Saturday, March 24, 2012

Did the TSA stop a would-be terrorist in his tracks?

Reuters is reporting that a Montana man tried to board a flight at the Sacramento International Airport carrying a loaded handgun and three loaded firearms in his carry-on bags.

A Montana man was arrested after he tried to bring four loaded guns through a security checkpoint at a Sacramento, California, airport and is being held without bail, the sheriff's office said on Saturday. The suspect, Harold Waller, 45, was arrested on Thursday afternoon at Sacramento International Airport after Transportation Security Administration officers at a checkpoint found a firearm inside a carry-on bag, the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department said in a statement.

Mr. Waller had more loaded weapons in his vehicle:

Sheriff's deputies searched his car at an off-site parking lot and turned up eight more firearms, several of them loaded. The statement did not specify the types of weapons.

Waller faces a variety of charges, though none related to terrorism:

Waller faces charges including unlawful possession of a loaded firearm, unlawful possession of a concealed firearm, possession of an unauthorized weapon in a public building and possession of a firearm within a sterile area of an airport, the sheriff's department statement said.

A fair question in a case like this is would Harold Waller be treated any differently--by law enforcement or by the media--if his name were instead Hussein Walji? Would the general public make more of this case if Waller came from Morocco instead of Montana?

I am pretty sure the answer to all of those questions is yes. Is that fair? No. However, Muslims who are not terrorists and who are not in favor of jihadi activities and who don't hate the United States or other modern, liberal countries, who themselves by dint of their religious affiliation face skepticism or in some cases prejudice from non-Muslims in America, must understand that the fear of Islamism is not without cause. A not insignificant number of Muslims are Islamists. They are engaged in a violent jihad. They have committed horrific acts of terror in the United States and in many other countries around the world in the name of Islam. So as long as they continue to engage in this war against modernity, ordinary, law-abiding and harmless Muslims in the U.S. will continue to be subject to harsher scrutiny.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Pope: Communism sucks

On his way to Cuba from Mexico, the Miami Herald is reporting that Pope Benedict XVI said that the Communist system which Cuba has had since Fidel Castro grabbed power in 1959 is a failure and that government needs to change:

On Monday, Benedict will head for Cuba, and said it is "evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality," and he urged Cubans to "find new models, with patience, and in a constructive way."

The fact that Communism stinks is not news to anyone in Cuba or anyone who has ever stepped foot in a country ruled by Marxists. But when a pope states the obvious it carries more weight. We all know that the Castro is nude: But it is nonetheless surprising to hear the pope declare out loud that the Castro has no clothes.

The comment about Marxism, in response to questions from a journalist, was as blunt as anything his predecessor, John Paul II, made during his groundbreaking 1998 trip to Cuba, though the earlier pope is widely credited with helping bring down socialism in eastern Europe.

The pope has not yet called for any immediate changes in Cuban governance:

Benedict cautioned that "this process requires patience and also decisiveness."

Asked about reports that dissidents in Cuba are still routinely harassed and arrested, including in the weeks leading up to his visit, Benedict said that the church wants "to help in the spirit of dialogue to avoid trauma and to help bring about a just and fraternal society, as we want in the whole world."

"We want to collaborate in this sense, and it's obvious that the church is always on the side of freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion," the pope said.

The Cuban government sidestepped the pope's condemnation of the ideology that has turned Cuba from the best country in Latin America into one of the worst off:

Asked about Benedict's statement, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said the government respects all opinions. "We consider the exchange of ideas to be useful. Our people have deep convictions developed over the course of our history," he said, adding that the Cuban system "is a democratic social project ... which is constantly perfecting itself."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Fortunately, the French police shot him dead

The New York Times is reporting that the anti-Semitic Islamist murderer, Mohammed Merah, who assassinated a rabbi, his two children and another little girl at a Jewish school (the victims are pictured above), was killed in a shootout by French police in Toulouse, France, after a standoff which lasted more than 30 hours.

A 23-year-old Frenchman who claimed responsibility for killing four men and three children was shot dead on Thursday after security forces stormed the apartment where he had been holed up for more than 30 hours, French officials said.

François Molins, the prosecutor in charge of the investigation, said the man, Mohammed Merah, was struck in the head by a bullet. Mr. Merah was found dead on the ground after jumping out a low window, according to Interior Minister Claude Guéant. He was still firing a Colt .45.

Just before noon, officers entered the apartment through a front door and windows that had been blasted out, according to Mr. Guéant. They searched each room using video equipment, coming finally to the bathroom, Mr. Guéant said. As the police began to inspect it with the cameras, Mr. Merah emerged from a bathroom “firing with extreme violence,” Mr. Guéant said.

