2009 - %3, September

Newsweek's Green Biz Rankings: Gutsy or Greenwash?

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 11:44 AM PDT

Newsweek has just released its first-ever environmental ranking of America's 500 biggest companies. And the winner is...Hewlett-Packard. The mag gives HP props for e-waste recycling, renewable energy use, and its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. OK, but what about those annoyingly wasteful printer cartridges? More on that in a sec. But first, a few selected rankings: Dell is #2, Johnson & Johnson #3, Starbucks #10, McDonald's #22, Wal-Mart #59, Whole Foods #67, Halliburton #169, and Monsanto #485. Energy and oil companies bring up the rear, with ExxonMobil down at #395 and Peabody Energy coming in dead last.

As interesting as it is to pore over the rankings, do they mean anything, or are they—like US News and World Report's college list—just another exercise in self-reported accomplishments, stat rigging, and brand polishing? Green business guru Joel Makower says there are undoubtedly rough spots in Newsweek's methodology, but overall he's impressed: "I'd rather step back and admire this first effort, however imperfect, and salute the team for doing what hadn't previously been done, or done well: brought together a wealth of data on a broad spectrum of the world's biggest companies to provide a snapshot of the green business world." TreeHugger's David DeFanza is more skeptical, noting that the rankings seem to emphasize a company's green "intentions" over its real-world impacts, creating "an unsettling discrepancy between environmental-friendliness and 'greenness.'" 

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Dan Brown Sells 100,000 e-Copies of The Lost Symbol

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 11:42 AM PDT

Although it's barely into its second week of sales, more than two million copies of Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown's long awaited thriller The Lost Symbol have flown off the shelves. Not surprising, considering the Da Vinci Code sold an absurd 81 million copies (compared with 17 million for the entire Twilight series).

What is surprising is just how many of those copies were electronic: Roughly 100,000 e-copies of The Lost Symbol sold last week, which is about five percent of the book's total global sales, and close to nine percent of its US sales. Amazon won't release its total e-book sales figures, but Brown's book is locked in at No. 1 on the Bestseller list. 

One thing is for sure: If you analyze Amazon's best selling e-books side by side with the New York Times best sellers list, the dead tree readers seem a bit smarter and a lot more liberal than the e-readers.

Observe: No's 4 and 5 on the Amazon e-list are Glenn Beck's Arguing with Idiots and Common Sense, respectively, followed by Michelle Malkin's Culture of Corruption, an out-and-out attack of the Obama administration. Of course, Kindle doesn't have a monopoly on the conservative treatise market—Bill O'Reilly's latest offering clings to the NYT list at No. 8, but it's sandwiched between Tracy Kidder's new book about a medical student caught in Burundi's civil war and Nick Kristof's latest about the trafficking of women in Asia and Africa, both decidedly more highbrow than anything in the Kindle's top ten. 

Once again, the internet's wealth of data has compelled us to compartmentalize our interests and narrow our worldview. We no longer browse. It's an unfortunate trait to bring to the world of books, and if the Kindle bestsellers are any indication, one that won't disappear soon.

Saving the Planet

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 11:36 AM PDT

Via Brad Plumer, Fiona Harvey of the Financial Times gets an early look at the upcoming World Energy Outlook report:

In the first big study of the impact of the recession on climate change, the IEA found that CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels had undergone "a significant decline" this year — further than in any year in the last 40.

....Falling industrial output is largely responsible for the plunge in CO2 , but [...] for the first time, government policies to cut emissions have also had a significant impact. The IEA estimates that about a quarter of the reduction is the result of regulation, an "unprecedented" proportion. Three initiatives had a particular effect: Europe's target to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2020; US car emission standards; and China's energy efficiency policies.

Europe's cap-and-trade system didn't start out very strongly, but the fact is that nobody really expected it to.  Phase 2, however, is working better, and Phase 3 will be better still.  If we learn from their experience, we can avoid the early stumbles and put in place a decent (and steadily improving) program right out of the gate.  Ten years ago would have been a good time to start, but failing that, this year will have to do.

Racism in the Water at Philly Suburb Swim Club

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 11:10 AM PDT

You know you're racist when you kick a group of 56 black and Hispanic children out of a suburban swim club for no apparent reason. At least that's what the Pennsylvania Human Relations Committee confirmed today.

In what MoJo editor Clara Jeffery said was potentially the racist outrage of the year, the Swim Valley Club, located in one of Philadelphia's mostly white, affluent suburbs, booted a summer camp group although each child had paid more than $1,900 for the privileges to swim in the pool. In an oblivious statement, club president John Duesler said "there was a concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion...and the atmosphere of the club."

Duesler later admitted that this was a "terrible choice of words" and the club now claims that the group was removed because there were simply too many children in the pool to be monitored by the lifeguards on duty and that many of the children could not swim.

