2010 - %3, December

Friday Cat Blogging - 31 December 2010

| Fri Dec. 31, 2010 10:29 AM PST

I think it's probably daft to pretend that I'm going to find something worthwhile to blog about today if I just keep staring at the computer long enough, so let's get straight to Friday Catblogging and call it a year. Unfortunately, even though I've had two weeks to get my act together, I haven't taken any fresh pictures of the furballs lately. So last night at 8:59 I decided instead to treat you all to a bit of cinéma vérité: Inkblot and Domino at snack time. Unfortunately, they didn't really put on a very good show. Still, vérité is vérité, and this is truly a slice of real life, dramatic qualities be damned. Sometimes life just isn't very dramatic. But still cute.

And with that, happy New Year, everyone. See you on the other side.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 31, 2010

Fri Dec. 31, 2010 3:30 AM PST

Army Spc. Erik Martin uses a footbridge to cross over a river during a dismounted mission to Khwazi village, Afghanistan, Dec. 14. Members of Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul visited the village to survey a site for a future well project. PRT Zabul is comprised of Air Force, Army, 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. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

Convex Mirrors Coming to America?

| Thu Dec. 30, 2010 5:45 PM PST

Here's an entry from the annals of "things I've always wondered about but never had the energy to bother checking on": Why don't cars in the United States have convex driver's side mirrors? They sure seem to make sense to me, but who knows? Maybe there's something unsafe about them that I haven't thought of.

As it turns out, I still don't know. The proximate answer, of course, is that they're illegal, but I don't know why they're illegal. The reason is probably buried in the mists of time. However, according to the New York Times, the Department of Transportation, after a grueling three-year process, is thinking about maybe, just possibly, allowing carmakers to use them. Mike O'Hare, who is a positive sink of information about the most obscure topics imaginable, comments:

Thinking about bureaucrats in DOT taking three years to make a decision worth maybe half a day, having spent a couple of decades to even engage the question, through all of which millions of drivers outside the US have been running an enormous demonstration program showing the superiority of convex driver’s-side mirrors, can make a libertarian’s day.

....There’s more to the convex mirror than the Times story records. Not only is the field of view wide enough to cover the left-hand blind spot, but a convex mirror doesn’t have to be dimmed to prevent cars behind you from blinding you at night. Now, if we could get them in the right place, which is on the fender, visible through the dashboard so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road to be aware of what’s going on behind you, we’ll be making some real progress. For this location, they have to be convex, because at that distance, the field of view of a flat mirror is much too narrow. I’ve had convex fender mirrors (very hard to find, and it’s a nuisance to make a flat panel to replace the stock abortions on the doors) for twenty years and would never go back. I suppose I’m courting a ticket, but so far, no problems.

I still don't know why flat driver's side mirrors have been mandated in the U.S. for so long, so be sure and enlighten us in comments if you happen to know the answer. In any case, it looks like our long national nightmare may soon be over. Just please don't tell any conservatives that DOT is considering this change so that U.S. rules will be "harmonized with European requirements." You know how they feel about euro-weenies.

Snowy LA?

| Thu Dec. 30, 2010 4:46 PM PST

This was posted a few minutes ago on Andrew Sullivan's blog:

WTF? Is this a window facing a backlot at Universal Studios? We've had monsoon-like rain around here lately, but I haven't seen any snow yet. Or perhaps this is somewhere on the Tejon Pass, just barely within LA County and therefore technically "Los Angeles" even though it's 40 miles from the actual city?

Beats me. It's a pretty picture, though.

UPDATE: Turns out the picture is from Virginia Beach, not Los Angeles. Good to know that I'm not going crazy.

Krugman's Waterloo

| Thu Dec. 30, 2010 4:01 PM PST

Paul Krugman on NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's hapless response to the city's recent blizzard:

He just faced a major test of crisis management — and it’s been a Brownie-you’re-doing-a-heck-of-a-job moment.

Krugman, again, a few minutes later:

Update: Commenters are right: I shouldn’t have been so casual about the comparison to New Orleans, where so many people actually died. I was thinking too narrowly of the political aspect, of the collapse of an undeserved reputation for competence; but the dead deserve more respect.

Can I vent? Krugman's crack wasn't in any way disrespectful to New Orleans, it was just a comparison that used a cultural touchstone that everyone would instantly recognize. Likewise, if you tweet that the world would be better off if someone were dead, it's not "eliminationist" rhetoric, it's just water cooler conversation from someone whose temper is frayed. No one thinks you really want to take out a contract on someone. And analogies to World War II aren't meant to trivialize Nazis, they're just handy comparisons that most people will understand because World War II is really famous.

This kind of "How dare you!" reaction is way too common in response to casual comments. Sure, we should all be careful with our smart remarks, but the outrage brigade needs to ease up. Either that or they need to start getting equally upset over "_____'s Waterloo" formulations. A lot of people died there too.

Five Books

| Thu Dec. 30, 2010 1:18 PM PST

This was kind of an odd year in books for me. I actually read a fair number of books that I liked, but not very many that I really liked. For example, at the beginning of the year I inhaled a whole slew of books on the financial crisis: Too Big To Fail, This Time Is Different, Fool's Gold, 13 Bankers, Econned, The Big Short, and Ship of Fools. They were all pretty good, and they all focused on different aspects of the crisis. But I don't know that I'd really recommend any one of them as the book to read on what happened. For me, the whole year was a bit like that.

Still, with that said, here are my picks for the best five nonfiction books I read this year (though not necessarily published this year):

  1. Winner-Take-All Politics, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. In this book, Hacker and Pierson explain the political foundations of growing American income inequality by focusing on the rise and fall of institutional pressure groups. I wish they'd spent more time on the mechanics of how legislation and regulatory changes have affected income distribution, but overall it's a masterful explanation. More here.
  2. Stayin' Alive, by Jefferson Cowie. This is primarily a book about the decline of organized labor in the 70s. Cowie intersperses this with chapters about music in the 70s (thus the title), and I don't think this conceit actually works very well: the music stuff is often interesting in its own right, but I don't think it illuminates the rest of the story the way he thinks it does. But that's a nit. The bulk of the book is a detailed and engrossing political history of a decade that too many people either ignore or misunderstand, and it's an excellent, highly readable primer for anyone whose knowledge of politics basically starts with Reagan. Highly recommended.
  3. The Promise, by Jonathan Alter. There were several books published this year about Obama's first year in office, and this was the only one I read (because the publisher sent me a free copy). So I can't say for sure that it's the best of the lot. But it's pretty good: a nicely written, deeply reported look at the world as Obama sees it. For political junkies a lot of it is inevitably a recap, but there's new stuff as well, and it provides a pretty good sense of why things happened the way they did during 2009.
  4. How Soccer Explains the World, by Franklin Foer. This is several years old, but I only got around to reading it this year, just before the World Cup started. As it turns out, it doesn't really explain the world, but it does explain a lot about soccer, including my perennial favorite: why the hell are soccer fans so crazy? I'm still not sure I know, but at least I'm closer to knowing.
  5. How Wars End, by Gideon Rose. This is just what its title says: a book about how American wars have ended over the past century and why they've ended (or continued to sputter on) the way they did. Rose's basic thesis is that (a) politicians routinely screw up by not thinking hard enough about what to do after wars end, and (b) they're too obsessed with not repeating the mistakes of the previous war, which blinds them to ways in which the current war is different, not just a rerun of some previous fight. In some ways I think his take on (a) is a little unfair, simply because the complexity of planning well for a postwar environment is really, really hard, but his illumination of (b) is pretty compelling. I've noticed the same dynamic myself over and over, but this is the first book I've read that really laid out the problem methodically.

They're all good books, but the top two are the best books I read all year. So if you're only going to read one, read one of those.

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The Year in Islamophobia: Timeline

| Thu Dec. 30, 2010 12:00 PM PST

It's never a good sign when you find yourself longing for the halcyon days of George W. Bush. But after a year in which right-wing activists and politicians identified America's greatest threats as mosques and infants, you could be forgiven for feeling a bit nostalgic for the man who responded to the 9/11 attacks by emphasizing that "Islam is a religion of peace."

So, is America Islamophobic? It depends. For the overwhelming majority of Muslims, America's still a pretty sweet place to work and pray (just watch out for these fellas). And as conservatives like Jeff Jacoby are quick to point out, when it comes to reported hate crimes, Jewish Americans still have it worse. Much, much worse. But with precious few exceptions, anti-Semitism is confined to the paranoid fringe; you'd never see a slew of presidential candidates line up to, say, protest the construction of a synogogue.

2010 was the year Islamic fearmongering officially went mainstream. Here's a quick look back at how the heck it happened. Enjoy.

 

The Year in Islamophobia on Dipity.

 

 Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments.

What's In the Water?

| Thu Dec. 30, 2010 11:24 AM PST

The last time I wrote about hexavalent chromium, a toxic chemical known to cause myriad health problems, it was in a piece on soldiers who say they were exposed to it while guarding a water treatment facility in Iraq. But the chemical, made famous by Erin Brockovich, is also turning up in drinking water sources around the United States.

A recent report from the Environmental Working Group found the chemical in the tap water of 31 out of 35 cities it tested. This is a major issue, as exposure through drinking water has been linked to stomach and gastrointestinal cancers in both humans and animals. From the report:

The highest levels were in Norman, Okla.; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Riverside, Calif. In all, water samples from 25 cities contained the toxic metal at concentrations above the safe maximum recently proposed by California regulators.
The National Toxicology Program has concluded that hexavalent chromium (also called chromium-6) in drinking water shows “clear evidence of carcinogenic activity” in laboratory animals, increasing the risk of gastrointestinal tumors. In September 2010, a draft toxicological review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) similarly found that hexavalent chromium in tap water is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans."

The EPA responded quickly to the new report; Administrator Lisa Jackson met with a group of 10 senators about the issue and released a statement outlining the EPA's next steps:

Today, I am announcing a series of actions that the EPA will take over the coming days to address chromium-6 in our drinking water. It is clear that the first step is to understand the prevalence of this problem. While the EWG study was informative, it only provided a snapshot in time. EPA will work with local and state officials to get a better picture of exactly how widespread this problem is. In the meantime, EPA will issue guidance to all water systems in the country to help them develop monitoring and sampling programs specifically for chromium-6. We will also offer significant technical assistance to the communities cited in the EWG report with the highest levels of chromium-6 to help ensure they quickly develop an effective chromium-6 specific monitoring program.

This is good news, but could take some time to actually equate to meaningful action. In the meantime, what can people do about the chemical? AlterNet put together a helpful list of questions and answers, including how one can find information on the levels of the chemical in their local water system and what to do if your water is contaminated.

Big Cars

| Thu Dec. 30, 2010 11:13 AM PST

Atrios:

From talking to a few parents, the SUV craze is at least in part due to the perceived additional safety given that everyone else on the highway is driving a giant car. Probably stuck there. In fairness, my most frequent form of transport is a rather large bus.

This goes back a long way. Even when I was a kid, I routinely heard other parents say they felt better with "a lot of steel" around them, not tooling around in some little tin can. In that sense, SUVs are just replacements for the full-size land yachts that everyone loved in the 50s and 60s. As it happens, I've always suspected that the safety/comfort argument is largely a pretense for people who just like to drive big cars, but it's a hard one to kill since there is, after all, a kernel of truth to it. Other things equal, a big, heavy car really is a bit safer than a small one if they hit each other.

Losing Well

| Thu Dec. 30, 2010 10:48 AM PST

Mike Konczal says two of his biggest disappointments of 2009-10 have been Congress's failure to enact a carbon policy and Obama's continuation (and in some cases, expansion) of Bush-era civil liberties policies. No argument there. But his other big disappointment is that he thinks Obama never learned to lose well:

By losing well, I mean losing in a way that builds a coalition, demonstrates to your allies that you are serious, takes a pound of flesh from your opponents and leaves them with the blame, and convinces those on the fence that it is an important issue for which you have the answers. Lose for the long run; lose in a way that leaves liberal institutions and infrastructure stronger, able to be deployed again at a later date.

[Example: ramping up deportation of illegal immigrants and then failing to get Republican support for the DREAM Act anyway.]

This is losing poorly. It makes major concessions without getting anything in return, conceding both pieces of flesh and the larger narrative to the other side....This is true of many issues, ranging from unions fighting for the ability to unionize easier to the technology groups fighting for Net Neutrality. Why should these groups be happier with the past two years, even if they thought on day one that they wouldn’t win anything? How are either stronger for the next battle?

This has indeed been a mystery. It's never been clear whether Obama makes these pre-emptive concessions because he genuinely believes they're good policy or because he genuinely thinks it will draw out Republican support down the road. Neither really seems to make sense. Even if he thinks they're good policy, it's still smarter to hold them back as bargaining chips for broader policy victories. And quite plainly they did nothing to endear him to Republicans, who are almost unanimously convinced that he spent the last two years ramming an ultra-liberal policy agenda down their throats using a combination of bald lies and Chicago-style thuggery. It's hard to believe that Obama ever thought they'd react differently.

In any case, I find this aspect of Obama's presidency perplexing too. Compromise is one thing: it's baked into the cake of mainstream American politics. But I expected that even as he inevitably compromised, Obama, with his famously long view of things, would steadily try to push the public in a more liberal direction. As Mike says, this may mean eventually compromising on a policy that appeals to the broad middle of the country, but doing it in a way that hurts your opponents and energizes your friends for battles to come. Obama seems to have done exactly the opposite. It's hard to understand.