2008 - %3, July

High Gas Prices Save Lives

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 10:31 AM PDT

One happy upside to the $4 gallon of gas: traffic deaths have plummeted. The National Safety Council finds that in some states, deaths from traffic accidents have declined by as much as 20 percent this year compared with the same period last year. Indiana, which has seen a 26 percent decline, may hit the lowest number of traffic deaths in 18 years. The country hasn't seen such a precipitous fall in traffic deaths since the Arab oil embargo in 1973. The AP reports on speculation that people are simply driving less, thus fewer accidents, but also that high gas prices and a sour economy might be keeping drunks at home rather out on the roads.

One possible contributor they don't mention is Americans' mass abandonment of the SUV, which has been responsible for a disproportionate number of highway deaths both from rollovers and also from squashing other smaller cars that might survive an accident with a sedan. Now, if Congress would follow Sen. John Warner's advice and lower the speed limit, the nation might see a massive reduction in highway carnage that would even make Ralph Nader proud!

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The World's Five Worst Policy Advisors

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 9:50 AM PDT

Foreign Policy helpfully compiles a top five list of the world's worst policy advisors. Making the cut is the former vice premier of Taiwan, Chiou I-Jen, who "in an effort get Papua New Guinea to recognize Taiwan...recommended the allocation of $30 million to two men whom he believed had influence over officials in Papua New Guinea." Cash in hand, the men and the money promptly disappeared; Chiou promptly resigned in disgrace. Also singled out is South Africa's health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who in 2006 told an international AIDS conference that the disease could be treated using lemon, beet root, and garlic.

Last but not least on the list is a former US official, Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's onetime undersecretary of defense policy, whose foreign policy intellect General Tommy Franks once had some choice words for. (His opinion was apparently seconded by Colin Powell's former chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson.)

Recession Be Damned: Rich Still Getting Richer

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 7:34 AM PDT

The Wall Street Journal reports today on new IRS data showing that in 2006, the richest 1 percent of Americans claimed the largest share of the nation's adjusted gross income in 20 years. The level is so high that the IRS suspects it might be the highest it's been since the onset of the Depression. Naturally, as their income goes up, rich people's taxes are also going down. The tax rate for the richest 1 percent in 2006 fell to its lowest level in 18 years, in large part because of the Bush tax cuts that John McCain wants to extend.

Horse Virus Spreading to Humans

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 7:43 PM PDT

Horses.london.750pix.jpg Heads-up on new developments on a new disease. Australia's biggest outbreak yet of the highly virulent Hendra virus is underway. The disease is transmitted from fruit bats to horses and from horses to humans.

It was identified in 1994—the last year there was a major outbreak. One human trainer and 14 horses died then, reports the Sydney Morning Herald. A second infected person recovered.

Now changes in symptoms in Queensland horses are suggesting a new strain. Perhaps one capable of human-to-human transmission.

New Scientist reports that two veterinary workers became infected roughly four weeks ago and remain hospitalized. Fifty more people who may have had contact with horses will undergo a second set of tests.

So far this year at least seven horses are infected. Five have died. Thirty-six more will be tested for a second time tomorrow.

The classic symptom of Hendra virus in a horse is severely labored breathing, frothy nasal discharge and swollen muzzle. The animals often die within days.

But this year's horses are suffering from neurological symptoms, including paralysis and loss of balance.

Human symptoms include a severe flu-like illness, headache, high fever, and drowsiness, which can progress to pneumonia, convulsions, or coma.

The Hendra virus has not been identified outside of Australia. Every outbreak since the first has been successfully contained to only one horse. Between 1994 and now, one other person was infected and survived. Though, confusingly, the US Centers for Disease Control reports that two out of three human infections prior to this year were fatal.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

New Snickers Ad Encourages Drive-By Shootings of Unmanly Men

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 12:41 PM PDT

mojo-photo-snickersad.jpgVia Towleroad comes a new spot for Snickers which appears to endorse violence against the effeminate, or at least against speed-walkers. In the spot, a yellow-shorts-sporting butt-shaking speed-walker is attacked by former A-Team star Mr. T (?!) with a Snickers-shooting machine Gatling gun, for being "a disgrace to the man race." Ga-wha? The ad was created by AMV BBDO, a subsidiary of the retro-futuristically named Omnicom, which turns out to be the company also responsible for a Dodge spot and another Snickers ad that inspired claims of homophobia. Ad Age critic Bob Garfield has written an open letter to Omnicom calling the spots "simply sick."

I've been a vocal proponent of everybody chilling out over fictional portrayals of LGBT people and the gender non-conformist, but this is appalling, and also completely unfunny: making fun of racewalkers is so, like, 1993. Watch the offending ad after the jump. What do you think, Riffers, does it make you feel like "getting some nuts" and having a Snickers?

Yearning for Better Coverage of Polygamists

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 12:30 PM PDT

yfz200.jpgToday the New York Times teased a Sunday magazine feature on the young women of the the Yearning for Zion Ranch—the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' (FLDS) Texas compund that was raided in April.

Times photographer Stephanie Sinclair, the teaser says, "was given rare and intimate access to some of the young women who have found themselves at the center of the often-bilious battle between the state of Texas and the F.L.D.S." The result is an eye-catching essay of 16 photographs.