Hmm. Let's look at the details. There's the clearly racially tinged initial response from the club, the fact that one camper overheard a club member say "what are all these black kids doing here?" and "I'm scared they might do something to my child," and ONLY the minority children were booted from the club. Another parent wrote in an email that "when the minority children got in the pool all of the Caucasian children immediately exited the pool."

Fortunately, the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission saw through the lifeguard excuse and ordered the club to pay a $50,000 penalty for discrimination against the child whose parents filed the complaint. The summer camp's attorney Brian Mildenberg said that the fine could become millions if other families decide to sue. "If the award stuck on appeal," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "that would shut them down."

Patriots In Denial

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 10:58 AM PDT

Conservatives have always been a patriotic bunch, but their flag-waving seems a lot more aggressive these days. The two big conservative events in DC this month, the Values Voters Summit and the 9/12 march on Washington by the so-called tea party protesters, were patriotism on steroids. Values Voters kicked off with a full Boy Scout color guard, the pledge of allegiance and a rousing rendition of the national anthem. The 9/12 march featured numerous flags, anthem-singings and even a crowd rendition of America the Beautiful. As I was leaving, a guy on the sidewalk chirped, “So wonderful to see all you great patriots out here!”

After spending many hours at these gatherings, I was left with the impression that many Americans are responding to the recession with a newfound nationalism. Republican politicians are egging them on, insisting that despite the collapse of the banking system, the foreclosure crisis, and the utter destruction of American manufacturing, the U.S. has always been and still is the greatest country in the world, one made that way by God. And they really, really hate anyone realistic enough to suggest otherwise—especially if that person happens to be President Barack Obama.

Saving the Frogs

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 10:46 AM PDT

Whenever a week is dominated by things like UN opening sessions, G20 meetings, senate markup sessions, and the like — well, you just know that's going to be a slow week.  When was the last time something genuinely interesting happened at a UN opening session, after all?  Thirty years ago when Yasser Arafat demonstrated his revolutionary cred by giving a speech with a gun holster at his hip?  (They made him leave the gun itself at the door.)

Meh. So let's pass some time talking instead about James Fallows' great obsession: boiling frogs.  To start, here's an excerpt from a piece Paul Krugman wrote a couple of months ago:

I'm referring, of course, to the proverbial frog that, placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, never realizes the danger it's in and is boiled alive. Real frogs will, in fact, jump out of the pot — but never mind. The hypothetical boiled frog is a useful metaphor for a very real problem: the difficulty of responding to disasters that creep up on you a bit at a time.

Italics mine.  And Krugman is right: even though it's untrue that frogs will mindlessly poach themselves to death if you're careful to turn up the temperature on them slowly, it's a useful metaphor.  Still, it's not true.  So we should find another one.

But here's the thing: Fallows issued a worldwide call for good substitute metaphors two years ago.  Four days later he promised that winners would be announced in a couple of days.  And then....nothing.

So here's what I'm interested in.  The boiling frog cliche is untrue.  But it stays alive because, as Krugman says, it's a useful metaphor.  So why aren't there any good substitutes?

This is very strange.  Most useful adages and metaphors not only have substitutes, they have multiple substitutes.  "Look before you leap" and "Curiosity killed the cat."  "Fast as lightning" and "Faster than a speeding bullet."  Etc.  Usually you have lots of choices.

But in this case we don't seem to have a single one aside from the boiling frog.  Why?  Is it because it's not really all that useful a metaphor after all?  Because the frog has ruthlessly killed off every competitor?  Because it's not actually true in any circumstance, let alone with frogs in pots of water?  What accounts for this linguistic failure?

UPDATE: Hoo boy.  If Glenn Beck wasn't on Jim's shit list before, he sure is now.  He's also an idiot, of course.

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Things That Make Claire McCaskill's Head "Pop Off"

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 10:31 AM PDT

It's been a rough week for the Defense Contract Audit Agency, home to the Pentagon beancounters charged with insuring the goverment doesn't get robbed blind by military contractors. They are supposed to be doing that, at least. Recently, though, there have been questions about how effective the agency has been in protecting billions in taxpayer dollars from falling prey to waste, fraud, and abuse. On Tuesday, the Commission on Wartime Contracting—which has a former DCAA deputy director as its co-chair—blasted the problem-plagued DCAA, along the Defense Contract Management Agency, for failing to provide adequate oversight. Today, in tandem with a Senate hearing on the DCAA, the Government Accountability Office followed with a report [PDF] that found big time flaws with the agency's audits and operations. How big? Well, let's put it this way: Of the 69 audits and cost-related reviews the GAO looked at, it determined that every single one of them had problems— and the majority of them had "serious" ones. The GAO explains the heart of the issue:

A management environment and agency culture that focused on facilitating the award of contracts and an ineffective audit quality assurance structure are at the root of the agencywide audit failures we identified. DCAA’s focus on a production-oriented mission led DCAA management to establish policies, procedures, and training that emphasized performing a large quantity of audits to support contracting decisions and gave inadequate attention to performing quality audits. An ineffective quality assurance structure, whereby DCAA gave passing scores to deficient audits compounded this problem.

Flawed audits are just the half of it. An earlier GAO report [PDF], in July 2008, found abusive work environments at two DCAA field offices, including auditors who were threatened with disciplinary action if they refused to change audit findings or draft favorable reports. Today, the Pentagon's Inspector General, Gordon Heddell, told [PDF] the Senate homeland security committee that an investigation by his office had centered on one senior DCAA official in particular, the deputy director responsible for the agency's west coast operations. Heddell said his office concluded that she "improperly directed changes" to one audit that "could have allowed Boeing to recover $271 million in unallowable costs."

In the past, committee member Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)—a former auditor herself—has demanded changes at the DCAA, saying in 2008 that "somebody needs to be fired this." The "the top of my head is about to pop off" she tweeted during today's hearing, remarking on the "unbelievable" problems at the agency. "In the world of auditing," she said later, "what has been committed here is a capital crime."

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DOL's Child Labor Report Useless

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 10:10 AM PDT

I like kids. They think their bellybuttons are hilarious and can zone out to a screensaver. So I wanted to learn how to avoid consuming products made by kids when I heard about the new Department of Labor report on international child labor. Unfortunately, the 194-page report (PDF) is essentially useless to consumers. It doesn't tell you which companies are producing goods with child labor abroad, and doesn't even commit that the goods listed are absolutely produced by children. Instead, the report just lists "Bangladesh: Footwear" and "China: Cotton" as products that could possibly be made with child labor. Or possibly not. On page 29 the report states:

"It is important to understand that a listing of any particular good and country does not indicate that all production of that good in that country involves forced labor or child labor... There may be firms in a given country that produce the good in compliance with the law... Labor conditions may differ widely in different regions of the country, among other variables. The identity of specific firms or individuals using child labor or forced labor was beyond the statutory mandate."

Fantastic. Not only will the DOL not tell me which Ecuadoran banana packers use child labor, they can't even tell me that all or most Ecuadoran companies use kids to pick bananas. So what's the point of the report? The report lists so many items (cotton from 15 countries, rice from 8) that it's impossible to avoid them all. Basically, this report just makes me feel guilty about buying everything from Ghanian cocoa to Argentinian grapes, while leaving me no tools or information to counter it. Since I'm in California, I'll at least try to make sure all my fruit and vegetables are local. I can definitely avoid the disturbingly child-produced "pornography" from Colombia, Mexico, Philippines, Russia, Thailand, and Ukraine. But beyond that, I'll just have to look for a better report, one that actually gives American consumers specific information on child-produced goods.

Is Twitter Feeding the NYT?

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 9:46 AM PDT

On Monday, a small corner of the Internet exploded with reports that Martin Nisenholtz, Senior Vice-President of digital operations at The New York Times Co., had credited Twitter with 10 percent of NYTimes.com traffic. That would be roughly 2.8 million people redirected from the micro-blogging website to NYTimes.com every month. 

Fortunately, at least one blogger did his homework, noting that NYT spokeswoman Diane McNulty would confirm only that: “At its current growth rate, Twitter is, or will soon move into, the top 10 in terms of referrals to NYTimes.com.” To those not versed in Google Analytics, that means Twitter probably brings in a much smaller piece of the Gray Lady's pie than speculated. But it's growing! And, importantly, skewing toward that oh-so-elusive younger audience the NYT and other papers have been chasing.

The Times seems to be throwing its weight behind the Twitter phenomenon. @nytimes has nearly 2 million followers, which is nothing to sneeze at even if Twitter does slough half of its new users, and given that plenty of profiles are inactive. But not every Twitter profile in the Times-iverse was created equal: Maureen Dowd's @NYTimesDowd has a meager 1,500 followers, compared to Nicholas Kristof's @nytimeskristof, which has more than 600,000. 

Not an @nytimes follower? May I humbly suggest @sewell_chan, the powerhouse behind the paper's City Room blog. Chan's mere 3,000 followers and relative obscurity in the world of the Times belies a feed full of pointed questions and tantalizing tidbits.

The Rise of Glenn Beck

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 9:32 AM PDT

From Vinnie Penn, Glenn Beck's partner in the late 90s, when both were Top 40 jocks at KC101 in New Haven, Connecticut:

He always knew how to work people and situations for attention. He could pick the most pointless story in the news that day and find a way to approach it to get phones lit up. That was his strong point — pissing people off. He was very shrewd on both the business and entertainment sides of radio. He's built his empire on very calculated button pushing.

This is from part 3 of Alexander Zaitchik's terrific profile of Beck at Salon.  If you're looking for an antidote to the Beck dreck that Time magazine recently passed off as journalism, this is it. Read part one here and part two here.