2011 - %3, May

How To Deal With Relatives Spamming You

| Fri May 6, 2011 8:30 PM EDT

Hi Anna,

My aunt and I primarily "keep in touch" through email, and by that I mean, she sends me chain e-mails almost every day. Most of these are cute, or mildly funny, but sometimes they are scams or racist diatribes. Can I ask her to stop sending them? I don't want to be rude or disrespectful, but there's only so many death-panels-Bill-Gates-wants-to-give-me-money-flesh-eating-bananas e-mails I can take.

~Family Tied

Well, that's the last time I'll warn YOU about piranha produce. We'll see who's complaining when fruitmageddon rolls around. Hint: me, because you'll most likely be dead.

Chain letters (and their modern equivalents) have been around since the middle ages, when a so-called priest named Prester John requested help from Christian armies to rescue his magical paradise that was overrun by infidels. While this land of milk and honey was never found, some say the chain letters, "profoundly affected the geographical knowledge of Europe by stimulating interest in foreign lands and sparking expeditions outside of Europe." In the 19th century, chain letters were used in Britain to help fund a home for street prostitutes, and also to thwart Jack the Ripper. So, they weren't always an obnoxious medium to spread cute kitten pictures or attempt to pyramid scheme you.

It's difficult to tell our elders to stop spamming us for a few reasons. Why? Because they often mean well. Some older folks are technological masters, but for others, e-mail is as far as they got in web savvy-ness. (And, to be inclusive, younger folks are certainly susceptible to spreading chains and hoaxes, especially on Facebook)....

Read the rest of my social media etiquette column on SF Weekly.

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Study Links Bottle Use and Child Obesity

| Fri May 6, 2011 7:05 PM EDT

The Journal of Pediatrics published a study yesterday that finds that toddlers (24 months) who drink from bottles regularly are more likely to become obese later in childhood. The study, which included 6,750 children, reported that toddlers who were using bottles at 2 years were more likely to be obese at age 5 (24%) than those who did not use bottles (16%). This was even after factors such as socioeconomic status, breastfeeding, and race had been controlled for. Toddlers who only used bottles at bedtime, or who only used bottles at other times, were not as likely to become obese as children who drank from bottles during the day and at night.

"Prolonged bottle use may lead to the child consuming excess calories, particularly when parents are using the bottle to comfort the child rather than address the child's hunger or nutritional needs," the study's authors wrote. They point out that an 8 oz. bottle of whole milk contains 150 calories, about 12% of the daily calories for a 2-year-old.

The study did not look at whether bottles were usually filled with breast milk, cow milk, juice, or other beverages, which is something that would have been interesting to know. Water or diluted juice certainly has fewer calories than, say, chocolate milk or soda. The study also did not measure children's physical activity. However, the researchers suggested pediatricians advise parents to limit or eliminate bottle use after the first year, noting that the measure is "unlikely to cause harm and may prevent obesity along with other health problems."

 

Libya Lobbyists Come Clean

| Fri May 6, 2011 5:50 PM EDT

Yep, we messed up. That's the word out of the Cambridge-based consulting firm Monitor Group. Between 2006 and 2008, the company maintained a highly questionable business relationship with the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator. Monitor helped Muammar Qaddafi's son Saif write his PhD dissertation at the London School of Economics. It also hired some of the US and UK's foremost international relations experts to write glowing editorials and essays about the Qaddafi regime's efforts to clean up its act and enact democratic reforms. And the firm never revealed that it was all was part of a coordinated—and well-funded—effort to end Libya's status as a pariah state.

Not long after Mother Jones reported on Monitor's Libya project, questions arose about whether the firm had taken the proper steps to register as a lobbyist for Libya with the Justice Department. Offering advice on economic or governing reform without registering isn't illegal. But the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) stipulates that groups like Monitor must register if they're planning on conducting "acts in a public relations capacity for a foreign principal"—which, as we reported, is primarily what Monitor's Libya project was all about. As we wrote back in March, Monitor decided to conduct an internal investigation into whether it had violated FARA, initially led by Eamonn Kelly, a senior partner at the firm. Later, the company brought in outside lawyers from the firm of Covington & Burling to finish the job.

