Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Elephant Slaughter in Central Africa

Malignant human greed knows no bounds. As Hunter Thompson once observed in his Rum Diaries;man is the only animal that claims a god, but acts like there is not one. The last surviving elephants in Cameroon and Chad are being slaughtered by heavily armed gangs of men for their ivory. They are thought to be Sudanese who travel through Chad to Cameroon searching for elephants to butcher. In Bouba Ndjda National Park near the border with Chad, two hundred carcasses like the one in the photo, decapitated and trunk hacked off so the ivory can be transported, have been found. More carcasses are expected to be discovered as shots continue to be heard coming from the park. Elephants shot with AK-47s do not die quickly because the ammunition is designed to kill people not elephants. IUCN estimates between 1000-5000 elephants still live in Cameroon. Chad's population has dropped from several thousands to just 2500 in a few years, sending the poachers farther south into Cameroon. A team from the Wildlife Conservation Society affiliated with the Bronx Zoo found one hundred dead elephants with their tusks hacked from their bodies during an aerial survey in 2006. Some poachers were caught in the act of packing up their contraband. Zakouma National Park has had its elephant population killed off from an estimated 3,000 in 2006 to 1000 now. Zakouma is considered to be the last stronghold of the Sahel elephants. Intact until the 1970s the Park's 3000 sq kms once contained about 300,000 elephants. The civil unrest in Sudan, Central African Republic and Chad makes conservation a doubly difficult task. Huge spaces, difficult terrain, and political corruption all contribute to the urgent need to protect elephants from eradication. A flourishing market in Asia drives the sick demand for ivory, and ivory is often sold to finance rebel armies.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

World's Rarest Gorilla Has Space to Expand

A new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the North Carolina Zoo shows that the world's rarest gorilla, the Cross River subspecies (Gorilla gorilla diehli) has more room to expand than previously thought. The gorillas live in the mountains on the border of Nigeria and Cameroon in an area 50% larger than previously documented. The study shows the importance of maintaining wildlife corridors so fragmented groups can connect. There are 11 known locations were gorrillas live, but the habitat has been interrupted by farmland and other forms of human development. Genetic comparisons show that these locations are linked by the occasional migration of individual gorillas. A study in 2005 documented the use of tools by these shy forest dwellers. There are fewer than 300 individuals remaining in the wild. A third of these live in the transnational-boundary protected area of Takamanda-Cross River National Parks. The Cross River gorilla is listed as critically endangered since it lives in an area of heavy natural resource exploitation and hunting for bushmeat.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Chart of the Week: It's the Military, Stupid

Taxes and budgets are the topic du jour in the presidential sweepstakes, with both major candidates touting alternative tax proposals. The only way you tell them apart is by who they want to tax and how they want to spend it. But this chart tells most of the deficit story:
The United States is in deep debt because it spends more than the next 14 countries combined on the military.  Yet only Congressman Ron Paul consistently talks about closing bases around the world and bringing military personnel home. Military spending may be shrinking as a percentage of the budget, but as an absolute figure, it is at historically high levels:

And apparently there is no end insight because all three leading Repugnant candidtates are trying to out swagger each other on war with Iran. This jingoism despite an Israeli intelligence estimate reported by Harretz stating Iran has not yet decided to begin a military nuclear program. This Israeli assessment will be presented to visiting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey. The same conclusion was reached by US intelligence in 2007 and 2010. The other big part of the deficit story is a tax code riddled with loopholes (like long term capital gains) that rewards the wealthy and penalizes the middle class. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation recognizes this circumstance:
Until every American pays their share of taxes in a truly progressive system that is relatively simple and fair, there is no way deficits can be brought under control. The Greeks did do that and look what happen to them. Greece's international creditors now have the right to seize the nation's gold reserves. Its not much at 100 tons but its the last vestige of Greece's national sovereignty.

Friday, February 24, 2012

'Toontime: Pissing Off Hearts and Minds

[credit: Jimmy Margulies, The Record]
Desecrating bodies was not enough for US Armed Forces in Afghanistan. Some Qurans had to be burned at Bagram Air Base too, just to make sure the Afghans know the contempt Americans have for the culture they invaded. Of course NATO officials claim the incident was a mistake, but given the volatility of the occupied, they could say little else. Now that Osama Bin Laden has been killed, there is nothing more to accomplish militarily in Afghanistan. The longer our forces stay, the worse the security situation will become and the more support the Taliban will receive. Clearly our troops have had enough of Afghanistan after ten years of near fruitless battle. How long will it take for our politicians to get the message?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Wolf War Across the West

The wolf has become the bête noir for right-wingers obsessed with what they see as government interference in their businesses while they stuff their pockets with tax subsidies such as low cost grazing on public lands. Oregon activists inserted themselves into a meeting [video]of the Cattlemen's Association to protest the consideration of a bill (HR 4158) to allow killing of wolves by declaring an emergency in order to circumventing the state's endangered species act. Colloquially known as the "wolf-kill bill" it is the handiwork of the Association, and a typical example of how business interest groups dominate the legislative process at the state level. The bill is unlikely to reach a full vote in the abbreviated session of legislature, this time. Ranchers have a long history of attempting to eradicate the wolf, and the current federal and state policies allowing the wolf to survive in its former range is inimical to their subculture and sense of entitlement. A court injunction was necessary to protect the male alpha of the Imnaha pack from being killed by state hunters for alleged livestock kills.

