2012 - %3, August

The Problem With Idioms

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 5:14 PM EDT

From the annals of misunderstood idioms, Business Insider brings us an email from a guy applying to be a Wall Street trader. He was asked to add a bit of color to his application, so he sent back a reply with various sections highlighted in different colors.

This reminds me of a new guy who was hired to work for me back when I ran a Radio Shack store in the early 80s (hiring was done by a central office in each district, so I hadn't met him before). He dropped in to introduce himself, and I told him I wanted him to come in from 10 to 6 the next day. When I showed up at 9:30, he was already waiting. "You didn't need to come early," I said. "I'm just going to do a bit of paperwork before I open the store."

"Early?" he asked. "You told me to come in at 10 to 6." Turns out he had been waiting in the parking lot for me since 5:50 am. This wasn't my fault or anything, but I've always felt a little bad about it ever since.

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Cats Continue Their Ongoing War Against Birds

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 4:36 PM EDT

Yet another study has been done investigating the shocking allegation that cats kill lots of birds:

“I think it will be impossible to deny the ongoing slaughter of wildlife by outdoor cats given the videotape documentation and the scientific credibility that this study brings,” said Michael Hutchins, Executive Director/CEO of The Wildlife Society.

Yes indeed, the slaughter of wildlife. But there's not much new here. The investigators attached cameras to a bunch of cats and then counted how many critters they killed. The lead author calls the results "surprising," and the press release from the American Bird Conservancy says the study shows that house cats kill "far more than the previous estimate of a billion birds and other animals each year."

That might be true on the "other animals" front, but not on the bird front. A year ago the American Bird Conservancy estimated that cats killed 500 million birds per year. The new study says that cats kill....500 million birds per year. Last year I looked into this and concluded that this probably represents about 3% of all birds in the United States. There's more to it than just that (cats might have a bigger impact on specific species in specific places, for example), and you can decide for yourself whether 3% is a lot or a little. Either way, though, this study doesn't seem to change things much.

ALSO: Judicial notice is hereby taken that birds make up only 13% of total feline kills. But nobody seems to care much about the other 87%. Why is that? Apparently lizards, voles, chipmunks, birds, frogs, and small snakes don't have a very strong lobbying presence.

Gibson Guitars and Feds Settle in Illegal Wood Case

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 3:44 PM EDT

In August 2011, the US Fish and Wildlife Service confiscated hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of wood from guitar giant Gibson's Tennessee locations, the second raid in two years. The incident blew up into a big brouhaha over federal regulations and enforcement: Gibson claimed no wrong-doing in regard to wood from both Madagascar and India, and the company and its right-wing allies flipped out, painting the incident as Big Government coming to take away "your right to rock." Now, nearly a year later, the government and Gibson have reached a settlement.

Under the settlement, Gibson agreed to pay a $300,000 fine for the ebony from Madagascar that was taken in the first raid. The company also agreed to make a $50,000 donation to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to promote conservation work and forfeited the seized illegal wood, which was valued at $261,844.

The company also acknowledged its violations. Sort of. In a statement, CEO Henry Juszkiewicz said that the company "felt compelled to settle as the costs of proving our case at trial would have cost millions of dollars and taken a very long time to resolve." The agreement allows Gibson to keep the rosewood and ebony from India that was taken in the second raid and continue importing from India. Juszkiewicz also didn't drop his claims that his company was "inappropriately targeted" in the raids and that the matter "could have been addressed with a simple contact" from a "caring human being representing the government." Gibson published all the settlement documents on on its website.

In exchange, the Department of Justice dropped its criminal investigation into Gibson. In its release, the DOJ notes that Madagascar is a country that has a major problem with illegal logging, and that its ebony is particularly threatened, which prompted the government to ban the export of unfinished ebony products in 2006. Importing those products would be considered illegal both under Malagasy law and under the Lacey Act, the 2008 US law that requires US importers to follow applicable domestic laws in purchasing wood products. In announcing the agreement, the DOJ released some additional information about the case, none of which makes Gibson look very good:

Gibson purchased “fingerboard blanks,” consisting of sawn boards of Madagascar ebony, for use in manufacturing guitars. The Madagascar ebony fingerboard blanks were ordered from a supplier who obtained them from an exporter in Madagascar. Gibson’s supplier continued to receive Madagascar ebony fingerboard blanks from its Madagascar exporter after the 2006 ban. The Madagascar exporter did not have authority to export ebony fingerboard blanks after the law issued in Madagascar in 2006.
In 2008, an employee of Gibson participated in a trip to Madagascar, sponsored by a non-profit organization. Participants on the trip, including the Gibson employee, were told that a law passed in 2006 in Madagascar banned the harvest of ebony and the export of any ebony products that were not in finished form. They were further told by trip organizers that instrument parts, such as fingerboard blanks, would be considered unfinished and therefore illegal to export under the 2006 law. Participants also visited the facility of the exporter in Madagascar, from which Gibson’s supplier sourced its Madagascar ebony, and were informed that the wood at the facility was under seizure at that time and could not be moved.
After the Gibson employee returned from Madagascar with this information, he conveyed the information to superiors and others at Gibson. The information received by the Gibson employee during the June 2008 trip, and sent to company management by the employee and others following the June 2008 trip, was not further investigated or acted upon prior to Gibson continuing to place orders with its supplier. Gibson received four shipments of Madagascar ebony fingerboard blanks from its supplier between October 2008 and September 2009.