The lawyers' conclusion: yes, Monitor most certainly did break FARA law. Today, the company announced that it is retroactively registering some of its past work in Libya, as well as its more recent work with Jordan. And on Tuesday, Monitor CEO Mark Fuller, who played a key role in the Libya project, resigned. Monitor also issued a press release on the findings of its internal investigation:

These decisions reflect a thorough fact-finding and legal investigation initiated by Monitor after issues concerning its work in Libya were raised earlier this year. The investigation, conducted by the law firm of Covington & Burling, included a review of Monitor engagements with foreign governments. That review concluded that some elements of Monitor’s work in Libya from 2006 through 2008 should have been registered under FARA. It also became apparent that a more recent item of work on behalf of the Kingdom of Jordan should have been registered. Monitor will now take all appropriate measures to remediate these errors.

The Boston Globe reports that Monitor is also likely to release details on how much it paid its academics, including British academic Sir Anthony Giddens. How did Monitor mess this up so bad? From the Globe:

[Eamonn] Kelly said the failure to register was due to a misunderstanding about legal requirements. But others said it reflects a deeper problem: The company was not transparent about the fact that it was engaged in a calculated effort to burnish Khadafy’s reputation, even to professors recruited in the effort.

"If I had known that a primary purpose of the visit to Libya was to influence public opinion in the United States, I would not have gone," Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said in a telephone interview yesterday. Other professors said they did not feel misled.

Whether the DOJ actually brings charges against Fuller, et. al, remains to be seen. But given the intellectual firepower and general worldliness of the people involved in its project, Monitor's excuse—"We didn't know, sorry"—is less than satisfying. Hopefully, the DOJ feels the same way. 

Eco-News Roundup: Friday May 6

| Fri May 6, 2011 5:24 PM EDT

News from our other blogs on the environment, health, and health care.

So Sorry: Tim Pawlenty is sorry he ever cared (or pretended to) about the environment.

Audit to Come: Bill allowing IRS to ask women questions about rape passes House.

Defining Rape: Tricky wording in Republican bill seeks to reduce abortion funding for rape victims.

Non-Negotiable: Why we will never have an energy sector free from oil.

Hindsight: Why did Republicans pursue Medicare privatization in the first place?

Going National: Kevin Drum suggests federalizing Medicaid.

Outraged: Republicans are outraged by moral outrage at cutting Medicaid.

 

 

 

 

The Real Prize of the Bin Laden Raid

| Fri May 6, 2011 3:30 PM EDT
Osama bin Laden.

The headline news was the obvious: US raid kills Osama bin Laden. But the real prize obtained by the special forces that assaulted the compound in Abbottabad might not have been the Al Qaeda leader, but the information they scooped up during the 40 minutes they were on the ground.

Before the Navy SEALs airlifted out of the compound, they were "feeding this data to the targeteers," says a former CIA covert operative, who was at agency headquarters during the raid. He notes that "the phones [grabbed during the raid] can be dumped in seconds and uploaded in real time to headquarters."

According to the initial reports regarding the intelligence gathered in the raid, Bin Laden was more engaged in the leadership of Al Qaeda than many experts had assumed. Rather than being isolated in a cave, he was in this suburban compound exercising command functions for the terrorist network. Which suggests that specific information about Al Qaeda and its personnel and operations flowed through this facility. This intelligence—once translated, decoded (if any of it was coded), and analyzed—should provide US military and intelligence commands valuable information for attacking other parts of Al Qaeda. As the former CIA officer says:

There are many in the Al Qaeda leadership that have to assume their location, phones, and plans are exposed and are weighing whether they stay still, or run. If they move they risk instant detection, if they stay put, they will sweat that we are watching and waiting. The true impact of this raid on the Al Qaeda system is incredibly disruptive and destructive. We gathered up the command structures intel system and communications plans. That exposes everyone. I suspect we will capture or kill a lot of people over the next two weeks.  

He points to news reports of a drone strike in Pakistan's North Waziristan region on Friday that killed at least eight suspected militants.

"The personnel and procedures are available to perform a kind of triage," says Paul Pillar, a former top analyst at the CIA, "which involves quickly perusing material just enough to separate what is time-sensitive from what is not. The time-sensitive stuff then has high priority to be fully analyzed. The stuff that can wait (which is usually most of the stuff) can wait until resources later are freed up to address it. "

The material gathered at bin Laden's last house might provide intelligence that goes beyond information useful for neutralizing Al Qaeda leaders and operations.

Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence analyst points out that the treasure trove could contain material that helps the United States and NATO sort out the tangle of Taliban and assorted extremist groups that they are fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He notes, "Should the trove of information reveal (in part, by way of the nature of contacts with Al Qaeda), which portions of the Taliban & friends are the most doggedly hostile to us, those could be targeted more selectively."

