Blogs

Attention Spans

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 5:50 PM EST

ATTENTION SPANS....Mike O'Hare is unhappy about decreasing attention spans and what that means for the news business. I couldn't quite make it through his entire post1, but here's his conclusion:

Maybe a workable business/technology model can be created for digital newspapers, but the newspaper itself cannot be the same as the once-a-day package of lots of long stories and a 'readership' of googlers and texters may just not support the journalism on which a democracy depends.

....I am quite down about all this. It drives me nuts that my students have almost never engaged with a work of art or explication for more than the length of a music video; I assign them one of Wagner's longer operas and their mental state becomes a little labile, understandably, but even a ninety-minute class discussion often pushes the new limits of attention. I don't know how to get our arms around the facts of declining-marginal-cost goods in three-minute blips.

My mother was a fourth-grade teacher, and she told me once that when she started teaching (circa 1970) she could schedule activities for a maximum of 30 minutes before the kids got too antsy to control. By the time she retired (circa 2000), that was down to 15 minutes. I've long been of the opinion that there's an upside to this (primarily a better ability to multitask), but I confess that I'm less and less sure of that these days.

1Just a wee joke.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Pipeline Politics

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 4:27 PM EST

PIPELINE POLITICS....Russia wants to hike the price that Ukraine pays for its natural gas. Ukraine doesn't want to pay. Russia says Ukraine is siphoning off gas destined for Europe. Ukraine says that's a lie. So Russia has closed the taps on its pipeline and no gas is flowing to anyone. Robert Farley takes a stab a figuring out who's really at fault in this spat:

On balance (and at risk of being once again denounced as a Kremlin stooge) I'm rather less sympathetic to the Ukrainian case; of course accepting a discount from a Russian national gas concern was going to give Russia influence over Ukraine. That's the price of doing business. I'm singularly uncompelled by the notion that Russia supplying energy to Europe gives the Russians some kind of undue, ominous influence over European affairs, any more than the folks down at Chipotle have ominous influence over me through their control of burrito supplies. Market transactions inevitably create short term dependence, but of course that goes both ways; Russia can interfere with supply only at significant cost to Russia.

Even at the higher prices Russia wants to charge Ukraine, the Ukranians would still be getting gas at a discount. And Ukraine's previous contract only ran through the end of the year. So I think I agree with Farley: although regional power politics are obviously behind Russia's actions, this is still primarily a commercial issue. Both Gazprom and Ukraine are in pretty serious economic straits right now, and neither one wants to back down. It's more a routine dispute over money than anything else.

UPDATE: In the Financial Times, Jérôme Guillet and John Evans provide more background. Nickel version: Russia and Ukraine have been fighting this exact same fight for a long time and they both know that neither side can do without the other. So a few years ago Gazprom "solved" its Ukraine problem by privatizing much of its gas trade: customers would pay less for their gas, but they'd pay a third-party supplier who was supposedly unrelated to either Ukrainian gas authorities or Gazprom:

Political infighting in Ukraine can largely be understood by the struggle to be the Ukrainian counterparty to the trade. (It is no coincidence that Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister, made her fortune in gas trading in the 1990s and that Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russia opposition leader, represents some of the largest heavy industrial gas buyers in eastern Ukraine.) In Russia, similarly, both the Kremlin and Gazprom are rife with infighting between shifting coalitions.

So while the world focuses on the predictable brinkmanship between Ukraine and Russia, the real fight over the share-out is taking place more discreetly between a few oligarchs in Moscow and Kiev. This is perhaps the whole purpose of the noisy puppet show. Worries about Russia or Gaz­prom using the "gas weapon" against Europe are misplaced. In their official capacity, both are keenly aware of their absolute dependency on exports to Europe for a huge share of the country's income, and on the need for stable, reliable, long-term relationships to finance the in­vestments needed in gas infrastructure.

