Archive for March, 2009

26
Mar
09

Flatus Dei, Or, Here Comes The Sun

The Sun: Untrustworthy

Hey, the way you contextualize your existence is up to you.  Do you think there’s a giant magic clerk in the sky, registering your every deed?  Good luck with that.  Do you think a vast and immane oneness accounts for everything from distant quantum weirdness to human ethics?  All right then. Do you think alien ghosts occupy each of us and the only way to tame them is to buy truckloads of self-help literature?  Rock on, Tom Cruise.

The thing is, there are tangible objects in the sky that, in the end, hardly apply to whatever framework you’re carrying around to make it through the day.  Take for example the brightest one above your head, the nuclear fusion reactor we call the Sun.

Unlike most features of human belief systems, the sun does its thing visibly, objectively.  Not only is the sun visible, if you stare at it, it will be the last thing you see.  In marked contrast to human constructs such as guilt, fear, or Church of  Scientology legal defense, our 93 million miles of distance from it is no protection against its power.  Good thing too, given that its power is the same that allows us to not die on a cold rock in space.

As visible as it is, our relationship with it is a hidden, delicate balance. No matter what we believe,  the fact is sometimes the sun believes it’s a good idea to belch up vast quantities of charged particles, particles that carry enough electrical charge to shut off whole swaths of civilization.

Understanding things that can kill all of us is a good idea.  Which is why we fund efforts to do so with public money, and fight off political attacks on that funding by retrograde illiterates such as Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, who recently scoffed at $140 million in funding for the Alaskan volcano monitoring that saved lives and gave early warning last week of an eruption.  (Mr. Jindal has not as yet died of embarrassment, although one can hope.)

Politically speaking, we are again turning away from the natural world, thanks to a pervasive culture that denies the very existence of a public interest.  A recent publication, covered in New Scientist magazine reminds us of a critical human construct that would be whipped in any fight against the sun. I mean the electrical power grid, upon which my words rode to get to your eyeballs.

As this grid has grown in size and capacity, and our dependence on it has increased accordingly, it has receded in our consciousness and is taken largely for granted.  No public spending could ever change that phenomenon, but it is true that the Sun’s special ability to wipe out the electrical grid via solar storm activity calls for special effort on our part to monitor and  buy time for us, just like any weather monitoring does.  The Sun’s periodic blasting our planet with its charged particles can be mitigated to some degree by solar monitoring – monitoring the Jindals and Palins of the world sneer at even as they trudge through ankle-high drifts of volcanic ash.

We’ve got a satellite up there watching for exactly this, but it’s breaking down.  Faced with its replcement, once again, in a culture overly influenced by pious ignoramuses, the scientists struggle for the words they shouldn’t even need to speak.  Who is listening?

By far the most important indicator of incoming space weather is NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE). The probe, launched in 1997, has a solar orbit that keeps it directly between the sun and Earth. Its uninterrupted view of the sun means it gives us continuous reports on the direction and velocity of the solar wind and other streams of charged particles that flow past its sensors. ACE can provide between 15 and 45 minutes’ warning of any incoming geomagnetic storms. The power companies need about 15 minutes to prepare their systems for a critical event, so that would seem passable.

15 minutes’ warning

However, observations of the sun and magnetometer readings during the Carrington event shows that the coronal mass ejection was travelling so fast it took less than 15 minutes to get from where ACE is positioned to Earth. “It arrived faster than we can do anything,” Hapgood says.

There is another problem. ACE is 11 years old, and operating well beyond its planned lifespan. The onboard detectors are not as sensitive as they used to be, and there is no telling when they will finally give up the ghost. Furthermore, its sensors become saturated in the event of a really powerful solar flare. “It was built to look at average conditions rather than extremes,” Baker says.

He was part of a space weather commission that three years ago warned about the problems of relying on ACE. “It’s been on my mind for a long time,” he says. “To not have a spare, or a strategy to replace it if and when it should fail, is rather foolish.”

There is no replacement for ACE due any time soon. Other solar observation satellites, such as the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) can provide some warning, but with less detailed information and – crucially – much later. “It’s quite hard to assess what the impact of losing ACE will be,” Hapgood says. “We will largely lose the early warning capability.”

The world will, most probably, yawn at the prospect of a devastating solar storm until it happens. Kintner says his students show a “deep indifference” when he lectures on the impact of space weather. But if policy-makers show a similar indifference in the face of the latest NAS report, it could cost tens of millions of lives, Kappenman reckons. “It could conceivably be the worst natural disaster possible,” he says.

