2010 - %3, March

Tea Partier Appears on Letterman

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 12:53 PM PDT

More proof the Tea Party movement is going mainstream: Last night, a member appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman.

The TV host decided to invite Pam Stout to his show after reading about her in a New York Times article, which described the president of the Sandpoint, Idaho Tea Party Patriots as an unlikely revolutionary with ties to the controversial Oath Keepers movement.

On stage, though, Stout seemed more like a matronly schoolteacher than an angry crackpot. In a mild-mannered voice, she recounted her work helping low-income residents get on their feet and owning her own business, and expressed a simple desire to "go back to the old ideals." She even got the New York audience to erupt into applause a few times, as she questioned the government's overspending and anti-business mentality.

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MoJo LOST Chat: The Package

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 12:41 PM PDT

See more LOST chats here.

Last night's episode, "The Package," had all the romance you could stomach, if by "romance" you mean getting money while your lover's held hostage by a crazy-eyed Martin Keamy. Yes, it was the long-awaited Sun-Jin episode, but it proved less satisfying than hoped. Our guest blogger Tracie from Jezebel chatted with me about Sun's pregnancy, the symbolism of tomatoes, and which Jin we liked better. Via Jezebel, you can read Tracie's post on the episode here.

Jen Phillips, Assistant Editor: Hi Tracie!

Tracie, Senior Writer, Jezebel: Hey!

JP: Overall, what did you think? Love, hate, neither?

T: Well, initially, i thought that it was sort of one of those boring ones that catered more to the emotional aspects of the show, rather than the mystical, but that like the Korean subtitles, there was a lot to be read from what was presented.

JP: The alternate timeline seems to be taking a turn for the darker, don't you think? I think it's definitely the MIB-wins timeline.

T: Well, I think for some people it's darker, and for some it's not. I think that how their lives turn out in the sideways world speaks to free will, and the choices that they've personally made: like that Sawyer decided to be a cop instead of a criminal, and Jin decided to be Sun's "lover" instead of husband. It's also interesting that in the sideways world, he defied Sun's dad, and still had working semen, whereas in the original time line, he was kind of emasculated by her dad, and didn't wasn't able to impregnate her.

JP: So you think the sideways timeline is just free will? You don't think MIB is influencing people like Jacob? I only say that because Sun touching Flocke's hand seemed to be a decisive moment.

T: I think the sideways world isn't so much where MIB wins, but where Jacob doesn't have influence.

JP: I once heard that hell is simply the absence of God. Maybe sideways is simply a non-Jacob world, but I think I prefer the crash timeline.

T: Jacob seems really intent on people making the right choices, but he's meddling, and screwing it up. He thinks that keeping MIB corked in the island, that people will automatically make bad choices. For instance, when he showed up at Sawyer's parents' funeral, he gave Sawyer the pen to enable him to write this letter to the guy who conned his parents. Sawyer carried that letter around with him for life and it shaped the con man that he became.

JP: Well, we've long suspected that good is bad and vice versa on the island. "We're the good guys" and so forth.

T: Yeah, which is why I think that opening the episode last night with the night vision was significant in which what we saw—dark turning to light and vice versa—was different from what we can see with the human eye.

JP: There is also something important about island babies in this episode. Aaron and Ji Yeon are both discussed. Who raises them seems to be paramount, but neither seem to be back on the island anytime soon...

T: Oh, yeah, fertility is a big issue, as evidenced by that tomato Jack found and gave to Sun. Tomatoes are nightshades, which i think might be a clue.

JP: Tomatoes are also called love apples, I believe,

T: Ooh! Like apples in the Garden of Eden! Sun was tempted by Mocke in her garden. It's interesting that those sonar fences are clearly his kryptonite. Sonar fences like that are usually used to control marine species.

JP: And let's not forget Widmore's sub, which navigates by sonar/radar. 

T: Also electromagnetism played a big role last night with the map that Widmore's employee had. I think that's the key to why Desmond was brought back. He has a special relationship with electromagnetism, having been "gifted" with the flashbacks and flash-fowards from it. Additionally, night vision technology--like the kind that Widmore's people were using to spy on MIB's camp--enhance electromagnetic radiation, enabling humans to see non-visible electromagnetic rays.

JP: It reminds me of what physicist Daniel Faraday said, about light not bending right on the island.

T: As far as Desmond goes, I think that his whole thing is about looking to the future, not just because he has the ability to see it, but because he wants to just continue on with his life with his son and Penny but people keep trying to pull him back into their own crap. I think his outlook on life is sort of the message of the show.

JP: Magnetically, maybe he's the opposite to the island, and so it's attracted to him. Any last thoughts before we go? 

T: After watching last night, with how Sun's dad interfered with her life so much, I thought it showed a lot of the parallels between her story and Penny's and how Penny didn't give a crap about what her father thought and empowered herself to go after what she wanted.

JP: Good point. They're both heiresses that have spunk and aren't afraid to take on daddy, or the island. Sun was all badass in one timeline, armed and dangerous. Wonder if that's why she got shot in the new timeline.

T: Well, in both timelines, she's portrayed as being slutty (sleeping with guys she's not married to) and she sort of had to pay for the consequences of that, and that really bugs the crap out of me because Sawyer sleeps with EVERYONE. He's banged the most girls on the show (Charlotte, Kate, Juliet, Ana Lucia) and it's not thought of as his "sin." They definitely cast sideways Sun into the "Eve" role tempting Jin with her body double's boobs.

JP: Ha! Even with all that, I like Jin. He seems conflicted with trying to do the right thing and what he wants. While Sun just tries to get what she wants.

T: Yeah, I liked Jin a lot better in the sideways world, since he wasn't as controlling over Sun.

JP: Thanks again for chatting, Tracie. Can't wait until the Desmond-centric episode next week.

T: No prob!

Republicans Hate Obama's Offshore Plan Too

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 12:23 PM PDT

Environmental groups and some coastal state senators are ticked off by today’s announcement on offshore drilling. But so, predictably, are Republicans, who maintain that the Obama administration’s massive expansion of oil and gas drilling doesn’t go far enough.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) fired off a statement declaring that the Obama administration "continues to defy the will of the American people" by not letting oil companies drill everywhere immediately.

"It's long past time for this Administration to stop delaying American energy production off all our shores and start listening to the American people who want an ‘all of the above’ strategy to produce more American energy and create more jobs ... Republicans are listening to the American people and have proposed a better solution--the American Energy Act--which will lower gas prices, increase American energy production, promote new clean and renewable sources of energy, and encourage greater efficiency and conservation.

He also made sure to get in a pot-shot at the Obama administration's plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, just for good measure:

At the same time the White House makes today's announcement, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is plotting a new massive job-killer that the American people can’t afford: a cascade of new EPA regulations that will punish every American who dares to flip on a light switch, drive a car, or buy an American product. Americans simply don’t want this backdoor national energy tax that will drive up energy and manufacturing costs and destroy jobs in our states and local communities.

Clearly, these overtures to Republicans on energy are finding resounding success.

Insider Trading

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 11:56 AM PDT

Some facts for your consideration:

Fact 1: If you trade stocks based on insider knowledge (for example, maybe you know that next week's earnings announcement will be disappointing), that's illegal.

Fact 2: Ditto for bonds.

Fact 3: Credit default swaps are basically insurance on bonds. So buying or selling CDS coverage based on insider knowledge is illegal too. Right?

Well hold on there pardner! You're assuming that credit default swaps are securities. Because insider trading laws only apply to securities. But swaps are — well, they're just private contracts between two consenting adults. Nothing security-ish about them. Capiche? So forget this whole insider trading thing.

Felix Salmon explains further here and then says maybe we ought to do something about this:

The first obvious thing that needs to be done here is to give the SEC formal jurisdiction over single-name CDS....The second thing which ought to be considered is moving CDS trading onto an exchange, where it can be regulated. And it's almost certain, at this point, that that's not going to happen. In fact, I asked Craig Donohue, the CEO of CME Group, about this at yesterday's Reuters Global Exchanges and Trading Summit. He's very keen on clearing over-the-counter CDS trades, but he said that he's come to the decision over the past couple of years that he's not interested in listing CDS on any of his exchanges directly. The big CDS players are his clients, they make lots of money from their OTC trading, and he seems to have no appetite to start competing with them on that front, rather than simply facilitating the clearing of their trades.

Financial regulatory reform is looking better all the time, isn't it? No serious capital or leverage requirements. A consumer protection agency housed at the Fed and barely worth the paper it's implemented on. And no exchange trading of CDS because the exchanges don't want to do it and Congress probably won't force them to. I don't know about you, but I'm about ready to say we should just scrap the whole thing and admit that we're OK with Wall Street plutocrats continuing to run the country for their own benefit until they destroy the country properly. At least that would have the virtue of honesty.

And by the way: Felix will shoot me for saying this, but I've pretty much come to the conclusion that credit default swaps should simply be banned. Their benefits are actually pretty minimal, while their vulnerability to abuse seems almost unlimited. I'm having a harder and harder time these days buying the case that we can regulate them into submission.

Lautenberg: Obama Plan is "Kill, Baby, Kill"

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 11:11 AM PDT

Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) really doesn’t like today's offshore drilling announcement from the Obama administration:

"Drilling off the Virginia coast would endanger many of New Jersey’s beaches and vibrant coastal economies,” stated Lautenberg. “Giving Big Oil more access to our nation’s waters is really a 'Kill, baby, kill' policy: It threatens to kill jobs, kill marine life and kill coastal economies that generate billions of dollars. Offshore drilling isn’t the solution to our energy problems, and I will fight this policy and continue to push for 21st-century clean energy solutions."

The senator is one of 10 who said last week that including more oil and gas drilling in an energy and climate plan would be a deal-breaker for them.

Climate Hacking 101

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 11:05 AM PDT

Can the climate be hacked to keep the Earth's surface temperatures manageable? Can we get away with hijacking natural cycles (emulating volcanoes, pumping nutrients into the oceans, tinkering with the solar reflectivity of clouds) without radically screwing up weather patterns—or starting a war? Or is it a cop-out even to talk about this, rather than focus on kicking ass and taking names on the carbon emissions front?

Huh? Did he say "war"? Well, since climate heeds no human boundaries, any serious intervention by scientists could require a level of global cooperation that makes Copenhagen look like a cakewalk—and we all know how that turned out. If any country were to start testing this stuff unilaterally on a big scale, let's just say it would not be terribly popular.

But all the technical, cultural, and political roadblocks didn't dissuade leading geoengineering researchers from attending last week's big powwow at the Asilomar Conference Center—a longtime science haven and site of a similar meeting on genetic engineering back in 1975. Like that historic meeting, this one's ostensible purpose (activists envision something more nefarious) was for the scientists to discuss possible ground rules for future experimentation and for navigating, well, the technical, cultural, and political roadblocks. And like that meeting, this one has been criticized as an attempt to legitimize a potentially dangerous area of science.

Not to say the attendees were all gung-ho to put their ideas into practice. As climate scientists deeply concerned about human contributions to global warming, most were somewhat wary about the implications of climate hacking. That's one thing reporter Jim Rendon learned when we sent him to Asilomar to check out the scene. His dispatches below, and their links to our past geoengineering coverage, will give you a sort of Climate Hacking 101. Considering the world's inaction on addressing the most pressing problem of our time, you'll need it. We're all going to be hearing a lot more about human volcanoes and so on in the not too distant future.

Dispatch 1: Geoengineering Bad Fixes for Worse Problems
As climate-intervention scientists meet, fans see a Plan B where critics see a delay tactic.
Dispatch 2: Who Eats Geoengineering Risk?
Any large-scale test would require true international cooperation.
Dispatch 3: Do We Test Geoengineering?
Any meaningful field run would be a contentious, high-risk venture.
Dispatch 4: Geoengineering for Fun and Profit
Should scientists—or anyone—be allowed to cash in on high-risk climate fixes?

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The New Tower of London

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 10:49 AM PDT

Below I commend to your attention "London's answer to the Eiffel tower," scheduled for completion prior to the 2012 Olympic Games. "The structure will officially be called the ArcelorMittal Orbit, after steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, the richest man in Europe, who is funding it." Naturally, Boris Johnson is deeply involved too. Its designer says: "There is a kind of medieval sense to it of reaching up to the sky, building the impossible. A procession, if you like. It's a long winding spiral: a folly that aspires to go even above the clouds and has something mythic about it." Though at only 400 feet, it's not clear which clouds it will go above.

Your opinion is naturally solicited.

Obama: The "First Gay President"?

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 10:47 AM PDT

Judging from the Family Research Council's official bio of its vice president Tom McClusky, you'd think the guy was a pretty mild-mannered, if conservative, politico. He's worked for Bush the Elder, Jack Kemp, and George Allen, among others—not your typical Tea Party rabble—and he's written lots of anti-tax policy papers. He appears like the sort of staid, quiet guy who'd say something like this to Fox News: "It seems like for only six months, every two years—right around election time—that we're even noticed."

Fortunately for the good-humored progressive, McClusky fills that down time with highly entertaining ramble on a blog for the right-wing, "family values"-oriented FRC. It's called the Cloakroom—not to be confused with a closet, for it is here that McClusky details the evils of homosexuality...as well as women's rights, homeland security (when it's Democratic-run), and the like. And few of his Cloakroom rambles are as fun as the one he posted yesterday calling Barack Obama gay. The First Gay, in fact. Wrote McClusky:

Shill, Baby, Shill

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 10:24 AM PDT

Over at The Corner, Ilya Shapiro explains Barack Obama's U-turn on offshore drilling in terms that the conservative faithful can understand:

Recall that on the campaign trail in June 2008, candidate Obama declared that, “when I’m president, I intend to keep in place the moratorium here in Florida and around the country that prevents oil companies from drilling off Florida’s coasts.” (See video of that speech here.)

Today, however, President Obama announced plans to lift a 20-year moratorium on oil exploration and development in Atlantic coastal waters running from Virginia to Florida, as well as further activity off Florida’s Gulf Coast.

....To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes [...] the facts have been rammed down Obama’s throat and so he had the good sense to change his mind. Well done, Mr. President.

Jeez, are conservatives really this gullible? Yes, Obama opposed offshore drilling in the summer of 2008, but he then famously changed his tune just a few weeks later. I was there! I remember him doing it! I was even sort of annoyed at the time. In August he hinted at compromise and then, talking about energy strategy in September, he said, "And that means, yes, increasing domestic production and off-shore drilling." This comes via NBC's First Read, which also had to refresh its institutional memory on this subject.

Hey, we all cherry pick. I get it. But you can't claim that the Montgomery bus boycott was caused by the Civil Rights Act without getting laughed at, and you can't claim that "the facts have been rammed down Obama's throat" when his position was set 18 months ago and his interior secretary has been busily working on regs for the past year. Better spin, please.

Preying on the Weak

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 9:32 AM PDT

Over at the Washington Independent, Martha White has a good piece about tax preparers who prey on low-income filers by hard selling refund anticipation loans, which typically boast effective interest rates of anywhere from 50% to 1000%. The whole thing is worth reading, but here's an interesting tidbit:

The big appeal of these loans, the Woodstock Institute’s Rand points out, is the prospect of instant money. Already, taxpayers who e-file and elect to receive their refund via direct deposit generally get their returns within two weeks. If the IRS sped up its payments to taxpayers outside the mainstream banking system and allowed them to receive that money on a debit card similar to those used for other benefits, the appeal of RALs would be diminished. “These improvements the IRS could make would eliminate a need for refund anticipation loans,” Rand said.

Here's a guess: an awful lot of low-income taxpayer have simple returns that could be pre-filled out by the IRS. This isn't done today largely because of opposition from tax preparers, who don't want to lose any business. But guess what else they might lose: their RAL business. If you received a pre-prepared statement in the mail and could accept it with a simple phone call or e-filing, there's no reason the feds couldn't get refunds out within days. With no tax preparer pushing the loans, and refunds available quickly in any case, the entire shifty industry would be wiped out. And it would be wiped out by making government more efficient. Who could object to that?