Matthew Wheeland

Is the NSA trolling MySpace?

When you apply for a job, it's a safe bet that your future boss is going to google you and see what bubbles up. Even two or three years ago, such a search probably wouldn't have turned up much personal info for most people. But with the explosion of blogging and social networks like MySpace, it seems like just about everyone has left some kind of footprint on the web, for better or worse.

But now, tilting that balance much further toward "worse," New Scientist reports that the NSA is funding research into the "mass harvesting of the information that people post about themselves on social networks." The MySpace-mining project, it seems, is an extension of the NSA's illegal wiretapping program.

Can Hitchhiking Save the Country?

Hitchhiking is dangerous. We've all seen the made-for-TV movies about innocent youths who either blithely step out on the highway for some Kerouackian fun or naively pick up a stranger on the side of the road. On either side of the equation, the result is the same: death, mayhem and murder.

Clearly, the highways and byways of this land are filled with crazies. Everyone out there must be waiting to do evil at the first possible opportunity. Everyone, that is, except you. And everyone you know. And pretty much everyone they know.

Is it possible that maybe strangers aren't as scary, or hitchhiking as dangerous, as we've been told?

That's one of the driving factors behind Elijah Wald's new book, Riding with Strangers: A Hitchhiker's Journey. The book follows Wald's most recent cross-country hitchhiking trip, from Boston to Seattle, and forms a sort of travelogue of life on the road's shoulders.

But this is no travel book. Wald has been hitching for 40 years, across this country many times and on pretty much every hitchhike-able continent. In that time, he's watched hitchhiking in the United States decline from a commonplace activity among people of all stripes to today's prevalent belief that you'd have to be crazy to thumb it on the road.

During this same time frame -- and the kind of cause-and-effect involved here is certainly up for debate -- the country has become much more polarized, much more isolated and substantially more fearful.

I talked to Wald over the phone recently, as he was gearing up to start his tour for the book. (Unfortunately, I forgot to ask if he's hitchhiking from city to city on the tour.)

Matthew Wheeland: Tell me a little bit about how you came to write this book. Did you leave Boston knowing you were going to write a book about it?

Elijah Wald: Absolutely. Basically what happened was, as is clear from the book, I've done an awful lot of hitchhiking, and naturally when I started writing, everybody on Earth said, "You really ought to write about your adventures." But the problem was, by the time people started saying I should write about hitchhiking, I had done so much of it that it no longer seemed particularly unusual to me. It was like anybody being asked to write about what they do full-time.

For a while what I felt like I should do was take someone along with me and write about their impressions of it, since that would provide a fresh take on it. And then I realized that was the book I wanted to write: the book about how it's not this wild, heroic, amazing, strange thing full of astonishing adventures. It's this really quite small, intimate experience of meeting all these different people in this unique way. And I realized what I really wanted to write about was not the exciting rides, but the sort of normal experience of being inside it and into the cars of quite normal people who you never get to meet normally.

With that in mind, I decided I would just head across the country and just write about all the rides. Just one trip across the country, who stops for me and what it's like.

MW: How did this trip stack up? How many rides did you have in how many days …

EW: I haven't added it up. Let's see, Day One is something like five rides, so that means it's gotta be another five or six just from St. Louis to Iowa City. I'd guess it's probably 15 or so rides.

And as far as how long it took, I count it by the nights. It was essentially two and a half days into Iowa City and then two days from Iowa City to Portland.

MW: So how does that compare in terms of either the time it took, or the number of rides or even the quality of the rides you got?

EW: It was not particularly unusual. If I had done a straight shot across on Route 80, it would have been a lot fewer rides. It's the nature of the beast: You get a bunch of small rides, and then you get a huge one. And I mean the first time I ever crossed the country, it was Reno to Boston in three rides, and that's not really all that unusual if you're doing trucks, because they do that! [laughs] And they don't want to do less than that really. By and large, a truck driver doesn't want to pick you up and take you a hundred miles, because it means they have to stop.

On the other hand, if you did the whole thing on small roads, which I've done sometimes, obviously it's a lot more rides and takes a lot longer. And frankly, had I done this trip in August, which I had originally thought about, I would have done it on smaller roads.

This one I stayed on the interstates because as I say in the book, when I hit Cheyenne there was a cold front coming in. And I had wanted to weave through the Rockies at a more leisurely pace, but the weather just wasn't looking great.

One thing about hitchhiking is, as I guess is pretty obvious, is that you can't make too precise plans. You have to be ready to change.

MW: From my perspective, it seems like a dying mode of travel: We've gotten so used to doing our own thing, to being in our car, alone, traveling for long stretches and being able to plan everything. Do you think that's part of the beauty or the draw of hitchhiking?

EW: Absolutely. It's that combination, and I just love meeting the people. Quite honestly, in some ways I love it more when I'm in a strange place, because I have much more of a need for it.

If I'm in a foreign country and travel for a couple of days not hitchhiking, it begins to drive me nuts, because I just feel like I'm not meeting anybody, I'm traveling without any idea of what to do, and I just feel like if just stood out on the side of the road and stuck out my thumb, I'd be meeting people, and they'd be telling me where I should be going.

MW: What is hitchhiking like in other countries? Is there any kind of baseline experience of hitchhiking, or is it dramatically different from country to country or continent to continent?

EW: The baseline experience is people do stop for you …

MW: More so abroad than here?

EW: No, not so much. It really depends. And honestly, it really depends on what you look like. For years I said that Spain was a terrible place to hitchhike, and then learned that it was just that I looked too Spanish. I had a blond English friend who was going through Spain like lightning.

MW: So is part of it that people are approaching it from both sides with the same intention, that they want to pick up someone exotic, and get a different perspective on something that they don't already have?

EW: By and large, yes. The regular advice people used to always give is to have your country's flag on your pack so people know you're a traveler. I never did that, partly because the American flag is a pretty ambiguous symbol in some countries.

But certainly in the U.S., any time I've talked to foreigners who've hitchhiked around the U.S., their experiences is completely different from mine. They always tell me, 'Oh, it's amazing, everybody takes you home, and they put you up for days …' and that's never happened to me in the States.

MW: Do you have a favorite country to hitchhike in? Or a country that you've had the best experiences hitchhiking in?

EW: I wouldn't say for the hitchhiking, per se, but different countries all have their advantages. I really liked hitchhiking in France, which I would mention just because France has such a lousy reputation among Americans. You keep hearing how unfriendly the French are, but it sure isn't true if you're standing on the road with your thumb out.

MW: Have you been hitchhiking abroad lately, I'm thinking since 9/11, and have you seen any change in attitudes towards an American?

EW: Oh yeah, I've been abroad since then. You once in a while get somebody, but you always do. I was hitchhiking with a friend in France right after the Gulf War began, and one of our drivers just went into a rant about the Americans. He apologized down toward the end, but I have to say that what surprised me, considering that it was the height of "freedom fries" and all that silliness, which the French did write up in their papers. They thought it was immensely amusing.

But I have to say most surprising was that almost nobody mentioned it at all. I would have thought hitchhiking in France right then, being an American, that it would be a subject that would come up much more often. But I think people were probably being polite.

MW: Going back to the U.S., how has hitchhiking changed in this country since we started doing this? Obviously you've been doing it for long enough to see some changes.

EW: Crazily enough, I think the main difference is how much easier it is. I think that's largely just because there's so few people doing it now. The big change is that the roads used to be packed with hitchhikers.

One of the weird things about having done this book is that I think all of us -- at least everybody my age, and I'm about to be 47 -- think of hitchhiking as something that young people do. But what I've noticed since starting this book is that wherever I am the people that say they love hitchhiking are all people my age. [laughs] I know from the internet that there are teenagers and 20-year-olds doing some, but I never see them. And as I say, any American in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, they all hitchhiked. There's simply no exception to that rule.

MW: Yeah, when I started reading this book, I began informally polling everyone I knew to see if they'd ever hitchhiked, and it absolutely reinforces your point: Nobody my age -- I'm 30 now -- has hitchhiked, and just about everybody older than me, in their 40s and up, has.

EW: I had never really thought that one through until this project, but that is bizarre. Obviously, I'm mixing cause and effect here, but there's part of me that just wants to say, "That's why we've got the government we've got." [laughs] It suggests to me that even liberal, lefty young people are living with a degree of isolation that, whatever their politics, simply wasn't true for older people.

When I was first doing this in the 60s, there's the myth that that was the height of the culture wars, but a lot of us were out there hitchhiking. We might have been lefties -- I didn't have long hair because I cut it before I hitchhiked -- but people were meeting truck drivers. And we may have disagreed violently, but we at least knew each other. And I have the feeling that today, that is much less true.

MW: I think you're on to something; obviously the cause-and-effect is very muddled, but our current government is in some ways the federal embodiment of this culture of fear and alienation that has been building for the last 25 or so years. And it is a cycle that feeds on itself and increases, which is why I was so delighted by your book. It shows that the path really is not already fixed; it's something that we can change and reverse, if people would just open themselves up in some way to strangers.

EW: That's right, and although I tried not to bang on the political points too heavily, I have to say I get very irritated by people on the left who have this sort of blithe America-bashing. To me it smacks very much of intellectual elitism. It seems to me like it's a lot of people who have never in fact talked with the average sort of person driving a truck out of Omaha, so they find it very easy to say that person is an idiot who believes everything the preacher and the politician say, and that's just not true. Those people are no stupider than the people at Harvard.

MW: To some extent, we live in a nation built on caricatures, where everybody perceives somebody as fitting perfectly into this bloc of 'typical red stater' or 'typical blue stater' or whatever, but obviously there are shades of gray, or shades of purple, as it were, and that's why it's important to get out there and meet strangers like you did.

EW: It's not so much our country, it's any place in the world where people are isolated from other people. It's the nature of stereotypes. They substitute for personal experience, and I don't think that there's a place where lacking personal experience there aren't stereotypes. It's probably no more typical of us than anybody else.

MW: You have a quote in the introductory section of the book that serves as such a great motto or justification for hitchhiking: "If you trust everyone you meet, you will occasionally get robbed, but if you distrust everyone, you spend your whole life surrounded by thieves." Tell me a bit about that quote.

EW: Well, in a way it's my response to people who are saying, "Isn't it dangerous?" But you know, I am hoping that somebody is going to read this book and tell me where that quote comes from! [laughs] I know that I read it in the American Library in Lubumbashi, Zaire, within the same month I read Howard's End, and somehow I attached it to Howard's End, but it's not in there. Hopefully someone can tell me where that's from.

But I'm not saying that's the only right attitude to have, but it's certainly the only attitude that's gonna make anybody into a hitchhiker.

MW: The whole book is tempered with this pragmatic approach: Here's how hitchhiking was for me, on this trip, but it's going to be different if you're a woman, or it's going to be different if inexperienced …

EW: … it's going to be different if you're black …

MW: Exactly. But for all of that, it's still almost proselytizing, saying, "Let's get out, just try it. It's not going to hurt you."

EW: Absolutely, and I resisted saying that. I know that as soon as I get out on tour, all sorts of people are going to ask me if I'd recommend it to a young woman, or whatever, and my short answer is: It doesn't really matter. A young woman who's going to read this book and feels like she wants to go out hitchhiking doesn't much care what I think. [laughs] But the slightly longer answer is that there are women out there hitchhiking, although obviously it's a different situation in a number of ways. Like everything in life, it's all trade-offs.

MW: I've been trying to think of ways people could be convinced to hitchhike in some form or other, and it hit me just the other day on my way in to work. Here in the Bay Area, we have a system called "casual carpool." And it's not even a system, really, it's a self-organizing, totally unregulated phenomenon.

Essentially I get up in the morning, leave my house and walk two blocks and stand by the curb. A line of cars are waiting, and a line of people are waiting to get in. You hop in, the cars get to go through the toll booth on the Bay Bridge for free, so they get over much faster and save three bucks, and we riders get in to work in 20 minutes instead of 45 minutes. But I hadn't even thought of it as a form of hitchhiking until I read this book, which it clearly is.

So are you interested in getting more people to hitchhike, and is there anything you can think of that would encourage people to get out there, like taking a short trip first or hitchhiking around their town first?

EW: Oh, I'm absolutely interested in getting more people to hitchhike. But really, I suppose if people want to hitchhike with training wheels, I'd say go to any rural area. Any small road in a rural area is where people do still hitchhike.

People still hitch places like Martha's Vineyard, or you go up to the islands offshore from Seattle, people are still hitchhiking all over the place up there. And forgive me for being completely cynical, but I think it's because these are areas that are all-white, middle-class, and drivers figure anybody out on the road is somebody else who lives there and they feel safe.

MW: So it's sort of hitchhiking with training wheels for everyone -- both the drivers and the passengers.

EW: Sure. But the other thing is that foreign countries are fun. Europe has always, always been where Americans who are nervous about hitchhiking in America went to hitchhike, and that still holds true. I would not just without thinking suggest that two young women head across the U.S. hitchhiking. Plenty will and will get by without any trouble, but I would without hesistation suggest that same thing in Ireland.

Just as one final thought, my worry for this book is that it might end up being treated as a travel book, so I was certainly very clear that I am trying to fit into the "culture of fear" dialogue. I do think that the lack of hitchhikers is a disturbing symptom, and I do think that the left in America -- and a lot of young people in particular -- have allowed themselves to get cut off from people who aren't like them.

They define people who "aren't like them" as people of other races who live in the same neighborhood and go to the same school, and live in essentially the same world, and because of this they feel that they're hanging out lots with people who "aren't like them." But in fact, the people who really aren't like you are the people with whom you profoundly disagree, and crucial thing to be aware of is that they're very very often just as smart and just as decent as the people with whom you agree with. You can still think that you're right and they're wrong, but it's worth noticing that you're not a tiny island of intelligent people in a world of idiots.

CIA director Porter Goss resigns

At a press conference today in the White House, short-lived CIA director and former Republican congressman Porter Goss announced his resignation.

Goss was appointed to lead the CIA by Bush in August 2004, bumped up from the House of Representatives, where he served from 1989 until joining the CIA. His name has come up frequently lately in reports of an incredibly juicy ongoing corruption scandal on Capitol Hill, which, as the Progress Report detailed yesterday, involves poker parties, prostitution and corrupt limo companies, as well as high-powered politicians and defense companies.

This is yet another major blow for the Administration. As georgia10 writes on DailyKos:

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Flooding the streets for immigrant rights

Here's a quick roundup of what happened across the country today during the National Day of Action for immigrant rights. Most sites haven't updated since this morning, but the news that is trickling out this early is that the protests were huge.

On DailyKos, georgia10 attended the Chicago rally, and this was the scene where 300,000 or more protesters gathered:

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Two takes on Earth Day

Tomorrow is Earth Day, once again. Time to get out your best pair of Birkenstocks and hempen hacky sack and go to the park. But a celebration that has for many years felt like little more than lefty back-patting has finally gained a bit more traction in the media, due in large part to our looming energy crisis, the obvious and increasing seriousness of global warming, and the ongoing desecration of our natural resources by the industrialists in the White House.

I was particularly struck this week by the wildly different tone that people take when discussing Earth Day, and more to the point, the future of our planet. A perfect example comes today, with a side-by-side comparison of the Christian Science Monitor and The Center for American Progress's Talking Points.

For those of you who don't already receive them, CAP's daily Talking Points newsletter offers a quick, concise and fact-filled rundown of the day's biggest issue, and is often an invaluable resource. Here's a paraphrase of today's talking points:

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Making farmed fish good for you

Way back when, in 2003, the journal Science reported that fish raised in captivity - farmed fish - were dramatically higher in toxic pollutants like dioxin, PCBs and pesticides than wild fish. Contaminated enough that the EPA said eating more than one serving a month of farmed fish posed a serious health risk.

Obviously, that's bad news for everyone involved. Fish farmers and the fish industry get hosed because they regularly tout their product as healthier than other animal-based foods. Health-conscious eaters, who think they're doing a body good by eating fish, are actually stockpiling PCBs and dioxins at a much higher rate than they would be if they stuck to hot dogs and chorizo. And obviously, the fish suffer because they're crammed into floating pens to maximize profits.

An interesting wrinkle in the aquaculture phenomenon developed this week as Canadian scientists announced that vegetarian salmon can be much healthier than traditionally carnivorous salmon.

It's a complex problem: Carnivorous fish are hit doubly hard by our human pollution. Since they exist downstream from our waste flows, they are literally swimming in our pollution. And by feeding on other fish that live in similar situations, salmon further increase their pollution intake.

For farmed fish, living in such tight quarters, being fed processed fish meal and fish oil, means the health problems are all the more increased. As the David Suzuki Foundation shows, antibiotics and pesticides are regular additions to farmed fishtanks and fish feed to keep the fish alive and free from sea lice infestations.

The Suzuki foundation has a solid examination of the many problems caused by aquaculture, including:

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Two takes on biotech

In the last year or so, it seems like the biotechnology debate has fizzled out. There hasen't been much to capture the public attention lately: no controversial GMO bans on local ballots lately, no major contamination of food crops or uncontrollable spreading of biotech crops.

But don't be fooled: the biotech industry is alive and well, and are pushing their agenda to businesses, scientists and policymakers starting tomorrow at the BIO conference.

Here are a few of the topics that BIO will focus on this weekend, and which corporations are sponsoring them:

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T-Shirts as a new force in politics

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting take this morning on the immigration debate. It's not the story of how Spanish-language radio hosts are helping coordinate the massive protests that happened nationwide last month and are repeating this coming Monday (though that's a great story as well), but rather about how t-shirts have become the weapon of choice for political activists of all stripes. Reporter Chris Gaylor writes that at last month's pro-immigration rally in Washington, thousands of marchers strolled onto the National Mall in identical "Legalize the Irish" t-shirts:

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Taking denial to the next level

Last week I blogged about the Time cover story and a new poll that showed the vast majority of Americans are deeply concerned about global warming, and that getting the government to make serious efforts to fight it is a high priority.

It seems like perhaps the Bush administration and its pro-industry, anti-Earth backers are stepping up the fight. In his syndicated column yesterday, George Will wrote:

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Get ready for Fossil Fools Day

As I wrote earlier this week, it seems like at long last we're seeing some momentum in this country for fighting global warming. So it's an ideal time for a new campaign from the Energy Action Network, a coalition of 25 enviromental organizations working to end our oil addiction.

Here's the scoop on "Fossil Fools Day":

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A tipping point on global warming?

For many, many weeks I've started and then stopped writing a blog post just like this. Something keyed off the latest news that last year was the hottest on record (or equally troubling, that the top five warmest years since 1890 occured in the last seven years), or the global increase in devastating hurricanes and cyclones, or that we may not be able to reverse rising sea levels, or that the next century will likely bring widespread wars over scarce resources.

But I always hesitated to post these stories. Partly it's because of my long-held belief that at this point in time, climate change is as much an article of faith as it is a scientific reality. If you accept the fact of climate change, you already know about these details. If you refuse to believe that humans are the cause of rapid (and possibly irreversible) global warming, then your head is buried so far deep in the sand that no number of factoids is going to change your mind.

So I'm pleased to say that, as with so many of the most pressing problems facing the country and the world, most Americans are in agreement, and it's a small minority of exceedingly vocal deniers who are serving as roadblocks to progress.

The cover story in this week's Time Magazine paints a dire picture of our global reality, but at the same time a new poll offers some profound encouragement. Jeffrey Kluger writes:

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The decline of the SUV?

By way of DailyKos, an article in the Times today shows a little of the how and why SUV sales are declining:

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Another reason not to eat meat

As if there aren't already enough reasons to not eat meat, the Denver Post this morning unveiled an ugly truth about what's between the plastic wrap and your rump roast. It's carbon monoxide, the toxic gas that comes from your car's tailpipe, and it's put there intentionally by meat packagers to keep the meat looking "pink and rosy":

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Bush was warned about Katrina

The AP has just released video and an article proving that Bush's advisers were desperately concerned about potential damage from Hurricane Katrina, and that they warned him repeatedly:

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An eyewitness to the Cheney quail-hunt speaks

The latest episode of SuperNews just posted on Current TV this weekend with a brief take on the Cheney quail-hunting incident.

