Apocalypse Soon

Via the mysterious Will, io9 has a guest post this week from Chanda Phelan, a graduate of Pomona College who recently completed a thesis on post-apocalyptic literature.  Basically, she looked at 423 books, poems, and short stories about the apocalypse (full list here) in order to try and divine trends on just what the fictional causes of fictional apocalypses are.  Fun!

Anyway, the result is a gigantic chart, partly excerpted below.  And some discussion:

I wanted to see if there were patterns in how writers saw the monster. As it turned out, the patterns were clearer than I imagined. Nuclear holocaust was really popular after 1945; that's to be expected. But the precipitous and permanent drop in nuclear war's popularity after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 (see chart)? That surprised me.

....The easily spotted trends make the patterns' total collapse in the mid-1990s even weirder. Human-created apocalypses shrink dramatically, and there's a sudden spike of unexplained apocalypse scenarios at the turn of the century. What happened? One possibility is that every End started to feel clichéd. The terror of a possible nuclear war faded, and no new extravagant ways to kill ourselves appeared to replace it.

My theory: most the explained apocalypses hightailed it to the movie theater, where practically the whole point of apocalyptic storytelling is to show you exactly how the planet is destroyed in loving IMAX/Technicolor/Dolby CGI detail.  This wouldn't really be on my mind except that I've now seen the trailer for 2012 about a hundred times — it feels like a hundred times, anyway — and apparently the purpose of the movie is to make the entire genre obsolete by rolling up every disaster movie trope ever invented into one ultimate 2-hour extravaganza never to be surpassed.  Everything will be destroyed.  Every manner of destroying things will be used.  Every cliche will be exploited.  When you're done, you will never need to see another disaster movie ever again!

Which is fine with me.  I'm just wondering if they'll even pretend to tell a story while all this mayhem is going on.  Or is that too old school these days?

POSTSCRIPT: I also have a question about the chart: what happened in 2000?  Not a single work of planet-ending fiction in the entire year?  Really?

Quotes of the Day

From Maria Walter, United Airline's director of merchandising, on the barrage of innovative, second generation fees coming soon to a flight near you:

[Walter] told conference attendees that the airline wants passengers to see the new offers as "options," not as fees. "Options are different than fees," she said.

Walter was speaking at the Ancillary Revenue Airline Conference, an entire event dedicated to brainstorming newer, subtler, and more annoying fees.  And then there's this, from legendary LA talk show host Michael Jackson, on what the triumph of "vitriolic, unsympathetic, bombastic" talk radio means about America:

That we're amazing. That we can put up with all of that and more! It's the best country in the world.

I admire Jackson's optimism.  I don't really share it, but I admire it.

Shielding Reporters

The New York Times reports that a deal on a federal shield law is near:

The Obama administration, leading Senate Democrats and a coalition of news organizations have reached tentative agreement on legislation providing greater protections against fine or imprisonment to reporters who refuse to identify confidential sources.

....Protection under the so-called shield law would also be extended to unpaid bloggers engaged in gathering and disseminating news.

....In civil cases, the litigants seeking to force reporters to testify would first have to exhaust all other means of obtaining the information. Even then, the judge would apply a “balancing test,” and the burden would be on the information seekers to show by a “preponderance of the evidence” why their need for the testimony outweighed the public’s interest in news gathering.

Ordinary criminal cases, as in prosecutors’ effort to find out who leaked grand jury information about professional athletes’ steroid use to The San Francisco Chronicle, would work the same way, except that the balancing test would be heavily tilted in favor of prosecutors....Most cases involving disclosure of classified information would work the same way as criminal cases.

This is....better than nothing, I suppose.  But most of the high-profile trials of the past few years that involved confidential sources have been criminal cases, and it doesn't sound as if this compromise proposal provides very much real-world protection in these cases.  But news organizations support it, so maybe it's better than it sounds.  I'll be curious to hear some media lawyers weigh in on it.

The Pause That Distresses

I happen to think that the evils of sugary soft drinks have probably been a wee bit overblown, but even at that it's a little hard to believe that the American Academy of Family Physicians would create a "corporate partnership" with Coca-Cola that's designed to "develop consumer education content related to beverages and sweeteners" in return for a six-figure fee.  And yet they did.

I'm not surprised they did this, mind you.  I'm just surprised they sold out so cheaply.  Seems like this ought to be worth at least a million bucks or so.

White House Visitors

Today, under the headline "Transparency like you've never seen before," the White House released visitor records from January through June.  But wait!  It's not all the visitors.  It's only a selective dump of names that people specifically asked about.  Someone submitted a request about Bill Ayers, for example, so all the "William Ayers" records were released.  But guess what?  There's more than one guy in the country named William Ayers:

A lot of people visit the White House, up to 100,000 each month, with many of those folks coming to tour the buildings. Given this large amount of data, the records we are publishing today include a few “false positives” — names that make you think of a well-known person, but are actually someone else.  In September, requests were submitted for the names of some famous or controversial figures (for example Michael Jordan, William Ayers, Michael Moore, Jeremiah Wright, Robert Kelly ("R. Kelly"), and Malik Shabazz).  The well-known individuals with those names never actually came to the White House.  Nevertheless, we were asked for those names and so we have included records for those individuals who were here and share the same names.

Hold on there.  This data dump includes everyone who's been on a public tour of the White House?  Everyone who's been invited to some kind of White House ceremony?  Seriously?

Yes, seriously.  Max Doebler, for example, is the White House ceremonies coordinator, and sure enough, there are 29 visitor records linked to luncheons and receptions where he's listed as the official host.  Bill Ayers is one of the many people who were there for public tours.  (Plus a second mystery Bill Ayers who was there for some other reason.)

This is kind of ridiculous, isn't it?  I suppose it's easy enough to filter out the dross once you figure out the right codes, but it almost seems like the White House is deliberately trying to inundate everyone in useless mountains of data by including this stuff.  In particular, when the end of the year rolls around and we get the full dump, do we really need the names of all 500,000 people who have been on a tour of the residence?  Is it even right to make all these names public?  Is the White House staff playing a quiet little joke hoping for a few reactions like this?  What's going on?

Oil Still Spewing Off Australia

It's been two months to the day since I posted here about a major oil leak spewing from a wellhead in the Timor Sea northwest of Australia. At the time officialdom was predicting it might takes weeks to cap.

Well, it's been 9 weeks and crude oil and gas condensate are still leaking. Thai energy company PTTEP has so far tried and failed to cap the mess three times. Their estimate for success remains firm at "weeks."

A wide range of marine wildlife—dolphins, sea birds, sea turtles, whales, dugongs—is under threat from the 2,500-square-mile slick. The spill is also crossing an oceanic superhighway for migrating marine life.

The images are from NASA’s Aqua satellite and posted at their Earth Observatory (mission: to share images, stories, and discoveries about climate and environment emerging from NASA research). The top picture shows the area around the damaged oil platform in relation to the northwest tip of Australia. The lower image shows a close-up of the slick (dark blue) and the leak (small circle).

Oil slicks on the ocean are often imperceptible in natural color images. But when they appear in the sunglint—that is, where the mirrorlike reflection of the Sun washes out the image—they sometimes become visible. As seen here.

UPI reports the leak is difficult to contain or assess because it's about 2 miles below the surface. PTTEP claims it's leaking 400 barrels a day. Australia's Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism calculates it's more like 2,000 barrels of oil a day.

Let's see, 2,000 x 9 weeks = 126,000 barrels. That's about half what the Exxon Valdez dumped. Not to mention which we're still seeing the devastating effects of that spill 20 years later.

More interesting, in a way, is how little attention this slow-motion disaster is garnering. If only there was a ship cracked up on the rocks. As it is, without pictures, there's no story. NASA is trying. But the little circle and the dark blue in the sunglint just can't cut through the fog of Dancing With the Stars.
 

Fight the Friday Doc Dump!

Late Friday afternoon, the Obama adminstration released a bunch of its visitor logs as well as notes from Dick Cheney's interviews with the FBI regarding the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's covert CIA identity. So after you read about how Cheney couldn't remember anything, consider this: Politicians release documents on Fridays when they don't want people paying attention to them.

Politicians know that fewer people read the Saturday papers (actually, few people read papers at all anymore), so fewer people will notice the newspaper articles. They also know that since most people read news websites like MotherJones.com and Talking Points Memo at work and most people work Monday to Friday, fewer people will see the news on the internet. Finally, cable news and broadcast news don't have nearly as large of an audience over the weekend, so they will be less able to amplify what the newspapers and websites report. If you're trying to hide something juicy, Friday is the day to dump it. Even if someone does find it in the huge mass of information you release, by Monday the news cycle will have moved on.

Anyway, you can help fight against the Friday doc dump: check out the visitor logs and the Cheney documents yourself, and send us an email at scoop [at] motherjones [dot] com if you find anything interesting. The faster we find the juicy bits, the better chance we have of letting people know about them. Thanks!

Notes from former Vice President Dick Cheney's interview with the FBI about the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's covert CIA identity were finally released on Friday afternoon after a lengthy legal battle. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sued the Justice Department last year to obtain the interview notes; a judge finally ordered their release on October 1. In the interview, Cheney demonstrated a behavior common among Bush administration officials under investigation: he couldn't remember much of anything. Here's a non-comprehensive list of 22 things Dick Cheney claimed he couldn't recall about the Plame case, in the order they appear in the FBI's notes:

  • Whether the Wilson trip was discussed during any of the visits he made to the CIA with his Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby.
  • Any reaction he had to Nicholas Kristof's New York Times' article about the Wilson visit at the time the article was published.
  • Whether he discussed the Wilson situation with George Tenet at their meeting on June 10, 2003.
  • Who he spoke to about Joe Wilson's July 6, 2003 editorial (he did remember speaking to someone, but not who it was).
  • What happened to the Joe Wilson op-ed after he wrote on it suggesting that Valerie Plame Wilson had sent Joe Wilson on a "junket," and put it in his outbox.
  • Any specific advice he gave his press people in the May-June 2003 timeframe regarding the Wilson trip to Niger.
  • Whether he discussed the Wilson situation with Eric Edelman, one of his national security advisers.
  • Whether Cathie Martin, his press secretary, entered his office while both he and Scooter Libby were present and advised both of them that Joe Wilson's wife was employed by the CIA.
  • Discussing Joe Wilson or Wilson's wife with his former press secretary Mary Matalin, although he said it was possible.
  • Ever discussing Valerie Plame Wilson with Libby prior to the publication of Novak's column.
  • Whether Scooter Libby knew about Valerie Plame Wilson on July 12, the day before the publication of the Novak column.
  • If Libby ever told Cheney he had independent knowledge of Valerie Plame Wilson's covert identity
  • Dictating notes to Libby on July 12, 2003 that Cheney said looked and sounded like something he might have dictated to Libby.
  • Discussing the Novak column or any of its contents with anyone at the time it was published.
  • Whether he discussed the Wilson trip with Libby as a sort of "boondoggle" or "junket," although he believed it possible that he had such a conversation.
  • If Libby told him that Libby was not Novak's source.
  • Libby telling him how he first learned that Valerie Plame Wilson was a covert CIA operative.
  • Whether he told Libby that Valerie Plame Wilson was a covert CIA operative.
  • Waving off Libby when Libby offered to tell him everything he knew about the Wilson matter.
  • Anyone on his staff, including Libby, ever meeting with Judith Miller during the week of July 7, 2003.
  • Having a conversation with Libby during which Libby said he wanted to share the judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate with Judith Miller.
  • Whether Libby told him that certain material in the NIE had to be declassified before it could be shared.

For an interview conducted around a year after the events in question, the Vice President seems to have forgotten a lot, including one very crucial detail: whether he told Libby about Valerie Plame Wilson.

Republicans Threaten to Boycott Climate Bill Markup

After three days of hearings on the climate bill this week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee planned to start marking up the legislation on Tuesday. Or, at least the Democrats on the panel intended to do so. The Republicans are now threatening to boycott the session—which could prevent Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Ca.) from moving the legislation out of her committee.

Boxer doesn't need Republicans to actually vote for the bill—Democrats hold a 12-7 majority on the panel. But she does need two GOP senators present to hold a markup, according to committee rules. The proposed boycott is apparently being lead by Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Voinovich says he wants extra time so the EPA can produce a more comprehensive assessment of the bill (read: an assessment that he agrees with).

 

The congressional investigation into the forged Bonner letters has exposed a number of clearly or potentially illegal activities conducted by or on behalf of the coal industry in its fight against the Waxman-Markey climate bill. But the documents released by the investigation also made plain that even the ostensibly legal astroturfing activities of the industry and its contractors are at best really, really questionable.

The documents show that the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) hired contractors who reached out to community groups representing vulnerable constituencies and blatantly mislead those groups about their motivations. ACCCE paid a PR company, the Hawthorn Group, nearly $3 million in 2009 for "outreach to individuals and groups representing the interests of minorities, seniors, business, and veterans." Hawthorn in turn hired Bonner and Associates to drum up letters from those groups. The plan, as an email between Hawthorn and Bonner confirms, was to send the letters to politically weak Democrats who were still on the fence about their vote on the climate bill.

The investigation shows that even the 45 supposedly "legit" letters that Bonner managed to generate from these groups were elicited under false pretenses. Bonner employees were provided with a script that directed them to identify themselves as "working with seniors" or "working with vets"—without ever mentioning that they were actually calling on behalf of the coal industry. Callers were then instructed to play on the economic anxieties of the constituency in question:

"Hi xyz, I am working with seniors/retirees to help stop their utility bills from doubling," reads one script offered to Bonner employees.