“At the end, Mohammed Merah jumped out a window with a weapon in his hand, still firing,” he said. “He was found dead on the ground.”

Clearly, with its large Muslim population, France needs to do a much better job monitoring those who are violent extremists. The United States had put this anti-Semite on its "no-fly list," due to his affiliation with al-Qaeda.

In a televised address shortly after the operation, President Nicolas Sarkozy praised the work of French security forces and said the he would seek changes in the law to criminalize travel abroad by French citizens for training or “indoctrination” by terror groups. Mr. Sarkozy also indicated plans to criminalize the viewing of Web sites that “applaud terrorism.”

Any young Muslim male who is not Pakistani but travels back and forth to Pakistan should be watched closely.

A former garage mechanic, Mr. Merah made two trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years, and said that he had been trained by Al Qaeda in South Waziristan. On Thursday, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry categorically denied that claim.

But a senior commander for the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan claimed that many French citizens were that area to train with Al Qaeda. Responding to a message seeking comment, the commander responded: “There have been more than 80 French nationals working in different areas of Waziristan, mainly in North Waziristan’s Mirali and Miranshah. Five of them left from here in January 2012.”

It turns out radical violence runs in this family:

The authorities said they initially suspected both Mr. Merah and his brother Abdelkader, 29, who was known locally for his radical religious ideology and had been detained for questioning outside Toulouse on Monday.

Explosives were found in Abdelkader’s car on Wednesday, the police said, and Mr. Merah was tracked in part because his mother’s computer had been used to make contact with his first victim, a French soldier selling a motorbike online, whom Mr. Merah says he killed on March 11.

The usual comments that Islam is a peaceful religion have been made by various leaders in France. That is not really the question. The issue is the culture of extremism in Muslim countries and in Muslim communities in Europe and elsewhere. Muslims need to step up and stamp out the extremists their culture produces.

Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, who also met with Mr. Sarkozy, said, “These acts are in total contradiction with the foundations of this religion.” And the head of the Grand Mosque in Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, urged France not to stigmatize Muslims, saying “99.9 percent” are law-abiding and loyal citizens.

If 99.9 percent are decent people, then they need to keep an eye on the other 0.1 percent and report them to the police.

At this point, I am mostly thankful that the mass murderer is dead. I don't trust our own judicial system to properly deal with a son of a bitch like Mr. Merah. I trust a European court even less. I can imagine if he had been convicted and sent to prison, the same folks who idolize the Philadephia cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal (aka Wesley Cook) would start calling for the release of Mohammed Merah, under the pretense that he is a political prisoner. Many of them would blame Israel for Merah's "mistreatment." To avoid all that I think the French police did the world a great favor in shooting the bastard in the head.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Is the cure to baldness finally coming?

BBC News is reporting that the protein which triggers hair loss in men has been discovered by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and the story suggests that this research could lead to the development of a cream to treat baldness:

A biological clue to male baldness has been discovered, raising the prospect of a treatment to stop or even reverse thinning hair. In studies of bald men and laboratory mice, US scientists pinpointed a protein that triggers hair loss. Drugs that target the pathway are already in development, they report in the journal Science Translational Medicine. The research could lead to a cream to treat baldness.

The guilty part is a protein called prostaglandin D synthase:

Now, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have analysed which genes are switched on when men start to go bald. They found levels of a key protein called prostaglandin D synthase are elevated in the cells of hair follicles located in bald patches on the scalp, but not in hairy areas. Mice bred to have high levels of the protein went completely bald, while transplanted human hairs stopped growing when given the protein.

Finding a cure will take some time. Prof George Cotsarelis, of the department of dermatology said:

"The next step would be to screen for compounds that affect this receptor and to also find out whether blocking that receptor would reverse balding or just prevent balding - a question that would take a while to figure out."

The researchers say there is potential for developing a treatment that can be applied to the scalp to prevent baldness and possibly help hair regrow.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Why did this maniac target Jewish people?

EDIT: March 21, 12:02 AM--There are news reports suggesting that the lead suspect is of Algerian heritage and is a member of al-Qaeda. As I type this, the French police have him cornered in a multi-family house near the Jewish school in Toulouse and they are trying to negotiate his surrender. is reporting that a gunman on a motorcycle took aim at Jews in Toulouse, France, killing a rabbi, two of his children and the 10-year-old daughter of the director of the Jewish school where the murders took place.
CBS/AP) TOULOUSE, France - The shooting deaths of four people, including three children, by a gunman outside a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse has been linked to two deadly attacks in the same region last week that killed three French paratroopers and left another seriously injured. Investigators said Monday that forensic tests have shown the same weapon was used in all three attacks. The motive is unclear, but the targets all have been ethnic minorities.