It offers an as-yet-unheard perspective on the tragicomedy: what does the quail think of all this?

SuperNews is created by Josh Faure-Brac, and has aired on Current for just over six months. The short animated cartoon is a kind of mix between Mark Fiore and Doonesbury; politics with a comedic twist. Past episodes cover everything from global warming to Bush's illegal wiretap scandal.

And where else could you see the Iraqi Constitutional Congress re-imagined as a scene from "The Breakfast Club"?

Rewriting Our Rotten History of Elections

Depending whom you ask, the state of the union's elections are either peachy-keen or in dire straits. With voting irregularities fast becoming the norm, election officials moonlighting as campaign leaders and highly suspicious differences in polling places from region to region, there is an ill-disguised sense that perhaps our democracy is not quite as strong as politicians and their mouthpieces would have you believe.

As of now, with Republicans in control of every branch of the federal government, much of the finger-pointing is aimed at the GOP. After all, if election reform has stalled in Congress since the 2000 election, it's likely that Republicans have built and maintained the roadblocks holding it up.

But it hasn't always been that way; in fact, as recently as 12 years ago, Democrats were the ruling party, riding out the tail end of a political dominance that stretched through much of the century. And Americans voted to give Congress to the GOP partly in response to widespread Democratic corruption. Now that cycle has turned again, and the Republican Party is staring down the barrel of voter wrath.

These kinds of cycles, the regular booms and busts of American politics, are at the heart of Andrew Gumbel's book "Steal This Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America," published last year by Nation Books. Gumbel, a reporter for the British newspaper the Independent, wrote extensively about the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. But in Steal This Vote, he looks at elections throughout this country's history, and although the picture he paints is not pretty, it offers solid hope for solutions. Gumbel spoke with AlterNet recently on the phone from Los Angeles.

Matthew Wheeland: I know this is a terribly complex and loaded question, but I feel like I have to ask you this first, to get it out of the way: Do you think that the 2004 election was stolen?

Andrew Gumbel: Well, a lot of people saw the kind of shenanigans that went on in Ohio, Florida and elsewhere, and were so appalled by what they saw that they concluded that the outcome of the election must have been compromised.

I think the question that you've asked, which a lot of people have asked, is actually the wrong one. And the reason for that is that we have a vast amount of evidence that the Republican Party in particular played very dirty in Ohio, they played very dirty in Florida. And the really urgent thing that needs to be addressed are those tactics and the rules that make those tactics possible, and in particular the political structure that enables the party in power with the means to be able to play dirty to do so. There's no real oversight by Congress or anybody else on how elections are conducted on the state and local level. That's the key point that needs addressing.

As far as the outcome of the results is concerned, we have the evidence about crazy rules that were issued by the secretary of state in Ohio, who was doubling as the co-chair of George Bush's reelection campaign. We have evidence of strange things going on in certain counties, as regards the counts, the functioning of the computer tabulation machines, the distribution of the machines to enable people to vote in the first place, the number of provisional ballots were issued, the number of provisional ballots that were rejected, both of which were abnormally high in Ohio and on and on and on.

These add up to a deeply dysfunctional electoral system. They do not, however, add up to proof that the election was stolen. The numbers just aren't there.

And you ask anybody, you ask Mark Crispin Miller, you ask Bob Fitrakis, any of the people running around, desperately wanting to believe that Kerry was the rightful winner of the election. They don't have the evidence either. When you press them, they will admit that they don't, and to insist that because there was this manipulation of the system, therefore the outcome is wrong, I think is absolutely disastrous in terms of political strategy.

Then you are guaranteeing yourself marginal status, and it means that the Republican Party and others who want to believe that the voting reform movement is somehow a bunch of kooks on the extreme left fringe making outrageous claims that they can't back up only get extra evidence to further those allegations.

What we need is very cool, clear accusations for which there is substantiating evidence in terms of the various malfeasance and foul play and lack of oversight. That needs to be the focus. This would create a situation where you can get on board not only Democrats who wish that George Bush hadn't been reelected for a second term, but also Republicans, because if we're talking about voting rights, then it is of burning interest to all voters, not just voters from one party or on one side of the political spectrum.

MW: I'll come back to this in a minute, but I think that one of the strengths of your book is that it shows that it is not limited to either side. But at the same time I can see how it's easy to reduce all these circumstances of shady play or just partisan politics structure for election systems to this -- it was stolen, it was this conspiracy, and it's very comforting for people to be able to limit it to that.

AG: I think you're absolutely right. It is very comforting for people, and it becomes a substitute for other kinds of political desires, most notably the desire not to have George Bush president anymore. But I think strategically it's a big mistake.

Having said that, lets not make any bones about it -- the Republicans are in control in some of the key states, they're obviously in control in the Congress, in the White House, and what I've discovered in the course of my historical research is that the problem is not with one party rather than the other. It's not that the Republicans are inherently bad and the Democrats are inherently better, or for that matter, vice versa.

What it is is a problem with the two-party system where one party is in control and where the stakes are high enough to give them the motivation to try and cheat in close races. That's where you're going to see the shenanigans.

If you look at the historical record, it really doesn't matter if it's the Democrats or the Republicans in charge. Where those conditions exist, cheating happens. There are fundamental underlying structural problem with the U.S. electoral system that have not been addressed ever, and we're seeing the fruit of them now.

I would say that there are a couple of things that are different about the situation that we're in at the moment. One is that both parties have a long history of being surprisingly non-ideological, certainly by European standards. Both parties represent a broad coalition, very different interests on the state and local level across the country that have come together in these two big grab bags in the Republican and Democratic parties.

I do feel that that's been changing in the last few years, and its been the Republicans that have been making a run on that. They've become highly ideological. It's a curious kind of ideology, unlike European parties where the ideology is something that is open and shared by the supporters and by the party leaders alike. I think what you see is an ideology that exists on the level of leadership in the Republican Party but isn't necessarily represented in their communications to the voters or in the motivations that the voters have in voting for the Republicans. It's a sort of intriguing setup.

MW: Sure, like even if you were to spell out the agenda of the Republican leadership, most of the items on their to-do list would not likely be repeated on your everyday Republican voter's list of things they want to accomplish.

AG: Right, they have this rhetoric. This very populist rhetoric which is what both parties talking about standing up for American values and the common man against the nasty elitist liberals, where in fact, when you look at what they're doing, they're representing corporate interests. Very much it's a matter of defensive power against popular interest in my view, and I think in the view of a lot of people on the left.

But the way this effects the electoral setup is that I think you see that not only do the Republicans have a very specific ideology, but it's an ideology at the leadership level that is based to some degree on a "take no prisoners" attitude to power. And I think you've seen a much greater ruthlessness in the way that they have waged their political battles, including their electoral battles, than you ever did in the past.

