2007 - %3, September

College Students: You've Been F#%'D!

| Wed Sep. 26, 2007 8:09 AM PDT

Americans for Fairness in Lending (AFFIL) has gone YouTube in its campaign against predatory lending. Its new video bashes credit card companies for targeting unemployed college students and leading them on the path to financial ruin. Serving on the group's board, incidentally, is Janne O'Donnell, whose son committed suicide after running up $12,000 in credit card debt while in college. O'Donnell appeared in the recent documentary Maxed Out, whose director, James Scurlock, also helped create AFFIL earlier this year to promote the cause (and his movie).

Check out the video here:

(H/T CL&P Blog)

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This Man Would Make an Excellent FEC Commissioner - in an Alternate Universe

| Wed Sep. 26, 2007 8:02 AM PDT

In an administration known for appointing one-time lobbyists to oversee the industries they so recently shilled for, and selecting other officials based primarily on their partisan fervor, it makes perfect sense that a fellow like Hans von Spakovsky would be tapped for a six-year term on the Federal Elections Commission. Which is to say it makes no sense whatsoever. Von Spakovsky, a recess appointee whose confirmation comes up for a vote today, previously oversaw the Voting Rights section in the DOJ's very troubled Civil Rights division. There, former colleagues wrote in a letter to the Senate Rules Committee opposing his nomination, he was the "point person for undermining the Civil Rights Division's mandate to protect voting rights." Among other things, they point to his support for an overly strict voter ID law in Georgia. (Von Spakovsky, for his part, has said the letter is "inaccurate and wrong.")

Prior to his coming to the Civil Rights Division in 2001, Mr. von Spakovsky had vigorously advocated the need to combat the specter of voter fraud through restrictive voter identification laws. In testimony before legislative bodies and in his writings, Mr. von Spakovsky premised his conclusions upon the notion - not well-supported at the time and now discredited - that there was a widespread problem with ineligible voters streaming into the polling place to influence election outcomes. In this same period, starting in 1994, the Voting Section had on several occasions reviewed other voter ID laws pursuant to its responsibility under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act, to determine if they had a negative impact on the ability of minority voters to participate in elections. Precedent from these prior reviews was clear: changes requiring voters to provide government-issued photo identification without permitting voters to attest to their identity if they did not have the required ID have a greater negative impact on minority voters than white voters because minority voters are less likely to have the government issued photo identification required by these laws.

Despite his firm position on voter ID laws and his partisan ties to his home state of Georgia, Mr. von Spakovsky refused to recuse himself from considering a Georgia law that would be the most restrictive voter identification law in the country. To the contrary, he was assigned the task of managing the process by the front office. Most disturbing was that just before the Department began consideration of the Georgia law, Mr. von Spakovsky published an article in a Texas law journal advocating for restrictive identification laws. Possibly understanding the impropriety of a government official taking a firm stand on an issue where he was likely to play a key role in the administrative decision concerning that issue, as the Department does under § 5, Mr. von Spakovsky published the article under a pseudonym, calling himself "Publius." Such a situation—where the position he espoused in an article that had just been published is directly related to the review of the Georgia voter ID law—requires recusal from Section 5 review of this law, either by Mr. von Spakovsky or by his superiors. No such action was taken.

(For more on von Spakovsky, Dahlia Lithwick has a nice rundown of his storied career over at Slate. Tagline: "He doesn't want Democrats to vote—unless it's to appoint him to the Federal Election Commission.") As it stands, Senate Dems have expressed concern over the nominee but have stopped short of signaling that they are poised to vote him down. Stay tuned.

Congressional Hip-Hop Hearings Not as Fun as PMRC Hearings

| Wed Sep. 26, 2007 7:18 AM PDT

Rappers and music executives gave testimony Tuesday at the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on "stereotypes and degrading images" in hip-hop music. Attendees were treated to a guilt-wracked Master P ("I just made the music that I feel, not realizing I'm affecting kids for tomorrow") and a mildly irritated David Banner ("If... hip-hop was silenced, the issues would still be present"), along with slimy CEOs, none of whom seem to have ever seen Martin Short's old Nathan Thrum sketches. Mostly, though, the hearings were about Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who managed to corral all the execs to his little show, proving that despite his liberal credentials (a former Black Panther!) he can exploit fear of art with the best of the conservatives, tossing in some accusations of damaging the black community for added liberal guilt.

