Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / NYT: Detecting nukes
on: November 23, 2009, 06:43:33 AM
By MATTHEW L. WALD
Published: November 22, 2009
WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security has spent $230 million to develop better technology for detecting smuggled nuclear bombs but has had to stop deploying the new machines because the United States has run out of a crucial raw material, experts say.
The ingredient is helium 3, an unusual form of the element that is formed when tritium, an ingredient of hydrogen bombs, decays. But the government mostly stopped making tritium in 1989.
“I have not heard any explanation of why this was not entirely foreseeable,” said Representative Brad Miller, Democrat of North Carolina, who is the chairman of a House subcommittee that is investigating the problem.
An official from the Homeland Security Department testified last week before Mr. Miller’s panel, the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, that demand for helium 3 appeared to be 10 times the supply.
Some government agencies, Mr. Miller said, did anticipate a crisis, but the Homeland Security Department appears not to have gotten the message.
The department had planned a worldwide network using the new detectors, which were supposed to detect plutonium or uranium in shipping containers. The government wanted 1,300 to 1,400 machines, which cost $800,000 each, for use in ports around the world to thwart terrorists who might try to deliver a nuclear bomb to a big city by stashing it in one of the millions of containers that enter the United States every year.
At the White House, Steve Fetter, an assistant director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the helium 3 problem was short-term because other technologies would be developed. But, he said, while the government had a large surplus of helium 3 at the end of the cold war, “people should have been aware that this was a one-time windfall and was not sustainable.”
Helium 3 is not hazardous or even chemically reactive, and it is not the only material that can be used for neutron detection. The Homeland Security Department has older equipment that can look for radioactivity, but it does not differentiate well between bomb fuel and innocuous materials that naturally emit radiation — like cat litter, ceramic tiles and bananas — and sounds false alarms more often.
Earlier this year, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, part of the Energy Department, said in a report, “No other currently available detection technology offers the stability, sensitivity and gamma/neutron discrimination” of detectors using helium 3.
Helium 3 is used to detect neutrons, the subatomic particles that sustain the chain reaction in a bomb or a reactor. Plutonium, the favorite bomb-making material of most governments with nuclear weapons, intermittently gives off neutrons, which are harder for a smuggler to hide than other forms of radiation. (Detecting the alternative bomb fuel, enriched uranium, is a separate, difficult problem, experts say.)
Helium 3 is rare in nature, but the Energy Department accumulated a substantial stockpile as a byproduct of maintaining nuclear weapons. Those weapons use tritium, which is the form of hydrogen used in the H-bomb, but the hydrogen decays into helium 3 at the rate of 5.5 percent a year. For that reason the tritium in each bomb has to be removed, purified and replenished every few years. It is purified by removing the helium 3.
The declining supply is also needed for physics research and medical diagnostics.
The Energy Department used to make tritium in reactors at its Savannah River Site, near Aiken, S.C., but those were shut after many operational problems. It enlisted the Tennessee Valley Authority to make some tritium in a power reactor, using the same method it had used at Savannah River, breaking up another material, a form of lithium, with neutrons. One of the fragments is tritium. But that project has run into technical problems as well.
Mr. Miller estimated that demand for helium 3 was about 65,000 liters per year through 2013 and that total production by the only two countries that produce it in usable form, the United States and Russia, was only about 20,000 liters. In a letter to President Obama, he called the shortage “a national crisis” and said the price had jumped to $2,000 a liter from $100 in the last few years, which threatens scientific research.
DBMA Martial Arts Forum / Martial Arts Topics / NYT: New NFL policy
on: November 23, 2009, 06:39:01 AM
N.F.L. to Shift in Its Handling of Concussions
By ALAN SCHWARZ
Published: November 22, 2009
In a shift in the National Football League’s approach to handling concussions, the league will soon require teams to receive advice from independent neurologists while treating players with brain injuries, several people with knowledge of the plan confirmed Sunday.
For generations, decisions on when players who sustain concussions should return to play have been made by doctors and trainers employed by the team, raising questions of possible conflicts of interest when coaches and owners want players to return more quickly than proper care would suggest.
As scientific studies and anecdotal evidence have found a heightened risk for brain damage, dementia and cognitive decline in retired players, the league has faced barbed criticism from outside experts and, more recently, from Congress over its policies on handling players with concussions.
The league and Commissioner Roger Goodell have insisted that the N.F.L.’s policies are safe and that no third-party involvement is necessary, pointing to research by its committee on concussions as proof. But after an embarrassing hearing on the issue before the House Judiciary Committee last month in which the league was compared to the tobacco industry, the N.F.L. seems to have begun to embrace the value of outside opinion.
“I don’t want to call it forced, but it’s been strongly urged because of the awareness of the issue these days,” Chester Pitts, a lineman and union representative for the Houston Texans, said in a telephone interview. “When you have Congress talking about the antitrust exemption and them calling them the tobacco industry, that’s pretty big. But it’s a good thing it’s transpiring.”
The league spokesman Greg Aiello offered no details of the new guideline, first reported Sunday on Fox’s N.F.L. pregame broadcast, like when it will go into effect, how the independent doctors will be identified and compensated, or even whether their input must be followed.
But Mr. Goodell, interviewed Sunday on the NBC program “Football Night in America,” referring to the use of independent doctors for concussion cases, said: “As we learn more and more, we want to give players the best medical advice. This is a chance for us to expand that and bring more people into the circle to make sure we’re making the best decisions for our players in the long term.”
George Atallah, the players union’s assistant executive director for external affairs, said in an e-mail message that his organization had been speaking with N.F.L. officials for two weeks about implementing some sort of independent scrutiny for players who receive concussions — perhaps including an outside doctor present at every game. He said that the union’s medical director, Dr. Thom Mayer, “has personally approved and reviewed doctors for roughly one-third of the teams,” suggesting that the union would cooperate on the program.
Mr. Atallah said he did not know when the policy might take effect.
Mr. Atallah added that the union had pushed for the program “with the hope that this example spreads to every level of football.” More than 1.2 million teenagers play high school football every fall, with many getting seriously injured by playing through concussions or not having proper medical care for them.
At the House Judiciary Committee hearing on football brain injuries last month, several members of Congress portrayed Mr. Goodell and the league as impeding proper player care and obfuscating the long-term effects of concussions. The league and a co-chairman of its committee on brain injuries, Dr. Ira Casson, have consistently played down studies and anecdotal evidence linking retired N.F.L. players to brain damage commonly associated with boxers and dementia rates several times that of the national population.
Regarding the care of current players who sustain concussions, in 2007, the league enacted measures that required all players to undergo baseline neuropsychological testing and then be retested before being cleared to play; forbade players who were knocked unconscious to return to play the same day; and set up a hot line through which players could report being pressured to play against a doctor’s advice.
The hot line was in response to the story of Ted Johnson, a former New England Patriots linebacker who said he was coerced by Patriots Coach Belichick into playing too soon after a concussion, and sustained a more serious injury that led to a debilitating case of postconcussion syndrome. (Belichick denied the accusation.) Requiring an independent doctor at games or for follow-up consultation would protect against similar incidents that players say are less overt but nonetheless prevalent in a league without guaranteed contracts.
An independent doctor cannot address what many experts consider the primary area needing reform: the tendency of players who sustain concussions to hide them from medical personnel and endanger themselves. Even Sean Morey, a special-teams player for the Arizona Cardinals who is a co-chairman of the union’s committee on brain injuries, admitted this season that he played a game despite a concussion.
Consulting doctors beyond the team does not necessarily solve all of the league’s conflict-of-interest issues. And it is unclear how guidelines would define who is an independent expert.
The most prominent current — and instructive — N.F.L. concussion is probably that of the Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook. He sustained one major injury Oct. 26, was held out of the next two games by team doctors, and then sustained another concussion Nov. 15.
Given that repetitive concussions are known to cause far more damage than single injuries, the Eagles sent Westbrook to well-regarded concussion specialists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center last week for a third-party examination. Complicating matters could be that the Pittsburgh group includes the Steelers’ team neurosurgeon as well as the league’s director of neurological testing.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / NYT
on: November 23, 2009, 06:35:14 AM
It was drizzling lightly in late October when the midnight shift started at the Owls Head Water Pollution Control Plant, where much of Brooklyn’s sewage is treated.
A few miles away, people were walking home without umbrellas from late dinners. But at Owls Head, a swimming pool’s worth of sewage and wastewater was soon rushing in every second. Warning horns began to blare. A little after 1 a.m., with a harder rain falling, Owls Head reached its capacity and workers started shutting the intake gates.
That caused a rising tide throughout Brooklyn’s sewers, and untreated feces and industrial waste started spilling from emergency relief valves into the Upper New York Bay and Gowanus Canal.
“It happens anytime you get a hard rainfall,” said Bob Connaughton, one the plant’s engineers. “Sometimes all it takes is 20 minutes of rain, and you’ve got overflows across Brooklyn.”
One goal of the Clean Water Act of 1972 was to upgrade the nation’s sewer systems, many of them built more than a century ago, to handle growing populations and increasing runoff of rainwater and waste. During the 1970s and 1980s, Congress distributed more than $60 billion to cities to make sure that what goes into toilets, industrial drains and street grates would not endanger human health.
But despite those upgrades, many sewer systems are still frequently overwhelmed, according to a New York Times analysis of environmental data. As a result, sewage is spilling into waterways.
In the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems — including those in major cities — have reported violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere, according to data from state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency.
But fewer than one in five sewage systems that broke the law were ever fined or otherwise sanctioned by state or federal regulators, the Times analysis shows.
It is not clear whether the sewage systems that have not reported such dumping are doing any better, because data on overflows and spillage are often incomplete.
As cities have grown rapidly across the nation, many have neglected infrastructure projects and paved over green spaces that once absorbed rainwater. That has contributed to sewage backups into more than 400,000 basements and spills into thousands of streets, according to data collected by state and federal officials. Sometimes, waste has overflowed just upstream from drinking water intake points or near public beaches.
There is no national record-keeping of how many illnesses are caused by sewage spills. But academic research suggests that as many as 20 million people each year become ill from drinking water containing bacteria and other pathogens that are often spread by untreated waste.
A 2007 study published in the journal Pediatrics, focusing on one Milwaukee hospital, indicated that the number of children suffering from serious diarrhea rose whenever local sewers overflowed. Another study, published in 2008 in the Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health, estimated that as many as four million people become sick each year in California from swimming in waters containing the kind of pollution often linked to untreated sewage.
Around New York City, samples collected at dozens of beaches or piers have detected the types of bacteria and other pollutants tied to sewage overflows. Though the city’s drinking water comes from upstate reservoirs, environmentalists say untreated excrement and other waste in the city’s waterways pose serious health risks.
A Deluge of Sewage
“After the storm, the sewage flowed down the street faster than we could move out of the way and filled my house with over a foot of muck,” said Laura Serrano, whose Bay Shore, N.Y., home was damaged in 2005 by a sewer overflow.
Ms. Serrano, who says she contracted viral meningitis because of exposure to the sewage, has filed suit against Suffolk County, which operates the sewer system. The county’s lawyer disputes responsibility for the damage and injuries.
“I had to move out, and no one will buy my house because the sewage was absorbed into the walls,” Ms. Serrano said. “I can still smell it sometimes.”
When a sewage system overflows or a treatment plant dumps untreated waste, it is often breaking the law. Today, sewage systems are the nation’s most frequent violators of the Clean Water Act. More than a third of all sewer systems — including those in San Diego, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, Philadelphia, San Jose and San Francisco — have violated environmental laws since 2006, according to a Times analysis of E.P.A. data.
Thousands of other sewage systems operated by smaller cities, colleges, mobile home parks and companies have also broken the law. But few of the violators are ever punished.
The E.P.A., in a statement, said that officials agreed that overflows posed a “significant environmental and human health problem, and significantly reducing or eliminating such overflows has been a priority for E.P.A. enforcement since the mid-1990s.”
In the last year, E.P.A. settlements with sewer systems in Hampton Roads, Va., and the east San Francisco Bay have led to more than $200 million spent on new systems to reduce pollution, the agency said. In October, the E.P.A. administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, said she was overhauling how the Clean Water Act is enforced.
But widespread problems still remain.
“The E.P.A. would rather look the other way than crack down on cities, since punishing municipalities can cause political problems,” said Craig Michaels of Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group. “But without enforcement and fines, this problem will never end.”
Plant operators and regulators, for their part, say that fines would simply divert money from stretched budgets and that they are doing the best they can with aging systems and overwhelmed pipes.
New York, for example, was one of the first major cities to build a large sewer system, starting construction in 1849. Many of those pipes — constructed of hand-laid brick and ceramic tiles — are still used. Today, the city’s 7,400 miles of sewer pipes operate almost entirely by gravity, unlike in other cities that use large pumps.
New York City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants, which handle 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater a day, have been flooded with thousands of pickles (after a factory dumped its stock), vast flows of discarded chicken heads and large pieces of lumber.
When a toilet flushes in the West Village in Manhattan, the waste runs north six miles through gradually descending pipes to a plant at 137th Street, where it is mixed with so-called biological digesters that consume dangerous pathogens. The wastewater is then mixed with chlorine and sent into the Hudson River.
But New York’s system — like those in hundreds of others cities — combines rainwater runoff with sewage. Over the last three decades, as thousands of acres of trees, bushes and other vegetation in New York have been paved over, the land’s ability to absorb rain has declined significantly. When treatment plants are swamped, the excess spills from 490 overflow pipes throughout the city’s five boroughs.
When the sky is clear, Owls Head can handle the sewage from more than 750,000 people. But the balance is so delicate that Mr. Connaughton and his colleagues must be constantly ready for rain.
They choose cable television packages for their homes based on which company offers the best local weather forecasts. They know meteorologists by the sound of their voices. When the leaves begin to fall each autumn, clogging sewer grates and pipes, Mr. Connaughton sometimes has trouble sleeping.
“I went to Hawaii with my wife, and the whole time I was flipping to the Weather Channel, seeing if it was raining in New York,” he said.
New York’s sewage system overflows essentially every other time it rains.
Reducing such overflows is a priority, city officials say. But eradicating the problem would cost billions.
Officials have spent approximately $35 billion over three decades improving the quality of the waters surrounding the city and have improved systems to capture and store rainwater and sewage, bringing down the frequency and volume of overflows, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection wrote in a statement.
“Water quality in New York City has improved dramatically in the last century, and particularly in the last two decades,” officials wrote.
Several years ago, city officials estimated that it would cost at least $58 billion to prevent all overflows. “Even an expenditure of that magnitude would not result in every part of a river or bay surrounding the city achieving water quality that is suitable for swimming,” the department wrote. “It would, however, increase the average N.Y.C. water and sewer bill by 80 percent.”
The E.P.A., concerned about the risks of overflowing sewers, issued a national framework in 1994 to control overflows, including making sure that pipes are designed so they do not easily become plugged by debris and warning the public when overflows occur. In 2000, Congress amended the Clean Water Act to crack down on overflows.
Page 3 of 3)
But in hundreds of places, sewer systems remain out of compliance with that framework or the Clean Water Act, which regulates most pollution discharges to waterways. And the burdens on sewer systems are growing as cities become larger and, in some areas, rainstorms become more frequent and fierce.
New York’s system, for instance, was designed to accommodate a so-called five-year storm — a rainfall so extreme that it is expected to occur, on average, only twice a decade. But in 2007 alone, the city experienced three 25-year storms, according to city officials — storms so strong they would be expected only four times each century.
“When you get five inches of rain in 30 minutes, it’s like Thanksgiving Day traffic on a two-lane bridge in the sewer pipes,” said James Roberts, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.
To combat these shifts, some cities are encouraging sewer-friendly development. New York, for instance, has instituted zoning laws requiring new parking lots to include landscaped areas to absorb rainwater, established a tax credit for roofs with absorbent vegetation and begun to use millions of dollars for environmentally friendly infrastructure projects.
Philadelphia has announced it will spend $1.6 billion over 20 years to build rain gardens and sidewalks of porous pavement and to plant thousands of trees.
But unless cities require private developers to build in ways that minimize runoff, the volume of rain flowing into sewers is likely to grow, environmentalists say.
The only real solution, say many lawmakers and water advocates, is extensive new spending on sewer systems largely ignored for decades. As much as $400 billion in extra spending is needed over the next decade to fix the nation’s sewer infrastructure, according to estimates by the E.P.A. and the Government Accountability Office.
Legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill contains millions in water infrastructure grants, and the stimulus bill passed this year set aside $6 billion to improve sewers and other water systems.
But that money is only a small fraction of what is needed, officials say. And over the last two decades, federal money for such programs has fallen by 70 percent, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which estimates that a quarter of the state’s sewage and wastewater treatment plants are “using outmoded, inadequate technology.”
“The public has no clue how important these sewage plants are,” said Mr. Connaughton of the Brooklyn site. “Waterborne disease was the scourge of mankind for centuries. These plants stopped that. We’re doing everything we can to clean as much sewage as possible, but sometimes, that isn’t enough.”
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Ruell Marc Gerecht
on: November 22, 2009, 11:49:08 PM
By REUEL MARC GERECHT
For those of us who have tracked Islamic militancy in Europe, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's actions are not extraordinary. Since Muslim militants first tried to blow a French high-speed train off its rails in 1995, European intelligence and internal-security services have increasingly monitored European Muslim radicals. Whether it's anti-Muslim bigotry, the large numbers of immigrant and native-born Muslims in Europe, an appreciation of how hard it is to become European, or just an understanding of how dangerous Islamic radicalism is, most Europeans are far less circumspect and politically correct when discussing their Muslim compatriots than are Americans.
A concern for not giving offense to Muslims would never prevent the French internal-security service, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), which deploys a large number of Muslim officers, from aggressively trying to pre-empt terrorism. As Maj. Hasan's case shows, this is not true in the United States. The American military and especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation were in great part inattentive because they were too sensitive.
Moreover, President Barack Obama's determined effort not to mention Islam in terrorist discussions—which means that we must not suggest that Maj. Hasan's murderous actions flowed from his faith—will weaken American counterterrorism. Worse, the president's position is an enormous wasted opportunity to advance an all-critical Muslim debate about the nature and legitimacy of jihad.
View Full Image
.European counterterrorist officers know well that jihadists can appear, self-generated or tutored by extremist groups, inside Muslim families where parents and siblings lead peaceful lives. Security officials live in fear of the quiet believer who quickly radicalizes, or the secular down-and-out European who enthusiastically converts to a militant creed. Both cases allow little time and often few leads to neutralize a possible lethal explosion of the faith.
It shouldn't require the U.S. to have a French-style, internal-security service to neutralize the likes of Maj. Hasan. He combines all of the factors—especially his public ruminations about American villainy in the Middle East and his overriding sense of Muslim fraternity—that should have had him under surveillance by counterintelligence units. Add the outrageous fact that he was in email correspondence with Anwar al-Awlaqi, a pro-al Qaeda imam well-known to American intelligence, and it is hard not to conclude that the FBI is still incapable of counterterrorism against an Islamic target.
For the FBI, religion remains a much too sensitive subject, much more so than the threatening ideologies of yesteryear. Imagine if Maj. Hasan had been an officer during the Cold War, regularly expressing his sympathy for the Soviet Union and American criminality against the working man. Imagine him writing to a KGB front organization espousing socialist solidarity. The major would have been surrounded by counterintelligence officers.
A law-enforcement agency par excellence, the FBI reflects American legal ethics. Because the FBI is always thinking about criminal prosecutions and admissible evidence, its intelligence-collecting inevitably gets defined by its judicial procedures. Good counterintelligence curiosity—that must come into play before any crime is committed—is at odds with a G-man's raison d'être. And much more so than local police departments—which are grounded to the unpleasantness of daily life—it is highly susceptible to politically correct behavior.
Powerfully intertwined in all of this is liberal America's reluctance to discuss Islam, Islamic militancy, jihadism, or anything that might be construed as invidious to Muslims. The Obama administration obviously doesn't want to get tagged with an Islamist terrorist strike in the U.S.—the first since 9/11. The Muslim-sensitive 9/11 Commission Report, which unambiguously named the enemy as "Islamist terrorism," now seems distinctly passé.
Thoughtful men should certainly not want to see a U.S. president propel a "clash of civilizations" with devout Muslims. However, clash-avoidance shouldn't lead us into a philosophical cul-de-sac. The stakes are so enormous—jihadists would if they could let loose a weapon of mass destruction in a Western city—that we should not prevaricate out of politeness, or deceive ourselves into believing that a debate between Muslims and non-Muslims can only be counterproductive.
The great Muslim reformers of the last 200 years have all been intellectually deeply intertwined with the West. The West has stimulated every single great modern Muslim conversation. The abolition of slavery, the study of science, public schools and widespread literacy, the widely felt and growing need for constitutional and representative government—and less meritorious subjects like socialism, communism and fascism—came about because of Westernization. The Westernization, moreover, was usually driven by Muslims themselves.
This "globalization" has not always been appreciated on the Muslim side. Britain's imperialistic doggedness against the slave trade was deeply resented by Muslims who, like American Southerners, saw slavery, as sacred. Devout Muslims often go ballistic when Westerners and secular Muslims push hard for an expansion of women's rights. Militant Islam is a response to the unstoppable Westernization of Muslim society.
But unavoidably invidious dialogue is the essence of modernity—it is the lifeblood of autocratic societies that have successfully made the painful jump into a democratic era.
The brilliant Iranian revolutionary-turned dissident, Abd al-Karim Soroush, whose ideas contributed to the pro-democracy tumult we've witnessed in Iran since the June 12 election, has forcefully argued for Muslims to critique themselves unsparingly, to happily import and use the West's rational relentlessness to strengthen the faith. An elemental part of Mr. Soroush's critique is that Muslims are capable of thinking on their own. They can take the heat.
In his Cairo speech in June, Mr. Obama pledged "to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear." Muslims don't need his help protecting Islam from mean-spirited Westerners—or from Western novelists, film directors or scholars who might see something in Islamic history that devout Muslims find insulting.
But Westerners could certainly benefit from Mr. Obama underscoring something else he touched on in his Cairo speech: Muslims should stop blaming non-Muslims for their crippling problems. He could ask, as some Muslims have, why is it that Islam has produced so many jihadists? Why is it that Maj. Hasan's rampage has produced so little questioning among Muslim clerics about why a man, one in a long line of Muslim militants, so easily takes God's name to slaughter his fellow citizens?
Had Mr. Obama asked this, we might now be witnessing convulsive debate among Muslims. He missed the opportunity to start this conversation before what is clearly the first Islamist terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. He will probably get another opportunity.
As it stands now, however, Iranian youth who once so eagerly welcomed Mr. Obama's election by shouting his name in Persian—U ba ma! ("He is with us!")—are now writing the president's likely legacy among Muslims who yearn for a better modernity. Disappointed to see how determined Mr. Obama has remained to engage the regime they despise, they now forlornly chant U ba unhast ("He is with them.").
For Muslims who are on the front lines of Islam's bloody reformation, as well as for American counterterrorist officers who must find holy warriors in our midst, Mr. Obama has come down on the wrong side of history.
Mr. Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / POTH: WS profits again, now by reducing mortgages
on: November 22, 2009, 10:57:11 AM
Wall St. Finds Profits Again, Now by Reducing Mortgages
By LOUISE STORY
Published: November 21, 2009
As millions of Americans struggle to hold on to their homes, Wall Street has found a way to make money from the mortgage mess.
Investment funds are buying billions of dollars’ worth of home loans, discounted from the loans’ original value. Then, in what might seem an act of charity, the funds are helping homeowners by reducing the size of the loans.
But as part of these deals, the mortgages are being refinanced through lenders that work with government agencies like the Federal Housing Administration. This enables the funds to pocket sizable profits by reselling new, government-insured loans to other federal agencies, which then bundle the mortgages into securities for sale to investors.
While homeowners save money, the arrangement shifts nearly all the risk for the loans to the federal government — and, ultimately, taxpayers — at a time when Americans are falling behind on their mortgage payments in record numbers.
For instance, a fund might offer to pay $40 million for a $100 million block of mortgages from a bank in distress. Then the fund could arrange to have some of those loans refinanced into mortgages backed by an agency like the F.H.A. and then sold to an agency like Ginnie Mae. The trick is to persuade the homeowners to refinance those mortgages, by offering to reduce the amounts the homeowners owe.
The profit comes when the refinancings reach more than the $40 million that the fund paid for the block of loans.
The strategy has created an unusual alliance between Wall Street funds that specialize in troubled investments — the industry calls them “vulture” funds — and American homeowners.
But the transactions also add to the potential burden on government agencies, particularly the F.H.A., which has lately taken on an outsize role in the housing market and, some fear, may eventually need to be bailed out at taxpayer expense.
These new mortgage investors thrive in the shadows. Typically, the funds employ intermediaries to contact homeowners and arrange for mortgages to be refinanced.
Homeowners often have no idea who their Wall Street benefactors are. Federal housing officials, too, are in the dark.
Policymakers have encouraged investors and banks to put more consumers into government-backed loans. The total value of these transactions from hedge funds is small compared with the overall housing market.
Housing experts warn that the financial players involved — the investment funds, their intermediaries and certain F.H.A. approved lenders — have a financial incentive to put as many loans as possible into the government’s hands.
“From the borrower’s point of view, landing in a hedge fund or private equity fund that’s willing to write down principal is a gift,” said Howard Glaser, a financial industry consultant and former official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
He went on: “From the systemic point of view, there is something disturbing about investors that had substantial short-term profit in backing toxic loans now swooping down to make another profit on cleaning up that mess.”
Steven and Marisela Alva say they do not know who helped them with their mortgage. All they know is that they feel blessed.
Last December, the couple got a letter saying that a firm had purchased the mortgage on their home in Pico Rivera, Calif., from Chase Home Finance for less than its original value. “We want to share this discount with you,” the letter said.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Mr. Alva, a 62-year-old janitor and father of three. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘Something is wrong, something is wrong. This sounds too good.’ ”
But it was true. The balance on the Alvas’ mortgage was ultimately reduced to $314,000 from $440,000.
The firm behind the reduction remains a mystery. The Alvas’ new loan, backed by the F.H.A., was made by Primary Residential Mortgage, a lender based in Utah. But the letter came from a company called MCM Capital Partners.
In the letter, MCM said the couple’s loan was owned by something called MCMCap Homeowners’ Advantage Trust III. But MCM’s co-founders said in an interview that MCM does not own any mortgages. They would not reveal the investor that owned the Alvas’ loan because they had agreed to keep that client’s identity confidential.
Michael Niccolini, an MCM founder, said, “We are changing people’s lives.”
(Page 2 of 2)
In Washington, mortgage funds are lobbying for policies that favor their investments, particularly mortgages held in securitized bundles. They want more mortgage balances to be lowered, which might help mortgage bonds perform better. Big banks generally oppose such reductions, which lock in banks’ losses on the loans.
In April, about a dozen investment firms formed a group called the Mortgage Investors Coalition to press their case. One investor who is speaking out is Wilbur L. Ross, who runs a fund that buys mortgages and owns a large mortgage servicing company.
Mr. Ross said modifications that simply lower interest rates or lengthen the duration of a loan, as is typical in the government modification program, do not work well.
“They make a payment or two, but then one night the husband and wife will sit down at the table and say, ‘Do we really want to make 140 monthly payments into a rat hole?’ ” Mr. Ross said.
The Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund in New York, is one of the firms at the forefront of picking through mortgages. Fortress created a $3 billion credit fund in 2008 partly to buy loans from banks like Citigroup, which were under pressure to purge loans to raise cash.
“They’re going ahead and they are refinancing them and getting their money out right away,” said Roger Smith, an analyst at Fox-Pitt Kelton. “What Fortress is doing is actually good for the borrower.” Congress, however, may not be happy that hedge funds are making money this way, Mr. Smith said.
Fortress, which declined to comment, typically buys batches of loans and works with other companies to evaluate which ones might qualify for F.H.A., Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac refinancing.
Sometimes Fortress works with Nationstar, a mortgage servicer and originator that it owns. Other times, Fortress uses an outside partner like Meridias Capital, a lender in Henderson, Nev., that once originated Alt-A loans, which are just above subprime.
After the mortgage market imploded, Meridias began dissecting portfolios of troubled loans for investment funds.
Because firms like Fortress purchase blocks of mortgages at distressed prices, they are able to reduce the principal amount of the loans. Nick Florez, president of Meridias, calls such transactions an “incentive refinance.” He said he would not agree to take a loan unless he could help the homeowner. He said he was able to reduce the loan amount by 11 percent on average.
“I’m giving money away,” said Mr. Florez, who is a 35-year-old Las Vegas native. “It’s really a feel-good business.”
It is too early to know how the new loans will work.
David H. Stevens, the new commissioner of the F.H.A., said he was monitoring F.H.A. lenders but did not have thorough information about which ones work with distressed investors. So far he has not seen a problem from loans coming from hedge funds.
“They’re helping to protect people in their homes and they’re refinancing people from a distressed situation,” he said.
But he acknowledged that funds have an incentive to aggressively push homeowners into federally guaranteed loans, since the investors get their money back as soon as they complete the refinancing.
Seth Wheeler, a senior adviser in the Treasury Department who specializes in housing policy, declined to say whether the investment firms that are lowering principal for homeowners are altruistic or not.
“Investors are doing it where it both benefits the investor and the borrower,” he said.
Part of the risk may be determined by how the funds compensate the F.H.A. lenders and whether the lenders are beholden to the funds for business.
David Zitting, the chief executive of Primary Residential Mortgage, the company that refinanced the Alva family’s loan, said his company did not receive fees from the hedge funds.
“They have all sorts of motivations that, frankly, we don’t understand,” he said. “We don’t do anything special for them because that’s not fair lending.”
The Alvas had to dip into their savings to qualify for their new federally insured loan, since the biggest F.H.A. mortgage they could get was for $285,000, they said. They paid off $21,000 in credit-card and car loans, and put up an additional $29,000 for their new mortgage, depleting their already meager savings.
Brian Chappelle, a mortgage consultant, said loans to people like the Alvas, with modest incomes and scant savings, could turn out to be risky.
“It does raise risk concerns for F.H.A.,” he said.
The Alvas are grateful for the help. Their home is, Marisela said, a dream come true. “I’m very happy,” she said. “We never thought this was possible.”
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / NYT: Afghani militias?
on: November 22, 2009, 10:18:30 AM
As Afghans Resist Taliban, U.S. Spurs Rise of Militias
By DEXTER FILKINS
Published: November 21, 2009
ACHIN, Afghanistan — American and Afghan officials have begun helping a number of anti-Taliban militias that have independently taken up arms against insurgents in several parts of Afghanistan, prompting hopes of a large-scale tribal rebellion against the Taliban.
Members of the Afghan National Police, above, passed an abandoned Russian Army vehicle on a patrol near a village in Kunduz Province.
The emergence of the militias, which took some leaders in Kabul by surprise, has so encouraged the American and Afghan officials that they are planning to spur the growth of similar armed groups across the Taliban heartland in the southern and eastern parts of the country.
The American and Afghan officials say they are hoping the plan, called the Community Defense Initiative, will bring together thousands of gunmen to protect their neighborhoods from Taliban insurgents. Already there are hundreds of Afghans who are acting on their own against the Taliban, officials say.
The endeavor represents one of the most ambitious — and one of the riskiest — plans for regaining the initiative against the Taliban, who are fighting more vigorously than at any time since 2001.
By harnessing the militias, American and Afghan officials hope to rapidly increase the number of Afghans fighting the Taliban. That could supplement the American and Afghan forces already here, and whatever number of American troops President Obama might decide to send. The militias could also help fill the gap while the Afghan Army and police forces train and grow — a project that could take years to bear fruit.
The Americans hope the militias will encourage an increasingly demoralized Afghan population to take a stake in the war against the Taliban.
“The idea is to get people to take responsibility for their own security,” said a senior American military official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “In many places they are already doing that.”
The growth of the anti-Taliban militias runs the risk that they could turn on one another, or against the Afghan and American governments. The Americans say they will keep the groups small and will limit the scope of their activities to protecting villages and manning checkpoints.
For now, they are not arming the groups because they already have guns.
The Americans also say they will tie them directly to the Afghan government.
These checks aim to avoid repeating mistakes of the past — either creating more Afghan warlords, who have defied the government’s authority for years, or arming Islamic militants, some of whom came back to haunt the United States.
The American plan echoes a similar movement that unfolded in Iraq, beginning in late 2006, in which Sunni tribes turned against Islamist extremists.
That movement, called the Sunni Awakening, brought tens of thousands of former insurgents into government-supervised militias and helped substantially reduce the violence in Iraq. A rebellion on a similar scale seems unlikely in Afghanistan, in large part because the tribes here are so much weaker than those in Iraq.
