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More Kids Die in Hot Cars Than I Would Have Guessed

| Thu Jul. 17, 2014 10:42 AM EDT

Over at Vox, today's headline reads:

How many kids die in hot cars? Not as many as you think.

It's accompanied by the chart on the right, which shows exactly how many children die after being locked in hot cars. And it's....actually higher than I would have guessed.

Why? I think it's a function of media cynicism. In the same way that the press overhypes child abductions, leading to insane suburban fears and the passage of _____'s Law all over the country, I figure that the press is so eager to highlight grisly stuff like this that it ends up being national news every single time it happens. If that's true, it would suggest that maybe three or four kids die in overheated cars each year. But no! My cynicism is (slightly) misplaced. In fact, only a small percentage of these deaths make the front page.

Now, granted, this is still less than one death per year in each state, which means it's not exactly a spiraling epidemic. Still, if you'd asked me, I think I would have guessed the number was around five or ten. I also would have guessed that all the media attention would have led to a decrease in these deaths, but the chart doesn't suggest that either. Apparently, scaring the hell out of people doesn't really cause them to be any more careful.

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Student Loan Relief in Sight, Maybe

| Thu Jul. 17, 2014 9:52 AM EDT

Hooray! A new bipartisan bill has been introduced in the Senate to address the student loan crisis. It wouldn't actually reduce the amount that grads have to pay (you didn't expect that, did you), but it does make repayment easier by taking a program that already exists as an option and making it the default repayment plan. Jordan Weissmann reviews the details:

It looks pretty solid overall. All federal loan borrowers would be enrolled in an income-based program where they paid 10 percent of their earnings each month, with a $10,000 annual exemption. Meanwhile, the government would collect the money directly from workers’ paychecks, just like tax withholding. One potentially controversial part: It would forgive up to $57,500 worth of loans after 20 years, but anything above that amount wouldn’t be forgiven for 30 years. (The current Pay as You Earn repayment program forgives all debts after two decades.) But borrowers who don’t like the income-based option could opt out and set their own payment timetable.

And now for the bad news. The bill is sponsored by Democrat Mark Warner and Republican Marco Rubio. And as Weissmann puts it in a family-friendly rewrite of Jon Chait, "Rubio doesn’t have a sterling track record of selling his own party on bipartisan policy proposals." No, he doesn't, does he? But who knows. Maybe after ripping his political guts out over immigration reform, Republicans will throw him a bone by supporting this bill. It's not like it really costs any money to speak of, after all.

Then again, passing the bill would represent getting something done, and Republicans these days seem to be convinced that getting anything done makes government look efficient and responsive and therefore redounds to the credit of Democrats. And we can't have that, can we?

Stuart Scott's Deeply Moving ESPYs Speech About Beating Cancer Will Leave You Speechless

| Thu Jul. 17, 2014 9:46 AM EDT

We have no words. Just watch:

(via Digg)

Obama Levies New Sanctions Against Russia. Europe Ponders Whether to Follow Suit.

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 6:48 PM EDT

We now have a response to Russia's latest military provocations in eastern Ukraine:

President Obama is ratcheting up pressure on Russia with new sanctions aimed at large banks and defense firms in what administration officials say is the most significant crackdown on Russian individuals and businesses since the crisis in Ukraine began.

....The new penalties come in coordination with European leaders now meeting in Brussels to contemplate their own sanctions against Russia. Those efforts are expected to center on obstructing loans to Russian interests from European development banks.

I'll be curious to see what the Europeans decide to do. For all the opportunistic griping from Republicans about Obama being too soft on Putin and inviting a new Cold War blah blah blah, it's always been European leaders who have been the obstacle to harsher sanctions against Russia. And since Russia does very little business with the US but does lots of business with Europe, American sanctions just don't matter that much unless the Europeans join in. Obama's hands are tied.

Of course, the very fact that Europe does lots of business with Russia means that sanctions hurt them a lot more than they hurt us. It's easy for Americans to be blustery and hawkish, safe in the knowledge that Russian retaliation can't really hurt us much. It's a lot less easy for Europeans.

That said, the fact is that Obama has been trying to take the lead on this for months. European leaders now need to decide if they're willing to join in. The ball's in their court.

The Goal of "6 Californias" Remains a Mystery

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 2:42 PM EDT

Now that billionaire eccentric Tim Draper has gotten enough signatures to qualify his "Six Californias" initiative for the ballot in 2016, I can no longer imperiously demand that the media stop paying attention to him. If this is going to be a ballot measure then it's obviously a legitimate news story.

So a friend emailed this morning to ask what Draper's deal is. Beats me. Officially, his motivation is a belief that California is simply too big to govern. As plausible as this is, it's hardly a sufficient explanation. So what is it that's really eating him? Well, Draper is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, so a few months ago Time asked him about that particular sixth of California:

How would you like to see things done differently in Silicon Valley, if it had its own government?

