Archive for February, 2009
24 Feb 2009

Democrats’ Fiscal Hypocrisy

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Byron York reminds readers of Congressional democrats posing as deficit hawks back when George W. Bush was in the White House. Now that they have control of Congress and the White House they are using the recession as a pretext for a budgetary blowout calculated to make the Great Society look like a Presbyterian picnic. Americans will be paying for Obama’s first month in office for a generation.

Back in 2006, when Democrats were hoping to win control of the House and Senate, party leaders worked themselves into a righteous outrage over the issue of out-of-control federal spending. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the Republican budget “irresponsible” and “unpatriotic” because it increased the amount of U.S. debt held by foreign countries. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Republicans of going on “an unprecedented and dangerous borrowing spree” and declared GOP leadership “the most fiscally irresponsible in the history of our country … no other president or Congress even comes close.”

You won’t find too many defenders of George W. Bush’s record on spending these days, even among Republicans. But a check of historical tables compiled by the Office of Management and Budget shows that the spending that so distressed Pelosi and Reid seems downright modest today. After beginning with a Clinton-era surplus of $128 billion in fiscal year 2001, the Bush administration racked up deficits of $158 billion in 2002, $378 billion in 2003, $413 billion in 2004, $318 billion in 2005, $248 billion in 2006, $162 billion in 2007, and $410 billion in 2008.

The current administration would kill to have such small numbers. President Barack Obama is unveiling his budget this week, and, in addition to the inherited Bush deficit, he’s adding his own spending at an astonishing pace, projecting annual deficits well beyond $1 trillion in the near future, and, in the rosiest possible scenario, a $533 billion deficit in 2013, the last year of Obama’s first term.

And what about the national debt? It increased from $5 trillion to $10 trillion in the Bush years, leading to dramatically higher interest costs. “We pay in interest four times more than we spend on education and four times what it will cost to cover 10 million children with health insurance for five years,” Pelosi said in 2007. “That’s fiscal irresponsibility.”

Now, under Obama, the national debt — and the interest payments — will increase at a far faster rate than during the Bush years.

“We thought the Bush deficits were big at the time,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, told me this week as he prepared to attend Obama’s Fiscal Responsibility Summit. “But this is going to make the previous administration look like rank amateurs. We could be adding multiple trillions to the national debt in the first year.”

At some point last week, the sheer velocity of Obama’s spending proposals began to overwhelm even experienced Washington hands. In the span of four days, we saw the signing of the $787 billion stimulus bill, the rollout of a $275 billion housing proposal, discussion of Congress’s remaining appropriations bills (about $400 billion) and word of a vaguely-defined financial stabilization plan that could ultimately cost $2 trillion. When representatives of GM and Chrysler said they might need $21 billion more to survive, it seemed like small beer.

23 Feb 2009

Geronimo’s Missing Skull

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Also from Freddie:

[I]f our scheming entrenched WASP power brokers can’t steal the skulls of centuries-dead American Indian revolutionaries and display them in their inner sanctums… what’s the point?

Earlier posts 1, 2


Some building at Yale

23 Feb 2009

PC versus Mac

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Freddie advises that buying a Mac doesn’t really prove you’re cool. (Steve Jobs must really hate this one.)

[A]ll of these greater philosophical underpinnings that people attach to PC vs. Mac are just self-aggrandizing nonsense. Buying the computer from company A doesn’t, as a matter of fact, say anything about you, just like buying a computer from company B doesn’t say anything about your counterparts. As I have said many, many times, there are good things about Apples and good things about PCs. If it makes sense to you to buy an Apple, go with god. And many Apple owners do just that, buy a product, use it and enjoy it. I’ve considered getting an Apple laptop in the past and may in the future. But it amazes me, absolutely amazes me, the number of Apple owners who lack the clarity or self-awareness to realize that purchasing a commodity from a enormous, soulless corporation that is also owned by several million other people doesn’t make you a unique and beautiful snowflake. Apple has a better PR campaign, better advertising and a more gullible, credulous customer base. That’s it. It’s got nothing to do with individuality or noncomformity. I know many people are probably saying that this is a completely banal thing to say but I am consistently astounded by otherwise smart people who will tell you different.

