Bonus Critter Blogging: Javan Rhino
(Photographer unknown, but picture published at the American Association of Zoo Keepers, Inc. website.)
A place for a tired old woman to try to figure things out so that the world makes a bit of sense.
For nearly five decades, the United States has pursued a policy toward Cuba that could be described as incredibly stupid.
It could also be called childish and counterproductive -- and, since the demise of the Soviet Union, even insane. Absent the threat of communist expansionism, the refusal by successive American presidents to engage with Cuba has not even a fig leaf's worth of rationale to cover its naked illogic. Other than providing Fidel Castro with a convenient antagonist to help whip up nationalist fervor on the island -- and prolong his rule -- the U.S. trade embargo and other sanctions have accomplished nothing.
Now, with Fidel ailing and retired, and his brother Raúl acting large and in charge, the United States has its best opportunity in years to influence the course of events on the island. George W. Bush, as one might have expected, won't do the right thing. It will be up to the next president.
Raúl Castro is 76, and since assuming the presidency he has acted as if he knows he doesn't have much time to waste. In short order, he has repealed the prohibition against Cubans buying computers, cellphones and other consumer goods -- items that Fidel feared might facilitate sedition or promote counterrevolutionary comfort and lassitude.
It's true that these measures are largely symbolic -- on an average salary of about $17 a month, most Cubans can't dream of buying computers, and, in any event, the Cuban government still strictly controls access to the Internet. Likewise, any Cuban who owns a cellphone can't use it without paying the astronomical rates demanded by the government cellphone monopoly.
But at the same time, Raúl has encouraged the first stirrings of debate in the government-controlled media (which are the only media) -- something Fidel never would have allowed. Rumors that the government will soon permit widespread private ownership of automobiles, and perhaps even allow an above-board private market in real estate, seem much less implausible than they would have just six months ago.
Francis is a sweet boy, although a little shy at first. Once he gets used to you he's always ready for just a little more attention. He gets very enthusiastic when you pet him, too, and will writhe about, purring and occasionally flipping over, to express his happiness.
We know Francis gets along well with other cats even some of the rowdiest felines. Because of this, we think Francis would do well in many home situations. We hope one of them might be yours!
Labels: Humane Treatment of Animals
Less than a year after his agency warned of new threats from a resurgent al-Qaeda, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden now portrays the terrorist movement as essentially defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and on the defensive throughout much of the rest of the world, including in its presumed haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
On Sunday, McCain told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that “we’ve succeeded militarily” in Iraq.
In one of the largest demonstrations, several thousand people took to the streets in the Baghdad district of Sadr City, a bastion of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia. They held up pictures of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki dressed as Saddam Hussein.
In the Kadhimiya district in northwest Baghdad, hundreds of demonstrators with raised fists marched behind a banner asking the United Nations to "stand with the Iraqi people against this security deal between the government and the occupation."
The United States, which invaded in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, now has 155,000 troops in Iraq.
It is negotiating with Iraq on an agreement aimed at giving a legal basis to U.S. troops after December 31, when their United Nations' mandate expires. Sadr's followers see it as a surrender of Iraq's sovereignty to an occupying force.
Sadr, backed by a militia estimated to number tens of thousands and popular among Iraq's Shi'ite poor, has called for protests to continue until the government agrees to hold a referendum on the U.S. presence.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the biggest Shi'ite group in Maliki's government, also criticized the planned agreement on a troop extension.
In a statement on his website, he said there was a "national consensus to reject many points raised by the American side as they infringe national sovereignty." (Emphasis added.)
Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "With an overwhelming 82 to 13 vote, the Senate yesterday completed the override of President Bush's veto of a comprehensive farm bill, shrugging off Republican concerns about an embarrassing legislative glitch to make the $307 billion bill the law of the land.
"House GOP leaders continued to grumble that Democrats had violated the Constitution by pressing forward with the veto override after they discovered that a whole section of the bill on trade policy had been inadvertently dropped from the version vetoed Wednesday.
"But Democratic leaders said they had court precedent and constitutional scholars on their side. 'The veto override will have the force of law,' said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) . . .
"Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) were among the 35 Republicans who joined in the most significant legislative rebuff of Bush's presidency.
"'By overturning the president's veto, we are making substantial investments in nutrition programs to help millions of families afford healthy food, in help for farmers hit by disaster and to protect our nation's natural resources,' said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)."
Several readers e-mailed to complain that in yesterday's column I gave Bush too much credit for his veto by focusing on the bill's crop subsidies and not its desperately needed anti-hunger provisions. So for the record, as Alan Bjerga writes for Bloomberg: "Assistance to poor families takes up about 74 percent of the spending authorized under the measure, according to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson. Crop subsidies account for about 16 percent, he said."