The issues of Silicon Valley are things like when Napster came out. No one knew how the law should be handled. It was a new technology. And no one quite knew whether it had some violation of copyright or not ... And the people who were making those decisions were very distant, and not familiar with what Napster was. Now we have Bitcoin. We have very uncertain laws around Bitcoin. I believe if there were a government closer to Silicon Valley, it would be more in touch with those technologies and the need for making appropriate laws around them. Silicon Valley is seeing great frustration. They see how creative and efficient and exciting life can be in a place where innovation thrives, and then they see a government that is a little lost.

This makes no sense, since both copyright law and monetary policy are set in Washington DC, not Sacramento. But let's accept that Draper was just burbling a bit here, and not hold him to specifics. What's his beef? Basically, he appears to be retailing a strain of techno-libertarian utopianism or something. Information wants to be free! Technology will save us all! Just get government out of the way!

Or something. I don't know, really. The whole thing is crazy, and it's yet another example of how easy it is for billionaires to get publicity. Paying a signature-gathering firm to get something on the ballot in California is pretty trivial if you have a lot of money, and it automatically gets you a ton of exposure. So now Draper has that. But what's the end game? Even if his initiative passes, he knows perfectly well it's going nowhere since Congress will never approve it. So either (a) he's just a crackpot or (b) he has some clever reason for doing this that's going to make him even richer. It's a mystery.

Government Failures On the Rise? Take It With a Grain of Salt.

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 12:40 PM EDT

Paul Light has gotten a lot of attention for his recent study showing that "government failures" are on the rise. I've seen several criticisms of his study, but it seems to me that basic methodology is really the main problem with it. First off, his dataset is a list of "41 important past government failures (between 2001 – 2014) from a search of news stories listed in the Pew Research Center’s News Interest Index." Is that really a good way of determining the frequency of government failures? A list of headlines might be a good way of determining public interest, but it hardly seems like even a remotely good proxy for cataloging government failure in general.

For example, 2007 appears to be an epically bad year for government failure. But among the failures are "wounded soldiers," "food safety recalls," and "consumer product recalls." Those all seem a bit amorphous to count as distinct failures.

This methodology also mushes up timeframes. Fast & Furious is counted as a government failure in 2011, but that's just the year it made headlines. The operation itself ran from 2006-11. Likewise, the "postal service financing crisis" is hardly unique to 2011. It's been ongoing for years.

Some of the items don't even appear to be proper government failures. Was the Gulf oil spill in 2010 a government failure? Or the Southwest airline groundings? In both cases, you can argue—as Light does—that they exposed lax government oversight. But this basically puts you in the position of arguing that any failure in a regulated industry is a government failure. I'm not sure I buy that.

Finally, on the flip side, there are the things that don't show up. The government shutdown in 2013? The fiscal cliff? The debt ceiling standoffs? The collapse of the Copenhagen conference? Allowing Osama bin Laden to escape from Tora Bora? The scandalous demotion of Pluto to non-planet status?

Maybe I'm just picking nits here. But given the weakness of the core methodology; the small number of incidents; the problems of categorization; and the overall vagueness of what "failure" means, I'm just not sure this study tells us much. I'd take it with a big shaker of salt for the moment. It seems more like clickbait than a serious analysis of how well or poorly government has done over the past decade.

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California Farms Are Sucking Up Enough Groundwater to Put Rhode Island 17 Feet Under

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 12:39 PM EDT

California, the producer of nearly half of the nation's fruits, veggies, and nuts, plus export crops—four-fifths of the world's almonds, for example—is entering its third driest year on record. Nearly 80 percent of the state is experiencing "extreme" or "exceptional" drought. In addition to affecting agricultural production the drought will cost the state billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and a whole lot of groundwater, according to a new report prepared for the California Department of Food and Agriculture by scientists at UC-Davis. The authors used current water data, agricultural models, satellite data, and other methods to predict the economic and environmental toll of the drought through 2016.