The first phase of the Afghan plan, now being carried out by American Special Forces soldiers, is to set up or expand the militias in areas with a population of about a million people. Special Forces soldiers have been fanning out across the countryside, descending from helicopters into valleys where the residents have taken up arms against the Taliban and offering their help.
“We are trying to reach out to these groups that have organized themselves,” Col. Christopher Kolenda said in Kabul.
Afghan and American officials say they plan to use the militias as tripwires for Taliban incursions, enabling them to call the army or the police if things get out of hand.
The official assistance to the militias so far has been modest, consisting mainly of ammunition and food, officials said. But American and Afghan officials say they are also planning to train the fighters and provide communication equipment.
“What we are talking about is a local, spontaneous and indigenous response to the Taliban,” said Hanif Atmar, the Afghan interior minister. “The Afghans are saying, ‘We are willing and determined and capable to defend our country; just give us the resources.’ ”
In the Pashtun-dominated areas of the south and east, the anti-Taliban militias are being led by elders from local tribes. The Pashtun militias represent a reassertion of the country’s age-old tribal system, which binds villages and regions under the leadership of groups of elders.
The tribal networks have been alternately decimated and co-opted by Taliban insurgents. Local tribal leaders, while still powerful, cannot count on the allegiance of all of their tribes’ members.
Militias have begun taking up arms against the Taliban in several places where insurgents have gained a foothold, including the provinces of Nangarhar and Paktia.
Published: November 21, 2009
(Page 2 of 2)
So far, there appears to be some divergence in the American and Afghan efforts. While American Special Forces units have focused on helping smaller militias, Afghan officials have been channeling assistance to larger armed groups, including those around the northern city of Kunduz. In that city, several armed groups, led by ethnic Uzbek commanders as well as Pashtuns, are confronting the Taliban.
“In Kunduz, after they defeated the Taliban in their villages, they became the power and they took money and taxes from the people,” Mr. Atmar, the interior minister, said. “This is not legal, and this is warlordism.”
Colonel Kolenda said, “In the long run, that is destabilizing.”
One of the most striking examples of a local militia rising up on its own is here in Achin, a predominantly Pashtun district in Nangarhar Province that straddles the border with Pakistan.
In July, a long-running dispute between local Taliban fighters and elders from the Shinwari tribe flared up. When a local Taliban warlord named Khona brought a more senior commander from Pakistan to help in the confrontation, the elders in the Shinwari tribe rallied villagers from up and down the valley where they live, killed the commander and chased Khona away.
The elders had insisted that the Taliban stay away from a group of Afghans building a dike in the valley. When Khona’s men kidnapped two Afghan engineers, the Shinwari elders decided they had had enough.
“The whole tribe was with me,” one of the elders said in an interview. “The Taliban came to kill me, and instead we killed them.”
The two tribal elders in Achin who led the rebellion spoke at length with The New York Times about their activities. At the request of American commanders in Kabul, who feared that the elders would be killed by the Taliban, the identities of the men are being withheld.
Since the fight, the Taliban have been kept away from a string of villages in Achin District that stretch for about six miles. The elders said they were able to do so by forming a group of more than 100 fighters and posting them at each end of the valley.
The elders said they had been marked for death by Taliban commanders on both sides of the border.
“Every day people call me and tell me the Taliban is trying to kill me,” one of the Shinwari elders said. “They call me and tell me: ‘Don’t take this road. Take a different one.’ I am worried about suicide bombers.”
The feud between the Taliban and the Shinwari elders caught the attention of American officers, who sent a team of Special Forces soldiers to the valley. This reporter was unable to reach the interior of the valley where the men live, so it was difficult to verify all of the elders’ claims.
Both the Shinwari elders said that “Americans with beards” had flown into the valley twice in recent weeks and had given them flour and boxes of ammunition. (Unlike other American troops, Special Forces soldiers are allowed to wear beards.)
American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they intended to help organize and train the Shinwari militia. They said they would give them communication gear that would enable them to call the Afghan police if they needed help.
But that, as well as other aspects of the plan, seems problematic, at least for now. There are only about 50 Afghan police officers in Achin, the district center, and none in the valley. There are no Afghan Army soldiers in the area, and the nearest American base is many miles away.
The hope, of course, is that the revolt led by the Shinwari elders spreads. Each of the elders interviewed leads a branch of the 12 Shinwari tribes. If they survive, both elders said, they believe that others will join them.
“The Taliban are not popular here, not educated,” another Shinwari elder said. “They are stray dogs.”
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Iranian War Games
on: November 22, 2009, 09:25:03 AM
Iran war games to defend nuclear sites.
Iran has begun five days of war games to simulate attacks on its nuclear sites, state media report.
The head of Iran's air defence said the aim was to thwart aerial reconnaissance of the sites as well as air attacks.
Brigadier General Ahmad Mighani said the training would also improve cooperation among different units.
Iran has come under mounting pressure over its nuclear programme, which critics say is intended to produce nuclear weapons.
The US and Israel have not ruled out the prospect of a military attack to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon.
Tehran insists its programme is peaceful, and an aide to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly warned Iran would retaliate to any attack with a missile strike on Tel Aviv.
"If the enemy attacks Iran, our missiles will strike Tel Aviv," Mojhtaba Zolnoor was quoted as saying by the official Irna news agency.
Brig Mighani told state media the aim of the exercises, which will cover an area of 600,000 sq km (230,000 sq miles), was "to display Iran's combat readiness and military potentials.
Iran insists that all its nuclear facilities are for energy, not military purposes
Bushehr: Nuclear power plant
Isfahan: Uranium conversion plant
Natanz: Uranium enrichment plant, 4,592 working centrifuges, with 3,716 more installed
Second enrichment plant: Existence revealed to IAEA in Sept 2009. Separate reports say it is near Qom, and not yet operational
Arak: Heavy water plant
Key nuclear sites in detail
A high-stakes game
Q&A: Iran and the nuclear issue
"Due to the threats against our nuclear facilities it is our duty to defend out nation's vital facilities," he said.
The exercises come as the UN Security Council's permanent members - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - plus Germany, urge Tehran to reconsider its rejection of a deal that would see some of its nuclear material being enriched outside Iran and returned as fuel rods.
The deal - brokered by the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency - envisages Iran sending about 70% of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France, where it would be processed into fuel rods for a research reactor in Tehran.
Such a process would prevent Iran enriching uranium to the degree necessary to make a bomb, the UN says.
Iran has rejected a key part of the deal, seeking further guarantees.
The UN Security Council has called on Iran to stop uranium enrichment and has approved three rounds of sanctions - covering trade in nuclear material, as well as financial and travel restrictions.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / WSJ: It gets worse
on: November 21, 2009, 07:45:53 AM
About the best that can be said about the Senate health-care bill that Harry Reid revealed this week is that it's marginally less destructive than the House monster. By a hair. Its $1.2 trillion cost (more like $2.5 trillion if you discount the accounting gimmicks), multiple and damaging new taxes, and new regulations will make health insurance more expensive for most Americans while reducing the quality of medical care.
We'll dissect the damage in the days to come. But for today let's focus on the damage the bill would do to consumer-driven health plans—the kind that give individuals more control over their health dollars and insurance choices. The 2,074-page bill crushes them with malice-aforethought.
Start with its attack on flexible spending accounts that are an important part of many employer plans. Flex accounts let employees set aside some portion of their pre-tax pay for out-of-pocket costs or medical services that their insurance plan doesn't cover, such as a child's orthodontics or testing supplies for diabetics. The Reid bill caps these now-unlimited accounts at $2,500 per year and imposes new restrictions on qualifying medical expenses, raising some $5 billion by exposing income above the non-indexed cap to taxes.
Democrats say flex accounts encourage wasteful spending, because an arbitrary "use it or lose it" rule doesn't allow balances to roll over year to year. But they really hate them because they give consumers a more active role in managing spending, instead of having the government decide.
The Reid bill also assaults health savings accounts, or HSAs, which allow individuals to accumulate tax-free funds for future medical expenses when coupled with low-premium, high-deductible insurance. The Reid bill changes tax provisions to make HSAs less attractive, but the real threat comes via increased regulation.
These insurance products will likely be barred from the insurance "exchanges" that will demolish and supplant today's individual market. Employers will also find them more difficult if not illegal to offer once the government has new powers to "define the essential health benefits" that all plans must eventually offer. Plans that focus mainly on catastrophic health expenses, instead of routine procedures, aren't generous enough for Democrats.
Liberals claim people who choose these options aren't helping as much to finance a common pool and may encourage adverse selection if too many young or healthy people opt out. While all insurance involves some degree of risk-sharing, Democrats want to impose true social insurance a la Europe by obliterating the flexibility of insurers to design products that are tailored to suit different individual needs.
In fact, about 40% of tax filers with HSAs earn under $60,000, according to the IRS. The Employee Benefit Research Institute reports that 4% of adults with private insurance have an HSA this year—up from 1% in 2006—and about 9% are enrolled in some form of consumer-directed health plan. It also found that beneficiaries are evenly split between those with health problems and those without.
The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, whose members dominate the HSA market, says that enrollees are more likely than those with traditional insurance to be better consumers. They're more likely to track expenses (63% to 43%), save for the future (47% to 18%), and search for information on physician quality (20% to 14%). They're also more likely to participate and see results from wellness programs like weight loss, fitness and smoking cessation. This makes intuitive sense: They've got skin directly in the game.
David Goldhill, a media executive, recently wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that if a 22-year-old starts at his company today earning $30,000 and health costs grow at 3%, by the time he retires he'll have paid out $1.77 million in premiums, lower wages, out-of-pocket costs and both sides of the Medicare payroll tax.
If all that money were instead available via an HSA, including by borrowing against future contributions, "wouldn't you be able to afford your own care?" Mr. Goldhill asks. "And wouldn't you consume health care differently if you and your family didn't have to spend that money only on care?"
This is precisely the future liberals fear because it would make health care less susceptible to political control. The Reid bill makes it impossible for people to choose better reform alternatives, the ones that can only be discovered through innovation and competition in a dynamic marketplace.
Not that any of this seems to matter at this stage of the health-card debate. The polls show the public opposes the Democratic bills, President Obama is below 50% job approval in the Gallup poll, and business and medical providers are increasingly horrified at what reform will do to consumers and patients. But so what? This is about putting government in charge of health care, whether Americans like it or not.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Pravda on the Hudson
on: November 21, 2009, 07:17:44 AM
Well, here's a fine example of POTH at work:
New Consensus Sees Stimulus Package as Worthy Step Recommend
by JACKIE CALMES and MICHAEL COOPER
Published: November 20, 2009
WASHINGTON — Now that unemployment has topped 10 percent, some liberal-leaning economists see confirmation of their warnings that the $787 billion stimulus package President Obama signed into law last February was way too small. The economy needs a second big infusion, they say.
No, some conservative-leaning economists counter, we were right: The package has been wasteful, ineffectual and even harmful to the extent that it adds to the nation’s debt and crowds out private-sector borrowing.
These long-running arguments have flared now that the White House and Congressional leaders are talking about a new “jobs bill.” But with roughly a quarter of the stimulus money out the door after nine months, the accumulation of hard data and real-life experience has allowed more dispassionate analysts to reach a consensus that the stimulus package, messy as it is, is working.
The legislation, a variety of economists say, is helping an economy in free fall a year ago to grow again and shed fewer jobs than it otherwise would. Mr. Obama’s promise to “save or create” about 3.5 million jobs by the end of 2010 is roughly on track, though far more jobs are being saved than created, especially among states and cities using their money to avoid cutting teachers, police officers and other workers.
“It was worth doing — it’s made a difference,” said Nigel Gault, chief economist at IHS Global Insight, a financial forecasting and analysis group based in Lexington, Mass.
Mr. Gault added: “I don’t think it’s right to look at it by saying, ‘Well, the economy is still doing extremely badly, therefore the stimulus didn’t work.’ I’m afraid the answer is, yes, we did badly but we would have done even worse without the stimulus.”
In interviews, a broad range of economists said the White House and Congress were right to structure the package as a mix of tax cuts and spending, rather than just tax cuts as Republicans prefer or just spending as many Democrats do. And it is fortuitous, many say, that the money gets doled out over two years — longer for major construction — considering the probable length of the “jobless recovery” under way as wary employers hold off on new hiring.
But there are criticisms, mainly that the Obama team relied last winter on overly optimistic economic assumptions and oversold the job-creating benefits of the stimulus package.
Optimistic assumptions in turn contributed to producing a package that if anything is too small, analysts say. “The economy was weaker than we thought at the time, so maybe in retrospect we could have used a little bit more and little bit more front-loaded,” said Joel Prakken, chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers, another financial analysis group, in St. Louis.
While some conservatives remain as skeptical as ever that big increases in government spending give the economy a jolt that is worth the cost, Martin Feldstein, a conservative Harvard economist who served in the Reagan administration, said the problem with the package was that some of its tax cuts and spending programs were of a variety that did little to spur the economy.
“There should have been more direct federal spending that would have added to aggregate demand,” he said. “Temporary tax cuts and one-time transfers to seniors were largely saved and didn’t stimulate spending.”
Even the $787 billion price tag overstates the plan’s stimulus value given changes made in Congress, economists say. Nearly a tenth of the package, $70 billion, comes from a provision adjusting the alternative minimum tax so it does not hit middle-income taxpayers this year. That routine fix, which would do nothing to stimulate the economy, was added in part to seek Republican votes. But to keep the package’s overall cost down, provisions that would stimulate the economy — like aid to revenue-starved states and infrastructure projects — got less as a result.
Among Democrats in the White House and Congress, “there was a considerable amount of hand-wringing that it was too small, and I sympathized with that argument,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com and an occasional adviser to lawmakers.
Even so, “the stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do — it is contributing to ending the recession,” he added, citing the economy’s third-quarter expansion by a 3.5 percent seasonally adjusted annual rate. “In my view, without the stimulus, G.D.P. would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent. And there are a little over 1.1 million more jobs out there as of October than would have been out there without the stimulus.”
Politically, however, the president is saddled with his original claim that, with the stimulus, the jobless rate would peak at 8.1 percent — a miscalculation that Republicans constantly recall. While the administration has said its economic assumptions were in line with private forecasts, most of which also underestimated the recession’s punch, it was more optimistic than most.
“That was a mistake,” said Jeffrey A. Frankel, a Harvard University economist and former Clinton administration official who is a member of the National Bureau of Economic Research panel that judges when recessions start and end. “I thought so at the time.”
Christina D. Romer, chairwoman of Mr. Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said attention to that too-rosy projection “prevents people from focusing on the positive impact of the fiscal stimulus. So of course I find that frustrating.”
Much federal infrastructure money has gone not to new job-creating projects but to finance existing plans, which otherwise would be unaffordable to states.
So the stimulus has not “supercharged” transportation construction as was hoped, said Charles Gallagher, an asphalt company owner, speaking for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, but it has nonetheless been “a welcome Band-Aid” to offset state cuts.
“Many contractors across the nation have been able to sustain, if not add to, their work force,” he said.
That sort of impact is what makes federal aid to state governments rank high in economists’ reckoning of the stimulus value of various proposals. Every dollar of additional infrastructure spending means $1.57 in economic activity, according to Moody’s, and general aid to states carries a $1.41 “bang” for each federal buck.
Even more effective are increases for food stamps ($1.74) and unemployment checks ($1.61), because recipients quickly spend their benefits on goods and services.
By contrast, most temporary tax cuts cost more than the stimulus they provide, according to research by Moody’s. That is true of two tax breaks in the stimulus law that Congress, pressed by industry lobbyists, recently extended and sweetened — a tax credit for homebuyers (90 cents of stimulus for each dollar of tax subsidy) and extra deductions for businesses’ net operating losses (21 cents).
Economists said Republicans’ recent proposals to rescind unspent money would be a mistake.
James Glassman, a senior economist at JPMorgan Chase & Company, said: “If we could be absolutely convinced that the growth we’re getting is for reasons beyond the help the government is giving, then that would make sense. But the fact is we can’t be certain of that.”
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Bone density
on: November 20, 2009, 06:27:43 PM
Phys Ed: The Best Exercises for Healthy Bones
By GRETCHEN REYNOLDS
Digital Images/Getty Images
Several weeks ago, The Journal of the American Medical Association published
a study that should give pause to anyone who plans to live a long and
independent life. The study looked at the incidence of hip fractures among
older Americans and the mortality rates associated with them. Although the
number of hip fractures has declined in recent decades, the study found that
the 12-month mortality rate associated with the injury still hovers at more
than 20 percent, meaning that, in the year after fracturing a hip, about one
in five people over age 65 will die.
Meanwhile, another group of articles, published this month as a special
section of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the journal of the
American College of Sports Medicine, underscore why that statistic should be
relevant even to active people who are years, or decades, away from
eligibility for Medicare. The articles detailed a continuing controversy
within the field of sports science about exactly how exercise works on bone
and why sometimes, apparently, it doesn't.
"There was a time, not so long ago," when most researchers assumed "that any
and all activity would be beneficial for bone health," says Dr. Daniel W.
Barry, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, at
Denver, and a researcher who has studied the bones of the elderly and of
athletes. Then came a raft of unexpected findings, some showing that
competitive swimmers had lower-than-anticipated bone density, others that,
as an earlier Phys Ed column pointed out, competitive cyclists sometimes had
fragile bones and, finally, some studies suggesting, to the surprise of many
researchers, that weight lifting did not necessarily strengthen bones much.
In one representative study from a few years ago, researchers found no
significant differences in the spine or neck-bone densities of young women
who did resistance-style exercise training (not heavy weight lifting) and a
similar group who did not.
Researchers readily admit that they don't fully understand why some exercise
is good for bones and some just isn't. As the articles in this month's
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise make clear, scientists actually seem
to be becoming less certain about how exercise affects bone. Until fairly
recently, many thought that the pounding or impact that you get from
running, for instance, deformed the bone slightly. It bowed in response to
the forces moving up the leg from the ground, stretching the various bone
cells and forcing them to adapt, usually by adding cells, which made the
bone denser. This, by the way, is how muscle adapts to exercise. But many
scientists now think that that process doesn't apply to bones. "If you
stretch bone cells" in a Petri dish, says Alexander G. Robling, an assistant
professor in the department of anatomy and cell biology at Indiana
University School of Medicine and the author of an article in Medicine &
Science in Sports & Exercise, "you have to stretch them so far to get a
response that the bone would break."
So he and many other researchers now maintain that bone receives the message
to strengthen itself in response to exercise by a different means. He says
that during certain types of exercise, the bone bends, but this doesn't
stretch cells; it squeezes fluids from one part of the bone matrix to
another. The extra fluid inspires the cells bathed with it to respond by
adding denser bone.
a.. More Phys Ed columns
b.. Faster, Higher, Stronger
c.. Fitness and Nutrition News
Why should it matter what kind of message bones are receiving? Because,
Professor Robling and others say, only certain types of exercise adequately
bend bones and move the fluid to the necessary bone cells. An emerging
scientific consensus seems to be, he says, that "large forces released in a
relatively big burst" are probably crucial. The bone, he says, "needs a loud
signal, coming fast." For most of us, weight lifting isn't explosive enough
to stimulate such bone bending. Neither is swimming. Running can be,
although for unknown reasons, it doesn't seem to stimulate bone building in
some people. Surprisingly, brisk walking has been found to be effective at
increasing bone density in older women, Dr. Barry says. But it must be truly
brisk. "The faster the pace," he says - and presumably the greater the
bending within the bones - the lower the risk that a person will fracture a
There seems to be a plateau, however, that has also surprised and confounded
some researchers. Too much endurance exercise, it appears, may reduce bone
density. In one small study completed by Dr. Barry and his colleagues,
competitive cyclists lost bone density over the course of a long training
season. Dr. Barry says that it's possible, but not yet proved, that exercise
that is too prolonged or intense may lead to excessive calcium loss through
sweat. The body's endocrine system may interpret this loss of calcium as
serious enough to warrant leaching the mineral from bone. Dr. Barry is in
the middle of a long-term study to determine whether supplementing with
calcium-fortified chews before and after exercise reduces the bone-thinning
response in competitive cyclists. He expects results in a year or so.
In the meantime, the current state-of-the-science message about exercise and
bone building may be that, silly as it sounds, the best exercise is to
simply jump up and down, for as long as the downstairs neighbor will
tolerate. "Jumping is great, if your bones are strong enough to begin with,"
Dr. Barry says. "You probably don't need to do a lot either." (If you have
any history of fractures or a family history of osteoporosis, check with a
physician before jumping.) In studies in Japan, having mice jump up and land
40 times during a week increased their bone density significantly after 24
weeks, a gain they maintained by hopping up and down only about 20 or 30
times each week after that.
If hopping seems an undignified exercise regimen, bear in mind that it has
one additional benefit: It tends to aid in balance, which may be as
important as bone strength in keeping fractures at bay. Most of the time,
Dr. Barry says, "fragile bones don't matter, from a clinical standpoint, if
you don't fall down."
DBMA Martial Arts Forum / Martial Arts Topics / Re: Brain damage/concussion in boxing, kickboxing, football, etc:
on: November 20, 2009, 06:24:54 PM
Hat tip to Linda "Bitch" Matsumi:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704402404574527881984299454.html
Is It Time to Retire the Football Helmet?
New Research Says Small Hits Do Major Damage—and There's Not Much Headgear Can Do About It
By REED ALBERGOTTI and SHIRLEY S. WANG
This football season, the debate about head injuries has reached a critical mass. Startling research has been unveiled. Maudlin headlines have been written. Congress called a hearing on the subject last month.
As obvious as the problem may seem (wait, you mean football is dangerous?), continuing revelations about the troubling mental declines of some retired players—and the ongoing parade of concussions during games—have created a sense of inevitability. Pretty soon, something will have to be done.
But before the debate goes any further, there's a fundamental question that needs to be investigated. Why do football players wear helmets in the first place? And more important, could the helmets be part of the problem?
"Some people have advocated for years to take the helmet off, take the face mask off. That'll change the game dramatically," says Fred Mueller, a University of North Carolina professor who studies head injuries. "Maybe that's better than brain damage."
The first hard-shell helmets, which became popular in the 1940s, weren't designed to prevent concussions but to prevent players in that rough-and-tumble era from suffering catastrophic injuries like fractured skulls.
But while these helmets reduced the chances of death on the field, they also created a sense of invulnerability that encouraged players to collide more forcefully and more often. "Almost every single play, you're going to get hit in the head," says Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jake Long.
What nobody knew at the time is that these small collisions may be just as damaging. The growing body of research on former football players suggests that brain damage isn't necessarily the result of any one trauma, but the accumulation of thousands of seemingly innocuous blows to the head.
The problem is that there's nothing any helmet could do to stop the brain from taking lots of small hits. To become certified for sale, a football helmet has to earn a "severity index" score of 1200, according to testing done by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, or Nocsae. Dr. Robert Cantu, a Nocsae board member and chief of neurosurgery at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., says that to prevent concussions, helmets would have to have a severity index of 300—about four times better than the standard. "The only way to make that happen, Dr. Cantu says, "is to make the helmet much bigger and the padding much bigger."
The problem with that approach, he says—other than making players look like Marvin the Martian—is that heavier helmets would be more likely to cause neck injuries.
One of the strongest arguments for banning helmets comes from the Australian Football League. While it's a similarly rough game, the AFL never added any of the body armor Americans wear. When comparing AFL research studies and official NFL injury reports, AFL players appear to get hurt more often on the whole with things like shoulder injuries and tweaked knees. But when it comes to head injuries, the helmeted NFL players are about 25% more likely to sustain one.
Andrew McIntosh, a researcher at Australia's University of New South Wales who analyzed videotape, says there may be a greater prevalence of head injuries in the American game because the players hit each other with forces up to 100% greater. "If they didn't have helmets on, they wouldn't do that," he says. "They know they'd injure themselves."
Dhani Jones, a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals who has played rugby, too, says head injuries in that sport do happen, but they're mostly freak accidents. "In football, you're taught to hit with your face," he says. "You're always contacting with your 'hat,' which is your head."
Taking away helmets might have other benefits for the sport. It would bring down the cost of equipment, which can be crippling for some schools. A slower game might also be more palatable to some parents. And with their heads uncovered, football players might be more attractive to endorsers.
By all accounts, banning helmets isn't on anyone's agenda. Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the NFL, says the league isn't contemplating the idea. Its focus is on improving helmet technology and on rules "that help take the head out of the game." Not wearing helmets, he says, "is not going to eliminate the risk of concussion in a sport that involves contact." Dr. Thom Mayer, a medical adviser to the NFL players' union, says there isn't enough research showing that playing without helmets would reduce brain injury. "It's an interesting theoretical question, but I don't think anybody would consider playing NFL football without a helmet," he says.
Larry Maddux, the head of research and development for helmet-maker Schutt, says even without helmets, players would inadvertently get hit in the head—and regular knocks and bumps could turn into concussions. Thad Ide, the vice president of research and development at Riddell, the NFL's official helmet sponsor, says getting rid of helmets would be a bad move. "There would always be incidental contact," he says.
So what should be done?
Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon who has conducted brain research for the players' union, says the NFL should change the rules so linemen aren't allowed to go into three-point stances before plays—a rule that would prevent them from springing head-first into other players. He says he would also stop all head contact in football practices. Dr. Cantu says brain injuries could be reduced by enforcing rules already on the books in the NFL—especially helmet-to-helmet hits, which are not always called by officials. "There have to eventually be some hard sanctions for referees," he says.
To many, the solution is to come up with a better helmet. The NFL is currently conducting independent testing of helmets with a focus on "more accurate and comparative information about concussive forces," says neurologist Ira Casson, a co-chair of the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee.
In the past, attempts to create a better helmet haven't met with much success. Robert Cade, who is better known as an inventor of Gatorade, created a shock-absorbing helmet that was used by a number of NFL players in the 1970s. In the late 1980s, Bert Straus, an industrial designer, came up with the ProCap, a soft outer shell that fits over helmets to help absorb blows. It was also used by some NFL players but also never caught on.
Nonetheless, the strongest argument for the helmet may turn out to be an economic one. The NFL is shaped around the notion that players can run into each other at high speeds without consequence. It's the same sort of idea that has made Nascar the nation's most popular form of motorsport. And beyond all this, there's the very real question of whether the prospect of serious mental impairment later in life will ever discourage people from playing the game—let alone watching.
"Without the helmet, they wouldn't hit their head in stupid plays," says P. David Halstead, technical director for the Nocsae, the group that sets helmet-safety standards. But without helmets, the game "wouldn't be football," he says.
Write to Reed Albergotti at Reed. Albergotti@wsj.com
and Shirley S. Wang at Shirley.Wang@wsj.com
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Third Lebanon War
on: November 20, 2009, 05:39:57 PM
In a development I predicted when the Israeli failed to follow through the last time , , ,
A Third Lebanon War Could Be Much Worse than the Second
Michael J. Totten
Hezbollah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah recently announced that he could hit any and every place in Israel with long-range missiles. That would mean that, unlike in 2006, Hezbollah could strike not only the northern cities of Kiryat Shmona and Haifa but also Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion International Airport, and the Dimona nuclear-power plant.
I dismissed his claim as a wild boast last week, but Israeli army commander Major General Gabi Ashkenazi confirmed it this week. So while we've all been worried about Iran's nuclear-weapons program, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been quietly arming his chief terrorist proxy with more advanced conventional weapons.
To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.
A Third Lebanon War could make the Second Lebanon War in 2006 look like a minor kerfuffle. And the Second Lebanon War was anything but. When Noah Pollak and I covered it from the Israeli side, we found the whole northern swath of the country emptied of people and cars like it was the end of the world. The city of Tiberias looked like a zombie movie set. Kiryat Shmona is so close to the border that the air raid sirens often didn't start wailing until after Hezbollah's incoming Katyusha rockets had already exploded.
Meanwhile, pitched battles between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah seriously chewed up South Lebanon. The centers of entire towns were pulverized by Israeli air and artillery strikes. More than a thousand people were killed, many of them civilians used by Hezbollah as human shields.
Hezbollah is much more dangerous than any terrorist group that has ever been fielded from the West Bank or Gaza. It managed to create hundreds of thousands of refugees inside Israel, and it did so with fewer and shorter range rockets than it has now. And while the "Party of God" may think it's terrific that it can do what Hamas in Gaza only fantasizes about, its arsenal indirectly threatens Lebanon just as much if not more than it threatens Israel. Nasrallah can unleash a great deal of destruction, but it's still no match for what the IDF can dish out while fighting back.
If Israel's nuclear power plant comes under fire, if Tel Aviv skyscrapers explode from missile attacks, if Hezbollah manages to turn all of Israel into a kill zone where there is no place to run, Israelis will panic like they haven't since the 1973 Yom Kippur War when it briefly appeared the Egyptian army might overrun the whole country. I wouldn't want to be anywhere in Lebanon while Israelis are actively fending off that kind of assault. No country can afford to be restrained while fighting for its survival.
The last Lebanon caught almost everyone by surprise, although it should not have. The next one might start much the same way because few seem to be taking its likelihood or its potential magnitude seriously.
It's possible that a "balance of terror" on each side of the border will prevent anyone from doing anything stupid, but I wouldn't count on it. Hezbollah's rhetoric is more belligerent this year than ever. Not only does Nasrallah threaten to avenge the assassination of his military commander Imad Mugniyeh, he and the rest of the leadership fantasize in public about nuclear war.
Christopher Hitchens went to a commemoration for Mugniyeh in the suburbs south of Beirut earlier this year and saw a huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud next to the stage. "OH ZIONISTS," read the inscription below, "IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT!”
This, I'm certain, really is bombast – at least for now. Nasrallah doesn't have nuclear weapons. Apocalyptic imagery and rhetoric, though, tells us something important about Hezbollah's psyche.
Just ask yourself how you would have felt during the Cold War if Ronald Reagan or Mikhail Gorbachev said "SO BE IT" to nuclear war. I would have wanted to hide in my basement or go off-planet entirely. And I have a hard time imagining an American or Russian crowd roaring with applause and pumping its fists in the air in response to that sort of thing. That's just not how Americans or Russians thought about a nuclear holocaust. Israelis don't think about nuclear war that way either, nor do Hezbollah's opponents in Lebanon. The same is almost certainly true of the millions of Iranian citizens who brave beatings, arrest, and worse to yell "death to the dictator" in the streets of Tehran.
Hezbollah's mindset is different. If you expect moderation, reasonableness, and restraint from that crowd, you are far more optimistic than I am
"Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies" -- Groucho Marx
"The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. --John Adams
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Patriot Post
on: November 20, 2009, 10:44:44 AM
Digest · Friday, November 20, 2009
"The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." --Thomas Jefferson
Government & Politics
Health Care Cost Nightmare
Harry Reid claims his 2,000-page bill will reduce the deficit. He's quite the comedian.It's an accepted fact that no government program comes in on budget, and this maxim likely won't change with the health care legislation that recently passed the House. Republican analysis of the bill in the Senate Budget Committee reveals that a more realistic price tag for the House version, after the benefit provisions are figured in, comes to $3 trillion over 10 years, not $1 trillion as Democrats claim. The disparity comes from the fact that the taxes and fees meant to pay for the bill occur immediately, while major aspects of "reform" won't be implemented until at least 2013. Thus, the true cost of the plan won't reveal itself until well after the current president has stood for re-election.
Despite Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) assurances that the bill will lower health care costs, another report released this week by the nonpartisan Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services found that the House plan would actually raise costs by $289 billion over 10 years. Furthermore, Medicare would be cut by half a trillion dollars, leading to reduced benefits and services.
On that note, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Senate's 2,074-page, $849 billion version of the health care takeover plan. Reid has laid out an ambitious plan to pass HarryCare by Christmas.
The Senate bill clocks in a tad cheaper than the House version in part because many major provisions, such as the public option, would be delayed until 2014 -- one year later than the House bill. Reid also claims the bill will reduce the federal deficit by $650 billion in its second 10 years. A 2,000-page bill will reduce the deficit? That Reid is quite the comedian. Besides, while the Congressional Budget Office says the bill will reduce the deficit by $130 billion over 10 years, CBO cautions that its effect on the deficit over the following decade would be "subject to substantial uncertainty." That's comforting, isn't it?
Notably, the Senate bill includes a 40 percent tax on high-deductible "Cadillac" insurance plans (though, naturally, Congress' Cadillac plan is exempt) as opposed to the House's tax on the "rich." It also includes a 5 percent tax on elective cosmetic surgeries (how will Nancy feel about that?), which apparently helps pay for providing -- surprise -- federal subsidies for abortion.
Reid wants to hold a vote to begin debate as early as this weekend. He has "promised" not to use the procedural tactic of reconciliation, which would allow him to pass the bill with only 51 votes instead of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster -- but experience shows how little we should trust Democrats' promises.
As for that prized debate, Harkin referred to a Republican call to read the full bill on the Senate floor as a political tactic, and he threatens that Democrats will hold a live quorum to keep everyone in the chamber while the reading is taking place -- which sounds awfully like a political tactic to us.
It's interesting that both parties seem to view the public reading of the bill as some sort of parliamentary game. Perhaps if public readings of proposed legislation took place all of the time, we would actually know what Congress is up to. What a novel idea.
Democrat senators who pride themselves as being deficit hawks will have a tough choice to make in the coming days and weeks. Will they support HarryCare, which makes them look like hypocrites when they face the voters next year and in 2012? Or will they do the right thing and stop this runaway entitlement before it shoots out of the gate?
The BIG Lie
Where is the constitutional authority for a federal mandate that individuals must buy health insurance?
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) says that one's easy: "The very first enumerated power gives the power to provide for the common defense and the general welfare. So it's right on, right on the front end."
For those who don't follow Sen. Merkley's brilliant explication, he refers to the Constitution's Preamble, which, among several other things, says that the Constitution was written to "promote the general Welfare," though the Preamble doesn't list enumerated powers.
Furthermore, James Madison, primary author of the Constitution, vehemently disagreed, writing, "If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions."
Thomas Jefferson likewise stated that if Congress could "do anything they please to provide for the general welfare ... t would reduce the whole instrument [the Constitution] to a single phrase, that of instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States; and as they would be the sole judges of the good or evil, it would be also a power to do whatever evil they please." For the simpletons in Congress, Jefferson concluded, "Certainly no such universal power was meant to be given them." Regardless of what Senator Jeff Merkley says.
This Week's 'Braying Jackass' Award
"We even have blacks voting against the health care bill. You can't vote against health care and call yourself a black man." --race hustler Jesse Jackson, calling out Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL), the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus who dared to stray from the Democrat Plantation by voting against PelosiCare
Faith and Family: Shut Up, She Explained
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), like every other Democrat, could use a constitutional education. Oddly enough, though, the part of the Constitution DeGette needs brushing up on is the Left's favorite part: The First Amendment. Leftists have abused it for decades to hammer their agenda into our laws and culture. But they have also intentionally ignored its guarantee of the free exercise of religion. To them, the Constitution is just a scrap of paper written by dead white men. It's old and irrelevant today except for the few phrases that can be used to promote their socialism.
Regarding the health care legislative monstrosity working its way through Congress and the input of religious groups, DeGette said that "religiously-affiliated groups ... should be shut out of the process" because of their opposition to federal funding of abortions. "Last I heard, we had separation of church and state in this country," she sulked. "I've got to say that I think the Catholic bishops and all of the other groups shouldn't have input."
As Family Research Council President Tony Perkins observed, "According to her, if a group of people who are in association with one another because of their Christian faith, they should not have a voice in the crafting of public policy. What she is asserting is that if your ideas and actions are a product of your faith, you're a second class citizen and your voice should not be heard."
New & Notable Legislation
The House passed Medicare "doc fix" by a vote of 243-183 Thursday. The bill would permanently fix the way doctors who provide care for Medicare patients are reimbursed. The projected cost of the fix is $210 billion over 10 years and it doesn't include a way to pay for it, meaning that while Barack Obama has changed his tune and is now decrying the deficit, the House is busy adding to it.
Legacy of the American Revolution
"Liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood. ... A Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever. Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives." --John Adams
As you know, The Patriot is not sustained by any political, special interest or parent organization. Nor do we accept any online or e-mail advertising. Our operations and mission are funded by -- and depend entirely upon -- the voluntary financial support of American Patriots like YOU!
At latest accounting, we still must raise $270,831 for the 2009 Annual Fund budget before year's end.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Who needs the grid?
on: November 20, 2009, 10:22:24 AM
Who Needs the Grid?
A new fuel-cell technology promises to revolutionize access to cheap, clean energy.
by Lane Wallace
IN THE BOARDROOM at Bloom Energy, a single picture hangs on the wall: a satellite image of the world at night. Clusters of bright lights mark the industrial centers, and thin white lines trace connecting passageways such as the U.S. Interstate System and the Trans-Siberian Railroad. In between, huge swaths lie in shadow.
Standing almost reverently before the image, K. R. Sridhar, the CEO of Bloom, points to the dark areas—places where electricity isn’t accessible or reliable. “This is my motivation for everything,” he says. To improve the lot of the more than 2 billion people living in those dark areas, he says, you have to get them reliable, affordable energy. And if you don’t want to doom the environment in the process, you have to make that energy very clean.
Impossible? No more so than creating enough water and oxygen to keep astronauts alive on Mars. And Sridhar’s already figured out how to do that. In fact, his research on oxygen generators for NASA laid the technical groundwork for his current venture: highly efficient solid-oxide fuel cells that run on everything from plant waste to natural gas and provide electricity while emitting relatively little carbon dioxide.
Such technology might sound far-fetched, but the basic patent behind Sridhar’s cells, which he calls “Bloom boxes,” dates to 1899. Fuel cells—which facilitate a chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen or hydrocarbon fuel without burning anything—have been used aboardNASA vehicles and Navy submarines for years. The biggest challenge in adapting them for commercial use was making the technology reliable and affordable. That’s where Sridhar’sNASA background gave him a breakthrough advantage.
“To send anything to Mars is so expensive, you have to extract the most use possible out of it. Which means you have to change your underlying assumptions about everything,” he explains. “So with [the Bloom boxes], I did the same thing. I looked at each component and, for example, set a price point that it absolutely had to make.”
Nearly eight years and a reported $250 million in venture-capital investment later, Sridhar has a working product that’s been in field trials for the past two years and is about to go on the global market, at a price he says will be competitive with existing energy options. As for results: in an ongoing trial at the University of Tennessee, a five-kilowatt Bloom box (the size of a large coffee table and capable of powering a 5,000-square-foot house) has proved twice as efficient as a traditional gas-burning system and produced 60 percent fewer emissions.
Since the boxes are “fuel agnostic,” customers can run them on existing propane, natural gas, or ethanol sources. But they’ll also run on plant waste, or almost anything else containing hydrogen and carbon. And the eventual “killer app”? Processing wind- or solar-generated electricity with water to create storable oxygen and hydrogen, then reversing the process to generate electricity at night or in low-wind or cloudy conditions.
That alone gives the technology impressive potential.
“If you have clean, affordable energy, you can get clean air and clean water whenever you want,” Sridhar says. “You can make recycling affordable. You can turn latent local resources into marketable ones.”
But the truly disruptive aspect of Bloom’s fuel cells isn’t their clean, quiet, affordable efficiency. It’s their ability to operate independent of a power grid. That’s critical for developing countries, which lack infrastructure. It could also allow Bloom to revolutionize energy-generation in industrialized nations.
“I want to open up access to energy the way that PCs and the Web opened up access to information,” Sridhar says. “So people can live where they want, and still be connected, without someone telling them when they can do their laundry.” A distributed energy system would also be far less susceptible to attack or natural disaster.
Should the utility companies be worried? Possibly. As Sridhar points out, “The companies who saw their business as selling mainframe computers are gone.” Of course, the utilities could also do as IBM did, and adapt. “The human ability to innovate out of a jam is profound,” Sridhar says with a smile. “That’s why Darwin will always be right, and Malthus will always be wrong.”
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / ACORN
on: November 20, 2009, 09:52:02 AM
Breitbart to AG Holder: Investigate ACORN or We’ll Release More Tapes Just Before 2010 Election
Earlier tonight Andrew Breitbart, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles discussed the final chapter of the ACORN L.A. saga on “Hannity,” but more interestingly, Breitbart disclosed where the story goes from here. Transcript (below) starts from 3:50 into the clip:
(Go to website to view video)
Breitbart: There’s a lot of hypocrisy and the dust has settled for ACORN and at the end of the day they’ve recognized that Eric Holder, the Attorney General, has not initiated an investigation into ACORN after we now have seven tapes. There were five initially that came out, ACORN was defunded by the Senate, was defunded by the House, lost it’s link to the Census; while all that damage occurred, Congress didn’t come in to investigate them, obviously not the Attorney General’s office, and they’ve now realized let’s get back into business because they realized that the dust settled and they were not being investigated, it was Hannah, James, and me who were being investigated, that’s why we’ve been forced to offer this latest tape.
Hannity: Are you saying, Andrew, that there are more tapes?
Breitbart: Oh my goodness there are! Not only are there more tapes, it’s not just ACORN. And this message is to Attorney General Holder: I want you to know that we have more tapes, it’s not just ACORN, and we’re going to hold out until the next election cycle, or else if you want to do a clean investigation, we will give you the rest of what we have, we will comply with you, we will give you the documentation we have from countless ACORN whistleblowers who want to come forward but are fearful of this organization and the retribution that they fear that this is a dangerous organization. So if you get into an investigation, we will give you the tapes; if you don’t give us the tapes, we will revisit these tapes come election time.
Hannity: This is a blockbuster, what you’re saying here. You guys have more tapes, you’ll release them before the election, that could have a big impact on the election, obviously…
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / POTH: Delinquencies at record highs
on: November 20, 2009, 08:52:56 AM
The economy and the stock market may be recovering from their swoon, but more homeowners than ever are having trouble making their monthly mortgage payments, according to figures released Thursday.
A couple waits to speak to a financial counselor at an event last month in Daly City, California, aimed at helping people get their mortgages restructured to avoid foreclosure.
Nearly one in 10 homeowners with mortgages was at least one payment behind in the third quarter, the Mortgage Bankers Association said in its survey. That translates into about five million households.
The delinquency figure, and a corresponding rise in the number of those losing their homes to foreclosure, was expected to be bad. Nevertheless, the figures underlined the level of stress on a large segment of the country, a situation that could snuff out the modest recovery in home prices over the last few months and impede any economic rebound.
Unless foreclosure modification efforts begin succeeding on a permanent basis — which many analysts say they think is unlikely — millions more foreclosed homes will come to market.
“I’ve been pretty bearish on this big ugly pig stuck in the python and this cements my view that home prices are going back down,” said the housing consultant Ivy Zelman.
The overall third-quarter delinquency rate is the highest since the association began keeping records in 1972. It is up from about one in 14 mortgage holders in the third quarter of 2008.
The combined percentage of those in foreclosure as well as delinquent homeowners is 14.41 percent, or about one in seven mortgage holders. Mortgages with problems are concentrated in four states: California, Florida, Arizona and Nevada. One in four people with mortgages in Florida is behind in payments.
Some of the delinquent homeowners are scrambling and will eventually catch up on their payments. But many others will slide into foreclosure. The percentage of loans in foreclosure on Sept. 30 was 4.47 percent, up from 2.97 percent last year.
In the first stage of the housing collapse, defaults and foreclosures were driven by subprime loans. These loans had low introductory rates that quickly moved to a level that was beyond the borrower’s ability to pay, even if the homeowner was still employed.
As the subprime tide recedes, high-quality prime loans with fixed rates make up the largest share of new foreclosures. A third of the new foreclosures begun in the third quarter were this type of loan, traditionally considered the safest. But without jobs, borrowers usually cannot pay their mortgages.
“Clearly the results are being driven by changes in employment,” Jay Brinkmann, the association’s chief economist, said in a conference call with reporters.
In previous recessions, homeowners who lost their jobs could sell the house and move somewhere with better prospects, or at least a cheaper cost of living. This time around, many of the unemployed are finding that the value of their property is less than they owe. They are stuck.
“There will be a lot more distressed supply entering the market, and it will move up the food chain to middle- and higher-price homes,” said Joshua Shapiro, chief United States economist for MFR Inc.
Many analysts say they believe that foreclosures, instead of peaking with the unemployment rate as they traditionally do, will most likely be a lagging indicator in this recession. The mortgage bankers expect foreclosures to peak in 2011, well after unemployment is expected to have begun falling.
There was one sliver of good news in the survey: the percentage of loans in the very first stage of default — no more than 30 days past due — was down slightly from the second quarter. If that number continues to decline, at least the ranks of the defaulted will have peaked.
“It’s arguably a positive, but it doesn’t undermine the fact that there are still five or six million foreclosures in process,” Ms. Zelman said.
The number of loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration that are at least one month past due rose to 14.4 percent in the third quarter, from 12.9 percent last year. An additional 3.3 percent of F.H.A. loans are in foreclosure.
The mortgage group’s survey noted, however, that the F.H.A. was issuing so many loans — about a million in the last year — that it had the effect of masking the percentage of problem loans at the agency. Most loans enter default when they are older than a year.
When the association removed the new loans from its calculations, the percentage of F.H.A. mortgages entering foreclosure was 30 percent higher.
The association’s survey is based on a sample of more than 44 million mortgage loans serviced by mortgage companies, commercial and savings banks, credit unions and others. About 52 million homes have mortgages. There are 124 million year-round housing units in the country, according to the Census Bureau
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / POTH: FHA
on: November 20, 2009, 08:47:22 AM
With F.H.A. Help, Easy Loans in Expensive Areas
Published: November 19, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO — In January, Mike Rowland was so broke that he had to raid his retirement savings to move here from Boston.
Policy changes in insurance, while introduced on a temporary basis, are becoming so popular that they could prove difficult to undo.
Back to Business
From left to right, Jordan Kurland, Mike Rowland and Michael Bedar, in front of the building they bought in San Francisco for nearly a million dollars, with help from the Federal Housing Administration.
A week ago, he and a couple of buddies bought a two-unit apartment building for nearly a million dollars. They had only a little cash to bring to the table but, with the federal government insuring the transaction, a large down payment was not necessary.
“It was kind of crazy we could get this big a loan,” said Mr. Rowland, 27. “If a government official came out here, I would slap him a high-five.”
In its efforts to prop up a shattered housing market, the government is greatly extending its traditional support of real estate, including guaranteeing the mortgages of middle-class and even upper-class buyers against default.
In 2007, the government did not insure a single mortgage in this city, one of the most expensive in the country. Buyers here, as well as in Manhattan, Santa Monica and every other wealthy area, were presumed to be able to handle the steep prices and correspondingly hefty down payments on their own.
Now the government is guaranteeing an average of six mortgages a week here. Real estate agents say the insurance is such a good deal that there will soon be many more.
Policy changes like the shift in insurance, while often introduced on a temporary basis, are becoming so popular that they could prove difficult to undo. With government finances already under great strain, the policy expansions are creating new risks for American taxpayers.
The Internal Revenue Service is giving tax rebates to first-time buyers, and soon to move-up buyers, in a program beset by accusations of fraud. And the government agency that issues mortgage insurance, the Federal Housing Administration, is underwriting loans at quadruple the rate of three years ago even as its reserves to cover defaults are dwindling. On Thursday, the Mortgage Bankers Association said more than one in six F.H.A. borrowers was behind on payments.
F.H.A. insurance was created for minority and low-income families who could not come up with the traditional down payment of 20 percent required by private lenders. Buyers receive loans from government-approved lenders and are required to document their income and assets. They must pay a substantial insurance premium of 1.75 percent of the loan. But in return, their down payment can be as low as 3.5 percent.
For decades, most F.H.A. loans were in low-cost states like Texas and Michigan. Under the agency’s loan limits, houses along the coasts were usually too expensive to qualify. In 2007, fewer than 4,400 F.H.A. loans were made in California, according to the research firm MDA DataQuick, and none were in San Francisco.
The Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 helped change that by temporarily doubling the maximum loan the F.H.A. insured, to $729,750. A two-unit property like the one bought by Mr. Rowland and his friends can be insured for up to $934,200.
“F.H.A. financing was a lost language in San Francisco, the real estate equivalent of Aramaic,” said Michael Ackerman, the agent who represented Mr. Rowland and his friends. “Once the limits were raised, smart buyers started calling.”
The F.H.A. has insured more than 107,000 loans so far this year in the state, according to DataQuick, about 270 of them in San Francisco.
Condominium buildings approved for F.H.A. financing — a relative handful — trumpet the news on their Web sites. The Soma Grand, a new 246-unit building downtown where one-bedrooms cost in excess of $500,000, received F.H.A. certification early in the summer. A half-dozen buyers since then used F.H.A. insurance.
At Guarantee Mortgage Corporation, which has 150 mortgage brokers in the Bay Area, Seattle and Portland, Ore., F.H.A. loans have grown to about 15 percent of its business, from less than 3 percent a few years ago.
“It sure has helped us put a lot of deals together,” said Guarantee’s chief sales officer, Bob Siefert. He predicts that a quarter of Guarantee’s deals will soon be guaranteed by the F.H.A.
