2011 - %3, August

The Greatest 110 Words About Dick Cheney, Ever

| Thu Aug. 25, 2011 2:32 AM EDT

If you must read a summary of Dick Cheney's new memoir, make it this one, from Charlie Savage of the New York Times. Here, in two paragraphs, Savage manages to summarize Cheney's obstinacy and cluelessness:

Former Vice President says in a new memoir that he urged President to bomb a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor site in June 2007. But, he wrote, Mr. Bush opted for a diplomatic approach after other advisers—still stinging over "the bad intelligence we had received about Iraq's stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction"—expressed misgivings.

"I again made the case for U.S. military action against the reactor," Mr. Cheney wrote about a meeting on the issue. "But I was a lone voice. After I finished, the president asked, 'Does anyone here agree with the vice president?' Not a single hand went up around the room."

Now, Bashar al-Assad is not a nice guy, and inshallah, he's a soon-to-be-ex-dictator. But unilaterally bombing out a "suspected" nuclear reactor? In Syria? At the height of the civil war in Iraq? Bare months after Israel went into Lebanon and World War III nearly broke out?

When even the Bush cabinet, to a man and woman, can't stand Dr. Strangelove's bully ramblings anymore, you know the good doctor has turned one hell of a corner into Crazytown. Read on, and find out why Cheney was so ready for 9/11 and Condi was such a girly-girl.

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Steve Jobs

| Thu Aug. 25, 2011 12:48 AM EDT

I've never been susceptible to the Steve Jobs reality distortion field. The only time I ever used an Apple product was in the late 80s, when my company bought a bunch of Mac SEs. I hated mine and was delighted when we finally gave up on them.

So my admiration for the guy is completely dispassionate. But genuine nonetheless. He was largely responsible for the Apple II, the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. That's five dazzling, smash hit products in four completely different product areas. Toss in Pixar and it's six huge successes in five areas. I'm honestly not sure that any other businessman/inventor/product designer in the past century has a record quite that brilliant. We're not likely to see his equal anytime soon.

Yet Another Look at Texas

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 9:09 PM EDT

Hey, it's Texas Miracle time again! The latest analysis comes from Goldman Sachs, which concludes that Texas is indeed a positive outlier when it comes to employment. In the chart on the right, where the gray blob represents the normal range of state employment, Texas is the gold line just above the normal range. That's good news for Texas, but sadly, it's where the good news stops for Rick Perry's claim to economic superstardom. The report concludes that three factors are overwhelmingly responsible for good employment performance over the past three years:

  • Lack of a housing bubble. Texas really does have something to teach us on this score — namely that sensible government regulation of the mortgage market is a pretty good idea — but this is not exactly something Perry is eager to preach about. (And he wasn't responsible for it anyway.)
  • An oil industry. 'Nuff said. Lucky is lucky.
  • Lots of high-end services and technology. Actually, I suspect Texas has done fairly well on this score over the past decade, but it's still not a leader of the pack. Texas-wise, housing and oil are the big story here.

And what wasn't responsible for strong employment performance? Here's the list:

  • State income tax rates
  • State property tax rates
  • State spending as a share of the economy

Goldman analyst Zach Pandl's conclusion:

For the national economy we see two main lessons. First, because housing and mortgage credit are central to the weakness around the country, these issues should probably continue to receive attention from policymakers. Second, because the outperformance of a few states is closely related to natural resource exposure it is not easily replicable elsewhere.

Roger that. Fix the housing mess and — well, that's about it, unless we suddenly discover oil in Arizona and Florida. Since that's not likely, how about if we just focus on the housing mess instead?

The Most Painful Sting in the World

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 7:07 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

What's the most painful sting in the insect world?

In the jungles of Panama Steve faced his fear and handled a mind blowingly painful stinger–the bullet ant.

A sting from most ants is nothing more than a painful nip, often with a bit of formic acid thrown in. But not the bullet ant. As its name suggests, a sting from one of these is like being shot!

In 1984, a man named Justin Schmidt published a paper in the journal Archives of Insect Biochemistry and Physiology. He subjected himself to the stings of 78 different insects which resulted in the Schmidt Pain Index with stings rated from 0 (no effect) to a maximum of 4 (most painful). Here are some of his pain ratings and his amusingly vivid descriptions.

1.0 - Sweat Bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. As if a tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.

1.2 - Fire Ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.

1.8 - Bullhorn Acacia Ant; A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.

2.0 - Bald Faced Hornet; Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.

2.0 - Yellow jacket; Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.

2.0 - Honey Bee: Like a match head that flips off and burns on your skin.

3.0 - Red Harvest Ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.

3.0 - Paper Wasp: Caustic burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.

4.0 - Tarantula Hawk Wasp: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.

4.0 - Bullet Ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel. I’d take his word for it if I were you!

A Budget Plan That Treehuggers and Tea Partiers Can Love

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 6:07 PM EDT

There's not much that Friends of the Earth and The Heartland Institute agree on. Friends of the Earth is among the most liberal of the environmental groups in the US. Heartland thinks that climate change isn't a crisis at all—actually, it might even be a good thing. But the two partnered this year to in the release of the Green Scissors Report, which looks at environmentally problematic government spending.

