Friday, June 18, 2010

Finding Nemo 2


Nigeria's agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it

The Deepwater Horizon disaster caused headlines around the world, yet the people who live in the Niger delta have had to live with environmental catastrophes for decades

Burning pipeline, Lagos
A ruptured pipeline burns in a Lagos suburb after an explosion in 2008 which killed at least 100 people. Photograph: George Esiri/Reuters

We reached the edge of the oil spill near the Nigerian village of Otuegwe after a long hike through cassava plantations. Ahead of us lay swamp. We waded into the warm tropical water and began swimming, cameras and notebooks held above our heads. We could smell the oil long before we saw it – the stench of garage forecourts and rotting vegetation hanging thickly in the air.

The farther we travelled, the more nauseous it became. Soon we were swimming in pools of light Nigerian crude, the best-quality oil in the world. One of the many hundreds of 40-year-old pipelines that crisscross the Niger delta had corroded and spewed oil for several months.

Forest and farmland were now covered in a sheen of greasy oil. Drinking wells were polluted and people were distraught. No one knew how much oil had leaked. "We lost our nets, huts and fishing pots," said Chief Promise, village leader of Otuegwe and our guide. "This is where we fished and farmed. We have lost our forest. We told Shell of the spill within days, but they did nothing for six months."

That was the Niger delta a few years ago, where, according to Nigerian academics, writers and environment groups, oil companies have acted with such impunity and recklessness that much of the region has been devastated by leaks.

In fact, more oil is spilled from the delta's network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico, the site of a major ecological catastrophe caused by oil that has poured from a leak triggered by the explosion that wrecked BP's Deepwater Horizon rig last month.

That disaster, which claimed the lives of 11 rig workers, has made headlines round the world. By contrast, little information has emerged about the damage inflicted on the Niger delta. Yet the destruction there provides us with a far more accurate picture of the price we have to pay for drilling oil today.

GOP congressman apologizes to BP for $20 billion 'shakedown' -- UPDATED

Things aren't all bad for BP. CEO Tony Hayward appeared before a House Energy panel Thursday and at least one Republican congressman spoke up in his defense.

Rep. Joe Barton called the $20 billion trust fund a "shakedown" and apologized to the oil company.

"I'm speaking totally for myself and I'm not speaking for the Republican Party and I'm not speaking for anybody in the House of Representatives but myself, but I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it's a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown. In this case, a $20 billion shakedown with the Attorney General of the United States who is legitimately conducting a criminal investigation and has every right to do so to protect the interests of the American people participating in what amounts to a $20 billion slush fund that's unprecedented in our nation's history that's got no legal standing and what I think sets a terrible precedent for the future," said Barton.

"I'm only speaking for myself. I'm not speaking for anybody else, but I apologize. I do not want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong and is subject to some sort of political pressure that is, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown. So I apologize," he said.

(Nicole): Does it surprise you that Joe Barton's largest campaign contributors come from the oil & gas industries? It shouldn't. Nice that he so blatantly shows his bias against Americans and the worst environmental disaster to hit this country and for his own craven interests. Frankly, I think Nancy Pelosi should make him apologize to Americans on the House floor since he was also the chief architect of the Cheney Oil Act that deregulated oil industry, waived EIRs and allowed this travesty to happen.

Here's his contact information if you'd like to share your opinion of his groveling in front of BP.

UPDATE: The White House responds:

"What is shameful is that Joe Barton seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small business owners and communities whose lives have been devastated by the destruction. Congressman Barton may think that a fund to compensate these Americans is a 'tragedy', but most Americans know that the real tragedy is what the men and women of the Gulf Coast are going through right now. Members from both parties should repudiate his comments."

: Nancy Pelosi tweets:

Americans are suffering in the Gulf while Republicans apologize to Big Oil. We need clean energy now. #BPhearing

UPDATE 3: Wow. Per the Politico, there are some very unhappy (Republican!) congresspeople in the Gulf region, calling for Barton's head:

Republicans, particularly Gulf state lawmakers, are furious at Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and may ask him to cede his job as top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee in the wake of his apology to BP Thursday.

"People are calling for his head," said a GOP member of the committee.

[..]Barton, headed into Minority Leader John Boehner's office, said calls for his resignation are "news to me."