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

23 Feb 2009

Stratfor’s George Friedman Predicts

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I commonly link George Friedman’s penetrating and insightful analysis of foreign policy and military strategy in Stratfor essays, so I was interested to see their author deliver a series of long-term prognostications on this 4:29 video issued last November in association with the release of his new book, The Next 100 Years.

Friedman predicts even greater American world influence due to our naval supremacy and… solar energy from space (!). Less good news is that the Ottoman Empire is coming back. And the really bad news is that Mexico is going to challenge the United States. (I wonder if Mexico becoming a failed state in the near future might not impact the last predicted development.)

I tend to agree with more of Mr. Friedman’s essays than I do with all this. Frankly, in this case, he lost me right after the Influence of Sea Power on History. Besides, who is going to take seriously a guy who makes videos in the library of the Army & Navy Club not wearing a tie?

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Hat tip to Bird Dog.

23 Feb 2009

Politics of Ethnicity and Class

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Chuckie Lemos, at the bolshie My DD blog, thought that Rick Santelli’s Chicago Board of Trade rant (4:57 video) was just typical of those white ethnic traders who attended all the wrong schools.

I spent a decade on Wall Street working for Alex. Brown & Sons, Deutsche Banc Securities and Goldman Sachs. I found Wall Street a largely liberal environment with one major exception, the trading floor. In my experience I found traders, who are largely white ethnics – Irish, Italian, Greek, Polish or Slovak among others- and graduates of the Seton Halls, the Boston Colleges, the Notre Dames, the Penn States were the most rabid conservative and foul mouthed people on the planet. Nor could any of them ever get my name right. “My name is Charles, not Chuckie” was something I would repeat whenever I had the misfortune to have to interact with them. Some of these folks made William Buckley appear moderate.

Don Surber admires the condescension of the elites who want to give away the money and take the bows toward the humble peons who actually earn it.

22 Feb 2009

George Washington’s Birthday

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John Ward Dunsmore, The First Gentlemen of Virginia, Fraunces Tavern Museum

The memory of George Washington is still strong today in the country of the Blue Ridge, whose passes he crossed so often, and in the great Valley whose lands he surveyed and in which he hunted.

We hunted ourselves just yesterday in the near vicinity of the White Post which Lord Fairfax caused to be erected some two and half centuries ago to direct gentlemen traveling through the wilderness to his hospitality at Greenway Court. Virginians today ride over the same fields that Washington did in pursuit of descendants of the same foxes.

22 Feb 2009

Jaguar Collared in Arizona

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Arizona Game and Fish photo

Contrary to widespread reports of the big cat’s extinction in the United States, a live jaguar was photographed in Arizona in 2006.

Jaguars really do survive in today’s Arizona, as this news item from the LA Times confirms.

Erecting that border fence could have the highly undesirable impact of eliminating access to Arizona from their primary breeding source in Northern Mexico resulting in the real extinction in this country of one of our most exotic and charismatic big game species.

A jaguar was captured southwest of Tucson this week during an Arizona Game and Fish Department research study. The study was actually aimed at monitoring black bear and mountain lion habitats.

The male cat has been fitted with a satellite tracking collar and released. The collar will provide biologists with location updates every few hours and it is hopeful that this data will provide information on a little-studied population segment of this species. This is the first time in the U.S. that a jaguar has been able to be followed in this manner.

“While we didn’t set out to collar a jaguar as part of the research project, we took advantage of the important opportunity,” Terry Johnson, Arizona Game and Fish dept. endangered species coordinator, said in a press release issued by the department.

Arizona Game and Fish press release.

Hat tip to Reid Farmer via Karen L. Myers.

22 Feb 2009

How to Reduce the Deficit

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First you throw away $787 billion dollars on democrat party special interests, then you raise taxes on “the rich,” i.e., you, me, and Joe the Plumber, and finally you cut the Defense Budget.

