2010 - %3, October

Software Patent Insanity Continues Apace

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 3:15 PM EDT

Software patents need to be done away with. Congress should just ban them. Now. Is there any other solution to this continuing insanity?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Bubble Candidates

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 3:00 PM EDT

"Do politicians need the media anymore?" I asked a few months ago. Politico's Jonathan Martin reports that the answer is apparently not:

It’s mostly, but not entirely, a Republican phenomenon....As of Friday, Colorado Republican Senate hopeful Ken Buck had gone nine consecutive days without holding a public event....Tea party darlings Rand Paul of Kentucky and Christine O’Donnell of Delaware both surged to primary victories thanks, in part, to national media exposure, but after their own comments got them into trouble, they abruptly canceled post-primary Sunday show appearances and have largely avoided doing non-Fox national TV.

....Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his GOP challenger, tea party favorite Sharron Angle, do carefully controlled public events and are loath to face the kind of scrutiny that would come in a free-flowing press conference or debate setting....“Angle’s strategy seems to be: Let the [mainstream press] do what it wants — I have Fox, conservative radio, my ads and Karl Rove,” [Jon] Ralston said, alluding to the former Bush adviser’s independent group, American Crossroads.

....In Wisconsin, the campaign of GOP Senate hopeful Ron Johnson, a first-time candidate who has made some verbal miscues but who leads three-term Sen. Russ Feingold in the polls, has ignored requests from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to share his daily schedule.

I expect to see more of this, though I suppose it depends a lot on how these bubble candidates do. Meg Whitman followed this strategy during the Republican primary in California and it worked fine, but she's abandoned it during the general election because it obviously won't work against a well-known Democratic opponent in a blue state. But for conservative candidates especially, who can rely on specific conservative channels to get their message out (Fox, talk radio, deep-pocketed independent expenditure groups), this strategy may represent the future of campaigning.

Celebrating the Old Confederacy

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 2:28 PM EDT

Jeffrey Goldberg asked Mississippi governor Haley Barbour recently whether he thought the Republican Party could ever attract the support of African-Americans as long as party officials like Barbour continued to celebrate the old Confederacy. Unsurprisingly, Barbour wasn't keen to reply:

The true, spin-free, answer, obviously, is that the Republican Party would rather not risk offending mythopoetic white Southerners by calling the Confederacy what it actually was — a vast gulag of slavery, murder and rape. As an electoral strategy, it's a fine one — an immoral one, but a practical one, something that has worked for the Republicans for more than 40 years (though the gains it has made in the South have been tempered by losses in the Northeast and elsewhere). But what I don't understand is why African-Americans, in the south as well as the north, don't simply rise up as a collective and say: No more. That's it. Stop the veneration of evil men.

Just imagine if this discussion was about the Holocaust. Do we really think the world would allow Germany to venerate the Nazis? Well, slavery was the Holocaust of the African-American experience, and yet, here we are, listening to respectable governors of large southern states rationalize the celebration of evil.

For what it's worth, I'd say Germany is the exception, not the rule, here. Most countries with sins in their past have mixed feelings about it, from French veneration of Napoleon to the longstanding Turkish insistence that no genocide of Armenians ever took place to the Japanese supernationalists who have long baited their politicians to visit Yasukuni Shrine every year. I suspect the almost unanimous German condemnation of the Hitler era is fairly unique in history, partly due to the sheer intensity of its evil and partly due to the fact that it was so short-lived. Unlike the other examples, it was never around long enough to become associated with an enduring cultural or nationalist tradition.

But guess what? Things can change even where enduring cultural and nationalist traditions are at work. Just a few months ago, Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan announced his decision not to visit the Yasukuni shrine on the anniversary of the end of World War II this year. Ditto for the rest of his cabinet. "As Class-A war criminals are enshrined there," he said, "an official visit by the prime minister or cabinet members is problematic. I have no plans to make a visit during my tenure." He seems to have survived this decision just fine. Maybe Haley Barbour should take note.

Audio: Designer Bruce Mau on the Suburbs, the Mall and the Automobile

Tue Oct. 5, 2010 2:24 PM EDT

Chad Mageira/FlickrChad Mageira/Flickr

For designer and author Bruce Mau, environmentalists will never win hearts and minds as long as they frame the issue of sustainable living negatively. Rather than talking about cost and sacrifice, he believes the emphasis should be placed on investment and opportunity. Mau aims to reshape culture and create better, greener experiences through design.

Guest host Jeanne Park sat down with Mau at the Louise Blouin Creative Leadership Summit in New York City to talk about his love of the suburbs, the beauty of cup holders and the challenge of rebranding climate change.