To read the full post, see MoJo's badass arts/music/film/culture blog, The Riff.

U.S. Military Officials Say Blackwater Eroding Their Efforts with Iraqis

| Wed Sep. 26, 2007 7:07 AM PDT

The Washington Post reports that U.S. military officials are blaming the State Department for letting Blackwater operate lawlessly in Iraq:

In high-level meetings over the past several days, U.S. military officials have pressed State Department officials to assert more control over Blackwater, which operates under the department's authority, said a U.S. government official with knowledge of the discussions. "The military is very sensitive to its relationship that they've built with the Iraqis being altered or even severely degraded by actions such as this event," the official said.
"This is a nightmare," said a senior U.S. military official. "We had guys who saw the aftermath, and it was very bad. This is going to hurt us badly. It may be worse than Abu Ghraib, and it comes at a time when we're trying to have an impact for the long term." The official was referring to the prison scandal that emerged in 2004 in which U.S. soldiers tortured and abused Iraqis.

Military officials also summed up how detested Blackwater is in Iraq:

"It's not necessarily a bad thing these guys are being held accountable. Iraqis hate them, the troops don't particularly care for them, and they tend to have a know-it-all attitude, which means they rarely listen to anyone -- even the folks that patrol the ground on a daily basis."

Pushing back, the State Department told the Post that the Pentagon has more contracts with Blackwater than Foggy Bottom.

Yesterday, the office of Congressman Henry Waxman informed the press that Blackwater indicated it was being ordered by the State Department to withhold documents from his House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Here is the letter from Blackwater's attorney to Waxman's committee indicating the State Departmtent was ordering it to withhold cooperation (.pdf), and here is the State Department letter to Blackwater ordering it to not turn over requested documents (.pdf; it's worth noting that the name of the State Department Security Office contracting officer who signed the letter ordering Blackwater to stay mum is, in one of those out-of-central-casting events, named Kiazan Moneypenny).

All in all, the mercenaries who provide security to the US embassy in Iraq may be looking for their own sort of protection in Washington.

Real Trouble In The Arctic

| Tue Sep. 25, 2007 6:17 PM PDT

On the heels of yesterday's back-handed good news on the Amazon come this pair of troubling reports from NASA on Arctic ice. In the first, melting sea ice has now shrunk so far below the minimum set in 2005 that researchers, speaking between the lines, clearly fear we may have already passed a tipping point. From Waleed Abdalati, head of NASA Goddard's Cryospheric Sciences Branch:

This year, the amount of ice is so far below that of previous years that it really is cause for concern. The trend in decreasing ice cover seems to be getting stronger and stronger as time goes on. . . The longer this process continues, the less likely recovery becomes. The implications on global climate are not well known, but they have the potential to be quite large, since the Arctic ice cover exhibits a tremendous influence on our climate.

And from Josefino C. Comiso, senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland:

When there is less sea ice in the summer, the Arctic Ocean receives more heat. The warmer water makes it harder for the ice to recover in the winter, and, therefore, there is a higher likelihood that sea ice will retreat farther during the summer. This process repeats itself year after year.

The second study found that 2007 has seen an overall rise in melting over the entire Greenland ice sheet, with melting in high-altitude areas reaching the greatest extent ever observed, at 150 percent more than average. The amount of snow melted this year in Greenland would cover the surface size of the U.S. more than twice. Apparently melting icecaps are as bad as melting sea ice, only in a different way. This from Marco Tedesco at the Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology:

When snow melts at those high altitudes and then refreezes, it can absorb up to four times more energy than fresh, unthawed snow. This can affect Earth's energy budget by changing how much radiation from the sun is absorbed by the Earth versus that reflected back into the atmosphere. Refrozen snow can also alter the snow density, thickness and snow-water content. [Furthermore] increases in the overall melting trend over Greenland have an impact that stretches beyond its icy shores. Aside from contributing to direct sea level rise, melting especially along the coast can speed up glaciers since the meltwater acts like a lubricant between the frozen surface and the bedrock deep below. The faster glaciers flow, the more water enters the ocean and potentially impacts sea level rise.