After all, in 2008, with two wars underway, we spent the staggering sum of $667 billion (base budget of $480 billion and $187 billion in supplemental spending) on national defense. Why, we wasted almost as much money last year on defending the country as Obama spent in his first month in office on “community development” (i.e., ACORN), the National Endowment for the Arts, more welfare, green boondoggles, and fattening the wallets of politically connected construction companies.

Washington Post:

President Obama is putting the finishing touches on an ambitious first budget that seeks to cut the federal deficit in half over the next four years, primarily by raising taxes on businesses and the wealthy and by slashing spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, administration officials said.

In addition to tackling a deficit swollen by the $787 billion stimulus package and other efforts to ease the nation’s economic crisis, the budget blueprint will press aggressively for progress on the domestic agenda Obama outlined during the presidential campaign. This would include key changes to environmental policies and a major expansion of health coverage that he hopes to enact later this year.

A summary of Obama’s budget request for the fiscal year that begins in October will be delivered to Congress on Thursday, with the complete, multi-hundred-page document to follow in April. But Obama plans to unveil his goals for scaling back record deficits and rebuilding the nation’s costly and inefficient health care system tomorrow, when he addresses lawmakers and budget experts at a White House summit on restoring “fiscal responsibility” to Washington. …

Even before Congress approved the stimulus package this month, congressional budget analysts forecast that this year’s deficit would approach $1.2 trillion — 8.3 percent of the overall economy, the highest since World War II. With the stimulus and other expenses, some analysts say, the annual gap between federal spending and income could reach $2 trillion when the fiscal year ends in September.

Obama proposes to dramatically reduce those numbers, said White House budget director Peter Orszag: “We will cut the deficit in half by the end of the president’s first term.” The plan would keep the deficit hovering near $1 trillion in 2010 and 2011, but shows it dropping to $533 billion by 2013, he said — still high but a more manageable 3 percent of the economy.

To get there, Obama proposes to cut spending and raise taxes. The savings would come primarily from “winding down the war” in Iraq, a senior administration official said. The budget assumes continued spending on “overseas military contingency operations” throughout Obama’s presidency, the official said, but that number is lower than the nearly $190 billion budgeted for Iraq and Afghanistan last year.

Obama also seeks to increase tax collections, mainly by making good on his promise to eliminate some of the temporary tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003. While the budget would keep the breaks that benefit middle-income families, it would eliminate them for wealthy taxpayers, defined as families earning more than $250,000 a year. Those tax breaks would be permitted to expire on schedule in 2011. That means the top tax rate would rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, the tax on capital gains would jump to 20 percent from 15 percent for wealthy filers and the tax on estates worth more than $3.5 million would be maintained at the current rate of 45 percent.

Obama also proposes “a fairly aggressive effort on tax enforcement” that would target corporate loopholes, the official said. And Obama’s budget seeks to tax the earnings of hedge fund managers as normal income rather than at the lower 15 percent capital gains rate.

Overall, tax collections under the plan would rise from about 16 percent of the economy this year to 19 percent in 2013, while federal spending would drop from about 26 percent of the economy, another post-World War II high, to 22 percent.

21 Feb 2009

More Catch and Release

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Mohamed Abdullah Al Harbi aka Abul Hareth Mohammed al-Awf

Another US-released Guantanamo detainee, Mohamed Abdullah Al Harbi aka Abul Hareth Mohammed al-Awfi, has been reported captured by the Yemeni government while working as a high level al-Qaeda operative.

The (Yemen) Interior Ministry says it sent back the Saudi national, Ahmed Owaidan al-Harbi, on Thursday, 20 days after his arrest in eastern Yemen. The ministry hasn’t released any details on al-Harbi’s case.

The extradition comes two days after Yemen returned another Saudi national who was once held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo and later became an al-Qaida operative in Yemen. Officials say that suspect, Abu al-Hareth Muhammad al-Oufi, surrendered himself

Evan Kolhmann’s NEFA report on The Eleven: Saudi Guantanamo Veterans Returning to the Fight provides a revealing profile.

However, contrary to his account before the ARB panel, the U.S. military learned from its own sources that al-Harbi had allegedly been “in Chechnya for approximately nine months in 1999… A source reported that the detainee underwent basic training and physical training in Chechnya.” … Aside from his purported tour of duty with the mujahideen in Chechnya, according to the U.S. military, al-Harbi was also recognized by a “senior al Qaida lieutenant” as “possibly being at his site, a guest house in Kabul,
in 1998 or 1999.”

In the late fall of 2001, Mohammed al-Harbi traveled on a religious pilgrimage to the Saudi city of Mecca for the holy month of Ramadan. It was “at this time he decided to travel to Pakistan and provide assistance to the Afghani refugees that were residing at camps on Pakistani soil.”…

Al-Harbi gathered together at least 14,000 Saudi Riyals and US$8,000 (a total of approximately $12,000) and on the eighth day of Ramadan (November 24, 2001), traveled from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Karachi, Pakistan. …

According to intelligence obtained by the U.S. military, Mohammed al-Harbi was a “member” of Al-Wafa al-Ighatha al-Islamiya, a thinly-veiled fraudulent charitable front for Al-Qaida terror financing. As cited previously, Al-Wafa “claimed to be a charitable organization, but it was common knowledge that al Wafa delivered weapons and supplies to Afghanistan fighters in Tora Bora… Al Wafa provided money of all currencies, including United States Dollars, to those fighters who needed it.” The Pentagon further alleged that al-Harbi had been identified as “one of approximately 400 Arabs who claimed to be members of a subset of al Wafa… [who] were actually Mujahedin fighters in Afghanistan.”…

Al-Harbi was … quick to deny the charges that he had “received hand grenade, machine gun, pistol, map reading and explosives training” at Al-Qaida’s Al-Farouq terrorist training camp; that he had served as a “fighter in Kandahar, Afghanistan”; and, that he had participated in the battle of Tora Bora in late November 2001, and had been seen fighting there. …[He] continued to stubbornly maintain his innocence. …

On November 9, 2007, al-Harbi was released from U.S. military detention in Guantanamo Bay and transferred to the custody of local security forces in Saudi Arabia.

Less than six months after returning to Saudi Arabia, Mohammed al-Harbi fled with a group of other Saudi Al-Qaida members to sanctuary in neighboring Yemen. It is not known when, how, or why al-Harbi was able to escape the custody of the Saudi government. On January 23, 2009, the Al-Fajr Media Center published new video footage of joint sermons delivered by a group of Saudi and Yemeni Al-Qaida leaders in a recording titled, “From Here We Will Begin and in Al-Aqsa We Shall Meet.” One of the men featured in the video was former Gitmo detainee Mohammed al-Harbi, carrying the official title of “Field Commander of the Al-Qaida Organization in the Arabian Peninsula.” During his speech, al-Harbi threatened:

    “I say to America’s collaborators… the Saudis… the grenade of our brother Ali al-Mabadi, may Allah have mercy upon him, is in our hands, and by Allah, we shall fulfill his oath or die trying—unless you seek forgiveness from Allah for the war that you are waging against Islam and the Muslims. And we warn our imprisoned brothers to avoid the ‘attention and advice program’ which is administered by the ignorant oppressor Mohammed Bin Nayef and his criminal helpers like Dai Turki al-Atayan—who headed the delegation of psychological investigators sent to Cuba, and helped the Americans to conduct psychological examinations and to extract confessions from us using psychiatric methods employed in the prisons of Saudi Arabia against the mujahideen. [These methods are used] in order to persuade us to stray from Islam and our path using every tool and method through the plan of advice… Finally, we say to the Christian countries which are preparing for war in Saudi Arabia and which are supporting the Christian war against the Muslims: by Allah, we are surely coming for you! By Allah, we are surely coming for you! We are walking the path of our former brothers, like Shaykh Yousef al-Ayyiri, Shaykh Esa al-Awshin, Khaled al-Haj, Turki al-Dandani, Ali al-Mabadi, and other lions of Allah who have been slain in Saudi Arabia. And we say to the police and [internal] investigations [system] of the Saudis, and to those who guard the Jews and the Christians: repent to Allah for the deception and treachery that you are culpable for when you guard the entrances to their embassies, their secret temples, their population centers, and their military and intelligence bases. The one who gives fair warning cannot [afterwards] be blameworthy, O’ servants of the Dirham and the Dinar.”

It was the Bush Administration that released this particular lamb. Just imagine the caliber of the people the Obama Administration is going to be releasing.

21 Feb 2009

British Muslims Supplying Electronics to the Taliban

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Reports the Telegraph. Some are actually also apparently fighting with the Taliban in the field.

British Muslims are providing the Taliban with electronic devices to make roadside bombs for use in attacks against British forces serving in southern Afghanistan. …

Details of how British electronic components have been found in roadside bombs were given to David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, when he visited British troops at their military compound at Lashkagar, in Helmand province, earlier this week.

In a briefing on British operations in southern Afghanistan by Brigadier Gordon Messenger, the Royal Marine commander of the British battlegroup, Mr Miliband was shown examples of the crude, home-made devices that are being used in attacks against British patrols.

They included mobile phones filled with explosives, which could kill or seriously injure British soldiers patrolling on foot, and more sophisticated devices that can be used against military vehicles.

Explosives experts who have examined the devices say they have found British-made electronic components that enable Taliban insurgents to detonate their home-made, road-side bombs by remote control.

The electronic devices smuggled into Afghanistan from Britain range from basic remote control units that are normally used to fly model airplanes to more advanced components that enable insurgents to conduct attacks from up to a mile away from British patrols.

“We have found electronic components in devices used to target British troops that originally come from Britain,” a British explosives officer told Mr Miliband during a detailed briefing on the type of improvised explosive device (IED) used against British forces.

When asked how the components had reached Afghanistan, the officer explained that they had either been sent from Britain, or physically brought to Afghanistan by British Muslims who had flown over. …

In August, Brigadier Ed Butler, the former commander of UK forces in Afghanistan, told the Telegraph that there are “British passport holders” in the Taliban ranks. Other officers believe their soldiers have killed British Muslims fighting alongside the Taliban.

And last year, it was revealed that RAF Nimrod surveillance planes monitoring Taliban radio signals in Afghanistan had heard militants speaking with Yorkshire and Midlands accents.

21 Feb 2009

What Went Wrong

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Former Senator Phil Gramm dispels with clarity and precision the liberal malarkey about deregulation being responsible for the credit crisis, and puts the blame where it belongs.

I believe that a strong case can be made that the financial crisis stemmed from a confluence of two factors. The first was the unintended consequences of a monetary policy, developed to combat inventory cycle recessions in the last half of the 20th century, that was not well suited to the speculative bubble recession of 2001. The second was the politicization of mortgage lending. …

In the inventory-cycle recessions experienced in the last half of the 20th century, involuntary build up of inventories produced retrenchment in the production chain. Workers were laid off and investment and consumption, including the housing sector, slumped.

In the 2001 recession, however, consumption and home building remained strong as investment collapsed. The Fed’s sharp, prolonged reduction in interest rates stimulated a housing market that was already booming — triggering six years of double-digit increases in housing prices during a period when the general inflation rate was low.

Buyers bought houses they couldn’t afford, believing they could refinance in the future and benefit from the ongoing appreciation. Lenders assumed that even if everything else went wrong, properties could still be sold for more than they cost and the loan could be repaid. This mentality permeated the market from the originator to the holder of securitized mortgages, from the rating agency to the financial regulator.

Meanwhile, mortgage lending was becoming increasingly politicized. Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) requirements led regulators to foster looser underwriting and encouraged the making of more and more marginal loans. Looser underwriting standards spread beyond subprime to the whole housing market. …

The 1992 Housing Bill set quotas or “targets” that Fannie and Freddie were to achieve in meeting the housing needs of low- and moderate-income Americans. In 1995 HUD raised the primary quota for low- and moderate-income housing loans from the 30% set by Congress in 1992 to 40% in 1996 and to 42% in 1997.