One thing I write about in the book is that you've seen evidence of a kind of an unspoken pact between the parties. Neither has ever really talked about the dirty electioneering of the other. For a couple of reasons, one because they both do it, so to reveal the others' secrets is to risk exposure of your own. And also there's this sense that the system needs to be safeguarded, the belief in the civic religion of America as the greatest democracy on earth needs to be upheld, and its in nobody's interest to put a dent in that.

Richard Nixon, after the 1960 election, which a lot of people believed was stolen from him in Illinois and possibly elsewhere, actually took steps to stop a friend of his who was a journalist investigating shenanigans in Illinois and Texas and elsewhere. And his name was Earl Mazo, and he worked for the New York Herald Tribune, and Nixon turned to him and said, "They're very interesting stories that you're writing, Earl, but nobody steals the presidential election in the United States." And I think that sense that we need to preserve the veneer of the greatness of the system is very powerful.

That has changed to some degree since the 2000 election, I think. The deep concern over the tactics that were deployed in Florida by the Republicans and the strong feeling, certainly, among Democrats. And I think among many, many foreign observers that George Bush didn't win that election for a number of reasons has blown open this issue, and then on the heels of that was all the concern that has grown up about the safety of a new generation of electronic voting machines. Suddenly, we have the first real debate in this country about how elections are conducted that has ever existed.

MW: You give the example of the 2002 elections, the OSCE's ten-person team that came to monitor elections and all the many obstacles they faced because there are no centralized, national standards conducting elections.

That's right. First of all, one of the things Jimmy Carter talked about was the fact that the United States has no provisions for international observers. Or for that matter, almost no provisions for observers of any kind other than members of the two political parties, and it varies a little bit from county to county, and some counties are more liberal than others, but it is absolutely standard in international electoral procedure to have a provision for international observers.

In fact, the United States, through the OSCE when it conducts monitoring missions, say in the Balkans or in the former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe, they expect full access for international monitoring. They have no such provision domestically. And yes, you're right, when you see what can happen at the local level, what essentially has happened historically is that the two parties have filled electoral offices with party hacks, usually not the brightest bulbs.

It's been observed for a long time that election offices are places where people get dumped when they're not considered bright enough for any other kind of political office. There are notable exceptions to that, but my experience in talking to electoral officials is that they tend to be underpaid and under-resourced and rather unloved.

MW: Right, there was the case you mention in the book of the election official in Washington State who quit her job to go be a waitress because the pay was better.

AG: Yes. It was a rural county, but still the point is made.

The most extreme examples of corruption on the local level, the most wonderful example of a stolen election that I've ever come across, was how Lyndon Johnson won the Senate in Texas in 1948. He did it in a very large number of ways, but what it came down to in the end was that he was trailing by about 120 votes. It was six days after the election, and it seemed like all the votes were in and one of his operatives in Jim Wells County, which is down near the Rio Grande River on the Mexican border, changed that 7 to a 9, gave him 200 more votes, and he ended up the winner.

When they inspected the voting ledger, they saw that the last 200 names had been written in in alphabetical order in a different color of ink from all the rest. And Coke Stevenson, who was the losing candidate, went down to Jim Wells County with Frank Hamer, the marshall who caught Bonnie and Clyde 15 years earlier. They went through this list and tried to find the people on the list, and they found every irregularity conceivable.

The story which I go into is quite extraordinary, not only because LBJ stole that election, but that he got away with it when his theft was so brazen. He essentially got away with it because it was a primary election rather than a general election, so the ultimate authority was the Democratic Party. The executive committee of the Texas Democratic Party took a crucial vote, and people were so afraid to vote against LBJ that some of them didn't even show up to the meeting.

The absolutely last, critical vote came when LBJ's operative searched the building for a couple of people who were missing and found one of them skulking in the mens' toilet and hauled him out and forced him to vote for LBJ, and that was the end of that. They voted against conducting further investigation, and he became the senator.

MW: That really illustrates why I think that the historical viewpoint of your book is so important: It demystifies politics, it takes the mythologies out of politics. People on the left want to believe that Democrats are good and honest and have always been, but really they're just not as capable of stealing an election as the Republicans.

But another facet of the historical view you're offering is that it shows all these cycles from relatively calm elections to incredibly corrupt, and there are always solutions on offer, but they have yet to stick. Is there any reason to believe that now we're in a position to break this cycle, or that 30 years from now we'll be back in the same situation?

AG: The real culprit for the way things are now and the way they've been for a long time is the two-party system. What I spend a lot of time doing in the book is looking at how that system came about in the United States. This country's development of its democratic institutions was really quite anomalous, which I don't think people fully appreciate.

In many ways, the U.S. was way out in front of any other country in developing universal suffrage in the 1830s and 1840s. Suffrage was granted to just about all white men, and in some cases black men, and in a few cases, in certain states, women too. Whereas at the same time in Europe, suffrage was extremely restricted to men of property, if that. But by the late 19th century in the U.S., starting with the post-Civil War era, you had a lot of restrictions on voting -- literacy tests, good character tests, and so on -- aimed to systematically deprive not only blacks but poor whites and immigrants of the right to vote.

And gradually the two parties took political control, and essentially what happened in the late 19th century was that instead of the parties corrupting voters one by one -- by paying them, by getting them to cast more than one ballot, by taking them around from precinct to precinct to vote repeatedly -- the parties changed tactics and started corrupting the electoral officials and the electoral process instead.

So you had corrupt officials working on behalf of the parties, and in jurisdictions where one party was in control, they managed to fiddle the vote. And you also had the introduction of voting machines, which were trumpeted as something that of great value to the individual voter by making the process of voting much easier, but in every instance, whether you're talking about lever machines from the 1890s onwards or whether you're talking about punchcards from the 1960s onwards, or now if you're talking about computer voting machines, the real interested parties are the county's voting officials. These machines were designed to make their jobs easier.

And to differing degrees it made the job of them corrupting the electoral process, if they were so inclined, much easier as well. Every technology was trumpeted as a kind of miracle solution that was going to clean up the system. What it turned out to be was a different platform on which electoral shenangians could be carried out. That has been true of every single type of machinery.

We are now in a situation where the new generation of touch screen computer voting machines hold that very particular danger, not because people cheat more or less, but because instead of being able to cheat in one county at a time, which was essentially the way you had to do it in the old days with lever machines or with punch cards, you now have computer tabulation software that applies to machines that might be used over several counties, or indeed over several states.

If you have access to Diebold tabulation software or the Sequoia tabulation software, it's the same software that is used in every single one of those companies' machines. So you can then manipulate outcome over large swathes of the country. That's something utterly new and holds new dangers, but the basic structure of how elections are corrupted and who corrupts them hasn't really changed at all in 100 years.

MW: Obviously, voting machines are one of the biggest issues at play in discussions about election fraud. Is there a way to make voting machines, as we have them now, a fair and accountable system, or do we need to go back to something like a paper ballot?

