Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On a Wing and a...

Southwest Ordered to Replace Parts on Some Planes

Did you know that federal officials are giving Southwest Airlines until Dec. 24 to replace unapproved parts on about 50 airplanes? You were flying on these planes, by the way.

On the good side, unapproved parts on the rest of the planes can stay.

Home Truth

Pakistan: 4 Militant Bases Destroyed Near Khyber Pass.

And believe it we shall because Pakistan never lies.


Tribal Leaders Say Karzai’s Team Forged 23,900 Votes.

This is what our money and blood has been buying us. We need Christie Blatchford here to remind us again why we really should be shedding our money and blood in Afghanistan. Christie! Are you there?!

U.N. Sees Afghan Drug Cartels Emerging

Though the Afghan opium harvest has declined for the second consecutive year, a new United Nations report says, there is growing evidence that some Afghan insurgent forces are becoming “narco-cartels” — similar to anti-government guerrilla groups in Colombia — that view drug profits as more important than ideology.

Afghanistan’s multibillion-dollar illicit narcotics industry finances much of the country’s insurgency, and the influence of drug money is a major reason the Afghan government is considered among the most corrupt in the world.

Afghanistan’s production of opium, the raw material for heroin, declined by 10 percent this year, and the amount of land used to cultivate opium fell by 22 percent, according to a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime that is to be formally released Wednesday.

The smaller harvest, largely attributed to market forces and heightened interdiction efforts, is a rare bit of good news for the United States and the coalition of Western governments whose troops and taxpayers are supporting what even American commanders describe as a deteriorating situation as the war approaches its ninth year.

But while United Nations officials suggested that some opium-trafficking guerrillas were now less focused on Taliban ideology, they also reported that perhaps more than 10,000 tons of illegal opium — worth billions of dollars and enough to satisfy at least two years of world demand — is now secretly stockpiled. They said they were concerned that part of this stockpile could be a “ticking bomb” in the hands of people who could use it to pay for “sinister scenarios.”

Opium is easily smuggled and stored and “is an ideal form of terrorist financing,” Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said in an interview. “It’s a huge amount of money to have in the wrong hands.” He called on intelligence agencies to investigate the stockpiles.

American officials are also concerned that large stockpiles could bolster guerrilla war chests, despite recent military operations to curb the flow of drug money to the Taliban and other insurgent groups, a senior United States official said. The official, who did not wish to speak on the record, said that the stockpiles were believed to be in Afghanistan and that they were probably under the control of gangs that were principally involved in narcotics trafficking rather than directly controlled by “terror groups.”

But assuming the opium can be smuggled out of the country, the official added, “the real issue is that regardless of what impact we have in the near term on production, distribution and other aspects of the narco network, this level of stockpiles means that funding resources will remain fairly even.”

American troops and Afghan officials in some southern regions where opium proliferates say that the insurgency there appears to be increasingly influenced by financial loyalties rather than ideological or jihadist allegiances, as guerrillas move from taxing and extracting protection money from traffickers to smuggling and refining opium themselves. Estimates of the insurgency’s annual revenue from drugs across Afghanistan vary widely, from $70 million to $500 million, according to a recent Congressional report.

“A marriage of convenience between insurgents and criminal groups is spawning narco-cartels in Afghanistan linked to the Taliban,” Mr. Costa said.

As in some nations, including Colombia and Myanmar, the agency said in a statement, “the drug trade in Afghanistan has gone from being a funding source for insurgency to becoming an end in itself.”

Afghanistan in recent years has produced 90 percent of the world’s opium. United Nations officials said this year’s decline stemmed largely from a steep drop in the value of opium amid a huge supply glut; high prices last year for some other crops that caused farmers to switch; and more aggressive counternarcotics actions by Western and Afghan forces.

They said it was not clear whether the decline would continue, especially if the difference between prices for opium and other crops were to widen to previous levels. Just two years ago, for example, an acre of opium fetched 10 times as much as an acre of wheat, but that ratio has diminished to three to one.

“A market correction is going on while law enforcement has increased the pressure,” Mr. Costa said. “Now, military and economic forces are playing in the same direction.” Actual production of opium declined to 6,900 metric tons this year from 7,700 metric tons last year.

