Saturday, March 03, 2007
Appeals Court leaves CIA free to torture
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of the case of German national Khaled al-Masri against the U.S. government. In 2003 Masri was whisked away from Macedonia by the CIA to be tortured in Afghanistan. After 5 months they apparently lost interest and left him on a lonely road in Albania.
Masri's attorney from the ACLU characterized the decision this way—
... it literally grants the CIA complete immunity to engage in any kind of misconduct.
The court wrote in its opinion [PDF]—
We recognize the gravity of our conclusion that al-Masri must be denied a judicial forum.
There is no good news in any of this, but it should be noted that this kidnapping has resulted in warrants for the CIA agents in both Germany and Italy. Though the warrants are unlikely ever to be served, they may at least keep the agents involved out of Europe, where one agent has had to leave behind his Italian villa.
If a tree falls in the forest and only one person is there.... (1/17/05)
Airline Meal of the Day (2/20/07)
Irony of the Day
Six soldiers deployed to the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants became U.S. citizens Friday. —AP
The soldiers were all members of the Texas National Guard. The story quotes one soldier who came to the U.S. legally with her family. The absence of any detail concerning the others—their manner of arrival, for instance—is a little puzzling.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
Don't let those antidepressants overexcite you!
What brought me to write this post was a story about poor old Sol Wachtler, the New York judge who lost it all for a woman. The details of that affair are summarized in Leonard Levitt's review of "Obsession," the tell-all about the Republican trash who populated
In November 1992, Sol Wachtler, Chief Judge of New York State, past candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court and future candidate for New York governor, was arrested by the FBI. He was charged with blackmailing and extorting money from his former girlfriend in a half-baked yet diabolical threat to kidnap her teenage daughter. The girlfriend happened to be his wife's first cousin.
That would be real-estate heiress Joy Silverman—
During her third marriage, she hooks up with Wachtler, whose own marriage has bogged down in middle-aged ennui and who has become a trustee of Joy's multi-million dollar trust fund (in what arguably was a violation of the state's judicial ethics).
And you knew there had to be a Bush in it somewhere—
The two strike a kind of Faustian bargain. Wachtler introduces Joy to his Republican circles. She fund-raises for, and is befriended by, none other than President George Bush. She then lobbies unsuccessfully for Sol's appointment to the Supreme Court, while he plots, equally unsuccessfully, to have Joy appointed ambassador to Barbados.
When Joy went looking for love in all the wrong places, Sol sent threatening notes to Joy's daughter under a fake name in hopes that Joy would turn to him for help. Instead she turned to her dear friend FBI Director William Webster who put some 80 agents on the case.
This massive force was eventually able to root out Judge Wachtler, who ended up doing 13 months in the pen. He also surrendered his membership in the New York bar—a very foolish move since the New York bar does not normally disbar its members for anything less than a triple homicide.
At 76 Wachtler, who teaches at a law school, is now appealing for reinstatement of his license to practice law. I do admire his gumption, but until black ex-felons can get jobs as janitors I really don't see how this would be quite fair. Nevertheless, this is New York and Mr. Wachtler's case has just passed a hurdle. According to Daniel Wise,
In a brief order, a panel of the Appellate Division, 2nd Department, on Feb. 6 referred Wachtler's application for reinstatement to the court's Character and Fitness Committee for evaluation, including a report from his treating physician.
Now here comes the hard part—
Hal R. Lieberman, a former chief counsel of the 1st Department's disciplinary committee ..., said the referral means that Wachtler has passed the "threshold" for reinstatement but "still bears the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that he has the requisite character and fitness to be reinstated."
So I continued reading, all the while wondering if my little peccadillos would keep me out of law school, and I came to Judge Wachtler's escape hatch—
According to news reports, he suffered from drug-induced bipolar disorder.
Drug-induced bipolar disorder
Now I'm somewhat familiar with the ways of madness, but this was a new one. What kind of drug could provoke bipolar disorder (previously known as "manic-depression")? I googled for "drug-induced bipolar disorder" and found a total of 19 references, including a number of duplicates. But, sure enough, it's a recognized pathology. And the cause? Antidepressants!
The most interesting reference was a study reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The good news is that the mania is milder and the duration may be shorter than in cases of spontaneous mania. The bad news is that practically all classes of antidepressants may cause it. From the abstract—
The patients with antidepressant-associated manic states also had significantly less severe levels of delusions, hallucinations, psychomotor agitation, and bizarre behavior, according to a standard rating instrument, than the patients with spontaneous mania. For further study the patients with antidepressant-associated mania were divided into subgroups taking four individual classes of antidepressant drugs: tricyclics (N = 19), fluoxetine (N = 13), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) (N = 8), and bupropion (N = 6); three patients taking combinations of drugs were not included in these analyses.
So many people take these drugs that I just thought you should know. And let's hope that Judge Wachtler doesn't get depressed and go back on the hard stuff.
Tags: * psychopharmaceuticals bupropion Zyban Wellbutrin antidepressants tranquilizers Prozac fluoxetine tricyclics MAO inhibitors psychopharmacology mental illness iatrogenic disease bipolar disorder manic-depression mania Sol Wachtman Joy Silverman George H.W. Bush Republicans mental illness
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
TXU and the Great Waste
I would speculate that for the average consumer a business story that makes it onto the nightly news not only makes no sense, it also leaves no impression. And into that category must fall the story of the proposed buyout of TXU Corp., Texas' largest electric utility.
If all goes according to plan, TXU will cease to be a public corporation and go into private ownership, which means among other things that it will escape all the nasty reporting requirements of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). But the reason this story made it into the headlines is the sheer size of the transaction. According to David Koenig, this is the largest transfer to private ownership ever, beating the record set in 1988 when Kohlberg Kravis bought all the cookies from RJR Nabisco.
There really is nothing to fear in this—
Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III will serve as advisory chairman to the buyout group, and [former EPA chief] Reilly and former Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans will join the TXU board if the deal goes through.
And if that's not reassuring enough, Henry Kravis, a principle in one of the groups hoping to swallow TXU whole has "pledged to make TXU into 'a more innovative, customer-centric, environmentally friendly company.'" So don't be petty.
The environmental benefit
In announcing the proposed buyout excited reporters spoke of a win-win situation in which environmentalists would "win" an agreement to reduce the number of planned coal-fired generating plants from 11 down to 3. While the meaning of the "win" for environmentalists and other affected parties was clear enough, many news accounts neglected to spell out the corresponding win for the new owners, but you wouldn't be far wrong if you assumed some additional billions in profits.
As consumers and as citizens we have grown accustomed to the notion that any manure deposit smaller than a truck load should be counted as a "win." So the announcement of the cutback in the number of coal-fired plants left Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen in Texas, "stunned and elated." After all, with Texas growing faster than the reproductive rate of Mexico, the state was facing what TXU had dubbed a "power crisis." Where to get all those additional megawatts if not from coal?
But Tom Fowler noticed that the problem seems to have been solved almost overnight—
Just a week ago, Texas was facing a power crisis in the coming years if the state didn't green-light TXU's plans to build 11 coal-fired power plants.
At least that's what TXU and its supporters said.
What a difference a few days can make.
TXU said Tuesday it's now prepared to bring as much as 1,400 megawatts of mothballed natural gas-fired power generating capacity back on line to meet the state's power needs in the coming years. One megawatt can power as many as 800 homes.
The coal plants will be replaced with a doubling of wind power purchases, a $400 million commitment to conservation programs to reduce the need, and the return to service of the gas plants.
How could it have been so simple?
Strong statements that rolling blackouts were on the way if the coal plant projects didn't move forward were simply exaggerations, said David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center and one of the parties to the agreement with the investors.
"It had nothing to do with the needs of Texas citizens and reliability," Hawkins said. "It was simply an exercise in trying to dominate the field. It was literally a power play."
And thus is our energy policy decided at the state and national level.
The environmental groups that agreed to drop their opposition and "get on board"—the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense—are either being had or being paid. As analyst James Lucier of Prudential Equity Group expressed it for NPR—
I think the environmental groups are being used as window dressing for a deal that's really driven by strong economic fundamentals.
I cannot hear a story dealing with the great problems of our age—energy, environment, global warming, health care1—without thinking of the war on Iraq—"The Great Waste." But the U.S. media don't like that characterization. They will not tolerate the notion that the war is wasting lives, as Barack Obama recently discovered. And they similarly reject the notion that the war is a waste of money, since by some circular reasoning the money is being spent to "support our troops."2 But we must not allow ourselves to be flummoxed. From the viewpoint of an ordinary citizen this war is nothing but a waste of lives and money. Yet where there are losers there are also winners, and "our" war is truly a cash cow for the wealthy.
In January I wrote a brief post on some of the problems of health and education that might be improved by money wasted in this war. But the TXU scam brings home the wasted opportunity for helping to heal the environment.
For heaven's sake! For a trillion bucks the government could offer tax credits and grants to insulate every building in the country and maybe give us a hybrid automobile in the bargain, thus reducing both the need for oil and additional generating capacity.
You can tell I'm off my lithium, can't you? The federal government would never consider a course of action benefiting so many citizens at once. It would only make us lazy.
What to do? What to do!
Brian Huyser, among others, is promoting a simple idea. He wants everyone to change out their incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs. According to his calculations CFLs can reduce your monthly electric bill by 50 to 75 cents per bulb, which can add up if you have a lot of lights. If we could make CFLs as popular as, say, the pet rock, wonderful benefits could accrue.
Huyser's goal is to replace one billion incandescent bulbs. At his website Huyser writes,
Imagine if people all over the world mobilized to replace one billion standard incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs. What would that mean? It would mean that those people would save money each month on their electricity bill. It would mean they would save enough energy to light tens of millions of homes for a year. It would mean the prevention of greenhouse gases equivalent to the annual emissions of millions of cars.
The website features a map of the states showing the extent to which each state has proportionately moved toward Huyser's goal. Texas, naturally, is at the bottom. So I looked up some statistics and did a down-and-dirty calculation—
In 2005 Texas had over 9 million housing units. Let's make the extravagant assumption that 1 million of them already use CFLs. So suppose that the remaining housing units decide to replace just four 60-watt bulbs with the equivalent 18-watt CFL, a reduction in power requirement of 42 watts per bulb.
We then have—
8,000,000 housing units x 4 bulbs x 42 watts = 1,344,000,000 watts = 1,344,000 kilowatts = 1,344 megawatts of power.
Tom Fowler, noted above, wrote that 1 megawatt is sufficient to power 800 homes. So the great state of Texas could add over a million additional housing units without requiring a single additional coal-fired plant merely by convincing every household to replace four 60-watt bulbs with an 18-watt equivalent. The main drawback is that friends of the Bush's won't make quite as much money by diddling consumers out of their energy dollars.
I say we give it a try!
2This evening NPR commentator Daniel Schorr noted that the federal government is not meeting its commitment to the states to fund a program for child health care. Noticing the generous funding for the Defense Department, he suggested that children's health should be "redefined as a defense program meant to ensure a supply of healthy young people for future wars." [back]