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Susan Boyle About to Blow Up Internet

A middle-aged woman's appearance on a British talent show has become the most popular thing in the world ever.

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 10:02 PM EDT

Monday afternoon: I see the video (which they won't let you embed, dang it, so watch it here) on Towleroad of frizzy-haired “spinster” Susan Boyle stunning the judges of "Britain’s Got Talent" with an emotional rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." It’s, you know, a cute little internet video.

Monday evening: I hear the very same audio coming out of the laptop of German DJs who are staying at my house for the weekend. They were using my neighbor’s wi-fi to catch up on German news, and the video was the first thing they saw.

Tuesday evening: Charlie Gibson covers the story on the ABC Evening News.

Tuesday night: The Boston Globe reports the clip has been watched over 2.7 million times since it was uploaded on April 11.

Wednesday afternoon: It's the top story on npr.org. They report the clip has been watched 7 million times.

Wednesday evening: A quick YouTube search shows multiple copies of the same clip making the rounds, but an unscientific sum of all their view counts puts the number at approximately 13 million.

Thursday (prediction): Susan Boyle surpasses Barack Obama as the most popular human being on the planet.

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Listening in on Congress

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 9:49 PM EDT

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau report in the New York Times today that the NSA may have exceeded the wiretapping authority it was given by Congress in 2008.  The whole story is pretty vague, and introduces the unknown-to-me euphemism "over-collection," which apparently means that technical problems led NSA to " 'target' groups of Americans and collect their domestic communications without proper court authority."

But then there's this buried in the middle of the story, which isn't vague at all:

New details are also emerging about earlier domestic surveillance activities, including the agency’s attempt to wiretap a congressman without court approval on an overseas trip, according to interviews with current and former intelligence officials.

....The agency believed that the congressman, whose identity could not be determined, was in contact as part of a congressional delegation to the Middle East in 2005 or 2006 with an extremist who had possible terrorist ties and was already under surveillance, the official said. The agency then sought to eavesdrop on the congressman’s conversations to gather more intelligence, the official said.

The official said the plan was ultimately blocked because of concerns from some officials in the intelligence community about the idea of using the N.S.A., without court oversight, to spy on a member of Congress.

Jesus.  If a member of Congress isn't a "United States person" protected from warrantless surveillance by every version of FISA that's ever been on the books, who is?  Shouldn't this have set off alarm bells at every possible level at NSA, rather than merely being "ultimately blocked" because "some" officials had "concerns" about it?

SILVER LINING UPDATE: Looking on the bright side, maybe this will finally motivate Congress to take NSA surveillance more seriously.  Having one of their own members come within a hair's breadth of being an NSA target ought to concentrate their minds wonderfully, if anything will.

Kick The Sick Habit: Bay Versus Bag

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 7:50 PM EDT

Nice video from Save The Bay. It's the latest in their campaign to reduce plastic bag pollution in San Francisco Bay Area. You know, the endless crap that traps wildlife and never biodegrades and breeds like rabbits because we insist on accepting a new one of the evil airborne, waterborne immortals every time we buy any little thing.

Did you know the average plastic bag has a use-time of 12 minutes?

California taxpayers spend approximately $25 million every year to collect and landfill plastic bags. San Jose City staff estimates that it costs at least $3 million annually to clean plastic bags from creeks and clogged storm drains. Single-use bag production depletes resources and contributes to carbon emissions and global warming. We consume 14 million trees  and 12 million barrels of oil to produce the billions of plastic and paper bags we throw away in the United States every year. 

Save The Bay is trying to get Bay Area cities to charge 25 cents on paper and plastic bags from all retailers. Hopefully that'll encourage more people to use less plastic and pony up for durable reusables.

Accompanying the video, a few busted myths:

Myth: Recycling plastic bags is the best solution to the litter problem
Fact: Plastic bag recycling is expensive and doesn’t work

Despite a 15-year effort in California, recycling plastic bags has failed. Less than 5 percent of all single-use plastic bags are actually recycled. Plastic bags cost municipal recycling programs millions each year because bags jam sorting equipment. The frak ups cost San Jose about $1 million a year. Failed recycling means billions of plastic bags are thrown away to blow onto streets and float into waterways.
 

Press Freedom in Iraq

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 7:12 PM EDT

The press is coming under renewed attack from the Iraqi government:

The Iraqi military put local journalists on notice on Monday that their organizations could be shut down for misquoting officials, while the Iraqi government accused the news media of deliberately seeking to promote sectarian strife.

The top military spokesman in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, said he was filing a lawsuit seeking to close the Baghdad office of Al Hayat, one of the most prominent newspapers in the Arab world, as well as the satellite signal of Al Sharqiya, a popular Iraqi television channel that has been a strong critic of the government.

Marc Lynch comments:

That's not a good sign. Reminds me of the bad old days of 2004-2005 when the Iraqi government and MNF-I were routinely attacking the Arab media for fueling the insurgency and the offices of al-Jazeera and other satellite television stations were shuttered....At a time when many Iraqis and Iraq-watchers worry about a creeping authoritarianism in the Maliki government, this move against al-Hayat and al-Sharqiya is a screaming red flag.  Let's hope that it is quickly reversed.

Some of this may be creeping authoritarianism, but it also seems to be related to the steady breakdown of the celebrated Sunni Awakening.  The Sunni tribal chiefs were basically bribed to cooperate with the central government, but as the bribes have dwindled so has the cooperation — and apparently the Maliki government would just as soon not have anyone around to report this.

Coachella Preview: Electronic

Artists performing at the big festival this weekend who use machines that go "beep" and stuff.

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 5:47 PM EDT

While the three nightly headliners (McCartney, The Killers, and The Cure) have all dabbled in studio trickery and electronics to accompany their guitar-centered tunes, straight-ahead electronic music has really taken center stage this year at Coachella. The fact that organizers seem to understand electronic music and appreciate its potential for quality live performances has always made the festival a step up from your Bonnaroos and Bumbershoots, but the 2009 lineup is even more electro-riffic: fully 53 of the 133 artists could easily be considered “electronic” (that’s including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs). After the jump, 10 of the highlights.

Plus, don’t forget, Mother Jones is, surprisingly enough, your home for complete Coachella coverage! We’ll have the traditional nightly updates right here on the Riff Friday through Sunday (reminisce about 2008’s festival here, here and here, and 2007’s here, here and here), as well as some chats with whatever artists we can corral, plus a selection of intrepid photographer Kristi’s best shots from the photo pits and lunch tents! Weather.com says 89-95-98 for highs, so if you’re heading to the desert, stay cool!

Spam's CO2 Emissions

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 4:42 PM EDT

In addition to being a giant waste of your time, spam emails are also a colossal waste of electricity, according to a recent study commissioned by the research division of McAfee (a company with, just so you know, a vested interest in convincing you that spam is evil).

Some fun little statistical nuggets from the study:

 

• Globally, annual spam energy use totals 33  billion kilowatt-hours (KWh), or 33 terawatt hours (TWh). That’s equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes in the United States, with the same GHG emissions as 3.1 million passenger cars using two billion United States gallons of gasoline
• The average GHG emission associated with a single spam message is 0.3 grams of CO2. That’s like driving three feet (one meter) in equivalent emissions, but when multiplied by the annual volume of spam, it’s like driving around the  Earth 1.6 million times.

HT New Scientist and Rebecca Skloot, via Twitter.

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GOP 2.0?

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 3:46 PM EDT

My article from the next issue of the magazine -- examining the GOP's attempt to bring its use of social networking and other web tools into the 21st century -- has hit the Internets. The piece suffers somewhat from the fact that it was written before Michael Steele's well-publicized series of gaffes and stumbles, but I think it still makes some key points.

Takeaways:

(1) There is a strong internal contingent in the modern conservative movement that realizes the GOP is way, way behind Obama and the Democrats in terms of using technology to organize, fundraise, message, etc. That contingent wanted a guy named Saul Anuzis to become GOP chair because Anuzis is an early adopter of Twittering and other geek tools. When Steele won the job, he made a smart move in bringing Anuzis on-board; it has become clear that Steele, for all his problems, understands the GOP's tech deficit and wants to take radical steps to address it.

(2) Even the folks that are tackling this problem on behalf of the conservative movement haven't seen a lot of success. In fact, their online organization of this tea party thing is probably their most impressive accomplishment to date, and it remains to be seen if they can carry that enthusiam forward after Tax Day. A look at what they've done before, from my piece:

Consider R-igg.com, a conservative foil to the wildly popular user-generated social media site Digg.com. Many conservatives feel that Digg users lean left; the idea behind R-igg, explains its 20-year-old creator, Aaron Marks, "was to create an alternative so that people on the right could share their stories in the same way." R-igg has an attractive layout, but it receives only a couple thousand visitors a month, tops.

R-igg's failure of emulation is not unique. TheVanguard was supposed to be the Republican MoveOn. QubeTV, Eyeblast, and YouSeeIt are conservative alternatives to YouTube. And Let's Get This Right is the Republican doppelgänger of MySpace. With the exception of Slatecard, an online fundraising site that is the right-wing version of liberal ActBlue, none has seen much success.

It's not a sterling track record. But they know it, and they're working like the Dickens to improve. So nobody get lazy around here.

MN Public Opinion Shifts Against Norm

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 3:18 PM EDT

Now that a nonpartisan court has officially ruled that Al Franken is the winner of the contested Minnesotan Senate race, wide swaths of Minnesotans believe Norm Coleman should forego further appeals and concede. Public Policy Polling (pdf):

4/14-15/09; 805 registered voters, 3.5% margin of error

Do you think Norm Coleman should appeal the decision and continue to fight in court or should Coleman concede the race?

37% Appeal
63% Concede

If this man wants to run for governor someday, and there are rumors that he does, he needs to get out before he tarnishes his public image forever.

San Francisco Supe Proposes Government Ganja Shop

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 2:55 PM EDT

San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi wants the city to get into the drug dealing business by opening up a city-run medical marijuana dispensary. Though the law's as likely to pass as Cheech Marin is to sponsor a major public art exhibition--or something like that--it has at least been good for a chuckle: "The mayor will have to hash this out with public health officials," a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom told the SF Chronicle. "It's the mayor's job to weed out bad legislation, and to be blunt, that sounds pretty bad."

Quote of the Day - 4.15.09

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 2:37 PM EDT

From former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, on banks that are rushing to return TARP money so they can escape limits on executive compensation:

"If banks now claim they want to return the money because they don't need it, why do they have to raise new capital to replace the money from we the people in order to repay the government?"

Right.  If Goldman Sachs never really needed their TARP money in the first place, they could have returned it without first doing a risky and ultimately disappointing share offering.  One can only conclude that, yes, they needed the money back in October, no matter what they say now.

In related news, Felix Salmon takes note of the fact that due to a legal fluke Goldman's FY2008 ended in November but their FY2009 started in January.  In December they reported huge losses, but those losses are now in sort of a weird limbo:

I suspect that when it comes to bonus time at Goldman, December 2008 will never matter. The 2008 bonuses will be paid based on the 2008 fiscal year, while the 2009 bonuses will be paid based on the 2009 fiscal year. And those $1.3 billion of losses in December — losses which will never show up in any annual report — will be conveniently ignored by the compensation honchos.

Clever!  And it shows that Bill Gates was right.  As William Cohan reminded us yesterday, he once said that Microsoft’s biggest competitor was Goldman Sachs. “It’s all about I.Q.,” he said. “You win with I.Q. Our only competition for I.Q. is the top investment banks.”  And this is exactly the kind of thing that Wall Street has spent the last decade applying its galactic brainpower toward.  Too bad they aren't researching a cure for cancer instead, isn't it?