The most striking decline was in Helmand Province, the dominant producer, where cultivation fell by one-third. In addition to market forces and more robust counternarcotics efforts, the United Nations cited efforts by Helmand’s governor, Gulab Mangal, and an American- and British-backed anti-poppy program in the province.

Mr. Costa said efforts by the United States and other NATO forces to take a more direct role were becoming a powerful deterrent. But he also appeared to be critical of the recently disclosed decision by the Pentagon to place 50 Afghan traffickers on a target list to be captured or killed. American officials have said the 50 are also tied to the Taliban.

“Drug lords should be brought to justice,” he said in a statement. “Not executed in violation of international law or pardoned for political expediency.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Australia still land of the 'fair go'

AUSTRALIANS still get "a fair go", with income inequality falling sharply this century, according to the organisation that represents 30 of the world's richest countries.

Parents' incomes and education had little bearing on the success of their children, making Australia one of the most socially mobile countries in the world, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found.

The narrowed gap between Australia's rich and poor went against a trend of greater inequality in more than three-quarters of OECD countries during the past 20 years, with the gap widening most dramatically in Canada, Germany, Norway and the US.

While the Australian Government did not spend as much as most OECD governments on cash benefits for families and disadvantaged people, it targeted such benefits more tightly on low-income households than any other country in the OECD.

"Only Belgium, Denmark and Sweden do more to support low-income households through the tax-transfer system," the OECD said in a report called Growing Unequal.

But the efficient welfare state seemingly overlooked older Australians, with poverty among those older than 65 worsening during the past decade to 2005, compared to other developed countries. About half of Australian singles over 65 were living in poverty, the third highest in the OECD.

Child poverty rose in countries such as New Zealand, Germany and Canada.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Normally, the September issue of any fashion magazine comes with pages upon pages of stick-thin models parading around in the latest haute couture.

What one does not expect to see is a normal-looking woman sitting naked and exposing(or showing off, as in this case) a normal-looking belly! But Glamour Magazine showcased just such a woman on page 194 (well, perhaps 'showcased' is a bit of a strong term for this) of their September issue and the response, reportedly, has been tremendous. The woman is 20-year-old model Lizzi Miller who at a size 12 is considered plus sized by fashion industry standards.

From someone who doesn't sport rock hard abs, (to quote Eric Bana from a recent interview, 'Abs are for people with no friends.') it's quite refreshing to see a woman with a normal body gracing the glossy pages of a fashion mag.

It's a small step I suppose, and it's taken the industry a long time to start recognizing a variety of female body types, but it is good to see a gradual change in our perception and representation of the female form.

It would be nice to see some real men in magazines as well, instead of the chiseled, mannequin-like robotic forms we do see.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

China Racing Ahead of U.S. in the Drive to Go Solar

President Obama wants to make the United States “the world’s leading exporter of renewable energy,” but in his seven months in office, it is China that has stepped on the gas in an effort to become the dominant player in green energy — especially in solar power, and even in the United States.

Chinese companies have already played a leading role in pushing down the price of solar panels by almost half over the last year. Shi Zhengrong, the chief executive and founder of China’s biggest solar panel manufacturer, Suntech Power Holdings, said in an interview here that Suntech, to build market share, is selling solar panels on the American market for less than the cost of the materials, assembly and shipping.

Backed by lavish government support, the Chinese are preparing to build plants to assemble their products in the United States to bypass protectionist legislation. As Japanese automakers did decades ago, Chinese solar companies are encouraging their United States executives to join industry trade groups to tamp down anti-Chinese sentiment before it takes root.

The Obama administration is determined to help the American industry. The energy and Treasury departments announced this month that they would give $2.3 billion in tax credits to clean energy equipment manufacturers. But even in the solar industry, many worry that Western companies may have fragile prospects when competing with Chinese companies that have cheap loans, electricity and labor, paying recent college graduates in engineering $7,000 a year.

“I don’t see Europe or the United States becoming major producers of solar products — they’ll be consumers,” said Thomas M. Zarrella, the chief executive of GT Solar International, a company in Merrimack, N.H., that sells specialized factory equipment to solar panel makers around the world.