Some F.H.A. borrowers here say they have the cash for a full down payment but would rather invest it in the stock market or use it for remodeling. Others, like Mr. Rowland and his friends, simply do not have the money required by private lenders — which would have been nearly $200,000, in their case.
Page 2 of 2)
“We were resigned to waiting another year,” said a second partner, Michael Bedar, 31. “Then we read about the F.H.A. I had never heard of it before, and couldn’t quite believe it. But it was the answer to our problems.” They put down about $33,000, split among the three of them.
While the F.H.A. is certainly strengthening the high-end market in the Bay Area by prompting more sales, there are growing concerns that it might become a destabilizing force.
Kenneth Donohue, inspector general for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the parent agency of the F.H.A., said the higher loan limits were increasing the potential risk to the F.H.A. Last week, the agency said its cash reserves had fallen below their Congressionally mandated minimum because of the large volume of foreclosures.
“If one of these higher-limit loans fail, that’s equivalent to two or three cheaper loans,” Mr. Donohue said. “You have to ask yourself, was the F.H.A. ever intended to address these markets?”
He sees another risk: larger loans will be a greater draw for those who want to commit fraud. That would exacerbate a problem already besetting the agency.
Even some San Francisco agents who are doing F.H.A. deals worry about the long-term consequences. Real estate commissions are 6 percent. If the value of a property were to hold steady, a seller who put down the F.H.A. minimum would suffer a loss after fees. And while the Bay Area has traditionally been an excellent investment, the last few years have proved a big exception.
“Is this going to be the next wave of the housing downturn?” asked Eileen Bermingham, an agent with Pacific Union. “With such a minimal down payment, how do we make sure people don’t get in over their heads?”
The F.H.A. commissioner, David H. Stevens, said recently that its loans were relatively safe because the buyer was required to live in the property. They “are for shelter. They aren’t speculative-type investments,” Mr. Stevens said.
But the idea of a house as an investment dies hard. Mr. Bedar, Mr. Rowland and the third partner in their property, Jordan Kurland, are all in the technology field, but their dreams of wealth do not feature stock options.
“We’re banking on real estate,” said Mr. Kurland, 24. “Everyone expects prices to keep going up.”
Mr. Kurland and Mr. Bedar, who are employed full time, are the buyers of record. Mr. Rowland, a freelancer, will have his interests protected by a legal agreement.
Their building, for which they paid $963,000, is on a quiet street in the up-and-coming Hayes Valley neighborhood, close to fashionable restaurants they have already been trying out. The friends plan to live in the bottom unit and rent out the top. Thanks to rock-bottom interest rates, none of them will pay much more than a thousand dollars a month. “Everyone should have the chance to do this,” Mr. Kurland said.
Everyone may get a chance.
A few weeks ago, Congress extended the higher lending limits for another year. Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said in an interview that he planned to introduce legislation next year raising the maximum F.H.A. loan by $100,000, to $839,750.
His bill would make the new limits permanent.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Why no strong recovery
on: November 20, 2009, 07:41:28 AM
Why No One Expects a Strong Recovery
When you repeal sound economic policies you repeal their results
By JEB HENSARLING AND PAUL RYAN
One of the strongest factors promoting recovery from our 10 post-World War II recessions was an unshakable conviction that, regardless of the immediate trouble, the American economy is fundamentally strong. Based on this underlying confidence, recessions and recoveries roughly conformed to the principle of the bigger the bust, the bigger the boom, and vice versa.
Thus real growth in the four quarters following postwar recessions averaged 6.6% and 4.3% over the following five years. As the chief economist for Barclays, Dean Maki, said in this newspaper on Aug. 19, "You can't find a single deep recession that has been followed by a moderate recovery."
That may no longer hold. Since the current recession has lasted a record seven quarters—and has been marked by a near-record average GDP decline of 1.8% per quarter—we should be witnessing the start of a powerful and sustained recovery. Yet forecasts of a 2% recovery in growth are only one-fourth as strong as postwar experience suggests. Meanwhile, unemployment sits at a generational high of 10.2%.
Why all the pessimism? The source appears to be a growing fear that the federal government is retreating from the free-market economic principles of the last half-century, and in particular the strong growth policies that began under Ronald Reagan. A review of the economic policies instituted by President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress lends credibility to this concern.
Exhibit A is the economic stimulus package signed into law by President Barack Obama in February. Even among previous stimulus efforts, the 2009 stimulus stands out for its ineffective targeting and sheer size. With interest, it is $1.1 trillion, double the size of Roosevelt's New Deal spending as a percentage of GDP.
View Full Image
.Virtually none of the stimulus spending was directed towards encouraging broad-based private investment, and thus failed to encourage true economic growth. An analysis by economists John F. Cogan, John B. Taylor and Volker Wieland, published on this page on Sept. 17, suggests that while the stimulus succeeded in temporarily and marginally increasing disposable personal income, it left personal consumption spending virtually unchanged.
Meanwhile, $112 billion of its $300 billion tax relief was in the form of payments to people who paid no income taxes. These payments, akin to a one-time welfare check, do not change the incentives to save and invest, and do not effectively promote broad-based economic growth.
Exhibit B is tax policy going forward. It is a near certainty that Democratic-controlled Congress will allow most of the tax cuts of 2001-2003 to expire on Dec. 31, 2010. Marginal income tax rates, capital gains rates, dividend rates and death-tax rates will increase—significantly. Hardest hit by these increases will be small businesses that file under the individual income tax code as sub-chapter S corporations, partnerships and proprietorships. Yet these are the very people whose investment and hiring decisions either drive or starve recoveries.
Exhibit C is the administration's intervention in the GM and Chrysler reorganizations. Upsetting decades of accepted bankruptcy law, the administration leveraged TARP funds to place unsecured and lower priority creditors like the United Auto Workers union in front of secured and higher priority creditors. This intervention has arguably had the effect of stifling investment as wary investors watched political considerations trump the rule of law.
As Warren Buffett said at the time, "We don't want to say to somebody who lends and gets a secured position that the secured position doesn't mean anything." Gary Parr, deputy chair of the mergers and acquisitions firm Lazard Freres & Co., stated the problem more directly. "I can't imagine the markets will function properly if you are always wondering if the government is going to step in and change the game," he was quoted in The Atlantic Online in September.
Health care, the administration's signature issue, is Exhibit D. Disregarding its impact on quality and access, its plan will surely cost well over $1 trillion over the next decade. The House-passed version includes an 8% "pay or play" payroll tax and a half-trillion dollar surtax on incomes over $500,000, much of which will strike small business. Both taxes will tend to depress investment and the creation of new jobs.
And looming down the road is the proposed cap-and-tax legislation, which will cost taxpayers $800 billion.
Beyond instilling tremendous political uncertainty into economic decision-making, these policies ensure that deficits will shatter all previous records. In the Office of Management and Budget's 2009 Mid-Session Review, the administration projects a decade of deficits averaging 3.3 times the postwar norm of 1.8%. Yet its projections assume that interest rates will be less than half the postwar norm for interest rates, and that economic growth will be almost 10% higher than the high-growth 1980s. Never in the postwar era have such high deficits, low interest rates and high growth rates occurred simultaneously.
If one substitutes the Blue Chip Economic Forecast's interest-rate forecast for that of the administration, deficits will increase by an additional $1.2 trillion over the administration's projected deficits. If the next decade's interest rates climb to match those of the 1980s, then the deficit would increase another $5.3 trillion. If higher interest rates then slow economic growth, the impact on the deficit would be much worse.
Anyone who believes the Democratic Party's recently expressed concern over the deficit should look at the relentless growth of spending on its watch. Total nondefense spending set an all-time record this year—20.2% of GDP—double federal spending as a percentage of GDP during the height of the New Deal in 1934. Even without this year's stimulus bill and last year's bailout of the financial system, nondefense discretionary spending authority still grew by 10.1% in fiscal year 2009 and is projected to rise by another 12% in fiscal year 2010. Forty-three cents of every dollar of this spending is borrowed money.
Given the magnitude of federal borrowing, there is good reason to expect higher interest rates and strong inflationary pressures in the future.
It is hardly surprising that many investors are reaching the conclusion that this administration and Congress favor policies that virtually guarantee the economy will not return to the climate of low interest rates, benign inflation and strong growth that we knew from 1982-2007. These investors understand a simple truth that current Washington policy makers fail to grasp: When you repeal the Reagan economic program, you repeal its results.
Messrs. Hensarling and Ryan are Republican representatives from Texas and Wisconsin, respectively.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Call Today!
on: November 20, 2009, 07:36:56 AM
TODAY call your Congressman and your Senators against the Health Care bills!!!
URGENT ACTION ALERT: OBAMACARE BILL UP FOR CLOTURE VOTE IN SENATE! HELP STOP THIS BILL.
On Friday, the Senate will convene at 10:00 am and debate the merits of Sen. Reid’s 2,074 page bill until 11:00 pm on Friday evening. On Saturday, the Senate will convene at 10:00 am continuing the debate leading up to the vote at 8:00 pm on cloture on the motion to proceed. Harry Reid will try to challenge a Republican filibuster in the Senate and ramrod this bill through!
We are going to stop this Bill in the Senate and this is how: we need to keep the pressure on the Senators listed below especially Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson. These three are very vulnerable, Nelson has stated that he will not vote for the Bill if it has the public option and he wants to see the abortion issue language.
The abortion issue will be a sticking point for the Senate as we have many moderate DEMS who are Pro-Life; they will not vote the bill without some sort of language to the issue.
We need the Senate to Vote NO on Cloture. I vote YES for this will be a vote for the Bill.
We need 41 NO votes on cloture!
When you are call the Senators tell them to VOTE NO to cloture and to stop this health care bill: its a bad prescription for your family and America paid for with more debt we can't afford!
We need to lean hard on the below Senators, they are our best chance of this getting this stopped in the Senate:
Bill Nelson- FL- Phone: 202-224-5274, Fax: 202-228-2183
Blanche L. Lincoln –AR-Office: 202-224-4843; Fax: 202-228-1371, email(http://lincoln.senate.gov/contact/email.cfm
Mary Landrieu- LA Voice: (202)224-5824,Fax:(202) 224-9735
Joseph Lieberman- CT-(202) 224-4041 Voice,(202) 224-9750 Fax
Mark Begich-AK- phone. (202) 224-3004, , toll free. (877) 501 – 6275* fax. (202) 224-2354,
Mark Pryor-AR Phone: (202) 224-2353, Fax: (202) 228-0908Email(http://pryor.senate.gov/contact/
Thomas Carper-DE Phone: (202) 224-2441, Fax: (202) 228-2190Email (http://carper.senate.gov/contact/
Even Bayh-IN (202) 224-5623, (202) 228-1377 faxEmail (http://bayh.senate.gov/contact/email/
Susan Collins –( R ) ME-Phone: (202) 224-2523, Fax: (202) 224-2693
Olympia Snowe-( R ) ME – Phone: (202) 224-5344,Toll Free: (800) 432-1599
Fax: (202) 224-1946
John Tester-MT Phone: (202) 224-2644, Fax: (202) 224-8594
Kent Conrad-ND-Phone: (202) 224-2043, Fax: (202) 224-7776Email(http://conrad.senate.gov/contact/webform.cfm
Ben Nelson-NE- Tel: 1-202-224-6551, Fax: 1-202-228-0012Email (http://bennelson.senate.gov/contact-me.cfm
Ron Wyden-OR Phone: (202) 224-5244, Fax: (202) 228-2717Email (http://wyden.senate.gov/contact/
Robert Byrd-WV- Telephone: (202) 224-3954,Fax: (202) 228-0002
Mark Warner- VA- Phone: 202-224-2023, Fax: 202-224-6295Email (http://warner.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=Contact
Bob Bennett- UT-Phone: (202) 224-5444 (no fax)
Byron Dorgan- ND Phone (202) 224-2551 , Fax (202) 224-1193
Max Baucus-MT (202) 224-2651 (Office),(202) 224-9412 (Fax)Email: http://baucus.senate.gov/contact/emailForm.cfm?subj=issue
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / WTF?!?
on: November 20, 2009, 07:35:29 AM
TARP Inspector General Neil Barofsky keeps committing flagrant acts of political transparency, which if nothing else ought to inform the debate going forward over financial reform. In his latest bombshell, the IG discloses that the New York Federal Reserve did not believe that AIG's credit-default swap (CDS) counterparties posed a systemic financial risk.
For the last year, the entire Beltway theory of the financial panic has been based on the claim that the "opaque," unregulated CDS market had forced the Fed to take over AIG and pay off its counterparties, lest the system collapse. Yet we now learn from Mr. Barofsky that saving the counterparties was not the reason for the bailout.
View Full Image
.In the fall of 2008 the New York Fed drove a baby-soft bargain with AIG's credit-default-swap counterparties. The Fed's taxpayer-funded vehicle, Maiden Lane III, bought out the counterparties' mortgage-backed securities at 100 cents on the dollar, effectively canceling out the CDS contracts. This was miles above what those assets could have fetched in the market at that time, if they could have been sold at all.
The New York Fed president at the time was none other than Timothy Geithner, the current Treasury Secretary, and Mr. Geithner now tells Mr. Barofsky that in deciding to make the counterparties whole, "the financial condition of the counterparties was not a relevant factor."
This is startling. In April we noted in these columns that Goldman Sachs, a major AIG counterparty, would certainly have suffered from an AIG failure. And in his latest report, Mr. Barofsky comes to the same conclusion. But if Mr. Geithner now says the AIG bailout wasn't driven by a need to rescue CDS counterparties, then what was the point? Why pay Goldman and even foreign banks like Societe Generale billions of tax dollars to make them whole?
Both Treasury and the Fed say they think it would have been inappropriate for the government to muscle counterparties to accept haircuts, though the New York Fed tried to persuade them to accept less than par. Regulators say that having taxpayers buy out the counterparties improved AIG's liquidity position, but why was it important to keep AIG liquid if not to protect some class of creditors?
Yesterday, Mr. Geithner introduced a new explanation, which is that AIG might not have been able to pay claims to its insurance policy holders: "AIG was providing a range of insurance products to households across the country. And if AIG had defaulted, you would have seen a downgrade leading to the liquidation and failure of a set of insurance contracts that touched Americans across this country and, of course, savers around the world."
Yet, if there is one thing that all observers seemed to agree on last year, it was that AIG's money to pay policyholders was segregated and safe inside the regulated insurance subsidiaries. If the real systemic danger was the condition of these highly regulated subsidiaries—where there was no CDS trading—then the Beltway narrative implodes.
Interestingly, in Treasury's official response to the Barofsky report, Assistant Secretary Herbert Allison explains why the department acted to prevent an AIG bankruptcy. He mentions the "global scope of AIG, its importance to the American retirement system, and its presence in the commercial paper and other financial markets." He does not mention CDS.
All of this would seem to be relevant to the financial reform that Treasury wants to plow through Congress. For example, if AIG's CDS contracts were not the systemic risk, then what is the argument for restructuring the derivatives market? After Lehman's failure, CDS contracts were quickly settled according to the industry protocol. Despite fears of systemic risk, none of the large banks, either acting as a counterparty to Lehman or as a buyer of CDS on Lehman itself, turned out to have major exposure.
More broadly, lawmakers now have an opportunity to dig deeper into the nature of moral hazard and the restoration of a healthy financial system. Barney Frank and Chris Dodd are pushing to give regulators "resolution authority" for struggling firms. Under both of their bills, this would mean unlimited ability to spend unlimited taxpayer sums to prevent an unlimited universe of firms from failing.
Americans know that's not the answer, but what is the best solution to the too-big-to-fail problem? And how exactly does one measure systemic risk? To answer these questions, it's essential that we first learn the lessons of 2008. This is where reports like Mr. Barofsky's are valuable, telling us things that the government doesn't want us to know.
In remarks Tuesday that were interpreted as a veiled response to Mr. Barofsky's report, Mr. Geithner said, "It's a great strength of our country, that you're going to have the chance for a range of people to look back at every decision made in every stage in this crisis, and look at the quality of judgments made and evaluate them with the benefit of hindsight." He added, "Now, you're going to see a lot of conviction in this, a lot of strong views—a lot of it untainted by experience."
Mr. Geithner has a point about Monday-morning quarterbacking. He and others had to make difficult choices in the autumn of 2008 with incomplete information and often with little time to think, much less to reflect. But that was last year. The task now is to learn the lessons of that crisis and minimize the moral hazard so we can reduce the chances that the panic and bailout happen again.