Populations appear stable or increasing throughout its range. Because the robin forages largely on lawns, it is vulnerable to pesticide poisoning and can be an important indicator of chemical pollution. You can help scientists learn more about this species by participating in the Celebrate Urban Birds! project.
Although the appearance of a robin is considered a harbinger of spring, the American Robin actually spends the winter in much of its breeding range. However, because they spend less time in yards and congregate in large flocks during winter, you're much less likely to see them. The number of robins present in the northern parts of the range varies each year with the local conditions.
* In 1804, the Eastern Phoebe became the first banded bird in North America. John James Audubon attached silvered thread to an Eastern Phoebe's leg to track its return in successive years.
* The Eastern Phoebe is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes. Even members of a mated pair do not spend much time together. They may roost together a bit early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her.
* The use of buildings and bridges for nest sites has allowed the Eastern Phoebe to tolerate the landscape changes made by humans and even expand its range. However, it still uses natural nest sites when they are available.
...whatever successes there have been have largely been led from the field, not from Washington. Those working on the ground have worked hard in many cases to reverse or evade policies imposed by the Bush administration.
Nonetheless, no amount of success in Khost amounts to success in Afghanistan. If counter-insurgency success in Khost does not reduce the strength of an insurgency whose leadership and logistical bases are in Pakistan, it shows the failure of the Bush administration to address the challenge of Pakistan. President Karzai (and nearly all Afghans I have spoken to) have argued for years that the factors that turn Afghanistan's innumerable internal problems into a violent insurgency that is increasingly using suicide bombs lie mainly in Pakistan.
In a discussion after we went off the air, Ignatius asked me if the success in Khost could be spread nation-wide if the US took over the entire effort, with its greater COIN expertise. I said, first, I doubt it, because Khost was such a small place with a relatively high level of education (it was called "Little Moscow" under the communists), and, second, the forces for such an expansion are not available, because the U.S. is stuck in a disastrous war in Iraq. It is not the fault of the Americans working in RC/E that the U.S. is in Iraq, but it is the responsibility of the administration, which undermined the chances of success in Afghanistan and Pakistan with an illegal war based on propaganda and ideology, a war that should never have been waged and should never have been authorized.
The same week that Ignatius and I appeared on NewsHour, al-Qaida and some Taliban disrupted an important national celebration in Kabul, killing three people and barely missing President Hamid Karzai. Subsequent investigations showed that this operation was carried out with the complicity of high officials of the ministries of defense and interior who were either complicit with the attackers or corrupt. The attack was planned and financed in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
No amount of road building and police mentoring in Khost will compensate for a failed regional policy and unreliable security forces. The successes in Khost are not so much fake as irrelevant to the larger picture. No amount of mini-successes in isolated show pieces will compensate for the overall strategic failure of this administration.
Labels: Bush Legacy
Politico reports on the divide between John McCain and other Republicans on climate change:
By contrast, the debate on a bipartisan climate change bill sponsored by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) offers McCain a chance to stake out a position different from the president's and see if his party will follow. The catch is that many Republicans are uncomfortable with McCain's talk of a cap-and-trade program for reducing carbon emissions.
"John McCain was into climate change before it was cool," [Sen. Lindsey] Graham said. "But that's the one issue where the majority of the conference may go the other way.".
Conservatives hope that McCain will back a more market-based approach rather than the government mandates on carbon emissions that are part of the central Senate proposal.
"We're starting to see a coming together on energy," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). "Hopefully, he can help us find a position between Warner-Lieberman and where we are as conservatives."
And of course there's likely to be input from James Inhofe and pals that will discourage any climate action whatsoever. Fun times on the Hill in the next few weeks.
As recently as July 2007, the administration submitted a report to the United Nations that omitted any discussion of how global warming will affect wildfires, heat waves, agriculture or snowpack.
Moss, who led the U.S. Climate Change Science Program coordination office during both the Clinton and Bush administrations, praised the program for producing the analysis, which is part of a long-delayed series of official climate reports. "At the same time," he added, "we all need to be looking at how the administration now intends to use the results of this information, because it really is worrisome."
The researchers said that of 1,598 animal species examined in more than 800 studies, nearly 60 percent were found to have been affected by climate change.
In addition, the number and frequency of forest fires and insect outbreaks are "increasing in the interior West, the Southwest, and Alaska," while "precipitation, stream flow, and stream temperatures are increasing in most of the continental United States" and snowpack is declining in the West.
Denmark will today launch an effort to calm the scramble for the Arctic, bringing together the five coastal nations competing for what are believed to be the largest unclaimed reserves of oil and gas left on the planet.
