A café in my neighborhood sells salads in supposedly compostable corn-based containers. Since I live in one of only a handful cities in the US with a curbside composting program, I can just chuck my empty salad container into my curbside green bin. But I always wondered what might become of it in a backyard compost pile. Luckily, MoJo senior editor Dave Gilson answered my question last year in an article on the subject: Ramani Narayan, a Michigan State professor of chemical and biochemical engineering who helped develop biodegradable corn-based plastic, told Gilson that most plant-based plastics need to go to a commercial composting facility, not just your yard.

So if you can't throw bioplastics onto your compost heap, can you at least recycle them? A recent UK study recommended doing so, but I'm skeptical.

Turns out industry groups have been sparring over this very issue. Bioplastics manufacturer NatureWorks LLC recently claimed that commercial recycling facilities are perfectly capable of separating out plant-based materials from conventional plastics—an essential step in part because bioplastic melts at a different temperature from most types of conventional plastic. But the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), a trade group for manufacturers of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic containers, fired back (PDF) that NatureWorks had only tested one type of sorting machine, called near infrared (NIR). "Other sorting systems were not part of the recent tests, nor were ways to address quality issues such as [bioplastics] getting stuck in the dryers during the PET reclamation process," NAPCOR said in a press release.

The recycling gurus at Earth 911 come down on NAPCOR's side. "Most biodegradable plastic should not go into normal recycling streams—there's not enough research about what will happen to it," says Earth911 spokesperson Jennifer Berry. EPA resource conservation expert Saskia Van Gendt agrees. "It's practically impossible for sorters to differentiate the different plastics," she says. For now the only foolproof way to recycle bioplastics is through their manufacturers. "And in order to do that, you need a large volume of containers," says Van Gendt. "You can’t just send one container back."

Bottom line: If you don't have access to a commercial composting facility, your best bet is to throw bioplastics in the trash. Two notable exceptions: Coke's new bottle, which is made from as much as 30 percent sugarcane-based plastic, has been specially designed to be recycled right alongside regular PET plastics. Then there's Frito-Lay's new compostable SunChips bag. Unlike the corn containers from my neighborhood café, these bags really can go into your backyard compost pile, where they will supposedly degrade in 14 weeks—no super hot commercial composting facility necessary. Cool products both, and a good sign that bioplastics might get better down the road.


war photo 032910

Airborne students exit the aircraft at 1,250 feet above the drop zone. Photo via the US Army.

Shorter Wall Street Journal editorial page: Congress should never close corporate tax loopholes because this will result in corporations booking accounting charges for higher taxes.


Loophole in question is explained here.

[Ed note: You can find Tim's earlier installments in this series here, here, and here.]

After the kicked-up dust had settled in Searchlight (much of it on my glasses) and most of the RVs and pickups had started the long crawl back to civilization or suburbia, a few stragglers stuck around, in no real hurry to make an exit. I gravitated toward a group of friends from Arizona armed with a stack of signs urging a crackdown on illegal immigration. Two of them puffed on fat cigars—a nightcap on a victorious day.

I started asking questions just to get them talking, and it was clear they were used to arguing with each other. One of them, who was sporting a Crocodile Dundee-style desert hat, lobbed the first grenade. The problem with today's conservatives, he said, was that they wasted all their time talking about gay marriage and abortion, two things he couldn’t give a hoot about, personally. "That’s between a woman and her doctor," he said. "And marry whoever you want." At this his friend jumped in, "Well, it should be up to the states." "Right, the states," said Dundee. "Well, I guess that makes me a real bad conservative,” he added with a laugh.

I listened for a little while longer—about Abraham Lincoln’s socialist influences, mostly (Lincoln was apparently a big reader of Karl Marx)—and then left them to their cigars.

We have two related foreign policy stories today. First up is Peter Baker on Obama's negotiation with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev over a new arms control treaty. After reaching agreement, Medvedev insisted on bringing missile defense back into the treaty:

“Dmitri, we agreed,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Medvedev with a tone of exasperation, according to advisers. “We can’t do this. If it means we’re going to walk away from this treaty and not get it done, so be it. But we’re not going to go down this path.”

