2012 - %3, June

Hotter Planet = More Wildfires

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 2:38 PM EDT

As a public service message, Stuart Staniford reprints this map from the 2009 Global Climate Change Impacts report produced by the United States government:

If you think the wildfires currently raging through Colorado are bad, just wait a few decades. You ain't seen nuthin yet. Stuart has more at his place.

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How Does Apple Do It?

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 1:42 PM EDT

A lot of tech critics have suggested that Apple has a big advantage in the tablet market because it controls both the hardware and the software and can therefore achieve a much tighter level of system integration. This in turn just makes everything work more smoothly.

This sounds plausible, but I confess that I've never entirely understood it. What exactly are we talking about here? In what way is, say, the iPad's hardware tweaked to make it work better with iOS? To me, the iPad hardware seems pretty ordinary. Mediocre, even. So what's this all about? A couple of days ago, Farhad Manjoo offered a more specific example:

There’s something magical about the touchpad on a MacBook. Out of the box, the first time you use it, it just works. Built out of a big slab of glass, the surface offers just enough friction for optimal finger sliding. [More singing of praises follows....]

....I switched to Apple notebooks more than five years ago, and I did so precisely because of things like the trackpad. I’ve searched high and low for a Windows notebook with a touchpad that comes close to the buttery bliss offered by the MacBook line. I haven’t found it, and you won’t either. At best, you’ll find a trackpad that can perform satisfactorily after you tweak a lot of settings—which may work fine for pros, but it’s not the kind of just-works experience that most computer users want.

OK, now we're getting somewhere. The last time I went shopping for a notebook computer, the first thing I did on every model was to give the trackpad a test drive. And Manjoo is right: they sucked. Almost uniformly, they were terrible. The highest grade I'd give any of them is "adequate."

So now I'm ready. What is it about the integration of hardware and software that makes Apple trackpads so great? And the answer is....elusive. Manjoo goes through the travails of the trackpad on an Asus Zenbook in some detail, but as near as I can tell the real problem is that (a) Asus uses a cheap trackpad, and (b) Asus writes lousy trackpad drivers. In fact, on the trackpad front, Asus already has control over both hardware and software, just like every other notebook manufacturer. They just do a crappy job of managing it.

Now this is a story I find easy to believe. The basic Windows approach to trackpad gestures is probably fine, but if you want a good user experience you need to spend a few dollars on high-quality hardware and you need to write trackpad drivers that really work. This has nothing to do with integration per se. Asus and other notebook manufacturers already have that. They just aren't very committed to high quality on the trackpad front, and apparently their customers don't care enough to complain much about it.

And hell, I didn't complain either. I just looked around until I found a notebook with an acceptable trackpad (a Sony Vaio) and bought it when it went on sale. Nobody in any of the stores I went to knew that I was basing part of my purchasing decision on this because I never mentioned it. Besides, I mostly carry around a Bluetooth mouse with me when I travel and try to avoid the trackpad altogether. (In fairness, I do this with my MacBook too. I find a mouse more convenient than even a great trackpad.)

So I'm still waiting. I understand entirely that Windows notebook/tablet manufacturers compete strongly on price, and this generally produces less commitment to high quality when it comes to user interface details. But it's still not clear to me that control over both hardware and software is really the big issue here. However, if anybody can recommend a deep dive into this by someone with serious technical chops (i.e., not just another Windows lover or hater blowing off steam), I'd sure like to read it.

Quote of the Day: How to Tell if Your City is Poorly Run

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 12:06 PM EDT

From Doug Rawson, chief executive of a printing company a few miles south of LA in the city of Vernon:

John Pérez has to be laughing. In retrospect, I think he was right. I think the city is poorly run.... I think we made a big mistake.

This is totally inside baseball for folks who live in Southern California, and I apologize to all the rest of you. But reading this just cracked me up. For years Vernon has been a cozy little oligopoly with a population of about a hundred residents who ran the city like a fiefdom for the benefit of its corporate chieftains. And those corporate chieftains thought this was great! Then the cozy little oligopoly started dabbling in stupid financial derivatives, stupid business deals, and insanely corrupt payoffs to local officials. But even after all this had long since been exposed, and Assembly leader John Pérez tried to disincorporate Vernon, its corporate chieftains still thought everything was peachy and fought Pérez's proposal like crazed weasels.

Why? Because their taxes were still low and apparently all the local corporations thought they'd somehow stay low even though the city owed tons and tons of money. They still didn't realize the city was poorly run! Imagine that. But eventually all those stupid deals and corrupt payoffs had to be accounted for, and that meant a tax increase. And guess what? Suddenly they realized that Pérez was right: Vernon was poorly run after all!

Moral of the story: actual good management doesn't matter. If taxes are low, a city is well run. If taxes go up, it's not well run. Any questions?

Poll: Obama Better Prepared Than Romney For Extraterrestrial Ass-Kicking

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 11:59 AM EDT

If Battleship or Invasion of the Pod People suddenly became our political reality, Barack Obama would beat Mitt Romney in a landslide in the 2012 presidential election.

Politico has the, uh, story:

The majority of Americans, nearly 65 percent, say Obama is better suited than Romney to handle an alien invasion, according to a new National Geographic Channel poll, USA Today reports.

The poll also shows (for realz) that if space invaders attempted to annex Earth, 21 percent would favor sending in The Hulk to help repel the invasion, 12 percent would favor the Dark Knight, but only 8 percent would place that 3:00 a.m. phone call to Spider-Man.

Furthermore, separate internal polling of the Mother Jones DC office shows that American voters by a 2-1 margin believe that if Barack Obama had to deliver a rousing speech to fighter pilots on our shared humanity and the universal right to freedom from alien annihilation, it would look something like this:

Bad news for the Obama camp, though: The White House Office of Science & Technology Policy issued a statement last November that the US government has no proof that life exists beyond our planet and that a large-scale intergalactic war with Martians is not in fact imminent.

Romney Hasn't Been Consistent on "Amnesty" For Unauthorized Immigrants

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 11:45 AM EDT
Mitt Romney speaking at a rally in Ohio in March 2012.

Mitt Romney really doesn't want to answer questions on immigration. Last week, he gave an entire speech on the subject without explaining how he would deal with the DREAM Act-eligible unauthorized immigrants who would be spared deportation by a recently announced Obama administration policy. When most of Arizona's harsh anti-illegal immigration law was blocked by the Supreme Court on Monday, a Romney surrogate refused to say what Romney thought of the ruling. Later, Romney himself said he wished the Supreme Court had given "more latitude to the states," which is to say he offered a bland, conservative-sounding phrase that isn't anything resembling a direct answer. 

Romney's evasiveness is getting absurd enough that the political press is moving from its practice of describing the GOP challenger as "cautious" to simply writing that he won't give a straight answer. Unfortunately, Romney seems to have hoodwinked some reporters into thinking he's been relatively consistent on the subject. Here's Dan Balz of the Washington Post:

Romney long has opposed a comprehensive immigration reform policy that would include a path to citizenship for the roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States other than making them return to their native countries and get in line. During one debate, Romney famously described this policy as "self-deportation." He has been consistent on this through both of his campaigns for the White House.

That brings us to the past two weeks, when the former governor went fuzzy in public about immigration. It began when President Obama, in a move that was as political as it was substantive, issued an order that halted the deportation of illegal immigrants who came to this country as children if they met specific criteria.

Romney hasn't just been fuzzy for the past two weeks, nor has he been "consistent on this through both of his campaigns for the White House." While he was laying the groundwork for a presidential run in 2005, Romney critized Republicans for not supporting George W. Bush's immigration reform proposal, which would have included a path to citizenship. In February, the National Review highlighted this excerpt from an interview Romney did with the Boston Globe in 2005:

I think an amnesty program is what — which is all the illegal immigrants who are here are now citizens, and walk up and get your citizenship. What the president has proposed, and what Senator McCain and Cornyn have proposed, are quite different than that. They require people signing up for a, well, registering and receiving a registration number. Then working here for six years and paying taxes — not taking benefits. . . . And then at the end of that period, registering to become a citizen. . . . And I think that those are reasonable proposals.

That sounds a lot like President Barack Obama's "Blueprint for Immigration Reform."

This is what Romney told a local paper, the Lowell Sun, in 2006:

I don't believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country. With these 11 million people, let's have them registered, know who they are. Those who've been arrested or convicted of crimes shouldn't be here; those that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process towards application for citizenship, as they would from their home country.

On Meet the Press in 2007, Romney said:

My own view is consistent with what you saw in the Lowell Sun, that those people who had come here illegally and are in this country--the 12 million or so that are here illegally—should be able to stay sign up for permanent residency or citizenship, but they should not be given a special pathway, a special guarantee that all of them get to say here for the rest of their lives merely by virtue of having come here illegally.

Romney is trying to have it both ways here, and later he does it again, taking the position that unauthorized immigrants should "go home" before getting on the path to citizenship. Romney's relative consistency this time around—at least until Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) started floating the idea of temporary legal status for potential DREAM Act beneficiaries—is an artifact of the near-extinction of the wing of the GOP that was moderate on immigration. The Republican Party of 2012 is dominated by immigration hardliners; in 2008, the moderates still held sway. Because Romney's main rival in the 2008 Republican Primary was Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was a relative moderate at the time, Romney moved to the right—even though he had previously supported both Bush and McCain's comprehensive immigration reform proposals. He did this again with Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich in the 2012 primary. 

But has Romney been "consistent" on opposing a path to legalization or citizenship "through both of his campaigns for the White House?"

No. Not even close. 

Everyone Hates Healthcare

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 11:05 AM EDT

The Washington Post reports that there's just no pleasing the American public:

Fifty-six percent of Americans rate the nation’s current health care system unfavorably in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, while 52 percent regard the “federal law making changes in the health care system” in a negative light....Perhaps most interestingly, Americans who are not happy with their current health care also give Obama’s health care law negative ratings, by a 2-to-1 margin.

This is a group that health reform was theoretically supposed to help. Back in August 2009, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that people who were less satisfied with their current health care were more likely to believe it would improve under health care reform. That clearly hasn’t happened.

In short, people like neither the status quo nor the new version.

This is less surprising than it seems. For starters, people are just in a sour mood these days thanks to a dismal economy and the endless, partisan bickering in Washington DC. What's more, they've been assaulted by hundreds of million of dollars of brutally negative advertising about Obamacare and by a relentless campaign of vilification from the Rush/Fox/Drudge axis.

And it sure hasn't helped that after Obamacare passed, Democrats could hardly scurry into their hidey holes fast enough. Instead of defending the law as a historic guarantee of health insurance even if you're sick or poor or out of work or self-employed, they clammed up. If Democratic leaders don't believe in the bill, and don't take the time to extol its virtues, why should we expect anyone else to?

Beyond that, though, let's be honest. What we all want is unlimited access to medical care; unlimited access to any procedure we want no matter how pricey; unlimited choice of physicians; instant availability of doctors every time we get an ear ache; and we'd like all this for free. That's what we want. And we're annoyed when we don't get it.

This means that we're always going to be annoyed no matter what kind of healthcare system we have. And guess what? That's true. Surveys from around the world prove it. In pretty much every country, people complain about their healthcare systems. Americans generally complain more than most, which makes sense since our healthcare system is so bad, but it's only a matter of degree. The truth is that healthcare is just a tough nut to crack and sick people are cranky. No one is ever going to be satisfied, not with the status quo or with any conceivable replacement.

Still, that's no excuse for the excruciating lack of support for Obamacare on the left, which ranges from simple cowardice to outright derision because it doesn't solve every healthcare problem in the world immediately. When I'm in a particularly black mood, I think that it would simply serve us right if the Supreme Court overturned the entire bill. If we refuse to support — really, loudly, insistently support — the biggest advance in social legislation since the 1960s, why should we expect anyone else to?

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New York Attorney General to US Chamber Affiliate: I'm Coming for You

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 10:50 AM EDT
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (center).

Shadowy political outfits like Crossroads GPS and the US Chamber of Commerce—both nonprofits that don't have to disclose their donors—are increasingly dominating the airwaves and the campaign cash fight in the run-up to the 2012 election. In 2010, politically active nonprofits outspent super-PACs by a 3-to-2 margin. This time around, Crossroads GPS- and Chamber-like groups are even more important: Through late April, nearly 90 percent of TV advertising in the 2012 election came from such nonprofits.

Now, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is training his investigative firepower on one of the most powerful dark money players, the New York Times reports. On Tuesday Schneiderman sent subpoenas to officials with the National Chamber Foundation, a nonprofit affiliated with the US Chamber of Commerce, one of the biggest-spending nonprofits in American elections. Schneiderman has asked for emails, bank records, and more concerning whether the National Chamber Foundation funneled $18 million to the US Chamber for politicking and lobbying purposes.