AG: Well the very simple way that you could make the system more transparent is to stop this ludicrous practice of having proprietary software put into voting machines that no one, not even the election officials, is allowed to inspect. It's absolutely insane, the idea that you have a public process in an election that is being carried out with proprietary software that everybody just has to take on trust.

My own personal take on the electronic voting machines is that I think they are absolutely the wrong technology for voting for a number of reasons. One is because they're very expensive. Another is because you need to keep upgrading and changing the software, which is also a huge expense, and also, everytime you do that, it has security implications.

Essentially, it's just a much too complicated, much too risky system for running something that could be done much more simply and much more cheaply. I'm not the only one who thinks this. A lot of experts who have looked at this think that the best technology that is out there at the moment is the optical scan system. That's the one where you have the paper ballot and you fill in little bubbles like you do on an SAT test.

MW: One of the more interesting long-term issues that you bring up in the book is that race seems to be behind most, if not all, the most egregious voting rights violations that starting even from the very beginning of the country.

AG: I work as a foreign correspondent in the United States, and anyone who comes here is prepared to delve into the issue of race and assume that it is a much bigger issue in the United States than many Americans are prepared to acknowledge. When I went about researching this book, I had a good idea that race played a big part in this story, and I was consistently surprised that it really seemed to play an even bigger role than I had suspected.

For example, it's a well-known fact that slavery was condoned when the Constitution was drawn up. What I didn't realize was that because of the existence of slavery, that gave certain in-built advantages to slave owners in the South, and in a way it was reflected in the architecture of the American democratic institution. Essentially what you have is for the purposes of weighting congressional districts, slaves were considered 3/5 of a person; when it came to voting rights, they were considered 0/5 of a person, and this was part of the negotiations between the Southern states and the Northern states.

This created congressional districts where white slave owners essentially had more say than Northerners did. This is also reflected in the Electoral College, because that was based on congressional districts and in the Senate likewise, you had two seats per state, and populations in the South were much smaller because only whites were allowed to vote. Right from the beginning, you had a bias towards slave owners, and slavery was the great issue that haunted the whole system.

Then, when you skip forward to the Civil War, the emancipation, the end of slavery, then over the next 30 to 40 years, you had not only the rewriting of the Constitution that effectively made it impossible for blacks to vote that in the north as well a lot of the discrimination in terms of literacy tests, good character tests. A lot of that was directed towards blacks in particular and other minorities, all of whom were considered to be alarming and essentially for the country and there was an very explicit attempt to exclude them from the right to vote.

And then, if we skip forward to the Voting Rights Act in the mid-1960s, that certainly solved a lot of the problems in theory, but not always in practice. If you look at the pattern of discrimination and exclusion from voting since then, you see a very heavy burden being carried by African-Americans. The kinds of stories you hear about people being misdirected to the wrong precinct, or told if they have outstanding warrants or parking tickets they're not going to be allowed to vote, or having too few voting machines or too few precincts always seem to be in heavily African-American areas.

The other important category in the South in particular is the laws that do not grant automatic restoration of voting rights to a felon once they've completed their sentences. This was a particularly big issue in Florida in 2000, when roughly 600,000 people were excluded by this law.

You also had the problem that they drew up a felon purge list which was supposed to identify people who had criminal records and therefore should be disqualified. That list turned out to be riddled with errors to where in counties where they checked, up to 95 percent of the names turned out to be wrong, which again was another big suppression mechanism against African-American votes.

The states where this is particularly acute tend to be these Southern states where Republicans are in control, and they have absolutely no interest in changing the rules. Jeb Bush is a prime example -- you can petition to death to make it easier for convicted felons to vote once they've completed their sentences, but he has done absolutely nothing about it because he knows perfectly well that 90 percent of those voters, were they granted the right to vote, would vote against his party.

MW: This last question is probably the first question I should have asked you, but we'll just go at it backwards. You're British and you write for a British newspaper, among other American sources, so how did you come to write this book?

AG: It seemed to be an issue that kept coming back at me. I was in Austin, Texas, on the night of the 2000 election -- that extremely strange night that never ended -- and I was very heavily involved in covering the battle in Florida that ensued. Then a couple of years later, I was told about the problems with the computer voting machines and wrote about it from sources that I didn't necessarily trust terribly well. There was a neighbor of mine who also alerted me to it, and I thought I would make some phone calls and see if there was something to this.

I talked to Rebecca Mercury, a computer scientist who was teaching at the time at Harvard. She seemed to be a pretty impeccable source who talked me through some the hair-raising things that had been going on that hadn't really received any media attention at all. I read the report that came out from Johns Hopkins and Rice universities, which after they got ahold of the Diebold source code and found it was riddled with absolutely elementary security problems.

I talked to activists in Georgia, I started to investigate more and more because really nobody else had written about it. I wrote a big piece in the Independent in October of 2003 that got a huge response and one of the responses was from people who said, "Isn't it strange that our system is riddled with problems, given how well it has worked in the past?" To which my response was, "I think there's something wrong with that picture, and maybe it would be worth delving into the historical research to explain exactly why there's something wrong with that picture, so that was the origins of the book."

MW: Everyone does assume that sometime in this mythical past things worked well, but if you try to pin down exactly which decade it was that everything worked well, you just lose it. Your book really shows that it has been a constant problem in this country.

AG: I think part of the reason that no one has done this is because, between 1960 when you had the Nixon-Kennedy race and 2000 with Bush-Gore, there hadn't been a really high-profile national election where the issue of malfeasance had come up. There had been plenty of issues locally, but there's a habit with the U.S. press to focus on the local issues and not to look what's happening in the counties a couple of states over, that people weren't looking at that patchwork of constant problems that never went away.

The other thing, which is perhaps an advantage of being a foreigner, is that to the extent that people have written books about problems with the electoral system, they've tended to want to assert that Democrats cheat more them Republicans, or Republicans cheat more than Democrats, and I think that's really the wrong approach.

I think you've really got to look at the system as a political system and how it has benefitted each of the parties separately and both of them together over a very long time, and I don't know if it takes a foreigner to do that, but whenever I address groups, there tend to be Democrats who are more interested in this issue at the moment because they're the ones who are suffering at the moment from elections that don't go their way. They want to believe that I am a Democrat like them, and they say, how can we do something about these awful Republicans. It gives me great pleasure to tell them that I am not a Democrat, and I'm not a Republican either. That is the great advantage that I have.

MW: The opening chapter of the book is incredibly harsh on Democrats and justly so; it's important to air this eye-opening information, so we can understand the big picture that there is no good guy and no bad guy.

AG: Right. Electoral malfeasance is not something that good politicians never do and bad politicians do habitually. It's really a matter of how high the stakes, and who is in a position to play dirty. And if the stars align in that way for one party to be able to chaff the other, usually they will.

