In the latest issue of The New Yorker, CIA chief Leon Panetta says of Dick Cheney:

I think he smells some blood in the water on the national-security issue. It’s almost, a little bit, gallows politics. When you read behind it, it’s almost as if he’s wishing that this country would be attacked again, in order to make his point. I think that’s dangerous politics.

Cheney today struck back, saying, "I hope my old friend Leon was misquoted."

 Just in case you needed yet another reason to go veggie, Sir Paul McCartney is lending his jowly, loveable face to Meatless Monday, a campaign to get everybody to give up meat, on Mondays. If you're still reeling from PETA's Sea Kittens campaign, rest easy—this one is about people, not animals. Tofu-pushers at The Monday Campain and Johns Hopkins' School of Public Health say that reducing America's meat consumption by just 15% would combat obesity (and its related ailments) and shrink our carbon footprint. All we have to do is skip the Mini Sirloin Burgers.

Right. As an apolitical vegetarian, I was skeptical. Then I read some of The Monday's statistics (you can follow the footnotes at the bottom of the page). Did you know, for example, that 16 oz of red meat (about 1.5 Big Macs) requires 2,000 gallons of water to raise? Maybe it ought to be a meatless Monday after all. 


This weekend, the Washington Post reported on a simple step Americans can take to mitigate the effects of climate change: painting our roofs white.

Energy Secretary Stephen Chu explained that white paint "changes the reflectivity...of the Earth, so the sunlight comes in, it's reflected back into space," pointing out that roof painting is "something very simple that we can do immediately." He's right. Small-scale bright, green ideas like painting our roofs white and keeping our tires inflated are not only easy, they're also pretty cheap. 

Matt Yglesias also supports the white-roof strategy, but worries that it could lead to more obstructive tactics like blocking out the sun and changing the structure of clouds which "could have extremely dangerous unintended consequences and pose all sorts of problems."

Yikes. I'm not convinced that roof painting is a slippery slope toward geoengineering. But Yglesias is right that these ideas have been gaining traction. John Holdren, one of President Obama's top science advisors, told the AP in April that we might consider sending pollution particles into the atmosphere to deflect the sun's rays before they reach earth. Even though this method could have dangerous side effects, Holdren said, "we might get desperate enough to want to use it." And the US responded to a 2007 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with a statement saying that "modifying solar radiance may be an important strategy" to battle climate change. 

Hasn't anyone else seen The Simpsons? Anyone?

There's enough power in high altitude winds to power all of modern civilization. A new study in Energies analyzes where the best winds flow.

Obviously, the jetstream powers along like a jet. At 30,000 feet, winds are far steadier and 10 times faster than winds near the ground.

A variety of tech schemes have been proposed to harvest this energy, including tethering kitelike wind turbines into the jetstream. Current designs could generate 40 megawatts of electricity and transmit it to the ground via the tether.

So where do the Earth's jet streams run most strongly and consistently? The researchers assessed wind power density from 28 years of data, taking into account wind speed and air density at different altitudes. The highest wind power densities appear in the polar jet streams:

  • over Japan and eastern China
  • over the eastern coast of the United States
  • over southern Australia
  • over north-eastern Africa

The median values in those places were greater than 10 kilowatts per square meter. Even the best winds on the ground generate less than 1 kilowatt per square meter.

Of five major citites assessed, Tokyo, Seoul, and New York have enormous potential. (New York claims the highest average high-altitude wind power density of any U.S. city, about 16 kilowatts per square meter.) Tropical Mexico City and Sao Paulo are rarely affected by the polar jet streams, and just occasionally by the weaker subtropical jets, so their wind power densities are lower.

However, even the powerhose citites get windless times about 5 percent of the time. Which means we'll need back-up power, or massive amounts of energy storage, or a continental or even global electricity grid to make it work. 

Worldwide infrastructure? Worldwide cooperation? Or War of the Winds?

It's been a busy week for Israel. First, Obama laid down the law in Cairo, demanding a two-state solution to the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In response, Israel's far-right prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that he *might* be open to the *possibility* of a Palestinian state. Iran *almost* elected a president who doesn't deny the Holocaust, while sporadic protests around the United States sought (ineffectively) to coerce popular supermarket chain Trader Joe's into ditching Israeli products.
But none of that could prepare us for Koogle, the rabbi-approved, egg-noodle-punning Hebrew language search engine for the country's exploding Orthodox population.  
Yes, Koogle—a play on Google and Kugel, a jewish noodle (or potato, or really anything) casserole—is better than all of these. The search engine (currently available only in Hebrew), filters all traif content, from sexually explicit or immodest images, to television, which is forbidden in most ultra-Orthodox communities. It also disables online shopping during the Jewish sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown). Creater Amos Azizoff told The Guardian he hopes the software will help more Hasidim—Judaism's fastest growing sect—make the leap from the 18th to the 21st century.   
Koogle may be the most ambitious web application targeting the Orthodox, but it's not the only one. Top 3 Orthodox-only websites after the jump:

Peter Keating says that in the foreign policy sphere, there's only one ruler of the roost in the Obama administration: Hillary Clinton.