That is, if a Taliban-related group was in Bin Laden's address book, Kabul might think twice about engaging in reconciliation talks with it: "Should we move closer to negotiations with elements of the Taliban, the improved granularity that might emerge from the documents could cast light on the political stance of various elements of the Taliban and could well identify those portions of the anti-Kabul resistance who would be more amenable to meaningful talks and those most likely to reject such overtures or enter into negotiations primarily to deceive."

White adds: "I place the emphasis on the hope that this trove of information will provide highly useful information that can assist at a more strategic (or higher) tactical level than just chasing al-Qaeda bad guys."

Chasing the bad guys is fine work, and this material—if interpreted and decoded sufficiently—will presumably fuel plenty of chasing. But it might also provide policymakers with additional insights useful for ending or diminishing the war in Afghanistan and countering extremist-driven instability in Pakistan.

If I Could Be Like Bike

| Fri May 6, 2011 3:24 PM EDT

Offshore drilling won't do much to ease the pain at the pump that a lot of Americans are experiencing today, despite what the debate in Washington might lead you to believe. But what could make it easier is giving people alternatives to driving that are economically appealing—like financial incentives for carpooling, public transit, and biking.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), the resident bike guru of the House, introduced legislation this week that would level the playing field on transit benefits. The "Commuter Relief Act" would set a uniform cap of $200 per month for transportation fringe benefits, which can be used however the commuter prefers, rather than offering a bigger tax break for drivers than for bus riders. I also makes the transportation benefits more flexible in other ways, letting people pick how they want to get to work without forfeiting the cash savings. It's the only real way, says Blumenauer, of liberating Americans from high gas prices.

"Petroleum is going to become increasingly expensive. It's going to be increasingly scarce," he tells Mother Jones. "What we really need to do is give American consumers choices so they are not tethered to the gas pump quite as tightly."

For years, federal policies have created incentives to drive to work alone. We subsidize driving by letting commuters use up to $230 of their pre-tax earnings for parking; only in the past two years, since the passage of the Recovery Act, have policies equalized the federal tax credits for mass transit and parking. Right now, the cap on transportation benefits is $230 for both cars and transit, but when the tax deal expires at the end of 2011, the public transit subsidy drops back down to $130. That extra $100 a month is certainly a perverse incentive to drive to work. Blumenauer's bill would at least ensure that they remain equal.

Blumenauer's bill would also require employers who provide free parking for employees to let anyone who doesn't drive get the cash equivalent instead. That means employers would essentially end up paying you not to drive to work. His bill would also allow commuters to combine benefits, using some of that $200 to cover costs associated with biking (like maintence) and some for mass transit, as needed. This would be ideal for people who bike to a transit stop, or who bike most days and take public transit in inclement weather. The bill also creates a credit for people who use van-pools, and allows people who are self-employed to use the transportation benefit program, too.

"You ought to be able to pick and choose what makes sense for you," says the lawmaker, now in his eighth term representing Portland. He's biked to work every day on the Hill since coming to Washington, and is often found sporting a bright plastic bicycle button. "In 15 years in Congress, I've never been stuck in traffic. I've never been unable to find a parking space," he says. "And I've burned hundreds of thousands of calories instead of gallons of fossil fuels."

When Congress resumes fighting over offshore drilling again next week, it would be nice to hear more about programs that really could help Americans deal with soaring gas prices.

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Your Weekend Wrap-up of the Doubts, Debates, and New Details of the Bin Laden Raid

| Fri May 6, 2011 3:22 PM EDT

This post first appeared on the ProPublica website.

More details, debates, and even doubts have continued to emerge about the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden this week.

We've been tracking the coverage with our reading guide. We're also got a weekend wrap-up for the major threads of this evolving story.
 

For the doubters (aka the Deathers)

In an online message that surfaced today, Al Qaeda confirmed that its founder was killed and warned that his death would not be in vain: "We will remain, God willing, a curse chasing the Americans and their agents, following them outside and inside their countries." US analysts have yet to verify the authenticity of the message.

The White House has announced it won't be releasing photos of bin Laden's body, citing the images' potential to incite violence or to be used as propaganda. At least one watchdog group has put in filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the federal government and has said it's prepared to suefor the photos.

