2010 - %3, October

Simon Robson's "Coalition of the Willing"

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Can you survey the entire cultural and economic history of the 20th century's last half in one 16-minute film? That's director Simon Robson's short term goal for the video "Coalition of the Willing," now up for an animation award at Saturday's Vimeo Festival in New York. His long term goal is even more ambitious: Unite people around the world in "an internet-based swarm offensive aimed at triggering a 21st century culture shift." But although Robson may be trying to incite utopia, he self-identifies as a cynic. "It sounds bleak, but as we say at the beginning of the film, industry is ruled by profit, and governments by growth." Fed up with leaders' unwillingness (or inability) to enact climate change policy, Robson and his writing partner, Tim Rayner, started toying with the idea that leaders weren't going to do anything at all, and that collective power modeled after the social revolutions of the past would have to do instead. An invocation, in the form of a script, emerged. To illustrate the message of the film, Robson employed stunning visuals by 25 different animators. The resulting patchwork of contrasting artistic styles, animated by a diverse panoply of materials—from clay to fruit to ink—effectively paints the film's collaborative calling.

After "Coalition" was released in June, it garnered attention from the likes of MTV Europe, the Guardian's environmental page, and even Ashton Kutcher (who tweeted about the film, much to Robson's joy). It also spawned an organization, CoalitionoftheWilling.org. The organization's latest project is a flash mob development party, meant to inspire people to submit ideas for "a new generation of internet platforms for the climate crisis."

Mother Jones spoke with Robson recently on the intersection of environment, art, and technology.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 8, 2010

Fri Oct. 8, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

U.S. Army soldiers with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment look for suspicious activity from an observation point during an area reconnaissance mission off Highway 1 in Zabul province, Afghanistan, on Oct. 1, 2010. DoD photo by Spc. Joshua Grenier, U.S. Army.

How the Taliban Does It

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 10:07 PM EDT

Dion Nissenbaum of McClatchy reports that although the Pakistanis have blocked U.S. military convoys passing through Torkham to Afghanistan, they're letting everyone else through, including Taliban fighters:

"Every day, 40,000 to 70,000 people pass through the border, we can't handle it," said Gen. Mohammed Zaman Mamozai, the commander of the Afghan Border Police stationed at Torkham gate. "For us it's very difficult, and it's not possible to ask every single person where they are going and if they have a passport."

....For nearly a decade, the U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to cut off the remote, high altitude mountain trails Taliban forces use to smuggle weapons and fighters into Afghanistan. Now, the U.S. military is turning its attention to the border crossing.

"More and more we've realized that they are not coming through the passes, they're just coming through the . . . gate," said one U.S. government official in Afghanistan who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could candidly discuss the unfolding plan to focus on the border crossing.

Wait a second. After ten years, we're only now realizing that the Taliban might be coming in and out of Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass? That can't possibly be right, can it?

West Virginia Senate: The Battle of Who Can Love Coal More

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 5:32 PM EDT

The controversy about the Republicans' ads featuring "hicky" actors in West Virginia, which were pulled this afternoon, has overshadowed the stink of desperation coming from the Manchin campaign this week.

Democratic Senate candidate and current Gov. Joe Manchin announced Wednesday that the state is suing the Environmental Protection Agency over mining rules. The timing is no small coincidence; while he was expected to cruise to an easy victory, Manchin is five points behind Republican John Raese in the most recent polls. In announcing the suit, Manchin accused the EPA of slowing down the permitting of mountaintop removal coal mining sites. "The EPA's illegal actions unfortunately will hurt the West Virginia economy," Manchin said Wednesday. "It's a shame when you have to sue your own government."

Indeed, Obama's EPA has subjected these controversial permits to more scrutiny under the Clean Water Act and granted fewer permits than it did under George W. Bush. But coal companies are still blowing up mountains and dumping the waste in valleys.

Manchin is clearly hoping that distancing himself from President Obama will help him politically—and the EPA lawsuit is just the latest in a series of similar moves, as he accused the administration of trying "to destroy our coal industry and way of life." And while he insists that the suit has been in the works since April, it's hard not to notice the timing of the announcement.

After all, getting elected in West Virginia seems to require keeping the coal industry as happy as possible, and Manchin has never been shy about his support for the industry. On the endorsement front, Manchin already has the backing of the West Virginia Coal Association, which represents 90 percent of the coal producers in the state, as well as the United Mine Workers of America. The head of the association joined him at yesterday's event.

But that hasn't kept Raese from painting his opponent as anti-coal. The Republican's latest campaign ad accuses Manchin of backing the Obama administration's energy and climate policies. "Obama said he wants to tax coal, even to bankruptcy. Cap and trade's carbon taxes would destroy the coal industry," the ad's narrator says. "Manchin's already signed West Virginia's cap and trade into law. It's time we say no to rubber stamp Joe."

It was probably inevitable, of course, that the West Virginia race would become a battle of who can love coal more. Apparently Manchin is still hoping to win it.

Die Antwoord on "Evil Boy," Their Risqué New Video

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 5:00 PM EDT

Prior to February, Afrikaner "zef" rappers Die Antwoord were virtually unknown outside of South Africa. Then, practically overnight, their video for "Enter the Ninja" became an internet sensation (nearly 8 million YouTube views to date), launching a bidding war by major labels. The most common reaction to the video may well have been, What the fok? (Read my initial reaction here.) Bumping a South African ghetto style known as zef—which is sort of like a downscale version of "bling"—rappers Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er have created an insanely weird, high-energy chemistry. They push the creative envelope with an absurdist gangsta sexuality, laden with heavy doses of profane slang in their native tongue.

Die Antwoord arrives in America next week to tour in support of $O$ (SOS), their new debut CD on Interscope, which, fittingly, is also home to Lady Gaga and Eminem. Just yesterday, Die Antwoord released the video for their song "Evil Boy." Watch it below, but make sure your boss isn't looking, because it may well be one of the most risqué music videos ever recorded. This morning, I spoke with Ninja, who was chilling with Yo-Landi at a friend's place in Johannesburg prior to the tour. In part one, we talk about Die Antwoord's roller-coaster ride, the Interscope deal, and the surprising story behind "Evil Boy." (Click here for part two of the interview.) Watch the video first, and then we'll go speak with Ninja.

 

Mother Jones: Hey, wat pomp? [Loosely translates as "What's happening?") Did I say that right?

Ninja: Ja, you said it so good! It's the best American pronunciation of it ever!

MJ: I've been checking out the "Evil Boy" video. I mean, man! It makes Lady Gaga look tame. Clearly, nobody's trampling your artistic freedom.

N: Oh, no, no, no. That's why we signed with those guys. They love us.

The Real McCain

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 4:45 PM EDT

Todd Purdum in Vanity Fair:

The prevailing question about John McCain this year is: What happened? What happened to that other John McCain, the refreshingly unpredictable figure who stood apart from his colleagues and seemed to promise something better than politics as usual? The question may miss the point....It’s possible to see McCain’s entire career as the story of a man who has lived in the moment, who has never stood for any overriding philosophy in any consistent way, and who has been willing to do all that it takes to get whatever it is he wants. He himself said, in the thick of his battle with Hayworth, “I’ve always done whatever’s necessary to win.” Maybe the rest of us just misunderstood.

I'm hardly the best judge of character in the world, but I confess that the McCain phenomenon has always baffled me. Even back in the glory days of the Straight Talk Express he seemed like a consummate phony to me, sucking up to reporters not because he was being unusually candid, but because it seemed like a good strategy to beat a well-financed guy who was running ahead of him. He's always been nasty, he's always been hot tempered, he's always looked out for number one, and he's always been willing to take whatever position was convenient at the time. All politicians shade their messages now and again, but on that score McCain has always been a politician's politician.

Or so it seemed to me. I've never understood how he managed to convince so many people otherwise for so long.

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Meek Rejects Sierra Club's "Co-Endorsement" With Crist

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 3:21 PM EDT

A political endorsement is typically meant to draw a line in the sand, making a distinction between candidates as a statement of principle. But down in Florida's hotly contested Senate race, the Sierra Club has taken the unusual step of "co-endorsing" both Democrat Kendrick Meek and Independent Charlie Crist.

It's likely a boon for Crist, the former Republican who's been working hard to bolster his centrist credibility after tacking to the right during his GOP primary against Rubio. But Meek, to say the least, is not at all pleased—and has gone so far as to reject the environmental heavyweight's nod of approval:

Today's Sierra Club co-endorsement is an insult to Florida's environmental community. The Sierra Club has chosen to stand with a governor who stood on stage applauding as Sarah Palin chanted, 'Drill, Baby, Drill,' a governor who signed a law making it easier for big developers to drain the Everglades, a governor who endorsed a bill that would have allowed drilling just three miles away from Florida beaches, and a governor who used polluter talking points to attack climate change legislation...

I cannot in good conscience accept an endorsement from an organization that would stand with a governor who has consistently put developers, oil companies and the special interests first. I choose to stand with the environmental community and everyday Floridians who want clean energy jobs, clean water, and clean beaches. It's an insult to Florida's environmental community and Sierra Club members that the organization would endorse a governor who, in the organization's own words, 'sold out to developers' by 'failing to veto even the worst bills.' While I agree that Marco Rubio is an unacceptable choice for Florida's environment, Charlie Crist is also an unacceptable choice.

Meek goes on to cite various environmental bills that Crist vetoed as governor, prompting criticism from the Sierra Club itself that "our 'environmental' Governor has sold out to developers."

The Sierra Club has defended its decision by explaining that both candidates had gone through "a detailed endorsement process, including questionnaires and interviews with the candidates and careful review of the candidates’ records on environmental issues," as the St. Petersburg Times reports. One Sierra Club official added: "The Sierra Club rarely makes dual endorsements, but in this case it was particularly appropriate. Florida, the public at large, and Sierra Club members who want to see environmental leaders in Washington will all be well served by either Charlie Crist or Kendrick Meek as their representative in the US Senate."

It's an unusual decision, indeed—and gives the impression that the Sierra Club is simply hedging its bets on who will come out on top in November.

Discovery of a Marine Ecotone

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 1:32 PM EDT

 (Phytoplankton. Photo courtesy the NOAA MESA Project.) 

The ocean just got richer than we ever imagined—thanks to a new flow cytometer that measures the size and pigment composition of every phytoplankter present in a sample of seawater at the mind-blowingly fast rate of thousands of cells per second.

With that stream of data, researchers from the University of Washington found that communities of phytoplankton south of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, are big players when it comes to carbon: sequestering up to 50 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the ocean. 

 

(Phytoplankton bloom off Vancouver Island. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.)

Typically biologists with traditional cytometers look for phytoplankton using tablespoon-sized samples of seawater collected 10 to 50 miles or more from each other.  But the new instrument, SeaFlow, samples seawater continuously, making it possible to analyze samples either every three minutes or else two samples per mile traveled. It does this by tapping into the systems aboard most oceanographic research vessels that supply running seawater to the wet labs.

 

 (François Ribalet prepares the SeaFlow at the start of a recent expedition. Photo courtesy the University of Washington.)

The new technology collects more samples in a day than most scientists normally gather on an entire cruise. It also sorts the phytoplankton into distinct communities, completing work in five minutes that takes two months with traditional cytometers and microscopes.

 
(Phytoplankton. Photo courtesy the NOAA MESA Project.) 
 
A prototype of the device revealed a biological hotspot off Vancouver Island andfor the first timea marine ecotone, something oceanographers knew must exist but had no way to locate before now.
 
Ecotones are areas where different habitats overlap, where a prairie and forest meet, for example, or a river and estuary intersect. Ectones are rich with species because plants and animals from both ecosystems might be found there, along with those adapted specifically to the hybrid environment. The ecotone discovered by François Ribalet and colleagues is a 40-mile-wide region where ocean water rich with nitrates met coastal water rich with iron. 