This podcast was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Unintended Consequences: Green Products Edition

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 1:51 PM EDT

My colleague Kate Sheppard just posted a funny-yet-disturbing piece about how Frito-Lay is ditching it's compostable Sun Chips bags because customers are complaining that the bags make too much noise. And maybe some of you caught this recent piece in the New York Times about how the new low-phosphate detergents are great for the environment, but don't do a very good job washing dishes. All of which reminded me of yet another amusing-yet-disheartening story I heard while camping with my kids in California's Sequoia National Park this past summer.

Besides boasting the world's biggest and oldest trees—some of them have been around for three millenia—the park is home to Crystal Cave, an impressive labyrinth of marble and limestone formations. Last year, the Sequoia Natural History Association (SNHA)—the nonprofit that runs cave tours and takes care of maintenance—teamed up with the National Park Service to rig the cave with solar power and LED lighting, thought to be less disruptive to the cave's sensitive ecosystems. In addition to other grants, SNHA applied for and received federal stimulus funding for the project, which was touted by the Fresno Bee on May 7:

Popular Crystal Cave—home to eyeless bugs and spiders with monster jaws—will be illuminated by the power of the sun starting Saturday.

For decades, Sequoia National Park visitors have toured the marble cave under the glare of incandescent lights that have drawn power from a propane generator.

On Saturday, when the cave opens for tourist season, the lighting will switch over to solar power fed into a system of light-emitting diodes, known as LEDs, which are stingy in electricity use. It is believed to be the National Park Service's first cave lit by the sun.

I'd never seen any lights in the cave. In August 2009, when we first took a tour, were were handed flashlights at the entrance. In August 2010, back for another tour, we noticed the big solar array in the parking area, but after hiking the half-mile or so down to the cave, we were again invited to grab a flashlight from the bin. When we asked our tour guide what was up with the panels, he told us about the whole solar project.

So why wasn't it up an running? Well, our guide explained, it turns out the well-intended project managers had opted for the "green" power cables—encased in soy-based insulation.

Wild animals chewed them up. Lights out.

Interchange Fee Update

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 1:08 PM EDT

Whenever you use a credit card, the merchant pays the credit card company an interchange fee. Usually it's around 1-2% of the purchase amount, but it varies with the card. It's also invisible, and credit card companies have long prohibited merchants from passing along the charge to consumers, something they can get away with thanks to their monopoly status. Yesterday, however, the Department of Justice reached a settlement with Visa and Mastercard that changes this:

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, merchants could offer consumers an immediate discount or rebate for using a particular type of payment, a particular credit card network (Visa versus American Express), or a low-cost card within that network (a Visa debit card rather than a Visa credit card).

That may give merchants an incentive to steer consumers toward paying with cash or with no-frills credit cards without rewards programs because the swipe fees for those options are lower. The settlement also allows merchants to post the cost of using different types of payments.

The settlement, however, does not allow merchants to levy a surcharge on credit and debit payments beyond the cost of the transaction, as some merchants had sought.

This is progress, though it's not my preferred solution, which is to make these fees entirely public and allow merchants to pass them along to customers directly if they want to. As I wrote a couple of months ago:

If they don't, that's pretty good evidence that card networks are charging a fair price for the service merchants get from them (increased sales, less handling of cash, etc.). And there's no harm done. But if they do tack on the charge, it's pretty good evidence the networks aren't charging a fair, market-clearing price. I say: let's find out.

Maybe we'll get there someday. In the meantime, at least this settlement should allow us to gather more data about exactly who ends up paying these fees and whether or not they're mostly monopoly rents hoovered up by the credit card networks. Stay tuned.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Why We're Doomed

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

I don't typically weigh in on green consumer products or environmental marketing. But I'm making an exception given today's troubling news that Frito-Lay is ditching the biodegradable SunChips bag it unveiled 18 months ago because consumers have complained it was "too noisy." Seriously? The company is bagging the bag because American couch potatoes can't hear their TVs over the sound of their chip sack?

I don't necessarily blame Frito-Lay. It's a corporation and its job is to keep customers happy (and make money), so I can forgive them a little timidity on the issue, given that SunChips sales were apparently plummeting. What miffs me is that a little noise was apparently too much for Americans to handle. SunChips sales have reportedly declined more than 11 percent in the past 52 weeks because of the bags. The bags are made from plant-based materials and are 100 percent compostable, which was a pretty big deal—that means you can keep your chip habit without producing a ton of landfill waste. But due to the noise complaints, the company is pulling them immediately, USA Today reports:

The company is returning them to their former bags that can't be recycled — but won't wake the neighbors — while it works frantically to come up with a new, quieter eco-friendly bag.
The noise of the bag — due to an unusual molecular structure that makes the bag more rigid — has been compared to everything from lawnmowers to jet engines.