By the time the housing market collapsed, Fannie and Freddie faced three quotas. The first was for mortgages to individuals with below-average income, set at 56% of their overall mortgage holdings. The second targeted families with incomes at or below 60% of area median income, set at 27% of their holdings. The third targeted geographic areas deemed to be underserved, set at 35%.

The results? In 1994, 4.5% of the mortgage market was subprime and 31% of those subprime loans were securitized. By 2006, 20.1% of the entire mortgage market was subprime and 81% of those loans were securitized. The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that GSE losses will cost $240 billion in fiscal year 2009. If this crisis proves nothing else, it proves you cannot help people by lending them more money than they can pay back.

Blinded by the experience of the postwar period, where aggregate housing prices had never declined on an annual basis, and using the last 20 years as a measure of the norm, rating agencies and regulators viewed securitized mortgages, even subprime and undocumented Alt-A mortgages, as embodying little risk. It was not that regulators were not empowered; it was that they were not alarmed.

With near universal approval of regulators world-wide, these securities were injected into the arteries of the world’s financial system. When the bubble burst, the financial system lost the indispensable ingredients of confidence and trust. We all know the rest of the story.

The principal alternative to the politicization of mortgage lending and bad monetary policy as causes of the financial crisis is deregulation. How deregulation caused the crisis has never been specifically explained. Nevertheless, two laws are most often blamed: the Gramm-Leach-Bliley (GLB) Act of 1999 and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000.

GLB repealed part of the Great Depression era Glass-Steagall Act, and allowed banks, securities companies and insurance companies to affiliate under a Financial Services Holding Company. It seems clear that if GLB was the problem, the crisis would have been expected to have originated in Europe where they never had Glass-Steagall requirements to begin with. Also, the financial firms that failed in this crisis, like Lehman, were the least diversified and the ones that survived, like J.P. Morgan, were the most diversified.

Moreover, GLB didn’t deregulate anything. It established the Federal Reserve as a superregulator, overseeing all Financial Services Holding Companies. All activities of financial institutions continued to be regulated on a functional basis by the regulators that had regulated those activities prior to GLB.

When no evidence was ever presented to link GLB to the financial crisis — and when former President Bill Clinton gave a spirited defense of this law, which he signed — proponents of the deregulation thesis turned to the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (CFMA), and specifically to credit default swaps.

Yet it is amazing how well the market for credit default swaps has functioned during the financial crisis. That market has never lost liquidity and the default rate has been low, given the general state of the underlying assets. In any case, the CFMA did not deregulate credit default swaps. All swaps were given legal certainty by clarifying that swaps were not futures, but remained subject to regulation just as before based on who issued the swap and the nature of the underlying contracts.

In reality the financial “deregulation” of the last two decades has been greatly exaggerated. As the housing crisis mounted, financial regulators had more power, larger budgets and more personnel than ever. And yet, with the notable exception of Mr. Greenspan’s warning about the risk posed by the massive mortgage holdings of Fannie and Freddie, regulators seemed unalarmed as the crisis grew. There is absolutely no evidence that if financial regulators had had more resources or more authority that anything would have been different.

A must read analysis.

20 Feb 2009

Finding Bin Laden by Biogeographic Analysis

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Remember the “How to Catch a Lion in the Sahara Desert” science jokes which often used to be found on departmental bulletin back when my generation was young?

Examples:

The Hilbert (axiomatic) method

We place a locked cage onto a given point in the desert. After that we introduce the following logical system:

Axiom 1: The set of lions in the Sahara is not empty.
Axiom 2: If there exists a lion in the Sahara, then there exists a lion in the cage.
Procedure: If P is a theorem, and if the following is holds: “P implies Q”, then Q is a theorem.
Theorem 1: There exists a lion in the cage.

The geometrical inversion method

We place a spherical cage in the desert, enter it and lock it from inside. We then perform an inversion with respect to the cage. Then the lion is inside the cage, and we are outside.

The projective geometry method

Without loss of generality, we can view the desert as a plane surface. We project the surface onto a line and afterwards the line onto an interiour point of the cage. Thereby the lion is mapped onto that same point.

