week, the President continued to resist any action to mitigate global warming. The headline: U.S. rejects all proposals on climate change. In a draft document for the upcoming G8 summit, the attached note suggests that the United States is "fundamentally opposed" to all of Germany's proposed carbon mitigation steps. "Germany had stated in its draft that it wanted agreement to curb the rise in average temperatures this century to 2C and raise energy efficiency in power and transport by 20% by 2020."
  3. Then, this week, Bush supports negotiations among the top 15 greenhouse gas emitters to reduce carbon emissions. "By the end of 2008, he said, the countries would forge national plans for slowing emissions from 2012 through 2030 or so, devise uniform methods for measuring progress, increase research and testing of nonpolluting energy options, and settle on a common, but nonbinding, target for eventual large reductions in emissions decades out."
So the Johnny-come-lately to climate mitigation has a plan that's weaker than what's on the table at G8, starts later, and consists of nonbinding targets. Oh, bravo, Mr Bush.

Update 3:58: I'd hate for you to miss this tidbit. Amidst Bush's new commitment to climate change, a policy of reducing efforts to measure global warming from space. Doubt the science, just stop collecting evidence!

$5 a day won't keep the doctor away, either

As commenter rick noted on my original food stamp post, $3 a day (actually $2.86) is the average benefit for a food stamp recipient. The benefits are on a sliding scale based on income and assets, so recipients probably contribute some of their own income toward food.

The maximum benefit allowed would potentially represent the total food budget for a recipient who is eligible, and provides a decent picture of real poverty. That benefit is $155 monthly, or approximately $5.17 per day ($36/week) for one person or $285 monthly ($9.50/day, $66.50/week) for two.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that 30 percent of food stamp recipients (8 of 26 million) "enjoy" this benefit, and their report also notes that due to 1996 changes in the law, the food stamp benefit is slowly decreasing in value. Nice work, Congress!

1100 miles per gallon!

Looking for a more fuel efficient vehicle? How about one that costs less than $500, can fill up at the supermarket, and gets 1100 miles to the gallon? While some of the figures could probably use an update, the chapter from this report - Kilowatt Counter, 1975 - on "Testing Your Energy Awareness" (pdf) reveals that your bicycle is the best way to get good mileage.

From the report:
A non-athletic person of about 150 pounds can manage to leisurely maintain a speed of 11 mph on a 30-pound, 10-speed bicycle for an extended period of time. This person will need to add about 1500 Calories to his diet for each five hours he cycles, or about 300 Calories per hour. One gallon of gasoline equals about 30,000 Calories. Therefore, a bicyclist can travel 100 hours (30,000/300) on one "gallon". [100hrs/gal x 11 mph = 1,100 miles per gallon]
I should consult my bike-shop-working friend SPH or bicycling enthusiast EKM, but I doubt most bikes these days weigh 30 pounds. Of course, most Americans don't weigh 150, either.

Gas Prices 101

Here's a very thorough analysis of the source of high gas prices. He uses the word "gouging," but only in debunking that theory. The conclusion?
But it looks to be the rule, rather than the exception, that higher gasoline prices are here to stay. A return to sub-$2/gal gasoline appears highly unlikely (again, some seasonal exceptions are possible).

Buy off your carbon sins

This Tanzanian traveler has a firsthand account of why carbon offsets are not the best idea:
Word around town is that a nearby village got a contract for carbon offsets! They got a bunch of money and devices to plant 10,000 trees. No trees were planted. The money disappeared into the pockets of the corrupt and they told the foreigners that all the trees were planted and showed them trees that were already there.
This is why carbon offsets are like Catholic indulgences. Paying someone else to redeem your sins and clear your conscience is a feel-good manuver. Reducing carbon emissions is what really matters.

Friday, June 01, 2007

$3 a day won't keep the doctor away

More and more folks are paying attention to the recent Food Stamp Challenge, asking public officials to try a week on the food stamp budget of $3/day for food. I noted recently that the Governor of Oregon was among the challengers, and his experience wasn't easy.

Not only is it a challenge to simply find enough food, but the choices won't win any health awards:
Two cans of high-protein, high-fiber black beans cost more than five of goopy, fatty refried beans...Hormel single-serving mac and cheese, 25 percent saturated fat and 820 milligrams of sodium. Cup Noodles, 12 for $4, but nearly half a day's sodium allotment in one serving...I found a loaf of the kind of bread that's mostly good for food fights -- marked down from $2.19 to 99 cents.
One columnist went out and did their best to be healthy on $21 a week and came up short:
I cannot get the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. These low prices mean a lot of salt, which increases my risk for high blood pressure. If this were my regular diet, I would probably gain weight and may be looking at health problems in the future...For those who'd like to restrict the food stamp program or who want to blame recipients for bad diets, I have one suggestion:

Take $21 and go shopping.

