2010 - %3, May

Forty Predators of Press Freedom

| Mon May 3, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

A guest post from Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director of Reporters Without Borders.

Each year on May 3, the international community commemorates World Press Freedom Day. Rather ironically, this May 3 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be in New York to talk—freely—at the United Nations about Iranian nuclear issues. Ahmadinejad is one of the 40 individuals Reporters Without Borders has listed as Predators of Press Freedom this year.

These 40 opponents of free speech are politicians, government officials, religious leaders, militias and criminal organizations that treat the press as an enemy and target journalists directly.  Since the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 12th, 2009, over 50 reporters were forced into exile and more than 100 have been arrested. Currently, 51 reporters and netizens remain in jail for reporting the events and killings that have occurred in Iran since June.

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Is Steel-Cut Oatmeal Really Better?

| Mon May 3, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

All of a sudden, steel-cut oatmeal is everywhere. Within blocks of MoJo's San Francisco headquarters, it's sold at upscale touristy cafes and chain places like Starbucks and Jamba Juice. Hard to resist, since I a) am a sucker for fancy toppings (warm apple compote, anyone?) and b) find the texture and flavor of steel-cut oatmeal far superior to that of the boring quick oats I keep at my desk: Steel-cut oatmeal is chewier and, to my taste, slightly toastier than the instant stuff. The problem is that the prepared version is pricey and overpackaged: usually around $3 for a small paper container with a lid. Dry steel-cut oats are cheaper and require less packaging, but they take 20 minutes to cook, which isn't really feasible at the office. Looking for an excuse to indulge in the tasty stuff once in a while, I decided to do some research: Is there any evidence that steel-cut oatmeal is more nutritious and/or better for the planet than instant rolled oatmeal?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 3, 2010

Mon May 3, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

 

Staff Sgt. John Godwin, a Loxley, Ala., native serving as a flight equipment technician and aerial observer with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), mans an M240G machine gun on the tail of an MV-22 Osprey while flying missions in Afghanistan. Photo via the US Marines.

Hispanics and the GOP

| Sun May 2, 2010 9:34 PM EDT

Least surprising headline of the day:

Conservative Latinos Rethink Party Ties

"Many Hispanic-Americans," says this WSJ story about Arizona's new immigration legislation, "say they feel stung by a law they allege invites racial profiling, incites hatred and discriminates against all Latinos." Ya think?

Behind the Scenes at Copenhagen

| Sun May 2, 2010 6:58 PM EDT

In yet another case of politicians forgetting to turn off a microphone, it turns out that some of the private negotiations on the final day of the Copenhagen summit were accidentally recorded. All the big guns were there: Barack Obama, German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and a Chinese negotiator, He Yafei. From a story in last week's issue of Der Spiegel, here's part of the conversation:

"The IPCC report comes to 2 degrees," said Merkel. "And it also says that we have to reduce (carbon dioxide emissions) by 50 percent."

She wanted to make it clear to Chinese delegation leader He Yafei and Indian Prime Minister Singh that they also had to do their part to achieve the 2-degree target. "Let us suppose there is a 100 percent reduction — (e.g.) no CO2 in the developed countries anymore," even then you would have to "reduce carbon emissions in the developing countries" in order to reach the 2-degree goal, the visibly irritated chancellor said. "That is the truth."

When the Indian leader absolutely refused to accept any concrete targets in the Copenhagen Protocol, Merkel dropped the diplomatic etiquette. "But then you do not want legally binding!" she yelled at the leader of a nation with over a billion people. Singh literally shouted back: "That's not fair!" His Chinese colleague, Deputy Foreign Minister He Yafei, added calmly and in polished English: "The current formulation would not be agreed."

And here, via Google Translate, is the rest of the conversation in this week's issue:

Then Sarkozy reacted sharply and accused China lack of will for climate protection. "In aller Freundschaft" and "with all due respect to China," the West has committed to cut greenhouse gases 80 percent. "And in return, China, which will soon be the largest economy in the world says to the world: engagement apply to you, but not for us." Then Sarkozy, added: "That is not acceptable!" This is about the essentials. "We must respond to this hypocrisy."....[He Yafei responded]: "I heard President Sarkozy to talk about hypocrisy. I avoid such concepts."

