January 17, 2002

Officials are tightening security at the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club in case terrorists decide to target Punxsutawney Phil at this year's Groundhog Day celebration. It's good to see top priority is being on such an urgent matter of national security (though in truth security is probably not much different than most other years - an AP writer needed a story to tie meaningless Groundhog Day to 9/11).

January 16, 2002

In a Washington Post editorial this past Sunday, professor Jared Diamond writes that the best means for "combating the forces of poverty and hopelessness on which international terrorism feeds . . . [are] providing basic health care, supporting family planning and addressing such widespread environmental problems as deforestation -- that, even in crude economic terms, would cost the United States far less than another Sept. 11." An editorial worth reading.

January 15, 2002

A couple of new interesting revelations in the Enron case. Jeffrey Skilling, the Enron CEO who resigned in mid-August, sold short $30 million dollars worth of AES Corp, a major rival of Enron. His speculative trading suggests that he expected a fall in the price of AES and implies that he also expected the price of Enron to tumble (being similar companies). Using his inside information on the financial condition of Enron, he may have made as much as $15 million off the AES position.

In an article on lessons learned from the Enron collapse ( What's Been Learned From the Enron Saga? At the Very Least, These Six Crucial Lessons ), the writers from The Wall Street Journal noted that Enron CEO Kenneth Lay favored the Kyoto global-warming agreement and asked President Bush not to oppose the treaty. Enron stood to gain from the agreement with increase in energy/pollution credit trading.

January 14, 2002

While watching a football game, president George W. Bush choked on a pretzel and briefly lost consciousness. Had bin Laden known he could have taken out the leader of the free world with a strategically placed pretzel, we might be in trouble ...

The pretzel incident surpasses Clinton's knee injury -- suffered from a drunken fall at golfer Greg Norman's house in 1997 -- in terms of embarrassing presidential accidents.

January 12, 2002

George Bush is putting his life (and political future) on the line with his George Bush Sr-esq response to the question of raising taxes: "Not over my dead body." Those words could come back to haunt him if the economy continues to struggle.

To save time in replying to emails I will answer the most frequently asked personal questions by users of mongabay.com.
1) Why rainforests?
  Read the forward to A Place Out of Time.
2) How old are you?
  I was born in 1978
3) What do you think should be done to address terrorism?
  Reduce our dependence on oil -- especially foreign oil.
4) To what political party do you belong?
  I don't consistently support a particular political party
5) Do you accept advertisers?

January 11, 2002

Monday EarthVision Environmental News featured an article on a technique that inhibits corrosion in ship ballast tanks. The process "involves bubbling nitrogen gas into ballast water to remove oxygen, thereby preventing oxidation or rust in the tanks." Over the life of a large cargo ship. the process can save $100,000 per year in maintenance costs. What makes this deoxygenation scheme particularly interesting is the environmental implications.

Ballast water often contains exotic species which are released into new environments when ballast tanks are emptied in foreign ports. These "aliens" cause severe damage to native species and the local economy. For example, the government estimates it will cost $5 billion to remove the zebra mussel from the Great Lakes. The range of the zebra mussel in the U.S. has rapidly expanded. USGS provides an excellent overview of Zebra mussels in North America:

    By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, zebra mussels had spread to most all major drainages of Europe because of widespread construction of canal systems. They first appeared in Great Britain in 1824 where they are now well established. Since then, zebra mussels have expanded their range into Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Italy, and the rest of western Europe.

    Zebra mussels were first discovered in North America in 1988. The first account of an established population came from Canadian waters of Lake St. Clair, a small water body connecting Lake Huron and Lake Erie. By 1990, zebra mussels had been found in all the Great Lakes. The following year, zebra mussels escaped the Great Lakes basin and found their way into the Illinois and Hudson rivers. The Illinois River was the key to their introduction into the Mississippi River drainage which covers over 1.2 million square miles. By 1992, the following rivers had established populations of zebra mussels: Arkansas, Cumberland, Hudson, Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee. By 1994, the following states had reported records of zebra mussels within their borders or in water bodies adjacent to their borders: Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. More recently, Connecticut has been added to the list of states where zebra mussels have been found.

    Method of Introduction: It is highly likely that the presence of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes was a result of a ballast water introduction. Its rapid dispersal throughout the Great Lakes and major river systems was due to its ability to attach to boats navigating these lakes and rivers. Its rapid range expansion into connected waterways was probably due to barge traffic where it is theorized that attached mussels were scraped or fell off during routine navigationOverland dispersal is also a possibility for aiding zebra mussel range expansion. Many small lakes in proximity of the Great Lakes, unconnected by waterways but accessed by individuals trailering their boats from infested waters, have populations of zebra mussels living in them. At least eight trailered boats crossing into California had zebra mussels attached to their hulls or in motor compartments; all were found during inspections at the agricultural inspection stations. Under cool, humid conditions, zebra mussels can stay alive for several days out of water.

The deoxygenation process kills ballast stowaways -- like the Zebra mussel -- by depriving them of oxygen.

January 10, 2002

Historical author Stephen Ambrose is accused of plagiarizing more works. Four books (including The Wild Blue, Crazy Horse and Custer, and Citizen Soldiers) have been called into question. Last week, Ambrose admitted "that his current best seller, 'The Wild Blue,' included passages from Thomas Childers 'Wings of Morning'" (Author Ambrose Faces More Questions).

January 9, 2002

This past weekend The San Francisco Chronicle featured an editorial calling into questionthe validity of AIDS death estimates. In "Megadeath and Megahype - The numbers for AIDS in Africa don't add up," Rian Malan suggests that World Health Organization/UNAIDS projections of the number infected with and killed by HIV/AIDS are probably way off. He cites death rates in South Africa as an example:

    Deaths registered in South Africa in 1996 were 363,238. Deaths registered in 2000 -- 457,335 . . .
    Local actuarial models say 352,000 South Africans have died from AIDS since the epidemic began. The Medical Research Council says 517,000. The figure from the United Nations Population Division is double that -- 1.06 million -- and the unofficial WHO/UNAIDS projections are even higher . . .
    Checking the number of registered deaths in South Africa was the surest way of assessing the statistics from Geneva, so I dug out the figures. Geneva's computer models suggested that AIDS deaths here had tripled in three years, surging from 80,000-odd in 1996 to 250,000 in 1999. But no such rise was discernible in total registered deaths, which went from 294,703 to 343,535 within roughly the same period . . .
    I attempted to bring my unanswered questions to the man who was there when the epidemic first hit this continent, Dr. Peter Piot, who has today risen to the role of chief of UNAIDS. But my call was directed instead to his chief epidemiologist, Dr. Bernhard Schwartlander.
    The UNAIDS computer model of Africa's epidemic is in fact completely dependable, Dr. Schwartlander says, because it relies on what he calls a very simple formula . . .
    Why, then, I asked, do we have so many different estimates of AIDS deaths in South Africa?
    "The models may completely disagree at a particular point in time, but in the end the curves look incredibly similar. They're goddamn consistent," he said.
    If that's true, I said, then why would we have 457,000 registered deaths here last year when the U.N. says 400,000 of them died of AIDS [87.5% of registered deaths]? One of those numbers must be wrong.
    "You say there are 457,000 registered deaths in South Africa?" Schwartlander said, momentarily nonplussed. "This is an estimate based on projections."
    "No," said I, "it's the actual number of registered deaths last year."
    "We don't really know," he replied. "Things are moving very fast. What is the total number of people who actually die? For all we know, it could be much higher. HIV has never existed in mankind before.
    "The UNAIDS numbers are, after all, only estimates. We are not saying this is the number. We are saying this is our best estimate. Ten years from now, we won't have these problems. Ten years from now, we'll know everything."

January 8, 2002

I added pictures from my trip to Australia and New Zealand. More may be added sometime in the future.

Apple continued its tradition of alienating the press by giving Time Magazine an exclusive on the new ultra-hyped iMac (only to have Time break the story a day early). Many tech journalists expressed their displeasure with Apple's PR move, including David Coursey of ZDNet:

    I HATE TO CONTRADICT America's most-respected newsmagazine--well, it used to be, anyway--but the cover looks to me like it has more to do with AOL Time Warner wanting Apple's business than anything to do with journalism.
    Worse, in order to do the "cover story for exclusive access" deal with Time, Apple had to jerk around the rest of the media to protect the secret. And then it spun its own hype machine into overdrive . . .
    Time, for its part, will live to regret its "Flat-Out Cool" headline and the fawning "Exclusive: How Steve Jobs made a sleek machine that could be the home-digital hub of the future" subhead.
    As for Apple, this is another example--and it is famous for this--of the company hurting its friends more than its enemies. And these are people Apple will have to deal with, long after the world realizes that the new iMacs, while interesting, will never be "Flat-Out Cool."

