Making Iraq Fertile

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 7:42 PM EST

446px-Alleged_location_of_Eden.jpg Iraq is flushing salinity out of millions of acres of land. The process should breathe new life into dirty rivers and dying soils. The idea is to restore "fertile" to the Fertile Crescent. You remember: the swath of once-fecund land arching from the Mediterranean across Iraq and down to the Persian Gulf—aka, the Garden of Eden.

But centuries of irrigation and overuse have turned the farmlands of southern and central Iraq saline—aka, the Garden of Apocalypse. The problem derives from salt collecting in soil when farmers irrigate it with salty water or don't drain it properly. The end result is that Iraq is now so fallow the country imports virtually all its food, paying with oil profits. Much of the government's current budget is spent on food rations, reports Reuters. Making Iraq fertile suggests there might actually be a post-oil future for that nation.

The plan is to pump out subterranean groundwater. The process—which has already worked in Australia—will take years. The work begins with a pumping station in Nassiriya sidelined for decades by the war with Iran, UN sanctions, and the war with the US. The project is further challenged by an ongoing severe drought and by 55,000 miles of crumbling drainage and irrigation channels. . . Suggestion: run the pumps on solar or tidal power and minimize that other problem too. And while we're at it, why not donate the sweat equity of those short-sighted Detroit CEOs? They've been part of the problem for long enough. They could toil in the desert and meditate on their manifold sins.

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.

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Note To Shelby Steele: Stop, Honey. Just Stop.

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 7:33 PM EST

Poor Shelby Steele, writing the same book over and over again. The same utterly irrelevant and embarrassingly misguided book.

This time, he called it A Bound Man, but it's still just his one-hit wonder with a new cover.

Cell Phone Lawsuit Follows Mojo Investigation

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 6:40 PM EST

On the heels of a recent Mother Jones investigation into the mortal dangers of driving while gabbing on a cell phone, the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety has sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, accusing it of illegally withholding information related to the risks.

The lawsuit, filed yesterday in US District Court in Washington, DC, claims that the federal agency violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by refusing to release documents—including the first-ever government estimate of auto fatalities related to cell phone use: 955 deaths in 2002. NHTSA is a branch of the Department of Transportation that regulates the auto industry and aims to reduce injuries and deaths on the nation's highways. Contacted today, agency spokesman Rae Tyson declined to comment on the suit.

Obama's First Policy Retreat?

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 6:39 PM EST


Did Barack Obama just break his first campaign promise?

On the campaign trail, Obama railed against big oil companies. He often criticized John McCain for backing tax cuts that would reward ExxonMobil and other top oil manufacturers. But now Obama's proposal to apply a windfall tax on big oil has vanished... at least from his transition website. The President-elect's transition team hasn't explicitly announced it will drop the windfall tax plan, but a transition aide, commenting on the condition he not be identified, backed off the promise in an email. "President-elect Obama announced the [windfall profits tax] policy during the campaign because oil prices were above $80 per barrel," he said. "They are currently below that now and expected to stay below that."

The windfall profits proposal was deleted from the transition website almost three weeks before the eagle-eyed American Small Business League (ASBL), an advocacy group for small businesses, noticed the change and protested in a press release Tuesday. The plan was mentioned in a version (PDF) of the site that existed after Obama's election win. But when the transition website relaunched on November 8, references to a excess profits tax on the oil and gas industry were gone.

Should Blacks Gain From Obama's Win?

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 5:36 PM EST

So the New York Times thinks more TV stars will be black, but The Root doesn't think black political reporters will see any advancement. I think both got it right.

Hard as it is to land a TV role, it's not so hard to make a lead character black. At least, not as hard as landing the plum job of White House reporter. The Root points out that many black reporters made their names covering Jesse Jackson's presidential run. But that run was never more than symbolic; basically, you send black reporters to cover the civil rights movement, which is the best way to characterize Jackson's play. But the White House? The press corps there won't be darkening any time soon. And it shouldn't. The White House beat should, by rights, go to those who've earned it. Which black reporters can, and will do.

Auto Execs Starting to Get It?

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 4:51 PM EST

Bad PR works wonders, apparently. Just two weeks after incurring public wrath for flying private jets to Washington in order to beg for bailout money, Detroit's top dogs are returning this week (driving hybrid cars to get here) with a plan to make amends:

Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Alan Mulally plans to tell Congress he is accelerating his company's development of hybrid and electric vehicles and is willing to cut his salary to $1 a year if Ford uses any federal funds.
General Motors Corp. is expected to focus on efforts to lighten the company's heavy debt load and consolidate or sell at least one of its eight automotive brands, most likely Saab, people familiar with the matter said. GM CEO Rick Wagoner also will take a $1 salary, those people said....
In a phone interview Monday, Mr. Mulally said Ford will explain to Congress it is rushing to launch new hybrids and electric vehicles by 2011, including a battery-powered commercial van and compact sedan. A plug-in electric vehicle that can be recharged from a standard electrical outlet should follow in 2012, he said.
In a separate interview, Ford Chairman William Ford Jr. said the company is looking beyond survival to opportunity. "We want to come blasting out as a global, green, high-tech company that's exactly where the country and the Obama administration want us to head," he said.

