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Study: Music Industry Should "Embrace" Illegal Downloads

| Mon Aug. 4, 2008 6:20 PM EDT

mojo-photo-piratecat.jpgHey, look, smart people are saying this too! A new study that looks at Radiohead's online release of In Rainbows last year recommends record companies accept—nay, celebrate—the realities of file-sharing. As we mentioned here a few months back, despite the fact that the British combo's album was available on a pay-what-you-want basis, around twice as many people bypassed the official site anyway to use file-sharing web sites or torrents. Maybe, like me, they had trouble logging on to the official site? Yet the study, by the MCPS-PRS Alliance, which represents music rights holders, and Big Champagne, an online media measurement company, sees this as a positive, calling the Radiohead release a "success story" that resulted in strong ticket sales and enormous publicity. Ultimately, the study concludes, record labels should consider "the costs and benefits of control versus the costs and benefits of scale." The UK Guardian suggests purveyors of frozen delicacies take up this strategy as well, by "giving away free ice-cream and selling advertising on the cones," but I'd like to point out the equivalency would be downloading the recipe for ice cream, wouldn't it?

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Last.fm Leads to Uncomfortable Musical Self-Awareness

| Mon Aug. 4, 2008 4:43 PM EDT

mojo-photo-lastlogo.jpgSome readers out there in Rifftopia might consider your ridiculously-named contributor to be an ahead-of-the-curve proponent of bleeding-edge technology. But nothing could be further from the truth. To be honest, I'm like a curmudgeonly grandpa, grudgingly forcing myself to take up new software and gadgets only after their obvious usefulness has finally seeped through my thick skull, and even then it's a real effort. Crimeny, I didn't have a MySpace page until 10 months ago, and I was the last one of my Nebraska family to even get a cell phone. Pathetically lazy or just wary, I'm no "early adopter."

Obama Moves to the Center on Energy: Blergh

| Mon Aug. 4, 2008 4:28 PM EDT

I suppose if he's going to reach across the aisle in order to (1) form compromises and (2) use conservative ideas that have value, he has to do stuff like this. But it still makes progressives groan.

Anthrax Suspect Bruce Ivins: Another Hatfill?

| Mon Aug. 4, 2008 2:10 PM EDT

U.S. bioweapons researcher Bruce Ivins was the FBI's prime suspect in the anthrax attacks. His suicide last week, it was initially reported, came as the Justice Department was preparing to file charges against him. But even as his name is plastered everywhere in relation to the attacks, the facts of the case—the evidence that ties him to the attacks—remains unknown. And despite reports that Ivins' arrest was "imminent," it seems that the FBI may have uncovered less than first thought. The New York Times reports that a source close to the investigation, although characterizing the evidence against Ivins as "damning," acknowledged that it is "largely circumstantial."

Steven Hatfill, the FBI "person of interest" who was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing after years of having his name dragged through the mud, knows a thing or two about circumstantial evidence. In June, he settled with his erstwhile pursuers for $5.82 million. Ivins' suicide, coming when it did, reinforces the perception that he may have been involved in the attacks. In this case, the FBI's novel analysis of anthrax samples appears to have led them back to Ivins, but, the Times reports, more then a ten people had direct access to the same material. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Ivins was in New Jersey at the time the letters were mailed from there in September and October of 2001.

That said, the circumstantial evidence does raise an eyebrow or two. According to the Times:

That evidence includes tracing the prestamped envelopes used in the attacks to stock sold in three Maryland post offices, including one in Frederick, frequented by Dr. Ivins, who had long rented a post office box there under an assumed name, the source said. The evidence also includes records of the scientist's extensive after-hours use of his lab at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases around the time the letters were mailed, the source said.
The FBI's case against Ivins is expected to be released to the public later this week.

Frightening Invasions of Privacy Allowed at the Border

| Mon Aug. 4, 2008 1:59 PM EDT

A few years back, I was driving from Vancouver to Seattle with an old high school friend. At the border, we were stopped by an American border agent who asked us some standard questions, then opened the trunk of our car to take a look around. I became alarmed when I heard a familiar series of slow, regular beeps and realized that the agent was clicking through photos on the digital camera in my duffel bag. It felt obviously illegal — there was no cause whatsoever for turning on an electronic device and looking at pictures taken days, weeks, or months earlier.

I complained to friends afterwards, but didn't think much of it. Now I realize it was part of official United States government policy:

Federal agents may take a traveler's laptop computer or other electronic device to an off-site location for an unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing, as part of border search policies the Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed.
Also, officials may share copies of the laptop's contents with other agencies and private entities for language translation, data decryption or other reasons, according to the policies, dated July 16 and issued by two DHS agencies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement...

USS Cole Suspect Killed in Missile Strike; Bin Laden Deputy Injured?

| Mon Aug. 4, 2008 12:45 PM EDT

teralzawahiri.jpg

A senior Al Qaeda commander believed to have trained the suicide bombers who attacked the USS Cole was killed July 28 in a missile strike on his hideout in Pakistan's tribal region, according to news reports (here and here). Abu Khabab al-Masri, an Egpytian, had a $5-million price on his head at the time of his death, which was confirmed Sunday by a news release on an Al Qaeda-affiliated website. Al-Masri's bio, as described in this morning's Wall Street Journal:

A chemist by training, Mr. Masri started in al Qaeda as a bomb maker but branched out into the development of biological and chemical weapons after the terror group settled in Afghanistan in the 1990s. There he was entrusted with part of al Qaeda's so-called yogurt project to develop weapons of mass destruction, and operated a training camp in the village of Derunta. He tried unsuccessfully to develop an anthrax weapon and, with Dr. Zawahri, tried to develop poisons that could kill more quickly by mixing them with chemicals that caused them to be absorbed into the skin more rapidly.
It isn't clear how much of the research bore results, though U.S. authorities said Mr. Masri did gas some dogs at the Derunta training camp. U.S. authorities said he provided hundreds of mujahedeen with hands-on training in the use of poisons and explosives and distributed training manuals showing how to make chemical and biological weapons.