Typically, Idaho is forging ahead with its anti-wolf agenda. The state senate resources committee passed S1305, a wolf killing bill, for a full vote on the floor. Support for the bill was unanimous among Republicans who voted in favor despite the bill possibly being the basis for re-listing the wolf as endangered under federal law. The fervor of anti-wolf bias in Idaho is something that transcends rationality and is nurtured by ignorance. In a state racked by rural poverty, it spent $22,500 to kill 14 wolves in the Lolo area. The expense was justified as necessary to protect the elk herd. Elk numbers have declined due to changes in habitat, but the state Department of Fish & Game has in recent years blamed wolves for the elk decline despite forest cover limiting the amount of elk forage and open areas the elk need to thrive.

Good news from Arizona, however. Besides being a western state most supportive of conservation (in a recent poll conducted by Colorado State University, 78% of Arizonans agree that it is possible to have a strong economy with high employment while protecting land and water), the Mexican wolf population is increasing. This wolf subspecies was effectively eliminated from the United States according to the USFWS, but reintroduction efforts are bearing pups. Researchers completed the 2011 count in January and they estimate a minimum population of 58 wolves and seven breeding pairs. Unfortunately release of more wolves by Arizona Fish & Game is on hold because the New Mexicans installed a "tea-party' governor who withdrew the state from the program [map]. The minimum goal for recovery is 100, but anti-wolf hysteria has hampered the program from the start. Because the released Mexican wolves were raised in captivity, they had to relearn their wild hunting skills from scratch. The fact that the population is increasing is testament to the wolf's incredible resiliency.

Idaho used hunters from the wildlife killing arm of the US Department of Agriculture whose title "Wildlife Services" is totally misleading. This agency functions as a taxpayer-funded extermination service for the ranching industry. It kills all kinds of predators, not just wolves, deemed to be a nuisance to agriculturalists. Think of it as the SS of agribusiness. They use traps and poisons too. Sometimes these operations go awry and people's pets are killed instead. Here is just one story of a beloved pet husky, Bella, who almost lost her life and a did loose a leg to a USDA Wildlife Service snare. There are many more such stories to be told.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Chart of the Week: Sticky Prices

source: EIA from
The free-marketeers will tell you the price of gasoline is determined by supply and demand, but the real truth is prices reflect more than just consumer demand or refinery supply. Prices are also affected by speculation and are influenced by geopolitics. The supply is mostly in the hands of Arabs who use their near monopoly to set supply to suit their particular policy goals (OPEC). Speculators play futures not to insure a supply, but to profit from market volatility. Refining costs play a role too as the switch is made to warm weather blends. Petroleum is 80% of the retail price of gasoline. Gas prices at the pump have reached highs well before spring when they usually go up in time for increased consumer demand. Currently average US gasoline price is $3.61/gal. compared to last year's $3.22. Due to the rumors of war on Iran or destabilizing civil war in Syria, gas prices are expected to hit $4.00 before this summer. Right-wing politicians will make a convenient issue out of that development, and attempt to use consumer disgust as means of leveraging pro-oil legislation. A cut in supply from the Persian Gulf could send oil prices up by $20-50/bbl since a fifth of the world's supply passes through the Strait of Hormuz. Gas prices lag oil production, but the correlation is not that close. Oil prices are much more volatile than gas prices as this six year chart shows.

The US is actually importing less oil thanks to reduced demand during the Great Recession or (whatever you want to call it) and increased domestic production. US demand for transportation fuels fell 7.1% in 2008, the steepest decline since 1950. Drilling the Earth into a stinking waste pit as the conservatives feel they have a god-given right to do will not solve the problem of America's oil addiction because the US uses about 19 million bbl/day according to the Energy Information Administration but only produces 7.5 million bbl/day in a 95mbbl/day market. Another Alaska at $126.00/bbl for oil would only save you a whopping 3¢/gal at the gasoline pump. If we stupidly decide to despoil the last vestiges of American wilderness or the last fishing grounds to extract oil, the Chinese will thank us so very much because by 2030 they will be importing 80% of their gasoline in a world market [chart above]. Better to build excellent gas efficient vehicles right here in Mudville and tax the guzzlers, baby. You do not need a crystal ball to see the future:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Vermonters Don't Want Nuc

The owner of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant won a significant victory when it convinced a federal judge
waste storage casks at Vermont Yankee
that the state legislature exceeded its authority by passing a law (Act 160) prohibiting the plant from operating after its current license expires in March. In a lengthy opinion Judge Murtha found that the legislature's decision in 2010 was based on safety concerns, an area of law preempted by the federal government through its agency the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That agency granted a renewed operating permit for Vermont Yankee last year. The agency has never denied a nuclear plant owner a permit. A suit filed by the nuclear watchdog group New England Coalition argues that the NRC erred by granting Entergy an operating license without a crucial water discharge permit. Judge Murtha also noted that the state through its own state utility board could deny Entergy Corporation the right to operate Vermont Yankee on other than safety grounds. The Vermont attorney general says Murtha's decision will probably be appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court. Thus, the question of a state's right to control the operation of nuclear plants within their borders, and the ultimate fate of Vermont Yankee, will remain in question until the Court rules, and that could take years.

