Saturday, July 24, 2010

Massive Comet Impact Detected on Neptune

Smashup 200 years ago suggests crashes more frequent than thought. Rachel Kaufman for National Geographic News | July 23, 2010


Neptune was struck by a giant comet about two centuries ago, according to new research. The find adds to a growing body of evidence that cometary collisions with gas giant planets may be more common than astronomers thought.

On rocky planets with thin atmospheres, such as Mercury (pictures) and Mars, it's easy to count the craters made by impacts dating back millions of years, giving scientists a rough estimate of how frequently space rocks collide with other worlds.

But the gas giants—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—are planets that are almost all roiling atmosphere with just tiny cores of rock, making it much harder to find evidence of past impacts.

In 1994 the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke apart and smashed into Jupiter, and several space probes, including Voyager 2, Galileo, and the Hubble Space Telescope, were able to document the rare event.



Using what they'd learned about chemicals left in Jupiter's atmosphere after the comet crash, scientists from the French observatory LESIA and the Max Planck Institutes in Germany analyzed the composition of Neptune's atmosphere with the European research satellite Herschel.

The data show that the amount of carbon monoxide in Neptune's upper atmosphere is higher than in the planet's lower atmosphere. Since gas would normally thin out as it reaches higher atmospheric layers, the extra gas had to come from some outside source, the scientists say.

A comet, which carries carbon monoxide in its icy tail, is the "main explanation," said study co-author Paul Hartogh of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

Comet Also Smashed Saturn?

The researchers estimate the comet that struck Neptune was 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) wide, which would have made its impact very powerful.

The first fragment of Shoemaker-Levy 9 was just half the size of the unnamed Neptune comet. When the fragment struck Jupiter, it released energy equal to 225,000 megatons of TNT and created a plume 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) high.

In addition, a similar technique used earlier this year found evidence for a comet crash on Saturn 300 years ago.

Adding the Neptune find to the relatively recent Saturn and Jupiter smashups implies that comet collisions might be more frequent than astronomers had thought.

A 1997 study estimated that comets about a mile (1.6 kilometers) wide hit Jupiter once every 6,000 years. And mathematical models for Neptune have suggested that a major comet hits the gas giant planet every 8,000 years, Hartogh said.

Based on the old calculations, he said, "statistically, it's not so probable" that Neptune, Jupiter, and Staurn would each suffer a major impact event within a 300-year period—suggesting a new estimate may be in order.

"Maybe there are more impacts than we think."

EJECT!!!




Who Ultimately Pays the Corporate Income Tax?


I ended last week’s post by asking whether anyone knows which human beings ultimately pay the corporate income tax.

An intuitively appealing answer is that the tax is levied on profits, which are a return on capital invested in a corporation. Therefore, those who made that investment — the shareholders — absorb the tax fully in the form of a lower after-tax return on their investments.

That impression would be reinforced by the short-run, partial-equilibrium model of the individual company that we sometimes trot out in freshman economics courses.

In the partial-equilibrium model, the company’s capital stock is assumed to be fixed in the short run. Imposing or raising a tax on the profits will not change the company’s decisions on prices and production, because to maximize after-tax profits the company would take the same steps as to maximize pretax profits.

But economics professors quickly add that all bets are off in the longer run, when the company’s capital stock relative to the input of labor can change and when the owners of investable funds can decide whether to invest their money at home or abroad or in enterprises not subject to corporate taxation.

General-equilibrium models accommodating this wider view of the economy and the longer run go much beyond the compass of a freshman course and show that who actually pays the corporate income tax — the owners of capital or labor — is driven by a number of factors in complicated ways that elude simple intuition.

A fine review of these extended models can be found in Jennifer Gravelle’s recent paper, “Corporate Tax Incidence: Review of General Equilibrium Estimates and Analysis.” A broader review of the economic literature on all facets of the corporate income tax, not just its incidence, can be found in a paper by Jane G. Gravelle and Thomas L. Hungerford, “Corporate Tax Reform: Issues for Congress.” Be warned: while both papers avoid formal mathematical modeling, they might be a tough slog for anyone who did not major in economics in college.

The models in question typically divide a country’s economy into a corporate sector (the “taxed sector”) in which businesses are treated and taxed as if they were individuals, a concept known as legal persons, and another “non-taxed sector” in which business entities are not taxed as legal persons. Furthermore, the models can be for either a “closed economy” that does not trade goods or services and investable funds with the rest of the world or an “open economy” that engages in trade and financial capital flows with other countries.

Looking at the open-economy model, exactly how corporations shift the corporate tax either to labor or to the investors in the company, or to both in some proportion, depends upon the interplay of a number of factors, the most important of which are:
1. the relative ease with which investable funds can be shifted to other countries and how responsive such capital flows are to changes in the after-tax rate of return to capital in the taxing country;
2. how easy it is in the taxing country to substitute imported goods and services for all domestically produced goods and services;
3. how easy it is in the taxing country’s taxed and untaxed sectors to substitute labor for capital, and vice versa, in the domestic production of goods and services;
4. the relative capital intensity of production in the taxed and untaxed sectors of the taxing economy;
5. the size of that economy relative to the rest of the world’s economy. It matters, for example, whether the country is small, like Ireland, or large, like the United States.
The earliest formal general equilibrium model, published in 1962 by a University of Chicago economist, Arnold C. Harberger, in the Journal of Political Economy, assumed a closed economy. In that model, the burden of the corporate income tax ultimately fell entirely on the owners of capital.

When the model was modified as an open economy in which capital in the taxed country can escape by flowing abroad to untaxed or lower-taxed countries, some or all of the burden of the corporate income tax shifted to labor. Under the assumption of perfect international capital mobility and perfect substitutability of imported goods and services for all domestically produced goods and services, labor would then bear the entire corporate income tax, because labor is the only immobile factor than cannot escape the tax.

Other modeling efforts since that time, or econometric estimates inspired by these models, have ranged between these extreme incidence models.

Economists are divided on the issue. Some (including Gregory Mankiw) are persuaded that the corporate income tax ultimately falls mainly on labor, rather than on the presumably wealthier owners of capital. One can actually make a case for cutting the tax in the name of a more progressive income-tax structure, which should appeal to voters and politicians left of center.

Other economists, including the authors of the surveys cited above (Jane Gravelle, Jennifer Gravelle and Thomas Hungerford), are persuaded by the available empirical evidence on the five factors I note that the burden of the corporate tax ultimately rests mainly on the owners of capital. That also appears to be the operative assumption of the Congressional Budget Office, the Treasury and other agencies when they analyzethe distributional impact of various forms of taxation.

So, given that even economists cannot agree on who actually bears the burden of the corporate income tax, why not abolish the tax altogether and instead tax human beings directly? The arguments against such a move are twofold.

First, even bringing in only 12 percent or so of total federal taxes, the corporate income tax represents the third-largest source of federal revenue and could not easily be replaced with an alternative source, especially in these times of fiscal pressures.

Second, if the profits of corporations were not taxed, the corporate form of enterprise would become one more major tax shelter through which wealthy people could shield their income from taxation. That probably is the main reason why abolishing the corporate tax has never had any political traction, in the United States or abroad.

Will Your Children Grow Up To Be Servants And Nannies?

Reihan Salam, 07.23.10

Will large numbers of today's children grow up to become servants and nannies in the homes of the digital bourgeoisie? There is good reason to believe that the answer is yes.

The most pressing issue of the day remains sky-high unemployment. There is, however, almost no consensus about how to think about the the depth of the problems facing the U.S. labor market. Many believe that the staggering unemployment rate is purely cyclical. Karl Smith, an economist at the UNC School of Government, has written a post on "the myth of structural unemployment," arguing that "the structure of the American economy hasn't changed that much in the last 24 months."

Yet one wonders if the last 24 months are the right place to look. In Wired for Innovation, MIT economist Erik Brynjolffson and Adam Saunders of Wharton offer an insightful portrait of how the U.S. economy has evolved over the last decade. Their analysis strongly suggests that the shift toward a more IT-intensive economy will lead to even more polarization of the U.S. labor market. Brynjolffson has dubbed the "Great Recession" a "Great Restructuring," adding gravitas to arguments advanced by thinkers like Jeff Jarvis and Richard Florida who've argued in a similar vein. "As growth resumes," Brynjolffson writes, "millions of people will find that their old jobs are gone forever."

