Friday, September 30, 2005

There's a hole in the bottom of the sea.

Well, not yet, but if Japanese geophysicists get their way, there soon will be. Work has recently been completed on the Chikyu, a 57,500 ton research vessel with 112 meters (about 367.5 feet) worth of drilling derrick sticking above its waterline. The $540 million vessel is part of an international project to drill holes through the earth's crust and into the mantle, where it is believed that a great deal of new information about the planet's structure and seismic processes can be obtained. The scientists hope to drill a hole about 7 kilometers (4.3 or so miles) into the crust to reach the mantle.

Of course, it's possible that the drill could hit a gas pocket. If it does, it might release a plume of gas that could sink the ship, or simply set off what the Scientific American article on the subject described as "catastrophic explosions and fires." What could possibly go wrong?

More roaming gators.

Follow-up on the earlier gator farm story: No word on Intracoastal City, but nearly 200 alligators escaped a farm in Moss Point, Mississippi, during Katrina. (Associated Press, in the Sun Herald.) Don't worry, though: alligators are quite docile and shy of people, and they hardly ever eat small children or old ladies.

Meanwhile, the global economy is stinging (iafrica.com):
Hurricane Katrina has had an unforeseen effect on the French fashion industry, which says it fears it will be hit by a shortage of Louisiana alligator hides in coming months.

While there is no shortage of the saurians in the flood waters of New Orleans, where rescuers say they fear the animals are feeding on the bodies of Katrina's victims, the hurricane may have seriously damaged alligator farming.
Well, at least we have our priorities straight.

Lastly, an astute reader pointed out that the swamps of Louisiana are already teeming with alligators; those that escaped found themselves in their natural habitat.

Say what?

Want to reduce crime in the United States? Easy, says William Bennett, former Education Secretary under President Reagan. Just abort all the black babies. (ABCNews.)

Bennett later said that his remarks were "mischaracterized."

ADHD drug may drive users to suicide.

Eli Lilly's ADHD medication Strattera may provoke suicidal impulses in people who take the drug. Clinical trials with the drug showed five cases of suicidal ideation (thinking about suicide) and one attempted suicide out of 1,357 participants. Strattera was initially hailed as the first non-stimulant ADHD treatment. (Bloomberg)

I suppose kids will have to go back to doing Ritalin and crystal meth now.

WHO's afraid of H5N1?

In a followup to our previous Health Fact of the Day, the World Health Organization's Dick Thompson has come out with a statement saying that Dr. Nabarro's earlier claim of between 5 and 150 million deaths from the bird flu might be excessive.

"While he [Thompson] did not say the 150 million prediction was wrong, or even implausible, he reiterated that WHO considers a maximum death toll of 7.4 million a more reasoned forecast." (emphasis added; original source at ABCNews)

H5N1, the influenza strain responsible for all of this concern, currently has a mortality rate of about 50%. By contrast, the Spanish flu of 1918 had a mortality rate of no more than 5%; even so, it killed approximately 25 million people in its first six months.

Somehow, I'm still not comforted.

Terrorist bank deals 'impossible to spot'.

Correction—The annual European Money Laundering Conference is actually a bash for bankers and regulators, not drug smugglers and mafiosi as previously reported. The Alarmist apologizes for any embarrassment or disappointment this may have caused. Also, we have two passes to next year's event that we won't be using, if anyone's interested.

9/11 Commission member Douglas Greenburg, speaking to this rowdy crowd in a panel discussion Wednesday, said that terrorist financial activity is practically impossible to spot by looking at the paper trails. (Pakistan Daily Times.) This is because terrorism is cheap and the transactions that fund it are basically ordinary transactions that follow normal patterns of activity.

The awkward implication is that the EU has used terrorism as an excuse to enact new regulations that blow away the privacy of the individual account-holder but which are practically useless against terrorists:
The European Union agreed a new package of rules in June against money laundering and terrorist finance, including enhanced identity checks on customers and more demanding rules on identifying the real beneficial owners of accounts.

But there was an awkward pause when a questioner at the Barcelona conference asked if such rules might have helped to prevent the Madrid attacks and the July London suicide bombings.
Hmm. But then, the EU is by no means unique in this regard.

Life sentence for Mark Scott-Crossley.

A South African farmer who murdered one of his workers last year by throwing him into a lion enclosure will spend the rest of his life in an enclosure of his own. (Reuters.)

Health fact of the day.

“A new flu pandemic could happen at any time and kill between 5-150 million people, a UN health official warned.” (BBC.)

Enjoy your breakfast. I know I will.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

African lakes could kill again, warn scientists.