....If Mr. Obama overestimated his powers of persuasion in reaching quick agreement with the Russians, they misjudged how far they could get him to bend. In the end, they compromised on nonbinding language. And so, after all the fits and starts, all the miscalculations, the vodka toasts that proved premature and the stare-downs that nearly sank the whole enterprise, Mr. Obama hung up the phone again with Mr. Medvedev on Friday, this time having finally translated aspiration into agreement.

And here's Michael Hirsh on why Obama was so upset at Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his government embarrassed Joe Biden by announcing a new housing development in Jerusalem the day Biden arrived for an official visist:

The main reason for Obama's ire, according to a senior administration official, who asked not to be named, was that Biden had gone to Israel specifically to deliver a message to Netanyahu: the main issue is now Iran and its nuclear program, and we can't allow ourselves to be distracted by other issues or to jeopardize the emerging alliance against Tehran in support of tough sanctions — an alliance which includes most of the leading Arab states. In particular, Netanyahu — who campaigned for office himself on the primacy of the Iranian nuclear issue — can't afford to allow Israel's leading defender on this issue, the president of the United States, to look as if he's weak or lacking influence....And that of course is precisely what happened. Netanyahu's government made Obama look bad, undermining the effort against Iran.

Italics mine in both excerpts. It goes without saying that both of these stories are based on sources who have an agenda. And we don't know what that agenda is. So take this all with a few grains of salt.

But the connecting tissue here is Obama's backbone. Domestically, he played hardball to get healthcare reform done this month and he threw down the gauntlet on recess appointments this weekend. Internationally, he played hardball with Medvedev — or convinced him he was playing hardball, anyway — over arms control, and was upset with Netanyahu less over the Jerusalem housing project per se than over the fact that it was a bungle that handicapped his ability to play hardball with Iran.

Conservatives are unhappy over Obama's domestic hardball and liberals are probably uneasy over the international hardball — espcially if Hirsh's report about Iran is true. But they're opposite sides of the same coin. A good president knows when to compromise, and also knows how to beat up his opponents enough to make compromise possible. It's still early days, but Obama seems to be developing a pretty good sense for this stuff.

Staffing Up

James Fallows outlines the stellar qualifications of Alan Bersin, nominated to head Customs and Border Protection, an agency of DHS, and then notes that Republicans refused to allow a vote on his nomination anyway. Matt Yglesias comments:

(A) This is a sign of an opposition political party gone mad. But (B) this is a poor way to organize a government. The number of political appointees in the executive branch should be reduced, the proportion of political appointees requiring congressional confirmation should be lowered, and some kind of express track to an up-or-down vote for nominees should be established. Confirming judges — lifetime members of a coequal branch of government — is one thing, but a president needs to be able to staff his administration.

Actually, I'd extend this argument to district court judges too. Just in general, it's absurd for the Senate to spend time vetting such a vast number of appointees. They should stick to cabinet level positions, heads of a few of the major agencies (Fed, SEC, EPA, etc.), ambassadors, and circuit court judges.

For what it's worth, it might also be a good idea to have set terms for judges. Say, ten years or so. Long enough to keep them independent, but not so long that every appointment has to be a pitched battle. I'm not quite sure whether this would take a constitutional amendment, though.

Opera After a Month

As long as I'm making lots of lists this weekend, here's another one: What I like and dislike about the Opera browser. (The PC version, that is, since I don't know anything about how well the Mac version performs.) I'm pretty hooked on it. First, here's the small list of things I don't like:

  1. No autocomplete in form fields. This is my only big complaint. I understand why some people might not want this, but it's a pretty standard feature on every other browser in the galaxy. I'm not sure why it isn't an option on Opera.
  2. Occasionally a page won't load 100% properly. Not often. Just keep another browser on tap for when it happens.
  3. Ad blocking requires a little more effort than just plugging in AdBlock on Firefox. But it works fine once it's configured.
  4. You can't right click on sites in the Personal Bar. This is a very minor annoyance.

And now for the things I like:

  1. History search! This is awesome. Opera keeps a full text index of every page you browse, so you can search them instantly. I'm always forgetting where I saw something, and this is a feature I've wanted forever.
  2. It's faster (and seemingly more reliable) than Firefox.
  3. The address bar search feature is very handy. Just type "w obama" to bring up the Wikipedia page for Barack Obama. "t crazy" brings up thesaurus entries for crazy. Etc. You can define whatever search shortcuts you want.
  4. There's a "closed tabs" icon on the far right of the tab bar. It's basically a trash can for all the tabs you've closed recently. Very handy when you want to get back to a page that you just know you had opened a couple of hours ago but can't quite remember.
  5. You can shift tabs around on the tab bar. This is sort of an anal retentive thing, but I have a specific order I like my tabs to be in, and this lets me keep them that way if they get jumbled.
  6. The Notes feature allows me to keep short little text notes within easy reach. I use this for, among other things, keeping some commonly used HTML code handy.
  7. Opera Link uploads my settings so that all my PCs can stay synchronized. When I loaded Opera on my new PC it worked about 90%. Obviously 100% would have been better, but it still saved me tons of time re-importing my bookmarks and other settings.
  8. "Open in background" is a surprisingly handy option. When I'm proofreading a post, I use it to load all the links in the background while I'm reading. After they've all loaded I check to make sure they're correct.
  9. Opera Mail is great. It's nice having mail in a browser tab, and it has a super fast search feature. I have over 100,000 messages in my archive, and Opera can search the whole thing in about a second. (On the downside, Opera Mail is also a little idiosyncratic and takes some getting used to. If you don't care about searching, it might not be worth the trouble.)

This is a fairly miscellaneous list. Opera is the kind of program that has lots of hidden nooks and crannies, and I keep discovering new things about it all the time. Someone else would probably discover different things. In any case, it's pretty cool. I'm a big fan.

Obama Plays Hardball

Today's big news is that the White House announced a bunch of new recess appointments:

Fed up with waiting, President Barack Obama announced Saturday he would bypass a vacationing Senate and name 15 people to key administration jobs....The 15 appointees to boards and agencies include the contentious choice of union lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Republicans had blocked his nomination on grounds he would bring a radical pro-union agenda to the job, and they called on Obama not to appoint Becker over the recess.

Obama went ahead anyway, while also choosing a second member for the labor board so that four of its five slots will be filled. The board, which referees labor-management disputes, has had a majority of its seats vacant for more than two years, slowing its work and raising questions about the legality of its rulings.

This is pretty fascinating. Years ago, after Republicans filibustered a Carter nominee to the NLRB, the two parties made a deal: the board would have three appointees from the president's party and two from the other party. So after he took office Obama nominated two Democrats and one Republican to fill the NLRB's three vacant seats and got support from a couple of Republicans on the HELP committee for the entire slate. But when it got to the Senate floor John McCain put a hold on Becker, and his nomination — along with the others — died.

Fast forward to today and Obama finally decides to fill the board using recess appointments. But what does he do? He only appoints the two Democrats. This is not what you do if you're trying to make nice. It's what you do if you're playing hardball and you want to send a pointed message to the GOP caucus. You won't act on my nominees? Fine. I'll appoint my guys and then leave it up to you to round up 50 votes in the Senate for yours. Have fun.

Does this mean the postpartisan Obama is finally dying away, overtaken by a newly muscular president willing to duke it out with a Republican Party that he finally realizes has been utterly consumed by its hardcore obstructionist wing? Maybe! Stay tuned.

The Showdown in Searchlight just wrapped up, although things pretty much climaxed with the rousing chants of "Sa-Rah, Sa-Rah" as Sarah Palin finished her speech earlier. That’s when the event began to empty out—the subsequent list of speakers (Joe the Plumber, Angela McGlowan, distinguished musical guests) either offered standard boilerplate rhetoric, or they appealed to only a fraction of the attendees. (For instance, nearly every single one of Harry Reid's potential GOP challengers were given five minutes to make they case for why they disliked Searchlight's native son the most.)