Since March, Chinese governments at the national, provincial and even local level have been competing with one another to offer solar companies ever more generous subsidies, including free land, and cash for research and development. State-owned banks are flooding the industry with loans at considerably lower interest rates than available in Europe or the United States.

Suntech, based here in Wuxi, is on track this year to pass Q-Cells of Germany, to become the world’s second-largest supplier of photovoltaic cells, which would put it behind only First Solar in Tempe, Ariz.

Hot on Suntech’s heels is a growing list of Chinese corporations backed by entrepreneurs, local governments and even the Chinese military, all seeking to capitalize on an industry deemed crucial by China’s top leadership.

Dr. Shi pointed out that other governments, including in the United States, also assist clean energy industries, including with factory construction incentives.

China’s commitment to solar energy is unlikely to make a difference soon to global warming. China’s energy consumption is growing faster than any other country’s, though the United States consumes more today. Beijing’s aim is to generate 20,000 megawatts of solar energy by 2020 — or less than half the capacity of coal-fired power plants that are built in China each year.

Solar energy remains far more expensive to generate than energy from coal, oil, natural gas or even wind. But in addition to heavy Chinese investment and low Chinese costs, the global economic downturn and a decline in European subsidies to buy panels have lowered prices.

The American economic stimulus plan requires any project receiving money to use steel and other construction materials, including solar panels, from countries that have signed the World Trade Organization’s agreement on free trade in government procurement. China has not.

In response to this, and to reduce shipping costs, Suntech plans to announce in the next month or two that it will build a solar panel assembly plant in the United States, said Steven Chan, its president for global sales and marketing. “It’ll be to facilitate sales — ‘buy American’ and things like that,” Mr. Chan said, adding that the factory would have 75 to 150 workers and be located in Phoenix, or somewhere in Texas.

But 90 percent of the workers at the $30 million factory will be blue-collar laborers, welding together panels from solar wafers made in China, Dr. Shi said. Yingli Solar, another large Chinese manufacturer, said on Thursday that it also had a “preliminary plan” to assemble panels in the United States.

Western rivals, meanwhile, are struggling. Q-Cells of Germany announced last week that it would lay off 500 of its 2,600 employees because of declining sales. It and two other German companies, Conergy and SolarWorld, are particularly indignant that German subsidies were the main source of demand for solar panels until recently. “Politicians might ask whether this is still the right way to do this, German taxpayers paying for Asian products,” said Markus Wieser, a Q-Cells spokesman. But organizing resistance to Chinese exports could be difficult, particularly as Chinese discounting makes green energy more affordable.

Even with Suntech acknowledging that it sells below the marginal cost of producing each additional solar panel — that is, the cost after administrative and development costs are subtracted — any antidumping case, in the United States, for example, would have to show that American companies were losing money as a result. First Solar — the solar leader, in Tempe — using a different technology from many solar panel manufacturers, is actually profitable, while the new tax credits now becoming available may help other companies.

Even organizing a united American response to Chinese exports could be difficult. Suntech has encouraged executives at its United States operations to take the top posts at the two main American industry groups, partly to make sure that these groups do not rally opposition to imports, Dr. Shi said.

The efforts of Detroit automakers to win protection from Japanese competition in the 1980s were weakened by the presence of Honda in their main trade group; they expelled Honda in 1992.

Some analysts are less pessimistic about the prospects for solar panel manufacturers in the West. Joonki Song, a partner at Photon Consulting in Boston, said that while large Chinese solar panel manufacturers are gaining market share, smaller ones have been struggling.

Mr. Zarrella of GT Solar said that Western providers of factory equipment for solar panel manufacturers would remain competitive, and Dr. Shi said that German equipment providers “have made a lot of money, tons of money.”

The Chinese government is requiring that 80 percent of the equipment for China’s first municipal power plant to use solar energy, to be built in Dunhuang in northwestern China next year, be made in China.

Dr. Shi said his company would try to prevent similar rules in any future projects. The reason is clear: almost 98 percent of Suntech’s production goes overseas.