In 1984, a huge bubble of carbon dioxide tore loose from Lake Monoun in Cameroon, suffocating 37 people in the surrounding area. Almost exactly two years later, as many as 1,800 people were killed near Lake Nyos, also in Cameroon. Now, scientists are worried that it might happen again. (BBC, The Guardian)

An international effort installed a pipe at Lake Nyos in 2001 and another at Lake Monoun in 2003 to release the deadly gas in a safe and controlled manner, but the pipes aren't removing gas quickly enough. To make matters worse, a natural dam at the lake has been severely eroded over time; a dam break could threaten some 10,000 people who live nearby and may trigger another outgassing event like the one in 1986. (Wikipedia article on the dam)

Contraband, but not of the usual sort.

In a country where drug trafficking is part of the norm, the inspectors at Bogota Airport in Colombia have seen a lot of contraband. They probably weren't expecting to find human fetuses like the ones they found on Tuesday. (BBC)

The fetuses were found in religious statues destined for the United States. A Colombian police chief, J. A. Varon, speculated that the Miami-bound fetuses might have been intended for use in Satanic rituals.

The patron saint of... what?

Anyone familiar with the Roman Catholic and the various Orthodox faiths knows that there is a plethora of patron saints for nearly every conceivable circumstance and occupation. Astronauts,
artillerymen, bakers, tailors, and salesmen all have their own patron saints. Now there's a new one: St. Fyodor Ushakov, Russian Orthodox patron saint of the Russian long-range nuclear bomber fleet. (via Marginal Revolution)

Words fail me.

It came from the deeps.

Often suspected but never captured alive for long, the giant squid has been a staple of underwater fiction for years. We knew of them mainly from the scars they left on sperm whales and their washed-up carcasses on lonely shores. (I always rooted for the whales.) Now, Japanese researchers have finally obtained photos of the beast alive and in action. Worryingly, its behavior "is more aggressive than previously thought." (Scientific American) The squid photographed became tangled on the researchers' probe and left behind a souvenir: 5.5 meters (18 feet) worth of a tentacle.

Quick giant squid facts: (Reuters)

Brush fire destroys 9,300 acres near L.A.

The fire is spreading extremely rapidly, blown by wind across thousands of acres of dry brush. The Associated Press is updating its story hourly as the swath of devastation expands. Seven hundred firefighters are now fighting the blaze, but it is only 5% contained. (Associated Press, in the Washington Post.)

Ceuta

Ceuta is a city of some 10 square miles on the Moroccan coast, near the Strait of Gibraltar. It is a fort city, a territory of Spain.

The city is surrounded by parallel 10-foot-high razor-wire fences with watch towers to keep out African refugees, but would-be immigrants still manage to sneak over the barrier. Usually, their hope is to reach the streets of Ceuta undetected and escape to Europe.

In the past few weeks, refugees have adopted a new strategy for crossing the barrier fence (CNN):
Two Africans died and 50 more were wounded early Thursday as they and hundreds of others scaled tall fences in a coordinated effort to enter the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on Morocco's northern coast, a senior Spanish official said. [...]

On two successive nights earlier this week, hundreds of Africans using makeshift ladders moved to scale en masse the fence in Melilla, with many getting through despite efforts by beefed-up Spanish security forces to repel them and leave them on Moroccan soil.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

FEMA City

Last year, FEMA set up emergency shelter in a meadow for fifteen hundred people left homeless by Hurricane Charley. The little town of 500 trailers is now a ghetto. Bradenton Herald:
[D]rug use, vandalism, break-ins and fights are widespread. Young people regularly call FEMA City a prison.

The troubles got so bad in the spring that the entire camp was fenced in, a county police substation was set up, and armed security guards were stationed at the one point where residents were allowed to enter and exit. (Emphasis added.)
The director of recovery for Charlotte County told the paper, “[T]his is my advice to New Orleans and the other Gulf Coast towns: Don't make big camps with thousands of people, because it doesn't work. It takes a bad situation and, for many people, actually makes it worse.”

The plan for Katrina: 125,000 trailers.

UpdateCredit: Marginal Revolution.

Iran

The Washington Post, last week:
Five weeks ago, Iran's new president bought his country some time. Facing mounting criticism after walking away from negotiations with Europe and restarting part of Iran's nuclear program, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked the world to withhold diplomatic pressure while he put together new proposals.

On Saturday, dozens of international diplomats, including the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, gathered at the United Nations to hear how Ahmadinejad planned to stave off a crisis.

Instead his speech, followed by a confused hour-long news conference, was able to do what weeks of high-level U.S. diplomacy had not: convince skeptical allies that Iran may, in fact, use its nuclear energy program to build atomic bombs.

Ahmadinejad said: “[I]f some try to impose their will on the Iranian people through resort to a language of force and threat with Iran, we will reconsider our entire approach to the nuclear issue.” (Emphasis added.)

Two days later, Iran threatened to refuse IAEA nuclear inspections and to start enriching uranium, a step towards developing nuclear weapons, if the IAEA referred Iran to the U.N. Security Council. (BBC, USA Today.)

The IAEA passed a resolution Saturday requiring that Iran be referred to the Security Council at some unspecified future date. Today, Iran's Parliament fast-tracked a bill to block IAEA inspections. (Reuters.)

Iran shares a border with Iraq to the west and with Afghanistan to the east; the country's entire southern border is on the Persian Gulf. Iran is a charter member of the Axis of Evil.

Polar ice caps gone by 2060

The extent of polar ice is as low as it has been since satellite images first became available in 1978. At the current rate of decline, the polar ice caps will be gone by summer 2060.

But there are good reasons to believe the decline will accelerate. Polar ice is white; it reflects sunlight into space. Liquid ocean water, by contrast, is dark; it absorbs the light and converts it to heat, warming the water and melting more ice. Other positive feedbacks will kick in later. Melting permafrost will release frozen methane, which will work as a greenhouse gas, further accelerating global warming. NY Times:
“Feedbacks in the system are starting to take hold,” Dr. Scambos said. “The consecutive record-low extents make it pretty certain a long-term decline is underway.”

Read more: BBC News, NY Times

How do we pay for Katrina?

The final cost of Hurricane Katrina has yet to be tallied, but so far Congress has approved over 62 billion dollars to be spent in helping deal with the event and its aftermath. This cost on top of an ongoing war in Iraq and during a time of budget deficits leads many to wonder who's going to pay for it and how. Fortunately, the Republican Study Committee, a group of about 100 Republican congressmen and women has a plan. They call it Operation Offset, and you can read about it here (Word document). Go ahead and give it a glance.

I'll summarize some of the salient points for you here. The RSC has decided that leveling spending on or cutting funding to these programs are the way to help the federal government pay for Katrina:
  • Medicaid
  • Subsidized loans for graduate students
  • UN peacekeeping operations
  • Funding to the Global AIDS Initiative
  • The Peace Corps
  • National Science Foundation's Math and Science Program
  • NASA's moon and Mars initiatives
  • State and community grants to reduce energy consumption
  • The Energy Star program
  • The Minority Business Development Agency
The list goes on from here. Some of the programs mentioned will only have spending leveled; others will have funding cut. Some will be eliminated altogether. It also proposes to get rid of the Presidential Election Campaign fund, which many Presidential candidates - not just Democrats and Republicans - use to get the funding they need to hold their own primaries and get their messages out. The National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated outright; the National Endowment for the Arts would have all federal funding removed. The Hydrogen Fuel Initiative would be axed as well. Piously, these congresspeople also recommended that they delay (not eliminate) their automatic pay increases for a short period.

Bold cuts. And not one cut would be made for the war in Iraq, which has already cost the nation close to $200 billion and which does not appear to be going away any time soon. This despite a recent poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal showing that 45 percent of Americans think funding for the Iraq war should be cut to pay for Katrina; 27 percent want to repeal the tax cuts that President Bush fought hard for early in his presidency. In essence, these fine congresspeople are suggesting that we should cut education, health benefits for the elderly, and measures to reduce the toll we take on our environment rather than halt a destructive and controversial war on the other side of the ocean.

It might be worth mentioning that this document is merely a collection of proposals and is not yet a bill in Congress. Still, we would do well to be wary of any such proposals. Operation Offset's supporters like to tout the plan as a series of measures to cut federal pork barrel spending, but it is much, much more than that.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Kelo v. New London: state-sponsored theft.

Wilhelmina Dery has lived in the same house since she was born in 1918. Her husband moved in with her when they got married in 1946; the house itself has been in the Dery family for over a century. Now, the government of New London, CT has decided that they want to turn Mrs. Dery's ancestral home into a parking lot, citing economic interests. What's worse, the United States Supreme Court has said that it's legal.

Huh?

Kelo v. New London has made a stir in legal circles lately because it is a landmark decision. In it, the Supremes said that it was alright for a community (in this case, New London) to condemn and take over property held by parties who did not want to sell, all because a group of developers (the New London Development Corporation) had come up with a "carefully considered" plan to revitalize the area. In other words, the United States Supreme Court has said that because a few moneyed interests thought that a few parcels of land had more economic value to the community as parking lots and offices, then those parcels (some of which were occupied by private individuals) were subject to eminent domain, which allows a government to take control of private property in the public interest.

