Surviving Critical Times Hard To Deal With

Monday, January 02, 2006

2006 Now What?

Mike Shetlock says enough already with the crazy loans

Hybrid Loan Time Bomb

The HeraldTribune is reporting the clock is winding down on the Hybrid Loan and Sub-Prime mortgage time bombs. Starting in 2006 and accelerating into 2007, as much as $2.5 trillion worth of the fancy mortgages called "hybrids" are coming to the end of the free-lunch part of the deal. Economists are still trying to put numbers on this reset factor, particularly when it comes to the riskiest home loans, referred to as "sub-prime.""We don't have enough data to know how big a problem this will be," said David Berson, chief economist at Fannie Mae, the nation's largest mortgage packager.The ticking clockSarasota's John Barron is typical of the new crop of homeowner-investors. He and his wife, Lauren Wood, are sitting on big profits at two 2004 purchases in the up-and-coming Gillespie Park neighborhood, close to downtown Sarasota.But the couple made their big moves using ARMs that are about to be reset. If they don't act soon, their monthly bills will rise by hundreds of dollars per month. They used two separate three-year, interest-only, adjustable-rate mortgages from SunTrust Bank to buy the homes within the past two years."Besides the two ARMs, we also took out a home equity line on the Seventh Street house to put down a deposit on the Fifth Street house. There was no cash that we had in our pockets to put down on the Fifth Street house. All we had was our shining credit record. And the faith that the banks have in this real estate market that allows you to borrow 100 percent."Barron and Wood have a lot of company, says Paul Kasriel, chief economist at Chicago-based Northern Trust.With possibly $2.5 trillion in household debt that is going to be repriced higher "the household debt-service ratio is bound to climb to new highs," Kasriel wrote last month. "Asset bubbles are characterized by cheap credit. Usually what bursts a bubble is higher cost of credit, because that is what inflates the bubble, is cheap credit."At Sarasota's Integrity Mortgage Group, ARMs have far and away taken over as the most popular. Five years ago, there was only an occasional one-year or five-year ARM. "Out of 200 loans you'd do 10 adjustables," Integrity President Jason Thurber said. "In the last year, I've probably done five fixed-rate loans, 30- or 15-year, out of 150 loans. So all the rest are some kind of hybrid."The big picture looks similar, says SMR Research of Hackettstown, N.J., which regularly surveys lenders who make 90 percent of America's home loans."I can say that the first half of this year, ARM share was 55 percent nationally," said SMR's George Yacik. "For the full year 2004, it was 50 percent." Making matters worse, it is the the sub-prime lenders issuing the most adjustable-rate mortgages. With those who participate in the survey, 80 percent of their loans were ARMs compared to 55 percent in the broader market.Fannie Mae looked at 2002-2004 loan data to determine what portion of the existing loan pool would be "adjusted," and when. Fewer than 10 percent of the conventional conforming loans will reset in 2006-2007, but nearly two-thirds of sub-prime loans will. That is because a large portion of the sub-prime loans are two-year adjustables, says Berson, the Fannie Mae chief economist.Berson offered a typical example of what the industry calls a "2-28," an ARM in which the interest rate is fixed for the first two years and then adjusts regularly for the next 28 to whatever index the loan calls for. The average yearly cap on this loan is 2.3 percentage points per year.Roughly speaking, a consumer's monthly bill could rise from $330 to as much as $1,425 to $1,755.Fannie Mae expects sub-prime loans to be reset en masse this year with that trend continuing into 2007.But over at the Mortgage Bankers Association, senior economist Michael Fratantoni is more interested in the five-year adjustables that were issued during the refi craze of 2002-03. That's a large crop that will sprout in 2007."The estimate is that in 2007, more than a trillion dollars worth of hybrids are going to hit their first reset date," he said.That one chunk of hybrid loans represents 12 percent of the $8.8 trillion in single-family home loans outstanding nationwide.Like many ARM borrowers, Barron, the Gillespie Park buyer, is not really sure how much his payment will go up when the loans are reset. The new rate is a moving target. "Come year four, they adjust it based on the prime rate," he said. "It is like prime rate plus two, or, I can't remember exactly what the adjustment is."At Washington Mutual's Bee Ridge Road office in Sarasota, 25 percent of current applications are for option ARMs, says senior loan consultant Mike Bangasser.For customers with good credit, there is only about a half-percentage point difference between the 5.75 percent rate on an option ARM and the 6.375 percent rate on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage.

So why bother with the ARM?This is the key: The minimum payment today on a $200,000 option ARM would be only $678, a little more than half the cost on a 30-year, fixed-rate loan. On that $200,000 loan, a 30-year fixed would be $1,248 per month in principal and interest. With the option ARM, there are three other payment choices: $958, $1,167 or $1,661.The $678 payment doesn't even cover all the interest, Bangasser acknowledged.He guesstimated that if somebody borrowed $250,000 on a typical option ARM and made minimal payments for five years they would be "going to be in the hole 15 percent to 20 percent of your original balance, meaning $285,000 to $300,000.""You don't have to have negative am," Grande said. "As long as you make that fully-indexed payment, you're fine. But most folks aren't doing that. They take the easy way out, get themselves in trouble."There is one more ingredient to add to this layer cake, and it is one that barely occurs to most borrowers today: What if someday, loans were difficult to get?"Consumers have become so accustomed to very liquid mortgage markets, where credit is available for almost any circumstance, that they are not aware this is unusual in the market," HSH's Gumbinger warned. "Somewhat tighter credit availability and somewhat higher interest rates are much more normal.""Borrowers think they can always refinance. That is not always a safe bet."It's hard to know where to start with this kind of nonsense. But people still insist there is no bubble. That this type of activity occurs routinely is clear evidence of a credit lending bubble. Given that the credit lending bubble has grossly affected home prices, it should be obvious there is a housing bubble as well. Day in and day out however, someone writes an article telling us why this time is different and how affordable housing really is.We have been talking about a possible "credit event" when these loans reset, so I guess we do not have much longer to see. It may not be a "big bang" however, as these loans are scattered throughout 2006 and 2007.It is amazing to me that people in these loans are nearly clueless as to what their loans might get reset to. Barron's loan adjusts to prime rate +2 or something like that but he "can't remember exactly what the adjustment is." Yikes that is 9.25%, on three properties! He has three 100% loans based solely on "shining credit" and someone stupid enough to make the loan. Perhaps a better way of stating it is some hedge fund or mortgage player or investor is stupid enough to take that risk for perhaps an extra 1/4 point or 1/2 point over treasuries. Is that a good deal? I think not and I fully expect to see some hedge funds and/or leveraged reits to blow up over it too.