The report outlines the worst case scenario for the US. The “perfect storm” is most likely on a spring or autumn night in a year of heightened solar activity – something like 2012. Around the equinoxes, the orientation of the Earth’s field to the sun makes us particularly vulnerable to a plasma strike.

What’s more, at these times of year, electricity demand is relatively low because no one needs too much heating or air conditioning. With only a handful of the US grid’s power stations running, the system relies on computer algorithms shunting large amounts of power around the grid and this leaves the network highly vulnerable to sudden spikes.

If ACE has failed by then, or a plasma ball flies at us too fast for any warning from ACE to reach us, the consequences could be staggering. “A really large storm could be a planetary disaster,” Kappenman says.

So what should be done? No one knows yet – the report is meant to spark that conversation. Baker is worried, though, that the odds are stacked against that conversation really getting started. As the NAS report notes, it is terribly difficult to inspire people to prepare for a potential crisis that has never happened before and may not happen for decades to come. “It takes a lot of effort to educate policy-makers, and that is especially true with these low-frequency events,” he says.

We should learn the lessons of hurricane Katrina, though, and realise that “unlikely” doesn’t mean “won’t happen”. Especially when the stakes are so high. The fact is, it could come in the next three or four years – and with devastating effects. “The Carrington event happened during a mediocre, ho-hum solar cycle,” Kintner says. “It came out of nowhere, so we just don’t know when something like that is going to happen again.”

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11
Mar
09

A Year In David Mamet’s Marketplace

David Mamet at the premiere of Red Belt at the...

The playwright, wrong

(Presented here is my first contribution to Huffington Post!)

One year ago today, playwright David Mamet wrote of his personal transformation from a “brain-dead liberal” to one more person who sees the country mainly as a “marketplace”. The author of Glengarry Glen Ross — the ultimate drama of visionless American capitalism — announced one year ago “a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.”

While I remain a great fan of Mamet and hold his many works in the highest esteem, on the anniversary of his screed I can’t help but ask: how’s that free market working out?

In the time since, the economic meltdown has served to tear away a great deal of conservatism’s camouflage, revealing the “marketplace” conception of this country as sorely wanting. In reality, the country resembles far more closely a fiefdom, not something so pleasant as an egalitarian arrangement of buyers and sellers, but rather a brutal exercise in naked class antagonism.

Hyperbole? Hardly. In one year of Mamet’s marketplace, the fraud of laissez-faire economics has simply and expensively died. Trillions of public dollars have been appropriated by the dominant class of business interests via no such quaint mechanism as competition. Competition — never the preference of the wealthy to begin with — has been cancelled. The fittest along with the unfit banks and corporate giants live on in the commons, our togetherness no less real for having been denied so forcefully by the conservative party line. Shameless panhandling imposes profoundly on all of us. No invisible hand picks our pockets — rather it is plainly attached to a piggish body, arm stretching from Wall Street through Washington, wrist adorned as ever in Patek Philippe.

To the surprise of nobody who saw through the “free market” canard from the beginning, the overarching theme of conservatism today is to heap blame for the sinking vessel anywhere but upon where it belongs — itself. To do this, the very language and the meaning carried by its words is constantly sacrificed on the altar of cheap PR flackery. It is in this aspect that Mamet’s abandonment of progressivism hurts most, because his gifts as an artist are plainest in his dialogues, and these depend utterly upon the integrity of the words they employ. If there are two camps, Mamet has regrettably chosen the one least ethical with language. No modern conservative ever met a word he couldn’t happily debase and weaponize, as any summary of their vocabulary shows:

Repeating “No Child Left Behind” is how conservatives have destroyed public education. Repeating “Big Government” is how conservatives have destroyed law and regulation in the financial markets and created an unprecedented privatization golem in everything from prisons to airport security theater. Repeating “Liberal Media” is how cultural conservatives pretend that college professors, and not corporate boardrooms, determine what is presented as news on television. Repeating “Tax and Spend” is how conservatives have pitted the people against the government, and therefore themselves. Repeating “Socialism” is how conservatives deny the barest notion of a public interest. And now, repeating “Obama Recession” is how conservatives will pretend that thirty years of laissez-faire deregulatory free-market worship never even happened, let alone are responsible for the coming months and years of crisis.