It's heartening to know that while two groups might not be able to agree on the question of whether or not climate change is real, they can agree that subsidies for corn ethanol are dumb. That was among the $380 billion in "wasteful government subsidies" that the groups, along with Taxpayers for Common Sense and Public Citizen, unveiled on Wednesday. Friends of the Earth has released this report annually since 1994, and this was the first year that Heartland joined in. This year, they're hoping it gets more attention, given the supercommittee's charge to find spending cuts.

"We are a forthrightly conservative organization, and we disagree with many of the objectives of other partners," said Heartland Institute Vice President Eli Lehrer in a call with reporters on Wednesday. But they did agree, that "big government spending" can have "negative consequences" for the environment.

Some the proposed cuts for the 2012 to 2016 period:

  • $4 billion in "royalty relief" for oil and gas drilling
  • $6.7 billion in a manufacturing tax break for domestic oil and gas companies
  • $22 billion for nuclear and uranium enrichment loan guarantees
  • $56 billion in tax credits and market support for ethanol
  • $1.3 billion in support for the FutureGen "clean coal" project
  • $18 billion in subsidies for commodity crops like corn, wheat and soybeans
  • $30 billion for crop insurance
  • $2.2 billion in tax breaks for timber companies
  • $20.8 billion in funds for road and bridge projects that they deem unnecessary
  • $5.6 billion in Army Corps of Engineers projects that "serve little to no national interest."

"These are common-sense cuts, and should represent the lowest-hanging fruit," said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Something in the Water at National Review?

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 4:35 PM EDT

John Derbyshire responds to my post about science yesterday:

I see from that Kevin Drum piece that our own Kevin [Williamson] linked to, that at least one liberal has already sold the pass, or at least half of it, on the heritability of intelligence. (Though Drum, along with the rest of liberaldom, is still clinging for dear life to the dubious Turkheimer paper I had some words for here.) What price, then, those grand liberal plans to Fix The Schools, Kevin (Drum)?

These National Review guys sure are weird. I'm pretty sure that none of them read me regularly — and there's no reason they should — but first Williamson and now Derbyshire seem awfully sure that they know all about me anyway. What's the deal with that? Liberal I may be, but I've been writing about the genetic basis of cognitive traits for years and have been a skeptic of school reform plans nearly as long.1 They can disagree with me all they want, but if they're going to do any more than that they should at least have the courtesy of figuring out what I actually think about stuff.

1Though I am a fan of intensive early interventions.

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The Environmental Art of Gail Potocki

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 3:56 PM EDT

Icarus. 2008. Gail Potocki.Icarus. 2008. Gail Potocki.

I know of no other artist who wields insight, emotion, and intellectual heft—not to mention gorgeous technique—to examine the environmental ills besetting us today. Gail Potocki's landscapes are catastrophes unfolding before our eyes—in the sea, in the air, and on the land. Yet her human subjects, shattered and vulnerable, are creatures of exquisite hope... precisely because of their melancholic awareness of their plight.

I asked Gail to tell me about each of these paintings. Of Icarus (above), she wrote:

"Influenced by Icarus ignoring his father's warning and flying too close to the sun; I saw similarities in this myth with nature's warnings of our own possible self-destructiveness. In the case of Icarus here, his wings have been stolen from the dead bird that he has slung over his shoulder."

 

Thaw. 2008. Gail Potocki.Thaw. 2008. Gail Potocki.

About Thaw, Gail said:

"Both the bees and the woman are out of place in this landscape. The bee brings a fleck of light to the woman representing our dependence on them as life givers/pollinators."

 

Overflow. 2008. Gail Potocki.Overflow. 2008. Gail Potocki.

 Overflow:

"My concern about human population growth is represented by the two people interlaced in the human paper cutouts. The background is a solid mass of buildings where only a small square of sky shows through as all of the landscape becomes consumed."

 

Shipwrecked. 2005. Gail Potocki.Shipwrecked. 2005. Gail Potocki. Shipwrecked:

"I've played with another idea of the disappearing bees, battered and shipwrecked against the rocky shore."

 

Plastic Vortex. 2008. Gail Potocki.Plastic Vortex. 2008. Gail Potocki.
Plastic Vortex:

"With animals trapped in the plasticized water, the figure in this painting recoils from the Grim Reaper-like seabird as she bears witness to an omen of the future of our oceans."

 

Tiara. 2008. Gail Potocki.Tiara. 2008. Gail Potocki.
Tiara:

"This is symbolic of deforestation's effect on the landscape. The woman/tree hybrid catching fire represents all of humanity's attachment to nature and how our fates are intertwined."

Gail paints in Michigan. I picture her world as a snowy canvas.

 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Here's what she told me about her relationship between her natural neighborhood, her work, and her audience.

I am definitely more productive overall in the winter. I spend most of the year at my studio in Michigan (right in the middle of the snow-belt) so I love to be in my warm studio listening to music and painting when there's a blizzard outside. I try to transfer some of the drama from the weather into the work.