It really made me appreciate that not only can I buy what food I need (and want), I can even be picky about food quality. Does the low sodium variety cost a bit more? Okay. Is it worth an extra 50 cents/lb to have organics? Sure. Can I do veggie burgers instead of the cheaper ground beef? Why not?

What would you do with up to $3 billion in uranium?

The United States isn't exactly a growing uranium market - with no new commercial nuclear reactors constructed in thirty years - so when the federal government scooped up excess uranium at $10/pound over the years, it seemed a decent investment. Now that uranium is worth 12 times the price - $120/pound - and one private company wants the federal government to give them the uranium for free.


Okay, so it's not so simple as that. The company USEC, is operating the only uranium processing plant in the United States, originally constructed during the Manhattan Project and running on technology of that period. This company is also developing new processing technology that the U.S. government would receive royalties for. But they also don't seem to need a handout:
Fourth-quarter net earnings climbed 35% to $40.1 million.
And in 2003, the union workers at the USEC plant were on strike due to these grievances:
--- Use of contract workers without security clearances who are performing routine maintenance; --- Management and replacement workers lacking compulsory safety training; --- Inaccurate schematic diagrams for the plant's electrical and steam systems that make routine maintenance dangerous when performed by contract employees unfamiliar with the plant; --- Management personnel experiencing fatigue from having to work as many 12 hours per day, six days per week on reduced crews; and --- Potential problems arising out of the transfer and shipping of radioactive materials.
The company is also playing the nationalism card, as a European enrichment company has plans to construct an enrichment facility in the U.S. Interestingly, the challenger is noted for being a lot more efficient and experienced than USEC. So is a uranium gift a way to boost American industry or something like subsidized the H3 against the Toyota Prius, all in the name of America?

Kerry Wood rides the pine - the travails of being a "hard thrower" in the majors

I've always been fascinated with Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood, after his brilliant rookie year and astounding early career. But his hard throwing style (and according to the story, poor management decisions during his minor and major league days) have left him nearly washed up. Sitting on the disabled list for the 11th time in his 10-year career, Wood is clinging to the hope that he might just return as pitcher, period, much less the All-Star starter he once was.

The above story also got me interested in throwing mechanics, and this blog talks about some other pitchers whose careers have been saved or sunk by throwing beyond their arm's capacity.

Fight terrorism with patterns

This guy at Wired writes on security issues and has a few interesting thoughts on successful anti-terror strategies. Banning liquids and scanning shoes aren't among his top ideas for stopping terrorists, since they were one-shot deals, not real threat patterns. He starts with this anecdote:

If you encounter an aggressive lion, stare him down. But not a leopard; avoid his gaze at all costs. In both cases, back away slowly; don't run...What's interesting about this advice is how well-defined it is. The defenses might not be terribly effective -- you still might get eaten, gored or trampled -- but they're your best hope. Doing something else isn't advised, because animals do the same things over and over again.
He points out that these kinds of defense tactics depend on long experience - data, patterns. This in stark contrast to the behavior of the Transportation Safety Administration:

A single instance of an attack that didn't work -- liquid bombs, shoe bombs -- or one instance that did -- 9/11 -- is not a pattern...[but] With every unique threat, TSA implements a countermeasure with no basis to say that it helps, or that the threat will ever recur.
These knee-jerk reactions - banning liquids despite how difficult they'd be to use as explosives - he says, merely misdirect resources toward a threat that is not likely to recur.

Al-Qaida terrorism is different yet again. The goal is to terrorize. It doesn't care about the target, but it doesn't have any pattern of tactic, either. Given that, the best way to spend our counterterrorism dollar is on intelligence, investigation and emergency response. And to refuse to be terrorized.
In other words, we need to work on prevention via interception, and quick responses, not on specific tactics we've seen employed.

I found this theory an interesting complement to the idea of counterfactualism - envisioning how historical events might have happened differently. This historical theory lends itself to thinking creatively how to change tactics in response to observed patterns as well, but dealing with the past.

So are these theories good? Or do they just encourage folks at the TSA to ignore potentially serious threats that make be the beginning of a pattern?