Everyone said kind of the same thing, that is, except for Washington Times' Andrew Breitbart, who, as Andrew Breitbart is wont to do, fired a rather audacious salvo during his 10-minute address. Breitbart promised the audience he would donate $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund if anyone could come forward to verify John Lewis' assertion that protestors had called him the "N-word." It would also be fine with him, he said, if John Lewis would take a polygraph test (and pass). The assertion that Rep. Lewis simply made the whole thing up—or worse, that Democratic operatives planted the offending hecklers, was a recurring theme among the people I spoke with today (a few souls generously allowed that the Civil Rights icon may have simply misheard), but Breitbart really played it up. As he put it, by smearing health care opponents, "they’re calling us the n-word," Breitbart said. Yeah, totally.

My Big List O' Books

For the past week or so bloggers have been compiling lists of ten books that have influenced them throughout their lives. I haven't compiled mine yet, but you didn't think I could hold out against doing this forever, did you? So here it is.

I should note: this is not a list of books that I'm recommending. If you want that, see here — though the list is outdated. The key idea in the following list is that these books influenced me for some reason — and not always because of the book's content. Also: they aren't all books. And there are more than ten. And my definition of "influenced" is a little more pedestrian than most people's, I think. There are no big philosophy tomes or anything like that. That said, here they are in the order in which they influenced me:

1962-66: The Oz books, by L. Frank Baum and Ruth Plumly Thompson. We had a complete set of Oz books and my mother read them aloud to us when we were kids. They tended to get more outré and almost science fictiony toward the end of the series, and those were the ones I liked best. (My mother decidedly didn't.) I credit this, more or less, with leading me in the direction of Tom Swift and then science fiction in general.

1967: My Only Great Passion, by Jean and Dale Drum. Although officially my father was a speech professor, he also specialized in film history and criticism, and in the 50s he struck up a correspondence with Carl Th. Dreyer, the great Danish film director (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet). In 1967 he took a one-semester sabbatical and we all trooped over on SAS to live in the town of Køge for seven months while he and my mother did primary research for a biography of Dreyer. This was, by a wide margin, the most exciting thing that ever happened to me as a child.

(As it happens, the book failed to find a publisher after it was written. However, in the late 90s, after my father had died, my mother resurrected it at the urging of the head of the Danish Film Museum, headed to Denmark to do some additional research, and then updated the manuscript and got it published in 2000. If you're looking for a full-length English-language biography of Dreyer, this is pretty much it.)

1969: Adventure Comics #378. The Legion of Superheroes! A Curt Swan/Neal Adams cover! My love affair with comic books was born.

1975: APL: An Interactive Approach, by Leonard Gilman and Allen J. Rose. I still have my dog-eared copy of this book. Aside from a few months in my senior year of high school I never actually used APL for anything, but it was the language that showed me how much fun computer programming could be. That changed my life, and this was the book that taught me.

1979: The Power Broker, by Robert Caro. I probably don't have to say much about this. You know, Pulitzer Prize and all that. But this book not only opened my eyes to the use of political power, but also, I think, inspired my continuing love of really long books. I've never been entirely sure if Caro was fair to Robert Moses, but then, I've never been entirely sure he wasn't either.

1980: The Making of the President 1960, by Theodore White, and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, by Hunter S. Thompson. I think these are the two books that really got me interested in politics. I don't know that I'd recommend the former other than for its historical interest, but the latter is great reading regardless of whether or not you care about the 1972 presidential campaign. Hell, it's worth reading just for the scene where Thompson talks football with Richard Nixon.

1982: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. I warned you that I wasn't necessarily recommending these books, right? In this one, Jaynes assembles evidence to suggest that up until a few thousand years ago humans were essentially all schizophrenic, routinely commanded by voices in our heads. (Thus the origin of all those endless pantheons of gods and goddesses.) However, as the two halves of our brains began to fuse, the voices ended — for most of us — and we became conscious and self-aware in the sense that we are today.

