British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen pretty much single-handedly ruined Kazakhstan's international image with his movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. In an early sequence the title character takes the viewer around his home village of Kuzcek and in short order smooches his sister ("Number 4 prostitute in whole of Kazakhstan!"), introduces his "retard" brother Bilo, who lives in a cage, drinks horse urine, and cheerfully points out the "town rapist," Urkin. After departing the village in a car drawn by a horse, Borat travels to the United States, where, among other things, he serenades drinkers in an Arizona bar with a song titled "In My Country, We Have Problem (Throw the Jew Down the Well!)" He also displays truly atrocious taste in swimwear.

Now, the government of Kazakhstan has signed on with Washington lobbying outfit Policy Impact Communications to, among other things, counter the "unsophisticated" image created by the Borat movie, the firm's CEO told The Hill. (The dozen lobbyists on the Kazakhstan account will also try to get the country into the World Trade Organization, cozy up to think tanks, reach out to bloggers and place positive op-eds in "prestige media.")

Maybe Austria should be beefing up its DC presence too?

The Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan has so far been concentrated in the south and east of the country, but according to a new report, they could emerge as a national insurgency within two years. Gilles Dorronsoro, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes that the Taliban's rapid expansion is the result of its own operational strengths, both in terms of strong leadership and effective propaganda, combined with the West's continued underestimation of its powers. With increasing numbers of US troops bound for Afghanistan, Dorronsoro recommends that they be posted to areas in which the Taliban have yet to concentrate in order to prevent these regions from falling victim to insurgents. "If the Coalition reinforced the Afghan police and military in the North," he says, "the insurgents could be stopped relatively easily."

From a press release describing Dorronsoro's report:

Quote of the Day

From Malcolm Gladwell, responding to yet another book length treatise from one of the information-wants-to-be-free (Free, I tell you, Free!) diehards:

So how does YouTube bring in revenue? Well, it tries to sell advertisements alongside its videos. The problem is that the videos attracted by psychological Free—pirated material, cat videos, and other forms of user-generated content—are not the sort of thing that advertisers want to be associated with. In order to sell advertising, YouTube has had to buy the rights to professionally produced content, such as television shows and movies. Credit Suisse put the cost of those licenses in 2009 at roughly two hundred and sixty million dollars. For [Chris] Anderson, YouTube illustrates the principle that Free removes the necessity of aesthetic judgment. (As he puts it, YouTube proves that “crap is in the eye of the beholder.”) But, in order to make money, YouTube has been obliged to pay for programs that aren’t crap. To recap: YouTube is a great example of Free, except that Free technology ends up not being Free because of the way consumers respond to Free, fatally compromising YouTube’s ability to make money around Free, and forcing it to retreat from the “abundance thinking” that lies at the heart of Free. Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube will lose close to half a billion dollars this year. If it were a bank, it would be eligible for TARP funds.

That might not make much sense to you.  Read the whole thing and it will.

The Minnesota Supreme Court just unanimously confirmed Al Franken's win in November's election. He'll likely be the new Senator from Minnesota very soon, but you can call him Al:

Sure, for years Google has held a virtual monopoly over the search engine sector. But Bill Gates is always looking for a fight. And with Google facing scrutiny from the Feds over its potential anti-trust activities, there's no better time for Microsoft to make one last push for stardom with its new Bing search "decision" engine.

Bing only came to my attention after I saw approximately 50 advertisements, mostly from Gmail ads and Google searches. The name sank into my brain after I heard a catchy radio announcement. After hearing the radio ad, I thought Bing might actually be the product of an adventurous, independent, "two-guys-working-from-their-garage with angel investors" kind of startup. So I was somewhat saddened when, after being visually assaulted by an incredibly large banner ad on the New York Times homepage, I Googled Bing and found out that "the Man" was actually the driving force behind this onomatopoeia-aficionado's dream "decision engine."

We all know what happened when Microsoft tried to make Zune a comparable alternative to Apple's iPod, but we can never count Bill Gates & Co. out of the running for anything. So far, in my limited Bing usage, the engine has combined features of GoogleMaps, Kayak.com, and Hotels.com. For some searches, it was able to find somewhat better prices, though it didn't factor in things like taxes, location, or my preferences into the results. In the end, I ended up not booking through Bing. Since this newcomer is trying to be a one-stop-shop for all your decision needs, it may have uses for those who don't mind giving up the very best deal if it means they only have to go to one site instead of a dozen. For now, I may use Bing as a reference to make sure I'm getting the best deal on something, but I've decided it certainly won't become my go-to for decisions.