Contrast is really what makes these photos work so well artistically. The juxtaposition of the pastel prairie-style dresses against a run-of-the-mill suburban ranch house lends an appealingly surreal quality, reminiscent of the uncanniness of Diane Arbus' work and the magic realism of Gregory Crewdson's. But what are those strange-looking ladies really like?

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Diverse List of Mercury Prize Nominees Revealed

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 12:02 PM PDT

mojo-photo-mercuryprizelogo.jpgHey, at least it's slightly more diverse than usual. You've got the pop-R&B of Estelle, the vintage rock of Robert Plant, the abstract dubstep of Burial and the modern jazz of Portico Quartet; throw in a little Radiohead, and that sounds to me like the list of the annual Mercury Prize nominees, an award given out to the best British or Irish album of the last 12 months. One of the judges called this a "remarkably rich year for British music," and while he may say that to all the years, it does seem like a pretty good list. Indeed, a spokesman for bookie William Hill (who puts odds on the nominees each year) said this year's odds are the "closest ever": Radiohead are first at 4/1 odds, The Last Shadow Puppets are next at 5/1, with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Elbow and Burial tied at 6/1. Of course, just like the Emmys, some great work must get inexplicably overlooked: both Portishead and M.I.A. are conspicuously absent, although Portishead won for Dummy in 1995. The full list of nominees, William Hill's odds, and a video each, after the jump.

Canadian Corporal Killed by "Roommate's Rifle" in Afghanistan, Case Goes to Court Martial

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 11:17 AM PDT

The Canadian military announced yesterday that it will press ahead with its court martial of the 22-year-old Canadian reservist who shot a fellow soldier in March 2007 at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. Corporal Matthew Wilcox has been charged with manslaughter, criminal negligence causing death, and negligently performing a military duty.

This news comes as particularly striking to Mother Jones and its readers as this incident was first widely-publicized in an article we ran last summer. Canadian doctor Kevin Patterson, also a Mother Jones contributing writer, was in Afghanistan at the time helping to triage the understaffed and overwhelmed Canadian-run surgical hospital at Kandahar Airfield. During his few months on the ground Patterson treated civilians and soldiers alike (roughly 2/3rds of the hospital's patients were Afghan civilians and Army personnel, the rest coalition soldiers) and he chronicled his experiences in a frontline diary for the magazine.

Dr. Patterson was on call the evening that Corporal Kevin Megeney, a 25-year-old reservist, was rushed to the ICU after being shot in the chest. It turned out that the the gun was "a roommate's rifle," and at press time the incident was under investigation by the Canadian military. Prior to the article's release Mother Jones sent letters to Megeney's family, informing them of the pending story and the medical detail including regarding Patterson's efforts to save the soldier.

Is Blackwater Leaving the Security Biz?

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 10:38 AM PDT

If his controversial company exits the private security business, Blackwater president Gary Jackson wants you to know exactly who's to blame: "If you could get it right," he told the AP, referring to the journalists covering Blackwater, "we might stay in the business." According to the AP, which recently visited the company's Moyock, North Carolina headquarters, Blackwater is planning to refocus its operations on aviation, logistics, and training, moving away from the security work that has earned the firm hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts since 9/11. "The experience we've had would certainly be a disincentive to any other companies that want to step in and put their entire business at risk," Erik Prince, the company's founder and CEO, told the wire service.

The company has been a magnet for controversy, the subject of negative news coverage, sustained congressional scrutiny, and activist outcry. Its shoot-first-ask-questions-later rep has at times obscured the company's better deeds, such as when Blackwater operators swooped in to Kenya to rescue three young American women who'd gotten stranded in a part of the country that had descended into violence. But while Blackwater has at times served, unfairly, as a stand-in for all the security contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan—some of them fly by night operations that you probably wouldn't want protecting your local Target—and as the Left's favorite punching bag, its bitter experience in the protection field has more often than not been of its own making.

Some Inconvenient Truths About The Olympics

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 9:06 AM PDT

2364072295_23d94372bf.jpg

The hype machine is now in high gear. You would have to live on the moon not to know: The Olympics are almost here. Prepare yourself to see world leaders dancing in the aisles at the opening ceremony—those who will be there, anyway (Am I the only one who remembers Al Gore's hypnotic gyrations in Sydney?); to listen to countless hours of platitudes about world peace; to see hours of melodramatic footage documenting the life challenges faced by individual athletes; and, of course, to enjoy some world-class sport. Also in the mix, as seems unavoidable, will be mini-documentaries about China's place in the world, the advances it's made, where it's going, etc. We'll see images of picturesque rural landscapes and cities the size of Chicago that none of us have ever heard of.

I must admit, part of me looks forward to all of this, the spectacle even more than the sports. But lost in the pageantry will be the reality that the Olympics—not just those to be held in Beijing next month, but the entire Olympic system—is not always the rosy celebration of international peace and cooperation it purports to be. A piece by Olympic scholar John Hoberman in the current issue of Foreign Policy argues that the Games "often mask human rights abuses, do little to spur political development, and lend legitimacy to unsavory governments." The article itself is available only to the magazine's subscribers, but the following press release outlines Hoberman's attempts to debunk some prevailing myths about the Olympics: