2010 - %3, December

Housekeeping Note

| Thu Dec. 23, 2010 12:42 PM EST

This is a real housekeeping note. The communications hub of this blog is being painted today, and it turns out they can't paint around me. So I have to disconnect and let them get on with things. I'll be back tomorrow, though possibly with not much more than cat blogging. See you then.

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Your Morning Joe

| Thu Dec. 23, 2010 12:00 PM EST

Michael O'Hare marvels at a fabulous new espresso machine that works only with coffee pods from the manufacturer at a price of (he figures) about $66 per pound:

What I can’t understand is how these geniuses were so dumb as to market a machine that uses tap water. How hard could it be to design a sealed aluminum non-refillable $15 water pod, filled with one of several different gourmet waters matched to the coffee blends (the coffee pods come in about twenty different color-coded blends), like, say, Milano da rubinetto, Pioggia pura romana da mattina, Nestlé’s own Poland Spring (in 3 elastic modulus grades) already in pods, Amazona prima colheita do verão, Flaque Boulevard St. Germain, Fiji-Dasani custom coffee blend (also approved for Mercedes engine cooling systems), Gelbschnee fondé puro (Nestlé’s local house brand), and so on. People who will pay five to ten times extra for stale coffee grounds will certainly pay through the nose for water with a name on it.

Apparently these things are endorsed by George Clooney (in Britain anyway; I'm not sure about the States) and, according to the Guardian, are selling like hotcakes. Mike suggests that you buy one of these things for someone you don't like. Sure, it's expensive, but your victim will be stuck with a lifetime of pain shelling out a dollar per pod for their morning joe. Merry Christmas!

POSTSCRIPT: Question for the coffee drinkers: is this any different from those K-Cup coffeemakers? I don't drink coffee, so I don't keep up with this stuff. Seems like pretty much the same concept, though.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 23, 2010

Thu Dec. 23, 2010 5:30 AM EST

U.S. Army Spc. Erik Martin (left), with the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team, enters the village of Khwazi, Afghanistan, while on a dismounted mission to survey the village for a new well on Dec. 14, 2010. The Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team is comprised of Air Force, Army, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel who work with the government of Afghanistan to improve governance, stability and development throughout the province. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson, U.S. Air Force.

Weird Science

| Thu Dec. 23, 2010 12:54 AM EST

This is from a small study which might turn out to be wrong, so take it with a grain of salt. (Or sugar.) But apparently the placebo effect might work even if patients know they're getting fake medicine:

Half the patients were given a bottle with the word "placebo" printed on it. The pills it held, they were told, were like sugar pills. The patients were told they didn't even need to believe in the placebo effect, but had to take the pills twice daily. The other half were given no treatment at all.

At the end of the three-week trial, 59% of the patients taking the placebo said their symptoms had been adequately relieved, far outstripping the 35% in the non-treatment group.

...."What seems to be the active ingredient is the warm, personal relationship," said Dr. Howard Brody of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

Fascinating, no? Anyone want to take bets on whether this gets replicated in a larger study?

CIA response to WikiLeaks: “WTF”

| Thu Dec. 23, 2010 12:01 AM EST

Guest blogger Mark Follman writes frequently about current affairs and culture at markfollman.com.

A report from the Washington Post on Wednesday describes an effort by the CIA to assess the impact of WikiLeaks on US national security. The effort is known as the WikiLeaks Task Force. Apparently it's also commonly referred to as 'WTF' around the halls in Langley. While that acronym may be cracking some sardonic grins, the Post story also reveals a CIA perspective that is no laughing matter.

To some agency veterans, WikiLeaks has vindicated the CIA's long-standing aversion to sharing secrets with other government agencies, a posture that came under sharp criticism after it was identified as a factor that contributed to the nation's failure to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Even while moving to share more information over the past decade, the agency 'has not capitulated to this business of making everything available to outsiders,' said a former high-ranking CIA official who recently retired. 'They don't even make everything available to insiders. And by and large the system has worked.'

Without a doubt the sharing of sensitive information among US agencies remains a complex and unwieldy issue—perhaps as complex and unwieldy as the US national security apparatus itself since it ballooned under George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11. But while a strong majority of Americans believe that WikiLeaks has harmed the national interest, it could be dangerously foolish to buy into a resurgent lockdown mentality.

In his indispensable 2006 book 'The Looming Tower,' journalist Lawrence Wright investigated the devastating effect of turf battles among the CIA, FBI and NSA prior to the 9/11 attacks. Wright's book, as I detailed in an essay for Salon, made a persuasive case that the 9/11 plot may well have been foiled if not for fatal duplicity on the part of the CIA, which jealously guarded its intelligence gathering from the criminal-investigation focused FBI. A crucial opportunity apparently came and went in late 2000:

In Yemen, [FBI agent] Soufan was on the trail of an al-Qaida figure closely connected with Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khaled al-Mihdhar, two Saudi-born al-Qaida operatives who would later help seize planes on 9/11. The CIA had surveillance photos of all three men together from an al-Qaida summit in Malaysia the previous January, but when Soufan came knocking for information, the CIA slammed the door shut. It was part of what Wright calls 'a bizarre trend in the US government to hide information from the people who most needed it.'

As I noted in my piece about WikiLeaks and cyber warfare earlier this month, some US officials have been warning anew about the dangers of inter-agency turf battles. Former national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair recently told Congress, 'This infuriating business about who's in charge and who gets to call the shots is just making us muscle-bound.'

What happens when the next 9/11 is in the works? The real imperative, it seems, is for the US government to better protect any necessary secrets (the definition of which is another key subject—see Thomas Blanton on 'the massive overclassification' of US national security information) while improving upon the sharing of vital information among agencies. If it fails in that mission, the fallout could ultimately be far greater than anything perpetrated by the likes of Julian Assange and company.

A Congress That Works! Huzzah!

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 9:55 PM EST

Jon Chait on the flurry of congressional activity that closed out the year:

I strongly approve of the ends of the lame duck Congress, but as a small-d democrat, I don't approve of the means. Why should Congress have a period of time to act in which many members enjoy zero accountability before their constituents? The arrangement is ripe for abuse.

On the other hand, the manic productivity of the lame duck session appears to be a response to another anti-democratic mechanism, the filibuster. Mitch McConnell's block-everything, grind-down-the-clock method created a pent-up demand among moderate and even mainstream Republicans who waned to govern. So now they have a few frantic weeks to do a lot of things they wanted to do all along, but refrained out of partisan loyalty.

I'd look at this with a little wider lens. Basically, what happened this year is that we've finally reached the logical end state of a longtime problem. For as long as I can remember, it's been a truism that you can't get anything done in an election year. The out party doesn't want to give the president a victory and the in party is afraid to take on anything controversial that might hurt at the polls. So legislative progress in even numbered years is generally pretty paltry.

This year that dynamic turned pathological. There were, it turned out, quite a few issues that both sides really did want to address, but party discipline simply trumped everything. It wasn't just one thing that got held up, it was nearly everything. Republicans didn't want to hand Democrats a victory on DADT or New START or even a food safety bill, and Democrats were too cowardly to press for progressive tax legislation.

So we finally reached the nonsensical point at which both sides wanted to get things done but the upcoming election allowed none of it to move forward. Even though all of this stuff had supermajority support (hell, New START turned out to have the support of 71 senators), the only time it could get done was during a lame duck session.

I don't know if this was a one-off occurrence or a harbinger of things to come. I guess we'll find out in 2012. But until something finally implodes and produces a real groundswell for systemic change, maybe we should all be grateful for the existence of lame duck sessions. It might be the only time that the modern Congress actually works the way it's supposed to.

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Filibuster Reform Warms Up

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 7:35 PM EST

This is unexpected: every single returning Senate Democrat has signed a letter urging Harry Reid to change the rules surrounding filibusters when the new Congress convenes in January. Ezra Klein has a good take on this:

They say elections have consequences. So too, it turns out, does obstruction.

....It's no surprise that some Senate Democrats want to see the practice reworked. What's remarkable is that all Senate Democrats want to see it reworked. It's not just the young senators like Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall and Michael Bennett, but the older veterans like Barbara Mikulski and Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin.

Their unity stems from an unlikely source: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has mounted more filibusters in the past two years than occurred in the ’50s and ’60s combined. Uncontroversial bills like an extension of unemployment benefits that passed 97-0 and food-safety legislation that passed with 73 votes frequently faced multiple filibusters and months of delay. The minority has been so relentless and indiscriminate in deploying the once-rare failsafe that the majority has finally decided to do something about it.

There's no telling exactly what changes Democrats might try to impose, and no telling if they have the gumption to do it on their own if they can't garner any support from the Republican leadership for a bipartisan compromise reform. For one thing, if they aren't able to come to a compromise agreement with Mitch McConnell, any attempt to change the rules would require favorable rulings from the president of the Senate, Joe Biden. And obviously his support would depend on whether his boss goes along.

So we'll see. But this is actually a suprisingly auspicious time to take action. On the Democratic side, you have a lot of anger caused by the relentless obstruction and bad faith from the Republican caucus over the past two years. On the Republican side, you have the fact that they control the House, which means they don't have too much to fear from a filibuster-less Senate in the immediate future. The real benefit of reform would come sometime down the road when a single party once again controls both houses of Congress and the presidency, and there's no telling which party will be in charge the next time that happens. In any case, January might turn out to be pretty interesting. Stay tuned.

Is This The Worst Song Of the Year?

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 6:43 PM EST

The Village Voice just put up its list of the 20 worst songs of 2010, and...it's pretty compelling. Trade Martin's impeccably named "We've Got to Stop the Mosque at Ground Zero" is #17; Train's "Hey, Soul Sister" clocks in at #1:

There is less soul in the entirety of Train than in the palest single member of Collective Soul. "Hey, Soul Sister" is soul for people who refer to peanut butter and jelly as "soul food." It makes the California Raisins look like the second coming of Sly and the Family Stone. It's so white, Sarah Palin just named it her running mate for 2012.

Snap, crackle, and pow!

Anyway, having spent a quarter of the year driving around aimlessly in a car, I feel somewhat qualified to offer my opinion on the horrible sounds that came from FM radio. So here's one they missed: "Way Out Here," by Josh Thompson. Thompson mixes the mandatory checklist of a pop country hit—truck, truck being fixed, truck with girl standing next to it, yeoman farmers, yeoman farmers with trucks—with an aggressive "Real American" streak; unlike other kinds of people who shall remain nameless, Thompson croons, "We won't take a dime if we ain't earned it." With apologies to Train, if any song of 2010 were to be Sarah Palin's running mate, it'd be this one.

So is it worse than "Hey, Soul Sister"? You be the judge:

Not to be an insufferable fact-checker or anything, but what's up with the flag in this video? It's got the requisite 50 stars, so why does it look like it survived Washington's Crossing?

Update: South African rappers—and friends-of-the-blog—Die Antwoord check in at #10. Check out their Riff interview with Michael Mechanic from back in October.

Podcast: What Does the Bible Have To Say About Climate Change?

Wed Dec. 22, 2010 3:56 PM EST

With the collapse of last year's international climate talks in Copenhagen and the resurgence of the Republican Party here in the United States, many observers have begun to doubt whether the world will ever be able to agree on a framework to fight global climate change. Believing that progress is possible, they say, may take a leap of faith.

And that's exactly what some religious groups are offering.

With the holidays around the corner, The Climate Desk Podcast decided to take a closer look at the emerging environmental movement among faith-based communities in the United States, and the considerable disagreement among some denominations, especially evangelicals and born-again Christians, about what the Bible teaches us when it comes to climate change and the environment.

Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes.

This podcast was produced by Erin Chapman, Laura Feeney, Sal Gentile, and Win Rosenfeld of PBS's Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

TomDispatch Blocked by State Department!

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 3:37 PM EST

I have a friend who sends a note every year in December, pleading with me to pen one upbeat, hopeful piece before the next year rolls around. Mind you, I consider myself an upbeat guy in a downbeat world and, for me, when it comes to pure upbeatness, you couldn't have beaten this week if you tried. This was when my Oscar came in—or the equivalent on the political Internet anyway. On December 7th, the State Department announced its brave decision to host UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day in 2011. ("[W]e are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information…") Less than two weeks later, I learned that if you try to go to TomDispatch.com from a State Department computer, you can't get there. The following message appears instead:

"Access Denied for Security Risk (policy_wikileaks)

"Your requested URL has been blocked to prevent classified information from being downloaded to OpenNet."