Sunday, August 31, 2008

New Orleans Empties as Gustav Closes In

NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 30 -- Mayor C. Ray Nagin on Saturday night ordered a mandatory evacuation of this city ahead of Hurricane Gustav, which swelled from an already deadly tropical storm into a monster depression with winds of more than 150 mph.

"This is the real deal, not a test," Nagin said as he issued the order, effective 9 a.m. Eastern time Sunday for low-lying areas and 1 p.m. citywide. He warned residents that staying would be "one of the biggest mistakes of your life."

Forecasters warned that it was still too soon to say whether New Orleans would take a direct hit from Gustav late Monday, but the storm's threat, coming three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated a broad swath of the Gulf Coast, drew a hefty amount of wary respect from city, state and federal officials.

Gustav has already killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean. On Saturday, it slammed into western Cuba, knocking out power in Havana. The Cuban government said that it had moved at least 300,000 people.

In New Orleans, local officials said they would turn all lanes of traffic on major highways into one-way routes headed away from the city, starting early Sunday morning.

But many residents were not waiting to leave. At a news conference at 9:30 p.m. Eastern time Saturday, Nagin said 50 percent of the city had already evacuated.

By dinnertime, St. Charles Avenue, the main drag through the residential Garden District, was all but deserted. National Guard troops patrolled the street, walking by a few celebrants of Southern Decadence, an annual Labor Day weekend event that draws thousands of gays and lesbians.

Jackson Square, a part of the French Quarter that is regularly lined with horse-drawn carriages and street artists, was abandoned as well, save for a few palm readers and homeless people. Private security guards wearing bulletproof vests and carrying semiautomatic weapons were out in force in front of the InterContinental Hotel, which was preparing to evacuate all guests and close its doors Sunday morning.

Under a worst-case scenario, Gustav could "put the whole city under" water, Nagin said, even areas that have never flooded before. "This is the mother of all storms," he said.

The hurricane also threatened to disrupt oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, energy analysts warned, and companies with offshore rigs in the gulf said they had significantly cut their production. Oil refiners also reduced their operations.

After clearing the Cayman Islands, Gustav gained strength Saturday and became a Category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Forecasters are predicting that the storm will reach Category 5 -- the strongest level -- with winds higher than 155 mph before hitting the Gulf Coast. The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch for Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas's eastern coast.

At Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans, the city's Amtrak station and one of 17 evacuation centers, residents said they were wiser about the danger of Gustav after going through the ravages of Katrina.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Palin Comparison

All the papers lead with John McCain's surprise selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for his running mate. He shocked election-watchers and scrambled the presidential race with a "Hail Mary pass"—eschewing more conventional choices for the inexperienced, socially conservative, corruption-fighting "hockey mom." Appearing together in Ohio, McCain lauded her reform credentials while Palin framed her candidacy as an extension of Hillary Clinton's quest to "shatter [the] glass ceiling."

The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal call it a risky play to revitalize John McCain's "maverick" image. Choosing Palin undercuts the argument that Barack Obama is too inexperienced, raising questions about John McCain's age and judgment. But it could pay off: Palin—an NRA member and staunch pro-lifer—is energizing evangelicals and tempting Hillary Clinton voters to defect. An LAT analysis piece worries it's a sign that McCain relies on shortsighted "gut-checks," while an early version of the WSJ lead called it a "calculated bet." It's likely a bit of both—McCain's a high-stakes gambler who knows the odds.

The papers all have the same details about McCain's selection process: He spoke to Palin three times—once at the National Governors Association meeting in February, once on the phone last Sunday, and Thursday morning, when he offered her the job. (On Wednesday, she met with McCain's advisers at the home of the Hensley family's foot-soldier, Bob "Call Delgado" Delgado.) The LAT and WSJ raise questions about whether Palin was properly vetted.

The WP, LAT, and NYT also front biographies of Palin. The WP and LAT play up her compelling life story and her reputation for reform—formerly mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, population 7,000, she made her name by initiating an ethics investigation of Republican king-maker Randy Ruedrich—but the NYT is far more critical of her record. A separate NYT piece looks at an ongoing ethics investigation of Palin, involving pressure to fire her brother-in-law, a state trooper.

The WP off-leads, and the NYT stuffs, New Orleans' preparations for Hurricane Gustav, which will touch down on Tuesday morning. Massive new floodgates should protect much of the city, but improvements haven't been made in vulnerable areas like the Ninth Ward. A mandatory evacuation order may come on Sunday.

The NYT off-leads with a natural gas-powered vehicle boom in Utah. A combination of price controls and infrastructure improvements have set off a frenzy to buy specialized Hondas and illegally modify cars, as Utahans take advantage of fuel that costs the equivalent of 87 cents a gallon.

The WP fronts a growing battle over Jewishness in Israel. Zionists have been trying to swell Israel's Jewish population by wooing new converts, but the ultra-Orthodox courts are concerned about watering down Judaism. They've been fighting back, imposing increasingly strict criteria that have invalidated conversions and marriages.

A WP front profiles the first-ever American confab of the Slow Food Movement—which combines concern over food production processes with gourmet tastes. The San Francisco convention comes just as many of the movement's ideas are becoming mainstream.

The NYT fronts a look at India's newest ex-Maoist public intellectual: Chadra Bhan Prasad has made a name for himself by arguing that capitalism is the antidote to caste discrimination.

The LAT fronts the discovery of 12 beheaded bodies in Mexico, a result of the escalating war for control of the country's new drug routes.

And the NYT reefers a new Bush administration attempt to reaffirm that we are legally "at war" against al-Qaida. The language, included in a proposal to hear legal appeals for Gitmo detainees, is an attempt to institutionalize tools President Bush has used in the "long war"—including interrogation, surveillance, and detention of suspected terrorists as "enemy combatants."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

U.N. troops offer lessons in peace in Lebanon

EBEL AL SAQI, LEBANON -- The yoga instructor chuckles, and the three dozen or so women follow along, giggling nervously before bursting through some invisible layer of restraint or sorrow and laughing with abandon. Grins widen into smiles, tentative squeals bloom into full-bore howls.

The yoga instructor is teaching inner peace, but he's also trying to keep the peace: He's Warrant Officer Mal Singh of the Indian army, part of a 30-year-old United Nations force stationed in southern Lebanon.

The laughs peter out, some of the women wiping tears from their eyes as they gather up their handbags and head home.

"If we feel peace inside ourselves, maybe we will have peace," says Hoda Munzer, a 35-year-old owner of a nearby clothing shop, who has taken a break from work to attend the class with her 9-year-old daughter, Sueen, in this hilltop community near the Israeli border.

For decades, southern Lebanon has been shaken by war, most recently in 2006, when fighting between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah displaced a million people and wrecked dozens of towns and villages. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, is perhaps not aptly named: It has been here since March 23, 1978, its numbers bolstered to about 13,000 after the 2006 conflict.

While serving here, the blue-bereted troops also try to heal the psychic wounds of traumatized residents, serving as cultural ambassadors of sorts. In addition to the Indian troops' yoga instruction, French troops have taught the many Francophone residents courses in poetry. Chinese troops demonstrate tai chi and the South Koreans, tae kwon do. The Spaniards teach español, now trendy in Lebanon. Italians have shown off their pizza-making skills.

And what about the German troops? Well, no one expects Germans to offer cooking classes. The hundreds-strong German contingent makes up the bulk of the mission's maritime forces, out at sea patrolling for arms smugglers.

The U.N. peacekeepers also offer medical and dental clinics and computer classes, and they have plans to supply more artificial limbs for the people wounded by old land mines and ordnance.

The efforts are all meant to endear the troops to a local population that has violently resisted incursions by Israeli, French, American and Syrian forces over the decades.

"When we do such things, it brings us closer to the people," said Maj. Rishi Raj Singh of the 800-plus Indian contingent. "The return is immeasurable. We don't spend a lot of money, and it's immensely popular."

It's part of the changing nature of U.N. peacekeeping operations since they began 60 years ago, on May 29, 1948, when the fledgling world body dispatched its first batch of blue-helmeted international troops, with the goal of maintaining a truce between newly founded Israel and its Arab neighbors.

"The warfare environment is much more complex than before," says Maj. Chang Sec-jeun of the South Korean force based near the mostly Shiite Muslim town of Burj Rahhal. "You have to consider not just military dimensions, but nonprofit organizations, economics and civilian life. We keep the peace with the local population. We keep the peace together."

The South Koreans teach tae kwon do in workshops that attract up to 50 young students, many of them on edge over Lebanon's simmering conflicts.

"The tae kwon do helps release their frustration and stress and give them . . . what do you call it? Catharsis?" Chang said.

The troops have set up makeshift tae kwon do studios in three southern Lebanese towns. They hope to have two more by the end of summer, eventually offering 10 classes a week for up to 500 people. The students in one class, ages 11 to 13, line up in formation as the lesson begins.

"Anyon Hasaeyo?" -- how are you doing today? -- the instructor, Lt. Jang Yoo-sung, asks in Korean.

"Hamdullah!" Well, thank God, they respond in Arabic.

The boys and girls stretch their arms into the air, all wearing gleaming white martial arts uniforms and yellow belts handed out free. They bark out numbers in Korean as they kick and punch into the air. "Hana! Dul! Set! Net! Dasote!" they exclaim -- one, two, three, four, five.

"We learn to concentrate and control ourselves," says Abbas Hammoud, a 13-year-old who, like many children, suffered nightmares after the 2006 war. "And to defend ourselves."

No one claims that tae kwon do classes will prevent young men here from joining sectarian militias. But the middle and high school boys taking the classes are in the same demographic group as those now scuttling around on motorbikes in Beirut, northern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, the so-called shebab, or young dudes, aimless teens firing off rounds at rival gangs and starting skirmishes with sectarian overtones. Dozens have died in such violence over the last year.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Today, we struck a blow against propaganda, and for transparency and accountability.

In early 2002, the Pentagon began cultivating retired military officers who frequently serve as media commentators to help make the case for invading Iraq. The pundit program continued -- promoting the Bush administration's stance on the Guantanamo Bay detention center, warrantless wiretapping and other controversial issues -- until New York Times reporter David Barstow exposed its existence in April 2008.

Thanks to Blake Hall of our IT staff and senior researcher Diane Farsetta, now you and anyone with web access can search the massive cache of military documents detailing the Pentagon's illegal attempts to shape U.S. public opinion. The New York Times first obtained the documents. After the Times reported on the covert pundit program, the Pentagon posted the documents online in a desperate attempt at damage control. But the documents weren't text searchable, making systematic analysis of this important information nearly impossible.

But we've now cracked the Pentagon's code and made the 8,000 pages of Pentagon documents fully text searchable, posting them all on our SourceWatch website, for journalists, researchers and concerned citizens.

Please help us continue this important work. Make a tax-deductible donation to CMD today by going to

The Pentagon documents reveal the worst of the U.S. military-industrial-media complex. As pundits, the retired military officers were paid to give supposedly independent analyses of military and security issues to news audiences. The emails, briefing notes and other internal correspondence revealed in the Pentagon documents make clear how Defense Department officials viewed the pundits - as "surrogates" and "message force multipliers."

Where is the outrage over this massive propaganda campaign? U.S. mainstream media - the same outlets that paid, and sometimes still feature, the Pentagon's pundits - have failed to report on this issue. One of very few national television shows to report on the Pentagon pundit program was PBS's "NewsHour," which featured a debate between CMD executive director John Stauber and Robert Zelnick, a former ABC Pentagon correspondent who defended the propaganda program and criticized the New York Times!

Governments should obey the law. The news media should expose, not partner with, illegal government propaganda campaigns. When both fail, it's left to watchdogs like we here at CMD to sound the alarm and fight for all of our rights to clean government and accurate, factual journalism.

If you appreciate CMDs work in widening and informing public debates, please make a generous contribution today by going to or by sending a check to the address below.

We're proud of this important work, and happy to help elevate the scrutiny, criticism and condemnation that this illegal propaganda campaign has received. Thanks to your support we've made the Pentagon more transparent to citizens like you.


The staff of the Center for Media and Democracy

P.S. Dig into the documents yourself! They are at

Monday, August 04, 2008

Brain signal decoder

Interfacing with the brain to control devices such as wheelchairs, robots and prosthetic devices has great potential. Monkeys have shown impressive ability to control robot limbs using brain implants, but must "rewire" their brains through training to do it.

It would make things easier to use the signals naturally used for hand-eye coordination. But nobody has been able to figure out how the part of the brain responsible for hand-eye coordination, the primary motor cortex, does its job. Even recording the activity of this brain region has proved difficult.

Now, John Donoghue and colleagues at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, have designed a new implant to make the task easier. They have also created software that turns these brain signals into code that controls an external device.

The team tested the device on the brains of monkeys as they watched objects move in front of them. In this way, the researchers built up a database of signals that could be used to work out a decoding strategy.

The result is a brain implant that can translate the hand trajectory signals produced by the brain and use them to control an external device.

Read the full brain signal decoder patent application

iPhone 2.0.1 Update Now Available (Also Available For iPod Touch)

Read in Gizmodo:

A reader just tipped us off to the iPhone 2.0.1 update being out RIGHT NOW. Just fire up your iTunes and click the old update button and you'll be able to grab it. We're updating now and will let you know what's different. Right now all we see is "Bug Fixes" listed under the changelog, but there's a security update info link in the update screen as well, so it might be that. [Thanks tipster!]

Update: It's an E. Honda-like 249MB, so this will take a few minutes to download.

Update 2: iPod Touch users can also update.

Update 3: The didn't wipe out our media (pics, vids, tunes) on the iPhone 3G. Awesome.

Update 4: Is it me, or does flipping pages on the home screen seem faster and smoother?

Update 5: Marcelo says iTunes sync and backup is faster. Anyone else agree?

Update 6: Confirmed that it doesn't work with Pwnage tool just yet.

The Political Hurdles

Perhaps no other Olympics has been so intensely anticipated" as the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, China, observed Jere Longman in Sunday's New York Times. The upcoming Olympics will be a test of the "inherent power of the games," Longman wrote. China is a rising economic and cultural force in the world, but the regime's behavior, both domestically and internationally, continues to be problematic. Will focusing the world's attention on China serve to positively change the behavior of an oppressive regime, as some claim was an effect of the 1988 summer games in Seoul, South Korea? Or will the 2008 Summer Olympics serve only to further empower, entrench, and legitimize that regime, as many believe happened with the 1936 "Nazi" Olympics in Berlin?

HUMAN RIGHTS IN CHINA: Even though there has been progress in economic rights in China, "rights to free speech and assembly remain sharply restricted, ethnic minorities are repressed, [and] the Communist Party dominates," Longman noted. In a report released in late July, Amnesty International said progress on human rights in China had been limited. Foreign journalists covering the Olympics are also confronting many restrictions. Chinese authorities "had told the International Olympic Committee that reporters would be allowed to cover the Games as they would any other Olympics," but media advocates say that has not been the case. "Chinese censors use increasingly sophisticated filtering software to block access to Web sites and conduct surveillance of online bulletin boards and chat rooms." Television crews from South America and Germany "have complained publicly about being harassed and followed by plainclothes police or about public security police who have cut off live shots even though the reporters had permission to film." Fearful of being spied on, White House staffers who are traveling to Beijing have been told to leave their Blackberries at home.

INTERNATIONAL ISSUES: The Beijing Olympics suffered a public relations hit in February when director Steven Spielberg withdrew from his role as artistic adviser to the games in protest of China's backing for Sudan's policy in Darfur. China has been severely criticized for blocking tougher sanctions against the Sudanese government, as well as for its support for Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. In March, there was an international outcry over China's violent crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators, in which 140 people were killed, according to the Tibetan government-in-exile. China has criticized the use of sanctions against Iran to bring Iran into compliance with nuclear inspections, though it is currently a party to the incentives package being offered to Tehran. There are also serious concerns with China's environmental policies. China's fast-growing economy "requires energy, and coal provides more than three-quarters of China's needs." According to the World Bank, 20 of the globe's 30 most polluted cities are in China. In preparation for the Olympics, "China has taken drastic anti-pollution steps, such as closing factories surrounding Beijing and ordering half of 3.3 million cars in Beijing off the roads." China has also pledged to keep many of its anti-pollution measures in force after the Olympics.

CAN OLYMPICS CHANGE ANY OF THIS?: Some observers insist that the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul played an important part in moving that country's government toward internal democratic reform. Expressing this view, François Carrard, the International Olympic Committee's then-director general, said in 2001: "We are totally aware there is one issue on the table, and that is human rights. Either you say because of some serious human rights issues, we close the door, deliver a vote that is regarded as a sanction and hope things evolve better. The other way is to bet on openness. We are taking the bet that we will see many changes" as a result of holding the games in China. There are other issues on the table, such as China's support for authoritarian regimes and its growing environmental footprint. It remains to be seen whether the Olympics will help make China a more productive international partner for the United States in dealing with these important issues.