Keeping the cartoon madness rolling

This whole editorial cartoon thing has gotten so far out of control that I'm not even about to weigh in on it except to say that the daily newspaper Hamshari in Iran announced today that, well, I'm just gonna quote from the Guardian's report:

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DuPont running scared?

After this week's glut of news about the health risks of everyone's favorite non-stick coating (and Mafia nickname), DuPont, the makers of Teflon have launched a massive defensive ad campaign.

On page A5 of today's New York Times, better placement than, say, the news that every part of the country was much warmer than usual, the full-page ad features a pan with the heading "Teflon (R) Non-Stick Coating is Safe" in enormous type.

Forgive me for not believing the international chemical conglomerate, but I'll go instead with the Green Guide's recommendations for stainless steel and cast-iron pots and pans.

Heck, if it was good enough for Grizzly Adams, it's good enough for me and mine….

Politics at its purest

Declan McCullagh posted a fascinating little article yesterday on News.com about a thousand edits to Wikipedia, the open-source encyclopedia. The site gets billions of page views a day, but these edits are notable because they came from Congressional computers.

It turns out that Congressional staffers had been logging in to Wikipedia and making some questionable changes to entries about their bosses' political rivals. McCullagh writes:
One edit listed White House press secretary Scott McClellan under the entry for "douche." Another said of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma) that: "Coburn was voted the most annoying Senator by his peers in Congress. This was due to Senator Coburn being a huge douche-bag."

(Keep in mind these are the same holier-than-thou political climbers tasked with writing laws telling the rest of the country how to behave. Or else.)
Wikipedia officials have blocked the IP addresses and are trying to resolve the situation. From a Wikipedia report on the fracas:
The editors from these IP ranges have been rude, abrasive, immature, and show disregard for Wikipedia policy. The editors have frequently tried to censor the history of elected officials, often replacing community articles with censored biographies despite other users' attempts to dispute these violations. They also violate Wikipedia:Verifiability, by deleting verified reports, while adding flattering things about members of Congress that are unverified.
You gotta love politics at its most venal and pointless. It's reminiscent of the Clinton White House staffers who stole the Ws from White House computer keyboards before Dubya took office.

Redemption and Weirdness on the Farm

John Peterson is going through a miniature existential crisis. "Do you think I'm a farmer if I'm not farming?" he asked during a recent interview. "Is 'documentary film subject' a career?"

Put in perspective, Peterson's question makes a lot of sense. A farmer his entire life, the 55-year-old from Illinois has spent the better part of a year, and as much of the foreseeable future as he cares to think about, on the road promoting "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," a film about his life.

The constant touring is paying off at long last, and critics and audiences alike are singing its praises. According to director Taggart Siegel, "The Real Dirt" has won 18 film festival awards to date -- among them, grand jury prizes at the Newport Film Festival and the San Francisco International Film Festival and audience awards at Slamdance and the Chicago International Documentary Film Festival.

Among its many fans are Nina Utne, Roger Ebert and Al Gore, who gave a special introduction to the film at last year's Green Screen Film Festival in San Francisco.

Given all this acclaim, it's not surprising that the film is moving toward a wider theatrical release. Earlier this month, "The Real Dirt" opened in Chicago, and it opens today in San Francisco and Berkeley. Over the next few months, it will spread to Minneapolis, Portland, New York City, Los Angeles and beyond.

It's all very exciting, of course -- but as the tours and promotion continue, Peterson's return to his farm drifts off over the horizon. "I'll be there for two hours in probably the next four months," he said. "From 11:00 until 1:00 on the 20th of this month. Isn't that wild?"

What is the real dirt?

This extended touring is a bittersweet experience for Peterson. Clearly, the fact that he's still on the road after a year of steady travel is a sign of success -- an indicator of how passionately audiences respond to his story. But for a man with such deep connections to the land, leaving his Caledonia, Ill., home for so long can be an arduous and uprooting experience.

As Peterson says in the film, "The farm has [gotten] in the way of every romance I've ever had. It's like the farm's my wife. Of course, some of my girlfriends have been very jealous of the farm, because whatever the farm has wanted, I pretty much have been willing to give to it. But I managed to get a date in now and then."

Fortunately for us, Peterson's girlfriends, family and friends -- including director Taggart Siegel -- have documented his life on the farm, leaving behind reels of home movies and professional films. Siegel explained, "It's really amazing that we have all this footage. And it's amazing we had that footage in the 50s, when Mom shot all the home movies. She was like a documentary filmmaker. So we had all that, the 50s and the 60s, and John shot the hippie period [on the farm] in the 70s, and then I came on board and for the last 25 years. I've basically been filming on and off."

The decades of documentary filmmaking that have occurred on the farm grant viewers a glimpse of every stage of Peterson's growth, on the farm and off. His childhood, surrounded by family and friends, is a snapshot of an archetypal rural life that is slowly dying away. But when John signs up at nearby Beloit College and takes over the farm after his father's death from diabetes, his life changes almost immediately. He falls in love with the artists and free-thinkers on campus, thrives on their curiosity and spirit, and his farm gradually becomes a sort of working farm-slash-artist's colony, which they christen "The Midwest Coast."

But even as the creative life thrives on Peterson's farm, his neighbors get suspicious, angry and eventually violent -- a classic and unfortunate example of small-town conservatism giving way to fear and hatred. During the film, we see examples of the late-night drive-bys, rumor-mongering and, eventually, the arson that ruins Peterson's life in Caledonia.

Heaping misery upon misery, Peterson's mistreatment at the hands of his neighbors coincides with the calamitous farm crises of the 1980s. Three decades after being urged to "get big or get out," farms that sunk borrowed fortunes in heavy equipment found crop prices dropping and no way to stay afloat. Peterson's farm was one of many casualties of this collapse. Shunned by his community and driven from the land, Peterson is forced to reexamine his life's purpose.

Redemption from the roots up

At its heart, "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" is a story of redemption. Its power derives not from its focus on farming, but its message of the importance of change: failing in order to later succeed, and learning to embrace and benefit from disastrous changes.

"I think this film is about so much more than farming," Siegel said. "I think it crosses political lines, so we can get people that would normally not see this kind of film to see it, because it's not political. It's more about what sustains us all."

The film truly isn't political, but it touches on many enormous political issues, from the economic-political issues of farming, development and the importance of rural communities as well as the social-political issues about diversity, acceptance and resisting fear and hatred of all things different.

Part of its impact, Peterson believes, stems from the long, slow shift Americans have made in the past century from a predominantly rural country where even Congress organized its schedule around farm season, to an urban and suburban country grown miserably detached from its food supply.

"I think people in these really concentrated urban lives, at some point they are gonna need to have a conscious relationship to land, and the source of food," Peterson continued. "People need to feel like they have a relationship to that aspect of life."

"The Real Dirt on Farmer John" is screening in select cities around the country. To find a screening near you, visit TheRealDirt.net.