On the inside, Clinton has steadily accumulated power while expending hardly any political capital....She has divided the position of Deputy Secretary of State into two jobs: supersmart Jim Steinberg, who was deputy national security adviser under Bill Clinton but supported Obama in 2008, is her policy maven, while Jack Lew is her management chief. Lew helped Hillary secure a 10 percent increase in the State Department’s budget from Obama while Tim Geithner was still figuring out how to turn the lights on in his office.

....Meanwhile, nobody else has developed an alternative foreign-policy power center within the administration. Obama likes Biden, but the vice-president is no match for Hillary in mano-a-mano bureaucratic combat. For example, Clinton favored sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while Biden opposed the move. The result: “She crushed him,” according to Republican Mark Kirk of Ilinois. At the same time, National Security Adviser Jim Jones has been an utter cipher; when Time’s Mark Halperin graded the Obama administration, he gave Hillary an A- (“significant, powerful, worldly, respected”), but had to give Jones an “incomplete.” And Obama’s presidential envoys, such as Richard Holbrooke in Afghanistan and Dennis Ross in Iran, are mostly old Clinton hands who aren’t about to usurp any authority from Hillary.

Read the rest.  He makes a persuasive case.

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers writes:

Ahmadinejad's and Khamenei's websites were taken down yesterday — I saw the latter go down within a couple of minutes because of a DDOS attack organised via Twitter. @StopAhmadi is a good source for tweets on this. The other important use of Twitter has been distribution of proxy addresses via Twitter. This would be how most video and pictures of today's rally have gotten out.

Andrew comments: "I have to say my skepticism about this new medium has now disappeared. Without it, one wonders if all this could have happened."

It's true that however things turn out in Iran, this will probably be forever known as the Twitter Revolution.  And yet, I want to dissent a bit.

I followed the events of the weekend via three basic sources.  The first was cable news, and as everyone in the world has pointed out, it sucked.  Most TV news outlets have no foreign bureaus anymore; they didn't know what was going on; and they were too busy producing their usual weekend inanity to care.  Grade: F.

The second was Twitter, mostly as aggregated by various blogs.  This had the opposite problem: there was just too much of it; it was nearly impossible to know who to trust; and the overwhelming surge of intensely local and intensely personal views made it far too easy to get caught up in events and see things happening that just weren't there.  It was better than cable news, but not exactly the future of news gathering.  Grade: B-.

The third was the small number of traditional news outlets that do still have foreign bureaus and real expertise.  The New York Times.  The BBC.  Al Jazeera.  A few others.  The twitterers were a part of the story that they reported, but they also added real background, real reporting, and real context to everything.  Grade: B+.  Given the extremely difficult reporting circumstances, maybe more like an A-.

Twitter has been a great tool for the Iranian protesters — and for us.  Marc Ambinder rounds up the evidence here.  But protests have happened before without either Twitter or the internet.  And if we westerners had to rely on only a single news source to tell us what what going on, I'd still choose the dwindling band of serious outlets that provide real reporting from dangerous (and expensive) places.  Cable news may not have covered itself with glory this weekend, but there are still a few precincts of the MSM that did.

Speaking of bank regulation, here's point #2 (out of five) previewing the administration's plans for regulatory reform from today's Washington Post op-ed by Tim Geithner and Larry Summers:

Second, the structure of the financial system has shifted, with dramatic growth in financial activity outside the traditional banking system, such as in the market for asset-backed securities. In theory, securitization should serve to reduce credit risk by spreading it more widely. But by breaking the direct link between borrowers and lenders, securitization led to an erosion of lending standards, resulting in a market failure that fed the housing boom and deepened the housing bust.

The administration's plan will impose robust reporting requirements on the issuers of asset-backed securities; reduce investors' and regulators' reliance on credit-rating agencies; and, perhaps most significant, require the originator, sponsor or broker of a securitization to retain a financial interest in its performance.

Italics mine.  As far as the mortgage market goes, it strikes me that this plan has two potential targets.  The first is the actual originator of the mortgage.  Lots and lots of crappy mortgages got written because the originators didn't really care how good they were.  They were just going to sell them off within 30 days anyway, so what did it matter if the borrowers were going to default two years from now?  Requiring these folks to keep a piece of their mortgage business on their own books might indeed be helpful, but it doesn't sound like this is the target Geithner and Summers have in mind.  (Technically, I'm also not quite sure how you'd make this work.  But leave that aside for now.)