The Bolzano-Weierstraß method

Divide the desert by a line running from north to south. The lion is then either in the eastern or in the western part. Let’s assume it is in the eastern part. Divide this part by a line running from east to west. The lion is either in the northern or in the southern part. Let’s assume it is in the northern part. We can continue this process arbitrarily and thereby constructing with each step an increasingly narrow fence around the selected area. The diameter of the chosen partitions converges to zero so that the lion is caged into a fence of arbitrarily small diameter.

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This type of scientific approach to real world tasks has not completely gone out of style, it seems. The LA Times reports that Thomas W. Gillespie and John A. Agnew, two UCLA professors of geography, et alia, in an article in MIT’s International Review, have undertaken to pin down Osama bin Laden’s current hideout, using biogeographic theory. They may be wrong, but I think we should bomb the buildings they’ve identified just for luck.

While U.S. intelligence officials have spent more than seven years searching fruitlessly for Osama bin Laden, UCLA geographers say they have a good idea of where the terrorist leader was at the end of 2001 — and perhaps where he has been in the years since.

In a new study published online today by the MIT International Review, the geographers report that simple facts, publicly available satellite imagery and fundamental principles of geography place the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks against the U.S. in one of three buildings in the northwest Pakistan town of Parachinar, in the Kurram tribal region near the border with Afghanistan

The researchers advocate that the U.S. investigate — but not bomb — the three buildings. …

The UCLA findings rely on two principles used in geography to predict the distribution of wildlife, primarily for the purposes of designing approaches to conservation. The first, known as distance-decay theory, holds that as one travels farther away from a precise location with a specific composition of species — or, in this case, a specific composition of cultural and physical factors —the probability of finding spots with that same specific composition decreases exponentially. The second, island biogeographic theory, holds that large and close islands have larger immigration rates and will support more species than smaller, more isolated islands.

Inspired by distance-decay theory, the seven-member team started by drawing concentric circles around Tora Bora on a satellite map of the area at a distance of 10 kilometers — or 6.1 miles — apart.

“The farther bin Laden moves from his last reported location into the more secular parts of Pakistan or into India, the greater the probability that he will be in an area with a different cultural composition, thereby increasing the probability of his being captured or eliminated,” Gillespie said.

Then, informed by island biogeographic theory, the researchers scoured the rings for “city islands” — or distinctly separate settlements of considerable size.

“Island biology theory predicts that he would find his way to the largest but least isolated city of that area,” said Gillespie, an authority on measuring and modeling biodiversity on Earth from space. “If you get stuck on an island, you would want it to be Hawaii rather than one with a single palm tree. It’s a matter of resources.”

The approach netted 26 cities within a 12.4-mile radius of Tora Bora on imagery from Landsat Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+), a global archive of satellite photos managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. With a 2.7-square-mile footprint, Parachinar turned out to be the largest and fourth-least isolated city, the team determined.

“Based on bin Laden’s last known location in Tora Bora, we estimate that he must have traveled 1.9 miles over a 13,000-foot-high pass into Kurram and then headed for the largest city, which turns out to be Parachinar,” said Agnew, who is the current president of the Association of American Geographers, the field’s leading scholarly organization.

The researchers ruled out cities on the Afghanistan side of the border because the country was occupied at the time by U.S. and international forces and has been particularly unstable ever since.

“The Pakistan side of the border is much better for hiding because of its ambiguous political status within the country and the formal absence of U.S. or NATO troops,” Agnew said.

Faced with the prospect of picking from more than 1,000 structures clearly portrayed in the satellite imagery of Parachinar, the team decided to come up with a short list of the criteria that bin Laden would need for housing, based on well-known information about him, including his height (between 6’4″ and 6’6″, depending on the source), his medical condition (apparently in need of regular dialysis and, therefore, electricity to run the machine) and several basic assumptions, such as a need for security, protection, privacy and overhead cover to shield him from being spotted by planes, helicopters and satellites.

So they looked for buildings that could house someone taller than 6’4″ and were surrounded by walls more than 9 feet tall (both as judged by mid-afternoon shadows depicted on the satellite imagery), and that had more than three rooms, space separating them from nearby structures, electricity and a thick tree canopy.

Only three structures fit the criteria. The buildings also appeared to be the best fortified and among the largest in Parachinar. Two are clearly residences, the study states. The third may be a prison. But whatever the third structure is, it has “one of the best maintained gardens in all of Parachinar,” the study says.

While the three structures meet all six of the criteria that the researchers believe would be required for lodging bin Laden, an additional 16 structures in Parachinar appear to meet five of the six criteria. If bin Laden is not in the first three structures, the U.S. military should investigate these other buildings, the study urges.

20 Feb 2009

Russia Sinks Fleeing Chinese Freighter; Seven Crewmen Lost

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Russian border patrol picture

Russia’s border patrol sank a fleeing Chinese freighter in the Sea of Japan last Saturday in unexplained circumstances.

Reuters:

Seven Chinese sailors were missing after the “New Star” sank on Saturday in stormy seas off Vladivostok and after a Russian warship shot at least 500 rounds into it, the official China Daily newspaper said, quoting a Chinese-language paper which in turned quoted a Russian newspaper.

The “New Star” was held at the Russian port of Nakhodka earlier this month, suspected of involvement in smuggling, before it left without permission last week, the China Daily said.

“China has already made representations to the Russian side,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a news conference.

“We hope they continue with the search and rescue operations for the missing sailors and clarify the reason (for the incident) as soon as possible.”

China says three Chinese crew members were rescued and seven were missing.

In video footage of the incident broadcast on Russian television, the rattle of gunfire could be heard, with authorities there claiming the ship was given adequate warning.

“The ‘New Star’ captain was called by radio, border guard boats sent light signals, a special flag demanding to stop was raised and a warning shot was fired,” a prosecutor in Nakhodka, Alexander Selentsov, told Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Interfax also quoted a border guard captain as saying “the foreign vessel disregarded authorities’ demands and was fleeing to the Chinese economic zone at a full speed.”

Smuggling or spying? I couldn’t find a hint on any of the usual Intel sites.

20 Feb 2009

Condescending Liberals

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William Veogeli, in the Wall Street Journal, contemplates liberalism as the politics of snobbery.

Our age has seen political disdain become seamlessly integrated into cultural disdain. The prominent novelist E.L. Doctorow showed the way in 1980 when he wrote that Ronald Reagan had grown up in “just the sorts of places [small towns in Illinois] responsible for one of the raging themes of American literature, the soul-murdering complacency of our provinces. . . . The best and brightest fled all our Galesburgs and Dixons, if they could, but the candidate was not among them.” Reagan did attend college, but not the kind that would have given him some exposure to the world outside the soul-murdering towns where he grew up, and to moral ideas calling into question his parents’ religion. Instead, wrote Mr. Doctorow, a “third-rate student at a fifth-rate college could learn from the stage, the debating platform, the gridiron and the fraternity party the styles of manliness and verbal sincerity that would stand him in good stead when the time came to make his mark in the world.” Achieving success in his first job out of college, as a radio announcer in Des Moines, Reagan made a number of local speaking engagements, “giving talks to fraternal lodges, boys’ clubs and the like, telling sports stories and deriving from them Y.M.C.A. sorts of morals.”

We see here all the basic elements, employed for the past 28 years, of liberal condescension. Every issue of The New Yorker, Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone makes clear that the policy positions of George W. Bush, Republicans and conservatives in general are wicked and stupid. The real problem, however, is that everything about these people—where they reside, what they believe, how they live, work, recreate, talk and think—is in irredeemably bad taste. To embark on a conversation with one of them, based on straight-faced openness to the possibility of learning something interesting or important, would be like choosing to vacation in Wichita instead of Tuscany.

Political parties have traditionally been coalitions held together by beliefs and interests. The modern Democratic Party may be the first in which the mortar is a shared sensibility. The cool kids disdain the dorks, and find it infuriating and baffling that they ever lose a class election to them.

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