2011 - %3, December

Kevin's Rules of Elision Revealed!

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 1:08 PM PST

A few days ago I got one of my oddest requests ever: a regular reader wanted to know just what my rules were for using ellipses. As a blogger who quotes other people's material all the time, I use ellipses a lot, and it's true that I use them in different ways depending on just what I've elided. But there's method to my madness! And since this is the slowest news week of the year, today I'm giving away my secrets.

And make no mistake: this is not official MoJo style. It's not AP style. I don't even know if there are any official-ish rules for indicating that you've snipped passages out of quoted material. But here's how I do it. I expect this to be my most controversial post ever.

What I'm Snipping

 
How I Do It


Example

Entire paragraph

.... at beginning of next paragraph

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness [etc.]

....It was the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five [etc.]

Why I do it: An ellipsis isn't normally used at the beginning of a paragraph, so this usage makes it extremely obvious that something has been left out. An ellipsis at the end of a paragraph can be missed if you're reading in a hurry.

I've been doing this for ten years now, and as near as I can tell not a single other person has adopted my convention. However, this is the sad fate of many unheralded geniuses, and all I can do is persevere.

Entire sentence

....

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys' house....This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it.

Phrase or short passage within a sentence

[...]

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago [...] having little or no money in my purse [etc.]

One or two words, usually for purely grammatical reasons

[]

Original: My friend Dr. Marc likes to say that Democrats are stupid and that Republicans are evil.

Snippet: Democrats are stupid and [] Republicans are evil.

Words at beginning of sentence

...., but no bracket for capital letters

Original: Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

Snippet:  ....There was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

Why I do it: The ellipsis already indicates that text has been removed, so brackets around the first letter are unnecessary. With the exception of legal texts where absolute precision is paramount, I think using brackets around a single letter (i.e., [T]here) is generally ugly, distracting, and superfluous.

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Report: Scant Oversight In Obama's Drone War

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 1:00 PM PST

This much we know about America's ever-expanding drone war in South Asia and the Middle East: it's controversial, rarely acknowledged by the White House, often effective, and subject to only the sketchiest Congressional oversight. Greg Miller's lengthy rundown of President Obama's breathtaking expansion of the drone program in the Washington Post only affirms those impressions.

Running through the publicly available numbers, Miller reports that the current drone arsenal boasts dozens of secret bases and a fleet of 775 Predators and Reapers, with hundreds more on the way. But the CIA also runs a number of stealth drones that the government doesn’t acknowledge exist, like the one that crashed in Iran earlier this month.

Miller also reports that the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) maintain their own, separate "kill lists" for drone strikes. And that throws up some pesky roadblocks for Congressional oversight:  

Top Ten Ignored Religion Stories of 2011

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 11:10 AM PST

Ed Kilgore recommends Peter Laarman's top ten list of ignored stories in the world of religion. I can't say I really understand why I should care that Southern Baptists are apparently becoming more Calvinist (#3 on the list), but even so, this is more interesting than, say, the top ten celeb fashions of 2011 or the top ten Republican hostage taking incidents. And this one certainly deserves a bigger spotlight:

6. Upside-Down Ideas About Religious Liberty

The dramatic new push for religious liberty exemptions for faith-connected providers of taxpayer-supported health services underscores the radical way in which understandings of religious liberty have changed in recent years. It's not that the push for exemptions hasn't made the news; it's that no one is writing (at least in the MSM) about the radical nature of the shift. In the past, the social service arms of religious bodies understood that if they wanted public money they would need to honor public law regarding the disposition of the money: i.e., provide the full range of mandated services on a universal basis. We used to say to objectors, “If you don’t like the mandate, don’t take the money.”

Apparently such a commonsensical response is now insufficiently deferential to religion. More and more people seem willing to say that if a Catholic health care provider doesn’t “believe” in providing reproductive health care to women, that private belief can trump public law. This is a particularly thorny problem because of the many regional health care system mergers involving Catholic partners: there are now many places in the country where, if a dominant provider that toes the bishops’ line won’t provide the service, area women will be out of luck and deprived of benefits they are entitled to receive by law. Does anyone defer to them? Afraid not.

I'm not sure I'd say this has been entirely ignored in the mainstream media, but it certainly gets less attention than it has at some times in the past, despite the fact that it's a problem that's continued to grow and continued to expand. A decade ago it was mostly restricted to abortion services, but since then its tentacles have spread to just about anything that religious conservatives simply don't like very much. It's also one of those things that can be strongly influenced by executive orders, which means it depends a lot on who happens to be president. Just another reason to care about what happens next November.

Boring Investment Advice for the New Year

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 10:41 AM PST

If you have money to invest, the most important thing you can do is pay off your credit cards and any other high-interest loans you might have. But if you've done that, then you have to decide what to do with the money you have left over. Felix Salmon recommends that you follow Henry Blodget's advice, which is conceptually simple:

  • Invest in a diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds
  • Rebalance automatically when the allocations get out of whack

Now, Felix complains that rebalancing is harder than it should be, and he's right. At the same time, it's not that hard. For most of us, it's really not important to rebalance more than once a year at most, and it's not as if you have to get your balancing perfect to three decimal places. If you've decided, for example, that you want to be invested 50% in stocks and 50% in bonds, and at the end of the year you're 55% stocks and 45% bonds, don't worry about it. That's close enough. If it gets farther out of whack at the end of the next year, then move some money around. Choose a round number that gets you close to your target and you're done. This doesn't have to be a constant battle.

Does this sound a little too cavalier? It's not. After all, how sure are you about your targets in the first place? Did you really have a compelling reason to choose 50/50? Or could it have been 60/40 if a few neurons had fired differently on the day you decided this? The fact is that there's just a lot of inherent slop in this stuff for us non-experts.

Of course, this gets a little harder if you have enough money that you want to diversify into half a dozen different funds and your targets are a little more complicated. But if you have that much money, you can probably also afford to pay someone to watch it more carefully for you. For most of us, simpler is better. You're way better off with a simple plan that gets you 80% of what you want than a complex plan that gets you 95% of what you want. That's because (a) that 95% figure is a mirage anyway, and (b) unless you're anal retentive and actively like fiddling with numbers, you're a lot more likely to actually follow the simpler plan. And any plan you follow is better than a plan you don't.

The Slippery Slope of Drone Warfare

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 10:15 AM PST

Greg Miller has a long piece in the Washington Post today about the meteoric growth of America's drone program under the Obama administration. It's well worth reading, largely because it so seldom gets any serious discussion aside from periodic spasms of attention when some foreign government complains that a bunch of civilians have been killed by a drone attack. That attention is fleeting, though, because drones have also been responsible for decimating the al-Qaeda network in the Middle East:

Those results, delivered with unprecedented precision from aircraft that put no American pilots at risk, may help explain why the drone campaign has never attracted as much scrutiny as the detention or interrogation programs of the George W. Bush era. Although human rights advocates and others are increasingly critical of the drone program, the level of public debate remains muted.

Senior Democrats barely blink at the idea that a president from their party has assembled such a highly efficient machine for the targeted killing of suspected terrorists. It is a measure of the extent to which the drone campaign has become an awkward open secret in Washington that even those inclined to express misgivings can only allude to a program that, officially, they are not allowed to discuss.

....Another reason for the lack of extensive debate is secrecy. The White House has refused to divulge details about the structure of the drone program or, with rare exceptions, who has been killed. White House and CIA officials declined to speak for attribution for this article.

The two bolded passages have long struck me as key, underdiscussed issues. I remain convinced that manned fighters would attract far more attention than drones, and we've allowed ourselves to be lulled into indifference simply because of the video game nature of the drone program. This is reinforced by the fact that there's essentially no partisan opposition any longer. Republicans are in favor of anything that kills more bad guys, regardless of collateral damage, and Democrats are unwilling to make trouble for a president of their own party. Put those two things together, and drones have become stealth weapons both politically and technologically.

The truth is that I'm not sure what to think of all this. The bulk of the U.S. drone program has been in Afghanistan, where we're fighting a declared war, and in Pakistan and Yemen, where drone strikes are carried out with the cooperation of the host country. (Though that may finally be ending in Pakistan.) But I wonder how long that will last. Somalia is next on the list, and an administration official tells Miller that it's an inviting target not because the host government would cooperate, but because there’s basically no host government to worry about. That's one more step along a slippery slope to simply using drones wherever we want because nobody is really paying much attention. That's not a slope we should be happy to slide down.

RomneyBot Upgraded for Iowa Primary

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 9:27 AM PST

The New York Times reviews Mitt Romney 2.0 today in much the same way you'd review a new version of an iPad or an update of Microsoft Word. Verdict: He's layered a slightly retooled UI onto the same old chassis, and it's an awkward fit. The man can't make small talk, tosses weird wonkery around whether it's appropriate or not, and doesn't seem to quite understand the concept of humor. Occasionally, though, I think this serves him well:

A few moments later, a voter named David Rivers asked Mr. Romney whether there would be place for Mr. Paul, a Texas congressman, in a Romney White House. Mr. Romney treated the question as a joke, letting out a laugh and walking on by.

“I was actually kind of serious,” Mr. Rivers said in an interview afterward.

Seriously, what the hell can you say to something like that? I'm thinking of making him ambassador to Mars? Really, a nervous chuckle and a quick getaway was the only decent response.