Asked whether he planned to stay put as top Republican on the committee, he declared "Damn straight."

Lawmakers were "hunkered down" in Boehner's office to discuss the flap, according to the member who said people were calling for Barton's resignation.

Congressional report clears ACORN of wrongdoing — after group forced to disband

By Stephen Janis Congressional report clears ACORN of wrongdoing    after group forced to disband

When a duo of right-wing provocateurs posing as a pimp and prostitute released selectively-edited videos trying to impugn the community activist group ACORN, both Democrats and Republicans condemned the organization.

Congress then voted to cut off federal funding for the group (a decision that was later ruled unconstitutional). Following negative press and Congress' vote, ACORN effectively disbanded Apr. 1 and reorganized under new names.

But a just-issued report by the Government Accountability Office that reviewed ACORN's federal funding at the behest of Congress  found little grist for the mill for politicians or right-wing bloggers looking to bash the now-defunct advocacy group for the poor.

The 38-page report surveyed over 31 federal agencies, probing how ACORN used federal funds and whether adequate controls on spending existed.

The report found no evidence of fraud, lax oversight or misuse of federal funds.

In fact, the report discovered that ACORN had adequately accounted for spending $40 million worth of major and minor grants awarded by the federal government to the group since 2005 to combat a variety of problems afflicting poor Americans, including lead poisoning, housing discrimination and lack of adequate job training.

The preliminary report on the group's funding also found that of the grants that warranted audits no irregularities in spending were found.  Smaller grantees said that oversight was adequate as well.

Of eight major grants awarded ACORN by the federal government the report found fault with one, a grant by Neighbor Works.

"Neighbor Works determined that ACORN Housing Corporation had not provided a description of what it planned to accomplish under the grant, as required. After Neighbor Works brought this to the attention of ACORN Housing Corporation officials, these officials subsequently provided the documentation. Oversight of sub-awards is generally delegated to grantees," the report states.

Of fifteen sub-grants awarded ACORN by a variety of federal agencies, the report did not find any irregularities.

Knight Foundation Funds Local Innovation

If the Knight Foundation didn't exist, someone would have to invent it.

This week the organization that is doing so much to advance the cause of innovation in journalism unveiled its list of a dozen winners of the Knight News Challenge, a contest that "funds ideas that use digital technology to inform specific geographic communities." Not all the winners are focused on geographic applications (one proposes to combine reports from journalists embedded in Afghanistan with Facebook updates from soldiers in the field), but there are some innovative ideas in the group that will get enough funding to at least get off the ground. The best part is that the winners of the $2.74 million in grant money must make their inventions freely available.

You can read all the details at the page linked to above or watch the short video below, which quickly covers each project. What we like about all these ideas is that they're doable with today's technology (several are live  today) and they bring focus to the overused concept of "citizen journalism." Most are also oriented toward leveraging geographic communities, which is where newspaper publishers absolutely must focus. We particularly like these brainstorms:

Local WikiBased on Davis, Calif.'s, this application of the free-form  social software lets members create their own community Wikipedias. It's a tried-and-true concept, and the grant will help make the customized software available to news organizations and community publishers.

WindyCitizen's Real Time Ads - This new form of online advertising constantly changes, showing stuff like tweets and Facebook updates from the advertiser's site. Adding informational value to ads is a great way to enhance their appeal. Perhaps Google is right that banner ads are due for a comeback.

GoMap RigaLets anyone create live, online maps of local news and activities. GoMap Riga pulls content from the Web and places it on a map. Residents can then add their own news media and comments.  There's a mobile and social network integration dimension as well. Riga, Latvia will be the test bed. Lucky dogs. map-based news

Front Porch Forum – This site is already active in 25 Vermont  towns; the grant will help expand it to 250. The developer calls it "a virtual town hall space, helps residents share and discuss local news, build community and increase engagement." Not flashy, but eminently practical with today's technology.

CitySeedKind of like FourSquare, only with a purpose. This idea was hatched by the team of a professor and a recent graduate of Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, CitySeed lets people plant and share geographically based ideas. So if you think the city should tear down this eyesore of an abandoned building on the corner of Elm and Main, you can geotag the spot and debate the idea.

