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Philip Morris Cleans Up Its Act - By Genetically Modifying Tobacco

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 9:36 PM EDT

cigarettes.jpg

From the cigarette company that wants you to stop smoking comes a new frontier in tobacco consumption: the health-friendly (kind of), genetically modified chew. Researchers at North Carolina State University, funded by tobacco giant Philip Morris, are trying to take the cancer out of cancer sticks by removing the gene that turns the plant toxic when cured. As tobacco plants age, the nicotine in the leaves changes into the compound nornicotine, which in turn becomes a carcinogen when the plant is cured. Knocking out the gene that causes this change, the researchers report, leads to a 50% decrease in tobacco's most harmful toxins. No word on whether the alterations make nicotine any less addictive, but you have to give them credit for trying. h/t Wired

—Casey Miner

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user zombophoto.

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Careful, Obama. Humorless Feminists Are Watching

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 5:57 PM EDT

Now that we're all catching our breath after l'affaire Wright, it's not surprising that those at the center are still freaked out. Obama is too.

As Obama told CNN's Anderson Cooper this week: "In some ways, this controversy has actually shaken me up a little bit and gotten me back into remembering that the odds of me getting elected have always been lower than some of the other conventional candidates."

Uh oh. There are at least three ways to take this, all of which make my spidey sense tingly.

1) This is just another refreshing burst of honesty and humanity from the plaster saint all candidates are required to be, Transcendo-boy most of all. Thank God he didn't tear up, though that would have only endeared him to us more.

All the President's Staff

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 5:55 PM EDT

Over the weekend, the Washington Post published a convincing, though understated, rebuttal of the presidential "experience" argument that, until recently, was the biggest issue of the campaign. Combing through records of those late-night crisis calls that Hillary Clinton's "3 AM" ad seeks to highlight, the Post determined that such situations—while certainly not uncommon—rarely require the president to charge, fully dressed, into the Situation Room. The person on the other end of the line is usually a staffer who is already fully aware of the crisis. Therefore, say a number of former presidential advisers, the calls tend to be more of an FYI, after which the president can go back to sleep and deal with the issue in the morning. Kenneth M. Duberstein, Reagan's last chief of staff, described his own rule of thumb:

I had a very simple formula: If it affected the life of a U.S. citizen, you woke the president. At 3 o'clock in the morning, unless there is a nuclear holocaust coming, there is not much the president has to decide. What you are doing is starting to put into gear the response of the U.S. government on behalf of the president, not necessarily by the president.

After nearly eight years of hearing constantly how we must act "quickly" and "decisively" against ever-encroaching threats, it makes sense that many people—and even the candidates themselves—might see the job of president as similar to that of an ER surgeon. The reality, of course, is that while a president must be aware of, and respond to, hundreds of different issues simultaneously, the decisions he or she makes are for the most part well-thought-out and methodically planned, with considerable outside input. In other words, while the president will certainly be asked to lead in a crisis, and to provide necessary direction, he or she usually doesn't have to do it right that second—or alone.

I'd argue that a better question for the candidates than, "Are you experienced enough?" might be, "Who are your advisers, what are their qualifications, and can we trust them?" The more information we can get now about what the candidates' cabinets might look like, the less likely we are to be surprised (or terrified) come January.

—Casey Miner

Mike Huckabee Seems Like a Reasonable Dude

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 5:22 PM EDT

huckabee-hands.jpg No, not on AIDS patients or environmentalism. He's pretty nutty on that. I mean on the importance of race, pastors, and surrogates in a campaign:

HUCKABEE: [Obama] made the point, and I think it's a valid one, that you can't hold the candidate responsible for everything that people around him may say or do. You just can't. Whether it's me, whether it's Obama...anybody else. But he did distance himself from the very vitriolic statements.
Now, the second story. It's interesting to me that there are some people on the left who are having to be very uncomfortable with what Louis Wright said, when they all were all over a Jerry Falwell, or anyone on the right who said things that they found very awkward and uncomfortable years ago. Many times those were statements lifted out of the context of a larger sermon. Sermons, after all, are rarely written word for word by pastors like Reverend Wright, who are delivering them extemporaneously, and caught up in the emotion of the moment. There are things that sometimes get said, that if you put them on paper and looked at them in print, you'd say "Well, I didn't mean to say it quite like that."

That explains why he wouldn't release his sermons to us. More Huck after the jump. Plus video.

Lessig Launches "Change Congress" Reform Effort

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 4:13 PM EDT

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"Just because there's no personal corruption does not mean that this institution is independent. It doesn't mean that there's no institutional corruption."

That's how Stanford Law Professor and Creative Commons founder Larry Lessig described the U.S. Congress at an event at the National Press Club today where he alleged that Congress "is driven by interests that ought not to be driving it." Lessig is far from the first person to bemoan the influence of money in Washington politics, and he acknowledged as much in his lecture. But he is offering a new, well-thought-out way of tackling a problem that he says causes government to consistently make the wrong decision in "easy cases," where the proper course of action is obvious. (Lessig pointed to copyright terms, nutrition guidelines, and global warming as three examples of "easy cases" Congress gets wrong).

Lessig's new group, "Change Congress", will try to "leverage and amplify" the work of the existing government reform movement. Run by Lessig and Howard Dean/John Edwards campaign manager Joe Trippi, Change Congress will use an internet-centered model similar to that of the incredibly successful Creative Commons project Lessig founded in 2001. (Creative Commons uses the internet to give artists and content creators an easy way to clarify how they want copyright to apply to their works. And it's how MotherJones.com and websites can license so many great flickr.com photos for free.)

Day Nine: No Straight Talk from McCain on Parsley's Call for Destroying Islam

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 4:12 PM EDT

Still nothing.

It's been over a week since this site broke the news that John McCain campaigned with (and accepted the endorsement of) a televangelist who has called for eradicating Islam, and McCain has not publicly renounced, rejected, denounced or disavowed the Reverend Rod Parsley, who is an important player in Ohio politics. McCain's campaign did tell Fox News that McCain does not agree with all of Parsley's views. But that's not much of a response to Parsley's call for a holy war to destroy the "false religion" of Islam. One could argue that Jeremiah Wright never went that far—and look what Barack Obama had to go through (justifiably).

McCain's campaign press office refuses to respond to a request for comment on this. He is trying to duck and cover. Not much courage there.

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Google to Launch Storm Surge Maps

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 4:06 PM EDT

katrina_satellite.jpgGoogle is partnering with the National Hurricane Center to create a searchable map of areas at risk of storm surges during hurricanes. Users can plug in their address and determine how threatened (if at all) their homes are by surges of water that accompany hurricanes—surges that proved deadly during Hurricane Katrina. Google hopes to have the application online by June 1, just in time for the start of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season.

The National Hurricane Center says the idea for the map came from the overwhelming number of phone calls made to local weather and emergency information lines during the last few hurricane seasons: residents wanted to know what flood levels would be like at their homes. Hurricane forecasters have long had a computer model that estimates storm surge height, which is based on wind speed, hurricane strength, and trajectory, but only now will this information be available to the public directly.

Though this online tool will definitely help people get specialized information on storm surge risk for their own geographic location, I worry that it may not do much to help those who need the most help during hurricanes: the elderly. Post-Katrina evacuation analysis shows that those least likely to evacuate—even with clear instructions to do so from the mayor—were the elderly. Three-quarters of the people who died during Katrina were older than age 60. With some luck, though, younger internet users will be able to get themselves, and hopefully their older family members and neighbors out of harm's way.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from GISuser.

McCain May Actually Not Know Sunnis from Shiites

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 3:39 PM EDT

mccain_closeup_250x200.jpg The blogosphere poked some fun a couple days ago when McCain said dominantly Shiite Iran was aiding dominantly Sunni al Qaeda and had to be corrected by his traveling buddy Joe Lieberman.

But I'm starting to wonder if McCain simply doesn't have a strong grasp of the subject matter. He said it twice at the March 18 press conference where he was corrected by Lieberman. He made the same assertion last month, and said it on the radio on March 17. And to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the war, he sent out a statement (likely written by his staff) that appears to repeat the claim.

The McCain campaign's explanation is that McCain "misspoke" at the press conference with Lieberman. I'm starting to seriously doubt that. But what's the actual explanation? McCain can't possibly be so ignorant of foreign affairs that he thinks Iran and al Qaeda are in bed together, can he? After this many years in the Senate? Perhaps he was having a series of what my parents call "senior moments."

For a man who has staked his entire campaign on Iraq and his understanding of foreign policy, this is bizarre.

The Greening of March Madness

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 1:09 PM EDT

green-basketball.jpg March Madness starts today, so it's time to get those last minute brackets in. (I'm playing in an office pool and a journalist pool, as well as on ESPN.com, Facebook, and John McCain's website. I really hope I win that last one.) If you don't have any idea which schools are good, you can always vote your principles. You'll find all the info you need on greenbrackets.com, where an effort called the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment has identified the greenest schools in the tournament. Top seeds UNC, Kansas, and UCLA make the list, as well as long shots George Mason, Portland State, and University of Maryland-Baltimore County (aka UMBC, the school name that sounds most like an investment bank). In all, 23 of the tournament's 64 teams are on the list.

According to the website, going green is good for your March Madness karma. Green schools have won four of the last five tournaments and have made up 50 percent of the Final Four over the last 10 years. So go win your office pool on the backs of environmentally friendly hoops.

By the way, a school is designated a green school if they sign onto this pledge. It could be stronger, but it's a start.

Pennsylvania Voters: Not So Comfortable With Obama Anymore

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 12:08 PM EDT

The media elites loved Barack Obama's "Black and More Than Black" speech. They went bananas. They thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Pennsylvania voters? Not so convinced.

More than a dozen interviews Wednesday found voters unmoved by Obama's plea to move beyond racial divisions of the past. Despite baring himself with extraordinarily personal reflections on one of the most toxic issues of the day, a highly unusual move for a politician running for national office, the debate inside taverns and beauty shops here had barely moved beyond outrage aimed at the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Obama's refusal to "disown" his longtime pastor.
A day after the speech, local residents were left wondering whether Obama was candid in the last week when he said he hadn't heard any of Wright's most objectionable remarks, but then said Tuesday that he had heard "controversial" remarks while sitting in the pews.

Much more after the jump...