2010 - %3, May

Nonfiction on the iPad

| Sat May 29, 2010 4:21 PM EDT

I asked this once a while back, but now that the iPad has been out for a while I want to ask again: how good is it for reading nonfiction books? Specifically, I have two questions for iPad users who read a fair amount of nonfiction:

  • How good is the selection of nonfiction? (Obviously this will vary from person to person depending on what kind of nonfiction they read.)
  • How well is nonfiction rendered? That is, is the layout of tables, charts, images and so forth similar to a paper book?

I've read a ton of commentary about the iPad, but oddly little about how good it is as a book reader. But in my case, that would be its primary function, with all its computerish functions secondary. So what's the verdict, nonfiction fans?

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Citizens and the Census

| Sat May 29, 2010 3:47 PM EDT

In the LA Times today, Richard Greener and George Kenney haul out a familiar conservative hobbyhorse: illegal aliens are counted in the census and this produces an unfair apportionment of congressional districts:

The reapportionment of today's static 435 seats according to census results would be a respectable example of representative democracy if each individual included in the count had a vote.  But, just as in 1790, the system remains badly fractured and fundamentally unfair.

Hmmm. Kids and (in some states) felons can't vote. But we count them. In the 19th century women couldn't vote. But we counted them. In 1790 residents without property couldn't vote. But we counted them. Hell, slaves couldn't vote either, but the infamous 3/5 compromise shows that the founders deliberately agreed to count them in the census for purposes of congressional representation anyway. So voting status is a pretty poor argument for not counting non-citizens. But even if you agree with Greener and Kenney for other reasons, their solution is deliberately obtuse:

The good news is that the Constitution leaves the manner of conducting the census, and the apportionment of the House, up to Congress. Passing a census reform law should be a relatively simple fix, if we have the leadership and the will to do so.

Would this work? Let's go to the text of the constitution:

[Article 1 Section 2]: Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

[14th Amendment]: No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States....Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.

The text is pretty clear: citizens is used in some places and persons is used in others. And persons means just what you think it means. So if you want to change the way non-citizens are counted in the census, Congress isn't enough. You need a constitutional amendment. Because, in this case, both the plain text of the constitution and the intent of the framers is quite clear. From a CRS report written earlier this year: "The Framers adopted without comment or debate the term 'persons' in place of the phrase 'free citizens and inhabitants' as the basis for the apportionment of the House....During the debate on the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress specifically considered whether the count was to be limited to persons, citizens, or voters. The term 'persons' was used instead of 'citizens' due, in part, to concern that states with large alien populations would oppose the amendment since it would decrease their representation."

If Greener and Kenney want to change the way states are represented because they're afraid the Mexican government might collapse, "sending hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border," that's fine. But pretending this is something Congress can do on its own is just populist demagoguery. They know better.

BP Admits Top-Kill Failed

| Sat May 29, 2010 2:55 PM EDT

UPDATE 7:08 PM SATURDAY: BP and the Coast Guard announced that they have stopped the top-kill procedure in a press conference Saturday evening, the 40th day of the Gulf disaster. "We have been unable to overcome the flow from the well," said BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles. "We now believe it is time to move on to the next of our options."

Suttles said the top-kill, which BP had given an estimated 60 to 70 percent chance of success, had failed. "We've given this every chance to succeed," he said.

He acknowledged the growing frustration, and fear, as the top-kill had been painted as the best hope, short of waiting at least three months for a relief well to be drilled. "This scares everybody, the fact that we can't make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven't succeeded so far," said Suttles.

The next option is what they're calling the "Lower Marine Riser Package," or LMRP, which would use robotic devices to cut off the broken riser at the top of the blowout preventer, cap the opening, and insert a new riser. The new riser would be used to pump the oil and gas to a ship on the surface (here's a graphic explaining the process that BP released). But Suttles warned that this is as untested as previous efforts to cap the well: "No one's ever done anything like this that I know of."

With this new attempt, Suttles said there "clearly is a risk it won't work." Pressed by a reporter about the odds this would succeed at controlling the well, Suttles said, "We do have a lot of confidence, but I'm not going to quote a number."

Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry said that it will take four to seven days to know if this next attempt works. "We're all on a roller coaster ride here," said Landry.

----

After indicating on Thursday that the top-kill effort was working, then pausing the operation, then resuming it and indicating that it was going as planned on Friday, BP now says that the amount of oil spewing from the well hasn't changed, and there is no guarantee that the procedure is actually working.

"I don't think the amount of oil coming out has changed," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said on Saturday. "Just by watching it, we don't believe it's changed."

BP, the Coast Guard, and federal officials are holding a press conference at 5 pm EST today. The Times-Picayune reports that, according to sources, there they will officially announce that the operation has failed and the company is setting to work on other plans:

BP is expected to announce that it will move on to its next option, known as LMRP. The procedure involves cutting off the failed, leaking riser at the top of the Lower Marine Riser Package on the blowout preventer to get a clean-cut surface on the pipe.
Then the company will install a cap with a sealing grommet that would be connected to a new riser from the Discoverer Enterprise drillship, with the hopes of capturing most of the oil and gas flowing from the well.

I'll have more after the press conference. [SEE UPDATE AT TOP OF POST.]

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Quote of the Day: Sarah Palin's Mob

| Sat May 29, 2010 2:25 PM EDT

From author Joe McGinniss, who was besieged by Sarah Palin's fans after she portrayed him as a wannabe pedophile when he rented the house next door to hers:

Look, this is a pain in the ass for them. I understand that. If I were her, I'd be upset. I'd be annoyed. But I'd be an adult about it, and I would figure out, okay, how can we resolve this in a way that's not going to make into something that everybody gets obsessive about? By being here I have learned things, and I've gotten an insight into her character, into her ability to incite hatred, that before I only knew about in the abstract.

Dave Weigel has the rest here.

Is Methane a BP Whistleblower?

| Sat May 29, 2010 12:31 PM EDT

How much oil is leaking from the wreck of the Deepwater Horizon? Five thousand barrels a day? Or a whole lot more? And how would we ever know?

Well, David Valentine of the UC Santa Barbara writes in a Nature op-ed that were we to measure methane in the waters around the spill we'd know. That's because some 40 percent of what's leaking is likely to be methane—most of it dissolved in the water.

Valentine calculates that if 5,000 barrels a day were leaking  then some 7,500 tons of methane would have entered the Gulf in 27 days, driving methane concentrations to three times normal levels in a 2,000-square-mile, one-kilometer-deep stretch of the Gulf. He recommends that US research vessels start taking these measurements as an accurate means to assess the spill.

BTW, I posted a blog a day or two ago about Valentine's work with dispersants and microbes, and all the bad potentials when the two meet.

H/T Roberta Kwok at Journal Watch Online.

The op-ed: Valentine, D. 2010. Measure methane to quantify the oil spill. Nature 465(7297), 421. DOI: 10.1038/465421a.

Friday Newsletter: The End of 24

| Sat May 29, 2010 10:12 AM EDT

Here's my Friday newsletter post from this week. And it reminds me: I have virtually no TV shows left that I watch regularly. Any non-HBO recommendations from the crowd?

Two of my favorite TV shows ended their lives this week: Lost and 24. Lost has gotten endless coverage for its season finale, its fan base polarized between hating it because it failed to resolve any of the questions they've been obsessively hashing over for the past six years, and loving it for the way it mawkishly closed the loop on all the characters they've come to love, finally allowing them a well-deserved measure of peace and contentment.

You can count me among the haters. But though it got less attention, it was the finale of 24 that was a bigger cultural moment: in a way, its ending, not the 2008 election, marked the final close of the George Bush era. For nine years, starting just two months after 9/11, super agent Jack Bauer has been fighting terrorists on American soil, and in many ways the show's message was a neocon’s wet dream: America was always under relentless attack; the bad guys were from the Middle East as often as not; time bombs really, literally, ticked; and torture not only worked, it was practically a patriotic duty.

This was, in a lot of ways, a reflection of the American id during the Bush years. But there was always more to 24 than just its anti-terrorist heroics, just as there's more to the American id than fear of foreign attack. Jack Bauer may have stolen the show when the action was in the field, but it was the White House that stole the show the rest of the time. And there, its message was considerably different. The terrorists, it turned out, were often being bankrolled by American superpatriots. Hawkish foreign policy, it turned out, almost always failed miserably. Hawks themselves, it turned out, were almost always stupid, cowardly, scheming, and blinkered. And the terrorists themselves, far from hating us for our freedoms, were either pawns of powerful interests or else ideologues who hated us for things we actually did.

So while one of the lessons of 24 was the hawkish one that everyone — including its creators — always talked about, neither the show nor America itself was ever so simple. Even during the height of the war on terror, Americans wanted to be assured that this was all just a temporary frenzy, that there was a better way of engaging with the world than bluster and vengeance. That message was always a part of 24 too, and it was a big part of what made the show so successful. But when Barack Obama entered the White House and brought that better model of global engagement with him — well, we didn't really need a TV show to remind us that better days and better ways would someday be possible again. We had real life for that, and that spelled the end of 24.

So will I miss 24? Not really. It filled two needs for a decade, one cathartic and one aspirational. The aspirational message never got the same attention as the heroics, but it was every bit as central to the show's success. The fact that neither message holds our attention the way they used to is well worth the loss of an hour of Monday night escapism.

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Is a "Gringo Mask" Racist?

| Fri May 28, 2010 5:58 PM EDT

Earlier in the week, MoJo introduced readers to the Gringo Mask, a tongue-in-cheek, free online downloadable mask designed to help minorities blend in with the white folks in Arizona—thus theoretically avoiding police harassment under SB 1070, as well as cultural racism under the well-settled rules of social hegemony. The his and hers masks were devised by Florida-based Zubi Advertising "to protect, support, and dignify our Hispanic community, with the firm idea of getting out and standing up to the SB1070 law."

Hopefully you got a mask early, because if you waited 'til now, you're out of luck. According to blogger Laura Martinez:

Apparently, yielding to criticisms by some gringos who didn’t like Zubi using the word gringo to describe gringos, the agency this week pulled it off the Web, replacing it with an explanation of what the mask intended—and didn’t intended to do.

Sure enough, local TV news published a statement from Zubi essentially saying it was sorry it ever tried to engage with American culture. And it's not hard to find outraged, grammatically challenged white right-wing bloggers decrying the mask's reverse racism—another term that, contrary to popular belief, didn't die a natural death in the mid-'90s, as one might have suspected.

Folks, I'm from Florida, where old whites still claim the term "cracker" as an honorific. And I'm finding it hard to believe that whites, Caucasians, Anglo-Americans, or whatever you want to call this fairly artificial subclass of Homo sapiens (of which I'm apparently a member), could really be grousing about being called a silly name. A name that has cultural, national, and perhaps racial connotations—but that's not the same as being a racist term. Is it?

But hell, what do I know? I'm a dumb pinko socialist fascist Nazi unpatriotic racist cracker honky. Which makes me about as worthless as a Kenyan Muslim anchor baby.

Bluefin Tuna Spawning Mid-Spill Right Now

| Fri May 28, 2010 5:29 PM EDT

A new model reveals two major hotspots within the Gulf of Mexico where bluefin tuna prefer to spawn in circular swirling water masses known as cyclonic eddies.

Sadly, the model also indicates the tuna are spawning there right now—and that the hotspots lie in waters befouled by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Gulf of Mexico bluefins have suffered a huge population decline since 1950. A 20-year plan to rebuild the stock has failed utterly. That failure led the United Nations to consider listing the species as endangered last March—a decision they cowardly backed out of. The senior author of the paper in PLoS ONE, Barbara Block, tells Stanford University:

"Both catch data and electronic tags indicate the Gulf of Mexico along the continental shelf is the preferred habitat of this majestic fish. I think it is amazing how precisely we can predict where the bluefin are. Unfortunately their spawning habitat overlaps the Deepwater Horizon oil accident site, and the timing of the spill coincides with the time when we expect them to be there spawning."

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Groups Call for Federalized Oil Spill Response

| Fri May 28, 2010 4:03 PM EDT

President Barack Obama is down in Louisiana today, where he toured an oil-covered beach and got a briefing from the Coast Guard on the response effort. But he was met there by local environmental groups that believe the federal government needs to take control of the clean-up, rather than letting BP direct it.

I talked with Jonathan Henderson, an organizer with the Gulf Restoration Network, by cell phone as he stood waiting for Obama's arrival, holding a sign that read "Clean up the Gulf." He says what he's seen of BP's response on the shoreline is "appalling." "They're basically doing window dressing," he said. "If they're doing everything they can, we're in deep, deep trouble."

Henderson says there's not enough man power deployed. There's not enough boom protecting the wetlands, and even where there is, it's not actually stopping the oil; the slick just washes over the booms. Rather than letting BP send its contractors out, they should be writing checks to the federal government so it can send its own response teams, he said.

The Gulf Restoration Network and other local conservation, sportsmen, and Native American groups on Friday called on Obama to federalize the clean-up. Those efforts, the groups said, should be controlled by the government alone – not, as Obama described it yesterday, by BP with the oversight of the federal responders. The groups also called on the government to make all the data related to the spill publicly available, rather than relying on BP to do it, and for an immediate stop of the use of dispersants "unless and until federal and state natural resource scientists agree on their safety for people, wildlife and habitat." The groups also argue that a military commander should replace the Coast Guard in heading up the federal response, as ocurred after Hurricane Katrina.

National groups are also calling on the government to take over. "The government needs to assert itself much more forcefully in this response," said Larry Schweiger, head of the National Wildlife Federation. NWF staffers in the Gulf this week found that BP has been grossly underestimating the amount of impacted wetlands. While the company says 30 acres are affected, a fly-over indicated that it's more like 3,000 acres.

Meg Whitman Snagged on Her Own Border Fence

| Fri May 28, 2010 3:13 PM EDT

Meg Whitman, the GOP gubernatorial front-runner in California, apparently doesn't watch her own exteremly expensive political ads. The former EBay CEO and billioniare insisted to Politico this week that her ads don't contain shots of a border fence, then had to be corrected by her press secretary. The embarassing exchange has been the joke of the day on California's political blogs. San Francisco Chronicle's Joe Garofili offered Whitman his first anual Rene Magritte award, named after the creator of the "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" painting. "Perhaps Meg was merely channeling Magritte in saying that there wasn't a border fence in her ad," he wrote. "It was an IMAGE of a border fence in her ad."

Image of border fence in Whitman adImage of border fence in Whitman adOn the serious side, the exchange points to several potential liabilities for Whitman as she vies to lead the tarnished Golden State. She has a strong incentive to appeal to the anti-immigration sentiments of her GOP primary voters, who support Arizona's draconian immigration crackdown. In this sense the border fence is a powerful code, but it also alienates Latinos, who make up 37 percent of the state's population. To win in the general election, she'll need to convince some 30 percent of the state's Latinos to vote for her.

The gaffe also adds fuel to the sense that Whitman, who is worth $1.4 billion, is out of touch with the state and her own campaign. The $80 million that she's already shelled out during the primary is a record for California, yet her more conservative primary opponent, Steve Poizner, has drastically closed on her in recent days (UPDATE: She's widened the lead again). Given how many political ads Whitman has been running, it's possible that she hasn't been able to keep track of what they're saying. That can't be good for a candidate with a campaign theme of governmental accountability.