 

Mitt Romney Doubles Down on Opposition to Obama's Support of Welfare Queens

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 1:56 PM EDT

A few decades ago (in blog time — that's a couple of weeks ago in ordinary time) Republicans were making hay with a charge that President Obama was "gutting" the work requirement of welfare reform by agreeing to consider waiver requests from various states. Never mind that some of the requests came from Republican governors, and never mind that the goal of the waivers was to increase the number of welfare recipients who transition into jobs ("Governors must commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work compared to the state's past performance," HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius confirmed in a letter). None of that mattered. Obama was gutting work requirements in obvious solidarity with welfare queens and strapping young bucks everywhere.

Anyway, I thought it was a three-day kind of eruption that had since died away. But no! Ed Kilgore tells me that this has become the latest centerpiece of Mitt Romney's campaign. He provides us with some history:

This is kind of personal with me. I worked on welfare policy back in the 90s at the Progressive Policy Institute, which was the absolute hotbed of "work first" approaches to welfare reform. [This was back when Ed was an evil neoliberal. –ed.] Indeed, we were about the only people in the non-technical chattering classes who seemed to understand the distinction between the Clinton administration's philosophy of welfare reform (aimed at getting welfare recipients into private-sector jobs, not just through work requirements but with robust "making work pay" supports like an expanded EITC, which was enacted at Clinton's insistence well before welfare reform) and that of congressional Republicans (House Republicans were mainly concerned about punishing illegitimacy and denying assistance to legal immigrants, while Senate Republicans enacted a bill that was just a straight block grant that let states do whatever they wanted so long as they saved the feds money).

I mention this ancient history to point out the rich irony of conservatives now attacking Obama for an alleged hostility to the private-sector job placement emphasis they never gave a damn about, and for giving states more flexibility in administering the federal cash assistance program, which GOPers at every level of government (including Mitt Romney) were clamoring for loudly before, during and after the 1996 debate.

There's a technical question underlying all this that relates to HHS's legal basis for considering these waivers, and I don't really have an informed opinion about that. But Romney's latest ad states flatly that Obama plans to gut welfare reform by "dropping work requirements." What's more, "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."

This takes a shameless distortion and turns it into an outright falsehood. There's no Obama plan in the first place; there's certainly no plan to "drop" work requirements; and Sebelius has been crystal clear that the only waivers that will even be considered are ones that measurably increase the transition from welfare to work. Perhaps PolitiFact would care to weigh in on this?

Why Aurora Got More Media Attention Than Oak Creek

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 11:59 AM EDT

I don't spend a lot of time on this blog commenting on things like mass shootings. But a lot of people do, at least when it happens in a movie theater in Aurora and the victims are folks like you and me. But when it happens in Oak Creek and the victims aren't so much like you and me? Robert Wright points out today that the media (and social media) coverage of the Sikh temple shootings has been way less intense than the coverage of the Aurora shootings:

On twitter and blogs and many web sites, the difference in intensity of coverage between Aurora and Oak Creek seems to me close to an order of magnitude. (On some traditional news sites—e.g. the New York Times—the difference seems significant but not so vast.)

Some of this can be accounted for by the number of deaths—twelve vs. six—and maybe some of it by the theatricality of the Batman murders. But I think some of it has to do with the fact that the people who shape discourse in this country by and large aren't Sikhs and don't know many if any Sikhs. They can imagine their friends and relatives—and themselves—being at a theater watching a Batman movie; they can't imagine being in a Sikh temple.

This isn't meant as a scathing indictment; it's only natural to get freaked out by threats in proportion to how threatening they seem to you personally. At the same time, one responsibility of journalists and pundits is to see things in terms of their larger social significance. And it seems to me that the Sikh temple shooting, viewed in that context, is at least as frightening as the Aurora massacre. This was violence across ethnic lines, and that kind of violence has a long history of eroding and even destroying social fabric.

The whole thing is worth a read. Also, a question for commenters: Is Wright's observation equally true for television? Has the coverage of the Sikh temple massacre on Fox and CNN and MSNBC been lighter than it was for the Aurora massacre? I don't watch enough TV to have a good idea.

My Trip to the Chevron Refinery Fire

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 11:49 AM EDT
The plume of smoke at the Chevron refinery, seen from the 80 East

When I heard about the fire at the Chevron refinery last night, I decided to hop in my car and check it out. At about 8:30, I headed out on the 80 freeway, east from Berkeley. Before I even saw the plume, I could smell it: an acrid odor similar to burning plastic. When I got to the plant, the security guards at the gate told me that no one was allowed inside, so I joined a half dozen news trucks across the street. Sirens began to sound, and another reporter told me he thought they were supposed to alert nearby residents to take cover.

He was right: Chevron issued a shelter-in-place alert—meaning that residents should stay inside, close the doors and windows, and block cracks with damp rags or tape—for the surrounding area soon after the fire began at 6:15 and didn't lift it until close to 11 PM, after the fire was out.

After about a half an hour of waiting around, Chevron spokeswoman Heather Kulp came out to talk to the assembled group of reporters outside. She told us that a diesel leak had caused a fire at the No. 4 crude unit, and that one worker was being treated for a minor burn on his wrist. She couldn't answer any questions about the air quality, or what exactly the health hazards of breathing in the fumes might be. But I later learned from local news reports that about 200 people flooded local hospitals complaining of difficulty breathing and eye irritation. The Chevron crew took air samples throughout the evening and said it didn't find any dangerous compounds.

Yet when I left the refinery at around 10:30, it still smelled awful, and my eyes were getting itchy. I could smell the fire for most of my drive back home to Oakland. Today the fire is out, but there's no official report on how much diesel burned. The refinery is one of the biggest in the US; it can process about 240,000 barrels of crude a day. There's speculation that the fire will cause a spike in California gas prices, though it's not clear yet how much.

 

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Louisiana Schools All Set to Become Subsidiaries of Christian Church

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 11:38 AM EDT

Over at Blue Marble (I'm not sure what it's doing there, but whatever), Deanna Pan regales us with 14 wacky facts that Louisiana kids will soon be taught on the public dime now that Gov. Bobby Jindal's new voucher program is poised to go into effect. There's lots of good stuff there, but since I'm a product of the New Math, I got the biggest kick out of this one:

11. Abstract algebra is too dang complicated: "Unlike the "modern math" theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Book teaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute....A Beka Book provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory." - ABeka.com

Teaching set theory to fourth graders in the 1960s probably wasn't the greatest idea in the world, but not because set theory is either "modern" or "arbitrary and relative." It just turned out not to have much to do with teaching kids how to add and subtract. Still, it's true that the foundations of modern math are fundamentally based on axioms that can change depending on which ones seem the most useful. And a good thing too, unless you think Einstein's theory of relativity is some God-denying conspiracy against Euclid's fifth postulate. Which these guys might. Who knows?

In any case — and to change the subject entirely — this is why Bobby Jindal is my semi-dark horse pick to be Mitt Romney's running mate. I know he's got a few things in his background that might be troublesome, but nothing too bad. And he's got a lot going for him: tea party cred, good speaking skills, not a boring white guy, gives conservatives a chance to show they're OK with dark-skinned politicians, and — well, stuff like his voucher program, which he hasn't backed down on despite plenty of withering criticism of all the money that will end up in the pockets of fly-by-night Christian schools. True conservatives take that as a badge of honor, not a criticism, and so does Jindal.

In any case, he's my current guess. Put your guess in comments, but do it quickly if you want full Nostradamus credit.

UPDATE: My guess that this was all related to conservative animus toward the New Math along with philosophical opposition to Hilbert's program is, apparently, wrong. Maggie Koerth-Baker has a much more parsimonious and knowledgable explanation here. It's also far more entertaining! Apparently poor old Georg Cantor is the villain in this story.

I admit that my original theory (New Math + Hilbert) was sort of unlikely. But in this case, it turns out that its big problem is that it wasn't unlikely enough. Go figure.

Obama Knocks Romney for Saying True Things About Coal

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 11:19 AM EDT

Everyone knows election season is a time of craven politicking. But a new radio ad the Obama campaign is running in Ohio might be a new low, dinging Mitt Romney for remarking that coal "kills people."

Here's a clip of the ad, which is running in Ohio, via Politico:

"When he ran for President, Barack Obama pledged to support clean coal and invest in new technologies," the ad says.
"And Mitt Romney? He's attacking the president’s record on coal," the narrator says. "Here's what Romney said in 2003 at a press conference in front of a coal plant: 'I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant, that plant kills people.'"

The ad refers Romney's remarks outside of the Salem Harbor Power Plant shortly after he was sworn in as governor of Massachusetts. Here's the thing: the plant Romney was talking about actually does kill people. A lawsuit enviros in the state filed to shut it down cited nearly 300 violations of the Federal Clean Air Act between 2005 and 2009. And if you factor in the human health problems burning coal creates, coal plants in general cost many million more dollars than our electric bills would indicate. Although Romney promised to shut down the plant, he never actually did; it's now slated to go offline in 2014.

But here's where Obama's ad is really off-base. For one, there's still no "clean coal" technology that's ready to be deployed for new plants, let alone 60-plus-year-old plants like Salem. And two, Vice President Joe Biden said exactly the same thing a few years ago, noting that "hundreds of thousands of people die and their lives are shortened because of coal plants." That's because it's true!

 

Texas Executes Mentally Disabled Man Based on Rules From John Steinbeck Novel

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 10:41 AM EDT

Update, 7:02 p.m. EDT: The Supreme Court has denied a stay of execution for Marvin Wilson.

Update 2: Wilson was declared dead at 7:27 EDT on Tuesday.

Marvin Wilson sucked his thumb into his adulthood, reads at a second-grade level, has an IQ of 61, doesn't know the difference between left and right, and as a child couldn't wear a belt without cutting off his circulation. On Tuesday, barring a last-minute intervention from the US Supreme Court, he'll be executed in Texas.

In 1992, Wilson murdered a police informant who had caught him dealing cocaine. Wilson had help—his lawyers still maintain that he didn't pull the trigger—but the larger question isn't about his guilt; it's about his mental competence. The Supreme Court ruled in the 2002 case Atkins v. Virginia that states can't execute the mentally disabled because it would violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The evidence for Wilson's incompetence is manifest. In addition to the facts listed above, his lawyers noted in a brief filed for the court that the only expert to professionally examine Wilson, a neuropsychologist, "concluded that Mr. Wilson had mild MR, the cognitive condition that precipitated the Atkins exemption."

Texas's interpretation of Atkins isn't that mentally disabled people can't be executed; it's that there's a threshold of disability at which execution is no longer acceptable. In other words, you can be mildly disabled and still fall beneath the "level and degree of [MR] at which a consensus of Texas citizens" would have a problem with your state-commissioned death. That is where things get really weird—because why should a "consensus of Texas citizens" have any input on what constitutes mental incompetence? Isn't that what neuropsychologists are for?

It gets weirder. Texas' standards for determining a convicted murderer's mental competence came from the least scientific document imaginable—a John Steinbeck novel. As the Guardian's Ed Pilkington explained:

The determinants were posited around the character Lennie Small in Steinbeck's 1937 novel Of Mice and Men.

"Most Texas citizens," the argument ran, "might agree that Steinbeck's Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt" from execution. By implication anyone less impaired than Steinbeck's fictional migrant ranch worker should have no constitutional protection.

Wilson is scheduled to be executed sometime after 7 p.m. EST.

The Supreme Court Did Not Say That States Can Pull Out of Existing Medicaid Rules

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 10:41 AM EDT

In the Obamacare case, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government couldn't threaten to take away existing Medicaid funding from a state that refused to go along with Obamacare's expansion of Medicaid. The level of coercion was too great, the court said. In practice, it left states with no choice in the matter.

In the LA Times today, Tom Campbell suggests that this opens up a whole new era in Medicaid governance:

Before the Supreme Court's ruling....only the federal government had the authority to say what kind of coverage was sufficient. If a state, for example, wanted to cover more people by cutting out more expensive kinds of treatment, a federal waiver was required — and seldom given.

But under a reasonable interpretation of the court's recent decision, that might no longer be true....The Supreme Court's rationale [] holds significance for a much broader question: What might there be in the existing Medicaid rules that could also be held to constitute coercion? The governor of Maine contends that if his state wants to limit eligibility for Medicaid, to save state dollars, it has the right to do so without having to get a waiver from the federal government or losing any federal funds it now gets in proportion to the level of coverage. Maine will pay its share, and the federal government should pay its too, for the smaller amount of coverage. Anything else, according to his argument, constitutes coercion, and the logic of the Supreme Court ruling should strike it down.

Campbell is a smart guy and a non-wingnut conservative. But I sure don't see where this comes from. Medicaid expansion is a brand new program, and the Supreme Court said that states couldn't be forced to accept a new program. There had to be some legitimate scope for real negotiation. But current rules are different: the states accepted those long ago. The federal government isn't forcing anything new on them when it says they have to get a waiver if they want to deviate from these rules.

So what am I missing? This seems completely unrelated to anything the Supreme Court said in the Obamacare case. It would mean that states can unilaterally opt out of rules they've already agreed to without any penalty, which in turn would essentially mean that the federal government would have no authority to set rules at all. Even the court's conservatives would surely balk at that, wouldn't they?

Or would they?