Al Qaeda acknowledged that three other commanders were killed in the strike, all identified by pseudonyms including the name "al-Masri," which in Arabic means Egyptian. Their true identities are unknown, but an Al Qaeda communication intercepted by CBS News might shed some light on at least one of them. A letter bearing the signature and personal seal of Pakistani Taliban leader Beitullah Mehsud urgently requests a doctor for Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who is Al Qaeda's number two leader, often pictured alongside Osama Bin Laden. Mehsud wrote that al-Zawahiri is in "severe pain" and "his injuries are infected." Experts have confirmed the missive's authenticity, but when news of the letter was reported, Al Qaeda issued a denial, claiming that al-Zawahiri was not among those injured in the July 28 missile strike.

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Obama Learns: What's Bad for the Brand Is Good for the Pocketbook

| Mon Aug. 4, 2008 12:23 PM EDT

One of 2008's political axioms has been proven yet again.

Over and over in the Democratic primary, candidates would have their best fundraising periods right after a crucial primary loss (or, in one notable case, right after the candidate was forced to make a sizable loan to the campaign), leading me and others to observe that in presidential fundraising nowadays, nothing succeeds like failure.

Late last Friday, Marc Ambinder observed it in effect yet again. Apparently, all the McCain ads that have been beating Obama up are driving more donors, new and old, to give to Obama.

The Town Hall Idea Dies: An Opportunity Wasted for Obama?

| Mon Aug. 4, 2008 9:07 AM EDT

Many months ago, the McCain campaign tried to push for a regular schedule of joint town halls that would replace the standard presidential election paradigm of three formal debates between the conventions and the general election. The Obama campaign suggested that it was interested, and back in those naive months of spring it seemed like the town halls were an example of where an Obama-McCain election, contested between two practitioners of politics-as-unusual, would break the mold.

Nope. The Obama campaign, realizing that it would be wise to do nothing that jeopardizes its lead, sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates (the what now?) agreeing to three debates on September 26, October 7, and October 15. The campaign also agreed to the standard vice presidential debate.

The letter, written by David Plouffe, appears to rule out the possibility of more debates, saying, "Due to the late date of the two parties' nominating conventions, and the relatively short period between the end of the conventions and the first proposed date, it is likely that the four Commission debates will be the sole series of debates in the fall campaign."

You Don't Understand. Joe Lieberman Wants to Be a Uniter

| Mon Aug. 4, 2008 8:38 AM EDT

I'm back from two weeks in Africa and what better way to get back in the saddle than by nailing Joe Lieberman for being a hypocrite and a phony? On Meet the Press, Lieberman discussed the possibility of speaking at the Republican convention by saying, "If Sen. McCain feels that I can help his candidacy…I will do it." But he insisted his motives are pure:

I'm going to go to a partisan convention and tell them — if I go — why it's so important that we start to act like Americans and not as partisan mudslingers.

For some reason, I don't know that I believe Joe. Maybe it's because he once speculated that Obama is a socialist, despite the fact that after serving with Obama in the Senate for three years, he must know he isn't. Or that he once suggested electing Barack Obama would lead to an attack on America, because terrorists would try to test a new president as unprepared as Obama supposedly is. Or that he pushed the Obama-is-endorsed-by-Hamas nonsense and said it "suggests the difference between these two candidates." Or that he actually believes (or is willing to say publicly) that Obama is choosing to lose the Iraq War.

That sounds like an awful lot of bad faith and mudslinging from a guy who plans on going to the Republican convention as an envoy for comity and bipartisanship. Also, for the record, if Joe Lieberman fancies himself such an effective advocate for clean, friendly politics, maybe he could have a word with the man he's shilling for.

It feels good to be back in my "mother's basement and ranting into the ether."

Ivory Poaching Returns With A Vengeance

| Fri Aug. 1, 2008 11:52 PM EDT

800px-Baby_elephants3.jpg The ugly scourge of ivory poaching has reappeared in Africa—at levels higher than the epic slaughters of 1989.

Worse, the 7.4 percent annual death rate of 20 years ago was based on a population that numbered more than 1 million. Today the total African elephant population is less than 470,000.

Twenty years ago widespread media coverage of 70,000 elephants killed a year led to an international trade ban. That resulted in strong enforcement efforts, which halted nearly all poaching immediately.

But Western aid was withdrawn four years after the ban and poaching gradually increased to the current disastrous rates. Without anyone really noticing.

Except elephants.

Now a new study in the August Conservation Biology contends that most remaining large elephant groups will be extinct by 2020 unless renewed public pressure results in enforcement of the existing laws.

The good news: DNA evidence gathered from recent major ivory seizures shows conclusively that the ivory is not coming from all over Africa but from specific herds. Consequently, authorities could beef up enforcement in those areas and make an immediate dent in the problem.

The illegal trade is being carried out mostly by large crime syndicates. It's driven by growing markets in China and Japan, where ivory is in demand for carvings and signature stamps called hankos.

Good people of Asia, could you get over this fetish from the dark ages? No hanko is worth even one elephant.

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