2009 - %3, August

Coast Guard/Deepwater Update

| Wed Aug. 5, 2009 7:10 AM EDT

I recently wrote about Michael DeKort, the former Lockheed engineer who has been blowing the whistle on Coast Guard contracting debacles for years. Late Tuesday evening, DeKort emailed me to pass on the news (from this source) that the Coast Guard will no longer be using Integrated Coast Guard Systems—a joint Northrop Grumman-Lockheed Martin venture—for any projects related to its Deepwater modernization program. That's probably good news. ICGS, a so-called "lead systems integrator," (PDF) was once in charge of handing out contracts for work on Deepwater. Not surprisingly, a lot of those contracts ended up going to Northrop and Lockheed, ICGS's owners.

DeKort says it's "a step forward to not award future contracts to ICGS," because that means Northrop and Lockheed can no longer essentially "pick themselves" for future Coast Guard contracts. But this "certainly does not mean Lockheed and Northrop can't still win," he adds.

The true test of whether Lockheed and Northrop will suffer further for their alleged mistakes on Deepwater, DeKort says, will be whether or not they get big future shipbuilding projects coming down the pipe. The most important and lucrative contracts in the works are for five remaining 418-foot "National Security Cutters" and a new class of ships called "Offshore Patrol Cutters." Those two groups of contracts may represent around half of Deepwater's $25-billion budget.

DeKort thinks Northrop and Lockheed could win the contracts despite their past mistakes. "Seems to me it would take an act of God for Lockheed and Northrop not to win the remainder of the [National Security Cutters]," he says. "So the real issue is the [Offshore Patrol Cutters].  And that will come down to who else bids, how the competition is handled and who wins.  This all could very well be a boondoggle."

A boondoggle would be bad. I will look into this more later today.

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Mercury in Corn Syrup?

| Wed Aug. 5, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

That high fructose corn syrup isn't exactly health food won't come as a surprise to most people. But just in case its less-than-stellar nutritional profile wasn't enough to make you wary of the ubiquitous goop, get this: HFCS could contain mercury, a known neurotoxin.

Melinda Wenner's "Corn Syrup's Mercury Surprise" (July/August 2009) tells the story of Renee Dufault, an FDA researcher who began to suspect that some high fructose corn syrup might contain mercury when she learned from an EPA report that some chemical companies make lye by pumping salt through large vats of the heavy metal. Lye, Dufault knew, is often used to separate corn starch from the kernel during the manufacturing of HFCS. Curious, Dufault sent some samples of foods containing HFCS out for mercury testing, and sure enough, the lab found mercury in most of the samples. A second test confirmed her findings. At around the same time, a study published in the journal Environmental Health reported that researchers had found low levels of mercury in certain brands of kid-favored foods, like grape jelly and chocolate milk.

But when corn lobbyists got involved, the plot thickened: Some types of mercury are more dangerous than others, and the Corn Refiners' Association, an industry group, pointed out that neither Dufault nor the Environmental Health study identified which type mercury was present in the samples tested. And here's where things get really strange: When Dufault tried to report the findings to the FDA, she was told to stop investigating. 

Which kind of mercury is most likely in HFCS? And why has the FDA been silent on the matter? Read more here.

Need To Read: August 5, 2009

Wed Aug. 5, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Three pieces you must read today:

The best of the rest:

Like most bloggers, I also use twitter. I mostly use it to send out links to interesting web content like the stuff above. You can follow me, of course. David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is also on twitter. So is my colleague Daniel Schulman. Follow them, too!

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday August 5

| Wed Aug. 5, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

News from other sites and our blogs you may have missed.

Dems Hate Grandmas? Kevin Drum smacks down the right-wing rumor that Dems want to require seniors to receive end-of-life counseling every five years.

Skinny Mice: Scientists create full-grown mice from skin cells for the first time. [New Scientist]

Happy Birthday, Mr. President: Obama turns 48 today... or DOES he?

Rebates FAIL: A new study finds rebates for hybrid cars don't work as intended. [LiveScience]

Kitchen Confidential: We're cooking less than we used to. Why?

Comeback Kids: Could healthcare be the key to a GOP turn-around? James Ridgeway opines.

Chuck Norris: Could he, and the Birthers, actually be helping Obama?

Cash for Clunkers: Clunkers is stimulating economic growth, but not much for US companies.

Wrong Side of 40: Are women over 40 too old to act? Talent agency CAA says so.

 

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 5, 2009

Wed Aug. 5, 2009 6:59 AM EDT

U.S. Army paratroopers from 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, run off a CH-47 Chinook Helicopter during an air-assault mission to search the area of Khost province, Afghanistan during Operation Champion Sword, July 29. (Photo courtesy army.mil.)

California's Prison Disaster

| Wed Aug. 5, 2009 1:11 AM EDT

A couple of weeks ago I described California as "a penal colony with a nice coastline."  The coastline is still nice, but a three-judge panel has finally ordered the state to get off its ass and do something about our wretched and overflowing prison system:

California’s prisons are so overcrowded that the state is violating inmates’ constitutional rights, three federal judges ruled today in a decision imposing a cap on the prison population that will force the state to release nearly 43,000 prisoners over the next two years. The 185-page opinion also accused the state of fostering “criminogenic” conditions, compelling former prisoners to commit more crimes and feed a cycle of recidivism.

A combination of dumb drug laws, dysfunctional parole policies, "three strikes" laws passed by initiative, an endless procession of tougher-than-thou politicians, and a famously thuggish and politically powerful prison guards union has gotten California into this mess.  James Sterngold wrote about it for us last year:

California's archipelago of 33 prisons houses more than 170,000 inmates, nearly twice the number it was designed to safely hold. Almost all of its facilities are bursting at the seams: More than 16,000 prisoners sleep on what are known as "ugly beds" — extra bunks stuffed into cells, gyms, dayrooms, and hallways. [Governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger has referred to the system as a "powder keg."

....Even as Schwarzenegger has promised reform, the corrections budget has exploded during his term, from $4.7 billion in fiscal 2004 to nearly $10 billion in fiscal 2007, or about $49,000 for each adult inmate.

....For more than three decades, California has been trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle where putting more people in prison for longer periods of time has become the answer to every new crime to capture the public's attention — from drug dealing and gangbanging to tragic child abductions. Spurred on by a powerful prison guards' union and politicians afraid of looking soft on crime, corrections has become a bottomless pit, where countless lives and dollars disappear year after year. And now that it has metastasized to the point where even a tough-guy governor and the guards agree that the prisons must be downsized or else (see "When Prison Guards Go Soft"), every attempt at change seems stymied by inertia. The sheer size of the system has become the biggest obstacle to finding alternatives to warehousing criminals without preparing them for anything more than another cycle of incarceration. "The public believes the prison population reflects the crime rate," says James Austin, a corrections consultant who has served on several prison-reform panels in California. "That's just not true. It's because of California's policies and the way it runs the system."

So will the judges be able to make a dent in all this?  Hard to say.  Every attempt to date has failed, and the LA Times quotes a spokesman from the California Attorney General's office saying, "This order doesn’t release anybody from prison, it just orders the state to come up with a plan. We have no immediate plans to appeal this particular order, but there would definitely be thought given to appeal any order that would ultimately order releases."

In other words, they're going to keep stalling.  Mark Kleiman comments:

It wouldn't be hard to shrink prison populations drastically while reducing crime, by doing a better job of supervising prison releasees on parole using drug-testing and position monitoring with swift and certain, but mild, sanctions for each violation of the rules....That's the big finding from Project HOPE in Hawaii. So far, though, there's no indication that the Governor or the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are thinking along those lines. Instead they'll fight the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, and then blame the judges when their failure to do their jobs leads to a crime increase.

What a mess.  And it's not just California, of course.  We're just the worst.  For a look at the big picture, check out our special package on the American penal system: "Slammed: The Coming Prison Meltdown."

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Mad Bitch and Dowd Syndrome

| Tue Aug. 4, 2009 7:01 PM EDT

Since I've been spending a lot of time in the last two days blogging about sexism in Hollywood and CAA in particular, you might find it surprising to hear that I largely agree with Slate's Jack Shafer that the Mad Bitch controversy is meh. As Shafer puts it:

Has it really come to the point that you can't call the secretary of state of the most powerful nation on earth a mad bitch in a comedy segment without people becoming unhinged and managing editors running for the exits?