Nuclear power is expensive, polluting, controversial and potentially catastrophic. Nevertheless, power is immediately available as long as the plant is running. One of the problems facing proponents of renewable energy as a substitute for nuclear power and fossil fuels is inconstant availability. When the sun shines and the wind blows, there is a clean power source, but obviously the sun and wind do not always cooperate. So the question in the minds of power engineers becomes, how can alternative energy be stored efficiently for use when the sun is not shinning and the wind is not blowing? This problem is huge for a country like Denmark which has the largest wind farms in the world. Because consumer demand for electricity is often lowest when generation of electricity from wind is at its highest level, for example at night when onshore winds drive the turbines. Denmark has to sell its surplus electricity for pennies. Then, when demand from customers is high, buy back electricity at much higher prices. The net result is Denmark has some of the highest rates for electricity anywhere, despite producing oodles of kilowatts from a free, non-polluting power source.

Both Texas and California face the same problem as Denmark. Last spring when its hydroelectric dams are operating at full capacity, the Bonneville Power Administration said it would stop buying electricity from Oregon's wind farms. That decision was reversed when politically connected wind energy companies complained. Excess capacity in one region of the national electric grid is a conundrum the much touted by still absent smart grid is supposed to relieve. Theoretically, the US could produce all of its energy needs from wind and sun, but because of its variable nature it is probably practically limited to only 20% of capacity according to DOE. Beyond that level balancing load and supply is too difficult. Efficient, low cost storage of electricity could even out the bumps in alternative power supply. That is why researchers are looking into various means of storing electricity for later use. Scientific American examines several means of doing this, in an article by David Castelvecchi. An expert panel rated five storage methods for efficiency and cost: pumped hydro, compressed air, advanced batteries, thermal storage, and hydrogen electrolysis.

Pumped hydro is already in use and consequently rated highest by the reviewers with a 4 out of 5 for cost, efficiency and scalability. The idea is deceptively simple, but requires sites with unique topography. Basically a pumped hydro station requires two basins of water at different elevations connected by an underground pipe and pump station. The US stores about 20 gigawatts of energy using this method at 38 stations but that represents only 2% of capacity. Mountainous Japan leads the way with 10% of its generating capacity in pumped hydro. Excess electricity is used to pump water into the higher basin. When energy is needed, water is released from the high basin through the underground pipe which turns the pumping station's turbines to generate electricity and flows into the lower basin. Think of a water wheel turning a millstone; some ideas endure because they work well. The energy efficiency of the round trip can be as high as 80%. Low lying coastal countries like the Netherlands can use the same method by substituting an artificial island lagoon connected to the sea which acts as the upper reservoir. A clever design by Gravity Power of Santa Barbara, CA could potentially be used on flat ground next to a solar or wind farm. It employs a deep vertical shaft with a heavy cylindrical plug resting at the bottom. Water is pumped in beneath the cylinder using excess electricity. When electricity is needed, water under pressure from the plug is released through connected turbine shafts which generate electricity. There are green solutions, only the imagination and political will to find them is required.

Monday, February 20, 2012

'Toontime: Half Time in America

[credit Mike Keefe, the DenverPost]
The fabric of American democracy has become woefully threadbare in the 21st century, and anybody whose brain is not addled by mass media, drugs, or alcohol knows national politics is now exclusively a rich man's contest*. What awaits potential occupiers of Chicago to protest the G-8 meeting in May is machine mayor Rahm Emanuel armed with a historically violent police force, new draconian demonstration ordinances, video surveillance cameras hidden and airborne, and cordoned-off "free assembly areas" that in actually are police holding pens. Mr. Putin should be impressed. Similar plans are afoot for Tampa and Charlotte, the site of the party conventions later in the year. Both sides of the American duopoly are spending cash in unprecedented amounts to win the auction.
[credit: Adam Zyglis, the Buffalo News]
Wackydoodle sez, Smoke 'em!

*Americans for Prosperity, the political front organization of the Koch Brothers is spending $700,000 on television advertising to convince Wisconsinites to retain their union busting governor, Scott Walker, in the recall election now underway. Its only part of a "stand with Walker" campaign being financed by the Kochs. All told the election could cost as much as $70 million. According to Reuters, Walker's donors include rich conservatives like Bob Perry a Houston home builder who gave the governor $500,000. Hedge fund manager Bruce Kovner gave $100,000, and oil executive Trevor Rees-Jones also gave $100,000 to Walker's campaign to stay in office.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Democratic Politician Says Keystone XL "Meritorious"

Update: 802,120 signatures and 6,000 phone calls later, the Senate has backed off considering an amendment to the highway bill that would accelerate a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. The messages from ordinary Americans were delivered on Tuesday [photo courtesy]. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) pledged to work against the pipeline. A vote on the amendment has only be delayed, not cancelled. Use this extra time to insure your Senators know how you feel about pouring more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  Because your planet is at stake.

{13.02.12}Despite polling data showing Americans do not want the Keystone XL pipeline, Senators are preparing a bill to over ride the President's decision to put the project on hold. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chair of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, told media he supported the project and that "the American public would like to see us go ahead with the project". The Senate is considering adding language forcing approval of the pipeline to the highway funding bill, considered to be one of the 'must pass' bills like the annual Defense Department appropriation. There are other Democratic senators that support the pipeline such as finance chair Max Baucus (D-MT) and budget chair Kent Conrad (D-ND) so readers need to call or write your senators and them not to pass the pipeline from hell "in my name"

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Occupy Kochville!

As US Person has written before Charles G. and David H. Koch are the über rich (3rd and 4th richest in the US) scions of an ultraconservative tradition that stretches back to the Texas Panhandle at the turn of the 19th century. Their Dutch immigrant grandfather Harry Koch was a reactionary newspaper owner-editor that supported Jim Crow and railed endlessly against FDR's New Deal as a socialist conspiracy bent on the country's destruction. Their father help found the ultra-right wing John Birch Society; no doubt Harry turned in his grave when son, Fred C., built 15 refineries for Joseph Stalin. The brothers continue the family's radical political heritage using the huge profits of privately held Koch Industries, Inc. to fund right-wing causes and think tanks. Their money plays a major role in funding the "tea party" faction. Their money continues to support climate deniers, effectively stymying political action to reduce our damaging dependence on carboniferous fuels. The Keystone XL pipeline is but the latest example of their efforts* to keep America using carbon fuels by fast tracking the project's approval in the Senate over the disapproval of the President. But now, progressives are going to take the fight to the home court in Wichita, Kansas. On February 17th progressives in a coalition of interests will occupy the hometown of Koch Industries, Inc. to bring national attention to the radical political activities of the Koch oil barons that are usually veiled beneath layers of corporate structure and political infighting. You can help by participating directly at Wichita, or if you prefer by supporting those on the front lines by donating money to purchase essential supplies.

*Flint Hill Resources Canada won intervenor status at the National Energy Board hearings that led to Canada's approval of the pipeline.  The Koch Industries subsidiary told regulators it has a direct and substantial interest in the project.

Sumatra's Elephants at the Edge

WWF: young orphan 
The Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatrensis) is getting closer to extinction because of habitat on the Indonesian island loss to agricultural development.  Nearly have the elephant's population has been lost and 70% of its habitat in one generation.  IUCN has reclassified the subspecies from endangered to critically endangered on the Red List.  Only 2400 to 2800 still survive in the wild, and at the current rate of decline could be extinct in 30 years.  Outside of Sri Lanka and India, Sumatra is home to the most significant populations of Asian elephants left on the planet.  Sumatra has experienced the fastest deforestation rate in the elephant's range, loosing more than two-thirds of lowland forest in the past twenty-five years.  In Riau Province where palm oil plantations and pulp mills have permanently altered the landscape, elephants have declined by a staggering 80%.  Six of its nine herds are gone.  In Lampung Province, twelve herds counted in the 1980s have been reduced to three and only two are considered to be biologically viable.  Half of Sumatra was covered in forest as late as the mid 1980s with 44 elephant populations spread throughout. The Asian elephant joins the list of other critically endangered Indonesian species--orangutan, rhinoceros and tiger--all suffering from deforestation. WWF is recommending that all forest development be prohibited until an assessment of remaining habitat suitable for elephants is made and a conservation plan is in place.  Without action to save the elephant it is doomed to extinction in the wild.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

McDonald's Tells Suppliers to Show Compassion

Responding to pressure from customers, McDonald's told its five direct suppliers of pork products they should submit
plans for phasing out gestational crates in which pregnant sows are confined for months unable to turn around. The inhumane practice is torture for pigs. Unable to lie down comfortably or turn leads to health problems including mental stress [photo credit: Humane Society of the US]. Around 60 to 70% of sows are kept in the 2x7 crates. The buying power of McDonald's puts punch behind the movement to give farm animals a more bearable existence before they are consumed by humans. The company required its egg suppliers to increase the amount of cage space devoted to laying hens in 1999. Other fast food companies followed its lead. Now a majority of egg producers are giving their hens more space. Pigs are hierarchical so when numbers are confined in pens there is inevitably fighting over food water and space. The crates are justified as a way to reduce injuries. Smithfield Foods and Cargill, two major corporate pork producers, have already begun reducing reliance on sow stalls. The Humane Society says Cargill is 50% stall free and Smithfield, the world's largest pork producer, has pledged to stop using the stalls by 2017 after an undercover investigation released video of pigs suffering in stalls. Hormel recently announced it will match Smithfield's pledge.

Greece Revolts

Update: There are increasing signs Greece will not be able to comply with the draconian austerity polices demanded by the EU. Several EU members--notably Germany, Holland and Finland--are expressing doubts that Greece should remain in the union. Meetings last week were abruptly cancelled amid spiraling distrust between Athens and creditors. Their skepticism is based on Greece's poor record of compliance with previous loan conditions. It promised to raise €50bn through privatization but that pledge has largely been ignored by a government riven with partisan infighting and politicians focused on the next election. Millions in taxes remain uncollected. One Greek minister said the country's economic and social system is exhausted. There is still no clear commitment from Greek coalition leaders about how the country will close a €325m funding gap. Antonis Samaras leader of the center-right refused to guarantee in writing that a deal cannot be revised following the April elections which enraged German policy makers. Bitter Greeks shot back by reminding EU leaders that Greece is the cradle of European civilization and nobody could eject it from its home. The EU is better financially prepared to absorb the shock of a Greek default and devolution two years into the sovereign debt crisis. Greece is sinking, its economy shrunk by 7% in the last quarter of 2011, so it may be wiser to cut it free. Going back to the drachma will be painful for Greeks like an addict going strait*. But once the pain subsides, Greece can rebuild its economy on an honest footing without having to go hat in hand to foreign creditors. Northern patience is running out as the deadline of 20 March approaches when €14.5bn in debt comes due.