TilemappingAnother geo-application, Tilemapping enables publishers to create data-filled maps for websites and blogs. We're not exactly clear what this will look like, but map-based mashups will be critical to hyper-local journalism.

U.S. Hopes To Win Afghan Trust, Village By Village

Northwest of Kandahar city, a patrol of American and Afghan commandos slowly moves out of their mud-walled compound and toward Ezabad, a village just a football-field away and right in the middle of Taliban country.

It's midmorning and already scorching — over 100 degrees of desert heat.

The Green Berets are part of this year's major military operation in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province. Their mission is a long, slow effort to convince Afghans to side with their government and not the Taliban.

Everybody else is starting to realize how to fight the war the right way, focused on the population. Because without these people here, we're no good.

Eli, a 32-year-old Green Beret officer from Idaho, is leading this patrol. For security reasons, only his first name can be used.

A Matt Damon look-alike, Eli wears a floppy camouflage hat and has six tours of duty in Afghanistan under his belt. During many of those tours, Eli says, the Americans weren't fighting the war the right way. Too much focus was on killing the Taliban, he says, and not enough on protecting the people.

"Everybody else is starting to realize how to fight the war the right way, focused on the population. Because without these people here, we're no good," Eli says.

That means providing security to villages like Ezabad and following up by building and restoring schools and clinics, much of it paid for with American money but funneled through the Afghans.

"That way it shows that it's going through the government, not just us coming up here and saying we'll repair your mosque and this, this and this," Eli says.

District leader Obidullah Bawari
Obidullah Bawari, leader of Maiwand district, sits in a security shura, or meeting, with Afghan and American military officers in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province. He doesn't visit the villages he represents, he says, because of security risks.
Absence Of Afghan Authorities

The problem is that there is no Afghan government in Ezabad. And without that, the Americans say, the war can't be won.

Why Marijuana Is Central to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness


Inspired by the founders' Federalist Papers, a group of reformers have penned a series of essays exploring the role of cannabinoids in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
 "Cannabinoids are good." you heard that truth before? – It's something you will understand if you read any further.  You see, science is a truth conspiracy. It's a testing of reality and standing your ground when you find evidence.

In some ways, being American means confronting untruths. To voice "our" truth through language, to create a new set and setting, we turned to the founders and a collection of essays known as The Federalist Papers.

During 1787 and 1788, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote 85 essays in support of the US Constitution. They used the pen name "Publius" in honor of a famed Roman republican – someone they saw as a defender of liberty.

We became "Publius" for the same purpose: to make our sum greater than our individual parts. In doing so, we have created a series of 36 essays to detail the role of cannabinoids in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. We began releasing the essays online in 2009 and will conclude this fall. The essays will then be available in book form as The Cannabis Papers: a citizen's guide to cannabinoids.  

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness 

The so-called drug war is becoming better known as a war on citizens – a civil war. It has been a war with two distinct federal laws. The first was the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1966. Into this vacuum was sucked Nixon's contribution to 21st century drug policy: the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. This law contains the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the law making herbal cannabinoids Schedule 1. This means in Bizarro World that herbal cannabinoids have no medical value.

Here we are in 2010 still living under Nixon's law. That is our history: our tomorrow is much different. That's because the tide has turned – and it's a scientific tide. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) and the science surrounding this remarkable biological modulator, have transformed the battlefield and the logic of the CSA. This is no longer a civil war: it has morphed into a war between science and ignorance.

Science is the language of Publius. As Madison, Hamilton and Jay detailed the workings of the US Constitution, piece-by-piece and Article-by-Article, we have given the same care and effort to describing the role of cannabinoids and the ECS in our bodies. We found that cannabinoids shared a strong characteristic from the founding period: the similarity is found in the famous phrase summing up the basic rights of free people – Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

It is no secret that many people think that there is a Life-giving quality to cannabis use. That is where we began – the anecdotal and lived cannabinoid experience. Since the 1970s, cannabis use has been defined by practice – some combination of the medical/patient model and the recreational/liberty model. We are describing something new – the idea that cannabinoids are necessary to life. The cannabis war will no longer be about use and ideology – about who is sick enough or free enough or responsible enough. What is new today is the science of cannabinoids – and you'll find it more than compelling and often mind-blowing.

