2010 - %3, July

Photoshopping the News

| Mon Jul. 5, 2010 2:28 PM EDT

Need a picture of a pensive and lonely Barack Obama stewing over the BP oil spill? Just create one! Jeremy Peters of the New York Times explains:

There was President Obama on the cover of the June 19 issue of The Economist, standing alone on a Louisiana beach, head down, looking forlornly at the ground.

The problem was, he was not actually alone. The photograph was just edited to make it look that way.

The unaltered image, shot on May 28 by a Reuters photographer, Larry Downing, shows Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard and Charlotte Randolph, a local parish president, standing alongside the president. But in the image that appeared on The Economist’s cover, Admiral Allen and Ms. Randolph had been scrubbed out, replaced by the blue water of the Gulf of Mexico.

An Economist editor responds with some examples of obvious image alteration they've used in the past, but then falls down trying to explain why they did some pretty nonobvious alteration this time around:

I asked for Ms. Randolph [the woman next to Obama] to be removed because I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn’t the point of the story. “The damage beyond the spill” referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America.

The Economist has a history of using photos more as illustrations than as objects of straight news, but this still crosses a line that a news magazine shouldn't cross. Hell, I wouldn't do something like this on my blog, let alone on the cover of the Economist. But decide for yourself. The full transformation is illustrated below — and yes, I used Photoshop to create it.

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The Political Passive Voice

| Mon Jul. 5, 2010 1:34 PM EDT

Jay Newton-Small:

Remember how Jim Bunning blocked those unemployment benefits in March and everyone was outraged? Then when Tom Coburn did it in April, the outrage was a little less? With voter worries about deficit spending mounting, Republicans are now seeing benefits to blocking the extension of unemployment benefits unless they are paid for. Meanwhile, the GOP "obstructionism" continues to ignite the Democratic base. But while both parties see political gains ahead of the midterm elections, 1.3 million people are losing their only source of income this Independence Day.

It's easy to see how Republicans gain from this, and it really has little to do with "voter worries about deficit spending mounting." Last night we had some friends over for the 4th and I got to talking with one of them about politics. He's a conservative-leaning guy, but he was pretty upset about the unemployment situation. "Congress just took off for the holidays leaving this mess behind," he stewed. We went on to agree that everyone hates Congress. Its approval rating is somewhere between that of pedophile priests and Osama bin Laden.

But that's as far as it went: Congress. Not Republicans. Just "Congress." And that's why obstructionism works so well for them. Partisans are partisans and are going to hate the other party no matter what. But then there's the vast middle ground of people who lean one way or the other but don't spend all day reading blogs or listening to talk radio. And as long as they view the problem as "Congress," that's bad news for whoever's in charge at the moment.

Ben Nelson aside, there's not much question which party is holding up unemployment benefits. You know it, I know it, reporters know it, and political junkies of all stripes know it. But lots of people don't. They see a headline that says "Congress Adjourns Without Acting on Unemployment" and they don't read much further. Every time that happens, it's a big win for the GOP. And it happens a lot.

Robert Byrd, the Fiddling Senator

| Mon Jul. 5, 2010 1:23 PM EDT

Last week, upon the passing of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, MoJo correspondent James Ridgeway posted this video on his blog, Unsilent Generation. The fact that Byrd was an accomplished old-time fiddler was no secret to his West Virginia constituents. Old-time mountain music is mighty popular with Appalachian voters, even now. But like me and Ridgeway, most Americans probably had no idea the man had musical talents. Byrd recorded this album, Mountain Fiddler, back in 1978, by which point he was already a senator. It was released by County Records, an old-time and bluegrass label in Floyd, Virginia, active since the 1960s.

I emailed Alan Jabbour, retired director of the American Folklife Center, who wrote the liner notes, hoping to learn a bit about how it came about. "I knew Senator Byrd pretty well and recorded him for the Library of Congress," Jabbour wrote back. "And yes, he both fiddles and sings on the record. My friend Barry Poss recorded the actual LP record tracks and assembled the excellent back-up band of bluegrass musicians who accompanied Senator Byrd." 

Jabbour pointed me to West Virginia's Dominion Post, which had interviewed him. (He didn't feel like repeating himself.) Byrd, the paper reported, took up fiddle when he was young, and would break it out and play a few tunes on campaign stops now and again. "I think music was dear to his heart," Jabbour told the DP. "You don’t get to playing a fiddle like that just because it’s useful in politics. You only get there because you played the fiddle when you were young and threw your heart and soul into it."

There are plenty of hot fiddlers in Appalachia. How good was Byrd? "He wouldn’t have said he was a great fiddler," he'd told the DP. "But there is a level of fiddling that you can fiddle at and everyone would say that is good. That’s where he was."

His singing wasn't too bad, either.

