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Obama and Afghanistan

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 5:03 PM EST

OBAMA AND AFGHANISTAN....Michael Crowley talks to counterinsurgency guru John Nagl after a visit to Afghanistan:

Winning in Afghanistan, he realized, would take more than "a little tweak," as he put it to me from back in Washington a few weeks later, when he was still shaking off the gritty "Kabul crud" that afflicts traveler's lungs. It would take time, money, and blood. "It's a doubling of the U.S. commitment," Nagl said. "It's a doubling of the Afghan army, maybe a tripling. It's going to require a tax increase and a bigger army."

....Nagl's rule of thumb, the one found in the counterinsurgency manual, calls for at least a 1-to-50 ratio of security forces to civilians in contested areas....By Nagl's ratio, Afghanistan's population calls for more than 600,000 security forces. Even adjusting for the relative stability of large swaths of the country, the ideal number could still total around 300,000 — more than a quadrupling of current troop levels. Eventually, Afghanistan's national army could shoulder most of that burden. But, right now, those forces number a ragtag 60,000, a figure Nagl believes will need to at least double and maybe triple.

So how's that ragtag force coming? Joe Klein reports on his visit with British Lieutenant Colonel Graeme Armour in Helmand province last week:

Almost all the recruits were illiterate. "They've had no experience at learning," Armour said. "You sit them in a room and try to teach them about police procedures — they start gabbing and knocking about. You talk to them about the rights of women, and they just laugh."

....The war in Afghanistan — the war that President-elect Barack Obama pledged to fight and win — has become an aimless absurdity....The far more serious problem is Pakistan, a flimsy state with illogical borders, nuclear weapons and a mortal religious enmity toward India, its neighbor to the south. Pakistan is where bin Laden now lives, if he lives.

This has now become conventional wisdom: the real problem is Pakistan. So far, however, in the same way that plans for rescuing General Motors rely mostly on handwaving about "restructuring," plans for solving the Pakistan problem rely mostly on handwaving about "getting tough." Unfortunately, hardnosed details on how this is actually going to work are pretty thin on the ground. If Obama wants public support for an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, his national security team better start providing those details pretty quickly.

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Golden Globe Nominations: Huh?

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 4:31 PM EST

mojo-photo-goldenglobes2.jpgThe always-good-for-a-laugh Hollywood Foreign Press Association put out their Golden Globe nominations today, and while elevating a few interesting choices, they overlooked a few things that make one scratch one's head. First up, Milk had been scoring some critics' awards, but apparently didn't impress the HFPA, snagging only one nod for Sean Penn. His co-star, James Franco, got a nomination as well, but not for Milk--for Pineapple Express. You heard me. Other notable shutouts include WALL-E, coming off its recent LA film critics win for "best film" with only an animation nod, and The Dark Knight, making a last-minute promotional push for some awards, but also receiving only one, a posthumous nomination for Heath Ledger. Well, I hated that movie.

After the jump: more mockery, and what did Mick LaSalle think?

Powered By Java: Me & My Car

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 4:03 PM EST

800px-A_small_cup_of_coffee.JPG Looking for a spare 340 million gallons of biodiesel? Waste coffee grounds can provide a cheap, abundant, and environmentally friendly source of biodiesel fuel for cars and trucks. Spent grounds contain 11-20 percent oil by weight—about the same as rapeseed, palm, and soybean oil. Growers already produce more than 16 billion pounds of coffee yearly and the spent grounds generally wind up in the trash.

To see if that oil from those grounds is worth putting into your diesel tank, researchers from the U of Nevada collected separated the oil from the grounds and used an inexpensive process to convert 100 percent of it into biodiesel.

The result: a coffee-based fuel that actually smells like java. Mmmm. Plus it's more stable than traditional biodiesel due to the coffee's high antioxidant content. The solids left over from the conversion process can be converted to ethanol or used as compost. The researchers estimate the process could make a profit of >$8 million a year in the U.S. alone. Worldwide it could produce 340 million gallons of biodiesel annually. The team plans to develop a pilot plant in the next eight months.

The study appears in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Drink it up. Wake up your car.

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

The Best Part of Obama's Multicultural Cabinet: The Effortlessness Of It

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 3:34 PM EST

I think Ben Smith gets this exactly right:

Bill Clinton, former aides say, worked hard for his Cabinet that "looks like America," and reached outside the normal establishment channels for some of his picks. George W. Bush, reaching into a less diverse GOP, did the same in some cases.
Sixteen years later, Obama hasn't had make any apparent special effort to avoid having a cabinet dominated by white guys: People like Susan Rice, Steven Chu, Eric Shinseki, Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, Janet Napolitano, and Eric Holder are obvious choices, with their own power bases, relationships with Obama, and/or establishment credentials -- some earned at high levels of the Clinton administration -- that the notion of a special effort to ensure diversity at the top level of this administration seems sort of irrelevant.

It's true. All of the appointees Smith lists are minorities or women, but they are so accomplished and talented that no one has dared called them affirmative action picks. They mirror Obama in that way.

In my short article on things Bush got right (did I mention it's a short article?), I noted that Bush put together the most diverse executive branch team in history. Obama's will rival his but may not top it. The important point, though, is that Bush's cabinet secretaries and aides performed so poorly that it almost felt like W. was making a high-stakes argument against affirmative action. He didn't know it, but in actuality he was making a high-stakes argument against prioritizing loyalty over competence. See Gonzales and Miers in that regard.

Kanye West "Exposed"!

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 3:23 PM EST

mojo-photo-kanyewestred.jpgOkay, I hate when blogs do that, i.e., use cheeky misleading headlines to grab your attention. But a) we need some clicks over here on the Riff and b) that's what they said. Urb magazine has a link to a homemade video somebody's put together (YouTube user "Jonay122"?) detailing the sample source for just about every single Kanye West song ever. Now, "exposed" is misleading since, like most hip-hop, Kanye's use of samples isn't meant to be a secret, but an open recontextualisation. However, this video extends all the way to the recent 808s and Heartbreak album, which I had thought was just Kanye fooling around on the drum machine, sans samples, but it turns out I'm wrong--it's chock full of references as well. Either way, even if you're aware of the source for the robot voices in "Stronger," this is an interesting (if long--10 minutes!!) video. Ultimately, one comes away from it with the sense that the only thing that's been exposed about Kanye West is that the dude has a really big record collection. Watch it after the jump.

Spin, Rolling Stone Release Best Album Lists

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 2:51 PM EST

mojo-photo-stonespincovers.jpgWith most of the recent publications to announce their "Best Albums of 2008" located, er, somewhere north of France, the lists have been heavy on stuff Brits like, most notably Elbow and Kings of Leon (i.e., dad-rock and a weird parody of Southern rock that I guess feels exotic to them). Now, finally, we have some American opinions to criticize! Our two big music mags, Spin and Rolling Stone, put out their lists today and yesterday, respsectively, and they're both okay as lists go, with Spin's a step up, naturally. Both New York-based mags put New York-based combo TV on the Radio at their #1 slot, and while I can't say enough good things about that band, the approaching-unanimous critical adulation is kind of creeping me out. Rolling Stone's list gets crazy after that, with the old, old white dudes who work at that magazine asserting their paleness via Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp, and Metallica in the Top 10, and Guns N' Roses hovering just outside it at #12. Blergh! Why do people let them get away with that? Spin gets closer to the truth with Portishead, Deerhunter and Santogold, although how anyone could be tricked into putting Coldplay in their list is beyond me.

Anyway, I'll post the definitive Best Albums list on Monday, so stay tuned for that! Spin and Rolling Stone's Top 10s after the jump.

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Gift Ideas For The Atheist, Part 1: Bumper Stickers!

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 2:47 PM EST

Not sure what to get the godless on your holiday shopping list? Some suggestions:

"Fine…I evolved. You didn't" bumper sticker.

atheist-bumpersticke-2r.jpeg

Also Available:
"I'm the Atheist Your Pastor Warned You About"
bumper sticker.

"Top 10 Reasons Beer is Better Than Jesus" beer mug:

atheist-beer-mug.gif

For atheists and beer-lovers alike.

Jesus Action Figure

M-JesusActionFigure.gif

Bonus: Also works as an un-ironic gift for religious friends.

Happy shopping, heathens!

The Final Frontier

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 1:20 PM EST

THE FINAL FRONTIER....Hmmm. Speaking of czars, apparently NASA administrator Mike Griffin thinks he's the space czar, one whose word is not to be questioned by meddling usurpers:

In a heated 40-minute conversation last week with Lori Garver, a former NASA associate administrator who heads [Barack Obama's] space transition team, a red-faced Griffin demanded to speak directly to Obama, according to witnesses.

In addition, Griffin is scripting NASA employees and civilian contractors on what they can tell the transition team and has warned aerospace executives not to criticize the agency's moon program, sources said.

....When team members arrived three weeks ago, they asked the agency, among other things, to quantify how much could be saved by canceling Ares I. Though they also asked what it would take to accelerate the program, the fact that the team could even consider scrapping the program was enough to spur Griffin and his supporters into action

According to industry officials, Griffin started calling heads of companies working for NASA, demanding that they either tell the Obama team that they support Constellation or refrain from talking about alternatives.

....Soon after, Garver and Griffin engaged in what witnesses said was an animated conversation...."Mike, I don't understand what the problem is. We are just trying to look under the hood," Garver said.

"If you are looking under the hood, then you are calling me a liar," Griffin replied. "Because it means you don't trust what I say is under the hood.

This whole thing is bizarre. In six weeks Obama's team will take over and they're going to be able to tear the hood to shreds and dump its contents on the floor if they feel like it. What on earth does Griffin think he's accomplishing with this kind of Mayberry Machiavelli stuff? Via Tapped.

*Czars

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 12:56 PM EST

CZARS....Hilzoy is pleased by one of Barack Obama's recent decisions:

I was absolutely thrilled by one fact in this post: the claim that Obama and his team do not plan to use the word 'czar'.

Thank heavens. We've had drug czars, energy czars; we may yet get a car czar. I'm tired of czars. And why czars, anyways?

Hmmm. Where did this whole czar business come from, anyway? My first recollection of it is Richard Nixon appointing an "energy czar" — in response to oil production peaking in the United States, by the way, not the Arab oil embargo — but a quick glance through Nexis shows several earlier uses. The first one I found was in 1969, when New York City controller Abraham Beame apparently decided the city needed to appoint a "construction czar" to get schools built more quickly. If Nexis went back further, I'd probably find earlier examples.

The usage is pretty obvious — a czar is a ruthless, absolute monarch who can shred the bureaucracy and get things done — but when did it first pop into use to describe a political appointee of some kind? Anyone have examples from earlier than 1969?

Would You Pay $10,000 for Sarah Palin's Emails?

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 12:32 PM EST

How much would you pay for access to the emails Sarah Palin has sent and received as governor of Alaska? Would you part with $10,000 for them? That's basically what her office is asking.

During the general election, I filed an open records act request for all emails that had gone to and from Palin in her official capacity. And Alaska citizen watchdog Andrée McLeod, who had long been peppering Palin's office with similar requests, did the same. At a time when Palin was on the hot seat as Senator John McCain's vice presidential running mate, her office replied that it would cost over $65,000 to round up all of Palin's emails and that Mother Jones would have to cover this cost.

The problem: Palin had used at least two nonofficial email accounts (such as a Yahoo account) to conduct her state business. Given that the governor's office did not have access to those accounts, its information specialists had concluded that the only way to gather all her emails would be to search the state email accounts for about 70 people who worked within the executive offices of the governor and look for emails to and from Palin's nonofficial email accounts. Palin's office estimated it would cost almost a thousand dollars for each search of these 70 or so official accounts.