Who is Stan Johnson? That was the mystery in the White House press room on Wednesday morning.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Director of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano spoke on behalf of the Obama Administration's new initiative to eliminate waste and abuse from federal contracting. As part of his speech, Vilsack mentioned that he had learned of a USDA contract worth $400,000 that career officials in the department had flagged as "unnecessary." Vilsack was vague, saying only that the contract had come late in the Bush Administration and was likely awarded due to contacts. He added that the contract included questionable international travel.

Pressed by reporters for additional information, Vilsack looked to Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, as if asking for permission. When Gibbs did not object, Vilsack revealed that the contract had gone to a man named Stan Johnson, a major operator in Iowa who Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, said he knew personally. (One assumes Vilsack will not be invited to the next Johnson family dinner party.) So the question is, who is Stan Johnson and what did he do (or not do) as part of his "unnecessary" federal contract?

A little bit of online sleuthing reveals that Johnson is primarily a poobah at Iowa State University, having once headed ISU's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development and the university's extension school. Other credits on a lengthy resume: Board of Directors of the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, executive director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, and chair of the Board of the DC-based Institute for Policy Reform.

Not bad for a guy who got his start studying agricultural economics at Western Illinois University. One can see how Johnson had the contacts he needed to get a sweetheart deal from the US government. So what was the contract? USAspending.gov, a website that stores info on federal contracts and grants, says that a man named Stan Johnson has a $20,000 contract with the Forest Service in Alaska. That's not likely to be the right man. Clearly more information is needed. Mother Jones spoke to the USDA main office, which said it is gathering information for reporters, and left a message for the press staff at the Forest Service. We'll let you know if we hear more.

Gordon and Barack

It now seems to be nearly universally agreed that Barack Obama snubbed British PM Gordon Brown pretty hard yesterday, holding no formal press conference and taking only a few questions.  But why?  Alex Massie speculates that Obama just didn't want to deal with foreign reporters:

Obama has been briefed about the British press corps and sees no reason to humour them. This would not be wholly unsurprising: Fleet Street's finest are viewed as scatalogically-obsessed, bottle-throwing, teenage yobs far too fond of relieving themselves behind the bushes in the Rose Garden, or worse, in the East Room's pot plants.

Joshua Keating figures Obama's reasons are more prosaic:

I think his motives are actually a bit colder. Obama's most powerful diplomatic weapon right now is his own international popularity, and he seems to be making it clear that he won't share it with just anybody. 

Obama giving the cold shoulder to Brown probably doesn't mean he has any less respect for the special relationship with Britain than any of his predecessors. More likely, and bluntly, he probably just thinks of Gordon Brown as a bit of a loser. Why roll out the red carpet for guys like Brown and Taro Aso who will likely be out of office soon anyway? Something tells me that when Dmitry Medvedev or Hu Jintao visit the White House, the Obamas will break out the good china.

Poor Gordon.  He's the Herbert Hoover of British prime ministers: a guy who took over at precisely the wrong moment and hasn't been able to figure out since how to deal with the hand he's been dealt.  He probably never had a chance.

One Good Thing About the Death of Newspapers

Bad thing about the death of newspapers: No more beat reporters to hold cops accountable.

Good thing: David Simon comes out of retirement to kick some ass on the streets of Baltimore.

In a recent Washington Post article, The Wire creator and former crime reporter looks into the shooting of an unarmed man by a police officer. The police department says it can't reveal the cop's identity; Simon calls BS and does the digging no other reporter—or blogger—is doing. And he concludes: "Half-truths, obfuscations and apparent deceit—these are the wages of a world in which newspapers, their staffs eviscerated, no longer battle at the frontiers of public information."

Amen. Every time a beat reporter gets canned or a daily is shuttered, a public official smiles. More of Simon's conclusions about the death of accountability journalism after the jump.

Quote of the Day - 03.04.09

From Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R–Ca.), speaking to one of her aides after a visiting reporter suggested that the stimulus bill didn't actually contain a provision for a maglev train from Los Angeles to Las Vegas:

"Get him the bill, it's right there, show him."

You will be unsurprised to learn that no such provision turned out to be in the bill.  Mack's reaction went sadly unrecorded.  (Via Steve Benen.)

Cuba Lunacy

Barack Obama supports a provision in the spending bill before Congress that would allow Cuban-Americans to visit relatives on the island once a year and end limits on the sale of American food and medicines in Cuba. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez (D–Lunaticville) is so outraged by this that he's threatening to oppose the entire bill.  And he's holding up two of Obama's science nominations (John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco).  And he's threatening to hold his breath until his face turns blue.

Jeebus.  What is it about Cuba that drives people into decades-long fits of insanity?  Even JFK, the guy who instituted the Cuba embargo in the first place, thought we were all kind of crazy on the subject.  But 50 years later?  Crazy doesn't begin to describe it.

