November 19, 2001

U.S. wants its MTV to reach Arab world. An interesting political idea.

I'm headed south to Australia and New Zealand so will be on hiatus for about a month. Peace.

November 17, 2001

Business Week had an article on biosystems research (the Controlled Biological & Biomimetic Systems Program) sponsored by Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is working on "projects that try to harness the animal kingdom's skills and instincts to the needs of the military." Among the projects includes an attempt to outfit honeybees with microscopic radio packs so they can be used to detect land mines. Check out the project.

November 15, 2001

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal had an article on illegal mahogany logging in the Brazilian Amazon, following a recent PR blitz by Greenpeace (a bit strange?). Unbeknownst to most American consumers, illegal logging of mahogany is rampant in Brazil and the US is one of the largest markets for contraband wood products (see the rainforest section of the site for more). I appreciated the article, but was slightly amused by the alleged retail value of a mahogany tree:

    Wood from one tree along can produce $130,000 of furniture based on retail prices at high-end stores
Come on now, "based on retail prices at high-end" stores? Doesn't that inflate the value a bit? It's kind of like when there is a drug bust and the arresting agency uses the highest street price to determine the value of the merchandise.

November 14, 2001

I posted pictures from a trip to Costa Rica this past January.

Eight foreign aid workers held by the Taliban since August were freed today.

November 13, 2001

Late last week the FBI released a profile on the anthrax mailer, one that fits the description of another famous "mail terrorist" -- Ted Kaczynski (AKA the Unabomber). The profile of a single, domestic mailer is a move away from the theory that the anthrax mailings are closely linked to the 9/11 attacks. According to a Wall Street Journal article from Monday, several clues suggest the mailer is probably not part of al Qaeda:

  • al Qaeda targets mass casualties, not individuals
  • the Ames strain of anthrax originated in the U.S.
  • no "martyrs" exposed to anthrax
  • no al Qaeda communications/monetary transactions have led back to the anthrax.
  • clues within the letters: penmanship suggests "the person is familiar enough with English to have established unconscious habits;" date written in American style (09-11-01) vs international style (11-09-01); references to Allah and Israel seem bogus; and terse sentences are uncharacteristic of classical Arabic, the Arabic most similar to that used by al Qaeda.
Nevertheless tracking down such a loner suspect will be very difficult.

For a brief time today, the leading speculative theory as to what brought down the American Airlines flight yesterday, was that a flock of birds flew into the engine causing it to malfunction. As crazy as this may sound, such incidents have occurred on several occasions and aircraft engines are rigorously tested for this type of event. The Straight Dope details the "chicken ingestion test," a stress test required by the FAA before new engine designs can be approved. The test consists of firing chicken carcasses at 180 mph into engine turbines operating at full speed.

November 12, 2001

Major plane crash this morning -- all 255 on board assumed killed. American Airlines Flight 587 bound for the Dominican Republican crashed in Queens after takeoff from JFK Airport.

Another case of media spin, this time by the Northern Alliance after three journalists were killed when their convoy was ambushed by Taliban troops. The Northern Alliance General Atiqullah Baryalai claimed the journalists were "assassinated," while a journalist who survived the attack said they were unintended targets. According the CNN, "Paul McGeough, a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald . . . said Baryalai's claim was biased 'spin' and noted that 'it's funny how in war, people want to make the appalling more appalling.'"

November 11, 2001

Lost in the incessant anthrax news -- 165 countries agreed to implement the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming. The United States did not sign the agreement citing concerns over economic interests. The treaty will have tremendous implications for the foreseeable future in the development of new technologies.

November 9, 2001

Relatively little attention has been given to decision of the Justice Department to waive the right of attorney-client confidentiality. The rule, which went into effect on 10/31, gives "the government authority to monitor communications between people in federal custody and their lawyers if the attorney general deems it 'reasonably necessary in order to deter future acts of violence or terrorism' . . . The rule says that lawyers and clients generally will be notified if the government intends to monitor their conversations or correspondence. " (Davis, The Wall Street Journal). This decision could have major constitutional rights implications if it is upheld.

November 8, 2001

In an interesting development Pakistan has forbidden the Taliban ambassador from making daily press briefings. The Taliban had used these press conferences as a propaganda tool to encourage opposition in Pakistan and abroad by issuing daily reports of hospitals bombed, villages destroyed, and civilians killed in American military action. The conferences were often broadcast worldwide by CNN and Al Jazeera. Shutting down this instrument of propaganda is a major step for the anti-Taliban effort.

At the same time, "the US announced that its anti-Taliban coalition would open a media center in Islamabad for the first time, to give daily reports on the war" (Baldauf, Christian Science Monitor).

The U.S. is facing charges of hypocrisy at the WTO conference at Qatar over the AIDS patent dispute in light of the Cipro situation.