So why is it exactly that Bush is asking for $195 billion more to fight the wrong war at exactly the time we need to be spending unprecedented amounts on the battle to save the only climate we know how to live with? JULIA WHITTY

Def Leppard Still Shirtless, Awesome

| Tue Sep. 25, 2007 6:04 PM PDT
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The question pretty much answers itself, but in case you're wondering if seeing Styx, Foreigner, and Def Leppard together in one venue on one night might equal the concert-going experience of your lifetime, I can confirm: hell yes it does.

Okay, so it's kind of like a live, much more expensive version of the jukebox in your favorite bar, but after Styx played "Renegade" during their encore, my roommate was so, so right when she said, "That alone was worth the cost of the ticket," and I dare anyone else on that sold-out lawn to disagree. And yes, Foreigner is basically a cover band anymore, what with only the original guitarist still around, but when the former lead singer of Hurricane (na na na na na na, I'm on to you) does his best Lou Gramm impression in really tight pants through a set of every Foreigner classic you could think of requesting, you don't really care, even if you're an unironic Foreigner fan who's seen them in concert with the old lineup intact.

We weren't that interested in Def Leppard—who were headlining—going into it, but they played a long, rocking greatest hits list, and both their guitar players are disconcertingly buff and topless, and they've got a bass player whose every not-so-dramatic costume change came with a new correspondingly coordinated single fingerless glove. (I love you, Rick "Sav" Savage!) The above elements plus beer plus yelling the words to "Pour Some Sugar on Me" along with several thousand middle-aged white women and beefy dudes in sleeveless T-shirts pretty much equals the best Tuesday night ever.

Unless you happen to live near one of the four remaining tour stops, you probably won't get to experience a slice of this three-tiered rock cake yourself. At least this year. The bands tour pretty regularly, and if the onstage antics of their spry front men (picture lots of senseless running to and fro) are any indication, they'll be up to it again soon. If you're lucky.

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Supreme Court Enters the Lethal Injection Debate

| Tue Sep. 25, 2007 5:26 PM PDT

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court began chipping away at capital punishment when it put a stop to executing mentally retarded people. Since then, it has ruled that sentencing juveniles to death is also unconstitutional, and today it decided it will review the hot button topic of lethal injection. So that's good news; the end of capital punishment must be near. Well, not so fast. What today's action and the landmark rulings over the past five years have done is to legitimize the practice, not end it. As long as we're not killing kids and people with an IQ of 50, then the death penalty doesn't seem all that wrong, right?

At the heart of the public debate surrounding lethal injection are the three chemicals used. The first one anesthetizes the individual, the second paralyzes him, and the third sets off a massive cardiac arrest. The sole purpose of the paralyzing agent is to mask a botched execution should the anesthesia not work, leading to a deceivingly peaceful death. But the court is unlikely to address this troubling issue and determine whether lethal injection is inhumane or even mandate a new deadly mix. Instead, it's likely to simply establish the standard by which lethal injection qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. That way states can make the proper adjustments to their execution protocols, and get back to the business of executing people. "It will clarify what the rules are, but it is unlikely to answer the question once and for all of whether lethal injection is unconstitutional," says Ty Alper, associate director of the Death Penalty Clinic at U.C. Berkeley's law school, which prepares its future lawyers to tackle capital punishment cases.

If nothing else, the Court's decision to review the issue will almost certainly halt all executions until a ruling is made. Oral arguments are scheduled for January.

—Celia Perry

Culver City: Where Dub Meets Lounge

| Tue Sep. 25, 2007 4:53 PM PDT
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Anyone else remember all the cruddy bands nationwide that tried to play reggae-influenced music in the 90s? Well, I do. Thankfully, the Culver City Dub Collective, a group whose members were in some of those bands, is doing its best to not have us relive that era.

The group's 2007 debut CD Dos is unique, creative, well-produced, and played by a handful of talented musicians. There is definitely some reggae music here that is slick, tasteful, and very "dub" (so, plenty of heavy echo and reverb, thick bass lines, and more space for one or two isolated sounds to resonate), but the southern California group's name is misleading because they don't just play dub reggae. The Culver City Dub Collective mixes Afro-Cuban rhythms, jazz, lounge, and folk with its reggae sounds; which is obviously not a new idea in music, but this group mixes its genres with skill and flair.