Dirty deficits...

Growing deficits threaten U.S. superpower status By: Nathan Sosa, Opinion Editor

For five years our nation has endured expanding budget deficits that threaten to undermine our status as a superpower. The federal government has initiated an ideologically-driven fiscal policy that gives generous tax cuts to upper income groups at the expense of everyone else. It has provided enormous amounts of corporate welfare as well to influential interest groups. It has also drastically increased pork-barrel spending in order to buy off those that are reluctant to mortgage the future of our country. Such incredibly irresponsible behavior has been paid for by borrowing enormous sums of money from foreign creditors. This financial insanity does provide an opportunity, however, for fiscally responsible reformers to use the growing discontent over the deficit to expose the hypocrisy of those in power while simultaneously offering a plan to restore the economic influence of our nation.During the 1990s President Clinton adopted a progressive policy of fiscal discipline that led to astounding economic success. His Deficit Reduction Act of 1993 cut the deficit in half by restoring the tax balance. His Balanced Budget Act of 1997 finally eliminated the deficit altogether and paved the way for the longest period of economic expansion in our history. Under his leadership the nation achieved a balanced budget for the first time in three decades, government spending as a share of the economy dropped to its lowest level in 35 years and the tax burden on the average middle-class family was reduced to its lowest level in 35 years. These policies also generated surpluses three years in a row, reduced the national debt by $363 billion, cut interest payments on the debt by $125 billion and led to an expected $5.6 trillion surplus during the first ten years of the new century, which would have allowed the government to pay off the national debt by 2008. When President Clinton left office our nation stood at the pinnacle of its economic power.Since George W. Bush took over, however, the government has embarked on a disastrous campaign of financial mismanagement that has bankrupted our national treasury. In 2003 the annual budget deficit reached a new high of $377 billion. In 2004 this number jumped to $412 billion. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that an additional $4 trillion will be added to the national debt over the next ten years, which will roughly double the current amount to an astounding $8.4 trillion. This will increase interest payments on the debt to roughly $350 billion over the next five years, and by 2009 the government will be spending more on these interest payments than on all domestic discretionary programs. These projections do not include the cost of making the administration's tax cuts permanent, ongoing military operations in Afghanistan as well as Iraq and the reconstruction efforts underway in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This devastating situation will be further exacerbated beginning in 2013 when baby-boom retirees start drawing on $25 trillion worth of unfunded entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. According to the Committee for Economic Development, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Concord Coalition, "balancing the budget by 2013 will require raising individual and corporate income taxes by 27 percent, cutting Social Security by 60 percent and cutting defense expenditures by 73 percent."These expanding deficits will also have a profoundly negative impact on the long term economic health of our nation. The federal government's need to borrow increasingly large sums of money from the private sector in order to fund expenditures will lead to higher interest rates because there will be less capital available for average citizens. This will substantially raise the cost of home mortgages, credit cards, student loans and other forms of financial credit. It will also make it more difficult for individuals to start small businesses, discourage those that are already self-employed from investing in new equipment and negatively impact job growth. This will be accompanied by an erosion of investor confidence in the stock market and slower growth overall once corporations cut back on production in response to the increasingly unstable business environment. These deficits will also lead to higher taxes at the local level because budget shortfalls will compel the federal government to place greater burdens on state legislatures in order to fund basic social services, and the cost of these additional responsibilities will force state governments to cut vital programs and drastically raise taxes in order to avoid bankruptcy.These deficits will force our government into a state of permanent dependence on overseas creditors as well. Foreigners currently hold $11.2 trillion worth of American assets, which represents roughly 20 percent of the total net worth of the United States. The fact that this rate is expanding by roughly $700 billion a year allows these same lenders to expropriate roughly 30 percent of our national income gains every year. Over 40 percent of our debt is currently held by other countries with China maintaining $500 billion and Japan retaining over $720. So insatiable is our appetite for foreign capital that the International Monetary Fund released a report last year warning that United States' net financial obligations could rise to 40 percent of its total economy over the next several years, which would result in an unprecedented level of debt for an industrial nation.This form of fiscal suicide cannot be allowed to continue if our country hopes to retain its status as a superpower. Read more at

The Grand Chessboard...

Putin's momentous move

Wednesday January 4, 2006 The Guardian

After 48 hours of faltering supply, the flow of Russian natural gas came fully back on stream to the European Union yesterday. There was even talk of an early deal in Moscow between Russia and Ukraine over their bitter price dispute that has suddenly catapulted the issue of winter fuel supplies to the top of every governmental agenda in Europe. But the midwinter confrontation between Russia and Ukraine is not some passing event. It has sent lurching and lasting tremors across our continent, once again vindicating Talleyrand's brilliant observation that Russia is always simultaneously too weak and too strong, while also reminding every European of the dangers that flow from over-reliance on a single source of energy to keep factories, shops and offices working and homes lit and heated.