November 7, 2001

Today's explained why tracing the financial transactions of the Al Qaeda network could be difficult because of means by which money is transacted. Traffickers, terrorists, and others rely on hawala -- an international underground banking system -- to move money across borders without detection. Through a relatively simple system based on trust and fear of retribution, millions of dollars changes hands without leaving a paper trail -- making money tracking all the more difficult.

A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that the $5 billion in punitive damages awarded for the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill is excessive. Exxon, now Exxon-Mobil, had argued that it should not be required to pay any punitive damages. The reason is bring this up is to criticize the concept of GDP as a measure of wealth. Exxon oil spill caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the U.S. economy in terms of lost productivity, reduced livelihood, and damaged ecosystems, yet the spill contributed to GDP. All that cleanup required technology, man-hours, and the transportation of cleanup materials and vessels. Similarly the WTC attack will probably have a positive impact on this year's GDP through costs associated with reconstruction, cleanup, war preparation, investigation, and security implementation (not to mention the proposed federal bailout for corporations).

San Francisco voters passed Proposition B for Renewable Energy 73% to 27%.

November 6, 2001

Today San Francisco residents vote on Proposition B, a measure that would allow the city issue up to $100 million in municipal revenue bonds to promote solar and wind power. If the proposal passes (as expected), San Francisco would be on track to produce more solar power than any other city in the United States.

Prop B would immediately fund up to 20 megawatts of photovoltaic panels on the rooftops of public buildings in the city, with provisions under Prop H that could increase the solar-producing capacity to 70 megawatts over the next three years. 70 megawatts would significantly increase the solar-producing capacity of the United States which at present -- according to an article in today's Wall Street Journal -- stands at about 80 megawatts, enough to power about 33,000 homes.

While city Republicans are opposed to the measure, Prop B has popular support among those who remember the rolling blackouts and higher energy prices that plagued San Francisco in the past year. One of the benefits of solar is power is produced during daytime peak demand, when energy prices are at their highest. While solar is more expensive than traditional electricity production (12-18 cents per kilowatt hour for solar vs. 5 cents for wind and 5.5 cents to 9 cents for natural gas), it is significantly cleaner and costs are expected to fall as technology and capacity improves.

November 5, 2001

Another complaint on the Cipro craze. The greatest risk of widespread Cipro use is not Cipro-resistant anthrax, but resistant forms of more common microbes like TB, staphylococcus, streptococcus pneumoniae, and others. Many of these pathogens, responsible for a variety of ailments from pneumonia to meningitis, are resistant to a number of antibiotics and prove extremely dangerous to hospital patients and those with compromised immune defenses. Before the anthrax panic, fluoroquinolones such as Cipro were only when other antibiotics have failed. By taking Cipro as a preventative, we risk creating widespread resistance among these other lethal microbes to the whole class of fluoroquinolones.

November 3, 2001

Last week, Scott Kilman wrote an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal on Uvalde, Texas, a town on the corner of the Anthrax Triangle. The Anthrax Triangle is "made up of a handful of southwest Texas counties with the most anthrax-rich soil in the nation." This past summer, Uvalde had an outbreak of skin anthrax among livestock. Residents are susceptible too, but since cutaneous anthrax is treatable with antibiotics, it causes relatively few problems.

November 2, 2001

About time -- AIDS activists accused US officials of hypocrisy in their AIDS drug pricing policy in light of the recent effort to get the anthrax drug Cipro at reduced prices. Hundreds protested [] outside US trade negotiators' offices, "accusing the officials of keeping cheaper medicines from poor nations while getting a discount on an anthrax drug at home."

The Washington Post published an article claiming the al Qaeda network "has collected millions of dollars in the past three years from the illicit sale of diamonds mined by rebels in Sierra Leone...investigators believe the increased purchases suggest that al Qaeda, perhaps anticipating its funding would be frozen after Sept. 11, strove to protect its money by sinking it into diamonds, which can be hidden easily, hold their value and are hard to trace."

A few years back diamonds from Sierra Leone (and other warn-torn diamond-producing countries like the Congo) were effectively declared off-limits by the U.N. The DeBeers diamond cartel also played an active role in the legislation, primarily seeking to protect in dominance in the world diamond market (it was losing market share partly due to smuggled diamonds).

November 1, 2001

Something that has been a bit neglected by the press (about the only thing) is the communications monitoring system run by the U.S. government. Echelon -- the National Security Agency eavesdropping operation that monitors most electronic communications around the world -- may have assisted in the arrest of people who made congratulatory telephone calls minutes after the September 11 attacks. It is pretty remarkable that the agency (the arrests were made by the FBI) can monitor the conversations of people not under active surveillance. Few people realize the size of the NSA: it has a budget of $7.3 billion and a staff of 38,000, making it larger than the CIA and the FBI combined. After the attacks it will surely get even larger. The NSA is moving to expand its surveillance in cyberspace and soon the FBI will be monitoring e-mail through Carnivore.

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