Here are four key takeaways

  • The drought will cost the state $2.2 billion this year: Of these losses, $810 million will come from lower crop revenues, $203 million will come from livestock and dairy losses, and $454 million will come from the cost of pumping additional groundwater. Up to 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs will be lost.
  • California is experiencing the "greatest absolute reduction in water availability" ever seen: In a normal year, about one-third of California's irrigation water is drawn from wells that tap into the groundwater supply. The rest is "surface water" from streams, rivers, and reservoirs. This year, the state is losing about one-third of its surface water supply. The hardest hit area is the Central Valley, a normally fertile inland region. Because groundwater isn't as easily pumped in the Valley as it is on the coasts, and the Colorado River supplies aren't as accessible as they are in the south, the Valley has lost 410,000 acres to fallowing, an area about 10 times the size of Washington, DC.
  • Farmers are pumping enough groundwater to immerse Rhode Island in 17 feet of it: To make up for the loss of surface water, farmers are pumping 62 percent more groundwater than usual. They are projected to pump 13 million acre-feet this year, enough to put Rhode Island 17 feet under.
  • "We're acting like the super-rich:" California is technically in its third year of drought, and regardless of the effects of El Niño, 2015 is likely to be a dry year too. As the dry years accumulate, it becomes harder and harder to pump water from the ground, adding to the crop and revenue losses. California is the only western state without groundwater regulation or measurement of major groundwater use. If you can drill down to water, it's all yours. (Journalist McKenzie Funk describes this arcane system in an excerpt from his fascinating recent book, Windfall.) "A well-managed basin is used like a reserve bank account," said Richard Howitt, a UC-Davis water scientist and co-author of the report. "We're acting like the super-rich, who have so much money they don't need to balance their checkbook." 

Weird Al's "Blurred Lines" Parody Song About Grammar Is Pretty Great

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 11:51 AM EDT

You know the song "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke? It's really catchy and you hear it on the radio and you get it stuck in your head and you hum it and bob your head back and forth a bit but then you listen to the lyrics a little closer and you realize it's maybe about date rape and you get disgusted with yourself and you find the nearest mirror and point your finger in your face now and think, "Stop it! Get this date rape anthem out of your head!" but the beat is catchy and you can't just exorcise it immediately so you run desperately in search of another catchy song to take its place and you're poring over Spotify and flipping through old NOW CDs and what was that stupid song from the '90s that you used to get stuck in your head all the time? "Chumbawumba"? So, you listen to "Chumbawumba" and it works—ta-da! "Blurred Lines" be gone!—but now you're going around singing "He drinks a whiskey drink/He drinks a vodka drink/He drinks a lager drink/He drinks a cider drink/He sings the songs that remind him of the good times/He sings the songs that remind him of the better times" all week and no one likes you because you won't stop singing "Chumbawumba" and you lose your friends and you lose your family and you lose your job but you just keep on singing "I get knocked down but I get up again/You're never gonna keep me down" right up until the time you get knocked down and in fact don't get up and are kept down and die alone in a ditch…all because you listened to "Blurred Lines."

Well, Weird Al Yankovic has a new parody of "Blurred Lines" called "Word Crimes" which is just as catchy but about grammar instead of date rape. So, lean back, relax, and let this impressive parody get stuck in your head.

(via Gawker)

Why Can't We Teach Shakespeare Better?

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 11:11 AM EDT

After writing about a common misconception regarding a particular scene in Julius Caesar, Mark Kleiman offers a footnote:

Like many Boomers, I had to read Julius Caesar in the 10th grade; not really one of the Bard’s better efforts, but full of quotable passages and reasonably easy to follow. (As You Like It, by contrast, if read rather than watched, makes absolutely no sense to a sixteen-year-old; I was fortunate enough to see a performance a year or so later, but I suspect that some of my classmates never discovered that Shakespeare wrote great musicals.)

Brutus’s speech would have been a perfect scene to use as an example of dramatic irony. But I doubt my teacher had any idea what the passage was about, and the lit-crit we read as “secondary sources” disdained anything as straightforward as explaining what the play was supposed to mean or how the poet used dramatic techniques to express that meaning.

This was my experience too, but in college. I remember enrolling in a Shakespeare class and looking forward to it. In my case, I actually had a fairly good high school English teacher, but still, Shakespeare is tough for high schoolers. This would be my chance to really learn and appreciate what Shakespeare was doing.

Alas, no. I got an A in the class, but learned barely anything. It was a huge disappointment. To this day, I don't understand why Shakespeare seems to be so difficult to teach. Was I just unlucky?

GOP Congressional Candidate Mistakes YMCA Campers for Migrant Kids

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 10:27 AM EDT

Arizona congressional candidate Adam Kwasman was at a protest of a new shelter for migrant children when he got word that a busload of kids was headed in the protesters' direction. Kwasman, a Republican state lawmaker, raced toward the small yellow school bus. He gave a breathless account of what he saw to a local news crew: "I was able to actually see some of the children in the buses, and the fear on their faces. This is not compassion."

But the local news crew had bad news for Kwasman: the kids on the bus weren't migrants. They belonged to the Marana school district and were headed to the YMCA's Triangle Y Camp. Reporter Will Pitts said he could see the children laughing and taking photos of the news crews with their iPhones. "Do you know that was a bus with YMCA kids?" Brahm Resnick, of the Arizona Republic asked Kwasman. Kwasman replied, "They were sad too."

Kwasman is one of three Republican candidates running for the nomination in Arizona's first district. Watch the full video of his interview with Resnick here.