This means a more complete explanation from Mr. Geithner of what really drove his decisions last year, how he now defines systemic risk, and why he wants unlimited power to bail out creditors—before Congress grants the executive branch unlimited resolution authority that could lead to bailouts ad infinitum.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Re: Iraq
on: November 20, 2009, 07:04:44 AM
Iraq - The United States' Other War
MOST NEWS IN THE UNITED STATES that touches the realm of foreign affairs these days focuses obsessively on what U.S. President Barack Obama is going to do about Afghanistan, but on Wednesday, there were a number of reminders that the war in Iraq remains unsettled. Elections that will be a critical test for the Iraqi government were once again thrown into question when the country’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, vetoed an election law that was cobbled together and passed by the parliament. One major problem with the law, according to al-Hashemi, was that it didn’t provide enough seats in government for refugees who have fled Iraq — many if not most of whom are Sunnis.
The law will now return to the parliament, where members will attempt to hash out yet another compromise. Despite government assurances that elections will take place as scheduled on Jan. 21, it is increasingly likely that the vote will be delayed for several weeks, if not months. The problem is that no political reconciliation is going to be possible in the short term: Elections require an election law; an election law requires a power-sharing deal; and a power-sharing deal requires a belief by all parties that their interests can be served. Yet, the Iraqi parliament is a reflection of the ethnosectarian divisions that characterize the country — and it’s not just a three-way split between Sunnis, Shia and Kurds. There are also major disagreements within the three factions. Getting to the current political agreement was an enormous battle, and finding a way to get the parliament to satisfy Sunni demands undoubtedly will involve another long, drawn-out battle.
“The Iraqi parliament is a reflection of the ethnosectarian divisions that characterize the country — and it’s not just a three-way split between Sunnis, Shia and Kurds.”
Not only are the Sunnis uncomfortable with the agreement that has been hammered out, but it has become apparent that the Kurds of northern Iraq are also gathering steam to say that they aren’t getting the representation they want. With Sunnis and Kurds each in the minority, both groups have every incentive to use their considerable political leverage to cry foul on what they consider the tyranny of the majority Shiite coalition. In the meantime, the Iraqi election commission has said it is not making any preparations for the elections because it simply doesn’t know what the timeline will be.
The shaky political situation also impacts the U.S. military withdrawal effort. There have been signs that violence is on the upswing, and this renewed challenge to political stability – in the form of a law forged through arduous negotiation — is not a positive sign.
The U.S. surge in Iraq was not about using force to impose a military reality — it was about breaking the cycle of violence in order to set some foundations upon which political reconciliation might be built. Central to its success was the accommodation reached between U.S. forces in Anbar province and the Sunni tribal leaders – an accommodation that took place even before the surge began. Those Sunnis broke with al Qaeda and other foreign jihadist elements in the hopes of integrating into the country’s formal security forces and the federal political process. But the Shia in Baghdad have continued to drag their feet on a political solution, and there are signs that Sunni support for al Qaeda and the Baath party is resurging — no doubt partly as a result of the political turmoil.
Seeking to downplay concerns about the weakening political environment, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said Wednesday that a delay for elections would be no challenge to Obama’s promise to withdraw “most” troops from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, since the U.S. military can wait until spring to adjust and readjust as necessary. In making this statement, Odierno effectively told the Iraqi parliament that they have until spring to figure out some sort of political solution.
But it not clear that a political solution will be forthcoming, or when — and in the meantime, the security situation likely will get steadily worse. So far, the Sunni insurgency that prompted the U.S. surge has remained quiet; the Sunnis have waited to see if the political solution would work its magic. As the date for elections draws closer, however, the chance that this faction could revive its violent activities grows.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, Obama’s administration has set about putting the Iraq war behind it, while focusing on finding a solution to the war in Afghanistan. The ability to do so was based on the continued stability of Iraq, achieved through the surge. However, the sustainability of the gains from the surge in Iraq — in terms of political consolidation and breaking the cycle of violence — is fragile and questionable. Delays in these critical elections are a reminder that the situation is far from settled.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Don't blame God for terrorism
on: November 19, 2009, 11:49:12 PM
« Reply #2989 on: November 18, 2009, 11:19:25 AM »
Don't blame God for terrorism
After the Fort Hood massacre and others, some people — often atheist stalwarts — like to point at the corrosive influence of religion. But a closer look suggests that the most notorious killers usually act on secular motives.
By Dinesh D'Souza
Did Islam make him do it? While we don't really know the motivation for the Fort Hood massacre in Texas, we do know that the alleged perpetrator, Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, was a Muslim with connections to a radical Islamic cleric in Yemen. So once again we hear that Islam is the problem. Atheist commentators go even further, charging that religion motivates people to do terrible things in the name of God.
This critique of religion has an even more serious allegation. It is that religiously motivated fanatics cannot be deterred from their crimes because they commit them without regard to their own safety, in the hopes of becoming martyrs and going straight to heaven. Muslim terrorists, in particular, are believed to sign up for jihad in the expectation of gaining immediate entry into paradise and enjoying the company of nubile virgins there.
Plausible though this critique appears, it is seriously flawed. Hasan wasn't suicidal in the manner of the 9/11 attackers, although he obviously had to expect that he would be apprehended, injured or killed. Moreover, while Hasan was clearly influenced by the doctrines of radical Islam, his main motivation seems to have been both personal and political: He vigorously opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and didn't want to be deployed.
The real motives
But even in the case of Muslims who do go on suicide missions, from 9/11 to the London bombing to the Bali attacks and, most recently, the Mumbai massacre, the quest for heaven hardly seems to be the primary motive. Robert Pape's Dying to Win, a detailed study of suicide missions, concludes that these have nothing to do with promises of postmortem reward but rather are propelled by more mundane motives of revenge against enemies: They invaded our country, they stole our land, they raped my sister, and so on.
My own study of the rhetoric of the Islamic radicals shows that their exhortations make onlyperfunctory references to paradise, on the rare occasions when they mention the subject at all. The predominant theme in this literature is that "Islam is under attack" from the forces of global atheism and immorality, and that Muslims should fight back to protect their religion, their values and their way of life. So even in the special case of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, the 72 virgins hypothesis could be flawed.
But the important point is that Islamic terrorism is a special case. Suicide terrorism in its origins has nothing to do with religion or the afterlife; its motives are secular. Consider the case of the Japanese kamikazes during World War II. They were not moved by the prospect of paradise but by fanatical loyalty to the emperor. So, too, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka have been launching suicide attacks for decades not out of religious motives but in a desperate struggle over land and self-determination.
If religious beliefs in life after death are the source of terrorism, where are the Buddhist suicide bombers? Nor has anyone been able to identify the Christian bin Laden, the Christian equivalent of al-Qaeda or Hezbollah, or the Christian "nation of martyrs" patterned along the lines of post-Khomeini Iran. The vast majority of people in the world believe in God and the afterlife, yet hardly any of them launch suicide attacks in the hope of hastening their journey to heavenly bliss.
So the atheist attempt to indict religion for the crimes of the radical Muslims fails. But more than this: It boomerangs on the atheists. To see why, we must understand the charge as part of a larger critique. For two centuries, leading atheists have alleged that belief in the next world detracts from the pressing task of improving this one. The afterlife, in this view, is anti-life. This seems to be the impulse behind the harsh subtitle of Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens is far from the first to espouse this view.
Indeed, its most famous advocate was Karl Marx. In an 1844 manuscript, Marx wrote that "religion is the opiate of the people." He argued that religion is a kind of drug that turns people's attention away from the evils of the world and toward another world. Religion numbs man's awareness of social injustice. Consequently, religion must be eliminated as an enemy of the revolution for social justice. Marx concludes, "The overcoming of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness."
Atheism as state doctrine
Marx's call to eliminate the next world by establishing a communist utopia on this one was taken up with a vengeance by Lenin and a host of communist leaders who followed him. These despots established atheism as state doctrine in the Soviet Union, and other Marxist regimes around the world followed. In the past hundred years, these regimes, led by people such as Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Nicolae Ceausescu, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Il and others, have murdered over 100 million people. Even bin Laden, in his wildest dreams, doesn't come close.
Atheist Richard Dawkins seeks to minimize the crimes of atheist regimes by arguing that "individual atheists may do evil things, but they don't do evil things in the name of atheism." Dawkins is a respected biologist but evidently knows no history. All he has to do is to crack open Marx's works to discover that atheism is not incidental to the communist scheme; it is absolutely central. The whole idea is to create a new man and a new utopia free of the shackles of traditional religion and traditional morality.
Whatever motivated Nidal Hasan to go on his shooting spree at Fort Hood, his actions are hardly an indictment of the belief in God or immortality. Indeed, such beliefs have proved far less dangerous to society than the attempts to establish the God-free utopia. If we need to watch out for heaven-seeking Muslims bent on killing innocent people and flying planes into buildings, we need to be just as vigilant against atheist fanatics who are willing to murder millions in order to establish their version of heaven down to earth.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Re: Legal issues
on: November 19, 2009, 10:27:52 PM
Re the Michael Scott suicide: I saw a report that he was right-handed. With the bullet entry being to the left side of the head, that might be one of those "loose ends" they are looking to wrap up , , , besides the implications of his RE purchases , , ,
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Re: The Way Forward for the American Creed
on: November 19, 2009, 11:47:58 AM
Alexander's Essay – November 19, 2009
The BIGGEST LIE Yet
"It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth -- and listen to the song of that siren, till she transforms us into beasts. ... For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it might cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it." --Patrick Henry
Sometimes the biggest lies come under cover of a truth.
Such was the case this week, when Barack Hussein Obama proffered this observation about deficits: "I think it is important, though, to recognize if we keep on adding to the debt, even in the midst of this recovery, that at some point, people could lose confidence in the U.S. economy in a way that could actually lead to a double-dip recession."
"Keep on adding to the debt"? From this, one might conclude that Obama has never suggested such a thing, and is truly concerned about deficits.
His revelation came amid discussion of tax reductions engineered to increase employment, as if our Constitution has a provision for that, anymore than for Obama's other proposals.
Obama is feigning concern about deficits now that there is discussion of tax cuts, which he concludes would increase deficits.
"At some point, people could lose confidence in the U.S. economy"? Like the Red Chinese, who hold more U.S. government debt than any other nation ($800 billion), and upon whom we are depending to fund more of our debt. No coincidence that Obama's remarks were made while on his most recent appeasement tour in Beijing.
"Even in the midst of this recovery"? What recovery?
Oh, the one that his $787 billion "hope-n-change" big-government payout package was supposed to ensure?
At the time of that proposal, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office offered this summary: "In the longer run, the [Obama] legislation would result in a slight decrease in gross domestic product compared with CBO's baseline economic forecast." Put another way, the CBO static scoring projected that Obama's big government pork giveaway would hinder economic recovery. Dynamic scoring by economists shows a much worse destiny.
But Obama warned, "If nothing is done, this recession might linger for years. Unemployment will approach double digits. Our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse."
Now, after a quick assessment of the Obama Recovery through October, one is stuck with the conclusion that his spending spree has resulted in 10.2 percent unemployment -- except, of course, in such places as Washington, DC, where government jobs are immune to recession.
That would be double-digit unemployment -- so now you know why Obama cleverly framed his recovery program in terms of jobs "created or saved." His administration announced that through October, the American Recovery Act had "created" or "saved" 640,329 jobs. However, a growing number of skeptics, even among his once-adoring media, found some very questionable accounting methods used to come up with that figure.
Asked about some of the discrepancies, Obama's Recovery Czar, Ed Pound, responded, "Who knows, man, who really knows?"
Recovery reality check: Remember when Obama claimed, "This is our moment, this is our time to turn the page on the policies of the past, to offer a new direction"?
That is a reference to Obama's v Reagan's policies, big government solutions v. free enterprise solutions.
Ronald Reagan's economic policies unleashed an unprecedented period of growth, which continued right up until the financial sector collapse in '08, a calamity resulting from policies implemented during the Clinton years, which undermined the values of derivatives used as collateral due. Those policies, as we now know, gave license for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to back high-risk loans to unqualified buyers, thereby setting the stage for the subprime mortgage meltdown and the crash of 2008.
Recall that in 2005, Sen. John McCain sponsored the Federal Housing Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act, saying, "For years I have been concerned about the regulatory structure that governs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ... and the sheer magnitude of these companies and the role they play in the housing market. ... If Congress does not act, American taxpayers will continue to be exposed to the enormous risk that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pose to the housing market, the overall financial system, and the economy as a whole."
McCain noted that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac regulators concluded that profits were "illusions deliberately and systematically created by the company's senior management."
McCain was right, but Democrats, including Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, ensured that nothing would be done to alter current practices at Fannie and Freddie. "These two entities ... are not facing any kind of financial crisis," Frank said at the time.
The net result of the derivative dilution was a crisis of confidence in the U.S. economy, second only to that which led to the Great Depression.
Remember when Obama claimed, "We are fundamentally transforming the United States of America"? Well, we're in mid-transformation, and how are things looking now?
Obama also said, "Generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was our time."
Indeed, his time to saddle them and their children with unprecedented debt, not only from his "stimulus" folly, but next up, ObamaCare, and then his job-killing cap-and-tax scheme.
If you think you can count on the administration's estimates of the true cost of ObamaCare, think again. The Washington Times recently reminded us of the estimated cost of Medicare shortly after Democrats implemented it in 1965. Then, it was predicted to cost $12 billion by 1990. In actuality, it cost $98 billion, which is to say the original estimate was short by more than a factor of seven.
In my home state of Tennessee, we've already been there and done that. Our state's version of ObamaCare, known as TennCare, implemented by Democrats in 1994 ostensibly to contain healthcare expenses, has quickly grown to consume more than a third of state revenues.
The CBO now says that the $1 trillion estimated cost of ObamaCare is "subject to substantial uncertainty." How's that for qualifying understatement?
As for the big picture, U.S. National Debt topped the $12 trillion mark this week, or approximately $39,000 for every man, woman and child in America, and the federal deficit that Obama now pretends to be concerned about hit a record high $1.42 trillion for fiscal year 2009.
Obama's administration projects that the national debt will top $14 trillion by this time next year, and my sense is that they're being modest. At the current pace, within 10 years our national debt will exceed our Gross Domestic Product.
Of these staggering debt figures, Obama now claims, "I intend to take serious steps to reduce America's long-term deficit because debt-driven growth cannot fuel America's long-term prosperity."
But, what's his real endgame?
We can be certain that Obama's solution to deficits will not be less government. Instead, it will be unprecedented tax increases, a.k.a., socialist redistribution of wealth, a.k.a., "the fundamental transformation of America."
The Tax Foundation now estimates that to offset deficits, "Federal income tax rates would have to be nearly tripled across the income spectrum," with the lowest bracket at 27 percent and the highest at 95. Even the CBO estimates that rates would have to exceed 80 percent, and that's before state and local taxes.
Do you get the picture, folks?
Obama will succeed in his effort to socialize the U.S. economy, using the tax code as his hammer and sickle, unless growing ranks of Americans object to the fact that he has no constitutional authority to do so.
In the meantime, Patriots, keep your powder dry.
Semper Vigilo, Fortis, Paratus et Fidelis!
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Washington:
on: November 19, 2009, 10:05:40 AM
"[T]he great Searcher of human hearts is my witness, that I have no wish, which aspires beyond the humble and happy lot of living and dying a private citizen on my own farm." --George Washington, letter to Charles Pettit, 1788
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Re: Legal issues
on: November 18, 2009, 10:20:57 PM
The name Vincent Foster ring a bell?
Anyone have any intel on the recent strange suicide of Michael Scott in Chicago? Apparently he was part of the BO circle and bought RE that would have been valuable had the Olympics chosen Chicago , , ,
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Re: The Politics of Health Care
on: November 18, 2009, 10:08:45 PM
"However, the downside of a strategy based entirely on fear is that even if it succeeds now, it won't help to define the proper terms for a genuine solution in the future. For that, Republicans have to offer a principled critique of ObamaCare that delineates the sharp moral choices that Americans face. The current health care battle is the domestic policy equivalent of the Cold War. Democrats are on the side of command-and-control mandates that deprive individuals of choice. Republicans should position themselves on the side of market-based solutions that empower--not enchain--patients."
DBMA Martial Arts Forum / Martial Arts Topics / Re: MMA Thread
on: November 18, 2009, 09:24:18 PM
The mystery surrounding Brock Lesnar's illness has been cleared up a bit. The UFC heavyweight champion is suffering from a bacterial infection in his intestinal tract, though it looks like he may be released from the hospital soon.
"He's in stable condition and should be released soon," UFC president Dana White said.
White said he spoke with Lesnar on Monday, but he wouldn't reveal which hospital Lesnar was currently being treated at because he wanted to protect his privacy.