The gathering in Greenland begins in the shadow of a new "oil shock" as soaring prices force governments to reassess their energy policies and heat up already feverish interest in who owns the seabed beneath the Arctic Ocean. The issue has already been pushed to the fore as rising temperatures melt ever larger sections of the polar ice sheet and scientists warn that climate change could result in sea ice cover disappearing altogether within a generation.
The Danes hope the meeting will see all parties agree to a UN-brokered solution rather than a free-for-all over possible oil riches and commercially valuable sea routes such as the recently thawed North West Passage.
So far the race for the Arctic has been limited to posturing, with Russia deploying an experimental submarine to plant a flag on the seabed close to the magnetic pole, while Denmark has pinned its colours to the frozen Hans Island and Canada has conducted military exercises further into the frozen north than ever before. Both Norway and the US are thought to be considering their own challenge for sovereignty under the UN Law of the Seas convention, meant to govern territorial claims over the continental shelf.
The argument over who owns the Arctic has come down to a technical squabble over which country is best connected to one of several undersea mountain ranges that extend towards the North Pole. Under the 1982 UN convention, coastal states own the seabed beyond existing 200 nautical mile zones if it is part of a continental shelf of shallower waters.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a 1982 pact establishing guidelines for ocean security and regulation, is presently up for debate in the United States Senate. But so far, a concerted push from President Bush and military officials has not been enough to secure the necessary votes for ratification. Despite a growing list of treaty advocates, which includes powerful shipping and environmental lobbies as well as influential military leaders, a core group of conservative senators are intent on holding up ratification.
The treaty was brought up for debate in 2004 and sailed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with a unanimous vote of approval. However, the issue was never voted on because then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) declined to bring the matter to a floor vote.
Although the treaty kicked off its wave of support with an encouraging 17-4 committee vote, it may be doomed to the same fate for months to come. Opposition to the treaty from far-right conservatives has prompted fears that the treaty would bind the US to support an over-expansion of United Nations authority. In addition, presumptive Republican nominee for President John McCain has announced that he is withdrawing support for the treaty in its present form.
The Commodities Futures Trading Commission, which regulates the trading of contracts for future delivery of oil — called futures — believes big pension funds and other institutional investors may accentuate a trend but are not the cause of high prices.
"If the fundamentals weren't strong, you couldn't play on the margin [speculate] in any event," said Frank Verrastro, director of energy programs for the policy research group Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Others, including U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., believe the so-called Enron Loophole is to blame. This is a legislative loophole won by the now-defunct energy giant in 2000 that removed from regulation the electronic trading of oil futures by large traders.
Some experts believe oil traders are pushing trades into less regulated overseas markets where they can build up higher concentrations in their investments and escape direct scrutiny by U.S. regulators.
These big positions can move markets. Exhibit 1 is the spectacular 2006 crash of Amaranth Advisers, a hedge fund that pooled investments from ultra-wealthy investors to take huge positions in futures contracts for natural gas. In doing so, it drove up the price for Americans of heating and cooling their homes.
Last summer, federal regulators, well after the fact, accused Amaranth of manipulating prices and fined it almost $300 million.
Q: What's being done about this loophole?
A: A farm bill passed by the Senate last week by a veto-proof margin includes a provision to close this loophole and bring greater record keeping and scrutiny to electronic trading of oil futures.
Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton want the loophole closed. A top adviser to GOP candidate John McCain said the candidate has no position on the issue.
The Enron Loophole came to be thanks to the efforts in 2000 by Texas GOP Sen. Phil Gramm, who today is McCain's closest economic adviser and close personal friend. Gramm's wife, Wendy, was once the top U.S. commodities regulator and an Enron's board member.(Emphasis added.)
...as the costs of war mount, it's worth considering the arguments against paying for even a piece of them. Harmful to jobs and economic growth? Those who are lucky enough to have been asked to pay this extra tax constitute a minuscule fraction of American taxpayers, three-tenths of 1 percent. They would have had to ante up, on average, an additional $8,770 in taxes, according to calculations by Citizens for Tax Justice. As a result of the Bush tax cuts, this group has reaped an average savings of $126,690. Hard to see how asking these folks to give just a smidgen of that back, to finance the educations of those who might otherwise have no way of joining their ranks, would cripple the economy.
One particularly specious argument against this provision was that it would hammer small businesses that are the engine of economic growth, since many small businesses pay taxes at the individual income tax rate. House Republicans, inveighing against the measure, contended that it was a massive tax increase on small businesses because 82 percent of returns in this bracket contain small-business income.
As the Brookings Institution's William G. Gale showed in dispensing with this claim several years ago, only 1.3 percent of taxpayers with small-business income fell into the group taxed at the top marginal rate of 35 percent, which applies to incomes of more than $357,700. Furthermore, small-business earnings accounted for only one-third of income for taxpayers in that bracket. Especially at the highest income levels, these are not necessarily small-business owners but wealthy individuals who may do some consulting or real estate investing on the side.
These sorts of ad hoc tax hikes to finance ad hoc costs are not the optimal way to construct tax policy.
Memorial Day is the traditional start of the summer driving season. Hope you're flush this summer.
Gas prices are higher than Willie Nelson on the Fourth of July. American Airlines, pressed hard by high jet fuel prices, shocked flyers last week by announcing plans to start charging for transporting luggage. Every day brings more evidence that life is changing under the petroleum price assault.
Our economy and way of life – especially in sprawling, car-crazy North Texas – depends on a steady and affordable supply of oil. It can't last, because oil is not an infinite resource. We might not be at the end of the cheap oil era yet, but when that day comes, its dawn will look something like what we're living through today.
We must start transitioning to a far less oil-intensive way of life. It can't be done overnight. Complacency is our enemy. Politicians, business leaders and every single one of us should read the signs of the times, and get on with it.
Labels: Foreign Policy
In France, fishermen are blockading oil refineries. In Britain, lorry drivers are planning a day of action. In the US, the car maker Ford is to cut production of gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles and airlines are jacking up ticket prices. Global concerns about fuel prices are reaching fever pitch and the world's leading energy monitor has issued a disturbing downward revision of the oil industry's ability to keep pace with soaring demand.
Yesterday's warning from the International Energy Agency sent the price of a barrel of oil to a new record for the 13th day in a row. The latest high – $135 for a barrel of light sweet crude – was reached in New York barely five months after the price hit $100. Experts in London and on Wall Street predict that prices will rise to $200, regardless of the protests of consumers and the complaints of politicians. It is simple economics, they say: supply and demand. The former is short, the latter growing.
Consumers are feeling the pinch in almost every area of their daily lives.
* The House Sparrow was introduced into Brooklyn, New York, in 1851. By 1900 it had spread to the Rocky Mountains. Its spread throughout the West was aided by additional introductions in San Francisco, California, and Salt Lake City, Utah.
* The House Sparrow has been present in North America long enough for evolution to have influenced their morphology. Populations in the north are larger than those in the south, as is generally true for native species (a relationship known as Bergman's Rule).
* Although not a water bird, the House Sparrow can swim if it needs to, such as to escape a predator. Sparrows caught in a trap over a water dish tried to escape by diving into the water and swimming underwater from one part of the trap to another.
* The House Sparrow is a frequent dust bather. It throws soil and dust over its body feathers, just as if it were bathing with water.
This Memorial Day, we think about the more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers dead and the tens of thousands wounded in body and mind in a war based on lies, pushed by a clique of right-wing militarists and their corporate backers.
After 9/11, many Americans signed up for military service, wanting to serve their country and defend it from terrorism. Instead, they were sent to invade Iraq, to serve a right-wing/corporate agenda.
So it’s shocking to look at the congressional vote May 15 on a "Post-9/11 GI Bill" — a World War II-style GI Bill for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Republicans pushed the Iraq war and now refuse to end it. Yet only 32 of them voted for the GI Bill. One hundred and fifty-nine GOP House members, including their entire leadership, voted against the bill, which would substantially increase educational benefits for post-9/11 veterans. The bill is backed by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and every leading veterans organization.
Perhaps the Republicans objected to the fact that the bill also extends unemployment benefits for jobless workers who have used up their current benefits? Or maybe the warhawks didn’t like funding New Orleans levees? We’d like to point out that most veterans are workers, and many are jobless too. And building and repairing levees, and other parts of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, would provide a lot of good jobs.
President Bush has threatened to veto the bill, especially complaining that the GI benefits would be funded by a tiny tax hike for the rich.
Despite the Republicans, the measure passed the House and is now before the Senate. Veterans are demanding that veteran Sen. John McCain vote for the new GI Bill. McCain, who hopes his military service will propel him into the White House, has wrapped himself in Bush’s disastrous war and economic policies.
A good way to mark Memorial Day would be to get this bill passed and signed into law.
In fact, one of the central criticisms of the Webb-Hagel bill -- from both the White House and many congressional Republicans -- is that it's too generous, and therefore will encourage service-members to abandon the military in favor of college. Offer a lesser benefit package, the theory goes, and the troops are more likely to stay in their boots. (Supporters of the Webb-Hagel bill, including a number of veterans advocacy groups, say the better benefits will encourage recruitment, therefore nullifying any retention problems that might occur on the other end.)