BP = "Back to Petroleum?"

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."

RIP: Goldman Partners' Interest in Public Service

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?

Ex-Con Consultant Refuses to Help Madoff With Prison Manners

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."

Reminder: We Tortured People to Death

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.

Green Dam Spouts a Leak

For years the Chinese government has relied on the "Great Firewall" to censor its citizens' access to the internet, primarily by filtering packets based on keyword detection and blocking IP addresses of sites the government dislikes (Falun Gong, pro-democracy sites, etc.).  But the firewall has never been as watertight as the government would like, and the next phase was supposed to be the mandatory installation of a piece of software called "Green Dam" on every new computer sold in China.  Interestingly, Chinese computer users are fighting back and apparently winning:

In a last-minute climbdown, the Chinese government announced today that it will delay the launch of censorship software that was supposed to have been sold in every computer from tomorrow.

....The Guardian struggled to find a single retailer who had Green Dam either installed or bundled with computers. Adding to the mystery, Lenovo, Sony, Dell and Hewlett Packard refused to comment on whether their PCs are now being shipped with the software, as the government ordered them to do last month.

....A group of bandit hackers, known as Anonymous, declared "war" on Green Dam and threatened to attack it tomorrow.

According to a source close to the group, they plan to create a remote computer 'bot' that pummels Baidu, Kaixin and other mainland websites with data requests containing forbidden or sensitive terms, such as expletives, Falun Gong, Dalai Lama and "Fifty-cent party member" (the derogatory name given to people paid to post pro-government comments online). They hope the volume of dirty traffic will clog up the keyword filters.

I don't have any special comment about this.  It seemed like a quixotic plan from the start, and I'm not all that surprised that it's been delayed at the least, and possibly abandoned.  It's just hard to see how it can work in the long term.  Still, as with the twittering in Iran, it's interesting to see yet another case of how technology can be simultaneously both servant and bane of autocratic governments.

Freedom House, a Washington-based NGO that monitors political rights and civil liberties worldwide, released its "Nations In Transit" report Tuesday, an annual assessment of Eastern European and former Soviet states' transition to democracy. The report, first released in 1995, has always been something of a downer. And this year's incarnation is on exception. Two thirds (18 of 29) nations evaluated were found to be backsliding from democratic reform.

"2008 was a dark year for democracy in the region, in particular in the former Soviet states," said Vladimir Shkolnikov, who oversaw the report. "With economic conditions worsening, the region is likely to see authoritarians resort to greater repression, rather than adopt needed reforms." Indeed, for the first time, Russia was determined to be "a consolidated authoritarian regime," due to its persistent problems with corruption, press censorship, and rigged courts, not to mention last year's highly suspect presidential election in which Putin acolyte, Dmitry Medvedev, came out on top. Similar authoritarian trends also appeared in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Georgia. 

Infinite Jest

So a bunch of folks are reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest this summer and blogging about it.  Infinite Summer kicked things off and A Supposedly Fun Blog is the stomping grounds for IJ musings from a bunch of political types.

I feel kind of funny reading the things everyone has to say.  It's an iconic book now, the kind of thing you read partly to say you've read it, and it's famously long and complex.  And the footnotes.  The footnotes.

But that wasn't my experience of Infinite Jest.  It's absolutely not the kind of book I'd normally pick up and read, but for some reason I did back in 1997.  I have no idea why.  I'd never heard of the book and I'd never heard of David Foster Wallace, so I didn't suffer from any preconceptions that I was making a statement by diving into it.  I was completely naive.  And I loved it.  It was long and complex — I could only read about 50 pages a day because my brain just gave out after that many pages — but I never found it pretentious or overly difficult, two adjectives often associated with it.  (A little bit difficult, yes, but a friendly kind of difficult.) To me, Wallace was having fun with the vocabulary he used, not showing off.  I got a huge kick out of the endless footnotes.  And once he finally explained what the chapter headings were about, things started making a whole lot more sense.  (Granted, that doesn't happen until you're a couple hundred pages in, but hey — that's less than 20% of the book!)  If you're interested, my original 1997 thoughts about IJ are here.

I don't think I'm up to the task of rereading it this summer, but I'd recommend it to anyone who asks.  When you're done, be sure to read the first chapter over again.

Medical Myths

The New York Times summarizes a few "medical myths" today, and Ezra Klein says he's glad to hear that knuckle cracking doesn't cause arthritis.  Since I'm a longtime knuckle cracker and it drives my mother crazy, I already knew this.  You gotta keep up with the latest research when you're arguing with Mom.  But this one surprised me:

8. Sugar makes kids hyper. Numerous studies show sugar doesn’t affect behavior, but most parents don’t believe this. In one study, parents were told their kids had sugar and they were more likely to report problem behavior — but in reality, the kids had consumed a sugar-free drink.

Seriously?  Sugar has no effect on kids' behavior?  This must be one of the most widely believed myths in history.  I'm not sure I want to buy the book all this stuff is excerpted from, but I might head over to the bookstore just to skim this part.  It sounds fascinatingly contrary.

Out of the Cities, Not Yet Out of the Country

Phase 1 of the Iraqi withdrawal plan brokered by George Bush is now complete:

Six years and three months after the March 2003 invasion, the United States has withdrawn its remaining combat troops from Iraq's cities, the U.S. commander here said, and is turning over security to Iraqi police and soldiers.

While more than 130,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, patrols by heavily armed soldiers in hulking vehicles have largely disappeared from Baghdad, Mosul and Iraq's other urban centers. Iraqis danced in the streets and set off fireworks overnight in impromptu celebrations of a pivotal moment in their nation's troubled history. The government staged a military parade to mark the new national holiday of "National Sovereignty Day," and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made a triumphant, nationally televised address.

The general consensus seems to be that this is a big deal.  And in one sense it unquestionably is: in a lot of ways, the "surge" was less about the number of new troops sent to Iraq than it was about the way they were deployed.  Gen. David Petraeus insisted from the beginning that they establish a direct presence in neighborhoods throughout Baghdad and other cities, and that presence — along with several other factors — played a substantial role in reducing violence.  Now that presence is gone.

And yet — those "other factors" were a big deal.  In combination, they were certainly a bigger deal than the surge itself.  So the big question now is whether the Sunni Awakening holds; whether Muqtada al-Sadr has genuinely been defanged; whether the sectarian cleansing of the past couple of years is over; and whether Maliki can keep things together if and when Kirkuk blows up.  And the even bigger question is whether he can do that when he no longer has American troops as a backstop to his own power.

We won't know that until U.S. troops actually leave the country, not just regroup outside the cities.  That's the real test.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Kenneth Casey (center), commander of 1st Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, sits with Lt. Col. Hassan (front), commander of 2nd Battalion, 12th Brigade, 2nd Iraqi Army Division, during the turnover ceremony of Multi-National Force - Iraq, Combat Outpost Power in the Aden District of Mosul, Iraq, June 7. Tuesday was the official deadline for US troops to leave Iraqi cities. (Photo courtesy army.mil).