I'll bet American politicians wish they could just airily dismiss criticism by saying they "avoid such concepts."

In any case, this recording suggests that the initial reports were more or less right: the Chinese and the Indians were just flatly not willing to make any commitments. As a result, according to the story from last week, Merkel has pretty much given up on climate change:

The collapse of the Copenhagen summit has permanently shaken up Merkel. She [...] left Denmark feeling frustrated. She had rarely experienced such a humiliation. She won't let that happen to her again, she has told herself ever since. Irregularities committed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also annoyed the chancellor. Although these errors have not altered the urgent and key messages, she has angrily said among her close advisers that the IPCC's poor communication has made it more difficult to promote climate protection.

Yeesh. Things are really grim on the climate front all over. (Via David Roberts on Twitter.)

CBO vs. CMS on Healthcare Reform

| Sun May 2, 2010 5:13 PM EDT

Last week the CMS actuary released a report about the cost of healthcare reform that seemed to come to more negative conclusions than the CBO. I didn't post about it because, to a first estimate, it seemed pretty similar to the CMS actuary's report from last November. We already went through a big left-right brouhaha about what it meant back then, and I didn't really feel like going through it again.

But Jim Lynch, a professional actuary who I've corresponded with before, was annoyed that no one was really trying to compare the CMS and CBO reports on an apples-to-apples basis, so he went ahead and did it himself. Result: contrary to what you may heard, it turns out they both pretty much agree with each other. He's got the overall results in both table and chart form, so naturally I'm reproducing the prettier chart here. You can click the link for the whole story, but here's the meat of it:

The table tells you that the two arbiters were within 1% on the cost of new coverage — stuff like Medicaid and CHIP expansion. CBO saw things slightly rosier than the Office of the Actuary. It also tells you that the actuarial office projected more cost savings and a lower net cost than the CBO did,

....If anything, the Office of the Actuary seems to like the bill more than CBO. This is particularly true if you look at coverage cost by year, as the following chart does....The table shows that the costs don’t really start building until 2014. For the first two years, the actuaries project higher costs, as the red line is above the blue one. But starting in 2016, the actuaries project lower costs. That’s why the red line falls below the blue one.

To summarize: The actuaries project lower coverage costs overall, and they project costs to decelerate faster than CBO does.

It's worth noting that a big part of the supposed disagreement between CBO and CMS involves the question of whether the cost saving measures in the healthcare bill will work. But that's an issue where neither agency really has any more expertise than anyone else. It's mostly a question of pure political will, and on that score your guess is as good as mine — or theirs.

In any case, the bottom line is that there's very little disagreement here. Roughly speaking, we'll see a trillion dollars in increased costs and half a trillion dollars in cost savings. The remaining cost is paid for via a variety of taxes and fees. Pretty simple.

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BP Getting Heat for Gulf Disaster

| Sun May 2, 2010 2:04 PM EDT

With the situation in the Gulf growing more bleak by the day, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar pledged on Sunday to "keep the boot on the neck" of BP to fulfill their responsibility in addressing the spill. As the spill gets worse, BP is facing more pressure for the lax safety precautions and inadequate response plans that created a disaster of this magnitude.

Among the top concerns brought to light in recent days: The Deepwater rig lacked a remote-control shut-off switch, a back-up system that would close the well even if the rig above was destroyed. Countries like Norway and Brazil require these precautions to avert catastrophe, but in the US the technology is voluntary. This is thanks to a 2003 decision by the Bush administration's Minerals Management Service (MMS), which considered mandating them but decided against it under pressure from oil companies, including BP.

The oil companies complained that the $500,000 devices were too expensive. Keep in mind the Deepwater was a $560 million rig. And rather than investing half a million in the safety device that might have prevented this disaster, the company is now spending $6 million a day in clean up costs. And the economic ramifications go far beyond BP; the spill is on a path to destroy fragile coastal ecosystems and the seafood and tourism industries of at least three states, and has required an untold amount of federal, state, and local government resources.

It has also become clear that BP far, far underestimated the possible risks of an accident at the Deepwater rig and overestimated its ability to deal with an accident. BP says the spill is the fault of a defective "blowout preventer" that should have sealed off the well. But reports from MMS also make it clear that there were well-known, substantial problems with the "blowout preventers." Still, even BP's "worst-case scenario" for an accident at the site was a release of 162,000 barrels per day, which it said it was prepared to handle in a plan provided to the federal government in February 2009. And as Huffington Post reports, MMS certified at the time that it believed BP "has the capacity to respond, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst-case discharge, or a substantial threat of such a discharge." It's now clear that the company was nowhere near prepared for a spill of this magnitude.

BP now plans to put a dome over the well that would prevent more leakage, but that could take another six to eight days to deploy, and at a mile below the water would be a difficult operation, to say the least. But they had to build the containment vessels after the spill; the company didn't have them on hand because it "seemed inconceivable" that the blowout preventer would fail. "I don't think anybody foresaw the circumstance that we're faced with now," BP spokesman Steve Rinehart told the Associated Press. "The blowout preventer was the main line of defense against this type of incident, and it failed."

Even the worst-case scenario may turn out to get even worse in the coming days, reports the Mobile, Ala. Press-Register:

The worst-case scenario for the broken and leaking well gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico would be the loss of the wellhead currently restricting the flow to 5,000 barrels—or 210,000 gallons per day.
If the wellhead is lost, oil could leave the well at a much greater rate, perhaps up to 150,000 barrels—or more than 6 million gallons per day—based on government data showing daily production at another deepwater Gulf well.
By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spill was 11 million gallons total. The Gulf spill could end up dumping the equivalent of 4 Exxon Valdez spills per week.

 

The Bomb in Times Square: Taliban Commander Claims Credit?

| Sun May 2, 2010 1:19 PM EDT

On Saturday night, a t-shirt vendor alerted police to a suspicious SUV in New York's Times Square. Smoke was flowing out the back grates of the vehicle; when the bomb squad looked inside, they found an "amateurish" car bomb: 5-gallon jugs of gasoline; propane tanks; and commercially available fireworks filled the back of the dark-green Nissan. "We got very lucky," New York mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters in a late-night press conference. The bomb could have proved "very deadly," Bloomberg said. A former bomb squad tech later told the New York Times that the bomb would have probably produced more of an "incendiary" event, not a massive explosion, if it had gone off.

Most major news outlets haven't picked this up yet, but the (well-sourced and normally very reliable) Long War Journal reported on Sunday morning that a Pakistani Taliban commander has claimed credit for the attack:

A top Pakistani Taliban commander took credit for yesterday's failed car bomb attack in New York City.

Qari Hussain Mehsud, the top bomb maker for the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, said he takes "fully responsibility for the recent attack in the USA." Qari Hussain made the claim on an audiotape accompanied by images that was released on a YouTube website that calls itself the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan News Channel.

The tape has yet to be verified, but US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal believe it is legitimate. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan News Channel on YouTube was created on April 30. Officials believe it was created to announce the Times Square attack, and Qari Hussain’s statement was pre-recorded.

You don't need Mike Allen's "Playbook" to know that this is going to be a big story this week. Even if the Pakistani Taliban weren't responsible for the attempted attack, the LWJ report suggests they may have known about it in advance.

UPDATE, 4:04 p.m. EST: The NYPD is now saying there's no evidence of a Taliban link.

Working in the Cloud

| Sun May 2, 2010 12:54 PM EDT

So I've been reading more about cloud computing and just generally thinking about the whole thing, and for some reason I've gotten sort of intrigued with it. Here in the U.S., our web infrastructure sucks so badly that I don't think it's really very feasible as a full-time lifestyle yet, but it's getting there. Eventually we'll have routine access to, say, 10mbs wireless everywhere and 100 mbs in most places, and then it becomes a real option.