Smith is undoubtedly right that we can't neglect the cyclical dimension, and that journalists and would-be visionaries have a tendency to grasp at sweeping rather than narrowly tailored explanations for high unemployment. In Smith's view, for example, construction employment will likely recover, as the building boom of the 2000s was not out of step with the earlier building boom of the 1970s. But consider the following counterfactual. As Barry LePatner argued in Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets, the trillion-dollar U.S. construction sector is unusually fragmented and undercapitalized, and thus ripe for consolidation. Economic as well as environmental imperatives could drive consolidation, leading to a construction sector that is leaner, more skill-intensive and more IT-intensive. This would mean far higher productivity. And it would also mean that the labor market position of less-skilled construction workers would deteriorate.

There will, of course, always be a place for less-skilled workers, albeit at low wages. At a certain point, wages in the informal sector might look like a more attractive alternative. Discouraged workers who've stopped looking for work in the mainstream economy would, in this scenario, remain on the margins. Indeed, the steady deterioration in the labor market position of less-skilled men is one key reason why male labor force participation has declined so markedly over the last 30 years. The pressing question is whether we are likely to see this trend accelerate.

Between 1973 and 1995 U.S. labor productivity grew at an average rate of 1.4% a year, a rate that means living standards would take 50 years to double. In contrast, the 2.7% growth rate in productivity from 1948 to 1972 doubled productivity in 26 years. And that earlier period is remembered as an economic Golden Age, when working and middle class Americans saw extraordinary progress in their living standards and the U.S. economy was without peer.

From 1995 to 2000 the productivity growth rate increased to 2.6% per year, almost matching the Golden Age. As Brynjolffson and Saunders observe, this productivity boom was traced to the deployment of IT investment across a wide range of sectors, particularly retail. The more interesting productivity boom, however, occurred between 2001 and 2003, when the productivity growth rate hit 3.6% per year. This productivity spike was driven less by investments in IT than by investments in organizational capital, a catch-all term for productivity-enhancing business practices.

The authors observe a sharp divergence between firms that successfully transformed themselves into effective digital organizations and those that did not. Very bluntly, digital organizations flourish while others wither and die. Brynjolffson and Wharton economist Lorin Hitt identified the defining characteristics of digital organizations, and the most striking were those centered on valuing the strongest performers within an organization: In digital organizations, employees are empowered to make decisions and they are subject to performance-based incentives. Recruiting and investing in top performers is a high if not the highest priority.

The logical implication is that the transition to digital organizations is a recipe for even more inequality. In "Performance Pay and Wage Inequality," economists Thomas Lemieux, W. Bentley MacLeod, and Daniel Parent maintain that the increasing use of performance pay can account for "nearly all of the top-end growth in wage dispersion." Assuming this pattern holds, there is no reason to believe that we will see any decrease in wage dispersion. Quite the opposite: The most skilled workers will cluster in digital organizations, and wages at the top will continue to expand at a healthy clip.

This raises the question of what will happen to those trapped in the low end of the labor market. Recently, the cultural critic Annalee Newitz offered a provocative hypothesis: "We may return to arrangements that look a lot like what people had over a century ago," Newitz writes. As more skilled women enter the workforce, and as the labor market position of millions of less-skilled workers deteriorate, we'll see more servants and nannies in middle-class homes. While this future might seem disturbing at first, there is no reason to believe that these armies of servants and nannies won't earn decent wages. But let's just say that this isn't the future most of us envision for our children.

WTF?

Leaked 'Walking Dead' trailer from SDCC2010


(heart beating out of my chest...whoopie! Looks awesome!--jef)

Is Your Life Worth More to Your Government Than a Few Dollars' Gain in Oil Stocks?

By Johann Hari, Huffington Post, July 24, 2010
 Is your life worth more to your government than a few pence added onto Big Oil's share price? At first, this will sound like a foolish question. But sometimes there is a news story that lays out the priorities of our governments once the doors are closed and the cameras are switched off. The story of the attempt to trade the Lockerbie bomber for oil is one of those moments.
Let's start in the deserts of Iraq -- because the Lockerbie deal might just reveal what really happened there. Many people were perplexed by Tony Blair's decision to back George W. Bush's invasion, which has led to the deaths of 1.2 million people. Blair said he was motivated by opposition to two things -- terrorism and tyranny. First off, he said Saddam Hussein might give Weapons of Mass Destruction to jihadis. When it was proven in the rubble after the invasion that Saddam had no WMD and no links to jihadis -- as many critics of the war had said all along -- Blair declared he would do it all again anyway, because Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, and all tyrants should be opposed.
Most critics of the war said the real reason was a desire for Western access to Iraq's vast supplies of oil. This debate has gone on for years. Now it emerges that Tony Blair plotted to hand a convicted terrorist -- the worst in modern British history -- to a vicious tyrant, in exchange for access to oil for British corporations. It seems to settle the argument in the darkest possible way.
Here's how it happened. Just before Christmas in 1988, a flight from London to New York City was blasted out of the sky above Scotland by a bomb in the cargo. All 259 people onboard were killed, along with 11 on the ground. One man was convicted for the mass murder at a Scottish trial in 2000: Abdelbasset al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer. Following the bombing, most Western governments imposed sanctions on Libya that forbade their companies to invest there. If you are opposed to terrorism and tyranny, it was a happy ending: An alleged terrorist was tried in open court and convicted, and a tyrant was shunned.
But within a few years Tony Blair was not happy. Why? The oil company BP wanted to be able to drill down into Libya's oil and tap the profits that would gush forth. Their then-CEO, John Browne, flew to Tripoli in the company of MI6 agents to find out what the dictatorship wanted in return for opening the country's wells. It was, of course, clear. They wanted Megrahi back.
BP has admitted it lobbied Tony Blair to hasten into effect a prisoner exchange with Libya. They say they didn't specifically mention Megrahi -- but there was no need to. There were no other Libyan prisoners of particular note in Britain.
Blair's administration was so intertwined by that point with the oil company that it was often dubbed "Blair's Petroleum." There was a revolving door between BP and Downing Street: BP execs sat on more government taskforces than all other oil companies combined, while Blair's closest confidantes, such as Anji Hunter and Phillip Gould, went to work for the corporation. He made two of the corporation's successive CEOs into Lords, even appointed one as a minister to his government, and slashed taxes on North Sea oil production, causing BP's share price to skyrocket. By 2005, he was talking to Lord Browne at Downing Street dinners about what he would do after he left office. There were rumors at the time he considered working for BP.
Blair responded to BP's lobbying with apparent pleasure. His Foreign Office Minister, Bill Rammell,assured Libyan officials that Blair did not "want Megrahi to pass away in prison." His Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said a desire for Libya's oil was "an essential part" of this decision. So Straw began negotiating a prisoner swap agreement, and urged the Scottish authorities to release the convict. He told the Scottish government in a leaked letter that it was "in the overwhelming interests of the United Kingdom" to let Megrahi go.
The chief negotiator for the Libyans was Mousa Kousa, a thug who had been expelled from Britain after bragging about plots to murder democratic dissidents here on British soil. These supposed opponents of tyranny didn't blush.
There are, of course, some serious commentators who argue that Megrahi was framed. It's a legitimate debate. But if he was, it should have been settled in court, at an appeal, not in a dodgy deal with a dictator to benefit BP.
Both sides now admit what was happening: They were trying to trade a convicted mass murderer for oil.Saif Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator's son and second in command, said it was "obvious" that attempts to free Megrahi were linked to oil contracts, adding "we all knew what we were talking about." When he later appeared on a TV chat show alongside Megrahi, he told him: "In all the trade, oil and gas deals which I have supervised, you were there on the table. When British interests came to Libya, I used to put you on the table."
There is no question there was a plot. The only question is whether the plot worked, or whether it got what it wanted anyway by a remarkable coincidence. It was, ultimately, up to the Scottish politicians whether to release Megrahi, and they publicly refused a prisoner swap. We know that Straw lobbied them to do it, but they insist they made the decision independently on "compassionate grounds." A year ago, Megrahi was sent home to Tripoli to be greeted by cheering crowds after serving eleven days for each person murdered. Officially, the Scots had assessed him to have only three months left to live.
There are several facts that batter these claims with question marks. The most obvious is that, eleven months later, Megrahi isn't dead. It's the most amazing medical recovery since Lazarus. Or is it? It turns out the doctors who declared him sick were paid for by the Libyan government, and one of them says he was put under pressure by Libya to offer the most pessimistic estimate of life expectancy. Susan Cohen, whose only daughter died in Lockerbie, says: "Why didn't the Scottish pay for the doctors?"
Indeed, a detailed investigation by the Sunday Telegraph reported that "the Scottish and British governments actively assisted Megrahi and his legal team to seek a release on compassionate grounds" -- suggesting they were hardly neutrally trying to discover the medical facts. The Libyan dictatorship certainly took the release as a gift from the British government. The tyranny's chief spokesman, Abdul Majeed al-Dursi, said: "This is a brave and courageous decision by the British... We in Libya appreciate this and Britain will find it is rewarded." BP has indeed been rewarded: It is now drilling in Libya.
But releasing him this way was certainly easier. It's hard to tell the public you released a mass murderer out of compassion for him, but it's almost impossible to tell them you did it for oil. Senator Charles Schumer of New York says: "Once Megrahi is released, all the roadblocks to that oil deal are removed. If anyone thinks this is a coincidence, I have a bridge to sell them in Brooklyn."
This affair seems to reopen the Iraq debate, in a way that vindicates Blair's most severe critics. Tony Blair's remaining defenders say he was motivated in Iraq by a hatred of terrorism and tyranny and had no regard whatsoever for getting access to oil. Yet at the very same time, the Labour government was plotting in Libya to hand the worst terrorist in British history to a tyrant in exchange for oil. It's proof that oil and corporate power were a much bigger factor in driving foreign policy than the public rhetoric of opposing tyranny or terror.
David Cameron refuses to establish an investigation into how this was allowed to happen. He has tried to soothe anger by saying he will release all the relevant documents -- but the Cabinet Secretary, Gus O'Donnell, added soon after that Blair's permission will be needed before any records of his conversations are shown to the public. Imagine if the police allowed suspects to take this approach: "Certainly, officer, you can look under my coffee table. But not in any of my wardrobes. Good day."
For the families of all the innocent people slaughtered in Lockerbie, this has been a cold-water education in what their governments really value. Cohen, remembering her murdered 20-year-old daughter Theodora, says: "Western governments seem to be run by one thing now -- the great God money. All that matters now is profits and money. Blood-money."
There's a revealing little postscript to this tale. Last month, Blair went to Libya on behalf of the large corporations who now employ him. He was greeted by Gaddafi himself -- who tortures dissidents and terrorizes his population -- "like a brother", according to the Libyans. There has even been rife press speculation that, now that they need a CEO, Tony Blair will go to work for BP. In many ways, it seems, he always has.

