2007 - %3, December

Don't Trifle with the Truffle: A Lost Opportunity for the Art World

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 5:37 PM PST

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A gigantic 3.3 pound white truffle mushroom was unearthed in the hills nearby Pisa, Italy last month and sold at auction for $340,000 this past weekend. Art star Damien Hirst and his fellow bidder Sheikh Mansoor Bin Zayed al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi were defeated by Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho, who thus deprived the art world of another potential Hirst blockbuster. We may never know which of his regular tricks the world's most expensive living artist would have employed to transform a humble mushroom into an art object worth more than its weight in gold. Would he have suspended the fungus in formaldehyde or encrusted the dug-up edible with diamonds? Perhaps the exceptional Tuber magnatum would have inspired him to produce some more really detailed paintings. Most importantly, would this project-in-the-making have surpassed his previous $100 million price tag? Somewhere in Russia, a billionaire collector mourns the loss.

—Cassie McGettigan

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Your Electric Car as a Battery in the Grid

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 5:02 PM PST

Paul%27s%20Civic%20-%20smaller.jpg Electric and hybrid cars could act as energy stores for the power grid when not being driven. New Scientist reports that researchers from the University of Delaware are using a new prototype by AC Propulsion to store or supply grid electricity (Washington DC got a first dose in October). If hundreds or thousands of owners opt into the system, the efficiency of power distribution could improve. A lot. The average US car is driven one out of every 24 hours. Combustion-powered cars are useless off the road. But plug-ins could act as backups to the grid while idle.

 

"Storage is golden for power companies because it is hard to do," [Willet] Kempton told New Scientist, who notes that the cost of storing excess electricity means that there is only capacity for around 1% of yield in the US and UK. Storage is particularly important for renewable energy because power supplied by the Sun, the oceans, or the wind, is often irregular.

 

Each plug-in can provide $4,000 of storage to an energy company per year, at a cost of $600 to install the high-power connection system. Energy companies need to pass on some of their savings to encourage drivers to help out, says Kempton… Hmm. Technology might be the easy part.

Fuel Cell Cleans Pollution and Makes Electricity

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 4:27 PM PST

071203120753.jpg Pennsylvania State University environmental engineers have developed a fuel cell that uses pollution from coal and metal mines to generate electricity. Bruce E. Logan and colleagues describe successful tests of a lab-scale fuel cell based on microbial fuel cells capable of generating electricity from wastewater. Their device removes dissolved iron from solution while generating electricity at power levels similar to conventional microbial fuel cells (the recovered iron can be used in paints or other products). Better yet, the researchers say, later generations of these cells will lead to more efficient power generation in the future.

Engineers may save us yet.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

An Inside Glimpse at Gitmo Gets Leaked

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 4:10 PM PST

Wikileaks, the wiki for whistleblowers, has been bearing fruit lately. It's posted a list of military equipment in Iraq, which we used to calculate how many pieces of government-issue body armor (446,500), grand pianos (1), paper shredders (787), and BMW 735s (1) the Pentagon has over there. The site has also released a copy of the military's official guide to handling detainees, which includes detailed descriptions of how groups of detainees have been transported by plane, providing a new glimpse inside the flights that carried many of the Guantanamo prisoners from Afghanistan and generated the now-iconic images of shackled, goggled, masked, earmuffed, and gloved new arrivals at Camp X-Ray. The schematic below shows a sample seating configuration for 30 such detainees, AKA "cargo." (To insure a more pleasant flight, guards were supposed to receive one hour of training in "Cross Cultural Communications/Verbal Judo.")

Now Wikileaks has posted a copy of the 2004 Standard Operating Procedures guide from Guantanamo's Camp Delta, a treasure trove of information about the detention center's inner workings. Among the details: Upon arrival, detainees were subject to up to 30 days in solitary as part of a "behavior management plan" designed "to enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process." Guards were prohibited from discussing "world events or history with detainees, or within earshot of detainees," including "the situation in the Middle East [and] the destruction of the Space Shuttle." Detainees who refused to eat or drink weren't on a hunger strike, they were officially on a "voluntary total fast." Wikileaks' own analysis of the document and its 2003 version suggests that new rules were added in response to abuses. For instance, the 2004 manual specifies that "Haircuts will never be used as punitive action" and prohibits guards from using pepper spray on "spitters, urinators or water throwers." And so on, for 238 pages. It's fascinating, revelatory reading, and deserves further scrutiny. Meanwhile, a Gitmo spokesman tells the Washington Post not to take the manual at its word because "things have changed dramatically" there since 2004. Until a more current manual turns up, this one will have to do.

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New Info on Dirty Tricks Alleged by Clinton Campaign

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 1:26 PM PST

Earlier today, Barack Obama's campaign called accusations that its staffers are berating Hillary Clinton supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire a "flat-out falsehood."

The Clinton campaign supplied Josh Marshall with a woman who claims to have received such a call. Here's what she had to say:

Oprah and Obama: The Ultimate Power Couple?

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 1:26 PM PST

Looks that way. From the New York Times:

BACK in 1992, the Bush White House deemed Oprah Winfrey's daytime talk show insufficiently serious for the incumbent president to visit. But in the intervening years, Ms. Winfrey's couch, along with the easy chairs on other chat shows, became so attractive to candidates that the political world is now wondering whether Ms. Winfrey might actually hold the Democratic nomination in her hands.