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Occupy Iowa Kicks Off Caucus Week Plans

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 9:23 AM PST
At the People's Caucus Tuesday night in Des Moines, Iowa.

Inside a rented storefront down the street from the State Capitol in Des Moines, Occupy Iowa supporters preempted the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses with their own "People's Caucus" Tuesday night. After a day of strategizing, the activists broke into preference groups to indicate which local presidential campaign headquarters they would most like to see occupied over the next three days. The winner of the dubious honor: Barack Obama, followed by Mitt Romney and, in a close third, Iowa GOP front-runner Ron Paul.

About 200 people, including a small handful from occupations across the country, turned out for the event. Participants ran the gamut from pre-teens to seasoned protest vets, and one energetic young man sported Hatchet Man jewelry from the band Insane Clown Posse.

A flyer distributed Tuesday explained that after three days of occupying presidential campaign headquarters, central Iowa occupy demonstrators plan to "occupy campaign events around the state" from Saturday until Monday, January 2—the day before the caucuses. That could mean anything from mic-checking candidates to further occupations: "The execution of it is all over the board," one supporter explained.

Film Review: "Pariah" and the Untold Stories in Black Cinema

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 9:21 AM PST
Adepero Oduye and Sahra Mellesse in writer/director Dee Rees' "Pariah" (2011).

It's hard to portray adolescence in film without nostalgia or fantasy. Adults would rather remember their teenage years as better than they were, and teenagers are always trying to escape their own suffering. Dee Rees' Pariah, a kind of emotional autobiography of a young Brooklyn teenager named Alike (Adepero Oduye) who is navigating her coming-out process, captures adolescence in all its awkwardness and tragedy like few films in recent memory.

Oduye is a master of conveying startling sincerity without earnestness, and her portrayal of Alike demonstrates how the utterly specific can be entirely universal. That's essential, because Pariah is almost as much a film about growing up as it is about growing up as a lesbian in Brooklyn. Alike is almost as much of a pariah at home hiding her sexuality from her parents as she is at the strip club, surrounded by women in Starter jackets tossing crumpled bills at bare flesh. Early on, we watch Alike literally put her closet back on as she rides the bus home from the club, slipping off her jersey to reveal the pink shirt with the sparkly writing underneath. Alike is stuck being neither what other people want her to be nor who she wishes she was—which, in a broad sense, is exactly what adolescence is.

Beijing's Clean Olympic Air: Mostly Luck?

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 7:21 AM PST
Smog in Beijing

Back in 2008, the Chinese government went to great lengths to improve the air quality in famously smoggy Beijing in time for the Olympics. For months in advance of the games, the city's motorists were only allowed to drive on certain days, and more than 300,000 of the most polluting vehicles were taken off the road entirely. The results, everyone thought, were impressive: A 2009 study found that the measures had reduced pollution by half.

But hold your applause: A newer study, released Tuesday, found that favorable weather conditions—rain at the start and wind during the games—played just as much of a role in the clean-up as emissions controls. A team of researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory used models to analyze weather and smog conditions in the weeks leading up to the games, as well as during and after. They confirmed that the pollution during the games was about half as bad as usual. But they also found that strong storms were responsible for half of the overall smog reduction. In a PNNL press release, a lead scientist on the study said Beijing officials were "lucky" that the weather cooperated.

The researchers also found that the pollution didn't just disappear when it was blown out of Beijing; rather, it moved to an area about 50 miles south of the city. It would have helped if the government had extended its strict emissions rules out beyond city limits, said the PNNL scientst. But considering just how grave Beijing's smog situation has become in recent months, it's pretty clear that the city and its environs are in need of much more than a quick pre-game clean-up. For a video of commuting in Beijing that will make your lungs hurt just to watch, click here.

The FDA's Christmas Present for Factory Farms

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 5:00 AM PST

On Dec. 22, while even the nerdiest observers were thinking more about Christmas plans than food-safety policy, the FDA snuck a holiday gift to the meat industry into the Federal Register. The agency announced it had essentially given up any pretense of regulating antibiotic abuse on factory farms, at least for the time being.

Wired's diligent Maryn McKenna has the background. She reports that way back in 1977—when livestock farming was much less industrialized than it is today—the FDA announced its intention to limit use of key antibiotics on animal farms. The reason: By that time, it was already obvious that routine use of these drugs would generate antibiotic-resistant pathogens that endanger humans.

In the decades since, the agency has ruminated and mulled, appointed committees and consulted experts, all the while delaying making a final decision on the matter. Meanwhile, the meat industry built a multibillion-dollar business based on stuffing animals by the thousands into tight spaces amid their own waste. To keep them alive and growing to slaughter amid such conditions, feedlot operators give their animals daily doses of antibiotics. The FDA recently revealed that factory animal farms now burn through fully 80 percent of all antibiotics consumed in the United States.