 

The Power of Coal

Ezra Klein notes that coal state Democrats voted against the Waxman-Markey climate bill at a higher rate than non-coal state Dems, but not that much higher.  About one-in-four of the coal state Democrats voted no, compared to only a little over one-in-10 of everyone else:

Even so, that means only one-in-four of the coal state Democrats voted no. I'd like to see those results drilled down to coal-dependent districts, but still, that's quite a bit less parochial defection than one might imagine.

....Another way of putting this is that the evidence suggests that this vote was less about parochial interests than partisanship and ideology. Plenty of Democrats from coal states made the judgment that they could defend this legislation to their constituents.

I think I'd look at this a little differently.  Sure, partisan politics was the main divide, but that's the main divide on everything.  What's more interesting is that a quarter of the coal state Dems voted against the bill even though it had already been massively watered down to reflect coal state interests. In its current state, Waxman-Markey has very little effect on coal state interests for at least the next decade, and possibly for more like 20 years.  But even so, lots of coal state Dems voted against it despite the fact that passage is a major goal of the party leadership, it's a major goal of the president, and it's the right thing to do.  I'd call that pretty damn parochial.

BP appears to be back pedaling on its vaunted commitment to alternative energy, renewing old skepticism about what the company formerly known as British Petroleum really stands for.

BP recently shuttered its alternative energy headquarters in London and plans to slash its $1.4 billion alternative energy budget by as much as 64 percent this year, the Guardian reports. Its clean energy boss, Vivienne Cox, is officially stepping down to spend more time with her family, though some industry insiders tell the paper that she's frustrated over the business being downgraded in importance.

Though BP has long led the oil industry in acknowleging climate change and investing in renewables, alternative energy investments make up only 5 percent of its portfolio. "Even its support of Kyoto is pilloried as disingenuous," Paul Roberts wrote in this magazine in 2006. "BP happens to be overstocked in reserves of natural gas, a fuel that emits less CO2 than coal or oil, and whose price would rise steeply if society was forced to cut carbon emissions."

Felix Salmon got an email from a Goldman Sachs spokesman responding to Matt Taibbi's lambasting of the company in Rolling Stone. (Taibbi called Goldman "the planet-eating Death Star of political influence" and accused it of engineering "every major market manipulation since the Great Depression.") After calling Taibbi's piece "hysterical," the spokesman, Lucas Van Praag, told Salmon the sad news that "in the wake of the events of the past year or two, Goldman’s partners have pretty much lost their appetite for going into public service." The horror, the horror! Whatever will we do without their enlightened leadership?

As I was perusing CNN's headlines this morning, one grabbed my attention: Ex-con: Madoff will be terrified in prison.

We all know that Big Bad Bernie was rewarded with 150 years in the slammer yesterday, but did you know that an ex-con named Larry Levine runs a business dedicated to helping convicts "get out alive" from federal prison?

Larry Levine's "Wall Street Prison Consultants" is one consulting business that succeeds in inversely proportional rates to the economy. It's logical that a white-collar banker's trip to the "pen" isn't a cakewalk, but Levine has devoted his life to teaching people about the ins and outs of prison etiquette. Levine clearly loves the limelight (as evidenced by his site's links to his many media appearances), but his inmate testimonials can't help but make one think that this guy really is something.

Unfortunately for Bernie, Levine's sense of integrity will keep him from helping the swindler stay safe behind bars. Levine told CNN, "Some people I can help, some people I can’t. Now, I had Madoff’s reps get a hold of me before he went into custody and I turned them down. I wouldn’t help the guy out because I view him as an economic terrorist. If you rip off a bank and insurance company, an institution, that’s an acceptable crime. Bernie hurt people. He hurt people individually and I refuse to help people like that. Let him rot in hell."

If you've been paying attention, you probably already know that the over 100 deaths of detainees during interrogations include dozens of people who were, in effect, tortured to death. If that surprises you, you should go read Glenn Greenwald. Actually, you should do it anyway.