January 2010, Part 1

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Charlie Cook Updates His Predictions:  There will be gains, he says, for the Republicans in the Senate and in the House, but not enough to shift control.  Unless things change, or, perhaps I should say, continue to change.
Come November, Senate Democrats' 60-vote supermajority is toast.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to see how Democrats could lose the Senate this year.  But they have a 50-50 chance of ending up with fewer than 55 seats in the next Congress.

As for the House, we at The Cook Political Report are still forecasting that Democrats will lose only 20 to 30 seats.  Another half-dozen or more retirements in tough districts, however, perhaps combined with another party switch or two, would reduce Democrats' chances of holding the House to only an even-money bet.  We rate 217 seats either "Solid Democratic" or "Likely Democratic," meaning that the GOP would have to win every single race now thought to be competitive to reach 218, the barest possible majority.  But if Democrats suffer much more erosion in their "Solid" and "Likely" columns, control of the House will suddenly be up for grabs.
(I have no idea why Cook does not mention the polls on the generic vote.  Perhaps he is simply more comfortable analyzing the races state by state and district by district.)

For what it is worth, the bettors at InTrade have been giving the Republicans about one chance in three of taking the House this year since last September.  At the time, I thought that was too high and put my own guess at one chance in five.  I am now ready to raise that to one chance in four.  And I still think that the Republicans have less than one chance in twenty of taking the Senate.  (Their chances would be better if Dodd had not pulled out of the Connecticut race.)
- 9:56 AM, 8 January 2010   [link]

Bad News On Employment:  Here's the New York Times story.
The United States economy lost more jobs than expected in December, tempering hopes for a swift and sustained recovery from the Great Recession.

The Labor Department said on Friday that the economy shed another 85,000 jobs last month, but that the unemployment rate held steady at 10 percent.
And here's more from James Pethokoukis, who explains why the report is even worse than it looks at first glance.
4. Then will come the second-take stories that will notice the shrinking labor force, which dropped by nearly 700,000 from November.  Had it stayed stable for last month, the jobless rate would have been 10.4 percent.  Had it stayed stable since August, the jobless rate would be 11 percent!
Whatever you think about Obama's economic plan, you can't argue that it is producing immediate results.  (Though some will, no doubt.)

(Here's the Bureau of Labor Statistics summary press release, for the dedicated.)
- 8:30 AM, 8 January 2010   [link]

Guantánamo Terrorists Don't Want To Go To Illinois?   Don Surber gives credit to Michael Isikoff for a scoop for finding that out.
But the final irony is that many of the detainees may not even want to be transferred to Thomson and could conceivably even raise their own legal roadblocks to allow them to stay at Gitmo.

Falkoff notes that many of his clients, while they clearly want to go home, are at least being held under Geneva Convention conditions in Guantánamo.  At Thomson, he notes, the plans call for them to be thrown into the equivalent of a "supermax" security prison under near-lockdown conditions.
For months, I've thought that it was obvious that the terrorists confined at Guantánamo would prefer not to be moved to Illinois.  But then I have read about "supermax" prisons, and am familiar with the Illinois climate.

(I continue to think that the best solution would be to keep Guantánamo in operation, under a different name, though I admit, with regret, that my favorite alternative, "Chez Guevera", is probably out.)
- 6:37 AM, 8 January 2010   [link]

Bill Bennett Has The Terror Attack Numbers:  In this post, I passed on Victor Davis Hanson's claim that "over one-third of all the efforts to repeat 9/11 have occurred in 2009".  Hanson didn't give the exact numbers, or a source, but I assume that he was referring to a RAND study, which Bill Bill Bennett summarizes:
Despite ringing statements that we will close Guantanamo, stop enhanced interrogation, and move detained terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed into our civil-justice system with a public trial, thus bestowing constitutional rights on those terrorists, an interesting statistic came out last week:  More terrorist acts and attempts took place in the United States in 2009 than in any year since 2001.  According to the Rand Corporation, there have been 33 terrorism-related events on these shores since 9/11, and 13 of them occurred in 2009.
In my original post, I said that we should not come to any firm conclusions about that increase, and these numbers support my reluctance.  (Note, please, that I put in a qualifier, "firm".)   The increase in 2009 is certainly worrisome, but not enough by itself to support much of a theory.

And I hope that you will agree that lumping all these incidents together into a single category, "terrorism-related events", may be necessary, but can lead to some odd conclusions if we aren't careful in our reasoning.