Is There a ‘Ronald Reagan Day’ in Our Future? God help Us!


February 6, 2011 is the 100th anniversary of the birth Ronald Reagan. While the official Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission is planning its festivities, conservatives will try to turn it into a full-year of celebrating, honoring and capitalizing politically on the legacy of a decidedly mediocre president.     

 Earlier this year, the brothers Reagan (Michael, the older one, a conservative radio talk show host, Ron, the younger, a progressive radio talk show host), had a spirited, civil, and public disagreement. They weren't facing off at a University of Oxford Debate nor did they spend some time with Oprah; in fact, it wasn't even face-to-face (although a holiday dinner might be quite an event). Rather, through the magic of an assortment of media platforms, the two brothers discussed how their father, Ronald Reagan, might have responded to the Tea Party Movement. 

Michael insisted that his dad "would say 'hear, hear' to those people who in fact [are] out there rattling their sabers if you will to wake up Washington, D.C.," he said in an early-February interview with the Business & Media Institute.  In another venue, Michael said he believed that his father "would embrace the tea party movement if he were alive today."  

During an appearance on the Joy Behar television talk show, Ron said his father "would be un-amused by the tea partiers, with their Hitler signs and all the rest of it.  No, I don't think he'd be cottoning to that much at all."

Arguments about what Ronald Reagan might have thought about tea partiers and other contemporary issues, and over what he thought and did during his 8-year tenure as president will come into bold relief next year when the country celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of America's 40th president.   

On June 5, 2004, after suffering for quite some time from Alzheimer's disease, Ronald Reagan died. Many in the nation mourned. Many did not. Now, with the 100th anniversary of his birth around the calendar's corner, it is likely that a fairly large chunk of the public will once again display what writer Gore Vidal has characterized as a unique American type of collective amnesia. Meanwhile, the Ronald Reagan legacy folks – a band made up mostly of of determined conservatives -- will be trying to take full advantage of that condition.

President Barack Obama – with Nancy Reagan at his side – on June 2, 2009, signed into law the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act, which established an 11-member commission to plan activities that will be taking place throughout the year in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Ronald Wilson Reagan.

The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project

Founded more than a decade ago, the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project (RRLP) was originally dedicated to a political deification of Reagan. The organization's stated "mission" was "to honor and memorialize the historic achievements of … Reagan…. by naming at least one notable public landmark in each state after the 40th president."

The main motivator of the RRLP is longtime conservative activist Grover Norquist, who in 1986 founded an organization called Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), a conservative national taxpayer advocacy organization. (Norquist may be best known for his statement: "Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.") The RRLP had ambitious goals which included the naming of at least one notable public landmark in each state, and all of America's counties, after Reagan, It also hoped that a monument to Reagan be erected on the National Mall. There were other goals as well, including replacing Alexander Hamilton's face with Reagan's on the $10 bill, and having half the dimes -- currently with FDR's likeness -- stamped with Reagan's visage. Thus far neither of these exalted goals has been achieved.   

The Legacy Project was successful in getting the capital's National Airport renamed to honor Reagan. And, across the nation there are a number of roads, drives, turnpikes, parkways and freeways, elementary schools and high schools, community centers, and state office buildings bearing his name. Outside the U.S. there's the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on the Marshall Islands, a number of projects in Poland including Ronald Reagan Square (formerly Central Square), in Krakow, Ronald Reagan Park, in Gda?sk, and the Ronald Reagan Monument, in Wroc?aw. There is also the Ronald Reagan Scholarship Fund in the small country of Grenada.

Perhaps the tastiest tribute was the six-foot portrait of Reagan made from 14,000 jelly beans, called "Reagan's Sweet Legacy."    

The Legacy Project's ultimate goal, however, has been more than merely a renaming effort. It is an attempt to rewrite history and have the American people believe that a decidedly mediocre president deserves to be in the company of such presidents as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Southwest Finds Shipment of Heads on a Plane

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Southwest Airlines employee finds human heads on their way to Fort Worth

A Southwest Airlines employee called police after finding human heads in a package set to be transported to a Fort Worth medical research company, the airline said.

