2012 - %3, August

Can Someone Please Beg Google to Make Their Search Engine Useful Again?

| Sat Aug. 25, 2012 12:01 PM EDT

This morning, James Joyner wanted to check up on Mitt Romney's claim that he's always forthrightly repudiated birther claims:

Alas, with Google, Bing, and Yahoo all having switched their algorithms to prioritize recent pages, all my searches for “Romney: Obama born in America” turned up page after pages of stories about the present controversy. That frankly makes no sense; if I wanted that, I’d search Google News rather than the main search engine.

I suppose that complaining about this does no good. The algorithms are tweaked to maximize advertising revenue, and returning lots of recent hits is what does that. But it sure does make Google nearly worthless for non-news searches.

Programmers almost unanimously seem to hate "switches," the ability to turn features on and off. That goes double for complicated features, like the age weighting in a search algorithm. The reason for this dislike, generally speaking, is that switches are ugly and prone to proliferation. Marketing yahoos like me are always begging for them because some customer or another is bending our ear about it, and if you give in, then before long you have a UI that's a mile-long collection of checkboxes and radio buttons. Designers prefer more elegant UI solutions, and I don't blame them.

And yet....can someone please beg Google for a switch to turn off the preference for recent results? Hell, the Advanced Search page lets me choose things like reading level and file type. Why not add some kind of slider similar to the Safe Search option that allows me to weight results by how recent they are? Or maybe tweak the "Last Update" so you can exclude new results as well as old ones. As things stand now, Google becomes close to useless whenever a new event swamps their results.

As for Romney, who cares? Sure, he's not a birther himself. He's just willing to pander to them. Is anyone surprised?

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What Exactly Is a Mass Shooting?

| Fri Aug. 24, 2012 5:17 PM EDT

Update, December 16, 2012: In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, a story from the Associated Press suggested that mass shootings have not increased in the United States in recent years. But the AP cited research that uses broader criteria than the criteria we used for our investigation, which found an increase. Here is our approach, explained:

What is a mass shooting?
Broadly speaking, the term refers to an incident involving multiple victims of gun violence. But there is no official set of criteria or definition for a mass shooting, according to criminology experts and FBI officials who have spoken with Mother Jones.

Generally, there are three terms you'll see to describe a perpetrator of this type of gun violence: mass murderer, spree killer, or serial killer. An FBI crime classification report from 2005 identifies an individual as a mass murderer if he kills four or more people in a single incident (not including himself), typically in a single location. (The baseline of four fatalities is key—more on that just below.)

The primary distinction between a mass murderer and a spree killer, according to the FBI, is that the latter strikes in multiple locations, though still in a relatively short time frame. The third type, a serial killer, is distinguished by striking over a longer time frame, in multiple locations, with opportunity for what the FBI report refers to as "cooling-off periods" in between attacks.

How often do mass shootings occur? 
Beginning in July, after the movie theater slaughter in Aurora, Colorado, we documented and analyzed 62 mass shootings from the last 30 years. As we delved into the research, we realized that robust data on this subject was hard to come by, in part due to the lack of clear criteria. We were focused on the question of how many times Aurora-like events had actually happened. We honed our criteria accordingly:

  • The attack must have occurred essentially in a single incident, in a public place;
  • We excluded crimes of armed robbery, gang violence, or domestic violence in a home, focusing on cases in which the motive appeared to be indiscriminate mass murder;
  • The killer, in accordance with the FBI criterion, had to have taken the lives of at least four people.

The traumatic events included in our guide to mass shootings are the kind that tend to grab national attention—school and workplace shootings, attacks in shopping malls or government buildings—but they represent only a sliver of America's gun violence, which results in approximately 30,000 deaths annually.

Since the 1980s, the baseline of four fatalities has generally been used for studying mass murder, according to Professor James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, who has written multiple books on the subject. But as Fox agreed when we spoke, while that number may seem to make some sense intuitively, there is nonetheless something coldly arbitrary about it. Was it not a "mass shooting" in 2008, for example, when a man walked into a church in Tennessee and opened fire with a shotgun, killing two and injuring seven? Dropping the number of fatalities by just one, or including motives of armed robbery, gang violence, or domestic violence, would add many, many more cases to the list.

According to a recent report in Time magazine (available only to subscribers, and whose criteria is unclear), there've been "nearly 20 mass shootings" every year on average during the last three and a half decades.

Why didn't you include the infamous DC Beltway sniper attacks on your mass shootings map?
We've been asked this question numerous times. The man who killed 10 and wounded 3 others a decade ago (along with a young accomplice) was a serial killer: He committed multiple attacks over several weeks, in different locations. It was a particularly tense time for people living in the DC metro area—the shooter "terrorized our neighborhood," as one person wrote to me in an email—but the case did not fit the criteria described above.

Is Mother Jones focusing on this stuff as part of a conspiracy to take away Americans' gun rights?
No. One of our lead reporters on this beat, Adam Weinstein, who covered the Trayvon Martin killing and investigated how the National Rifle Association helped spread "Stand Your Ground" laws nationwide, is a Navy veteran and third-generation gun owner. We're happy for him to hang onto his guns. Multiple other Mother Jones staffers are experienced with guns.

The debate over guns in the United States is extremely contentious and polarizing, and we think that the more reporting and clear data there is available about guns, the better. That mass shootings keep happening is an undeniable fact. Why they do, and how to stop them, is a matter for further investigation.

Update, January 8, 2013: Where can I learn more about MoJo's investigation?
See our recently published America Under the Gun: a Special Report on gun laws and the rise of mass shootings, which contains interactive maps, charts, and dozens of stories from over the last year.

The Weekly Standard Defends Ryan on Redefining Rape

| Fri Aug. 24, 2012 4:05 PM EDT

The Weekly Standard's John McCormack says the New York Times is being unfair to Paul Ryan—and he says it's all my fault.

What McCormack is objecting to is a line in a recent Times article noting that Ryan had co-sponsored a bill that tried to "restrict the definition of rape." He says this phrase is imprecise and gives readers the wrong impression of what Ryan and the House GOP were actually trying to do. The bill in question, H.R. 3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," passed the House in May 2011 and was supported by Ryan and most House Republicans. It was a grab-bag of abortion foes' favorite proposals. The most controversial measure would have limited the types of rapes that would be eligible for federal abortion funding, changing the guideline from "rape" to "forcible rape." The bill would have also eliminated federal abortion funding for victims of incest who were over 18. Both changes were removed from the bill after a national outcry.

McCormack blames me for giving the Times—and other oulets—a false impression of what the "forcible rape" language would do. In January 2011, I broke the news about the forcible rape language and reported, based on interviews with experts (including a former federal prosecutor), that many kinds of rapes—including drug- and alcohol-aided rapes—could be excluded from the "forcible rape" definition. McCormack says that's "blatantly untrue." He says the "forcible rape" language in H.R. 3 would merely have excluded funding for abortions in cases of statutory rape—which, he goes on to claim, is probably what existing law says anyway. As evidence, he notes that the 2004 edition of the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook requires that attempts to use date-rape drugs to rape someone be classified as forcible rape attempts. He says this makes it clear that drug- and alcohol-aided rapes (in which the victim is incapable of consenting) would still have been eligible for abortion funding if H.R. 3 became law.

#FutureMittJokes: We Built That

| Fri Aug. 24, 2012 3:18 PM EDT

When Mitt Romney had his birther moment this morning, some defenders tried an age-old tactic to shift attention off the candidate's remarks: react to the reaction to the remarks. In this case, the conservatives in question worked at Michelle Malkin's website, the Twitchy, and their outrage was directed at a hashtag meme that had taken off on Twitter:

When you've been dealt a bad hand, you can still play the race card. At least that’s the strategy liberals subscribe to. After Mitt Romney cracked a birth certificate joke earlier today, the Left experienced nothing short of a major meltdown. Bereft of any rational thought, they decided to birth a ludicrous hashtag game, #FutureMittJokes.

