Few novelists are more respected in the tech world than Margaret Atwood, the English language's most celebrated literary sci-fi writer. So imagine the reaction last month at the Tools of Change Conference in New York, a 3-day orgy of sessions on distributing e-books, creating iPad apps, and "Planning for Tomorrow's Digital Landscape," when Atwood savaged the hype. Maybe it should have been expected, given how much of her work tends towards the dystopian. "The stupid side of electronic information includes: One big solar flare and it's gone," she said. Yet some of her best attacks were as much visual as literary: Hand-drawn PowerPoint slides of a dead moose, a blood-covered knife, and a rampaging bear.
The chief of security at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, where 29 miners were killed last year, was arrested on Monday and accused of lying to the FBI and trying to dispose of key documents—the first criminal charges stemming from the worst mining accident in 40 years.
The security chief, Hughie Elbert Stover, instructed security guards to notify mine personnel whenever inspectors arrived at the mine, according to the federal indictment. Last month, Stover told federal agents that he would have fired any guard who tipped off workers about inspections. Stover is also charged with instructing an unnamed individual to dispose of mine security documents by placing them in a trash compactor.
It remains unclear whether Stover was acting on his own or at the behest of other managers at Massey, which has racked up more health and safety violations in the past decade than any coal outfit in America. A statement released by Massey yesterday claims that the company notified the US Attorney's office "within hours of learning that documents had been disposed of and took immediate steps to recover documents and turn them over." Still, Stover provided personal security for Don Blankenship and was in frequent contact with the recently-retired CEO, according to the Washington Post:
"He was very, very close to Blankenship," said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe is continuing. "He would drive Blankenship places. He called him 'Mr. B.'"
It's likely that federal agents will offer Stover a plea deal if he testifies against Blankenship, who, along with 14 other Massey workers, including the head of safety and the foreman at the Upper Big Branch mine, have refused to cooperate with the investigation.
That so many Massey employees have kept their mouths shut in the wake of the disaster shouldn't come as a surprise. As Josh reported yesterday in his feature on the coal town of Twilight, Massey exerts a near-feudal grasp in large parts of Appalachia. Many locals are convinced that they must support Massey even as they privately worry that it's ripping their communities apart. As the wife of a deceased coal miner put it, "There ain't no way to go up against them big companies."
Dhar Mann and Derek Peterson, the "ganjapreneurs" I recently profiled, are breaking up, and boy, it's an ugly divorce. A few months ago, the duo behind weGrow, a high-profile Oakland hydroponics store, was dreaming of venture capital, IPOs, and their own reality TV show. Now they've split amid accusations of unpaid debts and financial shenangians.
"This was a fucking hydroponzi scheme, for a lack of a better term," Peterson told me yesterday, "and it shouldn't be. It's got so many legs. We can make legitimate money here." He accuses Mann of misleading him about weGrow's financials, refusing to reimburse him $50,000, and failing to pay vendors and employees. Last week, Peterson and his wife filed lawsuits against Mann. A spokesman for Mann said that Peterson is trumping up the allegations in retaliation for Mann's recent decision to wind down their partnership. Mann told me that he plans to sue Peterson to recoup weGrow shares and more than $75,000 in unpaid bills.
Founded by Mann early last year, weGrow was the country's first "out of the closet" hydroponics store, unashamed to openly advertise that it sold products for pot growers. Mann, the Lamborghini-driving scion of a well-connected Oakland taxi dynasty, and Peterson, a Morgan Stanley investment banker, brought financial know-how and political clout (and a lot of swagger) to a business plan that would have created the country's first publicly traded, vertically integrated marijuana company.
Now it's all falling apart. The original Oakland weGrow store closed last week, though Mann says it's becoming a distribution center for the store's franchises, the first of which recently opened in Sacramento. Peterson says that he still plans to take his own company, GrowOp, public later this year and may create his own chain of hydroponics stores to compete with weGrow.
Mann and Peterson's flameout seems to have more in common with infighting at a tech startup than the schism between La Familia and Los Zetas. In an effort to capitalize on California's $14 billion-a-year marijuana boom, they may have bitten off more than they could chew. "They are cocky and pushing too hard too fast," as a financial consultant for marijuana companies presciently told me. Ultimately, their meltdown is another interesting case of growing pains for the medical marijuana industry as it moves from the underworld into the slippery embrace of Wall Street.
From a chair on the porch of her home in a hollow deep in the Appalachians, Lora can see the top of Montcoal Mountain being blasted off. The explosions a mile and a half away ruffle her curtains, rattle family photos in her living room, and may be why her walls are laced with cracks. A fine gray dust settles on the steps as fast as she can sweep it off. The noise and "fly rock" raining down have forced her daughter and dozens of neighbors to sell their houses and move away. Lora worries she'll be next. "I wouldn't be satisfied with another place," she says, sitting and chain-smoking Pall Malls. "I raised my kids here. Where would a person go?"
But fighting isn't an option for Lora, who asked me not to use her real name for fear of repercussions: The mining operations that are destroying the land also employ her son and son-in-law—good jobs, the only real ones around. "It's the way of life here; there's nothing else," says the 54-year-old grandmother. Like many West Virginia coal towns that have shifted from underground mining to far more destructive mountaintop-removal mining, this hamlet, known as Twilight, is now in the business of burying itself alive.
While the Chamber on Friday denied any knowlege of the entrapment plan or any other "questionable actions," emails that I've perused suggest that the Chamber clearly was involved on some level in a scheme to investigate and discredit its opponents. According to the emails, the Chamber's law firm was looking for groups that could help it prove—or at least hint at—a liberal conspiracy against the Chamber.
Chamber law firm Hunton & Williams wanted to hire digital sleuths that could demonstrate that the business group's opponents had been working as a "single entity instead of a true 'grasroots' campaign." That phrase and others suggest that the Chamber's ultimate goal was to openly accuse its foes of a left-wing form of astroturfing.
HBGary Federal and two other IT security firms, Palantir, and Berico Technologies, were working on a presentation scheduled to take place at the Chamber this upcoming Monday. In the meeting they planned to pitch their services as a "Corporate Information Recoinassance Cell." The cell would supposedly collect online information on the Chamber's foes from social networking sites and other sources and organize it to demonstrate previously hidden relationships.
Early emails sent by Berico Technologies analyst Pat Ryan outline the proposed project as described by the the Chamber's law firm: