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105 posts categorized "Current Affairs"

September 13, 2008

Massive Hurricane Ike hits Galveston

[Update: Grits For Breakfast has the latest on the Galveston County Jail.]

The massive Hurricane Ike slammed Galveston, Texas, causing major flooding.

As of 12 hours ago, officials were insisting that the prisoners and guards in the Galveston County Jail were perfectly safe where they were, despite the fact that everyone else in the region had received dire evacuation orders and warnings that the storm surge could overtop the city's sea wall by up to 3 feet. Allegedly, the prisoners are not being evacuated because of an unspecified "security issue."

Officials said that, if the decision were made to evacuate the prison, the prisoners would be moved secretly. It's hard to see how all this secrecy can be justified. Recall that this is a county jail. We're not talking San Quentin, here, folks.

Officials insist that the prison can withstand hurricanes. However, Galveston's city manager warned that Ike could put the entire island of Galveston under water.

December 27, 2007

Depressing news

Not that I really think the hivemind here is unaware of the assination of Benazair Bhutto, but since Lindsay is away, I thought it might be something people wanted to discuss.

What I know (as I wake up to the news; 0800 PST)).  A man on a motorscooter pulled up, fired some shots, at least one of which hit Bhutto, and then blew himself up.

She died in the hospital.

As might be expected there is unrest.  People suspect Musharraf.  I can see a number of outcomes, none of which is good, and some of which are very bad.

October 03, 2007

NC custody battle over severed limb in BBQ?

Is this for real? or was someone having some fun at a BBC correspondent's expense?

A US man who stored his amputated leg in a barbecue smoker that was later auctioned off is locked in a custody dispute with the man who bought it.

John Wood's smoker was sold to Shannon Whisnant last week after he fell behind on payments at the storage facility in North Carolina where it was kept.

He wants his leg back but Mr Whisnant says he has a receipt for the smoker's contents and wants to share ownership. [BBC]

October 01, 2007

Some more details on Blackwater

Hearings start tomorrow in the House.  As part of that a release of things the House has found out, and will (one hopes) ask Blackwater's founder, Eric Prince some serious questions.

If they do, I don't really expect him to answer; not past some banal comment about, "If there were violations of company policy I am deeply sorry, but I can't really say, since I was here.  I also don't want to second guess the people on the ground."

But some of the details are apalling.  Not just for things like Blackwater being the first to shoot in 80 percent of the 194 incidents in which they were involved (that's almost 1.5 per week; not bad for so small a group).

The full report (.pdf)  is interesting.

Some excerpts:

In the vast majority of instances in which Blackwater fires shots, Blackwater is firing
from a moving vehicle and does not remain at the scene to determine if the shots resulted in
casualties. Even so, Blackwater's o\ryn incident reports document 16 Iraqi casualties and 162
incidents with property damage, primarily to vehicles owned by lraqis. In over 80% of the
escalation of force incidents since 2005, Blackwater's own reports document either casualties or
property damage

The reports describe multiple Blackwater incidents involving Iraqi casualties that have
not previously been reported. In one of these incidents, Blackwater forces shot a civilian
bystander in the head. In another, State Department officials report that Blackwater sought to
cover up a shooting that killed an apparently innocent bystander. In a third, Blackwater provided no assistance after a traffic accident caused by its "counter-flow" driving left an Iraqi vehicle in "a ball of flames."

So they are doing drive-bys.  I'm sure this is winning hearts and minds; persuading the Iraqi public that the US Gov't is here to help them.  Or not.

To put this in some perspective, the other two companies which provide support for the State Dept. (Blackwater's only, declared, employer in Iraq... though they have, it seems, been "engaging in tactical military operations with U.S. forces.") don't have as many shooting incidents, combined.

State is the oversight for Blackwater, or not.

Documents provided by the State Department raise serious questions about how State Department officials responded to reports of Blackwater killings of Iraqis. In a high-profile incident in December 2006, a drunken Blackwater contractor killed the guard of Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd-al-Mahdi. Within 36 hours after the shooting, the State Department had allowed Blackwater to transport the Blackwater contractor out of Iraq. The State Department Charge d'Affaires recommended that Blackwater make a "sizeable payment" and an "apology" to o'avoid this whole thing becoming even worse." The Charge d'Affaires suggested a $250,000 payment to the guard's family, but the Department's Diplomatic Security Service said this was too much and could cause Iraqis to "try to get killed." In the end, the State Depafment and Blackwater agreed on a $15,000 payment. One State Department offrcial wrote: "We would like to help them resolve this so we can continue with our protective mission."