"It wasn't labeled or packaged properly," said Ashley Rogers, a Southwest spokeswoman. "They called the local authorities."

The incident happened in Little Rock, Ark., last Wednesday, she said.

Little Rock police turned the package over to the county coroner, who questions where they came from and if they were properly obtained.

The heads were being transported to the Fort Worth office of Medtronic, a leading medical research and technology company based in Minnesota.

Medtronic spokesman Brian Henry said it is common to ship body parts for medical education and research, but he said it is rare for a shipment to be seized.

"We expect our suppliers to follow proper procedures," he said.

Camper described the items as 40 to 60 human heads.

What Is The Singularity And Will You Live To See It?

What Is The Singularity And Will You Live To See It? If you read any science fiction or futurism, you've probably heard people using the term "singularity" to describe the world of tomorrow. But what exactly does it mean, and where does the idea come from? We answer in today's backgrounder.

What is the singularity?

The term singularity describes the moment when a civilization changes so much that its rules and technologies are incomprehensible to previous generations. Think of it as a point-of-no-return in history.

Most thinkers believe the singularity will be jump-started by extremely rapid technological and scientific changes. These changes will be so fast, and so profound, that every aspect of our society will be transformed, from our bodies and families to our governments and economies.

A good way to understand the singularity is to imagine explaining the internet to somebody living in the year 1200. Your frames of reference would be so different that it would be almost impossible to convey how the internet works, let alone what it means to our society. You are on the other side of what seems like a singularity to our person from the Middle Ages. But from the perspective of a future singularity, we are the medieval ones. Advances in science and technology mean that singularities might happen over periods much shorter than 800 years. And nobody knows for sure what the hell they'll bring.

Talking about the singularity is a paradox, because it is an attempt to imagine something that is by definition unimaginable to people in the present day. But that hasn't stopped hundreds of science fiction writers and futurists from doing it.

What Is The Singularity And Will You Live To See It?

Where does the term "singularity" come from?

Science fiction writer Vernor Vinge popularized the idea of the singularity in his 1993 essay "Technological Singularity." There he described the singularity this way:

It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown.

Specifically, Vinge pinned the Singularity to the emergence of artificial intelligence. "We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth," he wrote. "The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence."

Author Ken MacLeod has a character describe the singularity as "the Rapture for nerds" in his novel The Cassini Division, and the turn of phrase stuck, becoming a popular way to describe the singularity. (Note: MacLeod didn't actually coin this phrase - he says he got the phrase from a satirical essay in an early-1990s issue of Extropy.) Catherynne Valente argued recently for an expansion of the term to include what she calls "personal singularities," moments where a person is altered so much that she becomes unrecognizable to her former self. This definition could include posthuman experiences.

What Is The Singularity And Will You Live To See It?

What technologies are likely to cause the next singularity?

As we mentioned earlier, artificial intelligence is the technology that most people believe will usher in the singularity. Authors like Vinge and singulatarian Ray Kurzweil think AI will usher in the singularity for a twofold reason. First, creating a new form of intelligent life will completely change our understanding of ourselves as humans. Second, AI will allow us to develop new technologies so much faster than we could before that our civilization will transform rapidly. A corollary to AI is the development of robots who can work alongside - and beyond - humans.

Another singularity technology is the self-replicating molecular machine, also called autonomous nanobots, "gray goo," and a host of other things. Basically the idea is that if we can build machines that manipulate matter at the atomic level, we can control our world in the most granular way imaginable. And if these machines can work on their own? Who knows what will happen. For a dark vision of this singularity, see Greg Bear's novel Blood Music or Bill Joy's essay "The Future Doesn't Need Us"; for a more optimistic vision, Rudy Rucker's Postsingular.

And finally, a lot of singulatarian thought is devoted to the idea that synthetic biology, genetic engineering, and other life sciences will eventually give us control of the human genome. Two world-altering events would come out of that. One, we could engineer new forms of life and change the course of human evolution in one generation. Two, it's likely that control over our genomes will allow us to tinker with the mechanisms that make us age, thus dramatically increasing our lifespans. Many futurists, from Kurzweil and Steward Brand, to scientists like Aubrey De Gray, have suggested that extreme human longevity (in the hundreds of years) is a crucial part of the singularity.