A 30-year-old rabbi and his 3-year-old and 6-year-old sons were killed in Monday's attack, just before classes started at the Ozar Hatorah school, a junior high and high school in a quiet residential neighborhood, Toulouse Prosecutor Michel Valet said. Witnesses said the man worked at the school. Police identified the fourth victim as the 10-year-old daughter of the school director. A 17-year-old was critically injured.

Based on what has been reported, my guess is that the killer is not part of al-Qaeda or another Muslim terrorist group and probably is not a Muslim, despite the extreme anti-Semitism of the Muslims of France.

My guess is that when this murderer is caught, we will discover that he is more of a psychotic than he is political. He probably suffers from paranoid delusions.

Yet I cannot help but think that, if that is correct, he has been influenced by the everyday hatred of Israel voiced in French political discourse and to lesser or greater extent elsewhere among the European left. We see this hatred of Israel in the American left, as well. However, it is more than counter-balanced by the American right and center. On the whole, Americans tend to like the one, free, democratic state in the Middle East, whose culture is similar to our own. By contrast, Europe in the main has for the last 45 years--since the Six Day War--sided with the fascist police states which surround Israel. The large European left has excused the horrible, violent behavior of the Palestinians. They have equated Jews defending themselves from terrorists with Apartheid in South Africa. In the face of widespread anti-Semitism, the left has branded Jews as racists and oppressors.

That context, those lies, this culture has created a climate in France which, I suspect, made this lone psychotic think murdering Jewish children and a rabbi was the right thing to do.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Is it time to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans? Yes, it's long past time.

In a forceful commentary published by the National Review Online, Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America, concludes that our war in Afghanistan is a waste of our time, a waste of our money and a waste of our soldiers.
"Our troops should be out of Afghanistan. Yesterday."

Over a March 4, 2009 Davis Enterprise column I wrote, my editor penned this familiar sounding headline:
"Get out of Afghanistan, now."

I suspect Mr. McCarthy would have agreed with my conclusion three years ago.

My criticism in 2009 was focused on the need for the war at all and the idea, which came to fruition, that we needed to expand our efforts in Afghanistan. McCarthy says much the same thing here about the decade long growth of this war:
... 90,000 American troops are now stationed (in Afghanistan), compared with the 5,200 who conclusively routed al-Qaeda a decade ago, which you may recall as the mission they were sent to accomplish.

McCarthy points out how unreliable, still, the people we are supposedly trying to help are:
... our “partners” have turned their guns on scores of our troops in the last five years, killing 70, wounding many more. Those are just the U.S. casualty figures. British forces and other NATO personnel are also being assassinated with regularity.

McCarthy likens our failed nation-building efforts in Afghanistan to the same efforts in Iraq, and he points out the price we have paid trying:
We were sold a “freedom agenda” bill of goods about creating a stable democracy that would be a reliable American counterterrorism ally (in Baghdad). What we actually purchased, at a cost of over 4,000 lives, over 30,000 wounded, and over $700 billion, is a sharia state beholden to Iran. The new Iraq calls for Arab solidarity against Israel amid pro-Hamas demonstrations. Its specialty is the persecution of Christians and homosexuals.

The great mistake of the entire Afghan War has been the change in our mission from destroying al-Qaeda to bringing freedom to the Afghan people:
We did not send our troops to liberate Afghanistan. We sent them to rout al-Qaeda, which they did with spectacular speed and effectiveness. There is nothing in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) about liberating anyone.

In my 2009 column, I wrote much the same thing:
What we didn't need to do after our "victory" was engage in a nation-building exercise, trying to impose a democratic republic on a disparate collection of medieval clans who collectively are called Afghans, but have no national allegiance to that state.

In blunt language, McCarthy explains just why Afghans cannot be made into Danes:
In the main, the Afghans are Muslims in the thrall of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist Islam of Saudi Arabia. As such, they cannot be liberated — they have chosen their own tyranny.

What greatly angers Mr. McCarthy is that our war efforts in fighting against the Taliban are hampered by our efforts to not harm ordinary Afghans:
The only reason for our troops to be in a barbaric country is to vanquish the barbarians. Obviously, we are not trying to do that in Afghanistan.

If we leave Afghanistan, that does not mean we will give up fighting against al-Qaeda:
In Yemen, where there are no U.S. troops on the ground, Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal reports that our government killed dozens of al-Qaeda operatives by air strikes in just the last week. In Pakistan, where there are no U.S. troops on the ground, the Obama administration has stepped up the Bush-era pace of drone attacks, killing numerous jihadists. The name of the game with terrorists is to deny them safe haven to train and plot. As retired general Paul Vallely has been arguing for years, our troops have so damaged al-Qaeda at this point that, without committing massive ground forces in hostile Islamic countries, we can strike the enemy from “Lily Pads” — established land or seaborne bases in safe areas.

