Thursday, April 16, 2009

News Nits

"All the news that's fit to reprint."

There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.
- Richard Feynman

News Nits tries to update all the news that isn't bled to death in the mainstream media. However, sometimes the news is too interesting to deny its coverage. How 'bout them pirates? The activity off the coast of Somalia has been on the uptick, with modern pirates having been paid off to the tune of $150 million this year alone. They have apparently not killed anyone, but as we've come to see, they mean business and the stakes are high. News Nits wonders if they go bankrupt, are they too big to fail? Oh, Jack Sparrow, why can't all pirates be like you?

Lots has been going on in the news. In no particular order...Former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was apparently clean of illegal wrongdoing (no word on if what Senators do is "ethical"). The judge is now launching an investigation into the ethics of the prosecuter's office. Pretty nasty when politics enters the courtroom. Sounds like a case of Law & Order, but no body.

American business dude, Charles Simonyi, went to space for the second time, hung out in the space station, probably ate a few burrittos, called it science and got back safely. Either way, cool for him. He's now $35 million lighter, so to speak, and I guess the Russians are the only ones honest enough to just open their program up to high bidders.

Although our Presidential Face has signaled for light at the end of the tunnel, wholesale inventories dropped by their largest amount in 17 years. That's a sign that businesses are still ramping down. Expect more layoffs. Expect lower earnings. Boooooo. News Nits wishes it could blame the Commies for this economy, but it's the Capitalists' fault this time.

For all the "conservatives" out there, be careful what you wish for. All the power expanded and usurped by the Bush administration under the Patriot Act has now switched hands. In a weird move, the Obama administration is lumping veterans, anti-abortion activists, and third party candidates all into the same, vast right-wing wastebasket to target for criminalization. In my own dear Missouri, the Missouri Information Analysis Center has issued official warnings to the state patrol identifying the new generation of terrorists in our country:

The report warned law enforcement agencies to watch for suspicious individuals who may have bumper stickers for third-party political candidates such as Ron Paul, Bob Barr and Chuck Baldwin.

It further warned law enforcement to watch out for individuals with "radical" ideologies based on Christian views, such as opposing illegal immigration, abortion and federal taxes.

Does this woman look like someone whose judgement you trust? In related news, a 25-year old man, Steve Bierfeldt, was detained for half an hour in a windowless room and interrogated at Lambert Airport for daring to get onto a plane with $4700 in cash. News Nits know our currency continues to be worth less and less, but apparently it is now also contraband. It won't be long until the next Janet Reno is knocking on, or down, your door.

Back to the cool parts of the world. An Australian cattle dog named Sophie Tucker was knocked off of the sailboat her masters were on off the coast of Australia. She swam 5 nautical miles to a deserted island, where she lived on baby goats for 4 months. She became somewhat wild and was difficult to subdue when rangers discovered her. However, her owners say it took no time for her to readjust to the comfy life. That's just Sophie being Sophie.

Even the sun is in a slump. The sun's cycle of sunspots has hit new lows, 100 year lows, and could provide interesting data going forward. One of the main theories to explain global warming is the increase in sunspots over the past 100 years has warmed the oceans, which have then burped more CO2 into the atmosphere. Yeah, planetary warmth leads CO2, not the other way around: stay tuned, nerds.

In more fun science, there's a tiny plant that feeds on poop and could help solve some very big problems in our world, if the corn lobby doesn't get in its way. It's a classic "poop-win-win" scenario.

News Nits has gone under deep cover to find out that the CIA has fired its contractors running the infamous "secret prisons". This could only mean one thing, though, a new black market for secret SECRET prisons.

Back to science, the edge of space has been found, and it's surprisingly not in North Dakota. But if you are ever fishing in North Dakota, or anywhere else, and you get a fish hook stuck in you, here is how to remove it. This is only useful if you are dumb enough to fish without dynamite. No cure has been found for getting dynamite stuck in you. We think the secret SECRET prisons are working on it though.