So it really is a routine dispute over money, it's just that the dispute isn't really between Russia and Ukraine. It's between a small group of rich Russians and a small group of rich Ukrainians. You can read about this in even more gruesome detail here.

Via WhirledView.

A Question on Burris

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 3:21 PM EST

Does anyone know his positions on anything? Just asking.

Entitlements

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 3:08 PM EST

ENTITLEMENTS....From the New York Times account of Barack Obama's press conference this morning:

Changes in Social Security and Medicare will be central to efforts to bring federal spending in line, President-elect Barack Obama said on Wednesday, as the Congressional Budget Office projected a $1.2 trillion budget deficit for the fiscal year.

"We expect that discussion around entitlements will be a part, a central part" of efforts to curb federal spending, Mr. Obama said at a news conference. By February, he said, "we will have more to say about how we're going to approach entitlement spending."

This comes at about the 6:20 mark of the linked video. "We will have some very specific outlines in terms of how it's going to be done," he said. Now, maybe this is just me zoning out, but I don't recall Obama saying anything quite this unambiguous about Medicare and Social Security reform before. And I haven't read any leaks along these lines either.

On the Medicare front he may just be talking about the impact of his overall healthcare plan, but I don't have a clue what he might have in mind for Social Security. At a guess, though, he's got something typically Obamian in mind, a mixed bag of moderate tax hikes (maybe increasing the payroll tax cap, which I think he's talked about before) and moderate benefit cuts (maybe increasing retirement age a year or two) that will get bipartisan support. Wait and see.

Criminal Investigation Into Destroyed CIA Tapes Coming to a Close?

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 2:55 PM EST

For over a year, a federal prosecutor has been quietly conducting a criminal probe into the CIA's destruction of videotapes documenting the interrogations of Al Qaeda operatives Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The tapes showed the terrorism suspects being subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, possibly waterboarding, and were reportedly destroyed in 2005 due to concerns the videos could prompt legal blowback against agency officials. According to a recent court filing [PDF], the investigation into the matter may soon be coming to close.

Steven Aftergood points us to a declaration filed by John Durham, the US Attorney who's leading the investigation, in a related Freedom of Information Act case. In that case, the James Madison Project, a DC-based nonprofit headed by whistleblower lawyer Mark Zaid, is seeking access to CIA documents pertaining to the destruction of the tapes. Durham was seeking—and on Monday received—a stay in the FOIA case in order to give his team time to wrap up remaining interviews. But it won't be long, he told the court. "Investigators are now in the process of scheduling interviews with the remaining witnesses to be interviewed in this investigation," he wrote in the December 31 filing. "Based on the investigative accomplishments to date, we anticipate that by mid-February 2009, and no later than February 28, 2009, we will have completed the interviews." He also said that a "considerable portion of the work to be done in connection with the investigation has been completed."

Stay tuned.

Rick Warren's AIDS Work in Africa Has Ties to Anti-Gay, Anti-Condom Activists

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 2:48 PM EST

Rick WarrenIf you were wondering if there was any way for you to be more perturbed at Rick Warren, get ready to have your life be even more purpose-driven. The Daily Beast is reporting that the mega-church pastor's work on AIDS in Africa, held up by the Obama team as "one of the things on which they agree," has close ties to anti-gay, anti-condom activists, and according to a UN envoy, is "resulting in great damage:"

Warren's man in Uganda is a charismatic pastor named Martin Ssempa. The head of the Makerere Community Church, a rapidly growing congregation, Ssempe enjoys close ties to his country's First Lady, Janet Museveni, and is a favorite of the Bush White House. In the capitol of Kampala, Ssempa is known for his boisterous crusading. Ssempa's stunts have included burning condoms in the name of Jesus and arranging the publication of names of homosexuals in cooperative local newspapers while lobbying for criminal penalties to imprison them.

Of course, Warren also has links to the Bush administration: one official administering the president's $15 billion anti-AIDS initiative who appeared at Warren's church said in 2004 that condoms "have not been very effective." The article details how Republican-allocated funds were used "exclusively" for abstinence education, which of course led to an increase in infection rates. With evidence mounting, the newly Democratic congress tried to remove the abstinence-only earmark last year, only to be fought by Warren, who claimed that the provision's removal would increase sex trafficking of young women. The pastor has also apparently been vocal in his support of virulently anti-gay Ugandan Anglicans. Sure makes comparing gay marriage to pedophilia and incest seem like a friendly pat on the back, doesn't it.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user All About You God.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

That Was Fun While It Lasted: Beatles Music Free For a Day

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 2:21 PM EST

mojo-photo-beatlesnorway.jpgAs a Swede, I have to say it doesn't surprise me that those miserable, cheap Norwegians were behind this. And don't get me started on the Finns. Norway's national broadcaster NRK announced yesterday that it had discovered a crazy loophole in its podcasting rights agreement that allowed it to offer free downloads of basically every Beatles song ever. How, you say? The station had broadcast a series in 2007 called "Our Daily Beatles" in which each episode featured one Fab Four song and the story behind it. Then they discovered that their agreement with London-based recording industry rights organization IFPI seemed to indicate they could offer the series, complete with music, as a podcast, effectively allowing for the entire Beatles catalog to be given away. Since the Beatles are famous holdouts from digital stores like iTunes, this would have been the only legal way to get mp3s of their music.

Of course, there's no way this could have been real, since the Beatles, like Oprah, don't obey the law, they make the law. While I have no evidence anyone from NRK was severely beaten, they did come out with a very contrite statement today: it turns out that they can only "put up shows for download that were aired the latest four weeks, and where the music is less than 70% of the show's length. 'Our Daily Beatles' aired in 2007, so we have to pull the podcast." And please, Yoko, take the electrodes off my nipples!

Joe!

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 1:50 PM EST

JOE!....Via Atrios, our friends at Pajamas Media have landed an exclusive:

Joe The Plumber is putting down his wrenches and picking up a reporter's notebook. The Ohio man who became a household name during the presidential campaign says he is heading to Israel as a war correspondent for the conservative Web site pjtv.com.

Another triumph for citizen journalism. Maybe Sarah Palin will join him for a surprise appearance at a bomb crater somewhere.

The Curious Case of the Curious Case of Benjamin Button

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 1:39 PM EST

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON....Apropos of nothing in particular, I decided to read Fitzgerald's short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" after seeing the movie, and it's curious indeed. Aside from not being a very good story (working in the dark ages before the rise of sf, Fitzgerald pretty clearly had no idea what to do with the concept), it's notable that the film doesn't contain even one single element from the story. Not one. Aside from the title, the only thing they have in common is the basic idea of a man aging backward, and even that's treated entirely differently in the film than in the story.

Now, I don't have any problem with this. Screenwriters should write whatever screenplay they want. But what I'm curious about is why the filmmakers even bothered to pretend their movie was based on the Fitzgerald story. If it were, say, I, Robot, I'd get it: the association with Isaac Asimov would be considered good for the box office. Ditto for all the bestsellers made into movies. But the association with Fitzgerald wasn't really played up much in the publicity for the movie, and Fitzgerald is hardly a huge draw for modern audiences anyway. So why bother? Oscar bait of some kind? Or what?

Snubbing Obama?

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 1:00 PM EST

SNUBBING OBAMA?....Last month, Barack Obama asked the White House if he could move into Blair House a couple of weeks early so that his daughters Malia and Sasha could start school. They turned him down, saying there were guests already booked to stay there, and at the time I assumed this was legitimate. George Bush is many things, but turning down the request just out of personal pettiness didn't seem like his style.

But as so often happens, whenever I give Bush the benefit of the doubt, I turn out to be wrong. ThinkProgress has the dope. It's still possible that bureaucratic bungling or miscommunication might be the culprit here, but it doesn't really look like it.