{13.02.12}After their parliament voted to impose yet more economic sacrifice (199-74 in favor) on those they supposedly represent in favor of the new European aristocracy, Greeks took to the streets and engulfed the country in protests to express their disgust and displeasure with the European Union. Athens was the epicenter of revolt, but protests also reached the trendy havens of Corfu and Crete. At least 45 buildings in central Athens were burned out as demonstrators resorted to violence against the coalition government installed by EU leaders trying to cobble another round of draconian spending cuts to satisfy the demands of euro investors. The violence reached a peak Sunday night during which hundreds of protestors and security officers were injured. An estimated 80,000 people were in Athen's streets while 20,000 protested in the second city of Thessaloniki. A corps of black hooded anarchists called the Black Bloc movement took direct aim at police, as protesters looted and burned. One of the targets of the protester's wrath was an Athens underground cinema used by the Gestapo as a torture chamber during WWII.

Shares in Greek banks rose on the Monday opening, but the caretaker government faces an election by 2013. Voters are extremely unlikely to forgive politicians who voted for austerity measures after their minimum wage is cut from €751 to €600 a month, and their pensions and social services reduced. 150 thousand public sector jobs will be eliminated by 2015 with 15,000 cut this year. To add to voter grievances, the Greek economy is in recession with inflation and unemployment at 20%. Many in the middle class are falling into poverty. Despite the austerity measures it is still not clear whether the bailout money, which Germany will not allow to be paid until March, will be enough to bring Greece's debt load below 120% of GDP considered to be the maximum by international creditors. Currently the ratio is about 160%. Also, the bailout depends on the willingness of investors to swap their bonds for new ones at half their face value; many investors will not want to make a decision until new emergency funds are released by the EU. It is a crisis with a lot of moving parts, and the whole country could crash before it is put back together. As the head of a public sector union told Reuters, "The social explosion will come one way or another, there is nothing they [the politicians] can do about it any more." The biggest police union issued a statement saying there were limits to its tolerance for action against "our parents, our brothers, our children."

*Portugal, one of the so-called PIIGS, accepted economic austerity imposed by the EU and IMF, but it is finding out that the program is not working. Portugal is going deeper into debt. When it received the bailout money of $103 billion in May its debt to GDP ratio was 107%, by next year it is expected to rise to 118%. Like Greece, Portugal's economy is shrinking in a vicious circle of tight money and economic recession. Without growth, debt becomes nearly impossible to pay off without renegotiation of terms. Economic growth has depended to large extent on government spending and easy credit. So despite cutting Portugal's budget deficit by a third through spending and wage cuts, pension reductions and tax increases, the economy is expected to contract by 3% this year. On Saturday 100,000 people peacefully assembled in Lisbon's Palace Square to express their opposition to austerity measures and 13% unemployment. No riots yet, but dissatisfaction is growing as more unpopular measures are imposed.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Syrian "Spring"

Daily reports on the bloody repression of protestors in Syria by the corporate mass media have hewed a familiar line: genuine democrats have risen against a brutal dictator and the West must help them against the corrupt regime's tanks and guns. Sounds familiar because the simpleminded trope was last used only a year ago to wring a covering resolution from the UN Security Council for a NATO led coup against Muammar Qaddafi. Is there true democracy in Libya as a result of western oil motivated meddling? Just ask the myriad of armed militias currently terrorizing their tribal opponents there. Russia has not forgotten it was duped into going along with the R2P Benghazi red herring, and that may be one reason it has vetoed intervention in Syria so far. As someone on Capitol Hill astutely observed Syria is not Libya. The struggle in Syria is a sectarian one between the Alawi and Sunni. Al-Assad controls a strong, by Middle Eastern standards, army and security apparatus. The only chance the Sunni insurgency has to defeat it, is to interest the West in supporting the insurgency or at least equipping it with heavy weapons. So before western ruling elites convince themselves another intervention to kill a dictator is necessary, they should ask themselves whether promoting a civil war in Syria that would probably have as an analog the sectarian struggles in Lebanon or Iraq rather than a relatively quick assination in Libya is in their best interests. There is no oil elixir to cloud their judgment, and Sunnis are just as bigoted as Alawites. There is no guarantee a Sunni dominated regime would respect the minority rights of Syria's Christians and Alawites or peacefully accept the existence of Israel. Sunni suicide bombers killed 28 and injured 235 in government controlled Aleppo. The Syrian army has shelled the majority Sunni town of Homs for eleven days in a row. Syria's rulers, unlike Qaddafi, have significant friends, and they are backing Assad.

Chart of the Week: Central Banks 'Print' Mo' Money

No one is hiding in the basement of the New York Fed building with an ancient printing press making dollar bills, but the major central banks are expanding the money supply through their operations as this chart shows:
The US Fed had a big jump in assets compared to GDP when the government decided to bail out big banks. "Quantitative easing" as its termed may continue for the near future further weakening the purchasing power of the dollar. Banks will still be able to borrow dollars from the Fed at a near zero interest rate through the end of 2014. That Open Market Committee decision is music to the ears of Wall Street. The rest of us can just pay more. Want to see a correlation that says a lot? Look at these charts comparing the odds of the Obamatron extending his White House lease and the stock market:
[source: Gary Dorsch,]

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Creature Feature: When Gorillas Visit

This group of Bwindi gorillas led by their silverback came to visit the ecotourists one morning in December:

Kudos to John who behaved appropriately and kept his cool in the presence of a much stronger and dominant primate. Tourism plays a large role in the preservations of wild mountain gorillas. Tourists bring money into the impoverished local economy which provides an incentive for local people to protect the wildlife from destruction. You can help by paying a visit just like the gorillas occasionally do.