This is how I concluded my 2009 column:
We need to be prudent with our money and our soldiers. Pouring billions of dollars more into transforming Afghanistan and ceaselessly fighting the Taliban is a waste of lives, treasure and ultimately the Obama presidency. The time to get out is now.

We now know what has been killing the bees: neonicotinoids

About 6 or 7 years ago, the news was full of stories about honeybees disappearing. Large colonies of bees which were critical to commercial agriculture were suddenly and mysteriously dying off or just not showing up when they were needed for pollination. A story from UPI today seems to have the answer:
Die-offs of honeybees critical for pollinating food crops -- part of so-called colony collapse disorder -- is linked to an insecticide, a U.S. journal reports.

Researchers from the University of Padua in Italy writing in the journal Environmental Science & Technology say the springtime die-offs have been linked to technology used to plant corn coated with insecticides.

In some parts of Europe where farmers use the technology to plant seeds coated with so-called neonicotinoid insecticides, widespread deaths of honeybees have been reported since the introduction of the technique in the late 1990s, they said.

Apparently, it was no coincidence that once these neonicotinoid insecticides were introduced, the bee die offs began. This class of insecticide was introduced about 15 years ago and that is when the colongy collapses were first noticed, though the numbers were not large until about 2005, when corn farmers all over the world had begun using neonicotinoids.
Such insecticides are among the most widely used in the world, popular because they kill insects by paralyzing nerves but have lower toxicity for other animals.

Scientists said they suspected the bee die-offs might be due to particles of the insecticide made airborne by the pneumatic drilling machines used for planting that forcefully suck seeds in and expel a burst of air containing high concentrations of particles of the insecticide coating.

They found that honeybees that flew through the emission cloud of the seeding machines used in mid-March to May corn planting were dying.

While this neonicotinoid study is all news to me, it appears that scientists and some politicians have known this connection to bee die-offs for a few years. A 2010 story called "'Nicotine Bees' Population Restored With Neonicotinoids Ban" from a website called says France, Germany and Italy banned neonicotinoid insecticides due to their effects on bees:
Following France and Germany, last year the Italian Agriculture Ministry suspended the use of a class of pesticides, nicotine-based neonicotinoids, as a "precautionary measure." The compelling results - restored bee populations - prompted the government to uphold the ban.

A documentary film called 'Nicotine Bees' explains the connection between the growth of neonicotinoids and the extermination off honeybees called Colony Collapse Disorder. Here is the trailer for the movie:

Is Saudi Arabia arming the Syrian rebels?

The Jerusalem Post, borrowing from the Agence France-Presse, is reporting that Saudi Arabia has shipped weapons to Jordan which are destined for the Free Syrian Army, the group trying to overthrow the Ba'athist regime in Damascus.

Saudi Arabia is arming Syrian rebels locked in a year-long rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad, a senior Arab diplomat told AFP Saturday.

Calling the shipments an effort to stop the bloodshed in Syria, the diplomat clarified that "Saudi military equipment is on its way to Jordan to arm the the Free Syrian Army," according to the report.

I speculated in my column last month that this could happen and it could be a game-changer in Syria:

A wildcard in this might be Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Neither will use violence to overthrow the Ba’athist regime. But those regional powers could start arming and training the rebel forces, if we don’t stop them.

Another development reported in the Jersusalem Post story is that the Iraqi government has promised to no longer permit Iranian planes to fly over Iraq en route to Syria, where they are delivering weapons to Mr. al-Assad. I would guess that it's hard to deny all airspace or other routes for Iran to unload its weaponry, but it sounds like this could make it a little tougher for the Iranians:

Also Saturday, an Iraqi government spokesman said his country would not permit Iran to ferry arms to Syria through or over its territory, AFP reported. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the Iranian ambassador was told "Iraq will not permit the use of its air space or its territory for the transit of any arms cargo to Syria," according to the report.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Emails confirm Iran's role in Assad regime's massacres of the Syrian people

The Guardian of London is reporting that "a cache of what appear to be several thousand emails received and sent by the Syrian leader (Bashar al-Assad) and his wife" were "intercepted by members of the opposition Supreme Council of the Revolution group between June (2011) and early February (2012)."

The Guardian was given the entire lot of emails and the newspaper "made extensive efforts to authenticate the emails by checking their contents against established facts and contacting 10 individuals whose correspondence appears in the cache. These checks suggest the messages are genuine, but it has not been possible to verify every one."