Also, the view of the open field behind my studio ignites my creativity. Although I am not really a painter of landscapes, being surrounded by all this natural beauty inspires me to create narratives about it and how our actions affect the environment.

I am not naïve enough to believe that 'art can change the world,' but I do feel that my goal as an artist is to try to bring things to peoples' attention that they might not normally think about.


For more on Gail Potocki, check out her website, plus this stunningly beautiful book, The Union of Hope and Sadness, written by Thomas Negovan, director of Century Guild, the gallery Chicago representing her.

When Facebook Gossip Strikes Back

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 3:34 PM EDT

Water cooler fodder and petty gossip are two constants in an office environment—and thanks to the advent of Facebook and other social media hubs, coworkers have new ways to expel their work-related gripes. Yet nothing is sacred when words hit the web, and now those words are coming back with a vengeance. According to a National Labor Relations Board report (PDF) that came out last week, businesses have started to fire employees for their online trash talking.

Take the case of this luxury car dealership. In early June 2010, one of its salesmen, who I'll call Fred, snapped photos of a customer accidentally driving a car into a pond at the dealership. Later that week, the dealership hosted an all-day event to introduce a new car model. According to employees, the dealership's low-budget refreshment choice—hot dogs, cookies, and water—sent the wrong message to clients and negatively affected their sales and commissions. Fred combined the photos of the pond incident and the inferior sales event in a Facebook album and added snide comments reflecting his disapproval of his boss's decisions. In an inevitable turn of events, someone at a neighboring dealership who was Fred's Facebook friend mentioned the album to his supervisor, who then told the luxury dealership employer about the Facebook smear. Even after Fred agreed to take down the photos, he was fired.

Helping the Environment by Cutting Spending

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 3:22 PM EDT

Michael Grunwald commends to our attention the latest release of the Green Scissors report on "wasteful and environmentally harmful spending":

[The report] is practically a laundry list of my governmental pet peeves. The groups share my contempt for corn ethanol, “the granddaddy of wasteful alternative fuels,” as well as farm subsidies in general and a particularly egregious giveaway to Brazilian cotton farmers in particular. They also tee off on my favorite bureaucratic target, the Army Corps of Engineers, singling out my favorite Corps flood-control boondoggle, my favorite Corps lock expansion boondoggle, and an equally egregious Corps boondoggle that I don’t even joke about, because it’s wasting more than a billion dollars just a stone’s throw from the flimsy Corps levees that failed during Hurricane Katrina.

We’re also on the same page when it comes to the nuclear industry’s cradle-to-grave government support, as well as those ridiculous rural airport subsidies that Congressman John Mica took hostage during a recent standoff with Senate Democrats over FAA funding. Unfortunately, the hostages didn’t get shot this time.

Green Scissors is an amalgam of liberal, conservative, and good-government groups, and you won't likely agree with every one of their recommendations. But after skimming through the report I found a lot to like. They claim to have found $380 billion in wasteful spending over five years, and even if only half of their recommendations are worthwhile that still amounts to nearly $40 billion per year. The entire report is here. The table below shows just their targeted cuts in fossil fuel subsidies. They've also got sections for nuclear energy, alternative energy, agriculture, transportation, and land management. Bon appetit.

Rick Perry Vows to Defund Planned Parenthood

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 1:55 PM EDT
Texas Governor Rick Perry has pledged to severely curtail reproductive rights if elected president.

Pledges, if you haven't heard, are all the rage in the Republican party, so now that he's squarely in the running for the GOP presidential nomination, Texas Governor Rick Perry has some catching up to do. On Wednesday, Perry became the sixth candidate to sign an anti-abortion pledge from the Susan B. Anthony List that commits him to a set of radical anti-abortion measures if elected president. The Dallas Morning-News has the nuts and bolts:

The pledge has four parts:
* a promise only to pick federal judges who adhere to the strict "original meaning of the Constitution,"
* to "select only pro-life appointees" for attorney general and assorted posts at the National Institutes of Health, Justice Department and Department of Health & Human Services.
* to defund Planned Parenthood and any other organization that performs or funds abortions and to end all taxpayer funding of abortion, domestically or overseas and
* to sign into law the "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act," to ban abortion based on the premise that fetuses can feel pain.

The fetal pain measure, for the unfamiliar, is part of a trend at the state level. At least a dozen states have considered prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks, relying on some pretty suspect science. As my colleague Kate Sheppard reported in May, summarizing recent research on the subject, "there is no conclusive evidence that fetuses can feel pain at that point in gestation, nor are they considered viable." But the larger goal is procedural: to bait opponents into challenging the laws in court.

By signing the pledge, Perry joins a list that includes Reps. Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, and Thaddeus McCotter; former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; and former Sen. Rick Santorum. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, has not signed the pledge—a position that's put him at odds with many social conservatives, who never really trusted him to begin with. (Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has also abstained, but that shouldn't come as much of a surprise given his current aversion to the GOP base.)