Friday, February 10, 2012

NRC Approves New Nuc

The NRC approved a combined construction and operating permit for the Vogtle plant site in eastern Georgia yesterday. It was the first new permit issued since 1978. Two more reactors in South Carolina are expected to be approved in the next few months. The administration has offered the Vogtle project $8.3 billion in subsidies as part of its nuclear expansion policy. These new plants are what is left of the "nuclear renaissance" touted by the industry as a solution to greenhouse gas emissions and dependance on foreign oil. The Union of Concerned Scientists in response to the approval said the building boom has been significantly slowed and blamed the industry for "inappropriate optimism" that ignores huge capital costs, acceptable nuclear waste disposal, and safety risks. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, recently criticized by his colleagues as being too bossy in his efforts to close the Yucca Mountain waste depository, voted against the license because he wanted a binding agreement from the Southern Co. that it would make safety changes based on what was learned from the Fukushima disaster. New safety regulations are still under development. Twenty-eight US reactors use an early GE design similar to those that failed at Fukushima. Other countries such as Germany are reversing their commitment to nuclear power in the wake of the largest nuclear accident in history.

'Toontime: The Fog of GOP Primaries

[credit: J.D. Crowe, Mobile Press-Register]
Wackydoodle axes:  Is that the hand of God or Carl Rove's?
What the results of the latest primaries in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri  show is the level of right-wing dissatisfaction with the once-upon-a-time moderate Mitt Romney as opposed to the level of support for Rick Santorum.  These smaller midwestern state wins will keep the Santorum campaign going, but in the long haul Romney's deepest pockets will carry the day even if it means winning in the convention's hotel rooms.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond a different show is grabbing the attention of the masses:
credit: [Christo Komarnitski, Sturshel]
That's the head of a Greek civil servant encased in the stone calendar. No agreement yet on a Greek bailout deal as the EU demands even more cuts of €325 million and parliamentary approval. Greek unions call for another forty-eight hour general strike.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

States Let Banks Off

The mortgage settlement between 49 states' attorney generals and the banks may sound large--$26 billion--but its peanuts for the big banks whose misfeasance in the sub-prime mortgage market led to a worldwide financial crisis that still reverberates through western economies. All the corporate news markets have details, so go there for a run down. What readers of this post should know is:
  • no criminal prosecutions for fraud or admissions of wrong doing;
  • only $17 billion for principal write down to borrowers who are facing foreclosure compared to total negative equity of $700 billion;
  • the banks already have reserves set aside for the deal achieved with the help of near zero interest funds from the Federal Reserve;
  • only $5 billion of payments is from banks, the rest is from securitized loans;
  • restitution for fraudulent loan documentation (60% error rate in one sampling) has been priced at $1500-2000 per loan foreclosed on between September 2008 and December 2011, a fraction of the average loan amount of $180,000 or about 1% of the outstanding loan balances.
In short, it stinks as the banks' rising stock prices will tell you. Former Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Kouril commented,"The court system will be permanently corrupted by forged and perjurious documents. This settlement is an incredible breach of the social contract between the government and the governed." Equally incredibly, Oklahoma's attorney general did not sign up for the deal because he thinks the banks should not face any penalties. With regulators like that in office, who needs laws?

Birds Die Around Fukushima Plant

In a harbinger of sad reports to come, a study in the journal Environmental Pollution says bird numbers are in dramatic decline around the Fukushima nuclear power station. Four of the six reactors there were destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami last year. The study by researchers from Japan, US and Denmark is the first major one to consider the environmental impact of the worst nuclear accident in history. Fourteen species common to Fukushima and Chernobyl show the affect of radiation on bird populations is worse in Japan's disaster zone. Two of the study's authors are veterans of research in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, still depopulated of humans twenty-five years later. In the absence of human activity around Chernobyl wildlife has begun to return to what is essentially now a wildlife refuge. However, the co-authors' research has shown the negative impact of radiation including reduction of longevity and male fertility, and physical deformations such as smaller brains. Many species show elevated DNA mutation rates and insect life has been dramatically reduced.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Russian Drillers Reached Lake Vostok

Does ancient Lake Vostok in Antarctica contain dead Nazis or not? That question and many other much more scientifically relevant could be answered now Russian scientists have reached the lake's surface. It has taken 14 years of drilling to reach a depth of 3,768 meters and reportedly the surface of the sub-glacial lake. The head of the Russian drilling program confirmed the wire reports the lake was penetrated on 5 Feburary. The scientific world waits results with great interest because the ancient lake, buried under the ice cap, has been biologically isolated for 15 million years. Any creatures found living in the water may be unknown to science and genetically unique. In the summer of 2012-13 scientists hope to probe the depths of the 35 million year old lake with robots to collect water samples from depth and lake bed sediments. Now, the drilling station has been closed down for the long and severe Antarctic winter where temperatures have plunged to minus 45℉ and reached a record minus 129℉ in 1983.