Among the revelations is the role of Iran in advising Mr. Assad:
The emails appear to show that Assad received advice from Iran or its proxies on several occasions during the crisis. Before a speech in December his media consultant prepared a long list of themes, reporting that the advice was based on "consultations with a good number of people in addition to the media and political adviser for the Iranian ambassador".

The memo advised the president to use "powerful and violent" language and to show appreciation for support from "friendly states". It also advised that the regime should "leak more information related to our military capability" to convince the public that it could withstand a military challenge.

The emails "appear to show the president's wife spending thousands of dollars over the internet for designer goods while he swaps entertaining internet links on his iPad and downloads music from iTunes."
As the world watched in horror at the brutal suppression of protests across the country and many Syrians faced food shortages and other hardships, Mrs Assad spent more than £10,000 on candlesticks, tables and chandeliers from Paris and instructed an aide to order a fondue set from Amazon.

Some interesting revelations contained in the emails:
• A daughter of the emir of Qatar, Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, this year advised Mr and Mrs Assad to leave Syria and suggested Doha may offer them exile.

• Assad sidestepped extensive US sanctions against him by using a third party with a US address to make purchases of music and apps from Apple's iTunes.

• A Dubai-based company, al-Shahba, with a registered office in London is a key conduit for Syrian government business and private purchases of Mrs Assad.

After the Anonymous hacker group was caught breaking into various Syrian government email addresses, the Assad email account went silent:
The access continued until 7 February, when a threatening email arrived in the inbox thought to be used by Assad after the account's existence was revealed when the Anonymous group separately hacked into a number of Syrian government email addresses. Correspondence to and from the two addresses ceased on the same day.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Get away from the coast while you can?

An academic study published today by the Institute of Physics (*see my footnote below) called "Modelling sea-level rise impacts on storm surges along US coasts" suggests that rising ocean waters due to global warming is going to be a serious threat to most Americans who live near the sea.

This comes from the paper's abstract:

We find that substantial changes in the frequency of what are now considered extreme water levels may occur even at locations with relatively slow local sea-level rise, when the difference in height between presently common and rare water levels is small. We estimate that, by mid-century, some locations may experience high water levels annually that would qualify today as 'century' (i.e., having a chance of occurrence of 1% annually) extremes. Today's century levels become 'decade' (having a chance of 10% annually) or more frequent events at about a third of the study gauges, and the majority of locations see substantially higher frequency of previously rare storm-driven water heights in the future. These results add support to the need for policy approaches that consider the non-stationarity of extreme events when evaluating risks of adverse climate impacts.

Here are some excerpts from the conclusion of this research:

Through this study we are able to offer a picture of likely changes in the return levels and periods of coastal storm surges in the next decades that, depending on the location, may significantly alter risk assessment related to high water levels and should be considered a relevant result for stakeholders and policy makers involved in coastal infrastructure or environmental protection decisions. Pacific coast locations are most in danger of seeing their historical extremes frequently surpassed in the coming few decades, followed by the Atlantic. Gulf locations appear in least danger of a rapid shift, despite rapid relative sea-level rise, due to the high amplitudes of historical storm extremes, which render the relative effect of sea-level rise small.

This conclusion quotes research which suggests more and worse hurricanes will hit the Gulf coast:

The greater near term risk in the Gulf (as in a large portion of the Atlantic coast) is however the possibility of increasing cyclone intensity (Knutson et al 2010), concerns we do not address here. Our work provides further evidence that conducting risk assessments of coastal flood hazards must account for non-stationary behaviour, driven mainly by rising mean sea-level.

I once spoke with a climate scientist from UC Davis about sea-level rise due to global warming. I was curious how melting polar ice would have that much of an effect on the vast oceans. He explained that melting ice is only a small fraction of the problem. The real issue is due to the fact that warm water takes up more physical space than cold water. This quote is from "A warmer world will have a higher sea=level because as the land and lower atmosphere of the world warm, heat is transferred into the oceans. When materials are heated they expand (thermal expansion). So the heat that is transferred causes sea water to expand, which then results in a rise in sea-level.:
*Here is what the IOP says about itself: "The Institute of Physics is a leading scientific society promoting physics and bringing physicists together for the benefit of all.

"It has a worldwide membership of around 40 000 comprising physicists from all sectors, as well as those with an interest in physics. It works to advance physics research, application and education; and engages with policy makers and the public to develop awareness and understanding of physics. Its publishing company, IOP Publishing, is a world leader in professional scientific communications."

Here is what Wikipedia says about the IOP: "The present day Institute of Physics was formed in 1960 from the merger of the Physical Society of London, founded in 1874, and the Institute of Physics, founded in 1920.

