2009 - %3, October

Wall-E Saves SF From Fake Bomb

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 6:36 PM EDT

Mother Jones's San Francisco office is located right downtown, on a fairly calm street near the financial district. So when I stepped out for my lunch break today, I noticed there was an unusual amount of commotion just a few doors down. As in, three fire engines, a couple dozen police cruisers, tons of yellow tape, and three helicopters hovering above. Some of the surrounding buildings had even been evacuated, but despite this, about 50 other people stood casually on the sidewalk, snapping pictures with iPhones and Blackberries, just 100 feet away from several fully-equipped firefighters.

Curious, I wandered closer and one of the firefighters told me a suspicious looking man had been seen holding a loosely wrapped package very gingerly. The man gently placed the package into a newspaper vending box, closed it, and walked away. San Francisco is famous for its eccentrics, but just to be safe, the San Francisco Bomb Squad used a remote control to move a robot toward the package to X-ray it for any dangerous materials. About 10 minutes later, the firefighters' walkie-talkies buzzed in unison. They had been informed that nothing was found.

The three helicopters buzzed away and policemen took down the yellow tape, opening the street again. As I walked back to the office, I passed the bomb squad standing around the robot. One of them glanced at me, looking cheerful he didn’t have to deal with a real bomb, and asked if I’d like to take a picture of the hero, “Wall-E”. Naturally, I said yes. Wall-E may not be exactly DARPA material, but hey, the little guy got the street open again in 10 minutes. Maybe they should order a few of him for the TSA.

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Disabled Kids Walk With Jesus, Lefty Journos With Satan

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 6:22 PM EDT

(UPDATE: Looks like McNaughton's site is down from excessive traffic. But check out this parody version. And, as a commenter below points out, there's also a haiku contest to be had regarding the painting.)

For as little as $130, fellow Americans, you can take home a canvas reproduction of this beauty of a painting depicting your country's noble roots. "One Nation Under God" is a new piece by artist Jon McNaughton of Utah, who says he got his inspiration from a vision he received during the 2008 elections.

Front and center, the painting features Jesus Christ, creator of the heavens and earth and bearer of the US Constitution. (A few online wags have already compared the likeness to that of Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn.) At his feet on his right you have the good guys—the farmer, the Christian minister, the US Marine, the handicapped child, the black college student, the schoolteacher who vaguely resembles Sarah Palin. You also have the young white man who represents the rising generation.

On the other side—Jesus' left side—is another set of characters, including a professor holding a copy of Darwin's Origin of the Species, a politician, a lawyer counting his money, a liberal news reporter, and a Supreme Court Justice weeping over Roe v. Wade. Oh, and who could forget Satan lurking in the shadows.

Third Intifada?

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 6:02 PM EDT

The Mideast news world is abuzz with talk of a possible third intifada, with Al-Jazeera, Ha'aretz and the Guardian all quoting senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereka's accusation that "Israel is lighting matches" in Jerusalem.

After intermittent rioting, stone throwing and rubber bullets, Jordan has asked Israel to close the area around Haram al-Sharif to non-Muslims, which has been closed in the past when tensions were high. Though conditions aren't as bad as they could be, experts warn that stalled peace talks and lingering ire over January's Gaza War (complete with damning UN report) could be incubating another uprising. The timing could be better: the second, or Al-Aqsa Intifada (named for the mosque at the center of the current controversy) began nearly nine years ago to the day, and observant Jews are flocking to the nearby Western Wall for the festival of Sukkot.

Al Jazeera:

"There were Palestinian worshippers who turned up for morning prayers. They were told by the police force that anyone under the age of 50 would not be allowed through," Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros, reporting from Jerusalem, said.
"There are [at present] about 7,000 Jewish worshippers attending a prayer, a blessing at the Wailing [Western] Wall, which is just at the foot of the Haram al-Sharif.
"This is one of the three times during the year in which Jewish worshippers are told to go to Jerusalem and pray."

5 Creative Uses for: Newspaper

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 6:00 PM EDT

Support your local starving journalist! Buy a newspaper. Like Slate's recent "Buy One Anyway" video says, "I won’t even skim the headlines, but it’s good to know that a copy editor in Nebraska will have something warm to eat tonight." Right. Just imagine all the things you'll be able to do with your next newspaper, no reading required:

1. Keep veggies fresh: Use newspapers to line vegatable drawers in your refrigerator. The newspapes will absorb moisture and reduce smells.

2. Dry your shoes: Crumple up newspapers and place inside wet shoes or boots to help soak up excess moisture.

3. Clean up an oil spill: Use newspaper to clean up a small oil (or gas) spill on the floor of your garage. Newspapers are absorbent and will reduce the chance of a permanent stain on your garage floor.