Here's more from the Times:

The investigation is also looking at connections between the chamber's foundation, the National Chamber Foundation, and another philanthropy, the Starr Foundation, which made large grants to the chamber foundation in 2003 and 2004. During the same period, the National Chamber Foundation lent the chamber $18 million, most of it for what was described as a capital campaign.

In a complaint filed last year with the attorney general, watchdog groups asserted that the loan had been used to finance lobbying for "tort reform" legislation in Congress and to run issue advertising in the 2004 presidential and Congressional campaigns, most of it against Democrats.

A spokeswoman for the chamber declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Mr. Schneiderman.

Mr. Schneiderman's investigation is the first significant one in years into the rapidly growing use of tax-exempt groups to move money into politics. The biggest such groups, including Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, which was founded by Karl Rove and other Republican strategists, are expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars this year on issue advertisements against candidates to sway the outcome of the presidential and Congressional elections.

 

Rand Paul Demands Fetal Personhood in Flood Insurance Bill

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 10:41 AM EDT
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

Fertilized eggs don't have much in common with flooded homes, but Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is holding up a flood insurance bill until the Senate votes to recognize the life begins at conception.

The reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program, which expires at the end of July and currently insures 5.6 million flood-prone properties, was expected to pass with little fuss. But then Paul signaled he wanted a vote on "when life begins."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did let an unrelated vote on the contraception coverage mandate occur during debate of the highway bill a few months ago, but he's drawing the line here. Via Politico:

"I think some of this stuff is just – I have been very patient working with my Republican colleagues in allowing relevant amendments on issues, and sometimes we even do non-relevant amendments,” Reid said. "But really, on flood insurance?"
"After all the work that’s been put on this bill, this is ridiculous that somebody says 'I'm not going to let this bill go forward unless I have a vote on when life begins," Reid continued. "I am not going to do that, and I think I speak for the majority of senators."

Paul tells TPM that he's "just trying to get a vote for the people who elected me."

I'm going to go out on a limb here, but granting citizenship to zygotes probably won't provide much comfort to the many people who rely on government flood insurance, particularly now that hurricane season is getting started.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 27, 2012

Wed Jun. 27, 2012 10:34 AM EDT

US Army Spc. Alicia Flores, currently deployed with 1st Medical Brigade based out of Fort Hood, Texas, made the commitment to reenlist while at an altitude of 12,500 feet in the Hindu Kush Mountains in Afghanistan on Jun 25, 2012. Photo by the US Army.

Who's Paying for $6 Million of New Anti-Obamacare Ads?

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 10:00 AM EDT

Concerned Women for America, a conservative anti-feminist operation dedicated to "bring[ing] Biblical principals into all levels of public policy," announced late last week that it is spending $6 million to run ads that highlight "the consequences of President Obama's health care plan." But $6 million is an unusually large ad buy for the group, which hasn't explained (and doesn't have to disclose) where it got the money.

The ads claim that the bill is forcing doctors to drop many patients and that it will add billions of dollars to the deficit. Starting on June 20, the ads have been running in six key swing states: Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, New Mexico and New Hampshire, and CWA claims that the ad is the first presidential ad to run in the general election in Minnesota. 

During a presidential election, it's not unusual for outside groups to run ads attacking either candidate, especially using money from donors whose names don't have to be disclosed, as is the case with the CWA ads. The media buy was sponsored by CWA's lobbying arm, the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee, which is a nonprofit 501(c)4. Unlike CWA, the CWA Legislative Action Committee is allowed to get involved in politics.

The $6 million advertising blitz vastly exceeds the action committee's entire budget from the past several years. According to its most recent tax filings, filed in October last year, CWA's advocacy arm only brought in $2 million in 2010, and ended the year about $500,000 in the hole. The previous year, the group brought in less than a million dollars.

That makes a $6 million ad buy a pretty significant investment, and suggests that CWA has gotten a big donor to foot the bill during this year's campaign season. But CWA doesn't have to say who gave it all that money, and a spokeswoman from the group did not respond to emails requesting comment.

What's really curious about the CWA's ads, though, is the timing. They're airing just as the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling that could overturn the law at the heart of the commercials. CWA's move suggests that regardless of what the court does, health care is going to continue to be a major issue for the duration of the presidential campaign.