Why Does God Reveal Himself to Some People and Not to Others?

Doesn't it seem likely that the reason all of us can't see God is because there is no God?
By Greta Christina, AlterNet, July 24, 2010

If God exists… why isn't his existence obvious?

And is "free will" a good answer to this question?

A few weeks ago, in this very publication, I posed the question, "Why did God create atheists?" If God reveals himself to religious believers, in visions or revelations or other spiritual experiences… why doesn't he do it with everyone? Why are those revelations so contradictory -- not to mention so suspiciously consistent with whatever the people having them already believe or want to believe? And why doesn't everyone have them? If God is real, I asked -- if religious believers are perceiving a real entity with a real effect on the world -- why isn't it just obvious?

Why is God playing hide and seek?

When I wrote that piece, I addressed (and dismantled) two of the most common responses to this question: "God has revealed himself to you, you've just closed your heart to him," and, "God doesn't care if you're an atheist --- as long as you're a good person, he doesn't care if you believe in him."

But I neglected to address one of the most common religious answers to this question:

Free will.

"God can't reveal himself to us clearly," this argument goes, "because he wants us to have free will. We have to be free to believe in him or not. If he revealed his presence to us, we'd be forced to believe in him -- and our free will is a precious gift. It's what makes us God's unique creation."

It's a really, really bad argument.

I'm going to dismantle it today.

The Freedom of Information Act

Imagine you're on a jury. You're asked to decide whether something is or is not real, whether it did or did not happen; whether the accused stole the diamonds, or set fire to their warehouse for the insurance, or shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. The prosecution doesn't offer much evidence at the trial -- it's all circumstantial at best, third-hand hearsay at worst, with excessive appeals to emotion and fear, and arguments based on faulty logic. So you decide to acquit.

And then, after you've reached your verdict, you're told there's a videotape, clearly showing the accused committing the crime.

You're baffled. You're outraged. You confront the prosecutor in the hallway, and ask, "Why didn't you show us this evidence at the trial? Why show it to us now -- when it's too late to do anything about it?"

And the prosecutor replies, "Because you had to be free to decide for yourself. If we gave you that videotape, it would have made your choice too obvious. Free will is a precious gift, a crucial component of the justice system -- and in order for the jury to have free will, we can't make the right verdict too obvious. That would have forced your hand."

Would you nod your head sagely in agreement? Would you think that was a sound and reasonable explanation?

Or would you think he was out of his gourd?

And if you think this was a ridiculous and outrageous explanation from the prosecutor -- then why on earth would you think it's a good argument when it comes to God?

Having more information doesn't make us less free to decide what's real. It's the exact opposite. The more information we have, the better able we are to make a free, independent conclusion about what is and isn't true.

If God was real, but was playing hide and seek? If he was deliberately hiding himself from us? If he was leaving maddeningly frustrating and inconsistent hints about his existence, always staying one step ahead, always keeping carefully out of sight? That wouldn't give us free will. That would make us pawns in his manipulative, passive-aggressive game. (Especially if he punished us at the end of the game with intolerable, permanent torture, just because we guessed wrong.)

And even if clearly revealing himself somehow "forced" us to recognize God's existence… how would that force us to worship or obey him?

I mean, I have no doubt whatsoever that the San Francisco Police Department exists. They have made their existence very clear indeed. But I still have a choice about whether to obey the laws they enforce. I have a choice about whether to jaywalk, hire prostitutes, drink beer on the street. I usually obey these laws; I occasionally disobey them. I sometimes make that decision based on my fear of the cops; I sometimes make it based on my own conscience or convenience. But my freedom to obey or disobey the law does not hinge on my ignorance of the fact that the SFPD exists, and has power to enforce these laws. My awareness that the police are real, that they are not mythical creatures, does not in any way eradicate my freedom.

Why would it work that way with God?

Now, some people will argue that God is a special case. They'll argue that, because God's power is absolute -- which the SFPD's clearly is not -- revealing himself to us would be tantamount to coercion. It'd be like having the cops follow every one of us day and night… with the absolute power to put us in Abu Ghraib forever if we broke even the tiniest law.

But why would that have to be true? Couldn't God clearly tell us all, "Hey, I exist -- but I think you need to make your own moral decisions, so I'm not going to punish or reward you for good and bad behavior." Or at least, "I'm going to make your punishments and rewards proportionate to your actions, and I'm going to clearly spell out those punishments and rewards ahead of time, so you can decide for yourself if it's worth it." There's no reason free will couldn't be consistent with knowing that God existed -- or even with knowing that God was all-powerful, and could kick your ass from here to Saturn if he felt like it.

It's arguable, I'll grant you, that while free will could be consistent with this more open and moderate (albeit clearly non-existent) god, it wouldn't be possible with the more common notions of permanent, perfectly blissful heaven and permanent, perfectly torturous hell. But if what God wants for us is our free will… how would that version of the afterlife help matters? To return to the jury analogy: How would it make the jury more free to deny them the videotape of the accused committing the crime… and then throw them in Abu Ghraib forever for giving the wrong verdict? If that's the god you believe in… then with all due respect, your god is a capricious, sadistic jerk, who plays a cruel game of hide and seek with his most beloved creation, and then punishes us with intolerable, permanent torture when we lose. In which case, the only moral choice would be to reject him. (Which, supposedly, he made us free to do.)

And even the idea of Heaven raises its own set of problems here. Namely: If our free will depends on God playing hide and seek -- then how do people have free will in Heaven? In Heaven, God's existence is supposed to be blindingly clear. We're supposed to spend eternity basking in his presence. If knowing for sure that God exists eradicates our free will, then how do souls have free will in Heaven? And if souls don't have free will in Heaven, doesn't that undercut the idea of our freedom being the most precious and unique gift God could have given us?

It makes no sense. Again: When people are trying to make a decision, not just about what's real but about how to act on it, denying us relevant information does not make us more free. It makes us less free. In every area of life other than religion, this is clearly understood. It's the foundation of the principle of informed consent: when relevant information is denied us, our consent is impaired at best, and negated at worst. Having the best possible information about reality is essential to making good decisions about how to act in that reality.

Why is God an exception to that rule? Why is it that with everything else in our lives, having more information makes us better able to make a free choice… but with God -- and only God -- clearly revealing the simple fact that he exists and has power to enforce his rules would somehow turn us into his mindless robotic slaves?

How does that make any kind of sense?

Why Are There Special Snowflakes?

So when believers argue that God can't reveal himself to anybody without mysteriously eradicating our ability to make our own choices, that's my response. But that's not the only belief people hold about God and his supposed relationship to humanity. Some believers think that God reveals himself to some people, but not to others. Believers in the Bible, for instance, think that God used to reveal himself to people all the time: to Moses, to the prophets, and so on. Heck, the whole Adam and Eve story is based on the notion that they knew full well who God was and what he could do… and disobeyed him anyway.

And even people who don't believe in the Bible's literal truth still make an argument very much like this one. "Personal religious experience" -- i.e., the belief that God communicates his existence and/or intentions to some people directly -- is one of the most common reasons believers give for believing.

Which brings us back to the original question:

Why are there atheists?

Why does God reveal himself to some people, and not to others?

If it would eradicate my free will for God to make his existence obvious to me… why doesn't it eradicate yours? Or your neighbor's? Why doesn't it eradicate your priest's free will, your minister's, your rabbi's, your imam's, your guru's? Why didn't it eradicate Paul's, or Moses', or Muhammad's, or Adam's and Eve's, or that of any of the prophets and figures in religious texts who God supposedly spoke to?

If clear visions of God's existence would eradicate our freedom to believe in him or not… why does anyone have them?

I'm not looking here at the problem of why God reveals himself in such wildly different and even completely contradictory ways to different people. I'm not even looking at the problem of the mind being a highly fallible instrument, prone to a wide assortment of cognitive errors, and so if you think God is talking to you, you really need to confirm that hypothesis with external corroborating evidence.

I'm talking here strictly about the problem of free will. And I'm talking about the glaring contradiction in so many religious beliefs: the idea that, on the one hand, God reveals himself directly to some people and has done so many times in the past… and that, on the other hand, God can't reveal his existence to everyone, because doing so would somehow make us not free. I'm asking the question: Why are some people special snowflakes, able to communicate with God without it impairing their freedom to believe and obey him… while the rest of us aren't?

You can't have it both ways. Either God revealing his existence would undercut our free will -- or it wouldn't. If it would undercut our free will, then God must not be revealing himself to anybody… which means you can't count personal religious experience -- yours, or anyone else's, including the prophets who wrote your holy book --- as evidence of his existence. And if it wouldn't undercut our free will, then we're back to the question: Why isn't God making his existence clear?

Why does every religious believer have a different understanding of him, many of which are totally contradictory?

And why do some of us -- more of us every day -- not believe at all?

Why Are We Even Having This Conversation?

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: If God existed, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. If God existed, it would just be obvious. If God existed, there'd be no reason for him to keep his existence a secret. There'd be no reason for him to create life, and yet somehow make that life look exactly like it would have if it had evolved naturally… right down to the inefficiencies, jury-rigs, superfluities, mind-numbing brutality, and other glaring flaws in life's supposed "design." There'd be no reason for him to animate conscious beings with immaterial souls, and yet somehow make those souls look exactly like they would have if they were biological products of the brain…. right down to the radical changes in people's consciousness and character that happen when our brains change. There'd be no reason for him to hide.

So why don't we see him?

Doesn't it seem likely that the reason we don't see him is that he doesn't exist?

The world does not look as if it was created by a supernatural being who intervenes with it on a regular basis. Or even on a semi-regular basis. There is not one scrap of good, solid evidence supporting this hypothesis. The world looks like physical matter and energy, governed by natural laws of cause and effect (and by that special version of cause and effect known as "randomness"). As Julia Sweeney says in her brilliant performance piece Letting Go of God, "The world behaves exactly as you expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural."

Given that that's true… which is the simplest, most plausible explanation?

That the world really has no Supreme Being?

Or that the world does have a Supreme Being, who created the world to look exactly as if he doesn't exist… just so he can play a cruel game of hide and seek with his most precious creation?

If you think the latter is true… you're certainly entitled to that belief.

But if you care whether the things you believe are true, you're going to need a really good answer for why this is.

And "free will" isn't going to cut it.

Ike warns the US about the rise of the corporate military industrial complex

(Was he prophetic? Or did he just see so much of what he warned us against, he felt compelled to warn future generations? Well, based on the trillions of dollars we've spent fighting one war that was begun under false pretense (Iraq), a war we can't possibly win (ask the Russians--Afghanistan), and two wars that are in the advanced stages of planning (Iran and N Korea), it seems like his dire warning has come true to the letter. The American Empire is defined by the corporate military industrial complex. They own the mainstream media, which has been a united voice for propaganda supporting each one of these wars (for example, GE owns NBC and its affiliates and also owns General Dynamics, one of the nation's largest defense contractors). How different would our world be if only we had listened to him. These words he speaks haunt me by their immediate influence on world events, but more haunting is my imagined world that heeded Ike's warning and kept the corporate military industrial complex in check. sigh...--jef)

***

Friday, July 23, 2010

Technician: Deepwater Horizon warning system disabled deliberately

By David S. Hilzenrath | Washington Post Staff Writer | Friday, July 23, 2010; 7:33 PM

KENNER, LA. -- Long before an eruption of gas turned the Deepwater Horizon oil rig into a fireball, an alarm system designed to alert the crew and prevent combustible gases from reaching potential sources of ignition had been deliberately disabled, the former chief electronics technician on the rig testified Friday.

Michael Williams, an ex-Marine who survived the April 20 inferno by jumping from the burning rig, told a federal panel probing the disaster that the alarm system was one of an array of critical systems that had been functioning unreliably in the run-up to the blowout.

Williams told the panel that he understood that the rig had been operating with the gas alarm system in "inhibited" mode for a year to prevent false alarms from disturbing the crew.

He said the explanation he got was that the leadership of the rig did not want crew members needlessly awakened in the middle of the night.

If the safety system was disabled, it would not have been a unique event. Records of federal enforcement actions reviewed by The Washington Post show that, in case after case, rig operators paid fines for allegedly bypassing safety systems that could impede routine operations.

Computers used to monitor and control drilling operations intermittently froze, to the point that the problem became known as "the blue screen of death," Williams said. Despite attempted repairs, the issue remained unresolved at the time of the blowout, Williams said.

Earlier in the drilling operation, one of the panels that controlled the blowout preventer -- the last line of defense against a gusher -- had been placed in bypass mode to work around a malfunction, Williams said.

Williams said a colleague told him that an inspection of the rig in the spring, shortly before the disaster, found extensive maintenance problems. The colleague said "that we were going to be in the shipyard a lot longer than anticipated because the rig was in very bad condition," Williams said.

The rig was owned by Transocean, the company that employs Williams, and was operating under contract to BP.

An attorney for BP, Richard Godfrey, added to the picture by reading from a September 2009 BP audit during his questioning of Williams. He read a litany of findings that included problems with bilge pumps, cooling pumps, an alarm system related to the rig's hospital and an emergency shutdown panel on the bridge.

A fire and alarm system was found to have its "override active," Godfrey said.

Altogether, the September audit identified 390 issues that needed addressing, Godfrey said.

Williams said the fire and gas system was "a wreck" when he took over his job in 2009, and trying to improve it was a constant battle.

Every member of the Deepwater Horizon crew had the authority to stop operations if they had safety concerns. Despite his unease, Williams said he never exercised that power. In days of testimony here by a parade of witnesses, that has been a recurring theme.

Williams said that when he discovered that the alarm system was "inhibited" he reported it to supervisors, and they informed him that orders were to keep it that way.

In the event of a gas leak, the rig was equipped to shut down vents that could transmit the gas to the engine rooms, where it could ignite.

But there was no guarantee the system would work.

When it was accidentally triggered once, Williams said, the suction from the engine was so great that it pulled a fire door off its hinges.

On the night of April 20, Engine No. 3 appeared to have exploded, Williams said.

Questioned by Transocean lawyer Edward F. Kohnke IV, Williams said he has filed a lawsuit over the disaster.

Williams also said that, when he gave a statement in the presence of the Transocean lawyer before retaining a lawyer of his own and filing suit, he did not mention the problems he discussed at Friday's hearing.

Williams, who was injured in the explosion, was taken by helicopter from a rescue ship to a Louisiana hospital. Transocean lawyers interviewed him in a Kenner hotel about a day after the blowout, said his attorney, Scott R. Bickford.

Transocean said in a statement that the Deepwater Horizon's general alarm system was controlled by a person on the bridge "to prevent the general alarm from sounding unnecessarily." Transocean provided part of an April inspection report that found "no [gas] detectors either in fault or inhibited condition, other than units being serviced."

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, co-chairman of the investigating panel, asked if Williams's experience pointed to a systemic maintenance problem.

"There's never enough time," Williams said.

Getting replacement parts contributed to the delay, he said.

"Turnaround was horrible," Williams said. "I waited on parts for a year."

The main problem was that some parts were no longer manufactured, Williams said, and Transocean had to have them custom-made.

The Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, until recently called the Minerals Management Service, are conducting the hearing.

In other testimony Friday, an expert consultant to the investigating board said that based on available data, it appeared that the Deepwater Horizon conducted four faulty integrity tests on the well in the hours before the blowout.

The fact that the test was apparently attempted four times indicates that someone on the rig was concerned, said John R. Smith, an associate professor of petroleum engineering at Louisiana State University and a consultant to the board.

"None of the four tests were an acceptable test," Smith said.

Apparently, when BP concluded the tests, hydrocarbons were already flowing up the well, said Smith, an industry veteran.

Going on the assumption that at least one of the tests was successful, BP prepared to wrap up its work on the well by removing heavy drilling fluid from the hole. The fluid serves as a damper on the well, and removing it eliminated a counterweight to a potential gusher.

CBO: New Robust Public option could save $68 billion by 2020

By Ezra Klein | July 23, 2010

When people think of deficit reduction, they tend to think about spending cuts and tax increases. They don't think as much about saving money by putting more effective policies into place. But as the Congressional Budget Office's analysis of a new public option proposal from Pete Stark suggests, maybe they should.

Stark wants to add a public option to the exchanges that would start by paying doctors the rates Medicare pays plus 5 percent, and then grow with the cost of physicians' services. According to the CBO, this plan's premiums "would be 5 percent to 7 percent lower, on average, than the premiums of private plans offered in the exchanges." But that's not all!

"The proposal would reduce federal budget deficits through 2019 by about $53 billion," CBO says. And because the public plan is saving more money as time goes on, if you extend that out to 2020, the savings to the government are $68 billion. That implies a savings of $200 billion or so in the second decade. That's a lot of money, and it's in addition to the savings for consumers.

In theory, this town is going to have a serious conversation about deficits pretty soon. And a lot of it will focus on how we can reduce services or raise taxes. That's going to be ugly. So the few opportunities we have to save large amounts of money while also making life better for people shouldn't be missed.

BP Hires Prison Labor to Clean Up Spill While Coastal Residents Struggle

Abe Louise Young | July 21, 2010 | The Nation

In the first few days after BP's Deepwater Horizon wellhead exploded, spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, cleanup workers could be seen on Louisiana beaches wearing scarlet pants and white t-shirts with the words "Inmate Labor" printed in large red block letters. Coastal residents, many of whom had just seen their livelihoods disappear, expressed outrage at community meetings; why should BP be using cheap or free prison labor when so many people were desperate for work? The outfits disappeared overnight.

Work crews in Grand Isle, Louisiana, still stand out. In a region where nine out of ten residents are white, the cleanup workers are almost exclusively African-American men. The racialized nature of the cleanup is so conspicuous that Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, sent a public letter [1] to BP CEO Tony Hayward on July 9, demanding to know why black people were over-represented in "the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins."

Hiring prison labor is more than a way for BP to save money while cleaning up the biggest oil spill in history. By tapping into the inmate workforce, the company and its subcontractors get workers who are not only cheap but easily silenced—and they get lucrative tax write-offs in the process.

Known to some as "the inmate state," Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration of any other state in the country. Seventy percent of its 39,000 inmates are African-American men. The Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) only has beds for half that many prisoners, so 20,000 inmates live in parish jails, privately run contract facilities and for-profit work release centers. Prisons and parish jails provide free daily labor to the state and private companies like BP, while also operating their own factories and farms, where inmates earn between zero and forty cents an hour. Obedient inmates, or "trustees," become eligible for work release in the last three years of their sentences. This means they can be a part of a market-rate, daily labor force that works for private companies outside the prison gates. The advantage for trustees is that they get to keep a portion of their earnings, redeemable upon release. The advantage for private companies is that trustees are covered under Work Opportunity Tax Credit, a holdover from Bush's Welfare to Work legislation that rewards private-sector employers for hiring risky "target groups." Businesses earn a tax credit of $2,400 for every work release inmate they hire. On top of that, they can earn back up to 40 percent of the wages they pay annually to "target group workers."

If BP's use of prison labor remains an open secret on the Gulf Coast, no one in an official capacity is saying so. At the Grand Isle base camp in early June, I called BP's Public Information line, and visited representatives for the Coast Guard Public Relations team, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Louisiana Fisheries and Wildlife Department. They were all stumped. Were inmates doing shore protection or oil cleanup work? They had no idea. In fact, they said, they'd like to know—would I call them if I found out?

I got an answer one evening earlier this month, when I drove up the gravel driveway of the Lafourche Parish Work Release Center jail, just off Highway 90, halfway between New Orleans and Houma. Men were returning from a long day of shoveling oil-soaked sand into black trash bags in the sweltering heat. Wearing BP shirts, jeans and rubber boots (nothing identifying them as inmates), they arrived back at the jail in unmarked white vans, looking dog tired.

Beach cleanup is a Sisyphean task. Shorelines cleaned during the day become newly soaked with oil and dispersant overnight, so crews shovel up the same beaches again and again. Workers wear protective chin-to-boot coveralls (made out of high-density polyethylene and manufactured by Dupont), taped to steel-toed boots covered in yellow plastic. They work twenty minutes on, forty minutes off, as per Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety rules. The limited physical schedule allows workers to recover from the blazing sun and the oppressive heat that builds up inside their impermeable suits.

During their breaks, workers unzip the coveralls for ventilation, drink ice water from gallon thermoses and sit under white fabric tents. They start at 6 AM, take a half-hour lunch and end the day at 6PM, adding up three to four hours of hard physical labor in twenty-minute increments. They are forbidden to speak to the public or the media by BP's now-notorious gag rule. At the end of the day, coveralls are stripped off and thrown in dumpsters, alongside oil-soaked booms and trash bags full of contaminated sand. The dumpsters are emptied into local HazMat landfills, free employees go home and the inmates are returned to work release centers.

Work release inmates are required to work for up to twelve hours a day, six days a week, sometimes averaging seventy-two hours per week. These are long hours for performing what may arguably be the most toxic job in America. Although the dangers of mixed oil and dispersant exposure are largely unknown, the chemicals in crude oil can damage every system in the body, as well as cell structures and DNA.

Inmates can't pick and choose their work assignments and they face considerable repercussions for rejecting any job, including loss of earned "good time." The warden of the Terrebonne Parish Work Release Center in Houma explains: "If they say no to a job, they get that time that was taken off their sentence put right back on, and get sent right back to the lockup they came out of." This means that work release inmates who would rather protect their health than participate in the non-stop toxic cleanup run the risk of staying in prison longer.

Prisoners are already subject to well-documented health care deprivations while incarcerated, and are unlikely to have health insurance after release. Work release positions are covered by Worker's Compensation insurance, but pursuing claims long after exposure could be a Kafkaesque task. Besides, there is currently no system for tracking the medical impact of oil and dispersant exposure in cleanup workers or affected communities.

"They're not getting paid, it's part of their sentence"

To learn how many of the 20,000 prisoners housed outside of state prisons are involved in spill-related labor, I called the DOC Public Relations officer, Pam LaBorde, who ultimately discouraged me from seeking such information. ("Frankly, I do not know where your story is going, but it does not sound positive," she said on our third phone call.)

Going to prison officials directly didn't help. The warden of a South Louisiana jail refused to discuss the matter, exclaiming, "You want me to lose my job?" A different warden, of a privately-owned center admitted, on condition of anonymity, that inmates from his facility had been employed in oil cleanup, but declined to answer further questions. Jefferson Parish President Steve Theriot and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, and Grand Isle Police Chief Euris DuBois declined interview requests.

Transparency problems are longstanding with the Louisiana DOC. There is also scant oversight of private prison facilities. Following Hurricane Katrina, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a 140-page report [2] that documented abuses and botched prison evacuations, as well as the numerous times its requests for official information were rejected. "It appears that you are standing in the shoes of prisoners, and therefore DOC is exempted from providing any information which it might otherwise have to under public records law," DOC lawyers told the ACLU National Prisons Project [3].

Some officials have been more forthcoming. A lieutenant in the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office told me that three crews of inmates were sandbagging in Buras, Louisiana in case oil hit there. "They're not getting paid, it's part of their sentence," she said. "They'll work as long as they're needed. It's a hard job because of the heat, but they're not refusing to work." In early May, Governor Bobby Jindal's office sent out a press release [4] heralding the training of eighty inmates from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in "cleaning of oil-impacted wildlife recovered from coastal areas." DOC Spokesperson Pam LaBorde subsequently denied that any inmates participated in wildlife cleaning efforts.

Offering an exception to this policy of secrecy is Lafourche Parish Work Release Center, the only one in the state that is accredited by the American Correctional Association. It is audited regularly and abides by national standards of safety and accountability, which is perhaps why I was able to simply walk in on a Thursday afternoon and chat with the warden.

Captain Milfred Zeringue is a retired Louisiana state police officer with a jaunty smile, powerful torso, and silver hair. His small, gray office is adorned with photos of many generations of his Louisiana family and a Norman Rockwell print picturing a policeman and a small runaway boy sharing a meaningful look at a soda fountain counter. A brass plaque confers the "Blood and Guts Award" upon Zeringue. Of 184 men living under the Captain's charge, 18 are currently assigned to oil spill work. The numbers change daily and are charted on white boards that stretch down the hallway.

Captain Zeringue says that inmates are glad for any opportunity they can get, and see work release jobs as a step up, a headstart on re-entry. "Our work release inmates are shipped to centers around the state according to employer demand," he explains, describing the different types of skilled and unskilled labor. "I have carpenters, guys riding on the back of the trash trucks, guys working offshore on the oil rigs, doing welding, cooking. Employers like them because they are guaranteed a worker who's on time, drug-free, and sober."

"And," he adds, "because they do get a tax break."

Inside the center, men sit around long plastic tables watching TV, or nap on thin mattresses under grey wool covers. The windowless dormitories hold twenty to thirty men each in blue metal bunk beds. Hard hats hang off of lockers, ceiling fans circle slowly, and each bunk has a white mesh bag of laundry strung from one rung. An air of dejection and fatigue permeates the atmosphere, but the facility looks safe and clean. It's surrounded by chain link fence and staffed by former police officers. One long shelf stacked with donated romance and adventure novels serves as a library. GED classes and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings gather weekly. Individuals are free to walk around the halls, use pay phones, shoot pool, or sit and watch cars pass on the highway from a small outdoor yard. A doctor visits once a week. Inmates greet the captain as we walk and jump to hold doors open for us.

Zeringue exudes a certain affection for the workers in his center. "To me, I'm kind of like Dad here. The inmates come to me and talk about their problems. They get antsy and nervous when they're close to getting out—how am I going to survive, how's my family gonna be with me?"

Like all Gulf Coast residents, inmates have good reason to feel anxious about the future. BP has received almost 80,000 claims for lost revenue in the wake of the spill. Scores of people are out of work, the offshore drilling industry is in limbo and the age-old fishing and shrimping professions are looking death in the face. In the towns and bayous of the gulf, anxiety and post-traumatic stress are taking hold.

In some places, the desperation is palpable. I met Randy Adams, a construction contractor from Grand Isle, on the sidewalk outside of a local bar. "This BP spill is turning me into an alcoholic, because I don't have anything to do," he says. "That, that, thing—that thing they did—" He points to the beach. He's unable to say "spill" or label it in any way. He points to the water again and again. "That thing has taken everything away from me. I have a gun under the front seat of my truck, and every day I decide, do I want to put a bullet in my skull? Live or die, that's my choice here, every day. My life is gone, do you understand?"

Scott Rojas of the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission suggests that for all the work to be done, finding local labor to do oil-spill cleanup jobs is trickier than it would seem. "These are really hard, and really low-paid jobs—I know agencies have put effort into finding locals to do the work. But they may not always have an easy time of it. As for reports of inmates being hired, I can't confirm or deny. The people down in Grand Isle swear to it, but you're going to have to talk to them."

The Louisiana Workforce Commission, the state unemployment agency, is advertising hazardous waste removal oil spill cleanup positions as "green jobs." They pay $10 per hour, so these jobs might seem like an attractive opportunity. But Paul Perkins, a retired Angola Prison deputy warden who owns and operates five for-profit inmate work release centers, says that even as the agency is "overflowing with applications for oil spill jobs," the work force is inconsistent. "They might hire 400 people on Monday, and after one day of work, only 200 will come back on Tuesday."

Hiring prison labor might prove more reliable, but it evokes understandable rage among Gulf Coast residents. According to Perkins, the Louisiana Secretary of Corrections, James LeBlanc, met with disaster contractors in early June and asked them to stop using inmate labor until all unemployed residents found work. But as the spill has so dramatically demonstrated, in this new environment, the government seems only able to make polite requests. BP calls the shots, and its private contractors, like ES&H [5], are the sole clean-up operators. From there, subcontractors, such as Able Body Labor [6], decide whom to employ.

Working for BP: "This isn't what I would like to be doing."

Anna Keller relocated to Grand Isle in May to work with Gulf Recovery LLC, to help develop community-based responses to the oil disaster. Also a member of Critical Resistance New Orleans [7], Keller says, it is "common knowledge" that prisoners are doing cleanup. "If you talk to anyone working on the beach they'll tell you, yes, prisoners are working here." She describes a shipping container that sits at the turn-off for the Venice Boat Harbor, advertising "Jails to Go." Such containers work as contract labor housing for work release prisoners, with bunks inside, bars on the windows, and deadbolts on the doors.

According to Keller, the use of inmate labor takes recovery one step further away from those people who are most intimate with the ecology, culture and landscapes of the area. In her view, they should be hired first, and not just for the grunt jobs. "Community members should be hired in the planning stages, and paid for their expertise. The local people are the true experts here."

Up the road at A-Bear's Restaurant in Houma, an elderly man in overalls describes his son's financial dilemmas to the room of locals over dinner. The son is 40, married with children, and was laid off from an oyster shucking factory shortly after the BP leak began. He's now walking door-to-door with a lawnmower, looking for grass to cut. The man holds his head in both arthritic hands. The waitress hands him a paper napkin to blot his eyes. I ask him if his son would work for BP in the cleanup and he grimaces. "Maybe, no, I don't think so," he says. "That would be hard for his pride, you know? For that little money? No."

Beach cleanup workers do make the lowest wages in the recovery effort. Others on the BP payroll have it slightly better, but the jobs they are doing are a daily reminder of what they have lost. Chris Griffin is a French-speaking Cajun shrimper whose father and grandfather also captained shrimp boats. After oil contamination closed the gulf waters, Griffin was hired to captain airboat tours of oil-impacted marshlands for BP. Three times a day he steers a slim four-seat boat with a deafening engine into the waters he's known all his life, while Coast Guard officials give media tours and answer the same grim questions again and again.

"This isn't what I would like to be doing," Griffin says, "but I'm glad I have a job so I can take care of my family. I'm not worrying about the money. Not everybody has that. Me, I'm worrying about the years in the future here. Will we keep cleaning it up? Will they take care of everybody?"

Kucinich, Ron Paul: Get US troops out of Pakistan

By Agence France-Presse | Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Two US lawmakers -- a Republican and a Democrat -- proposed a bill this week demanding the withdrawal of all US troops in Pakistan, where they are conducting covert operations against militants.

