Blogs

TV: The Weekend in Sci-Fi

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 8:31 PM EDT

mojo-photo-battlelogo.gifmojo-photo-torchlogo.gifIf you were out and about this weekend and noticed a lower ratio of geeks hanging around than usual, there were two reasons why: the season premier of Battlestar Galactica on Sci-Fi Friday, and a hyped episode of Torchwood on BBC America Saturday, its third-to-the-last before the season finale. So, how were they, and was there any significant political/religious allegory or sexual identity boundary breaking, respectively?

After the jump: flying away from Earth makes my head hurt, and seeing it burned to a crisp makes me holler.

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Small Nuclear Exchange Would Make Global Ozone Hole

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 8:30 PM EDT

509px-Nagasakibomb.jpg A limited nuclear weapons exchange between Pakistan and India using their current arsenals could create a near-global ozone hole, triggering human health problems and wreaking environmental havoc for at least a decade. According to a new computer modeling study from Brian Toon and Michael Mills of the University of Colorado Boulder, the ozone losses would be much larger than losses estimated in previous "nuclear winter" and "ultraviolet spring" scenarios.

A nuclear war between the two countries involving 50 Hiroshima-sized nuclear devices on each side would cause massive urban fires and loft as much as 5 million metric tons of soot about 50 miles into the stratosphere. The soot would absorb enough solar radiation to heat surrounding gases, setting in motion a series of chemical reactions that would break down the stratospheric ozone layer protecting Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation—including ozone losses of 25 percent to 40 percent at mid-latitudes, and 50 to 70 percent at northern high latitudes.

Two 2006 studies led by Toon showed that such a small-scale regional nuclear war could produce as many fatalities as all of World War II and disrupt global climate for a decade or more. A nuclear exchange involving 100 15-kiloton, Hiroshima-type weapons is only 0.03 percent of the total explosive power of the world's nuclear arsenal, he said.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Beyond Propaganda: New Republic Rolls Out BP-Sponsored Enviro Blog

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 7:20 PM EDT

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So, The New Republic has added a new blog to its roster: the Environment & Energy blog, which is sponsored, nay "powered," by BP. (Quips blogger Andrew Daniller: "I assumed their whole magazine was sponsored by military contractors.") Maybe this is where the blogosphere is headed, magazines selling off their real estate like major league ballparks, to the highest bidder. And we're all for creative ways to bring in revenue to support the cause, but there's a qualitative difference between running BP ads in a magazine and having the BP logo emblazoned on all energy and environment content—i.e. all the content that could relate to BP. Certainly the sponsorship raises issues of editorial-advertising line-blurring, potential self-censorship, the deterioration of journalistic self-respect, etc.

The company formerly known as British Petroleum (it now prefers "beyond petroleum"), despite furious rebranding efforts, has a typically abysmal environmental record: "Although BP put $500 million into solar power between 2000 and 2005, it spent $8.4 billion exploring and producing petroleum in 2004 alone." And BP at one time lobbied hard to open ANWR to drilling. Then again, so did TNR, asserting in 2002 that the plan to drill in the wildlife refuge "would almost certainly cause little environmental damage."

So what are environmentally- and ethically-minded TNR staffers to do? It's already a bit late for a preemptive strike against the sponsorship (like the one last year at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, where gutsy reporters rebelled and sunk a management-hatched plan to allow FedEx to sponsor a series on world business). BP must see the TNR blog as a relatively safe forum, one where it won't face persistent, searing criticism. So why not test BP's assumption? Why not scrutinize and heap journalistic abuse on BP and Big Oil till they can't take it anymore? TNR staffer Bradford Plumer engaged BP a bit today, calling out the company for "shamefully working behind the scenes in Congress to oppose strong climate legislation." That's a start.

—Justin Elliott

Hillary Calls for a Boycott of Olympics Opening Ceremony

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 5:26 PM EDT

In what might be perceived as a duck for political cover after the Mark Penn controversy, Hillary Clinton today called for Bush to boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympics. She cited China's crackdown on Tibetans and failure to speak out against genocide in Darfur. "These events underscore why I believe the Bush Administration has been wrong to downplay human rights in its policy towards China," she said.

Though her qualms with Bush are valid, why didn't Clinton say the same thing about her husband ten years ago? In 1997, Sen. Russ Feingold (but not Hillary) criticized Bill Clinton for failing to press China to end the repression in Tibet. Soon afterwards, the Clintons, with the support of Republicans, pushed to end the policy of reviewing China's human rights record when making decisions about trade relations.

Given that the Penn fiasco also involves an international trade deal, Clinton's new position on the Olympics--however well-justified--looks like an effort to reassure her blue collar base. Will she go so far as to say liberalizing trade relations with China without any major human rights conditions was a mistake? It's certainly a more important question than whether to boycott a sporting event.

When Live Music Isn't So Live

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 5:05 PM EDT

mojo-photo-tingtings.jpgThe organic, gritty sound of your favorite band, strumming out their rockin' jams on stage: nothing could be more purely live, more essentially human, right? Well, recently it seems like the line separating a live show from, say, a movie, or, um, a pre-programmed roboticized fantasia, has become more and more blurred. Just a few weeks ago, up-and-coming UK duo The Ting Tings opened for The Duke Spirit at Rickshaw Stop here in San Francisco, and I had mixed feelings about their performance. On the one hand, they make incredibly catchy, exciting, playful music, and both members are clearly accomplished musicians and singers. On the other hand, they made no effort to disguise the fact that they were playing along with a backing tape. For instance, during the chorus of their current single "Great DJ," the sound stepped up a notch, with a second guitar line and possibly extra percussion filling things out. However they did it, it was performed flawlessly—the "taped" material was never out of synch, and it definitely made the songs richer, more intense. Parts of the crowd responded, dancing and singing along. But others seems to hold back, more so than even a typically stand-offish SF audience; did people have a sense of being "had"?

After the jump: video, and a graph!

Spies - They Are a-Changin'

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 3:34 PM EDT

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If, like me, you're a lover of espionage films, you might fancy yourself able to spot the typical spy from a mile away. It's usually a white man, native born, who gets into trouble with booze, gambling, or hookers, and to support his habit or break free of his debts, agrees to trade secrets for cash. He might be military, but could just as easily be civilian. He doesn't have many foreign connections, least of all to the Russians, that most lucrative of employers, so he tosses a note over an embassy wall or slips a letter under a guarded gate, offering his services to the bad guys. Picture Sean Penn in "The Falcon and the Snowman" or Chris Cooper in "Breach."

That's the archetype, and according to an unclassified report (.pdf) released last month by the Defense Personnel Security Research Center, which studies the characteristics of American spies, it used to be largely true—that is, until around 1990. After the Cold War, the biographical details and motivations of the typical traitor began a dramatic shift, reflecting larger changes in the world's political alignment, advances in communications, growth in international travel, and globalization.

A summary of how today's spies differ from yesterday's, according to the report:

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Think Before You Blog

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 1:36 PM EDT

"We'd do well to think before we post": That's the advice that the editors of the Columbia Journalism Review offer to bloggers in their March/April editorial. Matt Yglesias (of Atlantic fame) and Ann Friedman (of Feministing) would do well to heed it. Both bloggers appear to have been taken in by a cleverly-done April Fools' prank. At first glance, this "New York Times" article about the Navy creating all-female crews for two submarines seems fairly believable. It mimics Times style fairly convincingly, and the page looks right. But the URL isn't quite right, the "multimedia" links don't work, and the "related stories" include several other April Fools'-related items. And that's before you even get to the content of the story, which includes a photo of "Rev. Dusty Boats," is written by "Seymor Conch and James Boswell," and contains the requisite sentence about "mixing with seamen". And then there's this over-the-top "quote":

I went to submarines to get a breather from my wife and her mother. Especially her mother. Now I have to spend 60 days underwater with women? You know how long they take in the bathroom.

Would anyone who actually thinks that way about his wife and mother-in-law tell it to the New York Times? The quote came at the end of the story; perhaps Ygelsias and Friedman, fine bloggers both, didn't quite get there. Friedman has already acknowledged she was "belatedly gotten". Is Yglesias trying to pull a fast one on his readers, or has he, too, been "got"?

Baghdad Not Consulted on Renewal of Blackwater Contract

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 12:16 PM EDT

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Friday afternoons have long been Washington's dumping ground for stories that various power brokers would rather see whither and die, and last Friday was no exception. Shortly after the Clinton campaign finally released Bill and Hillary's tax returns, showing they've netted over $100 million since 2000, the State Department announced that it would renew Blackwater's security contract to protect U.S. diplomats abroad.

Blackwater's involvement in a shooting incident in a Baghdad traffic circle last September remains under investigation by the FBI, although an earlier Iraqi review (albeit one conducted by the insurgent-penetrated Iraqi Interior Ministry) characterized the incident as "premeditated murder." The U.S. private security firm is also the subject of federal probes regarding illegal weapons transfers and tax evasion. None of this, however, stood in the way of the State Department's renewal of Blackwater's five-year Worldwide Protective Services contract, originally awarded to the company in 2006 and subject to annual review.

The move has proved controversial in Iraq, where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, weakened by his recent failed attempt to crush Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite milita, may be attempting to find an issue around which to rally whatever dwindling domestic support remains for his government. Indeed, Blackwater is so deeply unpopular with Iraqis that beating up on the company may be just the thing to distract attention from al-Maliki's other problems, at least for the moment. In an interview with CNN, al-Maliki attacked the State Department's decision, claiming the Iraqi government was not consulted on the renewal of the Blackwater contract, which it surely would have rejected based on the results of its own investigation in the September shooting incident.

The Status of Pork, 2007

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 11:53 AM EDT

While we're on the subject of congressional earmarks, I should point out that Citizens Against Government Waste came out with its 2007 Pig Book last week. It notes that due to a little anti-earmark momentum, the amount of taxpayer money that went into pork last year was the lowest in almost ten years. But there are some bad actors, of course. From CAGW's summary:

Introducing the "Soft Earmark"

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 11:26 AM EDT

Color me better informed.

With great fanfare, Congress adopted strict ethics rules last year requiring members to disclose when they steered federal money to pet projects. But it turns out lawmakers can still secretly direct billions of dollars to favored organizations by making vague requests rather than issuing explicit instructions to government agencies in committee reports and spending bills. That seeming courtesy is the difference between "soft earmarks" and the more insistent "hard earmarks."
How much money is requested for any specific project? It is difficult to say, since price tags are not included with soft earmarks. Who is the sponsor? Unclear, unless the lawmaker later acknowledges it. Purpose of the spending? Usually not provided.
How to spot a soft earmark? Easy. The language is that of a respectful suggestion: A committee "endorses" or notes it "is aware" of deserving programs and "urges" or "recommends" that agencies finance them.

The annual cost of these soft earmarks is not known, though the Congressional Research Service found more than $3 billion in soft earmark expenses in one of Congress's 13 spending bills from 2006. More, after the jump...