Judging from her fans' response, she'll pack much more of a punch than Donnie McClurkin's homophobe-fest for Obama, with none of that annoying bigotry. CNN reports that:

The Obama campaign wants this to be a huge event: The rally will take place at the Colonial Center, an arena here that seats 18,000 people. Oprah and/or Obama fans were camping out in sleeping bags outside Obama headquarters in Columbia on Saturday morning, waiting for tickets.
Assuming every ticket-holder shows up, there will be more people at the arena for a political rally than for an average University of South Carolina basketball game, which aren't usually sell-outs.

There's little question that the sleeping-bag-and standing-room-only crowd will be there to see their goddess but is she using her powers for good this time? I'd have to say yes, even if her fans only show up, and only bother to vote, because of her. The more people vote, the more they vote. Even if you do so only because the most popular girl on campus told you to, hitting either the polls or a political rally (which ain't for the faint of heart) once makes it so much more likely that you will again. Who knows how many women will come for the star power and come away politicized?

If the other candidates can't convince someone with Oprah's moral authority (and, yes, that's what it is), that's on them. Say what you will about Winfrey, she knows exactly how powerful she is and there's just no reason to believe she doesn't take that power seriously. Agree with her choice or not but be glad she cares enough to take a break from housewife makeovers to work for change in her country and in the world. It's because, in fact, she first bothered with the housewives -- a group who else bothered with? -- that ordinary women listen to her now. Women trust her because she spent years proving that they matter to her. Why should they listen to their ministers, husbands or CNN any more seriously than the girlfriend who bothers to help them find exercise short cuts or pick out good books to read while they wait out another ballet class or pediatrician appointment?

So, bravo for Oprah. And here's a warning for Obama: remember what she did when James Frey and someone at her leadership Academy disappointed her? She'll do it to you too, so you better come, and stay, correct. Oprah knows the power of admitting to your mistakes and requiring those around you to do so as well.

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Requiem for Swiss Skiing

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 12:19 PM PST

While the New York Times reports on the threat posed to luxurious Swiss ski resorts as a result of global warming, one fan of the indie band HEALTH has produced an unofficial video that sounds the alarm on another potential casualty of a suddenly sultry Switzerland: the heroic ski jumper.

To view the video, take a look at this post on our environment and health blog, The Blue Marble.

—Cassie McGettigan

Bush and the Iran NIE: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 12:01 PM PST

George W. Bush has some adjustments to make.

At a news conference on October 17, President George W. Bush dropped a rhetorical bomb: "I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them (Iran) from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

Now that bomb has turned into a rotten egg, for the U.S. intelligence community yesterday released a National Intelligence Estimate that concludes that Iran halted a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003, that Tehran is "less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005," and that Iran probably could not produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon until the 2010-2015 timeframe. That is, it seems there is no immediate reason to fret about Iran going nuclear and triggering World War III. This NIE may well make it impossible for hawks in and outside the administration to pull the trigger on any military action against Iran.

At a press conference this morning, Bush, looking comfortable, tried to deal with this new reality. He repeated a mantra: Iran was dangerous before the new NIE, and it's dangerous now. Nothing has changed, he insisted. He said over and over that if Iran transferred knowledge it has about enriching uranium to a "hidden" nuclear weapons program, that would pose a danger to the rest of the world. If. He was pressed by White House reporters asking whether his credibility--whatever existed of it following the Iraq WMD fiasco--was tarnished by the NIE? Of course, he refused to concede any such thing.

The issue is not just that his saber-rattling was not in sync with the intelligence but that Bush did not take care to vet his hyperbole before displaying it in public. At the press conference today, NBC News' David Gregory referred to Bush's World War III comment, noted that the Iranian program had apparently long been suspended before Bush uttered that remark, and asked Bush, "Can't you be accused of hyping this threat."

Bush replied by noting he had only been made aware of the NIE last week. But Bush went on to explain that intelligence czar Mike McConnell had told him in August that the intelligence community had developed "new information" on Iran. (This was obviously intelligence indicating that Iran was not operating an active nuclear weapons program.) McConnell, though, didn't tell Bush what this "new information" was. According to Bush, McConnell said it would take time to analyze the data.

But Bush did not do two things.

Divorce is Bad for the Planet

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 11:44 AM PST

"Oh, I wish that we could stop this D-I-V-O-R-C-E." Mother Nature probably agrees with Tammy Wynette. According to a recent Michigan State University study, divorce is taking a major toll on the environment.

Some of the findings:

* In the United States alone in 2005, divorced households used 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water that could have been saved had household size remained the same as that of married households. Thirty-eight million extra rooms were needed with associated costs for heating and lighting.

* In the United States and 11 other countries such as Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Greece, Mexico and South Africa between 1998 and 2002, if divorced households had combined to have the same average household size as married households, there could have been 7.4 million fewer households in these countries.

* The numbers of divorced households in these countries ranged from 40,000 in Costa Rica to almost 16 million in the United States around 2000.

* The number of rooms per person in divorced households was 33 percent to 95 percent greater than in married households.

But the researchers also point out that divorce is just part of the picture: In the U.S., multigenerational households have become less common over the past few decades. What's more, single people are putting off getting married, and hence living alone for longer. Seems like the only bright side about sky-high rent, then, is that it might actually make some cities greener (since fewer people can afford to live alone).

Huck Says No More Gitmo

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 11:39 AM PST

Mike Huckabee recently met with a group of generals who are touring Iowa in the hopes of convincing presidential candidates to oppose torture. He left the meeting with a couple bold new positions. Huckabee now opposes waterboarding and supports shuttering Guantanamo, joining only John McCain and Ron Paul amongst the Republican candidates to hold these positions.

Maybe the guy is a member of the Christian left. He may not have the best foreign policy chops in the world, but his instincts are good. Would we welcome him even though he's never had a sip of beer?