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Centralia, Pennsylvania: "A Foretaste of Hell"

| Mon Jul. 5, 2010 12:40 PM EDT

Centralia, Pennsylvania—As I've mentioned earlier, one of my interests in this trip is reexamining the map—looking at alternative versions of what the atlas of the United States might look like in the past and present. Perhaps nowhere in America is that vision more clearly defined than in Centralia, where, since 1962, an underground coal fire has smudged, if not entirely erased, an entire village from the map.Road to Nowhere: (Photo: Tim Murphy)Road to Nowhere: (Photo: Tim Murphy)

If Centralia looked a bit more bombed out, it might be less jarring. Thick plumes of smoke and dilapidated shotgun houses are in many ways easier to deal with than a disaster you can't really see. But the town's impact lies in its modest hold on all the senses: Smoke wafting out of small vents on the side of a hill; roads that branch off the state highway but lead to nowhere; carbon monoxide; potholes, cooked by the fires below, which feel like Easy-Bake Ovens. And the sulphur. I went to Iceland, once, when I was barely a teenager, and remember the smell of rotten eggs when I took showers or passed by any sort of geothermal activity, but all the rotten eggs in Altoona couldn't accomplish the same level of unease as my 15 minutes in Centralia. It looks, feels, and smells like the day after the death of civilization. Save for Centralia's last nine residents—who have been ordered to leave by the governor—the only places still showing signs of life are, well, dead: Amid the ruin, the town's cemeteries are immaculately maintained, with fresh-cut flowers and American flags for the veterans.

I was struggling to properly articulate my thoughts on the town, when a middle-aged woman, visiting from southeast Arkansas, offered an epitath: "I think this is a foretaste of hell."

Is Our Kids Studying?

| Mon Jul. 5, 2010 12:23 PM EDT

An MIT professor emailed me a Boston Globe story this morning about how lazy college students have become lately. Here's the nut of the thing:

According to time-use surveys analyzed by professors Philip Babcock, at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Mindy Marks, at the University of California Riverside, the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student hits the books for just 14 hours.

The decline, Babcock and Marks found, infects students of all demographics. No matter the student’s major, gender, or race, no matter the size of the school or the quality of the SAT scores of the people enrolled there, the results are the same: Students of all ability levels are studying less.

Aha! The internet is sapping our precious bodily fluids. Tivo and 500 channels of TV are sucking up all our kids's time. Facebook and Twitter have made it impossible for them to concentrate. Except....hold on a second:

According to their research, the greatest decline in student studying took place before computers swept through colleges: Between 1961 and 1981, study times fell from 24.4 to 16.8 hours per week (and then, ultimately, to 14).

Hmmm. The drop from 16.8 to 14 over the past 30 years is pretty trivial. This change happened almost entirely about 40 years ago, so this has nothing at all to do with growing up in the digital age. Babcock and Marks, it turns out, agree, and they also say that neither changing demographics nor changing employment patterns are to blame. So what is it? Their answer, basically, is that professors have gotten lazy and don't really feel like going to the trouble of challenging their students. After all, this gets them nothing but grief: lots of work to grade, unhappy students, and lousy teacher evaluations. Why bother?

My MIT correspondent doesn't think much of this theory — though from his email it's unclear if he disagrees about students studying less or if he disagrees about blaming professors for this state of affairs — and I, of course, don't have a clue since I'm neither a recent student nor a professor. My own experience isn't instructive: when I was at Caltech in the late 70s, I'd guess that I probably did indeed study 20-30 hours a week. When I left and transferred to Cal State Long Beach — about as far away from Caltech on the quality spectrum as you can get — I very much doubt that I studied more than 10-15 hours a week. That's hardly surprising, of course. And it tells us nothing.

So then: comments? This isn't Crooked Timber, but I know I have plenty of professors and current students who read this blog. If you're a student, how much studying do you do? If you're an instructor, does this seem to have changed much in the recent past? Let's gather some data, people.

One Hundred Years Later, Twain Still Dead

| Mon Jul. 5, 2010 12:11 PM EDT

Elmira, New York— We don't stop for long in Elmirajust long enough to confirm our worst fear: As expected, Mark Twain is still dead. There's an inverse correlation between the health of a city and the number of signs leading to a single, not especially compelling historic marker; in Elmira, where boarded up storefronts seem to be the default in the city's crumbling downtown (the city's population has dropped by 40 percent since 1950), all signs point to Twain's resting place.

Meanwhile, according to a poster at the front entrance, a black bear has been terrorizing joggers in the cemetery in recent weeks. I suppose that's probably what Twain would have wanted.

 

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Long-Term Deficit Posers

| Mon Jul. 5, 2010 11:17 AM EDT

Via Matt Yglesias, Adam Ozimek has a question:

Here is something I don’t understand about austerity now proponents: is cutting short term spending a second best alternative to fixing the long-term budget problem? Or does the optimal policy response include BOTH short-term spending cuts and a long-term budget fix? If the answer is the latter, then I want to know what problems aren’t solved by fixing the long-term budget problems that also require short term cuts?

I'm not in favor of short-term budget cuts, but just for the sake of conversation I thought I'd take a crack at providing the best answer I can think of to this. But then I clicked the link, and it turns out Ozimek already did it:

I think the best case against short term stimulus is to say that the government can’t be trusted to combine a serious long-term budget fix with a short term stimulus package. This means that no matter what they promise they will really pass a stimulus package without long-term cuts, which it will signal to the market that they are even more cowardly with respect to addressing the long-term problems than we first thought, and thus the fiscal position just got worse vis-a-vis politicians ability to handle it.