If the Obama administration continues to pursue the same policies and we have fourteen or fifteen "terrorism-related events" in 2010 and again in 2011, then the possibility that Obama's policies are encouraging terrorism might become a conclusion, and even a firm conclusion.
- 2:08 PM, 7 January 2010   [link]

The Definition Of Good News Has Changed Since January 2009:  For instance.
The Labor Department said Thursday that initial claims for jobless benefits rose by 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 434,000 last week.  That was lower than the 447,000 that analysts expected.
Would you say that was good news?  I wouldn't; I would say that it is not as bad as expected.  But this morning a local TV station, King 5, told us that the increase in layoffs was "good news".

I often wonder whether our "mainstream" journalists realize how silly they look in those Obama cheerleader outfits.
- 11:03 AM, 7 January 2010   [link]

Michael Ramirez Explained The Latest 9th Circuit Court Decision:  Way back in 2002, when he was still drawing cartoons for the Los Angeles Times.

If you missed it for some reason, here's the decision.

In a move that could see Washington inmates voting from prison, a federal appeals court has thrown out the state's restrictions on felon voting due to civil rights concerns.

Under the Washington law at issue, citizens convicted of a felony lose the right to vote until they are released from custody and off of Department of Corrections supervision.  The 2-1 ruling by a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel puts those restrictions in doubt, the majority reviewing the voting rights lawsuit found that the state restrictions unfairly penalize minorities.

The 2002 Ramirez cartoon explains how the panel came to this decision.  It shows a children's birthday party.  On one side of a room, a mother is explaining to her son: "Bryson, Bobo the clown was all booked up, so we got the next best thing."

On the other side of the room, a little boy is asking a grim-faced man, dressed in judicial robes, this question: "Are you really from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals?"

And that cartoon should tell you most of what you need to know about this decision.  (If you want more, you might start with this prosecutor's analysis.)

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(You can see that cartoon, and many others, in Ramirez's fine collection.  You can follow Ramirez at his new newspaper, the Investor's Business Daily.)
- 9:40 AM, 7 January 2010   [link]

Mt. Rainier Was Looking Lovely This Morning:  

Mt. Rainier, 7 January 2010

It should be looking lovely all morning, but in a brilliant white rather than a soft pink.

(I won't be going down to enjoy it today, since I have put off some chores far too long.)
- 8:13 AM, 7 January 2010   [link]

There Are Marriage Penalties In Both The Reid And Pelosi Anti-Reform Bills:  Republican staffers, checking through the bills, found the usual marriage penalties in both.
For an unmarried couple with income of $25,000 each, combined premiums would be capped at $3,076 per year, under the House bill.  If the couple gets married, with a combined income of $50,000, their annual premium cap jumps to $5,160 -- a "penalty" of $2,084.  Those figures were included in a memo prepared by House Republican staff.

The disparity is slightly smaller in the Senate version of health-care legislation, chiefly because premium subsidies in the House bill are more targeted towards low-wage earners.

Under the Senate bill, a couple with $50,000 combined income would pay $3,450 in annual premiums if unmarried, and $5,100 if married -- a difference of $1,650.
Why do I say the "usual" marriage penalties?  Because programs to help the poor almost always impose penalties on marriage — unless those designing the programs make avoiding the penalties one of the requirements for the programs.  Republicans are more likely to do that than Democrats.
- 6:35 AM, 7 January 2010   [link]

Pelosi And Reid Will Probably "Ping Pong" Their Health Insurance Anti-Reform Bills:  Keith Hennessey explains what that means, and why the Democratic leaders will skip the usual conference committee.

(Short answer:  They are more likely to pass an anti-reform bill if they skip steps and keep as much power as possible in their own hands.)
- 6:05 AM, 7 January 2010   [link]

Is Ford's Virtue Being Rewarded?  Sure looks like it.
Ford Motor was among a half dozen automakers — and the only domestic one — that posted a sales spike of more than 30% during the final month of the year.

The Dearborn automaker delivered a strong year, despite the carnage of 2009. Consumers bought just 10.4 million vehicles last year — the lowest level since 1982 and far from the highs of 16 million in recent years.

Ford gained 1.1 percentage points of market share during the downturn, the equivalent of a half year of production for one assembly plant.
The Instapundit passes on a story that suggests that avoiding the bailout helps Ford with some customers.

But I think there is more to Ford's revival than just avoiding the bailout.  Years ago, I noted that — as far as quality was concerned — Ford looked like an average Japanese car manufacturer, not quite as good as the best, but better than the worst.  That was one of the reasons I bought the Ford Focus in 2004.  So far I have not been disappointed; it has required zero repairs in the five years plus since I bought it.  (Though I should add that I drive it less than 5,000 miles in most years.) For what it is worth, Buick, which has also had good quality ratings in recent years, did quite well in December, too.
- 8:56 AM, 6 January 2010   [link]

There Are All Kinds Of Bloggers:  A few of them may even be suicide bombers.
In a bizarre twist, the suicide bomber who killed eight people at a CIA base in Afghanistan may have been . . . a blogger and internet bulletin board admin.
Presumably some CIA analyst is now examining those postings to see what they might have missed.
- 7:35 AM, 6 January 2010   [link]

Are Barack And Michelle Obama Making Any Sacrifices?  During last year's campaign, and since, the Obamas have told us, again and again, that we must all sacrifice for the nation's good.  So have the Obamas made any sacrifices?  Not that John Dietrich can find.  Or that I can think of.  I honestly can not think of a single sacrifice either Barack or Michelle has made since the inauguration, not even something as simple as cutting back on golf during war time.

(Johanna Neumann thinks she has found a sacrifice; Obama had his office redecorated, but did not spend a lot.
Given the plight of so many unemployed Americans, President Obama did not want to spend a lot of money on a lavish redecoration of the Oval Office.

But he did want to make it his own.  So Obama asked California decorator Michael Smith to work with him to change the look of the Oval Office to better reflect his interests.
(If you have been wondering how Obama spends his time, you now have a partial answer.)

But Neumann doesn't provide any numbers on cost, so we can't really tell whether the redecoration was lavish.

To me, it looks much like his Senate office, fashionable in a leftist sort of way, but not a very good place to work.  And, again like his Senate office, the few books there appear to be mostly for show.  In short, it's an office more suited to a poseur than to a worker or a thinker.)
- 7:11 AM, 6 January 2010   [link]

Here's A New Email Scam:  I just received an email — supposedly from Gmail — that claims that Gmail will close my account unless I provide them with the account, my password, my birth date, and my country.

Naturally, I will not reply — and you shouldn't either if you get one.  But I do wonder what they planned to do with that information.  The birth date and country might be enough to set up a false identity, but I don't think either is exactly secret.
- 7:04 PM, 5 January 2010   [link]

Are Obama's Policies Slowing The Recovery?  Economists Becker, Davis, and Murphy think so.

The second factor is less obvious, but possibly also of great importance.  Liberal Democrats won a major victory in the 2008 elections, winning the presidency and large majorities in both the House and Senate.  They interpreted this as evidence that a large majority of Americans want major reforms in the economy, health-care and many other areas.  So in addition to continuing and extending the Bush-initiated bailout of banks, AIG, General Motors, Chrysler and other companies, Congress and President Obama signaled their intentions to introduce major changes in taxes, government spending and regulations—changes that could radically transform the American economy.

The efforts to transform the economy began with a fiscal stimulus package of nearly $800 billion.   While some elements served the package's stated purpose and helped to soften the recession's impact, the overall package was not well designed to foster a speedy recovery or set the stage for long-term growth.  Instead, the "stimulus" was oriented to sectors that liberal Democrats believe are deserving of much greater federal help.  This explains why much of the stimulus money is going toward education, health, energy conservation, and other activities that would do little to soak up unemployed resources and stimulate the economy.

In terms of discouraging a rapid recovery, other government proposals created greater uncertainty and risk for businesses and investors.
When businessmen (and consumers) are uncertain, they are slower to take risks, slower to invest (and slower to spend).
- 2:03 PM, 5 January 2010   [link]

Republicans Take Seven Point Lead In The Generic Vote:  Here's my generic graph, updated with the latest results from Rasmussen.

Trends in generic Congressional vote, 7 December 2008 - 3 January 2010

(Note that I am using the traditional — and logical — colors for the two parties, rather than the colors inflicted on us by the "mainstream" media.)

Here's what Rasmussen says about the change you can see in that graph.
The latest generic ballot numbers highlight a remarkable change in the political environment during 2009.  When President Obama was inaugurated, the Democrats enjoyed a seven-point advantage on the Generic Ballot.  That means the GOP has made a net gain of 16 percentage points over the course of the year.  Support for Democrats has declined eight points since Obama's inauguration while Republican support is up nine points.

The Republican gains began in February when Republicans in the House unanimously opposed the $787-billion economic stimulus plan proposed by the president and congressional Democrats.  At that time, Republican gains came almost entirely from the GOP base.  Currently, just 30% of voters believe the stimulus plan helped the economy while 38% believe it hurt.
The trend looks good, but we have eleven months to go before we hold congressional elections.

(Caveat:  As I mentioned in the original post, some pollsters do not care for Rasmussen's methods.  You should know that he samples likely voters and weights his samples by party.  Other pollsters often sample voters, or even adults, and are less likely to weight their samples as Rasmussen does.  Those differences explain, at least partly, why Rasmussen's polls are almost always more favorable to Republicans than other polls.

Here are the graphs for May, June, July, August, September, October, November, and December for comparison.  I have some variants planned for this graph, but haven't gotten around to creating them.  Next month would be a good time to do so, since Obama will have been in office for a year by then.)
- 1:44 PM, 5 January 2010   [link]

Prime Minister Brown Gets Back At Obama:  Even before Obama took office, Britain's prime minister courted him like a lovesick teenager.  Obama spurned Brown, again and again, and even openly insulted him.

Now Brown is getting a little revenge.
Britain told American intelligence agents more than a year ago that the Detroit bomber had links to extremists, according to Downing Street.
. . .
The implication that the US failed to act could embarrass President Barack Obama, who is already under pressure after failures by US intelligence to identify the bomber.
Obama's treatment of Brown makes no sense from an American point of view; we want and need good relations with the British government.  Some have explained Obama's behavior by saying that he is getting revenge for the way the British treated Kenyans.  (I would be happier if someone could produce evidence that explanation is false, though Obama would not be the first American politician to act on old grievances from the old world.)  Others think that Obama is just acting out leftist ideology, and has been less than friendly to most of our traditional allies.

Whatever the explanation, we ought to know it.

(By way of John Hinderaker.)
- 10:56 AM, 5 January 2010
More From Toby Harnden, who ends with two dynamite quotes.
"The facts are, Obama hates the Brits," said one person close to the administration.  "Something to do with his grandfather in Kenya.  A colonial hangover.  And there is nothing you can do about it."

Others attribute perceived "snubs" and transatlantic "rifts" as a British obsession with the "special relationship" that betrays a lack of national self-confidence.  "You Brits need to grow up," said one US official.
Wouldn't you love to know who actually said those things?
- 3:24 PM, 5 January 2009   [link]

Mayo Clinic In Arizona Drops Medicare Patients:  Just as they said they would do last fall.  Here's the story
The Mayo organization had 3,700 staff physicians and scientists and treated 526,000 patients in 2008.  It lost $840 million last year on Medicare, the government's health program for the disabled and those 65 and older, Mayo spokeswoman Lynn Closway said.

Mayo's hospital and four clinics in Arizona, including the Glendale facility, lost $120 million on Medicare patients last year, Yardley said.  The program's payments cover about 50 percent of the cost of treating elderly primary-care patients at the Glendale clinic, he said.

"We firmly believe that Medicare needs to be reformed," Yardley said in a Dec. 23 e-mail.  "It has been true for many years that Medicare payments no longer reflect the increasing cost of providing services for patients."
Here's an apparent paradox:  As almost everyone knows, the total spent on Medicare has been soaring.  But at the same time, a non-profit organization, famed for efficient operations, has been losing so much money on Medicare patients that it has now decided to drop them at one of its clinics.

(Incidentally, President Obama cited the Mayo Clinic as an example to be emulated, just last year.  If you read the entire article, you will learn that some experts think that Mayo is efficient mostly because it caters to better patients.  Probably it has a better model and it has better patients.)

Is there a resolution to the paradox?  Probably.  Most likely, the incentives for both health care providers and patients are wrong, so that they reward too many procedures, regardless of the results.  Congress, in an attempt to control costs, has fixed too low rates for many American doctors.  That's a natural bureaucratic response, but it just makes the incentives even worse.

Mayo is doing this for obvious reasons; they are trying to cut their losses, and to influence the current debate on health insurance reform.  There is no sign that many Democrats in Congress — even though they may praise Mayo — are listening to them.
- 10:35 AM, 5 January 2010   [link]

Victor Davis Hanson Uses Classic And Literary Metaphors To Explain Obama:   Which you may or may not appreciate.  (I did, though I think he shouldn't have mixed Oedipus with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)  But I think everyone will find his last paragraph of interest.
But, wait, a final thought: not since 9/11 have so many terrorist plots been uncovered in a single year.  (In fact, over one-third of all the efforts to repeat 9/11 have occurred in 2009—just as the United States has made unprecedented efforts to renounce the prior war on terror, to demonize a prior President, to use euphemism, to bow and apologize abroad, to turn war into jurisprudence, and to reach out to the Muslim world.  Perhaps our Oedipus can determine whether there is a connection?)
The number of plots is small, so we shouldn't make too much of this pattern yet.  But if we continue to have more terrorist attacks than we did while Bush was president, then we will have to ask whether Obama's rhetoric is encouraging terrorist attacks.  The argument for that conclusion is straightforward: by apologizing, Obama provides more justifications for attacks, by appearing weak, he makes terrorists think their attacks are more likely to succeed.

That said, is too soon to come to any firm conclusion.
- 9:14 AM, 5 January 2010   [link]

Cassandra Bans bloggers.  (Mostly her favorite bloggers, if you didn't get the joke the first time through.)

(For those who don't follow the blogosphere closely — and there is no great reason that you should — an explanation:  Several prominent bloggers have banned each other, for various offenses.  Cassandra is mocking them.

I've stayed out of these fights because (1) no one made me hall monitor and (2) what most bloggers say doesn't matter much.  I may comment later on some of these controversies, if I see something especially funny, as I do from time to time, or if a controversy gives me a good way to make a larger point.)
- 1:45 PM, 4 January 2010   [link]

"Can Republicans Win Ted Kennedy's Senate Seat?"  That's the question Sean Trende asks and answers in this post.  In fact, he gives us two answers. First, he gives us a straightforward analysis, based on the votes in New Jersey and Virginia.
I used the CNN exit polls for 2008 — the electorate was 43% Democratic, 17% Republican and 40% Independent.  I took the average of the electorate shifts in New Jersey and Virginia, and applied them to the 2008 Presidential election in Massachusetts.  If Massachusetts experienced similar shifts, it would have an electorate that's 38% Democratic, 19% Republican, and 42% Independent.  This isn't farfetched, as the 2004 electorate was 39% Democratic, 16% Republican, and 44% Independent.

The bigger shift comes in the voting patterns of these groups.  In 2008, Obama won 88% of Massachusetts Democrats, 9% of Republicans, and 57% of Independents.  If we apply the same methodology here (average of the % swing we saw in New Jersey and Virginia), we come out with an electorate where Coakley wins 90% of Democrats, 4% of Republicans, and 38% of Independents.   Again, this isn't terribly off of 2004 for Republicans and Democrats; with swaggering Texan Bush at the top of the ticket, Kerry won 94% of Democrats and 7% of Republicans. The big difference comes among Independents, as Kerry won this group with 54% in 2004.

In any event, if we take a 38%D, 19%R, 42%I electorate and have Coakley win 90% of the Democrats, 4% of Republicans and 38% of Independents, we come out with an exceedingly close 51.06-48.9% Coakley win.  I did not expect that.
And then he tells us at the end why he doesn't really believe his own numbers:
So at the end of the day, you can still place me pretty firmly in the "will be stunned if Brown wins" category.  That said, I wouldn't be bowled over if the race was much closer than it should be, perhaps in the 54%-46% range.
The Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, does not seem to be taking the race very seriously, though she has not actually gone on vacation.

But she might be surprised.  Special elections often produce surprises, especially when many voters are unhappy with the policies of the current administration.  The Republican candidate, Scott Brown, seems to be pursuing the correct strategy; he is campaigning vigorously against current policies, but not making a big media push, for now.
- 10:58 AM, 4 January 2010
Rasmussen gives Coakley a 9 point lead
A new Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of likely voters in the state finds Coakley ahead of Brown 50% to 41%. One percent (1%) prefer some other candidate, and seven percent (7%) are undecided.
And just a 2 point lead among voters who are "absolutely certain" that they will vote.

There's a complication in the race, which I haven't seen discussed elsewhere:  There's a libertarian on the ballot — named Joe Kennedy.  Ordinarily, I would expect a libertarian candidate to take more votes from the Republican candidate, but given that last name, we could see the opposite happen in this election.

Judging by this story, Kennedy will be trying to elect Coakley, but his name may dominate his message.
- 8:49 AM, 5 January 2009   [link]

Should We Train People For Jobs That Don't Exist?  In the 1970s, I noticed, like many other graduate students, that job prospects for English and history PhDs were dismal.  A graduate student in one of those fields could work for years earning a degree from a good school and then have almost no chance of getting a job in his field.

I asked one of the more sympathetic professors in my department how professors in those departments justified having graduate students.  As I recall, he said that they mostly didn't think about the question.  And that's understandable, if not necessarily forgivable.  Graduate students made their lives much easier — by, for instance, doing the bulk of the grading on freshman composition papers — and much more enjoyable — by giving the professors a chance to teach graduate seminars.

But it was unjust, I thought, to allow graduate departments to exploit their graduate students this way.  (Even if the graduate students were freely accepting the exploitation.)  And I thought, though I don't recall saying so, that universities should not allow departments to have PhD programs, unless they could place most of their PhDs in academic jobs.

Almost nothing has changed since I had those sour thoughts, as Thomas Benton explains in this article.
Most undergraduates don't realize that there is a shrinking percentage of positions in the humanities that offer job security, benefits, and a livable salary (though it is generally much lower than salaries in other fields requiring as many years of training).  They don't know that you probably will have to accept living almost anywhere, and that you must also go through a six-year probationary period at the end of which you may be fired for any number of reasons and find yourself exiled from the profession.  They seem to think becoming a humanities professor is a reliable prospect — a more responsible and secure choice than, say, attempting to make it as a freelance writer, or an actor, or a professional athlete — and, as a result, they don't make any fallback plans until it is too late.
. . .
Just to be clear: There is work for humanities doctorates (though perhaps not as many as are currently being produced), but there are fewer and fewer real jobs because of conscious policy decisions by colleges and universities.  As a result, the handful of real jobs that remain are being pursued by thousands of qualified people — so many that the minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery.
(Emphasis added.)

Now one might think that this system, however dismal, affects only the graduate departments and the graduate students.  But that isn't true for our public universities, where taxpayers pay for much of this job training for nonexistent jobs.  (And taxpapers subsidize higher education in so many ways that they probably pay for much of it in private universities, as well.)

If a private company were offering job training programs with similar costs and equally bad prospects, many state legislatures would look for a way to put them out of business, but those same legislatures will shovel money to our public universities, without asking for much in the way of accountability.

(Benton does not mention the problem of discrimination in hiring.  At about the same time I had that conversation with the professor, I heard about an English PhD who was told by his alma mater that he would not be considered for a position, since they were only looking at black and women applicants.  What they were doing was illegal, but they did him a kindness by telling him the facts of life in academia.  I was told about the same time not to consider a particular sub-field because my skin was too light.

In sum, there are good reasons that most who want to should not pursue a humanities degrees; those reasons are even stronger if you happen to be, through no fault of your own, a white male.)
- 8:08 AM, 4 January 2010   [link]

Oil-Rich Venezuela Has An Energy Shortage:  One severe enough to require rationing.
Oil-rich Venezuela ushered in 2010 with new measures rationing electricity use in malls, businesses and billboards, as Hugo Chavez's government aimed to save power amid a crippling drought.

The new regulations came into effect January 1, with businesses required to comply with reduced consumption limits and authorities warning of forced power cuts and rate hikes if the measures are not followed.
Some will be reminded of the decades-long bad weather for crops in the old Soviet Union, or even the quip about the Sahara and the shortage of sand.

(I have mixed feelings about Chavez's incompetence in governing Venezuela.  He has imposed much suffering on his country, but it is possible that his blunders will eventually lead the people of Venezuela to finally throw him out.  For their sake, and for peace in this hemisphere, one can only hope that happens soon.)
- 7:22 AM, 4 January 2010   [link]

Are Engineers More Likely To Become Terrorists?  That's what some academics believe.
The anecdotal evidence has always been strong.  The mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Mohamed Atta, was an architectural engineer.  Khalid Sheikh Mohamed got his degree in mechanical engineering.  Two of the three founders of Lashkar-e-Taibi, the group believed to be behind the Mumbai attacks, were professors at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore.

A paper (PDF) released this summer by two sociologists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, adds empirical evidence to this observation.  The pair looked at more than 400 radical Islamic terrorists from more than 30 nations in the Middle East and Africa born mostly between the 1950s and 1970s.  Earlier studies had shown that terrorists tend to be wealthier and better-educated than their countrymen, but Gambetta and Hertog found that engineers, in particular, were three to four times more likely to become violent terrorists than their peers in finance, medicine or the sciences.  The next most radicalizing graduate degree, in a distant second, was Islamic Studies.
The Slate article goes on to speculate on why this might be true.  They do not mention two possible reasons that deserve study:  Engineers are more likely to be exposed to Western universities, and they are more likely to be doers, rather than talkers or theorists.

(Caveat:  I haven't read the Gambetta and Herzog paper yet, though I suppose I should.)
- 6:45 PM, 3 January 2010   [link]

RIP, Deborah Howell:  The former Washington Post ombudsman was killed in an auto accident in New Zealand.  Before her death, she had had a remarkable career in journalism, topped off, for me, by her time at the Post.
As the Internet cut into newspapers' profits, the Newhouse bureau shrank in size, and Ms. Howell retired in 2005 to join The Post as ombudsman, or readers' advocate.  She wrote a weekly column until December 2008, taking the paper to task for its shortcomings and defending it when she felt it was unfairly attacked.

She didn't hesitate to point fingers at renowned columnists and reporters when questions arose about outside speaking fees, and her criticisms prodded the paper to make key internal changes, such as having a greater emphasis on prompt corrections and accountability to the public.
I had a couple of email exchanges with Howell, and was impressed by her prompt and sensible replies to my queries.  To be a good ombudsman requires real strength of character, as well as good reporting skills, and she had both.

I was sorry to see her leave the Post, and I am even more sorry about her early death.

(The only ombudsman who I would consider in her class is Daniel Okrent, the first "public editor" at the New York Times.  He has gone back to reporting and has taken on one of the toughest subjects, the city of Detroit.)
- 6:29 PM, 3 January 2010   [link]

Thorium Reactors?  You can learn about their — potential — advantages from this Wired article, which probably has the facts mostly right.  (Though it's a bit gushing for my tastes.)

When he took over as head of Oak Ridge in 1955, Alvin Weinberg realized that thorium by itself could start to solve these problems [of reactors using uranium].  It's abundant — the US has at least 175,000 tons of the stuff — and doesn't require costly processing.  It is also extraordinarily efficient as a nuclear fuel.  As it decays in a reactor core, its byproducts produce more neutrons per collision than conventional fuel.  The more neutrons per collision, the more energy generated, the less total fuel consumed, and the less radioactive nastiness left behind.

Even better, Weinberg realized that you could use thorium in an entirely new kind of reactor, one that would have zero risk of meltdown.  The design is based on the lab's finding that thorium dissolves in hot liquid fluoride salts.  This fission soup is poured into tubes in the core of the reactor, where the nuclear chain reaction — the billiard balls colliding — happens.  The system makes the reactor self-regulating: When the soup gets too hot it expands and flows out of the tubes — slowing fission and eliminating the possibility of another Chernobyl.  Any actinide can work in this method, but thorium is particularly well suited because it is so efficient at the high temperatures at which fission occurs in the soup.
Briefly, you would use a uranium "seed" to start a breeder reactor, which would convert the thorium into uranium 233, which would keep the reaction going.

Richard Martin is probably overestimating the near-term potential and underestimating the long-term problems of thorium reactors, but we almost certainly should be looking into them (and many other sources of power).

Martin skips over the problem of proliferation too lightly.  The U-233 produced by these breeder reactors can be used to make atomic bombs.  And I don't doubt that there is some evil regime or gang of terrorists that is already thinking about ways to do just that.

But that is a problem with most (all?) breeder reactors.  Uranium breeder reactors have gone out of favor in the United States for just that reason, wrongly in my opinion.

Unfortunately, when the anti-nuclear people learn about that small problem of proliferation, they will raise the same objections to thorium reactors that they did, earlier, to other breeder reactors.

(Here's the Wikipedia article on thorium, and another Wikipedia article on the thorium fuel cycle, which gives some advantages and disadvantages of thorium reactors.)
- 2:37 PM, 2 January 2010   [link]

JibJab Reviews 2009:  Not one of their best efforts, but worth a minute of your time, if you need a few chuckles.
- 7:29 AM, 2 January 2010   [link]

Happy New Year!

- 8:24 AM, 1 January 2010   [link]