Lake Vostok is about the size of Lake Ontario, 169 miles by 30 miles and is considered the largest of the sub-glacial lakes. Its waters are devoid of light but probably super-saturated with oxygen. It may harbor extremophilic microbes or be completely sterile. Some interested scientists are concerned with contamination of the lake water by the drilling and sample recovery operations in either case. Russia's Antarctic Research Institute submitted a final environmental evaluation on the project which was approved by the Russian government and the Antarctic Treaty's environmental protection committee. Lake Vostok may offer a terrestrial analog of exoseas that are thought to exist on moons of Jupiter (Europa and Ganymede) and Saturn.

"Oracle of Omaha" Profits from Tar Sands

Buffet: paying for face time?
Warren Buffett, the third richest man in the world with an estimated worth of $39 billion, will make even more money off the Alberta tar sands because his closed-end investment fund, Berkshire Hathaway, bought the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway in 2009. BNSF will transport bitumen south for refining at Port Arthur, Texas now that the Keystone XL project has been put on hold during an election year. According to an analysis by the State Department, railroads can transport all of the bitumen produced in Canada with modest expansion of facilities through 2030. The cost of hauling by rail will be more than a pipeline ($3 more per barrel), the potential environmental impact would be lessened but greenhouse emissions greater.

BNSF is already involved in the Alberta oil patch. According to the employees' newsletter it hauls the diluting agents such as natural gasoline and butane used to move heavyweight bitumen through existing pipelines. BNSF hauled 9,000 carloads of diluents last year and expects to haul 12,000 this year. BNSF also hauls pipeline components and heavy machinery used in Alberta operations. Buffet's railroad transported pipe material for the first Keystone pipeline, and probably will haul the material for the XL if it is built. The company is on the distribution list for State's environmental impact statement.
Buffet's ownership of BSNF is not his only financial tie to the Albert tar sands development. His fund owns pieces of Conoco-Phillips, Exxon-Mobil and General Electric. All of these companies are doing business related to the tar sand oil play. For example, in July the Silvertip pipeline owned by Exxon-Mobil burst while carrying bitumen, polluting the near pristine Yellowstone River with 1,500 barrels of oily sludge [photo credit: AP].

Obama's hand was forced by an unachievable deadline imposed by the House of Representatives and the pressure asserted by environmentalists to cancel for the immediate future Keystone XL. But the project is far from dead. Whether he can be counted on to cancel the project again during his second term is an open question. Warren Buffet is a big contributor to Obama. He hosted a 2008 Chicago fundraiser which cost attendees the maximum individual contribution of $28,500 just to get in the door! Obama reciprocated, awarding Buffet the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Even larger amounts are being spent on Obama by Buffet and other plutocrats this time around. To get into the VIP reception with Buffet and Obama in New York cost the well connected rich a cool $35,800 This is what happens when a nation equates money with freedom of speech*. Will Buffet get more than a medal if his man wins a second term? Stay tuned.

*The Obamacon raised an unprecedented $745 million for his first run and already has raised $224 million for his re-election effort. Obama refused public financing in 2008 so he could raise unlimited amounts of cash and has not advocated for a system of public financing to replace the auction we have now. Mitt Romney, who could be a stand in for the cartoon character Richie Rich, could raise that much and more not counting the soft money raised by right-wing super PACs. Already these debilitating spawn of Citizens' United have outspend GOP candidates in several of the primary races. Romney got Florida delivered to him on a golden plate by his super PAC (officially unrelated Mr. Justices). The plutocracy is solidly behind the former Massachusetts governor in holy underwear and they have the deepest pockets in America. Does US Person hear $1trillion?

Monday, February 06, 2012

Chart of the Week: Got McJobs?

Everybody including the Obamatron's campaigners are talking about the increase in the number of jobs created. His re-election campaign is waving around a bright red canyon and green mountain chart showing all the jobs lost during the Charlatan's occupation of the White House compared to the mountain of new jobs created on Obama's watch. But a few minutes of sober inspection shows that all is not hunky-dory in Lilliputia. The Bureau of Labor Statistics produced a projection through 2020 showing that of the five fastest growing job titles--registered nurses, retail clerks, home health aides, personal care aides and office clerks--only one requires any education beyond high school. Registered nurses only need an associate's degree available at any community college. So much for developing a highly educated and skilled workforce for the new green, technological economy. 30% of the projected job openings will require less than a high school diploma while less than 20% will require a bachelor's degree or more, and a whopping 85% will not require any relevant previous experience. Low-wage peonage for most is on the horizon while the elite educated plutocracy exemplified by the current Repuknik running for the Oval rake in the rents through capital manipulation. Marx called it the comodification of capital. Look it up.

Even more shocking is what these charts show courtesy of John Mauldin at
Clearly disposable income in the US has gone flat since the first year of the chart (1996, black line) while the cost of living has continued to rise as measured by the CPI. So while there may be job growth, the wages those new jobs are paying are not enough to keep up with the cost of goods. This gap is one reason many Americans are finding it necessary to work multiple jobs. Furthermore, a lot of family income since 2002 is in the form of government benefit payments:
Without government checks to cover the gap, Joe Sixpac would be in even worse straits (yellow line).  Pariticpation in the civilian work force is at the lowest level in three decades (58.5%).  Most of us are Greeks now, Clint.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Stephen Hawking's Escapism