When it comes to foreign policy, Mamet has long indulged the conservative’s peculiar penchant for semantic warp. His call for government to “get out of the way” pulls up regrettably short at Washington’s billions in military aid to Israel. The latest result of this support has been nothing to pat one’s self on the back about, for in the past year the US-armed IDF have indiscriminately killed and wounded thousands of Gazan civilians while strangling that urban hellhole of basic staples. In this, who was Mamet’s chosen villain one year ago? Unbelievably, NPR. In last year’s essay, Mamet mentions National Public Radio’s liberal reporting bias (“National Palestinian Radio”) in his decision to repudiate liberalism. If he was offended by hearing the human cost of lopsided, gratuitous force before his transformation, what will be the fruit of his outright embrace of the neocon worldview? I’m having fevered visions of a one-man Broadway show entitled Wolfowitz! that I can only hope are absurd.

We may not see David Mamet return to the progressive cause, nor even expect him to cease conflating it with utopianism. Though we will no doubt see and admire his works. They will as always make us think, and uncover ways of being. If he finds something of value in conservatism, I will continue to presume there is something in it I have missed. But to his new ideological pals, I warn: he is one Hollywood (former) Liberal who is far too thoughtful to make much use of on the national stage. For that, stick with the Limbaughs, the Palins and the Jindals. Keep them loud and up front — and thereby hasten the day that Mamet finds your brand of brain-death less appealing than our own.

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03
Mar
09

Dave-Off: Which Dagenham Dave Is Better?

In a world filled with Daves, we need all the help we can get keeping them straight.  If you doubt, just watch Kids In The Hall’s Bruce McCulloch sing the central anthem of Dave discernment, “These Are The Daves I Know”

Dave management is even tougher than McCullough says if you are a fan of the UK rock bands.  Take the case of two: The Stranglers and Morrissey, who each wrote two different songs named “Dagenham Dave”. Two bands, two songs, separated by 18 years, same title.

In 1977, The Stranglers penned their “Dagenham Dave” to commemorate the life and tragic suicide of a friend and major fan, a guy who found and adopted the band in its earliest years of struggle.  His story is heartbreeaking, to say the least.  But he was one Dagenham Dave who found immortality in the catalog of his favorite band, so at least that’s something.  Here’s the Stranglers’ “Dagenham Dave”, a rollicking post-pub punk-parallel number, very emblematic of the band, found on their 1977 No More Heroes LP:

Okay, one Dagenham Dave at a time, please.  Next!

This Dagenham Dave was written by Morrissey and was released as a single from his 1995 LP Southpaw Grammar.  A up / midtempo pounder driven by the meaty jangle of former Polecat guitarist Boz Boorer topped with the reliably savant melodicism of a Morrisey vocal,  connection by lyrics to the original Dagenham Dave is not crystal clear, but is presumed:

Vote!  Which Dagenham Dave is the Davest?

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01
Mar
09

Don’t Be A Koch Sucker: Santelli’s Tea Party Protests Anything But Spontaneous

Mad Tea Party

Pictured: A Tea Party slightly less fake than Santelli's

So what do you get when, after thirty years of looking the other way, someone finally comes calling on the most wealthy corporations in the US to pay their taxes?

One result is a lot of unimaginative, dishonest shills moving to protect and obscure these corporate deadbeats by engineering fake grassroots campaigns – and getting caught doing it.

On August 3rd 2008, the Internet domain name chicagoteaparty.com was registered by right-wing Chicago asshole Zack Christenson.  Christenson is producer of “Extension 720” on WGN Radio, also known as “The Milt Rosenberg Show”.  Zack and Milt’s work is pure WGN: colorless cluelessness for caucasians and Cubs fans. For reference, picture a fat white woman from Orland Park moaning into a call-in telephone about how she’s “worried” (it doesn’t matter what about) and you can safely skip tuning in to AM 720 in Chicago.  Far from being a hotbed of New Media literacy, WGN’s signal follows the suburban, Republican-voting  families who fled Chicago neighborhoods in the 1970s.  Its broadcasts range from eye-crossingly dull celebrity tut-tutting to reluctant and clumsy how-tos on ancient internet phenomena like eBay, email and eHarmony.   Ars Technica it ain’t.

So when Christenson registered the chicagoteaparty.com domain name in August (here’s the domain record proving the date), we can be pretty certain it wasn’t on his mind to launch an original website based on his own ideas.  For one thing, Zack has no ideas, as his puddle-deep personal blog clearly demonstrates.

The domain did become a focal point when, six months later, on February 19th 2009, CNBC floor reporter Rick Santelli characterized people behind on their mortgages as “losers” and raved on the air “we’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party [to protest the idea that tax money should be used to help mortgage payers facuing foreclosure in the economic crisis]”

Either Christenson’s domain registration is a coincidence, or he and Santelli are two marginal media figures in a far-flung group of right-wing shills for tax-cheating mega-businesses who were caught launching a fake-grassroots campaign to whip up anti-taxing anger and raise sympathy for multi-billionaires who now face the prospect of paying taxes like everybody else does.

It’s true that some people and businesses  in the top 2% of wealth in the US would rather pay to make people angry about taxation than just pay their taxes.  And it’s also true that those people get help from toads like Christenson and Rosenberg on a regular basis.  But who might be writing the checks this time around?

As it turns out, reporters Mark Ames and Yasha Levine did the research and connected the dots in the domain name  and Santelli campaign to the Koch family, owners of Koch Industries, the largest private corporation in the US. As such, it is a family desperately interested in stopping efforts to collect taxes due from its thirty-year run under the chummiest government business interests have enjoyed since the 1920s, and has funded fake-grassroots campaigns in the past through its funded organization Freedom Works.

What we discovered is that Santelli’s “rant” was not at all spontaneous as his alleged fans claim, but rather it was a carefully-planned trigger for the anti-Obama campaign. In PR terms, his February 19th call for a “Chicago Tea Party” was the launch event of a carefully organized and sophisticated PR campaign, one in which Santelli served as a frontman, using the CNBC airwaves for publicity, for the some of the craziest and sleaziest rightwing oligarch clans this country has ever produced. Namely, the Koch family, the multibilllionaire owners of the largest private corporation in America, and funders of scores of rightwing thinktanks and advocacy groups, from the Cato Institute and Reason Magazine to FreedomWorks. The scion of the Koch family, Fred Koch, was a co-founder of the notorious extremist-rightwing John Birch Society.

As you read this, Big Business is pouring tens of millions of dollars into their media machines in order to destroy just about every economic campaign promise Obama has made, as reported recently in the Wall Street Journal. At stake isn’t the little guy’s fight against big government, as Santelli and his bot-supporters claim, but rather the “upper 2 percent”’s war to protect their wealth from the Obama Adminstration’s economic plans. When this Santelli “grassroots” campaign is peeled open, what’s revealed is a glimpse of what is ahead and what is bound to be a hallmark of his presidency.

Let’s go back to February 19th: Rick Santelli, live on CNBC, standing in the middle of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, launches into an attack on the just-announced $300 billion slated to stem rate of home foreclosures: “The government is promoting bad behavior! Do we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?! This is America! We’re thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July, all you capitalists who want to come down to Lake Michigan, I’m gonna start organizing.”

Almost immediately, the clip and the unlikely “Chicago tea party” quote buried in the middle of the segment, zoomed across a well-worn path to headline fame in the Republican echo chamber, including red-alert headlines on Drudge.

Within hours of Santelli’s rant, a website called ChicagoTeaParty.com sprang to life. Essentially inactive until that day, it now featured a YouTube video of Santelli’s “tea party” rant and billed itself as the official home of the Chicago Tea Party. The domain was registered in August, 2008 by Zack Christenson, a dweeby Twitter Republican and producer for a popular Chicago rightwing radio host Milt Rosenberg—a familiar name to Obama campaign people. Last August, Rosenberg, who looks like Martin Short’s Irving Cohen character, caused an outcry when he interviewed Stanley Kurtz, the conservative writer who first “exposed” a personal link between Obama and former Weather Undergound leader Bill Ayers. As a result of Rosenberg’s radio interview, the Ayers story was given a major push through the Republican media echo chamber, culminating in Sarah Palin’s accusation that Obama was “palling around with terrorists.” That Rosenberg’s producer owns the “chicagoteaparty.com” site is already weird—but what’s even stranger is that he first bought the domain last August, right around the time of Rosenburg’s launch of the “Obama is a terrorist” campaign. It’s as if they held this “Chicago tea party” campaign in reserve, like a sleeper-site. Which is exactly what it was.

And for posterity, here’s a paste of the domain reg record for chicagoteaparty.com:

Registrant:
Zachary Christenson
849 N. Franklin
Chicago, Illinois 60610
United States

Domain Name: CHICAGOTEAPARTY.COM
Created on: 03-Aug-08
Expires on: 03-Aug-09
Last Updated on: 03-Aug-08

Administrative Contact:
Christenson, Zachary  
849 N. Franklin
Chicago, Illinois 60610
United States
(248) 219-8215      Fax —

Technical Contact:
Christenson, Zachary  
849 N. Franklin
Chicago, Illinois 60610
United States
(248) 219-8215      Fax —

Domain servers in listed order:
NS47.DOMAINCONTROL.COM
NS48.DOMAINCONTROL.COM

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