January 7, 2002

Truth in labeling at bars -- the role of alcohol content enforcers. Last Friday the WSJ (British Crack Down On Bogus Booze) detailed the work of one Richard Strawson, a trading-standards officer in southwest England whose job is to police bars for counterfeit spirits. Backed by the heavies in the liquor industry, the inspector is armed with cardboard indicators that serve as a litmus test high-end alcohol. The way it works is major liquor companies add

    a distinctive chemical "marker" -- a basic sugar, odorless, tasteless and colorless -- to the European production of some of their brands. When present in a drink, the chemical marker will cause a corresponding cardboard dipstick to change color . . . the federation [of liquor companies] provides dipsticks to local standards-enforcement authorities, who conduct the tests and pursue violators.
The program works out nicely for both the government - who collects fines from establishments serving counterfeit alcohol - and liquor companies - who can ensure barkeeps are serving their liquor in the top-shelf bottles. Such testing is not currently used in the US, nor for Scotch whisky:
    Scientists at the drink companies -- especially Diageo, maker of Johnnie Walker and J&B -- are trying to crack the code for creating a dipstick test for Scotch whisky. So far, they haven't found a way to add a marker without violating the U.K.'s Scotch Whisky Act, which closely regulates how the drink is made. (In addition to being made in Scotland, no additives are allowed.)

January 5, 2002

The Pentagon is dropping flyers showing a doctored image of Osama bin Laden without his turban or beard and dressed in a Western-style white suit and tie. It is an effort to persuade resistant al Qaeda fighters to surrender. One side of the flyer has the bin Laden picture along with the statement: "Usama bin Laden the murderer and coward has abandoned you!" The opposite side of the flyer reads "Usama bin Laden, the murderer and coward, has abandoned al Qaida. He has abandoned you and run away. Give yourself up and do not die needlessly, you mean nothing to him. Save your families the grief and pain of your death" and has a picture of dead Afghan soldiers.

CNN reports "Asked whether the leaflet could be used by some to say the United States is willing to doctor or make up things -- as has been alleged about the videotape found in Afghanistan by the United States -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he had not thought about the possibility" -- a truly asinine statement which if true (surely it's not) begs the question "What the hell is this guy doing running the show if he can't think that far ahead."

January 4, 2002

A new study published in Nature opens new questions into the behavior of the world's most feared shark - the Great White. Scientists found California's great whites migrate substantial distances across open ocean -- a finding that goes against the previously held belief that Great Whites stuck in the shallows near the coast.. According to study co-author Burney Le Boeuf:

    We thought they bred in Southern California coastal waters, then migrated in the fall and winter a few hundred miles north to Ano Island and the Farallones to feed at the seal rookeries . . . We now understand there clearly are pelagic (open ocean) and deep water phases to their existence. The big question at this point is, what the hell are they doing? . . . Off California, they're mostly staying in the top 10 to 30 meters of water . . . During transit across the Pacific, they ranged from the surface to 700 meters. And the behavior of the fish that reached Hawaii again showed a change, as it spent a great deal of time around 500 meters (1, 640 feet).

January 3, 2002

In yesterday's WSJ, Helene Cooper describes the changes under Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in "Madagascar's Textile Sector Draws Fresh Life From U.S. Trade Move." AGOA gives

    23 sub-Saharan countries the opportunity to ship a range of textile products to the U.S. duty-free. This was good news to an industry always seeking the next low-wage country with good market access. Foreign investment has already risen sharply in Madagascar and the 11 other countries that have qualified for the trade benefits by setting up safeguards on customs and child labor.
The major industry benefit of manufacturing textiles in Madagascar: the going wage is 37 cents an hour. Other countries simply can't compete at that price. While many critics find fault with the low wages, some point out that full time employment (40 hours per week) at this rate is more than 3 times the per capita income in Madagascar (about $250).

Even with the development of textile industries, the people of Madagascar (the Malagasy) will continue to rely heavily on extractive industries. Environmental degradation has reached the point where the country no longer exports foodstuffs and depends on imports from abroad. With little choice in what they can do to earn a living, many Malagasy look to the island's remaining resources for quick cash. Hence we see exports - often black market - of endangered wildlife, minerals, and gems. Until more productive solutions are found, there is little hope for conservation efforts in the country.

January 2, 2002

Added the first set of pictures from Australia. More to follow shortly. Commentary on mongabay.com will not be as regular as in the past.

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Tropical Rainforests - Their Wonders and the Perils They Face. Information on rainforests, biodiversity, and environmental concerns.
Tropical Freshwater Fish.
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