December 31, 2001

Last week, another story of note in The Wall Street Journal -- "Forgotten Computer Reveals Thinking Behind Four Years of al Qaeda Doings" by Alan Cullison and Andrew Higgins. A reporter for the Journal acquired a computer recently used at an al Qaeda office in Kabul. Files on the computer provide insight into some of the inner workings of the organization including its foray into biological and chemical weapons - a program:

    A memo written in April 1999, apparently by Dr. Zawahri, notes that 'the destructive power of these weapons is no less than that of nuclear weapons . . . The memo laments al Qaeda's sluggishness in realizing the menace of these weapons, noting that 'despite their extreme danger, we only became aware of them when the enemy drew our attention to them by repeatedly expressing concern that they can be produced simply.'
How appropriate, al Qeada learned of the potential of chemical/biological weapons through the American press and government warnings. The article continues:
    As a first step, the memo suggests, militants must brush up on their reading. The memo gives a detailed precis of an American history of chemical and germ warfare. It lists a catalog of exotic killers, from anthrax to Rocky Mountain spotted fever . . . A May 7, 1999, file indicates that by that time, al Qaeda leaders had earmarked $2,000 to $4,000 for 'start-up' costs of the program . . . Particularly encouraging, the letter in the computer files said, was a home-brew nerve gas made from insecticides and a chemical additive that would help speed up penetration into the skin. The writer said Mr. Khabab had supplied a computer disk that gave details of 'his product' in a WinZip file, and 'my neighbor opened it by God's will.'"
Ownership of a computer carried severe penalties under Taliban rule - surely al Qeada was granted an exception.

December 27, 2001

In today's Wall Street Journal editorials a perspective on America achieving oil independence by 2020 - Vouchers Can Free Us From Foreign Oil, by Martin Feldstein. Mr. Feldstein suggests a system of "tradable electronic Oil Conservation Vouchers" as a means to reduce American dependence on foreign oil. The way it would work:

  • the government decrees how much gasoline will be consumed in a given year (Mr. Feldstein uses 140 billion gallons for 2003 as an example)
  • the government issues and distributes vouchers for that amount
  • gasoline buyers pay the "cash price at the pump plus one such 'voucher' for each gallon of gasoline. The vouchers would not be pieces of paper but would be credits available in a debit account."
  • "Because the vouchers are needed to buy gasoline, they would have a market value that is determined by the forces of supply and demand . . . The gas pumps could be programmed so that someone who lacks enough vouchers could buy them at the going price while anyone with excess vouchers could use them to offset some of the cash cost of the gasoline."
Some potential problems with such a system include distribution issues (who gets how much?), smuggling (remember NAFTA, drug trade, etc), and poor supply/demand forecasting.

December 24, 2001

In a press release Global Witness announced that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the suspension of all logging operations, effective from 1st January 2002. Logging has been banned in Cambodia before so it will be interesting to see whether this announcement has any effect.

December 23, 2001

Last week MSN featured an article on the renewed debate over sodium monoflouroacetate (or Compound 1080). Conservation groups have been trying to get the compound banned for years, but now are trying to take advantage of the post 9-11 environment (like countless other groups, politicians, scam artists, etc).

Compound 1080 is a water soluble chemical used primarily to kill coyotes and other predators in the Western United States. It was banned by Nixon in 1972, but legalized by Reagan in 1982 under pressure from ranchers. Today it is regulated

    under the Pesticide Control Act as a 'permit-restricted pesticide,' the highest restriction possible, outside of a ban [and] . . . may be used legally only in 'livestock protection collars,' which ranchers put on their sheep. These collars contain rubber bladders filled with the poison. When a predator such as a coyote attacks, it ingests the poison and wanders off to die, sometimes up to a mile away, where scavengers can then feed on its remains.
In a recent letter to Tom Ridge, head of the Office of Homeland Security, conservation groups describe the compound as a "colorless, odorless, tasteless poison ... One teaspoon can kill up to 100 adult humans and there is no antidote" (neglecting the problem of dispersal - you would have to get 100 people to line up and take the compound orally in order to achieve fatalities).

Despite the exaggerated claims of the threat to national security, such groups are probably justified in questioning the value of the chemical especially if government estimates of coyote kills are correct - 27 coyotes killed in 2000. 27 coyotes in the entire U.S.? Not too impressive. Plus, the article continues:

    Over the summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a public health alert because the chemical was being illegally spread in central Idaho. And last year, four gray wolves - now protected by the Endangered Species Act - were found dead in Idaho after they were illegally poisoned with the substance. Afterward, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service warned that illegal baits could pose a threat to children and pets, as well as other wildlife. In another disturbing event, Compound 1080 was used earlier this year in Grand Junction, Colo., to kill more than 60 dogs, cats and birds.

December 21, 2001

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting story (Maui's Outbreak of Dengue Fever Is a Test of Public-Health System) on the dengue fever outbreak in Maui, Hawaii. Dengue fever is caused by a virus generally transmitted by Aedes aegypti, a common day-biting mosquito (In the case of this outbreak Aedes albopictus is the culprit, albeit an inefficient disease-carrier at that). According to the CDC, Dengue fever is characterized by the sudden onset of high fever, severe headaches, joint and muscle pain, nausea/vomiting, and rash and can progress to potentially fatal dengue hemorrhagic fever. Dengue fever outbreaks are not uncommon, but the last in Hawaii was in 1943 (the current outbreak is relatively mild). What makes Rachel Zimmerman's story noteworthy is her emphasis on the "hippiness" of the community affected by the outbreak.

  • "The neighborhoods near Hana are 'super hippieland,' says Su Shin, a Honolulu spokeswoman the state health department hired to help respond to dengue inquiries. People there are wary of Western medicine and the government, she says."
  • "A patient, Debby Stoner, 48 years old, complained of severe body aches and a fever that spiked up to 106 degrees. She lives in a residential pocket of 70 families, many with no phones, off a road lined with African tulip trees, saucer magnolias and guava trees. She and her husband, Bruce, a ceramic artist and part-time roofer, were two of the first official dengue victims . . . 'It felt like someone was razorblading my brain,' says Mr. Stoner, 61, who wears his gray beard in two braids and was recently sporting a T-shirt with a single mushroom on it."
The last name of the victims is particularly appropriate.

The Ebola outbreak in Gabon has spread to the Republic of Congo. 17 people have died so far (13 in Gaon, 4 in Congo), The World Health Organization (news - web sites), but the World Health Organization believes the outbreak is now contained.

December 20, 2001

Several Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service biologists have been charged with planting fur samples in an effort to protect national park lands. During a 4-year study of Canadian lynx populations, scientists claimed that fur samples originated in the Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchot national forests in Washington state -- areas not normally home to the threatened species. The biologists later admitted to planting the samples and have since retired or been reassigned. Had the Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchot national forests been declared lynx habitat, parts of the forests may have become off-limits to snowmobiling and some other winter activities.

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