4. Ripen tomatoes: Works like a paper bag. Wrap the fruits individually in a few sheets of newspaper. Be sure to thoroughly wash before eating.

5. Iron clothes: Stack newspapers, slip into pillowcase, and make surface as level as possible. Use as temporary ironing board.

Via AltUse.com

When Private Equity Attacks Affordable Housing

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 5:30 PM EDT

The New York Times ran an interesting piece Sunday on how private equity funds buy up undervalued firms, bleed off their assets, and then pass them on to other such funds in a vicious cycle. Using Simmons mattress company as a case study, reporter Julie Creswell describes how the process works, noting how Thomas H. Lee Partners of Boston profited off of Simmons' misfortunes:

The investment firm, which bought Simmons in 2003, has pocketed around $77 million in profit, even as the company’s fortunes have declined. THL collected hundreds of millions of dollars from the company in the form of special dividends. It also paid itself millions more in fees, first for buying the company, then for helping run it. Last year, the firm even gave itself a small raise.

Wall Street investment banks also cashed in. They collected millions for helping to arrange the takeovers and for selling the bonds that made those deals possible. All told, the various private equity owners have made around $750 million in profits from Simmons over the years.

How so many people could make so much money on a company that has been driven into bankruptcy is a tale of these financial times and an example of a growing phenomenon in corporate America.

But private equity has created problems not just for weak corporations, but low-income America, too. In our July/August issue, Adam Matthews reports on the phenomenon known as "predatory equity," in which private equity funds buy up affordable-housing developments, take out huge interest-only loans against them—sometimes withdrawing tens of millions in cash, which is protected from future creditors by using shell entities—and then flip the projects or peform upgrades to the units (stainless steel appliances?) as part of a strategy to drive up rents. Now that the real-estate market has tanked, however, many of these housing developments teeter on the brink of foreclosure, and that's a bad scene for the people living there. Matthews reports:

Unlike flipping a house, leveraging affordable housing affects the lives of thousands. Deals by [real-estate tycoon Larry] Gluck and other big players have stripped the equity from many of New York's developments; roughly 70,000 affordable units are overleveraged, says Dina Levy, a tenant organizer with the city's Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. (Levy even knows of one development where residents, many of them city employees, are being driven out by real estate companies financed by their own pension funds.) Saddled with oversize mortgages, cash-strapped buildings scrimp on basic maintenance. In December, New York Sen. Charles Schumer urged the SEC to investigate, calling the situation "subprime crisis 2.0."
 

 

Highway Robbery on the High Seas: Supreme Court Ignores DOI Appeal

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 5:09 PM EDT

Yesterday the Supreme Court decided not to hear Department of the Interior v. Kerr-McGee Oil and Gas Corp., thus preventing the DOI from collecting $350 million in royalties for deep-water drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Now that the Supreme Court has left the ruling in place, the DOI may miss out on another $19 billion from companies that may claim similar exemption from royalty payment.

The trouble stems from a decision the federal government made in the 1990s to cushion the blow of low fuel prices to oil and gas companies. In 1995 the Outer Continental Shelf Deep Water Royalty Relief Act allowed companies to forgo paying royalties on small operations if the operations did not seem profitable. The DOI charged the Minerals Management Service (MMS) with the task of determining which operations were eligible for the royalty relief.

You remember the MMS, right? That’s the agency whose employees, a 2008 DOI report said,  "frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives." (Read more about MMS corruption here and here.) The MMS is also the agency whose Royalty in Kind program was canceled last month for failure to collect government revenues.

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Cute Animal in Danger: Emperor Penguin

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 4:16 PM EDT

The film March of the Penguins may have done more for the Emperor Penguin than its directors intended. The birds are now bona fide movie stars. But fame comes with a price, and for the Emperor Penguin that's meant increasing Antarctic tourism. Tourism definitely degrades the penguins' local ecosystem, but actually it's just one of many problems the 4' tall birds face.

Global warming is playing havoc with the penguins' icy home, melting ice earlier and impacting their delicately timed breeding cycle. Additionally, commercial overfishing has decreased the penguins' food supply. The birds' appeal to humans does them some good though: just today, two environmental organizations announced they will file suit against the Department of the Interior if it denies the animals protection under the Endangered Species Act. The groups say the penguins are "marching toward extinction," and they may have a point.

Ice conditions at Pointe Geologie, where the March of the Penguins was filmed, are deteriorating so badly that scientists have predicted the colony there will decline from 3,000 breeding pairs to just 400 by the end of the century. This would be a tragedy, not just for the Antarctic ecosystem, but for those who love these unique birds. They can stay underwater for 18 minutes. Their feathers are made of keratin and are naturally water-repellent. They can dive to a depth of 1,850 feet in the water. They're hardy animals, and unafraid of humans. If they only knew what our CO2 was doing to their home, I'm sure our reception would be a lot cooler.

Fixing Lethal Injections Leads to 'Hippocratic Paradox'

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 4:15 PM EDT

A wave of botched executions in Ohio has led Gov. Ted Strickland to postpone two executions until the state's department of corrections revises its lethal injection protocol. Ostensibly, the new protocol is intended to make capital punishment more humane. But some death penalty critics worry that the new rules could increase the use of medical expertise intended to save lives, not end them. 

The debate flared up last month when Romell Broom, a convicted rapist and murderer, was punctured 18 times over two hours as guards struggled to find a suitable vein for the injection. At times, Broom even tried to assist them by massaging his arms and legs to keep veins open for the poison. Finally, a judge intervened and the execution was halted. Critics argue that Broom's ordeal amounted to cruel and unusual punishment at the hands of prison guards who were not qualified to administer the lethal dose.

Earlier this year, Mother Jones reported that physicians at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were repeatedly asked to oversee torture in clear violation of their Hippocratic oath to "do no harm." Though doctors aren't currently involved in Ohio's or any other states' executions, this medical quandary hits a similar note as state officials attempt to find a better way to inflict the ultimate punishment, says Ohio State University professor of surgery Jonathan I. Groner.

Copen-bloggin': A visit to Samsø

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 3:33 PM EDT

When trying to prove that a country can switch entirely to green energy, it's best to start small. Denmark decided to start really small with Samsø, an island that lies 9 miles off the Jutland Peninsula. Just 4,100 people live on the island, which over the the course of 10 years has converted almost entirely to fossil-fuel free energy.

The project started in 1997, with the goal of becoming entirely self-sufficient and carbon-neutral. Today, wind provides 100 percent of the island's electricity, generated from 11 turbines on land. Each turbine can generate enough power for 600 homes. Another 10 turbines just offshore send power to the mainland.

They've also made significant headway on other energy needs, with 65 percent of home heat now generated by four biomass burning facilities—three straw-burning plants and one solar power/woodchip combination facility, owned cooperatively by the local communities. Another ten percent of homes on the island have switched away from oil-based heating to wood pellet, geothermal, or solar heating. There are also pilot projects on biofuels and grasses for home heating. Some homes are still heated with oil, and their automobiles, tractors, and ferries to the island are all of course powered by petroleum products, but the amount of energy exported to the mainland from the offshore turbines is greater than the amount they need to import at this point.

Hopi Tribe's Message to Sierra Club and Other Enviros: Keep Out!

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 2:34 PM EDT

This story first appeared at Alternet.

This is sad on many different levels. The Navajo-Hopi Observer reports:

The Hopi Tribe has a message for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups: Keep out!

That is the response of the Hopi Tribal Council on Monday to what it says has been continuous concerted attacks from local and national environmental groups "bent on advancing their interests and agenda at the expense of the Hopi Tribe and its sovereign interest."

The council wants the Sierra Club and other environmental groups and on-reservation organizations affiliated with these groups to know they are not welcome on the Hopi Reservation, declaring them persona non grata - no longer favored or welcome.

Apparently the conflict is over a coal plant. Here's more:

By a resolution approved 12-0, the council said environmentalists have deprived the tribe "of markets for its coal resources" and coal revenues needed to sustain governmental services, provide jobs for tribal members and safeguard Hopi culture and tradition.

In 2005, environmental groups played a significant role in the shutdown of the Mohave Generating Station, which the Hopi Council contends "deprived the Hopi Tribe of many millions of dollars of annual operating revenues," according to the resolution.

Revenue losses from the Mohave power plant range from an estimated $6.5 million to $8.5 million annually.

The council feels that the economic viability of the Navajo Generating Station - the tribe's only remaining coal customer - is also being threatened, and that environmentalists' actions could lead to "total economic collapse of the tribe."

The Sierra Club issued a statement saying: "We are proud of our longstanding partnerships with tribal leaders in the Southwest, and we are committed to supporting efforts to transition from dirty coal to clean energy solutions," said Sierra Club President Allison Chin. "Together, we can rekindle our economy, reduce greenhouse gases and support people who have been left in the dust by a dangerous and dirty, coal-based economy."

The saddest part of this is that the tribe is dependent on a dirty power source to economically support their people and that enough efforts have not been made by anyone -- enviro groups, the federal government, etc. -- to help them develop addition sources of income.