2007 - %3, August

Some Good News for "Dollar Bill" Jefferson

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 1:02 PM EDT

Today, "Dollar Bill" Jefferson received the first bit of good news he's had in some time, at least since August 2005, when the FBI descended on the Louisiana congressman's home and turned up $90,000 in alleged bribe money stashed in his freezer. A federal appeals court ruled today that the bureau's subsequent raid of the lawmaker's congressional office in May 2006, an unprecedented move which sparked outcry from Jefferson's colleagues on both sides of the aisle, was unconstitutional and infringed on the independence of Congress. ''The review of the Congressman's paper files when the search was executed exposed legislative material to the Executive,'' the court ruled. ''The Congressman is entitled to the return of documents that the court determines to be privileged.'' Jefferson's not out of the woods yet. Far from it. According to the Justice Department, it didn't rely on the documents in question when making its case against Jefferson, who was indicted on 16 counts in June.

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The New Bosses Congregate at YearlyKos

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 12:17 PM EDT

I'm sitting in a YearlyKos panel called "Evolution and Integration of the Blogosphere." The panelists are the blogosphere's heavy hitters: Matt Stoller and Chris Bowers, now of OpenLeft, formerly of MyDD; Duncan Black of Atrios; Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon and the John Edwards controversy; Ali Savino, co-founder and Program Director of the Center for Independent Media; and Amanda Terkel of Think Progress. Basically, all the folks we quasi-attacked in Dan Schulman's piece entitled "Meet the New Bosses."

Bowers, moderating the panel, begins by describing the entrenched nature of the top of the blogosphere: the most-viewed 50 progressive blogs have remained constant the last two years and hot new bloggers are just becoming diarists or contributors to these blogs. And, lest we here at MoJoBlog forget it, those 50 blogs get 95 percent of the blogosphere's traffic.

Some panelists reject the idea of a blogosphere establishment, even in the face of Bowers' facts, but Stoller makes the only legitimate point: the growth of the blogosphere may have occurred a few years back because the Bush Administration was so nasty and the mainstream press was so unwilling to expose the truth. There was a space for blogs. But now the press is critical of the administration and there is slightly less need for blogs. I'll consider that. Savino, perhaps more willing to accept Bowers' point than the rest, points out new bloggers' best hope: local blogs and niche blogs.

In my mind, the facts are irrefutable: the blogosphere isn't really the wild frontier with thousands of disparate voices that some people think it is. It has its own hierarchy, and even those who advocate opening up the voices in American democracy are content to perpetuate that hierarchy if they are at the top of it.

Man, I am never going to get on Townhouse.

Iran Launches English-Language News Channel

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 11:09 AM EDT

If you prefer that your news come from the mullahs in Tehran, try Press TV. The channel is funded by the Iranian government, but claims it will operate without interference from the state. Press TV's "vision," as spelled out on its website:

1- To break the global media stranglehold of western outlets.
2- To bridge cultural divisions pragmatically.
3- To highlight the versatility and vitality of political and cultural differences, making up the human condition.

What's Up With Nouri al-Maliki?

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 11:02 AM EDT

If you're wondering why the Iraqis haven't met those pesky benchmarks, today's Washington Post provides an explainer. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hails from Iraq's Dawa party, a secretive Shiite organization that was forged in opposition to Saddam's regime. It is tight-knit and suspicious of outsiders, even (and perhaps most especially) those belonging to competing Shiite political groups. According to the Post:

Maliki, observers say, is trying to compensate for his party's frail position against his Shiite rivals. Unlike influential Shiite clerics Moqtada al-Sadr or Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Dawa party controls no militia and has a small grass-roots following today.
"He's trying to strengthen the Dawa party at the risk of marginalizing other political groups," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political analyst.

And divisions among Shiites pale in comparison to the chasm that has developed between them and the Sunnis. Much has been made of the recent American effort to enlist Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar Province and elsewhere to assist in the fight against foreign al Qaeda fighters. The strategy appears to be working (at least for now), but the Post article notes that it is also fueling Shiite paranoia:

Maliki and his advisers are already mistrustful of new U.S. alliances with Sunni insurgents and tribal leaders who have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Where the Bush administration sees a success story, Maliki and other Shiites worry that the United States is empowering groups still determined to overthrow their government.

It does make you wonder... If we arm, equip, and train Sunni tribesmen to fight al Qaeda and organize Sunni "neighborhood watches" to help protect them against Shiite death squads, it might earn us their short-term appreciation and deter them from attacking U.S. troops. Then again, it might fuel the civil war that many people believe will follow our departure from Iraq. This is surely not lost on American planners. General Petraeus recognized the risk, telling a reporter: "You have to make sure that the neighborhood watch doesn't end up watching someone else's neighborhood." Good luck.

Democrats' Ground Game for 2008 Revealed at YearlyKos

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 12:35 AM EDT

Earlier today at YearlyKos, the Democratic Party's plan for winning the 2008 ground game was presented to interested activists, bloggers, and members of the media by the DNC's new political director, David Boundy.

The Democrats' number one priority is to "organize everywhere," an unsurprising fact to anyone familiar with DNC Chairman Howard Dean's 50 State Strategy. The second priority is to "count everything," which means that any get-out-the-vote (GOTV) tactic from this point forward must be measurable. Boundy asked how many people in the room had held up signs on a freeway. Several attendees raised their hands. "How many votes do you think you got from that?" he asked. No one answered, some laughed nervously. "We're not doing that anymore."

Boundy claimed that local activists constantly approach him with new widgets that improve canvassing or direct mailing. He responds to them, "How do you know?" "Well," they say, "we used it in my state and we won three state senate seats." But if the local organizer can't prove quantitatively that his or her widget was responsible for victory, Boundy isn't interested in working with them. "If I don't know how I'm going to gain votes from what you are doing, I'm not going to do it," he said. "You can work with someone else. Hopefully the Republican Party."

If the party/D.C./establishment arrogance inherent in any of this rubbed the people in the room the wrong way—they were, after all, local activists, who probably thought they were helping the party by developing new tools in the absence of institutional support—it was washed away by the sense that the Democrats are finally getting their act together and developing a GOTV machine that rivals Karl Rove and the Republicans.

Building that machine anew—and Boundy admits it is a work in progress—instead of using a holdover from 2000 or 2004 likely has serious advantages because the rules have changed since even a few years ago. Cable and TiVo have reduced the importance of television advertising, satellite radio and mp3 players have lessened the impact of radio ads, and caller ID and cell phones have damaged the power of robocalls, push polls, and other forms of direct phoning. (The cell-only generation is a factor here: 15 percent of Americans don't have landlines; in the mid-30s-and-lower age demographic, that number raises to 40 percent.)

Retrofitting Two-Stroke Engines Good For Everyone

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 10:47 PM EDT

An independent nonprofit out of Colorado has developed and disseminated a retrofit kit designed to reduce emissions from the ubiquitous two-stroke motorcycle taxis in the Philippines. A single motorcycle taxi with a traditional two-stroke engine emits as much pollution as 50 modern automobiles, and the Asian Development Bank estimates 100 million two-stroke vehicles ply the roads in Southeast Asia &mdash that's right, the equivalent of 5 billion cars. The Worldwatch Institute reports that Envirofit has won a World Clean Energy Award for developing and disseminating a retrofit kit, originally designed for snowmobiles. In the retrofit, the carburetor is eliminated and fuel is introduced directly into the engine cylinder, so less unburned fuel is wasted. The typical Filipino taxi driver makes only $3–5 per day, and the kits pay for themselves in fuel savings within 10 months. Envirofit hopes to expand its engine retrofit program to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and India, where demonstrations of the product will take place this year.

Now, can we just do away with jetskis, the most hateful of all the 2-stroke blights? According to the EPA, older jetskis (still prevalent around the world) cause more nonpoint source pollution (translation: runoff) in two hours than a car running for an entire year. Truly fun for the feeble-minded. JULIA WHITTY

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Minneapolis Residents Look for Answers

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 10:00 PM EDT

Minneapolis was my home for four years, as it was for many of us who just graduated from the University of Minnesota this May. Some of us have moved away, but wherever this community resides now, we share something in common. We're worried about Minneapolis. I used to cross the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed last night every week and never once gave the safety of the bridge a second thought. It's a big, sturdy bridge. I didn't think there was anything to worry about.

But I guess I was wrong. I read that the bridge collapsed minutes after it happened and immediately sent text messages to two of my best friends who still live in the area. Thankfully they were safe; one had actually yet to hear about the disaster. I was not alone in this panic. Minneapolis friends and families flooded house and cell phone lines so much that area phone numbers reportedly weren't working. Some, like me, were able to connect with people but the not-so-lucky ones are still painfully waiting for a snippet of any news at all.

Today, divers searched through submerged debris, citizens poured over news reports, and officials made plans to investigate similar bridges in the area. Police are planning to put the bridge back together, as if made of puzzle pieces, to determine what caused the collapse. Bush has made $5 million available to the city to remove debris and organize traffic and is planning on visiting the site Saturday. And, in the meantime, people want answers, and they're not getting them.

But there are some places where people can start to look for answers. My former student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily is providing up-to-date news, photos, videos, and commentary on the developing situation. I highly encourage you to turn to some of the most thorough and comprehensive coverage available right now, coming from whom some consider to be unlikely candidates: students.

—Anna Weggel

Judge Halts Logging For Spotted Owl

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 9:39 PM EDT

The Environmental News Network reports on a federal judge issuing a preliminary injunction against Weyerhaeuser's logging in Spotted Owl habitat on private land in Washington. That's good news for owls. But U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman declined to grant another Seattle Audubon Society request to keep the state of Washington from granting permits to log in Spotted Owl habitat. Even so, Kenan Block, a spokesman for the Washington Forest Law Center, said Pechman's decision "really shows the Endangered Species Act still has some teeth in it." . . . Well, not if Bush and Cheney get their way.

The owl was listed as threatened in 1990 primarily because of heavy logging in the old growth forests where it nests and feeds. Today, it also faces a new threat from a cousin, the Barred Owl &mdash once an inhabitant of the Great Plains, now expanding its range westward due to a variety of human factors, including fire suppression in boreal forests, and the planting of shelterbelts in the northern Great Plains. . . Does Judge Pechman take that bigger picture into consideration when she weighs the fate of a species? JULIA WHITTY

People Powered Farms?

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 9:04 PM EDT

Two grad students from MIT want to harvest the energy of human movement in urban settings. The so-called "Crowd Farm" would turn the mechanical energy of people walking or jumping into a source of electricity. James Graham and Thaddeus Jusczyk of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning say a Crowd Farm in Boston's South Station railway terminal would work like this: A responsive sub-flooring system made up of blocks that depress slightly under the force of human steps would be installed beneath the station's main lobby. The slippage of the blocks against one another as people walked would generate power through the principle of the dynamo, which converts the energy of motion into an electric current. They point out that although a single human step can only power two 60W light bulbs for one flickering second, a crowd in motion, with 28,527 steps, for example, could make enough energy to power a moving train for one second. The pair tested a prototype stool at the Venice Biennale and in a train station in Torino, Italy, which exploited the passive act of sitting to generate power. The weight of a human body spun a flywheel, which powered a dynamo that lit four LEDs. "People tended to be delighted by sitting on the stool and would get up and down repeatedly," said Graham.

Glad to see innovation coming from new, even unexpected, fields. Just shows how many human brains are turning to solving these issues. Sometimes hope abounds. JULIA WHITTY

Chiquita Secrets Unpeeled

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 7:31 PM EDT

Front-page stories in today's Washington Post and Wall Street Journal detail the latest news from the a Justice Department probe into Chiquita's dealings with Colombian paramilitaries. According to the Post:

On April 24, 2003, a board member of Chiquita International Brands disclosed to a top official at the Justice Department that the king of the banana trade was evidently breaking the nation's anti-terrorism laws.
Roderick M. Hills, who had sought the meeting with former law firm colleague Michael Chertoff, explained that Chiquita was paying "protection money" to a Colombian paramilitary group on the U.S. government's list of terrorist organizations. Hills said he knew that such payments were illegal, according to sources and court records, but said that he needed Chertoff's advice.
Chiquita, Hills said, would have to pull out of the country if it could not continue to pay the violent right-wing group to secure its Colombian banana plantations. Chertoff, then assistant attorney general and now secretary of homeland security, affirmed that the payments were illegal but said to wait for more feedback, according to five sources familiar with the meeting...
Sources close to Chiquita say that Chertoff never did get back to the company or its lawyers. Neither did Larry D. Thompson, the deputy attorney general, whom Chiquita officials sought out after Chertoff left his job for a federal judgeship in June 2003. And Chiquita kept making payments for nearly another year.