(Diatoms. Photo by Prof. Gordon T. Taylor, Stony Brook University, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Here, Ribalet et al found not one but five oceanic phytoplankton communities, each taking advantage of the concentrations of carbon and nutrients.

"This was just unexpected diversity," Ribalet says. "It flies in the face of the textbooks." 

(Phytoplankton. Photo courtesy the NOAA MESA Project.) 

The researchers also discovered the phytoplankton hotspot sequesters 50 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced nearby.

"We thought that had to be a mistake at first," says Ribalet. "They are such small cells to do so much."
 

 Here's the abstract of the paper in PNAS:

In terrestrial ecosystems, transitional areas between different plant communities (ecotones) are formed by steep environmental gradients and are commonly characterized by high species diversity and primary productivity, which in turn influences the foodweb structure of these regions. Whether comparable zones of elevated diversity and productivity characterize ecotones in the oceans remains poorly understood. Here we describe a previously hidden hotspot of phytoplankton diversity and productivity in a narrow but seasonally persistent transition zone at the intersection of iron-poor, nitrate-rich offshore waters and iron-rich, nitrate-poor coastal waters of the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Novel continuous measurements of phytoplankton cell abundance and composition identified a complex succession of blooms of five distinct size classes of phytoplankton populations within a 100-km–wide transition zone. The blooms appear to be fueled by natural iron enrichment of offshore communities as they are transported toward the coast. The observed succession of phytoplankton populations is likely driven by spatial gradients in iron availability or time since iron enrichment. Regardless of the underlying mechanism, the resulting communities have a strong impact on the regional biogeochemistry as evidenced by the low partial pressure of CO2 and the nearly complete depletion of nutrients. Enhanced phytoplankton productivity and diversity associated with steep environmental gradients are expected wherever water masses with complementary nutrient compositions mix to create a region more favorable for phytoplankton growth. The ability to detect and track these important but poorly characterized marine ecotones is critical for understanding their impact on productivity and ecosystem structure in the oceans.
 
The paper:

Francois Ribalet, et al. Unveiling a phytoplankton hotspot at a narrow boundary between coastal and offshore waters. PNAS.

Today's Fundraising Pitch

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 1:07 PM EDT

Hey, guess what? It's fundraising season again! Why now? I guess the thinking is that you've already got your wallets out to support the candidates of your choice right about now, so why not donate to the media of your choice while you're at it? Maybe Mother Jones, for example?

A few dollars helps support this blog, and also helps support reporting like Karen Greenberg's story today that a federal judge has officially decided that, yes, torture is illegal. (There's more to the story than that, though, so go read it. You're paying for it, after all. Aren't you?)

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ACA Continuing to Work Normally

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 12:45 PM EDT

In news that should surprise no one, the Department of Health and Human Services has announced a set of temporary waivers for companies that provide mini-med healthcare insurance:

Thirty companies and organizations, including McDonald's (MCD) and Jack in the Box (JACK), won't be required to raise the minimum annual benefit included in low-cost health plans, which are often used to cover part-time or low-wage employees.

....The plans will be exempt from rules intended to keep people from having to pay for all their care once they reach a preset coverage cap. McDonald's, which offers the programs as a way to cover part-time employees, told the Obama administration it might re-evaluate the plans unless it got a waiver....The waiver program is intended to provide continuous coverage until 2014, when government-organized marketplaces will offer insurance subsidized by tax credits, says HHS spokeswoman Jessica Santillo.

In other non-shocking news, HHS also announced a couple of days ago that 3,000 companies so far have signed up to take part in a program that protects early retiree programs until healthcare reform fully kicks in in 2014. There are certain to be unanticipated bumps in the road as healthcare reform unfolds over the next few years, but so far everything that's happened has been pretty much according to plan. Somebody tell the Wall Street Journal.