I'm more sympathetic to this argument than Ozimek himself is, but the real problem with it is simple: it assumes the austerity crowd is sincerely in favor of long-term budget cuts in the first place. They aren't. They say they are, of course, but the reality is that long-term cuts mean essentially one thing: cuts to Medicare. Conservatives don't want to cut defense spending; they can't cut interest payments; domestic discretionary cuts are too small to have much impact; and Social Security contributes only modestly to our long-term budget problems. It's true that long-term cuts to domestic spending (if the promises could be made credible) and to Social Security would make a difference. They just wouldn't make a big difference.

So Medicare it is. If you're serious about long-term deficits being a threat to the country and you're unwilling to raise taxes, then you have to support big-time cuts in Medicare. But the Republican Party just spent the past year loudly demonizing even the most modest cuts in Medicare as death panels and intergenerational treason. They plainly have no intention of tackling this.

So then: The austerity crowd doesn't actually care about long-term deficits. What they care about is appealing to their tea party base and winning the November election. If the Republican leadership wants to prove me wrong by releasing a detailed plan for serious cuts in Medicare spending this summer, then I'll happily eat some crow. I'm pretty sure that won't be on the menu anytime soon, though.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 5, 2010

Mon Jul. 5, 2010 10:12 AM EDT

 

US Army 2nd Lt. Payton Holtz, from St. Augustine , Fla., leader of 1st Platoon, from Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, flies in a Chinook helicopter during an air assault mission. The mission was meant to disrupt an insurgent hiding cell in Janubi Nakum village, Yahya Khel district of Paktika province, June 27-28. Photo via the US Army by Sgt. Jeffrey Alexander.

Four Songs You Won't Want to Miss

| Mon Jul. 5, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

Department of Eagles

TRACK 6

"Brightest Minds"
from Department of Eagles' Archive 2003-2006
AMERICAN DUST

Liner notes: Ethereal grace and toe-tapping energy intertwine on this anxious rocker.

Behind the music: NYU roommates Daniel Rossen and Fred Nicolaus launched their musical partnership in the early '00s. Though Rossen later joined the similar-sounding (and better-known) Grizzly Bear, they've continued to collaborate.

Check it out if you like: Wistful deceased folkies Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, and similar head-in-the-clouds types.


Love Language

TRACK 4

"Summer Dust"
from the Love Language's Libraries
MERGE

Liner notes: "Our hearts were beating like hummingbirds that night," sighs Stuart McLamb on this epic Morrissey-meets-Phil-Spector ballad.

Behind the music: North Carolina native McLamb launched the Love Language as a one-man studio project in the wake of romantic desperation and alcoholic excess. With its swooning melodies and soaring arrangements, this sophomore album is more polished than his debut, but just as charming.

Check it out if you like: Stylish rock-and-roll crooners in the tradition of Roy Orbison and Bryan Ferry.


KXP

TRACK 3

"18 Hours (Of Love)"
from K-X-P's K-X-P
SMALLTOWN SUPERSOUND

Liner notes: A raucous drums-bass-synthesizer trio from Helsinki, K-X-P stages a thrilling collision of dance, trance, and rockabilly on the most accessible track from its intriguing debut.

Behind the music: Former leader of the bands Op:L Bastards and the Lefthanded, Timo Kaukolampi has covered the rent by collaborating with Norwegian disco chanteuse Annie.

Check it out if you like: LCD Soundsystem, Suicide, Kraftwerk, and other synth junkies who refuse to follow the rules.


Tracy Bonham

TRACK 2

"Your Night Is Wide Open"
from Tracy Bonham's Masts of Manhatta
ENGINE ROOM RECORDINGS

Liner notes: Bonham blends her elegant violin and soothing voice on this breathtaking love song, declaring, "'til we are daisies I am yours for good."

Behind the music: Bonham made a mainstream splash with her 1996 album The Burdens of Being Upright and hit single "Mother Mother" but has charted an unpredictable path since, playing with everyone from Aerosmith to the Eels to the Blue Man Group.

Check it out if you like: Women like Shawn Colvin and Sheryl Crow, who balance the confessional and the commercial.

Ithaca's Fracking Dilemma

| Sun Jul. 4, 2010 9:26 PM EDT

Newfield Hamlet, New York—  Our guide in Ithaca is a retired midwife named Lindy, who in her free time makes her own oven mitts and is working on a children's picture book. Lindy takes us through one of the area's gorges, distinguished by its sheer cliffs of jagged grey shale, which, when wet, take on the complexion and shape of stacks upon stacks of stale baklava. The conversation turns to fracking.

Fracking, for the uninitiated, is the hot new craze (although it's been around for a while) in environmentally scarring resource extraction in which sheets of shale are blasted with water and toxic chemicals to unleash sweet, sweet natural gas deposits. I’ve seen "No Fracking" signs off and on since I left Oneonta a day ago—it's a divisive issue, especially in a region as hard on its luck as this. Anyways, here's Lindy’s view of things: