2009 - %3, September

Michael Moore Takes On Wall Street

| Sun Sep. 6, 2009 2:03 PM EDT

The Venice film festival is in full swing, and today the Guardian reviews Michael Moore's latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story:

Moore jabs his finger at everyone from Reagan to Bush Jr, Hank Paulson to Alan Greenspan. He drags the viewer through a thicket of insurance scams, sub-prime bubbles and derivative trading so wilfully obfuscatory that even the experts can't explain how it works.

The big villain, of course, is capitalism itself, which the film paints as a wily old philanderer intent on lining the pockets of the few at the expense of the many. America, enthuses a leaked Citibank report, is now a modern-day "plutonomy" where the top 1% of the population control 95% of the wealth. Does Barack Obama's election spell an end to all this? The director has his doubts, pointing out that Goldman Sachs — depicted here as the principal agent of wickedness — was the largest private contributor to the Obama campaign.

I say: sit back and enjoy.  There's no need any longer for the ritual fainthearted acknowledgments that "Moore sometimes goes a bit too far" or "Moore sometimes prefers theater to getting the facts straight" or any of that.  It's probably true, but why bother anymore? The wingers have already decided that we're all a bunch of radicalfascistextremistcommunistunamericansocialistchicagothugs anyway, so what the hell.  Might as well just enjoy some lefty porn along with a big bag of popcorn and hail Michael Moore as a true American prophet.  What more can they call us, after all?

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Glenn Beck Gets a Scalp

| Sun Sep. 6, 2009 12:58 AM EDT

A few days ago, after a month of low-level sniping, Glenn Beck declared full-on war against Van Jones, an environmental activist who had been appointed an advisor on green jobs to the White House Council on Environmental Quality.  Why?  Well, Jones had been fairly radical in the early 90s, which was probably enough, but it's more likely that the real reason had to do with a recent boycott of Beck's show spearheaded by ColorOfChange.com, a group that Jones co-founded in 2005.  Jones left the group a couple of years ago, but no matter: Beck wanted revenge and Jones was an easy target.

I don't have the stomach to repeat all the smears that have been leveled at Jones, so you'll have to google it if you haven't been keeping up with this.  And none of it would have mattered much if (a) a YouTube of Jones calling Republicans "assholes" hadn't gone viral and (b) he hadn't signed a petition in 2004 from 911Truth.org asking for an investigation into charges that the "current administration may indeed have deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen."

But it did, and he did, and tonight Jones resigned.  "I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past," he said. "We need all hands on deck, fighting for the future."

So now Beck has his scalp and our effort to generate green jobs during a recession will be just a little less effective.  Lovely.

UPDATE: More here from Gawker ("The story of how the President's Special Advisor for Green Jobs became the biggest, scariest villain of the right wing (this week, anyway) is also the story of how the right wing information delivery process works now") and David Roberts ("For the record, Jones isn’t a truther").  The wingers, of course, are ecstatic over all this.

The Battle of Jericho

| Sat Sep. 5, 2009 2:15 PM EDT

When the fire chief of Jericho, Arkansas, finally got fed up and went to court a few days ago to challenge his second traffic ticket in as many days, the town's entire 7-man police force showed up for the hearing.  And then shot him.

Seriously.  Apparently a scuffle broke out and one of the cops pulled out his gun and shot the guy in open court.  He's OK, but the police department, which was already in deep trouble for its habit of ticketing everything on wheels that rolled through Jericho, has been disbanded and all outstanding tickets have been voided.  The town's part-time judge has quit too.  And nobody knows what's happened to all the ticket revenue.

Story here.  Happy Labor Day!  (Via OTB.)

Melville and Bin Laden

| Sat Sep. 5, 2009 11:04 AM EDT

Is Moby Dick America's great national epic, as Matt Yglesias (along with his tame cabal1 of American Lit professors) says?  Or is it really a terrorist handbook meant to indoctrinate our youth in anti-whale2 hysteria?  The New Yorker's Close Read blog shows itself unafraid to confront the truth:

Richard Brody [...] has been writing about “The Baader Meinhof Complex.” But one detail he doesn’t explore is the appearance of a German edition of “Moby-Dick” in the movie: imprisoned members of the Red Army Faction use it as the key to their enciphered messages to co-conspirators on the outside. It turns out that Gudrun Ensslin, one of the group’s founders, was obsessed with the book, and thought that it told the story of the R.A.F.’s struggle against the state. She gave the terrorists Moby-codenames: Baader was Ahab, Holger Meins was Starbuck, and she herself was the cook. [...] Horst Mahler, their lawyer and later, as Brody writes, a neo-Nazi, was Captain Bildad. Stefan Aust, who wrote the book the movie was based on, told an interviewer that “to understand the R.A.F., you have to read Moby Dick.”

Aust explains further: "The whale is Leviathan, and Leviathan is a symbol for the state, a state whose papier mâché mask of deceptive appearances the RAF was committed to smashing."  This closely echoes Osama bin Laden's published views of the decadent West3, which makes it no surprise that blame-America-first liberals like Matt think impressionable children should all be forced to read Melville's seditious maritime propaganda4.  Nor should anybody be surprised on Tuesday if Barack Obama exhorts our kids to "work hard and read American classics like Moby Dick."  Today it's a white whale in the classroom, tomorrow it's sharia in the White House.

1I believe this is the correct term of art in conspiratorial circles to imply a Jewish conspiracy without actually saying so.  Right?

2Whale = United States, of course.  It's all about the imagery in Moby Dick.

3I'll look up the page number later.  But I'm pretty sure about this.

4Note similarity of box cutters used by 9/11 hijackers to harpoons used by Ahab's murderous crew.6

5This isn't actually a footnote.  I just want to mention that I created the bin-Ladenized version of the Fail Whale myself.  A new career in graphic design surely beckons.

6In comments, John Sully provides a better and more erudite extended metaphor.  Or simile.  Or something: "I think you meant flensing knives, which are used to cut the blubber from the whale for rendering. Flensing knives are similar to box-cutters, the implements with which bin Laden's minions symbolically cut the fat from the corpse of Amerika so that the county was rendered impotent against the power of Islam."

Real Tyranny

| Sat Sep. 5, 2009 12:25 AM EDT

One of my least favorite abuses of power is the government's use of material witness warrants as all-purpose excuses for detaining people when they have no actual evidence of any wrongdoing.  So I'm very pleased to hear that the 9th Circuit Court has not only ruled that such behavior is reprehensible and obviously unconstitutional, but that former Attorney General John Ashcroft can be held personally responsible for it:

Members of the panel, all appointees of Republican presidents, characterized Ashcroft's detention policy as "repugnant to the Constitution, and a painful reminder of some of the most ignominious chapters of our national history."

....[Abdullah] Kidd, a former University of Idaho running back...was handcuffed, strip-searched and shuttled among interrogations in Virginia, Oklahoma and Idaho before being released 16 days later and ordered to surrender his passport and live with his wife and in-laws in Nevada.  The arrest led to Kidd being denied a security clearance and losing his job with a government contractor.

....Georgetown Law professor David Cole said that Ashcroft adopted an aggressive "preventive paradigm" after Sept. 11 designed "to incapacitate people who government officials thought suspicious but lacked evidence of any wrongdoing. They were locked up and then investigated, rather than the other way around." Virtually all of the targets had nothing to do with terrorism, Cole said.

....The judges, alluding to the George W. Bush administration, said that although "some confidently assert that the government has the power to arrest and detain" suspects without evidence of wrongdoing, the panel considered such preemptive detentions "an engine of political tyranny."

Yep, boys and girls, that's what the seeds of real political tyranny look like.  Somebody please tell Glenn Beck and the rest of the fever swamp crowd.

Kabul Krazytown and Obama's Kid Speech

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 7:08 PM EDT

It's Laura, back with the newest week-in-review podcast with Kevin and David. Kevin's clanging around in the kitchen a bit this week while discussing Obama's forthcoming socialist indoctrination of children everywhere —not sure what he was cooking. Next time maybe he'll give Inkblot a meow cameo instead? I kid. Sort of. Worth a listen.

Laura McClure hosts weekly podcasts and is an editor for Mother Jones. Read her recent investigative feature on lifehacking gurus here.

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Google's Search Engine Pinpoints Extinction

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 6:32 PM EDT

Thanks to the BBC for a link to this paper describing how Google's algorithm for ranking web pages could determine what species are most critical for sustaining ecosystems.

The authors write in PLoS Computational Biology that their version of PageRank could ascertain which extinction would likely lead to ecosystem collapse.

Species are embedded in complex networks of relationships. Some more so than others. In those cases, a single extinction can cascade into the loss of many other species.

Figuring this out in advance is supremely difficult. The number of links in even simple ecosystems exceeds the number of atoms in the universe. We can't sort out that kind of complexity without quantum computers.

But maybe Google can. Researchers Stefano Allesina and Mercedes Pascual reversed the definition of the PageRank algorithm that ranks a webpage as important if important pages point to it. In the conservation biology context, even humble species are important if they point to important species.

The researchers also designed a cyclical element into the foodweb system by including the detritus pool... you know, that to which all returns and that from which all arises.

Allesina and Pascual then tested their method against published foodwebs to rank species according to the damage caused if they were removed from the ecosystem. They also tested algorithms already in use in computational biology to find a solution to the same problem.

The results: PageRank gave them exactly the same solution as the more complicated algorithms.

In the real world, this research will likely make it easier to quickly target conservation efforts for maximum benefit.

Hope evolves in that muddy puddle where technology meets environmentalism.
 

Et Tu, Sigg Bottles?

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 5:07 PM EDT

Well, this is just peachy. Sigg, maker of re-usable metal canteens, has been using a liner that contains bisephenol A. Bisephenol A, or BPA, is one of the key reasons I switched from drinking water out of plastic bottles. BPA is an endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen and does all kinds of nasty stuff to the female reproductive system. I thought that by getting a Swiss-made Sigg, which markets itself as a high-quality product produced in an "ecologically friendly environment," I'd be reducing my BPA intake. Well, maybe not unless I bought it after August 2008 says a recent investigation published by GreenerDesign.com.

According to the article

At no point over the last few years, in the handful of conversations and email exchanges I have had with SIGG's PR company, Truth Be Told, were my perceptions that the bottles were free from BPA corrected... In my conversation with [Sigg president] Steve Wasik, he said SIGG did not reveal the BPA information because of a non-disclosure agreement they had with their manufacturer... Yet, at the same time, SIGG began development on a new BPA-free liner back in 2006. When I asked Wasik about this contradiction, he pushed the responsibility back on to the supply chain, stating, "Our confidentiality agreement with our suppliers would not allow us to talk about the liner."
The January 2009 press release from SIGG indicated they were creating a new line of bottles with what they called an EcoCare liner. What they did not say, and what even their PR company did not know, was the underlying reason for this change: That the original SIGGs contained BPA.

Biggest Temperature Increases Projected in States that Oppose Climate Bill

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 3:14 PM EDT

States that will see the highest temperature increases due to climate change also overwhelmingly oppose a federal bill to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

By 2100, the biggest temperature spikes in the United States will be felt in the Midwestern states of Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Oklahoma, according to a report released this week by The Nature Conservancy. Each state will see temperatures rise at least ten degrees--up to twice the increase predicted in more liberal coastal states. The five hard-hit Midwestern states have only three Democratic senators among them; no Republicans in the region are expected to support a cap and trade bill. Climate change heat map from climatewizard.orgClimate change heat map from climatewizard.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

...

The Midwest is set to see the mercury rise because it's isolated from cooling ocean currents that will blunt the effects of a warming climate in other parts of the United States. In President Obama's home state, Hawaii, for example, temperatures will increase only 4.9 degrees. The temperature rankings come from an interactive heat map published by the Nature Conservancy this week on the website Climatewizard.org.

In a narrow sense, one could argue that the GOP is looking out for the Midwest's best interests; higher temperatures may ultimately be a boon to chilly states such as South Dakota. But adapting to a warmer climate could also prove painful. Temperature increases will likely shift farming zones, exacerbate outbreaks of pests, and tax the region's underground aquifers.

The one Midwestern state that would probably be most screwed over by warming is also the one inhabited by the Senate's leading climate change skeptic, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. He has called global warming a "hoax,"  trumpeted a fake EPA scandal involving a so-called climate whistleblower, and parroted the Chamber of Commerce's call for a "Scopes Monkey Trial" on the evidence for climate change.  And yet temperatures in Oklahoma are set to rise 9.9 degrees by the end of the century. That wouldn't be so bad, except it means that Oklahoma City will experience 103-degree summers. Inhofe may keep alive the old Texas maxim about why the Lone Star State doesn't slip into the Gulf of Mexico: Because Oklahoma sucks. 

The Conde Nast Conspiracy

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 2:19 PM EDT

Last week, a shocking GQ investigative report, "None Dare Call it Conspiracy," hit the newsstands. Not that most people would know about it. Oddly, the magazine's parent company, Conde Nast, seems bent on squelching the explosive article.

The report links Russia's intelligence service to a series of bombings in 1999—blamed on Chechen terrorists—that killed over 300 Russian citizens, led to the Second Chechen War, and propelled Vladimir Putin to the presidency. At the center of the story is a Mikhail Trepashkin, a former KGB-turned-FSB agent, whose detailed allegations draw into question Putin's role in the bombings. Similar inquiries have led to the mysterious deaths of both journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Trepashkin's former colleague Alexander Litvinenko.

Perhaps fearing that the story would impact the advertising revenues of the four titles Conde Nast publishes in the Russian market, the media company has attempted to bury the piece. In an internal email on July 23, obtained by NPR's David Folkenflik, one of the media company's top lawyers informed GQ editors that "Conde Nast management has decided that the September issue of US GQ magazine containing Scott Anderson's article...should not be distributed in Russia." The report was not teased on the magazine's cover and, as of now, is not available on the magazine's website. Gawker has attempted to rectify the situation by posting a scanned copy of the article on its website and asking readers to help them translate the article into Russian.

While Conde Nast has thus far been silent on the NPR report (they did not respond to my request for comment), this appears to be a clear-cut case of commercial interests trumping journalistic integrity. As Scott Anderson, the author of the piece said to Folkenflik

I think it's really kind of sad. Here now is finally an outlet for this story to be told, and you do everything possible to throw a tarp over it.

By attempting to stifle the report, Conde Nast may end up succeeding in bringing more attention to the piece. That, and inadvertently making one of the strongest arguments yet for supporting independent nonprofit media like NPR (and Mother Jones).