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An All-American Advertisement

| Fri Jul. 18, 2008 11:59 AM EDT

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The above ad is running on the Washington Post website. It's sponsored by the Renewable Fuels Association, which is the national trade association for the U.S. ethanol industry. I find it interesting because it is clearly an attempt to integrate ethanol into an all-American image. The ad could be called "Blonds, Babies, and Biofuels." (Or, "Babes, Babes, and Biofuels.") All it needs, in addition to the young mother and her smiling tot, is an apple pie cooling on the roof of the car and a flag waving in the background.

Ethanol is far from perfect, a fact we've been writing about for ages. But because it's produced by hard-bitten farmers in places like Iowa, it's probably the renewable energy source most likely to be integrated into our sense of national identity. And that's a start. After ethanol, hopefully we can move onto the stuff that works.

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Gramm and McCain Still Close Pals? That's Good News for Dems

| Fri Jul. 18, 2008 11:40 AM EDT

Robert Novak reports--and his reporting is not always spot-on--that John McCain has forgiven Phil Gramm after Gramm called America a "nation of whiners" and dismissed current economic troubles as nothing more than a "mental recession." According to Novak, "Gramm will continue as an adviser and surrogate" for McCain. Gramm is still cochairman of McCain's presidential campaign.

This reporting counters recent news stories that Gramm has been nudged aside within McCainland. If it is true, Democrats can only respond this way: good! Gramm is a wonderful--and deserving--target for Dems and the Obama campaign. But not only because his out-of-touch remarks seemed to reflect the inner thinking of McCain and his advisers. Gramm represents much of what has gone wrong with the economy. As chairman of the Senate banking committee, he championed relentless deregulation that led in part to the subprime mess and to the Enron debacle. After leaving the Senate, he then became a lobbyist and executive for Swiss bank giant UBS. (Remember when McCain used to blast lobbyists?) These days UBS is in the news for allowing wealthy American clients to park money off-shore (perhaps illegally) to avoid taxes.

So McCain was happy to recruit Gramm for his campaign--despite his past record, ideas, policies, and lobbying activity--and look to him for economic advice. He saw nothing wrong with Grammonomics. That's the issue, more so than Gramm's impolitic comments. And if Novak is right--and that may be a nice-sized if--the Gramm issue remains, for Phil Gramm remains within the warm embrace of John McCain.

UPDATE: On Friday, Gramm quit as cochairman of the McCain campaign. Maybe Novak got it wrong. But Gramm did not say he would no longer be advising McCain.

The Dark Knight: A Cartoonist's Take

| Fri Jul. 18, 2008 6:19 AM EDT

Time was when comic-book fandom would keel over, twitching and gasping in excitement, when every decade or so a new movie based on a comic book hit the big screen. In my days as a younger, peppier geek, I too awaited each new comic-book movie with bated breath. Now, I'm just overwhelmed by the sheer volume of offerings (not to mention burned by two decades of movies like Batman Forever, and both versions of The Fantastic Four).

Marvel alone seems determined to overwhelm theatergoers this year: The wildly successful Iron Man (and wildly less successful Incredible Hulk) will be followed over the next few years not just by more Iron and Spider types, but The Silver Surfer, Ant-Man (no, really), and an entire Avengers team-up.

Then there's rival house DC's Batman offering, The Dark Knight, opening this weekend. There's already talk of an Oscar nomination for Heath Ledger's performance; currently, the only actor to have won a posthumous Oscar is Peter Finch (for his iconic madman in Network).

Given the heavy media coverage of this summer's stylized films, maybe that's why the only comic-book adaptation that really fascinates me right now isn't a movie.

Yes, I can't stop thinking about the Spider-Man musical. Bound for Broadway and featuring music by Bono and the Edge, Spider-Man put out this casting call for its three leads:

Polling the Ohio Pols

| Fri Jul. 18, 2008 4:36 AM EDT

Barack Obama and John McCain may be sparring over several different issues—Iran, Iraq, health care, immigration—in their fight for the White House, but, at least in swing states Ohio and Florida, one issue trumps them all: the economy.

An NPR poll conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard's School of Public Health shows (.pdf) more than 50 percent of respondents in both states say their pocketbooks will be the most important issue guiding their votes in November. When pollsters combined respondents' first and second most pressing concerns, the economy showed up 70 percent of the time.

This could bode well for Obama and his fellow party members, especially in Ohio, where some counties face unemployment rates of more than eight percent. "It does help the Democrats," says Johnnie Maier, chairman of the Democratic party in Stark County, Ohio, which historically has acted as bellwether county in presidential elections. "When George W. Bush took office, we had a budget surplus. We didn't have a housing crisis. Now we're replacing what used to be living-wage jobs with part-time jobs at places like Wal-Mart—a major Chinese importer. It's beyond a mess."