"It is the main professional body for physicists in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, and grants the professional qualification of Chartered Physicist (CPhys), as well as Chartered Engineer (CEng) as a nominated body of the Engineering Council.

"In addition to this, the IOP provides services to its members including careers advice and professional development. As a part of its mission, the IOP works to engage the public with physics and runs the website, an online guide to physics, and a blog.

"The IOP is prominent in its work in policy and advocacy, lobbying for stronger support for physics in education, research and industry in the UK.

"The IOP's publishing company, IOP Publishing, publishes more than 60 academic titles."

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

How is it I have never heard of the Santa Susana nuclear accident?

I came across a report published yesterday--on a website called, which I know nothing about other than it is edited by Daniel Weintraub, who used to be a great opinion columnist for the Sacramento Bee--that says, "The 1959 partial nuclear meltdown at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory ranks as the third worst nuclear accident ever, releasing up to 100 times more radioactive iodine into the atmosphere than at Three Mile Island."

How is it I have never heard of the Santa Susana nuclear accident?

My next question was where is this place? According to Wikipedia, it's near Canoga Park, Simi Valley and Bell Canyon. (A friend of mine from college and his wife grew up in this very area. Their wedding reception was held at her parents' home in Bell Canyon.) Here is what Wikipedia says about Santa Susana:
The site is located approximately 7 miles northwest from the community of Canoga Park and approximately 30 miles northwest of Downtown Los Angeles. Sage Ranch Park is adjacent on part of the northern boundary and the community of Bell Canyon along the entire southern boundary.

Although the meltdown took place almost 53 years ago, it is still polluted with radiation:
More than half a century after a partial nuclear meltdown near Los Angeles, a federal study has found ground radiation levels nearly 1,000 times higher than agreed-upon standards for mandatory cleanup.

Up until 2010, the cleanup efforts at the site of the accident have failed.
In a survey of land around the former reactor site, the U.S. Environmental Protection agency found radioactive cesium, strontium, cobalt and plutonium at levels exceeding the cutoff requiring remediation, agency records show.

As often happens with these things, the standard for what is safe has changed and become stricter over the years:
The current agreement between NASA, DOE and the state Office of Toxic Substances Control seeks to return Santa Susana to a cesium background level of 0.0207 picocuries. A picocurie is one-trillionth of a curie — a standard measure of radioactivity. At one hotspot, the EPA found cesium 137 at 198 picocuries per gram. In other words, the intensity of cesium radiation at that particular location is almost 1,000 times the level that would trigger mandatory remediation.

One possible reason I had never heard of the Santa Susana accident is because it was kept secret for a long time:
The accident in the rugged Simi hills between Los Angeles and Ventura County on July 14, 1959 remained largely unknown for 20 years, until a group of UCLA students discovered and publicized records of the release. Further research revealed additional radioactivity releases as well as contamination by carcinogenic dioxins and heavy metals from other experiments at Santa Susana. That led to decades of agitation by environmental activists and a series of failed cleanup efforts before the 2010 agreement.

A current legal question is who is responsible to cleanup the site: the property owner, Boeing? Or the state of California?
Boeing Co. owns most of the 2,850-acre site, and, unlike NASA and DOE, has not signed on to the cleanup agreement with state regulators. Last April, a federal judge overturned a state law that would have made the company responsible to California officials for a cleanup. The state is appealing the ruling.

Boeing objects to the current plan, because it is much more stringent than a 2007 agreement:
Kamara Sams, a company spokeswoman, said Boeing remains committed to cleaning its property under a 2007 consent order that would forbid contamination above levels typical of a residential suburban neighborhood. She noted that that standard is more stringent than would be normally required for the site’s future use as open space.

Notwithstanding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster one year ago, I am sure that nuclear power is much safer today than it was in the 1950s or even the 1970s. Even though we--in the United States--have not really solved the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, I am generally in support of generating more of our electricity from new nuclear power plants. I don't think the takeaway from Santa Susana should be that nuclear is bad. I think the takeaway should be that we need regulations to prevent that sort of accident from happening; and if an accident occurs, we need to have a good plan in place ahead of time for how to minimize the damage.

From a carbon-effluent standpoint, nuclear power is an attractive option. However, a big obstacle for nuclear in the U.S. is how extremely expensive it is to build and operate a plant. Companies like PG&E and other power producers, given the choice between nuclear and natural gas, will pick gas every time. Based on what engineers at UC Davis have told me, it costs about half as much today to produce a megawatt of electricity using gas than it does using nuclear. Until that ratio changes, I don't expect anyone to propose a new nuclear power plant in California.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Will there be a General Motors in 5 years? In 10 years?