In some bummer news, the Shriners have announced they need to close a bunch of their hospitals due to a downturn in contributions and a drop in endowment. The Shriners, in addition to entertaining untold thousands with goofy hats and tiny vehicles, have done a lot of good for a lot of people, so it is sad to see this happen. They are apparently not big enough or corrupt enough to be bailed out.

And finally, comrade Roller dished out a serious examination of alternative media sources in a previous post. Steven Levy of Wired apparently read the column and wrote up some of his own experiences as well. There's just no replacing big screens and high quality I guess. But don't throw away your internet connection just yet. The LoopAndTheLou continues to serve our loyal readers!

If only we could turn a buck or two on this site, we might even be able to help out those Shriners.
One time, this guy handed me a picture of him, he said,"Here's a picture of me when I was younger." Every picture of you is when you were younger. "Here's a picture of me when I'm older." "You son-of-a-bitch! How'd you pull that off? Lemme see that camera!" - Mitch Hedberg

[Disclaimer: News Nits apologizes in advance for posting such a large picture of Janet Napolitano.]


kevin said...

So THAT'S what Janet Neopolitan looks like. I have to say though, I disagree with you Ry. I'm a sucker for the gray-bang-patch. To me, it's a sure sign that you've time traveled. Just ask Sam Beckett.

What was that about having corn in your poop?

It is absolute insanity that piracy exists to the level it does. That the most important people in the world get briefings on thugs in Somalia is just crazy to me. I heard the pirates are a few months away from going nuclear btw. If only we had a way to avoid those waters and transport things magically through the sky!

Nice Rollo on the Wired plug.

G. Smith said...

Arrrr -

I worry about the new events in piracy. Up to now there had been no deaths, and people were talking about anti-piracy techniques like water cannons and barbed wire.

Now these poor schmucks went and challenged the Navy Seals. I'm a softie of course and I wish they had taken them alive, but swift judgment is a clear historical trend for pirates and they should have known that (didn't they see the damn movies?).

But escalation in violence is usually a bad thing, and usually the worst for the most vulnerable - in this case the communities along the coast of Somalia who have suddenly found themselves able to afford food (and plasma TVs). Some of these areas are the same places that the rest of the world dumps toxic waste.

Somalia's a failed state for so many reasons, I just hope that as we think about ramping up efforts to combat piracy we are more thoughtful about it's causes, rather than trying to pick them off one at a time.

Roller said...

It would be so much more funny if the Pirates were causing so much havoc off the cost of Arrrrgentina instead of Somalia.

Barbed wire and greased hulls, yes. How long until the predator drones are brought in? At night, before the predator drones go to bed, they watch Top Gun, and dream that someday they'll be given arms so they can do the "hi-low-high-five".

G, your last statement left me hanging, can you elaborate?

Ole' Tangled Tube Teddy may actually get his seat back, too. Maybe he can help cousin Trevor out.

G. Smith said...

The gist of what I know about Somalia is that it is currently a very bad place to live. Successive failed governments - botched foreign intervention, horrible civil war, annual armed flair-ups between warring parties that have displaced a huge percentage of the population all over the country.

I think the why is a longer story, and I can only immediately cite wikipedia, a familiar post-colonial history, caught up in the cold war. Varying neighbors have sent troops there as well, the recent "help" from Ethiopia to support the current President's government against the Islamic courts which ended up in less stability than before the election. There are also serious ethnic divisions - one of the reasons why Ethiopia too, is barely held together.

The result of course is that it's a failed state, which brings about innumerable challenges for people. My understanding of one of the immediate shortfalls is security - folks that I've known in development say that foreign aide is limited in most parts of the country b/c of the cost of security. Recently, most aid has pulled out altogether, so along with a population of displaced people, there are serious food and water shortages as well.

According to their own President, people calling themselves Al Quaeda are now setting up shop there. Those guys suck.

So, when I say we should be thoughtful about how we as an international community, and the U.S. in particular responds to piracy, what I mean is that it would be shortsighted to just try to deal with the pirates themselves. (And likely tragic and counter-productive if we just try to "clean out" the communities along the coast that have sprung up along with the coast funded by ransom money.) That lawlessness is a clear symptom of a failed state, left to wither. So if we're serious about dealing with the pirates, we'll make serious investments in security for Somalis, and the establishment of a stable government.

I'm not talking about state-making, George Bush style, but I am talking a UN/AU mandate, funded by any of those countries that rely on that passage for shipping.

One place to start might be Somaliland, where folks tell me there is indeed a government, roads, and schools, and most importantly security.

What there is not, is opportunity, since Somaliland isn't recognized by any other country. I don't know why - but it likely has something to do with the general preference, especially in Africa, to deal with larger, consolidated countries rather than smaller ones.

Ryan said...

Rollerz, I will have a long talk with cousin Trevor. Not only does he owe me an explanation, but he owes me 20 bucks he should apparently have no trouble paying.

G! I love you man, but you need to get off the UN Kool-Aid. Did we not learn anything from Iraq? That started as a UN mission too. Why this obsession that liberal do-gooders have with nation building?

Let's not mistake complex, unnecessary, and ultimately futile solutions for "serious" ones.

This is a simple case of protecting private property, not of nation building. Keep it simple man, if a kid needs glasses, give them glasses, don't recommend brain surgery!

It should be relatively easy for ships to protect themselves without even the need for a massive naval presence.

Kev, your magic flying machines comment is funny, but it's a huge bulk question. I wonder how many UPS planes it would take to carry the load of one of those supramax tankers? It's like the trains in our country seem antiquated too, but something like 45% of everything in your house was on a train at some point.

Probably the rest was on a ship.

Now I need to get back to finding out how to get me some of those poop plants.

G. Smith said...

UN, NATO, AU, whatever - the point is I love Kool-Aide, and I won't have you disparage it.

And didn't things really turn south once the UN pulled out of Iraq?

My broader point is that we can stick our heads in the sand and pretend that Somalia's problems won't affect us, or we can realize that's absurd, and help out in a meaningful way.

(the liberal do-gooder in me here is being screamed at by the pessimistic realist in me. Pessimistic realist is saying that there is no Save Somalia force anywhere in the near future, that instead we'll try to pick off pirates one by one, eventually raid the coastline, and perhaps even send in drones to pick off terrorists, leaving Somalis less safe, less secure, more angry, and more of a wildcard...

liberal do-gooder cries familiar tears...)

Ryan said...

G, here's a more thorough reply that seems alright to me. (Get the kleenexes out!)

G. Smith said...

in a shocking turn of events - Ron Paul suggests more guns -

teenage pirates vs. blackwater mercenaries - genius - I can't wait for the movie!

Ryan said...

G, I think the idea is that if those ships were fully armed, dumbass 18 year old kids wouldn't think they're the Dread Pirate Roberts in the first place.

Instead, France and other countries have been subsidizing these idiots by paying ransoms and encouraging their behavior to create an industry.

It's called deterrence, and it would be way less violent and costly than the current situation.

[insert kleenex here]

G. Smith said...

Ryan, we're likely going to disagree on this, and I've run out of steam on it.

But - got to check out the latest South Park - those guys have it dead on.

Ryan said...

I especially like the coconut and trash can cannon.

Ryan said...

G, and anyone else who gets this, here is a decent article about the pirate situation:

G. Smith said...

This was an interesting read.

Before I started reading I thought that you may have sent me the rantings of a right wing nut job - what with the author's credentials - but by the end I realized that you had.