This crisis has been about something larger and more complex than the price paid by Ukraine for Russian gas. Russia is the world's largest supplier of natural gas and its huge state-owned Gazprom energy company is fully entitled, in principle, to sell that gas at a market price. But Russia uses Gazprom to set its prices as a way of exerting political influence. How else can one explain the fact that, until January 1, the same 1,000 cubic metres of gas was sold at such a variety of prices as $120-125 to EU customers, $110 to Georgia, $50 to Ukraine and $47 to Belarus. And the same is true, in spades, of the $230 per 1,000 cubic metres that Russia unilaterally demanded of Ukraine from Sunday. This was not just a breach of a five-year contract that Gazprom made in 2004. It was also an attempt to destabilise the pro-western government that came to power after Moscow's candidate was ousted in Ukraine's orange revolution nearly two years ago. That is why the issue at the heart of this week's confrontation remains the deeply entwined relationship between Russia and Ukraine, with their more than a thousand years of overlapping history, religion, culture and language. This complex relationship is not going to be resolved by settling the price of fuel. It will only be resolved if and when the status of Russia on the 21st century world stage is more clearly settled - and that, as Talleyrand's remark implies, may not be soon. President Vladimir Putin has turned the screws on Ukraine because of the combination of weaknesses and strengths that, as Russia's latest authoritarian ruler among many, it is his destiny to deploy. The consequences could not just be dire for Ukraine but also destabilising for the international institutions that, since the fall of communism, have sought to accommodate Russia. Nowhere is this more true than in the G8 group of world economic powers, to which Russia was admitted for political reasons under Boris Yeltsin and of which Mr Putin became rotating chairman only this week, following Britain's year.

If Russia's enemies had wanted to write a damaging script for the first week of Mr Putin's year at the G8 helm, they could hardly have done it better. And this is even truer of those who have warned for years against over-dependence on a single source of fuel from politically unpredictable parts of the globe. No government can afford the lights to go out, so no government can ignore this kind of threat. Already governments across Europe are rethinking in the wake of Russia's action. Poland is looking for other natural gas suppliers - difficult, since Iran and Qatar are the largest after Russia. Turkey is to speed up construction of gas storage facilities as a hedge against shortages. And Italy, which in a post-Chernobyl referendum voted to reject nuclear power, announced that the nuclear option was back on its agenda. Britain cannot be immune from this process either. We too need more storage. And if the resumption of the British nuclear power programme already looked likely in 2005, despite the cost, it is now beginning to look a racing certainty in 2006, thanks to the momentous action of Mr Putin.Special reports
RussiaOil and petrolUkraineInteractive guideEurope's dependence on Russian gasQ&A03.01.2006: The Russia/Ukraine gas crisis


To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.

Simon Jenkins over at the Sunday Times says head for the hills!

Leave the field now - the Iraqi endgame is about to begin

The good news is that 2006 will see the effective end of the western occupation of Iraq. It will end because everyone will be exhausted: the Americans, the British, the Iraqis and their neighbours. It will end because all justification for its continuance will have evaporated. The election whose result is to be declared this week is good news. The federal constitution fashioned by Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador, is good news. The resulting coalition government will be good news since it will put the strongest group, the cleric-backed pro-Iranian Sciri, or Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, in effective power.
But all this good news will depend on one thing: the new government being seen to stand on its own feet. It must have the legitimacy and authority to forge its own alliances and hack its own deals. As long as its land is pockmarked with fortresses stuffed with 180,000 foreign troops, such independence will be unreal. Such a government will continue to be treated as an American puppet. On December 22 Tony Blair paid his Christmas call on British troops in Basra to tell them how much things were improving. This time he said security was “completely changed” from last year. What he meant was unclear. It was as if Gladstone had visited Gordon during the siege of Khartoum. Did it not seem strange to Blair that he could not move outside his walled fortress, could not drive anywhere or talk to any Iraqis? Did he wonder why British troops have withdrawn from two anarchic provinces? Was he really told that security is transformed for the better? If so he is horribly deceived. Reliable reporting from Iraq is now so dangerous that the level of insecurity can be gleaned only from circumstantial evidence. Baghdad outside the American green zone is now all “red zone”, off limits to any but the most reckless foreigner. The death rate and the number of explosions are rising. While some rural areas are relatively safe there is no such thing as national security. Iraq’s borders are porous. Crime is uncontrolled. The concept of an “occupying power” is near meaningless.

The Americans cannot even protect the lawyers at Saddam’s trial, two of whom have been killed. Iraqis are meeting violent death in greater numbers probably than at any time since the Shi’ite massacres of 1991. Professionals are being driven into exile, children are kidnapped, women are forced indoors or shot for being improperly dressed. Those Britons who preen themselves for “bringing democracy to Iraq” would not dare visit the place. They have brought three elections, but elections without security do not equal democracy.
This is no time to rehearse the self-delusion, vainglory, ineptitude and cruelty of this venture. The only sensible debate is how to help Iraq back on its feet after this bungled attempt to “defeat terrorism” in the region. It will not be easy. It requires the victorious Shi’ite leaders to respect a devolution of power and money to the Kurdish and the Sunni minorities, as ordained by the federal settlement in Khalilzad’s constitution. Local Sunni and Shi’ite power brokers must fix the boundaries of their domains and the spoils that go with them. Such deals are crucial to a future Iraq. The alternatives are tyranny or separatism, probably both. Such a settlement will have traction only if negotiated notunder American guns but by plenipotentiary ministers and provincial chiefs. Already such ministers depend for support and protection not on a national army or police force but on private militias and mercenaries. These include those of the interior minister, Bayan Jabr, allegedly responsible for reviving Saddam’s killing squads and torture chambers. Governors, mayors and police chiefs depend for their authority on cutting deals with gangs and militias. This, not the occupation, is the fact of power in Iraq. In reality the occupation cut and ran from Iraq in the course of 2004. This was when the Americans and their allies abandoned the policing of towns and cities and retreated bruised to more than 100 fortified bases. This is not like the Vietnam war, when American soldiers could move round Saigon at will. The bases are like crusader castles dotting a hostile Levant. Movement between them must be by air or heavily armoured convoy. Ferocious search-and-destroy sallies by the US Marines do not project power, only death and resentment. The recent Anbar operation reportedly turned local support for Al-Qaeda from a trickle to a flood. Money is sprayed at sub-contractors (much of it stolen), but America exerts no executive power outside the capital. It imposes no law and order and cannot even protect infrastructure. This is not an occupation. It is a military squat.

The question for Tony Blair and George Bush is almost irrelevant to Iraq. It is how can the squatters leave with enough dignity to pass muster back home and not seem like weakness abroad? How can it be staged to fit in with Bush’s mid-term elections and Blair’s legacy agenda? The policy stance in both Washington and London is of withdrawal “as soon as the security situation permits”. Hence presumably Blair’s insistence that security is getting better. Since it is not getting better he must be saying it as cover for withdrawal. The exit strategy at present relies on there being a fixed moment when the Iraqi army will pass some notional Sandhurst test. It will be “ready to take on the insurgents” and thus “prevent civil war”. Such talk has long brought comfort to the armchairs of Pall Mall. Thus was the Indian army to keep the Empire intact. Thus were Diem’s soldiers to take on the Vietcong and Moscow’s surrogates to defeat the Taliban. The concept of locals being “almost ready” to replace our boys has long appealed to the imperial imagination. Having recently visited the Iraq army I can attest to the courage of its officers and the commitment of its instructors. But I was constantly being taken aside and told that it was inconceivable that these soldiers would obey an order from a partisan minister in Baghdad to advance against distant militias except under American protection. That was even assuming that the constitution allowed them to do so, which it probably does not. Only the Kurdish peshmergas would happily fight Sunnis or Shi’ites, and that would not be a good idea. As for the police, the basis of law and order, they are a long-lost cause. Treating the Iraqi army as the cement that will glue together a new Iraq is unreal. Some Baghdad units might form a new Republican Guard were a strongman to emerge from the forthcoming coalition haggle. But if the most devastating American firepower cannot find, let alone suppress, Al-Qaeda’s Musab al-Zarqawi, what hope is there for an Iraqi army? Zarqawi will be suppressed if and only if the Sunni militias take it upon themselves to do so. That must await the end of the occupation. The same goes for the pro-Iranian hotheads in the south. The operative word is await. All Iraq is waiting. Civil strife is appalling because the militias, gangs and police operate under no political authority and with an army supposedly being prepared to fight them. The idea that American or British withdrawal would “lead to civil war” suggests that Iraq is like Yugoslavia. It is not. Since the foreign troops spend most of their time in bases they have no role in policing Iraq’s communal strife. Their departure would rather end what Iraqis regard as a humiliation and remove a recruiting sergeant and target for the insurgency.

The next stage in Iraq is no longer within the capacity of America or Britain to determine. All they can do is postpone it. The country is about to acquire its third government in as many years. Left to its own devices this government might just find enough authority to hold its country together. Imprisoned in its green zone castle as a puppet of the Pentagon, it will certainly not. That is why withdrawal needs a date, and an early one.
I was told by a senior security official last month that the Iraq experience had been so ghastly that at least no British government would do anything like it “for a very long time indeed”. Funny, I thought. Why are 4,000 British troops leaving to fight the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, whence even the Americans have fled? Nobody can give me an answer.,,2088-1965314,00.html

Wars and rumors of war

Iran threatens 'crushing' response to U.S. or Israeli attack Jan 1, 2006

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - Iran warned Sunday of a "crushing" response if its nuclear and military facilities are attacked by the United States or Israel. Top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said, however, talk of such an attack most likely is "psychological warfare." "Iran has prepared itself...they will get a crushing response if they make such a mistake," Larijani said on Iranian television late Sunday. Larijani said Israel would "suffer greatly" if it launched an attack. "If there is any truth in such talks, Israel will suffer greatly. It's a very small country within our range." "Our (defence) preparedness is a deterrence," he said. He also said a Russian proposal the two countries enrich uranium on Russian territory could not ignore Iran's right to carry out enrichment at home. "It's not logical for a country to put the fate of its nation at the disposal of another country, even if it's a friend. You can meet part of your fuel needs from abroad." "But is there a guarantee that nuclear fuel producers won't play with you over price or other things? History and experience show that if you don't have technology, you will damage your independence," he said. Larijani's remarks coincided with Tehran's announcement it had produced equipment for separating uranium from its ore, a fresh development in Tehran's drive to control the whole nuclear fuel cycle - from mining uranium to enriching it for use in atomic reactors. European news media have indicated in recent days the United States is preparing its allies for a strike against Iran's nuclear and military facilities with the aim of curtailing Iran's nuclear program.
Reports of a strike escalated after comments by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who called Israel a "disgraceful blot" that should be "wiped off the map" and his call to relocate Israel to Europe or North America.
Recent visits to Turkey by CIA Director Porter Goss, head of the FBI, NATO General Secretary Jaap De Hoop Scheffer and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have increased speculation about a possible military strike against Iran. NATO member Turkey is Iran's northwestern neighbour. President George W. Bush has said his administration would not exclude the possibility of using military force against Iran over its nuclear program, which the United States believes is aimed at producing weapons. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker magazine in Janurary last year the Bush administration had been "conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran" to gather intelligence and targeting information. U.S. Defence Department officials said the article was filled with mistakes but did not deny its basic point.
Israel fears Iran is reaching a point of no return in nuclear technology. Iran has openly said it has already achieved proficiency in cycle of nuclear fuel, a technology that can be used to produce fuel for reactors to generate electricity or materials for a bomb. The United States and European Union have backed a Russian proposal to move Iran's uranium-enrichment program to Russian territory. The proposal aims to ensure Iran cannot use uranium enrichment to build nuclear weapons. Enrichment is a key process that can produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or the material for a warhead. Larijani said Iran needs talks with Moscow to clarify what he described as "ambiguities" but said the proposal can't deny Iran uranium enrichment at home.
"The proposal is too general. If it talks about denying Iran of its rights, no. We have no right to do it," he said.
"But we have to study it and see if Iran's interests can be met. It can be a complimentary." "There is no reason to reject it before discussions and accurate study," he said. Larijani is secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Iran's top security decision-making body that handles Iran's nuclear talks. He said the Russian proposal will have nothing to do with nuclear talks among Iran and Britain, France and Germany. The talks last month made little progress and are to continue later this month.
© The Canadian Press, 2006

The New York Review of Books says "y'all better wake up"!

The Coming Meltdown
Bill McKibben
Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World's Highest Mountains
by Mark Bowen
Henry Holt, 463 pp., $30.00
Dancing at the Dead Sea: Tracking the World's Environmental Hotspots
by Alanna Mitchell
University of Chicago Press, 239 pp., $25.00

Here is a excerpt of the book review dealing with increased scientific consensus on global warming and natural disasters, "Such findings—and there are more like them in virtually every issue of Science and Nature—came against the backdrop of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the now record-breaking Atlantic storm season that has brought us back around the alphabet and as far as Hurricane Epsilon. Because hurricanes draw their power from the warm water in the upper layers of the sea's surface, this bout of storminess served as a kind of exclamation point to a mid-August paper by the MIT researcher Kerry Emmanuel demonstrating that such storms have become more powerful and long-lasting, and would likely continue to increase in destructiveness in the future. But the hurricanes also demonstrated another fact about global warming, this one having nothing to do with chemistry or physics but instead with politics, journalism, and the rituals of science. Climate change somehow seems unable to emerge on the world stage for what it really is: the single biggest challenge facing the planet, the equal in every way to the nuclear threat that transfixed us during the past half-century and a threat we haven't even begun to deal with. The coverage of Katrina's aftermath, for instance, was scathing in depicting the Bush administration's incompetence and cronyism; but the President —and his predecessors—were spared criticism for their far bigger sin of omission, the failure to do anything at all to stanch the flood of carbon that America, above all other nations, pours into the atmosphere and that is the prime cause of the great heating now underway. Though Bush has been egregious in his ignorance about climate change, the failure to do anything about it has been bipartisan; Bill Clinton and Al Gore were grandly rhetorical about the issue, but nonetheless presided over a 13 percent increase in America's carbon emissions. That lack of preparation and precaution dwarfs even the failure to prepare for the September 11 attacks, and its effects will be with us far longer. It's not, of course, that America could in two decades have prevented global warming. But we could have begun taking the steps to keep it from spinning entirely out of control, steps that grow ever more difficult to take with each passing season. The books under review, though neither deals directly with the politics of global warming, help us understand some of the reasons why we've so far done so little." Read the full review at

NOAA cautions on western winter fires

Factors fueling these winter fires include:
Drought. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor, issued by NOAA and partner agencies on Thursday, shows the driest conditions in the nation lie across central and eastern Texas, central and eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas where the drought is described as “severe” to “exceptional.”


Oh Dave :)

Dave Barry's Year In ReviewTribune Media Services

It was the Year of the Woman. But not in a good way.

Oh, I'm not saying that men did nothing stupid or despicable in 2005. Of course they did! That's why we call them ``men.'' But women are supposed to be better than men. Women are the backbone of civilization: They keep families together, nurture relationships, uphold basic standards of morality and go to the bathroom without making noise. Women traditionally shun the kinds of pointless, brutal, destructive activities that so often involve men, such as mass murder and fantasy football. But not this year. Women got CRAZY this year. Consider some of the more disturbing stories from 2005, and look at the names connected with them: Martha Stewart. Judith Miller. Valerie Plame. Jennifer ``Runaway Bride'' Wilbanks. Paris Hilton. Greta ``All Natalee Holloway, All the Time'' Van Susteren. Harriet Miers. Katrina. Rita. Wilma. Michael Jackson. Of course, not all the alarming stories from 2005 involved women. Some of them involved men, and at least one of those men was named ``Scooter.'' I'll be honest: I don't really know who ``Scooter'' is, or what he allegedly did. He's involved in one of those Washington-D.C.-style scandals that are very, very important, but way too complicated for regular non-Beltway humans to comprehend. But whatever Scooter allegedly did, it was bad. We know this because pretty much all the news this year was bad. Oh, sure, there were some positive developments. Here is a complete list:

• In some areas, the price of gasoline, much of the time, remained below $5 a gallon.
• Nobody you know caught avian flu. Yet.
• The Yankees once again failed to win the World Series.
• Cher actually ended her farewell tour.
That was it for the good news. The rest of 2005 was a steady diet of misery, horror and despair, leavened occasionally by deep anxiety. So just for fun, let's take a look back, starting with . . .
. . . JANUARY . . . when President George W. Bush is sworn in for a second term, pledging in his inauguration speech that, over the next four years, he will continue, to the best of his ability, trying to pronounce big words. In a strongly worded rebuttal, the Democratic leadership points out that, when you get right down to it, there IS no Democratic leadership. In other government news, President Bush's nominee to be U.S. attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, undergoes a grueling Senate hearing in which Democrats probe him repeatedly about his views on torture. At one point the Democrats threaten that, if Gonzales does not give them the information they want, they will force him to listen, without ear protection, to a question from Sen. Joe Biden. ``No!'' screams Gonzales. ``Anything but that!'' Johnny Carson, an oasis of wit in the wasteland, signs off for good. In sports, the winner of the Orange Bowl -- and thus the national college football championship -- is Lance Armstrong, who is once again suspected of being on something. Meanwhile in Iraq, the first free elections in half a century are held under tense but generally scary conditions, with more than 8 million Iraqis turning out to elect a National Assembly, whose idealistic goal, in the coming months, will be to not get blown up. But the mood is more upbeat in . . .. . . FEBRUARY . . . which dawns on a hopeful note in the Middle East, where Israelis and Palestinians, after decades of bitter violence and short-lived truces, are finally able to . . .Never mind. In other hopeful news, President Bush, seeking to patch up the troubled relationship between the United States and its European allies, embarks on a four-nation tour. When critics note that two of the nations are not actually located in Europe, the White House responds that the president was ``acting on the best intelligence available at the time.'' In sports, the Super Bowl is held for the first time in Jacksonville, Fla. Defying critics who mocked it as a backwater hick town, Jacksonville manages to host a fine event, marred only by the 143 spectators killed or wounded during the halftime raccoon shoot. On the social front, Prince Charles gets formally engaged to Camilla Parker Bowles. The British public responds with sincere and heartfelt wishes that the happy couple will not reproduce.

A study by researchers at the University of Utah proves what many people have long suspected: Everybody talking on a cell phone, except you, is a moron. Meanwhile, as the nationwide identity-theft epidemic worsens, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III pledges that he will make it the top priority of the Bureau to find, and prosecute, the individuals charging stuff to his American Express card. Speaking of financial hanky-panky, in . . .. . . MARCH . . . a federal jury convicts former WorldCom executive Bernie Ebbers in connection with an $11 billion fraud that led to the bankruptcy of the telecom giant. Upon Ebbers' arrival at the federal prison, nearly $7 billion is recovered during what shaken guards later describe as ``the cavity search from hell.'' In economic news, financially troubled Delta Airlines announces that it will no longer offer pillows on its flights, because passengers keep eating them. But the economy gets a boost when the jobless rate plummets, as hundreds of thousands of unemployed cable-TV legal experts are hired to comment on the trial of Michael Jackson. Jackson is charged with 10 counts of being a space-alien freakadelic weirdo. Everybody agrees this will be very difficult to prove in California. In a related story, a California jury finds that actor Robert Blake did not kill his wife. The jury also rules that John Wilkes Booth had nothing to do with the Lincoln assassination, and that bears do not poop in the woods. In other celebrity legal news, Martha Stewart is released from prison. The next morning, in a chilling coincidence, all of the witnesses who testified against Martha wake up and discover, to their utter horror, that their sheets no longer match their pillowcases.
Meanwhile in Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives takes time out from jacking up the deficit to look into the baffling mystery of whether professional baseball players suddenly develop gigantic muscles because they use steroids, or what. Former St. Louis Cardinals star Mark McGwire, who broke the major-league record for most home runs in a single season, arouses suspicions when he repeatedly denies, under oath, that he ever played professional baseball. Slugger Sammy Sosa also heatedly denies allegations of steroid use, emphasizing his point by pounding the witness table into tiny splinters. There are no questions.

But the major issue facing our elected leaders in March clearly is not whether a bunch of overpaid athletes cheated. No, at a time when the nation is beset by serious problems in so many critical areas -- including Iraq, terrorism, the economy, energy, education and health care -- the issue that obsesses our elected leaders to the point of paralyzing government at the federal, state and local levels for weeks, is: Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. This, unfortunately, is not a joke. In entertainment news, controversial anchorman Dan Rather retires from CBS News with a poignant farewell speech, cut short when Dan is felled by a tranquilizer dart fired by his producer. Speaking of people who read from TelePrompTers, in . . .. . . APRIL . . . President Bush, in a decisive response to sharply rising gasoline prices, delivers a major speech proposing that Americans switch to nuclear-powered cars. In a strongly worded rebuttal, angry Congressional Democrats state that, because of a scheduling mix-up, they missed the president's speech, but whatever he said, they totally disagree with it, and if they once voted in favor of it, they did so only because the president lied to them. In other Washington news, the U.S. Senate approves the appointment of John Negroponte to become the nation's first intelligence czar. His immediate task is to locate his office, which, according to a dossier compiled by the CIA, FBI, NSA and military intelligence, is, quote, ``probably somewhere in the United States or Belgium.'' In Rome, the College of Cardinals gathers following the death of beloved Pope John Paul II. As the world waits breathlessly, the cardinals, after two days of secret deliberations, order white smoke to be sent up the Sistine Chapel chimney, signaling that they have made their decision: Robert Blake is definitely guilty. In sports, Tiger Woods claims his fourth Masters title with a dramatic playoff win over a surprisingly dogged Lance Armstrong. As April draws to a close, the nation focuses its eyeballs on bride-to-be Jennifer Wilbanks, whose claim that she was abducted just before her wedding is undermined by a widely circulated photo of her in which her pupils appear to be the size of dinner plates. When it becomes clear that nothing actually happened -- that there was no abduction, and that Wilbanks is basically just a troubled person -- the news media drop the story and move on to more important matters. Ha ha! Seriously, as April morphs into . . . . MAY . . . the Runaway Bride story totally dominates the news, becoming so gigantically huge that some cable-TV news shows are forced to divert precious resources from the Michael Jackson trial. But in the end sanity prevails, and Wilbanks is forced to accept responsibility for the trouble she has caused, ultimately selling media rights to her story for a reported $500,000.

In other show-business news, millions of middle-aged people without dates wet their Luke-Skywalker-model underpants with joy as they view the final installment of the beloved Star Wars series, ``Star Wars: Episode MXCVII: Enough Already.'' Fans hail it as the least tedious Star Wars in decades; many are stunned by the surprise ending, when it turns out that Darth Vader is actually Robert Blake. Tom Cruise, seeking to counter the increasingly widespread view that he is an orbiting space module, jumps up and down on Oprah's couch.
Elsewhere abroad, European Union leaders are stunned when the proposed EU constitution is overwhelmingly rejected by French voters, who apparently do not care for the Deodorant Clause. President Bush visits Russia for an important photo opportunity, after which he describes Russia as ``a foreign country where they speak Russian,'' an assertion that is immediately challenged by Congressional Democrats. In media news, the editor of Newsweek magazine retracts a report that guards at the Guantanamo Bay prison flushed a Koran down a toilet in front of a Muslim detainee. ``It turns out,'' the editor states, ``that it was actually the detainee who was flushed down the toilet. Boy is our face red!'' But the biggest media shocker occurs when ``Deep Throat,'' the Watergate-scandal source whose identity has been a tantalizing secret for more than 30 years, is finally revealed -- in a stunning and unforgettable development that sends shock waves of shock throughout the world -- to be . . . Let me just check Google here . . . OK, it was some guy nobody ever heard of. But it was totally unexpected.Speaking of unexpected, in . . . JUNE . . . a California jury acquits Michael Jackson on all charges of everything, including any crimes he may or may not commit in the future. ``We simply felt that the prosecution did not prove its case,'' states the jury foreman, Robert Blake. Jackson announces that he no longer feels welcome in the United States and will move to another dimension.
In disturbing medical news, a new study of 1,000 Americans finds that obesity in the United States has gotten so bad that there actually were, upon closer scrutiny, only 600 Americans involved in the study.
Meanwhile, the U.S. film industry, in the midst of the worst box-office slump in 20 years, looks for possible explanations as to why Americans are not flocking to movie theaters. In a totally unrelated development, ``The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl'' opens nationwide, to be followed in coming months by ``The Dukes of Hazzard'' and ``Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo.'' Israeli and Palestinian leaders reach an agreement under which Israel will withdraw its settlers from the Gaza strip, arousing peace hopes in amnesia victims everywhere. In response to this historic development, Fox News Person Greta Van Susteren heads for Aruba to report personally on the Natalee Holloway disappearance. Hurricane season officially begins, with a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center warning that, quote, ``This could be one of the most active sEEEEEEEEE. . . '' His body is never found. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a Solomonic ruling on a display of the Ten Commandments at the Texas Capitol, allows the display to remain, but orders the state to correct all 137 spelling errors. The Supreme Court remains in the news in . .. . JULY . . . when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announces her retirement, setting off a heated debate between right-wing groups, who think the president should appoint a conservative to replace her, and left-wing groups, who think the president should drop dead. Eventually Bush nominates a man going by the moniker of ``John Roberts,'' who, in the tradition of recent Supreme Court nominees, refuses to reveal anything about himself, and wears a Zorro-style mask to protect his secret identity. In response, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Sen. Joe Biden, vow to, quote, ``get on television a LOT.''

But the juiciest story by far in Washington is the riveting scandal involving New York Times reporter Judy Miller, who is jailed for refusing to answer questions before a grand jury called by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who is trying to find out whether the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame was leaked to columnist Robert Novak by an administration source such as presidential confidants Karl Rove or Ari Fleischer, or Lewis ``Scooter'' Libby, chief of staff to vice president Dick ``Dick'' Cheney, in an effort to discredit Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, in connection with the use of allegedly unreliable documents concerning . . . Hey! Wake up! This is important! The troubled U.S. manned-space flight program hits yet another snag when, moments before the ``return to space'' launch of Space Shuttle Discovery, a technician notices that the shuttle and its booster rockets are pointed at the ground, instead of space. The launch is delayed for several days while workers repaint the ``THIS SIDE UP'' arrows. In weather news, the formation of Hurricane Dennis is followed closely by the formation of Hurricane Emily, arousing suspicions among some staffers at headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that hurricane season might be going on. It is agreed that somebody probably should look into this and write a report no later than Halloween. Abroad, the news from London is grim as four terrorist bombs wreak deadly havoc on the city's transit systems, prompting Greta Van Susteren to do a series of urgent personal reports from Aruba on how these attacks could affect the investigation into the Natalee Holloway disappearance. In sports, Lance Armstrong rides down the Champs-Elysees, raising his arms in a triumphant gesture, which causes the French army to surrender instantly. No, sorry; that was a cheap shot. One unit held out for nearly an hour. In book news, millions of youngsters snap up the latest in the Harry Potter series, ``Harry Potter Must Be Like 32 Years Old By Now.'' The book has a surprise plot twist that upsets some fans: Beloved Hogwarts headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, is killed by Severus Snape, who, moments later, is acquitted by a California jury.

Speaking of surprises that nobody could have predicted, in . . . AUGUST . . . Baltimore Orioles star Rafael Palmeiro, who vigorously denied steroid use when he testified before Congress in March, is forced to change his story when, in the seventh inning of a game against Cleveland, both of his forearms explode. In other news, South Korean scientists -- I am not making this item up -- clone a dog. This one is too easy. In Washington, President Bush bypasses Congress with a recess appointment of his controversial nominee John Bolton, to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton immediately signals a new tone in American diplomacy by punching out the ambassador from Yemen in a dispute involving the U.N. cafeteria salad bar.
In other foreign-policy news, the Rev. Pat Robertson states on his Christian Broadcasting Network show that the U.S. should assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Responding to harsh criticism, the Rev. Robertson retracts this statement several days later with the explanation, ``Evidently I am a raving lunatic.''
On the economic front, there is bad news and good news. The bad news is, gasoline prices are reaching $3 a gallon. The good news is, with the manufacturer's rebate, you can buy a new Hummer for $167. But by far the biggest story in August is Hurricane Katrina, a massive, deadly storm that thrashes Florida, then heads into the Gulf of Mexico. For decades, experts have been warning that such a storm, if it were to hit New Orleans, would devastate the city; now it becomes clear that this is exactly what is about to happen. For days, meteorologists are on television warning, dozens of times per hour, that Katrina will, in fact, hit New Orleans with devastating results. Armed with this advance knowledge, government officials at the local, state and federal levels are in a position to be totally, utterly shocked when Katrina -- of all things -- devastates New Orleans. For several days, chaos reigns, with most of the relief effort taking the form of Geraldo Rivera, who, by his own estimate, saves more than 170,000 people. FEMA director Michael Brown, after conducting an aerial survey, reports that ``the situation is improving,'' only to be informed that the area he surveyed was actually Phoenix. For her part, Greta Van Susteren personally broadcasts many timely reports from Aruba on how the Katrina devastation will affect the ongoing Natalee Holloway investigation. It is not until . . . SEPTEMBER . . . that the full magnitude of the New Orleans devastation sinks in, and local, state and federal officials manage to get their act together and begin the difficult, painstaking work of blaming each other for screwing up. Urged on by President Bush, Congress votes to spend what could wind up being more than $200 billion to repair the Gulf Coast and fix up New Orleans, so that it will be just as good as new when the next devastating hurricane devastates it. With the horror of Katrina fresh in everyone's mind, a new hurricane, Rita, draws a bead on the Gulf Coast, causing millions of panicky Texans to get into their cars and flee an average distance of 150 feet before they become stuck in a monster traffic jam, where some remain for more than 12 hours. ``It was hell,'' reports one traumatized victim. ``The classic rock station played `Daydream Believer' like 53 freaking times.''