What's more, it's a different kind of crazy from most exile communities.  What accounts for it?  A Cuban-American congressional candidate told me last year that the difference was simple: most Cuban exiles, when they fled the island after Castro's takeover, left with their entire families.  So for a lot of them, there's literally nothing remaining there that they care about.  You could drop a nuke on Havana and they'd be OK with that.  This promotes a different brand of insanity than in most exile communities, which might hate the current regime in their home country but still have deep personal ties to it.

I don't know if that's really the explanation or not.  Comments welcome on this score.  But there's got to be something that explains this.  It's just nuts, and Menendez should be ashamed of himself.  It's time to grow up.

It's a dirty little secret of Capitol Hill's: lawmakers frequently vote on bills they haven't read, either because they don't want to spend the time or because the majority party, hoping to ram through a contentious piece of legislation, demands a vote immediately after a bill's final version is produced. Now, a petition is circulating that aims to change that. Readthebill.org has a simple demand: "Congress should change its rules to require that non-emergency legislation and conference reports be posted on the Internet for 72 hours before debate begins."

That 72-hour period would give lawmakers enough time to determine if they really support a bill. Perhaps more importantly, it would give everyday citizens and public watchdogs enough time to hunt for hidden provisions, kickbacks, and conflicts of interest. Take a look at some bills that got rushed through Congress here; they include the stimulus bill, FISA, and the PATRIOT Act. You can sign the petition here.

Is the Kindle Too Smart For Its Own Good?

Yesterday I decided to buy a Kindle.  As a patriot, I even paid for next day delivery, since surely UPS deserves to be stimulated every bit as much as Amazon.  Right?  Today it came, I charged it up, and then dove into its guts to buy a book and try it out.  Charles Stross's Halting State seemed like a nice choice.

So I clicked on "Kindle Store," and before I could even type in the name of the book Amazon offered up four recommendations.  One of them was Halting State.

I dunno.  That's kind of scary.  I'm pretty sure I've never bought a Stross book via Amazon, so how did they know?  Does the Kindle read my mind?  Brrr.

The book itself was easy to buy.  Too easy, really: click "Buy" and you're done.  The Kindle magically comes preprogrammed with your Amazon account information, and I guess they just assume that anyone impatient enough to buy ebooks online also wants one-click shopping.  A couple of minutes later the book was downloaded and ready to go.  (They say it only takes a minute, but I appear to live in something of a Sprint dead zone, so it took a little longer.)

I shall report back after I've tried it out for a while.  In the meantime, it's pictured above, along with some suitable background material to show scale.

Easy Fixes: Vinegar and Chickenshit

Two interesting papers in the science lit today on home-brewed solutions to industrial-strength problems. The first: contaminated water can clean itself if simple organic chemicals such as vinegar are added. The second: chicken manure cleans soil that's been contaminated by crude oil.

The vinegar solution was tested on groundwater tainted by former textiles factories, smelters, and tanneries. The leftovers of these industries produced harmful chromium compounds that cause cancers and all kinds of kidney, liver, lung and skin troubles. But add dilute acetic acid, aka vinegar, and—presto!—the oxidized chromate became non-soluble. That means it's no longer bio-available and can be left safely in the ground without risk to the surrounding ecosystem. The vinegar feeds and grows naturally-occurring bacteria which then alter the chemistry of the chromium compounds, rendering them harmless.

Good job bacteria!

The chicken guano solution was used on soil contaminated by crude oil spills. Conventional clean-up bears a heavy environmental cost since detergents become pollutants themselves and persist in the environment for a long time. Better to bioremediate: use natural or engineered microbes to metabolize the organic components of crude oil. But too often that requires expensive nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers with their own hefty environmental price tags (decreased soil quality). But when chicken manure was added to the soil—presto!—nearly 75 percent of the oil was broken down after two weeks. At least 12 different species of oil-munching bacteria liked the chickenshit menu and responded by metabolizing the oil.

Let's dig back through our great-grandmothers housekeeping diaries and find out what else they (probably) knew that we've forgotten?

The Mortgage Rescue

This isn't the most pressing issue in the world, but a few days ago I suggested that some seemingly contradictory poll numbers on Obama's mortgage rescue plan might actually be perfectly compatible.  Even though it's counterintuitive, it's possible that a majority of people approve of his plan and that a majority of people think it's unfair because it helps out homeowners who were irresponsible.

Today's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll confirms this.  They asked questions about both support and fairness in the same poll and the results are below.  The most likely interpretation is that about 20% of the country thinks the mortgage rescue rewards irresponsible borrowers but supports the plan anyway.  This shouldn't come as a big surprise, either.  Lots of us have had to swallow hard over the past few months and support interventions of one kind or another solely because, even though we don't like them, they seem to be necessary to save the economy.  This is just one more.

Quote of the Day - 03.03.09

From Andrew Exum, commenting on Andrew Bacevich's review of David Kilcullen's book on counterinsurgency in Iraq:

No one who really understands COIN wants to do it.

Amen.  (Via James Joyner.)