Diddling While America Burns

| Fri Jul. 18, 2008 4:00 AM EDT

This must have been how the peasants felt, watching Nero fiddle a merry tune while Rome burned.

Gasoline approaches $5 a gallon, runs on our banks are just barely averted, the war on terror drags on and on and what are we obsessed with? A magazine cover, now that the New Yorker's suddenly embraced satiric ones, and Bernie Mac's barely funny jokes at an Obama fundraiser. Imagine...a comedian making luke warm fun of the probable next Prez's marital woes. Heavens!

Do our problems seem so insoluble that we don't know what else to tackle but inanities like this? The only good that can come of this puerility is the fodder it provides for those of us who teach journalism (students, see: what not to do). It's twaddle like this that makes good journalism so much more precious. Wanna feed your brain instead of swaddle it in crap, wanna encourage journalists to produce more of it? Here are three items not to miss.

When W Talks Down

| Thu Jul. 17, 2008 10:15 PM EDT

Try this one on for size: W wouldn't dare talk down to his citizens by suggesting they drive less and conserve near $5/gallon gas. From Politico:

"I mean, you know, it's interesting what the price of gasoline has done," Bush said at a news conference in the White House press room, "is it caused people to drive less. That's why they want smaller cars: They want to conserve. But the consumer's plenty bright. The marketplace works."

"It's a little presumptuous on my part to dictate how consumers live their own lives," the president added. "I've got faith in the American people."

Unless, of course, the American people are women who want to control their own bodies.

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Aboriginal Singer Tops Australian Independent Music Charts

| Thu Jul. 17, 2008 8:19 PM EDT

mojo-photo-yunupingu.jpgAn indigenous Australian singer has topped the Australian independent record charts with an album recorded mostly in his native Yungul language. The 37-year-old singer, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, has been blind since birth, but has already become an accomplished self-taught musician—he might be known to some world music fans as a sometime member of the Yothu Yindi band. But it's his debut solo album that's causing a sensation, mostly due to Yunupingu's voice, which the Sydney Morning Herald called one of "absolutely transcendental beauty." The singer is a bit of a recluse, since he apparently speaks little English, and Australia's ABC News calls him "very shy." But that didn't stop him from selling out the Sydney Opera House twice last weekend, and the UK Guardian says Elton John, Sting, and Björk are fans.

After the jump, check out "Wukun," a track from the new album that foregrounds the clear, shiver-inducing tones of Yunupingu's voice against a simple guitar melody that's almost like a lullaby.

New Music from Around the Blogs: Machines Don't Care, Kid Cudi, Santogold, Lykke Li

| Thu Jul. 17, 2008 7:51 PM EDT

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The hotly-anticipated full length from electro supergroup Machines Don't Care (comprised of Party Ben faves Sinden, Herve, Trevor Loveys, and more) just released their full-length effort this week; The Docking Station has a few tracks and a mini-mix. Try out "Spycatcher" if you miss the old rave days but love the new wobbly bassline sound—it's got both! (For fans of: Moby, Joey Beltram, glowsticks)

For edgy hip-hop with some depth, check out Cleveland's Kid Cudi, whose "Day N Nite" has a melancholy style that's a throwback to '80s tracks like Oran "Juice" Jones' "The Rain." Remember that one? "I saw you, and him...?" No? Oh well. Gorilla vs. Bear's got the mp3. (For fans of: Lil Wayne, Paul Wall, Cleveland)

After the jump: taking the Clash back to their reggae roots, and hipster head-explosion fun times!

LEDs Just Got Brighter

| Thu Jul. 17, 2008 7:08 PM EDT

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Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are four times more efficient than incandescent lights and greener than compact fluorescent bulbs (think: mercury). They also last up to 15 years before burning out.

So why aren't they everywhere?

Because they're expensive—created on a pricey layer of sapphire.

Until now. Purdue University researchers report a novel technique using cheap metal-coated silicon wafers to make LEDs.

Cheaper is better. Widespread LED use could cut electricity consumption by 10 percent.

That could help us heed Al Gore's call to produce all global-warming-free electricity by 2018.

The LED findings appear this month in Applied Physics Letters, journal of the American Institute of Physics.

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

Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Fed

| Thu Jul. 17, 2008 6:53 PM EDT

How comforted should we feel by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke's pronouncement that the country's largest mortgage-finance companies are in "no danger of failing"? Or this week's rebound in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae shares?

Not as comforted as Congress now appears to be. No, we don't have 25 percent unemployment, or the bread lines of the early 1930s, but anyone who lives in Indymac's hometown of Pasadena, California knows we're seeing bank runs. And while it's all well and good for the SEC to restrict the short selling of Fannie, Freddie and primary bond dealers, when whole countries are dumping US stocks and bonds, something more drastic is required.