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How Clean Energy Ruined "Watchmen"

| Sat Mar. 21, 2009 11:38 PM EDT
I just saw Watchmen and—spoiler alert!—it kind of sucked. But not just for the obvious reasons (it's based on an impossible-to-adapt comic book; it's terribly acted, pointlessly violent, and infuriatingly shallow; and it ruins a great Leonard Cohen song). It was awful because it turned an unnecessary subplot about clean energy into a major plot point that's the foundation of its unsatisfying climax. Bear with me: In the original Watchmen book, we learn that atomic demigod Dr. Manhattan (owner of a hard to ignore, possibly offensive, glowing blue penis) has figured out a way to make mass quantities of efficient lithium batteries, and as a result, by the 1980s, electric cars have made gas guzzlers obsolete. Goodbye climate change! Yet in the movie, electric cars are nowhere to be seen, though we learn that Dr. Manhattan is working with impossibly skinny crimefighter-turned-tycoon Ozymandias (AKA "the world's smartest man") to come up with some new form of vague yet CGI-intensive clean energy. And that's where things start to get really dumb.

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More on the Kindle

| Sat Mar. 21, 2009 9:02 PM EDT
Here's a couple more things about the Kindle that I wouldn't have guessed before I started using it.

#1: In the past, I'd go to the bookstore and buy several books at a time.  Naturally I meant to read all of them, and just as naturally, I didn't.  Another book would catch my eye before I'd finished them all, a review book would come in the mail, I'd get a few books for Christmas, etc. etc.  The upshot is that some of the books would fall to the bottom of the pile and never get read.

With the Kindle, though, there's no pile.  When I finish a book, all I have to do is decide at that moment what I feel like reading next.  Ten minutes later I have it.  I don't know for sure if this is good or bad in the long run, but it's certainly different.

#2: I have a floater in my right eye that can get pretty annoying when I read.  However, I only really see it against a bright white background.  Today my floater was in high gear, but I noticed that it wasn't bothering me while I was reading because the background of the Kindle is a soft gray.  When I first got it, that soft gray annoyed me, but now I see that it was a blessing in disguise

Exxon Valdez Plus 20 Years Minus Half A Million Birds

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 7:17 PM EDT
So what happens 20 years after 10 million gallons of heavy crude oil hit the delicate interface between land and sea in Alaska? First off, most everyone who doesn't live there has forgotten. But what about the landscape and seascape—is all forgotten there too?

Ten years after the fact, the final dead-bird tally came in at between 100,000 and 700,000 birds killed, reports Nature. Good news: many species have recovered since then. Others are still recovering. Bad news: the Pigeon Guillemot has not.

The what, you ask. Oh, just those little pigeon-sized birds of the high latitudes who can fly in the air, fly underwater, dive to 150 feet below the surface in near-darkness, root around on the bottom for two minutes and actually find things to eat, survive the winter among the ice in subfreezing air temperatures, in water temperatures below the freezing threshold of freshwater, live without ever drinking freshwater, sleep on the water in ferocious Arctic storms… You know, those one-of-a-kind things that make a species unlike any other species.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council categorizes human services—fishing, recreation, and subsistence use—as still only recovering.

A few positive developments as a result of the Exxon Valdez disaster:

  • Experiments in Prince William Sound led to groundbreaking bioremediation methods, notably using the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa to break down oil. (Much better than detergents that are as toxic as oil.) Yay, bacteria!

  • Exxon Mobil Corp tried to claim that some of the spilled oil was not its oil. In response, scientists bombproofed the art of hydrocarbon fingerprinting, assuring no one will easily dodge their own unctuous provenance again.

  • The US Coast Guard tightened its chains of command and retrained its clean-up teams for oil spills.


  • Single-hulled tankers—like the Exxon Valdez—are now barred from US ports. France and Spain—with their own disastrous oil-spill history—won't allow them within 200 miles of their coast.

The bad news:

  • The single-hulled Exxon Valdez was repaired, sold, renamed the Mediterranean and is still plying Asian waters.

  • Herring have not recovered since the spill. The problem could derive from the spill. Or it could be from overfishing. Or from ecosystem shifts. Or from an ugly combination of all.

  • Surface puddles of Valdez crude oil can still be found.

  • Pockets of undegraded oil rest just below the surface of some beaches, where sea otters dig for food.

  • Last year the US Supreme Court eviscerated the financial punishment to Exxon Mobil by lowering the punitive damages from $2.5 billion to $507.5 million. The court judged the initial award as excessive under maritime law.

Sounds like we need a Planet Earth law that accurately reflects the costs of ecosystem services, one that even a high court sequestered far from the wild can understand.

Any Alaskans out there want to tell us what else it looks like on the ground or in the water 20 years on?

Obama's Stimulus Steps Hint at Future Lobbying Reform?

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 5:13 PM EDT

Speaking today to the National Conference of State Legislatures, President Obama placed some stiff new restriction on stimulus lobbying:

Decisions about how Recovery Act dollars are spent will be based on the merits. Let me repeat that: Decisions about how Recovery money will be spent will be based on the merits.

They will not be made as a way of doing favors for lobbyists. Any lobbyist who wants to talk with a member of my administration about a particular Recovery Act project will have to submit their thoughts in writing, and we will post it on the Internet for all to see. If any member of my administration does meet with a lobbyist about a Recovery Act project, every American will be able to go online and see what that meeting was about. These are unprecedented restrictions that will help ensure that lobbyists don't stand in the way of our recovery.

These are great new rules, and any good government crusader would support them. The only question: why can't this be the standard for all executive branch lobbying?

The White House put out a memo today titled "Ensuring Responsible Spending of Recovery Act Funds." It provides details on the lobbying restrictions above. It also includes a funny little quirk -- I'll add that below.

Angola 3 Prisoner Herman Wallace Moved to New Prison

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 3:21 PM EDT

The Louisiana Department of Corrections has transferred Herman Wallace, who has spent more than three decades in solitary confinement in the state's notorious Angola prison, to another prison in the state, Mother Jones has learned. Wallace is a member of the so-called Angola 3, a group of prisoners who spent decades in solitary after being convicted of prison murders based on questionable evidence. The prolonged confinement of Wallace and fellow Angola 3 member Albert Woodfox is the subject of a civil habeaus corpus suit charging Angola with cruel and inhuman punishment. Wallace's transfer follows stories by NPR and Mother Jones raising questions about the evidence and witness testimony used to convict Wallace and Woodfox of the 1972 murder of Angola prison guard Brent Miller.

According to one of Wallace's lawyers, Nick Trenticosta, prison officials moved Wallace unexpectedly--and without informing his attorneys-- on Wednesday night to the Hunt Correctional Facility in St. Gabrielo, Louisiana. Hunt is used as both a permanent prison and as a way station where prisoners are evaluated before being sent on to other facilities. Wallace's defense team has been scrambling to contact their client, though they have been told by corrections officials that they won't be able to speak with him until next week. (Corrections officials at Angola did not return a call for comment).

Federal Magistrate Judge Docia L. Dalby, in a decision rebuffing the state of Louisiana's attempt to dismiss the civil case, describes the decades of solitary confinement endured by Wallace and Woodfox as "durations so far beyond the pale that this court has not found anything even remotely comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence." In a 2008 deposition in the suit, Angola Warden Burl Cain claimed the men had been held in solitary for so long due in part to their association with the Black Panther party.

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 March 2009

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 3:15 PM EDT
On the left, Inkblot is worried that Congress will consider him a fat cat and tax his evening dinner bonus away.  I told him it actually counts as straight salary in his case, so no worries.  On the right, we have a rare shot of Domino actually walking somewhere.  It's not that she never does this, just that it's hard to take a picture of it since she instantly makes a beeline for the camera if she sees it pointed in her direction.  This time I caught her just in time.

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Debt, Debt, Debt

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 2:54 PM EDT
The Congressional Budget Office released some new numbers today and the White House had this to say:

Responding to today’s new, more pessimistic CBO scoring of the president’s budget in light of the deteriorating economic situation, Peter Orszag was at pains to emphasize that deficit projections are highly sensitive to relatively small changes in assumptions. For example, suppose that first you project revenues of $100 and spending of $103 for a $3 deficit. Then you get some bad news about the economy so projected revenue drops by five percent. Well, suddenly you’re looking at a deficit of $8. The alarming way to put this is that the deficit has nearly tripled. The calm way is that revenue has fallen by 5 percent.

Well, yes, deficit projections are highly sensitive to small changes in assumptions, which is why presidents traditionally tweak their assumptions to produce rosy economic projections.  It doesn't take much.  Obama and Orszag actually did this less than most administrations in their initial budget proposal, I think, but they still did it.  And now it's coming back to bite them since, in fact, the alarming way of looking at this is also the correct one.

Now, given the current state of the economy, a larger deficit might be a feature, not a bug.  But if the deficit stays above 4% of GDP for an entire decade, as the CBO suggests, then we have a problem.  We can't keep that up forever any more than Wall Street could keep the subprime bubble going forever.  Someday we're going to pay.

Video: Chasing Campaign Cash in DC

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 2:29 PM EDT

What happens when you try to visit every campaign fundraiser held in Washington DC in a single day? You get turned down at lot, and you realize that lawmakers don't spend as much time slaving away over issue briefs as you might think. From the American News Project:

The way fundraising bastardizes the work of Congress is one of the things that Robert Kaiser, who wrote So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, talked about in an interview with Mother Jones.

MJ: You write about the way in which the increasing need to raise money has changed the day-to-day activities of congressmen. Talk a little about that.

RK: This is one of the things I simply did not know about before doing the reporting for this book. The members now routinely spend a day, sometimes two days a week—all the time, all year around, election year or no election year—on the telephone calling potential donors, pleading for money. It's a demeaning enterprise, and I think it has an impact on weaning out a lot of people who might consider running for Congress [but don't] once they find out they have to do this every week for the rest of their lives.

Kaiser made it clear that lawmakers, particularly members of the House who have to run for reelection every two years, are raising money, traveling, or attending campaign events so often than they only work about three days a week. Just another argument for public financing of campaigns.

Iraqi Family Sues Blackwater For War Crimes

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 1:55 PM EDT
Lawyers representing the widow and two children of an Iraqi vice-presidential guard allegedly murdered by a drunken Blackwater contractor filed suit today in a California court, charging Blackwater (recently renamed "Xe") with war crimes, assault and battery, wrongful death, and evidence tampering. The plaintiffs contend that security contractor Andrew Moonen got drunk at a 2006 Christmas party in the Green Zone, stumbled off and got lost, and then fired shots at 32-year old Raheem Khalaf Sa'adoon, a security guard for Iraqi Vice President Adel Raheem Khalaf, "killing him for no reason."

In a press release announcing the lawsuit, plaintiff attorney Susan Burke describes the shooting as "part of a pattern of illegal Xe-Blackwater shootings around the globe," while her colleague William Gould says that "Blackwater's clever new name cannot obscure the legal consequences of the company's use of excessive and deadly force on innocents."

For a timeline of Blackwater's activities in Iraq, click here.

Happy New Year

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 1:18 PM EDT
President Obama, showing his command of YouTube once again, wishes the Iranian people a happy Nowruz:

So in this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran's leaders.  We have serious differences that have grown over time.  My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community.  This process will not be advanced by threats.  We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

You, too, have a choice.  The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations.  You have that right — but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.  And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.

Unsurprisingly, the initial reaction from Iranian leaders wasn't very enthusiastic.  But it's still a constructive gesture.  Symbols matter, and they make the substance a little easier to address when the time comes to talk substance.  I just hope they got the Persian subtitles right.