In an excellent article in The Atlantic which explores "Why Companies Fail," Megan McCardle theorizes that it comes down to inertia. A company going in a certain direction for a long period of time will be unable to change directions, even when that is absolutely necessary for survival.
One possibility is that firms don’t change because inertia is in their DNA—indeed, it’s a gene that once made many of them successful. In their 1989 book, Organizational Ecology, Michael Hannan and John Freeman argue that organizations are actually selected for inertia by their environment, and “rarely change their fundamental structural features.” Change is risky, after all, since it definitionally involves doing something that isn’t already working—and even product lines that have grown lackluster still have some customers. Firms that are prone to frequent large changes will probably have more opportunities to kill themselves off with bad choices than firms that resist big changes.

Moreover, the need for accountability and reliability in the modern economy selects against constant radical experimentation—people like knowing that their bank has cumbersome and invariable procedures for keeping track of deposits, for instance. Think of McDonald’s, where a core premise is that no matter where you go, the food and decor will be reliably, exactly the same. Or consider what happened to Coke after it tried to change the recipe of its iconic product, even though taste tests showed that most people actually liked the new version better. The larger and older the firm is, the heavier the selection for stability.

Her case is built around General Motors, which she suggests still has not given up the corporate and labor culture which has caused it to fumble so often over the last 30 years.

McCardle points out that emerging from bankruptcy in November, 2010, there was strong confidence in the White House and in the markets that GM had turned the corner. On November 17, 2010, it issued a massive IPO, selling its common stock for $33 per share. By January 7, 2011, GM's stock was selling for $38.98. But 11 months later, things were not looking so good. On December 19, 2011, GM's shares sold for $19.05. It had lost 51.1% of its peak value, and 42.3% of its IPO value. Today, GM's stock sells for $25.62 per share. That is still a 22.36% loss in market value, if you bought at the IPO price.

I have to wonder how long GM will survive, if it still has not changed its corporate and labor culture? My guess is that if GM disappears, its two major brands, Chevrolet and Cadillac will survive, much the way Jeep lived on after AMC went out of business.

Where have you gone Mustafa Kemal Atatürk?

Go to any major college campus in the United States and you will find a group which is actively anti-Israel. Those same folks very often will wrap themselves in the flag of "peace." But how many colleges will you find with anyone who is anti-Turkey? Not too many, if any at all*.

Yet there are good reasons to dislike the Islamist regime in Turkey. Not only do they carry the stain of the ill-treatment of Turkish Kurds; and not only has the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made nicey-nice with various radical Sunni Islamists (including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) while cutting ties with Israel; but Mr. Erdogan has made a habit of arresting anyone who publicly questions him.

A story in the New Yorker points out that Turkey now has the most imprisoned journalists of any country on earth--more than China or Russia or even Iran:
According to the Journalists Union of Turkey, ninety-four reporters are currently imprisoned for doing their jobs. More than half are members of the Kurdish minority, which has been seeking greater freedoms since the Turkish republic was founded, in 1923. Many counts of arrested journalists go higher; the Friends of Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, a group of reporters named for two imprisoned colleagues, has compiled a detailed list of a hundred and four journalists currently in prison there.

The arrests have created an extraordinary climate of fear among journalists in Turkey, or, for that matter, for anyone contemplating criticizing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. During my recent visit there, many Turkish reporters told me that their editors have told them not to criticize Erdogan. As I detail in my piece in the magazine this week, the arrests of journalists are part of a larger campaign by Erdogan to crush domestic opposition to his rule. Since 2007, more than seven hundred people have been arrested, including members of parliament, army officers, university rectors, the heads of aid organizations, and the owners of television networks.

You think a single "peace" group on an American campus will protest the abrogation of free speech rights in Turkey? You think any of them will send flotillas to Turkey's shores to try to bring attention to the plight of Erdogan's opponents?

*Perhaps there are a few organized Armenian-Americans upset (rightly so) that modern Turkey denies the World War 1 era genocide of roughly 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

CalPERS should not lower its assumed rate of return

Bloomberg is reporting today that the chief actuary for CalPERS, Alan Milligan, has advised the retirement system's board to lower the fund's assumed rate of return on its investments from 7.75 percent to 7.50 percent. Doing so will cause local governments in California affiliated with PERS to pay substantially higher rates to fund the pensions for their employees and retirees whose pensions are currently underfunded.
Feb. 14 (Bloomberg) -- California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest U.S. public pension, should consider changing its assumed rate of investment return, its actuary said. Trimming the forecast may add to taxpayer costs.