Reuters, meanwhile, has bought several grisly photos of three of the other men who died in the raid at the compound. Beware: they're bloody.

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 May 2011

| Fri May 6, 2011 2:58 PM EDT

Domino was sunning herself in the doorway yesterday — it's been in the high 80s all week here — and I happened to have the camera out when Inkblot decided he wanted to go inside. What a hulking presence! Domino is obviously not excited by the idea of letting him by, but as it turned out, all went smoothly. Over on the right, however, we see how to make Inkblot look positively puny: just put him inside a gigantic garden pot. Perspective is everything.

Need more cats? Check out Slate's "The Cats of War." Good stuff.

No, We Will Never Be Oil Independent

| Fri May 6, 2011 2:41 PM EDT

Republicans have lately ratcheted up their "Drill Baby Drill" rhetoric, and they can now frequently be found claiming that the United States has enormous oil reserves that could make us energy independent if only we opened up drilling everywhere within shouting distance of our borders. This came up yet again during last night's Republican debate and I briefly thought about mentioning how inane this has all become in a blog post. But it was only a few minutes until dinner time, so I skipped it.

Luckily, Michael McAuliff at the Huffington Post has done it for me. You can click the link for details, but the bottom line is that if we damned the torpedoes and drilled like maniacs in every single oil-bearing formation in the country, it would....barely make a dent. Global oil prices would hardly respond at all and we'd continue to import huge amounts of oil every day.

We do have lots of coal, and we also potentially have lots of natural gas depending on whether fracking can be done without destroying the environment. The jury is still out on that. But oil? Forget it. We just don't have very much no matter how crazy we go.

Gourmet Bribes for Test Score Improvements

| Fri May 6, 2011 2:22 PM EDT
Delfina owner Craig Stoll and staff making salads for 900 students.

On the menu for 900 Mission High School students Thursday: Lumachine with Sunday Supper sauce and chopped salad. Translation? "Fancy mac and cheese," Delfina restaurant owner Craig Stoll tells me while mixing 20 giant bowls of salad. Stoll and his volunteers from Delfina were up all night peeling and cutting vegetables for this special celebratory lunch, he says. He's here because Sam Mogannam, the owner of Bi-Rite grocery—another family-owned Mission District neighborhood staple—called him and four other local restaurants and asked them to volunteer their time and food to help Mission High.

Why are these famous chefs standing on a football field under the scorching sun, flipping burgers on portable stoves for high school seniors? Because this is one of many ways in which Mission High motivates students around standardized testing and No Child Left Behind requirements. In 2009, Principal Eric Guthertz promised students he'd grant them one of the three wishes if they helped Mission High raise test scores: A meal served by a famous chef, Guthertz wearing a bear (school mascot) outfit to the superintendant's office, or Guthertz dancing the Macarena in front of everyone. Students voted overwhelmingly for the meal. Their test scores went up by 70 points—more than in any other high school in San Francisco last year—and Guthertz had to pay up.

Mission High parent volunteers serving studentsMission High parent volunteers serving studentsNear the chefs, Mission High School History teacher Amadis Velez plays rhythm-and-blues tunes and English teacher Tadd Scott plays reggae with students using a solar-powered music amplifier. As students trickle onto the football field, parent volunteers Debbie and Emar Garabato—whose twin daughters Haley and Sandi attend Mission High—line up to serve the teens. Debbie works night shifts at a casino, but she didn't want to miss this. "I love Mission. I volunteer here all of the time," she tells me. "Everybody knows everybody here," she says. Garabato tells me that Haley's teacher Taica Hsu just helped her daughter raise $1,600 to write and produce a play that she'll perform on May 18th. Haley's younger sister now wants to transfer here from Washington, Garabato says.

"We didn't even see you chew that!" a student laughs at math teacher Betty Lee, who just finished a hamburger. At another table, choir teacher Steven Hankle tells me he's not used to eating food like this. That's probably because an average teacher's salary—which is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender—doesn't really make it easy to dine at top-notch local restaurants like these. Most students tell me they give the meals five stars.

Two hours later, biodegradable food containers and utensils pile up in compostable bins and the food and folding tables are gone. Students are off to after-school clubs and sports practice. "Thank you, Principal Guthertz!" one student yells as Guthertz puts trash in garbage cans. Guthertz says something back, but I can't hear it. He's lost most of his voice by now.

*Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Read more: "One Undocumented Teen's Tale." Plus: Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get all of the latest Mission High dispatches.