It doesn't matter that Susette Kelo has lived in her house since 1997 and has renovated and improved it since that time. It doesn't matter that she held onto it because she liked the waterfront view. This is not even disputed in Justice Stevens' majority opinion on the case. All that matters is that Susette Kelo, Wilhelmina Dery, and other men and women like them hold property that the city has decided it wants in order to bring about some project which will ostensibly bring in new jobs and provide economic growth in a disadvantaged area. Since these holdouts decided not to take the city's original offers to sell their property, they are now being forced out.

To add insult to injury, the city of New London has claimed that since the Supreme Court decision went in their favor, they have owned the land in question via the power of eminent domain since 2000, which was when the first suit was filed to stop this process. Following the most greedy possible logic, the city asserts that those living on this land owe the city back rent on the property for the period between 2000 and the present. Given the valuations that the city has slapped onto the properties at question, this means that even the sums originally offered as "fair market value" are inadequate to cover the cost of these rents.

Remember Mrs. Dery? Her home was valued at some $6100 per month for a total debt of over $300,000. That the city had originally condemned the property solely to get its hands on it seems not to be an extenuating circumstance. Such is the rule of law; I suppose we must call it that, since it certainly isn't justice.

Puerto Rican rebel hero gunned down by FBI

Filiberto Ojeda Rios, 72, died Saturday in a gun battle with FBI agents. Ojeda Rios was a popular hero among the 1% or so of Puerto Ricans that favor independence from the United States. He was also a fugitive, wanted in connection with a 1983 armored truck robbery in Connecticut. (Guardian.)

The autopsy revealed the Ojeda Rios did not die immediately after being shot. The FBI, suspicious that the house was booby-trapped, waited a full day before going in. By that time Ojeda Rios had died. (Boston Globe, Newsday.com.)

Alligator farm flooded

In an upbeat piece on plucky Cajuns, the Washington Post casually mentions that Hurricane Rita flooded an alligator farm in Intracoastal City, Louisiana. For some reason the Post doesn't follow up on the obvious consequence of that bit of intelligence: hundreds of gators are loose on the Louisiana coast.

Doctors: Is that smallpox?

Dr. Stephen Sisson, a researcher working out of Johns Hopkins University, recently led a study to determine whether doctors would be able to identify smallpox and other diseases likely to be used as biological weapons by terrorists or other nefarious sorts. The results of his study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (26 September issue), show the following:
  • 49.3% of doctors could not identify smallpox (warning: some graphic images) from the symptoms presented; only 14.6% of the doctors presented correct treatments for the ailment.
  • 29.5% could not identify anthrax. 17% could treat it properly.
  • 50.4% could not identify botulism. 60.2% treated it properly.
  • 83.7% could not identify plague. 9.7% of the doctors surveyed managed to treat it correctly.
After the study, the 631 physicians who took part in the study were given a review course to bring them up to snuff on correctly identifying and treating the illnesses discussed. When tested again, their diagnostic and treatment skills had improved, but it is worrisome that our doctors cannot identify the diseases that are most likely to be used in the event of a biological attack on the United States.

You can read more about the study at Forbes Magazine.

Killer dolphins on the loose

Dolphins trained by the U.S. military to shoot scuba-diving terrorists with dart guns may be missing in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, according to this story in The Observer, a UK paper.

Debut

It is 27 September 2005, and according to the United States federal government, the country is at Elevated risk for a terrorist attack.

The United States is at war against insurgents in Iraq. Charges that American troops there are torturing prisoners have become dull with repetition.

Oil is near record prices. This hasn't triggered inflation or recession in the United States yet. No one knows why.

Earlier this year the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that it's okay for a city to seize a person's property and transfer it to private developers.

The avian flu virus H5N1 is still rare in humans, which is good, since it is resistant to antiflu drugs. Scientists peg the virus as the next human pandemic. The U.S. has committed to stockpiling enough flu vaccine, eventually, to innoculate some 6% of the population. No word on why this particular number was chosen; but it might not be worth worrying about. The vaccine reportedly doesn't work very well.

A hurricane struck the Gulf coast this month, killing hundreds (if not thousands) and destroying countless homes. The government response was a complete failure. Meteorologists say we're in for decades of unusually powerful tropical storms.

A second hurricane illustrated something we've been trying to ignore: major American cities can't be quickly evacuated in case of disaster or terrorist attack.

North Korea and the United States don't seem too anxious to start World War III this week, but the overall situation is alarming. If you think President Bush is surrounded by yes men and detached from reality, you have only to look at Kim Jong-Il to kick your ulcer into high gear.

One might be forgiven for thinking that the time for concern has passed and the time for a stiff drink is at hand. If you're just now reaching this conclusion, you are many bottles behind The Alarmist.

We're trying to keep our hats on. But let's be honest. The world has gone off the rails.

Welcome to The Alarmist. Documenting the new normal.