Thursday, July 31, 2008

Handling kidnappers in Colombia

Gateway Pundit has been posting some fantastic reports about the success of Colombia in curbing violence in their violence racked country. This is in great part due to President Alvaro Uribe’s superb handling of the FARC insurgency.

It’s hard to get a handle on the methods used. Most press accounts don’t report them (the Washington Post a notable exception) but a Colombian acquaintance gave me some insight on how Colombia is curbing kidnapping. Kidnapping is the financial lifeblood for terrorists. It is easy, rewarding and relatively risk free. Victims are generally from well off families who can afford ransom payments.

This Colombian had been kidnapped himself but escaped and is now living in southwest Florida. He told me he could never return to Colombia. “They would kill me” he said. To curb kidnapping the Uribe government immediately puts a hold on all financial accounts when a family member has been kidnapped. They are allowed to withdraw enough to meet normal expenses, but they can’t meet ransom demands. By taking the decision not to pay ransom from the family, terrorist lose their leverage. It must be heart rending, but it is working. Kidnapping is down 83% since Uribe took office.

If only the European countries in Iraq would learn this lesson, there would be far fewer civilian kidnappings and less money in the hands of the terrorists. The Italians are the worst. And they wonder why their citizens are kidnapped so often.

Storm clouds

Another shoe has fallen in what appears to be US preparations for the contingency of an Israeli preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. According to Reuters the administration is poised to approve delivery of a Raytheon FBX-T radar system to Israel within 6 months. This mobile land based missile defense radar has a 2500 nautical mile range. It can detect baseball size objects at this range and incorporates advanced target discrimination technology to sort warheads from dummies and debris. The system allows far earlier engagement times than Israel’s Green Pine radar. This is important because the time of flight of a missile launched from Iran at Israel is only 11 minutes. Its data can be integrated into Israel’s Arrow anti-missile system as well as nearby ship borne US Navy SM-3 missiles. The latter was used to down an errant American satellite this past February. Reuters reports the imminent decision to deploy comes at the urging of a bipartisan group of congressmen.

“Nearly 70 members of Congress, including the top Democrat and Republican on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Bush this week urging him to offer a warning radar that is "fully integrated" with the emerging U.S. shield.”

An earlier sign of trouble brewing was the redeployment in early July of the Abraham Lincoln carrier task group outside of the Straits of Hormuz, instead of its normal stomping grounds in the Persian Gulf. This reduces its vulnerability of being trapped in the Gulf in the event of a conflict. It allows defensive sea room and the ability to maneuver.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


This morning Julie and I stopped by a truly unique store on Sanibel Island, Neptune’s Treasures. It will be closed soon by its elderly owner who recently suffered a medical setback. It has been a labor of love, but 5 years ago he decided he wanted to sell the business or close it because of his age, but didn't. Now sadly, he has to.

His business is trilobites and other fossilized relics from 500 million years ago. He loves them and wants others to love them. Trilobites won’t pay the rent so he has stocked sea shells, a mainstay item for island visitors. His are a cut above other shell stores. They, along with other artifacts, have sustained his business for years. While the store is still doing business, it is being run by a local couple who are close personal friends of the owner.

Today I had to buy a trilobite. I had spurned one as a gift a while back, but I will never find another trilobite store again. I will treasure it.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Positive signs for Zimbabwe

There is positive news about Zimbabwe tonight. Through the intervention of Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa, there will probably be discussions between the competing parties in the recent elections to help resolve the political and economic crisis. The following is from Reuters via the New York Times:

Zimbabwe’s main opposition party could sign an agreement as early as Monday to begin substantive talks with President Robert Mugabe’s party on ending an impasse that has worsened the country’s severe economic crisis, opposition officials said on Saturday. The apparent breakthrough occurred after South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, proposed forming a team drawn from African regional bodies and the United Nations to help him mediate the crisis in Zimbabwe.

 It seemed incredible that Mbeki could sit aside and watch a neighboring nation starve. He is a close friend of President Mugabe and probably the only individual who can talk sense to him. Can he use a carrot and stick approach to alleviate the suffering in Zimbabwe? Hopefully yes. UN food aid stopped when they found Mugabe’s forces were reselling it to raise foreign exchange. When the UN insisted on controls, Mugabe threw them out. Mbeki’s team hopefully will be more persuasive. The next step will be to offer Mugabe a pleasant villa in Durban overlooking the Indian Ocean as his retirement home.