The entire first half, however, I think is excellent - a very good brief critique and analysis of how complex the problem is. Indeed, the U.S. shouldn't be in the lead, there needs to be buy-in for any solution from Somalis, the U.N. should recognize Somaliland, and we would be wrong in following the advice of Bill Kristol's and the other quoted there. The effort that ended with Blackhawk Down the movie was shortsighted, underfunded, and led by the wrong people (the U.S.). He even points out that the U.S.'s efforts at controlled strikes on Al-Quaeda still ended up with civilian casualties, and thus would be, a bad solution.

Which is why I'm flabbergasted that he ends up suggesting such a radically violent solution: giving what sounds like carte blanche to mercenaries to make snap decisions on who is and isn't a pirate to, and to hunt down and kill anyone even suspected of piracy.

Make no mistake, this won't work, and will only lead to a higher body count. There is no shortage of guns in the horn of Africa - so pitting folks in a lawless area against highly paid and equally well armed mercenaries with a lawless agenda will result in a much higher body count than we see now.

Think about who signs up for this sort of a gig - someone who wants to hunt down and kill people. Blackwater folks - former military personnel who couldn't get enough fighting in the armed forces. Many of these men come from the U.S., but in Africa in particular there are many mercenaries trained in the South African Defense Force under apartheid - who are still itching for a reason to kill black people.

Now where is his concern for loss of innocent life?

I know it's about deterrence, but if I'm a rich pirate, and I see a boat full of heavily armed mercenaries coming at me, the first thing I'll do is buy more guns to protect myself. Especially since I live in a failed state and can depend on no one, not Somalia, not the U.N., not the Geneva conventions, not the U.S., to support me or my right to life if said mercenaries don't like the look of my eye patch or parrot.

I don't know if anyone else is still reading this or not - likely not - but is this really what people are talking about?

Even without the documented cases of hazardous waste being dumped on their shores, and Somali fishing rights being violated, there are plenty of reasons why these teenage pirates as victims of circumstances beyond their control.

And whether or not these acts of piracy are more or less than a nuisance is irrelevant - they're a clear symptom of a failed state. Like the terrorists holed up there, like the thousands of refugees fleeing to the U.S., like the regional instability it creates.

So again - my argument remains the same that we should be thoughtful in dealing with the situation. This means dealing with the difficult problem of the failed state, which is obviously easier said than done, but if we were serious about it, we'd put more pressure on Ban Ki Moon to figure out what a better solution could be - it might start in Somaliland.

And again, just dealing with the pirates directly, by force or even with Jean-Luc Picard -ish negociating abilities, is shortsided.

And giving lawless people guns to fight other lawless people with guns is not just shortsighted, it's stupid.

Ryan said...

G, I appreciate your passion and intellect, you know a ton about Somalia, but I think you might have misread something, or are reading something else into it.

The author mainly wanted to back off the urge to bring the military into this. What happens if a military vessel gets attacked by a crew? It means something much different, and the following chain of events would be much different.

So he offers a different solution, one that is founded in history and the Constitution as an appropriate and least hostile action. Letters of Marque, because the Navy can't be everywhere, it's like deputizing people. Yeah, it means mercenaries, whom you paint in a pretty dark light with a broad brush. Essentially, body guards on boats.

I think you lost your footing a little on the argument that these pirates are impossible to tell apart from fishermen, cruiseliners or other merchants, that innocent people would get killed at the points of contact where a pirate boat overtakes an oceanliner.

I'm not gungho on this, but there are people with loud microphones calling for crazy things. I don't know how well your solution of doing nothing to confront the actual violence would go over.

Leaning on dysfunctional governments would not solve the problem, but it might be a good step regardless.

G. Smith said...

It was indeed a bit slippery...but I think his suggestions are too.

I don't mean to say that something shouldn't be done to confront piracy in the short term. Common sense measures like increased patrols and barbed wire around the deck of ships I also heard a similar story where a chinese ship threw broken glass on the deck since the pirates are usually barefoot.

yippie kay yay M*F*

- but at the same time we need to commit the hard, imperfect work of diplomacy that it will take to figure out a Somali solution.