The second target, and the one that G&S do seem to be talking about, isn't the orginator of the mortgage, but the bank that buys up all the mortgages and originates the mortgage-backed security.  They want these guys to be forced to keep a piece of the security on their own books instead of selling the entire thing to third parties.  The idea is that if they have to eat their own dog food, that should make them a little more careful about quality control.

But the devil is really in the details here, and there are at least two big problems.  First, most MBS originators did keep pieces of their own securities on their books.  It didn't do any good because they were deluded about the quality of the stuff they kept.  Second, even if banks are required to keep pieces of their own MBS that they otherwise wouldn't, what's to stop them from hedging away the risk?  You can't really forbid a bank from buying hedging instruments, and the rocket scientists (once they've dusted themselves off and come out from under their desks, which shouldn't take more than a year or two) will have no trouble creating a blizzard of derivatives that appear to take all the risk out of the snippets of MBS that banks are required to hold onto.  And once they've done that, you're just a tiny jump away from the glory days of 2005.

This, of course, is the basic problem with all regulatory reform: whether or not it works is enormously dependent on minuscule details written into 1000-pages legislative tomes.  Obama's team has apparently already decided that they need to take a pretty cautious approach to this, and once it gets through the congressional sausage factory we'll be lucky if anything serious is left at all.  This is, needless to say, a process that deserves a ton of attention from a watchful public, but how likely is that?  After all, I hear that Jon and Kate might be splitting up.

Watching the Watchmen

Via Felix Salmon, John Gapper complains in the Financial Times today that the Obama administration is backing down on regulatory consolidation:

All this is an interesting contrast to the consolidation of regulation by the UK government when it created the Financial Services Authority in 2000 and swept a bunch of self-regulatory organisations and the banking supervision arm of the Bank of England into a single financial regulator.

True, this did not help the UK to regulate large banks any better than the US, given the scale of the financial crisis. On the other hand, fragmentation of regulation caused its own particular difficulties in the US, with financial institutions picking and choosing among regulators.

The US administration has clearly decided that it simply cannot get any large-scale consolidation of regulation through Congress, given the vested interests involved. But that makes its response to the financial crisis seem more like a whimper than a bang.

Britain is not the United States, but there are enough similarities in our financial sectors to make comparisons instructive.  And the bottom line here, as Gapper admits, is that Britain had consolidated regulation, we had fragmented regulation, and it made no difference at all in the outcome.  If anything, in fact, Britain was harder hit than we were.

I'm not opposed to consolidation, but honestly, if you have the same rules and the same kind of people enforcing the rules, and the only thing that changes is the reporting structure — well, that just doesn't change much.  What's needed isn't consolidation per se, but a structure that's politically more likely to point out credit bubbles when they're happening and more likely to have the credibility to make people listen to them when they issue their dire warnings.  There's no special reason why a consolidated regulatory structure would be better at that than what we have now.  In fact, by hiding disagreement within the bowels of a huge bureaucracy, it might even be worse.

(That said, forum shopping among regulators eager to offer lax enforcement in return for increased business does need to be stopped.  But that can be accomplished with a much narrower set of reforms.  You don't have to consolidate everything into one super-regulator to put a halt to this.)

Gapper's concluding paragraph, however, is discouraging.  We should all wait to see the final proposals before passing judgment, but it seems pretty likely that he's right.  Even now, the financial industry pretty much owns Congress, and the likelihood that they'll allow financial reform to go too far seems slim.  Kinda makes you wonder just what they'd have to do to lose their grip on power.

Today, Public Employees for Environmental Responsiblity, the eco watchdog group, came out swinging against President Obama's pick to lead the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. For the past dozen years, Sam Hamilton has overseen the 10-state FWS Southeastern Region, where numerous endangered species battles are being fought between environentalists and developers in fast growing states such as Florida. PEER is unimpressed with how Hamilton handled those fights, noting that he "did not protect science from political interference or scientists from retaliation."

As a case in point, PEER notes the decision of Hamilton's team to green-light suburban sprawl in shrinking Florida panther habitat. The decision falsely inflated the size and viability of the panther population, to the point that Hamilton's region was rebuked by none other than Steve Williams, the FWS director under George W. Bush. Even so, Hamilton took no disciplinary action against any of the managers involved and "several of the scientific deficiencies persist today," PEER says.

Apparently, this was not an isolated incident. In a 2005 survey of FWS scientists working in Hamilton's region, 49 percent cited cases where "commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdraw of scientific conclusions," 46 percent said they'd been "directed for non-scientific reasons . . .to refrain from making findings that are protective of species," and 36 percent feared retailiation for raising concerns about species and habitats. Most damming, less than a quarter of respondents felt Hamilton would "stand up for scientific staff or supervisors who take controversial stands."

In short, Hamilton seems at best a pliable bureaucrat. Maybe that makes him a convienent pick for the Obama administration, but he doesn't seem likely to reverse Bush's environmental legacy any more than he's asked to.