As part of all this, I've been trying to figure out if I can do away with all desktop applications except my browser. A few years ago this wouldn't have been anywhere near feasible, but I'm not much of a power use these days and my needs are simpler. (Plus browser-based apps have gotten a lot better.) So I started simplifying, and to my surprise it turned out to be easier than I thought it would be. My email is already browser-based since I use Opera, and of course my RSS feeds are too (Google Reader). Google Maps replaced my mapping software a long time ago. I turned off TweetDeck and loaded HootSuite instead. I got rid of Word and Notepad and set up Google Docs. I started using Pixlr as a replacement for Photoshop. I'm still saving documents locally, but changing that would obviously be an easy task.

So how's it working out? I've only been doing this for a few days, but it's (a) suprising how easy it was and (b) frustrating that the web apps all have some drawbacks. HootSuite basically works fine, but its use of real estate is atrocious and it doesn't have an option to pop up a window when new tweets come in. But maybe that's a crutch I don't need anymore. We'll see. Google Docs is Google Docs, and basically works fine — though it lacks features here and there that you get in Office. And if all I want to do is to make a quick note, it takes a lot more clicks and a lot more time than just powering up Notepad for a few seconds. Pixlr is an amazing program, built to look and act like Photoshop and with a pretty stunning array of features. I'm sure it lacks some of Photoshop's advanced features, but so far I haven't found a single thing I need that it doesn't do — and one or two minor things that it does better. Unfortunately, it's Flash-based. As a demonstration of what you can accomplish with Flash it's pretty amazing, but hey — it's still Flash. So it crashes my browser whenever I save an image. And it has no access to the clipboard. Until I figure out what's going on, I'll have to stick with Photoshop. [Update below.]

So what does that leave? Video editing, which I haven't checked into yet. And general media manipulation (iTunes/Media Player), which I also haven't checked into yet. But I assume browser-based versions of both are available, especially for the simpleminded kind of work I occasionally do.

All in all, I was surprised at just how competent all this stuff was. Pixlr, in particular, is pretty stunning if I could just figure out how to keep it from crashing. But it looks to me like anyone who's not a power geek — and maybe even the geeks — could use free online apps for a surprising amount of their daily routine. At this point, then, I guess the next step is to check into online storage. I've had an ADrive account forever, but I really only use it when I need to send friends files that are too large to email. Ideally, especially while I'm still experimenting, I suppose I'd like some way to replicate my directory structure somewhere and save files simultaneously both locally and remotely when I work on them. I'm not sure yet if anyone provides a simple way of doing that.

Right now I'm just playing around, trying to see how well life with just a browser works. I'm so deskbound that this doesn't matter much in a practical sense, but if I were a mobile user it would. So how's all this stuff working out for you road warriors out there?

UPDATE: Hey, pretty good tech support from the Pixlr creator! Turns out I needed to install a new version of the Flash viewer, and after that everything worked fine. So I'll be road testing it for the next week or so after all.

Election Season in California

| Sun May 2, 2010 12:05 PM EDT

Michael Hiltzik today on the hell we can expect from upcoming elections here in California:

To recap, this year stands to yield one of the greatest bumper crops in history in self-serving electoral cash.....Pacific Gas & Electric continues to outdistance the field, having spent $28.5 million so far on what I like to think of as the "Immunize PG&E from Competition" initiative, or Proposition 16 on the June 8 ballot. By PG&E standards the runner-up, Mercury Insurance, is a piker — it has donated only $3.5 million to what I've deemed the "Let Mercury Trash Consumer Protection Laws" initiative, or Proposition 17.

Bringing up the rear but running very strong is the oil industry, which has raised $1.2 million to collect signatures for an initiative, aimed for the Nov. 2 ballot, which would suspend the state's greenhouse gas restrictions.

And this doesn't even count the unbelievable money-fest going on between Silicon Valley zillionaires Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner to win the Republican primary for governor. Luckily, since I'm not a Republican, I can view their contest philosophically.

Anyway, read the whole thing, just to get sense of how completely screwed up the political culture in California is. Pay special attention to Proposition 16, which is one of the sleaziest efforts I've ever seen — and I've been voting in California for three decades now.