“It could have a very significant impact on employer contribution rates,” actuary Alan Milligan told the Calpers governing board in Sacramento today. He said he would make more specific recommendations to the panel in March.

Milligan made this same request a year ago:
Calpers last year rejected his proposal to reduce the presumed rate of return to 7.5 percent. Board members at the time expressed concern that the lower figure would burden local governments when they were already facing financial strains.

Mr. Milligan's timing strikes me as quite odd. CalPERS has been riding the wave of increasing stock values since the market bottomed out. Its portfolio has performed the last two fiscal years.
In the fiscal year ended June 30, Calpers earned 20.7 percent, its best result in 14 years, led by stocks and private equity.

The numbers on the PERS website say the fund earned a 20.9 percent (not 20.7 percent) return in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011. And as you can see in the chart below, the average annual return on investment over the 20 year period ending June 30, 2011 is 8.41 percent. In fact, beginning with the 1991-92 fiscal year, CalPERS has never ended a fiscal year since then in which its average annual rate of return did not exceed its assumed rate of return of 7.75 percent.

Unless Mr. Milligan has a strong argument in favor of the proposition that market rates of returns over the next 5, 10 and 20 years will fail to achieve what have been normal market returns over the last 20, 30, 50 and 100 years, I think the CalPERS board would be mistaken to listen to their actuary's advice. Given the recent strength in stocks, it's hard to understand why Milligan would suggest what he is suggesting today.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Court: Loughner needs to take his meds

In a decision for sanity, Reuters is reporting that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court's decision that allows the psychiatrists treating Jared Lee Loughner, the schizophrenic who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six other people in a Safeway parking lot in Tucson, to force Loughner to take antipsychotic medications:
Prison doctors may continue to forcibly medicate the man charged with the deadly Tucson shooting spree last year that gravely wounded then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as they seek to restore his fitness for trial, a federal appeals court ruled on Monday.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower-court ruling that extended Jared Loughner's stay at the federal prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri, and permitted staff there to administer anti-psychotic drugs to him against his will.

"It is clear that Loughner has a severe mental illness, that he represents a danger to himself or others, and that the prescribed medication is appropriate and in his medical interest," Judge Jay Bybee wrote in the appeals court's 117-page majority opinion.

The only disturbing aspect of this story is the dissenting opinion issued by Judge Marsha Berzon. Berzon asserts that forcing Loughner to take psychotropic drugs infringes on his rights to a fair trial--that is, his hope of being found not guilty by reason of insanity--because the drugs make him appear to be sane and competent. In other words, the meds actually work.

The question when dealing with a mentally ill criminal suspect is what is more important: getting a not guilty verdict in a court or restoring his mental health?

I strikes me as patently obvious that it should be the latter. Would any judge deny heart medication to a comatose murder suspect because the heart medication might restore the prisoner's health and make him less sympathetic to a jury? If any judge did that and the patient died, the judge ought to be impeached and possibly tried for homicide.

When it comes to Louhgner's medical condition, his medical doctors must be trusted to decide in Loughner's best interests. He is incapable of making decisions about his pyschiatric care on his own. Without forcibly medicating Loughner, he would not take these drugs and his mental health would not be restored. His health easily trumps his supposed fair trial rights. It's not even close.

When will the Occupiers take over classrooms?

If there is one overarching meme of the leftist Occupy movement, it is that wealthy people (the One Percent) and huge corporations pour money into our political system, buy undue influence and get back tax breaks and other benefits unavailable to the ordinary people. Certainly, there is some factual basis for that belief.

However, the inconvenient truth for the leftist Occupation is that it is not just the rich and multinational companies which pour money into our political system, buy undue influence and get benefits unavailable to the ordinary people. In the Democratic Party the real One Percenters are the public employee unions. They own most Democratic politicians. They pour in millions and get billions in return. They have systematically bankrupted many government services with unaffordable benefits and luxurious pensions.

Yet I don't seem to recall any of the leftist Occupiers chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, the corrupt public employees have got to go!"

Today the Los Angeles Times is reporting that the big spender, per usual, in lobbying the California legislature, is the California Teachers Association:
Amid the state's lingering economic slump and Sacramento's persistent budget crisis, a record 2,768 entities hired lobbyists last year, many of them to fight for a slice of the shrinking public pie. ... The California Teachers Assn. spent the most, as it does periodically: $6.5 million. Among its many successes, it persuaded lawmakers to pass a last-minute bill restricting school districts' ability to lay off more teachers if future funding cuts occur. ... In addition to paying a team of seven in-house lobbyists, the CTA wined and dined elected officials and their staffs and helped cover travel and lodging costs as hundreds of teachers converged on Sacramento for a "week of action" on the budget crisis last May.