White also said he is encouraging Lesnar to check into the renowned Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for further treatment, but still doesn't know if Lesnar will fight again.
"It depends on how serious this is," White said.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / PatriotPost
on: November 18, 2009, 03:54:27 PM
The Chronicle · Wednesday, November 18, 2009
"The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite." --Alexander Hamilton
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
"[Attorney General] Eric Holder's move to try the 9/11 masterminds in Manhattan makes it official: This administration has reverted to pre-9/11 'crime' fighting. Amid all the talk during the attorney general's surreal press conference of the 'crime' committed eight years ago, the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon wasn't even mentioned. Lest anyone forget, the military headquarters of the United States was attacked that day along with the Twin Towers. An entire wedge of the Ring was gutted when the Saudi hijackers slammed American Airlines Flight 77 into it. Nearly 200 military personnel were killed, along with the passengers and crew of the hijacked jet. The jet was a weapon used to attack the very center of our military. That was not a 'crime,' as some say. It was an act of war. And 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, along with the four other al-Qa'ida terrorist co-conspirators Holder wants to try, are no mere criminals. They are enemy combatants -- and should be treated as such. ... Holder clucked that the 'trials will be open to the public and the world.' And they will turn into circuses, playing right into the hands of the enemy. These trials will drag on for years, perhaps even decades, as defense lawyers file endless motions and appeals. Meanwhile, valuable intelligence about interrogation techniques and other methods we've used against al-Qa'ida will be revealed to the enemy during trial discovery. This move to a civilian court makes no sense at all, except viewed through a political prism. ... It will only remind people how much America has shrunk in the last nine months." --Investor's Business Daily
"The malice of the wicked is reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous" --British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
"We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst." --Irish novelist C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)
"If you are afraid to speak against tyranny, then you are already a slave." --author John "Birdman" Bryant (1943-2009)
"Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it." --American author Mark Twain (1835-1910)
"From indictment to trial, the civilian case against the 9/11 terrorists will be a years-long seminar, enabling al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies to learn much of what we know and, more important, the methods and sources by which we come to know it. But that is not the half of it. By moving the case to civilian court, the president and his attorney general have laid the groundwork for an unprecedented surrender of our national-defense secrets directly to our most committed enemies." --columnist Andrew McCarthy
"In the string of amazing decisions made during the first year of the Obama administration, nothing seems more like sheer insanity than the decision to try foreign terrorists, who have committed acts of war against the United States, in federal court, as if they were American citizens accused of crimes." --economist Thomas Sowell
"After 9/11, we fought back, hit hard, rolled up the Afghan camps; after the [Danish] cartoons, we weaseled and equivocated and appeased and signaled that we were willing to trade core western values for a quiet life. Watching the decadence and denial on display this last week, I think in years to come Fort Hood will be seen in a similar light. What happened is not a 'tragedy' but a national scandal, already fading from view." --columnist Mark Steyn
"President Obama traveled all the way to China to praise the free flow of information. It's the only safe place he could do so without getting heckled. With a straight face, Obama lauded political dissent and told Chinese students he welcomed unfettered criticism in America. Fierce opposition, he said, made him 'a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear.' How do you say 'You lie!' in Mandarin?" --columnist Michelle Malkin
"In the U.S., the call is for government control, through regulations, as opposed to ownership. Unfortunately, it matters little whether there is a Democratically or Republican-controlled Congress and White House; the march toward greater government control continues. It just happens at a quicker pace with Democrats in charge." --economist Walter E. Williams
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Re: Legal issues
on: November 18, 2009, 03:24:04 PM
Ahem , , ,
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / NYT
on: November 18, 2009, 08:22:31 AM
One of the notions that I have held throughout the War with Islamic Fascism is the importance of defining it as a matter of civilization vs barbarism. Seen through this filter, the true turning point of Iraq was not only the Surge, but the fact that the excessess of AQ Iraq provoked a situation in which both Sunni and Shia Muslims were able to work with the Surge.
Now that the Islamo Fascists of the Whackostans have frontally taken on the Pakistani State, we now "coincidentally" see the Pak State having at it with them on their home turf.
Of course our President now sees this as a moment to be shocked, absolutely shocked, that there is corruption in Afghanistan and apparently prepares the way to "Run Away!" -- just as he called for us to do in Iraq during the pivotal moments of decision making on the Surge.
The Pakistani Army recently took control in Sararogha, a town in the South Waziristan region that militants had claimed as their capital.
By SABRINA TAVERNISE and ERIC SCHMITT
Published: November 17, 2009
SARAROGHA, Pakistan — This windswept, sand-colored town in the badlands of western Pakistan is empty now, cleared of the militants who once claimed it as their capital. But its main brick buildings, intact and thick with dust, tell not of an epic battle, but of sudden flight.
A month after the Pakistani military began its push into the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan, militants appear to have been dispersed, not eliminated, with most simply fleeing. That recurring pattern illustrated the problems facing the Obama administration as it enters its final days of a decision on its strategy for Afghanistan.
Success in this region, in the remote mountains near the Afghan border, could have a direct bearing on how many more American troops are ultimately sent to Afghanistan, and how long they must stay.
Pakistan has shown increased willingness to tackle the problem, launching sweeping operations in the north and west of the country this year, but American officials are still urging it to do more, most recently in a letter from President Obama to Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, over the weekend.
On Tuesday, the military escorted journalists on a tour of the area, where it closely restricts access, showing piles of things they had seized, including weapons, bombs, photos and even a long, curly wig. “It all started from here,” said Brig. Muhammed Shafiq, the commander here. “This is the most important town in South Waziristan.”
But lasting success has been elusive, tempered by an agile enemy that has moved easily from one part of the tribal areas to the next — and even deeper into Pakistan — virtually every time it has been challenged.
American analysts expressed surprise at the relatively light fighting and light Pakistani Army casualties — seven soldiers in five days in Sararogha — supporting their suspicions that the Taliban fighters from the local Mehsud tribe and the foreign fighters who are their allies, including a large contingent of Uzbeks, have headed north or deeper into the mountains. In comparison, 51 Americans were killed in eight days of fighting in Falluja, Iraq, in 2004.
“That’s what bothers me,” an American intelligence officer said. “Where are they?”
The Pakistani military says it has learned from past failures in a region where it lost hundreds in fighting before. It spent weeks bombing the area before its 30,000 troops entered. It struck alliances with neighboring tribes.
But the pending campaign was no secret, allowing time for local people and militants to escape, similar to what happens during American operations in Afghanistan.
“They are fleeing in all directions,” said a senior Pakistani security official, who did not want to be identified while discussing national security issues. “The Uzbeks are fleeing to Afghanistan and the north, and the Mehsuds are fleeing to any possible place they can think of.”
But there was some fighting, as destruction in Sararogha’s market area shows, and the fact that the military now occupies the area is something of a success, analysts say. American officials have expressed measured praise for the Pakistani operation so far.
“The Pakistani Army has done pretty well, and they have learned lessons from the Swat campaign, including the use of close-air support from their fighter jets,” said a senior American intelligence official, referring to the army’s first offensive this spring.
But big questions remain: How long will the military be able to hold the territory? And once they leave, will the militants simply come back?
“Are they really winning the people — this is the big question,” said Talat Masood, a military analyst and former general in Islamabad, the capital. “They have weakened the Taliban tactically, but have they really won the area if the people are not with them?”
Winning them over will not be easy. Waziristan’s largely Pashtun population has been abandoned by the military in the past, including in 2005, when, after a peace deal, a military commander called Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Taliban, a “soldier of peace.” People who are from this area are still deeply skeptical of the army’s intentions.
“People want to know: how serious is the military this time?” said a military official who asked not to be named in order not to undermine the official position publicly.
The military argues that it is, saying that it has lost 70 soldiers in this operation so far, on top of more than 1,000 killed in the last several years of conflict.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, principal spokesman for the Pakistan military, said that about 50 percent of the Mehsud territory is now under army control, including most major towns and roads, and that the military would soon begin to press into villages where militants were hiding.
Finding a reliable local partner will be difficult. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have ruled the impoverished area for so long that they have altered its social structure, killing hundreds of tribal elders and making it hard for the military to negotiate.
The alliances that the military has struck with neighboring tribal leaders, including Hafiz Gul Bahadur, may also prove problematic. The senior Pakistani security official said Mr. Bahadur was hosting the families of two top Pakistani Taliban leaders.
Some American officials also voiced concern that if and when the Pakistani Army crushes the Mehsuds, it will declare victory and cut more permanent peace deals with other Pakistani militant factions, rather than fighting and defeating them.
But the Pakistani military argues that as long as the other groups are not attacking the Pakistani Army or state, it would be foolish to draw them into the war, particularly because Pakistan is not confident the United States will be around much longer.
Mr. Masood explained the thinking: “You are 10,000 miles away and we are going to live with them, so how can we take on every crook who is hostile to you?”
And there is history to overcome. One Pakistani intelligence official pointed to the American abandonment of the region in 1989, after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan. “If they leave in haste, like they left in the past, we will be back to the bad old days,” the official said. “Our jihadis would head back to Afghanistan, reopen training camps, and it will be business as usual.”
Sabrina Tavernise reported from Sararogha, Pakistan, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Ismail Khan contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan.
DBMA Martial Arts Forum / Martial Arts Topics / Re: Law Enforcement issues
on: November 18, 2009, 07:48:25 AM
Hat tip for this to Rachel:
« Reply #72 on: Today at 07:36:59 AM »
Your Morning Commute is Unique: On the Anonymity of Home/Work Location Pairs
Philippe Golle and Kurt Partridge of PARC have a cute paper (pdf) on the anonymity of geo-location data. They analyze data from the U.S. Census and show that for the average person, knowing their approximate home and work locations — to a block level — identifies them uniquely.
Even if we look at the much coarser granularity of a census tract — tracts correspond roughly to ZIP codes; there are on average 1,500 people per census tract — for the average person, there are only around 20 other people who share the same home and work location. There’s more: 5% of people are uniquely identified by their home and work locations even if it is known only at the census tract level. One reason for this is that people who live and work in very different areas (say, different counties) are much more easily identifiable, as one might expect.
The paper is timely, because Location Based Services are proliferating rapidly. To understand the privacy threats, we need to ask the two usual questions:
1. who has access to anonymized location data?
2. how can they get access to auxiliary data linking people to location pairs, which they can then use to carry out re-identification?
The authors don’t say much about these questions, but that’s probably because there are too many possibilities to list! In this post I will examine a few.
GPS navigation. This is the most obvious application that comes to mind, and probably the most privacy-sensitive: there have been many controversies around tracking of vehicle movements, such as NYC cab drivers threatening to strike. The privacy goal is to keep the location trail of the user/vehicle unknown even to the service provider — unlike in the context of social networks, people often don’t even trust the service provider. There are several papers on anonymizing GPS-related queries, but there doesn’t seem to be much you can do to hide the origin and destination except via charmingly unrealistic cryptographic protocols.
The accuracy of GPS is a few tens or few hundreds of feet, which is the same order of magnitude as a city block. So your daily commute is pretty much unique. If you took a (GPS-enabled) cab home from work at a certain time, there’s a good chance the trip can be tied to you. If you made a detour to stop somewhere, the location of your stop can probably be determined. This is true even if there is no record tying you to a specific vehicle.
ScreenshotLocation based social networking. Pretty soon, every smartphone will be capable of running applications that transmit location data to web services. Google Latitude and Loopt are two of the major players in this space, providing some very nifty social networking functionality on top of location awareness. It is quite tempting for service providers to outsource research/data-mining by sharing de-identified data. I don’t know if anything of the sort is being done yet, but I think it is clear that de-identification would offer very little privacy protection in this context. If a pair of locations is uniquely identifying, a trail is emphatically so.
The same threat also applies to data being subpoena’d, so data retention policies need to take into consideration the uselessness of anonymizing location data.
I don’t know if cellular carriers themselves collect a location trail from phones as a matter of course. Any idea?
Plain old web browsing. Every website worth the name identifies you with a cookie, whether you log in or not. So if you browse the web from a laptop or mobile phone from both home and work, your home and work IP addresses can be tied together based on the cookie. There are a number of free or paid databases for turning IP addresses into geographical locations. These are generally accurate up to the city level, but beyond that the accuracy is shaky.
A more accurate location fix can be obtained by IDing WiFi access points. This is a curious technological marvel that is not widely known. Skyhook, Inc. has spent years wardriving the country (and abroad) to map out the MAC addresses of wireless routers. Given the MAC address of an access point, their database can tell you where it is located. There are browser add-ons that query Skyhook’s database and determine the user’s current location. Note that you don’t have to be browsing wirelessly — all you need is at least one WiFi access point within range. This information can then be transmitted to websites which can provide location-based functionality; Opera, in particular, has teamed up with Skyhook and is “looking forward to a future where geolocation data is as assumed part of the browsing experience.” The protocol by which the browser communicates geolocation to the website is being standardized by the W3C.
The good news from the privacy standpoint is that the accurate geolocation technologies like the Skyhook plug-in (and a competing offering that is part of Google Gears) require user consent. However, I anticipate that once the plug-ins become common, websites will entice users to enable access by (correctly) pointing out that their location can only be determined to within a few hundred meters, and users will leave themselves vulnerable to inference attacks that make use of location pairs rather than individual locations.
Image metadata. An increasing number of cameras these days have (GPS-based) geotagging built-in and enabled by default. Even more awesome is the Eye-Fi card, which automatically uploads pictures you snap to Flickr (or any of dozens of other image sharing websites you can pick from) by connecting to available WiFi access points nearby. Some versions of the card do automatic geotagging in addition.
If you regularly post pseudonymously to (say) Flickr, then the geolocations of your pictures will probably reveal prominent clusters around the places you frequent, including your home and work. This can be combined with auxiliary data to tie the pictures to your identity.
Now let us turn to the other major question: what are the sources of auxiliary data that might link location pairs to identities? The easiest approach is probably to buy data from Acxiom, or another provider of direct-marketing address lists. Knowing approximate home and work locations, all that the attacker needs to do is to obtain data corresponding to both neighborhoods and do a “join,” i.e, find the (hopefully) unique common individual. This should be easy with Axciom, which lets you filter the list by “DMA code, census tract, state, MSA code, congressional district, census block group, county, ZIP code, ZIP range, radius, multi-location radius, carrier route, CBSA (whatever that is), area code, and phone prefix.”
Google and Facebook also know my home and work addresses, because I gave them that information. I expect that other major social networking sites also have such information on tens of millions of users. When one of these sites is the adversary — such as when you’re trying to browse anonymously — the adversary already has access to the auxiliary data. Google’s power in this context is amplified by the fact that they own DoubleClick, which lets them tie together your browsing activity on any number of different websites that are tracked by DoubleClick cookies.
Finally, while I’ve talked about image data being the target of de-anonymization, it may equally well be used as the auxiliary information that links a location pair to an identity — a non-anonymous Flickr account with sufficiently many geotagged photos probably reveals an identifiable user’s home and work locations. (Some attack techniques that I describe on this blog, such as crawling image metadata from Flickr to reveal people’s home and work locations, are computationally expensive to carry out on a large scale but not algorithmically hard; such attacks, as can be expected, will rapidly become more feasible with time.)
devicesSummary. A number of devices in our daily lives transmit our physical location to service providers whom we don’t necessarily trust, and who keep might keep this data around or transmit it to third parties we don’t know about. The average user simply doesn’t have the patience to analyze and understand the privacy implications, making anonymity a misleadingly simple way to assuage their concerns. Unfortunately, anonymity breaks down very quickly when more than one location is associated with a person, as is usually the case.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Jefferson
on: November 18, 2009, 07:44:23 AM
"Adore God. Reverence and cherish your parents. Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself. Be just. Be true. Murmur not at the ways of Providence. So shall the life into which you have entered be the portal to one of eternal and ineffable bliss." --Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thomas Jefferson Smith, 1825
DBMA Martial Arts Forum / Martial Arts Topics / Re: Vid-clip of 9/20/09 DB Open Gathering
on: November 18, 2009, 07:36:21 AM
Dog Dan: I'll tell you about Tennessee and Boo Dogs when you come down next week , , , and yes that is a very nice Brondo Buzzsaw in there (folks, Dog Dan was the first to uncork the BB in action-- as can be seen in the Nat Geo documentary). Does anyone know who that is doing it?
As always, primo work from Night Owl.
I love the knifework by Linda "Bitch" Matsumi.
Also, I have a sense of deep satisfaction that my years of pushing for IFWA (in fight weapon access) have finally taken root.