Whatever the outcome, I welcome Mbeki’s positive actions. Also, as I pointed out in my previous post on Zimbabwe, if you want to find out what is happening to the people there, read Cathy Buckle. Her normal Saturday letter hasn’t been posted yet and it's already Sunday. I pray she is OK. Update Cathy Buckle is up now. Here is some of her weeekly letter:

It's been a brutal four months that Zimbabwe will never forget. A time when the country's leaders have bombarded us with hate speech, threatened us with war and tried to make us believe that they are immortal and their rule eternal. For the last four months we have been a population in a state of mourning as a litany of horror has become our daily lives: murder, torture, abduction, rape and arson. And now, after all these weeks of abuse and before the soil has settled over fresh graves, gifts are being given by the same people who threatened war. I

t seems to be of no consequence that the constitutional deadline for the swearing in of MP's and Senators, the election of the Speaker of the House and Senate and the ceremonial opening of Parliament have all been missed. As I write this letter the leaves from the Msasa trees are falling thick and fast. They are early this year and the sound of them raining down on the roof gives notice of a new season about to start. The falling of the leaves, like the wishes of the people, cannot be stopped - no matter how many gifts are given.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Al Gore blackouts

Al Gore today called for replacing all carbon based electric power generation with alternative forms, primarily wind, solar, and geothermal in the next ten years. From the Washington Post:

…That is why I'm proposing today a strategic initiative designed to free us from the crises that are holding us down and to regain control of our own destiny. It's not the only thing we need to do, but this strategic challenge is the lynchpin of a bold, new strategy needed to re-power America.

So today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.

This goal -- this goal is achievable, affordable and transformative. It represents a challenge to all Americans in every walk of life, to our political leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, engineers, and to every citizen.

A few short years ago, it would not have been possible to issue such a challenge. But here's what's changed: The sharp cost reductions now beginning to take place in solar, wind and geothermal power, coupled with the recent dramatic price increases for oil and coal, have radically changed the economics of energy….

I pulled up these Intellicast wind maps a few hours after he delivered his speech. They cover the entire eastern portion of the country at 10PM EDT. Seems to be a problem. It’s night (no solar) and there’s no wind. It happens!

How do we deal with that, Al?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Waterboarding in San Francisco?

This morning’s SF Gate (SF Chronicle) carried this item.

A disgruntled city computer engineer has virtually commandeered San Francisco's new multimillion-dollar computer network, altering it to deny access to top administrators even as he sits in jail on $5 million bail, authorities said Monday… Childs created a password that granted him exclusive access to the system, authorities said. He initially gave pass codes to police, but they didn't work. When pressed, Childs refused to divulge the real code even when threatened with arrest, they said… Officials also said they feared that although Childs is in jail, he may have enabled a third party to access the system by telephone or other electronic device and order the destruction of hundreds of thousands of sensitive documents…

 This is a non-lethal version of the ticking time bomb conundrum. Couldn’t have happened in a better place, ultra liberal San Francisco. They are faced with some tough decisions, how can they make Mr. Childs cough up the right password?

We know how the Bush administration would handle it, waterboarding. Will touchy-feely San Francisco follow the same example? Nah, good old rubber hoses will probably do the job.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Mugabe retains power, the people don't rejoice

On Saturday an effort by the US and others on the UN Security Council to issue sanctions against Zimbabwe failed when it was vetoed by China and Russia.

The sanctions proposed were relatively mild: an arms embargo, an appointment of a UN mediator and financial and travel restrictions on President Robert Mugabe and 13 of his top generals. This was an effort to penalize Mugabe and his Zanu-PF Party for gross human rights violations against his political opposition during the recent elections. During the first election in March, the government claimed opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai did not gain a majority and a runoff was needed to determine the presidency. This was disputed by the opposition.

Leading up to the runoff, Mugabe’s party goons terrorized opposition party members and their families with rape, butchery and murder. Shortly before the runoff, Tsvangirai withdrew, fearing for his life and those of his supporters. He also knew the results were preordained. Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) is in economic ruin because of Mugabe’s policies. There is hyperinflation of 26,000% per year as the government simply prints more money to pay their bills. Once the breadbasket of Africa, the country is now on the verge of massive starvation after the white farmers were forced off of their farms, their lands confiscated and given to Mugabe's pals. Even efforts by impoverished Zimbabweans to provide for themselves, by selling their wares in an open-market shanty town, was met with military force, leaving 700,000 homeless and out of work.

It is difficult to comprehend the misery Zimbabweans live under. Antiseptic articles in British and American papers simply can’t do justice. But there is a window you can peer through that gives a more realistic picture. It is Cathy Buckle’s Letters. She writes her weekly memoirs every Saturday. Please be warned! You must have a strong constitution to read them. They will tear you up. Cathy Buckle is white. She is the widow of a farmer who bought his farm in the early 1990s with government assurances it would be safe. They were subsequently forced off it. Cathy loves her country. Most of her reporting is about the black citizenry and the suffering they face. From this past week:

“In the main supermarket in my home town this weekend there were too many empty shelves to count. In the fortnight since Mr Mugabe was sworn in as President for his sixth term, everyday life has gone from struggle to complete crisis. No one is coping now and in the last two weeks virtually all foodstuffs, toiletries and household goods have completely disappeared from stores.

On what should have been a busy weekend morning in our once thriving town, the car park was virtually empty and the only things to buy in the cavernous supermarket were cabbages, butternut squash, lemons, fizzy drinks and a few packets of meat.‘Where are all your goods?’ I asked one shop attendant.‘There is nothing,’ he said, ‘the suppliers say they have nothing to deliver.’I stood while he weighed the butternut squash I had chosen and exclaimed in shock at the 30 billion dollar price sticker he fixed to the vegetable. ‘Can I show you something?’ the man said and before I could answer he took his most recent pay slip out of his pocket.

For an entire month the shop assistant had earned just 28 billion dollars - not even enough to buy one single butternut squash. Eight hours a day, five and half days a week and his entire salary was not enough to provide even one single meal. He told me he had a wife and a child to support and said with remorse and shame in his voice:‘I am failing them and if I do not jump the border to look for work this month then they are surely going to die.’ ”

You would think the neighboring South African government might help. They won’t. Nor will the members of the Organization of African Unity. Other than a tepid chastising by two members at their meeting two weeks ago, Mugabe was treated as an honorable head of state.

Thugs like thugs.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Risk taking bureaucrats…and Democrats

In the mid 1970s this oxymoron was brought home when my newspaper (the Washington Star) invited two top level oil executives to chat with our business executives and news/editorial staff. After luncheon pleasantries, the oil execs related a story about a lease they had explored in the Gulf of Mexico. Said they paid short of a billion dollars for the lease, and over a billion for survey and drilling costs. But they came up with nothing, “only dry holes,” one explained. They had to abandon the lease.

One of the reporters took the bait. She asked, “What happened to the person who made that decision? Was he fired?” The answer was no, and as a matter of fact he had subsequently received a promotion. The exec went on to explain that all the research data had pointed to oil formations, that they had once contained oil, but over the millennia the oil had escaped. It just wasn’t there when they looked for it.

Then he turned the tables. He asked what would have happened if the government had done the drilling? How many congressional hearings would there have been? Would the bureaucrat who had made that decision been raked over the coals for wasting billions of taxpayers’ money? Government wants only sure bets, but the oil companies are in the risk business. They have costly failures, but they also have successes. It takes risk takers to succeed in the oil business.

Today there are new, but very high financial risk and potentially very high reward technologies to tap our oil shale deposits. If they can be developed, they will dwarf all oil fields ever discovered in the US, and are estimated to contain 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil. A Shell Oil physicist with the unlikely name of Harold Vinegar, has been working for nearly 30 years to find a better way than conventional surface or in situ (underground) retorting. Retorting techniques were wasteful, yielded a liquid that needed further processing before refining and in the case of surface retorting, left the landscape badly scarred.

Vinegar and Shell think they have found a better way. Their method is to heat the shale with electric heating rods to nearly the full depth of the deposit, and when the shale oil begins to flow, pump it out using conventional oil drilling equipment. Initial results in 1981 from a small privately owned test field successfully yielded oil, but initially it was unacceptably “gunky.” By keeping the conversion temperatures low (650ยบ F) and prolonging the heating period (three years) he was able to produce a clear pipeline grade oil. More information on this may be found in the November 1, 2007 issue of Fortune and the 2005 Rand Study: Oil Shale Development in the United States.

Now Shell would like to do this on a larger scale. But they are stymied. Why? Because the Senate Appropriations Committee on a straight party line vote in May, extended the moratorium on shale oil lease development, to let “risk taking” bureaucrats at the Dept. of Interior study it for another year. At some point Democrats must support the economic well being of this country. And it isn’t just a price issue. It is about the security of the US.

Already Hugo Chavez of Venezuela threatened to cut off his 1.2 million barrels per day (roughly 10% of US imports). The majority of Americans now support offshore drilling. Why is it better to outsource our drilling to the Saudis, Libyans or the Indonesians? What does it accomplish? Oil imports adversely affect our balance of payments by $700 billion per year. And much of that goes to less than friendly governments. It’s time to stop being ideologues, and look at the needs of the country.

Wake up Democrats!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Moving a carrier, what does it mean?

The Department of Defense announced on July 8, it is moving its only aircraft carrier in the region out of the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, to better conduct operations in Afghanistan. This fits with other information signaling a reduced emphasis on Iraq and the beginning of a drawdown troops added for the surge, scheduled to begin July 1. But there is potentially a more ominous side to it.

If hostilities against Iran were to begin, the last thing our Navy would want is to have a carrier trapped in the Gulf. The Straits of Hormuz can be easily mined preventing an exit, and floating mines (used effectively by Saddam in the first gulf war) would be an unacceptable hazard. “Sea room” is one of the best protective measures naval forces can use. It gives time to assess a threat and deal with it. Operating in the Gulf 60 to 80 miles from the Iranian coast just doesn't allow enough decision time against a high speed aircraft. This doesn’t mean anything is imminent, but it appears to be the Navy is exercising foresight.