GJ667Cc, the latest ark of man
Celebrity physicist, Stephen Hawking, wrote recently that homo sapiens hope to avoid extinction is to spread itself into space. Perhaps this sort of thinking is why every discovery of a possibly inhabitable planet is reported in the mass media regardless of how many light years away it is. Given the state of man's technology any number of light years is a light year too far, now and for the foreseeable future. Exploration has played an important role in our civilization. Without question we are the globally dominant species, but with dominance comes responsibility. This writer is not advocating "lurking" on the planet with our large brain inserted into the sand while waiting for a supernatural rescue, but brave new world escapism is counter-productive to man's survival on planet Earth in US Person's humble opinion. Man's survival strategy should be focused on living with Earth in a harmonious way. First and foremost that means controlling his population currently at 7 billion and rising, and curtailing the fouling of the primal resources that make this planet inhabitable, air and water. Abuse of the environment has caused the extinction of great civilizations in the past and it could cause our own despite our advanced technology. In the very long term Earth's climate has gone rogue, but prior events such as ice ages and global warmings are thought to have geological or even cosmological causes. We as a species may not be extant or still resident to witness our sun's red giant phase and the Earth's inevitable incineration billions of years hence. Since our species first began to walk upright, an evolution that took millions of years, we are faced with the possibility of man's civilization so affecting his home's natural processes that he may cause his own demise before he can voyage to the stars. Because it is man's activity, it can be changed. Only the will to do so is not yet sufficient. Dreaming of distant planets and new worlds to exploit is exciting given our biology, but migration into space is not a viable solution to the problem of our own extinction. Taking care of our nest is.

Friday, February 03, 2012

'Toontime: Noblese Oblige

[credit: Jim Morin, The Miami Herald]
Wackydoodle axes:  Are they eatin' cake yet?
Some numbers encapsulate the moment and remain in the memory: 9-11; 99%; 38th; 54-40; 1776. Mitt Romney, the plutocracy's anointed son, is going to have to do a lot of fast talking to remove 15% from American voters' memory this election cycle. Nevertheless, he seems to relish throwing his conspicuous wealth into our faces by making misstatements like "I am not concerned with the very poor". Of course, the media and Newt have made hay with his malaprop out of context. Revealingly, Mitt thinks there is still a social safety net in America. Someone should tell him that Repugnants since Ronald 'Raygun' have been doing their upmost to 'monetize' it. Poverty has actually increased in America, with more people who think they are middle class falling out of it. All it will take for them to wake up from their happy dream is one personal catastrophe. Another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty last year according to the Census Bureau, and median household income fell to the 1996 level. Official poverty reached a low in 1973 of 11.1%, but by 1983 the number of American poor reached 15.2% or 35.3 million. Poverty has remained above 12% except for the economic boom times of the 1990's when it declined. Currently, the Bureau says the rate is 15.1% or 46.2 million, the highest number in 52 yearsThe young and minorities are still disproportionately represented among the poor while older Americans, thanks to Social Security and private pensions, are doing better than previously in our nation's history.

Our government's response to this crossroads in history:
[credit: Glenn McCoy, Belleville News-Democrat]

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Wow!: Queen Annuls Bankster's Knighthood

Queen Elizabeth ratified the stripping of Sir (former) Fred Goodwin's knighthood. Goodwin was the head of the Royal Bank of Scotland which insolvency started the worst recession in Britain since WW2. The head of British Civil Service notified Goodwin of the action Tuesday. The government said his prominent role in the 2008 Panic made him an "exceptional case" while some Labour ministers said the annulment was a "bow to the mob" given some people have been to prison and still have their knighthoods. Members of the House of Lords, for example, cannot have their honors removed (e.g., Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare) The Cabinet Office said Goodwin's knighthood was annulled because it brought the honours system into disrepute. Are they serious? The Royal Bank of Scotland was rescued by the government at ₤45.5bn ratepayer expense to prevent even more damage to the world's banking system. Sir Goodwin resigned under pressure as the bank's CEO and took early retirement in October 2008. Goodwin was knighted in 2004 for his services to banking. His knighthood was history when Tory Prime Minister David Cameron called for it to be removed. Goodwin joins spies Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby, dictators Nicolae Ceausescu, Robert Mugabe, and Benito Mussolini in the club of the disreputable. Mr. Obama, you should check this box: ◻.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Bat Death Toll Will Go Higher

Myotis lucifugus
Biologists are gearing up for the winter bat count, but they expect more bad news as the "white nose syndrome" continues to spread through North America's bat colonies. The cause has been isolated,a fungus (Geomayces destructans)that lives in cave soil, but no effective means have been developed to stop the virus from killing more beneficial bats. The state of Wisconsin considers the fungus to be an invasive species, perhaps transplanted to New World hibernacula by peripatetic spelunkers. Estimates of the death toll are between 5.7 and 6.7 million. Mortality rates in some caves reach 100%. 70-80% is common. Congress directed the Department of Interior to dedicate $4 million of the Department's 2012 appropriations to fund research and response. One of the problems facing researchers is the lack of population data on common species such as the little brown bat. Endangered species like the Indiana brown bat are more closely inventoried, but both species are dying from the disease. Six species of North America's 45 species of bat are affected; all of the affected hibernate in winter. A spokesperson for Bat Conservation International characterized the disease as a potential extinction event on the order of the passenger pigeon or bison. Reports that natural resistance to the virus is increasing among decimated northeastern colonies where the diseases was first detected in the Andirondacks, but that may only be wishful thinking. European bats seem to be immune to the disease, and may offer some clues as to how to combat the deadly infection before it wipes out bats worth $3.7 billion annually in insect control.