President Bush, after an aerial tour of the devastated region, tells reporters that he always kind of liked ``Daydream Believer.'' In non-hurricane news, the Senate confirms the Supreme Court nominee known as ``John Roberts'' after the Judiciary Committee spends several fruitless days trying to trick him into expressing an opinion by asking such trap questions as ``Can you tell us the capital of Vermont and your views on abortion?'' The only moment of drama comes when Sen. Joe Biden launches into his opening remarks, thus causing several committee members, who forgot to insert earplugs, to lapse into comas.
In international news, North Korea, following months of negotiations with the United States and other concerned nations, agrees to stop producing nuclear weapons, in exchange for one of those new iPods. The United Nations Security Council censures John Bolton for giving noogies to the ambassador from Sweden.
Speaking of appointees, in . . . . . OCTOBER . . . President Bush, needing to make another appointment to the Supreme Court, conducts a thorough and painstaking investigation of every single woman lawyer within an 8-foot radius of his desk. He concludes that the best person for the job is White House Counsel Harriet Miers, who, in the tradition of such legendary justices as Felix Frankfurter, Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, is a carbon-based life form. Ultimately Miers withdraws her name. The president, after conducting another exhaustive search, decides to appoint ```John Roberts'' again, because it worked out so well the first time. Informed by his aides that there could be some legal problem with this tactic, the president finally decides to nominate Samuel Alito. Democrats immediately announce that they strongly oppose Alito and intend to do some research soon to find out why. In Congress, Tom DeLay's ethical woes worsen as he is indicted on additional charges of hijacking a train. As fears of a worldwide avian flu epidemic mount, the surgeon general warns Americans against having unprotected sex with birds. Fortunately there is no sign yet of the deadly disease on Aruba, thus allowing the Natalee Holloway investigation to continue unimpeded, according to on-the-scene reporter Greta Van Susteren. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein goes on trial, facing charges of genocide, human-rights violations, and failure to pay more than $173 billion in parking tickets. In his opening statement, the defiant former dictator tells the court he intends to prove that these crimes were actually committed by Tom DeLay. In sports, the National Hockey League, amid much hoopla, resumes play, fueling rumors that the league must have, at some point, stopped playing. Immediately dozens of fights break out, all of them won by Lance Armstrong. Speaking of conflict, in . . . . NOVEMBER . . . Americans find themselves heatedly debating a difficult question: Is it truly in the nation's best interests for its citizens to be fighting, and suffering heavy casualties, to achieve the elusive -- some say, impossible -- goal of buying a laptop computer marked down to $300 at Wal-Mart the day after Thanksgiving? For many Americans, the answer is a resounding ``yes,'' as they observe the official start of the Christmas shopping season at 5 a.m. on Nov. 25 with the traditional Trampling of the Elderly Slow-Moving Shoppers, while the mall p.a. system interrupts ``O Come, All Ye Faithful'' with urgent requests for paramedics. The season's hottest gift is the Microsoft Xbox 360 gaming system, which is in big demand because (a) it's really cool, and (b) Microsoft apparently made, like, three of them.

Also heating up in November is the debate over Iraq, with even Vice President Dick Cheney joining in, fueling rumors that he is still alive. President Bush makes a series of strong speeches, stating that while he ``will not impugn the patriotism'' of those who oppose his administration's policies, they are ``traitor scum.'' This outrages congressional Democrats, who respond with a two-pronged strategy of ¹ demanding that the troops be brought home, and ² voting overwhelmingly against a resolution to bring the troops home.
TRUE ITEM: During the debate on Iraq, Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) calls U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) ``a Howdy Doody-looking nimrod.'' Tom DeLay is indicted for cattle rustling. Abroad, unemployed ghetto youths in France go on a weeks-long rampage, burning thousands of cars to express their view that being an unemployed French ghetto youth sucks. Outraged, French President Jacques Chirac announces that, as a precautionary move, he is relocating the army to Belgium. In one of the month's more bizarre stories, a luxury cruise ship off the coast of Somalia is attacked by pirates in inflatable boats. The pirates are armed with machine guns and grenade launchers; unfortunately for them, the passengers are armed with cruise-ship food. The pirates barely escape with their lives under a deadly hail of falling entrees, including slabs of prime rib the size of queen mattresses. ABSOLUTELY TRUE NOVEMBER ITEM: Michael ``Heckuva Job'' Brown, who resigned after being harshly criticized for his performance as FEMA director following Katrina, announces that he is starting a consulting business that will -- you are going to think I am making this up, but I am not -- advise clients on preparing for disasters. And ``disaster'' is clearly the word for . . . DECEMBER . . . which begins on a troubling economic note, as General Motors, the world's largest auto maker, announces that, despite a massive program of rebates, zero-interest financing, employee discounts, lifetime mechanical warranties and dealer incentives, it has not actually sold a car since March of 1998. ````We're in real trouble,'' states troubled CEO Rick Wagoner, adding, ``Even I drive a Kia.'' In other troubling financial news, Delta Air Lines announces a plan to convert its entire fleet of planes to condominiums. Within hours, the housing bubble bursts. The hurricane season, which has produced so many storms that the National Weather Service is now naming them after fraternities, fails to end as scheduled, as yet another hurricane, Epsilon, forms in the Atlantic. The good news is that Epsilon poses no threat whatsoever to land. The bad news is, it still manages to knock out power to most of South Florida. In politics, Republicans and Democrats debate the war in Iraq with increasing bitterness, although both sides agree on the critical importance, with American troops in harm's way, of continuing to jack up the deficit. Tom DeLay flees to California, where a friendly jury agrees to hide him in the barn until things cool off. Abroad, Western nations become increasingly suspicious that Iran is developing nuclear weapons when a giant mushroom cloud rises over the Iranian desert. The Iranian government quickly issues a statement explaining that the cloud was caused by, quote, ``mushrooms.'' As a precautionary measure, France surrenders anyway. Greta Van Susteren is elected prime minister of Aruba.
As the troubled year draws to a troubling close, yet another hurricane, Kappa Sigma Gamma, forms in the South Atlantic, threatening to blast the U.S. mainland with a load of energy that, according to the National Hurricane Center, is the equivalent of 17 trillion six packs of Bud Light. On an even more ominous note, officials of the World Health Organization reveal that -- in what disease researchers have been calling ``the nightmare scenario'' -- a mad cow has become infected with bird flu. ``We don't want to cause panic,'' state the officials, ``but we give the human race six weeks, tops.'' So, OK, we're doomed. But look at the upside: If humanity becomes extinct, there's a chance that Paris Hilton will, too. So put on your party hat, raise your champagne glass, and join with me in this festive toast: Happy New Year!
Or however long it lasts.


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