The article notes that there's a Facebook group with more than 44,000 members called "Sorry But I Can't Hear You Over This SunChips Bag," further evidence that the bags aren't all that popular. Actually, there are at least 153 different SunChip-themed Facebook groups, including one called I <3 my SunChips Bag, for whatever that's worth. For now at least, the company still has up its website touting the wonders of the bag, which notes: "Although our compostable bag is a bit louder, we hope you'll appreciate its environmental benefit." There's also a video showing how the bags break down in 14 weeks that concludes with the tag line "Change is irresistable" (which, um, apparently isn't the case).

I'll admit that the bags are certainly a lot louder than your regular non-biodegradable type. The noise is certainly enough to alert your living companions to your snack problem. (Maybe Frito-Lay should re-market it as a diet product if the noise is enough to discourage constant munching.)  But is that really impacting Americans' ability to enjoy their chips? Is this what it comes down to—we want our chips crunchy but our bags have to remain silent?

I can't think of a more absurd example of how resistant to change Americans really are. It's not unlike the never-ending debate over compact fluorescent light bulbs; now that all of the other dumb arguments against the more efficient bulbs have been refuted repeatedly, the only one opponents have left is that they simply don't care for the way they look.

Of course everyone is entitled to have opinions about the relative aesthetics of consumer products, but should those really trump the environmental benefits? In the grand scheme of things, this is the absolute, bare-minimum level of sacrifice Americans are asked to make. They still get to eat the same chips, they just come from a different bag; they still light their homes, but with a slightly different bulb. But apparently that's still too much. Even worse is the fact that Americans can't muster the support to pass a climate bill, but a bunch of angry couch potatoes can successfully mobilize to force Frito-Lay to drop their innovative packaging. If the sound of a crinkly eco-chip bag is too much to handle, then the human species really is screwed.

More on the subject of the bagged bags is here.

The National Security State

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 12:42 PM EDT

Presidential Directive Number 12 requires that the federal government enact "secure and reliable forms of identification" for all employees. Sounds reasonable. However, George Bush's implementation of Presidential Directive Number 12 effectively means, as I wrote a few years ago in a post about NASA, that "if you want to work for NASA in any capacity, you're now required to sign away your privacy rights in advance. Ditto for just about any other government agency that decides to implement this directive. It's just another lovely little policy being 'institutionalized' for George Bush's successor."

Well, Bush's successor is now in office, Presidential Directive Number 12 has indeed been institutionalized, and it applies to everyone, not just those who handle classified information. Today, Dennis Byrnes, the chief engineer for flight mechanics at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is at the Supreme Court listening to his lawyer argue against the government's position that it can mount essentially any investigation whatsoever against anyone who does any work whatsoever for the federal government. That includes Byrnes, whose job is 100% civilian and unclassified in nature:

In 2007, I and all other JPL employees were told that we would be required to submit detailed personal data and sign a release form allowing investigators to look at all aspects of our personal lives. Anyone who refused would lose their access to JPL; in essence, they would be fired. I, and many of my colleagues, found this appalling and quite unacceptable.

....Neither I nor any of the plaintiffs have anything to hide. I care nothing for my personal privacy. I care for the terrible damage being done to the guarantees of our Constitution. I care for the loss of trust most of us once had in our government. I care that the longstanding trust and collegiality between engineers and scientists at JPL and their management is being destroyed and replaced by a poisoned atmosphere of mistrust by employees and heavy-handed paternalism by management. I care that all across the country, many talented technical people will leave government service or choose not to apply in the first place because of this unwarranted assault on their constitutional freedoms. I fear that carried to its natural end, this process, with its false promise of national security at the expense of freedom, will forever damage our country.

This is all part of the creeping normalization of the national security state. Not just airports, but metal detectors in every government building. Police officers who demand that you stop taking pictures of public places. Security cameras everywhere. Drug stores that make you sign a form to buy cold medicine. And in this case, a requirement that you sign away your privacy rights completely even if nothing you do is sensitive or classified or even remotely related to national security.

We're never going back to 1950. I get that. But as this stuff becomes ever more ubiquitous, we start to forget there was ever a time when we didn't live our lives under constant surveillance and constant suspicion. We'll regret that if we don't take a deep breath sometime very soon.

Is Jon Stewart's DC Rally Good for GOPers?

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 12:25 PM EDT

In his latest PoliticsDaily.com column, David Corn ponders whether Jon Stewart's Rally To Restore Sanity might turn out to be a distraction that is beneficial to the Republicans. He writes:

Stewart is a comic genius and one of the most sharp-eyed political satirists and news media critics in decades. (Ditto, ditto, and ditto for Colbert) If Stewart can draw 200,000-plus people to D.C. (with or without Colbert), this will be a significant cultural moment. ("Think of our event as Woodstock, but with the nudity and drugs replaced by respectful disagreement," the march's call says.) It will further twist, blur, or emulsify the lines that supposedly distinguish real media from faux media, and real politics from for-show politics. ("America Is a Joke," was the title of a recent New York magazine profile of Stewart.) But though Stewart's rally could end up a valuable moment by presenting a potent counter to Beckism, let me suggest another concurrent possibility: It could be useful for Republicans. 

Stewartpalooza is happening the weekend before the critical congressional elections. It will suck up plenty of media attention—and resources. Think of all the people who will be coming—and the time and money it will take them to plan the trip and to travel to and from the nation's capital. These folks are likely to be more sympathetic to Democrats than Republicans, despite Stewart's skewer-'em-all approach. So if the pro-sanity crowd is packing bags and heading to Washington on the last weekend prior to the elections, these people won't be knocking on doors or making phone calls to get out the vote for Democratic candidates.

Certainly, if many of moderate-as-hell demonstrators hail from congressional districts where the Democratic candidates are likely to win (say, anywhere in Manhattan), there's no real harm done. But if Stewart draws bodies from toss-up districts—and provides an outlet for citizens who might otherwise be persuaded to do grassroots political work at home—Republican strategists will be delighted. Moreover, one can expect President Obama to be barnstorming that last weekend and promoting a forceful case against the Republicans. Stewartstock will compete for precious media time with the president. And what will the rally's overall message be? Something like "Enough already"? As much as that might resonate with many Americans, such a call might not do much to motivate voters to hit the polls the following Tuesday. Stewart obviously is a progressive-minded fellow, but how far can he go in pushing a message—after all, this is comedy, right?—that helps the Democrats at the last minute?

Corn notes that Stewart's rally is similar to Stephen Colbert's recent appearance as a congressional witness:

When Colbert testified before Congress recently, he was masterful—as a postmodern (or post-O'Reilly) reality-curving humorist. His appearance was a rather sophisticated send-up of American politics. At the same time, he attempted to register a sincere point about the plight of immigrant workers. Ultimately, Colbert the comic ended up competing with Colbert the advocate. Yes, he did bring attention to a subcommittee hearing that was otherwise destined for no notice. But that attention focused on whether Colbert as "Colbert" had brought the right sort of attention to the hearing. 

The dynamics of the Stewart/Colbert rallies could be similar. With this event, Stewart is using satire to advance a serious case, but he has to play it for laughs. Come the end of October, the Democrats will be doing everything they can to hold on to the House and beat back an anti-incumbent surge beneficial to the Republicans. Anything that distracts or gets in the way could hamper that effort. And the Republicans end up laughing the most.

Still, Corn invites all the attendees of the Stewart rally over to his house for coffee and cake once the event is done. 

Another Terrorist Turns Out Not To Have Superpowers

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 12:01 PM EDT

In federal court in Manhattan Tuesday morning, Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was sentenced to life in prison. Like every other one of the over 350 terrorists in US prisons, Shahzad, in the end, turned out not to have superpowers. Like Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who went on trial in New York this week, he had neither super-strength nor X-ray vision. The federal prison system was completely capable of holding him. The FBI was completely capable of interrogating him without turning to waterboarding or stress positions or beating the crap out of him. He sang like a bird. And the federal court system was completely capable of sending his sorry ass to prison, where he belongs. 

Meanwhile, as Ghailani, who's supposedly a big scary terrorist, is being tried in federal court near (gasp!) Ground Zero (and the "Ground Zero mosque"), people seem to be carrying on about their business:

Look: these terrorists are morons. Murderous, cowardly morons, but morons nonetheless. They are not going to achieve their agenda by slaughtering people. Just as Terry Nichols was not going to bring down the US government by murdering a bunch of children in Oklahoma City, Khalid Sheikh Mohamed didn't magically re-establish the Caliphate by murdering 3,000 Americans in lower Manhattan. If we can put Nichols on trial, if we can put Ghailani on trial, if we can put the blind sheikh and Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid and the Unabomber and the DC sniper and the brain-eater guy on trial and lock them up in Florence for the rest of their lives, we can do the same thing to KSM and his buddies. These guys are not friggin Magneto!