Month: August 2008

McCain’s Timing

Last night Barack Obama gave an historic speech on an historic day in history. Hoping to blunt a three day weekend of Obamamania in the media, John McCain has chosen today to announce his VP choice.

I am guessing it will be Idaho native, University of Idaho graduate and current Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin. If he chooses any of the usual suspects like Romney the media will likely go “ho hum.” Palin, on the other hand, is just what get the juices flowing among the journalists looking for a fresh and appealing story.

In any event, one has to wonder about McCain’s timing. Because today is also historic in ways that McCain would just as soon not have people remember. First, it is his 72nd birthday and he is probably not interested in highlighting his age. But, even more importantly, today is the third anniversary of Katrina and, as the picture above shows, McCain and Bush were sharing a piece of birthday cake just as Katrina was slamming into New Orleans. This “let them eat cake” moment symbolizes the administration’s disastrous handling of the catastrophe and McCain’s role in it. In 2005 and 2006 he twice voted against a commission to study the government’s response to Katrina. He also opposed three separate emergency funding measures providing relief to Katrina victims, including the extension of Medicaid benefits and, until traveling there one month ago, McCain had made just one public tour of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina touched down in August 2005.

UPDATE: Looks like I guessed right- Sarah Palin is McCain’s choice.  This campaign gets more interesting every day. It certainly takes the “lack of experience” issue away from McCain. We have a candidate “a heartbeat away from the Presidency” whose experience consists of mayor of a small burg in Alaska and two years as Governor of Alaska.


How History is Made

As we all know, history will be made in just a few hours. On the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, an African-American will accept the presidential nomination of one of the two major political parties. As a student, I watched excerpts of that speech on the news and what I really remember is the constant refrain from the television commentators that there would likely be a riot in Washington DC that day.

I also remember another speech, an address to Congress given by the Democratic President Lindon Baines Johnson, introducing the civil rights act of 1965 (go here for a thoughtful discussion of that legislation by LBJ biographer, Robert Caro). That legislation put us on the path leading to tonight.

But, I believe there is another, equally important, reason Barack Obama is where he is tonight. It is the long, and for some, painful primary process. When I have friends tell me that say they are sick of the long, drawn-out primary season, I remind them of how political parties used to nominate Presidents- in smoke filled rooms with the party bosses making the decisions. I can promise you that no African American would have ever been nominated if that same process existed today. Obama is really the first Presidential candidate to run a truly grassroots campaign in my lifetime.

The pundits and talking heads of the networks complain that the convention has been just theater. Of course, the convention is theater. That is because the people have spoken and, after a hard fought battle, Obama won. The primary was not always pretty and the delegates had to work at building the unity necessary for the campaign ahead. The convention gives the delegates, and the American people, a chance to celebrate. And, like any good theater, the convention has been orchestrated. But, if you think the Democratic convention was orchestrated, wait until you see the Republican convention in St. Paul.

The right wing blogs and talk radio babblers have been wringing their hands about Obama’s speech being delivered in Mile High stadium against a backdrop that looks like a Greek amphitheater. From my perspective, it is the perfect symbolism for this campaign. Rather than restrict the celebration to the delegates at the convention, Obama is opening it up to the common citizen. I applaud him and just wish I were there to applaud his speech in person.

Let us all savor this amazing moment in our history!

Idaho National Lab and the Nanoantenna

Ira Glass of NPR’s Science Friday interviewed Dr Steven Novack, Physicist and Lead Researcher on the Solar Nanoantenna Project at the Idaho National Laboratory, today. Novack’s team has invented a new method to absorb solar energy that is much more efficient than traditional solar cells. The discussion was fascinating. If you didn’t get a chance to hear it, the podcast is worth downloading.

According to an INA news release,

Researchers have devised an inexpensive way to produce plastic sheets containing billions of nanoantennas that collect heat energy generated by the sun and other sources. The technology, developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, is the first step toward a solar energy collector that could be mass-produced on flexible materials.

While methods to convert the energy into usable electricity still need to be developed, the sheets could one day be manufactured as lightweight “skins” that power everything from hybrid cars to iPods with higher efficiency than traditional solar cells. . . The nanoantennas also have the potential to act as cooling devices that draw waste heat from buildings or electronics without using electricity.

The nanoantennas target mid-infrared rays, which the Earth continuously radiates as heat after absorbing energy from the sun during the day. In contrast, traditional solar cells can only use visible light, rendering them idle after dark. Infrared radiation is an especially rich energy source because it also is generated by industrial processes such as coal-fired plants.

The nanoantennas are tiny gold squares or spirals set in a specially treated form of polyethylene, a material used in plastic bags. While others have successfully invented antennas that collect energy from lower-frequency regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as microwaves, infrared rays have proven more elusive. Part of the reason is that materials’ properties change drastically at high-frequency wavelength.

The researchers studied the behavior of various materials — including gold, manganese and copper — under infrared rays and used the resulting data to build computer models of nanoantennas. They found that with the right materials, shape and size, the simulated nanoantennas could harvest up to 92 percent of the energy at infrared wavelengths.

The nanoantennas’ ability to absorb infrared radiation makes them promising cooling devices. Since objects give off heat as infrared rays, the nanoantennas could collect those rays and re-emit the energy at harmless wavelengths. Such a system could cool down buildings and computers without the external power source required by air-conditioners and fans.

This is one more piece to the alternative energy puzzle (see the post below). Novack claimed that between $5 and $15 million is all that would be needed to extend the basic research. Considering the fact that the Iraq war is costing $750 million EVERY DAY, finding the financial support from the federal government would seem to be a “no-brainer.”

Even though both Obama and McCain claim an interest in alternative energy, will McCain really be willing to expend the resources when he represents “big oil,” and plans to continue (or expand) Bush’s neo-con military adventurism? Again, the answer to that question is a “no-brainer.”

A Major Discovery at MIT Could Lead to a Process for Storing Solar Energy

While politicians have been debating whether or not to allow offshore drilling for oil, scientists at major research universities are hard at work resolving some of the barriers to alternatives to fossil fuels. Sunlight has the greatest potential of any power source to solve the world’s energy problem.  In one hour, enough sunlight strikes the Earth to provide the entire planet’s energy needs for one year. The major barrier to solar energy has been the inability to store it in an efficient, cost effective way. 

Last week a team of scientists at MIT announced a breakthrough process for solar energy storage that is similar to the natural process of photosynthesis:

Until now, solar power has been a daytime-only energy source, because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. With today’s announcement, MIT researchers have hit upon a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy.

Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. “This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years,” said MIT’s Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. “Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.”

Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera’s lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun’s energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.

The key component in Nocera and Kanan’s new process is a new catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces valuable hydrogen gas. The new catalyst consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity — whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source — runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced.

Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis.

The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it’s easy to set up, Nocera said. “That’s why I know this is going to work. It’s so easy to implement,” he said.

Local Farmer Markets

According to an article in the Statesman, there is a record number (36) of farmers markets in Idaho this summer and attendance is up at them all. My wife and I are “hooked” on the Caldwell (Wednesday afternoon) and Nampa (Saturday morning) markets. They are both small, friendly, close to home and offer a nice selection of super fresh produce.

Although our small backyard garden supplies us with standard fare like tomatoes, lettuce, carrots and zucchini, the markets have a much wider selection of interesting delectables. For example, this morning I bought some white eggplant. I had seen it before, but have never tried it. I am guessing that, while there won’t be any difference in taste, there might be visual interest when layered with the traditional purple.

I usually make at least one “impulse purchase” each time I go. A couple of weeks ago, I bought a boule of “Parma sourdough” at the Nampa market and now it is a weekly purchase. I had a nice chat with the baker who told me that she had been trained at the San Francisco Baking Institute. The personal interaction with the folks that grow or make what they sell is that extra that comes from shopping at the markets.

Brandi Swindell Protests in China- Is it News?

Dan Popkey of the Statesman vowed to avoid joining the “…media circus. Like a moth to a flame” when it comes to wackos Brian Fischer and Brandi Swindell. Well, he may refuse to discuss the latest “protest” by our Brandi, but he will be alone among the main stream media.

With the Olympics beginning and Bush in China, Brandi appears on Teananmen Square to protest. According to CBS/AP:

Later Wednesday, three Americans spent almost an hour in the iconic Tiananmen Square criticizing Beijing’s handling of issues ranging from forced abortions to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement to pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989.

“It was important for us that there be a clear voice speaking out against the Chinese government’s abuse of human rights,” Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition in Washington, said in a telephone interview.

The trio also set up a banner in the square that said “Christ is King” and knelt and prayed. Brandi Swindell, national director of the activist group Generation Life, also put out seven roses in memory of those who died in the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests on and near the square in 1989.

They said plainclothes security agents and police officers tried to block the banner with umbrellas and started shoving the group when they tried to walk around the square. The agents eventually pushed them out of the area and made them sit nearby for almost an hour, checking their passports, before letting them go, Mahoney and Swindell said.

“It’s so shocking being an American … to see the blatant oppression,” Swindell said.

Why should any of this be surprising. Playing the victim and the martyr is what Brandi does. It is, quite literally, her job. See here, for example. When talking to others in the religious right, Brandi is quite explicit as to her tactics.

Well, I have been arrested about 6 times now – peacefully arrested. There are certain criteria that has to happen for me to feel that it is necessary for me to get arrested and, of course, I always pray about it. But, it is when Christians are prevented from doing good by the law or an order, or it forces us to do something evil.

Generally, the media coverage has been positive because the media is very intrigued by this “right-wing, conservative, Christian” youth movement. They don’t know what to do with it, because they can’t stereotype us like they want to. It is easy for them to attack Tom DeLay or Pat Robertson or Dr. Dobson, but when they have someone like you or me, in their twenties, or even a teenager out there speaking, it is harder for them to attack that. So, the media coverage has been pretty good.

That paragraph says it all. Brandi spews the intolerant hate of DeLay, Robertson and Dobson, but the media goes easy because she is an attractive young woman.

In her interview with “Mercy Hope” on Brandi makes it clear that the original Tiananmen Square protest stands as the ideal to which she aspires.

I remember the visual of the gentleman there on Tiananmen Square and there is a tank driving down the road and there is the one person – the one protester who stands up against the tank. He is standing there and here comes the tank – and he was standing there, a peaceful protestor, was not going to move, willing to get run over. I think the outcome was that people had to come and like push him out of the way.

So, is this latest protest newsworthy? Sure. Civil Disobedience is a powerful strategy and peaceful protest is a civil right. My only concern with Brandi Swindell is that she seems unwilling to grasp the notion that civil disobedience is not only about breaking a law, but also accepting the consequences of the act. Her latest complaint that she and Fischer should not have to pay court costs for the “ten commandments” fiasco is an example of this.

She should consider Gandhi’s 4th rule of civil disobedience:

When any person in authority seeks to arrest a civil resister, he will voluntarily submit to the arrest, and he will not resist the attachment or removal of his own property, if any, when it is sought to be confiscated by authorities.

Canyon County Leaders and Ozone

The Statesman has an editorial this morning that is a model of reason. The argument goes like this: The Treasure Valley has chronic pollution problem. Ozone levels have exceeded government standards three years in a row. The federal government will impose a solution if local leaders do nothing.

Some state and local leaders get it and some don’t. Among those that do are Boise Mayor Dave Beiter and Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas.

They recognize that the Treasure Valley has a pollution problem, and the federal government could impose a solution. These local leaders see the advantages of acting swiftly and proactively, taking full advantage of a two-year federal grace period.

Others don’t,

Others aren’t as convinced. Nampa Mayor Tom Dale, for example, doesn’t want to talk about an expanded vehicle emissions testing program until he sees proof that the tests will reduce ozone pollution. “Let’s not just jump to something,” Dale said Monday. “Let’s make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

Unlike Nacolas, Dale’s brand of leadership is to use the anti-scientific stalling tactics of the Canyon County Republican legislators who believe that trees and alfalfa benefit from rising CO2 levels and some are happy to provide it to them in the form of auto exhaust.

Here is the rest of the Statesman editorial:

The right thing is to get moving. Valley ozone pollution has exceeded federal standards for three successive summers. This blue, odorless gas, prevalent during Valley heat waves, can irritate the eyes and the respiratory system. Tailpipe exhausts aren’t the sole source of the chemicals that form ozone – but after studying the issue for more than a year, the Treasure Valley Air Quality Council said Valley vehicles contribute “significantly” to the pollution problem.

All these signs point to the need for expanded testing that identifies the older, dirtier cars that contribute the bulk of the ozone-causing chemicals. Let’s get with the program. Acting as if the science is unproven smacks of foot-dragging.

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter is pushing to expand emissions testing by next summer. The same goes for one of Dale’s Canyon County counterparts – Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas. As a member of the Treasure Valley Air Quality Council, Nancolas understands the scope of the problem.

Nancolas realizes, as should Dale, that the clock is ticking. The feds could impose mandatory pollution control measures by 2010, affecting industrial expansion and road construction. Valley leaders could avoid these federal rules if they somehow find local strategies that reduce ozone pollution. Certainly, it’s worth a try – and emissions testing is one piece of the equation.

McCain and the Anthrax Scare

The wife of one of my best friends was working in the Senate Office Buildings in 2001 during the anthrax attacks that killed five people. The event traumatized her and led him to support the invasion of Iraq. What, you may ask, did the anthrax attacks have to do with Iraq? Well, nothing.

Today, after the suicide of the scientist, Bruce Ivins, the FBI has recommended that the Justice Department close the investigation, claiming that it has a “strong circumstantial case” against Ivins. Of course, we should be a little skeptical considering the fact that the FBI was forced settle out of court this June and paid previous number one suspect, Steve Hatfill, over six million dollars. Nevertheless, it appears that the FBI has strong evidence linking the particular strain of anthrax used in the killings to anthrax samples from the lab at Fort Detrick where both Hatfill and Ivins worked.

One thing is clear- there is not now, nor has there ever been, any evidence that Iraq was involved in the anthrax attacks. Why did my friend believe there was a connection? Because the neo-cons in and out of the White House used the fear generated by the attacks to fan the flames of war. As Todd Gitlin reminds us,

The 2001 anthrax attacks were hugely important in stoking up a War-of-the-Worlds panic. The envelopes of white powder inflamed the sense that They’re Everywhere–Lake Worth, FL; Washington; a mailbox in Princeton. Without doubt, the anthrax panic muddled brains, promoted an atmosphere of Bush-knows-best, and was easily convertible to war fever–in Iraq or, goddammit, somewhere.

One of the White House shills was Senator John McCain. He appeared on the David Letterman show on October 11, 2001 to fan the flames for “phase two”, the invasion of Iraq. The video ties McCain back to the march for war and confirms his lack of intellectual rigor in asking the right questions before making the “tough decisions.”

LETTERMAN: How are things going in Afghanistan now?

MCCAIN: I think we’re doing fine . . . I think we’ll do fine. The second phase — if I could just make one, very quickly — the second phase is Iraq. There is some indication, and I don’t have the conclusions, but some of this anthrax may — and I emphasize may — have come from Iraq.

LETTERMAN: Oh is that right?

MCCAIN: If that should be the case, that’s when some tough decisions are gonna have to be made.

UPDATE: Today (Aug. 5th) Glenn Greenwald has a well researched post on the FBI’s handling of the Anthrax case here