2012 - %3, July

Diplomacy Now Officially Being Carried Out Via Twitter

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 10:48 AM EDT

Yesterday a suicide bomber attacked a meeting of high-level Syrian officials, killing both the defense minister and the military's deputy chief-of-staff, who was also President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law. Several paragraphs down in the NYT story, we get this:

In Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, offering Russia’s first official commentary on the bombing, said via his Twitter account that the attack had put consensus between members of the Security Council even farther out of reach.

“A dangerous logic: While discussions on settling the Syrian crisis are being held in the U.N. Security Council, militants intensify terrorist attacks, frustrating all attempts,” he wrote.

This isn't a first or anything, but I don't recall ever getting an official Russian reaction to international events via Twitter before. I wonder how the Cuban Missile Crisis would have gone down if Kennedy and Khrushchev had relied on Twitter instead of diplomatic cables?

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Corn on MSNBC: Fact-Checking Romney on Obama

Wed Jul. 18, 2012 10:39 AM EDT

Mother Jones' DC bureau chief David Corn joined Martin Bashir on MSNBC on Tuesday to discuss a Romney surrogate's suggestion that President Obama isn't a "real" American, and to fact-check Mitt Romney's misquote of an Obama speech:

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Rick Perry Is Just Trolling Now

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 10:16 AM EDT
Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

On Tuesday, Texas governor Rick Perry kind-of-sort-of called on Mitt Romney to release his tax returns (and President Obama to release his college transcripts), telling reporters, "I'm all about transparency." This has been taken as a sign that Republicans are increasingly frustrated with Romney's secrecy regarding his tax returns, which is probably true. But the larger takeaway here is that Rick Perry is trolling all of us—because Rick Perry is absolutely not "all about transparency."

As my colleague Andy Kroll explained last August:

Perry and his administration have withheld information in 100 public-records requests during his time in Austin, and on occasion failed to respond on time to other records requests as required by state law. His administration has also refused to hand over notes and records about how the state's two honeypots for economic growth, the Emerging Technology Fund and the Texas Enterprise Fund, decided to dole out grant money, including on one occasion to a company owned by a Perry donor. The Chronicle went so far as to sue the Perry administration for refusing to hand over notes on its decision not to grant clemency to Cameron Todd Willingham, a man who was executed in 2004 after being convicted of multiple murders on the basis of flawed arson pseudoscience.

He didn't just walk the walk, he talked the talk. In October 2010, when he was pressed for more details on his public schedule, Perry told reporters: "I think we give so much information already that it is boring."

Oh, and he's still blocking me on Twitter.

USDA Prepares to Green-Light Gnarliest GMO Soy Yet

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 6:30 AM EDT
A crop duster sprays a soybean field.

In early July, on the sleepy Friday after Independence Day, the USDA quietly signaled its intention to green-light a new genetically engineered soybean seed from Dow AgroSciences. The product is designed to produce soy plants that withstand 2,4-D, a highly toxic herbicide (and, famously, the less toxic component in the notorious Vietnam War-era defoliant Agent Orange).

Readers may remember that during an even-sleepier period—the week between Christmas and the New Year—the USDA made a similar move on Dow's 2,4-D-ready corn.

If the USDA deregulates the two products—as it has telegraphed its intention to do—Dow will enjoy a massive profit opportunity. Every year, about half of all US farmland is planted in corn and soy. Currently, Dow's rival Monsanto has a tight grip on weed management in corn-and-soy country. Upward of 90 percent of soy and 70 percent of corn is engineered to withstand another herbicide called glyphosate through highly profitable Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed lines. And after so many years of lashing so much land with the same herbicide, glyphosate-resistant superweeds are now vexing farmers and "alarming" weed control experts throughout the Midwest.

Between Burma and a Hard Place

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

(Nowhere People, 2012)(Nowhere People, 2012)Though ostensibly a photo book, Exiled to Nowhere serves as a vivid collection of reportage that few magazines could (or, these days, would) deliver. Photojournalist Greg Constantine takes us to the Burma-Bangladesh border, where tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees live in crowded, dirty camps. A minority long prosecuted by the Burmese government, the Rohingya live in a state of perpetual fear and uncertainty. Their pervasive sense of living essentially "nowhere" is what Constantine successfully captures in his latest book.

Whereas Saiful Huq Omi's powerful photographic work for the Magnum Foundation traces the wider diaspora of the Rohingya living in England, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, Constantine's book focuses primarily on the tense border region inhabited by tens of thousands of Rohingya.

Shot in stark black and white, Constantine's photos subvert any romantic notions of what it's like to be a working documentary photographer, instead evoking the patience and commitment required. Constantine shot the series over the course of eight different trips, between 2006 and 2012.

Detained RohingyaA group of Rohingya men are detained at a highway checkpoint in southern Bangladesh.
The 92 photos in the book detail life in various refugee camps, showing the monotony and struggles of daily life. They give a sense of who these people are: In the different camps, among the different families, a repetition of a muddy, difficult, yet somehow self-sure existence emerges.

Kutupalong Makeshift Camp Greg ConstantineOver the last 20 years, legions of Rohingya have fled their homeland and now live as unrecognized refugees in neighboring Bangladesh. Some 20,000 live in the squalid environs known as Kutupalong Makeshift camp.
The book's accompanying interviews and text provide important context: Reading about how Thai authorities pushed boats full of Bangladeshi and Rohingya refugees out to sea—many of them to their deaths—or about how others were threatened and viciously beaten in Burma, adds that much more impact to the photos.

Tal Makeshift Camp A woman and her grandchild sit on the side of the road at the Tal Makeshift Camp near the town of Teknaf. Most Rohingya in southern Bangladesh are not recognized as refugees and receive little or no humanitarian assistance.
The bar is high when it comes to grabbing the attention of readers (and photo editors) with projects focused on human rights in desolate places. It's refreshing to get yanked out of that jaded place by a successful project like Constantine's.
 

A group of Rohingya men push their fishing boat back onto shore. Most Rohingya men in the Shamlapur area of Bangladesh work as bonded laborers and are trapped into debt to local Bangladeshi boat owners.A group of Rohingya men push their fishing boat back onto shore. Most Rohingya men in the Shamlapur region of Bangladesh work as bonded laborers and are trapped in debt to local Bangladeshi boat owners.
Exiled to Nowhere
is the second book in a longer term project called Nowhere People, a documentation of stateless people around the world in places including Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, Ukraine, and Bangladesh. (Constantine's first book, Kenya's Nubians: Then & Now, was published in November 2011.) It's an ambitious undertaking, and perhaps one that only a thoroughly committed photographer like Constantine could pull off.

More Voter Shenanigans in Florida?

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Rick Scott is making it harder to vote Flickr/Donkey HoteryRick Scott is making it harder to vote. Flickr/Donkey HoteyThis post has been updated.

Score one for Gov. Rick Scott, who is moving ahead with plans to ferret out "noncitizens" on Florida's voter rolls. The tea party stalwart won a yearlong battle with the Obama administration last weekend when the Department of Homeland Security agreed to let the state check its voter registrations against a federal database of resident aliens in the United States. But along with ongoing efforts to crack down on voters without IDs and keep convicts away from the polls, it looks like a thinly disguised voter suppression tactic that could tip the electoral scales in the crucial battleground state. Scott's communications director, Brian Burgess, bragged on Saturday that "all of Florida wins!" because of this development.

But are noncitizens actually registering to vote in any significant number? Fox News and friends have made it a pet issue as Republicans come to grips with a growing Latino population more likely to vote for the other party—and whose numbers the GOP might be happy to see diminish at the polls.

The DHS database that Florida will utilize—known as the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE—does not contain a comprehensive list of the estimated 11.5 million people who are in the United States without authorization; rather, it tracks resident aliens who have visas to stay in the US. Here's how Scott's plan is supposed to work: Florida will provide a number for each person it suspects of not being a US citizen, and then the feds will check that against SAVE to confirm whether the person is in the US illegally. And then the state will check its voter lists to see if that person is registered to vote.

"Access to the SAVE database will ensure that noncitizens do not vote in future Florida elections," Scott said in a statement following the DHS decision. "We've already confirmed that noncitizens have voted in past elections here in Florida."

Scott was referring to an attempt made earlier this year to purge Florida's voter rolls—but the number of illegitimate voters found was statistically insignificant. Using info from the driver's license bureau, state officials compiled a list of 182,000 suspicious voters, which was whittled down to 2,600. Of that number, 107—or about 0.001 percent of Florida's 11.2 million voters—shouldn't have been registered to vote. It turned out those 107 voters included more registered Republicans than Democrats. Moreover, that state list was also riddled with errors—full of longtime and recently naturalized citizens who were fully eligible to vote.

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Tom's Kitchen: Ratatouille, the Classic Summer Veggie Stew

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Ratatouille, served here over toast and under a fried egg, along side a salad of raw shredded kale.

Ratatouille, a classic dish from southern France, had been confounding me for years. On the one hand, it combines iconic hot-weather produce—squash, eggplant, tomatoes, red peppers, and basil—making it an ideal high-summer dish. On the other hand, I first discovered in in the early '90s, before I had heard of farmers markets or seasonal cooking; and the recipe I used for it required long roasting. Back then, I'd make it in winter from supermarket veggies trucked in from God knows where and serve it with something hearty like polenta. It was actually quite satisfying.

And then for years, as my life turned to gardening, farming, and fixation on the farmers market, I never made ratatouille. I wasn't going to buy tomatoes or eggplant in the winter; nor did I have any desire to heat up my kitchen with a long roast in high summer.

Then, in the process of reviewing Alice Waters' book The Art of Simple Food a few years ago, I stumbled upon her ratatouille recipe, which in place of roasting involves a kind of extended stir fry—still a hot project, but nothing like an oven blazing at 400 degrees. (I've since learned that the Waters' method is the classic method of Provence; no telling where I got the roasting idea).

With peak-of-season produce and good olive oil, ratatouille is a spectacular dish: the brightness of squash, tomatoes, and peppers, the depth of eggplant, and the pungency of onion and garlic, all melted down down into a delicious stew. And it's a wonderful thing to cook on the weekend and have around for the work week. I served it one day as a side dish to grilled chicken breast (cue silly vegan outrage); another day tossed with pasta and chickpeas; and twice for lunch over toast and under a fried egg.

Gaming the Electricity Markets, Wall Street Style

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 1:40 AM EDT

Hey, remember how Enron gamed the California electricity market back in 2000 and 2001, producing rolling blackouts and skyrocketing energy costs — and big profits for Enron? Well, it appears that it happened again in 2010 and 2011. There were no blackouts this time, though, just the big profits part. The profiteer this time around was our old Wall Street friend, JPMorgan Chase.

These are all just allegations at this point, and of course JPMorgan maintains its total innocence. But Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times has unraveled the technobabble in the official complaint from the California Independent System Operator (ISO) and explains JPMorgan's "diabolically simple" scheme:

The alleged scheme involves two related wholesale electricity markets maintained by the ISO. There's the day-ahead market, in which power plant owners place bids to provide power for the California electricity grid in the future; and the real-time market, an auction market through which ISO buys electricity for immediate distribution to homes and businesses.

To give plant owners an incentive to participate in these auctions, ISO guarantees to cover their costs for starting up or running their plants at a minimal level, even if their bids aren't accepted. This is known as "bid cost recovery." ISO rules allow bidders to claim payments of up to twice their real costs.

In simplest terms, JPMorgan submitted bids in the day-ahead market that were so low the firm was certain to be accepted onto ISO's roster of potential electricity suppliers....ISO believes that JPMorgan never intended to make that sale, but the beauty of its low bids was that they made it eligible to collect bid cost recovery payments.

The next step was for JPMorgan to make sure that ISO didn't actually buy its electricity, presumably because the profit margin from the bid cost recovery claim was greater than from actually selling energy. So in the real-time market, it priced its electricity so high that ISO wouldn't buy it.

The bottom line, the ISO says, is that JPMorgan's traders never intended to sell it electricity via these bids. The scheme, it says, seems to have been designed purely to capture a bid cost recovery payment the bank didn't deserve, at a rate that was inflated anyway.

Hooray for Wall Street! When it comes to clever financial manipulation with no socially redeeming value, nobody does it better. It's nice to know that America is still #1 in something.

Maybe Republicans Will Finally See the Light on Copyright Law

| Tue Jul. 17, 2012 11:01 PM EDT

The Obama campaign recently released a TV commercial that features Mitt Romney singing "America the Beautiful." This is a song that's in the public domain, so it's no problem. The Romney campaign, hoping to do a little musical mockery of its own, responded with a commercial that features Obama singing Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." Boom! This is decidedly not in the public domain, and BMG immediately sent a DMCA takedown order to YouTube. Within hours, the commercial was gone. Adam Serwer comments:

This seems like a straightforward instance of censorship, whatever BMG's politics. There's a doctrine in copyright law called "fair use," which allows limited use of copyrighted material for "purposes of illustration or comment" or "use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied." Whatever one thinks of Romney's political views, as Ars Technica's Timothy Lee writes, "The Romney ad seems like as clear-cut a case of fair use as can be imagined."

Obama's singing is a core part of the ad's message, and copyright law explicitly mentions commentary and criticism as justifications for fair use....Meanwhile, Lee notes, according to the law, "YouTube is required to wait a minimum of 10 days before putting the video back up." It's hard to see the benefit in allowing companies to unilaterally decide political disputes this way, whatever their intentions.

I agree on the merits. However, where Adam sees lemons, I see lemonade. It's common knowledge that the best way to get Congress to act is to do something that personally annoys a congressman. So maybe this is that thing. Now that modern copyright law is hitting them where it hurts, perhaps the Republican caucus in the House will be outraged enough to introduce a bill that defines fair use more reasonably and eliminates the more draconian abuses of DMCA.

I know, I know: fat chance. But maybe if it happens again, they'll be primed and ready. And if the elephant is annoyed enough times, maybe it will finally do something. Stranger things have happened.

Republicans to Secret Donors: We've Got Your Back (Yet Again)

| Tue Jul. 17, 2012 7:00 PM EDT
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Today, Senate Republicans marched in lockstep with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) by filibustering the DISCLOSE Act for the second time in two days. Democrats needed 60 votes to proceed to an actual vote on the bill, which would require unions, corporations, and secretive nonprofits to disclose the big donors behind their political activities. The final vote was 53 to 45.

After the vote, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who introduced DISCLOSE this spring and later whittled it down to a simpler, 19-pageversion, dinged his GOP colleagues for supporting disclosure in the past and then blocking a full vote on his bill. (No Democrats joined the Republicans in voting against a full vote.) But Whitehouse said the fight to make dark-money groups more transparent wasn't over. "Joshua didn't get the walls of Jericho to fall the first time he and the Israelites walked around the city," Whitehouse said in an interview Monday night.

Republicans offered a variety of reasons for blocking the DISCLOSE Act. Sen. McConnell claimed the bill created "the impressions of mischief where there is none," and amounts to "nothing more than member and donor harassment and intimidation." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a vigorous supporter of campaign finance reform in the past, said the bill favored labor unions—a claim flatly rejected by Whitehouse. "There is no union loophole in it," he said. "It is the same rules for any organization no matter what."

David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, which opposes more regulation of political money, said the bill overreached because it would also compel disclosure for nonpolitical ads. "There are plenty of ads that are lobbying related," Keating told Politico. "You would have to go through all the red tape for those. It's being billed as an election disclosure bill, but it covers way more than that."

Pro-reform advocacy groups slammed the Republicans' filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act. Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and the dean of the pro-reform community, said in a statement, "In a disgraceful disregard for the interests of the American people, Republican senators have voted to protect secret, corrupting contributions made by millionaires, billionaires, and corporations to influence federal elections." Others took the long view. "Taking back our democracy is a marathon, not a sprint," said Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in a statement.

Even if it were to pass, the DISCLOSE Act would not take effect until January 2013. It's unlikely to be introduced again before the November election.