"We have known that US forces have been operating in secret inside the territories of Pakistan without congressional approval," Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich said Friday, pointing to reports the United States was stepping up its presence there.

He said the House of Representatives was expected to take up the resolution next week. The measure was introduced late Thursday.

Kucinich said the covert operations were a "violation of the 1973 War Powers Resolution introduced after the Vietnam War that only allows the president to send US armed forces into military operations abroad if Congress approves the decision or if the United States is under a serious threat or attack."

"It is our constitutional responsibility as members of Congress to act," Kucinich added.

Washington is working to deepen engagement with the nuclear power across the border from war-wracked Afghanistan and overcome rife anti-Americanism after years of perceived neglect of bilateral relations.

Joining Kucinich on the bill was Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who espoused libertarian views during his failed 2008 bid for the presidency.

Paul said the US military has "significantly increased" its operations in Pakistan, without providing figures.

He also noted the increased use of unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan since President Barack Obama came to office a year and a half ago.

"This increasing US military activity in Pakistan has little to do with protecting the United States and in fact is creating more enemies than it is defeating," Paul said.

"The administration, like its predecessor, is misusing language in the original post-9/11 resolution to prosecute a wider regional war and Congress is sitting quietly on the sidelines. This must stop."

The Pentagon says only a small number of US soldiers operate in Pakistan, mostly Special Forces tasked with training Pakistani troops along the Afghan border. Those US forces are not officially engaged in combat operations.

Kucinich previously tabled a resolution demanding that all US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, but it was rejected in March.

Washington has branded the rugged tribal area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border a global headquarters for Al-Qaeda and other militants, who use it as a base to launch attacks on US-led forces in Afghanistan.

But the presence of US troops is a sensitive issue in Pakistan due to prevailing anti-American sentiment in the country, as well as conspiracy theories about US military operations and a perception that they threaten Pakistani sovereignty.

Chevron Drills Down 30,000 Feet to Tap Oil-Rich Gulf of Mexico (ca. 2007)

(Look at this 3 year old article I found in a WIRED magazine in a box in my closet. Tell me if it sounds familiar, but in another reality. Chevron is no different from BP in their corporate stomp on everything attitude, but it seems like their deep water well was quite a bit more successful and less damaging than BP's efforts.--jef)

***
Pumped Up
The Cajun Express has bored the deepest offshore well in Gulf history.
By Amanda Griscom Little | 08.21.07

Photo: Michael Sugrue

"Isn't this transcendent?" Paul Siegele shouts as he presses his nose to the window of a Bell 430 chopper hurtling through a sky thick with rain and pitchfork lightning. We're flying over the Gulf of Mexico, above some 3,500 oil production platforms, and Siegele is pointing them out with the verve of a birder — here a miniature oil rig known as a monopod; over there a drill ship almost as big as the Titanic; still farther out, platforms looking like huge steel chandeliers that dropped out of the storm-shaken clouds.

Siegele has reason to be giddy. He works for Chevron, and his team is sitting on several new record-breaking discoveries in the Gulf, a region that many geologists believe may have more untapped oil reserves than any other part of the world. On this trip, the 48-year-old vice president for deepwater exploration has come to a rig called the Cajun Express to oversee final preparations before drilling begins on the company's 30-square-mile Tahiti field.

Looming like an Erector set version of Hellboy — with cranes for arms, a hydraulic drill for its head, and a 200-foot derrick for a body — the rig appears at once menacing and toylike. But the real spectacle is below the surface: A drill is plunging down through 4,000 feet of ocean and more than 22,000 feet of shale and sediment — a syringe prodding Earth's innermost veins. That 5-mile shaft will soon give Chevron the deepest active offshore well in the Gulf. Some land drills have gone deeper, but extracting oil from below miles of freezing salt water and unyielding sediment creates a set of technical problems that far exceed those faced on terra firma.

Minutes after we land on the Cajun Express, Siegele gets some bad news from Ron Byrd, his weather-beaten site manager. "The junk basket is stuck way down there on some debris," says Byrd, who has captained offshore rigs for more than 30 years. The junk basket is an 8-inch hunk of iron that runs up and down the entire length of the drill hole on a piece of wire, scraping the well clean before sensitive production instruments are dropped in. It's a particularly important device when drilling offshore, because the presence of the ocean pushes debris, mud, fossils, and other muck into the hole.

Siegele, who is a lanky 6' 3" with a mild, professorial manner and a boyish mop of brown hair, winces almost imperceptibly. "Just a little bump in the road," he mutters. Technically, it's a million-dollar bump. The crew will spend 48 hours fishing the jammed tool out of the hole, halting all other activity on a rig that costs over $500,000 a day to run. But this is chump change to Siegele, who has an annual budget of more than $1 billion. "If snags like this didn't happen so frequently," Siegele says, "you'd probably let them get to you."

It's just another high-priced mishap in the world of ultradeep-sea drilling — the newest, riskiest, and most technologically extreme drilling frontier. Today, deep-sea rigs are capable of reaching down 40,000 feet, twice as deep as a decade ago: plunging their drills through 10,000 feet of water and then 30,000 more feet of seabed. One platform sits atop each so-called field, thrusting its tentacles into multiple wells dug into ancient sediment, slurping out oil, and then pumping it back to onshore refineries through underwater pipelines.

It's a business where huge sums are lost (two years ago, BP suffered a $250 million blow when a hurricane took out one of its platforms) but even more can be made. The mother lode of oil in the deepwater Gulf is so significant that Tahiti and other successful fields in this region are expected to soon produce enough crude to reverse the long-standing decline in US oil production of about 10 percent per year.

Even better, a recent discovery by Chevron has signaled that soon there may be vastly more oil gushing out of the ultradeep seabeds — more than even the optimists were predicting four years ago. In 2004, the company penetrated a 60 million-year-old geological stratum known as the "lower tertiary trend" containing a monster oil patch that holds between 3 billion and 15 billion barrels of crude. Dubbed Jack, the field lies beneath waters nearly twice as deep as those covering Tahiti, and many in the industry dismissed the discovery as too remote to exploit. But last September, Chevron used the Cajun Express to probe the Jack field, proving that petroleum could flow from the lower tertiary at hearty commercial rates — fast enough to bring billions of dollars of crude to market. It was hailed as the largest publicly reported discovery in the past decade, opening up a region that is perhaps big enough to boost national oil reserves by 50 percent. A mad rush followed, and oil companies plowed more than $5 billion into this part of the Gulf.

It was a burst of good news for the oil industry. Today, many of the world's largest fields — from Ghawar in Saudi Arabia to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska — are facing retirement, and the ultradeep frontier holds the industry's best hope for big new discoveries. But there are still big questions to be answered before Jack starts filling gas tanks: How well will oil flow from these prehistoric rocks? Can Chevron's equipment handle the increased temperatures and pressures at these depths? Can engineers successfully pump the oil back to shore?

In November, a sister rig to the Cajun Express will putter over to the Jack field, and Chevron will "spud" a preproduction well in search of answers to these questions. "There's no guarantee that the rewards in this field will outweigh the risks," says Siegele, slumping. But then he sucks in a breath of salt air and straightens up. He's got to brief a group of drilling engineers on the plans for Chevron's grand venture into Jack.

Chevron runs its offshore drilling operations out of a gleaming Houston skyscraper that recalls the nose of a double-barreled shotgun aimed skyward. Geologists work in cavernous visualization rooms with floor-to-ceiling monitors depicting digital renderings of the Gulf waters and seabed. Chevron has long bet that there's oil in these regions and has bought from the Department of the Interior almost twice as many federal leases to drill in the ultradeep waters of the Gulf as any other company.

One of Chevron's top geologists, a Jerry Garcia look-alike named Barney Issen, pulls an image of the Jack field up onto the monitors. "To you, this may looks like a dog's breakfast," he says, pointing to a multi colored morass. But the data is actually a finely detailed 3-D map of the ocean, seafloor, and sediment below. It will allow Chevron to locate promising spots to drill and then provide a guide for the engineers who operate the production process remotely.

To make this map, Issen and his team deployed ships that cruised through the Gulf, popping off air guns — underwater cannons that emit a gigantic burp into the ocean, bouncing sound waves off under water rock formations. Hydrophones (aquatic microphones) tethered to the vessels recorded the response, taking in hundreds of thousands of recordings simultaneously. These allowed the company to determine the composition and shape of the rocks below. Chevron needed to use masses of microphones to compensate for the distortions caused by a layer of salt as jagged as the Swiss Alps beneath the seafloor in the ultradeep regions of the Gulf. That mineral, unfortunately for the geologists in Houston, acts like a fun-house mirror for seismic sound waves. Issen compares sorting through the data to "peering through a thick wall of mottled glass and trying to count the freckles of someone on the other side."

Once the map was assembled, the Chevron team at the Houston office pored over the data and searched for sandy layers of sediment under domelike caps of shale. These signify the location of a potential reservoir because oil consistently rises through permeable sediment to the highest point it can go, collecting under unyielding shale mounds. Once these promising spots are found, the maps are used to chart the drill's optimal point of entry: the place where it's least likely to hit a nasty fault line or air pocket that would throw the whole well off. Finding the sweet spot is like dropping a baseball from 5 miles in the sky and hitting home plate — at night.

Then you have to hope you've found a highly porous and permeable oil bed. Most people think of oil as floating in big pools under layers of rock. But it's actually embedded in the rock, sort of like water in a sponge. "When you drive the drill down, you're going into porous rock that can be either kinda squishy or kinda rigid," Siegele says. Squishy is better, but as rock ages, it typically become tighter. That's why industry members were flabbergasted by the Jack well test that revealed high porosity. It's also what gives the Jack field, and the lower tertiary in general, the potential to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil — while earning Chevron a ton of money .

The galley of the Cajun Express is a prisonlike cafeteria of stainless steel and gray linoleum crammed with engineers in blue coveralls devouring their meals. Today the menu is bratwurst, cheese fries, and twice-baked potatoes. At first glance, it's hard to believe this is the setting for a proposed Food Network special on the high-caliber cuisine 140 miles offshore. But the grub is lip-smackingly good.
The Cajun is equipped with other perks: an Internet cafĂ©, a gym, and a movie theater — but these luxuries are hardly used. Few of the men have the energy for entertainment or exercise after working a 12-hour shift on the drilling floor — hauling great vats of mud used for drill lubricant, welding broken iron casings, or repairing robotic submarines that fix problems with seafloor equipment. The living quarters, which house up to 150 workers, are the size of walk-in closets, filled with cot-sized bunk beds that fold out of the walls.

"When you're here, you're pretty much working or sleeping," says Siegele. Stout salaries make up for the extreme conditions: Entry-level tool pushers make about $60,000, and high-level geologists and engineers can earn in the mid six figures. Added bonus: a massive testosterone rush. "This is the best big-boy toy you'll ever find," says Chevron spokesperson Mickey Driver.

The first task for the men on the boat is to make sure that the rig stays in one place. In shallower areas, rigs can be anchored to the sea bottom — but it's dangerous to moor a drilling vessel in ultradeep water. The motion of the ocean and the fierceness of the currents at those depths make it too cumbersome. Plus, vessels need to be able to move to safety in the event of a hurricane. Ultradeep drilling rigs are kept "on station" by so-called thrusters — engines on each corner of the rig that are programmed to respond to a GPS system tracking both the drill's target on the seafloor and the ocean currents. The thrusters constantly push and pull, doing an extreme version of what you do if you're standing in shallow ocean water: constantly shifting your weight to stay balanced as the waves ebb and flow.

Dropping a drill down through more than 1 mile of water and 4 miles of earth isn't easy either. The drill string is composed of hundreds of 90-foot sections known as joints that are dropped into the water by an automated mechanical arm and successively screwed into each other. It took more than three days to assemble all the joints in the drill string that pierced the Jack field.

Once the rotating drill bit begins its journey down through miles of sediment and pierces the seafloor, it encounters another set of problems caused by the changing terrain. The test well for the Jack field drilled through nearly a dozen geological layers — ranging from hard bedrock to sandy sediment to empty voids. These rapid shifts from one level of pressure to another can disturb the rotations of the drill, causing it to get stuck or veer off course. Pressure is good — it's what naturally forces the liquid crude up the length of the well and into the barges and pipelines that send it back to shore. (The layer of shale over the oil-bearing sands acts like a brick on top of a water balloon — the fluid wants to surge upward.) But, at the very bottom, farther below sea level than Mount Everest is above it, there's enough pressure to implode a human head — or, more pertinently, to crack iron casings.

Moreover, the closer you get to Earth's core, the higher the temperature of the rocks. At 20,000 feet below seabed, the oil is hot enough to boil an egg. At 30,000 feet, it can reach more than 400 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to cook off into natural gas and carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, the water at the bottom of the deep sea is at near-freezing temperatures — between 32 and 34 degrees — creating a dangerous interaction: When the boiling-hot oil hits the freezing-cold water, it could solidify and block the flow, rupturing the pipes. The machinery on the seafloor, therefore, has to be well insulated. Engineers on the Cajun Express have been relying on a fairly primitive method — pumping the casing and substations with antifreeze — but much more sophisticated systems are in the works.

Because so many of the challenges that engineers encounter in the ultradeep can't be anticipated — or found anywhere else — the Jack test rig was populated with so-called Serial Number 001 technologies: one-of-a-kind innovations ranging from perforation guns that are triggered at well bottom inside the casing, creating holes that let the oil gush in and flow upward, to electrohydraulic systems that seal the wells in emergencies. And yet sometimes the solution is plain old creative thinking and duct tape. For example, when a tool got stuck down the hole during one well test, someone suggested just banging a giant hammer against the casing, sending vibrations down that jarred the tool loose.

As consensus grows that the world needs to shift away from fossil fuels, extracting oil from the most extreme and costly locations can seem foolishly myopic. If Chevron is going to throw billions of dollars into something untested and possibly doomed to failure, wouldn't it make more sense to invest in an inexhaustible, greener technology that's going to have political support a decade from now?
Siegele doesn't think so. He does know that geological limitations will prevent him from drilling much deeper: It's a pretty safe bet that below 40,000 feet, the extreme heat has baked off much of the deep-sea troves of crude. And there are financial limits to this frontier, too. Even as Chevron and other oil giants earn record profits, they also face record expenses. For example, the company has commissioned two new deep water rigs that will be able to drill 40,000-foot wells. But at more than $600 million each, they can't exactly be snapped up on boats.com. "The costs of developing a new oil or gas project are about 65 percent higher today than 30 months ago, and the greatest escalation of costs has been offshore," says Daniel Yergin, chair of the consulting firm Cambridge Energy Research Associates. At today's oil prices of $70 a barrel, the current exploration makes sense. But if oil drops below $40 a barrel, Yergin says, the cost of exploring this high-risk frontier will become prohibitive.

But Siegele is hardly worried. Technological breakthroughs have, decade after decade, revived the perpetually doomed oil industry. "Predicting peak oil," Siegele tells me as we tour the drilling floor of the Cajun Express, "is almost like predicting peak technology" — an exercise, in other words, that to him seems inherently small-minded. Even absurd.

Siegele takes me to the "crown" of the Cajun Express, a harrowing widow's walk suspended at the top of the drill's 200-foot derrick. The rig below looks like the loneliest place on Earth — a tiny, solitary board floating in a boundless blue sea. Then, out in the distance, I spot fleets of trawlers the size of thumbnails setting off seismic guns in search of the next big deep-sea prospect. "A decade ago, I never even dreamed we'd get here," Siegele marvels. "And a decade from now, this moonscape could be populated with rigs as far as the eye can see."


To extract oil from the Jack field, a rig will have to negotiate freezing waters, boiling oil, and seismic uncertainty. Here’s how.
1) Stable platform
Giant engines at each corner of the drilling rig keep everything stable. When the ocean pulls one way, the thrusters push the other.
2) The 6-mile Drill
The drill is made up of hundreds of interlocking 90-foot sections of iron. Buoyant sidings reduce the weight burden on the rig.
3) Point of entry
The drill needs to enter the seafloor at exactly the right point, minimizing the risk of hitting an air pocket or a fault as it goes whirring down. Boiling-hot oil emerges here and collides with freezing water, which means that the underwater pipes pumping the oil back to shore must be heavily insulated.
4) Dangerous journey
The drill must traverse numerous pressure zones, any one of which could knock it off course.
5) X marks the spot
Bedrock mounds, formed by oil pushing upward, signal promising hot spots.
6) Jackpot
The oil is trapped in squishy, porous rock.


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