Actually, Twitchers, there's no need to blame liberals for spotlighting the presidential candidate's racial blindspot with some pointed tweets: You can just blame us. #FutureMittJokes was the brainchild of MoJo's Adam Serwer, who spontaneously tweeted:

He got it warmed up with:

From there, it just sort of took off. With writers from:

The American Prospect:

Wired:

Gawker:

Here's my personal favorite, because it sounds like the kind of joke I could really hear Romney saying:

So, yeah, we built that. (We can take no credit, however, for American Bridge, a liberal-connected super PAC, taking the ball and sticking one of their campaign plugs on the hashtag's search page as a "sponsored tweet." Way to piggyback on a good thing, dudes.)

Apparently, this is all outrageous! and shocking! to conservatives—who, as quick as they were to condemn Rep. Todd Akin's luddite notions of female assault and reproduction earlier this week, quietly dismissed Romney's birther shoutout as a cute, banal, not-at-all-racially-coded joke. Apparently the only thing that's more offensive than racial pandering is being accused of racial pandering. "Those are fighting tweets, sir!"

But, whoops, a couple folks didn't get the memo and tried to highjack the hashtag and use it to dump some anti-Obama barbs:

 

"Pretty sure that's a win, right there," the Twitchy's anonymous blogger wrote of the attempted highjacking. Hmm... Depends on what your definition of "win" is.

BREAKING: Todd Akin To Say Something Today

| Fri Aug. 24, 2012 3:11 PM EDT

UPDATE (Friday August 24, 5:33 p.m. EDT): Rep. Todd Akin took five press questions. Nothing has changed, he is still in the race, and his family is still running his Senate campaign. That was fun, guys. Happy Friday.

On Friday afternoon, embattled Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) announced that he is holding a press conference at 5:15 p.m. EDT.

After stepping into some mess with his strange account of female reproduction, Akin missed the first deadline earlier this week to drop out of his Missouri Senate race against Democrat Claire McCaskill, and vowed to fight on—even after the GOP money machine choked off financial support to his campaign. At the moment, it appears as though this presser is designed to remind reporters of the candidate's audacity: 

In other news:

Akin has been under fire from scores of liberals and conservatives after he posited last weekend that female victims of "legitimate rape" are unlikely to become pregnant.

On Friday afternoon, shortly before his planned press conference, his campaign changed his Facebook banner to: "WE PROVED THE PARTY BOSSES WRONG":

We will update this post after his planned statements, and as new information flows in.

What to Make of Mitt Romney's Birther Joke?

| Fri Aug. 24, 2012 2:46 PM EDT

Mitt Romney made a birther joke.  

"Now I love being home, in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born," Romney told a campaign rally in Michigan. "Ann was born at Henry Ford Hospital I was born at Harper Hospital. No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate they know that this is the place we were born and raised." The crowd at first laughed, then cheered. Here's the video:

Romney is not himself a birther. He was engaging in ironic post-birtherism—showing solidarity with birthers by making a humorous remark that can be plausibly denied as a joke later. This is a necessary device for a Republican politician who wants to rile up the base without seeming like a lunatic, because the belief that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States is still held by nearly half of self-identified Republicans even after the very public release of the president's birth certificate. Birtherism remains the most frank and widespread evidence of racial animus among some of the president's critics. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic this month, the birthers, strapped in their waxen wings, aim for nothing less than the sun: "If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president."

The Romney campaign, for its part, has denied that their candidate intentionally offered a nod to birtherism. Romney campaign adviser Kevin Madden told Buzzfeed that Romney "was only referencing that Michigan, where he is campaigning today, is the state where he himself was born and raised." So in case the audience didn't understand that Romney was born in Michigan when he said he was born there and named the hospital he was born in, Romney just thought he'd tell them that no one's asked to see his birth certificate.

Romney's claim about never having been asked for his birth certificate is almost certainly false. Romney holds a US passport, and for a first time applicant naming the hospital where you were born will not suffice. It's far-fetched to imagine Romney did not intend to reference birtherism, especially given his embrace of political allies (such as Donald Trump) who have expressed sympathy for it.

I suspect many Republicans who continue to subscribe to the birther lunacy do so because it bothers liberals and because it's an act of symbolic defiance of a president they dislike. The problem with birtherism, however, is that the underlying assumptions driving it have always been broader than the president. Birtherism is more than just a conspiracy theory about the president's birth. Its underlying principle is a rejection of American racial pluralism. The refusal to believe—in the face of all evidence to the contrary—that Obama is an American reads to many as saying black people don't really count as American unless they talk like Herman Cain or Allen West. 

That's the problem with Romney's "joke," too. It falls into a long list of remarks that suggest an emotional myopia based on an extremely sheltered life experience. It comes across as gloating about the fact that, as a rich white man born into a wealthy and powerful family, Romney has rarely been subject to the kind of racist or sexist assumptions that clog the daily lives of millions of Americans. Romney might as well joke that he's never been mistaken for a waiter in a restaurant or a clerk in a retail store, or that he's never been selected for extra screening at an airport or randomly told to empty his pockets by the NYPD. The reason Romney doesn't have to show the country his papers isn't because everyone knows he was born in Michigan. It's because whiteness remains unquestionably "American" for some people in a way blackness does not. That should not be a point of pride for Romney; it should be a matter of anger and disappointment. 

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Friday Cat Blogging - 24 August 2012

| Fri Aug. 24, 2012 1:41 PM EDT

Mitt Romney made a dumb birther joke today, but Domino doesn't care. Partly that's because this picture was taken three days ago, and partly because she's a cat. In this picture taken on Tuesday, she's showing off the essential dumbness of her species: despite the fact that it was over 90 in the house, she made a beeline for the nearest sunny patch. I guess when the neurons fire, the neurons fire. What's a cat to do?

VIDEO: Romney's 5 Dumbest Comments

| Fri Aug. 24, 2012 1:31 PM EDT

Critics are jumping all over Mitt Romney's Michigan stump-speech birther "joke" as if it's the first unguided missile that ever left the Republican presidential candidate's mouth. But Romney has a long history of campaign-trail remarks that have left listeners wondering if he's from another planet. Here are five of dumbest:

1. The Birther Joke

          

He said what? "I love being home, in this place where Ann and I were raised. Where both of us were born...No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know this is the place where we were born and raised."

Why was it dumb? Nothing will make campaign journalists drool all over their keyboards in excitement like a joke referencing the birther movement.

2. "Sport"

          

He said what? "I met a guy yesterday, 7 feet tall, handsome, great big guy...I figured he had to be in sport, but he wasn't in sport. His business is caring for seniors."

Why was it dumb? Besides the fact that this story is one phrase ("and then I found $10") away from something your senile great aunt might say, Romney's anachronistic use of "sport" makes little sense. In American English, "sports" replaced the use of "sport" in the mid-20th century. Is this something Romney picked up from the French?

3. NASCAR Owners

          

He said what? Asked if he followed NASCAR racing, he replied: "Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans, but I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners."

Why was it dumb? The reporter gave Romney an easy opportunity to relate to sports fans. But Romney inadvertently took the chance to remind his constituents that they are not like him. As The Nation's Ari Melber tweeted in parody: "Do I like movies? Well I have some friends that own movie companies..."

4. The Cadillacs

          

He said what? "Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually."

Why was it dumb? Romney was trying to show Detroit that his connections to Michigan run deep, and he drives American cars. Instead, Romney told a city that has faced decades of hard times that he and his wife, Ann, roll in luxury—two deep.

5. The Trees Are the Right Height

          

He said what? "It seems right here, the trees are the right height...I like seeing the lakes. I love the lakes. There's something very special here."

Why was it dumb? Romney is doing his darndest to show enthusiasm for his native Michigan, but something about the phrasing seems a bit off. Maybe it's the fact that he sounds like he could be a character in the movie Anchorman ("Do you really love the lamp, or are you just saying it because you saw it?") Or maybe it's because Romney has actually used this lame speech multiple times on the trail.

An Itsy Bitsy $716 Billion Medicare Q&A

| Fri Aug. 24, 2012 1:08 PM EDT

Mitt Romney says that Obamacare cut $716 billion in Medicare spending. Is that true?

Yes it is. This is the most recent estimate from the CBO for the ten-year period from 2013-2022.

So seniors are getting screwed?

No, probably not.

Then who is?

Mostly hospitals and insurance companies.

How so?

About a third of the cuts come from reduced reimbursements to hospitals. About a third comes from reducing overpayments to insurance companies for Medicare Advantage plans, which are private competitors to standard Medicare. The remaining third comes from cuts in reimbursements to various other healthcare providers. More details here.

So there are no cuts to Medicare benefits?

Nope.

So Medicare beneficiaries have nothing to worry about?

Probably not. It's possible that the cuts to providers could lead to slight cuts in quality or even, via some unintended backdoor mechanism, to some doctors dropping out of Medicare. And the cuts to Medicare Advantage might prompt insurance companies to reduce some of the extra benefits they've provided. That's all speculative, but it's possible. There's no way to cut a bunch of money out of anything and guarantee that it will have no effect whatsoever.

However, the basic shape of the river here is pretty simple: Obamacare does indeed reduce Medicare spending by $716 billion (over ten years), but it doesn't reduce Medicare benefits by a single dime. It's unlikely that Medicare beneficiaries will see any noticeable effects at all.

American Doctors, Hospitals, and Pharmaceutical Companies Are Overpaid

| Fri Aug. 24, 2012 10:57 AM EDT

Is the American public addicted to entitlements? Is that why U.S. healthcare costs are so high? Matt Miller says no: the addiction to entitlement is real, but the public isn't the main culprit:

The United States spends twice per person on health care what most other advanced nations spend without better outcomes to show for it....Rightly understood, health-care entitlement reform is not, as conservatives suggest, a matter of lessening the dependency of big chunks of the population on government largesse. It’s about weaning the members of our medical-industrial complex from their entitlement to far higher payments, despite shabby results, than their counterparts abroad get. This license for inefficiency, issued by both parties to doctors, hospitals, health plans, drugmakers and device firms, is diverting precious resources in an aging America from urgent non-health care, non-elderly needs.

Yes indeed. The quasi-free-market approach that we take to healthcare in the United States has produced far higher costs than any other country on earth. To repeat some statistics that I posted a couple of years ago, here's the core of our problem:

  • We pay our doctors about 50% more than most comparable countries.
  • We pay more than twice as much for pharmaceuticals, despite the fact that we use less of them than most other countries.
  • Administration costs are about 7x what most countries pay.
  • We perform about 50% more diagnostic procedures than other countries and we pay as much as 5x more per procedure.

The chart on the right, from a McKinsey study, is based on "Expected Spending According to Wealth." That is, richer countries tend to spend a higher percentage of their income on healthcare, and since the United States is one of the richest countries on earth you'd expect us to spend a lot. That's ESAW. But even if you take that into account, we still spend about $2,000 more per person than we should. The McKinsey chart breaks that down into totals. About a third of our total spending (the dark blue bars) is above ESAW, and that's divided among outpatient care, inpatient care, drugs, adminstration, and investment.

Needless to say, although this may be excess spending to you and me, it's excess income to doctors, nurses, hospitals, and the pharmaceutical industry. And you can hardly expect them to accept cuts to their income without a fight. Nonetheless, that's where a big chunk of our problem lies. Either we start paying all these people less, or else our healthcare costs are always going to be sky-high. Paul Ryan, despite his reputation for courage and wonkiness, doesn't have the guts to say this. But the truth is that there's really no way around it.