I particularly like the comment that making a large (how does one define large?) payout to the family of a guy gunned down by a drunk bodyguard was said to be too large because,  Iraqis would, "try to get killed," as a result.


Costs to Taxpayers. Using Blackwater instead of U.S. troops to protect embassy officials
is expensive. Blackwater charges the government$.I,222 per day for the services of a private
military contractor. This is equivalent to $445,000 per year, over six times more than the cost of
an equivalent U.S. soldier. In total, Blackwater has received over $1 billion in federal contracts
from 2001 through 2006, including more than $832 million under two contracts with the State
Department to provide protective services in Iraq.

This isn't actually a good comparison.  Blackwater isn't, in this case, replacing soldiers.  They are rather, replacing DSS agents.  On the flip side, the base pay for General Petraeus is getting $467 per day (that's pay and allowances, assuming he is getting Housing and Separation allowances; he also gets some personal money for being a general officer, and Hostile Fire Pay.  If he's getting Separate Rations; which he shouldn't, you can add about 7 dollars to that)  He does get benefits, which the gov't isn't paying directly, and he has a pension/ongoing medical benefits when he retires.  Those costs, such as they are, belong to Blackwater, if they choose to set something up.

All in all, it seems soldiers (or DSS agents) might be a more cost effective way to go, esp. if they have better fire discipline.

And what about Mr. Prince, the 37 year old who runs the company.

He's doing well.  After he left the Navy (SEAL) his father staked him to the company, ten years ago.  In the past 6 years that investment has paid off pretty well, since Federal contracts have brought in  more than  1.024 billion dollars. The part behind the decimal point, is 24 million dollars.

Not too shabby.

That doesn't include the part of the 15 billion dollar contract they were given for drug enforcement.

But the details of the contract in Baghdad are what I want to point to.

In June 2004, Blackwater received a second, much larger no-bid contract from the State
Department known as Worldwide Personal Protective Services (WPPS). Under this indefinite
delivery, indefinite quantity contract, Blackwater was paid to provide "protection of U.S. and/or
certain foreign govemment high level offrcials whenever the need arises." Although the
maximum value of the contract was approximately $332 million, Blackwater ultimately received more than $488 million between June 14, 2004, and June 6,2006.' Blackwater was authorized to utilize 482 staff in lraq.

On May 8,2006,the State Department awarded WPPS , the second incarnation of its
diplomatic security contract. Under this contract, the State Department awarded Blackwater and two other companies, Triple Canopy and DynCorp, contracts to provide diplomatic security in Iraq, each in separate geographic locations. Blackwater is authorized to have 1,020 staff in Iraq under this contract. The maximum value of the contract is $l.2 billion per contractor, or $3.6 billion total. Through the end of fiscal year 2006, Blackwater has received over $343 million under this contract.

So, we have spent more than a billion dollars, for a few more than 1,000 guys to be in Iraq, defending the State Dept.  I don't think, even rolling in all the benefits a DSS agent earns, it would cost that much (and if it did, the money could be set aside, and interest on the initial capital would reduce some of the pain).  We also wouldn't have the black eyes we are getting when Blackwater does a drive-by (and we don't really know if the incidents referred to are all the shootings they were engaged in).

Why, one wonders, has Blackwater gotten so much money?

The cynical among us might think this was part of the reason.

Blackwater is owned by Erik Prince. Mr. Prince is a former Navy SEAL who owns the
company through a holding company, The Prince Group, LLC. In the late 1980s, Mr. Prince
served as a White House intern under President George H.W. Mr. Prince's father was a
prominent Michigan businessman and contributor to conservative causes. Mr. Prince's sister,
Betsy DeVos, is a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party who earned the title of
Bush-Cheney "Pioneer" by arranging at least $100,000 in donations for the 2004 George W.
Bush presidential campaign." Her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., is a former Amway CEO and
was the 2006 Republican nominee for Governor of Michigan. Mr. Prince himself is a frequent
political contributor, having made over $225,000 in political contributions, including more than
$160,000 to the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional

Blackwater has hired several former senior Bush Administration officials to work for the
company. J. Cofer Black, who served as director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center from 1999
to 2002 and as a top counterterrorism offrcial at the State Department until 2004, now serves as Blackwater's vice chairman. Joseph E. Schmitz, the Inspector General for the Defense Department from 2002 to 2005, is nowgeneral counsel and chief operating officer of the Prince
Group, Blackwater's parent company.'

Go read the report.

April 21, 2007

Guest Blogging: Bug bites and the corruption of language

As most of you by now know, Lindsay and I work together, mucking it up even. As a result, we have forced one another to visit each other's blogs - demanding that the other guest post of all things. So here I am blathering on because frankly, I have spent the last week on assignment in a third world country, and am now sadly nursing my many and various bug bites.

I am sure I will find something of interest to blog about, but at the moment I am entirely lost in the drama of itch and scratch. I did, however, want to mention that while awaiting my flight back to the United States, I learned from an airport TV that our supreme court basically told the women of this nation to sod off, using a fabricated concept called the "partial birth abortion" (a Luntz verbal product sold and apparently bought for political use). I firmly believe and as history has demonstrated that the easiest way to destroy the nation is to corrupt the language by which people can freely exchange ideas, creating some sort of oral-gami in which facts can be submerged under the veneer of opinion or byte sized slogans. The corruption of language has taken away our ability to have any real and honest debate, because the language we are forced to use is artificially created in order to manipulate our emotions.

So a "partial birth abortion" cannot be addressed as is, because such a concept is a fallacy. How then do we move forward on this issue and discuss it meaningfully? Thoughts? In the meantime, I am going back to bed from where my epic itching and scratching marathon will no doubt continue.


November 09, 2006

Investigation #1: Halliburton exposing troops to killer diseases through tainted water

Now that the Democrats control the entire legislative branch, it's time for some serious investigations.

Here's a good place to start: Did Halliburton expose thousands of Marines to potentially life-threatening pathogens through untreated water?

Ben Carter, a water purification specialist and former Halliburton employee at Camp Ar Ramadi, says so:
In the video, Carter says that a fellow Halliburton employee saw something wriggling in his toilet bowl. Carter came over to investigate and observed a squirming larva in the guy's commode. He realized that this couldn't be happening in chlorinated water. So, he tested the water and found no chlorine. Next, he tested the local water storage tanks and found no chlorine in any of them.

He kept testing and found that 63 of 67 Halliburton-run water treatment plants were providing unsafe water.

According to Carter, the Halliburton workers and US soldiers in his locale were showering in extremely contaminated. In his estimation, Halliburton was putting people at risk for malaria, typhus [Ed, Carter says "typhus" but he probably means typhoid], giarida, cryptosporidium, and other diseases. (Malaria isn't spread by tainted water, however.)

He worries that US troops are coming home with potentially life-threating infections, communicable diseases that could infect their families, and they don't even know to get tested.

Wouldn't you like to find out if he's right?

You can read Carter's official statement to Senate Democrats. It's time to take this allegation to the next level.

September 06, 2006

Majikthise to join Washington Post's blog, PostGlobal

I have some very exciting news. I have been invited to join the blogger advance team for the Washington Post's international affairs blog PostGlobal, moderated by David Ignatius and Fareed Zakaria.

Here's how it works: Twice a week, PostGlobal poses questions about foreign policy and security to a panel of 40 experts from around the world. So far, the experts have been asked to weigh in on a variety of topics including the future of Hezbollah, the influence of Syria and Iran in Lebanon, and the recent elections in the Congo.

PostGlobal also emails these questions to their blogger advance team. Bloggers' positions on the questions of the day will be published at PostGlobal alongside the answers of the experts.

Majikthise will appear on the PostGlobal blogroll, and I will have the opportunity to post on their site.

Don't worry, I'm not moving or changing anything around here, except the new PostGlobal button on the sidebar.

More details as I learn them. So far, I know that Glenn Reynolds and Dan Drezner have also joined the blogger advance team.

February 22, 2006

And the shadows keep falling

Juan Cole comments on the destruction of the Askariyah shrine (Golden Dome) in Samarra:

Tuesday was an apocalyptic day in Iraq. I am not normally exactly sanguine about the situation there. But the atmospherics are very, very bad, in a way that most Western observers will miss.


The guerriillas blew up the domed Askariyah shrine in Samarra. The shrine, sacred to Shiiites, honors 3 Imams or holy descendants of the Prophet. They are Ali al-Hadi, Hasan al-Askari, and his disappeared son Muhammad al-Mahdi. Thousands of Shiiites demonnstrated in Samarra and in East Baghdad, against this desecration.

The Twelfh Imam or Mahdi is believed by Shiites to have disappeared into a supernatural realm (just as Christians believe in the ascension of Christ) from which he will someday return.

Some Shiites think his second coming is imminent. Muqtada all-Sadr and his followers are among them. They are livid about this attack on the shrine of the Mahdi's father.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is also a firm believer in the imminent coming of the Mahdi. I worry that Iranian anger will boil over as a result of this bombing of a Shiite millenarian symbol.

Both Sunnis and Americans will be blamed. Very bad.

And sure enough...

February 19, 2006

Diversity on the Op-Ed Pages

The diversity I'm referring to isn't age, racial or gender–although Intelligent Designer knows more diversity is needed in those areas too. What the regular columnists on the op-ed pages lack is professional diversity.

Richard Cohen's column about algebra illustrates is how much of the A-list punditocracy knows virtually nothing about anything. What area of expertise do many columnists possess other than (sometimes) clever wit and the ability to write a certain number of column inches by deadline? These skills, while necessary in the pundit bidness, don't really say much about the ability to offer a cogent or informed opinion (e.g., Cohen). Granted, some columnists have worked abroad in foreign bureaus and thus gained some foreign affairs experience, but that's about it.

This lack of expertise warps the national discussion as much as any political bias. In my own field of expertise (evolution, microbiology, public health), I've witnessed some real boneheadness: watching George Will, Cokie Roberts, and Boy George discuss bioterrorism would be laughable were it not an important issue. It was like watching monkeys talk about building a nuclear reactor.

When the anthrax attacks happened, I will never forget the reporter who asked Bush about the "anthrax virus." Nevermind this is junior high school biology, there would be real differences in the threat level had a deadly virus been released as opposed to the anthrax bacterium (anthrax isn't very contagious and can be successfully treated with antibiotics if caught early enough).

Then there are other public health issues, biotechnology, and so on. Other than abortion (which is also a health issue), the cost of health care, and evolution (which shouldn't be an issue), you almost never see any informed discussion of biology, health, or medicine on the op-ed pages (Dowd's brainless ersatz sociobiology doesn't count). Occasionally, a guest op-ed brings up these topics, but since the author is not part of the stable of columnists, these topics are not discussed regularly (or at all). The absence of a sustained drumbeat for biology and medicine means that these topics fall off the radar.

This isn't just a Mad Biologist's love of things biological: the lack of attention to these areas means many people suffer or die without anyone giving a damn. To put things in perspective, in the U.S., more people die in a month from hospital-acquired bacterial infections than have been killed by terrorists in the U.S. during the last century. Which gets more play on the op-ed page?

Of course, I can't even imagine what an economist suffers when he or she reads the newspaper. Maybe I should consider myself lucky...

(crossposted at Mike the Mad Biologist)

February 18, 2006

Revisiting Richard Cohen and Gabriela

By now, you might have read about Richard Cohen's column that claims algebra is pointless.  PZ does a super job of ripping the argument apart, so I won't repeat what he says.  But j.d. went back to the source, and dug a little more into Gabriela's academic history.  Apparently, she skipped 62 out of 93 classes. I realize that when someone fails algebra six times no single cause can be blamed and that students can and will get discouraged. But you can't learn if you don't show up. Maybe Cohen should have included that piece of advice in his letter too.

Despite what Cohen says, algebra does matter:

After dropping out, Gabriela found a $7-an-hour job at a Subway sandwich shop in Encino. She needed little math because the cash register calculated change. But she discovered the cost of not earning a diploma.

"I don't want to be there no more," she said, her eyes watering from raw onions, shortly before she quit to enroll in a training program to become a medical assistant.

Could passing algebra have changed Gabriela's future? Most educators would say yes.

Algebra, they insist, can mean the difference between menial work and high-level careers. High school students can't get into most four-year colleges without it. And the U.S. Department of Education says success in algebra II and other higher-level math is strongly associated with college completion.

Apprenticeship programs for electricians, plumbers and refrigerator technicians require algebra, which is useful in calculating needed amounts of piping and electrical wiring.

"If you want to work in the real world, if you want to wire buildings and plumb buildings, that's when it requires algebra," said Don Davis, executive director of the Electrical Training Institute, which runs apprenticeship programs for union electricians in Los Angeles.

Unless of course, you're a dumbass journalist who doesn't actually do anything.

But enough snark. This is the real tragedy (italics mine):

After dropping out, Gabriela found a $7-an-hour job at a Subway sandwich shop in Encino. She needed little math because the cash register calculated change.

That's not a problem with algebra, that's a problem with basic arithmetic. When I was teaching, I found that usually the problem wasn't with comprehension, but the problem, instead, was rooted in inadequate background knowledge. My guess is that if someone taught Gabriela arithmetic, she could probably understand algebra.

Even a halfwit like Cohen should recognize that subtraction and addition are necessary.

(crossposted at Mike the Mad Biologist)