2007 - %3, August

The Man Behind the Utah Mine Collapse

| Thu Aug. 9, 2007 3:33 PM PDT

The six miners now trapped in a coal mine in Utah were working for Murray Energy, whose owner has become one of the most outspoken—and unhinged—spokespeople for coal power in the last year, as the dirty energy source has come under increasing scrutiny. Coal is the largest single contributor to greenhouse-gas pollution—but Mr. Murray denies that fossil fuels cause global warming.

Murray has used his platform as spokesman in the tragedy to continue his defense of the industry. On Tuesday, he delivered what the Washington Post called "a general paean to coal," threatening that, "Without coal to manufacture our electricity, our products will not compete in the global marketplace…and people on fixed incomes will not be able to pay for their electric bills."

Murray also adamantly denied that the "retreat" method of mining which was used in the section that collapsed had anything to do with the accident. Retreat mining involves taking the last bits of coal from pillars that hold up the roof, and result in—ideally controlled—collapses. Murray has blamed the collapse on an earthquake, though seismologists say vibrations were caused by the collapse, not vice-versa.

Murray's unconventional approach has drawn criticism from the Democratic chairs of two House committees that oversee labor issues. Reps. George Miller and Lynn Woolsey pressed the Labor Department to assume the spokesman role because Murray's statements do "not meet [the] standard" for such emergencies.

But it should be said that the Democrats and Mr. Murray have no love lost. Murray has given heavily to Republicans, including, according to the Post, $100,000 last year alone from his political action committee to GOP congressional candidates.He has used his ties with important Republicans—particularly Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose wife, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, oversees mine safety—to avoid facing the music for safety violations. The Utah mine's safety record was fairly average, despite fines for safety violations in the hundreds of thousands, but nationally, Murray's mines have a shoddy safety record. When confronted in 2002 with safety violations, Murray threatened to have the inspectors fired, referring to his close friendship with McConnell. "The last time I checked," he said, "he [McConnell] was sleeping with your boss."

Great guy, huh? Would you trust him with your life?

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New Music: Birds & Batteries

| Thu Aug. 9, 2007 3:26 PM PDT

mojo-cover-birdsandbatteries.JPGWho knows where the name came from, but Birds & Batteries is an oddly appropriate moniker for a band whose synthy soundscapes seem to float effortlessly in the air. Okay, the world is full of breathy electro these days, but San Francisco's B&B approach their keyboards from an unexpected, epic country-rock direction, something they lay out right away by opening their new album, I'll Never Sleep Again, with an elegiac cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold."

The band seem to have started out as a one-man project, as band leader Mike Sempert apparently recorded demos for the first album on his own, then brought in musicians to fill out a live band. While the idea of experimental electronica enhanced by heart-rending pedal steel guitar may seem incongruous, the sound is wholly unified. The band definitely owe a debt to Minnesotans Low, whose recent Drums and Guns brought loops and drum machines into the mix, but Birds & Batteries eschew the traumatized depths the Duluth trio aim for, instead aiming for uptempo grooves like the horn-led, Stereolab-reminiscent "Turnstyles."

Birds & Batteries have multiple shows scheduled over the next month on the West Coast. Grab three mp3s of tracks from I'll Never Sleep Again via their website:
- Birds & Batteries – "Ocarina"
- Birds & Batteries – "Star Clusters"
- Birds & Batteries – "Turnstyles"

Google Reveals Everything Important About America

| Thu Aug. 9, 2007 2:45 PM PDT

For the first time since February, Google has updated its Google Trends database, allowing me to give you an up-to-date look at our nation's most important issues--or at least its most important internet searches, which we all know is the same thing.

War

Iraq: blue / Star Wars: yellow / Halo: red / World of Warcraft: green

Iraq-Google-Trends.gif

When it comes to war, this easily generated chart shows fantasy war has been a more popular Google search this year than real war, except in late April and early May when the "Iraq" search term (blue) claimed fleeting victory over "Star Wars," "Halo" and "World of Warcraft." My guess is that kids were kicking the video game habit for a moment while researching end-of-semester term papers on foreign affairs disasters. If you run the search yourself and look at the localized stats, you'll see that the only cities where "Iraq" won were Washington, DC (of course) and Columbus, Ohio. Will somebody from Columbus explain? On the other end of the scale, Salt Lake City dominated each fictional war category. But then, I'm not sure Salt Lakers consider Star Wars to be fiction. (Mormons believe Native Americans descended from the 12 tribes of Israel, and before that, Jedi Masters). Anyway, combining all three fantasy wars leaves Iraq totally dominated. As for other real wars, the "Global War on Terror" doesn't even rank, but I'm not sure that bothers me seeing how GWOT is only slightly less fictional than World of Warcraft.

Climate Change

Global Warming: blue / Hummer: red / Air Conditioning: yellow / Al Gore: green

Global-Warming-Google-Trend.gif

As of late July, after dominating the field for months, "global warming" has fought "Hummer" to a bitter draw. Meanwhile, "air conditioning" was lying in wait during the cool spring months, only to crank up in May and blow past "global warming" in June in a cloud of CO2 emissions from dirty coal plants in the sweltering South. "Al Gore" came to the rescue when he announced a surprise Live Earth concert on July 7th, but within a week he had dropped to the bottom of the pack. (Al: We need more concerts. Can you play tambourine on a tour with Willie?)

The Presidential Election

Hillary Clinton: light blue / Barack Obama: red / Rudy Giuliani: green / Fred Thompson: yellow / Ron Paul: dark blue

Candidate-Google-Trends.gif

The internet has spoken: Ron Paul will be the next president. Everyone else might as well pack up and go home, because this 71-year-old libertarian from Lake Jackson, Texas is on fire with the power of bored IT workers Googling him on lunchbreak. And Digging him, and searching for him on Technorati, and demanding him on Eventful and befriending him on MySpace and pumping him on Meetup and submitting more questions to him than any other candidate during his rockstar appearance in Silicon Valley at Google Talks. Pretty much anywhere you look in cyberspace, he's kicking ass. Nevermind that he wants to abolish the IRS, the Department of Ed and the EPA. They're already irrelevant. . .

The Role of Government

Government: blue / Google: red

Government-Google-Trends.gif

This is why Silicon Valley rules America.

People Picks up on Hypermiling Guru

| Thu Aug. 9, 2007 2:23 PM PDT

The just-released August 13, 2007, edition of People magazine features stories on Star Jones' weight loss, Britney Spears' custody battle, and ... hypermiling?

To learn more on how People covers fuel efficiency, continue reading this post on MoJoBlog.

Chart Beat: Billboard Top Ten Albums

| Thu Aug. 9, 2007 2:11 PM PDT

mojo-photo-common.jpg

Do you ever glance at the Top Ten and go, "what the hell is all that crap?" Not my Top Ten, that's the reaction you're supposed to have to that one. The actual Top Ten. Well, me too. Together we can figure it out.

1. Common - Finding Forever
Hey, good for Common: his first #1. The rapper's last album, the slightly superior Be, sold more its first week (185,000 to Forever's 150,000), but only hit #2. One side benefit of the music sales slowdown: it's easier to climb the charts!

2. Korn - Untitled
Who's even in Korn any more? One guy found Jesus and left, the drummer's "taking a break." Are they still spelling their name with a backwards "R"? Because that's awesome.

3. Various Artists - Now 25
This comp features "Buy U a Drank," "Thnks Fr Th Mmrs," and "U + Ur Hand." Whs byng ths sht?

4. Soundtrack - Hairspray
People say it's good (it's still #3 at the box office), but whatever. If nobody stands in a playpen filled with fish and shouts "Who wants to die for art," I'm not interested.

5. Miley Cyrus - Hannah Montana 2
I had to look this up: it's a Disney Channel show about a teenage girl who has a "secret life" as a famous pop star. You know, when I was 13, I was listening to Laurie Anderson. Kids these days…

6. Sean Kingston - S/T
Here's something. Kingston's 17 years old, his single "Beautiful Girls" is the syrupy, quasi-reggae one that samples "Stand By Me," and it's currently our #1 song, possibly helped out by Billboard's recent addition of streaming statistics to the chart methodology.

7. Kidz Bop Kids - Kidz Bop 12
This edition of the sing-along series includes screamy versions of "Umbrella" and "The Sweet Escape," but nothing as awesome as their version of Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" from #8.

8. T.I. - T.I. vs. T.I.P.
The fair-to-middling "concept album" (it's a battle between two parts of himself, see) from the Southern rapper slips from #5 this week. I put "You Know What It Is" in a Riff Top Ten in July, and I stand by that, but the rest of the album's kind of dull.

9. Fergie - The Duchess
While I'll admit to kind of enjoying the retro-freestyle beats of "Fergalicious," nothing else about this deserves any attention whatsoever.

10. Linkin Park - Minutes to Midnight
Did anybody else find "What I've Done" a really incongruous track to accompany the "Transformers" commercials? Like, the only way the lyrics make sense conceptually is if you think of Megatron singing it, filled with regret about the destruction he has wrought. And I don't think that's what they had in mind.

People Picks up on Hypermiling Guru

| Thu Aug. 9, 2007 1:21 PM PDT

hypermilers100x120.jpgThe just-released August 13, 2007, edition of People magazine features stories on Star Jones' weight loss, Britney Spears' custody battle, and ... hypermiling? That's right, People has exactly 1 page covering the slightly wacky, fuel-effecient style of driving of Wayne Gerdes, the obsessive hybrid owner we featured in the magazine earlier this year.

Gerdes, the "king" of hypermiling, who glides his way toward 100 mpg in an ordinary Honda Accord, shares tips on how to use big rigs to reduce air resistance, and how to slow down without braking, in our article, but with People, readers learn about fuel-efficiency obsession on one page and the summer's hottest strapless dresses on the next. What would we do without People?

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British to U.S. Forces in Afghanistan: Get Out

| Thu Aug. 9, 2007 1:01 PM PDT

Guess who British forces in southern Afghanistan see as creating an intolerably high number of civilian casualties? If you guessed the Taliban, you're wrong. If you guessed the Americans, you've been paying attention for the last four years. Are we really making things worse, not better, in both halves of our Middle Eastern misadventure?

From the New York Times:

A senior British commander in southern Afghanistan said in recent weeks that he had asked that American Special Forces leave his area of operations because the high level of civilian casualties they had caused was making it difficult to win over local people.

The Times tells the story of an Afghani man whose village lost 20 people in an American airstrike launched after Taliban fighters passed through. Six of the dead were family members; the living did not fare much better.

His son, Bashir Ahmed, 2, listless and stick thin, seemed close to death. The boy and his sister Muzlifa, 7, bore terrible shrapnel scars. NATO doctors had removed shrapnel from the boy's abdomen at the time of the raid and had warned his father that he might not survive, but two months later he was still hanging on.... His wife lost an arm, and the children's grandmother was killed, he said.
...He said that he opposed the Taliban, but that after the bombing raid the villagers were so angered that most of the men who survived went off to join the insurgents.

So American airstrikes are driving civilians into the arms of the Taliban. And what can the British forces on the ground use to make survivors forget their grief and not turn against the westerners? A few measly bucks.

Maj. Dominic Biddick, commander of a company of British soldiers in Sangin, is making a big effort to ease the anger and pain as his men patrol the villages. He has a $5,000 good-will fund and hands out cash to victims he comes across, like the farmer whose two sons were shot in the fields during a recent operation.

The magnitude of that insult is unimaginable. The dishonor and the disgust a father must feel when offered cash (in some amount under $5,000, no less) to compensate for the loss of two sons — that's truly brutal.

The total number of civilians dead in the region of Helmand this year has been estimated at 300, "the vast majority of them caused by foreign and Afghan forces, rather than the Taliban," according to the Times.

El Paso Opens Largest Inland Desalination Plant

| Thu Aug. 9, 2007 11:20 AM PDT

Yesterday El Paso marked the opening of what will be the world's largest inland desalination plant, a project 15 years in the making that will aim to provide water for the nearly million residents of the area for the next 50 years.

Most desalination outfits are in coastal areas, for obvious reasons. This one will pull water from an aquifer of brackish water yet untapped hundreds of feet underground. The project costs a cool $87 million and will require multiple wells and several dozen miles of pipeline to connect the aquifer to the plant. Backers hope the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant will serve as a model for inland cities and water supply.

The driving force behind this project—and the reason Texas was able to secure $27 million in federal funding—is the expansion of Fort Bliss, the city's Army base, which is set to grow by more than 20,000 troops by 2011. Fort Bliss is already the second largest military installation in the country (next to neighboring White Sands Missile Range), covering an area roughly the size of Rhode Island.

Reminiscing the Cold War Over Guam

| Thu Aug. 9, 2007 11:13 AM PDT

According to news reports (here and here), two Russian Tu-95MS bombers flew to Guam yesterday, where Russian Major General Pavel Androsov said they "exchanged smiles" with the U.S. fighter pilots who scrambled to meet them. "It has always been the tradition of our long-range aviation to fly far into the ocean, to meet [U.S.] aircraft carriers and greet [U.S. pilots] visually," Androsov told reporters today at a news conference. "Yesterday we revived this tradition, and two of our young crews paid a visit to the area of the base of Guam."

Such long-haul (and politically charged) flights were common during the Cold War, but were suspended after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin, flush with oil money, has apparently ordered the flights to resume as part of a push to reinvigorate the Russian armed forces. Yesterday's sortie began at a Russian airbase near Blagoveshchensk in the Far East and flew a 13-hour round trip to Guam. According to Reuters:

President Vladimir Putin has sought to make Russia more assertive in the world. Putin has boosted defense spending and sought to raise morale in the armed forces, which were starved of funding following the fall of the Soviet Union...
Ivan Safranchuk, Moscow office director of the Washington-based World Security Institute, said he saw nothing extraordinary in Moscow sending its bombers around the globe.
"This practice as such never stopped, it was only scaled down because there was less cash available for that," he said.
"It doesn't cost much to flex your muscles ... You can burn fuel flying over your own land or you can do it flying somewhere like Guam, in which case political dividends will be higher."
The bombers give Russia the capability of launching a devastating nuclear strike even if the nuclear arsenals on its own territory are wiped out.

Newspapers 'Pay It Forward'

| Thu Aug. 9, 2007 10:41 AM PDT

Minneapolis has been on the minds of many since the devastating events of last week. But being on people's minds wasn't enough for some; one newspaper took it a step further. To hear more about the benevolence of the media industry, continue reading this post on our arts and culture blog, The Riff.