There is serious reason to doubt Bill Ford on this issue — he has long talked a good game on environmental matters while his company continued to mass produce gas-guzzling over-sized vehicles. At this point, though, reality appears to have finally penetrated the auto executives' thick skulls. No more private jets, no more massive salaries, no more ignoring the market for hybrids, and hopefully, no more business plans that produce SUVs and little else.

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XLR8R's Top Albums of 2008 List Speeds Out In Front

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 4:46 PM EST


San Francisco- and New York-based mostly-electronic music magazine XLR8R has just released its Best Albums of 2008 list, and while they wimped out and didn't rank their 25 titles (come on, hippies!) their choices are so much better than the last magazine's list I'll give them a pass. Noted Party Ben faves Flying Lotus, Beach House, Portishead, M83 and Tobacco xlr8rare in the mix, as well as intriguing choices from Atlas Sound, Daedelus, The Notwist and Spiritualized. Interestingly, they've rejected Lil Wayne (with hip-hop represented by Bun-B and Dizzee Rascal) as well as TV on the Radio (gasp, swoon). And of course there's the requisite super-obscure ridiculousness from Syclops, whose MySpace page announces huffily, "We are sorry, we don't do interviews or tour." But you have an awesome MySpace page! The magazine's inclusion of Yelle is a little iffy, since Pop Up came out in France in September, 2007 (remember me talking about Tecktonik last year?) but my own list archive has a few inaccuracies as well so, you know, glass houses.

Anyway, props to the '8R, and check out their full (and alphabetical—sigh) list after the jump.

Remembrance of Houses Future

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 4:34 PM EST

REMEMBRANCE OF HOUSES FUTURE....If, like me, you adored the House of the Future at Disneyland when you were seven years old, you might enjoy P.J. O'Rourke's account of his visit to the HP/Microsoft revival version this summer. Unsurprisingly, considering the designers, it was closed down at the time due to "technical difficulties," but he was at least able to view it from above:

According to Disney, the shape of things to come can be found at Pottery Barn, with a quick stop in Restoration Hardware for "classic future" touches and a trip to Target to get throw rugs and cheap Japanese paper lanterns. HoF II was designed by the Taylor Morrison company, a home builder specializing in anodyne subdevelopmental housing in the Southwest.

....Any random dull normal person (we have one in our family) could come up with snappier ideas for the future than HoF II seems to contain. How about self-washing windows? Automobiles have had them since the 1930s. And have you watched the clever manner in which convertible car tops operate? What keeps that technology from being applied to self-making beds?....I didn't even see one of those robot vacuum cleaners that trundles around hoovering on its own agenda, never mind, say, a helium balloon with a propeller and a mop of feathers that flies about dusting things (it might not do a very good job dusting, but at our house neither do we).

More here on the original HoF if you want a trip down memory lane. More here on the new one.

"Black Friday" Not So Great for Music Industry

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 4:02 PM EST


Is that still an "industry," even? Billboard is pointing out that while many retail sectors are breathing a sigh of relief after post-Thanksgiving weekend sales rose slightly, the world of music you pay for didn't do so well. First up, high profile album releases from Guns N' Roses and Kanye West both underperformed expectations, with G N' R's Chinese Democracy selling around 250,000 copies (compared to expectations of 300-700K), and Kanye's 808s and Heartbreak moving 425,000-450,000 units (while many expected double that). Maybe people just don't like those albums? Unfortunately, it looks like music sales in general suffered as well: stores like Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart showed declines of up to 40% compared to last year.

The Shootout in Mumbai

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 3:56 PM EST

THE SHOOTOUT IN MUMBAI....After a photographer at the Mumbai Mirror expressed his dismay that police on the scene didn't immediately open a gun battle against the terrorists behind last week's attacks, it became a trope in the right blogosphere that many lives could have been saved if only the Mumbai police had been more ballsy. "This whole unwillingness to shoot business is becoming a problem," sighed Instapundit.

Today, however, Israeli defense officials had a different take in the Jerusalem Post:

"In hostage situations, the first thing the forces are supposed to do is assemble at the scene and begin collecting intelligence," said a former official in the Shin Bet's security unit. "In this case, it appears that the forces showed up at the scene and immediately began exchanging fire with the terrorists instead of first taking control of the area."

I report, you decide. But if it were me, I'd probably listen to the Shin Bet folks. Via Robert Farley.