As it happens, virtually no one believes this. On the other hand, no less than Richard Dawkins says, "It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I'm hedging my bets." Me too. And even if it is wrong, it's a fascinating example of being wrong — complete with some really compelling explanatory power for the history of our species. It remains fascinating to me to this day. When I briefly took up fiction writing in the early 80s, my first story was based on Jaynes's concept.

1985: Plagues and Peoples, by William McNeill. I think Matt Yglesias had this on his list, and I have it for the same reason: it was my first real introduction to a version of history in which everything you think you know turns out instead to be caused by some vast underlying movement you had never even considered before. In this case, it's the effect of disease pools on the rise and fall of various civilizations. (The Spanish conquest of Mexico is the most famous example.) I think you have to be careful with adopting this kind of attitude toward history wholesale, but in the Great Man vs. Great Movement debate, I'm pretty clearly in the Great Movement camp, and this book is one reason why. It also prompted me to read McNeill's The Rise of the West, which is a very good book.

1998: American Aurora, by Richard Rosenfeld. This is a long book made up almost entirely out of excerpts from political newspapers published around the time of the Alien and Sedition Acts. That makes it sound boring. It's not. (Though it's frustrating at times unless you already have a pretty detailed knowledge of that era.) We've all heard about how politics in the past was actually far more polarizing and belligerent than it is today, and this book really makes that come to life. After you've read it, you won't think of modern politics the same way again.

1999: The Promise of Sleep, by William Dement. I've always slept poorly and I hoped this book, by a famous sleep researcher from Stanford University, would help me figure out why. It didn't. However, it did help me conquer jet lag, and you have no idea what a difference that's made. So listen up. This is one of those cheap and easy pieces of advice that you're often promised but almost never get in life.

A lot of people believe that if you, say, travel to Europe, all you have to do is force yourself to stay up all day on your first day and you'll be OK. You won't be. Here's why: twice a day your body releases stimulants that wake you up. This is (awkwardly) called "clock dependent alerting," and it happens once around 6 am and again around 7 pm or so — though this varies from person to person. So when I travel from California to Paris, even if I stay up all day and get to sleep just fine at midnight, around 4 am I'll wake up. And for the next three hours, no matter how hard I try, I can't get back to sleep. Around 6 or 7 am I can, but by then it's time to wake up. Result: I'm completely wiped out for the rest of the day.

So here's the answer: sleeping pills. Get a good quality prescription sleeping pill and take it when you go to bed even if you don't need it to fall asleep. You don't. You need it to stay asleep. I now take a sleeping pill every night for about a week (plus one on the plane over) when I travel to Europe, and it's like a damn miracle. I literally have no jet lag at all.

(Obviously this depends a lot on where you're traveling to and from. Going from LA to New York, for example, I take a pill because my evening stimulant rush hits around 10 pm and won't let me get to sleep before 1 or 2 am. So in this case, the pill does help me get to sleep rather than keeping me asleep. If you're traveling from the East Coast to Europe, ditto. If you're traveling west, it'll be something else. But the arithmetic is fairly easy to figure out. However, you really can hardly go wrong by just taking a pill an hour before bedtime and not fussing over it.)

(And if you're one of those people who don't care about this because you don't suffer from jet lag? Well, I hate you. Any other questions?)

2002: kausfiles. Whatever else you can say about Mickey, in 2002 I started reading Slate in my free time and it was kausfiles that introduced me to blogging. Three days later I started my own blog, and boy did that change my life.

2002: The Threatening Storm, by Kenneth Pollack. This one is sort of an honorable mention. For a few months in 2002-03 I supported the Iraq war, and that was a really fucking stupid thing to do. This book was one of the big reasons why I did it. So on the theory that learning from your mistakes is important, this book deserves a place on my personal list.

2005: Before the Storm, by Rick Perlstein. This is the best piece of political history I've ever read. I think that's recommendation enough. More here.