"No More My Love" is a straight-up Brazilian, bossa nova-inspired track along the lines of "Girl From Ipanema" and Jack Johnson's surf-folk vocals on "Crying Shame" make the song feel suitable for a beach blanket party circa 2007. "Eloise (Baghdad mix)" pairs Middle Eastern-sounding chord progressions (think gypsy music) with a bouncy, reggae- and hip-hop-inspired drum beat while "Waltz for Tomahawk" mixes lofty, John Coltrane-inspired saxophone riffs with enough dark undertones and atmospheric horn accents to make it perfect for a Noir film score.

It's no surprise The Collective has diverse sounds; it has a vast lineup of guest musicians, not all of which have a history of playing reggae. Ben Harper, Beastie Boys keyboardist Money Mark, original Jane's Addiction bass player Eric Avery, and Jump With Joey leader Joey Altruda all sit in. This roundup of mostly Southern Californian musicians are not just having fun with a genre, they're contributing new ideas to it.

Congressional Hip-Hop Hearings Not as Fun as PMRC Hearings

| Tue Sep. 25, 2007 2:08 PM PDT

Bad CEO!

Rappers and music executives gave testimony today at the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on "stereotypes and degrading images" in hip-hop music. Attendees were treated to a guilt-wracked Master P ("I just made the music that I feel, not realizing I'm affecting kids for tomorrow") and a mildly irritated David Banner ("If... hip-hop was silenced, the issues would still be present"), along with slimy CEOs, none of whom seem to have ever seen Martin Short's old Nathan Thrum sketches. Mostly, though, the hearings were about Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who managed to corral all the execs to his little show, proving that despite his liberal credentials (a former Black Panther!) he can exploit fear of art with the best of the conservatives, tossing in some accusations of damaging the black community for added liberal guilt. We've covered this here before, so let's let Patrick Goldstein in the LA Times point out the trouble with all this:

If I could print a batch of current hip-hop lyrics -- which I can't, because my newspaper has its own standards about offensive language -- most of us could probably agree that much of the language is abhorrent. But it isn't so easy to find a consensus about the next step -- what to do about it? It's one thing to nod your head in agreement when a silver-tongued talk-show host advocates getting rid of all that insulting language until you start to wonder: Who's in charge of defining what's degrading and how far are they going to take it?

Bingo. Well, since nothing ever comes of these types of hearings but some temporary anxiety, you can at least appreciate them for the entertainment value, and in that regard, "Imus to Industry" doesn't hold a candle to the PMRC hearings. It was 22 years ago last week when the videos for "Hot for Teacher" and "We're Not Gonna Take It" were shown in our government's hallowed chambers, and Frank Zappa put on a suit to come and rip the committee a new one, saying:

The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal's design.

Even the late, great John Denver surprised committee members by siding with the metalheads, saying censors often misinterpret music (like his "Rocky Mountain High") and that censorship backfires:

That which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting. Consequently, a great deal of time and energy is spent trying to get at what is being kept from you.

Of course, the House Un-American Activities Committee, now that was good times. Kids these days just don't know how to throw a hearing.

When the Gales of November Turn Balmy

| Tue Sep. 25, 2007 12:28 PM PDT

Lake Superior, one of the world's largest bodies of fresh water, is not only at its shallowest point in 81 years, it's also warming at twice the rate of the air around it, according to an interesting story in the October issue of Minnesota Monthly. The piece quotes scientist Jay Austin, of the Large Lakes Observatory in Duluth, who says average water temperatures have increased 4.5 degrees since 1979. He relates the change to a significant decline in winter ice cover, which ordinarily reflects heat-making sunlight back toward the sky. The ice decline is, it seems, related to global warming.

With the lake's summer season lengthening from 130 to 160 days, some sections of water recently reached a balmy 75 degrees (barely breaking 60 is more the norm). A warmer Lake Superior could mean dramatic changes in aquatic-life, and could open the door to dread invaders like sea lampreys and Quagga mussels. On the brighter side, with a lessening of Superior's bone-chilling "lake effect," Duluth, perhaps, will no longer be known as "the air-conditioned city."

Austin explains that it's hard to anticipate exactly how Superior will change in the coming decades. Predicting the effects of global warming, he says, is "like turning all these knobs at the same time. It's anyone's guess whether Lake Superior will turn into a big bass-fishing lake or a big desert."