If you're late to the dispute, [Dan] Milbank and [Chris] Cillizza are political journalists at the Post who, since early June, have been donning silly costumes and hoisting stupid props on a cheesy set that's supposed to echo the old Masterpiece Theater set. They make fun of themselves. They make fun of powerful politicians. The segments are short and topical.

Shafer then goes into a long bit about how he doesn't approve of humor "lest he hurts anyone's feelings." You'd have to know Jack to know just how funny that is.* While Shafer doesn't come right out and say it, the main crime that Milbank and Cillizza committed is against the funny. The segment was just lame, which is why, as Nick points out, it was so ripe for this awesome parody (You've been Post'd!). Had Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart unleashed a Mad Bitch/Hillary joke it would come and gone without backlash. And why has there been little attention to all the lame jokes leveled at Republicans?

Partly because of an old comedy truism, the funnier something is, the more offense you can give (see also: The Aristocrats!) In other words, had the sexist bit been funnier, it would have been taken as a joke. But it wasn't so it wasn't. Better delivery might have helped, but frankly the material throughout the skit wasn't good. One lame concept tortured to death. Call it Dowd Syndrome.

So why in gods name has so much bloggosphere consternation been mounted over this weak attempt to make the WaPo seem edgy? What portion of true outrage vs. cynical exploitation for clicks? (Now, if only you could work in Sarah Palin, traffic gold!) And what portion is some really misguided lefty bile leveled at Milbank for (valid, IMO) concerns that the White House was attempting to use HuffPo reporter Nico Pitney to control the pace of a press conference? Or is it just herd mentality. If X is outraged, then I must be outraged too. The retweet writ large.

Dunno. But please make it stop.

UPDATE: Mouthpiece Theater has been killed. In his blog, The Fix, Chris Cillizza issues apology to those who took offense and those who thought a straight political reporter shouldn't do parody:

What did I learn from doing Mouthpiece? That I am not funny on camera (this will not be a revelation to many of you), that name-calling is never the stuff of good comedy, and that the sort of straight, inside dope reporting I pride myself on made for a somewhat discordant marriage with the sort of satire Mouthpiece aimed to create.

And, as Mrs. Fix -- my guidepost in all things -- rightly pointed out: I am better writing about the news than being in the news.

As he points out. Everybody in journalism is having to experiment to survive. This experiment ended badly, but may a hundred flowers bloom!

 

Clara Jeffery (that's me) is the Co-editor of Mother Jones. *Full disclosure: Fifteen years ago I worked for Jack Shafer for a year and have yet to fully recover from his devastating assessments of my (mostly editorial) shortcomings. I long ago gave up trying to kiss his ass. Call me names below. Tweet to me here.

Cash for Clunkers

| Tue Aug. 4, 2009 6:18 PM EDT

Has the Cash for Clunkers program been a success?  Justin Fox serves up this tidbit:

By all accounts the program has driven a rush to car dealers. Auto sales in July were at their highest pace in 11 months. In an e-mail to clients Monday, Credit Suisse economist Neal Soss revised his economic growth forecast for the third quarter from 1.3% to 2.0%, and for the fourth quarter from 2.0% to 2.5% — all on the basis of cash for clunkers' success.

I guess that's pretty good.  If it's true, anyway.  My own view has always been that although CfC would normally be a fairly lousy use of taxpayer money, the fact that I, the taxpayer, now own most of GM and Chrysler makes it a little more palatable.  I'm basically using my own money to help keep my own companies from collapsing.  Unfortunately, though, that doesn't seem to be the case.  According to Jalopnik, here are the top-ten cars purchased so far under CfC:

1. Ford Focus
2. Honda Civic
3. Toyota Corolla
4. Toyota Prius
5. Ford Escape
6. Toyota Camry
7. Dodge Caliber
8. Hyundai Elantra
9. Honda Fit
10. Chevy Cobalt

So we've got a single Chrysler model at #7 and a single GM model at #10.  Not exactly a groundswell of support for taxpayer owned auto companies.

Oh well. I just hope Soss is right.  Even if GM and Chrysler aren't getting much of a boost, an increase of half a percent of GDP for two consecutive quarters seems like a pretty decent return for an investment of a billion dollars or three.

Assassinations, Weapons Smuggling, Wife-Swapping—The Latest Accusations Against Erik Prince and Blackwater

| Tue Aug. 4, 2009 6:12 PM EDT

Did Blackwater/Xe founder Erik Prince knock off informants working with federal authorities investigating the company? These eye-raising allegations, among others, are contained in the anonymous declarations of two individuals claiming to be ex-Blackwater employees, which were filed in federal court yesterday and first reported by the Nation's Jeremy Scahill. (Find their sworn statements here and here.) According to one of the former employees, John Doe No. 2, "...Based on information provided to me by former colleagues, it appears that Mr. Prince and his employees murdered, or had murdered, one or more persons who have provided information, or who were planning to provide information, to the federal authorities about the ongoing criminal conduct." (He doesn't, however, provide any information about who the targets of these alleged hits were.) Explaining why he must remain anonymous, John Doe No. 2 says that "on several occasions after my departure from Mr. Prince's employ, Mr. Prince's management has personally threatened me with death and violence." He also charges that Prince, a devout Catholic, "views himself a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe."

To that end, Mr. Prince intentionally deployed to Iraq certain men who shared his vision of Christian supremacy, knowing and wanting these men to take every available opportunity to murder Iraqis. Many of these men used call signs based on the Knights of the Templar, the warriors who fought the Crusades.

Mr. Prince operated his companies in a manner that encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life. For example, Mr. Prince's executives would openly speak about going over to Iraq to "lay Hajiis out on cardboard." Going to Iraq to shoot and kill Iraqis was viewed as a sport or game. Mr. Prince's employees openly and consistently used racist and derogatory terms for Iraqis and other Arabs, such as "ragheads" or "hajiis."

Modern Cookery

| Tue Aug. 4, 2009 5:31 PM EDT

Michael Pollan had a much-quoted piece in the New York Times magazine last week about the decline of actual cooking, the seemingly paradoxical surge in the popularity of TV cooking, and the evolution of what we eat.  Here's a piece:

After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,” the food industry strived to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.”

So here's something I've been curious about for a while: most people seem to treat cooking as a binary thing.  Either you do it or you don't. But there's actually a broad range here, and I wonder how many people are more or less like me on the cooking continuum?  I don't eat prepared food because I don't like field rations no matter how brightly they're packaged.  On the other hand, neither do I cook — at least not in the conventional sense of hauling out a recipe and making something.  For example, if I'm on my own1 here's my recipe for making salmon:

1. Place a piece of salmon in a baking ban.

2. Put the baking pan in the oven.

3. Take it out after a while and eat it.

So is this cooking?  On the pro side: it's from scratch!  On the con side: it only has one ingredient.  (In the main dish, anyway.)  I don't have the skill or the desire to do much more, but even at that I prefer a simple, freshly baked piece of salmon to, say, Lean Cuisine's "wild salmon on a bed of whole wheat orzo pasta with yellow and orange carrots and spinach in a basil sauce."  And my dinner doesn't take any more time to prepare than theirs, either.

Pollan demonstrates some sensitivity toward this continuum when he talks about what really counts as cooking and what doesn't.  Here he is talking to food marketing researcher Harry Balzer:

Years ago Balzer noticed that the definition of cooking held by his respondents had grown so broad as to be meaningless, so the firm tightened up the meaning of “to cook” at least slightly to capture what was really going on in American kitchens. To cook from scratch, they decreed, means to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of “assembly of elements.” So microwaving a pizza doesn’t count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does. Under this dispensation, you’re also cooking when you spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread and pile on some cold cuts or a hamburger patty.

....I kept asking him what his research had to say about the prevalence of the activity I referred to as “real scratch cooking,” but he wouldn’t touch the term. Why? Apparently the activity has become so rarefied as to elude his tools of measurement.

“Here’s an analogy,” Balzer said. “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.”

So, returning to the excerpt that kicked off this post, here's the question: how many people are there who, like me, (a) resist eating processed food because it reminds them of field rations, but (b) can't really cook in the conventional sense and therefore just end up eating simple but freshly prepared dishes all the time?  Surely I'm not entirely alone in this, am I?

1As you might guess, this isn't very often.  Marian is quite a good cook and does most of the dinner preparation chez Drum.  It's a good thing, too.