Supreme Court allows death with dignity

The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that Oregon's first-of-its-kind physician-assisted suicide law is constitutional and will be allowed to stand.

The 6-3 ruling is a major blow to the Bush Administration, which has been fighting the law since it took office in 2001. But this case is significant for many reasons. First off, it's a landmark legal ruling to give sick individuals the right to decide for themselves when they want to die. Secondly, it's the first major ruling we've seen from our new Chief Justice Roberts, which leads right into the big picture:

The three most conservative judges on the bench -- Scalia, Thomas and Roberts -- united in dissent on this case, choosing to grant more power to the federal government instead of giving people dignity and privacy with their own biggest decisions.

Even the LA Times called them out on this one:

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Your car is now getting fewer miles per gallon

Yesterday the EPA announced that, starting sometime next year, the sticker on new cars will show how many miles per gallon the car will get in real-world driving, not based on lab tests, which can inflate the mileage by as much as 50 percent.

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The bigger story behind the mine disaster

The tragic story of the 12 dead miners in West Virginia keeps getting sadder. Soon after the New York Times, the Washington Post, the AP and many other papers went to press with front-page stories detailing how all but one miner survived the collapse, an official with the mining company, the International Coal Group, reversed the announcement, saying that due to bad communication, the reality is that all but one of the miners had died.

The Times has now published an article about the reversal, saying in part: that, "what followed was pandemonium. 'People who had been praising God a minute before were cursing him' Mr. [John Cato, a friend of the miners] said."

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Stricken from the language

This morning's Rachel Maddow show on Air America, guest hosted by Mark Riley, raised an interesting question: "What are some of the most annoying phrases of the year 2005, phrases that you think should be banned from the English lexicon, what would they be?"

Among the suggestions from the show's staff are Fitzmas and "anything having to do with 'Happy Holidays' or "'Merry Christmas' - just get rid of all of it and have some new way to talk about the holidays, that whole war on xmas thing invented by the right wing."

As Riley points, out, Lake Superior State University in Michigan makes a list every year of "List of Words and Phrases Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness." Among this year's list, the 31st annual list from the school, are:

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Who did your neighbor donate money to?

This is really amazing: Political Wire posted a short blurb about a new adaptation of Google's all-powerful Maps software.

Indiana University doctoral student Matthew Kane's website is a simple combination of political contribution information from FundRace and Google's down-to-the-block Google Maps. What this little combo does is nothing short of astounding. You can search by any ZIP code and get results down to the block of who donated, how much and to whom.

The ethically shady part of this is that it also shows the names and, if you have the patience, phone numbers of each donor. So if you were to search San Francisco's 94110 zip code (shown at left), not only would you find that Dems are overwhelmingly the political preference out here (big surprise, that), but you could also find out to whom your neighbors donated money and how much.

Talk about encouraging uncomfortable conversations at the next block party -- would you want to be the sole Republican amongst a group of deep-blue liberals?

Putting aside any concerns about future eggings and/or toilet-paper attacks on politically incompatible flatmates, Kane's project is an endlessly interesting and informative toy.

For instance, Cheyenne, Wyo., residents donated 71 percent of their political dollars to Republicans, and only 28 percent to Dems. Seattle, Wash., on the other hand is 78 percent Dem and 21 percent Repub.

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Europe takes a big step on toxic chemicals

European Union ministers today approved a landmark law to monitor and control potentially dangerous chemicals. The law, Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (aka REACH, "gives greater responsibility to industry to manage the risks from chemicals and to provide safety information on the substances," in the words of the E.U.

If you work for chemical industry or are an industry sympathizer, you read that description as "raising the cost of doing business and increasing the power of big government." If you are an environmentalist, you read that description as "protecting people from the heedless, blind rush of the profit motive."

What the law really does is create a system to track what chemicals various industries are using, as well as monitor the usage of suspected or confirmed cancer-causing chemicals. Per the BBC, no one's entirely happy with how it turned out.

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Stiffing SBC as civil disobedience

According to the National Priorities Project, the war on Iraq has already cost us over $225 billion. That's a fair sight more than the $50 to 60 billion predicted by the White House in January 2003.

Given that there seems to be no end in sight to how much we'll be paying for this little expedition, it's no surprise that people are protesting the war in a great variety of ways. Waaaaay back in April of 2003 AlterNet ran a pair of stories about war tax resistance.

Simply put, war tax resisters refuse to pay some or all of their federal taxes through a conviction that war is wrong, and that yanking funding for an illegal war is the one of the more effective methods of protesting that war. Hit 'em in the pocketbook, as it were.

Last weekend, David Lazarus, the San Francisco Chronicle's roving business/outrage reporter, wrote about how people are increasingly refusing to pay part of their phone bills as a war protest. The federal excise tax on phone service, which dates back to 1898 and began as a way to increase funds for the Spanish-American War, is currently 3 percent of your monthly phone bill. Pretty small change, really, but it adds up as more people refuse to pay it.

What's most interesting about Lazarus' article is that he found more than a few phone companies are on the same page with refusing to pay the excise tax. And it's not just Working Assets:

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BellSouth gets all huffy on New Orleans

I blogged last week about New Orleans' new, free WiFi network, the first in the country to be owned by a municipality.

Not only did the various parties involved in the plan agree that establishing community internet would benefit in the growth of the city's economy, but that it would prove instrumental in coordinating future disaster responses, just as the internet did in a more ad-hoc manner during Hurricane Katrina.

But doing right by the community is clearly unsatsifactory for the forces of Disaster Capitalism. From the Washington Post on Saturday:

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Last gasps of our oil addiction?

NPR's Morning Edition featured a lengthy report this morning on the small but booming town of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada. Martin Kaste's story begins, as so many stories these days do, with Google.

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New Orleans to get free wi-fi

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced that, as of today, the Business District and the French Quarter are covered by free WiFi network, the first of its kind to be owned and operated by a major city. The rest of the city will gradually get wired over the next year.

The gist of the ABC News article is that the move is intended to boost the city's economy, but Information Week emphasized how the network will provide crucial support to future disaster responses in the city.

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Did oil execs lie to Congress?

For those of us who follow environmental news, the fact that Dick Cheney's super-double-secret Energy Task Force consisted of oil-industry leaders is less than surprising. The sheer amount of energy and vitriol Cheney and his aides put in to hiding the attendance roster, coupled with the fact that environmental groups weren't included in the meetings, pretty much convinced us that it was as we feared, and probably a lot worse.

However, the surety with which we can predict the Bush Administration's behavior is still a far cry from having proof of how it went down. So it comes as a great relief that the Washington Post announced today that a White House document shows that officials from Exxon Mobil Corp., Conoco (before its merger with Phillips), Shell Oil Co. and BP America Inc. met in the White House complex with Cheney's aides.

Kos has the transcript of the actual exchange:

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